Savior

God With Us

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25 ESV

In this section of Matthew’s Gospel, he takes his defense of Jesus’ messiahship one step further. Not only was Jesus the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, but He was also the Son of God. Right from the very start, Matthew establishes Jesus as being divine, referring to Him by the name pronounced by the angel of God: Immanuel. And, just to make sure his readers understand the significance of that name,  Matthew provides them with its meaning: “God with us” (Matthew 1:23 ESV). 

In announcing the coming birth of Jesus and declaring His name and identity, the angel reiterated the words of God recorded by the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” – Isaiah 7:14 ESV

As with many of the prophecies found in the Old Testament, this verse from Isaiah passage had a now/not yet aspect to it. In its original historical context, this message from God was delivered by Isaiah to Ahaz, the king of Judah. It spoke of a child being born during the days of Ahaz and this birth would give evidence that the military alliance between Syria and Israel against Judah would be unsuccessful. The essence of the message was that life would go on in Judah, while the northern kingdom of Israel would suffer defeat at the hands of the Assyrians.

“Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.”

Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered;
    give ear, all you far countries;
strap on your armor and be shattered;
    strap on your armor and be shattered.
Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing;
    speak a word, but it will not stand,
    for God is with us. – Isaiah 8:6-10 ESV

Matthew picks up on this prophetic vision, recognizing its future fulfillment in Jesus. The primary focus of the message delivered by Isaiah to King Ahaz was that God would be with the people of Judah. The Assyrians would come upon the northern kingdom of Israel like a river that has overflowed its banks. They will devastate and destroy everything in their path, even making their way into the southern kingdom of Judah. But they will fail in their efforts to defeat Judah. Why? Because of the presence of God.

And Matthew, knowing that the angel of God had designated Jesus as Immanuel, “God with us,” understood that His birth signified that God had determined to dwell with His people once again. In the darkness that cloaked the land of Israel, a light was shining. The apostle John picked up on this imagery.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV

And John went on to describe Jesus, the Word of God, as dwelling among the people of God. The Greek word John used is σκηνόω (skēnoō ), and it literally means “to fix one’s tabernacle.”

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:1, 14 ESV

Jesus was God in human flesh, pitching His “tent” among His people once again. But rather than a tent made of animal skins, this tabernacle would be that of a human body in which God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, would take up permanent residence. Jesus became the God-man, and rather than the Shekinah glory that hovered over the mercy seat in the tabernacle in the wilderness, Jesus would become the glory of God living and walking among men. Jesus was “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 ESV) and “he has made him known” (John 1:18 ESV).

The birth of Jesus was both ordinary and extraordinary. He would be born to an obscure Jewish couple who hailed from the nondescript town of Nazareth. But Joseph would not be the father of Jesus. No, Jesus would be conceived by the Holy Spirit, which meant that His birth would be anything but ordinary. Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, had not yet consummated her marriage to him. This is clear by Joseph’s response to the news that she was pregnant.

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. – Matthew 1:19 ESV

Joseph was shocked by the news but, out of love for Mary, determined to keep the situation under wraps, doing all that he could to protect her name. But the angel of God let Joseph know that his worst fears were unfounded. Mary had not been unfaithful to him. She had been chosen by God to bear the Savior of the world.

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:20-21 ESV

“Jesus” is the Latin form of the Greek name Ἰησοῦς  (Iēsous). It is the same as the Hebrew Yeshua (Joshua), which means “Yahweh saves.”

This entire section is intended by Matthew to convey the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth, but it’s also meant to support his premise that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one of God. Matthew declares that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

As we have seen, this prophecy was originally fulfilled during the days of King Ahaz. But Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is letting us know that there was another aspect of this prophecy that had long-term ramifications. God was looking far into the future and declaring that another birth would take place and another son would be born, whose arrival on the scene would signify that “God is with us.”

Matthew’s primary purpose has been to establish Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. And he has done so by presenting three powerful proofs: His fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant promises made to Abraham and David, as evidenced by the indisputable record of his genealogy, and the miraculous nature of His birth. Jesus was the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, and the Son of God. He was Immanuel, God with us, the very image of the invisible God, who came to earth in order that He might redeem a lost and dying world cloaked in the darkness of sin. And, as the apostle Paul explains, God shattered that darkness by sending His own Son as the light of His glory.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. – 2 Corinthians 4:6 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

The Christ

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, 4 and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of David the king.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. – Matthew 1:1-17 ESV

Matthew, as one of the original disciples of Jesus, was out to present a first-hand account of His life and ministry. But Matthew’s Gospel was intended to be much more than a historical record of Jesus’ earthly ministry. At the heart of his Gospel is his belief that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews. To establish that claim, Matthew opened up his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus, and, unlike Luke’s version, Matthew began with Abraham, not Adam.

Establishing the Jewishness of Jesus was essential to Matthew’s account. So, he tied Jesus to the patriarchy and the monarchy of the Jewish people. Matthew describes Jesus as the son of Abraham and the son of David. And, as we saw in yesterday’s post, Matthew considered Jesus the fulfillment of the promises made by God to both of these men.

By highlighting these two great legends of the Hebrews, Matthew was tying Jesus to God’s promise to bless the nations of the world through the seed of Abraham, and His promise to establish a permanent kingdom ruled by a descendant of David. Jesus was the fulfillment of both promises. And Matthew provides this truncated genealogy as a way to prove that Jesus was a descendant of both men and, therefore, was the only person who could legally and credibly claim to be the Messiah.

For generations, the Jewish people had anticipated the coming of their long-awaited Messiah. They were familiar with the Old Testament promises concerning his coming and were eager for him to appear. But when Jesus had arrived on the scene, He was not what they were expecting. The Jewish perception of the Messiah was that of a warrior-king, someone like King David, who would reestablish Israel as a major force in the region and remove the yoke of Roman oppression under which the nation struggled.

But Jesus had been born in relative obscurity and under questionable circumstances in the backwater town of Bethlehem. He had grown up in Nazareth, the son of a common carpenter and with no apparent pedigree that would warrant His consideration as the Messiah. After all, Jesus had been little more than a peasant. And even when He began His earthly ministry and began calling His disciples, at least one of them expressed reservations about His less-than-impressive upbringing.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” – John 1:45-46 ESV

But Matthew goes out of his way to trace Jesus’ roots all the way back to King David. And he divides the genealogy of Jesus into three concise sections, each comprised of 14 generations and culminating on the arrival of “the Christ.”

So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. – Matthew 1:17 ESV

The term, “the Christ” is the Greek equivalent of Messiah. Matthew is insisting that Jesus was the one for whom the Jews had been waiting. He was the Messiah. And yet, John records in his Gospel that the Jews refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:11 ESV

From all outward appearances, Jesus appeared to be anything but the fulfillment of God’s promises. He was not kingly in appearance. He had not shown up riding a white horse or leading a massive army. He lacked the trappings of royalty and the obvious signs of success. In fact, long before Jesus showed up, the prophet Isaiah had predicted the unexpected and unimpressive nature of His arrival.

…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not. – Isaiah 53:2-3 ESV

The Jews were looking for a conquering king, not a suffering servant. They were expecting and demanding a contemporary version of David the king not David the shepherd boy. They were seeking liberation from Roman rule, not deliverance from the tyranny of sin and death. But little did they know that the one they rejected and scorned as an imposter, was actually their long-awaited Messiah.

Even the disciples whom Jesus chose would wrestle with their understanding of who He was and what He had come to do. Later on in his Gospel, Matthew records an encounter between Jesus and the mother of James and John. She approached Jesus and delivered the following demand: “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21 ESV). She was thinking of an earthly kingdom, not a heavenly one. Reflecting the understanding of her own two sons, she saw Jesus as the Messiah, but was hoping and counting on Him setting up His kingdom on earth, by releasing the Jews from their Roman oppressors and reestablishing the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem.

But Jesus had a different agenda. He had come to do the will of His Father in heaven. And while a kingdom was part of God’s future plans for His Son, Jesus was going to suffer humiliation and execution long before He experienced glorification and exaltation. And Matthew records that immediately after the mother of James and John shared his maternally-driven request with Jesus, He had responded:

“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:28 ESV

The genealogy found in the opening chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is intended to prove the claim of the early Christians that Jesus was the Messiah. And the rest of his Gospel will chronicle the somewhat surprising and unexpected record of Jesus’ life. What Matthew describes in his account will contradict every expectation the Jews had regarding the Messiah. His life will not seem to match His lineage. His actions will not track with their assumptions. But Matthew wanted his readers to know from the start, that the one He was about to describe was the one for whom they longed. Jesus was the son of David and the son of Abraham. He was the God-ordained fulfillment of the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants. And while the Jews had failed to recognize Jesus as such, it did not change the fact that the Messiah had come. Jesus was who He had claimed to be. And the details of His life, while not what the Jews expected, would provide proof that Jesus was and is the Christ.

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 History of Rebellion, Not Righteousness

 13 “Furthermore, the Lord said to me, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stubborn people. 14 Let me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.’ 15 So I turned and came down from the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire. And the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. 16 And I looked, and behold, you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had made yourselves a golden calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you. 17 So I took hold of the two tablets and threw them out of my two hands and broke them before your eyes. 18 Then I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord to provoke him to anger. 19 For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure that the Lord bore against you, so that he was ready to destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also. 20 And the Lord was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him. And I prayed for Aaron also at the same time. 21 Then I took the sinful thing, the calf that you had made, and burned it with fire and crushed it, grinding it very small, until it was as fine as dust. And I threw the dust of it into the brook that ran down from the mountain.

22 “At Taberah also, and at Massah and at Kibroth-hattaavah you provoked the Lord to wrath. 23 And when the Lord sent you from Kadesh-barnea, saying, ‘Go up and take possession of the land that I have given you,’ then you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God and did not believe him or obey his voice. 24 You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you.

25 “So I lay prostrate before the Lord for these forty days and forty nights, because the Lord had said he would destroy you. 26 And I prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, do not destroy your people and your heritage, whom you have redeemed through your greatness, whom you have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 27 Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do not regard the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness or their sin, 28 lest the land from which you brought us say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land that he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to put them to death in the wilderness.” 29 For they are your people and your heritage, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.’” – Deuteronomy 9:13-29 ESV

If the Israelites still harbored any remaining thoughts that they somehow deserved God’s good favor, Moses was about to deliver the crushing blow. He had made it clear that God was not giving them the land of Canaan because they deserved it, but because He was keeping the promise He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God was going to remove the Canaanites from the land because they were an evil and idolatrous people who desecrated the land with their unbridled immorality. 

But Moses let the Israelites know that they were no better than the Canaanites. It was not as if they were a spiritually superior people who lived morally upright lives and had somehow earned the right to take possession of the land because of their faithfulness to God. No, it was quite the opposite, and Moses had already delivered the painfully truthful news that God’s provision of the land had nothing to do with their worthiness or righteousness.

“Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” – Deuteronomy 9:6 ESV

They were stiff-necked and obstinate, stubbornly refusing to bow the knee to God and live according to His commands. And they had been that way from the beginning. Which is why Moses goes all the way back to Mount Sinai and the occasion when God gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. He remembered that fateful well and looked back on it, not with nostalgia, but with a certain amount of anger and resentment at the way the people had treated God. Their actions that day had placed Moses in a very difficult position. He had found himself in the awkward place of having to mediate between a holy, angry God, and the very people he had helped to deliver from slavery in Egypt.

While Moses had been on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, his fellow Israelites, with the help of his brother, Aaron, had been busy worshiping a false god they had crafted out of gold. During the 40 days that Moses had been on top of the mountain, they had begun to question everything about their circumstances. And they had somehow forgotten the incredible demonstration of God’s power they had witnessed as His glory had descended upon Mount Sinai.

Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently.  As the blast of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered his reply. – Exodus 19:17-19 NLT

There was no doubt that God was there. His presence was unmistakable. His power was on display. And even when Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, the fire never died down, and the smoke remained. The mountain never ceased to shake. And yet, the people became unimpressed and unwilling to wait to see what God was going to say to His servant, Moses. Tired of waiting, they took matters into their own hands.

When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:1 NLT

And it was that fateful decision that Moses recalled.

“So while the mountain was blazing with fire I turned and came down, holding in my hands the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. There below me I could see that you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had melted gold and made a calf idol for yourselves.” – Deuteronomy 9:15-16 NLT

Notice what Moses says: “So while the mountain was blazing with fire….” The presence of God was still visible. God had not gone anywhere. And Moses was descending the mountain holding the very commandments of God, “inscribed with the terms of the covenant.”

“Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

And the people had eagerly and enthusiastically agreed to the conditions of the covenant, giving their word that they would obey

“We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” – Exodus 19:8 NLT

But that commitment had not lasted long. Before Moses could make it back down the mountain, the people had turned their backs on God. They had come up with the bright idea to make their own gods. And when Moses had seen what had taken place in his absence, he was filled with surprise and anger.

“How quickly you had turned away from the path the Lord had commanded you to follow!” – Deuteronomy 9:16 NLT

They had been in the early days of their journey from Egypt to the promised land and had already chosen to forsake God. And Moses, sensing the anger of God against His people, had chosen to intercede with God on their behalf. He began a 40-day fast, during which time he sought to persuade God to refrain from wiping out the people of Israel for their wickedness.

“I feared that the furious anger of the Lord, which turned him against you, would drive him to destroy you. But again he listened to me.” – Deuteronomy 9:19 NLT

God spared the people and even allowed Aaron to live, in spite of the role he had played in the peoples’ rebellion. God showed mercy. He showered the people with His undeserved favor. And it all goes back to the covenant He had made with Abraham. God had made two promises to Abraham. One was that He would make of Abraham a great nation. The second was that He would bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham. And so, God was going to keep His covenant commitment, not because of the Israelites, but in spite of them.

