power

The New Has Come

14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 ESV

4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. – Romans 6:4 ESV

22 …put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22-24 ESV

Paul emphatically claims that those who are in Christ are new creations. Their old way of life, what Paul refers to as the life “according to the flesh” is gone, having been crucified with Christ on the cross. And, according to Paul, this former life of the flesh was marked by a focus on self, but the new life, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection, is to be focused on His glory.

But what does all this really mean? What’s the practical reality of all this talk of new creations, new life, and the new self? Because as good as it sounds, the fact is, every Christian still wrestles daily with the very real presence of their old self. Paul even commands us to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life” (Ephesians 4:22 ESV). Yet, he told the Corinthian believers that “the old has passed away” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV). Which is it? Is the old self gone or do I have to put it off? If my old self died with Christ on the cross, why does it seem so very much alive and active in my life?

We tend to read passages like this with a black-and-white, either-or mindset. We hear Paul saying we are new creations and we expect to be able to live like it. When he tells us that the old is gone, we take him at his word and then wonder why it doesn’t seem to be true in our own lives. Which leads us to either question the reliability of Paul’s words or the veracity of our own salvation.

But there’s an important distinction that Paul makes in his letter to the Corinthians. In verse 16 he states, “we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16 NLT). The Net Bible translates that verse this way: “from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view.”

Much of what Paul is saying in these verses has to do with our perspective, the way we view things. As Christians, we are to view life through a different lens than we did before. We have a new, Spirit-enabled way of looking at life, because we have had our spiritual eyes opened to the truth. Prior to coming to faith in Christ, each of us suffered from spiritual blindness, and were incapable of seeing things from a spiritual perspective. BAck in chapter four, Paul described the sad state of those outside of Christ.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

Not only are they unable to see the glorious light of the Good News, they can’t see the reality of their own spiritual darkness. They are stuck on a physical plane where all their attention becomes focused on what they can see with their physical eyes. They are relegated to judging life and one another by external criteria alone. But when the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the life of the believer, it’s as if he or she receives the spiritual equivalent of Lasik surgery. Paul describes this spiritual eye surgery this way:

…people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. – 1 Corinthians 2:14 NLT

The Spirit of God allows us to see life the way God does, and God sees us as new creations, because we have been born again. This is the gist of the conversation that took place between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee. Jesus dropped the somewhat cryptic bombshell on Nicodemus: “unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3 NLT). And when Nicodemus expressed his confusion over Jesus’s words, Jesus responded, “Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:6-7 NLT).

Being born again is another way of expressing the new life to which Paul refers. With the new birth comes a new nature that allows a Christ-follower to see life with eyes wide open. No more blindness. No spiritual cataracts blurring our vision and giving us a distorted view of ourselves and the world around us. The Spirit of God gives us new eyes and a capacity to see things the way God does. That is why Paul says, “from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view.” We aren’t deceived or distracted by the outer manifestations of religious behavior or self-manufactured displays of righteousness – in ourselves or others. We aren’t impressed by the superficial signs of religious achievement that are really nothing more than dirty rags in the eyes of God. Instead, we see ourselves as God does: As new creatures. Like Paul, we are able to say, “The old has passed away—look, what is new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NET).

That doesn’t mean our old nature is dead and gone. But it does mean that it no longer holds sway over us. We are no longer slaves to our old way of living. And we are no longer blind to worthless nature of that old nature. It has no value. It brings nothing good to the table. And Paul is stressing that by focusing on our new nature – who we are in Christ – we’re able to treat our old nature with the disdain it deserves.

We’re able to recognize and believe that walking in newness of life is not only possible, but unavoidable. But we have to constantly remind ourselves that we are new creatures. We have new natures. We have a new power within us that makes a new way of living possible for us. Paul encourages us to remember that our new self has been “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness{ (Ephesians 4:24 ESV). That is the essence of our new nature. 

You are not a slightly new-and-improved version of the old you. Becoming a believer wasn’t a case of God whitewashing over your old sinful nature. No, He put that old nature to death on the cross. And Paul describes that unbelievable reality in very powerful terms.

My old self has been crucified with Christ. 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. – Galatains 2:20 NLT

A big part of understanding what Paul is saying comes with a change in our perspective. We have been trained to think of ourselves as works in process. We are always viewing ourselves as unfinished and incomplete. Most of us have grown up on a steady diet of achievement-based messaging. We’re never good enough, smart enough, thin enough, athletic enough, rich enough, popular enough, or even spiritual enough. So, we do more. We study harder. We exercise more often. We eat less. We attend more Bible studies.

But Paul would have us think before we act. He would encourage us to see ourselves as God sees us. We are new creations. As Paul told the believers in Ephesus:

…we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:10 NLT

This is not about us doing everything in our power to become what God desires for us to be. It is about us accepting the reality of who He has already made us in Christ. He has already created us anew. We are already new creations. We are not flawed creatures trying to improve ourselves so God will accept us. We are children of God, fully acceptable to God because of what Jesus Christ had done for us. He “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves” (2 Corinthians 5:15 ESV).

His death made our new life possible. We live new lives, not so we can be accepted by God, but because we have been accepted by God. As Paul put it, the life we live, we live by faith in the Son of God. Living according to our new nature begins with believing that we really do have new natures. It is resting in the knowledge that newness of life is not some kind of unachievable goal to be pursued, but a status to be embraced and believed.

That is why Paul so strongly emphasizes our relationship with Christ. It is not about us and all that we have to do. It is about Him and all that He has done on our behalf.

…just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. – Romans 6:4 NLT

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

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

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

 

The Filling of the Spirit

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. – Ephesians 5:15-21 ESV

We’ve discussed the power of the indweling Holy Spirit. At the moment of salvation, the third person of the Trinity takes up permanent residence in the believer, enabling them to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation,” (Philippians 2:15 ESV). It is the indwelling Spirit who makes it possible for the believer to conduct their life “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27 BSB). 

Yet, we all know that our lives don’t always reflect the Holy Spirit’s presence or demonstrate His power. If He indwells us and His power is meant to enable us, why do our lives so often appear as if He has abandoned us?

Paul would have us understand that it is an issue of obedience and submission. They Holy Spirit, just like the Father and the Son, must be obeyed. His permanent presence within us doesn’t mean He forces Himself upon us. He commanded the believers in Galatia to “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:16-17 ESV).

He reminded them that their new life in Christ was due to the Spirit. He said, “we live by the Spirit,” but he added, “let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25 ESV). The Holy Spirit is the one who made possible our new life in Christ. Paul told Titus that God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6 ESV). And yet, this new life requires that we “keep in step with the Spirit.”

The danger each believer faces is the temptation to live the Christian life in their own strength. In fact, Paul saw the Galatian believers doing that very thing and asked them, “After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (Galatians 3:3 NLT). They were falling back on their own ability to keep the law or, to put it another way, on their own self-righteousness. But in doing so, they were circumventing the power made available to them by the Holy Spirit.

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul was attempting to remind the believers of their need to be distinct and different from the world around them. He wanted them to imitate God and to live lives filled with love, following the example of Christ Himself. He warned them to “carefully determine what pleases the Lord” and to “take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness” (Ephesians 5:10-11 NLT). They were to live as people of the light, influencing others and exposing the darkness around them.

But how were they supposed to pull this off? What would make this kind of life possible? Paul warned them to be careful about how they conducted their daily lives, and to make sure they lived wisely and not like fools. But it all sounds so impossible. So, Paul gave them the only possible way to live the lives they’ve been called to live. And he used a very interesting comparison to make his point.

Strangely enough, Paul chose to use the imagery of drunkenness to illustrate the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. I don’t think he wrote these words because the believers in Ephesus had a drinking problem, but because the imagery would have made perfect sense to them. They had all seen the affects of alcohol and knew from first-hand experience what drunkenness looked like. So, Paul used this very down-to-earth analogy to help them understand that the Christ-life required submission to a power outside of themselves. It was all about control. Paul makes a direct comparison between being drunk and being filled.

drunk = filled

To be drunk with wine is to be controlled by or under the influence of wine. To be filled with the Spirit is to be controlled by or under the influence of the Spirit. Control has to do with submission to someone or something else. It is to submit to the influence of another. In the case of alcohol, to become drunk is to place yourself under its influence and control. When drunk, people say things they wouldn’t normally say. They do things that are out of character. They allow themselves to be controlled by a substance that influences their behavior and their thinking.

Paul’s audience knew that it meant to be drunk with and controlled by wine. And he uses that imagery to help them understand what it means to be filled with the Spirit. He was calling them to live controlled by the Spirit, not their own sinful flesh. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you (Romans 8:9 NLT). It’s a matter of control.

As believers, we are to live under the influence of the Spirit of God. And when Paul writes, “if you have the Spirit of God living in you,” he is not questioning their salvation. He is making a point about a positional truth. They did have the Spirit living within them, so they should have been living under His influence. Just like a drunk person can’t help but be influenced by alcohol, a believer can’t help but be influenced by the Spirit of God. For Paul, the power of the Spirit in the life of the believer was non-negotiable and non-debatable.

And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you. – Romans 8:10-11 NLT

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. – Romans 8:12-13 NLT

We have a power available to us that is beyond our wildest imaginations. It is the very same power that raised Jesus back to life after His body had laid lifeless in a grave for three days. That power resides within us and is available to us. It is designed to control and empower us. The Spirit of God is to fill us and flow from us, influencing our thoughts and actions. He makes it possible for you to “make the most of every opportunity in these evil days” (Ephesians 5:16 NLT). He allows you to “understand what the Lord wants you to do” (Ephesians 5:17 NLT).

But we must choose to live under His influence. Just as we can choose to get drunk with wine, we can choose to be filled with the Spirit by submitting to Him on a daily basis. We must seek Him. We must desire Him. We must obey Him. We must live under the influence of the Spirit of God if we want to have an influence in this world. And it’s all about submission and control.

As long as we think we are the masters of our own fate and the ones who control our lives, we will live powerless and pathetic lives, marked by defeat rather than victory and disappointment rather than joy. Jesus came that we might have abundant life, but that life is only possible through the power of the indwelling Spirit of God. But we must allow the Spirit of God to control us. We must willingly submit ourselves to His authority and avail ourselves of His divine power. When Paul said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV), he knew the source of that strength was the Spirit of God. And he was more than willing to live under the Spirit’s control and according to the Spirit’s plan. 

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

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

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

 

The Power of the Spirit

17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. – Romans 14:17-19 ESV

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

14 I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. – Romans 15:13-14 ESV

Remember what Jesus said to His disciples just prior to His ascension: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” (Acts 1:8 ESV). Luke records that Jesus promised that they would receive power and that power would be a result of the Holy Spirit’s coming. The Greek word for power is dynamis and, as you can see, it is where we get our word for “dynamite.” According to the Outline of Biblical Usage, it is “inherent power, power residing in a thing by virtue of its nature, or which a person or thing exerts and puts forth.” It can also mean the power to perform miracles.

When we consider the kind of power the disciples were to receive, we tend to associate it with that second meaning, the miraculous power to perform miracles. Why? Because we remember what happened that day in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples gathered in the upper room. Luke describes it for us:

…suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:2-4 ESV

And this extraordinary phenomena did not go unnoticed. 

…at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished… – Acts 2:6-7 ESV

The crowds that gathered were blown away by what they saw and heard because they immediately recognized that the disciples were Galileans. This prompted them to ask, “how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Acts 2:8 ESV).

We read this story and can’t help but associate the power of the Spirit with the miracle of speaking in tongues. And we are right to do so. But, at the same time, we tend to miss an important part of Luke’s record of the events of that day. While it’s only natural to focus on the miraculous nature of the disciples’ Spirit-empowered tongues-speaking, Luke wants us to consider what they were saying, not just how they were saying it.

