Peter

Be Holy!

44 For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. 45 For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. – Leviticus 11:44-45 ESV

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV

Sanctification is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied doctrines in the Bible. Few would doubt its existence or the need for the Christian to embrace it as a central theme of Scripture, but there is a great deal of confusion regarding just exactly what sanctification is and what role the believer plays in it.

When reading the two passages above, it can be easy to assume that God’s command to be holy is left up to the individual to pull off. And it is a lofty, unrealistic command because God uses Himself as the standard: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV). For the Israelites, their relationship with God as His chosen people required that they live up to His exacting standards. And God did not leave those standards up to their imaginations. He provided them with His law, a written code of conduct that outlined exactly what holiness looked like in everyday life.

That code of law was behaviorly-based, containing a series of “you shall” and “you shall not” commands.  There were things they were required to do and other things they were to refrain from doing. But God expected obedience.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them: I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:36-37 ESV

The law of God was not like a menu at your favorite restaurant. You didn’t get to pick and choose which law you wanted to keep. God clearly said, “you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them.” But it was these statutes and rules that set the people of Israel apart from the rest of mankind. It was God’s divine code of conduct that provided them an unambiguous understanding of what holiness was to look like in real life. And it proved to be foreboding and virtually impossible for the people of Israel to keep. 

And this is part of the reason we get uncomfortable with the idea of sanctification. When we read Peter’s words, where he restates God’s command to “be holy,” we find ourselves wondering how in the world we’re supposed to pull off the impossible. And Peter even ups the ante by adding the requirement that our holiness show up in all of our conduct. In other words, the Christian’s call to holiness is holistic and all-encompassing, impacting every area of life.

And Peter was not alone in calling believers to a life of complete holiness. Paul picked up the same theme and repeated it often.

…let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.  – 2 Corinthians 7:1 NLT

God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. – 1 Thessalonians 4:7 NLT

Even the apostle John got in on the act, adding his own twist to God’s call to holiness.

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. – 1 John 3:2-3 NLT

Work toward complete holiness. Live holy lives. Keep yourself pure. Be holy in all your conduct. Sounds impossible doesn’t it? And because it sounds impossible, many Christians have deemed this commands as implausible. These calls to sinless perfection must be some form of overstated rhetoric or religious hyperbole, intended to improve Christian conduct by setting a high bar.  But the problem with that view is it results in one of two outcomes. First, there are those who take the words of Peter, Paul, and John literally and attempt to keep themselves pure and strive for complete holiness; only to find that their efforts fail. Then they become disillusioned and defeated, eventually throwing in the towel altogether. Secondly, there are those who hear these admonitions to holiness and immediately write them off as nothing more than religious rhetoric, meant to be taken figuratively, not literally.

This second group tends to made up of those who already view themselves as holy in God’s eyes. They find comfort and a form of exemption in a verse like Ephesians 2:9: “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” They point to passages like Galatians 5:4 and emphasize that we live under grace, not law.

For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. – Galatians 5:4 NLT

But there is an important distinction made by Paul in this passage. He is not implying that God’s law has been made null and void. He is not suggesting that the law has been done away with. He is simply stating that the law is not to be our means of earning a right standing with God. In other words, keeping of the law is not how men are justified in God’s eyes. The truth is, there never was a time when keeping the law could make anyone right with God. And that’s because man’s sin nature kept him from keeping God’s holy law perfectly.

Back in the book of Galatians, Paul was attempting to get his audience to understand the proper role of God’s law. And he answers the question “Why, then, was the law given?” by stating, “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). And Paul gave a similar clarification on the role of the law to the believers in Rome.

God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. – Romans 5:20 NLT

The law was intended to show men the degree of their sinfulness. It revealed God’s holy standard and exposed their inability to live up to it – in their own strength. Paul adds the following explanation regarding the law: “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT).

So, does that make the law evil? If all the law could do was expose man’s sinfulness, why should we be expected to follow it today? Once again, Paul provides insight into these questions.

But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good. – Romans 7:12 NLT

Paul even told his disciple, Timothy, “We know that the law is good when used correctly” (1 Timothy 1:8 NLT). And Jesus Himself said, “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose” (Matthew 5:17 NLT). Jesus became a man in order that He might live in perfect obedience to the law of God. In doing so, He did what no other man had ever been able to do. He showed what it looks like to “be holy.” He lived in complete submission to the revealed will of God as outlined in the law. Which is what made Him the sinless sacrifice, the unblemished Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

But what about us? How are we supposed to pull of the same seemingly impossible feat? Unlike Jesus, we still have a sin nature to deal with. We are constantly susceptible to the temptations of the enemy and “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16 NIV). There is hardly a day that goes by where we don’t find ourselves succumbing to the “sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV).

This is where we must grasp the reality that there is something radically different between us and the Old Testament Israelites. As Christ-followers we have been given a special empowerment that makes holy living not only possible, but normal and natural. Because of our faith in Christ, we have been given the indwelling presence of His Spirit, who provides us with a capacity to live holy lives – not in our strength, but His. And our Spirit-empowered efforts to pursue holiness are not intended to win us favor with God, but to bring Him glory as we allow His power to make us more and more like His Son.

And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT

And it is essential that we understand that our sanctification, our growth in Christlikeness, is based on faith and fueled by God’s grace. It is not about human effort. Yes, the pursuit of holiness requires effort on our part. It is not some kind of passive, let-go-and-let-God kind of experience. Paul tells us we are to “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear” (Philippians 2:12 NLT). But he also reminds us, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT).

We can be holy as God is holy. We can live pure lives, just as Jesus did. Why? Because we have been united with Him in His death and in His resurrection. We have been given the Spirit of God to empower and perfect us. As Peter so aptly puts it: “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). So be holy.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

The Miracle of Salvation

31 Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved… – Acts 16:31 ESV

The salvation spoken of in the Scriptures is both simple and complex. As the verse above illustrates, from a human perspective it requires nothing more than faith. In fact, as the Reformers so aptly put it, it is faith alone in Christ alone that saves. That’s why Paul told the Philippian jailer all he had to do was “believe in the Lord Jesus.” There is no “and” in Paul’s statement. He added no further requirements to the process. There was nothing more the man had to do other than believe, and we know from Luke’s account that he did.

And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. – Acts 16:34 ESV

Luke also records that this man’s belief took place after Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house” (Acts 16:31 ESV). In other words, they took the time to explain in detail God’s message of salvation made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son. That is why Luke states that the man rejoiced “that he had believed in God.” He recognized that the gift of salvation was based on the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It was God who had sent His Son into the world to pay the penalty for mankind’s sin debt and to remove the verdict of condemnation that applied to each and every human being.

But all the jailer had to do was believe. His part was easy. And, later on in his ministry, Paul would expand on the remarkable nature of salvation by explaining, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT).

But while man’s role in the miracle of salvation is simple and based on nothing more than faith, it is anything but a simplistic event. At the moment that the Philippian jailer placed his faith in Jesus, something incredible happened. To put it another way, some incredible things happened. A series of God-ordained and instantaneous actions took place that remained totally invisible to the jailer but were indispensable for his salvation to be sufficient.

As this man was processing and accepting the message as delivered to him by Paul and Silas, God was working behind the scenes, orchestrating a host of invisible elements necessary to turn this man’s simple faith into saving faith.

In theology, salvation denotes a work of God on behalf of men that encompasses a wide range of divine initiatives that includes conviction, regeneration, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, justification, sanctification, preservation, and glorification. These sophisticated-sounding words connote different actions on the part of God that accompany the miracle of salvation. And, in order for us to fully appreciate what God has made possible through His Son’s death and resurrection, it is essential that we comprehend the unseen and inexplicable nature of God’s work on man’s behalf.

For the Philippian jailer to believe in Jesus as his Savior, a change of heart was required. Like all men, he was a slave to sin, and “lived in this world without God and without hope” (Ephesians 2:12 NLT). He was far away from and an enemy of God, separated from him by his evil thoughts and actions (Colossians 1:21). He was spiritually dead because of his disobedience and many sins (Ephesians 2:1). His mind was blinded by the god of this world “from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT).

So, what happened? How was this man suddenly able to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ? Paul tells us.

…he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. – Titus 3:5-6 ESV

The Greek word translated as “regeneration” is paliggenesia and it is comprised of two other Greek words: palin – again, once more, and genesis – birth, beginning. It is where we get the idea of being born again. It refers to a new life or, as Jesus put explained it to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). That phrase can also be translated as “born from above.” In other words, this is a divine rebirth that is completely dependent upon God. That is why Jesus told Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Why is this new birth necessary? Because man was born spiritually dead, having inherited the sin of Adam and the death penalty that accompanied it. The Philippian jailer needed spiritual resuscitation. And Paul reminds us that all men require this regenerating work of the Spirit of God if they are going to have the capacity to place their faith in the gift provided by God.

And when the jailer’s eyes were opened and he was able to see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” he believed. Where before, even his righteous deeds had been no better than filthy rags, the jailer was now able to do the right thing and choose Christ. His blinded eyes had been opened and his state of spiritual death had been replaced with new life. And, as a result, he became a new creation.

But that’s not all that happened. As a result of placing his faith in Jesus, he received redemption, what Paul describes as the forgiveness of sins.

He [God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. – Colossians 1:13-14 ESV

The Greek for redemption is exagorazō, and it means “to redeem by payment of a price to recover from the power of another to ransom, buy off.” Tony Evans describes it this way:

Redemption involves paying a purchase price, and it was often used in the context of the slave market. This is how the biblical writers used the term to describe the purchase price that Jesus Christ paid on the cross. – Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On

At the moment of his salvation, the Philippian jailer was set free from slavery to sin. Not only that, he had all his sins – past, present, and future – completely forgiven. God had redeemed this man from the marketplace of sin, paying the price with the life of His own Son.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And the ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. – 1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT

And Jesus Himself described the redemptive nature of His death.

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. – Matthew 20:28 NLT

And what did this redemption accomplish?

  • Jesus freed us from the curse (Galatians 3:10, 13; 4:4-5; James 2:10)

  • God adopted us into His family (Romans 8:15)

  • We are set free from fear (Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

In giving His life as a ransom, Jesus made it possible for sinful mankind to be reconciled to God. Reconciliation is one of the key doctrines of Scripture because it means the sinner, separated and alienated from a holy God, can be restored to fellowship with Him. The Greek word is katallasso and it means “to bring back to harmony, make peace.” In reconciling the Philippian jailer to God, Jesus changed his state from one of enmity and disharmony to that of friendship and peace with God.

Paul reminds us: “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10 NIV). And that reconciliation has tremendous ramifications for our life on this earth as children of God.

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory. – Romans 5:1-2 NLT

But how can a sinful man be made right with a holy God? What has to take place for this amazing transformation to be made possible? That brings us to two essential New Testament doctrines that are often overlooked and under-appreciated. The first is justification. It helps us understand what God does at the point of man’s salvation to transform him from a state of unrighteousness to righteousness. Charles Ryrie states the problem this way:

“If God, the Judge, is without injustice and completely righteous in all His decisions, then how can He announce a sinner righteous? And sinners we all are. There are only three options open to God as sinners stand in His courtroom. He must condemn them, compromise His own righteousness to receive them as they are, or He can change them into righteous people. If He can exercise the third option, then He can announce them righteous, which is justification. But any righteousness the sinner has must be actual, not fictitious; real, not imagined; acceptable by God’s standards, and not a whit short. If this can be accomplished, then, and only then, can He justify. Job stated the problem accurately when he asked, ‘how can a man be in the right before God?’” – Charles Ryrie, Systematic Theology

God has three possible options. The first is to condemn mankind for its sin. The second would be to compromise His own righteousness by accepting man in his sinful state. The third is to make sinful men righteous. And justification is the doctrinal explanation of this third and final option. Justification is an instantaneous legal act in which God reckons our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us. And, as a result, He declares us to be righteous in His sight.

That brings us to the next remarkable doctrine associated with salvation: Imputation. Because all of the righteous deeds of men are considered to be no better than filthy rags to God, they stand in need of an alien righteousness, a righteousness outside of themselves. And in the miracle of salvation, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to the one who places his faith in Him. It is what has come to be known as “The Great Exchange.” For God to consider sinful men to be righteous, God first had to transfer the sins of man to His Son on the cross. Then, when men place their faith in Christ, they are imputed the righteousness of Christ

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV

I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. – Philippians 3:9 NLT

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. – 1 Corinthians 1:30 NLT

So, the Philippian jailer believed, but there was far more going on behind the scenes to make his believing faith saving faith. He was regenerated, justified, redeemed, forgiven, and sanctified, or set apart as God’s son. And it was all the gracious work of a merciful, loving God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Set Apart by God

44 For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. 45 For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:44-45 ESV

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV

In order to understand the concept of sanctification, we have to spend some time in the Old Testament. In Hebrew, the word qadash is most commonly translated as “sanctified.” But you can also find it translated as “consecrated,” “holy,” or “hallowed.” It carries a number of different meanings, including “to set apart or separate.”

God set apart or sanctified the seventh day, the Sabbath, as a special day to be marked by rest from work. He also set apart the priests and assigned them the responsibility of acting as His servants, caring for the tabernacle and offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. And God set apart the tabernacle itself by displaying the glory of His presence in the Holy of Holies.

Throughout the Old Testament, there are countless examples of qadash, the setting apart of something or someone by God for His use. God set apart Abram as His own, choosing him from among all the people on earth and making a covenant promise to make of him a great nation. 

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

And God kept that promise to Abram by blessing him with many descendants, who became the people of Israel. His decision to set apart Israel as His own possession was not based on some characteristic found in them, but was determined by His love for them. And God expressed His love by sanctifying them, setting them apart from every other nation on earth, and providing them with a one-of-a-kind relationship with Himself.

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 ESV

The nation of Israel enjoyed the unprecedented status of being God’s chosen people. But their relationship with God came with expectations from God. As the Leviticus passage reveals, their lifestyle was to reflect their sanctified status as God’s possession. He had set the apart as His own and their behavior was to reflect their status as His possession. And notice that God put certain restrictions on them that included their dietary habits. Thirty seven times in Leviticus 11, God uses the word tame', to refer to those creatures which He deemed as “unclean” or “defiled,” and therefore, off limits to the Israelites. The list included camels, pigs, vultures, certain sea creatures, and insects. God refers to these creatures as being sheqets, which means “detestable” or “an abomination.” In a sense, God had sanctified these creatures as unholy. They were to be avoided at all costs. The people of Israel were to refrain from eating them. If they did so, they would become defiled and, therefore, unholy.