And Moses reminded the people that Mount Sinai had not been an aberration. It was just one of many occasions in which the people of Israel displayed their stubbornness and rebellion. Moses recalled Taberah, Massah, and Kibroth-hattaavah – three other less-than-flattering moments from Israel’s not-so-distant past that illustrated their propensity to rebel against God. And he brought up that infamous day at Kadesh-barnea, when the first generation of Israelites had refused to enter the promised land, causing God to send them into the wilderness where they would die as punishment for the rebellion.

Moses had pleaded with God to spare them. He had appealed to God’s covenant faithfulness.

“Please overlook the stubbornness and the awful sin of these people, and remember instead your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 9:27 NLT

But notice that Moses did not offer up a single example of Israel’s worthiness or righteousness. What they deserved was God’s wrath. Moses knew that. So he appealed to God’s unwavering faithfulness to keep His commitments. He had promised to make of Abraham a great nation, and He had fulfilled that promise. But God had also promised to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham. And that promise had not yet been fulfilled. But, in time, it would be. And God would continue to bless the people of Israel, not because they deserved it, but because He was going to use them as the means by which He brought the solution to man’s sin problem into the world. And the apostle Paul wrote of this coming fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham.

God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child”—and that, of course, means Christ. – Galatians 3:16 NLT

God was going to bring to earth the source of true righteousness, and He would do it through a people marked by unrighteousness. God would eventually offer the sole means of salvation through a people who deserved His wrath. He would bring about redemption through a nation that would eventually murder its own redeemer.

The people of Israel had a long history of rebellion, not righteousness; but God would eventually make righteousness available through them in the form of His Son, the sinless Savior of the world.

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

 

 

 

Then They Remembered…

7 I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
    the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lord has granted us,
    and the great goodness to the house of Israel
that he has granted them according to his compassion,
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
8 For he said, “Surely they are my people,
    children who will not deal falsely.”
    And he became their Savior.
9 In all their affliction he was afflicted,
    and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

10 But they rebelled
    and grieved his Holy Spirit;
therefore he turned to be their enemy,
    and himself fought against them.
11 Then he remembered the days of old,
    of Moses and his people.
Where is he who brought them up out of the sea
    with the shepherds of his flock?
Where is he who put in the midst of them
    his Holy Spirit,
12 who caused his glorious arm
    to go at the right hand of Moses,
who divided the waters before them
    to make for himself an everlasting name,
13     who led them through the depths?
Like a horse in the desert,
    they did not stumble.
14 Like livestock that go down into the valley,
    the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest.
So you led your people,
    to make for yourself a glorious name.

15 Look down from heaven and see,
    from your holy and beautiful habitation.
Where are your zeal and your might?
    The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion
    are held back from me.
16 For you are our Father,
    though Abraham does not know us,
    and Israel does not acknowledge us;
you, O Lord, are our Father,
    our Redeemer from of old is your name.
17 O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways
    and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
    the tribes of your heritage.
18 Your holy people held possession for a little while;
    our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.
19 We have become like those over whom you have never ruled,
    like those who are not called by your name. – Isaiah 63:7-19 ESV

After hearing God’s grand plan for the future redemption of His people, Isaiah responds with a somewhat nostalgic recollection of all of God’s great and gracious redemptive activities on behalf of the people of Israel. And he does so in the form of a prayer.

He starts by recalling the myriad examples of God’s merciful kindness or favor. Throughout this prayer, Isaiah will focus on the undeserved nature of God’s love for the people of Israel. They have been the undeserving recipients of God’s unmerited favor. Every single incident involving God’s love toward Israel “he has granted according to his mercy and love” (Isaiah 63:7 NLT). The Hebrew word for mercy is racham, and it can be used to refer to a mother’s womb. From Isaiah’s perspective, the children of Israel have been cared for and protected by God like a baby in its mother’s womb. An unborn baby does nothing to earn its place of safety and security, but enjoys nourishment and protection because of the gracious actions of its mother. And Isaiah did not come up with this comparison on his own. He had heard it from the lips of God Himself.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
    all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
    carried from the womb (racham).” – Isaiah 46:3 ESV

Of His own accord, God had made the people of Israel His children and He had every right to expect them to live up to their position as His sons and daughters. God had agreed to be their Savior, providing them with protection and rescue when necessary. In return, He asked that they not deal falsely with Him. He expected them to remain faithful to Him.

Isaiah recounts the history of his people, recalling the many times in which God stepped into their circumstances and rescued them. He describes God as suffering along with them. When the found themselves experiencing difficulty, God was empathetic, but also immediate in His response.

…he personally rescued them.
In his love and mercy he redeemed them.
    He lifted them up and carried them
    through all the years. – Isaiah 63:9 NLT

But how had they responded to God’s gracious acts of redemption? By rebeling against Him and, by doing so, grieving His Holy Spirit. As a result, they would find their relationship to Him becoming antagonistic rather than affectionate. From their vantage point, God would appear more like their enemy than their gracious, loving Father. But God was not the one who had reneged on the relationship. The fault was all theirs.

Their unfaithfulness to God would result in His loving discipline of them. They would discover the painful consequences of their willful decision to violate their covenant with God. Their failure to remain faithful to Him would cost them. Their choice to worship false gods would cause them great pain and suffering. And Isaiah recounts the many times the people of God had called out to the very one they had abandoned, in the hopes that He would rescue them yet again.

“Then they remembered…” (Isaiah 63:11 NLT). It took the very real presence of trials to get them to recall the true identity of their Savior. It had been God who had rescued them from their captivity in Egypt. It had been God who had brought the plagues upon the people of Egypt. And it had been God who had provided them with a path across the Red Sea, allowing them to escape the armies of Egypt. They remembered and they cried out.

Now, Isaiah cries out. He turns His recollections of God’s past mercies into a call for His immediate intervention into their current state of affairs.

Lord, look down from heaven;
    look from your holy, glorious home, and see us.
Where is the passion and the might
    you used to show on our behalf?
    Where are your mercy and compassion now? – Isaiah 63:15 NLT

Isaiah begs God to do as He has done so many times before. He knows that they don’t deserve God’s favor, but he pleads with Him to extend His mercy and compassion yet again. Like Moses and the Israelites standing on the shore of the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his army bearing down on them, the people of Judah found themselves in a similar situation. They were in trouble. The enemy was bearing down on them and they had no way of escape. The only hope they had was God.

And Isaiah addresses God as their loving Father, appealing to His sense of responsibility for His children.

Surely you are still our Father!
    Even if Abraham and Jacob would disown us,
Lord, you would still be our Father.
    You are our Redeemer from ages past. – Isaiah 63:16 NLT

Isaiah knows that God is faithful. He is not questioning God’s commitment to His covenant promises or raising doubts about God’s everlasting love. He is simply appealing to God’s unchanging nature. He is the very same God who has rescued the people of Israel time and time again, in spite of their unfaithfulness to Him. So, Isaiah is simply asking God to respond to their current situation with the same sense of mercy and grace.

Isaiah had a healthy understanding of the sovereign will of God. He knew that nothing happens in this life apart from the will of God, including the rebellion of the people of God. When Isaiah asks the question, “why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?,” he is not blaming God for the sins of the people of Judah. He is simply acknowledging that God could have prevented their unfaithfulness, but chose not to. To put it another way, God gave them free rein to practice free will. He allowed them to live according to the desires of their hearts. The apostle Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of what it looks like when God “abandons” men and women to live according to their own desires, and it is not a pretty picture.

…instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. – Romans 1:23-24 NLT

Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. – Romans 1:28 NLT

God does not cause us to sin. James makes that point perfectly clear.

And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:13-15 NLT

God was not responsible for the sins of the people of Judah. But Isaiah knew that the only way they could have remained faithful would have been through the intervention of God. And the only way they were going to return to God was if He acted on their behalf. They didn’t have it in them to do so on their own accord. Which is what led Isaiah to plead: “Return and help us, for we are your servants, the tribes that are your special possession” (Isaiah 63:17 NLT).

Isaiah knew their only hope of salvation was God. They had no other options. If He did not intervene on their behalf, they were doomed. Isaiah knew the his own people well and realized that if repentance, as evidenced by changed hearts, was the only way God would rescue them, it would never happen. They were far too stubborn for that to happen. And Isaiah includes a sad expression of his outlook on their current state of affairs.

Sometimes it seems as though we never belonged to you,
    as though we had never been known as your people. – Isaiah 63:17 NLT

This was his honest opinion. As he looked at the circumstances surrounding the people of Judah, it was as if they had never been chosen by God. Things had deteriorated so badly, that they were unrecognizable as God’s chosen people. They looked no different than any other nation on the planet. Their distinctiveness had long ago dissapated. Rather than living as set apart by God, it appeared as if they had been set aside. But Isaiah was not willing to give up, as the rest of his prayer will reveal.

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

My Lord Has Forgotten Me

8 Thus says the Lord:
“In a time of favor I have answered you;
    in a day of salvation I have helped you;
I will keep you and give you
    as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
    to apportion the desolate heritages,
9 saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’
    to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’
They shall feed along the ways;
    on all bare heights shall be their pasture;
10 they shall not hunger or thirst,
    neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
    and by springs of water will guide them.
11 And I will make all my mountains a road,
    and my highways shall be raised up.
12 Behold, these shall come from afar,
    and behold, these from the north and from the west,
    and these from the land of Syene.”

13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
    break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people
    and will have compassion on his afflicted.

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me;
    my Lord has forgotten me.”

15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
16 Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me.
17 Your builders make haste;
    your destroyers and those who laid you waste go out from you.
18 Lift up your eyes around and see;
    they all gather, they come to you.
As I live, declares the Lord,
    you shall put them all on as an ornament;
    you shall bind them on as a bride does.

19 “Surely your waste and your desolate places
    and your devastated land—
surely now you will be too narrow for your inhabitants,
    and those who swallowed you up will be far away.
20 The children of your bereavement
    will yet say in your ears:
‘The place is too narrow for me;
    make room for me to dwell in.’
21 Then you will say in your heart:
    ‘Who has borne me these?
I was bereaved and barren,
    exiled and put away,
    but who has brought up these?
Behold, I was left alone;
    from where have these come?’”

22 Thus says the Lord God:
“Behold, I will lift up my hand to the nations,
    and raise my signal to the peoples;
and they shall bring your sons in their arms,
    and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders.
23 Kings shall be your foster fathers,
    and their queens your nursing mothers.
With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you,
    and lick the dust of your feet.
Then you will know that I am the Lord;
    those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.”

24 Can the prey be taken from the mighty,
    or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?
25 For thus says the Lord:
“Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken,
    and the prey of the tyrant be rescued,
for I will contend with those who contend with you,
    and I will save your children.
26 I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
    and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.
Then all flesh shall know
    that I am the Lord your Savior,
    and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” – Isaiah 49:8-26 ESV

In these verses, God acknowledges the feelings of His chosen people. His judgments against them will leave them feeling forsaken and alone. When the prophecies Isaiah has been sharing have taken place, the people will assume that God’s anger with them has caused Him to abandon them completely. Displaying His omniscience, God reveals the future thoughts of the people of Judah as they languish in captivity in Babylon. He does so by portraying Zion, the city of Jerusalem, speaking on their behalf.

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me;
    my Lord has forgotten me.” – Isaiah 49:14 ESV

Yet, God responds to this false assumption in strong terms.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.” – Isaiah 49:15 ESV

God cannot and will not forget His own. They are His chosen people with whom He has made a binding covenant. The people of Judah are the direct result of God’s blessings upon Abraham and Sarah. They are the byproduct of God’s miraculous intervention into the affairs of this elderly couples, allowing the barren Sarah to conceive and bare a son, Isaac. But even before Isaac drew his first breath, God had told Abraham, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly” (Genesis 17:1-2 ESV). God was calling Abraham to a life of holiness or set-apartness. He was to be God’s possession and all his future offspring would belong to God, just as Isaac would. Then God went on to expand on the nature of the covenant He was making with Abraham and, by extension, with Abraham’s offspring.

“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:4-8 ESV

Now, centuries later, God was dealing with the descendants of Abraham who had failed to walk before Him and remain blameless. For generations, the people of Judah had refused to live their lives set apart to God. They were guilty of spiritual adultery, having given their adoration to a litany of false gods. And yet, in spite of all they had done to offend a holy God, He was reassuring them that He would not forsake them.

In fact, He describes for them a day when they will find the land of Judah too small to accommodate all the children they will bear. One day they will again experience God’s promise of fruitfulness.

“Even the most desolate parts of your abandoned land
    will soon be crowded with your people.
Your enemies who enslaved you
    will be far away.
The generations born in exile will return and say,
    ‘We need more room! It’s crowded here!’” – Isaiah 49:19-20 NLT

And this inexplicable outcome will leave the people of Judah wondering what is going on. They will question how their lot in life changed so dramatically.

“Who has given me all these descendants?
For most of my children were killed,
    and the rest were carried away into exile.
I was left here all alone.
    Where did all these people come from?
Who bore these children?
    Who raised them for me?” – Isaiah 49:21 NLT

The elderly among them will find themselves back in the land of promise experiencing the joy of watching their lineage spread through the lives of their children and grandchildren.  Their enemies will be long gone.  But not before those very same enemies are finished transporting the people of Judah back to the land, even carrying their children in their arms.

What God is revealing here is a miraculous, future events that only He could bring about. While this prophecy would be fulfilled in part when King Cyrus decreed the return of the people to the land of Judah, there are aspects of this prophecy that remain as yet unfulfilled. God describes the kings and queens of the earth serving and caring for the people of God. He portrays them as bowing down before the people of Judah, licking the dust from their feet in a display of abject submission. He even promises, “I will feed your enemies with their own flesh. They will be drunk with rivers of their own blood” (Isaiah 49:26 NLT). One has to ask whether any of this taken place. Has this promise been fulfilled? And the answer would be, “No.” But it will be. And God reveals just how He will bring it about. 

