grace

The Bar Is Raised

“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. 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. 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. 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 was a fulfillment of all the prophets had written. For Jesus, everything He had to say was based on a proper interpretation of Scripture and not in conflict with it.

Much of the opposition Jesus would face in His ministry would be due to a misunderstanding of the Scriptures on the part of the Jewish people. 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 religious leaders – 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. Years later, 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 designed to lessen God’s requirements. And as much as they may have known about the coming Messiah, they completely missed who Jesus was because He did not fit their interpretations and expectations. Years later, when Jesus had been 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 understood that their capacity to live up to God’s law was what brought them God’s blessings. So, they developed workarounds and loopholes 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 intended to point the people to their need for a Savior. The law was holy, righteous, and impossible to keep. All it could do was expose sin, 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, the Law and the prophets, pointed toward Jesus. They predicted His coming. They revealed the kind of life that God required, one that no ordinary 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 attempt to diminish, dilute or alter God’s requirements in any way, you have no part in His Kingdom. Obedience was the key – perfect obedience.

“But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” – Matthew 5:19 NLT

Then Jesus drops the bombshell that had to have left the heads of those in His audience spinning in confusion and disappointment.

“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.

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, resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s coming. He is eliminating any prospect of self-righteousness altogether and revealing that His righteousness alone, which is superior to 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 comes from outside of oneself.

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 were more intense and demanding than His audience had ever dreamed. The kind of righteousness God required was unattainable by sinful men and women. Therefore, the list of blessings Jesus opened His sermon with was 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 an irreconcilable problem, and then provide His audience with an unexpected 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 by 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

Attaining the blessings of God through human effort was impossible. Earning the approval of God through rule-keeping and self-discipline was not going to cut it. Even the religious leaders of Israel, with all their trappings of spiritual superiority, were wholly deficient in holiness – by God’s exacting standard. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, would later write: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).

But the good news was that God had sent His Son to be the Savior for all those who would recognize their sinfulness and relinquish any hope in their own self-righteousness.

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

When All Is Lost, God Is Near

28 “For they are a nation void of counsel,
    and there is no understanding in them.
29 If they were wise, they would understand this;
    they would discern their latter end!
30 How could one have chased a thousand,
    and two have put ten thousand to flight,
unless their Rock had sold them,
    and the Lord had given them up?
31 For their rock is not as our Rock;
    our enemies are by themselves.
32 For their vine comes from the vine of Sodom
    and from the fields of Gomorrah;
their grapes are grapes of poison;
    their clusters are bitter;
33 their wine is the poison of serpents
    and the cruel venom of asps.

34 “‘Is not this laid up in store with me,
    sealed up in my treasuries?
35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
    for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
    and their doom comes swiftly.’
36 For the Lord will vindicate his people
    and have compassion on his servants,
when he sees that their power is gone
    and there is none remaining, bond or free.
37 Then he will say, ‘Where are their gods,
    the rock in which they took refuge,
38 who ate the fat of their sacrifices
    and drank the wine of their drink offering?
Let them rise up and help you;
    let them be your protection!’” Deuteronomy 32:28-38 ESV

Israel had enemies. From their days of captivity in Egypt to their journey to the promised land, the people of God had found themselves opposed by foreign nations. Even on the eastern side of the borders of Canaan they had been forced to fight the forces of  Og and Sihon, two Amorite kings who had refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their land. But God gave the Israelites victory over these enemies, allowing the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh to settle there.

And there would be plenty of other enemies on the other side of the Jordan, once the Israelites crossed over and began their conquest of the land of Canaan. There would always be enemies of God and His people. And the song God had given to Moses to teach to the people of Israel contained foreboding warnings about future enemies who would defeat the Israelites and take them captive. They would be used by God to punish the Israelites for their persistent and unrepentant rebellion against Him.

But God had a message for these nations. Rather than understand their role as His divine instruments of judgment, they would take credit for the conquest of God’s people, even bragging about their victory and robbing God of glory.

“Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.” – Deuteronomy 32:27 ESV

But God had news for these arrogant and pride-filled upstarts.

“…they are a nation void of counsel,
    and there is no understanding in them.
If they were wise, they would understand this;
    they would discern their latter end!” – Deuteronomy 32:28-29 ESV

God describes them as clueless. When the day came and they defeated the people of God, they would consider their conquest the byproduct of their own military prowess. These two nations, Assyria and Babylon, would each enjoy unprecedented success, conquering much of the known world and being used by God to punish His rebellious people. Assyria would conquer the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. And 136 years later, in 586 BC, the Babylonians would conquer and destroy the city of Jerusalem, leaving the temple of God in ruins.

But God points out the obvious. The only explanation for the future success of the Assyrians and Babylonians would be because God ordained it. The eventual fall of the Israelites would be because “their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had given them up” (Deuteronomy 32:30 ESV). Neither the Assyrians or Babylonians would be  able to take credit for the destruction of God’s people. It would be the work of God’s hand, not the result of their superior military strength.

The enemies of Israel would find their victories to be a walk in the park, with one of their soldiers giving chase to 1,000 Israelites, and two putting 10,000 to flight. In other words, their battles would be ridiculously lopsided. But, strange as it may seems, the reason behind their success would be the God of Israel.  And God lets them know that their gods would be no match for Him.

For their rock is not as our Rock;
    our enemies are by themselves. – Deuteronomy 32:31 ESV

They were on their own. Their false gods would prove powerless before God Almighty because they were lifeless. And after self-congratulating themselves for having defeated the forces of Israel, these two nations would find themselves having to answer to God for their actions. Why? Because these pagan nations were no better than Sodom and Gomorrah. They were equally as wicked, like vines branching off of the original plant and producing the same evil fruit.

And God reveals that He already has plans in store for them. He is going to use them to punish His rebellious children, but then He is going to repay them for their involvement.

“I will get revenge and pay them back
at the time their foot slips;
for the day of their disaster is near,
and the impending judgment is rushing upon them!” – Deuteronomy 32:35 NLT

These nations will destroy Samaria and Jerusalem. They will enslave the citizens of Israel and Judah. But they will have to answer to God for their actions. And, one day, God will turn the tables, reversing the fortunes of Israel and extending once again His mercy, grace, and love.

The Lord will judge his people,
and will change his plans concerning his servants;
when he sees that their power has disappeared,
and that no one is left, whether confined or set free. – Deuteronomy 32:36 NLT

Just when things look like they can’t get any worse, God will step in and rescue His chosen people. He will remember and redeem them. He will redeem them from captivity yet again. And He will mock the mighty nations of Assyria and Babylon, challenging them to seek help and hope from their false gods.

“Where are their gods,
the rock in whom they sought security,
who ate the best of their sacrifices,
and drank the wine of their drink offerings?
Let them rise and help you;
let them be your refuge!” – Deuteronomy 32:37-38 NLT

And their calls for help will go unheard and unheeded because their gods are false. The Assyrians and Babylonians would one day find themselves on the wrong end of the world-domination game. They would become the conquered rather than the conqueror. Their 15-minutes of fame would come to an abrupt and ignominious end. Because their false gods would fail to rise up, rescue them, and provide refuge for them. But Israel would experience the gracious hand of God Almighty. Right when their strength is gone and all hope is lost, their God will show up, and He “will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants” (Deuteronomy 32:36 ESV).

The Righteous Wrath of God

19 “The Lord saw it and spurned them,
    because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters.
20 And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them;
    I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.
21 They have made me jealous with what is no god;
    they have provoked me to anger with their idols.
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
    I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
22 For a fire is kindled by my anger,
    and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase,
    and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

23 “‘And I will heap disasters upon them;
    I will spend my arrows on them;
24 they shall be wasted with hunger,
    and devoured by plague
    and poisonous pestilence;
I will send the teeth of beasts against them,
    with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.
25 Outdoors the sword shall bereave,
    and indoors terror,
for young man and woman alike,
    the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.
26 I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces;
    I will wipe them from human memory,”
27 had I not feared provocation by the enemy,
    lest their adversaries should misunderstand,
lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.”’ – Deuteronomy 32:19-27 ESV

We love to talk about God’s love, mercy, and grace. And while these divine characteristics are essential to understanding His nature and bring us great comfort, they can also paint a rather one-dimensional image of God. An overemphasis of these positive aspects of God’s character can cause us to downplay His righteous anger and just judgment. This is one of the reasons so many people find such a disparity between the Old and New Testaments. They see conflicting images of God portrayed and choose the kind and compassionate God of the New Testament over the harsh and seemingly heartless God of the Old Testament.

But there is only one God, and He is unchanging in His nature. Yes, we may prefer to dwell on His more loving and father-like characteristics, but that does not mean He is incapable of displaying anger or dispensing harsh justice when necessary. And while the Old Testament is the primary place where this darker side of God’s character is displayed, it does not mean He has mellowed with time. Here are just a few reminders of God’s unchanging nature.

“For I the Lord do not change…” – Malachi 3:6 ESV

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
    but you are the same, and your years have no end. – Psalm 102:25-27 ESV

And there countless passages in both the Old and New Testaments that reveal the righteous indignation of God.

“I, the LORD, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin. I will crush the arrogance of the proud and humble the pride of the mighty.” – Isaiah 13:11 NLT

In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
    you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. – Exodus 15:7 ESV

“Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. 9 And my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord, who strikes.” – Ezekiel 7:8-9 ESV

But when he [Jesus] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” – Matthew 3:7 ESV

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. – Romans 2:5 ESV

And in this portion of the song given by God to Moses, the anger of God is clearly revealed.

“They have made me jealous…” – vs. 21

“…they have provoked me to anger.” – vs. 21

“…a fire is kindled by my anger…” – vs. 22

“…I will heap disasters upon them…” – vs. 23

“I will spend my arrows on them…” – vs. 23

“I will send the teeth of beasts against them…” – vs. 24

Not exactly the kind of sentiments you might find on a Hallmark card. These are clear expressions of God’s anger against the people of Israel and the tangible means by which He intends to manifest His indignation. He even goes so far as to say that He would have completely “cut them to pieces” and wiped them “from human memory” (Deuteronomy 32:26 ESV), but He knew their enemies would have taken credit for it.

God knew that, if He completely destroyed His people, their enemies would arrogantly assume that they were the ones responsible for Israel’s demise.

“Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.” – Deuteronomy 32:27 ESV

And God hates the prideful and arrogant as much as He does the unfaithful and spiritually adulterous. He was not about to give the pagan nations the pleasure of taking credit for something He had done. They were simply instruments in His hands, doing His bidding and acting as His servants. Neither Babylon or Assyria, whom God would use to punish His rebellious people, could take credit for their success. God would raise them up and use them to accomplish His divine will by meting out His just and righteous judgment against His chosen people.

And God points out that His anger was brought on by the actions of those whom He had redeemed and rescued from slavery. His own adopted children had spurned His love and thrown His mercy and grace back in His face through their unfaithfulness.

They stirred him to jealousy… – vs. 16

They sacrificed to demon… – vs. 16

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you… – vs. 19

…and you forgot the God who gave you birth. – vs. 19

And God makes His damning assessment of His rebellious people.

“…they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

What God describes here is serial apostasy. This is not a case of the occasional failure to remain faithful, but of the habitual and willful refusal to follow God’s will. This song is revealing what will become Israel’s because of Israel’s faithlessness.

God will spurn them and hide His face from them. Why? Because that is exactly how they will treat Him. They will turn their backs on Him, choosing instead to worship false gods and demons. They will hide from Him, attempting to disguise their spiritual infidelity and mask their apostasy by feigning faithful adherence to His laws. And so, God will give them a taste of their own medicine. But when God hides His face, the consequences are devastating. When He spurns them, they will experience a form of loss they could have never imagined or anticipated.