Even contact with them could make an Israelite impure. Which is why God warns the Israelites: “ You shall not make yourselves detestable with any swarming thing that swarms, and you shall not defile yourselves with them, and become unclean through them” (Leviticus 11:43 ESV). Instead, the people of God were to consecrate themselves or set themselves apart as holy to God. The word translated as “consecrate” is qadash, the same word translated later in the passage as “sanctify.” The people of Israel, having been set apart by God, were to set themselves apart through their actions, by faithfully obeying God’s commands.

Notice that their distinctive lifestyle was tied directly to their distinctive relationship with God.

“For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:44 ESV

God tells them that, because He is set apart or holy, they were to be also. The Hebrew word translated as “holy” is qadowsh, and it is derived from the root word, qadash. The people of Israel were to live set-apart lives. God had called them to live distinctively different lives, set apart from the rest of the nations around them. They had been set apart by God and now there were to live as who they were. And that distinctiveness was to show up in everyday life.

God reminds the Israelites that He had redeemed them out of slavery in Egypt and had brought them to their own land. It was within that new land that their lives were to reflect their new status as His children.

“I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:45 ESV

By commanding the Israelites to “be boly,” God is not asking the them to become something. He is not suggesting that they have to set themselves apart or make themselves holy. No, He is demanding that they live in such a way that their lives adequately demonstrate their set-apart status. Why? Because they belong to Him and He is set apart and holy. There was no other god like Yahweh. And there was to be no other people like the Israelites.

And the apostle Peter picks up on this call to distinctiveness as he writes to believers living in the first century. Quoting from the Leviticus passage, Peter reminds New Testament followers of Christ that they too are to live set-apart lives.

First of all, he warns them not to go back to their old way of living.

Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. – 1 Peter 1:14 NLT

They were to be “obedient children,” living according to the commands of God. Not to win favor or to earn brownie with God, but as a means of reflecting their set-apartness. They had been chosen by God and their behavior needed to distinguish them as His children. Set apart people live set apart lives. Sanctified people live sanctified lives. Those who God has deemed holy should live lives that reflect their holiness. And Peter makes it clear that holy people strive to be holy in all their conduct. No compartmentalization. The Greek word Peter used is anastrophē and it refers to “manner of life” or “behavior.” There was to be no area of the believer’s life that was free from God’s expectation of holiness. God had set the entire individual apart, not just their soul, mind, or spirit. The apostle Paul told the believers in Rome:

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. – Romans 12:1 NLT

Christ-followers are to live set-apart lives, in every area of their lives. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament and the believers in the New Testament, modern-day Christians are to be holy because the God who chose us is holy. Our lives are to reflect our sanctified status as His children. We are to live like our heavenly Father, not perfectly or completely free from sin, but with an intention to show ourselves to be who He has made us to be: His children.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Praise to the Righteous One.

14 They lift up their voices, they sing for joy;
    over the majesty of the Lord they shout from the west.
15 Therefore in the east give glory to the Lord;
    in the coastlands of the sea, give glory to the name of the Lord, the God of Israel.
16 From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise,
    of glory to the Righteous One.
But I say, “I waste away,
    I waste away. Woe is me!
For the traitors have betrayed,
    with betrayal the traitors have betrayed.”

17 Terror and the pit and the snare
    are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!
18 He who flees at the sound of the terror
    shall fall into the pit,
and he who climbs out of the pit
    shall be caught in the snare.
For the windows of heaven are opened,
    and the foundations of the earth tremble.
19 The earth is utterly broken,
    the earth is split apart,
    the earth is violently shaken.
20 The earth staggers like a drunken man;
    it sways like a hut;
its transgression lies heavy upon it,
    and it falls, and will not rise again.

21 On that day the Lord will punish
    the host of heaven, in heaven,
    and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
22 They will be gathered together
    as prisoners in a pit;
they will be shut up in a prison,
    and after many days they will be punished.
23 Then the moon will be confounded
    and the sun ashamed,
for the Lord of hosts reigns
    on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and his glory will be before his elders. – Isaiah 24:14-23 ESV

In this second half of God’s oracle concerning the earth, we have an interesting and seemingly misplaced song of praise and joy. In the midst of all the destruction that God will bring in the end times, there will be some who rejoice. The will be a remnant who are spared from God’s judgment. These individuals will praise God for His intervention into the affairs of men, expressing gratitude and great joy over His salvation. “They lift up their voices, they sing for joy; over the majesty of the Lord” (Isaiah 24:14 ESV).

We know from the book of Revelation that there will be many who come to faith in Christ during the last days. Even during the darkest days of the Tribulation, God will redeem 144,000 Jews (Revelation 7) who will become His witnesses to the nations. And their efforts will result in “a great multitude" coming to faith in Christ. The apostle John describes seeing them standing before the throne of heaven.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10 ESV

And John is given a clear explanation as to who these people are.

“These are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white.” – Revelation 9:14 NLT

They will be martyred for their faith. But there will be others who God spares, allowing them to remain on the earth all the way through the final days of the Great Tribulation. And they will be alive when Christ returns to earth. That seems to be the scene described in this section of Isaiah 24. From the east to the west and as far away as “the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise, of glory to the Righteous One” (Isaiah 24:16 ESV).

The prophet Micah describes this same end-times event.

In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s house
    will be the highest of all—
    the most important place on earth.
It will be raised above the other hills,
    and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.
People from many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of Jacob’s God.
There he will teach us his ways,
    and we will walk in his paths.” – Micah 4:1-2 NLT

Both passages picture a scene of universal reverence for God. The day is coming when all who remain on the earth, having been spared the judgment of God, will worship Him alone. But, in the midst of all the rejoicing, Isaiah seems to pull the emergency brake, reminding his readers of the judgment that still must take place before rejoicing can begin.

But my heart is heavy with grief.
Weep for me, for I wither away.
Deceit still prevails,
and treachery is everywhere. – Isaiah 24:16 NLT

From his vantage point in Judah, nothing has changed. The people are not worshiping God. They are not repentant and continue to live in open rebellion against God. And Isaiah warns them: “Terror and traps and snares will be your lot, you people of the earth” (Isaiah 24:17 NLT). He describes the windows of heaven opening up and the earth trembling, the moon being confounded and the sun being ashamed. Then God will punish all those who oppose Him, including the kings of the earth and the fallen heavenly host, whom Paul describes as “evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT).

Isaiah is distraught because he knows that judgment is coming. The return of Christ, while a cause to rejoice for many, will be a time of unprecedented destruction for most. The prophet Zechariah provides us with further insight this event that will bring an end to the reign of sin in the world.

Then the Lord will go out to fight against those nations, as he has fought in times past. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem. And the Mount of Olives will split apart, making a wide valley running from east to west. Half the mountain will move toward the north and half toward the south. You will flee through this valley, for it will reach across to Azal. Yes, you will flee as you did from the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come, and all his holy ones with him.

On that day the sources of light will no longer shine, yet there will be continuous day! Only the Lord knows how this could happen. There will be no normal day and night, for at evening time it will still be light.

On that day life-giving waters will flow out from Jerusalem, half toward the Dead Sea and half toward the Mediterranean, flowing continuously in both summer and winter.

And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day there will be one Lord—his name alone will be worshiped. – Zechariah 14:3-9 NLT

Notice the similarity between the final statement of Zechariah and that of Isaiah.

…the Lord of hosts reigns
    on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and his glory will be before his elders. – Isaiah 24:23 ESV

Both of these men were prophesying about events they did not fully understand. They were being given a glimpse of the distant future, into a day when God is going to conquer all those who stand in opposition to Him. He will do so by sending His Son, the Messiah, to defeat the kings of the earth and the prince of this world, Satan. And when He is done, Jesus will set up His earthly Kingdom in Jerusalem and sit on the throne of David, all in fulfillment of the covenant promise God made to David centuries earlier.

Isaiah, Zechariah, Micah, Daniel and all the other prophets who spoke of the coming day of the Lord, did not fully understand the nature of what they were prophesying. Even Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, many prophets, and righteous people longed to see what you see, but they didn't see it. And they longed to hear what you hear, but they didn't hear it” (Matthew 13:17 NLT). Peter went on to say that the prophets did not fully comprehend the nature of the salvation that God was going to bring through Jesus Christ.

This salvation was something even the prophets wanted to know more about when they prophesied about this gracious salvation prepared for you. –  1 Peter 1:10 NLT

But Peter would go on to validate the words of the prophets. While these men did not have a complete and comprehensive understanding of how the end would come, they were speaking on behalf of God. And Peter, looking back on his experience when Christ was transfigured before he, James and John, he wrote:

Because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets. You must pay close attention to what they wrote, for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place—until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star shines in your hearts. Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God. – 2 Peter 1:19-21 NLT

He was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. He was sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus was the one the prophets had predicted. And he was fully persuaded that Jesus had come into the world to shine in the hearts of men, providing salvation from sin and a restored relationship with God the Father. But He would also come back one day to restore God’s fallen and sin-damaged creation. And on that day, you will “hear songs of praise, of glory to the Righteous One” (Isaiah 24:16 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

And the Rooster Crowed.

69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” 71 And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” 73 After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” 74 Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. 75 And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. – Matthew 26:69-75 ESV

When Jesus had been dragged before the high priest and the Sanhedrin, two of His disciples had followed close behind. Upon their arrival at the home of Caiaphas, the high priest, Peter had remained outside the door entering into the courtyard of the house. But in his gospel account, John indicates that another one of the disciples was also there who knew the high priest. He was allowed entrance into the courtyard and talked one of the servants of Caiaphas into letting Peter enter as well. So, Peter was not alone that night. It is likely that John was the second disciple to whom he mentions, referring to himself in the third person, as he does so often in his gospel.

But as Jesus was undergoing questioning by the high priest, Peter and John were waiting outside in the courtyard, along with the guards who had arrested Jesus. As they waited, a servant girl approached Peter and, recognizing him as one of the disciples of Jesus, pointed him out to all who were there. But Peter vehemently denied it, saying, “I do not know what you mean” (Matthew 26:70 ESV). A few minutes later, another servant girl pointed out Peter as a follower of Jesus, but this time he denied any knowledge of Him. Peter even denied any knowledge of Jesus. When another bystander heard Peter’s Galilean accent, he also accused Peter of being one of Jesus’ disciples. A charge Peter strongly denied. “Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know the man’” (Matthew 26:74 ESV).

And a rooster crowed.

The sound of a rooster crowing would have been normal and natural to everyone in the courtyard, because morning was fast approaching. But for Peter, it was a horrific sound that reminded him of the words of Jesus.

“Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” – Matthew 26:34 ESV

Peter immediately recognized that he had done exactly what he had sworn to Jesus he would not do.

“Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” – Matthew 26:35 ESV

He had denied his friend, teacher, and Messiah. In the face of intense pressure and possible arrest, Peter had denied even knowing Jesus. His spirit had been willing, but his flesh was weak (Matthew 26:41). He had meant what he said. He had been sincere and well-intentioned, but this night was like none other he had ever known. His world was crumbling around him. All his hopes and dreams for the future were crashing in on him. The mob mentality that pervaded the courtyard that night got to him. He feared for his life and, before he knew it, he had denied Jesus. And the rooster had crowed.

But Peter had not been alone in His denial of Jesus. In fact, the entire scene was marked by a fierce rejection of Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel. Even the servant girl who approached Peter had referred to Jesus as “the Galilean.” To the citizens of Jerusalem, anyone from Galilee was looked down upon as a country bumpkin – a rural, uneducated hick from the sticks. They even had a different accent when they spoke. They were unsophisticated and lacked culture. Even Nathanael, one of the disciples of Jesus, had expressed doubt regarding Jesus when he first heard about Him.

"Nazareth!" exclaimed Nathanael. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"– John 1:46 NLT

Nazareth was located in the region of Galilee, and the entire area had a less-than-ideal reputation. And that night, in the courtyard of the high priest, you can see the mounting resentment toward Jesus, this upstart revolutionary from Galilee.

The denial of Jesus is the theme of this entire chapter. If John was the second disciple in the courtyard that night, you don’t hear him speaking up for Jesus. He didn’t come to Peter’s defense. The rest of the disciples were long gone, having fled Gethsemane and hidden somewhere in the city, in hopes of avoiding discovery.

Everyone was denying Jesus. Including Caiaphas and his fellow members of the Sanhedrin. They saw Him as a blasphemer, a radical lunatic who was claiming to be the Son of God. But, in their minds, His claims made Him worthy of death, not devotion. His boasts of being divine had earned Him their resentment, not respect. His miracles had left them unimpressed and convinced that He was in league with the devil himself.

As Jesus stood before the religious high council of the Jews, He was alone. Long gone were the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9 ESV). In just a few hours, He would hear the very same people shouting, “Crucify him!” And all of this was in fulfillment of the words of Isaiah, the prophet. 

He was despised and rejected—
    a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
    He was despised, and we did not care. – Isaiah 53:3 NLT

John, most likely the second disciple in the courtyard that night, would later write:

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. – John 1:10-11 NLT

And just hours later, when He hung dying on the cross, Jesus would shout, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 ESV). His words would be a direct quote from a psalm of David, His ancestor. And later on, in that same psalm we find these words:

But I am a worm and not a man.
    I am scorned and despised by all!
Everyone who sees me mocks me.
    They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
“Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
    Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
    let the Lord rescue him!” – Psalm 22:6-8 NLT

Is this the one? You can sense the denial in their words. Everyone was denying the very one whom God had sent to provide a way of salvation. They were rejecting their Messiah and Savior. Jesus, the hope of the world, was denied by the world. Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, was rejected by the people of Israel. Jesus, the Master and Lord of the disciples, had been abandoned by them. He was alone. But He was undeterred. He remained committed to His cause and fully willing to follow through on His Father’s plan to bring redemption to a fallen world.

The rooster had crowed. The morning was coming. The end was near. The day of redemption was drawing close. But rejection had to proceed glorification. Crucifixion must come before resurrection. Persecution and execution was required so that men might receive absolution and justification before God. For Peter, the crowing of the rooster was the end of a horrible night. But for God, it was the beginning of a new day that would bring salvation to a lost and dying world. The sun was going to rise on the hill of Golgotha, where the Son of God would hang on a cruel Roman cross, the unblemished sacrifice offered by God as payment for the sins of mankind. It was not the end, but just the beginning.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

He Deserves Death!