He will do it through His servant, the Messiah. He will raise up His chosen one to redeem the people of Israel and restore them to a right relationship with Him. And God speaks to His servant, assuring Him that the seeming delay in His redemptive plan for Israel is coming to an end.

“At just the right time, I will respond to you.
    On the day of salvation I will help you.
I will protect you and give you to the people
    as my covenant with them.
Through you I will reestablish the land of Israel
    and assign it to its own people again.” – Isaiah 49:8 NLT

This statement seems to be in direct response to the words of the servant as expressed in verse 4:

“But my work seems so useless!
    I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.
Yet I leave it all in the Lord’s hand;
    I will trust God for my reward.” – Isaiah 49:4 NLT

The servant is portrayed as wrestling with feelings of frustration over what appears to be His incomplete and seemingly unsuccessful work. This imagery is not meant to display Jesus as somehow struggling with feelings of futility or anger over His earthly ministry. It is intended to reveal to the people of Judah that when the Messiah comes, He will not complete all His work at His first appearance. When Jesus stated on the cross, “It is finished,” He was referring to the commission God had given to Him at His first advent. He had been sent to die on behalf of sinful manking, as payment for the sin debt they had accrued with God. And He successful completed that mission. But He rose again and, just before He returned to His Father’s side in heaven, He assures His disciples He would be coming back. He had unfinished business.

And, in Isaiah 49, God is describing events associated with Christ’s second advent, His second coming. He will return to earth and He will enact the final judgment of God against the nations of the world. He will defeat all the enemies of God, including Antichrist, the false prophet, and Satan himself.

In the book of Revelation, John is given a vision of this coming day, when the kings of the earth, in league with Antichrist and Satan, will attempt to do battle with Jesus, the Lamb of God. And it will not go well for them.

“The ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but will receive ruling authority as kings with the beast for one hour. These kings have a single intent, and they will give their power and authority to the beast. They will make war with the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them, because he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those accompanying the Lamb are the called, chosen, and faithful.” – Revelation 17:12-14 NLT

They will be defeated. In fact, John is given further insight into the lopsided nature of this battle later on in his book.

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies assembled to do battle with the one who rode the horse and with his army. Now the beast was seized, and along with him the false prophet who had performed the signs on his behalf—signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image. Both of them were thrown alive into the lake of fire burning with sulfur. The others were killed by the sword that extended from the mouth of the one who rode the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves with their flesh. – Revelation 19:19-21 NLT

As a result of this resounding victory over the enemies of God by the Lamb of God, a remnant of the nation of Israel will experience God’s unmerited favor and the fulfillment of His covenant promise to Abraham. They will be restored to a right relationship with Him and will reign alongside Jesus in His heavenly Kingdom in Jerusalem. God has not and will not forsake them. He has a plan in place for them and when that plan finally comes to fruition, God says, “All the world will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Israel” (Isaiah 49:26 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

The Suffering Servant and Victorious Savior

1 Listen to me, O coastlands,
    and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb,
    from the body of my mother he named my name.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
    in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”[
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
    and my recompense with my God.”

5 And now the Lord says,
    he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
    and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
    and my God has become my strength—
6 he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

7 Thus says the Lord,
    the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation,
    the servant of rulers:
“Kings shall see and arise;
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” – Isaiah 49:1-7 ESV

These opening verses of chapter 49 continue the theme of God’s redemption of Israel. The day was coming when He would use His servant, Cyrus, to release the people of Judah from their captivity in Babylon and allow them to return to the land of Canaan. At that time, a remnant of God’s people would experience their physical restoration to the land, the pleasure of occupying the rebuilt city of Jerusalem, and the joy of taking part in the revitalized sacrificial system in the restored temple. But this chapter reveals an even greater restoration that has yet to take place. And it will be the result of the efforts on another one of God’s servants.

The opening verses are spoken from the lips this as-yet-to-revealed individual, and he proclaims himself to the hand-picked servant of God.

“The Lord called me from the womb,
    from the body of my mother he named my name.” – Isaiah 49:1 ESV

This should recall the encounter between Joseph and the angel Gabriel, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). – Matthew 1:23 ESV

Gabriel had also met with Mary, long before she was pregnant, and informed of what was about to take place.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:30-33 ESV

And earlier in this book, Isaiah recorded details concerning the birth of this servant.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. – Isaiah 9:6 ESV

And, in an interesting bit of self-disclosure, the servant refers to himself as Israel, claiming that God had referred to him in that way. 

And he said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” – Isaiah 49:3 ESV

Why would God call this servant, Israel. If, as the two gospels indicate, this servant is Jesus and His name was to be Immanuel, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace, why does God now refer to Him as Israel? It would seem that God saw Jesus as the embodiment of all that Israel should have been. Like Israel, Jesus would be, in a sense, the offspring of God. His earthly birth would make Him a Son of the Most High. But, unlike Israel, Jesus would prove to be perfectly obedient to His Father. Paul refers to His obedience when he writes, “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). Jesus did what Israel had failed to do. Remain faithful to God and obedient to all His commands.

Jesus would bring glory to God through His earthly life and ministry. He would do the will of God, proclaiming the gospel message and manifesting the power of God through His miracles and messages. But from all appearances, the ministry of Jesus would appear unfruitful and highly unsuccessful.

“But my work seems so useless!
    I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.
Yet I leave it all in the Lord’s hand;
    I will trust God for my reward.” – Isaiah 49:4 NLT

And John confirms the seeming failure of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:10-11 ESV

But Jesus was God’s servant and, as such, He had a job to do. Just a few verses earlier, Isaiah recorded the agenda given by God to Jesus.

“Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
    a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
    till he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his law.” – Isaiah 42:1-5 ESV

This portion of Jesus’ ministry agenda has an as-yet-fulfilled aspect to it. He has not yet established His righteous rule on earth or ushered in perfect, undiluted justice. But the day is coming when He will.

And the servant reveals that His job description has been given to Him by God Himself, the very one who formed Him in Mary’s womb. Jesus took on human flesh for one reason only, to become the substitutionary atonement for the sins of mankind. He had to become a man in order that He might die on behalf of men. You might say that Jesus was born to die. But His death had a purpose: “to bring Jacob back to him [the Lord]; and that Israel might be gathered to him [the Lord]” (Isaiah 49:5 ESV). Paul reminds us that, “Christ died for us so that … we can live with him forever”(1 Thessalonians 5:10 NLT). But the redemption of lost Gentiles was only part of plan. Jesus also died so that His own people, the people of Israel, might be one day restored to a right relationship with their God. The servant makes it clear that His God-ordained purpose was to bring Jacob or Israel back to God. And in his letter to the Romans, Paul makes it clear that God will one day restore His chosen people to a right relationship to Him.

Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. And so all Israel will be saved. As the Scriptures say,

“The one who rescues will come from Jerusalem,
    and he will turn Israel away from ungodliness.
And this is my covenant with them,
    that I will take away their sins.” – Romans 11:11:25-27 NLT

And all of this will be accomplished through the efforts of Jesus Christ on Israel’s behalf. He will “raise up the tribes of Jacob” and and “bring back the preserved of Israel” (Isaiah 49:6 ESV). And, not only that, Jesus will be “a light for the nations,” so that God’s plan of salvation “may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6 ESV).

But before any of this happens, Jesus would become “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers” (Isaiah 49:7 ESV). He would be humiliated and rejected long before He experienced His glorification and restoration to His Father’s side. But the day is coming when Jesus returns and God paints a very different picture of that occasion.

“Kings shall see and arise;
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” – Isaiah 49:7 ESV

The servant will one day receive the same worship Isaiah describes as being given to God, because He is the Son of God, the Messiah and Savior of the world. He is the suffering servant who will become the conquering King.

“Let all the world look to me for salvation!
    For I am God; there is no other.
I have sworn by my own name;
    I have spoken the truth,
    and I will never go back on my word:
Every knee will bend to me,
    and every tongue will declare allegiance to me.”
The people will declare,
    “The Lord is the source of all my righteousness and strength.”
And all who were angry with him
    will come to him and be ashamed.
In the Lord all the generations of Israel will be justified,
    and in him they will boast. – Isaiah 45:22-25 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

There Is No Other Savior

1 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in exchange for you.
4 Because you are precious in my eyes,
    and honored, and I love you,
I give men in return for you,
    peoples in exchange for your life.
5 Fear not, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you.
6 I will say to the north, Give up,
    and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
    and my daughters from the end of the earth,
7 everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.”

8 Bring out the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
    who are deaf, yet have ears!
9 All the nations gather together,
    and the peoples assemble.
Who among them can declare this,
    and show us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to prove them right,
    and let them hear and say, It is true.
10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
    “and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
    and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
    nor shall there be any after me.
11 I, I am the Lord,
    and besides me there is no savior.
12 I declared and saved and proclaimed,
    when there was no strange god among you;
    and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God.
13 Also henceforth I am he;
    there is none who can deliver from my hand;
    I work, and who can turn it back?” –
Isaiah 43:1-13 ESV

This chapter brings a powerful message of assurance and comfort to the people of God. In spite of their spiritual blindness and deafness, He is going to save them. The very one who called them and ransomed them from slavery in Egypt is going to rescue them once again.

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.”
– Isaiah 43:1 ESV

They belonged to God and, as His possession, they were under His divine protection. But that did not mean they were going to escape the punishment that they deserved. God was still going to bring His hand of discipline upon them, but He would never abandon them.

“When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you.”
– Isaiah 43:2 NLT

This may have come across as less than good news to the people of Judah. They would have preferred immediate deliverance and a guarantee of no difficulties whatsoever. But God could not and would not disregard their sins against Him. He is a righteous and holy God who is obligated by His own character to deal justly with sin. But, He is also the gracious, covenant-keeping God, who never fails to fulfill each and every promise He has made to His people.

Generations earlier, God had told Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, that his descendants would end up as slaves in a foreign country. But He also promised Abraham that He would redeem them and return them to the land of Canaan.

“You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. (As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.) 16 After four generations your descendants will return here to this land… – Genesis 15:13-15 NLT

When God finally rescued the people of Israel and they were standing on the brink of entering the land of promise, God had given a sobering message to Moses, their leader.

“You are about to die and join your ancestors. After you are gone, these people will begin to worship foreign gods, the gods of the land where they are going. They will abandon me and break my covenant that I have made with them.  Then my anger will blaze forth against them. I will abandon them, hiding my face from them, and they will be devoured. Terrible trouble will come down on them, and on that day they will say, ‘These disasters have come down on us because God is no longer among us!’ At that time I will hide my face from them on account of all the evil they commit by worshiping other gods.” – Deuteronomy 31:16-18 NLT

After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, a divine punishment for their refusal to enter the land the first time they arrived at its borders, God had announced that they would still prove rebellious. And the book of Isaiah has provided ample proof of that rebellion. And the truly amazing thing about this situation in which the people of Judah find themselves is that they had failed to recognize all that God had done for them.

“Others were given in exchange for you.
    I traded their lives for yours
because you are precious to me.
    You are honored, and I love you.”
– Isaiah 43:4 NLT

This verse speaks of the substitutionary atonement that was a major part of the Jewish sacrificial system. God ransomed the people through the death of another. In Egypt, God had sacrificed the lives of all the firstborn of Egypt, in order to purchase the freedom of the people of Israel.

“At midnight tonight I will pass through the heart of Egypt. All the firstborn sons will die in every family in Egypt, from the oldest son of Pharaoh, who sits on his throne, to the oldest son of his lowliest servant girl who grinds the flour. Even the firstborn of all the livestock will die. Then a loud wail will rise throughout the land of Egypt, a wail like no one has heard before or will ever hear again. But among the Israelites it will be so peaceful that not even a dog will bark. Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and the Israelites. All the officials of Egypt will run to me and fall to the ground before me. ‘Please leave!’ they will beg. ‘Hurry! And take all your followers with you.’ Only then will I go!” – Exodus 11:5-8 NLT

God’s redemption of the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt had required a sacrifice. And it was because of the deaths of all the firstborn in Egypt that Pharaoh had finally relented and released the people of Israel.

God is reminding His people that He has the power to redeem. Even though they face defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, God is able to rescue and restore them. So, they have no reason to fear.

“Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
    I will gather you and your children from east and west.
I will say to the north and south,
    ‘Bring my sons and daughters back to Israel
    from the distant corners of the earth.”
– Isaiah 43:4:5-6 NLT

Once again, God is promising to bring His people back from slavery. There is no distance too great or pagan power too powerful to prevent God from keeping His covenant promise.

Returning to the imagery of a courtroom, God calls on the nations of the world to come before Him and testify whether their idols can match His ability to predict the future and bring it about.

“Gather the nations together!
    Assemble the peoples of the world!
Which of their idols has ever foretold such things?
    Which can predict what will happen tomorrow?
Where are the witnesses of such predictions?
    Who can verify that they spoke the truth?”
– Isaiah 43:9 NLT

This little vignette is intended to remind the people of Judah that their God is incomparable and without equal. And, if anybody should have understood that reality, it was the chosen people of God Almighty.

“You are my servant.
You have been chosen to know me, believe in me,
    and understand that I alone am God.
There is no other God—
    there never has been, and there never will be.”
– Isaiah 43:10 NLT

There is no other God. And, as verse 11 states: There is no other savior. God alone was going to be the one to rescue and redeem the people of Judah. They could turn to Egypt or put their hopes in one of their false gods, but they would only end up disappointed. Their hope had to rest in God alone. And God reminds them that “You are witnesses that I am the only God” (Isaiah 43:12 NLT). They had seen God work, time and time again. Their ancestors had been rescued from slavery in Egypt. In accomplishing His rescue of them, God had defeated all the false gods of the Egyptians. And, when the people of God had begun their conquest of the land of Canaan, God had given them victory after victory over the nations living in the land, proving Himself greater than the false gods of their enemies.