God warns of disasters, hunger, plagues, and pestilence. He describes suffering caused by “the teeth of beasts” and “the venom of things that crawl in the dust” (Deuteronomy 32:24 ESV). He foretells of death brought on by the sword and arrows. And no one will be spared. Young men and women will suffer. The nursing child and the old man with gray hair will each endure the same fate. There will be no mercy shown and no grace given.

And while we might not like this image of God, we cannot assume it is somehow incorrect or inconsistent with His character. He is God. And He is fully righteous. All that He does is right, just, and good. In fact, the opening stanza of this poem declared the justice of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.” – Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV

He is not the one we should judge. He does not deserve our criticism and, most certainly, does not merit our disdain.

“They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

God had poured out His love, mercy, and grace upon the people of israel. He had redeemed and rescued them from captivity in Egypt. He had led them across the wilderness and put up with their repeated displays of ingratitude and constant bickering and complaining. He had brought them to the border of the land of promise and watched as they stubbonrly refused to enter in because they didn’t believe He would see them through.

And now, as the next generation stood at the very same border, preparing to enter into the land under the leadership of Joshua, God was informing them that their unfaithfulness would continue. They would conquer the land, but would never enjoy victory over their own apostasy. They would experience the power and presence of God, but would constantly turn their back on Him, seeking instead to give their affections to and place their hopes in false gods.

But God had long ago warned them about what He would do if they proved unfaithful.

“You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.” – Exodus 20:5-6 NLT

We might not like reading about God’s anger. We may find His judgment difficult to understand or justify. But it is the righteous judgment of God that makes the grace and mercy of God so meaningful. The fact that God would spare a remnant of the people of Israel so He could send His Son as their Messiah, shows us just how loving He really is. If we do not understand how just God is in judging those who reject Him and rebel against Him, we will never fully appreciate the value of the mercy and grace He offers. God has chosen to provide justification in place of judgment. He has made a way for sinful men and women to enjoy exoneration rather than condemnation. He has made a way possible for those dead in their trespasses and sins to experience forgiveness and eternal life. And it was all made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

It is not until we fully understand the justice of God’s wrath, that we will fully appreciate the joy of God’s love.

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

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

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

Set Apart By God

10 “He found him in a desert land,
    and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
    he kept him as the apple of his eye.
11 Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
    that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
    bearing them on its pinions,
12 the Lord alone guided him,
    no foreign god was with him.
13 He made him ride on the high places of the land,
    and he ate the produce of the field,
and he suckled him with honey out of the rock,
    and oil out of the flinty rock.
14 Curds from the herd, and milk from the flock,
    with fat of lambs,
rams of Bashan and goats,
    with the very finest of the wheat—
    and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.

15 “But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked;
    you grew fat, stout, and sleek;
then he forsook God who made him
    and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
16 They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
    with abominations they provoked him to anger.
17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
    to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
    whom your fathers had never dreaded.
18 You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,
    and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” – Deuteronomy 32:10-18 ESV

The Lord’s song continues. It recounts how God discovered Jacob and his family, the nation of Israel, in Egypt, a desert land. God rescued the descendants of Jacob from their captivity in Egypt, where they had served as the slaves of Pharaoh for hundreds of years. God had heard their cries of despair and had sent Moses to be their deliverer. 

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. – Exodus 2:23-25 NLT

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saw the plight of His chosen people and responded with compassion. He protected them like a mother eagle would its chicks. Using Jacob as a synonym for Israel, the poem describes how God cared for His own.

“he encircled him, he cared for him,
    he kept him as the apple of his eye” – Deuteronomy 32:19 ESV

Centuries of captivity in a foreign land had not changed God’s feelings about Jacob and his descendants. The circumstances surrounding their years in Egypt were not to be seen as proof of God’s abandonment of them. The promise He had made to Abraham still held. In fact, it was during their stay in Egypt that the family of Jacob increased in number from just over 70 people to a great nation numbering in the millions.

But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:7 ESV

And this meteoric growth was exactly what God had promised Abraham so many years earlier when He had called out of Haran.

I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3 NLT

God had kept His promise. But His ways are not man’s ways. His methods don’t always make sense to us. The nation of Israel was born out of adversity. It grew up in the context of slavery and servitude. It was a nation in bondage, enslaved by the enemy and incapable of delivering itself from its predicament.

And it was in the midst of their darkest moment that God stepped in and did for them what they could not do for themselves. He delivered them from bondage. He set them free from captivity. And their rescue is indicative of what God has done for all those whom He has rescued from slavery to sin.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. – Romans 5:6 NLT

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

Paul describes us as having been “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:20). And Jesus said, “everyone who sins is a slave of sin” (John 8:34 NLT). But He has set us free. And “if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT).

The Israelites were set free from slavery in Egypt. God guided them out of their captivity, having delivered from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. And when they left the land of Egypt, they did so with God alone as their guide and companion, having left the false gods of the Egyptians behind them. And God led them, fed them, and protected them all the way through the wilderness. But more than that, He taught them about obedience and faithfulness, using trials and difficulties to increase their trust in Him.

“Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell. Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good.” – Deuteronomy 8:2-5 NLT

God was gracious and good to the people of Israel, providing them with an abundance of blessings in the form of tangible and practical resources intended to prolong and improve life.

…produce of the fields
…honey for from the cliffs
…olive oil from the hardest of rocks
…butter from the herd
…milk from the flock
…the fat of lambs
…rams and goats of Bashan
…the best of the kernels of wheat
…the juice of grapes

Even in the wilderness, they enjoyed the blessings of God. They ate well and were well-cared for by God. Even their wilderness experience was better than the years they had spent in captivity in Egypt. Walking with God in the wilderness is always better than living in slavery without Him.

God had set apart Israel as His own precious possession. They had done nothing to earn or deserve His gracious deliverance of them. And Moses had made this point quite clear earlier in the book of Deuteronomy.

“For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the LORD rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT

The blessings of God were undeserved. His love for them was not based on any inherent worth in them. And He would continue to love them, in spite of them.

But this song was intended to bring witness against the Israelites, convicting them of their unfaithfulness to God. And to do so, it accentuates the unmerited favor of God. When they had been helpless slaves, God heard their cries and rescued them. He set them free from their oppression and misery, making them His own chosen possession, “the apple of his eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10 ESV). But would they remain so? Were the Israelites going to honor the one who set them free by keeping His commands and living in obedience to His will for them?

Even as they stood on the edge of the promised land, preparing to cross over and claim it as their own, God was revealing the sad truth about their fate. They would become slaves yet again. The people whom God had set free would once again find themselves living in bondage and surrounded by false gods and foreign overlords. They had been set apart by God but would choose not to live that way. They had been made His precious possession but would end up as little more than the property of their enemies. And the next verses of the song will explain how this dramatic change in circumstances will happen.

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

But By the Grace of God…

9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. – 1 Corinthians 15:9-11 ESV

Paul had a healthy self-identity. He knew who he was and was well aware of all he had accomplished in his life, including the good and the bad. He didn’t attempt to sugarcoat his past actions or paint himself as some kind of super saint who had his proverbial act together. At one point, he told the believers in Philippi, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Philippians 3:10 NLT). Paul knew he was a work in process, a personal project of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But he wasn’t God’s only reclamation project. He reminded the Philippian believers that “God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT).

That’s why he could encourage them to “work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear” (Philippians 2:12 NLT). He wasn’t asking them to do the impossible. He was telling them to display the new nature that had been given to them by God through their faith in Christ and made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit. They had been saved for a reason and it wasn’t just so they could go to heaven one day. God had a present plan for their lives and He had equipped them with all they would need to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. 

But back to Paul and his healthy sense of self-worth. Look at what he wrote to the believers in Corinth: “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” Paul knew who he was, but he had no delusions of grandeur. He didn’t view himself as somehow deserving of God’s goodness and grace. In fact, he makes it quite clear that his past track record of persecuting the church would have been more than enough reason for God to avoid him like the plague. So, when Paul says that he is what he is by the grace of God, what is he saying? Yes, he’s obviously talking about his salvation. He stands before God as righteous, forgiven of his sins, and free from all condemnation. But as great as that is, I think Paul has more in mind.

Throughout his letters, Paul consistently introduced himself in terms that expressed his awareness of his identity.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God… – Romans 1:1 ESV

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus… – 1 Corinthians 1:1 ESV

In virtually every letter Paul wrote, he introduced himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus. He willingly and proudly described himself as a servant or slave of Jesus. In other words, he was a servant-leader. He had been called and commissioned by Jesus Himself to take the gospel to the Gentiles, but he knew that his primary role was that of servant. And he had no problem with that role. Which is why he was able to tell the Philippian believers, “But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God” (Philippians 2:17 NLT). Paul knew who he was and what he had been called to do. He was completely at peace with his identity and his purpose.

But not only had Paul been called and commissioned, he was being constantly conditioned by virtue of his relationship with the Holy Spirit. The grace of God had made him who he was: a fully forgiven child of God; but it was also transforming him into the likeness of Jesus Himself.

Paul was confident that his entire life was in the hands of God. It was by God’s grace he even existed. It was by God’s grace he had been called. And it was by God’s grace he stood before the Corinthians as a servant and apostle of Christ. His life, from start to finish, was the work of God. He fully believed what he told the Philippian believers:

God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Philippians 1:6 NET

God was going to complete what He began. All according to His grace, not based on Paul’s merit or hard work. Paul’s transformation into the image of Christ was no more the byproduct of his own effort than was his deliverance from death to life. And this is why he was able to tell his brothers and sisters in Philippi that “the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God” (Philippians 2:13 NET).

We should not treat lightly Paul’s admission, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle.” This wasn’t some kind of rhetorical flourish designed to make him appear more spiritual to the believers in Philippi. He truly believed it. He was blown away that he had been considered worthy to be an apostle. But he knew it had not been based on this own worthiness, but that of Christ. If fact, he describes himself as “one untimely born,” a very graphic term which, in the Greek, refers to a stillborn baby. Paul uses this disparaging term in reference to Jesus’ appearance to him on the road to Damascus as recorded in Acts 9. In essence, Paul was comparing himself to a lifeless, prematurely born baby. As such, he would have had no inherent value or worth, yet Jesus chose to reveal Himself to Paul. Not only that, Jesus had called him, commissioned him, and was in the process of conditioning his character so that it mirrored His own.

And Paul recognized that his transformation into the likeness of Christ was the work of God based on the grace of God, just as his salvation had been.

It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. – Galatians 2:20-21 NLT

The grace of God. For Paul, it meant everything. Without grace, Paul was one untimely born and the least-deserving of all men to be called, commissioned, or conditioned by God for His service. God’s grace left Paul slack-jawed and awe-struck. He never got over the shock of who he had once been and who he had become – in Christ. And any value he used to hold in his former life was, by his own admission, little better than dung, when compared to his current standing as a child of God.

But by the grace of God, I am what I am. That was Paul’s firm belief. He knew it to be true and he saw it lived out in his life on a daily basis. I love the way The New Living Translation puts it: “But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me—and not without results.” God’s grace produces results. It transforms and conditions. It radically alters and is constantly changing us so that we “are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18 BSV).

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

 

In Those Days

28 “And it shall come to pass afterward,
    that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female servants
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. – Joel 2:28-32 ESV

With the content of these verses, the message Joel is delivering on behalf of God fast forwards to the end times. In the original Hebrew text, verses 28-32 are actually arranged as a separate chapter in the book of Joel. That arrangement further designates this part of the message and accentuates it as being distinct from the rest. The Hebrew text opens up with the words, “Now it will be after this.” Sometime after the events recorded in the rest of chapter two, God is going to do something radically and dramatically different.

