A Spirit of Spiritual Syncretism

29 But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived. 30 The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, 31 and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. 32 They also feared the Lord and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places. 33 So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away.

34 To this day they do according to the former manner. They do not fear the Lord, and they do not follow the statutes or the rules or the law or the commandment that the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel. 35 The Lord made a covenant with them and commanded them, “You shall not fear other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them or sacrifice to them, 36 but you shall fear the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm. You shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice. 37 And the statutes and the rules and the law and the commandment that he wrote for you, you shall always be careful to do. You shall not fear other gods, 38 and you shall not forget the covenant that I have made with you. You shall not fear other gods, 39 but you shall fear the Lord your God, and he will deliver you out of the hand of all your enemies.” 40 However, they would not listen, but they did according to their former manner.

41 So these nations feared the Lord and also served their carved images. Their children did likewise, and their children’s children—as their fathers did, so they do to this day. 2 Kings 17:29-41 ESV

So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods.”

That phrase appears twice in the closing verses of chapter 17, and it aptly summarizes the spiritual state of the nation of Israel after its fall to the Assyrians. Many of its citizens had been captured and exiled to various locations in Assyria. Their vacancies were filled by people from other conquered nations who were forced to relocate to Israel and start new lives. This sudden influx of refugees from foreign countries turned Israel into a veritable melting pot and, ultimately, resulted in intermarriage between the Jews and their new neighbors.

These newly transplanted inhabitants found themselves living in a foreign land where they didn’t understand the language or customs. They were strangers living in a strange land, but they found some comfort in the fact that many of their gods already had shrines dedicated to them in Israel. The ten northern tribes had been assimilating the gods of other nations for years. Under Jeroboam’s leadership, they had created their own gods, complete with temples and priesthood. Under Ahab and Jezebel, they had adopted and promoted the worship of Baal and Asherah. And along the way, other kings of Israel had been embracing the false gods of their foreign allies. So, the new arrivals to Israel found an atmosphere of religious tolerance and ecumenism.

If you recall, immediately after these foreign refugees had arrived in Israel and taken up residence in the abandoned cities of Samaria, they began worshiping their false gods. The land on which they lived belonged to Yahwah, and He took offense at their actions. They were living on land that He had set apart as holy and given to the descendants of Abraham as their inheritance. It was to have been a place where they lived in obedience to His will and where they worshiped Him alone. Their failure to do so had resulted in their defeat and deportation. But their departure had not changed the sanctity of the land or voided the covenant commitment God had made with His people. There was still a remnant of Jews living in the land of Israel and He expected them to keep their end of the agreement they had made with Him.

So, when these foreigners began to worship their false gods on land that belonged to the one true God, they found themselves experiencing divine judgment.

But since these foreign settlers did not worship the Lord when they first arrived, the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. – 2 Kings 17:25 NLT

As a result, the king of Assyria ordered that one of the exiled Israelite priests be sent back so that he might instruct the immigrants in the proper worship of Yahweh.

So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria returned to Bethel and taught the new residents how to worship the Lord. – 2 Kings 17:28 NLT

This highly pragmatic plan implemented by the king of Assyria was evidently successful. But while many of the new arrivals eagerly adopted Yahweh as their God, they simply added Him to their growing list of deities. He became just one more god to whom they offered their sacrifices in order to win favor and good fortune.

These new residents worshiped the Lord, but they also appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests to offer sacrifices at their places of worship. And though they worshiped the Lord, they continued to follow their own gods according to the religious customs of the nations from which they came. – 2 Kings 17:32-33 NLT

With the sudden arrival of these various people groups, the religious landscape of Israel became ever more crowded and confused. Almost overnight, the idolatrous state of Israel exploded with new options and opportunities as the number of false gods continued to increase. The already tolerant and easily tempted Israelites found themselves surrounded by a virtual sea of new gods from which to chose.

Those from Babylon worshiped idols of their god Succoth-benoth. Those from Cuthah worshiped their god Nergal. And those from Hamath worshiped Ashima. The Avvites worshiped their gods Nibhaz and Tartak. And the people from Sepharvaim even burned their own children as sacrifices to their gods Adrammelech and Anammelech. – 2 Kings 17:30-31 ESV

The worship of Yahweh became increasingly more diluted and defused as a spirit of syncretism and religious pluralism spread over the land. The fall of Israel did not result in a spirit of repentance and religious reform among God’s people. His judgment of them was met by indifference and continued apostasy.

They continue to follow their former practices instead of truly worshiping the Lord and obeying the decrees, regulations, instructions, and commands he gave the descendants of Jacob, whose name he changed to Israel. – 2 Kings 17:34 NLT

There appears to be no remorse or repentance on the part of God’s people. Their neighbors had been taken captive and exiled to Assyria, but they remain just as committed to living in disobedience to God’s laws. And it seems that those who found themselves living as captives in Assyria were no less stubborn and unwilling to return to Yahweh. And yet, when King Solomon had dedicated the newly constructed temple, he had asked God to show mercy on His disobedient people, should they find themselves in exile and call out for help.

“If your people Israel are defeated by their enemies because they have sinned against you, and if they turn to you and acknowledge your name and pray to you here in this Temple, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and return them to this land you gave their ancestors.” – 1 Kings 8:33-34 NLT

But they hadn’t turned and acknowledged God’s name. They had not prayed and asked for God’s forgiveness. Both those in exile and those living in the land of Israel had continued to disobey God’s commands and violate His covenant agreement. And the author makes it clear that God was serious about His commands and His covenant.

For the Lord had made a covenant with the descendants of Jacob and commanded them: “Do not worship any other gods or bow before them or serve them or offer sacrifices to them. But worship only the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt with great strength and a powerful arm. Bow down to him alone, and offer sacrifices only to him. Be careful at all times to obey the decrees, regulations, instructions, and commands that he wrote for you. You must not worship other gods. Do not forget the covenant I made with you, and do not worship other gods. You must worship only the Lord your God. He is the one who will rescue you from all your enemies.” – 2 Kings 17:35-39 NLT

They had no excuse. The remnant of Israelites still living in the land knew exactly what God expected of them, but they continued to reject His word and refused to repent. And while the new residents were given instruction in the proper worship of Yahweh, they simply added Him to their long and growing list of god options.

