salvation

Regulations For Real Life

15 “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.

17 “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, and none of the sons of Israel shall be a cult prostitute. 18 You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a dog into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.

19 “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. 20 You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

21 “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. 22 But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. 23 You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth.

24 “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. 25 If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.” – Deuteronomy 23:15-25 ESV

Moses now moves his point of emphasis from times of war to the everyday affairs of life. There would be periods of peace in Israel and during these times the men of war would return home to the normal circumstances of life. These occasions would call for an additional set of regulations to govern  a wide range of situations, and Moses left nothing up to chance.

The first scenario involves an escaped slave. The context seems to indicate that this fugitive slave has arrived in Israel from a distant land. This does not appear to be a reference to an indentured servant. There were slaves in Israel, but many of these individuals were fellow Israelites whose financial circumstances had obligated them to take on the role of a household servant in order to pay a debt they owed. And there were very strict rules regarding the treatment of these fellow Israelites, including the Year of Jubilee, when theses servants were to be set free and their debt wiped clean.

If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. – Exodus 21:2 NLT

The reference to an escaped slave found in verses 15-16 would appear to be dealing with a foreign slave who has shown up in Israel seeking refuge. In this case, there would be no obligation to return the slave to his master, because the master would be considered a pagan. Any rules concerning Hebrew slaves  would not apply in this case. But if an escaped slave showed up in Israel seeking asylum, they were to be treated with compassion and given the right to settle anywhere within the borders of Israel. These individuals were not be oppressed or treated like property. Instead, they were to be extended every courtesy and considered as a guest of the nation.

The very fact that the Bible deals with the topic of slavery yet never explicitly demands its abolition, leaves many modern-day Christians confused. Non-Christians have used the Bible’s seeming silence regarding the issue of slavery as a reason for rejecting the faith. But it is important to remember that the Bible is to be read and observed in its entirety. As a book, it covers a great stretch of time and deals with a wide range of social issues. The Bible neither condemns or condones slavery. Slavery, like so many other social aberrations, was the direct result of the fall. When sin entered the scene, not only was man’s relationship with God damaged, but the interpersonal dynamic between individuals changed for the worse. Not long after Adam and Eve rebelled against God, one of their own sons murdered his brother. And it goes downhill from there. The Bible is not about God telling man how to restore everything back to the way it was before the fall. It is about God revealing just how bad man’s spiritual condition had become because of the fall.

All of these laws given to the Israelites were designed to reveal man’s inherent sinfulness. The apostle Paul answers the age-old question, “Why, then, was the law given?” by stating,  “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins” (Galatians 19 NLT). He wrote the very same thing to the believers in Rome.

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

The Mosaic Law was not intended to rectify all of man’s sinful inclinations. But it was meant to regulate behavior. Without the law, men would not even be aware that what they were doing was sin. Again, Paul provides us with a clarification on the purpose of the law.

I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." – Romans 7:7 NIV

Murder, slavery, adultery, lust, rape, incest – all of these things are the sad and inevitable outcomes of the fall. Everything has been perverted. The entire creation has been marred by sin. And the Scriptures provides an overview of mankind’s relationship with God ever since the entrance of sin into His creation. The answer to the problem of slavery is not its abolition, but the redemption of mankind from slavery to sin. Telling sinful human beings not to enslave one another would be no more effective then demanding that they not lust after one another. The underlying problem is the heart.

So, all of these scenarios deal with what were everyday issues confronting the Israelites. Slavery was an everyday part of life because mankind was plagued by sin. And the second scenario deals with an other common problem during that day: Cult prostitution. We don’t react to this quite like we could slavery, but it was just as egregious a problem. The pagan nations surrounding Israel had incorporated sexual immorality into the worship of their false gods. But God prohibited Israel from emulating these pagan practices. They were forbidden from allowing their sons and daughters to serve as cult prostitutes. This kind of immoral practice was off-limits for the Israelites. And they were not allowed to use any money earned through this activity as a form of tithe or offering. In essense, Moses was preventing the Israelites from rationalizing their immoral behavior through apparent acts of righteousness.

The final set of regulations seem disconnected and dissimilar. But they all have to do with the interpersonal relationships between members of the covenant community of Israel. God placed a high priority on these relationships, providing the Israelites with very specific regulations regarding their actions toward one another. They were not allowed to charge one another interest. They could loan one another money, but they were not to do so in order to make a profit. This was really intended as a kind of social welfare system, designed to ensure that no Israelite was ever in need. But God allowed the charging of interest to non-Jews.

If an Israelite made a vow, he was expected to keep it. Vowing to do something in God’s name was to be taken seriously. It was a promise that was guaranteed by the holiness and integrity of God. To fail to keep that commitment was a grave sin. So, it was better not to vow at all, since the making of a vow was totally voluntary. Failing to keep your commitments was to be seen as unacceptable behavior among the Israelites. Jesus provided an important clarification on this matter in His Sermon on the Mount.

“You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows!…

“Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:33-34, 37 NLT

The final verses in this section deal with the sharing of one’s resources. If an Israelite was passing through another man’s vineyard or field of grain, he was free to gather enough food to sustain him on his journey. In other words, he could meet his immediate need for food, but he was not allowed to harvest the crops belonging to another man. To do so would be theft. But as long as he was taking just enough grapes to satisfy his hunger, he was free to do so. The Israelites were expected to care for the needs of one another, but they were also respect one another’s rights.

All of these regulations were intended to govern the everyday lives of the people of Israel. They cover with a wide range of topics, but they all deal with the daily interactions between the people of God. The nation of Israel had been set apart by God and were expected to glorify His name through the way they lived their lives. While the nations around them were operating according to their sin natures, Israel had been provided with the Mosaic Law, a gracious gift from God designed to expose their own sinful dispositions and remind them of the holiness of their 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

Free From the Curse

22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 21:22-23 ESV

God’s rules regarding the corporate stoning of a morally and spiritually degenerate son are now followed by strict instructions regarding the public display of the dead man’s body. Once the guilty party was put to death, it was common practice to hang the dead man’s body from a tree as a visual demonstration of the consequences of sin. It was also meant to serve as a deterrent, a somewhat macabre but effective means of discouraging others to take the same deadly path. 

But God provided strict regulations concerning the disposal of the body.  It had to be removed from the tree and buried the same day as the execution. Otherwise, the curse of God, which resulted in the man’s death, would extend to the land. The public display of the man’s corpse was meant as a further means of humiliating and degrading the guilty one for his death-deserving sin. Even in death, he would be subjected to ridicule and scorn. The hanging of the body did not bring about the curse. It was a result of the curse that had deemed the man deserving of death.

The immediate burial of the body was essential in order to prevent ceremonial defiling of the land. Had the body been left hanging overnight, there is a greater likelihood that animals and birds would have desecrated the body, causing blood to spill onto the ground and essentially bringing the curse of the man upon the entire land. God had warned the Israelites about practicing the ways of the Canaanites. Their pagan, godless ways had literally cursed the land of Canaan, requiring God to ceremonially purge it by having the Israelites remove every vestige of Canaanite influence from the land.

“You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.” – Numbers 35:33-34 ESV

This requirement to bury the dead man’s body was meant to keep the Israelites from following one sin with another. Once the man was executed for his sin, his body was to be displayed, but then properly disposed of, so that the curse of death could be removed.

Sin against God has always carried with it a curse. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, their actions brought about a series of curses from God, including the entrance of physical death into the equation.

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:17-19 ESV

Adam’ sin brought a death sentence upon all mankind. It placed every single one of his descendants under a curse. And the apostle Paul goes out of his way to stress this sobering reality.

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

For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. – Romans 5:15 NLT

For Adam’s sin led to condemnation… – Romans 5:16 NLT

For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. – Romans 5:17 NLT

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone… – Romans 5:18 NLT

Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. – Romans 5:19 NLT

Don’t miss what Paul is saying. All mankind is under a curse and worthy of death. For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard of righteousness (Romans 3:23). There is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10). 

It Israelites who stood back and threw the stones that took the guilty man’s life were no more righteous. They were no less deserving of death. Their sins, while perhaps less egregious, we no less worthy of death. Their very existence made them worthy of death because they stood under the same curse that had condemned Adam. But God didn’t require them to die. Instead, He had extended them mercy.

This brings to mind the encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. The scribes and Pharisees, seeing Jesus visiting the Mount of Olives, dragged a woman whom they claimed to be guilty of the crime of adultery. They said to Jesus, “Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5 ESV).

And Jesus wisely responded to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 ESV). And then John records, “when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (John 8:9 ESV).

There was no one in the crowd that day who could claim to be sin-free. The spiritual state of every single human being is that of a sinner who is deserving of death for their rebellion against a holy and righteous God. And that brings us to the vital link between this obscure regulation regarding the burial of an executed criminal and the remedy for the curse of death.

In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul provides us with a connecting point that makes this Old Testament passage relevant. He reminds his readers that the Jews, who were required to live according to the Mosaic law, were under a God-ordained curse if they didn’t keep the entire law perfectly.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV

The painful reality was that no Jew had ever kept all of God’s law without fail. As a result, every single Jew stood condemned, cursed, and worthy of death.  And Paul points out that keeping the law was never going to make anyone right with God. It was an impossible standard for sinful men to keep.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” – Galatians 3:11-12 ESV

The law was the righteous standard provided by God, but no one was able to live up to that standard. And them, Paul provides the missing link.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV

Jesus became the curse. He took on the sins of mankind and personally bore the full brunt of God’s righteous wrath against rebellious humanity. And His death was not by stoning. By time Jesus began His earthly ministry, the Romans had outlawed the Jewish practice of stoning because they wanted to control all forms of capital punishment. So, when Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, they needed to accuse Jesus of a crime that would warrant the Romans putting Him to death. They chose to accuse Jesus of claiming to be the rightful king of the Jews and of mounting an insurrection against the Romans. This resulted in Jesus being  “hanged on a tree” or crucified.

The prophet, Isaiah prophesied about Jesus and the death He would suffer on behalf of sinful mankind.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:4-5 ESV

With His death, Jesus provided a means by which sinful men and women could escape the curse of the law. By placing their faith in His personal sacrifice on their behalf, they could be freed from living under the looming curse of death associated with failure to keep God’s law.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul provided another encouraging connection between Adam and Jesus.

So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. – 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NLT

No one need die for their own sins anymore. God sent His Son to pay the penalty for every single violation of His law. But the gift of salvation made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection is only available to those who will accept it as what it is: A free gift made possible by God’s grace and received by faith alone in Christ alone. 

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

Something Worth Celebrating

9 “You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. 10 Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. 11 And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there. 12 You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.