And, God closes His address to His people with the reassuring words:

“From eternity to eternity I am God.
    No one can snatch anyone out of my hand.
    No one can undo what I have done.”
– Isaiah 43:13 NLT

Yes, the future appeared bleak. God had foretold the coming invasion of the Babylonians and the fall of Jerusalem. But He was God. And He had a plan. Their defeat and deportation would be followed by His redemption and rescue. He had done it before and He could do it again. He had returned the people to the land after 400 years of captivity in Egypt and He was return them to the land after 70 years of captivity in Babylon. They were His possession and no one could snatch them from His hand. He was in control. He was sovereign over all. And He wanted His people to know that they had no other savior, but Him.

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 Beautiful Thing.

1 When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, 2 “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”

3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5 But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.”

6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” – Matthew 26:1-13 ESV

Jesus ended His discussion regarding the Kingdom of Heaven with a jarring reminder to His disciples of His upcoming crucifixion. Not only was the inauguration of His Kingdom going to be delayed, He was going to die. And while Jesus had made it clear that the coming of His Kingdom was not going to happen for some time, His death would take place in just a matter of days. What a rude wake-up call for the disciples. And what an unpleasant reminder that things were not as they had hoped or supposed. Their king had come, but not as they had expected. His Kingdom was not of this earth. And, as they would soon discover, the crown He was destined to wear would be made of thorns, not gold. He would hang on a cross, not sit on a throne. And yet, it was all part of God’s sovereign plan.

And so was the plotting and planning of the religious leaders. Their role in the entire affair was not in opposition to God’s will, but an essential part of it. They were nothing more than instruments in His hands, unknowingly accomplishing His will even through their disobedience and rejection of His Son. What they did, they did in secret. They plotted behind the scenes. They hid their intentions from the people, because of Jesus’ popularity. But God was fully aware of their every move. And He was in total control of the entire timeline of events. From the clandestine collusion of the religious leaders to the self-serving plans of Judas to betray Jesus, nothing escaped God’s divine attention or threatened the outcome of His redemptive plan.

And this includes the anointing of Jesus by Mary Magdalene. This has always been a fascinating story to me. It is full of interesting twists and turns, and raises more than just a few questions. One of the most intriguing things about this passage is a statement by Jesus. It is one that I overlooked for years. After having been anointed and hearing the protests of Judas about the wastefulness of this action, Jesus responds by saying, “I tell you the truth, wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be remembered and discussed” (Mark 14:9 NLT). I can’t help but read that statement and ask, “Was He right?” Have the actions of this woman been remembered and discussed wherever the Good News has been preached? There is no doubt that this passage has been preached and the events contained in it have been discussed, but I really question whether her deed has been remembered and discussed. I am not saying that Jesus was wrong, but I am suggesting that we have perhaps missed the significance of the moment as Jesus saw it. His statement suggests that the actions of Mary were not to be overlooked or misunderstood. The disciples, especially Judas, saw what she did as wasteful and unnecessary. It seemed extravagant and a tad over-zealous on Mary’s part. But Jesus said that what she did should be remembered and discussed among all believers everywhere for all time. Why?

I think there are several things going on here. First of all, it is just days before Jesus’ trials, crucifixion and death. He had told His disciples what is going to happen in Jerusalem, but they had refused to believe it. Jesus had His attention focused on the task at hand – His sacrificial death for the sins of all mankind. The disciples were focused on something altogether different: Jesus becoming the king of Israel. They were still anticipating that Jesus was going to establish His earthly Kingdom, with them ruling and reigning at His side. They had no room in their plans for a suffering Savior or a martyred Messiah.

Yet, Jesus was fully aware of all that was about to happen to Him. He knew about Judas’ plans to betray Him. He was painfully aware that Peter was going to deny Him. He knew that every one of the disciples would eventually desert Him. So, when He walked into the home of Simon the leper in order to attend a special dinner held in His honor, His mind was on the events that faced Him in the days ahead.

But this dinner was meant to be a celebration. Simon, the host of the event, had been healed from leprosy by Jesus. In attendance was Lazarus, who Jesus had miraculously raised from the dead just days before. Along with him were his sisters, Mary and Martha. This was a joyous occasion, and all in attendance were celebrating the life, health, and wholeness of these two men: Simon and Lazarus. Jesus was the center of attention, because He had made it all possible. It was a feast, complete with fine food and good wine. And then, in the middle of it all, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, stood up and took a bottle of costly perfume and poured it on Jesus’ head and feet. This would have been a stop-down moment. The smell would have been overwhelming, as the pungent aroma of essence of nard filled the room. All eyes would have been riveted on Mary as she knelt at Jesus feet, weeping and wiping up the excess perfume with her own hair. Jaws would have dropped. Whispers would have been passed back and forth. Mark tells us that some at the table were indignant at what they saw. Judas, the acting treasurer for the disciples, spoke up and commented on the wastefulness of it all. “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor” (John 12:5 NLT).

But what was Mary’s motivation? Jesus seemed to indicate that Mary knew what she was doing. He said, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial” (John 12:7 NLT). But I don’t think that was Mary’s intent. I don’t believe she anointed Jesus, aware that He was going to be dead in just a few days. Her action was purely out of gratitude for what He had done for her brother. He had raised Lazarus from the dead, and she was overwhelmed with gratitude. So, she took the best that she had and gave it to the Lord. She blessed Him for having been a blessing to her. Unknowingly, she was anointing Jesus for burial – while He was still alive. The fragrance of that perfume would have been with Jesus even when He hung on the cross. The oil from the essence of nard would have mixed with His blood as He was scourged by the Roman guards. It would have mingled with His sweat as He hung on the cross, enduring the physical pain and the verbal abuse of the religious leaders. And as Jesus breathed His last breath, the smell of that perfume would have filled His nostrils.

This selfless, sacrificial gift would last much longer than the meal or the accolades of the guests. Even the shouts of “Hosanna” that had accompanied Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that previous Sunday had died away, and changed into screams of “Crucify Him!” The people at that dinner were there because they had either seen or heard about Jesus’ miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus was a celebrity. He was a rock star. But none of them went out of their way to sacrificially thank Him for all that He had done. One person, Mary, took the time and sacrificed her resources, to express gratitude to Jesus for His ministry in her life. And her thankful actions were seen by Jesus as a preparation for His coming death.

Jesus was on His way to die – on their behalf. The disciples were busy planning for the Kingdom, even debating who would have the highest positions in Jesus’ new administration. The people were thinking that things were looking up. The Messiah was here and, once He claimed His rightful throne, He was going to get rid of the Romans once and for all. But Mary could think of nothing else but expressing thanks for what Jesus had already done in her life. She showed Him her gratitude.

Jesus made a point of saying that what Mary had done for Him should be remembered and discussed among believers everywhere and for all time. Why? Because she alone expressed the proper response to Him. She was not asking for more. She was not demanding that He set up His Kingdom. She was not wanting Him to perform more miracles or prove Himself in any other way. He had already done more than enough for Mary and she showed Him just how grateful she was. And in doing so, she helped prepare His living body for His coming death. Her action of gratitude would have more impact than even she intended. She did what she could. She gave what she had. She showed how she felt. And she should be remembered and serve as a model for us all.

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

Son of David.

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. –  Matthew 22:41-46 ESV

Remember, we are coming to the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As we read through the events surrounding the last week of His life, we should begin to recognize that this is really about two kingdoms in conflict – the one the Pharisees and religious leaders had come to know, love and control; and the one that Jesus had come to establish. Do you recall the message of John the Baptist as he began his ministry to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah? He said, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NLT). To repent means to change your mind – about God and your concepts of sin, the kingdom, the Messiah, and the means by which man can be restored to a right relationship with God.

Repentance requires you to do an about face concerning what you currently believe about those these things. And that change of mind and heart should result in a change of behavior. In the world into which Jesus came, the Jewish people had strong opinions about these matters, the byproduct of centuries of man-made decrees and religious doctrines and dogma. They thought they had God figured out and were convinced that they knew what they had to do to deal with sin. But the truth is, they had grown callous to God and carefree about their own sin, justifying their actions and downplaying their own guilt. They put a lot of stock in their position as descendants of Abraham and their unique role as God’s chosen people. But John the Baptist had come preaching a call to repentance. He had told them that the Kingdom of Heaven was close at hand. And Jesus came preaching that very same message, telling them, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17 NLT).

The Kingdom of Heaven was NEAR – in the form of the King of Heaven – Jesus Himself. This was a statement of authority and divine representation. Jesus was Emmanuel – God with us. He was the one true King. But the Jewish people failed to recognize Him as such.

Which brings us to today’s passage, where we see Jesus still sparring with the religious leaders of Israel. He has weathered a relentless gauntlet of questions from these men, as they attempted to expose and entrap Him. But this time Jesus turns the tables and He asks them a question. In doing so, He reveals some Messianic misconceptions on their part. He exposes their faulty views of who the Messiah would be and what He would do. Jesus asked them a very simple, yet revealing question: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42a NLT). Jesus already knew how they would answer and it would reveal a lot about their understanding of not only the Messiah, but His coming Kingdom.  “They replied, ‘He is the son of David’” (Matthew 22:42b NLT).

So what does this answer tell us about their view of the Messiah? They believed the Messiah would be a descendant of David. But it also reveals that they viewed the Messiah’s kingdom as strictly earthly and not heavenly in nature. In other words, they were anticipating a king just like David had been. They were expecting a ruler, a royal heir to David, who would wear his crown and sit on his throne, reestablishing Israel’s power in the region. They weren’t looking for a Savior from sin, but a savior from subjugation to Rome.

So, Jesus asks them a qualifying question: “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?” (Matthew 22:44 ESV). At first glance, it sounds like Jesus is posing some kind of riddle or trick question. But He was quoting from a well-known Messianic passage found in Psalm 110:1. The Pharisees would have understood this passage as applying to the coming Messiah, or Davidic descendant. In fact, over the centuries, this psalm had been applied to each successive king in the Davidic dynasty and was used to refer to the ideal Davidic king. As a result, they would have been very familiar with the passage and its application to the coming Messiah. So, Jesus pointed out that in the psalm, David calls the Messiah his Lord. If the coming Messiah was to be a “son” or descendant of David, the greatest king Israel had ever had, why would David call this man his “Lord?” To understand this question, you have to recognize that there are two different words used for “Lord” in Psalm 110. The first is Jehovah. It is a noun that refers to God. It is the proper name of the God of Israel. The second word is adon. This is a noun meaning lord or master. But when used in conjunction with Lord (Jehovah), it typically refers to God’s sovereignty or authority. So you could read the line in Psalm 110 this way: The Lord (God) said to my (David’s) Lord (Messiah)

The point Jesus was making was that David knew something about the Messiah that the Pharisees had failed to see. That’s why Jesus asked them a further question: “Since David called the Messiah ‘my Lord,’ how can the Messiah be his son?” (Matthew 22:45 NLT). The Pharisees had a limited view of the Messiah. They believed He would be an earthly, physical, and fully human descendant of David, nothing more, nothing less. But Jesus’ point was that David seemed to know that the Messiah would be MORE than just a descendant. He would be divine and have God-given authority to rule and reign over God’s Kingdom. He would be David’s Lord and Master. He would be a divinely appointed ruler with power and authority far beyond anything David had enjoyed.

But the Pharisees couldn’t bring themselves to see this or acknowledge it. Jesus was not what they were expecting and not what they wanted. He didn’t look like a king. He didn’t act like a king. And the Israelites wanted a king just like all the other nations. They wanted a king on their terms and according to their definition. It was the very same problem their ancestors had when they had demanded that Samuel appoint them a king, like all the others nations. They had rejected God as their King and, in response, God had given them Saul. Now, centuries later, they were demanding the same thing. But God was not going to give them another Saul. He was going to give them another David, an actual descendant of David, but a man greater than David had ever been. He would be the God-man, the Son of God and the ultimate Savior of the world.

This whole exchange left the Pharisees stumped. For the first time, they had no response and no more questions. “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22:46 ESV). This doesn’t mean they were giving up. They were simply changing their tactics. Their views had not changed. They were still unrepentant, refusing to change their mind about God, the Messiah, the Kingdom, and about their own sins. They refused to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. They refused to admit their own sin and their need for a Savior. They were not buying what Jesus was selling. And they would live to regret it.

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

Two Kinds of Leaven.

5 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6 Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” 8 But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? 9 Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. – Matthew 16:5-12 ESV

After His most recent confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus and His disciples had departed and sailed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He physically separated Himself from these men and their constant attempts to test and trap Him. 

Having arrived on the other side of the lake, the disciples evidently expressed their hunger and the fact that they only had one loaf of bread among them (Mark 8:14). In their haste to get away from the religious leaders, they had forgotten to bring the necessary supplies for their journey.

And Jesus, realizing what the disciples were thinking, decided to use this moment as an opportunity to teach them. But it quickly became clear that He and His followers were on two different wave lengths. He was speaking in spiritual terms, while they were stuck on a physical plane, thinking about their lack of food. 

He told them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” His use of leaven as a metaphorical device was not uncommon or unique. It was often used to refer to something that starts out small and insignificant, but that grows in size and influence. Earlier, Jesus had used leaven to refer to the kingdom of heaven.

“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” – Matthew 13:33 ESV

The apostle Paul would use leaven to refer to the false teaching of those who demanded circumcision as a requirement for salvation.

A little leaven leavens the whole lump. – Galatians 5:9 ESV

Jesus was simply trying to expose the dangerous nature of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their outward display of pietistic religious observance was masking a deadly tendency to teach falsehood. In fact, Jesus had accused them of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9 ESV). So, Jesus wanted His disciples to see through the mask of respectability worn by these so-called religious leaders, and recognize them for what they were: Hypocrites.