So while these new residents worshiped the Lord, they also worshiped their idols. And to this day their descendants do the same. – 2 Kings 17:41 NLT

This last verse is meant to convey a sense of inevitability and determinism. Nothing was going to change. They were fully committed to doing things their way, regardless of the circumstances or consequences. And we know that by the time Jesus appeared on the scene, the long-term implications of this syncretistic and overly tolerant religious mindset had resulted in the division between the Jews and the Samaritans. The foreigners who were transplanted into Israel by the king of Assyria, ended up intermarrying with the remaining Jewish population. These mixed marriages brought about an assimilation of cultures and religions that produced a population that became known as the Samaritans. The Samaritans were considered to be half-breeds by the Jews of Jesus’ day and were treated as second-class citizens. They practiced a religion that combined the worship of Yahweh with aspects of paganism and idolatry. As the Samaritan confessed to Jesus, they even had their own place of worship, outside the confines of Jerusalem (John 4:20).

Chapter 17 of 2 Kings brings the story of the northern kingdom to a dramatic and somber close. Part of the nation is living in exile in Assyria. The rest remain in the land but are marked by a spirit of spiritual syncretism and moral compromise. There will be no more kings to rule over the ten tribes. They will remain under God’s judgment and experience the curses He had warned would come should they choose to disobey. But now, the author turns his attention back to the southern kingdom Judah. As of now, they remain free to follow the commands of God. But will they? The author provides a not-so-subtle hint as to what lies in store of the people of Judah.

Because the Lord was very angry with Israel, he swept them away from his presence. Only the tribe of Judah remained in the land. But even the people of Judah refused to obey the commands of the Lord their God, for they followed the evil practices that Israel had introduced. – 2 Kings 17:18-19 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 Will Provide

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” – John 1:29-34 ESV

John the apostle is providing a chronological outline of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, the Word of God, and the light of the world. He is using John the Baptist as a witness to the unique nature of Jesus’ deity and humanity. There had been some speculation among the Jewish religious leaders that John the Baptist might be the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, but he put that rumor to rest when he told them, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20 ESV). He declared himself to be the precursor, sent to prepare the way for someone greater, “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27 ESV). 

Now, John fast-forwards to the very next day, when Jesus arrived on the scene in the Judean wilderness. This was likely not the first time that Jesus and John the Baptist had met. In fact, there is a good chance that they had met long before because they were relatives. The Gospel of Luke records the encounter between the angel Gabriel and Mary, when he announced to her that she would conceive and give birth to a child.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” – Luke 1:35-36 ESV

Mary and Elizabeth were relatives, which means there is a good chance that Jesus and John the Baptist knew one another during their childhood and early adulthood. Extended family relationships were important in Jewish life and it only makes sense that the families of Jesus and John the Baptist had spent time together over the years.

Luke provides an important insight into John the Baptist’s background. His father, Zechariah, was a priest. His mother, Elizabeth, was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. And when the angel had visited Zechariah to announce that his barren wife was going to give birth, he provided insight into his son’s future role.

“…for he will be great before the Lord.… And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:15-17 ESV

Now, three decades later, the time had come for the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth to fulfill the role he had been destined to play. From this day forward, his relationship with Jesus would be forever changed. No longer would they interact as family members, but John the Baptist would now recognize Jesus as His Messiah and Lord.

When Jesus appeared at the shores of the Jordan River that day, John the Baptist immediately identified Him, not as his relative, but as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). It would appear that John, the author of this gospel account, has compressed the timeline, leaving out some of the details provided in the synoptic gospels. At this point in the story, Jesus had already been baptized by John. Matthew records that encounter. 

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” – Matthew 3:13-15 ESV

And Matthew goes on to describe the scene that took place as John baptized his relative, Jesus.

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:16-17 ESV

This must have been when the light went on and John the Baptist fully recognized the identity of Jesus. He even confessed, “I did not recognize him as the Messiah, but I have been baptizing with water so that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:31 NLT). John had been following his divinely ordained instructions, proclaiming the coming kingdom and baptizing all those who would repent of their sins. And while doing God’s will, God’s Son had shown up. But this was something John had been expecting to happen. God had told him, “The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33 NLT).

It is unlikely that John fully understood what this message meant, but he had proclaimed it to all those who would listen.

“I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!” – Mark 1:8 NLT

So, when Jesus showed up asking to be baptized, John had obliged Him, and immediately, the confirmation God had promised occurred. And John the Baptist gives his personal testimony as to what happened.

“I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. – John 1:32 ESV

He had been an eye-witness to a miracle. He had seen the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove, just as God had promised. But not only that, he had heard the voice of God, audibly confirming the identity of Jesus.

“This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” – Matthew 3:17 NLT

The witness was fully convinced. From that moment forward, John the Baptist harbored no doubts as to the true identity of Jesus. He was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The image of the sacrificial lamb was a vital part of the Jewish way of life. The offering on an unblemished lamb was and had been an instrumental feature of the Jewish sacrificial system and the means by which they could receive atonement for their sins. John’s statement, “Behold, the Lamb of God” recalls the story of Abraham and Isaac, recorded in the book of Genesis.

God had given Abraham a difficult assignment, designed to test his faith and to teach an invaluable lesson about God’s provision.

“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” – Genesis 22:2 ESV

Isaac was the son Abraham and Sarah had waited years to receive from God. And now, God was asking Abraham to offer him up as a sacrifice. As Abraham and his unsuspecting son made their way to the land of Moriah, Isaac innocently asked, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7 ESV). And Abraham had responded, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8 ESV). It is doubtful that Abraham was expressing a belief that God would provide a substitute lamb to take the place of his son. He was simply acknowledging that God had been the one who had made possible the miraculous birth of Isaac to an elderly man and his barren wife.

That Moses believed his son to be the “lamb” God had provided for the sacrifice is made clear by the fact that he bound his son, laid him on the altar, and prepared to follow through with the command. But God intervened. He sent an angel to stay Abraham’s hand and to declare that he had passed the test.

“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” – Genesis 22:12 ESV

And then, suddenly, God revealed to Abraham the answer to Isaac’s question.

And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. – Genesis 22:13 ESV

God provided the sacrifice. He offered up a substitute for the life of Isaac. And the momentous nature of this divine act did not escape Abraham. He named the place Jehovah Jireh – “The Lord will provide” (Genesis 22:14 ESV). God had graciously spared the life of Isaac by providing a stand-in or substitute in his place.

And centuries later, John the Baptist recognized that God had sent another substitute, an unblemished Lamb, who would take away the sins of the world. Jehovah had provided a Savior – His own sinless Son.

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

Who Is A God Like You?