“…we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” – Acts 2:11-12 ESV

There is no doubt that a miracle had taken place. Luke makes that point perfectly clear by providing a list of all the different ethnic groups represented whose languages were spoken by this small group of Galilean disciples. There were Parthians, Medes, and Elamites. There were residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and Libya. Not only that, there were visitors from as far away as Rome, the island of Crete and the region of Arabia.

This was a bonafide, Spirit-empowered miracle. But the point behind the miracle was the declaration of the mighty works of God. All of the people who gathered heard the wonders of God proclaimed in their own native tongue. And Luke notes, “all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?”” (Acts 2:12 ESV).

This obvious miracle had a not-so-obvious intent. It had gathered a crowd and had garnered attention. Not only that, it had raised the level of curiosity among those who saw and heard “the mighty works of God.” And Peter, under the power of the Holy Spirit, took advantage of the opportunity and addressed the crowd, sharing with them the good news concerning Jesus Christ. And Luke records that when Peter was finished, they were “cut to the heart” and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37 ESV).

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38 ESV).

And Luke points out that the real miracle that day was not the disciples speaking in tongues, but the conversion of thousands of sinners into saints.

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. – Acts 2:41 ESV

Jesus promised power, and that promise was fulfilled in stunning fashion. But that day was to be one day among many yet to come. The Spirit of God was far from finished. And much of His work would prove to be far less flamboyant and spectacular.

Which brings us to Paul’s message to the believers in Rome recorded in chapter 14 of Romans. He has had to address an issue taking place within the local congregation in Rome. There were some disputes taking place between believers over what we might call “grey areas.” The church was made up of people from all walks of life, social strata, income levels, and religious backgrounds. There were Jews who had converted to Christianity and Gentiles who had turned from paganism to faith in Christ. And, like any other church, it was made up of believers of varying degrees of spiritual maturity. 

The church in Rome had become a social, economic, racial, and religious melting pot. And, to a certain degree, it had become a spiritual petri dish where the Christian life was lived out, and the indwelling power of the Spirit was fleshed out in tangible and somewhat pedestrian ways.

Paul is addressing certain behaviors and personal beliefs that were causing conflict within the church. There were debates taking place over which foods were acceptable for Christians to eat. This had to do with meat sacrificed to pagan idols, which was often sold in the marketplace. The more mature believers were arguing that, since there was no such thing as a false god, because alone is God, the meat was perfectly fine for consumption. But the less-mature believers, many of whom had a pagan religious background, found the eating of this meat to be offensive – a kind of tacit approval of the false god to whom it was sacrificed. There were other conflicts brewing in the church as well, including arguments over which days were to be considered sacred and set apart as holy. These debates were dividing the church, and this led Paul to ask, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?” (Romans 14:10 ESV).

For Paul, the real issue was selfishness and self-centeredness. Each group was judging the other based on their own particular viewpoint. So, Paul gave them a sternly worded command: “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13 ESV).

These people were worrying about and arguing over which food was proper to eat and which day was right for worship. But, in doing so, they were failing to love one another. Each had made the issue about themselves. Their personal viewpoint had become sacred, and the unity of the body of Christ has become secondary. Which is what led Paul to say, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Don’t miss that last part of Paul’s statement. “Righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is not to be viewed as some kind of disembodied force that provides power for performing crowd-gathering miracles. He is the Spirit of God who dwells within the people of God so that they might express the righteousness, peace, and joy that come from God. And the forum for living this out is within the family of God.

In the very next chapter of his letter, Paul expands on his call for corporate unity through the power of the indwelling Spirit.

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself…  – Romans 15:1-3 ESV

He uses Jesus Himself as an example of what it looks like to please your neighbor for his good and to build him up. Even Jesus explained His ministry in terms of selfless service, not self-centeredness.

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

It was Paul’s heartfelt desire that the believers in Rome live in Spirit-empowered unity.  He knew there was no other way they could pull it off. The true miracle of the church is that it exists at all. It is a work of God. Which is why Paul asked God to unify the Roman believers and provide them the resources they needed to glorify Him together. 

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Romans 15:5-6 ESV

And how does God do this? Through His indwelling Spirit. Paul makes that point clear when he prays yet again: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

The power of the Spirit is intended to transform our lives. The third person of the Trinity exists to radically alter the lives of those who have placed their faith in Christ and whom God has placed within the body of Christ. Our unity will not be the result of human effort, but the power of the Spirit.

It’s interesting to note how Luke records the gathering of the disciples in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. He writes, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1 ESV). On closer inspection, we find that the term “all together” carries far more significance than we might think. Luke used the Greek word, homothymadon, which means “with one mind, with one accord, with one passion.” The disciples were of like mind. They had unity of purpose. They had been told by Jesus to return to Jerusalem, where they were to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And it was in that state of unity, accord, and like-minded passion, that the power of God came upon them. 

They were transformed and, as a result, the world was forever changed. The power of the Spirit isn’t about external miracles but about the transformation of lives and the miraculous, mysterious formation of the body of Christ.

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

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

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

 

The Fruit of the Spirit

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. – Galatians 5:122-26 ESV

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. – Romans 8:12-14 ESV

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul prayed that their knowledge and understanding of their newfound position in Christ would deepen so that their love for one another would continue to grow. He knew that their capacity to love was directly tied to their comprehension of the love, mercy, and grace God had showered on them. And Paul assured them that, because of their relationship with Christ, they had a new ability to make wise life choices, that would result in them being “pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10 ESV). Paul was not promising them sinless perfection in this life, but he was assuring them that they could live in obedience to the will of God, and exhibit “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11 ESV).

But how? What was going to transform these former sin-enslaved pagans into pure and blameless saints who know how to live discerningly, wisely, and lovingly?

It was the indwelling Spirit of God, the “helper” or advocate Jesus Himself had promised. Jesus had assured His followers that, with His departure, the Holy Spirit would come to dwell with them and in them, providing them with all the help they needed to complete the commission He would give them. 

“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” – John 14:26 ESV

The Spirit was going to be their personal advocate, but that doesn’t imply some kind of subservient, Genie-in-a-bottle kind of role. He would continue what Jesus had been doing in their lives for the last three-and-a-half years, teaching, training, and discipling them. And Jesus later told them, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13 ESV). Not only that, when they found themselves in times of difficulty and facing extreme opposition, Jesus assured them, “the Holy Spirit will teach you what you should say” (Luke 12:12 BSB).

The Spirit was not to be viewed as some kind of add-on or perk to be used like a valet or personal assistant. He wasn’t going to be their servant, but He would be a source of divine power, enabling them to live out their salvation in supernatural, yet fully tangible ways. Paul describes this as the “fruit of righteousness” and its presence in the life of a believer brings glory and praise to God, because He is its ultimate source. 

And this fruit of righteousness is not ethereal and other-worldly. It’s practical and personal, expressing itself in ways that impact the lives of those around us. Look at Paul’s list in Galatians 5. The fruit of the Spirit shows up as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Every one of those things is other-oriented. They are designed to benefit others, not ourselves. Yet, we tend to think of the Holy Spirit as existing for our good pleasure. We view Him as some kind of life-enhancement coach whose sole purpose is to make our existence as easy and enjoyable as possible. 

But Paul insists that the fruit of the Spirit is not intended for us. It is produced in us by the Spirit for the sole purpose of benefiting those around us. There’s no doubt that we benefit from the Spirit’s presence within us, but if we attempt to over-personalize His purpose for indwelling us, we will fail to appreciate the fruit He wants to produce through us. God didn’t place His Spirit within you so that you would love yourself more. The Spirit enables you to love self less and others more. He produces joy in you, but that joy is not to fixate on you. It’s a joy that exists regardless of the circumstances and brings comfort to others as they watch you rejoice in the face of difficulty. Paul insisted that God “comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Corinthians 1:4 NLT).

Paul says that the Holy Spirit produces the fruit of peace in you, not so you can have a peaceful, problem-free life, but so that you might live in peace with others. The Spirit miraculously produces patience in you, enabling you to express that patience to those around you – especially to those who test your patience.

The fruit of the Spirit is designed by God to bless others. It is not intended to benefit the fruit-bearer. An apple tree receives no personal benefit from the apples is bears. It is simply doing what it was created by God to do. And as Jesus told His disciples, “When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father” (John 15:8 NLT). Our fruitfulness, made possible by the Spirit’s presence within us, benefits those around us and demonstrates Christ’s redemption of us. 

Our fruitfulness is a byproduct of our relationship with Christ. Because we placed our faith in Him, He placed His Spirit in us. And His Spirit produces His fruit in us so that Christlikeness might from flow from us. The key is that we must recognize the Spirit’s presence in us and understand His purpose for producing His fruit through us. He is the only reason we can live godly lives. He is the only source we have for living out our identity in Christ, allowing us to live as “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15 ESV).

But fruit-bearing requires abiding. As Jesus told His disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 NLT). And the means by which we remain in Christ is through the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. He is the key to our fruitfulness. He is the key to our faithfulness. It is when we willingly allow Him to lead us that His fruit begins to flow up from us. Our acknowledgement of His presence and submission to His power allows us to enjoy the blessing of being fruitful. It also provides us with a much-needed reminder that apart from Jesus and the Spirit of God, we can do nothing. But because of them, all things are possible.

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 Mind of the Spirit

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. – Galatians 5:16-18 ESV

5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. – Romans 8:5-10 ESV

Living water. That’s how Jesus described the ministry of the Spirit in the life of the believer. He told His disciples that whoever believed in Him would have “rivers of living water” flow from his heart. And John makes it clear that this rather obscure reference was to the coming Holy Spirit. 

Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. – John 7:39 ESV

Prior to His death and resurrection, Jesus spent a great deal of time attempting to prepare His disciples for His eventual departure. On numerous occasions He warned them that He was going to Jerusalem where He would be put to death. His disciples had a difficult time accepting these dire predictions because they didn’t fit their understanding of the Messiah’s role. At one point, Peter even rebuked Jesus for saying such things, telling Him, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:23 ESV). 

Peter didn’t understand the significance of Jesus’ death. The idea of Jesus being the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world had escaped Peter and his companions. And, while Jesus had repeatedly spoken of His death and His resurrection, the disciples remained fixated on the idea of Jesus setting up His earthly kingdom in their lifetimes. They were eagerly waiting for Him to enter Jerusalem and present Himself as the long-awaited Messiah and King of the Jews. But Jesus continually pointed them to the necessity of His death, resurrection, and ascension. He even told them that they would be better off without Him.

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” – John 16:7 ESV

Whether they understood it or not, and regardless of whether they liked it or not, Jesus was going to leave them. But He assured then that He would not abandon them. He would send them a helper or advocate. The Greek word is paraklētos, and it refers to one who comes alongside to provide aid. And Jesus assured His disciples that this helper, intercessor, or advocate would not only come alongside them, but dwell within them.

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” – John 14:16-17 ESV

And Jesus wanted His followers to know that the Spirit was going to be a gift from the Father. His role would be to give testify through their lives as to the veracity of who Jesus was and what He had done on their behalf. In other words, the Spirit was going to be a witness to the reality of the gospel message.

“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” – John 15:26 ESV

His presence within the life of the believer would provide tangible proof that the salvation message offered by Jesus was reliable. When Jesus had said that He came to provide abundant life, He had meant it, and the Spirit would prove it. The disciples would discover that the key to them living in Christ’s absence would be the reality of the Spirit’s presence. The Spirit would be a game-changer, providing them with power beyond anything they had ever seen or experienced before. And while the disciples had already experienced the thrill of performing miracles and casting out demons, they had something even greater in store for them. Jesus had even told the disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:12-14 ESV).