But the disciples, driven by their hunger, misunderstood Jesus’ words. Their minds were stuck on food and so they began to argue among themselves about their predicament. They were most likely pointing fingers and casting blame, debating over who had dropped the ball and forgotten to bring enough bread for their journey. But this little discussion revealed yet another problem and Jesus exposed it, saying, “You have so little faith! Why are you arguing with each other about having no bread? Don’t you understand even yet? Don’t you remember the 5,000 I fed with five loaves, and the baskets of leftovers you picked up? Or the 4,000 I fed with seven loaves, and the large baskets of leftovers you picked up? ” (Matthew 16:8-10 NLT).

Their lack of bread was not the issue. But even if it was, couldn’t they remember what Jesus had done before? Yes, they had one loaf of bread between them, but Jesus had more than proven that He could transform the insignificant into the all-sufficient. He could fully satisfy the needs of the many with what appeared to be inadequate resources. In the hands of Jesus, the few loaves and fishes had become like leaven or yeast, mysteriously increasing in number until all were satisfied.

The disciples had no reason to worry about food. But they still lacked faith. Even after all that Jesus had done, they were still having a difficult time believing in who He was and what He had come to do. They lived in the moment, driven by their physical needs and temporal circumstances. These men had seen Jesus heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead, feed the multitudes, and walk on water. But at that moment, all they could see was one loaf of bread and what was going to prove to be a less-than-satisfying supper. 

When Jesus asked them, “Do you not yet perceive?,” He was questioning their lack of understanding. They weren’t thinking clearly. They had failed to put two and two together. Their reasoning was totally temporal in nature. And their obsession over and concern for bread was keeping them from hearing what Jesus was trying to say. They had obviously forgotten the words Jesus had spoken in His sermon on the mount and the portion of His model prayer that covered the need for daily sustenance.

Give us this day our daily bread. – Matthew 6:11 ESV

He had gone on to say, “O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:30-33 ESV).

The disciples were anxious. They were worried. But about the wrong things. Jesus had proven He could take care of their physical needs. He had assured them that their heavenly Father was fully aware of what they required to exist and fully capable of providing all they needed. But their focus was to be on eternal matters: The kingdom of God and His righteousness. Which brings us back to the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were obsessed with man’s righteousness. And rather than seeking the kingdom of God, they were busy building their own little fiefdoms and kingdoms, where they ruled and reigned. These men were obsessed with what they ate, drank and wore. And Jesus had some harsh words to say about them.

“Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets.” – Mark 12:38-39 NLT

“When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get.” – Matthew 6:2 NLT

These men were obsessed with the outward, how they looked and how they were perceived. They worked hard to display their righteous deeds for all to see so they could  receive the praise of men. But God looks at the heart. He sees the inner motivation that determines the outer demonstration of our faith. The only faith the Pharisees and Sadducees had was in themselves. They had no need of a Savior because they truly believed they could save themselves. And Jesus wanted the disciples to know that kind of teaching was like a cancer, that had spread and infected the people of Israel, to the point that they could not recognize their own Messiah when He showed up in their midst.

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

Access to God.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!– Matthew 7:7-11 ESV

As Jesus begins to bring His message to a close, we must keep in mind that He is still addressing those who are blessed or approved by God. Many of these individuals, including His disciples, are in His audience, but have not yet embraced Him as their Savior. But they will. In a way, Jesus is speaking prophetically, talking in a future sense of those who will come to faith in Him as their Messiah. But it is still early on in His ministry and most are not yet aware of who He really is. They view Him as a rabbi or teacher and a worker of miracles, but have not yet understood His claim to be the Son of God and their Messiah. But the day will come when many will believe and express as Peter did. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). It is to these individuals Jesus is speaking when He says, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7 NLT). Jesus is describing an intimate relationship with God the Father that provides His children with constant access into His presence. With three simple words: ask, seek, and knock, Jesus is letting them know that all who are approved by God will enjoy a special relationship with Him that will be far greater than any earthly relationship they have ever known.

There are those who try to give these verses an evangelistic interpretation, turning them into an invitation to salvation. But if kept in their context, it is clear that these verses are not inviting anyone into a saving relationship with Jesus. Instead, they are encouraging those who have already been approved by God, because of their faith in Christ, to take advantage of their newfound relationship with Him. “For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:9 NLT). We can ask of God and receive from Him. We can seek Him, and find Him. We can knock, and He will open the door to us. Gone are the days of trying to win access into God’s presence through keeping the law. There is no longer any need to try to win God’s approval and get His attention through human effort or achievement. Jesus was letting His audience know that the day was coming when the blessed or approved by God would have unparalleled intimacy with God. And I think His use of these three words: ask, seek, and knock; are directly tied to His words regarding fasting, prayer and alms-giving. If you think about it, fasting involved giving up something earthly in order to focus one’s attention on God. It was an attempt to seek intimacy and fellowship with God by denying oneself the pleasures of this life. Prayer was a means by which men could come to God and petition Him for their needs. And alms-giving was mercy-based generosity extended to those who came to you with their needs. Jesus is telling us that we can knock at God’s door and receive mercy from Him. He opens His door and invites us into His presence.

God is good and loving. He is gracious and kind. We can ask of Him and He will answer. We can seek Him and find Him. We can knock and find access into His presence. All because of what Jesus Christ has accomplished on our behalf. And Jesus reminds His listeners that God the Father seis far more generous and loving than any earthly father. Even a human father, in his sinfulness, would never give something harmful in response to his child’s request. It would be ludicrous to think of any dad giving his child a stone rather than bread, or a snake instead of fish. And our heavenly Father is far more loving, gracious and good than any earthly father. We can ask, seek and knock, knowing that He will answer us, reveal Himself to us and give us access into His presence.

For the average Jew, God was seen as a distant deity. He was not thought to be easily accessible or approachable. The entire sacrificial system pointed to a God who demanded cleansing from impurity before access could be granted. Sin was a constant barrier to God for the Jews. And they were required to go through the priests in order to have their sins forgiven and their relationship with God restored. But Jesus is introducing something radical and new. With His coming death on the cross, the veil in the temple will be torn in half, symbolizing the destruction and elimination of the former barrier between God and man. With the shedding of His own blood, Jesus will eliminate the need for the blood of bulls and goats. He will act as both the sacrificial lamb and the high priest, offering His own life as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. And those who place their faith in His sacrifice will enjoy unbroken fellowship with God.

These verses tie directly back to the opening lines of Jesus’ sermon. Those who are approved by God, though they be poor in spirit, they will be citizens of God’s kingdom. Though they will experience days of mourning in this life, they will receive comfort from God. And their willing meekness or submission to the will of God for their lives will garner them the earth as their inheritance. When they hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, they will be completely satisfied. When they choose to show mercy to others, they will continue to receive mercy from God. And their purity of heart will allow them to see God in their lives. When they seek to be at peace with men and introduce them to how to have peace with God, they will be recognized as the sons of God. And finally, any persecution they face in this life because of their faith will be well worth it, because they have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom.

Ask, seek, and knock. Three words of invitation to all those who have been approved by God. And they should produce in us a joy that is unparalleled and unsurpassed. Like the psalmist we should say:

Come, let us sing to the Lord!
    Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come to him with thanksgiving.
    Let us sing psalms of praise to him.
For the Lord is a great God,
    a great King above all gods.
He holds in his hands the depths of the earth
    and the mightiest mountains.
The sea belongs to him, for he made it.
    His hands formed the dry land, too.

Come, let us worship and bow down.
    Let us kneel before the Lord our maker,
    for he is our God.
We are the people he watches over,
    the flock under his care. – Psalm 95:1-7 NLT

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus is not offering up a list of tasks or duties to be performed in order to be made right with God. He is describing the lifestyle of those who dwell in the Kingdom of God. And only those who will eventually place their faith in Him as their Savior and Messiah will find approval and acceptance by God the Father. It will be those individuals who find themselves free to ask, seek and knock. And they will find their God quick to respond, answering their requests, making Himself known, and inviting them into His presence. But sadly, many of us who have placed our faith in Jesus Christ fail to embrace the incredible privilege Jesus is describing. We seem to doubt that God will answer when we ask. And as James so bluntly reminds us, “you don't have what you want because you don't ask God for it” (James 4:2 NLT). And far too many of us fail to seek God. But as the prophet Jeremiah recorded, God has promised to make Himself available to all who seek Him wholeheartedly. “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13 NLT). And how many of us regularly knock on the door seeking entrance into God’s presence? Is He the one we turn to in time of need? Is His door the one we knock on when we need comfort or companionship? In the book of Revelation, Jesus extends a promise to those who bear His name: “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends” (Revelation 3:20 NLT). God and His Son long to live in intimate communion with the citizens of the Kingdom. They desire that their people would turn to them for all their needs, to seek from them all that they have to offer, and to desire to be in their presence. Jesus is describing life in the Kingdom. He is telling His audience that the day is coming when He will make access to God freely available and the good gifts of God readily accessible.

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

Speak Truth,

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” – Matthew 5:33-37 ESV

God puts a high value on truthfulness. He keeps His word and He expects those who belong to Him to do the same. In Jesus’ day, oaths were common place and were used to validate or prove that what one had said was true. If you made a statement, you would back it up with an oath, saying something like, “By the temple, I swear that what I am saying is true.” If you were promising to do something, you might add an oath, like “I swear by Yahweh.” Basically, you were adding credence to your words by using something of greater significance and value as proof of your sincerity. But there were several problems with this practice. First of all, God had long ago warned the people of Israel to value and protect His name. God’s name was directly tied to His character. To profane or misuse His name was to treat God with dishonor. So, God had said, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7 ESV). When we read that passage we tend to associate it with cursing or using God’s name as part of a curse. And while that most certainly is a way of using His name in vain, the original context had to do with using God’s name in any way that brought contempt or dishonor to Him.

Over in the book of Leviticus, we read: “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:12 ESV). Notice the key word, “falsely”. If you made a statement and used God’s name as a form of guarantee, and then it became clear that what you had said was untrue, you were guilty of profaning His name. You had lied and had involved the name of God in the process. This was clearly forbidden. And yet, in Jesus’ day, it had become common practice. And the religious leaders had come up with an elaborate system of curses that provided loopholes and escape clauses, so that your oath didn’t have to be non-binding. In essence, they developed a hierarchy of oaths, where some were more binding than others. If you swore by God’s name, it was considered binding, But if you swore by heaven and earth, it was not. Swearing toward Jerusalem was binding, but swearing by Jerusalem was not. And the problem in all of this was the underlying lack of truthfulness. That is what Jesus is trying to expose. Listen to the harsh accusations He would later level at the religious leaders.

“Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say that it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’ Blind fools! Which is more important—the gold or the Temple that makes the gold sacred? And you say that to swear ‘by the altar’ is not binding, but to swear ‘by the gifts on the altar’ is binding. How blind! For which is more important—the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred? When you swear ‘by the altar,’ you are swearing by it and by everything on it. And when you swear ‘by the Temple,’ you are swearing by it and by God, who lives in it. And when you swear ‘by heaven,’ you are swearing by the throne of God and by God, who sits on the throne.” – Matthew 23:16-22 NLT

You see, the Jews believed that it was their obligation to back up their promises with oaths. That was their distorted perception of the Old Testament teaching concerning oaths. In their mind, making an oath kept you honest, at least in the eyes of others. One of the problems we face in reading these verses is that we don’t quite understand what it means to make an oath. You may have heard someone say something like, “I swear on a stack of Bibles”, but we don’t put a lot of stock in a statement like that. If someone were to say to you, “I swear on my life”, it wouldn’t necessarily provide you with any more confidence that what they were saying was true. Even if we hear someone say, “I swear to God”, we don’t automatically give that person’s words more credence or credibility. In fact, we might doubt their word even more. Someone who has to back up his word some form of oath is probably already lacking in integrity and questionable as to their reliability.

Jesus is exposing the underlying issue of dishonesty – a lack of truthfulness. He tells His audience to back up their promises with action. In other words, they are to do what they say they are going to do. Speak truth. And the truth is, if you’re honest, an oath won’t be necessary. Be a man of your word. Be a woman who is known for integrity of speech. No exaggeration. No half-truths. No broken promises or false commitments. Jesus puts it in easy-to-understand terms: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:37 ESV).

You’re probably familiar with the term: “My word is my bond.” It simply means that my word should be the guarantee, and no written contract outlining obligations or penalties is necessary. What I said, I will do. What I promised, I will fulfill. My word is truth. That takes integrity. And in Jesus’ day, that was a character trait that was in short supply. But He came to establish a new way of living. He came to provide a new kind of righteousness that mirrored the very character of God.

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:19 NLT

God is truthful and trustworthy. He doesn’t lie. He never breaks His covenants. He keeps His word. And He expects the people of God to live the same way. We are to be a people of our word, not just people of the Word.

One day, while Jesus was speaking with a crowd of followers, He made the statement, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32 NLT). Confused by what Jesus had said, they responded, “But we are descendants of Abraham. We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?” (John 8:33 NLT). They couldn’t comprehend what Jesus was saying. And so they fell back on their status as descendants of Abraham. They claimed special rank because of their Hebrew heritage. But Jesus told them something quite the opposite.

“For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies.” – John 8:44 NLT

Satan is the father of lies and he is your father. Now, that’s the way to win friends and influence enemies. But Jesus was not out to win a popularity contest. He had come to reveal the truth. He would even go on to claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT). Truth and lies cannot coexist together. A people who make a habit out of lying and justifying their actions with elaborate oath systems are not trustworthy or truthful. They don’t reflect the nature and character of God. And Jesus was letting His listeners know that their actions were out of step with God’s will for their lives.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, who would later become a leader in the church in Jerusalem, took the teachings of Jesus and applied them to those under his care.