13 “You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. 14 You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns. 15 For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.

16 “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. 17 Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.” – Deuteronomy 16:9-17 ESV

Moses has been reminding the people of their obligation to offer the appropriate sacrifices at the appropriate time and place. Now, he is going to elaborate on the particular feasts and festivals at which these various offerings were to be made.

“All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock.You shall eat it, you and your household, before the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose.” – Deuteronomy 15:19-20 NLT

There were seven annual feasts as prescribed by God. In the Spring of each year, the Israelites were to celebrate the feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, and Weeks. An additional four feasts were to be held in the Fall. These included the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. These annual events were, in part, commemorations or memorial celebrations, intended to help the Israelites retain the memory of God’s miraculous intervention in their lives. But they were also to be annual occasions when the Israelites could offer thanks to God for all that He had done in providing for their needs over the preceding year.

These feasts or festivals were closely tied to the annual spring and fall harvests and were timed to remind the Israelites of God’s faithful protection and provision. But, there is something even more significant about these annual celebrations that is often overlooked. They were intended to serve as prefigurement or foreshadowing of something or someone to come. The Messiah. Each of these annual feasts present a glimpse into the redemptive work of Jesus. And while the Israelites would not have recognized these signs, those of us on this side of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are able to look back and see how the saving work of Jesus was foretold in this seven festivals.

One of the first things we should notice is the inclusive nature of these events. They were non-discriminatory and intended for everyone in the camp.

“Celebrate with your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites from your towns, and the foreigners, orphans, and widows who live among you.…” – Deuteronomy 16:11 NLT

“This festival will be a happy time of celebrating with your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows from your towns.” – Deuteronomy 16:14 NLT

No one was to be left out. The invitation to participate in the joy of the celebration was extended to all. It reminds me of the invitation offered by Jesus:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

Notice how Jesus incorporated agricultural terms in his invitation. Just as the feasts were tied to the annual harvest and provided the people a much-needed respite from their work of providing for their basic needs, Jesus offered mankind rest from the back-braking work of trying to earn righteousness through self-effort. And this invitation was offered to every individual with no strings attached or restrictions based on ethnicity, gender, or social status.

And for all who accepted the gracious invitation of Jesus Christ, they became part of an all-inclusive family comprised of people from all walks of life. The apostle Paul describes them this way:

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. – Galatians 3:28-29 NLT

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. – Romans 10:12 ESV

The imagery associated with these annual events is closely tied to Jesus. From the unblemished Passover lamb to unleavened bread, these Old Testament types foreshadow the Messiah, the sinless Son of God. Leaven was a symbol of sin and the Israelites were to spend seven days purging any leaven from their homes. But Jesus came as the sinless Lamb of God who made possible forgiveness for sin – once and for all. 

At the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, the Israelites were instructed to build temporary shelters in which they were to live during the days of the festival. These structures were intended to remind them of their nomadic existence during the days of the exodus. But they are also a foreshadowing of something greater to come. With His arrival on earth, Jesus became Immanuel, literally “God with us.” He came to tabernacle among His people and to provide a means by which they could enjoy a permanent and eternal existence with God the Father. No more temporary shelters. No more wandering in the wilderness of sin. God has a permanent place of shelter and refuge planned for all those who place their faith in His Son.

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

“I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” – Ezekiel 37:27 NLT

These feasts were temporary occasions and the Israelites were required to observe them on an annual basis. But the sacrifice of Jesus was once-for-all, providing a permanent means of salvation for all who who accept His gracious invitation. No more feasts and festivals were necessary. No more sacrifices were required. There was no more need to remove the leaven of sin or to find the spotless lamb to offer as atonement for that sin. Jesus became the sole source of redemption. And the celebration of these annual feasts was one day replaced by a much more simple, yet highly significant event that would commemorate His death on man’s behalf. 

At the Feast of Passover, Jesus would gather with His disciples in the upper room and share the Passover meal with them. But during their celebration of that annual event, Jesus would institute another, much more important, celebration which would take its place: The Lord’s Supper.

…the Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NLT

Moses said of the Feast of Tabernacles, “This festival will be a time of great joy for all” (Deuteronomy 16:15 NLT). But it is the sinless sacrifice of Jesus that provides true cause for joy and celebration. His death made man’s restoration with God possible. His sacrifice provides all who accept it with complete forgiveness from sin and the replacement of their guilty verdict with the announcement of their justification before God. And that is truly cause for celebration.

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

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

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

 

 

 

A History of Rebellion, Not Righteousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was that fateful decision that Moses recalled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Unrigteous and Undeserving

1 “Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, cities great and fortified up to heaven, 2 a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you have heard it said, ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak?’ 3 Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the Lord has promised you.

4 “Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

6 “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. 7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord. 8 Even at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you. 9 When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water. 10 And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the Lord had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. 11 And at the end of forty days and forty nights the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant. 12 Then the Lord said to me, ‘Arise, go down quickly from here, for your people whom you have brought from Egypt have acted corruptly. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them; they have made themselves a metal image.’” – Deuteronomy 9:1-12 ESV

It’s interesting to consider how the blessings of God can produce one of two reactions in those who experience them. The first and proper response is that of gratitude and humility, fueled by the recognition that His blessings are unmerited and are signs of His love. But, sadly, the more common response is to arrogantly assume that His blessings are somehow deserved – a kind of a reward for our righteousness. In this second scenario, the recipient of God’s blessings is actually taking credit for them. He is making God’s blessings a form of payment for services rendered.

But, Moses is warning the Israelites not to make that dangerous and deadly mistake. Robbing God of glory is not a game they want to play. And he opens this section of his speech to the people of Israel by describing God as a “consuming fire.” Like a superheated flame that quickly devours everything in its path, God will destroy and subdue all the enemies that stand in the way of Israel occupying the land of Canaan. But they must understand that God, the consuming fire, can be indiscriminate when it comes to His righteous indignation.

The consuming nature of God’s wrath, directed against all unrighteousness, was non-discriminatory. He is a holy and righteous God who must punish all sin. And, in the book of Acts, the apostle Peter saw that God was also non-discriminatory when it came to bestowing His grace.

“I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right.” – Acts 10:34-35 NLT

And Paul echoed this very same idea when he wrote to the believers in Rome, accentuating the lack of favoritism and partiality on God’s part.

But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.

When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it. – Romans 2:10-12 NLT

Moses tried to make two essential points perfectly clear to the Israelites. First of all, God was going to give the Israelites the land of Canaan, but not because they were righteous. Secondly, He was going to destroy all the Canaanites, and it would be due to their wickedness. Nobody in this scenario deserved God’s blessings.  The Israelites had done nothing to merit God’s mercy and grace. As a matter of fact, Moses delivers the less-than-comforting news that God was going to deliver the Israelites in spite of them.

“You must recognize that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land because you are good, for you are not—you are a stubborn people.” – Deuteronomy 9:6 NLT

They were stubborn and rebellious and, therefore, wicked in God’s eyes. They had been given God’s commandments but had failed to keep them. Even when Moses had been on the mountaintop at Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments, the people had chosen to rebel against God and make an idol to worship in His place. It doesn’t get any more wicked than that. Consider the words God spoke to Moses as He informed him about what was taking place down in the valley.

“Get up! Go down immediately, for the people you brought out of Egypt have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! They have melted gold and made an idol for themselves!” – Deuteronomy 9:12 NLT

Yet, here they were, ready to enter the land of Canaan and take possession of the inheritance promised to Abraham by God. And that seems to be Moses’ point in all of this. God could have destroyed them for their wickedness because He is a consuming fire. He could have done to them exactly what He was going to do to the Canaanites and have been fully justified in doing so. But Moses assured the Israelites that the only reason God was not destroying them was “to fulfill the oath he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Deuteronomy 9:5 NLT).

God was fulfilling the promise He had made to Abraham and had reiterated to Isaac and Jacob. The Israelites did not deserve what God was about to do. They had not earned His favor, and most certainly could not claim to be righteous in His eyes. They were wicked and rebellious. They were stubborn and stiffnecked. And they couldn’t claim ignorance, because God had given them His law. They knew exactly what He expected of them and yet, they had chosen to reject His divine will and live in open rebellion to Him.

And Moses does not let them forget just how angry God had been with them for their unfaithfulness at Mount Sinai.

“Even at Mount Sinai you made the Lord so angry he was ready to destroy you.” – Deuteronomy 9:8 NLT

But God had spared them. Why? Because He is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. He does not lie. He will not go back on His word. He had promised Abraham that his descendants would occupy the land of Canaan. He had made a commitment to give them the land as their inheritance, and He would fulfill that promise.

No man deserves the mercy and grace of God. No one can stand before God and demand that He reward them for their righteousness. As the book of Ecclesiastes states:

Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 NLT

And, quoting from Psalm 14, the apostle Paul sums up the sad state of mankind’s spiritual condition.

No one is righteous—not even one. No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one. – Romans 3:10-12 NLT

The Israelites stood before God as guilty and condemned, and worthy of experiencing the consuming fire of God’s righteous anger. But He would show them mercy because He had made a promise to Abraham, and that promise included their existence as a nation.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2 NLT

But there was a second aspect to that promise.

“And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed—all because you have obeyed me.” – Genesis 22:18 NLT

God had plans for Israel. And those plans included the coming of the Messiah. God was going to use this rebellious, sin-prone nation to bring forth the Savior of the world. Jesus would be born a Jew, from the tribe of Judah. He would take on human flesh and become the one and only man who lived in perfect obedience to God’s law. And His sinless existence would make Him qualified to act as the unblemished Lamb to serve as payment for mankind’s sin debt. His death would satisfy the just demands of a holy God and provide atonement for all who would recognize their sin and accept His undeserved, unmerited offer of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

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 Condemnation

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 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. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:1-11 ESV

No condemnation. Let those two words sink in.

Don’t allow yourself to blow past them by treating them with that brand of apathy that so often accompanies over-familiarity. Many of us have read this passage so many times that it no longer carries any meaning for us. But if you keep in mind all that Paul has said in the first seven chapters of his letter to the Romans, the words, “no condemnation” should carry much greater significance for us.

Paul opened his letter with the sobering words: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18 ESV). The truth they suppressed was God’s revelation of Himself through creation. People had no excuse for refusing to acknowledge God because He had made Himself visible and knowable through all that He had made. But mankind chose to ignore God. And Paul states that “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28 ESV). And Paul provides a less-than-flattering list of the things they did that “ought not to be done.” It includes every kind of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, slander, insolence, pride, disobedience, foolishness, faithlessness, and gossiping. And in chapter two, Paul drops the bombshell that “the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:2 ESV). And just so there’s no question as to what Paul means by judgment, he states, “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil” (Romans 2:9 ESV).