Think about that. Consider carefully what Jesus said to the disciples. He told them that they would do greater works than He had done. That had to have blown them away. But it probably left them a little bit excited as they thought about the prospects of all that it might mean. But it’s important to keep these words within their context, because immediately after making this promise, Jesus told them: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16 ESV). 

The Spirit was going to be the key to their success. He would be the source of those “greater works.” And just so we don’t overlook the obvious, one of the greatest works the Holy Spirit makes possible is the miraculous transformation of a sinner into a saint. He provides the power for those who were once slaves to sin to live in freedom, fully capable of living in obedience to the will of God. That is Paul’s primary point in Galatians 5 and Romans 8. The believer can walk or live his life by the Spirit, and by doing so, no longer live in captivity to his old sin nature. And the reason the believer can live differently is because the Spirit equips him to think differently.

Paul describes two options. The first is to set the mind on the flesh. The other is to set the mind on the Spirit. One leads to death, while the other leads to life and peace. But what does he mean by “to set the mind on”? He used the Greek word, phronēma, which refers to one’s thoughts and purposes. It has to do with a person’s mindset or way of thinking about things. So, Paul is saying we can be flesh-minded or Spirit-minded. We can view life through our own natural, sin-contaminated disposition or we can have a godly perspective made possible through the presence of God’s Spirit.

To live according to our flesh is to live as we used to – in open hostility toward God. When we set our minds on ourselves, thinking we can somehow live righteous lives in our own strength, we end up living in opposition to God, not in reliance upon Him. We live with the mistaken impression that we can somehow earn a right standing with God through our own efforts. And when we do so, we devalue the sacrifice of Christ. We make the sufficiency of His death null and void, an unnecessary expenditure of life. If we can make ourselves righteous, Jesus didn’t need to die. 

But Paul would have us remember that “no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT). Law keeping is not wrong or sinful, but it can become so if we think it can lead to a right standing with God. Paul emphasized that point to the believers in Galatia.

…we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

We have been made right with God through the efforts of Jesus Christ. His work on the cross made possible God’s declaration that we are righteous in His eyes. And it is His Spirit within us that makes possible our ability to live righteously in this life. The Spirit’s presence within us makes Christ’s righteousness available to us. We can think as Christ did. We can live as He did. All because the Spirit of God lives within us.

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

 

Living Water

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:10-14 ESV

37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. – John 7:37-39 ESV

What is the key to living the Christian life? That’s an age-old question that has garnered a wide range of answers over the centuries. Even within the 1st-Century in which Jesus lived and died, the early church found itself debating and disagreeing over this question, even though the disciples of Jesus had been given the answer by Jesus and had experienced evidence of its veracity at Pentecost.

Just minutes before His ascension into heaven, Jesus had told His disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV).

After hearing this somewhat cryptic promise from the lips of Jesus, the disciples had watched Jesus ascend into heaven, and then they returned to Jerusalem where they waited for the proof of Jesus’ promise. And they didn’t have to wait long.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:1-4 ESV

Luke goes on to record the incredible results of that filling. Yes, they spoke in languages they didn’t know but, more importantly, they spoke with a power and boldness they hadn’t formerly possess. Peter, the one who had distinguished himself by denying he  even knew Jesus, now found himself fearlessly proclaiming the truth of the gospel to anyone who would listen. He spoke with a clarity and boldness that, no doubt, surprised him and shocked his fellow disciples. And it was all in keeping with the promise Jesus had made to them. He had told them that, when the time came and they found themselves standing in the synagogues and before rulers and authorities, “the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said” (Luke 12:12 NLT).

And Jesus had made it clear that their words would not be their own.

“For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” – Matthew 10:20 NLT

Again, Luke points out that the disciples were able to speak in languages they didn’t know because “the Holy Spirit gave them this ability” (Acts 2:4 NLT).

And just a few days later, Peter and John found themselves under arrest and standing before “the council of all the rulers and elders and teachers of religious law” (Acts 4:5 NLT). The Jewish high priest had these two men dragged before him and questioned them, “By what power, or in whose name, have you done this?” (Acts 4:7 NLT). And Luke records, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” (Acts 4:8 NLT).

As the book of Acts unfolds, we are provided with repeated proof of the Spirit’s presence and power in the lives of the disciples. The disciples, and all those who were coming to faith in Jesus, were displaying evidence of Jesus’ words: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38 ESV).

They were exhibiting never-before-seen evidence of the powerful transformation that had taken place when the Spirit had taken up residence within them. These men and women had been radically changed. They were not who they had been before. And the Spirit’s impact on their lives was, as Jesus had described it, like “living water.” It was zaō, a Greek word that means “alive.” This was not stagnant, standing water, like that found in a roadside ditch or a man-made cistern. It was living, vibrant, life-giving water that flowed freely and abundantly. And, as Jesus had promised, it flowed “out” of the heart, refreshing all those with whom it came into contact.

The Spirit’s presence within the disciples was not just life-transformative for them, but for all those around them. Others were impacted by the Spirit’s presence within them. Like a spring flowing from a hidden source, the Spirit poured out of the disciples and nourished the lives of others. The power of God, in the form of the indwelling Spirit of God, flowed from the followers of Christ and impacted the world in which they lived. 

As Jesus had told the crowds who had gathered to hears His sermon on the mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6 BSB). The disciples had been filled to overflowing, and now the power of the Spirit within them was spilling out and refreshing all those around them. It’s interesting to note that Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are not inwardly-focused qualities. They are not intended to bless the one from whom they flow. No, they are meant to flow out and touch the lives of others. Self-love is not a fruit of the Spirit. Joy that focuses on one’s own happiness is not the fruit of the Spirit. The presence of peace in the absence of others is not peace at all, it’s selfish isolation and, most certainly, not the fruit of the Spirit. The kind of patience that fades away as soon as others show up is fake fruit.

Take a look at all the fruit mentioned by Paul. They are intended for the good of others. Which brings us back to our original question: What is the key to living the Christian life? Obviously, it’s the presence of the Holy Spirit. He is the power source. He is fountain from which the living water flows. And He exists in us in order that He might flow out from us.

When we think about living the Christian life, we tend to place all our emphasis on us. In other words, we focus on what we can get out of it. But God would have us consider what He desires to flow from us. The Christian life is not intended to be me-focused. It is not supposed to be some myopic, me-centered quest for personal gain, comfort, and satisfaction. The abundant life Jesus promised was not a guarantee of our best life now. No, it was the promise of thirst-quenching, life-giving, power flowing from within us and pouring out from us to all those around us.

Over in the book of Isaiah, there is a powerful invitation extended from the lips of God.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” – Isaiah 55:1 ESV

He invites the thirsty to come to Him and find refreshment. Earlier in the same book, God had promised His wayward people that salvation was available to them, if they would only come to Him in repentance. If and when they did, He promised them, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3 ESV). The could find living water, but they had to come to the source.

And the amazing thing is that God has chosen to place that living water inside each and every one of His children. We have the Spirit, the water of life, living within us. And God intends for that life-giving water to flow from us to all those around us – to believers and non-believers alike. What’s the key to living the Christian life? The Spirit of God. But a better question might be: What’s the purpose of the Christian life? And the answer would be found in the words of Jesus.

“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” – John 7:38 ESV

Our very existence as followers of Christ is so that the same life-giving power that filled us and quenched our spiritual thirst, will flow from us and bring refreshment to the lives of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. And it shows up in the form of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

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 As For You…

11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. – 1 Timothy 6:11-16 ESV

Flee. Pursue. Fight. Take hold. Keep. 

In just six short verses, Paul provides his young protégé, Timothy, with at least five imperatives or commands. And at least one of those commands includes six subsets or categories. Paul warns Timothy to run for his life, getting as far away as he can from false doctrine because it can lead to conceit, controversy, and unproductive quarreling over words. And those things will be produce jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions (1 Timothy 6:4-5 NLT). 

But it wasn’t enough that Timothy avoid false teaching like the plague. In running from the negative, Timothy was to run toward the positive. Paul tells him to “pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11 NLT). That word “pursue” is diōkō in the Greek and it means “to run after.” It pictures a runner in a race who is actively pressing on toward the finish line. Paul used this imagery in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! – 1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT

He used the very same illustration when writing to the believers in Philippi. In fact, in this passage he uses the very same Greek word: diōkō.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on [diōkō] to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on [diōkō] to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:12-14 NLT

Paul wanted Timothy to run from one thing and run towards something else in its place. And Paul was quite specific about what Timothy was to pursue or press on toward: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. Those qualities or characteristics were to be Timothy’s end goal. But was Paul telling Timothy to achieve these things? Was he commanding his young brother in the faith to somehow increase these qualities in his life? Probably not. Because Paul told the Corinthians, “because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Paul wasn’t demanding that Timothy make himself more righteous or godly. He wasn’t suggesting that Timothy could or should increase his faith, ramp up his capacity to love, grow in his ability to persevere, or improve the degree of his gentleness.

But there is always a risk when we come across a passage like this. We read those commands from the pen of Paul and we immediately begin to think in terms of self-effort. We hear Paul telling us to flee, pursue, fight, take hold, and keep. It’s a list and we tend to like lists because they provide us with tangible, measurable and, for the most part, achievable objectives for which to strive. Lists trigger the built-in performance mindset that exists in each and every one of us. 

But is that Paul’s point? Is he really telling Timothy to achieve? It’s important to note that Paul refers to Timothy as a “man of God.” He doesn’t call him a man of God in the making or a work in process. No, he addresses Timothy as who he is: a man of God, and then he gives him five commands:

…flee these things

…pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness

…fight the good fight of the faith

…take hold of the eternal life to which you were called

…keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach

And Timothy is to do these things “until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, they are to be lifelong objectives or goals. But why? Because they are God’s goals for us. He has sanctified us or set us apart that we might reflect His image as we live in the power of His Spirit and exhibit the new nature He has made possible through His Son’s death on the cross.

Paul is not providing us with a to-do list of religious exercises to perform in order to improve our spiritual health. He is not asking us to become something we are not. He addressed Timothy as a man of God for a reason. Timothy was a man of God. And Paul wanted him to live as who he was. But to do so was going to entail a change of focus, a new way of Timothy seeing himself. Paul emphasized this new perception to the believers in Corinth.

Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NLT

Paul provided a similar reminder to Titus, addressing the change that takes place in the life of a believer and the need to view embrace a radically different perspective.

Once we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other.

But—

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life.  – Titus 3:3-7 NLT

It is not that we have no role to play in the process. But where we tend to focus all our attention on activities to be performed, Paul would have us recognize the radical transformation that has been provided for us by God.  He saved us. He washed away our sins. He gave us new birth and new life. He poured out His Spirit. He made us right in His sign. And He gave us the confidence that eternal life is ours, not because of anything we do, but because of who we are in Christ.

Our natural tendency is to look for something we can do to earn God’s favor. We’re performance-driven, rewards-oriented creatures who are hard-wired for self-achievement. And while Paul had a type-A, driven personality, he also confessed, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). Paul prayed on behalf of the Colossian believers that they would be strengthened with all power, according to his [Jesus] glorious might” (Colossians1:11 ESV). And Paul was happy to boast about his own weaknesses and insufficiencies so, as he put it, “the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV).

The Christian life involves effort. But there is no place for earning. It requires energy on our part but, more than anything else, it demands a new way of seeing ourselves. We are children of God. We are filled with the Spirit of God and, as a result, have the power to…

…flee these things

…pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness

…fight the good fight of the faith

…take hold of the eternal life to which you were called

…keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach

Not in our own strength or according to our own effort. Not for our own glory or in order to earn God’s favor. But in total dependence upon Him and in full recognition that, as Paul put it, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 ESV). So, by all means, flee, pursue, fight, take hold, and keep. But do so because of who you are, not because of what you hope to become.