 57 Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered. 58 And Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end. 59 Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, 60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward 61 and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’” 62 And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65 Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66 What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” 67 Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, 68 saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” – Matthew 26:57-68 ESV

Jesus had been arrested and His disciples had fled into the night. Even Peter, the one who had earlier boasted, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33 ESV). Their fear had gotten the best of them and they had resigned themselves to the fact that it was all over. Matthew even records that Peter, having followed the guards who were taking Jesus to Caiaphas, the high priest, did so, “to see the end” (Matthew 26:58 ESV). It was all over. Their dreams of Jesus being their Messiah and the one to sit on the throne of David were about to be dashed. Jesus was as good as a dead man and there was nothing Peter or any of the other disciples could do about it.

Jesus was dragged before Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest. Annas had been high priest at one time and still held sway over the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council. It was Annas who questioned Jesus about His disciples and His teaching. And Jesus had responded:

“I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” – John 18:20-21 NLT

Taking Jesus’ statement as a sign of disrespect for Annas, one of the guards struck Him in the face. Then Jesus was taken to see Caiaphas.

It’s important to note that all of these gatherings were being conducted at night and in secret. These men were not conducting a trial, but an inquisition. They had already determined the guilt of Jesus and were simply looking for concrete evidence or proof to justify their predetermined plan to have Him put to death. They had made that fateful decision immediately after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. John records that, as a result of that miraculous event, “Many of the people who were with Mary believed in Jesus” (John 11:45 ESV). And when the Sanhedrin had gotten word of what Jesus had done, they were disturbed by the news, asking, “What are we going to do? This man certainly performs many miraculous signs. If we allow him to go on like this, soon everyone will believe in him. Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation” (John 11:47-48 NLT). But it had been Caiaphas, the high priest, who had calmly laid out the solution to this vexing problem.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” – John 11:49-50 NLT

So, by the time Jesus was dragged in front of the Sanhedrin, His fate had been sealed. The so-called trial was a sham. And these religious leaders, in an attempt to find proof against Jesus, resorted to hiring false witnesses. And as Matthew makes perfectly clear, their intent was to put Jesus to death. But because the Jews were forbidden by the Romans of practicing capital punishment, they would need proof that Jesus was a threat to national security and worthy of death. They would have to convince the Romans to do their dirty deed for them.

But the false witnesses proved to be no help at all. They couldn’t get their stories straight. But then, two came forward who remembered the words Jesus had spoken immediately after He had overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple. When Jesus had been asked by the religious leaders who had given Him the authority to do what He had done, He had responded, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19 NLT). And these two witnesses had been there. So, they related this incendiary statement to the high priest and the members of the high council. But they had missed Jesus’ point. In his gospel account, John clarifies what Jesus had meant. “But when Jesus said ‘this temple,’ he meant his own body” (John 2:21 NLT).

But when Jesus was given an opportunity to respond to the testimony of these men, He didn’t clarify His meaning. He didn’t attempt to qualify His original statement. Matthew records that Jesus remained silent. Unlike in His encounter with Annas, Jesus chose not to respond to Caiaphas. And His actions were in direct fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah.

He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. – Isaiah 53:7 ESV

Jesus was not interested in defending Himself – either physically or verbally. This entire evening had been preordained by His heavenly Father, and Jesus was fully committed to doing what His Father had commanded Him to do.

“No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.” – John 10:18 NLT

But Caiaphas was not satisfied. He needed Jesus to commit blasphemy – to claim to be God. That was the evidence the high priest needed to justify the death of Jesus. So, he said to Jesus, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63 ESV). This was not a case of Caiaphas expressing hope that Jesus was the Messiah, but a last desperate attempt to get Jesus to blaspheme by claiming to be God’s Son and, therefore, divine.

On an earlier trip to the city of Jerusalem, at the Feast of Dedication, and in the temple courtyard, Jesus had made the bold claim, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30 ESV). That statement had incensed the Jews and they had taken up rocks to stone Jesus. But Jesus had expressed confusion, stating that He had performed many good works that proved He was from God. He asked, “for which of them are you going to stone me?” (john 10:32 ESV). And the people shouted, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:33 ESV).

That was what Caiaphas was looking for. He needed Jesus to claim to be God. And in response to the high priest’s question, “are the Christ, the Son of God,” Jesus said, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64 ESV). The true meaning of this statement escaped the high priest and the members of the high council. But it was exactly what they had been waiting for. Accusing Jesus of blasphemy, Caiaphas asked the Sanhedrin for their verdict and they wasted no time in declaring their decision: “He deserves death.”

Think about that statement. From their earth-bound, sin-soaked perspective, they saw Jesus as the one deserving of death. And yet, as the Scriptures make perfectly clear, it was mankind that deserved death at the hands of a righteous, holy and just God.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God's glorious standard. – Romans 3:23 NLT

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV

No one is righteous--not even one. – Romans 3:10 NLT

Only fools say in their hearts, "There is no God." They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good! – Psalm 53:1 NLT

And Scripture tells us that the God-ordained penalty for our sin and unrighteousness is death.

…the wages of sin is death. – Romans 6:23 ESV

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam's sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT

Yet, in spite of mankind’s guilt and the looming sentence of death, God chose to provide a way of escape, a plan of redemption that would make equital possible and righteousness available. God’s solution? The sacrificial death of His own Son.

…he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

…the LORD laid on him the sins of us all. – Isaiah 53:6 NLT

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. – 1 Peter 2:24 NLT

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 3:13-14 NLT

Jesus did not deserve to die. We did. So did all the men in the room that night. Yet, “God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT). But rather than see Jesus as the Son of God and their Savior from sin, the members of the Sanhedrin spit on Him, slapped Him and mocked Him. They abused the one who had come to save them. They ridiculed the only righteous man in the room. And it was all part of God’s plan.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

It Must Be So!

47 While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” 49 And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. 51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. 56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled. – Matthew 26:47-56 ESV

While Jesus had prayed, the disciples had slept. But one of their number had been busy that night. Immediately upon leaving the upper room, after having been exposed by Jesus as the one who would betray Him, Judas had gone straight to the home of the high priest, intent on following through with his plan to betray Jesus. And before long, he arrived on the scene, accompanied by a crowd made up of both Roman soldiers and a contingent of the high priest’s guards. Judas, having been an intimate follower of Jesus, knew that He would likely be on the Mount of Olives that night. John tells us that Jesus “often met there with his disciples” (John 18:2 ESV). And Judas showed up just as Jesus had told His disciples:

“See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” – Matthew 26:45-46 ESV

This scene is filled with tension and emotion. Jesus, having just poured out His heart to His heavenly Father, had fully committed Himself to accomplish what He had come to do. The disciples, having been awakened from their sleep, suddenly found themselves startled by the arrival of Judas and a large group of armed guards. They were surprised and scared. And Judas had to have been jumble of raw nerves as he prepared to betray, not only Jesus, but the rest of the disciples with whom he had spent three years of his life. The guards, carrying their swords and clubs, would have been on edge, not knowing what they would encounter when they attempted to arrest Jesus. Would His disciples put up a fight? Would there be a large crowd of His followers there, ready to defend Him at all costs? 

And in the midst of this chaotic and potentially volatile scene, a strange moment of intimacy took place. Judas stepped forward and kissed Jesus on the cheek. This had been the pre-agreed sign that would mark Jesus as the one they had come to arrest. Why had Judas chosen to betray the Lord in this particular way? He could have simply pointed to Jesus. But it’s almost as if Judas wanted to defuse the tension of the moment and to fool the rest of the disciples into thinking he was still a faithful follower of Jesus.

Each of the gospel writers provide their own recollections of what happened next. Matthew tells us that Judas walked up to Jesus, saying, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and then kissed Him. Luke records that Jesus responded to this act of betrayal by saying, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48 ESV). John paints a slightly different picture, saying that “Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to the soldiers, “Whom do you seek?’” (John 18:4 ESV). These are not discrepancies, but simply the recollections of those who were there. In the case of Luke, he was recording what he had gleaned from his interviews of the disciples themselves. This was not a static scene, but one filled with confusion and fear. They each saw and heard different things. And in the midst of the confusion, the ever-impulsive Peter, drew a sword and attacked one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. It was as if Peter was attempting to live up to the rash vow he had made earlier that evening:

“Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” – Matthew 26:35 ESV

This is the same man who, upon hearing Jesus announce that He was going to die in Jerusalem, had rebuked Him, saying, “Heaven forbid, Lord, this will never happen to you!" (Matthew 16:22 NLT). Peter was trying to prevent the inevitable. More than that, he was trying to prevent the expressed will of God. Which is why Jesus had said to him, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s” (Matthew 16:23 ESV).

Peter, like the rest of the disciples, could not believe this was happening. In spite of all Jesus had told them, they could not bring themselves to accept that this was God’s will concerning the Messiah. It was not what they had been taught. It was not what they had hoped for and dreamed of.

And the scene provides us with a dramatic dichotomy between the angry and impulsive actions of Peter and the peace-filled, submissive response of Jesus. He turned to Peter and said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 ESV). This is an interesting statement and seems to conflict with one Jesus had made earlier in His ministery.

“Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” – Matthew 16:34 ESV

But on that occasion, Jesus had been talking about the future, after His death, resurrection and ascension. His act of redemption would put all those who believed in Him at odds with the world around them. There would be conflict in families as some expressed faith in Jesus and others rejected him.

“I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Your enemies will be right in your own household!” – Matthew 16:35-36 ESV

Jesus had not been advocating armed conflict between Christians and non-Christians. He was simply warning His disciples that following Him would be costly and filled with conflict. But the garden of Gethsemane was not the place to stage a revolt against the authorities. Peter’s battle would not be with the armed guards of the Sanhedrin, but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV).

On this night, the actions of Judas and the guards who accompanied him were part of the sovereign will of God Almighty. I was all part of the divine plan prescribed by God before the foundation of the world. These events were inevitable, unavoidable and ordained by God. Jesus let Peter know that if God did not want this to happen, He was more than equipped to do something about it. He could send 72,000 angels from heaven to defend His Son, if necessary. But Jesus made it perfectly clear that all of this was necessary.

“But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” – Matthew 26:54 ESV

This was all in fulfillment of prophecy. Things were happening just as God had planned. And nothing and no one was going to be able to stand in His way or delay, detour or defend against His will. The armed soldiers, equipped with swords and clubs, may have believed that they were in control of the scene, but Jesus knew better. They were simply pawns in the hands of a sovereign God. In fact, John records that when Jesus had asked them, “Whom do you seek?,” they had responded, “Jesus of Nazareth.” And as soon as Jesus had said, “I am he,” they “they drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6 ESV). Jesus was in control of the situation, not Peter or the guards and soldiers. And Jesus revealed that this entire scene was in fulfillment of God’s prophetic promises.

“all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” – Matthew 26:56 ESV

And is if to drive home that point, Matthew records that, upon Jesus’ arrest, “all the disciples left him and fled” (Matthew 26:56 ESV). Over in the book of Zechariah, we have a prophetic pronouncement concerning the Messiah that forewarned of this very thing.

“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered;
    I will turn my hand against the little ones.” – Zechariah 13:7 ESV

Jesus was on His own. The disciples had fled. Judas had done his dastardly deed and departed the scene. But Jesus, while devoid of any companionship from His followers, was not alone. His heavenly Father was with Him. He would go through the next hours of suffering knowing that He was doing His Father’s will and well within the divine grasp of His Father’s love. What Jesus was about to do, He did willingly. Because it must be so. It had to happen. It was why He had come to earth. His incarnation would be meaningless without His crucifixion. His having taken on human flesh would be pointless if He did not become the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. It must be so. The journey to Calvary had begun and God’s plan for the redemption of man was well on its way.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Broken For You.

26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.”

30 And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 33 Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” 34 Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” 35 Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same. – Matthew 26:26-35 ESV

Jesus and His disciples had gathered in the upper room of a borrowed house somewhere in the city of Jerusalem, in order to celebrate the Passover together. It was at this gathering that Jesus revealed the one who would betray Him: Judas. One of the original 12 disciples, Judas had already made a deal with the chief priests, agreeing to turn Jesus over to them in return for a bounty of 30 pieces of silver. And, when Jesus exposed Judas as the one who would betray Him, rather than repent and beg for forgiveness, Judas left the room, intent on doing what he had agreed to do.

Jesus shared some serious words of warning regarding Judas.

“…woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” – Matthew 26:24 ESV

Judas’ decision to betray Jesus was part of God’s redemptive plan. Jesus had been well aware of it and knew it was necessary for God’s will to be fulfilled. But Judas had made the willful choice to betray his master and friend. He put his own self-interests ahead of any devotion he may have had for Jesus. And, evidently, Judas had done a masterful job of disguising his true nature from the rest of the disciples, because when Jesus had announced that one of them would betray Him, they each wondered if he was speaking of them. But Jesus made it perfectly clear who the betrayer was.

26 “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27 Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” 28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29 Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. 30 So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.” – John 13:26-30 ESV

His departure must have left the rest of the disciples in a state of disbelief. It’s interesting to consider that no one among them attempted to stop Judas, not even the normally impulsive Peter. Judas simply left the room. and the meal continued.

What happened next takes on an even more serious tone when we consider that Judas was on his way to meet with the religious leaders in order to set in motion the betray and ultimate arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. He was about to set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the death of the Son of God. And as Judas made his way through the streets of Jerusalem with the words of Jesus echoing in his mind, Jesus addressed His remaining disciples.

He took a piece of unleavened bread, prayed over it, then divided it among them. And He announced, “Take, eat; this is my body.” In his gospel account, Luke adds, “which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19 ESV). It may be that, at this moment, some of the disciples recalled the words of Jesus spoken earlier in His ministry:

“…the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” – John 6:33 ESV

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” – John 6:35 ESV

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – John 6:48-51 ESV

Jesus was about to lay down His life as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. His body would be beaten, broken and bruised. He would have His life brutally taken from Him by those whose very existence were His doing. Yet, Jesus was commemorating for His disciples what was about to happen, so that they might always remember the source of their salvation. His death would be the means of their eternal life. No amount of good works would earn for them what Jesus was about to provide for them by the sacrifice of His own life.