Joel refers to this future time period as “those days” and “the great and awesome day of the Lord.” These will not be your run-of-the-mill, ordinary kind of days. They represent a period on the earth that will be marked by extraordinary, never-before-seen events. What Joel describes in these verses are supernatural, one-of-a-kind occurrences that represent the final phase of God’s grand redemptive plan for His chosen people, the Jews, and for the rest of mankind and the created universe.

In the preceding verses, Joel has described how God poured out His judgment on the people of Judah in the form on locusts. And God has warned that He is going to pour out even worse judgment in the form of an invading army. Now, God tells them that a day is coming when He will pour out something quite different: His Spirit.

“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…” – Joel 2:28 ESV

In place of His righteous and just judgment, God will pour out His Spirit. The prophet Ezekiel records a very similar message from God, providing greater detail as to what this divine outpouring will look like.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Lord: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign Lord, then the nations will know that I am the Lord. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:22-27 NLT

The prophet Zechariah provides further proof that this outpouring will be reserved for the people of Israel. And part of its purpose will be to open their eyes to the true nature of Jesus as their Messiah. They rejected Him the first time He came to earth, but when He arrives the second time, their response will be quite different.

“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died.” – Zechariah 12:10 NLT

This future period of time which Joel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah describe, represent the great day of the Lord when Jesus returns to earth as the King of kings and Lord of lords. This will take place at the end of the seven years of Tribulation. And while His return will signal the final destruction of all those on earth who have refused to honor God as the one true God and have rejected Jesus Christ as their only source of salvation, God will extend mercy to a remnant of His people. And this group will be made up of what will likely be millions of Jews who will come to faith during the dark days of the Tribulation. God will redeem 144,000 Jews who will become His evangelists during the Tribulation, and they will lead countless others to faith in Christ, including Gentiles (Revelation 7:1-8). We know from the book of Revelation that there will be a large number of these Tribulation saints martyred by Antichrist. John is given a vision of them standing before the throne of God in heaven.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:8-10 ESV

And John is told who these individuals are.

“These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” – Revelation 7:14 ESV

But in this message given by Joel, the emphasis is on the Jews. God has a special plan in place for His chosen people. Joel envisions God’s grace being poured out on His undeserving children, and it will fall on men and women, the young and old, and even slaves. And it will be accompanied by prophecy, dreams, and visions. This is meant to distinguish this as a time of unprecedented spiritual awakening marked by a pervasive presence of miraculous signs and wonders. Rather than one man speaking on behalf of God, countless young children will be declaring His truth. Even the old will communicate on behalf of God, declaring messages He has given them in the form of dreams. Young men, not recognized for their wisdom, will be given visions by God intended to communicate His word to the entire community. All of this will be the result of God’s powerful presence among His people. As the prophet Ezekiel recorded, God has promised that one day He will reveal Himself to them in unprecedented fashion.

“And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 39:29 ESV

In these coming days, God will reveal Himself in unprecedented ways. Not the least of which will be in the form of His resurrected and returned Son. The emphasis of these verses is not on the miraculous things the people will be able to do, but on the presence of God that makes it all possible. The prophet Jeremiah recorded yet another promise of God concerning this coming day.'

“I will give them hearts that recognize me as the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly.” – Jeremiah 24:7 NLT

And the apostle John heard a similar message concerning the day when God and His Son will take up permanent residence among His people.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.” – Revelation 21:3 NLT

But before all of this happens, God will bring final judgment on the earth.

“I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” – Joel 2:30-31 ESV

But during those days of final judgment, God will still be showing grace and mercy on fallen mankind, offering the gift of salvation to any who will receive it.

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. – Joel 2:32 ESV

These verses are full of reminders of God’s power, faithfulness, patience, covenant faithfulness, love, mercy, and grace. In spite of all that the people of Judah had done to disobey His commands and dishonor His name, He would keep His covenant promises to them. And even during the dark days of the Tribulation, when mankind will stubbornly refuse to turn to God in repentance, even in the face of His unrelenting judgment, He will save some.

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

 

Until the Fury Has Passed.

10 If favor is shown to the wicked,
    he does not learn righteousness;
in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly
    and does not see the majesty of the Lord.
11 O Lord, your hand is lifted up,
    but they do not see it.
Let them see your zeal for your people, and be ashamed.
    Let the fire for your adversaries consume them.
12 O Lord, you will ordain peace for us,
    for you have indeed done for us all our works.
13 O Lord our God,
    other lords besides you have ruled over us,
    but your name alone we bring to remembrance.
14 They are dead, they will not live;
    they are shades, they will not arise;
to that end you have visited them with destruction
    and wiped out all remembrance of them.
15 But you have increased the nation, O Lord,
    you have increased the nation; you are glorified;
    you have enlarged all the borders of the land.

16 O Lord, in distress they sought you;
    they poured out a whispered prayer
    when your discipline was upon them.
17 Like a pregnant woman
    who writhes and cries out in her pangs
    when she is near to giving birth,
so were we because of you, O Lord;
18     we were pregnant, we writhed,
    but we have given birth to wind.
We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
    and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.
19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
    You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
    and the earth will give birth to the dead.

20 Come, my people, enter your chambers,
    and shut your doors behind you;
hide yourselves for a little while
    until the fury has passed by.
21 For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place
    to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity,
and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it,
    and will no more cover its slain. – Isaiah 26:10-21 ESV

The opening verses of this chapter record the joyful song of the people of God who will live through the Tribulation and be alive when Christ returns to the earth. They will experience the salvation of God as He sends His Son to earth a second time, to defeat the enemies of God and redeem a remnant of the people of God – the people of Israel. And yet, in verse 9, Isaiah communicates his deep longing to see this day fulfilled.

In the night I search for you;
    in the morning I earnestly seek you.
For only when you come to judge the earth
    will people learn what is right. – Isaiah 26:9 NLT

Isaiah, as a prophet of God, fully realizes that the people of earth will never give God the glory, honor, and worship He is due until His Son returns to judge the world. In fact, he makes note of the fact that the universal grace of God, experienced by all who live on the earth, does nothing to change the way they treat God.

Your kindness to the wicked
    does not make them do good.
Although others do right, the wicked keep doing wrong
    and take no notice of the Lord’s majesty. – Isaiah 26:10 NLT

As Jesus Himself said, “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45 NLT). And yet, the wicked ignore God’s goodness and continue to rebel against Him. From Isaiah’s vantage point as a prophet of God, he sees the enemies of Judah gloat over the fallen state of God’s people. These pagan nations don’t know what Isaiah knows, that God is going to bring down His judgment. And Isaiah pleads with God to do just that.

Show them your eagerness to defend your people.
Then they will be ashamed.
    Let your fire consume your enemies. – Isaiah 26:11 NLT

Speaking on behalf of the people of God, Isaiah acknowledges a trust in God’s faithfulness: “O Lord, you will ordain peace for us” (Isaiah 26:12 ESV). While the current conditions surrounding Judah were bleak, Isaiah knew that God had future plans that would include a time marked by peace and blessing. The entire history of the people of God had been the result of God’s gracious mercy and grace. He had been their ruler all along. Every other king had faded from the collective memory. Every nation and its king who had ever threatened to destroy them would be forgotten as well.

Again, speaking on behalf of a remnant of those who had remained faithful to Yahweh, Isaiah states, “O Lord, you have made our nation great; yes, you have made us great. You have extended our borders, and we give you the glory!” (Isaiah 26:15 NLT). There were still a few in Judah who recognized that their very presence in the land of Canaan had been God’s doing. It had been God who had given them victories over their enemies and had allowed them to inhabit cities they had not built and enjoy the fruit of vineyards and olive groves they had not planted. 

Looking back over his peoples’ history, Isaiah knew that there had been times when they had sought God in the midst of their trials and tribulations, but He seemed nowhere to be found. The nation had suffered like a pregnant woman going through labor pains, but without experiencing the joy of giving birth. “We, too, writhe in agony, but nothing comes of our suffering” (Isaiah 26:18 NLT). In fact, Isaiah admits that Israel, as a nation, had done nothing to usher in salvation, for themselves of the world.

We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
    and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen. – Isaiah 26:18 ESV 

But Isaiah expresses his hope in God. He fully trusts in the goodness of God and is assured that even physical death will prove to be no problem for Almighty God.

But those who die in the Lord will live;
    their bodies will rise again!
Those who sleep in the earth
    will rise up and sing for joy!
For your life-giving light will fall like dew
    on your people in the place of the dead! – Isaiah 26:19 NLT

Isaiah seems to be expressing a belief in the resurrection of the dead. He knows that His God is more powerful than death and is fully capable of restoring to life all those who died while believing in God. The author of Hebrews wrote of the Old Testament saints like Noah, Abraham, Rahab, and David, who placed their faith in God and yet died in their faith.

All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. – Hebrews 11:13-16 NLT

They all eventually died, but their deaths were not the end. God will one day resurrect all the faithful who have died and fulfill His promise of eternal life. And as Isaiah so eloquently puts it:

…those who die in the Lord will live;
    their bodies will rise again!
Those who sleep in the earth
    will rise up and sing for joy! – Isaiah 26:19 NLT

So, with that assurance in mind, Isaiah tells the people of Judah:

Go home, my people,
    and lock your doors!
Hide yourselves for a little while
    until the Lord’s anger has passed.
Look! The Lord is coming from heaven
    to punish the people of the earth for their sins.
The earth will no longer hide those who have been killed.
    They will be brought out for all to see. – Isaiah 26:20-21 NLT

Don’t panic. Don’t stop trusting God. Be patient and believe that God will one day do what He has promised to do. Isaiah tells his fellow citizens to keep their eyes open and their focus on the future. The Lord is coming from heaven. And the apostle John was given a vision of what that glorious day will look like.

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 NLT

Things looked bleak in Judah, but the future of the nation was bright. There were going to be difficult days ahead. Judgment was going to come. The nation of Judah would eventually fall to the Babylonians, and the people would end up in captivity for 70 years. They would one day return to the land and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the temple of God, but they would remain without a king for generations, even until this very day. But God is not done. His plan is not yet complete. The day is coming when His fury will pass by, and He will once again extend His grace and mercy to His people.

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

To the Ends of the Earth.

b)1 Ah, land of whirring wings
    that is beyond the rivers of Cush,
2 which sends ambassadors by the sea,
    in vessels of papyrus on the waters!
Go, you swift messengers,
    to a nation tall and smooth,
to a people feared near and far,
    a nation mighty and conquering,
    whose land the rivers divide.

3 All you inhabitants of the world,
    you who dwell on the earth,
when a signal is raised on the mountains, look!
    When a trumpet is blown, hear!
4 For thus the Lord said to me:
“I will quietly look from my dwelling
    like clear heat in sunshine,
    like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.”
5 For before the harvest, when the blossom is over,
    and the flower becomes a ripening grape,
he cuts off the shoots with pruning hooks,
    and the spreading branches he lops off and clears away.
6 They shall all of them be left
    to the birds of prey of the mountains
    and to the beasts of the earth.
And the birds of prey will summer on them,
    and all the beasts of the earth will winter on them.

7 At that time tribute will be brought to the Lord of hosts

from a people tall and smooth,
    from a people feared near and far,
a nation mighty and conquering,
    whose land the rivers divide,

to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the Lord of hosts. – Isaiah 18:1-7 ESV

Cush isn’t exactly a household name for most of us. If asked to locate it on a world map, we might not know what region of the globe to begin our search. But because this next oracle is directed at the land of Cush and all of the preceding oracles have had connections with nations who had direct ties to the people of Judah, we can assume Cush was in close proximity to the promised land.