18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
    and passing over transgression
    for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
    because he delights in steadfast love.
19 He will again have compassion on us;
    he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
    into the depths of the sea.
20 You will show faithfulness to Jacob
    and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
    from the days of old. Micah 7:18-20 ESV

It was Warren Wiersbe who wrote, “Few passages in Scripture contain so much ‘distilled theology’ as Micah 7:18-20” (Warren Wiersbe, “Micah,” The Bible Exposition Commentary/Prophets). And his assessment could not be more accurate. These four verses are absolutely brimming with theological insights into the character and nature of God. And this amazing thing is that they come at the end of a book that warns of God’s coming judgment against a sinful and rebellious people.

This is the same man who opened chapter 7 with the statement, “Woe is me!” He was living during a time of great turmoil and stress and having to deal with the pending fall of his nation’s capital and the utter devastation of his own people. And yet, in the midst of it all, Micah is able to praise God, the very one who was bringing judgment against Israel and Judah.

While he was sadly confident that God would fulfill His promise to punish His disobedient children, Micah was also completely convinced of God’s plans to restore them. He saw no conflict or contradiction between these two aspects of God’s divine plan for His people. They had sinned against God and deserved His discipline. God was simply doing what any human father would do who loves his children but in perfect righteousness and justice.

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

Yet Micah also knew that God was committed to keeping the promises He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He had made a covenant to these men, guaranteeing to make of them a great nation, and promising to provide shower their descendants with His blessings.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

And the Lord appeared to him [Isaac] and said, …“Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed…” – Genesis 26:2-4 ESV

And behold, the Lord stood above it and said [to Jacob], “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. – Genesis 28:13-14 ESV

God had made a commitment to remain faithful to HIs chosen people and Micah was willing to take God at His word. He opens this prayer of praise by asking the rhetorical question: “Who is a God like you?” Micah wasn’t expecting a response from God, because he already knew the answer. This “question-as-a-statement” device is found throughout Scripture and is intended to declare the greatness and transcendence of God. Moses declared:

“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
    Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
    awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? – Exodus 15:11 ESV

David wrote:

“O Lord, who is like you,
delivering the poor
    from him who is too strong for him,
    the poor and needy from him who robs him?” – Psalm 35:10 ESV

And another unknown psalmist adds:

“Who is like the Lord our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?” – Psalm 113:5-6 ESV

Micah’s own name meant, “Who is like Yahweh?” His parents had given him a name that would constantly remind him of the unique nature of his God. And Micah believed it. But the one aspect of his incomparable God that Micah focused on was His willingness to forgive. What Micah couldn’t stop thinking about that his God “pardons the guilt of the remnant, overlooking the sins of his special people” (Micah 7:18 NLT). The false gods of the pagan nations were not known for their forgiving spirits. They were harsh, vindictive, and quick to mete out judgment, and yet, the people of Israel had made a habit of worshiping these gods in place of the one true God.

The problem with false gods is that they are nothing more than the creations of men. They don’t actually exist. And because they are the creations of men’s imaginations, they are little more than humans with supernatural powers. These gods bear a striking resemblance to fallen mankind, manifesting the same capacity to display uncontrolled anger, greed, vengeance, lust, and a blatant disregard for humanity.

But Micah’s God was different. Yes, He was going to judge His people for their sins, but His judgment would be followed by compassion, love, and forgiveness.

You will not stay angry with your people forever,
    because you delight in showing unfailing love. – Micah 7:18 NLT

Micah would have been very familiar with the story of when God had descended upon Mount Sinai and had declared to Moses:

“Yahweh! The Lord!
    The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
    and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
    I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
    I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected—
    even children in the third and fourth generations.” – Exodus 34:6-7 NLT

The God of Moses was the God of Micah. And he rested in the knowledge that what God had declared to Moses hundreds of years earlier was still true because his God never changes. He never goes back on His Word. He is faithful to keep all His promises and commitments “to a thousand generations.”

And Moses declared his trust in God’s word by stating, “you will have compassion on us. You will trample our sins under your feet and throw them into the depths of the ocean!” (Micah 7:19 NLT). The great king, David, had written a psalm that echoed this same sentiment, declaring the unprecedented character of Yahweh.

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
    he remembers that we are dust. – Psalm 103:9-12 ESV

And Micah placed his hope and trust in the very same God that David worshiped and adored. This prophet of God, who had spent years delivering a call of repentance to his disobedient countrymen, was placing his confidence in what he knew about Yahweh. The days ahead were filled with destruction and devastation, but Micah rested in the word of God. He was a loving, compassionate, and forgiving God. He was a covenant-keeping God.

God had promised to bless the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Micah was fully convinced that He would. God had declared that those very same people would be a blessing to the nations of the world, and Micah was confident that, one day, they would be. He rested his hopes in the character of his God. He placed his confidence in the integrity, righteousness, and holiness of Him who was like no other.

Micah began this prayer of praise with the question: Who is a God like you? And he answered his own question by declaring the unparalleled mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness of his God. There was and never will be anyone like 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 Unfinished Story

1 The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.

Hear, you peoples, all of you;
    pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it,
and let the Lord God be a witness against you,
    the Lord from his holy temple.
For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place,
    and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
And the mountains will melt under him,
    and the valleys will split open,
like wax before the fire,
    like waters poured down a steep place.
All this is for the transgression of Jacob
    and for the sins of the house of Israel.
What is the transgression of Jacob?
    Is it not Samaria?
And what is the high place of Judah?
    Is it not Jerusalem?
Therefore I will make Samaria a heap in the open country,
    a place for planting vineyards,
and I will pour down her stones into the valley
    and uncover her foundations.
All her carved images shall be beaten to pieces,
    all her wages shall be burned with fire,
    and all her idols I will lay waste,
for from the fee of a prostitute she gathered them,
    and to the fee of a prostitute they shall return. Micah 1:1-7 ESV

One of the amazing things about Scripture is its ability to transport the reader back through history, providing candid “snapshots” that capture moments in time just as they happened. And since the Bible covers the history of the nation of Israel, much of its pages are filled with glimpses into its colorful, but not always flattering past. The historic record of the Israelites is a volatile one, that includes its humble beginnings at the birth of Isaac and its eventual transformation into a formidable nation without a homeland. And all of this is chronicled within the pages of Scripture.

God had called Abram out of Ur, promising to relocate him to a new land to make of him a great nations.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

Abram’s obedience to God’s call required that he follow God’s directions which eventually led him to the land of Canaan.