So, who does evil? According to Paul, everyone. There is no one who will escape God’s judgment because all stand before God as guilty.

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12 ESV

No one will escape God’s judgment, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). And just so we understand what that judgment entails, Paul tells us: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV).

Now, look at those two words again: No condemnation.

Those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer under God’s righteous and just condemnation. Which means that His judgment of guilt, which brings with it a mandatory penalty of death, has been lifted. We stand before God, the judge of the universe, as those who are no longer condemned because of our sin. But why? Is it because we got our proverbial act together? Has God removed our guilty sentence because we have somehow reversed our behavior and made ourselves more acceptable in His sight? Of course not.

Paul’s whole point is that we stand uncondemned because we are in Christ. At one point, we stood before God as His enemies, but “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ESV). We were made right with God, not because of anything we did to earn or deserve it, but because of what Jesus did on our behalf.

We now enjoy “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1 ESV). His death paid the penalty for our sin. He gave His life in our place, presenting Himself as the sacrificial substitute who took away the sins of the world. And His death was necessary because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

His death on our behalf has provided release from condemnation, complete forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, and the promise of eternal life instead of eternal judgment.

But what does this have to do with sanctification? Everything. Notice how Paul links our release from condemnation to our freedom from the law of sin and death. That word “freedom” is vitally important to understanding what it means to stand as uncondemned before God. Our release from condemnation was not temporary or limited to a point in time. We weren’t released for a moment and then left to live under the threat of future condemnation. And yet, that is how many of us view the Christian life. We live under the constant fear of falling back under God’s condemnation based on what we do or don’t do. In other words, we see our behavior as the determiner of our status before God. And in doing so, we display a flawed understanding of what it means to stand uncondemned before God.

But look closely at what Paul says:

By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 ESV

Back in chapter three, Paul told us the sobering news that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20 ESV). No one can be made right with God through adherence to the law. Why? Because the law was designed to make man aware of God’s holy requirements. It told us what God expected, but had no power to assist us in living up to those expectations. Like a speed limit sign on the side of the road, the law displayed God’s expectations and condemned our violation of them. It couldn’t make us obey, but it could expose us when we failed to do so.

But Paul says there is a new law at work in our lives. He describes it as “the law of the Spirit of life.” When we hear the word, “law,” we tend to think in terms of restrictions and binding requirements that keep us from doing what we want to do. But the Greek word Paul uses is nómos, and it has a much broader and more pleasant meaning behind it. According to Strong’s Concordance, it is derived from the Greek word “νέμω némō (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals). The law was intended to be prescriptive, not restrictive. The Mosaic law had benefits. It gave directions for life and provided God’s prescribed way for living in unbroken fellowship with Him. In the 23rd Psalm, David describes this prescriptive nature of God’s law. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1-3 ESV). Through the law, God guided, directed, and protected His people. But the law was weakened by man’s flesh or sin nature. Man couldn’t follow willingly or obediently.

So when Paul speaks of “the law of the Spirit of life,” he is telling us that God has provided us with a new way to live in fellowship with Him. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4 ESV). The key is the last phrase in these verses. We are to walk according to the Spirit, not the flesh. We are to live our lives in obedience to and dependence upon the Spirit of God. He is the nómos or prescribed way to live in fellowship with and obedience to God. And Paul provides us with a vivid contrast of the choice that lies before us each and every day as God’s children. “Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God” (Romans 8:5-8 NLT). 

Our sinful nature is alive and active. But we are no longer slaves to it. We have been set free from its control. We now have the Spirit of God also living within us, providing us with direction for living a God-honoring life and the power to accomplish it. But we must choose to live under His control and not our own. We must submit to His leadership. We must desire what He desires and long for those things that He has determined as best for us. But in his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul reminds us of the constant battle going on within us. “The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other…” (Galatians 5:17 NLT). If we try to please God through our flesh, we will fail. But if we live our lives in dependence upon the Spirit of God, His prescribed means of living a godly life, we will experience life, peace, joy, contentment, and the transformation of our lives into the likeness of Christ. And no threat of condemnation.

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

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

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

 

But By the Grace of God…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Past, Present, and Future

1 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours… – 1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV

1 Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. – 2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 5:23 ESV

22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. – Hebrews 12:22-23 ESV

The four passages above provide us with clarification concerning the doctrine of sanctification, but they have also resulted in much confusion and debate over the centuries. Taken out of context or rad apart from one another, they can leave a range of different conclusions regarding sanctification and man’s role in it.

It seems that the Bible treats sanctification using three different tenses: past, present, and future; and with each occurrence a different aspect of sanctification is being communicated. These three different ways of looking at sanctification provide us with a multi-multidimensional frame of reference that helps us better understand the rich nature of this often overlooked and underappreciated doctrine.

But these verses, and others like them, have also been used to propagate a wide range of conclusions regarding sanctification. For some, the fact that sanctification is communicated as having taken place in the past, suggests that it is a one-and-done doctrine. They treat it as they do justification, concluding that it was accomplished at the point of salvation and is, therefore, complete. They rightly state that each and every believer has been set apart or sanctified by God at the point of their salvation.  As the letter of Jude so clearly states, they have been called by God.

To those who are called…  – Jude 1 ESV

The word, “called” in the Greek is hagiazō, and refers to those who have been sanctified or consecrated to God for His use. And the author of Hebrews tells us that who God has called or sanctified “have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10 ESV). That calling cannot be revoked. The believer’s state of sanctification cannot be lost. As A. W. Pink so aptly puts it:

…his sacrifice has purged his people from every stain of sin, separated them from the world, consecrated them unto God, setting them before him in all the excellency of his offering. – A. W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification

As Paul told the believers in Thessalonica: “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13. ESV). So, there is a sense in which our sanctification is a past occurrence, having been accomplished through the Spirit when we placed our faith in Jesus Christ. At that point, we became God’s holy possession, set apart for His use and bearing the full righteousness of Christ. That’s why Peter describes us as “a chosen people,” and he calls us “royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession.” And then he tells us the wonderful consequences of our sanctification: “As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9 NLT).

But if we have been sanctified by God and it is a completed process, why do we still struggle with sin? If we have been made holy by God, why does unholy behavior still make up such a large part of our daily experience? When the Scripture talks of the believer as having been sanctified once for all, it is not speaking of a complete eradication of sin from the life of the one sanctified.

…scriptural sanctification is neither the eradication of sin, the purification of the carnal nature, nor even the partial putting to sleep of the “flesh”; still less does it secure an exemption from the attacks and harassments of Satan. – A. W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification

Even Jesus, praying in the garden on behalf of all those who would place their faith in Him, said to His heavenly Father, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:15-17 ESV). 

Jesus prayed for a specific group of people. He refers to them as “the people whom you gave me out of the world,” and Jesus reminds His Father, “Yours they were, and you gave them to me” (John 17:5 ESV). They had been set apart by God as His possession, and God had given them to Jesus to save. And on the verge of accomplishing His divine mission of substitutionary atonement, Jesus tells His Father, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9 ESV).

And Jesus asked that His Father “keep them from the evil one” and “sanctify them in the truth.” Yes, they had been set apart by God, and Jesus was going to seal their designation as God’s possession with His death on the cross. But Jesus knew that all those whom God had given Him would still wrestle with the attacks of Satan and the ever-present reality of sin. The New Testament repeatedly points to the reality of indwelling sin. Our own experience as believers provides ample proof that sin is far from eradicated in our lives. Yes, we have been set apart by God for His use. We now belong to Him, and we have even been given a new nature by virtue of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, but we still have to do battle with sin each and every day. That is why the author of Hebrews tells us: “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV).

It’s why Paul pleaded so strongly with the believers in Ephesus, telling them to “throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy” (Ephesians 4:22-24 NLT). And He warned the believers in Galatia to “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16 ESV).  Paul also demanded that the Corinthian believers cleanse themselves from anything that defiled the body or spirit so that they might bring their holiness to completion (2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV).

So, while believers have been set apart by God for His use, we must live in keeping with our holy status. In other words, we have been dedicated by God and cleansed from our sin by the blood of His Son, so we must maintain the purity of our lives so that we might continue to bring Him glory through our lives. That is what Paul meant when he wrote to his young protégé, Timothy.

In a wealthy home some utensils are made of gold and silver, and some are made of wood and clay. The expensive utensils are used for special occasions, and the cheap ones are for everyday use. If you keep yourself pure, you will be a special utensil for honorable use. Your life will be clean, and you will be ready for the Master to use you for every good work. – 2 Timothy 2:20-21 NLT

We are to see ourselves as “expensive utensils” reserved for special occasions and for honorable use. That is the motivation behind our efforts to remain pure. We are not attempting to earn favor with God or gain access into His presence through good works. We are striving to live in keeping with His will for us.

…this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 ESV

We are to pursue holiness because we have been deemed holy by God. As Paul told Timothy, we are to “Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11 NLT). Why? Because it is God’s will for us and the very reason Jesus gave His life for us. Paul would have us remember that Jesus died so that we might live in newness of life.

For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives…We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. – Romans 6:4, 6 NLT

And the hope that motivates our pursuit of ongoing sanctification is the promise of our future glorification – when our sanctification will be complete and whole. The day is coming when we will become “the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:13 ESV) and “we will be like him”(1 John 3:2 NLT).

We have been sanctified by God. We are being sanctified by God. And the day is coming when we will be perfectly sanctified by God – not just positionally, but practically and permanently.

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

 

Knowledge of the Holy

10 You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean…– Leviticus 10:10 ESV

26 Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things. They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. – Ezekiel 22:26 ESV

When God commanded His people, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV), it was clear that He had certain expectations He was communicating. This divine imperative is found in a whole section of Scripture in which God reiterates His  requirements for what it meant to “be holy.” In verse 2 of chapter 19, God commanded Moses to tell the people, “You shall be holy,” and then He followed it up with a list of specific rules and regulations outlining acceptable and unacceptable behavior for His people.

Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father… – vs 3

…you shall keep my Sabbaths… – vs 3

Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal… – vs 4

When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. – vs 5

On that last one, God was very specific and indicated that the portion of the offering that was theirs to eat had to be consumed on the day the offering was made or no later than the day after. Failure to heed God’s command came with dire consequences.