“But most of all, my brothers and sisters, never take an oath, by heaven or earth or anything else. Just say a simple yes or no, so that you will not sin and be condemned.” – James 5:12 NLT

People whose hearts and lives have been changed by God through faith in the death of His Son, don’t need to lie. They will speak the truth. Jesus would later say, “But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:18-19 NLT). In bringing up the issue of oaths, Jesus was revealing an underlying problem with dishonesty. But He had come to change all that. Yet it would only happen if those who lie recognize their problem and turn from the father of lies to God the Father through Christ, His Son. By placing our faith in Christ, we are given the capacity to live as He did, reflecting the very nature of God in both word and deed.

The apostle John provides us with the reminder that right actions stem from a right relationship with God. Our lives will be characterized by truth when we have come to know Christ as our Savior.

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:5-6 NLT

Living as Jesus did: honestly, truthfully, and with integrity. The truth has set us free. And so we are free to speak truth. We are free to live in truth. The apostle John goes on to remind us that knowing the truth must show up in the practice of the truth. In other words, our belief should influence our behavior.

This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. – 1 John 1:5-6 NLT

The words we speak are a reflection of the condition of our heart. And Jesus was describing the character of those who would be citizens of His Kingdom – those who would eventually place their faith in Him as their Savior. Their words would be truthful and their character, trustworthy. They would require no oaths to substantiate their claims or need to resort to swearing to prove their integrity. Their transformed hearts would result in trustworthy speech.

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 Perfect Law Perfectly Fulfilled.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20 ESV

Jesus knows that what He is saying is going to be misunderstood and misconstrued by His hearers. He is well aware that the content of His message is going to sound controversial, even heretical to some. So, He takes just a few minutes to assure them that He is not promoting something contrary to their Scriptures, which is what He means by “the Law or the prophets”. His message was radical, but not in that sense. In fact, Jesus is about to show them that His words are well within the teaching of the Law and His own life is a fulfillment of what the prophets had written. For Jesus, this was all a matter of proper interpretation of Scripture, not conflict with it.

So much of what Jesus was up against was a misunderstanding on the part of the Jewish people regarding their own Scriptures. And their ignorance regarding their sacred writings was due to the teaching of their own religious leadership. Later on in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jewish the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law, telling them, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life” (John 5:39-40 NLT). These men were renowned for their knowledge of God’s Word, but were ignorant of its true meaning and content. Jesus would expose the Pharisees for their rampant abuse of God’s law.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8 NLT

For generations, these men had taken the Laws of God and interpreted them for their own benefit. They had twisted God’s words and added to them their own traditions and man-made laws in order to lessen God’s requirements. And as much as they may have known about the coming Messiah from the writings of the prophets, they completely missed who Jesus was because He did not fit their expectations. Years later, after Jesus had resurrected and returned back to His Father’s side in heaven, Stephen would preach a powerful message to the Jews that would end up with his death by stoning.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:51-53 NLT

So, Jesus assures His listeners that He is not contradicting the Word of God, He is actually fulfilling it. The Jews saw the Law as an end unto itself. In other words, it was their ability to keep the Law that brought them approval by God. They believed that it was their capacity to live up to God’s law that earned them God’s blessings. So, they developed work-arounds and loop holes to make compliance easier. Jesus would accuse them of this very thing.

“You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” – Mark 7:9-13 NLT

The law was impossible to keep and was intended to point people to their need for a Savior. It could expose sin, but not remove it. No man, no matter how knowledgeable he was of the law, could keep it perfectly. That is, until Jesus came. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and an expert regarding the law, would make this point clear in his letter to the Galatians.

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. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

Jesus claims that He did not come to abolish or do away with the law, but to fulfill it. He didn’t come to refute what the prophets had said generations ago, but to bring about all that they had written. The Old Testament Scriptures, including the Law and the prophets, pointed toward Jesus. They predicted His coming. They revealed the kind of life that God required, but that no man was capable of living. They showed the level of righteousness required for man to receive God’s approval. And Jesus, the Son of God, came to live that life and demonstrate that kind of righteousness in human flesh.

Taking a direct stab at the religious leaders in His audience, Jesus says, “So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). In other words, if you attempted to diminish, dilute or alter God’s requirements in any way, you would end up having no part in His Kingdom. “But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT).To obey God’s laws was impossible. But not if one found the power to do so through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus was coming to offer the only means by which life in His Kingdom could be achieved: By the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Then Jesus drop the bombshell that had to have left the heads of those in His audience spinning.

“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” – Matthew 5:20 NLT

What? Was He kidding? Had He lost His mind? How in the world could anyone be more righteous than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees? These men were considered the spiritual elite of their day. They were the crème de la crème, the top dogs, the religious rock stars of Israel. But Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring. He is contrasting man-made righteousness with Spirit-produced righteousness, something that would be made possible after His death and resurrection and the Holy Spirit’s coming. He is eliminating altogether any concept of self-righteousness and revealing that His righteousness, which is far better than that of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, is what can make men right with God. Jesus is referring to an alien righteousness, a righteousness that is outside of yourself.

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness… The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without.  This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith… – Martin Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness

The righteousness of man won’t gain God’s approval, because it is insufficient. Once again, Paul reminds us:

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 he elaborates on this very same point in his letter to the Romans:

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. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

The very next section of Jesus’ sermon is going to develop this idea of a superior righteousness. He is going to reveal that God’s requirements are more intense and demanding than His audience had ever dreamed. The kind of righteousness God required was impossible. Therefore, all those blessings Jesus had opened His sermon with were totally elusive and out of reach for the average Jew. Or were they? This entire sermon is designed to set up what appears to be a irreconcilable problem, but then point them to an unbelievable solution. In fact, He will wrap up His sermon with these words:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” – Matthew 7:13-14 ESV

And later on in His ministry, Jesus will reveal exactly what He meant be the narrow gate.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 NLT

Whether those in the crowd that day recognized it or not, they were standing in the presence of their future hope. This man they had come to see was more than just a teacher and miracle worker. He was the very fulfillment of all that God had promised. And He was the God-ordained means by which men could be made right with God. Gone were the days when men would vainly attempt to please God through religious rule-keeping. Jesus had come to do what no man had ever done before. Keep God’s law perfectly and completely, making Himself the perfect, spotless sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

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

So What Was Spoken Might Be Fulfilled.

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. Matthew 2:13-23 ESV

Matthew’s record of the coming of Jesus is not merely an historical recap of the birth of a highly influential individual like Napoleon, Gandhi, George Washington or Winston Churchill. He is not attempting to provide us with an account of how this obscure Jew named Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew to be a seminal figure in the Jewish nation. He is out to prove that Jesus was the long-awaited and highly anticipated Messiah, the Savior of the Jewish people who had been promised by God and predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures centuries earlier. That’s why Matthew goes out of his way to fill his Gospel with references to the written Word of God found in Old Testament prophetic passages and the audible word of God, spoken by angelic messengers to Mary, Joseph and others. Unlike other men, the story of Jesus does not begin with His birth. That event marks His entry into the temporal world of mankind, as the Son of God took on human flesh and came to dwell among men. But it was not His beginning. As the apostle John reminds us:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – 1 John 1:14 ESV

And in his own Gospel account, John goes on to describe the eternal nature of Jesus.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV

We have already seen God confirm the deity of Jesus through His sending of angelic messengers to Mary and Joseph. He assured Mary that the child within her was the result of divine intervention, a miracle of God made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and confirmed that the child in Mary’s womb had been conceived by the Holy Spirit and was to be the Savior of the world. This was not going to be just another baby born to just another Hebrew couple. This baby was going to save His people from their sins. He was going to be Immanuel, which literally means “God with us.” And Matthew pointed out that, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken” (Matthew 1:22 ESV).

The wise men had traveled from a distant land in order to discover the one who would be born the king of the Jews, and they had discovered Jesus, living in obscurity in Bethlehem. But even His birthplace had been prophesied by God. Everything was happening just as God had said it would. The timing was perfect, a fact that the apostle Paul points out.

4 But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. 5 God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. – Galatians 4:4-5 NLT

And because of the jealousy of Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea, God ordained that Joseph take his family and escape to Egypt. Once again, the divine plan of God was revealed to Joseph through a dream, warning him of Herod’s plans and instructing him to seek safety in Egypt. And Matthew points out, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Matthew 2:15 ESV). This was a direct quote from Hosea 11:1 and Matthew used it to prove, once again, the radically distinctive nature of Jesus and His arrival on this planet.

Matthew points out that even Herod’s merciless and brutal execution of all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity was the fulfillment of prophecy.

17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” – Matthew 2:17-18 ESV

He quotes from Jeremiah 31:15, applying its words to the very events surrounding the life of Jesus. The Word had become flesh and His arrival was met with the worship of the wise men, but also the fury of the king. There were gifts given and innocent lives taken. His birth was marked by joy and sorrow. This was far from an ordinary birth of just another nondescript Hebrew boy. This was the God-appointed Savior, the Son of God, making His entrance into the darkness of the world. And His arrival was going to be anything, but ordinary.

In time, Joseph received another divine visit, with the angel of the Lord informing him it was now safe to return to the land of Israel. Herod had died. But rather than go back to Bethlehem, the angel told Joseph to take his wife and child to the region of Galilee. And this too, was in fulfillment God’s long-standing plans concerning His Son.

And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. – Matthew 2:23 ESV

This is not a record of events as they happened, a mere recalling or retelling of the historical facts surrounding the life of Jesus told in chronological order. They are the evidence of God’s promise of the coming Messiah and the proof of Jesus being the fulfillment of that promise. Every scene that surrounds His life provides further evidence of His deity, not just His humanity. Yes, He was born, but for a very specific reason. From the place of His birth to the location of His childhood home, all had been predetermined by God. None of this was the result of luck, chance, happenstance or fate. It was the divine will of God the had been prepared from before the foundation of the world. Jesus was not a baby born to become the Messiah. He was the Messiah who was born as a baby. He wasn’t destined to become King of the Jews. He came into the world that way. So what was spoken might be fulfilled.

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

Jesus, the Christ.

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, 4 and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of David the king.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos,[c] and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. – Matthew 1:1-17 ESV

The book of Mark is part of what is commonly referred to as the Synoptic Gospels. While a distinct and separate book, with a message and audience all its own, it is linked with the other Gospels written by Luke and Mark because of the many similarities they share. The word “synoptic” is derived from two Greek words, syn and opsesthai, and it means, “to see together.” These documents, written by three separate men and from three distinct points of view, provide us with a unique and multi-faceted overview of the life of Jesus. They each tell the story from their own vantage point and with a particular audience and message in mind. There are slight differences found in each of the Gospels, such as the order of the events of Jesus’ life. In some cases, there are stories found that are not common to all three. Some have construed these differences to be contradictions that prove the books to be inaccurate and, therefore, unreliable. But each author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was writing his own unique account of the life of Jesus. For Matthew, one of the disciples of Jesus, his Gospel provides us with a first-hand account of one of the men who knew Jesus well and whose desire was to prove that Jesus was the Messiah and the fulfillment of the promise God made to David to place one of his descendants on his throne who would rule forever.

12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’” – 2 Samuel 7:12-16 ESV

This promise was partially fulfilled in the life and reign of Solomon, the son of David who ruled as his immediate successor. But with the death of Solomon, God had split the kingdom of Israel in two, as punishment for Solomon’s failure to remain faithful to Him. 

11 Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant. 12 Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. 13 However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen.” – 1 Kings 11:11-13 ESV

The nation would end up split in two, with the northern portion becoming the separate kingdom of Israel and the southern portion becoming known as Judah. This division would be marked by two separate kingly dynasties and a succession of less-than-ideal rulers who led the nations of Israel and Judah into apostasy. The end result was that both kingdoms were eventually punished by God for their unfaithfulness by allowing them to be defeated by more powerful enemies and taken into captivity. Israel, the northern kingdom, was defeated and deported by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Judah would fall to the Babylonians in 607 BC. And from that point forward, there would be no king to sit on the throne of either kingdom.

By the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, sometime during the first century, hundreds of years had passed and Israel was still without a king. And his Gospel provides us with an invaluable link to the Old Testament, where prophecies concerning the coming of one who would sit on the throne of David are found in abundance. Matthew, a Jew himself, seems to have written his book with a Jewish audience in mind and included more than 50 direct quotes from Old Testament passages as part of his Gospel. Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament canon, ends with the following promise from God:

5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

God predicts the coming of “the day of the Lord.” He promises to send Elijah the prophet. And in his Gospel, Matthew records the following words from Jesus, indicating that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of God’s promise.

13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. – Matthew 11:13-14 ESV

John will be introduced early on in Matthew’s account because he plays a vital role in the announcement of Jesus’ arrival on the scene. But his Gospel opens with a genealogical record that provides a vital link between Jesus and the nation of Israel. Jesus was born a Jew, a descendant of Abraham but, even more significantly, as an heir to the throne of David, the former king of Israel. Matthew ends his genealogical list with the words, “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (Matthew 1:16 ESV). And then he adds the essential descriptor: “who is called Christ.” The term “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “Messiah,” and it refers to “the anointed one.” Matthew makes it clear in his opening line that Jesus was the Christ or Messiah, but also the son of David and the son of Abraham. Then he uses the genealogy of Jesus to prove his assertion. The names of David and Abraham tie Jesus directly to the covenants God had made with these two men. And Matthew will go out of his way to show that Jesus came to be the fulfillment of the promise made by God in relationship to those covenants. God had promised Abraham, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18 ESV). And acccording to the apostle Paul, Jesus was the “offspring” God had been talking about.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

God had also made a promise to David, assuring him that his throne or dynasty would endure forever.