In the book of Genesis, we have the record of God’s destruction of the world through a global flood. Noah and his family, including his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, were the only ones to survive God’s judgment on the world. According to Genesis 10:6, Ham became the father of Cush. One of the sons born to Cush was a man named Nimrod. Interestingly, the Genesis account only provides a history of this one son of Cush.

Cush was the father of Nimrod; he began to be a valiant warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. (That is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.”) The primary regions of his kingdom were Babel, Erech, Akkad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen, which is between Nineveh and the great city Calah. – Genesis 10:8-12 NLT

There are some names that should jump out at us in this passage: Babel, Shinar, Assyria, and Nineveh. Of course, Babel is where mankind attempted to disobey God’s command to spread across the earth and populate it. Instead, they decided to erect a tower that would reach to the heavens. In reality, they wanted to build their own reputation as a great and mighty people. But God confused their languages and they dispersed. But Babel would later become the region known as Babylon.

Many scholars believe Shinar to be a reference to the land of Sumer, where the Sumerians lived. This region was located in southern Mesopotamia, in what is now southern Iraq. The Sumerians eventually built the city of Ur, which was the hometown of Abraham. Of course, Assyria is more familiar to most of us. It was a great nation that occupied an area that included what is now Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Their capital city was Ninevah. 

So, we can see that the descendants of Cush has a long and less-than-friendly history with the people of God. But in Isaiah’s day, the Cushites resided in the area south of Egypt. Some believe that they were actually Ethiopians. Isaiah describes them as “a nation tall and smooth…a people feared near and far, a nation mighty and conquering, whose land the rivers divide… (Isaiah 18:2 ESV). The 1st-Century Jewish historian, Josephus, records, “For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews).

In Isaiah’s day, the land of Cush would have been the end of the world. It was about as far from the land of Judah as one could imagine. And yet, God directs Isaiah to deliver an oracle against this distant nation. Why? Because Judah, facing the prospect of an attack by a combined force made up of Syrians and Israelites, was considering forming their own alliances. In other words, they were looking for aid in their moment of desperation. And the Cushites, along with the Egyptians, would have been logical options for the people of Judah to consider.

But God has a warning for the people of Cush. In fact, His oracle includes all the nations of the earth.

All you inhabitants of the world,
    you who dwell on the earth… – Isaiah 18:3 ESV

Rather than using the Cushites to save the people of Judah, God commissions them to take a message to the nations of the earth. He wants them to warn these nations that judgment is coming.

…when a signal is raised on the mountains, look!
    When a trumpet is blown, hear! – Isaiah 18:3 ESV

There will be signal for battle and no one will miss it. When that day comes, the nations are to take notice and prepare for the worst. And God warns:

“I will quietly look from my dwelling
    like clear heat in sunshine,
    like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.” – Isaiah 18:4 ESV

There will be no panic on God’s part. There is almost a feeling of nonchalance in this statement, as if God simply looks down and knows it is time to act. And the next verse describes the actions of a farmer pruning His crops.

For before the harvest, when the blossom is over,
    and the flower becomes a ripening grape,
he cuts off the shoots with pruning hooks,
    and the spreading branches he lops off and clears away. – Isaiah 18:5 ESV

But God’s pruning of the nations would appear premature, before they had time to fully produce fruit. In a sense, He would nip in the bud their plans for world domination. He would prune the fruit of their conquests and desires for global subjugation.

And the results of God’s judgment will be devastating.

They will all be left for the birds of the hills
and the wild animals;
the birds will eat them during the summer,
and all the wild animals will eat them during the winter. – Isaiah 18:6 NLT

The book of Revelation speaks of a coming day of judgment that is eerily similar in tone.

Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” – Revelation 19:17-18 ESV

There is a coming day of judgment for all mankind. God will deal righteously and justly with the rebellious nations once and for all time. He will bring an end to sin. He will destroy the pride and arrogance of man, revealing Himself as the one and only God of the universe. And, later on in this book, Isaiah reveals something else that God will do in that day. It will be an act of mercy and grace. It will be a sign of God’s love and His desire to redeem a remnant from throughout the nations.

“For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations.” – Isaiah 66:18-19 ESV

They shall declare my glory among the nations. God will send His people to the far ends of the earth, even beyond the borders of Cush, in order that all people mighty hear of His glory, goodness and grace.

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 Righteous Judge and King.

1 Send the lamb to the ruler of the land,
from Sela, by way of the desert,
    to the mount of the daughter of Zion.
2 Like fleeing birds,
    like a scattered nest,
so are the daughters of Moab
    at the fords of the Arnon.

3 “Give counsel;
    grant justice;
make your shade like night
    at the height of noon;
shelter the outcasts;
    do not reveal the fugitive;
4 let the outcasts of Moab
    sojourn among you;
be a shelter to them
    from the destroyer.
When the oppressor is no more,
    and destruction has ceased,
and he who tramples underfoot has vanished from the land,
5 then a throne will be established in steadfast love,
    and on it will sit in faithfulness
    in the tent of David
one who judges and seeks justice
    and is swift to do righteousness.”

6 We have heard of the pride of Moab—
    how proud he is!—
of his arrogance, his pride, and his insolence;
    in his idle boasting he is not right.
7 Therefore let Moab wail for Moab,
    let everyone wail.
Mourn, utterly stricken,
    for the raisin cakes of Kir-hareseth.

8 For the fields of Heshbon languish,
    and the vine of Sibmah;
the lords of the nations
    have struck down its branches,
which reached to Jazer
    and strayed to the desert;
its shoots spread abroad
    and passed over the sea.
9 Therefore I weep with the weeping of Jazer
    for the vine of Sibmah;
I drench you with my tears,
    O Heshbon and Elealeh;
for over your summer fruit and your harvest
    the shout has ceased.
10 And joy and gladness are taken away from the fruitful field,
and in the vineyards no songs are sung,
    no cheers are raised;
no treader treads out wine in the presses;
    I have put an end to the shouting.
11 Therefore my inner parts moan like a lyre for Moab,
    and my inmost self for Kir-hareseth.

12 And when Moab presents himself, when he wearies himself on the high place, when he comes to his sanctuary to pray, he will not prevail.

13 This is the word that the Lord spoke concerning Moab in the past. 14 But now the Lord has spoken, saying, “In three years, like the years of a hired worker, the glory of Moab will be brought into contempt, in spite of all his great multitude, and those who remain will be very few and feeble.” – Isaiah 16:1-14 ESV

Chapter 16 continues God’s oracle concerning the Moabite kingdom. And, in reading this section of the oracle, it is important to consider how much, if any, of God’s words, have been fulfilled or remain to be fulfilled. It is clear that God has already warned them of a day when they would suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of some outside force. The cities of Ar and Kir would be laid waste in a single night. The temple to their false god, located in Dibon, would be destroyed, and the people would be left in a state of mourning.

But now, God speaks of a day when the Moabites will send tribute to the king of Judah, in the form of a lamb. The refugees from Moab, shaking with fear and desperate for aid, will beg the king of Judah to provide them with shelter.

“Give counsel;
    grant justice;
make your shade like night
    at the height of noon;
shelter the outcasts;
    do not reveal the fugitive;
let the outcasts of Moab
    sojourn among you;
be a shelter to them
    from the destroyer.” – Isaiah 16:3-4 ESV   

The oracle speaks of a time “When the oppressor is no more, and destruction has ceased, and he who tramples underfoot has vanished from the land” (Isaiah 16:4 ESV). While that aspect of the prophecy could have been fulfilled sometime in the past, the next verse suggests that it remains yet to be fulfilled. The oracle speaks of a king and a throne.

…then a throne will be established in steadfast love,
    and on it will sit in faithfulness
    in the tent of David
one who judges and seeks justice
    and is swift to do righteousness. – Isaiah 16:5 ESV

This prophetic promise speaks of a very specific king, one who will be a descendant of David and rule with love, faithfulness, justice, and righteousness. This ties into an earlier promise revealed in chapter nine.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
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.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:1-7 ESV

This passage speaks of the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ when He will rule from the throne of David in the city of Jerusalem for a period of 1,000 years. This will not take place until the end of the seven-year period of Tribulation when God will bring His judgments upon the earth. But when the time of the Great Tribulation is complete, Jesus will return and establish His kingdom on earth. That can be the only fulfillment of the oracle found in chapter 16 of Isaiah. And Isaiah spoke of that day all the way back in chapter two.

It shall come to pass in the latter days
    that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
    and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war anymore. – Isaiah 2:2-4 ESV

Moab will be among the nations in that day, that flock to the land of Israel, seeking to worship Jesus Christ and God Almighty. But long before that day takes place, God warns the Moabites that their coming destruction will be due to their excessive pride.

We have heard about Moab’s pride,
their great arrogance,
their boasting, pride, and excess.
But their boastful claims are empty! – Isaiah 16:6 NET

The oracle pictures utter devastation. Their pride would be replaced with humiliation and their joy with sorrow. All that they had put their trust in will have been destroyed. Their fields will lay barren. Their vines will no longer produce grapes. And, in their devastated state, the Moabites will continue to seek the aid of their false gods.

The people of Moab will worship at their pagan shrines,
    but it will do them no good.
They will cry to the gods in their temples,
    but no one will be able to save them. – Isaiah 16:12 NLT

Their idols will prove no match for God Almighty. But in the midst of all the judgment, God will reveal His heart for the people of Moab.

My heart’s cry for Moab is like a lament on a harp.
    I am filled with anguish for Kir-hareseth. – Isaiah 16:11 NLT

God does not find some kind of perverse joy in His judgment of the wicked. The prophet, Ezekiel, records God’s sentiments in His own words.

“Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign LORD. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.” – Ezekiel 18:23 ESV

But, because He is righteous and holy, He must punish those who reject Him as God. He cannot turn a blind eye to sin. He cannot simply tolerate the rebellion of His own creation. And, much of what God does to the nations by way of judgment was intended to wake up His own chosen people, Israel. He wanted them to know that they to would suffer a similar fate, if they did not repent and return to Him.

“As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?” – Ezekiel 33:11 NLT

The judgment of God was coming. In fact, within three years time, the Moabites would be overwhelmed and destroyed. And their fall should have been a wakeup call to the nation of Judah. There was no reason to hope and trust in nations because they would fail and fall. There was no sense in continuing to rebel against God because His judgment was inevitable and inescapable.

But God, in His grace and mercy, reveals that a remnant of the Moabites would remain. And it will be the future descendants of those survivors of God’s judgment who one day will flock to the city of Jerusalem and worship the right King of Israel, Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

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 Favor of God.

 1 And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach.”

2 In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. 3 And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, 4 when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. 5 Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. 6 There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. – Isaiah 4:1-6 ESV

The opening verse of chapter four ties directly to the coming judgment of God revealed in chapter three. Because of the rebellion of the people of Judah and their refusal to place their trust in God, He would bring devastating, yet well-deserved judgement upon them. And this would come about through the Babylonian empire. God would cause this powerful pagan nation to place Jerusalem under siege, eventually destroying their capital city and taking captive many of the most wealthy and influential of its inhabitants. They would also take all those who had skills or abilities that could benefit the Babylonian nation, not to mention thousands of Judah’s finest warriors.