If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people. – vs 7-8

Don’t miss what God says here. Deciding to keep the portion of the sacrifice graciously provided by God for His people and eat it just one day late resulted in the entire offering being made profane. Not only that, the one who offered it was to be cut off or separated from the rest of the congregation. The Hebrew word is karath, and it carries the idea of a body part being cut off. This was a severe punishment, resulting in the removal of the guilty party from the family of Israel. They were to be banished from the faith community. Why? Because they had profaned what was holy to the Lord.

The Hebrew word for “profaned” is chalal, and it refers to the polluting or desecrating of something that had once been sacred or set apart as holy. The offering became unacceptable to God because the one who offered it failed to follow God’s explicit instructions. And not only did the sacrifice become profaned and, therefore, unacceptable, so did the one who offered it. They were no longer fit for God’s presence. They were no longer welcome among God’s people. This is serious stuff.

And God was far from done. His list of requirements for holy living goes on for several more paragraphs, and notice how everyday practical they are.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge… – vs 9

you shall not strip your vineyard bare… – vs 9-10

You shall not steal… – vs 11

you shall not deal falsely… – vs 11

you shall not lie to one another… – vs 11

You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God… – vs 12

You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him… – vs 13

The people of Israel were not free to live however they wanted to live. Their daily activities and interactions with one another were regulated by God and not left up to their own opinions or devices. The rules regulating their behavior were far from subjective and never left up to the personal whims of the individual. God was demanding behavior that was in keeping with His will, not theirs. And if you look closely, so much of what God commanded them to do was in direct opposition to the natural inclinations of the human heart.

God required selfless behavior, reflecting a concern and care for others. He was demanding that His people treat one another justly and with dignity. They were to view one another as holy, set apart by God, and worthy of respect and honor. They had been sanctified or set apart by God as a unit. The entire nation of Israel was considered as God’s chosen people, His possession. And they were to practice holiness as a community, not just as individuals.

Which brings us to the two verses that opened today’s blog. In the Leviticus passage, God warned Aaron, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.”  As the God-appointed priest over the people of Israel, Aaron had a responsibility to teach the people what God considered holy and clean. In doing so, he was also to make clear distinctions as to what was common and unclean. These words are important for us to understand if we are to grasp the concept of sanctification.

Just a few verses prior to this one, we have the record of God destroying Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, who had offered strange or unacceptable fire before the Lord. Acting as priests before God, they had done something God had not authorized or commanded them to do.

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. – Leviticus 10:1 ESV

And so, God cut them off – literally. He put them to death. And then He instructed Moses to give the following message to their father, Aaron:

“This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” – Leviticus 10:3 ESV

Their behavior had not sanctified the Lord. Their actions had not glorified Him. So, God punished them for their unsolicited and unacceptable behavior. And then He had Moses gather the remaining priests together and provided them with additional words of warning and instructions concerning their behavior in their role as priests. And this concluded with His words: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.”

They were to recognize and respect the differences between the qodesh and the chol, the tame' and the tahowr. The Hebrew word qodesh is derived from the word for “sanctified”: qadesh. They were to know the difference between set-apartness and profaneness. The Hebrew word chol refers to anything unholy or unsanctified. It is common, having not been set apart for God’s use and His glory. As priests, Aaron and his sons had been set apart by God, and they were no longer free to live common lives, doing things according to their own wills or wishes. As God’s chosen possession, the people of Israel were no longer free to live common lives, conducting themselves like all the other nations around them. They had been set apart and were now considered holy by God. And He expected them to live that way. But to do so, they needed to know the difference between the holy and the common. They also needed to know the difference between the pure and the impure.

The Hebrew word tame'  refers to that which is unclean or defiled. And in this context, it means anything that had not been set apart and sanctified by God. This included not only the people of Israel, but their behavior as well, and all the rules that were intended to regulate that behavior. The Hebrew word tahowr is intended to reflect the opposite of defilement. It has to do with purity and cleanness. And God’s commands were to be considered pure, clean, and holy, and treated that way. That is why the apostle Paul wrote, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12 ESV).

Every rule and regulation that came from the lips of God was to be considered holy and pure, and worthy of obedience. To disregard God’s commands was to treat them as unclean, an act that profaned and desecrated them. That’s why God wanted Moses to clearly articulate the difference between the holy and the unholy, the clean and the unclean. There was to be no confusion on the part of His people. They needed to know the difference so that they might live set-apart lives, in keeping with God’s commands. And that’s why God commanded Aaron and his fellow priests “to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses” (Leviticus 10:11 ESV).

An essential part of sanctification is the knowledge of what God expects of His people. It is impossible to live a holy life if you have no idea what that life is to look like. God does have expectations of His people. As Christians, we are to live lives that are in keeping with God’s holy requirements, just as Jesus did. We do not do so to win favor with Him or to earn our way into heaven. We do so because He has set us apart for His glory. Our lives are to reflect our status as His children. But we must be able to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean. And to do that, we must know God’s Word and be willing to receive instruction from His Holy Spirit. God did not save us and sanctify us so that we can continue to live our old lives according to our own selfish desires. We are no longer common. We have been set apart by God for His use and for His glory. We are holy, and our daily behavior should reflect that reality. 

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

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

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

 

A Constant Obsession

14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. – Hebrews 12:14-17 ESV

The Scriptures clearly teach that followers of Christ have been sanctified by God. They enjoy a new status as His chosen ones, having been set apart by Him and deemed righteous in His eyes, due to the blood of Jesus Christ shed on their behalf. As a result of Christ’s sinless life and selfless sacrifice of that life, those who place their faith in Him as their Savior receive wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.

And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption… – 1 Corinthians 1:30 ESV

But there is far more to the doctrine of sanctification than the believer’s change in status. Yes, God sets each and every believer apart as His own, but He also fills them with His Holy Spirit. Through the divine presence of the Spirit of God, every believer is equipped with the power they need to live as who they are: A saint or holy one of God. And this power is essential because believers, though set apart by God, still find themselves living in a fallen world and dealing with the reality of their old sin natures. Coming to faith in Christ eliminates the penalty for sin, but it does not eradicate the potential to commit future sins. The truth of this statement is lived out in daily life and supported by the New Testament writers.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:8-10 ESV

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 2:1-2 ESV

It is the daily experience of every follower of Christ that sanctification does not provide an escape from the temptation to sin. Even Jesus Himself, the God-man and the unblemished sacrifice for the sins of man, was faced with the temptation to sin, as the author of Hebrews makes clear:

…he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. – Hebrews 4:15 NLT

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil.
– Matthew 4:1 NLT

And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. – Mark 1:13 ESV

But Jesus had no sin nature with which to contend. He was not born into sin like the rest of mankind. He came into the world as holy and remained so throughout the entirety of His life. But the same is not true of us. We are born in sin and were imputed the same sinful disposition that Adam and Eve possessed. And as A. W. Pink so aptly puts it, our relationship with Christ does not eliminate our potential for sin.

…scriptural sanctification is neither the eradication of sin, the purification of the carnal nature, nor even the partial putting to sleep of the “flesh”; still less does it secure an exemption from the attackes and harassments of Satan. – A. W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification

We must not think of sanctification as a freedom from the capacity to sin, but as a God-endowed power to resist the temptation to sin. Paul reminded the believers in Rome that they had been set free from their former slavery to sin.

Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living. – Romans 6:17-18 NLT

Before coming to faith in Christ, they were incapable of resisting the constant temptations thrown at them by Satan and the world, let alone the passions of their own sinful flesh. But now, as those set apart by God and possessing the power of God’s indwelling Spirit, they could say no to sin and yes to righteous living. But Paul goes on to tell them that they face a daily decision regarding their choice of lifestyle.

Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy. – Romans 6:19 NLT

The believer has been sanctified by God, but he faces a daily decision to live as one who has been set apart as belonging to God. That is why Paul so strongly emphasized the believer’s obligation to live according to his or her status as God’s chosen possession.

Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, 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

This pursuit of holiness is not intended to be meritorious in nature. In other words, Paul is not instructing the Roman believers to earn favor with God through their actions. They had already been sanctified by God. Jesus had paid the price for their sins – in full. They had already been declared righteous by God because He had imputed the righteousness of Christ to their account. But Paul was clearly teaching that the believer’s new standing before God came with an obligation to live in keeping with His divine will so that their lives would give Him glory. Notice what Paul says: “So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God.”

One of the amazing realities of the doctrine of sanctification is that it reveals how God has chosen to restore His image in man. Adam was made in the image of God, but sin marred that image. It damaged Adam’s likeness to his Creator. No longer could Adam’s actions bring glory to God by reflecting His glorious character. But Jesus came to earth as the second Adam, and He was “the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NLT). Paul described Jesus as “the exact likeness of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT) and the apostle John said Jesus made God known and knowable (John 1:18).

And when sinful men place their faith in the Son of God, they become one with Him.

 …he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. – 1 Corinthians 6:17 NLT

Christ-followers are united with Him in His death, having had their sins nailed to the cross and crucified alongside Him. And believers are united with Christ in His resurrection, having received a new nature like His. Those men and women who place their faith in Christ are made new and receive the capacity to once again reflect the image of God. Their union with Christ provides release from slavery to sin and the restored freedom to serve God faithfully as His obedient servants.

But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. – Romans 6:22 NLT

But again, each and every Christ-follower faces the daily choice to live in their new-found freedom, made possible by the death of Christ. They can still choose to sin, or they can choose to pursue a life of sanctification. But this choice is only possible because of their relationship with Christ. It was not possible in their former fallen state. But because of Christ’s death on the cross and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, believers have the capacity to live godly lives. They can and should pursue righteousness. They should desire to live in keeping with the will of God and according to the example that Jesus left them.

And the New Testament is filled with countless calls to forsake the old way of living for the new life made possible in Jesus Christ.

…throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. – Ephesians 4:22 NLT

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:31-32 NLT

But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. – Colossians 3:8 NLT

So get rid of all evil behavior. Be done with all deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and all unkind speech. Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. – 1 Peter 2:1-2 NLT

Sanctification is to be the believer’s constant obsession. There is no place for complacency in the life of the Christ-follower. The status quo is to be avoided at all costs. Growing in Christ-likeness is to be the goal of each and every person who claims Christ as their Savior. And the joy of watching God transform their life from the inside out, through the power of His indwelling Spirit, is the reward of a life of sanctification. And it will continue until we see Him as He is.

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. – 1 John 3:2 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 Miracle of Salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jesus Himself described the redemptive nature of His death.

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

And what did this redemption accomplish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Saved by God

13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. – 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 ESV

There’s a lot packed into these five short verses, and it’s easy to miss the significance of their content. In them, Paul addresses everything from the doctrines of election, sanctification, and glorification to the roles of the Spirit and the individual in the process of spiritual maturity. This is not light reading. And the reason Paul drops this theologically rich content on his readers is, so they will recognize that despite rumors to the contrary, the day of the Lord has not come and gone. In fact, he wants them to know that God has ordained great things for them to do before that end times event.

As Paul told the believers in Ephesus, “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 2:10 NLT). And Paul informed the Ephesian church that their status as God’s chosen people had been planned by God long before they were even born.

Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. – Ephesians 1:4 NLT

This appears to be the very same message Paul is trying to convey to the Thessalonians, when he writes, “God chose you to be among the first to experience salvation” (2 Thessalonians 2:13 NLT). The believers to whom he wrote had been among the first converts to Christianity In Thessalonica, and Paul wants them to understand that their salvation had been God’s doing, not their own. Paul expresses his recognition of God’s undeniable role in their salvation by thanking Him. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had played no part in their own salvation. Neither had the believers in Ephesus, and neither had he.

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

Why is this important and why does Paul bring it up at this point in his letter? Because the Thessalonians were confused over news that the day of the Lord had come and the Rapture of the church had not yet taken place. They thought they were living in the period of Tribulation and were anxiously hoping for the second coming of Jesus. But Paul wanted them to understand that the entire process of salvation was the work of God. From their initial choosing and calling by God to their sanctification and ultimate glorification, it was all God’s doing. There was no excuse for fear or doubt. They had no reason to question what God was doing or whether they had somehow missed out on God’s plan.

And Paul reminds them that their salvation had been “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13 ESV). They had been set apart or consecrated by God through the indwelling presence of His Spirit. 

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

According to Paul, it was the Spirit of God who gave them the ability to hear the truth concerning Jesus Christ and believe. This regenerating power of the Spirit is what makes it possible for those whose eyes have been blinded by Satan to see the glorious light of the good news.

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

Even their ability to believe the the truth of the gospel came from God. All Paul had done was communicate that gospel message to them, but it was God who gave them the capacity to believe it. And God’s call of them was so that they might “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 4:14 ESV). This glory not only refers to their future glorification, when God will complete the process of their sanctification and provide them with new, glorified bodies; it includes their current condition as common, everyday vessels in which the glory of God resides.

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.

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. – 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 NLT

They already had the glory of God resident within them, and it was to increase in intensity with each passing day. 

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 BSB

All of this was meant to be a wake-up call, intended to stir the Thessalonians out of their debilitating fear and confusion and to get them back to living their lives with intentionality. Which is why Paul told them, “With all these things in mind, dear brothers and sisters, stand firm and keep a strong grip on the teaching we passed on to you both in person and by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15 NLT).

These verses didn’t contain new information but were a reiteration of the teaching Paul had already passed on to them – in person and by letter. This was a well-timed reminder to hold their ground and to keep believing in the truth regarding their salvation. It was the work of God, and He was far from finished. The persecution they suffered was proof of their calling, not evidence against it.

Jesus had warned His disciples that things were going to get worse before they got better.

And you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in many parts of the world. But all this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come. – Matthew 24:6-8 NLT

But notice what Jesus told the, “don’t panic.” God has a plan. And His people do not need to fear His coming wrath. They no longer have to fear His judgment. In fact, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul had told them “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10 ESV). And he went on to remind them that, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9 ESV). They had no reason to fear. They had no cause to faint or grow weary. God held them in His highly capable hands. And Paul closes this section by praying that God would help them focus on the eternal comfort and good hope He had in store for them.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal comfort and a wonderful hope, comfort you and strengthen you in every good thing you do and say. – 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 NLT

They had work to do, prepared for them by God Himself. And God had given them His Spirit to provide them with the strength they needed to live in keeping with their calling. They had been chosen, called, set apart, and filled with the glory of God. Now, they needed to live like it.

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

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

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

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

Perservance in the Face of Persecution

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. – 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4 ESV

Most scholars believe that Paul wrote this second letter to the Thessalonian church while he was in Corinth. As indicated by Acts 18:5, it was while in Corinth that Paul was joined by Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy, the two he mentions in the opening lines of his letter. All three men shared a common concern for the believers in Thessalonica and had probably discussed among themselves the most recent reports they had received regarding the spiritual state of the church there.

Paul, an avid evangelist, was also a consummate shepherd. He was never content to simply share the gospel and then walk away. Even though his ministry required him to travel from place to place, rarely allowing him to spend any extended periods of time with the new churches he helped to plant, he remained in constant communication with them. He maintained a network of individuals who acted as his “boots on the ground,” providing him with first-hand knowledge and timely reports about the state of the various congregations he had helped to start.

Evidently, Paul had received news regarding the Thessalonian church that prompted him to write this second letter to them. While he commends them for their growing faith and ever-increasing love for one another, Paul’s real purpose in writing seems to be driven by their confusion over the doctrine concerning Christ’s return. He will spend a good portion of his letter dealing with that issue. Paul knew that false or faulty doctrine could wreak havoc on the local church. Even right doctrine, wrongly interpreted or misunderstood can do irreparable damage to a local congregation.

The churches Paul had helped to start were all comprised of relatively new believers. Their spiritual immaturity made them especially susceptible to false teaching and could lead them to draw faulty conclusions about spiritual matters. They lacked a sophisticated understanding of doctrine. In fact, there was little in the way of well-documented and clearly articulated doctrine available to them. One of the reasons Paul Paul spent so much time putting his thoughts in writing and disseminating them in the form of letters was to provide clear teaching and instruction on key doctrinal issues, such as the Second Coming of Christ and the sanctification of the believer.

Under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, Paul addressed a wide variety of doctrinal topics, helping to establish a comprehensive dogma for the church. His letters, while typically written to local congregations, were commonly circulated among other nearby churches. Eventually, Paul’s letters became part of a growing collection of writings that were later canonized as the New Testament Scriptures. These divinely inspired texts provide the church with an official system of principles or tenets concerning the Christian faith.

But, before Paul launches into the main thesis of his letter, he greets the believers in Thessalonica, reminding them that they belong to “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:1 ESV). They are children of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. They are part of the family of God and comprise the body of Christ. This seems to be Paul’s way of reminding them that they have been set apart by God for His use. To be in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ speaks of both ownership and relationship. There is an intimacy and accountability involved. As Paul had told the believers in Corinth: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV).

And it is from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ that the Thessalonian believers can expect to receive grace and peace. Grace or charis in the Greek refers to God’s unmerited favor. It is something He gives that is undeserved and unearned. It finds its greatest expression in the gift of Jesus Christ as the payment for mankind’s sin. But God’s grace is continuous and ever-present, constantly flowing into the life of the believer providing divine enablement through the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

And it is through their relationship with God the Father and Jesus the Son that the Thessalonians can expect to receive peace or eirēnē – which refers as much to a tranquil state of the soul as it does to a lack of interpersonal conflict. It is because of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, serving as the payment for the sins of mankind, that believers are justified or made right with God. And this status with God results in peace or a cessation of all fear or worry of condemnation (Romans 8:1). And, as Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7 ESV).

As Paul considered his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica, he was prompted to express his gratitude to God because of their faith was growing, not stagnating. Their love for one another was increasing, not diminishing. For Paul, this was all evidence of the work of God. He who had begun a good work in them was obviously completing it (Philippians 1:6). And news of their perseverance and steadfastness of faith, even amid persecution and affliction, had led Paul to brag about them to other congregations. They had become teaching tools for Paul, providing him with tangible proof of what it means “to live in a way that pleases God” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 NLT).

The truth is, most of the churches Paul helped to start were suffering persecution in some form or fashion. It came with the territory. Following Christ was not normal or, in most cases, acceptable behavior. It came with a price. Paul refers to persecutions and afflictions. The first word refers to the hostile actions taken against the believers in Thessalonica. These could take the form of actual verbal and physical assaults or social ostracization. New believers could lose their jobs or social standings, but it was not uncommon for some to lose their lives. Affliction seems to refer to the results of this kind of persecution. The Greek word communicates the idea of being pressed down on or burdened by a heavy weight. The constant persecution taking place around them and to them was having an impact on them. The pressure was beginning to take a toll on them. But Paul commended them for their steadfastness. The Outline of Biblical Usage refers to this kind of persevering patience as “the characteristic of a man who is not swerved from his deliberate purpose and his loyalty to faith and piety by even the greatest trials and sufferings.”

They may have been young in their faith and lacking in adequate doctrinal instruction, but they were persevering under extremely difficult conditions. Their commitment to Christ had cost them. Their walk of faith was anything but easy. But they were dedicated and determined to stay the course and, as Paul put it, run the race to win.

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

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

To God Be the Glory!

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

25 Brothers, pray for us.

26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.

27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.

28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28 ESV

As Paul wraps up his letter, he provides a brief summary of its content. He has covered a lot of territory, but when all is said and done, what Paul has been trying to emphasize is their sanctification. This has been the primary point of his letter. Remember, back in chapter four Paul stated: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). According to Paul, the divine will is that the life of each and every believer reflect their status as having been set apart by God for His use. It’s an obligation and not an option they can choose to ignore. 

The apostle Peter made this non-optional aspect of God’s will quite clear when he wrote: “…but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16 ESV). The Greek word for “holy” is hagios and the Greek word for “sanctification” is hagiasmos. Followers of Jesus Christ have been set apart or consecrated by God, and their lives are to reflect their status as His possession. They are no longer free to do and think as they please. Which is why Paul told the Corinthian believers:

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 NLT

And Paul told the Thessalonians something very similar and linked it to their status as having been sanctified by God.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV

With this simple, yet profound sentence, Paul eliminates any thought the Thessalonians may have had about maintaining a semblance of their old lifestyles. Paul is emphatic when he states, “run from sexual sin!” He leaves no room for debate when he demands, “abstain from sexual immorality!”

Paul warned Timothy, “Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace” (2 Timothy 2:22 NLT). In another letter, Paul reminded Timothy that he belonged to God and he was to love like it.

But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have confessed so well before many witnesses. – 1 Timothy 6:11-12 NLT

From Paul’s perspective, the sanctified life that God willed for His children was non-optional and required constant attention and effort. But the goal of all this effort and energy is so that we will be useful to God. Which is exactly what Paul told Timothy.

So if anyone cleanses himself of what is unfit, he will be a vessel for honor: sanctified, useful to the Master, and prepared for every good work. – 2 Timothy 2:21 BSB

But when it comes to the topic of sanctification, there is a very important part we tend to leave out, and Paul brings it up as he closes out his letter. He knows that God’s call to live set apart lives is a daunting one. He also knows it will prove impossible if attempted without God’s help. The life of holiness is not something we can pull off on our own. Which is why Paul offered this short prayer on behalf of his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 ESV). Their sanctification was not only God’s will, but it was His responsibility. God didn’t provide for their salvation and then leave their sanctification up to them. God doesn’t didn’t adopt them into His family and then leave them to fend for themselves. Paul wanted all those under his leadership and care to live with the assurance “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6 ESV).

And Paul continues his prayer on behalf of the Thessalonians, stating, “may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 NLT). Notice that phrase, “be kept blameless.” Paul uses the Greek word, tēreō, which means “to keep or preserve.” It could be used metaphorically to refer to “keeping one in the state in which he is.” Paul is assuring them that God is the one who will maintain their set-apart status. But he isn’t suggesting that God is going to keep them just like they were when He saved them. Notice that Paul addresses the whole nature of man: spirit, soul, and body. And he asks that God preserve every aspect of the believer’s life as faultless. He isn’t speaking of sinless perfection, but of a life where sin no longer enslaves and controls one’s actions.

A blameless man was an individual whose life was no longer dominated by sinful habits. He lived under the control of the Spirit of God, and his life reflected the fruit of the Spirit. That is why Paul demanded that all elder candidates be blameless men – men who were above reproach. No one could point a finger at them and cast dispersions on their character. Their reputations, while not perfect, were expected to be free from sinful habit or questionable behaviors. 

And, according to Paul, it is God alone who makes that kind of life possible. That is what he means when he says, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24 ESV). But again, that doesn’t leave the believer with no role to play or any responsibility to pursue Christlikeness. Paul’s point is that if sanctification is God’s will for us, it should be our will as well. We should desire what God does. If He has sanctified us – set us apart – we should pursue a life that reflects that reality. But here is an often overlooked aspect of the sanctified life. IT ISN’T ABOUT US.

In other words, if we are not careful, we will pursue holiness for our own glory. We will attempt to live godly lives so that God will be pleased with us and others will think more highly of us. But that kind of approach to sanctification is missing the point altogether. Paul would have us remember that we exist to bring God glory. And when we live set-apart lives, in the power of the Spirit, we bring Him glory. And our sanctification is to influence every area of our lives. Which is why Paul said, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” 1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV). Even in the mundane, everyday things of life, our goal should be God’s glory, not our own. And according to Peter, when using the gifts given to us by God, our focus should never be receiving glory but giving glory to God.

If anyone speaks, he should speak as one conveying the words of God. If anyone serves, he should serve with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory and the power forever and ever. – 1 Peter 4:11 BSB

Peter also reminds us that our pursuit of holy conduct and character should be less about us and more about the lost around us.

Conduct yourselves with such honor among the Gentiles that, though they slander you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.
 – 1 Peter 2:12 BSB

God wills our sanctification. He makes possible our sanctification. And He will one day complete our sanctification. All for our good and His glory. And with that assurance in mind, we should make it our highest priority to desire the good that God has willed for us. Not so we will look good in front of our believing friends. But so that God will be glorified before a lost and dying world. To God be the glory, great things He has done.

To God be the glory, great things he has done!
So loved he the world that he gave us his Son,
who yielded his life an atonement for sin,
and opened the life-gate that we may go in.

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood!
To ev'ry believer the promise of God;
the vilest offender who truly believes,
that moment from Jesus forgiveness receives. [Refrain]

Great things he has taught us, great things he has done,
and great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
but purer and higher and greater will be
our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
let the earth hear his voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father thro' Jesus the Son,
and give him the glory, great things he has done!

– Fanny Crosby (1875)

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

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

Destined to Salvation

1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.– 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ESV

Paul has just addressed the Thessalonians’ concern about the spiritual state of their deceased friends and relatives. The loss of their loved ones had created a sense of unease and confusion among the believers because they had been anticipating the return of Jesus. One of the things Paul and the other apostles had to constantly deal with was the immature and incomplete nature of the new converts to whom they ministered. The global church was growing rapidly, and the new followers of Christ lacked much in the way of doctrinal instruction. Most had a rudimentary knowledge of Jesus Christ and His offer of salvation. They most likely understood that Jesus had resurrected and would one day return. But it appears that, beyond that, their understanding was incomplete. 

That is why Jesus had instructed the apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 NLT). It was not going to be enough just to share the gospel message. Any new followers of Christ were going to need to hear His words, taught and expounded upon, in order to grow in their faith. And one of the things Jesus taught to His disciples was the coming day of the Lord. He wanted His followers to understand that God had a grand plan in place, that included not only His Son’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, but His future return. Paul has just reminded his readers about the Rapture when Jesus will return for His bride, the church. Now, he shifts his focus to another end-times event, the day of the Lord.

This designation, “the day of the Lord,” was used by Jesus, Paul and Peter to refer to a future period of time when God will intervene on the earth in spectacular fashion. He will bring judgment upon the earth and its inhabitants and usher in the final phase of redemptive history. And, while every believer needs to be aware of the reality of these coming events, Jesus made it clear that no one can know their exact timing.

“It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” – Acts 1:7 ESV

“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” – Matthew 24:36 ESV

Yet, it is human nature to want to know how and when these end-times events are going to happen. And while Jesus provided His disciples with significant details regarding the events surrounding the day of the Lord, He did not tell them when it would happen – only that it would. And Paul had evidently taught the Thessalonians about these coming end-times events, referring to them as “the times and the seasons.” His use of the Greek words chronos and kairos seems to be in order to stress the “the times” – a reference to the period of waiting or delay that precedes the day of the Lord – and “the seasons” – referring to the actual events themselves. In other words, Paul had taught them about the coming day of the Lord, a time when God will bring judgment upon the earth. But he had also taught them about the days leading up to that time – that period in which all believers live until God’s ordained outcome takes place.

Paul had already taught the Thessalonians that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2 ESV). And when Paul used this phrase, he was referring not only to the second coming of Christ, but also the events leading up to His return. For Paul, the day of the Lord included the seven years of Tribulation, when God will pour out His judgments upon mankind, as well as Christ’s second coming that will occur at the end of the seven years and usher in the Millennial Kingdom. These future events are all included in the day of the Lord, and their arrival will come unexpectedly. A thief comes when the home’s occupants least expect him. They are unaware of his plans and unprepared for his arrival. In their minds, “Everything is peaceful and secure” (1 Thessalonians 5:3 NLT). Paul uses the metaphor of a pregnant woman who, after nine months of waiting, has grown used to being pregnant. She has grown accustomed to her condition. And then, suddenly, the contractions begin. Even though she has had nine months to prepare herself for this moment, she is still caught off guard by the severity and speed of the labor pains. 

But Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they have no reason to be caught off guard by the news of these future events. They had been warned.  They had been fully informed that God has a future plan in store for mankind. And it will all begin with the return of the Lord for the church. The Rapture is what will introduce the rest of the end-times events. With the removal of all believers from the earth, the stage will be set for God to prepare all those who remain for His righteous judgment. The absence of any Christians on the earth will leave a tremendous spiritual void in which unrighteousness will be free to spread unabated. And in this moral and spiritual vacuum, the Antichrist will quickly rise to power, and an apostate church will rise to prominence. The following seven years referred to as the Tribulation, will be marked by unprecedented unrighteousness and wickedness. Jesus described it in foreboding terms: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matthew 24:21 ESV).

The Thessalonians had been informed about these coming days, but it appears that they were still confused. In fact, in his second letter to them, Paul goes into further detail about the day of the Lord, attempting to allay any further fears or misunderstanding they had.

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 ESV

The bottom line for Paul was preparedness. He wanted the believers in Thessalonica to live in a state of constant readiness, fully ready for the Lord to return for them at any time. He told them, “let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6 ESV). There is no place for complacency in the life of a believer. We know the Lord is coming back, so we should live like it. We don’t live in darkness or ignorance, like the rest of the world. We are children of the light and have had our minds illuminated by the truth of God’s Word.

There was no reason for the Thessalonians to fear. They were in Christ and were being preserved by Him for their future salvation. That is why Paul tells them to rely upon “breastplate of faith and love.” They were shielded from the judgment to come by their faith in Christ and God’s love for them. Paul had promised the Roman believers that “not even the powers of hell can separate us from God's love” (Romans 8:38 NLT). And they had access to “the helmet of salvation” to protect their thoughts and minds. They were guaranteed a place in God’s Kingdom, and Paul provided them with the reassuring words: “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9 ESV). They did not need to fear the coming judgment of God because His Son was coming back for them.

But they did need to be ready. So, he told them “to encourage one another and build one another up.” They were living in “the times” – the period of time before the Lord returns and the day of the Lord commenced. They had no way of knowing when Jesus was coming back, but they needed to live in eager anticipation of that day and prepared for it to happen at any moment. And Paul emphasized this same spirit of readiness when writing to the believers in Ephesus, urging them to dress for the spiritual war in which they were engaged.

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God… – Ephesians 6:13-17 ESV

Jesus is coming back one day and the day of the Lord will take place. But until that day, we are to live in a constant state of preparedness, realizing that, until He comes, we must fight the good fight to the end.

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

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

God's Will: Your Holiness

1 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ESV

The chapter and verse designations found in our English translations were not In the original letter sent by Paul to the Thessalonians. So, the rather abrupt break we find between the close of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter four would not have been there. And that artificially imposed structure on the letter can cause some unnecessary confusion when trying to determine Paul’s intent and meaning. 

Chapter three ends with Paul expressing his strong desire that God increase the love of Thessalonian believers for one another and for those outside their fellowship. And his prayer is that God would “establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:13 ESV). Paul’s concern is that they live loves marked by love and godliness. He longs to see their inner heart transformation manifest itself through external expressions that give evidence to their holiness.

And Paul carries that thought into the next paragraph. The word “finally” is translated from the Greek word loipon, which can have a wide range of meanings, depending upon the context. It could be translated, “in addition” or “moreover.” Paul is expanding on what he has just said. He’s adding to his thoughts by providing his readers with further counsel regarding the link between their status as believers in Jesus Christ and the behavior that marks their lives. Paul had previously provided them with instructions in how “to walk and to please God,” and he commends them for having done so. But he also encourages them to “do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV). They were not to grow complacent or content. This was no time to rest on their laurels or to become satisfied with the current condition of their spiritual lives. 

And it must be noted how Paul weaves together two very important aspects regarding the Christian’s spiritual maturity. At the close of chapter three, he expressed his firm belief that it was God alone who could increase the level of their love and cause it to overflow. And only God could make their hearts strong, blameless, and holy. The inner transformation of their lives was totally dependent upon divine power, not human effort. It was impossible for them to manufacture, through human means, the kind of love God demanded. There is no way that they could repair the sin-damaged condition of their own hearts through self-renovation. Man is incapable of seeing the true state of his inner life. As the prophet Jeremiah put it, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). And even if he could see how wicked his heart is, man is powerless to do anything about it. That’s the meaning behind a comment made by God regarding the people of Judah and recorded in the book of Jeremiah.

“Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.” – Jeremiah 13:23 NLT

God asked two rhetorical questions that shared the same obvious answer: No. The people of God were powerless to change their behavior because they couldn’t change their hearts. Their actions were nothing more than an outer expression of their inner condition.

So, Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that it is the power of God that has transformed them and made them His children. Their newfound status as sons and daughters of God was His doing. But that didn’t mean God was finished with them. Otherwise, Paul would not have prayed for God to increase their love to make their hearts strong, blameless, and holy. They were works in process. Which is what Paul meant when he wrote to the believers in Philippi:

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

But Paul’s reference to God’s work in them doesn’t mean that God expects no work from them. And he makes that point perfectly clear when he states, “this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). This little verse packs a punch and yet is easily overlooked or ignored by most Christians. It provides a remarkable glimpse into God’s divine will for the life of the believer, and it is all summed up in the one word, sanctification.

The Greek word Paul used is hagiasmos and, like most Greek words, it is rich in meaning. It is sometimes translated as holiness, consecration, and purification. And it can be used to signify a position (a holy nation) and a process (be holy). In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul provides them with a list that describes the unrighteous, or those outside of Christ. It includes the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers. Then Paul makes an interesting statement.  

…such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:11 ESV

Notice that he lists the Corinthian believers as having been sanctified. In this case, he is referring to their having been set apart by God. In the process of their salvation, their sinful condition was cleansed by the righteous blood of Christ, making them pure and acceptable before God and able to be set apart for His use. Like the utensils used in temple worship, they had to be cleansed and purified before they could be deemed worthy of use for God. Which is what Peter meant when he wrote:

you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy [hagios] nation, God’s very own possession. – 1 Peter 2:9 NLT

Don’t miss what Peter is saying. He tells his readers that they are a holy nation. They have been chosen by God and set apart as His very own possession. They belong to Him. Which is exactly what Paul told the believers in Corinth.

You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

They had been declared holy by God and set apart for His use. Which meant that they were to honor God with the entirety of their lives. And that is the whole point behind Paul’s admonitions to the believers in Thessalonica and Corinth. Notice the similarities between his comments in the two letters.

He tells the Thessalonians, “stay away from all sexual sin. Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways” (Thessalonians 4:3-5 NLT). And his words to the Corinthians were similar.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? – 1 Corinthians 18-19 NLT

In a sense, Paul is commanding both groups to live their lives in a manner that matches their calling. They have been set apart by God for His use, and their lives were to reflect it. They were not free to live according to their own desires anymore. They had been bought with a price and belonged to God. And it was His will that they live sanctified, set apart lives.

And, as it to make sure the don’t miss his point, Paul states, “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7 ESV). There’s that Greek word, hagiasmos again. It is the very same word that is translated as “sanctification” in verse 3. Paul is emphasizing that the believer’s calling by God is for the purpose of holiness or sanctification, not impurity.

There is a very important truth revealed in this verse that is easily overlooked and underappreciated. Paul says that God has not called us for impurity but in holiness. Those two prepositions are critical. The first one conveys a destination or activity. The second has to do with status or position. Holiness is not to be viewed as a process, but a positional reality. Holiness or sanctification is not to be viewed as a progression towards something as much as a revelation of something. We are already holy in God’s eyes. So, we are to live as what we are. We have been set apart by God in holiness. That is our new status or condition. We have been set apart by God for His will.

But there is going to be a constant war between our will and that of God. And one of the areas of life where the battle will rage the hottest is in regards to sexual sin. It was obviously a problem among the Thessalonian believers, or Paul would not have addressed it. While they enjoyed status as sanctified saints, they were going to have to live lives that gave evidence of who there were. And Paul reminds them that they had the indwelling power of the Spirit of God available to them. This was not about will power and self-effort. But it was about a willingness to make God’s will for them their highest priority. And Paul minces no words when he tells them, “this is the will of God, your sanctification.” 

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

Blameless in Holiness

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. – 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 ESV

Paul closes this section of his letter by reiterating his desire to return to Thessalonica. But as he shared earlier in the letter, that desire had been resisted by the enemy.

…we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again — but Satan hindered us. – 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18 ESV

Yet, Paul knew that his path was determined by God, not Satan. He was fully convinced that his return to Thessalonica was in the hands of the Almighty, and it was his prayer that God the Father and God the Son would make it possible. The Greek word Paul used is kateuthynō, and it means to guide or make straight by the removal of any obstacles or hindrances. Paul will use this same Greek word in his second letter to the Thessalonians.

But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 3:3-5 ESV

Paul knew that what God wanted done would be done. If He wanted Paul to return to Thessalonica, it would happen. Satan himself has no power to thwart God’s will. And Paul knew that God alone possesses the power to remove any obstacles to the believer’s spiritual journey, making it possible for them to experience the love of God and the perseverance of Christ.

For Paul, God was the key to everything. The Trinity was the sole source of the believer’s strength and hope. The Father’s will for man’s redemption, made possible by the work of His Son on the cross, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, are the non-negotiable necessities behind the believer’s transformation from condemned sinner to glorified saint. Paul wanted the Thessalonians to know that any hope they had to live strong, blameless, and holy lives was totally dependent upon the Father, Son, and Spirit. And it was Paul’s constant prayer that God would “establish” or strengthen their hearts so that they might live worthy of their calling.

When Paul uses the word “heart,” he is not referring to the organ that pumps blood through the body. While the Greek word kardia did have that meaning, Paul was using it to refer to the center of all spiritual life. The Outline of Biblical Usage describes it as “the soul or mind, as it is the fountain and seat of the thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, endeavors.”

Paul knew that the external behavior of the Thessalonians was directly tied to the internal condition of their hearts. Jesus warned that “from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:18 NLT). The Old Testament proverb reads: “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (Proverbs 4:23 NLT). The outward actions of our lives tend to flow from the inward condition of our hearts. That is why any attempts at behavior modification without transformation of the heart are doomed to failure.

The goal, as far as Paul was concerned, was a strong finish. He wanted the believers in Thessalonica to run the race well and keep their eyes on the prize. For him, the journey was meaningless if you didn’t remain focused on the destination. That is how he lived his life.

I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:14 NLT

And he expected all those under his spiritual care to follow his lead. Which is why he emphasizes “the coming of our Lord Jesus.” The Greek word for “coming” is parousia and it was most often used by Paul to refer to the return of Christ. In fact, in the very next chapter, Paul will provide the Thessalonians with insight into the day when Christ will return for His bride, the church.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 ESV

Jesus was coming back. That fact is a very important part of the gospel message. Jesus‘ first coming, while epic in nature and essential to the promise of salvation, is incomplete if He does not come again. Jesus promised the disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them. And He told them, “When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am” (John 14:3 NLT). The bad news was that He was leaving them. The good news was that He was coming back some day. And immediately after telling the disciples He was leaving but would be returning some day, He promised to send them His Holy Spirit to indwell and empower them.

“I am leaving you with a gift – peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again.” – John 14:27-28 NLT

That promise holds true for each and every believer in Christ. The Thessalonians had received the gift of the Spirit, who was fully capable of giving the peace of mind and heart. He had the power to transform their inner lives so that their outward behavior reflected their confidence and hope in the promise of their future glorification. Their ability to become like Christ was provided by the Spirit, who would guide and empower them until the return of Christ. But if Christ did not return before they died, they had nothing to fear because they would go to be with Him.

The promised return of Christ is meant to remind us that this life is not all there is. There is life after death. There is glory to come. This temporal existence will be followed by the eternal state. Which is why Paul told the believers in Rome, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18 ESV). He told the Corinthian believers: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17 ESV). And Peter shared Paul’s confident hope in the promise of God.

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. – 1 Peter 5:10 ESV

One day we will stand before God blameless in holiness. We will be sinless and completely righteous. That future reality, guaranteed by the word of God, the work of Christ, and the power of the Spirit, is to keep us motivated as we live in this fallen, sin-filled world. Any momentary, light afflictions we may have to suffer in this life will pale in comparison to the eternal weight of glory awaiting 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

Steadfastness of Hope

1 To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. – 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 ESV

The city of Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and enjoyed prominence and influence because of its strategic location along the Via Egnatia, a major Roman highway that linked the eastern and western parts of the kingdom. Paul’s first visit to the city took place during his second missionary journey, not long after his release from confinement in Philippi. Luke records the arrival of Paul and Silas in Thessalonica in the book of Acts.

Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. – Acts 17:1-4 ESV

While Paul and his companions had a dramatic impact on the city, they also ruffled a few feathers. Luke goes on to tell us that the local Jews became jealous and incited a mob against Paul and Silas. Things got so bad that a local believer named Jason was dragged from his home and accused of harboring insurrectionists. The local Jewish leadership accused Paul and his companions of spreading rebellion against the Roman government.

“These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” – Acts 17:6-7 ESV

Fearing for their lives, Paul and Silas escaped under cover of darkness and headed to the city of Berea. But even with their abrupt and clandestine departure, they had left their mark on the Thessalonians. Paul eventually sent his young protege, Timothy, back to Thessalonica, in order to minister to the fledgling congregation there.

Paul’s greeting to the believers in Thessalonica reflects his love and concern for them. No doubt, he felt frustrated that he had been forced to leave so suddenly, leaving them without proper spiritual education and direction. But the opening paragraphs of his letter reveal that he had been encouraged by news of their continued growth. He compliments them on their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:3 ESV). The way they were living their lives gave ample evidence to Paul that they had been called by God and had experienced the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. He assures them of their calling because  “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5 ESV). Their lives had been changed and the message of the gospel was spreading throughout their community. In spite of the rocky start it had received. The animosity of the Jewish community most certainly did not subside with the departure of the missionaries. And Paul alludes to the ever-present reality of ongoing persecution the new believers faced, stating, “you received the word in much affliction” (1 Thessalonians 1:6 ESV). 

The circumstances surrounding their acceptance of the good news had been anything but good. The Jewish converts to Christianity had been ostracized by their fellow Hebrews. Any Gentiles who decided to accept the gracious offer of salvation through Jesus Christ would also have faced strong opposition and even persecution. And yet, Paul states that, by their actions, they “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:7 ESV). Word had spread. News of their faith had made it well beyond the borders of Thessalonica and even beyond beyond Macedonia and Achaia. In fact, Paul informs them, “your faith in God has gone forth everywhere” (1 Thessalonians 1:8 ESV). Their reputation for godliness in the midst of difficulty had been a source of encouragement to believers in cities as far away as Jerusalem.

And what was it that people were saying about the believers in Thessalonica?

…they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. – 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 ESV

What a testimony of God’s redeeming power. His Spirit had done a work among them, leading them to walk away from their former ways of life and to replace their false gods with worship of the one true God. And notice that their focus was not just on their salvation, but their future glorification, when Jesus returns for His bride, the church. Their focus was on eternity, their deliverance from the wrath to come. That means that they didn’t live expecting to have their best lives in this age, but in the age to come. They didn’t demand that God give them as easy life, free from pain and suffering. They were willing to wait for God’s future glorification and to put up with any present suffering they may encounter in this life.

Paul wrote of this future glory in his letter to the believers in Rome.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently). – Romans 8:18-25 NLT

The Thessalonian believers were guaranteed a place in God’s eternal kingdom. But in the meantime, they lived their lives in such a way that their faith was visible and recognizable to all those around them.

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 Good and the Bad

8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. 9 But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. – Titus 3:8-11 ESV

Paul has just reminded Titus of the core message of the gospel. Jesus Christ appeared in human form as a visible expression of God’s goodness and love. And Jesus proved the love of God by offering His own life as payment for the sins of humanity. His death made salvation possible, not based on mankind’s efforts to live righteous lives, but because of the mercy of God the Father. The death of Jesus on the cross provided a means for sinful man to be cleansed from his sins, and restored to a right relationship with God the Father. And with His resurrection and return to His Father’s side, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell all believers. The result was their “new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 NLT). And the Holy Spirit’s presence within the life of each and every believer is a guarantee of the eternal life awaiting them.

And Paul tells Titus that this is a trustworthy saying. It is pistos logos. These are words that can be relied upon and believed in. They are true and worthy of our trust because they hold the key to our present effectiveness and our future hope. The reason Paul can place such high expectations upon the believers on Crete is because of the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. His death has made possible a life filled with a never-before-available power to live above and beyond the norms of everyday life. A Christian is a new creation whose purpose for life has been radically changed because of his relationship with Jesus Christ. And Paul expects Titus to hold the believers on Crete to the higher standard that comes with their newfound status as God’s children. Jesus died in order that sinful men might be saved but also transformed. He didn’t just provide us with a clean slate, wiped free from the sin debt we owed. He made it possible for us to live righteous lives, and Titus was to “insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8 NLT).

The good news regarding Jesus Christ is not just about gaining entrance into heaven some day. It’s about the daily manifestation of our faith through tangible works that reveal the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Notice what Paul told the believers in Ephesus:

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 2:10 NLT

Paul insists that every believer is the handiwork of God. The Greek word he used is poiēma, and it refers to “the thing that is made.” Each and every believer is the work of God. No one saves themselves. No one becomes a Christian. The work of salvation is entirely up to God, from beginning to end, just as Jesus told the believers in Rome.

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

Paul was consistently emphatic concerning the non-role man’s efforts play in salvation. “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:9 NLT). The believer owes his salvation entirely to God.

…because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 ESV

But while man’s works cannot make him a Christian, they can certainly provide evidence that he is one. Which is the point of Paul’s letter to Titus. He wanted the believers on Crete to live their lives in the power of the Spirit, fulfilling His preordained plans He had in place for them. There was work to be done. There were lost individuals who needed to hear the gospel message. There was a divine strategy in place that called for all believers to live in obedience to God’s will and in total submission to His Spirit.

All that Paul has been sharing with Titus was to be considered good and beneficial. This wasn’t pie-in-the-sky-sometime kind of stuff. Christianity wasn’t to be viewed as some future escape plan from eternal torment. It was to be the key to abundant life in the present. And Paul lived his life that way, which is why he could so boldly states: “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). Paul fully believed that his old self was crucified alongside Christ, “so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless” (Romans 6:6 BSB). In his own life, he had experienced the reality of his own teaching.

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. – Galatians 5:24 NLT

And if those old passions and desires have been nailed to the cross, it is essential that they be replaced with new passions and desires. The believer’s new nature in Christ should come to the fore, giving evidence of the power of God’s Spirit residing in him. So, all that Paul has instructed Titus to teach the believers on Crete is tied to the good works God has created them to accomplish. That includes submission, self-control, love, patience, temperance, kindness, sacrifice, and a host of other qualities that are in short supply in this world. Paul wanted the behavior of the believers on Crete to reflect what they said they believed.

…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! – 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT

Paul expected them to live new lives that reflected their new status as God’s adopted sons and daughters. From God’s perspective, they were new creations, so why would they continue to live as they once did? God had new things for them to do. He had a new way of living in store for them that was intended to prove the reality of their new identities.

Put on your new nature, created to be like God – truly righteous and holy. – Ephesians 4:24 NLT

The sad reality was that the local congregations on the island of Crete were struggling. There were those who had shown up in their assemblies who were causing dissension by teaching unadulterated lies. Arguments were breaking out within their gatherings. Sides were being taken, damaging the unity of the church. And Paul makes it brutally clear what Titus was to do with those who caused divisions within the local church.

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him… – Titus 3:10 ESV

Remember, the point of Paul’s letter is godly behavior. He is calling all professing Christians to live as who they are: The sons and daughters of God. They are to reflect the character of Christ. They are to devote themselves to good works. Anything that distracts from the objective is to be avoided at all costs. Anyone who distorts or takes away from that goal is to be rejected as being warped, sinful, and self-condemning. These people were guilty of twisting or perverting the trustworthy word of the gospel, and their actions condemned them. As a result, they were to avoided like a plague. The spiritual well-being of the body of Christ was at risk and believers on Crete would find it nearly impossible to accomplish the good works God had for them to do as long as these individuals were allowed to remain in their midst. 

This false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough! I am trusting the Lord to keep you from believing false teachings. God will judge that person, whoever he is, who has been confusing you. – Galatians 5:9-10 NLT

Paul had no tolerance for false teachers and neither should they. Right living becomes next to impossible when wrong doctrine is allowed to exist. Accomplishing good works is difficult when bad teaching is left unchallenged in the church.

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

We Were Once…

1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. 3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. – Titus 3:1-7 ESV

For the believers on Crete to live consistently godly lives, they were going to have to be constantly reminded of what that kind of life looked like. Their natural human tendency would be to fall back into their old habits and to follow the patterns of this world. So, Paul charged Titus with the task of holding accountable the Christ-followers under his care. Christ-likeness does not come naturally or without effort. They would not become more like Christ without a willing desire to put to death the habits associated with their old way of life. Their new position in Christ should result in a determination to be like Christ. Which is why Paul told the Colossian believers:

So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don't be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. – Colossians 3:5 NLT

But Paul knew that the task of putting to death the old nature was impossible without the supernatural assistance of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

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. – Romans 8:13 ESV

The Holy Spirit provides the power, but the believer must cooperate with and submit to that power. In his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul referred to this partnership as walking, living, and being led “by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16, 18, 26). It is a relationship built on dependence and reliance. The believer supplies the desire to put away their patterns and behaviors associated with their former lifestyle, and the Spirit provides the power to make it possible. It is impossible to defeat the flesh in the flesh. The Holy Spirit’s power is indispensable.

But Paul knew that the human sin nature was a powerful foe, capable of deluding and distracting believers and keeping them mired in spiritual mediocrity.  That is why he put such a high priority on behavior. It wasn’t that their actions could earn them favor with God or make them more acceptable in His sight. It was that the full hope of the gospel message was to be experienced in the Christian’s daily victory over sin. The power of the gospel was to be visibly manifested in life change. And that life change was to have positive and negative expressions.

As Christians, they were to willingly submit to the authorities in their lives, including those within the Roman government. They were to live lives marked by obedience, not just to God, but to those whom God had placed over them, which meant Titus, the elders of the church, and all governmental authorities. And they were to be constantly prepared to do the right thing – what God would have them to do. That is what it means to walk, live and be led by the Spirit.

But godly behavior is also to be characterized by an absence of negative actions. And Paul points uses slander and quarreling as examples. Speaking ill of anyone, especially those in authority, is not acceptable behavior for the Christian. “Instead, they should be gentle and show true humility to everyone” (Titus 3:2 NLT).  One of the important distinctions here is that a lack of slander is not a proof of gentleness or humility. The absence of quarreling in the life of a believer does not necessarily mean they are filled with love. Slander must be replaced with words of encouragement. The desire to quarrel, driven by the need to be right, must be superseded by the desire for unity, and the willingness to die to one’s rights.

Paul knew this call to righteous living was not easy, especially when surrounded by those who were outside of Christ and motivated by their sin natures. And Paul wanted the believers on Crete to know that the only thing that set them apart from their unbelieving neighbors was their relationship with Christ. Before coming to know Christ as Savior, they had all been hopelessly and helplessly lost and incapable of living up to the standard to which Paul was calling them. 

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. – Titus 3:3 NLT

Their former, pre-salvation condition had not been a pretty one. But something had happened. They had been miraculously transformed by the message of the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us… – Titus 3:4-5 ESV

God saved them. And not because of anything they had done to earn that salvation. Their best deeds done on their best day and with the best of intentions were nothing to God. No, God saved them “according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 ESV). Their salvation had been undeserved and unearned. They had gone from being enemies to heirs of God. They had experienced the unbelievable miracle of redemption, made possible by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross on their behalf.

Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life. – Titus 3:7 NLT

That reality produced in Paul a visceral reaction. He couldn’t help but respond to the unbelievable truth of what God had done for him by doing everything in his power to live in grateful obedience to God’s expectations of him. He lived to please God. He wanted his life to be a constant expression of his thankfulness to God for the priceless gift of salvation. Because God had graciously provided eternal life for Paul, the least Paul could do was live in grateful submission to God’s will in this life. And it was this attitude of gratitude that led Paul to say:

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. – Galatians 2:20 NLT

Paul never got over the shock of what God had done for him. And he wanted the believers on the island of Crete to share his awe of God’s grace by living lives that demonstrated their gratefulness through Spirit-empowered acts of righteousness. God gave His Son so that sinful men and women might experience abundant life – not just in some future eternal state, but right here, right now. His Son died in order to pay the penalty for our sins. He was raised back to life to guarantee our future resurrection, but also as a sign that we have died to sin and share in the power of that resurrection made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit. 

Paul was not calling the believers on Crete to do the impossible. He was reminding them that God’s power to save them was also meant to sanctify them – to transform them into the likeness of His Son. They had been redeemed by Christ, and now they were to seek to live like 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