And then Jesus took one of the cups of wine, prayed over it, and said, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28 ESV). Jesus, as if to emphasize what He had just said, pointed the disciples to the sacrificial nature of His pending death. His blood would be poured out, like the lambs used in the temple sacrifices.

It was John the Baptist who had announced at the arrival of Jesus at the Jordan River:

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” – John 1:29 ESV

Jesus was the consummate paschal lamb, the sinless substitute who would offer up His life as payment for the sin debt of fallen humanity. And as the author of Hebrews made so clear:

…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. – Hebrews 9:22 ESV

There was no other way. Jesus would have to die. His body would be broken and His blood would be spilled, because the just wrath of God against the sins of mankind had to be satisfied or propitiated. And the apostle John would later write, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 1:29 ESV). And John would go on to describe what Jesus did on the cross as an expression of God’s love for sinful mankind.

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. – 1 John 4:10 ESV

All of this had to hit the disciples like a lead weight. It was all so unexpected and unbelievable. It was not as they had hoped and dreamed. Their world was collapsing all around them, and it was about to get even darker as the night progressed. Jesus informed them that this would be their last meal together, but assured them that they would feast together again at a later date, most likely a reference to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

But with the Passover meal completed, they made their way through the dark night, out the eastern gate of the city to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus dropped yet another bomb on His already shell-shocked disciples.

“You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” – Matthew 26:31 ESV

Every single one of them would desert Him at His greatest hour of need. Under the coming persecution of the religious leaders, the disciples would scatter and hide. But upon hearing this pronouncement from Jesus, the always impulsive Peter said, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33 ESV). Those words would come back to haunt Peter. And Peter would make matters even worse for himself by refuting Jesus’ claim that he would deny the Lord three times.

“Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” – Matthew 2:35 ESV

He was well-intentioned. And he spoke for all the disciples. But none of them knew what was about to happen. They had no idea just how bad things were going to get in the next few hours. But Jesus did. And yet, He gave them a subtle, yet confident bit of news:

“…after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” – Matthew 26:32 ESV

Jesus knew that He would die, but He also confident that He would rise again. That was the Father’s plan. His death was necessary, but so was His resurrection. His death would be payment for the sins of mankind. But His restoration to life would be proof that His death had been sufficient and fully satisfactory to God.

This dark cloud had a silver lining. The events of the next few hours would be horrific for the disciples. They would be agonizingly painful for Jesus. But He faced it all with confidence and faith in His Father’s will. And what He was about to do, He did willingly.

“No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded." – John 10:18 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Humility, Unity, and Love.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” –  Matthew 18:15-22 ESV

Jesus had just finished talking about the danger of causing another believer to stumble, by demeaning or devaluing them. Pride has no place in the family of God. There is no reason for any follower of Christ to consider themselves as better than anyone else. And the disciples would soon learn that all of us are equals at the foot of the cross. We are sinners saved by grace, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). And the humility that accompanies our faith in Christ should prevent us from looking down on other believers and setting ourselves up as somehow superior and of greater value in the kingdom.

But that humility will also lead us to lovingly forgive those who sin against us, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we end up on the receiving end of someone else’s pride and arrogance, we are to approach them in humility, not anger, pointing out their sin and seeking to restore the relationship.

One of the greatest sins we can commit against another believer is to cause them to stumble in their walk or stray from the path on which God has placed them. And if you should find yourself on the receiving end of this kind of sin, Jesus encourages you to seek restoration, not revenge. The goal is not the exposure of the other person’s fault, but the healing of the relationship. And Jesus makes it clear that if you humbly and lovingly approach them and they repent, you will have restored a relationship. But, if they refuse to admit their culpability and confess their pride, you are to involve others in the fellowship who can speak to the matter from first-hand experience. Once again, the objective should be conviction that leads to restoration. This is not about making the other person feel bad. It’s not about exposing their faults before others, but about humbly seeking God’s best for them.

But if the one who has sinned against you remains unconvicted and refuses to repent, you are to bring the matter before the ekklēsia, a Greek word that eventually came to refer to the local body of believers or the local church. But at this point in Jesus’ relationship with His disciples, He had provided them with no insight or teaching regarding the coming church. So, more than likely, Jesus was referring to an assembly of believers who had been called together for an announcement. The disciples probably assumed He was talking about their own close-knit group.

Finally, Jesus told them that if the person remained stubbornly unrepentant, they were to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17 ESV). In other words, they were to exclude this individual from fellowship. If he or she remained unrepentant, they were to be unwelcome in the local body of Christ. They had forfeited their right to fellowship because they had refused to accept responsibility for their sin. Had they followed the advice of John, they could have been restored to fellowship and received forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

The object behind all of this is restoration, not merely punishment. Our motivation in confronting the guilty party is to be love. As the apostle Peter taught:

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.
 – 1 Peter 4:8 ESV

In our loving confrontation of the brother or sister who has sinned against us, we are to understand that our treatment of them, when done in humility and out of love, carries weight. When the time comes for a decision to be made regarding the proper discipline of the guilty party, it should be made prayerfully and carefully. We are to see our decision as bearing the full weight of God’s authority. Jesus repeated the same words He used when speaking to Peter back in chapter 16.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  – Matthew 16:19 ESV

The decision made by the local assembly would carry the same weight as if it had been made by God Himself. The binding and loosing has to do with the outward treatment of the one who has sinned against his brother or sister in Christ.

Verses 19-20, while often used as a proof text for corporate prayer, really has much more to do with the issue of one believer who has sinned against another. When the proper steps have been taken and the sinning individual has been confronted one-on-one and with two or three witnesses, the next step is discipline. And we are to seek God’s will in the matter. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Jesus does not provide an in-this-case prescription for discipline. We are to seek the will of God and then pronounce judgment in the name of God – fully trusting that He is intimately involved in the matter.

Finally, Peter has to get his two-cents in, following up Jesus’ words with a question that he hopes will shed light on the whole discussion. He appears to have a hard time with the idea of forgiving someone who has sinned against him. So, he asked Jesus how many times he was expected to forgive. He was looking for a limit. Surely, this was not some undetermined number requiring unending forgiveness. But Jesus blew holes in Peter’s theory, by saying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). The number was not the issue. It was the motivation of the heart. Jesus wanted Peter to know that the kind of forgiveness He was talking about was unending. It didn’t keep score. It knew no limits. It is the very same kind of forgiveness we have received from Jesus. The apostle Paul would put it in very clear terms that each of us can readily understand.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32 ESV

Again, the issue is restoration, not revenge. Our goal is to be made right with our brother or sister in Christ and to see them restored to a right relationship with God. For the disciples, all of this sounded so far-fetched and impossible. It made no sense. But as Jesus has done all along the way in His relationship with these men, He was raising the bar. He was enlightening them to the reality of life in the kingdom. It would not be as they expected. There would be no place for pride. There would be no room for vengeance. The kingdom Jesus came to innaugurate would be comprised of Humility, unity and love.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Glimpse of Things to Come.

1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. –  Matthew 17:1-13 ESV

It’s important to remember that there were no chapter designations in the original version of Matthew’s gospel. So the closing sentence of chapter 16 would have flowed directly into our passage for today.

“Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” – Matthew 16:28 ESV

Just six days later, Jesus would choose three of His disciples to accompany Him to the top of a nearby mountain. While there has been much speculation over the years as to the exact identity of the mountain to which Matthew referred, none of the gospel writers provide us with the identity. The location of the mountain was not the point of the story, but the details of event that took place on the mountain.

Jesus handpicked Peter, James and John to join Him on this particular occasion. They were given the unique privilege of witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime scene that was designed to confirm Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.

What the disciples witnessed must have blown them away. And the fact that this incredible scene took place on a mountain top, accompanied by the presence of Moses and Elijah, would not have escaped them. These two men had also had mountain top encounters with God. They’re described in Exodus 19 and 1 Kings 19 respectively. And in both cases, their divine encounters had taken place on Mt Sinai. So, for the three disciples, who would have very familiar with the stories of Moses and Elijah, God’s choice of location at which to appear would have made all the sense in the world.

But they were not prepared for what they witnessed. In fact, when they had gone up on the mountain they don’t appear to have been expecting much to happen, because Luke points out that the three of them had fallen fast asleep. But they woke up to find that Jesus had been transfigured. The Greek word is metamorphoō, from which we get our English word, metamorphasis. Jesus was literally transformed in His appearance.

…his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light… – Matthew 17:2 ESV

The change that came over Him was visible and undeniable. Mark describes the brightness of His clothes “as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3 ESV). But that’s not all that happened. Matthew states that the figures of Moses and Elijah appeared alongside Jesus. And Matthew and Mark both emphasize that these two men appeared before them – the disciples. Peter, James and John were given the privilege of seeing these two great patriarchs appear next to Jesus. We’re not told how they recognized them. Moses and Elijah had lived hundreds of years earlier and there would have been no photographic record of their appearance. But somehow, the three disciples knew that they were watching Jesus dialogue with these two long-deceased heros of the Hebrew faith.

And Luke includes the content of their discussion with Jesus. They “spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31 ESV). Remember what Jesus had told the disciples just six days earlier:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. – Matthew 16:21 ESV

The words of Jesus were confirmed for Peter, James and John as they overheard Moses and Elijah discussing the very same topic. This whole scene was for the benefit of the three disciples. This was a God-ordained event designed to fully confirm the disciples’ belief that Jesus was the Messiah. It’s important to consider the significance of the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Moses was synonymous with the law of God. Elijah was one of the premier prophets of God. And later, after Jesus had died and resurrected, He would appear to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and Luke records that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 ESV).

Later on, in Luke’s account, Jesus appeared before all His disciples and told them:

44 “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” – Luke 24:44-47 ESV

Through the transfiguration of Jesus and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, God was letting the disciples know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus was the Messiah, in fulfillment of all that had been written in the law and the prophets.

But look Peter’s response. He immediately offers to build shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. In essence, he wants to prolong the moment and extend the stay of the two patriarchs. He completely forgot that Moses and Elijah had discussed Jesus’ departure, not his stay. But Peter didn’t want this little get-together to end. And Matthew reports that, while the words were still on Peter’s lips, “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’”  (Matthew 17:5 ESV). God wanted Peter to shut up and listen. Jesus had been telling them what was going to happen. He had tried to let them know what was going to take place next. But the news Jesus had shared had prompted Peter to rebuke Him.

God wanted Peter, James and John to know that He was pleased with Jesus. The coming suffering and death of Jesus was not a sign of God’s wrath or judgment. It was all part of His divine plan for man’s redemption. And the obedience of Jesus brought great joy to the Father’s heart. He knew His Son was committed to carry out His assignment. Now, God wanted the disciples on board. And long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter would write of this incredible experience.

16 …we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts… – 2 Peter 1:16-19 ESV

His experience on the mountain top that day had obviously made an impression. Watching the transfiguration of Jesus had had a life-transforming effect on Peter and the other two disciples.

But as they left the mountain and descended back to the valley below, Jesus told them to keep what they had seen to themselves, until He was resurrected. It was only then that they were to proclaim the King and His kingdom. And as good Jews, they were curious to know that, if Jesus was the Messiah, why He had appeared before the return of Elijah. According to Malachi 4:5-6, Elijah was to precede the coming of the Messiah. And Jesus informed them that he had – in the form of John the Baptist. Everything was happening according to God’s plan and in keeping with and in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

But Jesus still had to suffer and die. His resurrection could not take place until He had gone through the humiliation of death on a cross. The disciples had had the mountain top experience. They had seen Jesus in all His glory. But now that they were back in the valley, they would have to endure the slow, steady march of Jesus as He made His way to Jerusalem and the cross.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Taking the ME Out of Messiah.

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” –  Matthew 16:21-28 ESV

In response to Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?,” Peter had been the first of the 12 to speak up, saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). And Jesus had commended Peter for his answer, acknowledging that it had been revealed to him by God. Peter’s awareness of who Jesus was had come as a direct result of God’s revelation, not human intelligence or the teaching of men.

This common fisherman had been able to see something to which the learned scribes and Pharisees remained oblivious. They were experts in the Mosaic law and students of the Hebrew Scriptures, but had failed to see what Peter had seen. They had accused Jesus of operating under the power and influence of Satan. To them, He was little more than a heretic and a man who willingly associated with prostitutes and sinners. They were spiritually blind and unable to see what Peter saw.

Peter was blessed for having been given the capacity to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, but he was about to find out that the privilege of divinely inspired insight came at a cost. The disciples were able to see Jesus for who He was – their Messiah and Savior – but now they were going to find out exactly what that meant. Their preconceived notions of the Messiah’s role were about to be rocked. Any hopes they had of watching Jesus set up His kingdom on earth and placing them in positions of power and authority were going to be shattered.

Following Peter’s confession came Jesus’ revelation.

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. – Matthew 16:16 ESV

And we don’t have to wonder how this announcement impacted the disciples, because Matthew makes it quite clear.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” – Matthew 16:22 ESV

Once again, Peter was the first to speak up. But this time, his words would reward him with a rebuke from Jesus, not a blessing. In the Greek, Peter’s response was essentially, “God have mercy on you!” He was expressing his deep-felt desire that God not allow what Jesus had said to happen. Peter wanted God to forbid the words of Jesus from coming to fruition. In his impulsiveness, Peter was speaking from his heart. He was appalled by what he had heard. The thought of Jesus suffering and dying was not something he could get his head around. It made no sense. It didn’t fit into his expectations concerning the Messiah. And he couldn’t imagine that God would allow something like this to happen.

While Peter had been shocked at Jesus’ announcement, he was about to be rocked by Jesus’ response to him.

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” – Matthew 16:23 NLT

Ouch! That had to sting. Here was the man who had just been pronounced as blessed because of his confession that Jesus was the Messiah. Now, Jesus was calling him, “Satan.” What a dramatic turn of events. What an amazing fall from grace. Peter had gone from teacher’s pet to spiritual adversary. But why did Jesus respond so harshly? Peter meant well. He simply couldn’t imagine Jesus having to go through the things He had described. But Jesus saw Peter’s response for what it was: Satanically inspired.

Just as God had revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Messiah, Satan was attempting to influence Peter’s perception of what that meant. Satan wasn’t trying to dissuade Peter from believing Jesus was the Messiah. He simply wanted to confuse his understanding of the Messiah’s role. Like any good Jew, Peter’s view of the Messiah was somewhat self-centered and self-serving. He was interpreting his God-given awareness of Jesus as the Messiah through a man-made set of expectations. Notice what Jesus accused him of. He was setting his mind on man’s interests, not God’s. He was thinking about what he wanted from the Messiah, not God’s purpose for the Messiah.