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

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

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

 

My Grace Is Sufficient

5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:5-10 ESV

When we speak of sanctification, we typically frame the discussion in terms of spiritual growth or maturity. We tend to use terminology that conveys the idea of progress or of an incremental increase in our spirituality from one degree to another. We talk of becoming more like Christ, of increasing in our faith, or of growing in godliness. And there is ample biblical evidence to support this kind of language.

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 3:18 ESV

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:5-8 ESV

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation – 1 Peter 2:2 ESV

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. – Ephesians 4:15 ESV

The concept of spiritual growth is indeed biblical, but we tend to read these verses with a modern mindset that has been heavily influenced by the American work ethic. What do I mean by that? It’s really quite simple. We read the Bible through the lens of our pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps view of achievement and success. We even throw in biblical-sounding phrases like, “God helps those who help themselves.” This well-worn bromide has become sacred truth in the eyes of many, even though it has no precedence in Scripture. In fact, it is diametrically opposed to the whole concept of grace as found in God’s Word.

But, as western Christians, we have been raised on a steady diet of self-help books that promote autonomy and encourage self-actualization. We are the do-it-yourself generation with an Internet full of how-to videos on virtually any topic just a mouse-click away. With a few helpful tips, we can rebuild an engine or relaunch our careers. We can learn to brew our own beer or open up our own winery. With a little self-effort we can improve our quality of life, increase our income stream, enlarge our network of friends, and even take our spiritual life to a whole new level.

But is that what Paul has in mind in 2 Corinthians 12? I don’t think so. In fact, Paul’s emphasis seems to be on weakness, not strength. His focus is on inadequacy and need, not self-sufficiency and individual sovereignty. Paul was not encouraging the Corinthian believers to help themselves, but to acknowledge their need for God’s grace in their lives. And he used himself as an example.

Paul refers to a man he knew who, fourteen years earlier, had received a vision from God. This man had been allowed to enter into the “third heaven,” a reference to God’s dwelling place.  As a result of this divine vision, this man “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4 ESV). Like the apostle John in the book of Revelation, this individual was given a one-of-a-kind experience that was difficult to put into words. He saw things no other man had ever seen before. And Paul took it upon himself to brag on this man’s behalf. This hadn’t been your average, run-of-the-mill encounter with God. It had been totally supernatural and an undeserved act of God’s grace.

And it becomes clear from the context that this “man” was actually Paul himself. He was speaking in the third-person in order to relate a past event that had experienced, but he didn’t want it to come across as boasting. His intent was not to make himself look better in the eyes of others, but to emphasize the grace of God. The vision had been God’s doing. Paul wasn’t even sure how it happened. He couldn’t tell you whether he was physically transported to heaven or if it had all been some kind of dream. But Paul refers to  “the surpassing greatness of the revelations” and his fear of the experience producing in him a level of conceit or pride. So, he says that “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV).

Paul had a mountain-top experience with God, but that was followed by some kind of pride-popping, humility producing “gift” from God to keep his head out of the clouds and concept out of his heart. We aren’t given the nature of this “thorn” but we know that Paul prayed for its removal, not once, but three separate times. And each time Paul prayed, the answer was, “No.” God wanted to keep Paul from focusing his attention on the wrong thing. His heavenly vision, as great as it was, was not be mistaken as a sign of his own godliness. His God-ordained glimpse into glory was not to be understood as God somehow glorifying Paul.

In response to Paul’s request for the thorn removal, God simply said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV). The solution to Paul’s problem was not another vision of heaven or a divine thorn-extraction procedure. No, all Paul needed was grace. The grace of God was fully sufficient. It was grace that had transported an undeserving man into God’s presence. And it was grace that would transform an undeserving man into Christ’s likeness. And that is the bottom line of this passage. Paul’s vision of heavenly glory was not the real miracle. It was God’s power made available to Paul in all his earthly inadequacy. Look closely at what Paul says:

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Paul could have bragged about going to heaven. But he knew the real miracle was that heaven had come to him, in the form of the power of Christ. His weakness had not been a barrier. It had actually been the required condition for the saving power of God to show up. For Paul, weakness was a badge of honor, not a sign of unworthiness. He didn’t view weakness as a deficit to be filled through self-effort and hard work. No, it was a non-debatable reality of who he was, apart from Christ. Which is what leads him to say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

Had Paul lived in the 21st-Century, he might have been tempted to seek the latest self-help advice and do-it-yourself tips for improved spiritual strength conditioning. He might have found himself listening to the endless stream of well-meaning voices telling him how to overcome his weakness and embrace his inner warrior. But I doubt it.

Paul was quite at peace with his deficiences because he knew the real source of his strength. He would not allow heavenly visions or pain-producing thorns in the side determine his identity. His weakness was not a sign of unrighteousness or evidence that he was growth-deficient in his spirituality. It was an opportunity to refocus his faith on the grace of God and to reestablish his hope on the power of Christ.

Think about your own life. If you’re like me, you tend to long for those rare moments when heavenly visions give you a glimpse of God’s glory. But they are few and far between. And you also long for God to remove the thorns that bring you pain and leave you feeling weak and ineffective in your spiritual walk.

Paul’s vision of heaven didn’t make him any more spiritual. And the presence of pain and suffering didn’t make him any less spiritual. Escaping earth for heaven is not the point. Avoiding weakness through self-effort is not the goal. It is a realization that heaven came to a fallen earth in the form of the Son of God, and He made divine power available to sin-weakened men and women who recognize that God’s grace is sufficient.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 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

 

Consider Yourselves…

8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. – Romans 6:8-14 ESV

Salvation, is a work of God, from beginning to end. But that doesn't mean that man plays no part. In response to the Philippian jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?”, Paul stated, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 ESV). The free gift of salvation made available by God must be accepted or received. When Jesus stated, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 ESV), He was offering an invitation that required acceptance. For anyone to receive the rest He offered, they would have to acknowledge their weariness, confess their heavy-heartedness, and come to Him.

Paul makes it clear, all throughout his writings, that faith is required for the free gift of salvation to be received. But even the act of faith is a gift from God, as His Spirit graciously opens the eyes of the spiritually blind and infuses life into the spiritually dead, allowing them to see the light of the gospel for the first time. And as a result, they are saved.

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. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT

And in much the same way, sanctification is a gift of God, provided for by His grace, made possible by His Son, and powered by His indwelling Holy Spirit. Look closely at what Paul told the believers in Ephesus: “He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” God has sanctified a group of people who He has deemed His own, raising them from death to life, and providing them with a power to live in such a way that they bring glory to Him and reflect His personal emissaries, sharing His message of reconciliation to others.

But each and every believer must avail himself of the new life made available to Him through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, and made possible by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Like Jesus’ invitation to come and find rest, the Holy Spirit cries for believers to rest in Him and find power.

One of the last things Jesus shared with His disciple before He departed this earth was His promise of the coming Holy Spirit.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 NLT

And just as Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit came. He took possession of the disciples, providing with power like they had never experienced before. He transformed them from a small crowd of timid, crestfallen men and women into a powerful force that rocked the world. In a matter of minutes, these people were radically changed from the inside-out and equipped with gifts they had never experienced before. They spoke in languages they didn’t know. They displayed a boldness that had been non-existent just a few minutes earlier. But while we tend to focus on the miraculous nature of the flames of fire hovering over their heads and the gift of tongues emanating from their lips, the real point of the story is that, with the Spirit’s coming, these people were forever changed. Pentecost was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but each and every one of them would go on to experience the life-transformative power of the Spirit in a thousand different ways.

The spectacular and heady days immediately following the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost would not last forever. Yes, there would be many more miraculous moments in the lives of the disciples. They would perform miracles and see many people come to faith in Christ. They would witness Jews and Gentiles receiving the power of the Spirit, just as they had. And in a relatively short period of time, they would witness the birth and rapid growth of the church.

But in the book of Romans, Paul provides us with a much-needed reminder, designed to help us keep our focus as the normalcy of life settles in and the mountaintop experiences fade away. The growth of the church was immediately met with skepticism, which was followed by intense persecution. It wasn’t long before the disciples, and their followers discovered that not every day was going to be like the day of Pentecost.

After his conversion, Paul quickly discovered just how difficult and dangerous faith in Christ could be. He also learned the very real lesson that sanctification was not always easy and living in the power of the Spirit didn’t come without its conflicts. He expressed, in very transparent terms, his struggle with sanctification.

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. – Romans 7:18-21 NLT

Paul had the Spirit of God living within him, but he also had the presence of his old sin nature. And as he described to the church in Galatia, these two do constant battle in the life of the believer.

But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. – Galatians 5:16-17 NLT

But Paul was not despondent. He was not surprised. No, he understood the battle going on in his own life and wanted his fellow believers to know that Jesus was the key to their success.

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. – Romans 7:24-25 NLT

Jesus was and is the answer. And Jesus provided the Holy Spirit as the means by which the believer can experience victory over sin in his life. But the key that is often overlooked is found a bit earlier in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Beginning in verse one of chapter six, Paul reminds them that they had “died to sin,” been “baptized into his death,” were “buried…with Him,” and “raised…to walk in newness of life.”

But there’s more. They had been “united with him in a death like his” and would be “united with him in a resurrection like his.” Their “old self was crucified” and, as a result,  they were “no longer…enslaved to sin.” Because their old self had died with Christ, they had “been set free from sin.”

All of this sounds great, but is it something we experience in daily life? Or, like Paul, do we still find ourselves saying, “I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” The answer to our dilemma is not work harder or do more. It is “consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11 NLT). That word, “consider” carries a lot of weight in the original Greek. It carries the idea of giving a thought careful and reasoned consideration. And the verb is in the present imperative, conveying the idea of constantness. We are never to stop thinking about our union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Our old man has been put to death. Sin no longer rules and reigns over us. We have a Spirit-empowered capacity to say no to sin and yes to God. We can live righteous lives, not based on our own self-effort or moral wherewithal, but based on the power of the Spirit within us. Which is why Paul told the Galatian believers:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. – Galatians 5:24-25 NLT

Sanctification, like salvation, is not about self-effort. It is not the American work ethic lived out in the spiritual dimension. God is not interested in self-made men and women. He gave us new lives and made us new creations so that we would no longer live in our own strength, but in the power of His indwelling Spirit. But the temptation we all face is that of forgetfulness – forgetting that we are dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus.

And Paul provides us with a powerful reminder so we won’t forget.

…give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. – Romans 6:13 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

 

Be Holy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Contentment in Christ

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:10-13 ESV

Verse 10 presents what appears to be, at first glance, a somewhat awkward and misplaced transition. It seems as if Paul is jumping to a whole new topic: His recent receipt of some sort of gift from the Philippian congregation. But, while that is the topic, Paul seems to be bringing it up at this point because it has everything to do with what he has been discussing in this section. He is using their gift to make an important point about what it means to “think on these things.”

Remember, Paul has just stressed that they were to fix their thoughts on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable. They were to fill their minds with thoughts of those actions and attitudes that reflect those kind of characteristics. Then, almost as if out of nowhere, Paul brings up their recent gift to him. But notice that is it not the gift itself that Paul turns his attention to. It is what the gift represented to him. He tells them that he “rejoiced in the Lord greatly,” not because of the nature of what they gave, but because of the heart behind the gift – “you have revived your concern for me” (Philippians 4:10 ESV). 

The gift was a tangible expression of their love and concern for him. And, Paul lets them know that he always knew they cared for him, but was aware that they had been hindered in expressing their love in either word or deed because of distance and his own unique circumstance in Rome. For Paul, the gift was not the point. He doesn’t even mention what the gift was. It was simply a timely reminder of their love for him and, as he thought about that, he couldn’t help but rejoice. Their thoughtfulness to send him the gift was an example of whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable.