“…your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” – 2 Samuel 7:16 ESV

Matthew will go out of his way to let us know that Jesus was the fulfillment of that promise as well. His Gospel is designed to establish Jesus as much more than just a man who lived and died. He was the God-ordained fulfillment of the covenant promises. He was the Messiah, the son of God and the appointed Savior of the world. He was and is the rightful ruler over Israel and the nations of the world. Matthew is out to prove that Jesus was far more than an itinerant rabbi who ministered in the land of Galilee and died a criminal’s outside the walls of Jerusalem. He was not just a great teacher and moralist who performed miracles and confounded the religious leaders with His rhetoric. He was the one whom the Israelites had been anticipating for centuries: The Messiah. The one who would “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6 ESV).

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

Do Not Be Slient.

1 After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3 and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. 4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.

5 When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. 6 And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” 7 And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. 9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” 11 And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. Acts 18:1-11 ESV

Eventually, Silas and Timothy rejoined Paul in Athens. But when it was determined that it was time for them to move on again. Paul traveled on to Corinth while Timothy returned to Thessalonica and Silas seems to have gone somewhere else in the region of Macedonia (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2). According to verse five, they would later join Paul in Corinth.

Like Philippi, Corinth was a Roman colony and, at the time of Paul’s visit, the largest city in Greece. It was approximately 50 miles southwest of Athens and some 20 times larger in size. It was a busy, cosmopolitan city with a diverse population mix. Paul would discover a vibrant community of Jews there, some who had arrived in town due to a recent decree by the Emperor Claudius, commanding the expulsion of all Jews from the city of Rome. Luke tells us that Paul met one such couple, named Aquila and Priscilla, who had been forced part of the Jewish contingent forced to flee from Rome. Paul would strike up a relationship with these two, even staying in their home and working alongside them in their tent-making business. It’s interesting to note that Luke does not describe this couple as having been Christ-followers when Paul met them. He simply says that Paul “found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla” (Acts 18:2 ESV). Luke’s description seems to infer that Aquila was a Jew, but that Priscilla was not. Based on her name, she could have been a Roman, and when her husband was forced to leave Rome, she had chosen to leave with him. And nowhere in this account does Luke provide an account of their conversion story. While we know nothing of how or when they came to faith in Christ, we know they eventually did, because Paul would later describe them as believers.

3 Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. 4 In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. – Romans 16:3-4 NLT

Corinth had a long-standing reputation for its immorality and decadence. As far back as the fifth century BC, the Greek word, korinthiazesthai, had come into common usage, which literally meant “to Corinthianize” and was used to refer to someone being sexually immoral. Prostitutes, of which there were many, were commonly referred to as “Corinthians girls.” When referring to someone as having committed sexual immorality, the euphemism, “to act like a Corinthian” was often used. At the heart of the city stood the temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. This temple was renowned for its 1,000 temple prostitutes and for the sexual practices offered as part of its religious observances. So, it is easy to see why Paul, when later writing to the believers in Corinth, confessed the sense of fear and trepidation he felt when he first arrived in their city.

1 When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. 2 For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. 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 2:1-5 NLT

But, despite any sense of fear he might have felt, Paul had come to Corinth for one reason and one reason only. He followed his normal protocol and “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4 ESV). No doubt, Aquila and Priscilla had provided Paul with introductions into the local Jewish community, and he took full advantage of the opportunity to share the gospel with his fellow Jews. To get some idea just how passionate Paul was about seeing his Jewish brothers and sisters come to faith in Christ, all we have to do is read from his letter to the believers in Rome.

1 With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. 2 My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief 3 for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. – Romans 9:1-3 NLT

Paul would have been willing to give up his own salvation if it meant that other Jews would experience the joy of knowing Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Paul was determined and driven to see that all people heard the good news regarding Jesus. Yes, his official assignment from Jesus had been to take the gospel to the Gentiles, and he was obedient to that call. But it did not stop him from caring deeply for his own people and striving diligently to see that they too heard the message of salvation made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When Paul and Silas eventually joined Paul in Corinth, they found him hard at work, “occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus” (Acts 18:5 ESV). But his well-intentioned efforts were met with resistance and ridicule. Luke states that the Jews “opposed and reviled him” (Acts 18:6 ESV). They demeaned the messenger as well as his message. And Luke reveals that Paul eventually saw any further efforts to persuade them as futile and a waste of his time, so, “he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles’” (Acts 18:6 ESV). Paul seemed to be following the advice given by Jesus to His 12 disciples when He had sent them out on their first assignment without Him.

“If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave.” – Matthew 10:14 NLT

Paul’s actions were also in line with the counsel God had given to His prophet, Ezekiel, hundreds of years earlier, concerning the people of God.

2 “Son of man, give your people this message: ‘When I bring an army against a country, the people of that land choose one of their own to be a watchman. 3 When the watchman sees the enemy coming, he sounds the alarm to warn the people. 4 Then if those who hear the alarm refuse to take action, it is their own fault if they die. 5 They heard the alarm but ignored it, so the responsibility is theirs. If they had listened to the warning, they could have saved their lives. – Ezekiel 33:2-5 NLT

And when Paul left the synagogue that day, he didn’t have to go far. Luke says that he literally went next door, to the home of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. Evidently, Titius Justus was a Roman and a God-fearer. It could have been that he had been a Jewish proselyte who had been in the synagogue the day Paul decided to walk out, and invited him into his own home. They were joined by another man, Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue. And Luke records that Crispus placed his faith in Jesus and became a believer that day, along with those in his household. While Paul had been forced to turn his back on the Jews, God was far from done in the city of Corinth. Luke makes it quite clear that “many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8 ESV). Paul kept up his ministry of sharing the good news and the Holy Spirit did His work of regenerating the hearts of those who heard, so that they might receive the gift of God’s grace made available through His Son’s sacrificial death on the cross. 

And Luke provides us with some insight into Paul’s state of mind during this period of his ministry in Corinth. It seems obvious that Paul faced opposition, and that he felt more than a little fearful for his safety and well-being. God gave Paul a vision, in which He reassured His servant that everything was going to be all right.

9 “Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent! 10 For I am with you, and no one will attack and harm you, for many people in this city belong to me.” – Acts 18:9-10 NLT

This does not appear to be an indication that there were already other believers in the city of which Paul was unaware. God seems to be assuring Paul that He had already chosen others to come to faith in Christ who had not yet had the opportunity. So, Paul was to keep speaking and sharing, that those whom God had chosen could hear and accept. Paul would refer to this choosing by God in his letter to the believers in Rome.

29 For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory. – Romans 8:29-30 NLT

God wanted Paul to know that He had others set aside in Corinth for salvation. All Paul needed to do was be faithful to fulfill his commission. And Paul did just that, remaining in Corinth for another year and a half, proclaiming the gospel and allowing the Holy Spirit to being to God all those whom the Father had called.

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

 

A Changed Man.

19 For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. Acts 9:19-25 ESV

Saul was a man of action. Once he got his sight and his strength back, he was back at it again. But this time, his mission in life had a distinctively different direction to it. He was a changed man. He had come to know Jesus, in a very real and personal way. The very one Saul had discounted as dead and had viewed as nothing more than a cause célèbre on which the disciples were building their religious revolution. No, he had discovered that Jesus was anything but dead. This Galilean whose name was causing so much trouble for the Jewish religious leaders, was actually alive and had appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul had been blinded by His glory and convicted by His words: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5 ESV). It is interesting to note that Jesus’ words to Saul were few in number. And what is particularly fascinating is what Jesus doesn’t say. He never claims to be the Messiah. He doesn’t offer Saul living water or eternal life. He doesn’t speak to Saul about his need to be born again. Once Jesus had introduced himself to Saul, He simply said, “But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:6 ESV). Nothing more, nothing less. Short and sweet. But they made an impact on Saul. The whole experience left Saul more than just physically blind. He was spiritually rocked. His religious sensibilities had been shattered. All he knew to be true had been turned on its ears. And while he found himself unable to see, he had a new insight and spiritual eyesight he had never had before. 

The only other words we have recorded by Luke that reveal what was said to Saul are those spoken by Ananias.

“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 9:17 ESV

And the next thing we know, Saul is proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus, giving proof that He really was the Son of God. His words confounded the Jews. His message confused them. They had a difficult time reconciling what Saul was saying with the reputation that had preceded him. Rather than defending Jesus as the Messiah, he should have been apprehending Christians. But Luke tells us, “Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful, and the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah” (Acts 9:22 NLT).

In these verses, we get a glimpse into Saul’s personality. He was an intense individual who had a strong inner drive. He was determined and disciplined. It’s what made him so good at his job as a Pharisee and as a persecutor of the church. And now that he was a follower of Christ, he had the extra-added incentive of the indwelling Holy Spirit. God had taken this hard-driving, passionate, and self-motivated man and transformed him into a Spirit-filled, heat-seeking missile for the cause of Christ. Luke’s description of the early days of Saul’s conversion provide us with a teaser of what the rest of his life would look like. God had redeemed Saul’s zeal and inner drive. Those very same qualities that Saul had used to persecute Jesus and His church, God would now use to proclaim Jesus and build the church.

It didn’t take long before Saul found himself on the receiving end of the persecution he used to mete out. Now, he was the hunted. Luke simply tells us that “some of the Jews plotted together to kill him” (Acts 9:23 NLT). They wanted him dead and they set guards at all the gates of the city to watch for him so they could murder him. But Saul escaped. And he would later provide further details regarding his escape, revealing that the Jews had even enlisted the aid of the local city officials in their plot to have him killed.

32 When I was in Damascus, the governor under King Aretas kept guards at the city gates to catch me. 33 I had to be lowered in a basket through a window in the city wall to escape from him. – 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 NLT

What Luke provides us with in these verses is a summary or abridged version of Saul’s conversion. Later, Saul, writing under his Greek name, Paul, would provide more detail to all that had happened in those days.

15 But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him 16 to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles.

When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being. 17 Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus.

18 Then three years later I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter, and I stayed with him for fifteen days. 19 The only other apostle I met at that time was James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I declare before God that what I am writing to you is not a lie. – Galatians 1:15-20 NLT

In his Acts account, Luke does not include Saul’s detour into Arabia. But according to Saul, after his conversion, there was a period of time when he went into the wilderness and then returned to Damascus. And it would be three years before he made his trip to Jerusalem, recorded by Luke in the following verses of this chapter. 

It was most likely during his time in the wilderness of Arabia, that Saul received additional insight from the Holy Spirit regarding his mission and commission. Saul would arrive back in Damascus fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and he would be fully prepared to defend that belief, even if it cost him his life. And this determination would not fade with time. Luke states, “Saul increased all the more in strength” (Acts 9:22 ESV). He grew stronger in his faith. His assurance that Jesus truly was the Messiah and that He alone was the means by which men could be made right with God, grew stronger with each passing day. We aren’t told what happened during Saul’s days in the Arabian wilderness, but we can easily assume that it had been Spirit-directed and had been filled with further insight from Jesus Himself. Saul most likely wrestled with God, debating with Him about Old Testament passages and receiving direct insight from God regarding the many prophetic passages that spoke of the Messiah. Saul received a theological education from the Godhead. And when he showed back up in Damascus, he was fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. And his determination regarding that matter would grow stronger over time. Saul would not relent. He would never retreat from his belief that the good news of Jesus Christ was real and needed to be shared with any and all. Which is what he would later write in his letter to the Romans.

16 “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. 17 This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Romans 1:16--17 NLT

Saul had met Jesus. He had received the Holy Spirit of God. He had been chosen as an instrument for God. And his life would never be the same again. He had a new mission in life. He had a new purpose for life. And all that had come before, all that he had accomplished up until that time, had all become futile and pointless. His Jewish citizenship, his membership in the sect of the Pharisees, his education and his many accomplishments were nothing when compared to his newfound knowledge of Jesus as his Savior.

5 “I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. 6 I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.

7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” – Philippians 3:5-8 NLT

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 Returned Redeemer.

30 “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’

35 “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38 This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:

“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
    during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
43 You took up the tent of Moloch
    and the star of your god Rephan,
    the images that you made to worship;
and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’” – Acts 7:30-43 ESV

Forty years after having fled from Egypt to Midian, Moses received a visit from God. For four long decades he had been a recluse, living in relative isolation, tending sheep and trying to forget that initial stirring in his heart to redeem his people from their slavery in Egypt. But when his first attempt to rally to the cause of the Israelites had failed, he had fled. His own people had rejected him, shouting, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” (Acts 7:27 NLT). Now it was time for him to return. But he would be doing things God’s way. He would be acting on behalf of God, speaking His words, and performing signs and wonders in His power. God had a commission and a mission for Moses.

“I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groans and have come down to rescue them. Now go, for I am sending you back to Egypt.” – Acts 7:34 NLT

Moses had been rejected by the people, but “this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer” (Acts 7:35 ESV). His initial efforts to rescue them had been rebuffed and his motives questioned. His own people refused to see him for who he was: God’s redeemer. But the second time, when he showed up, he would have God’s Good Housekeeping seal of approval and “by means of many wonders and miraculous signs, he led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and through the wilderness for forty years” (Acts 7:36 NLT). 

The crowd to whom Stephen spoke revered Moses. They saw him as their deliverer and law-giver. They held him in very high-esteem. And the whole reason Stephen was having to give this speech was because he had been falsely accused of speaking against Moses and the law, teaching that the customs the held near and dear were no longer valid.

“This man is always speaking against the holy Temple and against the law of Moses. We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” – Acts 6:13-14 NLT

But Stephen clearly states his respect for Moses. He had no intention of undermining his role as Israel’s deliverer and law-giver. But he did want to point out that Moses had done far more than just give the people the law. He had prophesied that another prophet would come. “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers” (Acts 7:37 ESV). Moses had known that he was not the end-all. He had been used by God to deliver the people out of bondage, but there was another who would come after him. Peter had picked up on this very same topic in his address to the crowd in Solomon’s Portico.