And the king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon all the men of valor, 7,000, and the craftsmen and the metal workers, 1,000, all of them strong and fit for war. – 2 Kings 24:16 ESV

This would leave a dirth of able-bodied men back in Judah. Which is why Isaiah describes seven women fighting over a single eligible bachelor to claim as their husband, so that they might not face the reproach of being unmarried in a patriarchal society. Isaiah describes the degree of their desperation by having them barter for a man by offering to provide their own food and clothing. In other words, they would be willing to reverse the normal roles in marriage by acting as the provider.

The phrase, “in that day” appears repeatedly in the book of Isaiah, and can be a reference to the coming fall of Judah to the Babylonians. But as we have seen before, the prophecies of this book carry a now/not yet aspect to them. They will be fulfilled in the not-so-distant future. In this case, it refers to the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC to the Babylonians. But “in that day” also refers to a much more significant fulfillment to the prophecies of this book. There remain aspects of Isaiah’s prophetic pronouncements that remain unfulfilled, and the rest of this short chapter deal with that coming day.

Up until this point in Isaiah’s book, the future described for Judah has been a bleak and foreboding one. It involves the wrath and judgment of God. It will include the fall of Judah to the Babylonians, but also even greater devastation and divine discipline that will come at a much later date – a time that has not yet come.

But is verses 2-6, God reveals that the future for Judah is not all doom and gloom. While they will face His judgment, they will also enjoy His divine favor. God has a glorious future in store for them, in spite of all their unfaithfulness and their refusal to place their trust in Him. And it seems perfectly clear that this promise from God remains unfulfilled. It has not yet taken place. Isaiah writes:

In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. – Isaiah 4:2 ESV

While some see the phrase, “the branch of the Lord” as a messianic statement, referring to Jesus Christ, it is better translated as “the vegetation of the Lord.” The NET Bible translates verse two as “the crops given by the Lord will bring admiration and honor.” The land, left desolate and devoid of vegetation by the judgments of God will be renewed and restored by God. While aspects of this prophecy were fulfilled after the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians, they were incomplete. This is referring to a far-more-distant point in time, at the end of the period of Tribulation. At that time, God will inact a scorched-earth policy on the world, bringing devastating, never-before-seen judgments in the form of plagues, famines and meteorological disturbances that will impact the earth’s food supply.

And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up. – Revelation 8:7 ESV

…and a third of the sea became blood. A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. – Revelation 8:8-9 ESV

A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter. – Revelation 8:11 ESV

The land of Judah will suffer greatly, along with the rest of the world. But God promises to restore the land to its original fruitfulness. The land of Israel will become a land flowing with milk and money yet again. It will be used by God to supply the physical needs of the people of God. But there is more.

God is going to restore His people spiritually. He is going to do for them what they were incapable of doing for themselves. God judgments will have resulted in the purging of the stains of sin from His people. And Isaiah states that those who remain in the nation of Israel and the city of Judah will be called holy or set apart by God once again, “when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning” (Isaiah 4:4 ESV). Not only will He restore the land to fruitfulness, He will restore His people to faithfulness. And the prophet Ezekiel wrote about this coming day.

22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:22-28 ESV

It is quite obvious that this prophecy remains unfulfilled. But it will be – in the future. God will keep His promise. Isaiah further describes the unique nature of “the day:”

Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. – Isaiah 4:5 ESV

God will restore His presence among them, revealing Himself in the same two forms He had used during their exodus from Egypt.

The LORD went ahead of them. He guided them during the day with a pillar of cloud, and he provided light at night with a pillar of fire. – Exodus 13:12 ESV

No more fires of judgment from the throne room of God. Rather than rain down fire from heaven in judgment, He will reveal Himself as a guiding and protecting flame.

And Isaiah reveals that God’s glory will cover His people, just as it had filled and covered the tabernacle during their days in the wilderness.

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.… For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys. – Exodus 40:34, 38

God will be their protector and provider. While the human leaders in whom they had placed their hope and trust had failed them, God would not. This future day will be like none other the people of Judah had ever experienced. And the book of Revelation provides us with a glimpse of just how glorious it will be.

34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 36 Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. 37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys. – Revelation 21:34-38 ESV

God is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. He always does what He has promised to do. And while He would punish Judah for its sins, He would also restore them because of His everlasting, neverending love and abundant grace and mercy.

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

Unearned and Undeserved.

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” –  Matthew 20:1-16 ESV

Jesus ended this section the same He did the last one – with the words, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30 ESV). Jesus was still attempting to provide His disciples with further insight into His encounter with the rich young man. While Jesus was trying to clarify their misconceptions, they were still struggling with the content of the exchange between Jesus and the young man. While they believed the young man’s wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, Jesus had said it was difficult, if not impossible, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. When the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?”, Jesus had dropped the bombshell, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).

The young man had walked away, rather than do as Jesus had commanded. He had been unwilling to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. His love affair with materialism had kept him from following Jesus. The cost was too high. The sacrifice, too great.

Recognizing the angst and anxiety on the faces of His disciples, Jesus told them a parable. It was clearly designed to explain what He meant by the first will be last, and the last first. He used an easy-to-comprehend scenario from everyday life, intended to illustrate and explain a deeper, more mysterious spiritual reality. The whole purpose behind this parable was to explain life in the kingdom of heaven, and the disciples were going to discover, yet again, that it would not harmonize with their preconceived notions.

It’s essential that we notice that this parable involves the work or efforts of the laborers and the reward of the landowner. Remember, the rich young man had come to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life. He was thinking in terms of labor or effort in order to gain entrance into God’s kingdom. And when Jesus told him to sell all that he owned and give it to the poor, Jesus was not suggesting that obedience to that one command would provide the man eternal life. He was revealing the true focus of the man’s faith, hope and security. It was in his wealth. 

In Jesus’ story, the landowner went out early in the morning and hired laborers to work in his vineyard, offering each of them a denarius for their wage. And they had all agreed to the conditions of the contract. But throughout the rest of the day, at 9:00 am, Noon, and 5:00 pm, the landowner continued to hire additional workers. In each case, the landowner found men “standing idle in the marketplace” (Matthew 20:3, 6 ESV). And when he asked them why there were not working, the men answered, “Because no one has hired us” (Matthew 20:7 ESV). They had no place to work. They were laborers with nothing to do. But the landowner changed all that. He replaced their idleness with productive activity. They could not create work for themselves. They owned no vineyard of their own. They were at the mercy of the one who owned the vineyard.

When the work day had come to an end, the landowner called all the men together in order to pay them for their labor. And this is where the main point behind the parable appears. The landowner paid every man a denarius, regardless of how long they had worked. The only group he had agreed to pay a denarius had been the first one. And Jesus made it a point to reveal that the last group hired had been the first to receive the wages for their work. That means that the first group had to stand back and watch as each group of workers received the same level of pay, regardless of the amount of work they had done. In their minds, they assumed that the level of pay would increase based on the number of hours worked. When the first group got a denarius, they automatically assumed that their reward would be greater because they had labored longer and harder. But they were incensed to find out that their pay was no greater, and shared their disappointment with the landowner.

“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” – Matthew 20:12 ESV

Don’t miss what they said: “You have made them equal to us.” This statement provides an essential clue to the primary point of the parable. You have to go all the way back to the scene that began this whole exchange. The disciples had been arguing over which of them was the greatest in the kingdom. And now we have Jesus telling them a story that shows what appears to be a case of extreme inequality and unfairness. The laborers, like the disciples, were hung up on the idea of earned reward. The men who labored the longest were convinced that their efforts deserved greater compensation. They had earned more because they had done more.

But the landowner, unmoved by their complaint, told them to take what they had been offered. It was exactly what they had agreed to in the beginning. They had no right to question the generosity of the landowner. He was free to pay each man whatever he chose to pay them. And he asked the disgruntled laborers a rhetorical question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:15 ESV).

It’s important to recall Peter’s earlier response to Jesus.

Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” – Matthew 19:27 ESV

He was asking Jesus would he could expect to receive in the way of reward based on what he believed to be the greater degree of sacrifice. In essence, he was saying that he and his fellow disciples had earned more because they had done more.

Like the disciples, we hear this story and think in term of labor and reward. He can’t help but see the actions of the landowner as somehow unfair or unjust. But Jesus is emphasizing the grace of the landowner, not the efforts of the laborers. None of the men had earned their reward. They had no even earned the right to labor. They had been graciously hired by the landowner and given the privilege of working in his vineyard. And he was free to pay them whatever he determined to be just and fair. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for a common laborer. So, even those who men who had labored all day had received fair compensation.

Like the landowner in Jesus’ parable, it is God who calls laborers to work in His vineyard. He finds those who are “standing idle in the marketplace” and invites them to labor on His behalf. He has a predetermined reward prepared for them. And that reward is not based on the length or intensity of their labor. It is based on His grace and mercy.

The disciples had been the first to be called by Jesus. But that did not make them more worthy of reward. Their position as His disciples was not an indication of their value or a determiner of their right to greater spiritual compensation. Jesus wanted them to understand that their status as His followers was based solely on His invitation to follow Him. He had found them “standing idle in the marketplace” and had called them to labor alongside Him in the kingdom. And Jesus was going to be calling others along the way. And long after Jesus had returned to heaven, the disciples would see others responding to the call of Jesus and joining them in the work of the harvest. And, one day, each of us will receive the same reward, not based on how long we have labored or the work we have done, but based solely on the grace of God.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

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

Give, Rather Than Get Even.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” – Matthew 5:38-42 ESV

Now Jesus shifts His focus to what was known as the “law of retaliation” or lex talionis in Latin. This was a very common practice in the ancient Near East. And the Mosaic law had made provision for it. Exodus 21:23-25 reads: “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The book of Leviticus provides further insight into how this law was to be applied:

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 24:17-22 ESV

This was a corporate law, to be applied and overseen by the ruling authorities. It was not to be applied by individuals against individuals. But the Jews had lifted this law out of its context and extended its intended meaning. They had turned it into an excuse for personal retribution, with no jurisdiction by any legal authority. The problem with that interpretation was that it had no end. It would lead to an escalating form of violence as each offended party attempted to out-do the other in terms of payback. Yet, this law had actually been intended to legislate and therefore limit vengeance. It was prescriptive and restrictive, and was meant to defend against vigilante-style justice. The last thing any society needs is its citizens taking matters into their own hands when it comes to retribution for harm done.

But the Jews had a distorted understanding of this law. They were actually using it as justification for enacting revenge on those who did them harm. In their minds, lex talionis made payback a viable option in any and all cases. In other words, they believed it taught that retribution was permitted by God and, therefore, was justifiable. But Jesus was out to confront their perception with reality.  He was going to teach them that God preferred that they pay back evil with good. They were to seek reconciliation, not retribution. Jesus provides them with a list of requirements that directly contradicted their understanding of  lex talionis.

“Do not resist the one who is evil”
“Turn the other cheek”
“Give your cloak as well”
“Go the extra mile”
“Give to the one who begs”
“Don’t refuse the one who would borrow from you”

What is Jesus saying? He is refuting their distorted, self-focused view and teaching against a spirit of retaliation and retribution. He is NOT denying the right to self-defense. He is NOT promoting pacifism. He is teaching a change of heart that allows us to respond in love, not anger. It was the very life that Jesus lived and modeled while He was on this earth. The prophet, Isaiah, had predicted that the Messiah, when He came, would suffer oppression and harsh treatment. But He would not retaliate.

He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. – Isaiah 53:7-8 ESV

On the night that Jesus was betrayed and arrested, He assured His disciples that this was all part of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Him. He could have retaliated, but He chose not to.

Then the others grabbed Jesus and arrested him. But one of the men with Jesus pulled out his sword and struck the high priest’s slave, slashing off his ear.