When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” – Genesis 12:5-7 ESV

At this point in the story, Abram and his wife, Sarai, were childless. And the circumstances were complicated by the fact that they were both advanced in years and Sarai was barren. And yet, God had predicated His call of Abram on His ability to bless this childless man through an abundance of descendants.

Yet, while God had told Abram what He was going to do, He had not yet shared the how. This elderly couple remained childless and everything about their circumstances made any likelihood of God’s promises coming to fruition not only improbable but impossible. And almost as if to make matters worse, God predicted that Abram’s nonexistent offspring would end up in captivity for 400 years.

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” – Genesis 15:13-14 ESV

Then, on his 90th-birthday, Abram received a visit from God who reiterated His covenant commitment to him.

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

What is so important to understand is that at this point in the story, Abraham is still without an heir. As far as Abraham could tell, all of these wonderful promises from God had no basis in reality. There was no son. There had been no seed given and, therefore, there was no means by which God could fulfill a single one of His promises. And Abraham had shared his reservations with God.

“O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? Since you’ve given me no children, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth. You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.” – Genesis 15:2-3 NLT

But Abraham was operating with a limited perspective. He was bound by time and space, and incapable of grasping the future plans God had in store for him. He looked at his wife and saw a barren woman. He probably caught his own reflection in a pool of water and saw an old man, well past his prime and in no condition to father a son. It all looked so bleak and unpromising. But God was involved. And that is what sets the story of Israel apart from all others. This nation had been handpicked by God. Even before Abraham’s first descendant was even born, God had promised, “to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7 ESV). And He had promised to give them a land as their inheritance.

“I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:8 ESV

And the rest of the Old Testament provides a detailed account of how God kept His word and fulfilled His promises to Abraham. Which brings us to the book of Micah. In this small, but powerful book, we have a record of God’s communication to the descendants of Abraham, the men and women who eventually became the mighty nation God had promised to make. They had become the recipients of all the blessings God had outlined to Abraham generations earlier. God had given them the land of Canaan as their inheritance. He had blessed then with kings and had provided them with victories over their enemies. They had enjoyed tremendous success. But they had also experienced their fair share of failures. Because they had chosen to be unfaithful to God. As a result, He had brought judgment upon them.

As we make our way through this book, we will unpack the circumstances that had led to the current conditions in Judah. To do so, we will revisit the timeline that had preceded their current predicament. How did they get to this point? What had precipitated their fall? How had they gone from being the offspring of Abraham, blessed by God, to those who found themselves under the full wrath of God?  It is a fascinating story and one that demands our attention. Because it provides a glimpse into the nature of our God and opens our eyes to the pervasive presence of sin – even among those deemed the children of God.

The story picks up during “the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Micah 1:1 ESV). And the author is someone called Micah, who provides us with that “which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem” (Micah 1:1 ESV). And the message Micah has to deliver is directly from the throne of God.

Hear, you peoples, all of you;
    pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it,
and let the Lord God be a witness against you,
    the Lord from his holy temple. – Micah 1:2 ESV

What follows is a message of coming destruction. God is leaving His throne in heaven and making a personal trip to the land of Canaan in order to deliver His judgment personally and powerfully.

For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place,
    and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. – Micah 1:3 ESV

And just so there is no doubt as to why God has chosen to leave heaven and come to earth, Micah provides the answer.

All this is for the transgression of Jacob
    and for the sins of the house of Israel. – Micah 1:5 ESV

God is angry with His people and, as we will see, His anger is justifiable. They deserve what they are about to receive. But how did it get this way? How did the nation which God had formed from an elderly man and his barren wife end up under His wrath? What was it they had done to make God so angry that He was threatening to leave His royal residence in heaven and make a personal trip to earth to mete out His divine judgment? The answers to these questions will be found in the pages of the book of Micah and the rest of the pages of God’s Word. And they will provide us with a much-needed grasp of God’s glory and greatness when faced with man’s ingratitude and unfaithfulness.

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

Just Say, “Yes!”

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:25-30 ESV

Immediately after delivering a blistering indictment against the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, Jesus turns His attention to God. While His audience wrestled with the weight of His previous words of condemnation, Jesus spoke words of adoration and gratitude to God, the Lord of heaven and earth, who just happened to be His Father. This last designation would have seemed odd to the Jews in Jesus’ audience. This overly intimate appellation used by Jesus was not common among the Jews when referencing God. They viewed Abraham as their father and God as their sovereign Lord and ruler. Yet, Jesus blended the two titles together, declaring Himself to be the Son of the God who is Lord of heaven and earth. And Jesus made the nature of this Father/Son relationship quite clear in verse 27.

“My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” – Matthew 11:27 NLT

Jesus did not refer to God as “the” Father, but as “my” father. And the close relationship between the two of them was like none other on earth. Remember, Jesus had just condemned the three Galilean cities for their rejection of His as the Messiah. They had been eyewitnesses to His miracles and had heard the message of repentance, but had refused to accept Him as who He claimed to be. And yet, here is Jesus declaring that He has had divine authority granted to Him as the one and only Son of God.

The inhabitants of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum stood condemned for having failed to recognize and receive Jesus as God’s Son and their own Savior. He had come to release them from their captivity to sin by paying the penalty of death that hung over each and every one of them. But they saw no need for what Jesus was offering, which is why He refers to them as “the wise and understanding” (Matthew 11:25 ESV). In their minds, they were the chosen people of God and already enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Lord of heaven and earth.

In fact, at a later point in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jews regarding their false and highly flawed understanding of their relationship with God. The apostle John records that Jesus declared that those who were His true disciples would listen to His words and keep them. And Jesus promised His disciples, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32 NLT).

But the Jews, offended by Jesus’ words, had responded, “But we are descendants of Abraham. We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?” (John 8:33 NLT).

And this is where Jesus dropped a bombshell of His predominantly Jewish audience, exploding their preconceived notions of ethnic privilege and religious piety.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. Yes, I realize that you are descendants of Abraham. And yet some of you are trying to kill me because there’s no room in your hearts for my message. I am telling you what I saw when I was with my Father. But you are following the advice of your father.” – John 8:34-38 NLT

Here, as in Matthew’s account, Jesus is declaring Himself to be the Son of God and fully authorized to offer them freedom from enslavement to sin and its accompanying penalty of death. He fully acknowledges that they are descendants of Abraham, but that will not be enough to save them from the divine punishment awaiting them for their rebellion against God. Jesus infers that their rejection of Him and the determination of the religious leaders to kill Him comes from Satan, not God. But they boldly claim, “Our father is Abraham!” (John 8:39 NLT).