Peter was displaying a what’s-in-it-for-me mindset that viewed the Messiah as the answer to all of his personal problems. To Peter’s way of thinking, Jesus was no good to him dead. But what Peter failed to understand was that Jesus would not be the Messiah or Savior unless He died. Jesus had not come to fulfill the will of men, but the will of His Father in heaven. And Peter was going to have to learn that his personal expectations of the Messiah were going to have to take a backseat to God’s will concerning the Messiah.

Which is why Jesus turned to all the disciples and said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 ESV). All of these men had experienced the call of Jesus, inviting them to follow Him. Now, Jesus was letting them know the cost of that calling. Their original motivation to follow Jesus had been self-serving. They had seen something in it for them. But now, Jesus was telling them that their calling came with a cost: Self-denial.

Jesus had just revealed that the role of Messiah came with a tremendous cost. He would suffer and die. In the same way, the role of disciple came with a cost. Just as Jesus would have to die to Himself, they would be required to die to their own self-interests. Jesus would go on to tell His disciples, “whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:27-28 NLT).

Peter had simply wanted to save the life of Jesus. But Jesus told him, “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25 NLT). The model for true discipleship was that of self-sacrifice and selfless service, not self-centeredness. Jesus was attempting to focus the attention of His disciples on the eternal rather than the temporal. He wanted them to think about the kingdom to come, not their own kingdom on earth. Peter wanted it all here and now. But Jesus warned that getting all you desire in this life was worthless if you ended up losing your soul. Temporal treasures and earthly kingdoms will all pass away. But those who focus their eyes on the eternal will discover that their future reward far outweighs any pleasure they find in the present.

Jesus ends His address to His disciples with a somewhat confusing statement:

“Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” – Matthew 16:28 ESV

These words must have left the disciples scratching their heads. They would have wondered what He meant. They would have wanted to know which of them He was referencing. And if we stop here, this verse will leave us just as confused as the disciples must have been. But we have the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel account to provide us with insight.

1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. – Matthew 17:1-12 ESV

The disciples would have to go six days without a clue as to what Jesus had meant. Fortunately, we’re given an immediate understanding of just what Jesus had been talking about. But more about that tomorrow.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Rock.

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. – Matthew 16:13-20 ESV

 

In this passage we see Jesus traveling as far north as He will ever go in His earthly ministry. He and the disciples journeyed all the way to Caesarea Philippi. At this remote location, far removed from the capital city of Jerusalem and beyond the reach of the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus isolated Himself with His disciples in order to prepare them for the events that were soo to take place. It would not be long before He began a return trip to Jerusalem, but this time it would be in order to sacrifice His life on behalf of sinful mankind.

It appears that one of the objectives behind this excursion to the very borders of Jewish influence was to get the disciples alone and allow them time to process all that they ahd seen and heard. From the moment they had answered the call to follow Jesus, they had been on a whirlwind journey marked by head-scratching messages and mind-blowing miracles. They had to have been confused by the confrontations between Jesus, a man they obviousl admired and the religious leaders, for whom they had deep respect. It had to have been disconcerting to see the Pharisees and Sadducees reject Jesus and to hear Jesus refer to these seemingly righteous men as hypocrites. It Jesus was the Messiah, as the disciples believed Him to be, why weren’t the religious leaders of Israel embracing Him with open arms?

Knowing that these men were wrestling with all kinds of questions and their own doubts about just who He was, Jesus removed some of the pressure by asking the disciples a fairly easy question:

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” – Matthew 16:13 ESV

And the disciples were more than happy to answer the question.

“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” – Matthew 16:14 ESV

There were a lot of opinions out there. And notice that each of the three options provided by the disciples involve men who were dead. John the Baptist was the most recently deceased, but all three were no longer living. This provides a glimpse into the mindset of the average Jew. They believed that the miracles performed by Jesus were best explained as the byproduct of a resurrected prophet. He was somebody great who had been raised back to life and been given supernatural powers. But notice that no one was claiming Jesus to be the Messiah. He was great, but not that great.

Then Jesus turned His attention to His disciples. He wanted to know what they thought.

“But who do you say that I am?” – Matthew 16:15 ESV

This was the more important question of the two. Jesus knew full well that there were very few of the Jewish people who were willing to recognize Him as their Messiah. They had been blown away by His miracles and left wondering at the authority behind His teaching and the radical nature of His words. But He didn’t seem to measure up to their preconceived notions of how the Messiah would appear and act.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Peter was the first to speak up. This would not have been uncommon. He was an outspoken and sometimes rash individual for whom tact was missing character trait. Peter was always quick to speak and sometimes His tendency to put his mouth in gear before His brain was engaged got him into trouble. But in this instance, Peter gave a commendable answer.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” – Matthew 16:16 ESV

This answer, while very familiar to us, stood in stark contrast to the common perceptions of the people. Peter boldly and unapologetically proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. The term “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of Messiah. So, Peter was unequivocally pronounced his believe that Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be. And, if you recall, John used very similiar words when he opened up his gospel account.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. – Matthew 1:1 ESV

But Peter refers to Jesus as the Son of the living God, not the son of David. This was an acknowledgement of Jesus’ diety. He was not just a man who had been sent by God, He was the actual Son of God. In other words, He was divine.

This statement by Peter was remarkable and Jesus acknowledged it as so.

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 16:17 ESV

In this statement, Jesus chose to refer to Peter in a manner that emphasized his humanity. He called him Simon Barjonas or Simon, son of John. And then Jesus revealed that Peter’s answer had not been the result of human wisdom or teaching, but because of insight provided by God Himself. God had opened Peter’s eyes and helped him recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Peter wasn’t smarter than the scribes and Pharisees. He wasn’t more spiritual than the Sadducees. He didn’t possess more discernment than the rest of his Jewish neighbors and friends. But God had made possible Peter’s astounding insight into Jesus’ true identity. Remember what Jesus had stated earlier in Matthew’s gospel:

“No one truly knows the Son except the Father…” – Matthew 11:27 NLT

And so, it must be God who reveals the identity of His Son.

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” – John 6:44 ESV

“This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” – John 6:65 ESV

Peter had been drawn to Jesus by God. And Peter had been convinced by God that Jesus was the Messiah. And it was this confession that led Jesus to say:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:18 ESV

Jesus used a play on words, referring to Peter’s name, which in Greek is Petros and means, “rock.” But He used another Greek word when He referred to “this rock.” It was the word petra. By choosing to use a different word, Jesus was placing the emphasis, not on Peter, but on Peter’s testimony. It was what Peter had said about Jesus that was critical. In other words, the church of Jesus Christ would be built upon the testimonies of those who expressed faith in Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Contrary to what the Roman Catholic Church has taught for centuries, Jesus was not setting up a system of apostolic succession and establishing the office of the papacy. But the real “rock” in this passage is Jesus Himself. He is what Paul later refers to as the cornerstone of the church.

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. – Ephesians 2:19-21 ESV

And Peter echoed that same sentiment.

6 For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone…” – 1 Peter 2:6-7 ESV

Ultimately, the church is built upon the rock of Jesus Christ. He is our foundation and the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). And to all those who build their lives on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, He promises to give “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV). Jesus switched from talking about their present view of His identity, to the future nature of their authority. He was referring the the millennial kingdom, not the temporal period commonly referred to as the church age. There is a day coming when all those who are children of God will experience the full power and authority available to them as heirs of the kingdom of God. And Jesus clearly articulates the nature of that power and authority when He says, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV).

To a certain degree, the disciples were going to experience some of that power and authority in their earthly lives, as they proclaimed the good news and released people from captivity to sin and death. They would have God-given authority to cast out demons and heal the sick and the lame. But the greatest fulfillment of Jesus’ words are in the millennial kingdom to come, when Jesus will sit on the throne of David, ruling in righteousness and justice.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Why Did You Doubt?

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

34 And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick 36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. – Matthew 14:22-36 ESV

The apostle John provides us with an important detail to this story that Matthew chose to leave out. It seems that Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the crowd had left quite an impression on them.

14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. – John 6:14-15 ESV

Having had their physical needs met in such a spectacular way, the people were ready to crown Jesus as their king. Perhaps they envisioned a welfare state where their newly crowned king would use His miraculous powers to eliminate all hunger and disease. One can only imagine what went through their minds as they considered the endless possibilities of Jesus as their Messiah. But they were not thinking of the same kind of king or kingdom Jesus had in mind. Their focus was fixed on an earthly kingdom where their physical needs would be met and all their problems taken care of by “the Prophet” turned king.

The prophet to whom they referred was the one Moses had predicted would come.

15 “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen…” – Deuteronomy 18:15 ESV

18 “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” – Deuteronomy 18:18 ESV

Moses had been the prophet who had led the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt, using miraculous powers to defeat Pharaoh and his armies. He had fed the people with manna from heaven and an endless supply of quail. He had provided water from a rock. Under his leadership, the clothes and sandals of the Israelites had never worn out. And when the crowd had watched as Jesus had fed more than 10,000 of them with nothing more than five loaves of bread and two fishes, they couldn’t help but make the connection.

But Matthew records that Jesus “immediately” sent His disciples away and dismissed the crowds. He wasn’t interested in becoming their king – at least not the kind they had in mind. He had far greater aspirations based on the will of His heavenly Father. So, having dispersed the crowd and sending the disciples away by boat, Jesus spent time alone in prayer with His Father.  We are not told the content of Jesus’ prayer, but the High Priestly Prayer found in John 17 provides us with some idea of how Jesus communicated with the Father. It was personal and intimate, yet it also communicated His concern for His disciples. Jesus focused on finishing the task assigned to Him by the Father. But He also prayed for those who would carry on the ministry after His work was done.

While Jesus had been praying, the disciples had been caught in the middle of a storm on the Sea of Galilee. While many of these men were seasoned fishermen, this storm proved to be severe and the winds had driven them far out to sea. Sometime between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., in the darkness and as the wind and waves raged, Jesus appeared to them, walking on the water. He could have simply spoken a word and the storm would have subsided, but in this case, Jesus chose to do something even more spectacular. Rather than proving His power over the elements by controlling them, He simply showed their lack of influence over Him. The waves, the wind and the water had no effect on Him. In the midst of a raging storm, Jesus simply walked, calmly and casually, free from fear and displaying a kind of faith that His disciples did not yet possess.

Upon seeing Jesus walking on the water, their immediate response was fear, not faith. In their terrified state, they could only shout, “It is a ghost!” But Jesus called out to them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” In essence, Jesus told them to stop fearing. He commanded them to replace their fear with faith – in Him. But Peter, revealing his lack of faith, responded, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28 ESV). He wasn’t convinced it was Jesus. But that doesn’t explain why Peter made this strange request. Why did he ask Jesus to command that he come to Him on the water? What was going through his mind? Keep in mind, the wind was still blowing and the waves were still rocking the boat, but Peter was asking Jesus to command that he step out of the boat and walk on the water. And Jesus obligingly said, “Come.”

Amazingly, Peter obeyed and made it all the way to where Jesus was waiting. But then something happened. Matthew records, “he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me’” (Matthew 14:30 ESV). He took his eyes off of Jesus and began to focus on the circumstances around him. Remember, Jesus had not calmed the storm. He had walked to them in the midst of it. And when Peter attempted to do the same thing, he found that his faith diminished when he focused on the problem rather than the solution.

But Jesus was there, and He reached out His hand and rescued Peter from his own faltering faith, saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31 ESV). Peter had displayed enough faith to step out of the boat and walk all the way to Jesus. But he had taken his eyes off the prize. It would seem that Peter had been more interested in walking on water than walking to Jesus. He had been enamored with the idea of replicating Jesus’ miraculous feat and, seeing that he was actually pulling it off, he had probably taken a look around him, amazed at what he was doing. He became cocky and over-confident. But seeing the wind, he became fearful. His faith turned to fear. And it’s interesting to note that wind is invisible. You can’t see it. But the author of Hebrews reminds us that faith is invisible too.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1 ESV

You can’t see faith, but you can see the fruit it produces. The wind, while invisible to the human eye, is powerful enough to turn calm water into powerful waves and turn a boat full of seasoned fishermen into helpless, hopeless victims of a storm. The invisible faith that drove Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water was more than enough to get him to Jesus. But his mistake was allowing his conviction that Jesus was enough to be replaced by the fear that the wind was too much. And he sank like a rock.

And as soon as Jesus and Peter stepped into the boat, the wind and the waves ceased. The storm was calmed. Their fear subsided and was replaced with worship. What they had just witnessed convinced them that Jesus was the Son of God.

In the midst of the growing storm of opposition that swirled around Jesus and His ministery, He walked on in faith. He weathered the wind and waves of apathy and anger that battered Him on a daily basis. He kept His eyes on the will of His Father and the task He had been assigned to accomplish. The storms of controversy were going to rage. The tsunami of public opinion would blow this way and that, but Jesus would remain committed to His mission – walking in faith in the face of the storm.

And when the boat arrived at the other side of the lake, He went about His Father’s business.

35 And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick 36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. – Matthew 14:35-36 ESV

Why did Peter doubt? For the same reason we all do. He focused on the wind, the invisible source of the storm; when he should have kept his eyes on Jesus, the visible source of His faith.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Delicate Balancing Act.

17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. 25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them. – Acts 21:17-26 ESV

In this next section of Luke’s account, he is going to provide a precise record of Paul’s return to Jerusalem and the interactions that took place between Paul and the leadership of the church there. Upon arrival back in Jerusalem, Paul appeared before James and the rest of the leadership of the church, including the other apostles. He reported the details of his latest mission trip among the Gentiles, explaining all that God was doing to bring those outside of Judaism to faith in Christ. His third missionary journey had been similar to the previous two, further confirming that the gospel message was bearing much fruit, in spite of increasing opposition from Jews who were dispersed abroad and from the Gentiles who found Christianity to be a threat to their own pagan religions.

One of the striking features of Paul’s report was the way he gave all the credit to God. Luke reports that Paul “related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry” (Acts 21:19 ESV). Yes, Paul had played a vital and indispensable role, but he knew that nothing worthy would have taken place without the sovereign hand of God. No one would have come to faith in Christ if God had not called them and the Holy Spirit had not regenerated their hearts. Paul knew his place. He was no more than a messenger, a herald of the truth, communicating the good news concerning Jesus Christ to those who had never heard it. Any converts produced were the result of God’s handiwork, not Paul’s. In fact, he admitted as much in his first letter to the believers in Corinth.