Too often, we allow conditions and circumstances to determine the degree of our joy. When things go well for us, we react with happiness. When they don’t, we can find ourselves struggling with disappointment and disillusionment, wondering what we did to make God mad at us. But circumstances were never meant to be metrics for measuring our joy or contentment. And neither were material things. But the truth is, far too many of us place excessive importance on stuff and things, seeking from them a sense of worth and using them as our primary source for finding satisfaction and significance in life.

The Philippians saw Paul as someone in need. He was under house arrest in Rome, so his circumstances were less than ideal. He had no source of income, so his financial situation was challenging. They may have heard that his housing was inadequate and his food supply was insufficient. From their perspective, it must have appeared that Paul was in dire straights, as he awaited trial before Caesar.  So, they sent him a gift. And it was only natural that they would do so. They wanted to do something to help alleviate any suffering he may be experiencing as a result of his conditions.

But Paul, while grateful for their graciousness and love, used this as another teaching moment, letting them know that, in spite of what he was going through, he really had no need. It wasn’t about the condition of his circumstances or the abundance or lack of material things. And Paul makes that point quite clear in what has become one of the most well-known and oft-quoted verses from the Bible.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. – Philippians 4:11 ESV

Think about what Paul is saying. His mention of the delay in receiving their gift was not intended to convey that he had lacked in anything. He had not been sitting around waiting for someone to do something about his circumstances. He had not been longing for a gift of some kind that would lighten his load or improve his living conditions. No, he said that he was perfectly content. He was at peace. He appreciated their gift, as an expression of their love, but he didn’t need it. Whatever it was that they sent was not going to make him any more happy or satisfied than he already was.

Over the years, Paul had learned a valuable lesson, that he was not attempting to pass on to them.

I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. – Philippians 4:12 NLT

Paul refers to what he has learned as being a secret or mystery. The Greek word he used is myeō, and it means “to initiate into the mysteries.” He had been taught something that few people ever get to know on their own. And the lesson he learned was taught to him by Jesus Christ Himself. Remember what Paul stated earlier in this same letter: “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (Philippians 2:5 NLT).  He was humble, obedient, selfless, sacrificial and obedient to God the Father, even to the point of death.

Paul was probably familiar with the story when the disciples had brought Jesus food and had encouraged Him to eat. But He had responded, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about” (John 4:32 NLT). While they debated among themselves how Jesus had gotten this food, Jesus told them, “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34 NLT). And it is likely that Paul was aware of the encounter Jesus had with a would-be disciple, to whom Jesus declared, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58 NLT).

For Paul, contentment had nothing to do with content. It wasn’t about things. Clothes, food, and living arrangements were not what brought Paul joy. The size of his personal portfolio was not a determiner of Paul’s contentment. The condition of his circumstances was not how Paul measured his sense of satisfaction. The ebbs and flows of material prosperity had no little or no impact on Paul. He didn’t allow the ups and downs of life circumstances to dictate his overall sense of contentment. And the key to this rather radical view on life was his relationship with Jesus. According to Paul, it was Jesus who gave him the strength to live as he did.

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13 NLT

Paul could survive house arrest, because of Jesus. He could put up with less-than-satisfactory living conditions, because of Jesus. He could do without comfortable clothes or good food, because of Jesus. But Jesus didn’t just give Paul strength to survive want and neglect. Paul could survive all the temptations that come with material wealth, because of Jesus. He had remained undistracted by the allure of fame and notoriety, because of Jesus. He was not prone to envy other, more popular, ministers, all because of Jesus.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul reminded them that when he had arrived in their city, he wasn’t out to impress or to gain approval.

I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 NT

His emphasis had been of Jesus. His strength had come from Jesus. He came to them, filled with fear and trepidation, but he found the power to do what he had been called to do – in Christ. And, in a second letter to the same congregation, Paul emphasized that the strength he received from Christ allowed him to endure anything and everything so that the gospel might be spread and the church of Jesus Christ might be strengthened.

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 NLT

For Paul, suffering and troubles came with the territory. They were just part of the job description of being a follower of Christ. And he was perfectly content to endure all that came with being a faithful servant of Christ. Life isn’t about ideal circumstances or the presence of material comforts. It is about contentment in Christ.

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

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

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

God of the Impossible

21 Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, 22 this is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him:

“‘She despises you, she scorns you—
    the virgin daughter of Zion;
she wags her head behind you—
    the daughter of Jerusalem.

23 “‘Whom have you mocked and reviled?
    Against whom have you raised your voice
and lifted your eyes to the heights?
    Against the Holy One of Israel!
24 By your servants you have mocked the Lord,
    and you have said, With my many chariots
I have gone up the heights of the mountains,
    to the far recesses of Lebanon,
to cut down its tallest cedars,
    its choicest cypresses,
to come to its remotest height,
    its most fruitful forest.
25 I dug wells
    and drank waters,
to dry up with the sole of my foot
    all the streams of Egypt.

26 “‘Have you not heard
    that I determined it long ago?
I planned from days of old
    what now I bring to pass,
that you should make fortified cities
    crash into heaps of ruins,
27 while their inhabitants, shorn of strength,
    are dismayed and confounded,
and have become like plants of the field
    and like tender grass,
like grass on the housetops,
    blighted before it is grown.

28 “‘I know your sitting down
    and your going out and coming in,
    and your raging against me.
29 Because you have raged against me
    and your complacency has come to my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth,
and I will turn you back on the way
    by which you came.’

30 “And this shall be the sign for you: this year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that. Then in the third year sow and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. 31 And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward. 32 For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

33 “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. 34 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the Lord. 35 For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”

36 And the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. 37 Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh. 38 And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword. And after they escaped into the land of Ararat, Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place. – Isaiah 37:21-38 ESV

In his moment of greatest need, King Hezekiah had determined to trust God and called out to Him for help. He had appealed to God‘s power, sovereignty, covenant faithfulness, and sole standing as the creator of the universe. Hezekiah to his problem to God Almighty and begged Him to look down from heaven and act on their behalf. And now, Isaiah brings the king a message from God.

First, God had a word for Hezekiah:

“Because you prayed about King Sennacherib of Assyria, the Lord has spoken this word against him.” – Isaiah 37:21 NLT

Hezekiah’s trust in God, as evidenced by his prayer of intercession, was rewarded by God’s explanation of what was going to happen next. He let Hezekiah know exactly what His plans for Sennacherib and the Assyrians were going to be. And He delivered a personal message for King Sennacherib as well.

“…because of your raging against me
    and your arrogance, which I have heard for myself,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth.
I will make you return
    by the same road on which you came.” – Isaiah 37:29 NLT

It is important to remember just how bad the situation was when Hezekiah prayed his prayer to God. The Assyrian army was camped outside the walls of Jerusalem. A total of 46 cities within Judah had already fallen to the Assyrians, and King Sennacherib had sent word to the people of Jerusalem that they surrender or face certain annihilation. These were dark days for King Hezekiah. The prospects for his capital city and its inhabitants could not have looked bleaker. But he had taken his need to the Lord. It would be easy to conclude that Hezekiah had no other options. He had run out of tricks up his sleeve and was left with no other alternative but to cry out to God. But the important fact is that he did cry out to God. And God heard his cry and responded.

In his humiliated state of despair and need, dressed in sackcloth and completely aware of his own impotence and dependence upon God, Hezekiah had appealed to the Almighty. But King Sennacherib displays a markedly different attitude. In his pride and arrogance, dressed in his royal robes and boasting of his own power, he had mocked the Almighty. And God was not pleased.

“Whom have you been defying and ridiculing?
    Against whom did you raise your voice?
At whom did you look with such haughty eyes?
    It was the Holy One of Israel!” – Isaiah 37:23 NLT

Sennacherib was a walking ego, bragging about his many exploits and describing himself in self-adulating terms that made him sound like a god.

“You have said, ‘With my many chariots
I have conquered the highest mountains—
    yes, the remotest peaks of Lebanon.
I have cut down its tallest cedars
    and its finest cypress trees.
I have reached its farthest heights
    and explored its deepest forests.
I have dug wells in many foreign lands
    and refreshed myself with their water.
With the sole of my foot,
    I stopped up all the rivers of Egypt!’” – Isaiah 37:24-25 NLT

Sennacherib suffered from “I” disease, a common malady among world leaders. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had the same problem.

“As he looked out across the city, he said, 'Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.'” – Daniel 4:30 NLT

Self-made men tend to suffer from self-exaltation. Their success goes to their heads, and they begin to believe that they alone are responsible for their fame and fortune. But God breaks the news to Sennacherib that his rapid rise to world domination had been anything but his own doing.

“But have you not heard?
    I decided this long ago.
Long ago I planned it,
    and now I am making it happen.
I planned for you to crush fortified cities
    into heaps of rubble.” – Isaiah 37:26 NLT

Sennacherib had been little more than an instrument in the hands of the sovereign God of the universe. God had used the Assyrians to accomplish His own divine ends. And as quickly as they had risen to power by the decree of God, they could just as easily be rendered a non-factor on the world stage by His hand. And God let Sennacherib know that his days were numbered. His fifteen minutes of fame was about to come to an abrupt end.

All of this had to have sounded too good to be true to Hezekiah. While he had prayed to God for help, the idea that God would completely eliminate the Assyrian problem was more than he could have dreamed. And God seems to have sensed Hezekiah’s lingering doubt, so He provided the king with proof. He let him know that, within three years time, the people of Judah would be planting and harvesting their crops just like they always had. The land, devastated by the Assyrians, would once again yield its crops and return to its former state of fruitfulness. And this is important to note because of the arrogant boast made by King Sennacherib.

“Make peace with me—open the gates and come out. Then each of you can continue eating from your own grapevine and fig tree and drinking from your own well. Then I will arrange to take you to another land like this one—a land of grain and new wine, bread and vineyards.” – Isaiah 36:16-17 NLT

The Assyrian king had promised to provide the people of Judah with grain, grapes, wine and bread. He had arrogantly placed himself in the role of God Almighty. But God wanted Hezekiah to know that true fruitfulness came only from His hand. And while it would take some time before the remnants of the Assyrian army were removed from the land, God promised to restore the fortunes and fruitfulness of Judah.

“For a remnant of my people will spread out from Jerusalem,
    a group of survivors from Mount Zion.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
    will make this happen!” – Isaiah 37:32 NLT

God was going to save a remnant of His people. He would not allow the Assyrians to destroy Jerusalem. Instead, He would intervene and display His covenant faithfulness to a people who had consistently refused to remain faithful to Him. He would redeem them, not because they deserved it, but because He is gracious and a God who keeps His commitments.

And God provided Hezekiah with one more detail regarding His plans for the Assyrians. They would never enter the gates of the city. Their boasting and bragging would turn out to be nothing more than idle threats. Not a single arrow would be fired. No siege walls would be built. The entire army of Assyria would disappear as quickly as it had come. And God had a special surprise for Sennacherib and his invincible army.

That night the angel of the Lord went out to the Assyrian camp and killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers. When the surviving Assyrians woke up the next morning, they found corpses everywhere. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and returned to his own land. He went home to his capital of Nineveh and stayed there. – Isaiah 37:36-37 NLT

God delivered a miracle. The Lord of Heavens Armies sent a single angel who devastated the vaunted troops of Sennacherib’s army. Overnight, he lost 185,000 of his finest soldiers, and God didn’t even lift a finger. His work was accomplished by one of His angels, a sobering reminder of God’s superior strength and sovereign power. And the once mighty Sennacherib would return home to Assyria, only to face assassination at the hands of his own sons. His plans didn’t turn out as expected. But God’s did. His divine will was accomplished just as He had planned it long before Sennacherib was even born.