But Jesus contradicts their assertion.

“No,” Jesus replied, “for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example. Instead, you are trying to kill me because I told you the truth, which I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. No, you are imitating your real father.” – John 8:40-41 NLT

They were blind to the truth. And the apostle Paul explains why.

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

They were blind to the truth that could set them free. And oddly, Jesus thanks His Father “for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike” (Matthew 11:25 NLT). The self-righteous and self-confident were unable to grasp the truth concerning what Jesus had come to do. But the childlike; those who were needy, dependent, and lacking any pretense of self-achieved righteousness, were able to recognize and receive the great gift being offered to them by Jesus.

There is an aspect to Jesus’ words that makes many of us uncomfortable. He seems to indicate that not all who hear His words will accept them. In fact, He clearly states, “no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27 NLT). He is presenting Himself as the sole point of access to God. And He later reinforced the exclusivity of His role when He stated: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT).

Knowledge about God was not going to be enough. Jesus came to offer a restored relationship with God. The Jews had failed to worship God faithfully. Their entire history is riddled with stories of spiritual adultery and unfaithfulness. And Jesus will later indict them once again for their misplaced confidence in their position as God’s treasured possession.

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

Jesus knew that the Jews in His audience were putting all their hope in their identity rather than His. Their self-righteousness would prove insufficient. Their over-confident trust in their status as descendants of Abraham would leave them disappointed and undeserving of God’s grace. They were going to have to come to a place of need and dependence. They would have to recognize their own insufficiency and their need for a Savior other than self.

And Jesus offers an invitation to any and all who will hear. He provides a clear and compelling call to those who will admit their weariness with a religion based on works, and righteousness dependent upon self-effort.

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

Jesus wasn’t interested in what they could do. He wasn’t demanding that they keep a rigid list of dos and don’ts. He offered rest from all the weariness that is the inevitable result of trying to earn favor with God through self-effort. He presented Himself as the solution to their problem. He offered to be their teacher and guide, providing gentle instructions for life and a clear path to a right relationship with God. And all they had to do was accept His gracious invitation.

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

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

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

The Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Jesus Was Born

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

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

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

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

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

Today, we embark on a study of the Gospel of Matthew. This book is part of what is often referred to as the synoptic gospels, which also includes the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry compiled by Mark and Luke. The term “synoptic” is derived from two Greek words, syn and opsesthai, which, when combined, provide the meaning, “to see together.” These three Gospels share a great many similarities but also provide us with distinctively different perspectives on the life of Jesus, as seen from the vantage points of the three authors. Two of them, Matthew and Mark, were disciples of Jesus; while Luke was a friend of the apostle Paul, who compiled his Gospel account for the benefit of an individual named Theophilus. In the opening paragraphs of his Gospel, Luke provides the purpose behind his compilation.

“…it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.” – Luke 1:3 ESV

Each of these men brought their own distinct personalities and insights to bear when writing their account of the life of Jesus. But each was also inspired by the Holy Spirit, who utilized their individual identities and skill sets to compile three contrasting, yet complementary portraits of the life of Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew, as its name suggests, was written by the man who held the distinction of being one of the disciples of Jesus as well as one of the original 12 apostles. Some of the earliest Greek manuscripts of this book begin with the words, “kate Matthaion” which means “according to Matthew.”

The list of early church fathers who believed  Matthew to be the author of this book includes Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. Because of Matthew’s close relationship with Jesus, this book carried significant weight among the members of the early church. Matthew’s former occupation as a tax collector would have ensured that he was able to read and write. And the book of Matthew contains more references to money and finances than any of the other Gospel accounts.

Matthew’s account of his own calling by Jesus is short and sweet, providing little in the way of details. Written in the third-person, Matthew described his initial meeting with Jesus in a rather pedestrian manner.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. – Matthew 9:9 ESV

After making the decision to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him, Matthew decided to return the favor by extending an invitation to Jesus and His other disciples to have dinner in his home.  And Matthew reveals some interesting insights into his own life when he records the details surrounding this rather eclectic dinner party.

Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” – Matthew 9:10-11 NLT

As a tax collector, Matthew would have been considered persona non grata by his fellow Jews. As evidenced by the response of the Pharisees in Matthew’s story, a tax collector was considered the lowest of the low, comparable to the most disreputable sinner. To the Jews, a tax collector was little more than a stooge for the Roman government, collecting exorbitant taxes from his own people and lining his own by adding fees that amounted to little more than extortion. Matthew was likely a well-to-do individual who, though viewed as a pariah by his own people, was well-liked by the less religious and socially unacceptable. Which makes Jesus’ selection of Matthew that much more significant.

And when Jesus heard the judging comment from the lips of the Pharisees, He had responded by saying: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do” (Matthew 9:12 NLT). This somewhat cryptic-sounding statement from Jesus was not as veiled as it may first appear. He was accusing the self-righteous Pharisees of misunderstanding the true state of their own hearts. They viewed themselves as spiritually superior to such people as the sinners who had gathered to dine at the home of a common tax collector. And, the believed, Jesus and His disciples had defiled themselves by choosing to associate with such scum. But as Jesus pointed out, He had come to save the spiritually sick, not those who viewed themselves as perfect specimens of righteousness.

It’s interesting to note that Matthew opens up his Gospel account with the genealogy of Jesus, in which he describes Jesus as the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. These are distinctively Jewish titles that link Jesus to the nation of Israel. Matthew is claiming Jesus to be a descendant of David and, therefore, a legal heir to the throne of Israel. But he also describes Jesus as the Son of Abraham, who was the patriarch of the Hebrew people.

In a sense, Matthew is presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of two promises made by God that are directly tied to the Jewish people. The first was made to Abraham. God had promised Abraham that He would bless him and that he would make him a blessing.

“…and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” – Genesis 22:18 ESV

Somehow God would bless all the nations through the offspring or seed of this one man, Abraham. And the apostle Paul provides us with Spirit-inspired insight into what this promise meant.

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

According to Matthew, Jesus was the fulfillment of this Old Testament promise to Abraham. And, when Matthew declared Jesus to be the Son of David, he was letting his readers know that Jesus fulfilled the promise God had made to David.

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” – 2 Samuel 7:12 ESV

While this promise was partially fulfilled in Solomon, the son of David, it had a future aspect to it that would not be completed until the coming of Jesus. God went on to tell David, “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16 ESV). But the day came when there were no more kings in Israel. The nation would go without a king for hundreds of years. And yet, God had told Solomon, “I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel’” (1 Kings 9:5 ESV).