“Put away your sword,” Jesus told him. “Those who use the sword will die by the sword. Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly? But if I did, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now?” – Matthew 26:50-54 NLT

When Jesus was brought before the high priest after His arrest, He did not lash out, but instead, He fulfilled the very words of Isaiah.

Then the high priest stood up before the others and asked Jesus, “Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” But Jesus was silent and made no reply. – Mark 14:60-61 NLT

Jesus provides His listeners with five practical illustrations of what this life of self-sacrifice might look like.

Turn the other cheek – be willing to suffer shame for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Let him have your cloak as well – be willing to suffer loss for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Go with him two miles – be willing suffer inconvenience for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Give to the one who begs from you – be willing to suffer being taken advantage of for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Do not refuse the one who would borrow from you – be willing to suffer financial loss for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul sums up what Jesus is saying:

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord.

Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.”

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. – Romans 12:17-21 NLT

Do you see how radical and revolutionary all of this would have been to Jesus’ listeners? Jesus was contrasting the law of retaliation with the law of love. He was calling people to a life of self-sacrifice and a ministry of reconciliation, not revenge. He was telling them that the blessed or those who were approved by God would be the ones who understood their calling to give their lives away, rather than get even. Once again, Jesus was not teaching something new, but was clarifying what the Scriptures had always taught. The book of Proverbs contains numerous admonitions concerning the life of loving patience and reconciliation.

Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs. – Proverbs 19:11 NLT

If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you. – Proverbs 25:21-22 NLT

Revenge simply perpetuates the problem. Retribution, rather than solving anything, only results in further retaliation and escalating tension. That’s why Paul would encourage the believers in Corinth by telling them:

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. – Romans 12:14 NLT

And this was not something Paul taught, but failed to live out in his own life. He held himself to the same exacting standard.

We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. We appeal gently when evil things are said about us. Yet we are treated like the world’s garbage, like everybody’s trash—right up to the present moment. – 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 NLT

The apostle Peter would also encourage his readers to follow the teachings of Jesus and the example He had given with His own life.

Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it. For the Scriptures say, “If you want to enjoy life and see many happy days, keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it. The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and his ears are open to their prayers. But the Lord turns his face against those who do evil.” – 1 Peter 3:9-12 NLT

Peter quotes from Psalm 34, a psalm of David. And he uses the words of David to remind his audience that God rewards or blesses those who live according to His laws and standards. But the ability to live in accordance with God’s laws is impossible apart from the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. And the Spirit is only available to those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Paul, Peter and Jesus were teaching that this new life of self-sacrifice was impossible apart from the grace of God revealed in Christ alone and available through faith alone. Jesus knew that what He was teaching was beyond the capacity of His audience to carry out. They were incapable of living, loving, sacrificing and responding in the way Jesus was commanding. They might be able to pull off their distorted understanding of the law of retaliation, but when it came to the law of love, they were going to need help. They were going to require a righteousness they didn’t have and a strength they did not possess.

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

The Favor of God.

1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:1-11 ESV

The Gospel of Luke provides us with additional insight into the timeline going on in this scene. He records that Jesus took time to hand-pick the remainder of His 12 followers, who He would later designate as His apostles.

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. – Luke 6:12-16 ESV

The mention of the term, “apostle” is important, because it helps differentiate the 12 men Jesus chose from the rest of those who are called “disciples” in the story. Often, when reading the Gospel accounts, we can see the term “disciple” and automatically assume it only refers to the 12 men whom Jesus had called. But as we will see, a disciple was simply a designation for anyone who followed Jesus for any length of time. A disciple was a learner, someone who followed a particular teacher or rabbi in order to glean from them their wisdom or beliefs. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus had many followers, but this did not mean that they viewed Him as their Messiah or Savior. In fact, when Jesus began to teach truths that were more difficult to comprehend, the crowds began to disperse. His disciples or followers turned their backs on Him. In John’s Gospel, he records an exchange between Jesus and His followers where He told them, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:54 ESV). This statement confused His audience, leaving some a bit repulsed by the imagery He used. But rather than back down, Jesus took the metaphor a step further.

53 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” – John 6:53-58 ESV

John records that the people found the words of Jesus difficult to hear and even harder to understand. And Jesus knew there were many in His audience who did not believe what He had to say. Sadly, John records, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66 ESV).

Why is this important? Because as we begin this portion of Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus addressing a crowd of His disciples or followers, and it is essential that we not mistakenly assume that the term “disciple” refers to someone who is a Christian or believer in Jesus. At this early stage in His ministry, there are relatively few who could be truly termed Christ-followers. Even the 12 are operating with a very limited understanding of just exactly who Jesus is. So, when Matthew records what has come to be known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the makeup of the crowd was a mixed bag of individuals who were there for a variety of reasons and who made up a cross section of Jewish culture of Jesus’ day. There were plenty of peasants or common people in the crowd that day. But there were also representatives of the Jewish religious leadership. And, of course, there were the 12 apostles whom Jesus had just recently called. Luke lets us know that many were there out of curiosity and for purely self-centered reasons, having come “to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:18-19 ESV).

And Jesus, taking advantage of their presence and their undivided attention, addressed them about a topic that was near and dear to all of them: The kingdom of heaven. But He was about to bring a radical new perspective to this familiar subject. As Jews, they would have considered themselves honorary citizens of the kingdom of heaven. They were the “chosen ones,” the descendants of Abraham and the hand-picked children of God. But Jesus is about to rock their world, presenting the kingdom of heaven and those who live in it, in a much different light than that to which they have grown accustomed. If you recall, Jesus had begun His ministry preaching the very same message that John the Baptist had preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV) The repentance He called for had to do with a change of mind, a rethinking of their current views on everything from God, righteousness, sin, salvation, and citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. As Jews, they thought they had it all figured out. They were the chosen people of God who had been given the law of God and access to the temple and the sacrificial system that allowed them to maintain a right standing with God. They were the apple of God’s eye, His prized possession and the designated recipients of His grace and love.

But in this paradigm-shifting message, Jesus will present a radical new perspective on what it means to live in the kingdom of heaven. And most of what He is going to tell them will leave them confused and conflicted. This will not be business as usual. His message will not confirm and conform to their present understanding of life in the kingdom of God. His words are meant to shock and surprise, to upset the status quo and reveal that something revolutionary was about to happen.

Nine different times in the opening lines of His message, Jesus uses the word, “blessed,” and He uses it to refer to those who are part of the kingdom of heaven because they have found favor with God. Their blessedness or right standing with God and designation as citizens of His kingdom has little do with what the Jews in Jesus’ audience would have deemed necessary for finding favor with God. Notice that Jesus doesn’t mention having a Jewish heritage as a prerequisite for blessedness. He doesn’t even bring up Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Instead, He mentions the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Those are the characteristics He uses to describe the blessed, those who have found favor with God and a place in His kingdom. But take a look at those attributes. Why would any of those seemingly negative characteristics qualify anyone for receiving God’s favor? For the average Jew, those descriptions would have represented everything to be despised and hated about life on this planet. Poverty of spirit was to be avoided at all costs. Mourning, while inevitable, was never seen as preferable. The Jews were a people who had suffered hundreds of years of oppression under the heavy-handed rule of outside forces like the Romans. Poverty, persecution, suffering, and mourning had become par for the course. And the idea of making peace with the Romans was about as far from the mind of the average Jew as showing mercy to a Gentile. 

But Jesus is painting a radically different picture of life in the kingdom of heaven. It is not what they think. It is not what they have come to expect. And the description of it’s citizens is quite different than they would have imagined or desired. As Jesus begins to unpack this message, He is going to bring a new outlook on an old, familiar topic. He is going to rock their world and reform their view on what it means to receive God’s favor. What Jesus is about to reveal to them is the message of the grace of God. He is going to destroy the myth of self-righteousness that permeated the mindset of the Jewish people. Their confident belief in their status as God’s chosen people was going to crumble as Jesus revealed the impossibility of living up to the standards of kingdom life. What Jesus is going to show them is the radical nature of God’s righteous requirements, their own inadequacy, and the need of God’s grace. Those who find comfort, receive mercy, find God, and enjoy life in the kingdom of heaven will be those who accept the free gift of God’s grace made available through His Son. 

Life in the kingdom of heaven cannot be earned. The favor of God cannot be merited through good deeds or right behavior. Righteousness is not a state one achieves through self-effort, but is a gift provided by a gracious God through the sacrifice of His own Son. A new day had dawned. The Son had come. The light was shining in the darkness.

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 Matchless Grace of God.

1 Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac. 4 And to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. And I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. 5 And I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in the midst of it, and afterward I brought you out.

6 “‘Then I brought your fathers out of Egypt, and you came to the sea. And the Egyptians pursued your fathers with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7 And when they cried to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did in Egypt. And you lived in the wilderness a long time. 8 Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan. They fought with you, and I gave them into your hand, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. 9 Then Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, arose and fought against Israel. And he sent and invited Balaam the son of Beor to curse you, 10 but I would not listen to Balaam. Indeed, he blessed you. So I delivered you out of his hand. 11 And you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, and the leaders of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And I gave them into your hand. 12 And I sent the hornet before you, which drove them out before you, the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.’” – Joshua 24:1-13 ESV

The last chapter revealed that “Joshua was old and well advanced in years” (Joshua 23:1 ESV). He knew his days were numbered and his time for leading the people of Israel was coming to an end. So, in this closing chapter of the book of Joshua, we see him attempting to prepare them for the next phase of their spiritual and physical journey with God. And he chose to prepare them for the future by looking at the past. Joshua gathered all the tribes together at Shechem. This was an important location that held significant memories for the Israelites. It was at Shechem that Abraham had built an altar to God, in response to the promise made to him by God: “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7 ESV). At that point in time, Abraham had no children, a barren wife, and the land was filled with Canaanites. But it was a promise made to him by God and Abraham took God at His word. 

Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD counted him as righteous because of his faith. – Genesis 15:6 NLT

Now, hundreds of years later, Joshua and the offspring of Abraham stood on the very same spot where Abraham had built his altar to God. It was at this strategic location that Joshua chose to give the people a brief, but vital history lesson. But from the outset, he let them know that this was actually a message from Yahweh, prefacing his remarks, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel” (Joshua 24:2 ESV). This was a message from God Himself, reminding His people of the role He had played in their founding as a nation. And the entire timeline concerning God’s interactions with the nation of Israel is filled with exampled of His unmerited grace and favor. He began with the call of Abraham, the son of Terah, an idolatrous pagan living beyond the Euphrates River in the land of Ur. God had chosen Abraham, not the other way around. God, in His grace and according to His sovereign will, had picked Abraham out of all the other inhabitants on the earth at the time. Notice that God mentions Nahor, the brother of Abraham, but that he was not the one selected. God’s choice was Abraham, and in spite of his idolatrous background. God had plans for Abraham, and those plans included a long and arduous journey to the land of Canaan. It was in Canaan that God provided Abraham with a son, Isaac. And, once again, this abbreviated version of the story stressed God’s matchless grace. It fails to mention Abraham’s old age and Sarah’s barrenness. It doesn’t point out their failure to trust God and their attempts to bring about His promise through human means. Abraham had tried to convince God to accept his manservant, Eliezer, as his heir. Sarah had tried to help God out by convincing Abraham to have a child by her maidservant, Hagar. But God had something far greater in mind. He was the God of the impossible and His promise was not going to be fulfilled through human cunning and cleverness. Sarah gave birth to a son, Isaac, another example of God’s grace. And from this one son came Jacob and Esau, from whom would come the nations of Israel and Edom. And while the Edomites would settle in the land of Seir, it was God’s sovereign will that the Israelites end up in Egypt, just as God had promised to Abraham.