While things could not have looked bleaker from Hezekiah’s vantage point, he placed his trust in God. And he was far from disappointed. God accomplished the impossible. He did what Egypt could never have done. He provided a solution that was beyond man’s ability and outside human reasoning. In his wildest dreams, Hezekiah could have never imagined a scenario like this one. But because he trusted God, he was given the privilege of seeing the salvation of God.

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

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

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

 

Blaspheming the Spirit.

 22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. – Matthew 12:22-32 ESV

Matthew continues to arrange the events of Jesus’ life in order to provide further proof of His claim to be the Messiah. He had come declaring Himself to be the long-awaited King of the Jews and calling the people to repentance. The Kingdom they had been eagerly and patiently anticipating had come.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:17 ESV

Mark records that, immediately after Jesus had been baptized by John, He declared Himself to be the fulfillment of all the Messianic prophecies found in the Old Testament.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” – Mark 1:14-15 ESV

But the Jews were having a difficult time reconciling their expectations of the promised Messiah with what they were witnessing in the actions of Jesus. Yes, they were amazed by His miracles and attracted to His message, but He did not act or look like a king. He had no royal retinue, only a small, ragtag group of disciples made up of former fishermen, a tax collector and other assorted nobodies. Apart from His miracles, there was little about Him that would have led the people to see Him as the Messiah. Which is why, even after having watched Him cast out another demon, they responded, “Can this be the Son of David?” Actually, their question can best be translated as, “He can’t be the Son of David, can He?” They were filled with doubt and misgivings. They wanted to believe He was the Messiah, but they were having a difficult time resolving their dreams with reality.

The Pharisees, fearing that the people were being swayed by Jesus’ miracles and rhetoric, declared Him to be operating in the power of Satan.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

Beelzebul was another name for Satan. These religious leaders could not deny the reality of Jesus’ miracles. They had been eye-witnesses of many of the healings Jesus had performed and had just seen Him cast the demon from the blind and mute man. But they were unwilling to attribute the power of Jesus to God, instead accusing Him of being under the influence of Satan.

Jesus responded by revealing the non-sensical nature of their accusation. Why would Beelzebul, the prince of demons, provide Jesus with power to cast out demons? What benefit would Satan gain from such an arrangement? In fact, Jesus reveals the self-destructive nature of such a plan.

“…if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” – Matthew 12:26 ESV

Then Jesus turned the tables on the Pharisees, asking whether their own “sons” were casting out demons by the power of Satan as well. Jesus had not been the first to exorcise demons. We know from the book of Acts, that there were others who at least attempted to do so.

13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. – Acts 19:13-14 ESV

So, how did the Pharisees justify the actions of such people? Were they also under the influence of Satan? Jesus concluded that the reasoning of the Pharisees was flawed and highly biased. They were rejecting Him, and in doing so, they were rejecting the arrival of His Kingdom. And Jesus blatantly contradicted their assessment, claiming to be operating by the power of the Spirit of God. Not only that, His demonstrations of that power were proof that the kingdom of God had come.

“But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” – Matthew 12:28 ESV

With the arrival of Jesus, the Kingdom of God had broken into the earthly realm. In the opening chapter of his Gospel, Matthew recorded the announcement of the angel regarding the virgin birth of Jesus, a fulfillment of the promise of God.

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).” – Matthew 1:22-23 ESV

Jesus was God incarnate, God in human flesh. His birth made the presence of God tangible and touchable.

He is the image of the invisible God… – Colossians 1:15 ESV

No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. – John 1:18 NLT

But they refused to acknowledge Jesus as God. And rather than admit that Jesus was operating under the power of the Spirit of God, they attributed His actions to Satan, an action Jesus described as blasphemy. But He was very specific in His accusation, declaring them to be guilty of “blasphemy against the Spirit.” And then He dropped the bombshell that this kind of blasphemy was unforgiveable in nature. They could say all they wanted against Him and be forgiven, but their decision to blaspheme the Spirit of God was unforgivable.

In essence, Jesus was declaring that His power to heal had been given to Him by the Spirit of God and was proof that He was the Messiah. To deny this proof was to reject the testimony of the Spirit of God. It was to refuse to accept Jesus as who God, through the Spirit, declared Him to be. If you recall, when Jesus was baptized by John, the Spirit of God descended on Him in the form of a dove, and God declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). The coming of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus had been accompanied by the verbal, audible testimony of God. Jesus was His Son.

By attributing to Satan, the works done by Jesus, made possible by the indwelling Spirit of God, the Pharisees were rejecting the power of the Spirit and the testimony of God. The unforgiveable sin is the rejection of Jesus as Messiah. For this sin there is no forgiveness, “either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32 ESV). The Pharisees would be forgiven their verbal abuse of Jesus, if they eventually accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. But if they continued to deny the testimony of God and the visible proof of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus, they would not be forgiven.

The interesting aspect of this whole encounter was that the Pharisees were blind to the reality of Jesus’ claim because they denied the proof of the Spirit of God. They were devoid of the Spirit themselves. The apostle Paul would later write:

So I want you to know that no one speaking by the Spirit of God will curse Jesus, and no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:3 NLT

And John would also provide further insight into the Spirit’s illuminating role in man’s ability to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh.

This is how we know if they have the Spirit of God: If a person claiming to be a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in a real body, that person has the Spirit of God. – 1 John 4:2 NLT

But the Pharisees, lacking the presence of the Spirit of God, were incapable of recognizing the Son of God. And Jesus declared them to be aligned against Him, operating in direct opposition to His divine mission.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” – Matthew 12:30 ESV

The battle lines were drawn. The King had come. The Son of God had taken on human flesh and was in the process of fulfilling the divine will of His Heavenly Father. But the Pharisees represented the forces of this world, aligned against the redemptive plan of God. And their hatred of Jesus was going to end up destroying them. While they would eventually succeed in putting Jesus to death, they would fail in their efforts to put an end to His rule and reign. They could deny His claim to be the Messiah, but they could not deny His right to rule as King of kings and Lord of lords.

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

Worthless Things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speechless and Powerless.

13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14 But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, 16 saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” 21 And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old.  – Acts 4:13-22 ESV

The Jewish council or Sanhedrin had a problem on their hands, and it was one they had experienced before. While they had hoped that the death of Jesus would have put an end to all the talk about Him being the Messiah, they found themselves dealing with Him once again. This time, it was His disciples preaching and healing in His name and claiming that Jesus was not dead, but had been brought back to life by God, confirming His role as Messiah. And these uneducated, common men were drawing large crowds of followers, just like Jesus had done while He was alive. In fact, they say virtually the same thing about Peter and John as they did about Jesus.

The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” – John 7:15 ESV

The Jews had expected nothing from Jesus when He appeared on the scene, because He was nothing more than a lowly carpenter from the backwater town of Nazareth. And Jesus had told them the source of His ability to teach.

16 So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. 17 If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. 18 The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood. – John 7:16-18 ESV

Like Jesus, Peter had simply been doing the will of the Father. His authority to do and say the things he did was from God, passed on to Him by the Son. At the point in time when Jesus had given the disciples their commission, He had told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18 ESV). And He had passed that authority on to each of them.

The members of the Sanhedrin were at a loss as to what to say or do. Luke uses the Greek word thaumazō to describe their response to the surprising boldness and eloquence of Peter and John. It's a word that conveys the idea of wonder, even admiration at what they had seen. These men lacked formal education, but they spoke with power and authority. They weren’t intimidated by having to stand before the 70 members of the Sanhedrin, in their flowing robes and palpable air of superiority. The demeanor of the two disciples and the presence of the former;y lame beggar left the religious leaders speechless and at a loss as to what to do. So they sent Peter and John out of the room in order to discuss next steps.

They had to admit that a miracle had been done. Peter and John had performed an undeniable sign and the gentleman who had been seen leaping, dancing and worshiping in the Temple was proof. And there were plenty of witnesses, including the thousands who had expressed belief in Jesus at the words of Peter and John. The Sanhedrin had a problem. They wanted this to all go away, but they were reluctant to punish Peter and John because they feared the reaction of the people. But they desperately wanted to put a stop to the disciples spreading their talk of Jesus being alive, so they came up with the plan to threaten Peter and John.

17 But to keep them from spreading their propaganda any further, we must warn them not to speak to anyone in Jesus’ name again.” 18 So they called the apostles back in and commanded them never again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. – Acts 4:17-18 NLT

Armed with their authority as the official religious leaders of Israel, they demanded that Peter and John refrain from talking about Jesus any longer. They put a gag order on them, believing that these two men would acquiesce our of fear of reprisals. But they were in for an even greater shock. Peter, as usual, was the first to respond to their demand.

“Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” – Acts 4:19-20 NLT

Peter answers with logic. What the Sanhedrin were demanding of he and John was absurd. Were they really expecting the disciples to willingly disobey God and stop speaking about Jesus, the Messiah? Did they really believe they could stop what God was doing by shutting up Peter and John? That was what they had tried to do by putting Jesus to death, and look how successful that had been. This was much bigger than the Sanhedrin, the high priest, Peter and John, or even Rome. They would not be able to stop would God had ordained. Peter most likely recalled the words Jesus had spoken to him when he had described Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 NLT). Jesus had blessed him and told him that this testimony was God-given, revealed from the Father Himself. And then Jesus had said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 NLT). Peter’s testimony concerning Jesus’ identity as the Messiah would be the “rock” upon which the church would be built. And no one and nothing would be able to conquer it, including the all-powerful religious leaders of Israel. They were completely impotent when it came to stifling the work of the Spirit of God. Yes, they could punish the disciples. They could imprison them, beat them, even kill them. But Peter and John most likely recalled the words of Jesus, recorded in Luke gospel. “Dear friends, don't be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot do any more to you after that” (Luke 12:4 NLT). Jesus had been killed, but had been raised back to life, and Peter and John had seen it with their own eyes. So, they weren’t exactly intimidated by the threat of death. They believed that what they were doing was the will of God and nothing was going to prevent them from doing what they had been commissioned to do.

The Sanhedrin were flabbergasted by the disciples’ response and were at a loss as to what to do next, so they threatened them one last time and released. And Luke records, “everyone was praising God for this miraculous sign—the healing of a man who had been lame for more than forty years” (Acts 4:21-22 NLT). God had shown up and this man’s healing had been the proof. But his healing had been intended as a sign. It was evidence of Peter and John’s God-given authority to speak on behalf of Jesus and act as His representatives on earth. The healing had validated their claims of apostleship. Their real mission was not to heal the sick, but to save the lost. Their primary calling was to restore sinners to a right relationship with God, not sight to the blind or the ability to walk to the lame. Those actions, while miraculous and attention-getting, were a means to a greater end, and Peter had made it perfectly clear: “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 NLT). 

It is so easy to get hung up on the signs and miss out on the Savior. We can become enamored with the idea of miracles and lose sight of the Messiah. Jesus had many followers when He walked the earth, but there were those in the crowds who only wanted physical healing, not spiritual renewal. Others were waiting to see if He would feed them, but failed to recognize Him as the bread of life. The majority were seeking a sign, but when it showed up, they never saw the Savior behind it. They missed the point. Peter and John were out to save souls. They were determined to preach the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. And nothing was going to stand in their way, not even the Sanhedrin.

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 Match For God.