A major part behind Matthew’s purpose for writing his Gospel was to reveal Jesus as the rightful heir to the throne of Israel and the God-ordained fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all the nations of the earth. Both Gentiles and Jews would benefit from the arrival of Jesus on the scene.

Unlike Luke, Matthew begins his genealogy of Jesus with Abraham rather than Adam. He was interested in establishing Jesus’ Jewish heritage. The entire book of Matthew has a distinctively Jewish flavor to it. IT is not so much that Matthew was writing with a Jewish audience in mind, as much as he was trying to establish Jesus’ credentials to serve as the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish people and as the Savior of the world.

It is interesting to note that Matthew closes out his genealogy by referring to Jesus as “the Christ,” the Greek word used to translate the Jewish word for Messiah, which means “anointed one.” This Greek appellation carries the full weight of the original Hebrew title of Messiah.

The Messiah is the same person as “the seed of the woman” (Genesis 3:15), “the seed of Abraham” (Genesis 22:18), the “Prophet like unto Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15), “the priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Psalms 110:4), “the rod out of the stem of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1 Isaiah 11:10), the “Immanuel,” the virgin’s son (Isaiah 7:14), “the branch of Jehovah” (Isaiah 4:2), and “the messenger of the covenant” (Malachi 3:1). This is he “of whom Moses in the law and the prophets did write.” – M. G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Thomas Nelson. 1897. Public Domain. copy freely

As we will see in tomorrow’s post, this genealogy was intended to illustrate and accentuate Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah of the Jewish people and their rightful king. But, even more importantly, He was the God-appointed Savior of the world. In sending His Son in human flesh, God was revealing His divine plan to redeem and restore that which was damaged by the fall. So, Matthew reminds his readers: “Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16 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

You Shall Be Blameless

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this. – Deuteronomy 18:9-14 ESV

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Which is to say that if someone mimics your actions or behavior, they are expressing admiration for you. And while there may be some truth to this idiom, in far too many cases, imitation can be a dangerous game to play. Failure to consider the character of the one you seek to emulate can result in far-from-flattering or beneficial outcomes. Seeking to pattern your life after someone else can be driven by all kinds of unhealthy motives. It is far too easy to focus on the external fruit of their behavior; such as success, wealth, and popularity, while failing to closely examine what they had to do to achieve those results. Did their path to success require that they cut corners, bend the rules, compromise their convictions, or sacrifice their integrity? Better yet, will imitating their lives require those things of you?

As the time approached for the people of Israel to enter the land of promise, Moses spent a great deal of time and energy attempting to prepare them for the formidable task that lay ahead of them. They were entering a new stage in their relationship with God that would be like nothing they had ever experienced before. Their faith in God would be tested in ways they could not even begin to imagine. Their willingness to remain faithful to God would come under constant attack.

Compromise would become a daily temptation. Complacency would be a constant threat to their commitment to God. Remaining set apart to God would be far more difficult than they could know. Maintaining their distinction as God’s holy people was going to require diligence and a determination to remain uncompromisingly committed to Him. Moses had repeatedly communicated their unique status as God’s chosen people.

“But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day.” – Deuteronomy 4:20 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 7:6 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. – Deuteronomy 14:2 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. – Deuteronomy 14:21 ESV

The Hebrew word for “holy” is qadowsh, and it means “sacred” or “set apart.” The Israelites had been separated out by God and consecrated as His possession. They belonged to Him. Like Adam and Eve, the Israelites had been created by God and set apart for His glory. But their status as His chosen possession was going to require that they live according to His holy standards. They were not free to live as they wished. They could not follow the ways of the world. And God expected them to make the land of Canaan a veritable island of holiness in the sea of wickedness that covered the world.

Three times in five verses, Moses uses the Hebrew word, tow`ebah, to describe the ways of the people occupying the land of Canaan. They were an abomination to God because their ways were morally repugnant to Him. Their behavior was unacceptable to a holy God. So, Moses warns the Israelites from following their “abominable practices.” And he makes it clear that anyone among the Israelites who imitates their ways will be “an abomination to the Lord.”

Rather than mimic the ways of the Canaanites, the people of God were to do everything in their power to remain set apart and distinct. Moses put it in very stark terms.

“You shall be blameless before the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 18:13 ESV

The Hebrew word for “blameless” is tamiym and it carries the idea of wholeness or completeness. It is the very same word God had used when addressing Abraham nearly half a millennium earlier.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” – Genesis 17:1 ESV

While tamiym can be translated as “perfect” or “unblemished,” God was not demanding sinlessness from Abraham. But He was expecting Abraham to live his entire life in keeping with His ways. Abraham was to live an integral or whole life, dedicated to God and set apart for His glory. And Moses was trying to convey the same thought to the people of Israel. He was not expecting them to remain totally free from contamination by the world. That would have been impossible, given their sinful natures and the ubiquitous nature of evil in the world. But Moses wanted them to fully understand just how dangerous compromise with the world would be.

And while most of the abominable practices that Moses pointed out had to do with witchcraft, sorcery, divination, and the occult, all of these things were associated with Canaanite religious practices. Moses knew that the Israelites would be tempted to weave these morally reprehensible practices into their own worship of Yahweh. Compromise would be a constant threat for the Israelites, resulting in their failure to remain tamiym – unblemished and unstained by the world.

God expected His people to live as who they were: His chosen possession. Their lives were to reflect their unique status as His set-apart ones. Enjoying their status as God’s children came with a non-negotiable requirement that they honor the distinctiveness of their position by living holy lives.

There was no room for compromise or complacency. They were to share God’s disgust and disdain for the ways of the Canaanites. They were to resist exposure to and contamination by the abominable practices of the Canaanites. And they were to never forget that God’s will was the complete eradication of the Canaanites and their unholy ways from the land.

When it comes to holiness, imitation of the world is not flattery, it’s idolatry. Compromising our convictions by copying the ways of the world is unacceptable for God’s people. We have been set apart. We belong to Him. As His children, we are to reflect His character and bring glory to His name by the way we live our lives – wholly unto Him.

The religion of the Israelites was totally unique and prescribed by God. It was not the result of man’s imagination and was not to reflect the practices of the pagan nations of the world. God had set Israel apart positionally and practically. Their status as His people was to show up in everyday life, especially when it came to their worship of Him.