3 I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. 4 And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. 5 I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:3-5 NLT

And in that same letter, Paul made it clear that his role had been simple and somewhat one-dimensional.

17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. – 1 Corinthians 1:17 ESV

Because Paul had been quick to give all the credit to God, the apostles were able to direct their praise to God and not to Paul. At no point did Paul attempt to rob God of glory by allowing himself to receive unwarranted praise. He was more than content in the knowledge that his efforts on behalf of God, done in the power of God, had accomplished the will of God. 

But James and the other apostles, while grateful for all that God had done, were forced to bring up a potential conflict that loomed as a result of Paul’s report. While Paul had been away, the Spirit of God had been at work in Jerusalem as well, resulting in the conversions of thousands of faithful, law-abiding Jews. These individuals, while having put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Messiah and Savior, still held tenaciously to their Hebrew heritage and the ways of their ancestors. They maintained their allegiance to the Mosaic law and the religious rites and rituals of Judaism. Obedience to the law of Moses was still a non-negotiable, non-optional requirement for them. Earlier in his book, Luke had recorded the findings of the Jerusalem council, when they had been forced to deal with the demands of certain Jewish believers that all Gentile converts be required to live according to the law of Moses just as they did. James and the apostles had determined that this was unnecessary because it was not a requirement that God had placed on the Gentile believers. That dispute had been settled. But now, James was bringing up a different issue altogether. It seems that the latest rumor circulating among the Jewish believers in Jerusalem was that Paul had been trying to convince Jews living among the Gentiles where he ministered, to abandon their allegiance to the Mosaic law. They were falsely reporting that Paul was teaching Jews not to circumcise their children or follow other Jewish customs and laws.

Part of what was going here was a misunderstanding of Paul’s outlook on the law. He outlines his perspective regarding the Mosaic law in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

20 When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. 21 When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 NLT

When living among his fellow Jews, Paul chose to keep the law, just as they did. But when he found himself living among Gentiles, he chose not to follow the Jewish law, because he did not want it to be a stumbling block for them. It was important to him that they not see him living in obedience to the law and wrongly assume that this represented an added requirement for coming to faith in Christ. In no way did Paul ever diminish or demean the law of Moses. But he made it clear that he saw himself and all other Jews, as no longer subject to the law. The law had served its God-appointed purpose. In his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul had clearly stated that the law had been given by God “to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). The child had come. Jesus had been born, had lived a sinless life, having kept the law perfectly, and had died on behalf of sinners as the sinless sacrifice. “God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin's control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3 NLT).

In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul explained that the Jewish nation had failed to understand that the law could not make anyone righteous. Attempting to live up to God’s holy standard in their own strength, striving to seek a righteousness of their own making, had left them weary and defeated. But when had appeared and offered Himself as the only means of being made right with God, the Jews had rejected Him.

3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:3-4 ESV

And while Paul was proud of his Jewish heritage and understood the value of the law, he also understood that the law had never been intended to make anyone right with God. It could only reveal man’s sinfulness, not produce righteousness. And nowhere does Paul make that point more clear than in his letter to the Galatian believers.

15 “You and I are Jews by birth, not ‘sinners’ like the Gentiles. 16 Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”

17 But suppose we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ and then we are found guilty because we have abandoned the law. Would that mean Christ has led us into sin? Absolutely not! 18 Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down. 19 For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God. – Galatians 2:15-19 NLT

And yet, Paul had been misunderstood by the Jews. They saw him as anti-law. But Paul himself said, “the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:12 NLT). The problem was not with the law, but with man’s failure to understand that adherence to the law could never save anyone, because man’s sin nature made it impossible. 

But the problem was real. James knew that when those Jews who were “zealous for the law” got wind that Paul was in town, they were going to be upset. And the rumors would fly. So, James suggested a plan to alleviate any potential and unnecessary tension. He recommended that Paul join four other men who had recently made vows to God and were preparing to conclude the completion of their vows by having themselves ceremonially cleansed at the temple. Paul was encouraged to join them and to underwrite any costs associated with the sacrifices they would need to make. In doing so, Paul would show that he had not abandoned the rites and rituals of Judaism. His actions would go a long way in convincing others that he was still a faithful Jew and not anti-law.

James made it clear that nothing had changed regarding their previous decision to place no undue or unnecessary burden on the Gentiles. The Jerusalem council had already determined that Gentile converts were not required to be circumcised or to keep the Mosaic law. It was enough that they “abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality”, out of deference for their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ.

The early church was equal parts melting pot and powder keg. The unique and unlikely blending of so many ethnic, social and religious perspectives had created a potentially toxic cocktail. Part of the responsibility of the leadership was to manage this sensitive and volatile environment with wisdom and diplomacy. The church was growing rapidly and each day brought with it new issues and potential conflicts that required careful and prayerful administration. The diverse constituency of the church demanded that the elders, apostles and other leaders manage all the competing expectations and conflicting perspectives with godly grace and brotherly love. It is no wonder that one of Jesus’ primary requests in His high priestly prayer on the night He was betrayed, was for unity among those who could be His followers. Paul could have easily rejected the suggestion of James, demanding that it was well within his rights to do so. But he cared more about the gospel than he did about his rights. He was always willing to sacrifice his rights for the cause of Christ. He was ready, willing and able to die to self in order that others might discover what it means to live for Christ. He summed up his outlook quite succinctly in his first letter to the Corinthian church.

31 So if you eat or drink or whatever you do, do everything to honor God. 32 Do nothing that would make trouble for a Greek or for a Jew or for the church of God. 33 I want to please everyone in all that I do. I am not thinking of myself. I want to do what is best for them so they may be saved from the punishment of sin. – 1 Corinthians 10:31-33 NT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

What God Had Done.

12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,

16 “‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
     and I will restore it,
17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
    and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
     says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’

19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” – Acts 15:12-21 ESV

After Peter had addressed the council in Jerusalem, Barnabas and Paul were given an opportunity to describe all that God had done among the Gentiles during their most recent road trip. The crowd sat in rapt silence as these two men share what “God had done through them.” This is important. Barnabas and Paul were not bragging about their own personal exploits or trying to pad their resumes by highlighting the irreplaceable role they had played in the evangelism of the Gentiles. No, they told of what God had done through them. They had merely been the conduits through whom His grace and mercy flowed. Their contribution had been to share the gospel. Everything else that had taken place had been God’s doing. And they qualify that what God had done had been done among the Gentiles. This had all been His doing and, obviously, His decision. The receptivity of the Gentiles among whom Barnabas and Saul had ministered, had been the result of God’s Spirit moving among them. He had prepared their hearts to hear what Barnabas and Paul had to share. There were three essential ingredients that had made the journey of Barnabas and Paul a success. First, they had been willing to go. They had submitted to the will of the leadership of the church in Antioch and left the safe and secure confines of their local congregation, all so they could take the message of the gospel to those who had not yet heard. And that brings up the second non-negotiable ingredient that made their trip spiritually successful: They took the gospel. Everywhere they had gone, they preached the good news regarding Jesus Christ. And God's Spirit provided the third essential ingredient: Power. The most willing of witnesses, eagerly sharing the message of good news, will accomplish nothing apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is a work of God. And no one believed that more than Paul. But he also believed that there was an essential role that he and others had to play. He would later write in his letter to the church in Rome:

13 For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? 15 And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”

16 But not everyone welcomes the Good News… – Romans 10:13-16 NLT

You see, Paul knew that, as beautiful as the message of the good news of Jesus Christ was, it was useless without messengers. It was a message that could bring life to those who heard it, but they couldn’t believe in a message they had never heard. And for those whose job it was to take the message, it was necessary that they had a strong sense of calling and commission. Otherwise, they would be tempted to quit when the going got tough or the message seemed to be falling on deaf ears. Paul seemed to understand that not everyone who would hear would believe. Not all who heard the good news would welcome or accept it. That’s where the Spirit comes in. He is the trump card in the conversion process. Without His regenerating role, no one can or will come to faith. In a conversation He had with a Pharisee named Nicodemus, Jesus said:

5 “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. 6 Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life – John 3:5-6 NLT

What Paul and Barnabas had seen happen in Iconium, Lystra, Derby and Pisidian Antioch was the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, opening spiritually blind eyes and softening hearts hardened by sin. They had witnesses the Spirit bring life to those who had been dead in their trespasses and sins. Paul would describe this wonderful, Spirit-empowered process in his letter to Titus.

3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. – Titus 3:3-7 ESV

The pattern of salvation is always the same. Those who were foolish, disobedient, led astray and slaves to various passions and pleasures are, somehow, suddenly transformed and made right with God. At one point, they were completely separated from and enemies of God, because of their sin. They they suddenly find themselves friends of God, fully righteous in His sight. Why? Because someone was sent with the message of the gospel, they shared it, and the Spirit prepared the hearts of those who heard it. The end result: They believed. You see, the Bible makes it clear that the things of God are spiritually discerned.

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 ESV

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. – 1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV

What Paul and Barnabas had witnessed had been the unquestionable work of the Spirit of God. And James, the half-brother of Jesus and a recognized leader in the Jerusalem church, came to their defense, fully agreeing with and confirming their assessment. He reminds those in his audience that Peter (Simeon) had already given ample proof that God was at work among the Gentiles, after he had returned from Caesarea and shared of the conversions of Cornellius and his household.

“Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.” – Acts 15:14 ESV

Notice his emphasis: It was God who had first visited the Gentiles. He doesn’t give Peter the credit. It was god who had chosen to take from among the Gentiles a people for His name. And it had taken a vision from God to get Peter on board and fully convinced that this mission had God’s full blessing. God had sent Peter. Peter had gone. The gospel had been declared and the Spirit had moved. Bottom line? Gentiles were saved.

And James further confirms that divine nature of the mission of Paul and Barnabas by citing a passage from the Old Testament book of Amos.

16 “‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
     and I will restore it,
17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
    and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
     says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’” – Acts 15:16-18 ESV

According to James, the prophets had predicted the very thing Paul and Barnabas had described. Amos spoke of the “remnant of mankind”, not the remnant of Israel. He specifically mentioned “all the Gentiles who are called by my name.” And nowhere does he include a requirement that this remnant of Gentiles must first become full-fledged, card-carrying Jews, having submitted to the rite of circumcision and agreed to keep the Mosaic law in its entirety. And that was the real crux of the matter. The whole reason this council had been convened was to deal with the demands of the Judaizers that all Gentile converts to Christianity become Jewish proselytes first. By citing the passage from Amos, James was turning the focus away from a matter regarding Jewish ethnicity and a kingdom that mirrored that of David and Solomon. This was about a future Messianic Kingdom that would be ruled over by Christ Himself and made up of people from every tribe, nation and tongue. It is not to say that God does not have a place for the people of Israel in His eschatological plans. He does. But for those Jews in the audience that day in Jerusalem, they were thinking in a purely ethnic and Jewish-centric manner. For them, the Messiah was a Jew, and His Kingdom would be a Jewish Kingdom. Therefore, any Gentiles who wished to be a part of that Kingdom, must first become Jews themselves.

But Paul, Barnabas, Peter and, now, James, would strongly and vehemently disagree. So much so, that James would flatly state, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (Acts 15:19 ESV). By “trouble” he meant require them to submit to circumcision and adhere to the Mosaic law. In other words, demand that they become Jewish proselytes. The decision was made. The die had been cast. The only thing James suggested was that a letter be written and sent to all the Christians in the places where Paul and Barnabas had ministered, encouraging these Gentile believers to “abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20 NLT). And James qualifies his words by saying that these very things were commonly taught in every synagogue and had been since the times of Moses. For Gentiles to remain ignorant of these typical Jewish prohibitions and to then violate them in ignorance, would have made the gospel onerous and repulsive to the unbelieving Jewish community. And the apostle Paul would later describe that he lived his own life with the very same attitude that James was prescribing in mind.

20 When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. 21 When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 NLT

The objective? That as many as possible might come to Christ. James was not willing to allow circumcision or the Mosaic law to become a stumbling block to belief. Paul was not willing to let his freedom from the law to act as a deterrent to his fellow Jews receiving the gospel. He was also not willing to let his own personal love for the law of God to turn Gentiles away from the love of God found in the gospel.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Room.

1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15:1-11 ESV

Paul and Barnabas eventually arrived back in Antioch in Syria, reuniting with those in the church who had commissioned them and sent them on their first missionary journey. While they were there, “they reported all the things God had done with them, and that he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27 NLT). But their good news concerning the Gentiles was soon met with strong opposition, fueled by a contingent of Jewish Christians who had come from Judea with the expressed purpose of clearing up what they believed to be false and misguided teaching regarding these so-called Gentile converts. These individuals, while believers in Jesus, still held fast to their Hebrew heritage and viewed Christianity as an extension of Judaism. After all, Jesus had been a Jew and a rabbi. He had lived His life according to the Mosaic law, having kept it to perfection. He had attended synagogue and had been a student of the Hebrew Scriptures. And all of His disciples had been Jews, as well as the rest of those who had received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. So, in their minds, it was essential that any Gentile who wished to be saved, must first become a Jewish proselyte. In other words, they must be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law in order for their salvation to be complete and acceptable. So, all of those Gentiles who had come to faith on the island of Cyprus, and in Iconium, Lystra, Derby and Pisidian Antioch, as a result of the ministry of Paul and Barnabas, were not really save at all. The men from Judea had made their case known, loud and clear. “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1 ESV). And Luke, who can at time come across as the king of understatement, simply says, “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them” (Acts 15:2 ESV). We can only imagine how incensed these two men were at the suggestion that their work had been in vain. It’s not that the opposition was denying that Gentiles could be saved, but they were clearly stating what they believed to be the mandatory requirements concerning their salvation. And this so-called “debate” was going to become a major dividing point within the early church, as these believing Jews, sometimes referred to with the collective term of Judaizers, continued to propagate their particular salvation mandate.