The Lord is good,
    a stronghold in the day of trouble;
he knows those who take refuge in him.
    But with an overflowing flood
he will make a complete end of the adversaries,
    and will pursue his enemies into darkness.
What do you plot against the Lord?
    He will make a complete end;
    trouble will not rise up a second time.
For they are like entangled thorns,
    like drunkards as they drink;
    they are consumed like stubble fully dried.
From you came one
    who plotted evil against the Lord,
    a worthless counselor. –
Nahum 1:7-11 ESV

Nahum’s primary subject would appear to be the city of Nineveh, but upon closer examination, it is really God. While Nahum’s oracle deals extensively with what is going to happen to the city of Nineveh, it is God who will be the cause behind everything that takes place. Nahum’s message was intended for the people of Judah, not Nineveh. Unlike Jonah, Nahum was not commissioned by God to warn the people of Nineveh. His words were meant to encourage the nation of Judah and remind them that their God was still in control. As vast and mighty as the Assyrians might have been, their God was greater and more powerful. He could be trusted.

The Lord is good—
indeed, he is a fortress in time of distress,
and he protects those who seek refuge in him. – Jonah 1:7 NET

There is a stark contrast between the opening six verses and verse seven. In terms of His relationship with the Assyrians, God was a jealous and wrathful God who takes vengeance on His enemies. He will deal with the guilty.

Who can stand before his fierce anger?
    Who can survive his burning fury?
His rage blazes forth like fire,
    and the mountains crumble to dust in his presence. – Nahum 1:6 NLT

When it comes to His righteous indignation, no one can stand before Him. He is the God who can make mountains quake and the rivers dry up. He controls all the forces of nature. So, no human army is a match for Him. And yet, at the same time, God is good to those who seek refuge in Him. He is like a fortress that provides shelter to all those who seem safety in the midst of trouble. The people of Nineveh would seek safety within the fortified walls of their city, but they would find no protection from God’s fierce anger. But the Jews could, if they so chose, seek safety within the loving arms of God and find Him more than capable of protecting them from the onslaught of the Assyrians or any other human foe.

In fact, Nahum goes on to contrast once again God’s love and wrath. While He is a reliable source of refuge for all who seek safety from trouble and come to Him, He is also an overwhelming flood, sweeping away His enemies and destroying all those in His path who stand opposed to Him and His people. His wrath will come like a tsunami, overpowering all that stand in His way. And God, because He is sovereign, is fully capable of fulfilling His wrath and bringing about destruction in any of a number of ways. In the case of Nineveh, they would fall to a combined force made up of Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians. This alliance of pagan nations would destroy the city and during the siege, the rivers surrounding the city would overflow, flooding the city and destroying part of its walls. God can use nature or He can utilize other nations to accomplish His will. His resources are boundless. His creativity is limitless when it comes to how He brings about His will regarding those who stand against Him.

One of the points Nahum is making through this oracle is the tremendous value God puts on justice. He is a God of mercy and justice, and one of the great indictments He will lodge against the Assyrians is their reputation for injustice and oppression. They are cruel and unjust in their treatment of their foes. They are arrogant and prideful, believing they can do what they want to any nation they conquer and have to answer to no one for their actions. But God will prove them wrong. He sees all that they are doing. He is well aware of their injustices, and He will deal with them.

The Assyrians saw themselves as unstoppable. No one could stand in their way. Not even the God of the Israelites. When Sennacherib and the forces of Assyria had attempted to lay siege to Jerusalem in 701 B.C., they had failed. They had attempted to destroy the people of God without the permission of God. He had not called them to do what they had done. In essence, as Nahum writes, they had plotted against God Himself. Their attack against His people was unprovoked, unwarranted and unsanctioned by God. And they failed. Not only that, Nahum warns that they will never do it a second time, because God would destroy them before they could even try.

Like a wall of tangles thorns that appear impossible to penetrate, the Assyrians appear mighty and formidable. But thorns are no match for fire. Like helpless drunks, the Assyrians would prove hopeless and helpless before God. Dry dry stalks standing in a field, they will prove to be no match for the fiery wrath of God.

Nahum also makes reference to “one who plotted evil against the Lord, a worthless counselor” (Nahum 1:11 ESV). This is probably a reference to King Sennacherib of Assyria. When he had come against the city of Jerusalem, he had sent a message to the king of Judah, telling him:

“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident? Do you think that mere words can substitute for military skill and strength? Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me? On Egypt? If you lean on Egypt, it will be like a reed that splinters beneath your weight and pierces your hand. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is completely unreliable!

 “But perhaps you will say to me, ‘We are trusting in the Lord our God!’ But isn’t he the one who was insulted by Hezekiah? Didn’t Hezekiah tear down his shrines and altars and make everyone in Judah and Jerusalem worship only at the altar here in Jerusalem?

“I’ll tell you what! Strike a bargain with my master, the king of Assyria. I will give you 2,000 horses if you can find that many men to ride on them! With your tiny army, how can you think of challenging even the weakest contingent of my master’s troops, even with the help of Egypt’s chariots and charioteers? What’s more, do you think we have invaded your land without the Lord’s direction? The Lord himself told us, ‘Attack this land and destroy it!’” – 2 Kings 18:19-25 NLT

God has not sent the Assyrians. This was a lie meant to confuse the king of Judah and cause him to surrender the city without a fight. God would thwart the plans of Sennacherib and put an end to his ambitious plans to defeat the people of Judah. God would eventually allow Nebuchadnezzar and the nation of Babylon to conquer Judah, as a part of His judgment against them for having failed to heed His calls to repentance. But that was not something He had asked the Assyrians to do. They were out of line with their efforts to defeat the people of Judah, and they were unsuccessful. Not because Judah was powerful, but because their God is great.

Our God is a great God. He is sovereign over any and all. He answers to no one, and no one can stand against Him. He is righteous and wrathful, merciful and vengeful. He is gracious and loving, but can also be a formidable enemy against those who would stand in His way or who would attempt to thwart His will. History is full of stories of great nations and powerful kingdoms. There have countless empires that have risen up and attempted to force their will on the world. Kings and dictators have ascended to places of power with grand plans to conquer the world with their armies, but each has ultimately failed. This world belongs to God, and He has a divine plan for it. He will use nations. He will appoint kings. He will raise up leaders of all kinds. But they will all be answerable to Him. Their power is limited. Their plans are temporary. Their reigns are short-lived. But God remains on His throne for all time. His power is limitless and His plans are unavoidable and unstoppable. And all who would find refuge and safety from the storms of this life, brought on by the Sennacheribs of this world, can run to God and find Him to be a strong fortress, against which no one and nothing can prevail.

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

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

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

There When You Need Him.

And David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, “Bring me the ephod.” So Abiathar brought the ephod to David. And David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I pursue after this band? Shall I overtake them?” He answered him, “Pursue, for you shall surely overtake and shall surely rescue.” So David set out, and the six hundred men who were with him, and they came to the brook Besor, where those who were left behind stayed. But David pursued, he and four hundred men. Two hundred stayed behind, who were too exhausted to cross the brook Besor.

They found an Egyptian in the open country and brought him to David. And they gave him bread and he ate. They gave him water to drink, and they gave him a piece of a cake of figs and two clusters of raisins. And when he had eaten, his spirit revived, for he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights. And David said to him, “To whom do you belong? And where are you from?” He said, “I am a young man of Egypt, servant to an Amalekite, and my master left me behind because I fell sick three days ago. We had made a raid against the Negeb of the Cherethites and against that which belongs to Judah and against the Negeb of Caleb, and we burned Ziklag with fire.” And David said to him, “Will you take me down to this band?” And he said, “Swear to me by God that you will not kill me or deliver me into the hands of my master, and I will take you down to this band.” – 1 Samuel 30:7-15 ESV

David had returned home to Ziklag to find it had been plundered and all the women and children taken captive by the Amalekites. His men, fed up with all that had happened over the last few days, were fed up with David’s leadership and threatened to stone him. But we are told, “David drew strength from the Lord his God” (1 Samuel 30:7 NET). With his wives missing and his life threatened by his own men, David turned to God for help. This was not something unique for David to do, but more recently he had tended to make decisions without God’s input. That’s how he and his men had ended up living in Ziklag, a city smack-dab in the middle of Philistine territory. David had fled to Philistia in order to escape the ongoing pursuit of Saul. But there is no indication that David had sought or received God’s direction or approval to live among the enemies of Israel.

And yet, when the time came and David found himself between a rock and a hard place, he cried out and God heard. When he ran out of options and had no more tricks up his sleeve, he decided to turn to God and found his heavenly Father to have a receptive ear and a heart willing to step into the mess that David had created. All David had to do was reach an end of himself and cry out to the one who was willing and capable of doing something about his predicament: God.

There is something about despair that makes us more dependent upon God. Our moments of helplessness and hopelessness tend to drive us to God and play a big part in releasing His faithfulness. He is always ready, willing and able to save His people, but it requires that we call out to Him. We are reminded of this very fact in the story of God’s intervention on behalf of the people of Israel when they were living as slaves in Egypt.

Years passed, and the king of Egypt died. But the Israelites continued to groan under their burden of slavery. They cried out for help, and their cry rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and he remembered his covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He looked down on the people of Israel and knew it was time to act. – Exodus 2:23-25 NLT

I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. – Exodus 3:7 NLT

I have seen. I have heard. I am aware. Those three statements from God should create in us a sense of relief and calm as we recognize His care and concern for His people. There is nothing that happens in or to our lives that God does not see. When we cry out, He always hears. And there is nothing we can tell Him of which He is not already fully aware. Our prayers are not meant to inform God of our predicament, but to invite His involvement. God knew full well what David was facing. He was completely aware of the problem David had created for himself and what needed to be done to fix it. So when David sought God’s guidance, he received it. Using the Urim and Thummim, which were kept in the high priest’s ephod, David sought God’s input, asking him two questions:

“Should I chase after this band of raiders? Will I catch them?” – 1 Samuel 30:8 NLT

David wanted to know if he pursue the Amalakites, and, if he did, whether he would be successful in catching them. And God gave him the green light. 

“Yes, go after them. You will surely recover everything that was taken from you!” – 1 Samuel 30:8 NLT

Not only would David catch them, he would recover everything they took, including all the women and children, as well as all the livestock and loot they had plundered. God was going to bless David – in spite of David. God was going to rescue David out of the pit he had dug for himself and assuage the anger and resentment of David’s men. And all David had to do was draw strength from the Lord. He had to place his hope in and seek his help from the Lord. This would be yet another valuable life lesson for David and would contribute to his ongoing education in the power and presence of God. He would later turn what he had learned in moments like this into beautiful words of praise.

But in my distress I cried out to the Lord;
    yes, I prayed to my God for help.
He heard me from his sanctuary;
    my cry to him reached his ears. – Psalm 18:6 NLT

He went on to write these words which could have been penned as a direct result of this very circumstance in David’s life.

I chased my enemies and caught them;
    I did not stop until they were conquered.
I struck them down so they could not get up;
    they fell beneath my feet.
You have armed me with strength for the battle;
    you have subdued my enemies under my feet. – Psalm 18:37-39 NLT

God is always there when we call. The problem is that we don’t call on Him enough. We tend to try and solve our problems on our own. Either we doubt that God can or that He will intervene on our behalf. Or we have somehow convinced ourselves to believe that our solution will be just as effective as anything He comes up with. But when we finally reach the point where our circumstances cause us to give up and cry out, God hears and answers.

The Lord lives! Praise to my Rock!
    May the God of my salvation be exalted! – Psalm 18:46 NLT

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

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

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

The Forgotten God Who Never Forgets.

King Ahasuerus imposed tax on the land and on the coastlands of the sea. And all the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honor of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia? For Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was great among the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brothers, for he sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to all his people. – Esther 10:1-3 ESV

Some things never change. And King Ahasuerus is a case in point. All through this struggle he remained committed to his own kingdom and his own personal pleasure. The book of Esther opened with an opulent feast that lasted for six solid months. This affair was meant to be a calculated display of the king’s wealth and power. The wine flowed. The decorations were sumptuous and the food was of the highest quality and served in great quantity. No expense was spared. Part of the reason behind the opening scene of the book was to establish King Ahasuerus as the sovereign ruler of the kingdom of Persia. He was powerful, influential and in total control of his domain. He could do as he wished, whether with his money or his queen. He could elevate a person to the second highest office in the land, as he did with Haman, or he could decree the elimination of an entire people group with nothing more than his signature. He is set up as no less than a god. 