There are all kinds of religions in the world, but only one brand of religious activity is acceptable to God. And James describes this kind of religion in very plain terms.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. – James 1:27 NLT

And, as Paul told his disciple, Titus, the people of God are still expected to live distinctively different lives, not emulating the ways of this world but reflecting our status as God’s chosen people.

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. – Titus 2:11-13 NLT

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Life is in the Blood

15 “However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, as much as you desire, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you. The unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and as of the deer. 16 Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out on the earth like water. 17 You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, or any of your vow offerings that you vow, or your freewill offerings or the contribution that you present, 18 but you shall eat them before the Lord your God in the place that the Lord your God will choose, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your towns. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God in all that you undertake. 19 Take care that you do not neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land.

20 “When the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he has promised you, and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because you crave meat, you may eat meat whenever you desire. 21 If the place that the Lord your God will choose to put his name there is too far from you, then you may kill any of your herd or your flock, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you may eat within your towns whenever you desire. 22 Just as the gazelle or the deer is eaten, so you may eat of it. The unclean and the clean alike may eat of it. 23 Only be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh. 24 You shall not eat it; you shall pour it out on the earth like water. 25 You shall not eat it, that all may go well with you and with your children after you, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord. 26 But the holy things that are due from you, and your vow offerings, you shall take, and you shall go to the place that the Lord will choose, 27 and offer your burnt offerings, the flesh and the blood, on the altar of the Lord your God. The blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the Lord your God, but the flesh you may eat. 28 Be careful to obey all these words that I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 12:15-28 ESV

The Israelites were about to enter the promised land where they would begin a new chapter in the story of their relationship with God. During their years in the wilderness, God had provided them with the tabernacle as their worship center and the place where they offered sacrifices to Him. And He had given them strict rules that accompanied their use of the tabernacle.

“If any native Israelite sacrifices a bull or a lamb or a goat anywhere inside or outside the camp instead of bringing it to the entrance of the Tabernacle to present it as an offering to the Lord, that person will be as guilty as a murderer. Such a person has shed blood and will be cut off from the community. The purpose of this rule is to stop the Israelites from sacrificing animals in the open fields. It will ensure that they bring their sacrifices to the priest at the entrance of the Tabernacle, so he can present them to the Lord as peace offerings.” – Leviticus 17:3-5 NLT

The tabernacle had been designed by God to be kind of a pack-and-go temple – a temporary structure that the Israelites carried with them all during their days in the wilderness. They were instructed to follow the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of could by day, both representing God’s guiding presence. Whenever the presence of God stopped, so did they, and they immediately erected the tabernacle, around which the tribes of Israel assembled their camps.

It was only at the tabernacle that the Israelites could slaughter animals and offer them as sacrifices to God. They were prohibited from shedding blood anywhere else within or without the camp. Anyone who violated this command and shed the blood of an animal anywhere else but at the tabernacle was to be cut off from the community. They were exiled.

But their entrance into the land was going to bring about a series of dramatic changes. First of all, God had told them that He would select a location within the borders of the land as the place where He would “make his name dwell” (Deuteronomy 12:11 ESV).

The land of Canaan was their final destination. There would be no more wandering necessary because they had arrived in the place God had promised to give to them as their inheritance. Not long after their initial victories over the cities of Jericho and Ai, the Israelites erected the tabernacle at a place called Gilgal. It would remain there for most of the years it took the Israelites to conquer the land. Eventually, it was moved to Shiloh, and then years later, to Gibeon. But, for the most part, the tabernacle remained in a fixed location during the years of the conquest of the land of Canaan. And God intended to provide Israel with a permanent place within the borders of the land where His glory would dwell and where they would offer sacrifices to Him.

“When he gives you rest from all your enemies and you’re living safely in the land, you must bring everything I command you—your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, and your offerings to fulfill a vow—to the designated place of worship, the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored.” – Deuteronomy 12:10-11 NLT

But until the time in which God designated that place, the Israelites were given a divine dispensation, allowing them to slaughter animals for meat anywhere within the land of promise. In a sense, all the land was considered holy by God because He had set it apart as His own. He had sanctified or consecrated as His possession, which He was giving to the descendants of Abraham. So, they were free to kill and butcher animals anywhere within the boundaries of the land. They were no longer required to bring the animals to the tabernacle. But there is a bit of confusion in God’s command. At first glance, it would appear that He is also allowing them to eat unclean animals, something He had explicitly prohibited in the Mosaic law. Leviticus 11 outlines the various animals that God had deemed as unclean and, therefore, off-limits to the Israelites. Yet, in this passage, it appears that God is changing His mind because He mentions the clean and the unclean. But this is a reference to the status of the people of Israel, not the animals. The New Living Translation helps clarify God’s point.

“All of you, whether ceremonially clean or unclean, may eat that meat, just as you now eat gazelle and deer.” – Deuteronomy 12:15 NLT

This special dispensation was due to the fact that the Israelites were going to be settling all across the land of Canaan, while the tabernacle would be permanently erected in a fixed location. Distance would make it nearly impossible for people to bring their animals to the tabernacle. Which meant that those offering the sacrifice could not receive personal purification, and their animals could not be slaughtered on site. So, Moses let them know that God was amending His laws concerning the sacrifice and consumption of meat.

It might happen that the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—is a long way from your home. If so, you may butcher any of the cattle, sheep, or goats the Lord has given you, and you may freely eat the meat in your hometown, as I have commanded you. Anyone, whether ceremonially clean or unclean, may eat that meat, just as you do now with gazelle and deer. ” – Deuteronomy 12:21-22

But one thing remained unchanged. They were not allowed to consume the blood of the animal. Moses made this point quite clear.

“But never consume the blood, for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the lifeblood with the meat. Instead, pour out the blood on the ground like water. Do not consume the blood, so that all may go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what pleases the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 12:23-25 NLT

While they were free to kill and butcher meat anywhere within the borders of the land, they were not free to consume the blood of the animal. Why? Because the blood is the life. It was the blood of the animal that was used for purification during the sacrificial ceremonies. The blood represented the life of the animal and was sprinkled on the altar in order to purify it. The animal’s life, represented by its blood, had been given in place of the guilty individual who had offered the sacrifice. And the blood provided purification by offering forgiveness from sin.

“…according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” – Hebrews 9:22 NLT

The blood was not to be treated lightly because it represented the life of the creature. And hundreds of years later, Jesus Christ would offer His blood as a sacrifice for many. The author of Hebrews describes the ultimate sacrifice where the blood of the sinless Lamb of God provided atonement for the sins of mankind.