It was determined that this matter must be taken to the church leadership in Jerusalem, so, Paul and Barnabas were sent along with others to present their opinions on the matter before Peter and the rest of the apostles. After having arrived in Jerusalem, they provided the apostles with a detailed accounting of all that had happened on their trip. They told of all those who had come to faith in Christ and how God had clearly been validating their efforts among the Gentiles. But the opposition was also present and they stated their case in all-too-clear terms: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5 ESV). They weren’t questioning the veracity of these Gentiles’ salvation experiences, but they were denying their validity. They were only partially saved. There was something missing. They had to become Jews, with all the males submitting to the rite of circumcision, and every man, woman and child agreeing to keep the Mosaic law. According to these men, the salvation of each and every Gentile was is a sort of spiritual limbo until these conditions were met.

Luke indicates that this matter produced a great deal of debate. And one can only imagine how vehemently Paul and Barnabas argued their side of the case. Their whole ministry was in question and the salvation of every Gentile convert they had witnessed was in jeopardy. And at the heart of the debate was the argument over what was required for someone to be saved. Had Jesus taught that circumcision and adherence to the law was required? Was that what He had commissioned the disciples to take to the nations? Had Jesus intended for all who come to faith in Him to first become card-carrying, law-abiding Jews?

It was Peter, the recognized leader among the apostles, who eventually stood up and addressed those gathered. And the first thing he did was remind all those in the audience how God had sent Him to the Gentiles.

7 “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith.” – Acts 15:7-9 NLT

Notice what Peter says: “he [God] made no distinction between them and us.” The Greek word, diakrinō, means “to separate, make a distinction, discriminate, to prefer.” God had not treated the Gentiles any differently than He had treated the Jews who had been gathered in that upper room on the day of Pentecost. The Gentiles received the outpouring of the Spirit of God just as the Jews had. In other words, the Gentiles were not denied this experience because they were uncircumcised and violators of the Mosaic law. They had been full-fledged non-Jews, but that had not made an ounce of difference to God. So, Peter asks an obvious and highly compelling question: “So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10 ESV). He accuses the Judaizers of putting God to the test. He asserts that they are demanding of these Gentile converts something God never required of them. And the truly unfathomable thing about this to Peter was that these Jews were placing a  “yoke” or burden on the neck of the Gentiles that no Jew had ever been able to bear. They were demanding the impossible of these Gentile converts. There wasn’t a Jew alive who had been able to keep the law. In fact, Paul would later address this issue to the church in Rome.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin's control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. – Romans 8:3 NLT

The law was unable to save man. So, then why had God given it? Paul would answer that very question in his letter to the church in Galatia.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

And in that very same letter, Paul would juxtapose the law with the grace of God, exposing the law’s incapacity to save anyone.

I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. – Galatians 2:21 NLT

And Peter brought up this important issue of grace to those gathered in Jerusalem. He wanted them to know that there was nothing to be done by men that would add to or complete the salvation that God had graciously made available to them through Christ.

“…we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.” – Acts 15:11 NLT

Salvation is the work of God, not men. There is nothing men can bring to the table that makes their salvation more acceptable to God than their simple faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The offer of salvation is a gracious gift from God. No one deserves it – neither Jew or Gentile. No one can earn it. And there is no yoke or burden we are required to bear in order to receive the salvation offered to us by God through faith in Christ. Salvation is not based on anything we do, but is based solely on what Christ has done. And again, Paul would make that point over and over again in his letters to the churches.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

The 800-pound gorilla of works-salvation is still present within the church today. It hasn’t gone away and it continues to divide the church and deceive those who think there is more required for salvation than simple faith. The spirit of the Judaizers is alive and well. Their mantra of faith-plus-something still permeates and pollutes the gospel message. We struggle with the idea of getting something for nothing. There must be more that we have to do. The gift of eternal life can’t come without strings attached. But Peter was making it perfectly clear, from the very beginning, that “we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” – nothing more, nothing less.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Worthless Things.

8 Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. 11 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, 15 “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” 18 Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. Acts 14:8-18 ESV

After having to leave Iconium due to the Jews stirring up a mob against them, Paul and Barnabas made their way to Lystra, another Roman colony about 20 miles or a day’s journey away. Upon their arrival in Lystra, Paul and Barnabas have another one of those “chance” encounters that were becoming an everyday part of their lives. They were speaking somewhere in Lystra to a crowd that had gathered. There is no mention of them attending the synagogue, as had become their custom. So, it may be that there were not enough Jews in Lystra to warrant a synagogue. But, as usual, Paul and Barnabas had no problem attracting attention to themselves. They simply began to speak to any who would listen. And, in the crowd that day, there happened to be a man who had been lame since birth.

Luke makes note of the fact that the man was listening to what Paul was saying, and that Paul, spotting the man in the crowd, could tell that the man “had faith to be made well” (Acts 14:9 ESV). Luke provides no insight into how Paul knew this. Most likely, Paul was given a kind of spiritual intuition from the Holy Spirit. He was somehow able to see into the man’s heart and perceive in his eyes that this man had faith that God could heal him. He believed. We are not told what Paul said to the crowd, but whatever it was, it produced in this man a believing faith that the God of whom Paul spoke was powerful enough to restore the use of his limbs. Now, it is important that we consider not only this event is included by Luke, but why this man was in the crowd. By this time in the story, we should be recognizing that nothing that is taking place is happenstance or the result of fate. This man’s presence in the crowd was according to the sovereign will of God. The very fact that Paul made eye-contact with this man had not left to chance. God had been the one to orchestrate the entire situation. Either God had directed Paul and Barnabas to the very spot where this man was sitting, or this man was able to find help in being carried to where the two men were speaking. God had preordained that this encounter would take place. But why? Because Paul and Barnabas were now entering the frontier, the furthest edges of the world as they knew it. They were in uncharted territory, speaking to people who were primarily Gentiles and who had no knowledge of Jesus at all. They most likely had heard nothing about the events that had taken place in Jerusalem back during the Feast of Pentecost. These two men, Paul and Barnabas, were strangers to them and, their message about Jesus as the Messiah and Savior, would have been alien and foreign to them. So, God arranged for a way to validate the message of His two messengers. They had been given sign gifts, just as Peter and the other apostles had received. These gifts allowed them to perform signs and miracles, providing their message with credibility and their claim to be speaking for God with visible, tangible proof. This man’s presence was going to prove critical. You can almost sense the building sense of anticipation that precede Luke’s description of what happened next. Luke records that Paul, speaking in a very loud voice, cried out, “Stand upright on your feet.” The crowd had no idea what was about to happen, but we do. We have seen this kind of thing happen before. All the way back in chapter three, we have the story of Peter saying to the blind beggar, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6 ESV). And the man did, leaving the crowds looking on in wonder and amazement. That had happened all the way back in Jerusalem. Now, we find Paul and Barnabas hundreds of miles away, ministering in a far-flung Roman colony, filled with pagans who knew nothing of Yahweh, had no idea who Jesus or any reason to believe that what these two men had to say was true. And that was where the lame man came in.

His healing by God will validate Paul and Barnabas’ claims to be speaking for God. And not only that, it will go a long way in establishing Paul as a co-equal with Peter, the recognized spiritual leader of the church at that time. Paul had been a late-comer to the party. He had not been one of the original 12 disciples, but had come to faith in Jesus long after Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, having had a one-on-one encounter with the risen Christ along the road to Damascus. For the rest of his life, Paul would battle with those who would try to question the validity of his apostleship. They would continually attempt to paint him as a charlatan, questioning his authority and raising doubts regarding his teaching. But here on this occasion, God sovereignly reveals Paul’s impeccable credentials as one of His messengers by providing Paul with the very same powers Peter possessed.

And to say that Paul’s actions got the attention of the crowd would be an understatement. Luke writes that the people cried out, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11 ESV). They knew no better than to attribute what they had just seen to the work of gods – the gods with which they were familiar. They called Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes. The Greeks had a pantheon of gods they worshiped, so we can only speculate why they happened to choose these two particular gods as being the ones standing before them. But whatever their reasoning, these people were strong enough in their convictions that they were dealing with deities, that the priest of the local temple, dedicated to Zeus, showed up with oxen and garlands to make a sacrifice. We are left to imagine what this seen must have looked like. Try and picture the confusion and chaos going on as these people shouted out their praises to Paul and Barnabas, bowing in reverence before them. And just imagine what was going through the minds of these two men as they found themselves the mistaken, but unmistakable focus of the crowd’s worship.

We do know that Paul and Barnabas were appalled at what they witnessed, because Luke tells us they tore their clothes in a outward display of grief and remorse. They wanted no part of what was going on. And Paul spoke up, saying, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are merely human beings—just like you! We have come to bring you the Good News that you should turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them” (Acts 14:15 NLT). What Paul said here was dangerous and risky. He was blatantly denying any claim to deity. But more than that, he was attacking their worship of false gods. When he mentions “worthless things”, he was speaking of Zeus and Hermes. He compared them to the living God, the one true Creator of heaven and earth. Paul was treading on very thin ice here. He was surrounded by a crowd of very passionate devotees to the Greek gods. They were excited and convinced that their deities had come to visit them. And Paul was not only shattering any notion that Zeus and Hermes had come to earth, he was describing two of their most revered gods as nothing more than worthless things.

And Paul made it perfectly clear that it was Yahweh, the God of the Jews, who was the source of any and all things they enjoyed in life, not the Greek gods. It was He who  provided them with food, crops, rain and joyful hearts. This would have been unexpected and unwanted news to the people of Lystra. It would have been seen as a case of slander and blasphemy, treating their gods with disdain and disrespect. But, surprisingly, instead of infuriating the crowd, the words of Paul and Barnabas seemed to have the opposite effect. The people tried to worship them all the more.

What we seem to have here is a clear example of the spiritual hunger of lost mankind. These people were spiritually starving to death. They had plenty of gods, but no real proof that their gods actually existed. Like all false gods, theirs were distant and disconnected from everyday life. They never really knew if their gods were engaged with or even interested in their daily lives. Which might explain why they were so excited when they thought that Paul and Barnabas were gods come to earth. They greatly desired an intimate relationship with their gods, but to date, their experience had been the same as every other people group who has set its desires and affections on “worthless things.” Years later, Paul would write to believers living in nearby Galatia, reminding them of their former love affair with false gods: “you were slaves to so-called gods that do not even exist” (Galatians 4:8 NLT). The people in the crowd that day had no idea that their gods were false. They were blind to the fact that their gods were helpless and hopeless to assist them. Their gods could not save or protect them. In fact, the psalmist eloquently and unapologetically described the true nature of false gods when he wrote:

4 Their idols are merely things of silver and gold,
    shaped by human hands.
5 They have mouths but cannot speak,
    and eyes but cannot see.
6 They have ears but cannot hear,
    and noses but cannot smell.
7 They have hands but cannot feel,
    and feet but cannot walk,
    and throats but cannot make a sound.
8 And those who make idols are just like them,
    as are all who trust in them. – Psalm 115:4-8 NLT

Paul and Barnabas had struck a nerve. They had performed a sign among a people who were desperately in search of proof that their religion was relevant and their gods were real. The world, then as now, was cloaked in deep darkness, and filled with spiritually blind people staggering about looking for any glimmer of hope and help. They were deceived. And Paul would later write to the believers in Corinth, clarifying the source of the world’s deception, and the only means of hope.

4 Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God.

5 You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. – 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 NLT

The light was spreading. But was we will see, the darkness was great. The enemy had blinded the spiritual eyes of those living in Lystra, leaving them in a state of perpetual darkness, desperately longing for relief and redemption, but unable to see the truth when it stood right in front of them.

English Standard Version (ESV)  The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Touched By An Angel.

12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” Then he departed and went to another place.

18 Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there.

20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king's chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king's country for food. 21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.

25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark. Acts 12:12-25 ESV

After his miraculous release by God from prison and from Herod’s intentions to put him to death, Peter made his way to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. John Mark was the cousin of Barnabas, the man who enlisted Saul’s help in Antioch. We are not told why Peter chose Mary’s house as his destination, but it could have been that it was the one place of closest to the prison where he could seek refuge. Luke tells us that there were many believers who had gathered at Mary’s home in order to pray for Peter. When he arrived, a young servant girl named Rhoda, was the one who responded to his knocks at the gate. But when she heard his voice, she was so surprised that she left him standing there and ran to inform the rest that Peter was standing outside the gate. Her news was met with incredulity and skepticism. Whatever it was that they had been praying for, it evidently had not been for Peter’s release. They refused to accept Rhoda’s word that Peter was standing outside the gate. They even went so far as to claim that it must have been his angel. The Greek word, aggelos, was typically used to refer to a divine being or messenger from God. We cannot be sure exactly what those inside Mary’s house meant when they used this word under these circumstances. They could have simply been saying that Peter had sent them a human messenger with news of his condition. That would have been a legitimate use of the word. But they could have also believed that it was an actual angel, sent from God with news about Peter. Finally, they might have been using the word in the sense of a guardian angel, sent by God to rescue Peter. Whatever they meant, it seems that they were reticent to believe that it was actually Peter standing outside the gate. After all, they had just recently heard the devastating news that James, the brother of John, had been executed by Herod. So, even since Peter’s arrest, they had been anticipating similar news. There is no indication in this passage that they had been praying for or expecting God to free Peter. They certainly could have been, but it seems odd that they were so dumbfounded and disbelieving when Peter showed up outside the place where they had been praying.

In fact, Peter was left to stand outside, knocking on the gate, hoping to gain entrance. He had found it was easier to get out of Herod’s prison than it was to get into Mary’s home. But eventually, they opened the gate and found Peter standing there, just as Rhoda had said, and they were amazed. The Greek word that Luke uses to refer to their reaction has a much more robust meaning than just amazement. It refers to a sense of astonishment or bewilderment. It was even used to refer to someone being out of their mind or insane. They were legitimately shocked to see Peter standing there. They had been expecting the worse. And they must have been shouting, crying, laughing and jumping up and down in excitement, because Luke indicates that Peter had to get them to quiet down long enough for him to tell them what had happened. And we can only imagine that they stood by in rapt silence as he related the details of his escape: The angel, the helpless prison guards, the chains falling away, and the self-opening prison gate. It was an amazing story and it must have left them awed and amazed at the power of their God.