So it should be no surprise to read at the end of all the events recorded in the book of Esther that the king chose to levy a tax on the land of Persia. This was probably motivated by a number of factors, none more obvious than the king’s greed. But it is important to recall that Haman had promised to pay 10,000 talents of silver into the king’s treasury in exchange for an edict to wipe out the Jews. That would have been roughly 375 tons of silver, an exorbitant amount that represented two-thirds of the entire empire’s income. Obviously, with Haman’s death, this financial boon was never realized. So the king resorted to a tax. He was going to fill his royal coffers one way or another.

But what about Mordecai and Esther. How does the story leave them? Esther remains queen. She has been given all the lands and the wealth of Haman. Mordecai has been elevated to the second-highest position in the land. He has a great reputation among the Jews and is even extremely popular among the Persians. In essence, his ship has come in. He, like Esther, is set for life.

But there is a subtle silence in these closing verses, and it is in keeping with the rest of the story. There is no mention of God. The people have been rescued from destruction, but there is not a single word said about God’s role in their miraculous salvation. One of the things we must refrain from doing when reading the book of Esther is making either Mordecai or Esther the heroes of the story. While the book bears her name, Esther is not intended to be the focal point of the story. It is important to remember that Esther and Mordecai were part of the Jewish population in Persia that had determined to remain rather than return to their homeland under the leadership of Zerubbabel.

Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem. – Ezra 1:2-4 ESV

Cyrus had given the Jews the opportunity to return to their land and play a part in the reestablishment of their kingdom and the restoration of their capital and its temple. While tens of thousands returned, some obviously chose to stay in Persia. Mordecai and Esther were part of that group. The Jews who remained in Persia had been unwilling to make the long trek back to Jerusalem and preferred to stay behind. They took the path of least resistance. To a certain degree, they compromised their convictions and chose to remain exiles in a land that was not their home, but that had become quite comfortable and familiar to them. In fact, you see throughout this story a spirit of compromise and convenience. It is only natural to compare what is taking place in the lives of Esther and Mordecai with the stories of Daniel and Joseph. These two men also found themselves living as exiles in unfamiliar lands. Joseph was in Egypt, sold into slavery by his own brothers. Daniel was in Babylon, taken captive by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar when he destroyed Jerusalem. But these two men refused to compromise. They remained committed to their God and determined to live according to His laws. And it was their obedience to Him that resulted in His blessings on their lives. But in the cases of Mordecai and Esther, it seems as if any convictions they may have had took a backseat to their attitudes of compromise and convenience. Unlike Daniel, Esther willingly ate the king’s food and submitted to the beauty treatments designed to prepare her for the king’s bed. At no point in the story do we hear her refuse to eat certain foods that would improper for a Jew to consume. While Daniel refused to obey the king’s edict that banned prayer to any deity but the king, Esther was willing to subjugate herself to King Ahasuerus through sexual intercourse. Daniel’s actions got him thrown into the lions’ den, while Esther was made queen.

It would seem that Mordecai and Esther were more concerned about the people of Judah than the God of Judah. Ultimately, they used their positions of influence and authority to come up with a plan to protect their people from destruction. But their objective seems to have had little to do with the holiness of God’s name. And yet, throughout the story, God is actively moving behind the scenes to orchestrate affairs in such a way that his unfaithful people are the unlikely and undeserving recipients of His faithful mercy and grace. Mordecai and Esther are not icons of virtue. But they are instruments in the Redeemer‘s hands. Oftentimes, God uses us in spite of us. He has used pagan kings, egocentric Amalakites, young Hebrew virgins, common fishermen, misguided zealots, reluctant prophets, adolescent shepherds, and a wide assortment of other unqualified, unlikely individuals to accomplish His divine will. The story of Esther is the story of God working through the lives of the unfaithful in order to display His faithfulness. God didn’t need Mordecai or Esther to accomplish His will, but He used them anyway. He didn’t choose them because of their qualifications or potential contributions to His plan.

I am reminded of the words of Paul, written to the believers in Corinth. He wanted them to remember that their salvation by God had not been a result of their merit. They had not been deserving of salvation. They were not chosen by God because of their wealth, wisdom, power, or positions. It was their lack of merit that resulted in God’s mercy. It was their absence of greatness that resulted in God’s grace.  

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NLT

The story of Esther is the story of God’s faithful love and unmerited favor. It is the story of God’s might overcoming the power of kings and the plans of the enemy. While His name is never mentioned in the book, His presence is felt on every page of the story. He is the immortal, invisible, God.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise. – Walter C. Smith

The Almighty Is Never AWOL.

That very day the number of those killed in Susa the citadel was reported to the king. And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the citadel the Jews have killed and destroyed 500 men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king's provinces! Now what is your wish? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.” And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.” So the king commanded this to be done. A decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they killed 300 men in Susa, but they laid no hands on the plunder. – Esther 9:11-15 ESV

In reading this particular passage, it would be easy to conclude that Esther was a cruel and vindictive individual. After all, the second edict had been a success and the ten sons of Haman had been executed. But now, when the king asks her if there is anything else she wants, she requests that the edict be extended for a second day in the capital of Susa and for permission to hang the bodies of the tens sons of Haman on spikes for all to see. In other words, she wants to put them on public display. Were the 500 men killed that day not enough? Was the elimination of Haman’s sons as viable threats against the Jews not sufficient payback? Did she really need to publicly humiliate them? Was Esther simply bloodthirsty and out for revenge?

Obviously, there are things going on in the story to which we are not made aware. Esther knows something we don’t know. The first day of the edict it seems that the 500 individuals who died were all in the royal section of the city, known as the citadel (9:6). The majority of the threats the Jews were coming from the powerful and influential. They were the ones who felt the most threatened by Esther, Mordecai and the Jews. But Esther knew that there were still others who had either fled the citadel into other parts of the capital or there were pockets of resistance that needed to be eradicated. So she asked for a second day. The king gave his permission and the second day resulted in an additional 300 individuals losing their lives. But once again, the Jews refused to take their land and goods as plunder. They were not doing this for material reward. This was solely an attempt to prevent Haman’s original intention to eradicate the Jews from taking place. For Esther and the rest of the Jews, it was about self-preservation, not financial remuneration.

The public display of the bodies of Haman’s sons was intended to send a message. The very means by which he had planned to murder Mordecai was used to reveal to the citizens of Susa that his efforts had failed miserably. His hatred for the Jews had resulted in his own death and that of his ten sons. All the way back in chapter five of this story, Haman had returned from the first banquet thrown by Esther, and had been beside himself with joy. He arrived at home, bragging about his unprecedented good fortune.  “And Haman recounted to them the splendor of his riches, the number of his sons, all the promotions with which the king had honored him, and how he had advanced him above the officials and the servants of the king” (Esther 5:11 ESV). But now, Haman was dead. His ten sons were as well. His riches belonged to Esther. His former position and the king’s signet ring, symbol of his power, had been given to Mordecai. Haman, the prideful, arrogant, conniving, ruthless, power-hungry enemy of God’s people was gone. His decree had been an abject failure. And all traces of his ever having existed had been eliminated.

Esther’s actions, while somewhat mysterious to us, were not based on a whim. She knew what she was doing. She recognized that the threat to the Jews was not yet over. Susa was still harboring dangerous individuals who were on a mission to destroy Jews and take their possessions and property. The very fact that an additional 300 individuals were killed the next day reveals that this was true. For Esther, this was a matter of eliminating any threat against the Jews once and for all. She wisely used her position as queen and her influence over the king to arrange for a more-than-satisfactory end to this story. But none of this would have been possible without the sovereign, providential hand of God. This story is not about the cunning of Esther or the wisdom of Mordecai. It is not about the bravery of a young girl facing insurmountable odds and an all-powerful enemy. It is a story of the unseen, imperceptible, yet invincible power of God. It is a reminder to all who read it that God may not always be observable, but that doesn’t mean He’s AWOL. He is always there, whether we see Him or not. He is always in control, whether we believe it or not. He is always working His plan, whether we sense it or not.

Tit for Tat.

The king’s scribes were summoned at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day. And an edict was written, according to all that Mordecai commanded concerning the Jews, to the satraps and the governors and the officials of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, 127 provinces, to each province in its own script and to each people in its own language, and also to the Jews in their script and their language. And he wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed it with the king’s signet ring. Then he sent the letters by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud, saying that the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods, on one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. A copy of what was written was to be issued as a decree in every province, being publicly displayed to all peoples, and the Jews were to be ready on that day to take vengeance on their enemies. So the couriers, mounted on their swift horses that were used in the king’s service, rode out hurriedly, urged by the king’s command. And the decree was issued in Susa the citadel. Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a robe of fine linen and purple, and the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor. And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict reached, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them. – Esther 8:9-17 ESV

This passage virtually mirrors, word-for-word, an earlier portion of the story of Esther. Back in chapter three, we read:

Then the king’s scribes were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and an edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king’s satraps and to the governors over all the provinces and to the officials of all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language. It was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s signet ring. Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with instruction to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation to all the peoples to be ready for that day. The couriers went out hurriedly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in Susa the citadel. And the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion. – Esther 3:12-15 ESV

The precise wording and attention to details is intentional. The author wants us to know that what Haman had intended was being countermanded by God Himself. The powers of evil that had been behind the original decree were being matched by the sovereignty of God as He brought the desires of the wicked back on their own heads. In an eerily similar fashion, God was using the same methodology used by Haman, but to protect His people, not destroy them. God would use the name of the king, representing his power and authority, and all the resources of the king, to accomplish His divine will. And it would all be sealed with the king’s own ring, making it irrevocable and unavoidable. The tables were being turned. Originally, the instructions were “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day…and to plunder their goods.” But now, the Jews were “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods.” The exact same wording, but a completely different outcome. It is fascinating that God did not choose to eliminate or eradicate the king’s original edict. It remained in place. It was still the law of the land. But God simply countered it with His own version of the same decree that put power into the hands of His people. It was going to pit the forces of evil against the forces of the people of God. Both decrees were issued under the king’s name and sealed with the king’s ring. But one of them was now backed by the power and providence of God. These two decrees, while similar in wording, were anything but equal in their authority and ultimate outcome. The Jews, the people of God, would have the help of God on their side. Two groups were going to be pitted against one another, both with the authority to wipe out the other. But the Hebrews would not be alone. They would be accompanied and assisted by the same God who had defeated the Egyptians and helped them conquer the inhabitants of Canaan.

And it’s hard not to miss the two distinctly different reactions that accompanied the issuing of these two decrees. After Haman had convinced the king to place his seal of approval on the first decree, the two of them celebrated with drinks, while the people of Susa were left in confusion. And the Jews were left to mourn their fate. But with the sealing of the second decree, Mordecai walked out of the presence of the king wearing royal robes and a crown, not sackcloth and ashes. “The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor.” Rather than mourning, there was celebration. Rather than confusion, there was elation. The Jews went from being pitied to being feared. In fact, we’re told, “And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them” (Esther 8:17b ESV). The people of Susa sensed the tides were turning and that it would be safer to be a Jew than to be attempt to stand against them. What a remarkable shift in circumstances. What an incredible turn of events. But God has a way of doing the impossible and improbable. Just when we think all is lost, God steps in to prove us wrong. We should never count God out. We should never conclude that God has given up. No matter how bleak the circumstances may appear, our God is fully capable of reversing the tide, turning the tables and accomplishing the impossible.