“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.” – Genesis 14:13 ESV

Through a series of God-ordained events, Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob, ended up in Egypt where he became the second-highest ranking official in the land. And a famine in the land of Canaan forced his father and brothers to turn to Egypt for aid, reuniting the family and fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham. The descendants of Jacob would remain in Egypt for 400 years, until God sent Moses to set them free from their bondage and slavery to Pharaoh. Once again, a picture of God’s grace, because they had long ago stopped worshiping Him as God. During their four-century stay in Egypt they had begun to worship the false gods of Egypt. But God graciously delivered them, using a series of plagues to prove to them that He was the one and only God. God had told Moses:

6 “Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. 7 I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.’” – Exodus 6:6-7 ESV

And their exodus from Egypt had culminated with God’s gracious deliverance of the people of Israel from certain death at banks of the Red Sea. They had walked out of Egypt, only to find themselves standing at the shore of the sea with the armies of Pharaoh bearing down on them. And the people saw their situation as hopeless.

11 They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” – Exodus 14:11-12 ESV     

But God had graciously delivered them that day. And He had led them through the wilderness. He had taken to the land of Canaan. He had provided them with victories over their enemies. He had defeated Balak, thwarted the plans of Balaam, handed over the city of Jericho, and given them possession of the land, just as He had promised to do nearly half a century earlier. Over and over again, God stressed His role in their corporate story.

I took… (vs 3)

I led… (vs 3)

I made… (vs 4)

I gave… (vs 4, 8, 11, 13)

I sent… (vs 5, 12)

I plagued… (vs 5)

I did… (vs 5)

I brought… (vs 5, 6)

I destroyed… (vs 8)

I delivered… (vs 10)

And God summarized it all with the statement: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant” (Joshua 24:13 ESV). From the moment God had called Abraham to the day they had begun to occupy the land and enjoy the fruits it provided, God had been actively, graciously working on their behalf. Their entire history had been His story. He had done it all. From beginning to end. And it had all been an act of grace of God’s part – totally undeserved and unmerited. And God had done it all so that He might fulfill His divine plan to send His Son as the Savior of the world. The apostle Paul makes this point perfectly clear in his letter to the church in Galatia.

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 preordained that the Messiah, the Savior of the world, would be born a Jew, a descendant of Abraham. God’s plan was far greater in scope than just the occupation of a land somewhere in the Middle East by a particular people group. It was about the redemption of mankind and the future restoration of His creation. It was about the ultimate defeat of sin and death, not just the conquest of Canaan. Each and every part of Israel’s story was an expression of God’s grace and mercy, as He orchestrated His plan for the salvation of mankind. God was reminding His people that the many blessings they enjoyed were the result of His grace, not their inherent goodness or greatness.

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

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

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

The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Were Saved.

1 Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. 4 But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. 5 When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, 6 they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, 7 and there they continued to preach the gospel. Acts 14:1-7 ESV

After the Jews incited the wealthy and influential citizens to turn against Paul and Barnabas, they departed the city and made their way east, to Iconium, located on the easternmost border of the region known as Phrygia. Iconium was a Greek city-state, that due to its more distant location, had allowed its citizens to resist the influences of Rome, and maintain their more Grecian way of life and thinking. The city benefited from its location along a major trade route that linked Ephesus with Syria and the rest of the Mesopotamian world. Iconium was a virtual island of green in a sea of desert. It was lush and filled with vineyards, orchards and farms. And according to Greek mythology, it was the place where the gods, Prometheus and Athena, after a devastating world-wide flood destroyed all of mankind, made a race of new human beings by forming them out of mud and then breathing life into them. It was an eclectic city, made up of all kinds of people and, therefore, willing to tolerate a wide range of religious beliefs and practices.

When Paul and Barnabas arrived in town, they followed their usual pattern, and made their way to the local synagogue. As before, they found a congregation made up of ethnic Jews as well as God-fearing Jews or converted Gentiles. Luke tells us that, as a result of their ministry at the synagogue, “a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1 ESV). They found a receptive audience. These people responded positively to the message of forgiveness of sin and eternal life proclaimed to them by Paul and Barnabas. But, as usual, there were those who stood opposed to what they were saying and doing. Luke records that unbelieving Jews, or those Jews who resisted the message of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the world, “spurned God’s message and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 14:3 NLT). The message of the gospel was met with receptivity and animosity, acceptance and resistance. There were those who had their eyes opened and their hearts softened, while others remained blinded and hard-hearted, completely resistant to what they had heard. One of the things we should notice here is that both groups heard the very same message, spoken by the very same individuals. So, why did some respond positively while others reacted negatively. Were some more spiritual than others? Was it because some were more intelligent and able to comprehend what Paul and Barnabas were saying? Or could it be that some were just worse sinners than others and, therefore, harder to reach? You see, if we’re not careful, we can easily make salvation a man-focused event. In other words, we subtly and unknowingly, make it a decision that is completely man’s choice. But Paul would see a repetitive pattern take place as he ministered. He would see those who believed in Jesus, and those who stood opposed to the offer of salvation. And he would later write, “So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen” (Romans 9:18 NLT). And Paul, anticipating the shocked response of those who question the fairness of this kind of divine, seemingly arbitrary decision making, wrote:

19 Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”

20 No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? 22 In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. 23 He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. 24 And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles. – Romans 9:19-24 NLT

 The belief of some and the disbelief of others is not due to the communication skills of the messenger or the intelligence or comprehension levels of the hearer. It is all due to the mercy and grace of God. And while it would be easy for us to question God’s fairness or wonder about the rightness of His methodology, Paul would remind us that “it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it” (Romans 9:14 NLT). Paul, through his ongoing experience of sharing the gospel in all kinds of locations to all kinds of people, began to see and understand that what was happening was completely the work of God, not men. The fact that anyone came to faith in Christ was not because of Paul’s power’s of persuasion or oratory skills. It was due to the grace and mercy of God. Those who believed in the message of the gospel did so, not because they were smarter, more spiritual, or somehow more receptive, but because God chose for them to do so. Here is how Paul came to understand what he was seeing happen in the various cities in which he and Barnabas ministered.

25 Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
    I will now call my people.
And I will love those
    whom I did not love before.”

26 And,

“Then, at the place where they were told,
    ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
    ‘children of the living God.’”

27 And concerning Israel, Isaiah the prophet cried out,

“Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore,
    only a remnant will be saved.” – Romans 9:25-27 NLT

It was Jesus Himself who said, “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me, and at the last day I will raise them up” (John 6:44 NLT). And later on, in that same conversation with His disciples Jesus had said:

64 But some of you do not believe me.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning which ones didn’t believe, and he knew who would betray him.) 65 Then he said, “That is why I said that people can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me.” – John 6:64-65 NLT

Salvation is the work of God, not man. Paul and Barnabas were nothing more than tools in the hands of God. They spoke, but it was God who chose to open the ears of those who heard so they could respond. It was God who chose to show His mercy on some and not others. And while we may find this hard to accept, we must rest in the sovereign will of God, trusting that He knows what He is doing. That is exactly what Paul and Barnabas did. When their message met with resistance, they didn’t ring their hands and wonder what they had done wrong. You don’t see any sign of them questioning their tactics or making a concerted effort to make their message more user-friendly and appealing. They trusted that they were doing what Jesus had commanded them to do, and that God was doing what only He could do: draw men to Himself. And Luke records that “the apostles stayed there a long time, preaching boldly about the grace of the Lord. And the Lord proved their message was true by giving them power to do miraculous signs and wonders” (Acts 14:3 NLT). They didn’t worry about the number of converts. They didn’t despair over the ones who refused to hear. They simply did their job and left the results of up to God. And Luke tells us that “the people of the town were divided in their opinion about them. Some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles” (Acts 14:4 NLT).

It wasn’t until Paul and Barnabas learned of a plot on their lives, that they finally departed the city and headed for Lystra and Derby. But when they left the city of Iconium, it was far different than when they had arrived. There were new believers there. A congregation of born-again Jews and Gentiles had been formed, and it had been the work of God. And Luke tells us that the pattern continued as Paul and Barnabas began the process all over again, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with the citizens of Lystra and Derby. They were being led by the Spirit of God. They were obeying the command given to then by the Son of God. And they were watching many come to faith because of the sovereign work of God. 

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

Serve Like It.

7 The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. 8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. – 1 Peter 4:7-11 ESV

Once again, Peter gives his readers, and us, some advice about our behavior as believers in Jesus Christ. He tells us to be “self-controlled and sober-minded.” But the odd thing about this statement is the two reasons he gives for living this way: Because the end of all things is at hand and for the sake of our prayers. What is he talking about? What is he referring to by “the end of all things”? Peter, like all the other apostles, lived with a constant sense that the coming of the Lord was eminent. They lived with a short-term, temporary mindset when it came to their time on this earth. Jesus had said He would come again for them, and they lived as if that promise would be fulfilled sooner, rather than later. Here are just a few of their statements regarding the end of the age:

You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. – James 5:8 ESV

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. – Romans 13:11 ESV

…so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. – Hebrews 9:28 ESV

Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. – 1 John 2:18 ESV

By living with the end in mind, these men were able to keep their focus, even while surrounded by the cares and concerns of this life. They gained a different perspective about suffering and persecution keeping their eyes focused on the goal. That’s why Paul could say, “I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:13-14 NLT).  The author of the letter to the Hebrews provides us with these powerful words that encourage us to keep our attention focused on the temporary nature of our existence here:

You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. – Hebrews 3:13-14 NLT

So, Peter warns us. He reminds us to be self-controlled and sober-minded, because the days are short. Was he lying? Was he misinformed? Obviously, he was wrong. Here we are, nearly 2,000 years later, and the end has not yet come. Jesus has not returned. Was Peter overly optimistic or just driven by wishful thinking? No, he lived with a sense of eager anticipation. He longed for the return of His Savior. He had no idea when it would happen, but he lived as if it could be any day, and it could be. Concerning His own second coming Jesus said, “no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows” (Matthew 24:36 NLT). Jesus went on to tell His disciples, Peter being one of them, “So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42 NLT). And He qualified this statement by adding, “You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected” (Matthew 24:44 NLT). So, you can see why Peter lived with this optimistic, it-could-happen-any-day-now attitude, and he wanted us to live the same way. 

But what about his statement regarding prayer? What does he mean when he says that we are to be “self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers”? If prayer is the means by which we communicate with the Father, then it is important that we do so on a regular basis It’s likely that Peter had a special heart for prayer because of the words spoken to him by Jesus that night in the garden, just hours before Jesus was betrayed by Judas. Jesus had gone off to pray and had asked the disciples to keep watch.

Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” – Matthew 26:40-41 NLT

Peter, like the other disciples, had fallen asleep. He lacked diligence. He had allowed himself to fall asleep on the job. And just a few hours later, Peter would be the one to deny Jesus three times. That night would have stuck with him for years. And it radically changed his view regarding prayer. He knew that communication with God, the ability to share with the Father his innermost thoughts, and hear words of comfort and encouragement in return, were critical to living his life on this planet. And he wants us to know the very same truth. Prayer is not optional, it is vitally necessary.