17 “Friends, I realize that what you and your leaders did to Jesus was done in ignorance. 18 But God was fulfilling what all the prophets had foretold about the Messiah—that he must suffer these things. 19 Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. 20 Then times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord, and he will again send you Jesus, your appointed Messiah. 21 For he must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets. 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among your own people. Listen carefully to everything he tells you.’ 23 Then Moses said, ‘Anyone who will not listen to that Prophet will be completely cut off from God’s people.’” – Acts 3:17-23 NLT

Moses and the law were never intended to be the end-all. Moses was a deliverer, but not the deliver. The law was given by God, but was never intended to be the means by which people gain acceptance from God. The apostle Paul tells us quite plainly why the law was given.

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. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

20 God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. 21 So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. – Romans 5:20-21 NLT

And despite the high value the people of Israel placed in the law, they had never managed to keep it. In fact, while Moses had been on the mountain top receiving the law from God, the people of Israel had been busy coercing Aaron to make them an idol. Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving “living oracles” from God, and they were worshiping a false god. Stephen flatly states, “Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt” (Acts 7:39 ESV). While the people of Israel revered Moses, Stephen reminded them that their ancestors had actually turned against him. In essence, they had not only rejected Moses, but God Himself. They had turned back to worshiping one of the gods they had served in Egypt.

For forty long years, the people of Israel would be led by God through the wilderness. He would cloth them, feed them, and guide them. He would protect them from their enemies and bless them with His presence. But all the while they would “serve the stars of heaven as their gods” (Acts 7:42 NLT). And God would indict them for their unfaithfulness during those years.

42 “Was it to me you were bringing sacrifices and offerings
    during those forty years in the wilderness, Israel?
43 No, you carried your pagan gods—
    the shrine of Molech,
    the star of your god Rephan,
    and the images you made to worship them.
So I will send you into exile
    as far away as Babylon.” – Acts 7:42-43 NLT

Try to imagine how the high priest and the members of the Jewish council are receiving these words from Stephen. He is recounting some of the less-than-flattering days of their history. He is reminding them of their long track record of unfaithfulness to Moses and, ultimately, to God. They had a long-standing tradition of disobedience. And Stephen would not let them forget that “our ancestors refused to listen to Moses. They rejected him and wanted to return to Egypt” (Acts 7:39 NLT).

What’s his point? What is it that Stephen is attempting to do? He is simply reminding them that God had sent them a redeemer and rescuer before, and they had rejected him. And now, God had sent them another Redeemer, the very one Moses had prophesied about, and they had rejected Him as well. Not only that, they had put Him to death. And it seems that the high priest and the members of the Sanhedrin had made idols out of the law and the Temple, worshiping them rather than the One whom God had sent to redeem them. They idolized the city of Jerusalem, the glory of the Temple and the “living oracles” given to them by Moses. But they refused to recognize and receive the Savior and Redeemer sent to them from God. Jesus addressed this very issue in a discussion He had with some Pharisees who had accused His disciples of breaking the Sabbath law.

3 Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He went into the house of God, and he and his companions broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. 5 And haven’t you read in the law of Moses that the priests on duty in the Temple may work on the Sabbath? 6 I tell you, there is one here who is even greater than the Temple! 7 But you would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ 8 For the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” – Matthew 12:3-8 NLT

Jesus was greater than the Temple. He was more important that Moses or the law. In fact, He was the fulfillment of the law, having kept it to perfection and satisfied the just demands of God. And what Stephen seems to be pointing out is that, while the Jews had rejected Jesus, He had returned in the form of His Spirit-filled disciples, offering His own people yet another chance to receive salvation and freedom from slavery to sin. But they would have to recognize Him as the returned Redeemer and receive Him as their long-awaited Messiah.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

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 Rejected Rescuer.

17 “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh's daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.

23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.” – Acts 7:17-29 ESV

Stephen is subtle. He recounts the history of Israel, but he does so in such a way that he purposefully leaves out certain facts while highlighting others. At this point in his speech, he has transitioned to the point in Israel’s history where they are living in the land of Egypt. Having arrived 400 years earlier as Jacob’s small family unit of no more than 75, their numbers had exploded, And the situation in Egypt had dramatically changed. Joseph and the Pharaoh who had so graciously welcomed Jacob four centuries earlier are both dead. There was a new Pharaoh in charge and we know from the Exodus account that he feared the sheer numbers of the Israelites. So, he instituted a program of intense oppression and extermination, commanding that all the male babies born to the Israelites be killed. Yet God had other plans. But before we go there, let’s take a look at an interesting statement that Stephen made. In verses 17, it says, “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham…” What is Stephen referring to? What promise does he have in mind? If we go back to God’s original call of Abraham, recorded in the book of Genesis, God said to Abraham:

1 “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 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. 3 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

Is this the promise to which Stephen is referring? Or is it tied to what God said some time later, recorded in chapter 17 of the book of Genesis?

4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:4-8 ESV

Was this the promise Stephen had in mind? Or was it this lesser emphasized, but just as significant promise God had made to Abraham regarding the 400-years of affliction his descendants would have to endure in Egypt?

13 “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation…” – Genesis 15:13-16 ESV

The truth is, Stephen most likely had all these promises in mind. But he was emphasizing this particular promise because it was essential to the overall plan of God. They would have to be afflicted before they could be rescued. And it is interesting to note that, in the book of Exodus, Moses points out that their affliction by the Egyptians had a positive impact on their numbers. He states, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12 ESV). Even Pharaoh’s decree that the male babies be killed was met with resistance, as the Hebrew midwives refused to obey his command. And one of those babies to be spared was Moses. He would be rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh himself, being raised in his home like a son. And Stephen points out that the day came for Moses, when “it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel” (Acts 7:23 ESV). This is a detail not found in the book of Exodus. Stephen seems to be saying that Moses, after 40 years of living as an Egyptian, was directed by God to visit his Hebrew brothers. And what he saw appalled him. He saw the suffering and the abuse. And his anger resulted in him taking the life of an Egyptian whom he had seen beating a Hebrew slave. And Stephen points out Moses’ motivation for doing what he did: “He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25 ESV). Even at that point in his life, Moses seemed to sense a divine call on his life. He had put two and two together and began to realize that he was in the same position Joseph had been in 400 years earlier, when he had been the second-most powerful man in the land of Egypt and had been used by God to spare the Israelites from the famine in the land. Moses wanted to rescue his people. He wanted to use his power and influence to make a difference. But his efforts failed. Rather than viewing Moses as their rescuer and redeemer, the people of Israel sarcastically responded: “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” (Acts 7:27 ESV). They questioned his authority. They refused to accept his validity as a rescuer. So, Moses was forced to run for his life, escaping to the land of Midian, where he would remain for 40 years.

Remember, the audience to whom Stephen was speaking was entirely Jewish in makeup. It included the high priest and the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council. These men were Sadducees and Pharisees, powerful religious leaders who would have known well the story of Moses. But Stephen is pointing out something they knew, but in a way to make a point they had failed to see. Moses was the God-ordained redeemer of the people of Israel. And yet, when he showed up on the scene, he was rejected. They failed to see him for who he was. In the midst of their captivity and suffering, they had chosen to reject the very one God had sent to be their rescuer. And the other thing Stephen is subtly pointing out is that the 400-years of captivity in Egypt had been part of God’s promise to Abraham. Their captivity had to precede their redemption. And yet, through it all, God had been fulfilling the promises He had made to Abraham. He was making of them a great nation. He was blessing them by abundantly multiplying their numbers. But He had chosen to do it in the land of Egypt, not within the land of Canaan. And He was doing it apart from the law, which had not yet been given. He was doing it without a Temple or a sacrificial system. All the things the Israelites held near and dear, and which they had accused Stephen of demeaning or speaking ill of, were non-existent when God was blessing the people of Israel in Egypt. The land of Canaan, the Temple, the Law and the sacrificial system had all become sources of inordinate pride for the people of Israel. They saw themselves as God’s chosen people because of those things. They saw no need for this Savior of whom Peter, John, Stephen and the rest of the disciples spoke. They didn’t need rescue. They didn’t need a redeemer. And like their ancestors, who had rejected Moses, the Jews listening to Stephen had been guilty of rejecting Jesus. In the opening chapter of his gospel, the apostle John recorded the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people.

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

Like Moses, Jesus had been rejected. And as in the case of Moses, God was not done with Jesus or the people of Israel. There would be a period of delay. Moses would spend 40 years in the wilderness of Midian, before he received God’s official call and commissioning. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, suffering hunger and thirst, and enduring the temptations of Satan, before, in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4), He was sent by God to act as the Savior and Redeemer of His people.

Yes, the people of Israel were living in the land of Canaan. They had their glorious Temple and the sacrificial system that went with it. They had the law provided to them by Moses. But for hundreds of years they had lived under the oppression of nations like Rome. Ever since they had returned to the land during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, they had lived without a king, and under the subjection of some foreign power. They were no better off than their ancestors who lived in Egypt. They needed salvation. They were in desperate need of rescue. But in response to God’s gracious offer of salvation, made possible through the death and resurrection of His own Son, the people of Israel were still sarcastically asking, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?”

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

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

According to Plan.

22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me,
    for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
    my flesh also will dwell in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
    or let your Holy One see corruption.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
    you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’” Acts 2:22-28 ESV

Peter flatly denies the accusation that they are drunk with wine. They are under the influence of the Holy Spirit and what the crowd had just witnessed was in partial fulfillment of the prophecies of Joel. With the resurrection of Jesus, something new was happening that was the beginning of the last days and would eventually usher in the final judgment of mankind. And all of, Peter insists, was part of God’s divine plan. Even the death of Jesus had been “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23 ESV). His crucifixion had not been an unexpected setback, but the central part of God’s foreordained plan of redemption. Peter would later write about this in his first letter.

18 For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. 19 It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. 20 God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:18-20 NLT

And yet, Peter lays the blame for the death of Jesus at the feet of the Jews to whom he is talking. It was their shouts of “Crucify Him!” and their refusal to accept Pilate’s offer of clemency for Jesus that had resulted in His death sentence. Peter makes it emphatically clear, “With the help of lawless Gentiles, you nailed him to a cross and killed him” (Acts 2:23 NLT). Not exactly the kind of rhetoric that wins friends and influences enemies. Speaking in the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter was not interested in political correctness. He was out to present the gospel in all of its glory. The fact was, the Jews had willingly participated in the death of Jesus, the Messiah. And Peter states that they were without excuse. Jesus had been attested or proven to them through the many signs and wonders He had performed. These miracles had been ample proof that He had been sent by God. And yet, they had refused to accept Him as their Savior and Messiah. He had not come as they had expected. He had failed to appear as a king or mighty warrior. Sure, He had performed miracles, healed the sick, turned water into wine, fed the multitudes and even raised the dead, but they had been looking for another David, not an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth.

But, in spite of their role in the death of Jesus, Peter informs them that God had another plan in mind. His Son was destined to die for the sins of mankind, but He would live to come another day. Peter declares, “God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip” (Acts 2:24 NLT). Yes, they had killed Jesus, but God had raised Him back to life. And, some time later, after his conversion, Paul would write to the Corinthian believers, “if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17 NLT). It was Jesus’ resurrection that made possible mankind’s forgiveness from sin. His death paid the debt, but His resurrection proved that His life had been sinless and a worthy offering. Death is the penalty for sin (Romans 6:23). But Jesus had died for our sins, not His own. So His death was temporary in nature. God released Him from the horrors of death. On the cross, just moments before He died, Jesus had cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46 NLT). As Jesus took on Himself the sins of mankind, His heavenly Father was forced to turn away from Him. The sins of mankind separated Him from His Father for the first time in all eternity. That is what sin does. And death is not just the absence of life, but eternal separation from God. The Father didn’t turn away from Jesus, but from the sins He bore on behalf of you and me. Jesus died so that we might not have to. And He was raised to new life as proof that we too will one day follow His example. Paul went on to explain the significance of Jesus’ resurrection to the believers in Corinth.

20 But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.

21 So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. 22 Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. 23 But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. – 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 NLT

The next thing Peter weave into his address to the crowds is a quote from King David. He uses Psalm 16:8-11 to prove that Jesus was the fulfillment of the words of David himself. In the psalm, David had written of God’s close proximity to him through all the trials of life. God was at his right hand, nearby and always available. But Peter turns this statement into a prophetic utterance concerning Jesus, the Messiah. One of the reasons he does so, is that David states, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption”, and yet, David would eventually die and his body would most certainly decay in the tomb. But Jesus, the Son of David, would not undergo decay. He would not be abandoned by God to death and the tomb. He was raised back to life after three days.

Using David’s own words, Peter applies them to Jesus. “You have shown me the way of life, and you will fill me with the joy of your presence” (Acts 2:28 NLT). Just days before His death, Jesus had reassured His disciples with these words:

1 “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” – John 14:1-4 NLT

And just a few verses later, we hear Jesus state those wonderfully reassuring words:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 NLT

Jesus is the way of life. And He has returned to the Father, as proof that His way works. He has taken His rightful place at His Father’s side and will one day return for all those who believe in His name and who have placed their trust in Him as their Savior. And the amazing thing is that, those in Peter’s audience, who had vicariously played a part in Jesus’ death, could also take part in His resurrection by recognizing Him for who He was: The Son of God and the Savior of the world. And, as we shall see, many in the crowd that day would do just that. Their sins were not too great. Their role in Jesus’ death was not too much that it could not be overcome by the love of God and the sacrificial death of His Son. As Paul so aptly put it: “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). Their sin had led to His death. But His death could lead to their salvation. And all according to plan – the definite plan and foreknowledge of 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