With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever.

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. – Hebrews 9:12-14 NLT

There is life in the blood. And because Jesus gave His life by shedding His blood on our behalf, we have the guarantee of new life now and eternal life to come. So, even for the Israelites, the blood was to remain sacred. It represented life and was meant to serve as a purifying and cleansing agent in God’s sacrificial system. It was to be shed, not consumed. It was to be treated with reverence and awe. But the day would come when God would amend His commands yet again, making another special dispensation for His people. Fast-forward to the upper room on the night Jesus was betrayed and listen carefully to the words He spoke to His disciples.

And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many. Mark my words—I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” – Matthew 26:27-29 NLT

The life is in the blood. But while the blood of bulls and goats could only be sprinkled and provide temporary forgiveness of sins, the blood of Jesus is to be symbolically consumed, providing permanent forgiveness of sins and eternal 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

 

 

 

The God of Israel is God

26 “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known. 29 And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal. 30 Are they not beyond the Jordan, west of the road, toward the going down of the sun, in the land of the Canaanites who live in the Arabah, opposite Gilgal, beside the oak of Moreh? 31 For you are to cross over the Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving you. And when you possess it and live in it, 32 you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the rules that I am setting before you today. – Deuteronomy 11:26-32 ESV

Moses has issued a call to the people of Israel that they obey each and every command that God has given them, but he has added that they were to do it wholeheartedly and motivated by a love for God and all that He has done for them. And Moses has made it quite clear that obedience will result in the blessings of God, in the form of His continued presence, the benefit of His power, and His miraculous provision of all their needs.

But should they choose to disobey God, they would experience His wrath in the form of judgment. They were His chosen people, but if they made the ill-informed decision to live like all the other nations, He would treat them that way. Again, the covenant God was making with Israel was not just about a list of rules to be obeyed, but about a unique relationship that needed to be fully appreciated and painstakingly maintained. God had set them apart as His own and had showered them with His undeserved mercy, grace, and love. But, as part of their relationship as His people, they were going to have to return that love, and one of the primary proofs of their affection would be their willful obedience to His commands. Even Jesus told His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV).

And one of the greatest expressions of their lack of love for God would be their pursuit of false gods. God had forbidden them to seek and serve any other gods. To do so would be a blatant display of infidelity on their part. Like a marriage partner committing adultery, the Israelites would be communicating to God, through their actions, that He was not enough for them. Their pursuit of false gods would be an egregious breaking of trust and flagrant proof of their lack of love for God. That’s why Moses warned them, “you will be cursed if you reject the commands of the Lord your God and turn away from him and worship gods you have not known before” (Deuteronomy 11:28 NLT).

Their practice of idolatry would be nothing less than infidelity. Giving their affections and attentions to another god, after all God Almighty had done for them, would be seen as an affront and dealt with accordingly.

So, Moses told the people of Israel that, upon their arrival in the land, they were to engage in a rather strange ceremony. He commanded them to gather in the valley located between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Once there, they were to engage in a recitation of the blessings and the curses pronounced by God. And the book of Joshua provides a glimpse into how this ceremony actually took place.

Then all the Israelites—foreigners and native-born alike—along with the elders, officers, and judges, were divided into two groups. One group stood in front of Mount Gerizim, the other in front of Mount Ebal. Each group faced the other, and between them stood the Levitical priests carrying the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant. This was all done according to the commands that Moses, the servant of the Lord, had previously given for blessing the people of Israel.

Joshua then read to them all the blessings and curses Moses had written in the Book of Instruction. Every word of every command that Moses had ever given was read to the entire assembly of Israel, including the women and children and the foreigners who lived among them. – Joshua 8:33-34 NLT

This event took place after Israel had defeated the cities of Jericho and Ai. The conquest of Jericho had been a miraculous, God-ordained victory. But Ai had been a different story. A single Israelite, a man named Achan, had disobeyed God and taken as booty some of the treasure from Jericho that God had declared off-limits. And his action had resulted in the Israelites’ defeat at Ai. It was not until the sin within the camp was eradicated that God allowed Israel to gain victory over the city of Ai. And it was immediately after their defeat of Ai that the people made their way to the valley between the two mountains and heard Joshua read all the blessings and the curses.

Moses’ choice of this location was strategic. It would have been very familiar to the people of Israel because it had historic significance. It was in this valley that Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, had erected an altar to God after he had arrived in the land of Canaan for the first time. This momentous event was eventually recorded by Moses in the book of Genesis but would have been passed down orally from one generation to another.

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. – Genesis 12:4-7 ESV

This location was considered sacred, having been the exact place where Abraham had worshiped God. Years later, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, would buy a plot of land and erect another altar to God in the very same spot.

Later, having traveled all the way from Paddan-aram, Jacob arrived safely at the town of Shechem, in the land of Canaan. There he set up camp outside the town. Jacob bought the plot of land where he camped from the family of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for 100 pieces of silver. And there he built an altar and named it El-Elohe-Israel. – Genesis 33:18-20 NLT

The name he gave this place, El-Elohe-Israel, means “The God of Israel is God.” He was honoring God as the one and only God of the people of Israel. There were no other gods. It is likely that the Israelites were familiar with this name and that they knew the sacred significance of the spot to which Moses was commanding them to gather once they arrived in the land.

God was to be their God – their one and only God. He had more than proven His qualifications and demonstrated His singular status as the one true God. And He had demonstrated His love for them by choosing them as His own, rescuing them from their captivity in Egypt, guiding them to the land of Canaan, and was now ready to give them victory over all the nations who occupied the land. There was no question in Moses’ mind that God was going to do what He had promised to do. God was going to give them possession of the land, which is why Moses so confidently told them, “when you possess it and live in it…” It was as good as done.

God was going to do His part, but they were going to have to keep their end of the covenant agreement, which Moses made sure they understood.

“…you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the rules that I am setting before you today.” – Deuteronomy 11:32 ESV

Their obedience was not an option. The covenant God had made with them was conditional, and it was predicated on their keeping of His commands. If they obeyed, they would enjoy unprecedented success and unparalleled blessing from God. But if they disobeyed, the consequences would be severe.

The key to Israel’s future success was their acknowledgment of God as the God of Israel. Theirs was to be a monogamous relationship. No infidelity. No idolatry. No worship of any other gods. No unfaithfulness or misplaced affection. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was to be their God – their one and only God. And as long as they remained faithful, God would prove unwavering in His love and unbounded in His blessings.

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