Next, Peter highlights the necessity of love. It is another non-negotiable in the life of a believer. We are to love as we have been loved by Christ. And that love is to be ektenēs, a Greek word that means “stretched out” and conveys the idea of earnestness or ceaselessness. It is the kind of love by which the Father loves us. Over in Psalm 136, the phrase, “for his steadfast love endures forever” appears 26 times. God loves us tirelessly and unwaveringly. And we are to do the same. When we do, our love “covers a multitude of sins.” When we love it diminishes our capacity to hate. It keeps us from seeking revenge. It prevents us from suffering from jealousy and envy. Love keeps us from sinning against one another and allows us to react to those who persecute us in ways that “cover over” their sins against us. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us these sobering words that reflect life in His Kingdom:

44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. – Matthew 4:44-48 NLT

Peter adds hospitality to the list, encouraging us to open our hearts and our homes to others. And, we are to do it without complaining. Not only that, we are to use our God-given, Spirit-empowered gifts to serve one another. As children of God, chosen by Him and placed within His family, we are to live selflessly and sacrificially, treating others as more important than ourselves. Jesus came to serve, not be served, and we are to have that same mindset.

The use of our spiritual gifts is to build up the body of Christ, not our own reputation. We use our gifts to serve, not to impress others or to gain recognition for our superior spirituality. When we use our gifts properly, they bring glory to God. In fact, Peter tells us our gifts are given by God for good of the body of Christ, and they must be used properly so that “God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11 ESV). Paul told the believers in Corinth:

4 There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. 5 There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. 6 God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us.

7 A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. – 1 Corinthians 12:4-7 NLT

Our goal in life is to bring glory to God. That’s why Peter wraps up this short section with the words: “To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.” He is the one who called us. He is the one who provided His own Son as the payment for our sins. He is the one who raised Jesus back to life. He is the one who provided the Spirit for us and placed Him within us. He is the one who instructed the Spirit to give us gifts so that we might build up one another. And He is the one who has loved us unceasingly and undeservedly. So, why would we not do the same for those around us? We are to serve like Christ. He served us by sacrificing His life. And He is the one who said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends” (John 15:13 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

Honor Like It.

7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.  – 1 Peter 3:1-6 ESV

Now, Peter turns his attention to the husband. He addresses those men living within the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who happen to be believers and married. And, as with the women, Peter is concerned with those who are married to either a believing or non-believing spouse. His counsel will apply in either case. And the words he has to say to the husbands, while shorter in length, are loaded with meaning and significance. He tells them to “live with your wives in an understanding way.” That sounds easy enough, but we have to grasp what Peter is really saying. The Greek phrase he uses is κατὰ γνῶσιν, and it “according to knowledge.” What does that mean? Well, it begins with the Greek word for knowledge, which has a range of meanings. It can refer to general knowledge or intelligence, but it can also refer to moral wisdom that exhibits itself in right living. Peter seems to be encouraging a believing husband to live with his wife in such a way that his behavior shows a clear knowledge of right and wrong regarding his relationship with her. What would God have him do? How would God have him treat his wife? On top of that is the need for the husband to understand and know his wife, both as the individual to whom he is married and as a member of the female race. She is different in terms of personality and temperament, but also gender. The husband is going to have to take the time to get to know his wife and see her as God has made her. She is a unique individual whom God has gifted and equipped with her own personal character. A loving husband will take the time to know his wife well. And he will see her as God does, as “the weaker vessel.” 

But that phrase typically conjures up extremely negative connotations in our 21st-Century minds. It sounds patronizing and patriarchal, something a man would say and think. But Peter is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so we have to attempt to figure out what he means by these words. Is he referring to women as somehow inferior to men? Is he insinuating that they are less valuable or incapable of contributing to the well-being of the family or society?

Peter tells husbands to show honor to their wives. The Greek word he uses is timē, and it refers to deference, even reverence. It is an honor which naturally belongs to the one it is shown. They deserve it. The wife, as a woman, is a creation of God. She was made in the image of God. She was uniquely crafted by God to complement and complete the man. If we go back to the creation account found in the book of Genesis, we hear these words from God, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him” (Genesis 2:18 NLT). In the book of Proverbs, we read this assessment regarding a man who finds a wife. “The man who finds a wife finds a treasure, and he receives favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22 NLT). A wife is a blessing. She is a gift from God. Proverbs 31:10 describes the value of a wife as “more precious than rubies.” Proverbs 12:4 says she is “the crown of her husband.” And a believing husband should understand these things and honor his wife as such. She is precious, priceless and a gift from God – whether she is a believer or not.

But let’s go back to the term, “weaker vessel.” What did Peter mean? Is it a statement of physical strength? Perhaps. But that would seem to be an incomplete and, in some cases, inaccurate rendering. Not all women are physically weaker than all men. Is he referring to intelligence? That would be highly unlikely if we consider the centuries-worth of clear evidence that proves the female’s capacity to compete with men on an equal intellectual plane. So, what is Peter talking about and why would he use this kind of language to refer to wives? The Greek word Peter uses is asthenēs, and it has two significant parts: The second half of the word come from another Greek word, sthenoō, which refers to strength. The first half of the word is a negative participle that means “without.” So, the word Peter uses simply means, “without strength.” I tend to believe that Peter is using this word to speak of an unbelieving wife or at least, a wife who has followed her husband in accepting Christ, but is not as strong in her faith. It is the same word used by Paul when he refers to a weaker brother or sister in Christ.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul was forced to deal with a situation regarding the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. There were those in the church who understood that there was nothing wrong with eating this meat because there are really no such thing as other gods. They are figments of man’s imagination. But there were some in the church who, having come out of pagan backgrounds, viewed the eating of meat sacrificed to false gods as somehow worshiping them. They did not fully understand that these gods were not real, and Paul refers to them as “weaker.” He writes:

9 But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. 10 For if others see you—with your “superior knowledge”—eating in the temple of an idol, won’t they be encouraged to violate their conscience by eating food that has been offered to an idol? 11 So because of your superior knowledge, a weak believer for whom Christ died will be destroyed. 12 And when you sin against other believers by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong, you are sinning against Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 8:9-12 NLT

The idea was that there were those in the fellowship who didn’t know any better. They were “weaker” only in the sense of their spiritual understanding of the matters at hand. I think Peter is using this term in the very same way. It is not a blanket statement about women, but a reference to those wives who were either new believers or unbelievers. Their spiritual understanding was “without strength. ” And their husbands were to show them honor and treat them as a “weaker vessel.” It s the same attitude that Paul had.

22 When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. 23 I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. – 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 NLT

Peter says that these men were to see their wives as “heirs with you of the grace of life.” This does not necessarily mean salvation. Peter is most likely stating that men and women equally share in God’s gracious gift of life. He has made them both. And a husband and wife equally share in God’s gracious gift of marriage. They are in this thing called marriage together. And they share in the grace of God, together.

The final admonition Peter gives husbands is significant. He warns them that, if they ignore his words, their prayers will be hindered. It they do not treat their wives as “weaker vessels” and honor them as God does, their prayers to God will go unheard. Their inappropriate treatment of their wives will be seen as sin before God. That’s a sobering statement. And this all goes back to the behavior of those who have been called by God. We are to live differently. We are to behave in a way that mirrors our newfound status as sons and daughters of God. And one of the first ways our new life should show up  is in our relationships with other human beings, especially our spouses.

For a husband to live with his wife in an understanding way is going to take wisdom, patience, grace, mercy, and the help of the Holy Spirit. He is going to have to see his wife the way God does. He is going to have to view her through God’s eyes and make her spiritual well-being his highest priority, whether she is a believer or not. Just like the believing wife may bring her husband to faith by her righteous behavior, so a husband may lead his unbelieving wife to Christ by living with her in an understanding way, honoring her as a gift from God and his fellow heir in the grace of life.

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

No Escape.

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army and all the kingdoms of the earth under his dominion and all the peoples were fighting against Jerusalem and all of its cities: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Go and speak to Zedekiah king of Judah and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Behold, I am giving this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. You shall not escape from his hand but shall surely be captured and delivered into his hand. You shall see the king of Babylon eye to eye and speak with him face to face. And you shall go to Babylon.’ Yet hear the word of the Lord, O Zedekiah king of Judah! Thus says the Lord concerning you: ‘You shall not die by the sword. You shall die in peace. And as spices were burned for your fathers, the former kings who were before you, so people shall burn spices for you and lament for you, saying, “Alas, lord!”’ For I have spoken the word, declares the Lord.”

Then Jeremiah the prophet spoke all these words to Zedekiah king of Judah, in Jerusalem, when the army of the king of Babylon was fighting against Jerusalem and against all the cities of Judah that were left, Lachish and Azekah, for these were the only fortified cities of Judah that remained. – Jeremiah 34:1-7 ESV

Chapters 30-33 provided apleasant diversion from all the prophecies that Jeremiah had been required by God to proclaim to the people of Judah. They contain much more optimistic news regarding the long-term future of Judah. But now, in chapter 34, Jeremiah goes back to his original predictions of Judah’s looming destruction. The Babylonians are at thegate – literally. They have the city besieged and it’s only matter of time before the walls fall, the troops descend, and the destruction begins. And God has a special message for King Zedekiah.

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I am about to hand this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will burn it down. You will not escape his grasp but will be captured and taken to meet the king of Babylon face to face. Then you will be exiled to Babylon.” – Jeremiah 34:2-3 NLT

God doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of what is about to happen. It’s not going to be pretty. And Zedekiah is not going to escape the inevitable outcome of Judah’s apostasy and disobedience. Even the king will fall. He will be taken captive. But God has some good news for Zedekiah.

“You will not be killed in war but will die peacefully. People will burn incense in your memory, just as they did for your ancestors, the kings who preceded you. They will mourn for you, crying, “Alas, our master is dead!” – Jeremiah 34:4-5 NLT

Granted, at first blush this probably didn’t come across as the best of news to Zedekiah. And it doesn’t completely provide the details of Zedekiah’s ultimate demise. That comes later in the book of Jeremiah.

But the Babylonian troops chased King Zedekiah and overtook him on the plains of Jericho, for his men had all deserted him and scattered. They captured the king and took him to the king of Babylon at Riblah in the land of Hamath. There the king of Babylon pronounced judgment upon Zedekiah. The king of Babylon made Zedekiah watch as he slaughtered his sons. He also slaughtered all the officials of Judah at Riblah. Then he gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him in bronze chains, and the king of Babylon led him away to Babylon. Zedekiah remained there in prison until the day of his death. – Jeremiah 52:8-11 NLT

God was going to bring Zedekiah’s reign to an end. He would live out his days in captivity, blind and with the last scene he could remember being the death of his own sons. And this would happen because Zedekiah refused to heed God’s warning and submit to the authority of Nebuchadnezzar as a representative of God’s judgment. Jeremiah 52 tells us: “Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 52:3 NLT). This is what had led to the siege of Jerusalem, a situation that would last three years, leaving the citizens starving to death within the walls and awaiting their inevitable end at the hands of the Babylonians.

The end was coming. The very outcome of God’s prophecies concerning Judah was going to come to pass just as He had said – down to the last detail. And while the preceding chapters had outlined God’s future restoration of Judah and Israel, they would first go through a demoralizing and humiliating fall from God’s grace. They would suffer for their unfaithfulness. God would not and could not overlook their sin. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to their apostasy and spiritual adultery. How would it look if God simply excused their behavior? What would the nations of the earth think if the God of Israel did nothing about the blatant rebellion of the people of Israel? He would be seen as weak and incapable of ruling His own people. There would be no fear of Him among the pagan nations. He would be seen as impotent and inconsequential, rather than a force with which to be reckoned.

Before the grace of God could be experienced, the wrath of God would have to be assuaged. His justice would have to be meted out and the disobedience against His sovereign will would have to be punished. And while Israel and Judah would suffer for their sins, their complete reconciliation to God would eventually happen. There was a day coming when they would be restored to a right relationship with Him. Not because they deserved it. Not because they willingly returned to Him in repentance. But because He would choose to shower them with His grace and mercy, and make available to them the forgiveness made possible through His Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

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≠≠