When Peter had finished, he told them to take this news to James (the half-brother of Jesus) and the rest of the original apostles. This James, who had been in the upper room with the rest of his brothers on the day of Pentecost, had become a leading figure in the Jerusalem church and would later write the book that bears his name. Peter wanted these men to know what had happened to him, so that they might be encouraged by the news. Then, Luke tells us Peter departed. We are not told where he went or what he did. But it is likely that he left Jerusalem for a time in order to lessen the risk any of the other followers of Christ might face for harboring him as a fugitive. We know that Herod, upon discovering that Peter had somehow escaped, ordered a search for Peter, but he was never found. And, as a result, Herod had all the guards, whom he deemed responsible for Peter’s escape, executed. Then, Herod himself left Jerusalem and traveled to Caesarea, where he had a palace. He got out of town. We don’t know whether his departure was to save face or because he couldn’t stand hearing the news circulating through the streets of Jerusalem that Peter had been miraculously rescued by God. This powerful man had failed in his attempt to put an end to the growth of Christianity. Even with his impressive resources and backed by the power of Rome, he was no match for the cause of Christ. In fact, Luke reveals that Herod’s days were numbered. 

Some dignitaries from Tyre and Sidon came to visit Herod at his royal palace. They were dependent upon Herod and his government for food, so even though they were at odds with the king, they found themselves having to grovel before him on behalf of their people. Luke goes out of his way to describe Herod in his royal robes, sitting on his royal throne and giving a royal speech before these men and all those in attendance. And these men, in spite of their dislike for Herod, were forced to listen, then to shower him with flattering accolades, shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” (Acts 12:22 ESV). And Herod basked in the glory of their words, thoroughly enjoying the experience of being compared to a god. But his pride and pleasure at being deified would not last long. Luke records, “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:23 ESV). Herod was struck down by God. The angel who struck Peter’s side in order to wake him up and set him free, struck Herod with a debilitating and devastating disease. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, Herod would suffer for five days and then die. Peter was alive and well, doing the will and the work of God. Herod was dead, for having tried to oppose to the will of God and eliminate the messengers of God.

And Luke matter-of-factly states that “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24 ESV). The gospel didn’t skip a beat. The kingdom of God continued to spread. And the chapter ends with the announcement that Barnabas and Saul left Jerusalem returned to Antioch, accompanied by John Mark. It was business as usual. There was work to be done. The death of James had not diminished the zeal and enthusiasm of the disciples. They mourned, but they went on with the work Jesus had assigned to them. Peter’s arrest had shaken them, but God had proven to them that He was in charge. He was not done with Peter and they were not done with their job of taking the gospel to the nations.

The work of spreading the gospel is not without its risks. There will always be enemies and opposition. We will always face difficulties and trials as a result of our faithful obedience to fulfill the commission given to us by Jesus. But like Peter and the other disciples, we have work to do. We must remain faithful and diligent to do what we have been called to do. As we will see, Peter didn’t give up. He didn’t quit or run in fear, viewing his work on behalf of Jesus as too dangerous or risky. He knew he could end up in jail again. He was well aware that his life could end in violent death, just like James. But as long as God gave him breath and kept setting him free from imprisonment, he would keep telling the good news of Jesus Christ to anyone who would listen.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Rescued by God.

1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. 7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” Acts 12:1-11 ESV

In the preceding chapter, Luke mentioned the famine taking place in the land of Judea. This devastating natural disaster had left the congregation in Jerusalem in a state of great need and physical suffering. So much so, that an effort was made on the part of the new Gentile converts to raise funds to send to the church in Jerusalem to assist them in their time of need. Luke records that Barnabas and Saul made a trip to Jerusalem to deliver the generous gift of the Gentile church.

29 So the believers in Antioch decided to send relief to the brothers and sisters in Judea, everyone giving as much as they could. 30 This they did, entrusting their gifts to Barnabas and Saul to take to the elders of the church in Jerusalem. – Acts 11:29-30 NLT

But chapter 12 presents an even greater problem taking place back in Jerusalem. The persecution of the church was continuing to increase in magnitude and intensity. Now, Herod, the pseudo king of the Jews, who had been appointed by Rome, was getting in on the act. Herod Agrippa I was part-Jew, but was greatly disliked by the Jewish people because of his close association with the Roman emperor Gaius, who had given him his position. In an effort to curry favor of the Jewish people, Herod used his political office to carry out attacks on the church, even going so far as to have James, the brother of John, executed. And when he saw how much this pleased the Jews, he made plans to do the same thing to Peter. The murder of James, one of the original apostles and a leader in the Jerusalem church, would have had a devastating impact on its members. And, while the news of his death would have surprising and unexpected, Jesus Himself had predicted it. Years earlier, while Jesus was still on the earth, James and his brother, John, had come to Jesus with a request.

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came over and spoke to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do us a favor.”

36 “What is your request?” he asked.

37 They replied, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”

38 But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?”

39 “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”

Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering.” – Mark 10:35-39 NLT

James was dead. And Peter was next. At least, that was Herod’s plan. It was as if his plan was to eliminate the leadership of the church, one man at a time. And he was serious about it, having Peter arrested and thrown in jail.

This entire section of the Book of Acts provides us with an important interlude or break that separates the spread of the church to the Gentiles, as recorded in chapter 11, and Saul and Barnabas’ trip to Cyprus, where they continued their evangelistic efforts among the Gentiles. As the gospel made its way into the world, the heat in Jerusalem was intensifying and the rejection of the gospel by the Jews was becoming increasingly volatile and violent. Yes, there had been thousands of Jews who had come to faith in Jesus, but as a nation, both politically and religiously, they were standing opposed to Jesus’ claim to be their Messiah. John, the brother of James, recorded the nature of Israel’s rejection of Jesus, illustrated in their corporate refusal to accept Him as their Messiah.

37 But despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him. 38 This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted:

“Lord, who has believed our message?
    To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?”

39 But the people couldn’t believe, for as Isaiah also said,

40 “The Lord has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their hearts—
so that their eyes cannot see,
    and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
    and have me heal them.”

41 Isaiah was referring to Jesus when he said this, because he saw the future and spoke of the Messiah’s glory. 42 Many people did believe in him, however, including some of the Jewish leaders. But they wouldn’t admit it for fear that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue. 43 For they loved human praise more than the praise of God. – John 12:37-43 NLT

Now, years later, and long after Jesus had been put to death by the religious authorities of Israel and the Roman government, His disciples were facing the same threat of execution. But the hardness of the hearts of the people of Israel, while disappointing, had a purpose. It opened up the door to the Gentiles. Because of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, the gospel was taken to non-Jews, so that they might enjoy the righteousness and redemption provided by faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. And Paul, himself a devout Jew, would later write that Israel’s rejection of Jesus would not be permanent in nature.

11 Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves. 12 Now if the Gentiles were enriched because the people of Israel turned down God’s offer of salvation, think how much greater a blessing the world will share when they finally accept it. – Romans 11:11-12 NLT

This was all part of God’s divine plan. Had the Jewish nation, as a whole, not turned its back on Jesus, the persecution and scattering of the church would not have taken place. But it did, because that is the way God ordained it. Even Peter’s arrest, while clearly the decision of Herod, was part of God’s sovereign, pre-established will.

Luke tells us that when Peter was arrested, the rest of the church got busy lifting him up in prayer. They feared for the worst. James was dead, and they had no reason to expect that the same thing would not happen to Peter. So, they took their need to God. Luke doesn’t tell us what they prayed, but we can easily assume that they pleaded for God to spare Peter’s life and to deliver him from the hands of Herod. And God did just that. The story of Peter’s deliverance provides us with a startling, but often overlooked reminder of God’s power. Herod, the king of the Jews, who had the full authority of the Roman empire behind him, had placed Peter in jail and had every intent to put him to death. And Luke tells us that, on the very night he had determined to carry out his plan, God stepped in. And He did so in a dramatic and memorable way. Peter was sound asleep, chained to two Roman solders, when suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared, filling the cell with dazzling light. Luke doesn't tell us what happened to the two guards, but they were either paralyzed or, perhaps, even killed by the angel. All we know is that Peter’s chains dropped off and, after having gotten dressed, he walked out of the prison a free man. And the whole time this was going on, Peter thought he was dreaming. It wasn’t until he had made his way out of the prison complex and the angel suddenly disappeared, that Peter realized that what had happened was real and not a dream.

“Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” – Acts 12:11 ESV

God had much more for Peter to do. His work on behalf of the kingdom was not yet complete. In John 21, we have Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s death, but this was not the time or the place. Herod, even as powerful as he was, stood powerless before God Almighty. His execution of James, could not have happened without God’s approval. We don’t know why God allowed James to die by the sword, any more than we know why God allowed Stephen to be stoned to death. And God is not obligated to explain Himself to us. But we can rest in the fact that God, in His sovereign will and almighty power, was in full control of all the circumstances surrounding His church. He was going to use each and every event – the good, the bad and the ugly – to accomplish His divine will for the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. And as we will see later on in this same chapter, God would eventually deal with Herod, revealing that no one stands outside of or aloof from God’s sovereign hand and righteous judgment.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Don't Oppose What God Approves.

4 But Peter began and explained it to them in order: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. 6 Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11 And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”– Acts 11:4-18 ESV

The first question we have to ask ourselves when reading this section of Luke’s account, is why did he include it? After all, it simply appears to be a retelling by Peter of all that happened while he was in Caesarea. In fact, it is virtually identical to what Luke wrote in chapter 10. But the key difference is the audience to whom Peter is sharing the story of the conversions of Cornelius and all the other Gentiles who had gathered in his house to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Peter is addressing his fellow apostles in Jerusalem. He is explaining to a room full of Jews what went down in Caesarea. And he is having to do so because he had been accused of wrongly associating with Gentiles. There were some in Jerusalem who, when they had received news of what had happened in Caesarea, where less-than-happy. In their minds, Peter had done the unthinkable. He, a Jew, had mingled with the unclean. He had defiled himself by associating with those whom the Mosaic law declared to be common and unclean. When Peter had arrived back in Jerusalem, rather than rejoicing with him over the exciting news of the conversions of Cornelius and his friends, these men said, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3 ESV).

Their response brings to mind the kind of reactions Jesus had received from the religious leaders regarding what they believed to be His questionable choices in relationships.

10 Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. 11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” – Matthew 9:10-11 NLT

1 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. 2 This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! – Luke 15:1-2 NLT

For some in the Jerusalem church, the idea of Peter eating with Gentiles was unacceptable. To think that he shared the gospel with them was even more disconcerting. How could he do such a thing? Well, Peter goes out of his way to tell them. He explains all that had led to his decision to make the journey to Caesarea. And he makes it clear that this had been God’s decision, not his own. He had simply obeyed orders and followed the divine directions given to Him by God. He recounts the vision he had received from God. And he once again makes note of the fact that the sheet containing all the unclean creatures had descended to him out of heaven. It had come from God’s very throne room, which meant that the very creatures Peter had viewed as unclean and defiled, had come from God’s presence. He had sent them. And at the end of the vision, the same sheet, full of supposedly unclean creatures, ascended back into heaven. And three separate times, God had told Peter, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 11:9 ESV).

Notice what God said to Peter. He was very specific in His word choices. God had told Peter that he had “made clean” these once unclean animals. The Greek word Luke used is katharizō, and it means to cleanse or purify. In a levitical or sacrificial sense, it means to pronounce something clean that has been purified by sacrifice. In a moral sense, it means to free something from defilement of sin and from faults (“G2511 - katharizō - Strong's Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). God was telling Peter that He had made a divine determination to purify what had at one time been considered unclean. He had done it. God had declared the creatures to be clean. He had passed judgment and declared His decision. And He had expected Peter to accept it.

And the vision had been just that: A vision. It had been a visual tool used to teach Peter a real-life lesson regarding Gentiles and his view of them. God was about to let down a sheet full of unclean creatures, in the form of Cornelius, his family members and friends. But God had cleansed them through the sacrifice of His Son. Their sin debts had been paid for on the cross. They had once been defiled by their sin and separated from God as a result of their impurity, but God had done something to redeem and restore them. He had sent His Son to die for them. And long before Peter and his six companions had made the trip to Caesarea, God had already chosen those who would be saved there. And Peter was not to call common what God had already made clean. God had chosen to remove the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, wrote of this important determination on God’s part.

In this new life, it doesn't matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. – Colossians 3:11 NLT

The gospel was not reserved just for Jews. Jesus had come as the Jewish Messiah, but He had become the Savior of the world. And once again, Paul describes that what Jesus did on the cross had opened up the doors of heaven to all – both Jews and Gentiles.

13 But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14 Through Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles with the same blessing he promised to Abraham, so that we who are believers might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:13-14 NLT

Peter had seen this happen first-hand. He had seen God bless the Gentiles with the same blessing He promised to Abraham. He had watched in amazement as the Holy Spirit filled those Gentile converts and empowered them in the very same way He had the disciples on the day of Pentecost. And Peter could only say, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?” (Acts 11:17 ESV). Peter knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what he had witnessed in Caesarea had been of God. His vision, Cornelius’ vision, the coming of the Spirit, the gift of tongues – it had all been evidence of God’s divine hand. And he had no desire to stand opposed to the will of God.

And Luke simply records that when the Jewish believers in Jerusalem “heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18 ESV). Like Peter, they saw that this was of God and that they had no business standing in opposition to what God had predetermined to do. If He had decided to deem Gentiles worthy of receiving the gospel, who were they to stand in His way.

As we will say later in Luke’s account, many of the same individuals who had called Peter to task over his association with Gentiles, would raise their voices again in protest over the growing movement to convert Gentiles to the faith. In fact, in chapter 15, we will see where Paul and Barnabas are accused of not requiring circumcision of all Gentile converts. Luke records, “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5 ESV). These men were teaching that Christianity was nothing more than a kind of reformed Judaism. They were demanding that all the requirements of the Mosaic law be kept in order to any Gentile to be accepted as a true believer. This matter will come up repeatedly in the later chapters of Luke’s account, as we see Paul and others continue to spread the good news regarding Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

There were those who could not accept what God was doing. It went against their preconceived notions of religious right and wrong. They had put God in a box and determined that there was only one way for people to have a right relationship with Him – and that was through some form of law-keeping or adherence to a set of religious rules. But Paul, the apostle who spent his life ministering the gospel to the Gentiles, would later write:

27 Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. 28 So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.

29 After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is. 30 There is only one God, and he makes people right with himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. – Romans 3:27:30 NLT

Peter and Paul were ministering in a new day. The rules had changed. The Redeemer had come. The way of salvation had been paved by the blood of Jesus Christ. No more hopeless attempts to try and live up to God’s holy standards on your own. No more need for physical circumcision. God was circumcising hearts and setting apart a people for His own, whom He had declared to be clean. And that would include Jews and Gentiles.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson