the love of God

Love One Another

15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. – 1 John 4:13-21 ESV

Christians are to be known for their love. And that love is not up for debate or a negotiable part of the Christian experience. It’s a mandatory divine imperative. It was Jesus who said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV). It’s a command, not a suggestion. And Jesus uses His love of us as the gold standard. He sets the bar high and expects us to reach it because our love for one another will provide the world with evidence that we belong to Him.

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35 ESV

But, according to the apostle John, our ability to love one another will also provide tangible proof of our salvation – to us.

If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. – 1 John 3:14 NLT

And the kind of love of which Jesus is speaking is not to be confused with the counterfeit kind of love the world offers. Worldly love is fickle because it’s usually based on the loveliness or lovableness of the one being loved. It also tends to be reciprocal in nature. In other words, it’s a love that lasts only as long as the other party loves us back. And worldly love is essentially a love of self. It involves a cost-benefit analysis or risk-reward assessment that helps us determine if the love expended will be worth it.

But Jesus wasn’t using worldly love as the model. He offered His own love as the sole criteria for emulation and evaluation.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” – John 15:10-14 ESV

It’s important to note that these words were spoken to His disciples before His crucifixion. While He had tried to tell them that His death was inevitable and unavoidable, they had refused to believe Him. And, as a result, this command was lacking its full significance for them. They only had the last 3-1/2 years of life with Jesus as evidence of His love. While they recognized Jesus as being special, they probably thought His brand of love was well within their capacity to replicate. And, as far as laying down their lives, it was Peter who had told Jesus, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matthew 26:35 ESV). But when the time came, Peter didn’t follow through on his commitment. Rather than die on behalf of Jesus, he chose to deny Him.

Jesus’ reference to someone laying down their life for a friend probably escaped the disciples. But it would not be long before they recognized the full import of those words. Jesus eventually made His way to Jerusalem, where He was arrested, tried, convicted, and murdered. And the apostle John later explained the full significance of Jesus’ actions and their implications for us as His followers.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. – 1 John 3:16 NLT

That is what Jesus meant when He had said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” And that is the kind of love He expects us to show one another. It’s sacrificial and selfless in nature. It is other-oriented and expects nothing in return. And it has nothing to do with the loveliness and lovableness of the recipient. As the apostle Paul reminds us, it was “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). We didn’t deserve His love. In fact, we were His enemies, standing opposed to the will of He and His Father. And just so we don’t misunderstand and assume that this kind of love is only required for our brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus provided us with clarification.

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.” – Matthew 5:43-45 NLT

It’s relatively easy to love a friend. But Jesus calls us to love our enemies. And Paul ups the ante by reminding us, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good” (Romans 5:6-7 NLT). The kind of love Jesus commands is a lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love. It is intended for all. No hidden clauses or list of unworthy candidates. Paul doesn’t want us to miss that “our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies” (Romans 5:10 NLT). And that’s the kind of love Jesus expects us to practice.

But how? It all seems so impossible to pull off? And that’s the point. That’s why Jesus said it would prove to the world that we were His disciples. And it would prove to us that we have truly been saved. That kind of love is impossible. It is divine. It is not something we manufacture on our own. Which is why John said, “We love because he first loved us.” It was His love for us that makes it possible for us to love others. When Jesus commanded His disciples to love others the same way He had loved them, He was speaking prophetically. He was referring to His coming death, when the Good Shepherd would lay down His life for the sheep (John 10:10). It would be His death, burial, and resurrection that made the love He commanded possible.

We can love as He did because He loved us as He did. His selfless, sacrificial death is what makes possible the kind of love He demands of us. And the power behind that kind of love does not come from us, but it does come from within us – in the form of the Holy Spirit. We have been given the capacity to love as Jesus loved. We have the power to live and love as He did.

Look closely at John’s words: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:19 ESV). We have the love of God, in the form of the Spirit of God, living within us. When we love Him, we are simply returning His love to Him. When we love others, we are sharing His love of us with those around us. We become conduits of His love. Loving others is not an option for us, because we have the love of God living within us. Yes, our old natures get in the way and cause us to live out our former patterns of selfish, self-centered, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of love. But John would have us remember that the love of God abides in us. And what is resident in us must flow out from us. Jesus was loved God and that love did not rest or remain on Him. He shared it with those who didn’t deserve it. Jesus gave His life because He loved His Father. And His love of the Father showed up in His love for the lost.

Again, look closely at John’s words:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. – 1 John 4:20 ESV

The proof of Jesus’ love for the Father is found in His love of others. Jesus lived out His love for God by expressing it in sacrificial, selfless love for others. And He calls us to do the same.

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

 

If You Love Me…

15 If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” – John 14:15-21 ESV

Jesus has been discussing some significant issues with His disciples. As the day for His crucifixion drew closer, He had begun intensifying His efforts to prepare these men for His departure. He wanted them to know what was coming. Jesus knew that His words would make no sense to His disciples, because they were still living with their own concept of who He was and why He had come. To them, He was still the long-awaited Messiah who had come to set up His kingdom on earth. Any hope they had of Israel being restored to prominence and the Romans being removed from power was tied to their concept of Jesus as Messiah.

But everything Jesus was saying and doing in these last days was creating confusion and concern among them. At supper, Jesus had surprised them by assuming the role of a household servant and washing their feet. And He followed this shocking display of humility with the words: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15 ESV).

His call to follow His example was accompanied by the reminder that “a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16 ESV). If He, as their rabbi, teacher, and Messiah, had been willing to humble Himself and serve them, what right did they have to see themselves as somehow exempt from such lowly service? Jesus was sharing important truths with His disciples that He fully expected them to hear and obey.

“If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” – John 13:17 ESV

Immediately after this exchange, Jesus had revealed that one of them would betray Him. And Judas, having been exposed by the Lord, had left the upper room to follow through with his prearranged plans to turn over Jesus to the religious leaders.

Jesus, knowing that His Father’s divine plan was in full motion and the time for His death was drawing near, told His remaining disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35 ESV).

Jesus seems to have picked an odd time to discuss this particular topic. He had just told them that His remaining time with them would be short. He would soon be leaving them, and they would be unable to accompany Him to His destination. This shocked and saddened them, and prompted Peter to ask where it was that Jesus was going. And Jesus informed him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36 ESV). Peter, always quick to speak his mind, declared that not only was he willing to follow Jesus, but he was also ready to lay down his life for Him. But Jesus prophesied that Peter, rather than dying for Him, would actually deny Him, three times.

Do you see a pattern here? Jesus was talking about the future, while the disciples were stuck in the present. They couldn’t see past the moment in which they lived, and yet Jesus was thinking about the glory to come. That’s why He had told them, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once” (John 13:31-32 ESV).

Jesus had been sent by His Father to pay the penalty for the sins of mankind and to make it possible for the justly condemned to be released from their condemnation and restored to a right relationship with Himself. But not only that, Jesus’ act of sacrificial obedience was going make it possible for unrighteous men and women to live truly righteous lives. No pretense. No pretending. No hypocritical displays of self-righteousness. What Jesus was about to do was going to be a game-changer. Better yet, it was going to be a life-changer for His disciples.

It is essential that we understand the timing of Jesus’ words. Everything recorded in this portion of John’s gospel is prior to the cross and long before the resurrection. Jesus was speaking of things to come. And while the news He was sharing sounded grim to His disciples, He encouraged them, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1 ESV). Jesus knew that they were struggling with disbelief and doubt. None of what He was saying made any sense to them. But He called them to believe. He assured them that He was going to prepare a place for them and that one day He would return for them. But Thomas, speaking on behalf of the other disciples, expressed his confusion over where it was that Jesus was going. They didn’t know the way. So, Jesus told him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). 

Notice what Jesus is doing here. Thomas was asking about directions to a destination. and Jesus pointed Him to God. Thomas was focused on a point on a map, but Jesus was pointing Him to a relationship. Thomas couldn’t stop thinking about where, but Jesus was attempting to shift their focus to who. And Jesus reveals a powerful truth concerning these men who had followed Him for more than three years. 

“If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” – John 14:7 ESV

They had seen Jesus perform miracles. They had heard Him speak, marveling at His wisdom and wrestling over the meaning of His parables. But Jesus reveals that they had not yet understood His relationship with the Father. While at one point Peter had confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV), he had not fully understood the weight of his own words. He had seen Jesus as a messenger from God, even as the long-awaited Christ or Messiah, but he had not understood Jesus to be the one who would reconcile sinful men to God. Peter and the disciples had not yet grasped the true nature of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But in time, they would.

Jesus was going out of His way to help the disciples understand His relationship with the Father. He asked them, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:10 ESV). Jesus was trying to convey to them the unity He enjoyed with God. His coming had not been about establishing an earthly kingdom, but about re-establishing man’s broken relationship with God. And He wanted them to understand that He was the key to that reconciliation taking place.

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” – John 14:11 ESV

It was His union with the Father that was going to make possible mankind’s reunion with their Creator. The disciples were still under the impression that their relationship with God was perfectly fine. But Jesus was revealing that His whole earthly ministry had been about the reconciliation of sinful men with a holy God.

And that brings us to chapter 14. Look carefully and closely at Jesus words. Consider all that He has communicated to His disciples up to this point. And then think about the import of His statement: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

What a punch to the gut that must have been to His disciples. It had to have sounded like He was questioning their love for Him. And it must have come across to them as if He was tying their love for Him to their obedience to Him. In other words, their behavior, as evidenced by their obedience, would the proof of their love. And sadly, that is how most of still interpret Jesus’ words. We hear Jesus saying that our obedience to His commands will prove that we love Him. And our disobedience will demonstrate that we don’t. But is that what Jesus is saying?

Jesus was letting His disciples know that the kind of obedience He was looking for was beyond their capability to pull off. They didn’t have it within them. But they soon would. Because He was going to provide them with the capacity to love and obey. Don’t miss how Jesus follows up His question, “If you love me…”

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

Their ability to love God had been marred by sin. Their capacity to obey God had been damaged by the fall. And Jesus had come to remedy that problem. His death was going to be the ultimate display of God’s love for sinful mankind and His selfless sacrifice would be the key for men being able to love in return. Take a look at the words of John, written long after Jesus’ death and the coming of the Holy Spirit.   

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. – 1 John 2:3-6 NLT

Don’t miss what John says: “In him (the one who keeps God’s commandments) truly the love of God is perfected.” It is God’s love for us that allows us to obey. It is God’s love, as displayed in His Son’s sacrificial death, that made it possible for sinful men and women to be transformed into loving, caring children of God, who not only have the capacity to love Him, but one another. And to live in willful obedience to His commands.

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. – 1 John 5:2-3 ESV

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

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

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

 

God’s Love In Our Hearts

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. – Romans 5:1-5 ESV

This passage contains some remarkable truths that, because of their over-familiarity to us, have lost much of their weight or glory. Because we have heard these phrases so often, we have become immune to their significance. But look carefully at what Paul is saying. First, he reminds us that we who believe in Christ have been justified by faith, and the result is that we have been restored to a right relationship with God.  We have peace with God because of what Christ accomplished on the cross on our behalf. Just a few verses later in chapter five of Romans, Paul states, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ESV). Paul pronounced the same undeniable truth to the believers in Colossae:

…you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. – Colossians 1:21-22 ESV

But there is more. Because our faith is in Christ, “we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” For Paul, restoration to a right relationship with God was made all that more significant because Christ’s death also made it possible for us to enter into God’s presence. In fact, Paul told the Ephesian believers that their union with Christ placed them with by His side in heaven.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. – Ephesians 2:5-6 NLT

We enjoy unhindered access into God’s holy presence, right here, right now. And the author of Hebrews challenges us to take advantage of our access by faith into this grace.

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. – Hebrews 4:16 NLT

But along with a sense of boldness, our gracious access into God’s presence should cause us to rejoice because we know that, just as Jesus was resurrected and received a new, glorified body, so shall we. And it is that hope that allows us to rejoice in the face of any kind suffering we may have to endure in this life because we know this is not the end. There is more to come. There is a life after this one. And Paul reminds us that, for the believer, even our suffering has a divine purpose behind it: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.”

And the author of Hebrews uses Jesus as an example of someone who benefited from the suffering He endured in his short, earthly life.

Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him.  – Hebrews 5:8-9 NLT

There is little doubt that Jesus suffered. Yet, He remained committed to the cause of His heavenly Father, and obediently fulfilled His divine mission even in the face of opposition, ridicule, physical pain, and a gruesome death. It was His death that made possible our justification by God and our access into the presence of God. And like Jesus, we can experience the amazing truth that suffering can produce endurance, which strengthens our character and focuses our hope on the reality of eternity. Any suffering we have to endure in this life reminds us that the day is coming when “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever”(Revelation 21:4 NLT). And Paul points out that present troubles fade in the light of future glory.

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! – 2 Corinthians 4:17 NLT

This hope that we have is based on a remarkable truth that we sometimes find difficult to grasp and even more difficult to believe: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Everything we have just discussed has been made possible because God has poured out His love, not on us, within us. Think about that. His love is not just some external expression of affection. It cannot be relegated to an outer display of care and concern that shows up in forgiveness or a willingness to overlook our sin.

No, God poured His love into our hearts by placing His Holy Spirit within us. This is a doctrinal truth that contains massive implications. Remember, it was while we were still enslaved to our sin that God sent His Son to die for us. He didn’t love us when we were lovely. He loved us in the midst of our sin-stained degradation. He loved us while we were still His enemies. But He showed that love by placing His Spirit within us. He poured His Spirit into our hearts. And it was that action that provided us with the capacity to respond in love to Him. The Spirit resurrected us from death to life, opening our formerly blind eyes, and placed a new heart within, a heart capable of loving God and others. Paul went out of his way to ensure that his young disciple, Titus, understood this amazing truth.

…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

And it was God’s act of placing His Spirit within us that made it possible for us to return to Him the love He showed toward us. The capacity to love God is not something we manufacture. It does not come naturally to any human being. In fact, Paul paints a very bleak but realistic picture of man’s incapacity to love God.

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

So, for sinful man to experience justification, peace with God, and access into His presence, he must be filled with the love of God in the form of the Spirit of God. And the apostle John presents us with a powerful explanation of this gift of God’s love works itself out in the life of the believer.

So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. –1 John 4:16-21 ESV

Notice what John says: “whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” It is God’s love for us, as expressed by His love within us, that perfects us. And because we have God’s love present in us, in the form of His Spirit, we can have confidence in the day of judgment, because “as he is so also are we in this world.” That’s an incredible statement that we must take lightly or treat flippantly. John is not suggesting that we are sinless in this life. He is not saying that we bear the exact image of Jesus. But He is saying that, because of our union with Christ, we have His Spirit within and the capacity to love God and others just as He does. And, as Jesus is now glorified and seated at the right hand of the Father, so are we. Our future glory is guaranteed because of the Spirit’s presence within us.

Paul reminds us that God has “given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:22 ESV). A little later on in the same letter, Paul repeats this promise.

While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 NLT

God has placed His Spirit within us, and by virtue of that fact, we have the capacity to love God as He has loved us. This ability to love comes from God, not us. And while we do not experience perfectly in this life, the very fact that we can love God is proof to us that we have been adopted by God. We are His children.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. – Romans 8:16-17 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 Lord is Faithful

1 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, 2 and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. 3 But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. 4 And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 ESV

To Paul, the Christian life was anything but independent. He constantly stressed the vital interrelationship between believers within a local fellowship, and between different congregations that found themselves separated by distance and cultural differences. A good example of this is the fund Paul raised from the Gentile churches in Macedonia and Achaia to minister to the needs of the financially strapped and predominantly Jewish congregation in Jerusalem.

…the believers in Macedonia and Achaia have eagerly taken up an offering for the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were glad to do this because they feel they owe a real debt to them. Since the Gentiles received the spiritual blessings of the Good News from the believers in Jerusalem, they feel the least they can do in return is to help them financially. – Romans 15:26-27 NLT

This cooperative concern for one another was encouraged continuously by Paul. He knew the strength of the body of Christ was founded on God’s grace-filled love for each believer and demonstrated through selfless, sacrificial love for one another. Even the believer’s ability to love comes from God, as the apostle John makes clear.

We love each other because he loved us first. – 1 John 4:19 NLT

And one of the highest expressions of the mutual love believers are to share with one another comes in the form of prayer. Paul prayed faithfully for each of the churches he had helped to found, and he coveted their prayers for him. He fully believed in and relied upon the power of prayer, and took to heart the words of James.

The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. – James 5:16 NLT

And Paul was not embarrassed to ask the Thessalonians to pray for him. But notice the nature of his request. It’s not personal or self-focused. He doesn’t ask them to pray for his healing from a sickness or for deliverance from a difficult situation.  No, Paul is very specific, asking for prayer “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1 ESV). You might conclude that this is a personal prayer because Paul seems to be asking that God bless his work, but his real focus is on the spread of the gospel. Paul wasn’t in it for the glory. He wasn’t interested in how many converts he had made or whether he was getting all the credit. 

At one point, while in prison in Rome, Paul had received news that there were others preaching the gospel out of jealousy and rivalry.  They were taking advantage of his situation and stepping into the gap his absence had created. And Paul was fully aware that some of these preachers had impure motives, stating, “They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful to me” (Philippians 1:17 NLT). Yet Paul was able to respond, “But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice” (Philippians 1:18 NLT). 

Paul didn’t care who got the credit. But he did care that the gospel message was preached. And he wanted the Thessalonians to join him in prayer with that goal in mind. And knowing that the gospel was going to encounter opposition, Paul asked that they prayer for their protection.

Pray, too, that we will be rescued from wicked and evil people, for not everyone is a believer. – 2 Thessalonians 3:2 NLT

Again, this request has a personal element to it, but Paul’s primary concern is about the spread of the gospel and the spiritual battle that raged against it. As the Thessalonians well knew, the good news of Jesus Christ was not always met with open arms. They had experienced first-hand the kind of animosity the gospel could engender.

But almost as if saying, “enough about me,” Paul suddenly turns his attention to the Thessalonians, declaring to them, “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3 ESV). This statement exudes Paul’s confidence in God, and it reflects his understanding that the believer’s dependence must ultimately be in God. He is the faithful one. He is the one who strengthens, guards, guides, and protects. Paul is not diminishing the need for or power of their prayers. He is emphasizing the undeniable nature of God’s role in the believer’s spiritual well-being.

And don’t miss what Paul says next: “we have confidence in the Lord about you” (2 Thessalonians 3:4 ESV). Notice that he doesn’t say, “We have confidence in you.” He wasn’t telling them, “You’ve got this!” He wasn’t inferring that they had their spiritual act together and were handling their walk of faith well. No, Paul’s confidence was in the faithfulness of God. And he knew that God was the one who behind the past, present, and future obedience of the Thessalonians. Any spiritual success they had enjoyed had been God’s doing, not their own.

Which brings us back to the topic of dependence. The Thessalonian church and every individual who belonged to it was totally reliant upon God for their salvation, sanctification, and ultimate glorification. Their placement within the body of Christ had been the work of God. And it would be God who kept them there, all the way to the end. Which is exactly what Paul had written to the believers in Philippi.

He who began a good work in you will continue to perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. – Philippians 1:6 BSB

And Paul shared the same comforting words with the believers in Corinth.

He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. – 1 Corinthians 1:8 NLT

Their future was in God’s fully capable hands. He had called them, and He would sustain them. He had chosen them, and He would keep them – all the way to the end. And knowing that to be true, Paul prays on their behalf: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5 ESV). This isn’t a request for God to do something He doesn’t want or intend to do. Paul is praying that God’s will be done on behalf of the Thessalonians. Paul’s inclusion of this prayer in his letter to them was intended to remind them that their hearts remain focused on God’s remarkable love for them. He was not going to abandon them. As Paul had told the believers in Rome, “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38 NLT).

They needed to keep their hearts and minds firmly focused on God’s unwavering and unstoppable love for them. And, they needed to use the endurance of Jesus as motivation to remain faithful to the end. Jesus was loved by God, but He had to suffer to fulfill the will of God. God had chosen Him to serve as a ransom for many. The Father sent His Son to die on behalf of sinful mankind. And the suffering Jesus endured in His earthly life was not a sign that God had fallen out of love with Him. It was actually evidence of their love for one another, and proof of God’s love for us.

But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8 BSB

And Paul challenges the Thessalonians to focus on the steadfastness, the endurance that Jesus modeled in His earthly life. He remained dedicated and determined to fulfill the will of God – all the way to the end.

…he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:7 NLT

So, Paul wanted the Thessalonians to use Jesus as their model for endurance. Which is exactly what the author of Hebrews would have them do.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:2-3 BSB

And God makes it all possible. He provides us with the strength we need to model the perseverance and faithfulness of Jesus. And it is His incredible love for us that should motivate us to do as Jesus did.

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).

The Discipline of God.

1 An oracle concerning Egypt.

Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud
    and comes to Egypt;
and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
    and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.
2 And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians,
    and they will fight, each against another
    and each against his neighbor,
    city against city, kingdom against kingdom;
3 and the spirit of the Egyptians within them will be emptied out,
    and I will confound their counsel;
and they will inquire of the idols and the sorcerers,
    and the mediums and the necromancers;
4 and I will give over the Egyptians
    into the hand of a hard master,
and a fierce king will rule over them,
    declares the Lord God of hosts.

5 And the waters of the sea will be dried up,
    and the river will be dry and parched,
6 and its canals will become foul,
    and the branches of Egypt’s Nile will diminish and dry up,
    reeds and rushes will rot away.
7 There will be bare places by the Nile,
    on the brink of the Nile,
and all that is sown by the Nile will be parched,
    will be driven away, and will be no more.
8 The fishermen will mourn and lament,
    all who cast a hook in the Nile;
and they will languish
    who spread nets on the water.
9 The workers in combed flax will be in despair,
    and the weavers of white cotton.
10 Those who are the pillars of the land will be crushed,
    and all who work for pay will be grieved.

11 The princes of Zoan are utterly foolish;
    the wisest counselors of Pharaoh give stupid counsel.
How can you say to Pharaoh,
    “I am a son of the wise,
    a son of ancient kings”?
12 Where then are your wise men?
    Let them tell you
    that they might know what the Lord of hosts has purposed against Egypt.
13 The princes of Zoan have become fools,
    and the princes of Memphis are deluded;
those who are the cornerstones of her tribes
    have made Egypt stagger.
14 The Lord has mingled within her a spirit of confusion,
and they will make Egypt stagger in all its deeds,
    as a drunken man staggers in his vomit.
15 And there will be nothing for Egypt
    that head or tail, palm branch or reed, may do. – Isaiah 19:1-15 ESV

Now, God turns His attention to the land of Egypt. Located in close proximity to the land of Cush, Egypt was another potential ally for Judah in their efforts to forestall God’s judgment at the hands of the Assyrians. But, as before, God makes it quite clear that neither Cush or Egypt could prevent what God had planned for Judah. The only thing that could prevent their destruction was repentance, and they showed no interest in changing their ways.

So, God lets the people of Judah know just how helpful Egypt will prove to be as an ally. This powerful nation will find itself experiencing devastating destruction on all fronts. Their economy will suffer. Their ancient way of life will be radically altered. And their once-powerful political structure will collapse.

And the first 15 verses of this oracle are bracketed by statements describing the source of their fall.

Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud
    and comes to Egypt;
and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
    and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. – Isaiah 19:1 ESV

The Lord has mingled within her a spirit of confusion,
and they will make Egypt stagger in all its deeds,
    as a drunken man staggers in his vomit. – Isaiah 19:14 ESV

All that Isaiah describes in this oracle will be the direct result of God’s actions. This is a not-so-subtle reminder to Judah that they need not fear the Assyrians. They needed to fear God. He was calling them to repentance. He was demanding that they return to Him and honor Him as the one and only God. What the people of Judah needed to realize was that the Assyrians were nothing more than instruments in God’s hands. He was using them as His rod of discipline against His wayward children. But rather than accept the loving discipline of God, the people of Judah were looking for a way of escape. They were attempting to find a savior to rescue them from all that God had planned for them.

God knew their hearts, and He was well aware that they would seek a way of escape. They would turn to one of the surrounding nations to rescue them from the very discipline of God. But God wanted them to know that their efforts would prove futile and pointless. Judah’s real adversary was the Lord. And there was nothing they could do to stop His coming judgment, short of repentance. There was no nation strong enough to stay His hand.

What the people of Judah needed to know was that their seeking of salvation in someone or something other than God would prove pointless. Their only source of help and hope was God Himself. Their plans to turn to other nations for assistance was nothing less than turning away from God. They would be refusing His will as manifested in the form of His loving discipline. And yet, that is exactly what they were planning to do. And when the Assyrians eventually arrived at the gates of Jerusalem, even King Sennacherib knew their intentions.

Then the Assyrian king’s chief of staff told them to give this message to Hezekiah:

“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident? Do you think that mere words can substitute for military skill and strength? Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me? On Egypt? If you lean on Egypt, it will be like a reed that splinters beneath your weight and pierces your hand. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is completely unreliable!” – 2 Kings 18:19-21 NLT

Even this pagan king knew that Egypt would be no match for the forces of Assyria. But what King Sennacherib didn’t know was that he would prove no match for God. All of these prideful, powerful and self-inflated nations were nothing more than tools in the hands of God. He could and would do with them as He wished.

And God describes the Egyptians as devolving into a nation marred by civil war and inner turmoil. Their circumstances will leave them confused and in search of answers. So, they will “inquire of the idols and the sorcerers, and the mediums and the necromancers” (Isaiah 19:3 ESV). They will seek help from their litany of false gods, but find themselves short on answers and void of solutions. Instead, they will fall to a stronger, more powerful nation. The economy of Egypt will suffer greatly.

And in the midst of it all, the Pharaoh and his counselors will be at a loss as to why any of this is happening. God even mocks Pharaoh, telling him to ask his wise men as to the source of their misery.

Where then are your wise men?
    Let them tell you
    that they might know what the Lord of hosts has purposed against Egypt. – Isaiah 19:12 ESV

All that is described in these verses is the handiwork of God. And He wants His people to understand that their propensity to turn to a nation like Egypt for help and hope will prove futile. God is going to do what He has planned to do, and there is nothing anyone can do about it, including Egypt. Judah can make all the alliances it wants, but there is no nation strong enough to thwart the will of God. And He makes that point painfully clear.

And there will be nothing for Egypt
    that head or tail, palm branch or reed, may do. – Isaiah 19:15 ESV

Whenever the people of God reject Him and place their hope and trust in the things of this world, they will find themselves highly disappointed with the outcome of their strategy. In the case of Judah, they were considering Egypt as a source of rescue. But what they were failing to understand was that the very thing they were trying to escape was the sovereign will of God for them. God’s coming judgment was not intended to be merely punitive, but restorative in nature. He was going to break them so that He might heal them. He was going to chastise them, but only because He loved them.

For the LORD disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child. – Hebrews 12:6 NLT

Long before the author of Hebrews penned those words, Moses shared a similar sentiment with the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the promised land.

Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the LORD your God disciplines you for your own good. – Deuteronomy 8:5 NLT

No one likes discipline, even when done in love. In fact, we do everything we can to avoid or escape it. But, as followers of God, we must understand that His discipline is always intended for our good and fully backed by His love. The people of Judah needed to open their eyes and see that their rejection of God was the source of all their problems. Their failure to honor God had brought upon them the loving discipline of God. And, while not enjoyable in the moment, God’s discipline always proves profitable, resulting in our holiness. And the author of Hebrews puts the benefits of God’s loving discipline in terms we can understand and must wholeheartedly believe.   

“My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.”

As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at allSince we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever?

For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. – Hebrews 12:5-11 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

Love Like God.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” – Matthew 5:43-47 ESV

Jesus has just finished addressing His listeners’ wrong perspective regarding the “law of retaliation” or lex talionis. The law, as they understood it, said “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In other words, it gave permission to seek retaliation against an enemy as long as it was equal in weight. But Jesus gave them a whole new interpretation of that law, saying, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39 ESV). And He follows up His counsel to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile with something even more shocking. He tells them to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. Jesus is attempting to move their emphasis off of retaliation and on to love and reconciliation. But not just toward their friends and neighbors.

Once again, Jesus clarifies what was a wrong perception on their part regarding the law of God. And it is essential that we know what the law actually said. The specific law regarding love of your neighbor is found in the book of Leviticus.

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:18-19 ESV

Notice that there is no mention of hating your enemy in this passage. And also notice that the law prohibited hatred for a brother and clarified that hatred emanated from the heart. Hatred wasn’t necessarily a visible action, but was most certainly an inward attitude, and its source was the heart. Yet the Jews had somehow taken this law and added to it an addendum that prescribed hatred for their enemies. Where the law was silent, they gave it a voice, and one that was loudly and vociferously hateful to all those who didn’t meet their definition of neighbor. Because, as far as they could tell, the law only required them to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

In their simplistic way of looking at things, they believed this law taught that love has its limits. The kind of love it demanded was reserved for neighbors, not enemies.  Enemies were unworthy of our love. But as He has done so many time already in this message, Jesus dismantles their false arguments and replaces it with the reality of what God was demanding when He gave this law. Jesus was trying to get them to understand that godly love knows no bounds. The law of God provided no place for partiality or personal preferences regarding who your neighbor might be.

This passage brings to mind a story that Jesus would later tell to an expert in the religious laws of the Jews. Luke records it for us in his gospel.

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor? – Luke 10:25-29 NLT

The man’s question to Jesus had to do with eternal life. More specifically, he was asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. He was wanting Jesus to tell him what actions he must take to be approved by God. And, as Jesus was so often prone to do, He answered the man’s question with a question. He asked the expert in religious law what he thought the law of Moses actually taught. And the man answered by quoting from part of the Shema, the morning and evening prayer recited by all faithful Jews.

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  – Luke 10:27 ESV

And while Jesus affirmed that the man’s answer was correct, He also told him that it would require living it out in real life. So the man asked Jesus the next logical question, “And who is my neighbor?” What do you think this expert in the religious laws of the Jews expected Jesus to say? He was looking for Jesus to agree with his understanding of of the word, “neighbor.” But instead of answering the man’s question, Jesus told him a story.

A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On his way, he was attacked by robbers and left for dead. In the course of the day, three men saw him lying on the roadside. A Jewish priest came by, but crossed to the other side of the road. Next, a temple assistant, another Jew, saw the man, stopped to look at him, but left him there. Finally, a Samaritan, a non-Jew, saw the man, and stopped to offer him aid. Not only that, he paid to provide for the man’s ongoing care until he could get back on his feet.

After telling His story, Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” (Luke 10:36 NLT). And the man responded, “The one who showed him mercy.” And, once again, Jesus affirmed that the man had answered correctly, but told him, “now go and do the same.”

What makes Jesus’ story so compelling is that it presents a Samaritan as the hero. Samaritans and Jews hated one another. Samaritans were considered half-breeds by the Jews. They were the descendants of Jews who had been left behind when the Babylonians had conquered Judah and taken tens of thousands into captivity in Babylon. Many of those who were left intermarried with the pagan nations. The Samaritans were looked down on by the Jews and were often referred to as dogs. They were enemies of the Jews. But in Jesus’ story, it was the Samaritan who showed mercy and love to a Jew. He treated him as he would a neighbor, or fellow Samaritan. But the two Jews in the story refused to do anything to assist their fellow Jew.

So what does this story have to do with what Jesus had to say that day on the hillside in Galilee? In essence, Jesus was telling the Jews in His audience that they don’t get to choose who they love and hate. He was presenting a new paradigm, a new way of life, in which those who are approved by God will love in the same manner and with the same intensity as they had been loved by God. And the apostle Paul reminds us of just how great God’s love really is:

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

And he tells us we are to imitate God, following the example of love He provided through His Son’s sacrificial death on the cross.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 NLT

And Jesus takes this kind of love one step further, encouraging his listeners to pray for those who might persecute them. The natural human response would be to curse them and ask God to bring down hurt and heartache on them. But Jesus says, don’t curse them, don’t wish ill on them and don’t seek revenge against them. And Paul would pick up on Jesus’ strange-sounding counsel, telling the believers living in pagan Rome:

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

Peter would also echo the words of Jesus:

Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it. – 1 Peter 3:9 NLT

It would be natural to ask Jesus, “Why?” What purpose is there in loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us? What possible good could come out of living and loving like that? And Jesus gives us the answer.

…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven… – vs 45

This takes us back to verse 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” 

Those who are blessed or approved by God will emulate Him. They will reflect His character. They will love like He loves. God is indiscriminate is His goodness, “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45 NLT). He shows His love even to those who hate Him. He bestows His blessings on those who curse Him. He sent His Son to die for all who had rebelled against Him. Jesus Himself, while hanging on the cross, was able to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NLT). And while He prayed that prayer, the Roman soldiers who nailed His hands and feet to the cross gambled over His clothes right beneath Him.

The love Jesus came to reveal was not a reciprocal kind of love. To love those who love you in return is an insufficient, earthly love. It is a selfish, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of love. But Jesus would later say, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NLT). And Paul would clarify that even our friends are undeserving of the kind of love to which Jesus is referring.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. Romans 5:6-8 NLT

Jesus is calling for a love that emulates the love of God Himself. It is a selfless kind of love. It is a non-discriminatory kind of love. It is not based on the loveliness or lovableness of the other person. We are called to love as we have been loved by God. And our love is not to be reciprocal in nature, but redemptive. Our goal is restoration and reconciliation, not so much with us, but between our enemy and 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

Love vs Lust.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” – Matthew 5:27-30 ESV

Notice what Jesus says here. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” For the average Jew, God’s prohibition against adultery was only referring to the physical act itself. And while God had clearly commanded, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 ESV), Jesus informs them that God had far more in mind with this law than they perceived. The issue was the heart. In the Old Testament, God accused the people of Israel of spiritual adultery time and time again. And not just when they were actually worshiping other gods. They could be unfaithful and adulterous even in the midst of their worship of Him. Listen to the strong words He had for them:

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

They had a heart problem, and so did the people in Jesus’ audience that day on the hillside. They just didn’t know it. They were stuck on the externals: the outward meaning of the law and their physical adherence to it. As long as they restrained themselves from actually committing the act of adultery, they were good with God, or so they thought. When Jesus refers to lust, He uses the Greek word epithymeō, which meansto set the heart upon.” The word itself was not positive or negative in its meaning. It all depended upon the context. And in the context of another person’s spouse, lust was wrong. It was to strongly seek what had been forbidden by God. So what Jesus is really telling His audience is that it’s all about their purity of heart, not the physical act of adultery itself. In other words, it’s all about the motivation that leads up to the act and that begins in the heart. This was not a new concept. Jesus was not introducing something radical here, but simply reminding His listeners of what the Bible had always said.

Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. – Proverbs 4:23 NLT

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? – Jeremiah 17:9 NLT

To refrain from committing adultery was not enough. Just because someone has the fortitude to keep themselves from having sex with their best friend’s wife, doesn’t mean they don’t want to or haven’t obsessed about it regularly. That seems to be Jesus’ point here. You can brag all you want to about your commitment to God’s law, and you may impress your friends with your piety, but not God. Because He knows your heart. He knows your every thought. God isn’t just interested in outward compliance to His law, He wants a wholehearted commitment to Him and His will regarding righteous behavior.

And Jesus gives a shockingly graphic prescription for handling the problem of lust.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. – Matthew 5:29 ESV

That sounds a bit drastic doesn’t it? Is Jesus really recommending that we pluck out our eyes to keep from lusting? But wait, He’s not done.

And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. – Matthew 5:30 ESV

Would cutting off of your hand keep you from sinning? Probably not. And that is not what Jesus is teaching here. He is clearly using hyperbole, an over-exaggeration in order to drive home a point. So, what is His point? To understand what Jesus is saying, it might help to use a real-life scenario as an illustration. Early on in the reign of King David, we are told that a time came “when kings go out to battle” (2 Samuel 11:1 ESV). It was springtime in Israel, the time of year when warfare took place. But the passage tells us that while Joab and the forces of Israel went to war, “David remained at Jerusalem.” He stayed behind. And then we’re told:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. – 2 Samuel 11:2 ESV

David had time on his hands. And notice what it says: “he saw”. David “saw” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is ra’ah, and it means “to behold, enjoy, look upon.” In other words, he lusted. But his lust was wrong, because this woman was not his wife. In fact, the story will reveal that she was the wife of one of David’s soldiers. But notice that, at this point in the story, all David had done was lust. He had looked and enjoyed. But that would prove to be inadequate for David.

So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. – 2 Samuel 11:4 ESV

David “took” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is laqach, which means “to seize, to take, carry away.” He saw and he took. He used his eyes and his hands. He gazed longingly and wrongly on something that was not his, then he seized it in order to satisfy his own desires. James makes it quite clear what was going on in David’s heart and life at that moment:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT

David saw with his eyes and took with his hands. His lustful thoughts resulted in sinful actions. But it all began in his heart. D. A. Carson provides us with some helpful insight into what Jesus meant by plucking out our eye and cutting off our hand.

We are to deal drastically with sin. We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little bit of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Our greatest desire should be to live in conformity to the will of God. And anything that would prevent us from doing so should be seen as expendable. A big part of our problem is our inordinate love affair with the things of this world. We lust after, covet, desire, and long for the things the world offers. We seek satisfaction and significance from the things of this world. In essence, we commit adultery with the world in order to satisfy our lustful desires. We see and we take. But James gives us a second word of warning:

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:$ NLT

And James wasn’t done.

Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:8-10 NLT

There it is again: Purify your hearts. Adultery is a heart issue. Lust is a heart issue. And impurity of heart is the real problem. That is why Jesus said earlier, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 ESV). Purity of heart has to do with loving God by giving Him every area of your life. It is to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, all you soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 2:37 NLT). Purity of heart is not outward conformity to rules, but integrity or wholeness of life. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of life. If you are seeking after God, it will be hard to seek satisfaction and significance elsewhere. If you are busy lusting after God, you will find it difficult to lust after someone or something else. Purity of heart flows out and influences our hands and our eyes.

Remember what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees regarding their man-made laws and regulations:

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.” – Matthew 15:19-20 NLT

External behavior is a byproduct of the inward condition of the heart. Adultery is a result of misplaced lust and desire. When we should be seeking all our satisfaction and significance from God, we end up committing adultery in our hearts, proving unfaithful to Him and turning our affections to something or someone other than Him. For Jesus, adherence to the letter of the law was not the point. It was the condition of the heart. He was coming to do radical heart surgery on the people of God. He was trying to get them to realize that their problem with God was not their inability to keep His laws, but their incapacity to love Him faithfully, which kept them from living for Him obediently. Until their hearts were renewed their affections would remain misplaced. But their capacity to love God rather than lust after everything but God, would only be possible because of God’s love for them. God had sent His Son, Jesus, to die in their place as the payment for their sins. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the true extent of God’s matchless love.

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:7-8 NLT

Love was to replace lust. But their ability to love as God demanded would only be made possible by God’s love for them as expressed in the death of His Son on the cross. As the apostle John put it, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 ESV). Jesus was describing life in His Kingdom, a radical new way of living and loving that would not be based on law-keeping, but on the heart-transforming, life-reforming love of God.

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

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

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

An Everlasting Love.

“At that time, declares the Lord, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they shall be my people.”

Thus says the Lord:
“The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
   the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
    O virgin Israel!
Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines
    and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
    on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant
    and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when watchmen will call
    in the hill country of Ephraim:
‘Arise, and let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.’”

For thus says the Lord:
“Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
    and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
    ‘O Lord, save your people,
    the remnant of Israel.’
Behold, I will bring them from the north country
    and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
    the pregnant woman and she who is in labor, together;
    a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
    and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back,
I will make them walk by brooks of water,
    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble,
for I am a father to Israel,
    and Ephraim is my firstborn.

“Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
    and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,
    and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’
For the Lord has ransomed Jacob
    and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
    and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
    and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall be like a watered garden,
    and they shall languish no more.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
    and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy;
    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance,
    and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness,
declares the Lord.” Jeremiah 31:1-14 ESV

This chapter continues God’s promise of future restoration for Israel and Judah. While the northern kingdom of Israel had been in captivity for many years at the point at which Jeremiah penned these words, God had still not forgotten them. He had not turned His back on them. His inclusion of them in His promise of restoration provides us with a glimpse into God’s everlasting love and faithfulness. Those two words – love and faithfulness – are directly tied to God’s covenant-keeping nature. The fact that God keeps His word and fulfills His commitments is not based on some legally binding requirement that God is obligated to keep. It is based on His love and faithfulness. God’s love for Israel and Judah was what kept them in His favor for so long, even while they committed spiritual adultery, throwing themselves at false gods and offering their affections to lifeless idols. God’s discipline of His children was a sign of His love for them.

My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline,
    and don’t be upset when he corrects you.
For the Lord corrects those he loves,
    just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. – Proverbs 3:11-12 NLT

The author of the book of Hebrews would quote from these verses when attempting to get his audience, made up mostly of Jewish Christians, to understand the suffering they were experiencing. He wanted them to know that their suffering was not a sign of God’s absence, but of His loving presence.

As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all. Since we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever? – Hebrews 12:7-9 NLT

Like any loving father, God was disciplining His disobedient children because He cared for them. He wanted His best for them. God reminds the people of Judah and Israel that His love has not faded. It is the same love that put up with the rebellion of their ancestors in the wilderness.

“I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love.
    With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.” – Jeremiah 31:3 NLT

Notice those two words: everlasting and unfailing. Those are so foreign to us when we think about human love. Our love ebbs and flows, waxes and wains. It seems to increase and then, just as easily, fades away in a heartbeat. We find it so easy to fall in and out of love with one another. So, it is difficult for us to understand a love that is everlasting and unfailing. Paul’s poetic description of love found in his famous “Love Chapter” of 1 Corinthians, provides us with a written illustration of God’s love for us.

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NLT

Love, God’s love, never fails. It endures all the way to the end. Remember, what God is having Jeremiah write down on a scroll is His promises for the future restoration of Israel and Judah. While some of His promises will be fulfilled when the remnant returns from captivity in Judah 70 years later, it will only be a partial fulfillment. The rest is yet to come. So God has Jeremiah put down in writing the following words:

Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
    O virgin Israel!
Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines
    and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
    on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant
    and shall enjoy the fruit. – Jeremiah 31:4-5 ESV

God is going to do something great, but it is in the future. It will be a re-creation of Israel’s original greatness. He will rebuild their cities. He will restore their joy. He will return their land to fruitfulness. In Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth, the following verses describe God’s future restoration of Israel.

To all who mourn in Israel,
    he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
    festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
    that the Lord has planted for his own glory.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins,
    repairing cities destroyed long ago.
They will revive them,
    though they have been deserted for many generations. – Isaiah 61:3-4 NLT

Remember, when Jesus read this passage in the synagogue that day, he told the people, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21 NLT). Jesus, the Messiah, had come to bring these things about. And the day is coming when He will return to earth and complete His God-ordained mission. He will set up His kingdom in Jerusalem and restore Israel to its former glory. He will gather His people from all over the world and return them to the land of promise.

“For I will bring them from the north
    and from the distant corners of the earth.
I will not forget the blind and lame,
    the expectant mothers and women in labor.
    A great company will return!
Tears of joy will stream down their faces,
    and I will lead them home with great care.
They will walk beside quiet streams
    and on smooth paths where they will not stumble.
For I am Israel’s father,
    and Ephraim is my oldest child.” – Jeremiah 31:8-9 NLT

God’s everlasting love will endure to the end. He will continue to love His people and remain faithful to them until His plans for them are fully complete. And God reminds His people that the day is coming when they will see and experience the full extent of His great love for them.

The Lord, who scattered his people,
    will gather them and watch over them
    as a shepherd does his flock. – Jeremiah 31:10 NLT

“I will turn their mourning into joy.
    I will comfort them and exchange their sorrow for rejoicing.” – Jeremiah 31:13 NLT

“The priests will enjoy abundance,
    and my people will feast on my good gifts.
    I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Jeremiah 31:14 NLT

The love of God never fails. It never fades or diminishes in any way. We may experience His discipline, but as His children, we will never experience a loss of His love for us. His love for us is directly tied to His plans for us.

In his great love chapter, Paul tells us “love never ends.” And then he goes on to say, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12 NLT). In other words, we have a limited understanding of what God has in store. We can only see so far. We don’t know the final plans or exactly how and when God is going to accomplish them. But we can rest easy, knowing that His plans for us are based on His love for us. And His love never ends.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness. – Lamentations 3:22-23 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 Fear of Losing Focus.

O Lord, you have deceived me,
    and I was deceived;
you are stronger than I,
    and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
    everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I cry out,
    I shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
    a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him,
    or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
    shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
    and I cannot.
For I hear many whispering.
    Terror is on every side!
“Denounce him! Let us denounce him!”
    say all my close friends,
    watching for my fall.
“Perhaps he will be deceived;
    then we can overcome him
    and take our revenge on him.”
But the Lord is with me as a dread warrior;
    therefore my persecutors will stumble;
    they will not overcome me.
They will be greatly shamed,
    for they will not succeed.
Their eternal dishonor
    will never be forgotten.
O Lord of hosts, who tests the righteous,
    who sees the heart and the mind,
let me see your vengeance upon them,
    for to you have I committed my cause.

Sing to the Lord;
    praise the Lord!
For he has delivered the life of the needy
    from the hand of evildoers.

Cursed be the day
    on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
    let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father,
“A son is born to you,”
    making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities
    that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
    and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
    so my mother would have been my grave,
    and her womb forever great.
Why did I come out from the womb
    to see toil and sorrow,
    and spend my days in shame? – Jeremiah 20:7-18 ESV

This particular section of chapter 20 reflects a kind of spiritual schizophrenia that Jeremiah was undergoing. In just a few short verses he goes from accusing God of deceiving him to praising God for delivering him. Then he goes back to the emotional low point of wishing he had never been born. This reflects a man under extreme pressure. He is stressed out. His emotional battery is running is dangerously low and the daily responsibilities of his life as a prophet of God are catching up with him. He faces constant mocking from the people. They view him as a laughing stock and nobody takes him seriously. So, part of Jeremiah wants to just keep his mouth shut and give up his duties as a prophet. He feels a strong desire to never mention the name of the Lord again. But that feeling gets overwhelmed by an even greater, more pressing sense of responsibility and accountability. He describes it as “a fire in my bones” (Jeremiah 20:9 NLT). His God-given job is too much to bear, but it’s also impossible to walk away from. And when Jeremiah attempts to ignore the role God has given him, he finds it impossible and states, “I am worn out trying to hold it in! I can’t do it” (Jeremiah 20:9 NLT).

One part of him wants to give up. But another part of him can’t help but continue to speak up, despite the fact that he is losing friends left and right. Everyone wants him to fail. Nobody wants him to be right. Because if he is right, then they are all in trouble. His accusations of sin and pending judgment are not anything anybody wants to hear. But he knows in his heart that this is the word of God and it must be shared. It is the truth and it cannot be ignored, even if it is costly. Stuck on this emotional roller coaster, Jeremiah does the only thing he can do: Call out to God. He expresses his feelings to God. He shares his frustrations, but he also conveys his trust in God. He refers to God as his dread warrior.

But the Lord stands beside me like a great warrior.
    Before him my persecutors will stumble.
    They cannot defeat me.
They will fail and be thoroughly humiliated.
    Their dishonor will never be forgotten. – Jeremiah 20:11 NLT

Even though Jeremiah is despondent and frustrated with his lot in life, he knows he can turn to God. In a way, Jeremiah is simply reminding himself that his God can be relied upon. In spite of the circumstances of his life and his feelings of abandonment and failure, he keeps rehearsing his long-held beliefs about God.

O Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
you test those who are righteous,
    and you examine the deepest thoughts and secrets.
Let me see your vengeance against them,
    for I have committed my cause to you. – Jeremiah 20:12 NLT

Jeremiah was practicing a bit of self-motivation, but based on the character of God. His God was the warrior, the Lord of Hosts. His God was all-knowing and all-seeing. His God was fully capable of seeing into the hearts of men, including Jeremiah’s, and determining who was right and who was wrong. Based on that knowledge, God would do the right thing. Of that, Jeremiah was confident. Well, as confident as any human being can be. Jeremiah was just a man and susceptible to the doubts and fears we all face. But he knew the key to overcoming his despair and despondency was concentrating his thoughts on the character and nature of God. So he reminds himself:

Sing to the Lord!
    Praise the Lord!
For though I was poor and needy,
    he rescued me from my oppressors. – Jeremiah 20:13 NLT

He speaks in the future tense, as if God’s deliverance of him has already taken place. He is still in the same spot he was in before. Nothing has really changed about his circumstances. But he is attempting to change his perspective, by focusing on what he knows and believes about God. The key to overcoming our times of despair is not always immediate deliverance by God, but increasing reliance and trust in God. The reality of Jeremiah’s less-than-pleasant situation was going to have to be replaced by what he knew to be true about God. The apostle Paul had a similar expectation regarding God and His Son.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.” No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. – Romans 8:35-37 NLT

Earlier in the same chapter, Paul asks the rhetorical question: “If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” And the answer is an obvious, “No one.” Oh, don’t misunderstand, there will always be those who are against us. Jeremiah had plenty of opposition, including people like Pashtur. But they were no match for God. They can hate us and even attack us, but in the end, God is for us and we will experience His will for us – despite them. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. That doesn’t guarantee us a trouble-free life. It simply means that we have someone on our side who will never leave us or forsake us. And Paul reminds us:

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT

But how easy it is to forget all that. How quickly we can find ourselves taking our eyes off of God and putting them back on our circumstances. In a way, that is exactly what we see Jeremiah doing in this passage. Right after praising God for His coming deliverance, Jeremiah resorts to wishing he had never been born.

Yet I curse the day I was born!
    May no one celebrate the day of my birth. – Jeremiah 20:14 NLT

Why was I ever born?
    My entire life has been filled
    with trouble, sorrow, and shame. – Jeremiah 20:18 NLT

Like Peter, when he stepped out of the boat in the midst of the storm and began walking on the water toward the outstretched arms of Jesus, Jeremiah took his eyes off of God. And when he did, he began to sink under the waves of despair. The gospel of Matthew records what happened to Peter when he took his eyes off of Jesus.

But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink. – Matthew 14:30 NLT

When he stopped trusting Jesus and started believing his circumstances were greater and more powerful than his God, he sank. And it was only when he cried out to Jesus that he was saved. Jeremiah was going to continue to experiencing rough days. His job was far from finished. There were going to be more threats and increasing resistance to his message. And to survive, he was going to have to keep his eyes on God. He was going to have to constantly remind himself of the power and presence of God, even in the midst of the storms of life.

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

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

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

That We Might Know.

O Lord, my strength and my stronghold,
    my refuge in the day of trouble,
to you shall the nations come
    from the ends of the earth and say:
“Our fathers have inherited nothing but lies,
    worthless things in which there is no profit.
Can man make for himself gods?
    Such are not gods!”

“Therefore, behold, I will make them know, this once I will make them know my power and my might, and they shall know that my name is the Lord.” – Jeremiah 16:15-21 ESV

The majority of the nations of the earth reject God. It was true in Jeremiah’s day and it is true in ours. And yet, Jeremiah knew that there was a day coming when all of that would change. He had faith and hope in the ultimate sovereignty of God and believed that one day humanity would wake up to the reality that there is only one true God. He envisioned a day when people would realize the error of their ways.

Nations from around the world
    will come to you and say,
“Our ancestors left us a foolish heritage,
    for they worshiped worthless idols.
Can people make their own gods?
    These are not real gods at all!” – Jeremiah 16:19-20 NLT

And he was right, because God has said it would be so.

This is a vision that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s house
    will be the highest of all—
    the most important place on earth.
It will be raised above the other hills,
    and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.
People from many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of Jacob’s God.
There he will teach us his ways,
    and we will walk in his paths.”
For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion;
    his word will go out from Jerusalem.
The Lord will mediate between nations
    and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
    nor train for war anymore. – Isaiah 2:1-4 NLT

Ultimately, God is interested in revealing Himself to mankind. He has done so through His creation. Paul makes that point clear in his letter to the believers in Rome.

They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 2:19-20 NLT

The Bible is a chronicles of God’s revelation to man. He revealed Himself to Abraham, calling him out of Ur and leading him to the land of Canaan. He revealed Himself to Moses in a burning bush and called him to be the one to deliver the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. And all throughout the book of Exodus God assures Moses with the words: “You will know that I am the Lord your God.”

“I am the Lord. I will free you from your oppression and will rescue you from your slavery in Egypt. I will redeem you with a powerful arm and great acts of judgment. I will claim you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God who has freed you from your oppression in Egypt. I will bring you into the land I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I will give it to you as your very own possession. I am the Lord!” – Exodus 6:6-8 NLT

The plagues God brought on the Egyptians were intended to show the Israelites that their God, Yahweh, was more powerful than any of the gods of Egypt. He was proving Himself to the Israelites by revealing Himself in power. And God continued to do so throughout the book of Exodus as He freed them from slavery and led them to the land of promise. And by the time God was finished in Egypt, the Israelites would not be the only ones who would know that Yahweh was God. He made that point quite clear.

“When I raise my powerful hand and bring out the Israelites, the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” – Exodus 7:5 NLT

Ten devastating plagues later, and God would have the attention of the Egyptians and the Jews. He would clearly reveal Himself as the one true God. And God lets Jeremiah know that there is a day coming when God’s power and prominence will once again be displayed before the nations, convincing them of His status as the one and only God of the universe.

“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: People from nations and cities around the world will travel to Jerusalem. The people of one city will say to the people of another, ‘Come with us to Jerusalem to ask the Lord to bless us. Let’s worship the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. I’m determined to go.’ Many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord of Heaven’s Armies and to ask for his blessing.

“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: In those days ten men from different nations and languages of the world will clutch at the sleeve of one Jew. And they will say, ‘Please let us walk with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” – Zechariah 8:20-23 NLT

That day has yet to come, but it will. Because God has promised it. And God, speaking through the prophet, Ezekiel, told the people of Israel that one day return them to favor in His eyes. Not because they had done anything to deserve it, but because He had promised it and was going to prove to the nations that His word was trustworthy and His power, unequaled.

Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Lord: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign Lord, then the nations will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 36:22-23 NLT

But in all this talk of future restoration and the nations recognizing Yahweh as the one true God, there remains the painful reality that Judah was still going to suffer for their sins. God was still bringing judgment on them because they had rebelled against Him. And yet, even His judgment would prove to them that He is God.

“Now I will show them my power;
    now I will show them my might.
At last they will know and understand
    that I am the Lord.” – Jeremiah 16:21 NLT

The painful reality is that God sometimes reveals Himself through judgment. He disciplines His children, because He loves them. He took the son born to David and Bathsheba as a result of their adulterous affair. And as a result, David knew that God was serious about sin. God took the lives of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), when they lied about their gift of money to the church. And the church knew that God was serious about sin. God struck Miriam, the sister of Moses, with leprosy, because she and Aaron thought they had as much right to be leaders as Moses had (Numbers 12). And when Aaron saw what God had done to his sister, it got his attention. He suddenly feared God and begged Moses to intercede for her.

The people of Judah were going to experience the consequences of their sinful behavior. And they would learn a great deal about their God in the process. It’s sad to admit that, for many of us, we tend to learn better through difficulties. Our faith grows stronger during times of adversity and trials. But we must always remember that God is constantly revealing Himself to us, even in the difficult times. He wants us to know that He takes sin seriously. He wants us to recognize His power and to learn to rely upon it. He wants us to understand that He considers our call to holiness non-negotiable. He demands that we be holy, as He is holy. He requires obedience and faithfulness from His people. But sometimes, we doubt that He really means it. So, He reveals Himself through discipline. He manifests His displeasure by allowing us to suffer for our sinful habits. But the bottom line is that God is always there and is always revealing Himself to us. He is always proving His power to us and convincing us of His holiness and righteousness. Because His greatest desire is that we know and understand that He is the Lord.

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

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

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

God Wants to Forgive.

Flee for safety, O people of Benjamin,
    from the midst of Jerusalem!
Blow the trumpet in Tekoa,
    and raise a signal on Beth-haccherem,
for disaster looms out of the north,
    and great destruction.
The lovely and delicately bred I will destroy,
    the daughter of Zion.
Shepherds with their flocks shall come against her;
    they shall pitch their tents around her;
    they shall pasture, each in his place.
“Prepare war against her;
    arise, and let us attack at noon!
Woe to us, for the day declines,
    for the shadows of evening lengthen!
Arise, and let us attack by night
    and destroy her palaces!”

For thus says the Lord of hosts:
“Cut down her trees;
    cast up a siege mound against Jerusalem.
This is the city that must be punished;
    there is nothing but oppression within her.
As a well keeps its water fresh,
    so she keeps fresh her evil;
violence and destruction are heard within her;
    sickness and wounds are ever before me.
Be warned, O Jerusalem,
    lest I turn from you in disgust,
lest I make you a desolation,
    an uninhabited land.”

Thus says the Lord of hosts:
“They shall glean thoroughly as a vine
    the remnant of Israel;
like a grape gatherer pass your hand again
    over its branches.” Jeremiah 6:1-9 ESV

There are those who might find the book of Jeremiah a bit redundant and repetitive. After all, it does seem that God is belaboring the point regarding Judah’s sin. It would appear that by this time, the people of Judah would have gotten the message – loud andclear. But the very fact that God continues to point out their sin and warn them of coming destruction unless they repent, is more a sign of God’s patience and an indicator of their stubbornness. He continues to point out the horrific nature of their sin and warns them of what is going to happen to them because of it. God takes no delight in this message. He finds no pleasure in describing the fate of His own chosen people. But He is brutally blunt in His call that they repent.

“Listen to this warning, Jerusalem,
    or I will turn from you in disgust.
Listen, or I will turn you into a heap of ruins,
    a land where no one lives.” – Jeremiah 6:8 NLT

God was serious. But the people of Judah were not taking Him seriously. Despite Jeremiah’s dire depictions of their coming destruction, they were making no efforts to change their ways. So, God was forced to up the ante and increase the intensity of His accusations and warnings. He calls out the people of the tribe of Benjamin and the citizens of the cities of Tekoa and Beth-hakkerem. The coming destruction was not going to be isolated to the city of Jerusalem. It was going to impact all those living in and around the southern nation of Judah. The Babylonians, when they came, would spare no one. No city, town or village would be safe. Because the sins of the people of Judah had not been restricted to the capital city. Sin was everywhere. The disobedience and unfaithfulness, like a contagious disease, had spread throughout the land. All were guilty.

And God lovingly describes Jerusalem as “my beautiful and delicate daughter” (Jeremiah 6:2 NLT). He was about to destroy the city and the people He loved. All because of sin. His holiness and justice demanded it. He could no longer overlook it. While He loved the people of Judah, His justice required that the sins of His people be punished. Their failure to repent was going to bring His wrath down on them. But He continued to warn. He kept sending Jeremiah back to them with further messages of coming judgment.

He tells them that He loves them, but that He will destroy them. They are not immune to His judgment. They can’t just live in unfaithfulness to Him and expect to get away with it. He is God. He is holy. He is obligated by His very nature to deal with sin, which is nothing less than open rebellion against His sovereignty. Where once there were shepherds and their peaceful flocks camped outside the city walls, there would now be Babylonians troops bent on destruction. And they would be so anxious to pillage the city, that they would fight well into the night. They would cut down all the trees surrounding the city to build their siege engines and ramparts. The devastation would be great. And the fall of Jerusalem would be complete. God even describes the Babylonians as a grape harvester who makes another trip through the vineyard to make sure he left no fruit on the vines. The Babylonians would be excrutiatingly thorough in their pillaging of the city. Nothing would be left. No treasures would be overlooked. The city would be stripped clean. All because of sin.

It would be easy to read these passages and focus on what appears to be the unchecked wrath of God. But the thing that should grab our attention is the devastating effect of sin. God hates it, and for a very good reason. It is like a cancer that spreads through the human body. It is destructive and has no redeeming qualities about it. It brings no worth or value with it. It grows and spreads, but adds nothing to the body that will bring life. Sin brings nothing but death, because it separates man from God. But like the people of Judah, we can grow comfortable with our own sin. We can become complacent and completely at peace with life-threatening, joy-stealing, peace-shattering presence of sin in our lives. But God hates it. And He is out to eliminate and eradicate it. He cannot and will not tolerate it. And when He points it out in our lives, we should thank Him for exposing the very thing that brings death, so that we might enjoy the life He has promised us. God prefers repentance over punishment. He longs to see His children return to Him in brokenness and contrition. He loves to forgive and restore.

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

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

Forgetting God.

The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord,

“I remember the devotion of your youth,
    your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
    in a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the Lord,
    the firstfruits of his harvest.
All who ate of it incurred guilt;
    disaster came upon them,
declares the Lord.”

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the clans of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:

“What wrong did your fathers find in me
    that they went far from me,
and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?
They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord
    who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
    in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
    in a land that none passes through,
    where no man dwells?’
And I brought you into a plentiful land
    to enjoy its fruits and its good things.
But when you came in, you defiled my land
    and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’
    Those who handle the law did not know me;
the shepherds transgressed against me;
    the prophets prophesied by Baal
    and went after things that do not profit.” – Jeremiah 2:1-8 ESV

God has been speaking to Jeremiah, but now, he gives the prophet his first message to deliver to the people living in Jerusalem, Judah’s capital city. These were God’s words, not Jeremiah’s. He was simply God’s spokesperson or mouthpiece, tasked with the responsibility of delivering God’s message faithfully and accurately. And the first thing God had Jeremiah say to the people was a stark assessment of their apostasy in the form of a stinging indictment. It starts off in the form of a reflection on God’s part, as He looks back on His relationship with the people of Israel. He recalls the early years of their relationship, when He delivered them from captivity in Egypt and led them through the wilderness. God describes Israel as His bride, lovingly following Him as their husband and redeemer. And God describes Israel as “holy to the Lord” (Jeremiah 2:3 ESV). They had been chosen by God and set apart as His own. The Hebrew word for holy is qodesh and it refers to something as having been deemed sacred by God and separated out for His use. Israel, in being redeemed from slavery in Egypt by God, had become His possession. They belonged to Him and to Him only. Like a bride and groom becoming one flesh, Israel and God were to be inseparable, with the people of Israel living in faithful submission to their loving redeemer. And God reminds the people how He had protected them in those early days. He refers to Israel as the “firstfruits” – a reference to the firstfruits of the harvest. Under the leadership of Moses, God had commanded the Israelites to give Him the firstfruits of their harvest each year. They were to take the first of what they harvested and present it to the Lord as an offering. It belonged to God and was not to be used for anything or by anyone else. The firstfruit offering was used to feed the priests of Israel and was not to be consumed by others. So, God refers to Israel as the firstfruits, belonging to Him and not to be given to anyone else. And God reminds Israel that He had protected them over the years, punishing those who tried to take what belonged to God.

But then God goes from reminiscing to questioning. He asks the people of Israel, “What did your ancestors find wrong with me that led them to stray so far from me? They worshiped worthless idols, only to become worthless themselves?” (Jeremiah 2:5 NLT). It’s important to recognize that, while Jeremiah is delivering this message to the people of Judah living in Jerusalem, God keeps referring to them as Israel. You may recall that the nation of Israel had been split in two by God after the less-than-ideal end of Solomon’s reign as king. The nation of Israel was comprised of ten tribes to the north and the nation of Judah was made up of two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, in the south. By the time Jeremiah came on to the scene, the northern nation of Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrians because of their apostasy toward God. But God saw the tribe of Judah as the true Israel, because He had promised King David that a descendant of his would one day come to reign on his throne in Jerusalem forever. That promise referred to the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. So, all throughout the book of Jeremiah, God will refer to Judah as Israel. And in spite of them having watched the fall of the northern kingdom, the people of Judah learned nothing from it. They followed in their footsteps, committing the same crimes against God that had led to Israel’s destruction. In fact, in the very next chapter, God will indict the people of Judah for their blatant disregard for what He had done to their neighbors to the north.

“Have you seen what fickle Israel has done? Like a wife who commits adultery, Israel has worshiped other gods on every hill and under every green tree. I thought, ‘After she has done all this, she will return to me.’ But she did not return, and her faithless sister Judah saw this. She saw that I divorced faithless Israel because of her adultery. But that treacherous sister Judah had no fear, and now she, too, has left me and given herself to prostitution. Israel treated it all so lightly—she thought nothing of committing adultery by worshiping idols made of wood and stone. So now the land has been polluted. But despite all this, her faithless sister Judah has never sincerely returned to me. She has only pretended to be sorry. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 NLT

They had completely forgotten about God. They no longer asked where He was or recalled all that He had done for them. They acted as if He didn’t even exist. Rather than living in grateful obedience to God in the land He had provided them, they defiled it by living in willful disobedience to and open disregard for Him. Even the priests and leaders failed to seek God.

“Those who taught my word ignored me,
    the rulers turned against me,
and the prophets spoke in the name of Baal,
    wasting their time on worthless idols.” – Jeremiah 2:8 NLT

The book of Ezekiel contains a stinging accusation from God against the people of Israel. In very graphic terms, it portrays Israel as a newborn baby, unwanted and left in a field to die. But God found Israel and provided care and nourishment. Israel grew up into a beautiful woman and God chose Israel to be His bride.

“I gave you expensive clothing of fine linen and silk, beautifully embroidered, and sandals made of fine goatskin leather. I gave you lovely jewelry, bracelets, beautiful necklaces, a ring for your nose, earrings for your ears, and a lovely crown for your head. And so you were adorned with gold and silver. Your clothes were made of fine linen and costly fabric and were beautifully embroidered. You ate the finest foods—choice flour, honey, and olive oil—and became more beautiful than ever. You looked like a queen, and so you were! Your fame soon spread throughout the world because of your beauty. I dressed you in my splendor and perfected your beauty, says the Sovereign Lord.

“But you thought your fame and beauty were your own. So you gave yourself as a prostitute to every man who came along. Your beauty was theirs for the asking. You used the lovely things I gave you to make shrines for idols, where you played the prostitute. Unbelievable! How could such a thing ever happen? You took the very jewels and gold and silver ornaments I had given you and made statues of men and worshiped them. This is adultery against me! You used the beautifully embroidered clothes I gave you to dress your idols. Then you used my special oil and my incense to worship them. Imagine it! You set before them as a sacrifice the choice flour, olive oil, and honey I had given you, says the Sovereign Lord.” – Ezekiel 16:10-19 NLT

After all God had done for them, Israel had treated God with disdain and disrespect. They turned against Him, forsaking His love and giving their devotion to false gods. They had been set apart by God as His own. They had been deemed holy by God and dedicated by Him to a life of faithfulness to Him. But they had chosen to reject their Redeemer and give their love and affection to someone else.

“What a sick heart you have, says the Sovereign Lord, to do such things as these, acting like a shameless prostitute.” – Ezekiel 16:30 NLT

They had forgotten God. They had turned their backs on the very One who had rescued them from slavery and graciously given them a land they didn’t deserve and a love that was undeserved. And they treated it all with contempt. The grace and mercy of God meant nothing to them. The love of God was not enough for them. Their status as God’s possession was meaningless to them. They treated God’s devotion with disregard. They responded to His love by loving others. They reacted to His faithfulness with unfaithfulness, and to His unmerited favor with unimaginable forgetfulness. “What a sick heart you have!”

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

Unloved, But Undeterred.

I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!

Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps? – 2 Corinthians 12:11-18 ESV

Paul confesses that he feels like a fool. All this self-promotion is out of character for him, but he tells the Corinthians that their silence forced him to do it. They are the ones who should have been commending him. They had been the recipients of his ministry and message. They had enjoyed the benefits of his self-sacrifice and loving commitment to share the gospel with them. And as far as Paul was concerned, he had no reason to take a back seat to the “super-apostles” who were setting themselves up as his spiritual superiors. He had come to them as an apostle of Jesus Christ, armed with the gospel and backed by the power of God as revealed in the signs and wonders he had performed while among them. This had been Paul’s modus operandi everywhere he went.

Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum. – Romans 15:18-19 NLT

Paul had not short-changed the Corinthians. He had treated them the same way he had every other Gentile city he had visited. The only difference was that he had not burdened them with providing for his needs while he had ministered among them. Others had funded his ministry, and before that, he had paid his way by working as a tent maker. And yet, there were those who were accusing him of deception and craftiness, claiming that he acted as if he was sacrificing on their behalf, while hiding the fact that he was receiving outside aid. There were others who were saying that Paul had simply gotten money from them by sending his surrogates to collect it, under the guise that it was going to be used for the saints in Jerusalem. In other words, they were accusing Paul of sending Titus and others to take up a collection, all the while using that money for himself. It seems that, in the eyes of the Corinthians, Paul could do nothing right. His actions were constantly under attack and his motives were always suspect.

But Paul pledges to keep on loving and giving whether they return the favor or not. It is his sincere desire to return to Corinth for a third time and he intends to act in the same way he always had. He will love them like a father loves his children. And while he would greatly desire that love to be reciprocal, he wasn’t going to let their lack of love prevent him from doing the will of God. He tells them, “I will gladly spend myself and all I have for you, even though it seems that the more I love you, the less you love me” (2 Corinthians 12:15 NLT). Everything Paul had done for them, he had done out of love. He had sacrificed greatly in order that they might received the gospel. He had already written two other letters intending the encourage them in their faith and to provide them with wise counsel regarding real-life scenarios taking place in their midst. He was like a loving father, gladly providing for the needs of his children, willingly sacrificing his own needs on their behalf. And while he would have longed for them to return his love, he would not let their distrust and disloyalty sway his actions, because all his efforts were motivated by his desire to please his heavenly Father. When all was said and done, Paul was out to please God, not men. He was looking for the praise of God, not the praise of men.

Paul’s only regret was that he was having to waste time defending himself before the Corinthians. There were other pressing needs he would have preferred to address. Instead of wasting time “boasting” about his qualifications and defending his actions, he would have liked to have been helping them grow in their faith. Paul was a teacher, yet he having to spend all his time playing defense attorney. He could have given up. He could have decided enough was enough and written the Corinthians off as too stubborn and hard-headed to waste any more of his valuable time on them. But Paul was committed to their spiritual well-being. He was not content to see them languish in their faith and settle for the status quo. He was going to allow their complacency to deter his commitment to the call of Christ on his life. He was out to make disciples, and nothing was going to stand in his way, including the false accusations of false apostles, the lack of love from those to whom he had shared the gospel, or the constant demand that he defend his actions. His attitude remained, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.”

Come Back To God!

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 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 5:16-21 ESV

How easy it is to judge others from our limited, human perspective. We are so quick to assess the value or worth of others based on externals. We are even prone to establish someone’s unworthiness or lack of value based on how they look, their ethnic makeup, economic background, educational status or personality profile. In the Old Testament, we have the account of when Samuel the prophet went to the house of Jesse to find a new king to replace Saul. When he set eyes on Jesse’ son, Eliab, Samuel said, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed!” (1 Samuel 16:7b NLT). But God responded, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:8 NLT).

Because of the life-transforming work of Jesus Christ and the Spirit’s power to give new life to those who were dead in the trespasses and sins, Paul states, “So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now!” (2 Corinthians 5:16 NLT). Prior to coming to faith in Christ and recognizing Him as his Savior, Paul saw Him from a purely human perspective. Paul was a Pharisee who viewed Jesus as nothing more than a charlatan, a political revolutionary and threat to the religious status quo. But ever since his encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul’s view of Jesus had changed radically. And his view of others had changed as well – “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). Salvation was meant to be life-changing. it wasn’t just a matter of someone switching religious allegiances or choosing another way of pursuing a right relationship with God. What Jesus offered was radical, out-of-the-ordinary life transformation that resulted in a totally new life, a new nature - immediately. Those who placed their faith in Christ were instantly transformed from death to life, from darkness to light, from enemies to friends of God, from condemned to forgiven, from guilty to innocent, from outcasts to members of the family of God. And Paul says, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18 ESV).

It was all God’s doing, not man’s. Salvation is the work of God, from beginning to end. He is the one who reconciles. He is the one who redeems, restores, forgives, justifies, regenerates, and sanctifies. He provides new life. He places His Holy Spirit within us. And He accomplished it all through Christ. God sent His Son to be the payment for the sins of mankind and to be the acceptable sacrifice, whose innocent life was given to satisfy the His just demands and holy wrath against man’s rebellion against Him. “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NLT). It was through Christ that God had determined to restore His lost creation. It was through Christ that God had ordained a means by which He could satisfy His own righteous judgment against sin while providing a means of showing His love for mankind. 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16 ESV

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

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20 ESV

This message of God’s love and offer of reconciliation had been given to Paul and his companions. They had become ambassadors of God, sharing the good news of how men and women could be made right with God and restored to a right relationship with Him. “So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:20 NLT). They viewed themselves as conduits of God’s grace. They were vessels in the hands of God, pouring out His goodness and grace upon all those they encountered, not pre-judging or predetermining who deserved to hear. They simply told of God’s Son; His death, burial and resurrection; His offer or salvation; and the simple, solitary requirement of faith. They shared. God saved. Christ had provided the means. Paul simply shared the message. “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT).

Sharing the gospel is really quite easy. It is simply pleading with people to come back to God. It is a desperate, loving appeal for them to accept the only means by which they can be restored to a right relationship with God – by faith in Jesus Christ. It is not up to us to determine who deserves to hear. It is not up to us to judge who is worthy of receiving the message. It is not our job to predetermine who we would prefer to have as a brother or sister in Christ. We have been given the message of reconciliation. Like Paul, we have been appointed ambassadors by God, with the sole responsibility of spreading the good news of His Son’s death and resurrection to a lost and dying world. God’s offer of salvation is non-discriminatory, and so should our appeal be.

 

 

Controlled By the Love of God.

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. – 2 Corinthians 5:11-15 ESV

Paul has just told the Corinthians that there is a day coming when all believers will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). It is with that thought in mind that Paul refers to the “fear of the Lord.” It is an awareness of the future judgment of our present actions that should create in us a sober-minded evaluation of all that we do in this life. As believers, we should carefully consider all our thoughts and actions based on the knowledge that we will one day answer to God for all that we have done in this life since coming to faith in Christ. Paul told the Romans, “Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God … each of us will give a personal account to God” (Romans 14:10, 12 NLT).

Paul was not saying that he feared the judgment of God in the sense that he might lose his salvation or his place in heaven. It was just that he had a strong motivation not do anything that might bring the displeasure of his God on the day of judgment. He lived to please God. He wanted to do the will of God. And so he was unwilling to let what men thought about him in this life overshadow or influence the importance of what God would think about his actions when he stood before the judgment seat of Christ in the next life. That is what led him to persuade others. That is what prompted him to risk all in order to save some. His reputation took a back seat to the message of redemption. What concerned Paul the most was what God thought of him. “But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience” (2 Corinthians 5:11b ESV).

It seems that Paul had to spend a great deal of time defending his apostleship. Unlike the original disciples of Jesus, Paul had not been there at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He was not one of the twelve. He had not been personally taught by Jesus and, therefore, his opponents argued that he had no authority. On top of that, it also seems that Paul had a less-than-impressive aura about him. He was evidently small in stature, unimpressive in appearance, and had gained a reputation for being a second-rate communicator. He even admitted as much in his first letter to the Corinthians: “I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:3-4 NLT). The only reason Paul attempted to defend his apostleship or say anything about himself that might be construed as bragging was to that the Corinthians might be able to silence his critics who kept trying to diminish his influence among them. Paul didn’t mind if people thought he was crazy, as long as he knew that he was being faithful to God. And even if he did come across as somewhat crazy, it was only because he was obsessed with sharing the gospel with as many people as he possibly could. When it came to the good news, he was “out of his mind.”

Paul’s perspective was that, crazy or sane, “Christ’s love controls us.” He was motivated by love for the lost and a Christ-like compassion for believers. And his love for others was the direct result of God’s love for him. The apostle John wrote, “We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:19-20 NLT). And how did God show His love for us? “God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him” (1 John 4:9 NLT). It was that very love that motivated Paul. And because of what Jesus Christ had done for him, Paul was willing to risk all in order to tell all about the good news made possible by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.

He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. – 2 Corinthians 5:15 NLT

God’s love for us required that Jesus die in place of us. His death on our behalf made possible our new life. And that new life has freed us to live for Him, not ourselves. And our new-found capacity to live unselfishly shows up in our desire to share His love selflessly with all those we meet. “For the love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:15 ESV).

 

Accomplishing the Impossible.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 ESV

These two verses contain two of the most stunning and intimidating admonitions to be found in the entire Scriptures. Paul begins this chapter with the word, “Therefore.” It would be like saying, “With all that in mind…” He was referring back to his earlier call to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1 ESV). He was also taking into account all that he had just said about putting off the old self and putting on the new self, which is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24 ESV). He has called his readers to a life of transformation, made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Their attitudes and actions should be radically different. Their interactions with one another should be marked by gentleness, kindness, patience, selflessness, and love. He concluded chapter four by saying, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32 ESV).

Now he gives them two simple steps to seeing that their behavior matches what they say they believe: First, imitate God. Second, love like Christ. If we stop long enough to consider what Paul is really saying, our response should be one of incredulity. Are you kidding me, Paul? Have you lost your mind? You want me to imitate God? You expect me to love like Christ loved me? Do you have any idea what you are saying? You are asking the impossible. And in a certain sense, Paul is asking the impossible. There is no man or woman alive who can accomplish these two things on their own. But those to whom Paul was writing were not ordinary men and women. They were children of God, called and gifted by Him, filled with His Holy Spirit and recipients of a new nature. They were free to what they had never been able to do before: live godly lives that please and honor God. And as children of God, it would only be natural for them to imitate their heavenly Father. It would be normal and expected for them to see what He does and do likewise. God is gracious and merciful. So should they be. God is loving and patient. They should be as well. God hates sin. So should they. God is holy. And they were expected to be as well. The apostle Peter wrote, “But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy” (1 Peter 1:15 NLT). But he wasn’t the first to say this. He had heard similar words from Jesus Himself. “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NLT). And Jesus was basically quoting from Leviticus 19:2, where God said to the people of Israel, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” God was not asking for perfection. Neither was Jesus or Peter. What they were encouraging was a life of set-apartness or distinctiveness, a life that emulated the character and heart of God, not of this world. 

When God calls us, He sets us apart as His own. We become His possession. We are adopted into His family and become His children. As such, we are to live according to His terms and to obey His will for our lives. Paul told the believers in Corinth, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV). We glorify God when we live out our lives in obedience to His will and in imitation of His own character. When we extend mercy and grace to those who don’t deserve it, we are imitating God. When we show kindness to those in need, we are imitating God. When we love the unlovely and unlovable, we are imitating God. When we despise sin so much that we refuse to participate in it, we are imitating God.

Not long before His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples about the coming day of judgment, when God would call all those who had come to faith during the great tribulation. They would come to stand before the Lord and He would say to them:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

Then these righteous ones will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?”

And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” – Matthew 25:34-40 NLT

These men and women who will come to faith in Christ during the most horrific period in human history, will do the unthinkable and improbable. They will risk their lives to show the love and mercy of God to those who are suffering alongside them during the tribulation. And their actions will be in imitation of God and an expression of love to His Son.

Which leads us to the second part of Paul’s admonition. Love like Christ. Actually, Paul says, “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ” (Ephesians 5:2 NLT). Our lives are to be characterized by the love of Christ. His love was selfless and sacrificial. His love led Him to give His life. Jesus said that there was no greater expression of love than for someone to lay down their life for another (John 15:13). The apostle John takes this thought one step further by writing, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16 NLT). The amazing thing about this is that God does not require us to actually die. He simply asks us to die to self, to give up our rights. He calls us to “Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 NLT). He expects us to “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10 ESV). He desires for us to exhibit “tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12 NLT).

Imitate God. Love like Christ. They sound impossible, but they're not. Peter reminds us, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). Paul knew it was possible, which is why he told the Philippian church, “Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people” (Philipiians 2:15 NLT). As impossible and improbably as it may sound, we can live like God and love like Christ.

Living In God’s Love.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. – Ephesians 3:14-21 ESV

Paul picks up where he left off in verse one of this chapter. “For this reason…” He repeats that very same phrase, because he is took a brief aside to discuss the mystery of the church in verses 2-13. Now he is ready to make some application regarding this unity of Jews and Gentiles into one household of God. Back in chapter one, Paul had prayed for their spiritual enlightenment. He asked that God would give them “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Ephesians 1:17 ESV). Now in chapter three, he tells his audience that there is another prayer request he offers up on their behalf. He prays for their spiritual strength. “…that according to the riches of his glory he [God] may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Ephesians 3:16 ESV). In chapter one, he prayed that they might know God. Here he is praying that they would be “filled with all the fullness of God.” Earlier he prayed that they might know the hope to which they had been called. Here he is praying that their knowledge of that hope would strengthen their faith. The author of Hebrews described faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Faith and hope go hand in hand. They are inseparable. Faith makes that for what we hope become as real and tangible as if we already possessed it. But hope is not based on what we can already see. Paul told the Romans, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25 ESV). Jesus promised to send His Spirit. God has guaranteed us eternal life. Jesus said He was going to prepare a place for us. But we can’t see any of these things. We have no tangible, visible proof. They are unseen by us. But by faith, we believe them to be true and real. Why? Because they have been promised to us by God. We trust His word. We rely upon His faithfulness. And the Spirit of God provides us with the strength we need to believe, even in the midst of doubt and uncertainty. Paul’s desire was that Christ would continue to dwell in their hearts through faith. He was not insinuating that they could somehow lose their salvation. But he was concerned that they could begin to lose their focus on the sufficiency of Christ in their lives. He wanted them to know that they were “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17 ESV). They were firmly and securely planted in the love of God through their faith in Christ. But Paul wanted them to fully comprehend that fact. He wanted the Holy Spirit to provide them with the strength necessary for them to fully comprehend just how powerful and vast God’s love for them really was. 

It is one thing to have a knowledge of God. It is another thing to understand and appreciate the love of God. It is when we begin to comprehend His incredible love for us, as displayed in His sacrifice of His own Son on our behalf, that we are able to see life through His eyes, not our own. We stop seeing every little trial as a punishment and start viewing them as opportunities to trust in a loving God who has great plans in place for us. When we begin to focus on all that God has done for us and all that He has promised to do for us in the future, we feel His love and we gain strength for the journey. He has not left us. He will never forsake us.

This all boils down to an understanding of and appreciation for God’s love. It is He who had saved them. In the midst of their sinfulness and helplessness, God had intervened, sending His Son to die on their behalf. Paul put it in simple, yet profound terms: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). The apostle John adds the important distinction that Jesus did what He did out of love as well. “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16 ESV). The love of God and His Son for us should encourage and empower us. It should flow through us. Paul prayed that they would be filled with all the fullness of God. This is not a prayer that his readers would become gods, but that the very nature of God – His love, mercy, grace, righteousness, compassion, selflessness, and holiness – would fill us and exude from us.

And Paul had every confidence that what he was asking from God would be provided by God. Why? Because He is “able to do far more abundantly that all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20 ESV). God doesn’t just have the power to save us, He has the power to sanctify us. And He has made it possible by placing His Spirit within us. His power is not just an external force working from the outside in. The very same power that raised Jesus from the dead resides within us, transforming us from the inside out. His love for us not static. It is actively revealing itself in His ongoing activity in and around our lives as He molds and makes us into the likeness of His Son. God is patiently, lovingly working within individuals, but also within the church. He is doing things we cannot see. He is accomplishing works that are invisible to our eyes. But in faith we wait expectantly. We hope confidently. We labor joyously. We endure patiently. We are loved. He is faithful. And He is far from done.

Salvation Belongs to the Lord!

When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord! – Jonah 2:7-9 ESV

Jonah 2:1-9

The Psalmist wrote, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 107:1 ESV). That was the exact sentiment of Jonah as he wrapped up his prayer. When the conditions of Jonah's life had reached an all-time low, he remembered God and called out to Him. But what is it he remembered that caused him to call out? The steadfast love of God. In spite of his own stubbornness and refusal to obey God, Jonah knew that God still loved him and would respond to his cry for help. Again, the psalmist reminds us, “Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” (Psalm 107:4-6 ESV). Why did God deliver them? Because of His steadfast love. 

From the literal depths of the sea and from the belly of a large fish, Jonah called out to God and his cry reached the very throne room of heaven. Distance was no problem. His own disobedience proved no barrier. When he called out in repentance, acknowledging his need for God, he was heard. Jonah knew that his God would hear him and respond in love to him. He also knew that those who worshiped idols would lose hope, because their gods were incapable of hearing or helping. Idols can't extend help or express love. Only Yahweh, the God of Israel, possessed the unfailing capacity to love and the power to back up His love with salvation. Not only does God care about the needs of His children, He can do something about it.

Jonah was so confident in God's love and ultimate salvation, that he pledged to offer sacrifices with thanksgiving as soon as he got the opportunity. As all of us are prone to do when we find ourselves in trouble, Jonah had evidently made some promises to God based on God's deliverance. You know how that goes. “Oh God, if you get me out of this one, I will _______________.” You fill in the blank. Jonah told God, “what I have vowed I will pay.” He was confident God was going to deliver him, so he pledged to keep his promise to God. But the greatest statement found in Jonah's prayer is his closing one. “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” It reminds me of the statement of Peter made before the Jewish Council. Referring to Jesus, Peter said, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV). Salvation is the sole prerogative of God. Only He can save – from disaster, trouble, trials and from sin and death itself. Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of God's saving power. He sent His Son to die as the payment for the sins of mankind. He sacrificed His own Son so that men might be made right with Him. Jonah's salvation was temporary in nature. He would live only to die again. But the salvation Jesus brought is permanent. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). Salvation belongs to the Lord. And why would God offer that kind of salvation to sinful men? Because of love. For God so loved the world. Paul reminds us, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). The offer of salvation is an expression of God's steadfast, unfailing love.

Jonah knew God loved him, so he had confidence to call out to God – in spite of his own rebellion against Him. If we don't understand the love of God, it will be hard for us to trust Him. If we fail to recognize just how much He loves us, we will find it difficult to place out hope in His salvation. We can never earn it. We will never deserve it. His love will always be the motivating factor behind His salvation. It's why He sent a fish to Jonah. It's why He sent Moses to the slaves living in Egypt. It's why He sent prophets to His people living in Canaan. It's why He sent Jesus to earth as a man. Out of love. And in order to offer salvation to men who didn't deserve it. Salvation belongs to the Lord. It was His idea. And it is the greatest expression of His love for men.

Love Lifted Me.

Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. – Jonah 2:4-6 ESV

Jonah 2:1-9

There's an old hymn that I remember singing as a child and I can't help but think of it when I read this portion of Jonah's prayer. The first line says,

I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more, But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.

The refrain gives a reminder of the motivation behind God's rescue of the sinking sinner:

Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

Everything in Jonah's life was headed in the wrong direction. And it all started when he began running from God. The instructions Jonah had received from God had been very clear. “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). But Jonah had other ideas. He had no interest in obeying God's command, so he decided to get out of town. “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3-4 ESV).

As absurd as it may sound to us to attempt to run from God, the reality is that we do it all the time. Like Jonah, there are times when we hear God tell us to do something that sounds less-than-appealing to us. For Jonah, it was taking a message to the pagan people of Ninevah and running the risk that they might actually listen and repent. Jonah couldn't accept the thought of the pagans living in that wicked city being forgiven by God. So he ran. Just like we do. We run from His will. We run from His Spirit's promptings. Some of us avoid His Word so that we don't have to hear from Him. Others read His Word, but if it ever convicts them, they promptly ignore it. They run. But you can't run from God. Jonah discovered that universal truth. But he also discovered that God is a persistent God who expects His word to be obeyed. He had a job for Jonah to do and He wasn't going to let a little boat cruise get in the way. So God caused a storm and Jonah knew exactly who was behind it. He ended up being made a living sacrifice by the pagan sailors on the ship in an effort to appease whatever god was behind the wind and waves.

The next thing he knew, Jonah was sinking – sinking in his sin of rebellion against the will of God and sinking in the cold, wind-whipped waters of the sea. But Jonah was going to learn one more valuable lesson. God is also a loving, merciful, kind and patient God. He was going to reach down and lift Jonah out of the depths of his own sin and rebellion and deliver him safe and sound so that he could complete his assignment. Just when all hope was lost for Jonah, God stepped in and rescued him. Not because he deserved it. It was the love of God that lifted Jonah out of the sea. It was the love of God that sovereignly ordained a large fish to swallow Jonah and regurgitate him up on the shore. Jonah was lifted by the love of God. Which is why he could say, “yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.”

It is senseless to run from God. You won't get far. And God will always get what He wants. Attempting to run from God will only result in hurt and heartache. God will not allow His children to live in continuous rebellion to His will. He will get their attention one way or the other. God will bring them to the point where they discover their running from Him has not put any distance from His presence, but has simply left them devoid of any joy, hope or peace. But even when all appears lost, God lovingly reaches down and lifts up those whose lives have been marked by disobedience. He rescues the rebellious. He recommissions the resistant. He restores the prodigal to his rightful place as His child.

In his poem, The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson writes of an individual attempting to run from God. But God, in His loving persistence, cries out:

Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee, Save Me, save only Me? All which I took from thee I did but take, Not for thy harms, But just that thou might'st seek it in My arms. All which thy child's mistake Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home: Rise, clasp My hand, and come!

When we find ourselves sinking, even as a result of our own rebellion, there are only one set of hands that are capable of reaching down and rescuing us. The powerful hands of our loving God. It is His hands alone that can lift us out of the waves and restore us to a right relationship with Him. So that we can say, “Love lifted me!”

Less Than We Deserve.

And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? O Lord, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this. – Ezra 9:13-15 ESV

Ezra 9:6-15

God had mercifully and miraculously returned a remnant of the people of Judah to the land He had given their ancestors. After 70 years in captivity in Babyon, where they had been sent by God because of their rebellion against Him, they had been allowed to return. But when Ezra had arrived he had found things in a less-than-satisfactory state. The people had violated the command of God to refrain from intermarrying with the people of the land. Even after having experienced the mercy of God and having witnessed first-hand His power, they had disobeyed Him again. And Ezra was saddened and shocked. He was also amazed that God had not simply wiped them off the face of the earth. They fully deserved it. And God would have been fully in His right to do it. But instead, He had punished them far less than they had deserved. He had returned another remnant to the land. He had specifically sent Ezra, a scribe and an expert in the law of God to help the people reestablish their understanding of and obedience to God's holy commands. God had allowed an earlier group of returning exiles to rebuild the temple. Now He was sending Ezra in order to help restore the faithfulness of the people. And while they stood before God as guilty and condemned, He was extending mercy and administering His grace.

Ezra knew that they were guilty and deserved nothing but the full extent of God's wrath. But He also knew that God had determined to send back a remnant for a reason. It was all part of His divine plan. It was in full keeping with His original covenant with Abraham. God was going to bless them in spite of them. He was accomplishing something that was going to have far greater implications than they yet realized. God had originally told Abraham, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:18 NASB). The apostle Paul would later explain the true implications of this promise when he wrote, “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ” (Galatians 3:16 NASB). God's promise to bless the nations through Abraham was to be fulfilled through a specific individual, a future descendant whom Paul identified as Jesus, the Christ or Messiah. God was restoring the people to the land, not because they deserved it, but because He was divinely orchestrating human history in order to arrange for the birth of His Son in the land of promise. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene the people of Judah would have been living back in the land for some time. Jerusalem would have been restored and reoccupied. The land of Judah would once again be occupied by the people of God. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV). God's grace and mercy on the people of Judah had a point. His restoration of the people to the land had far greater implications than they could even comprehend. It was about far more than just the restoration of the people to the land. It was about the ultimate restoration of sinful people to Himself. Paul explains the unbelievable nature of this good news. “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation” (Romans 5:6-9 NLT).

God has given us less than we deserve. We all stand before Him as guilty and condemned. But rather than judge us as we deserve and sentence us to death as His law requires, He sent His Son to die in our place. Not because we were righteous and deserved it, but because God loved us, even as we willingly sinned against Him. Ezra knew that they did not deserve to be back in the land. They had done nothing to earn that kind of favor from God. And even once they had been returned, they had continued to sin. God's grace was amazing to him. And the grace of God extended to us as believers in Christ should never cease to amaze us. Each of us has received far less than what we deserve. We were sinners against a righteous and holy God, and yet He showered us with His love, grace and mercy. We have been made right in God's sight by the blood of Christ. “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 NLT). The incredible reality of that news should never escape our notice or fail to illicit our gratitude and obedience. We deserve wrath, but have been given redemption. We had earned God's rejection, but have enjoyed restoration. Far, far less than what we deserved.