A Place of Refuge

Then Moses set apart three cities in the east beyond the Jordan, that the manslayer might flee there, anyone who kills his neighbor unintentionally, without being at enmity with him in time past; he may flee to one of these cities and save his life: Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland for the Reubenites, Ramoth in Gilead for the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan for the Manassites.

This is the law that Moses set before the people of Israel. These are the testimonies, the statutes, and the rules, which Moses spoke to the people of Israel when they came out of Egypt, beyond the Jordan in the valley opposite Beth-peor, in the land of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon, whom Moses and the people of Israel defeated when they came out of Egypt. And they took possession of his land and the land of Og, the king of Bashan, the two kings of the Amorites, who lived to the east beyond the Jordan; from Aroer, which is on the edge of the Valley of the Arnon, as far as Mount Sirion (that is, Hermon), together with all the Arabah on the east side of the Jordan as far as the Sea of the Arabah, under the slopes of Pisgah. – Deuteronomy 4:41-49 ESV

Moses wrapped up his history lesson regarding God’s faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness with a final word of challenge:

“Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.” – Deuteronomy 4:40 ESV

While Moses would not be leading the  people into the land of Canaan, he still desired that they fulfill the will of God and enjoy all the blessings God had in store for them as part of the promise He made to Abraham.

The conquering of the region east of the Jordan River, sometimes referred to as the Transjordan, was complete. The two tribes of Gad and Reuben, along with half the tribe of Mannasah, were already beginning to make themselves at home in the towns and villages they had taken as plunder from the Amorites. Moses had allowed these three tribes to settle east of the Jordan because they had vowed to fight alongside the rest of the tribes until the land of Canaan was conquered and fully settled.

Almost as if he was trying to remind the three tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Mannasah of their unbroken relationship with Israel, Moses designates three cities of refuge within their territory. The creation of these cities was an essential part of God’s plan for the Israelites. We know from the book of Numbers, that God had a specific purpose for these cities. They would be part locatedon either side of the Jordan, and would be occupied by the tribe of Levi. God had set apart the Levites and given them the responsibility to care for and transport the tabernacle. They would be allotted no land in Canaan, but were to receive 48 cities, located within the boundaries of the other tribes. Six of these were to be cities of refuge.

“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, where a person who has accidentally killed someone can flee for safety. In addition, give them forty-two other towns. In all, forty-eight towns with the surrounding pastureland will be given to the Levites. These towns will come from the property of the people of Israel. The larger tribes will give more towns to the Levites, while the smaller tribes will give fewer. Each tribe will give property in proportion to the size of its land.” – Numbers 35:6-8 NLT

God knows His creation well. He was fully aware of what was going to happen when the people of Israel settled in the land. While He had set them apart as His own, He knew they were incapable of living holy lives. Which is why He had given them the sacrificial system. It was a gracious and undeserved gift from God that provided a means for having their inevitable sins forgiven and their relationship with Him restored. They were going to sin. The Law, given by God, provided a non-negotiable code of conduct meant to express His expectations and expose any violators of those expectations as guilty.

One of the ten commandments God had given to the people of Israel was a prohibition against murder. This was a clear reference to premeditated murder, the taking of someone else’s life out of anger or revenge. But what about those cases in which a life was taken accidentally? God had a plan for that, and it involved the cities of refuge.

“Anyone who assaults and kills another person must be put to death. But if it was simply an accident permitted by God, I will appoint a place of refuge where the slayer can run for safety.” – Exodus 21:12-13 NLT

But if anyone committed premeditated murder, the penalty was to be death.

However, if someone deliberately kills another person, then the slayer must be dragged even from my altar and be put to death.” – Exodus 21:14 NLT

So, God provided a plan for protecting the innocent and to prevent the unnecessary taking of life. He knew that the natural response of someone whose loved one had been murdered, either willingly or accidentally, would be to seek revenge. But, in order to prevent the avenger from killing an innocent individual, God provided these six cities as places as places where the murderer could seek asylum.

“…designate cities of refuge to which people can flee if they have killed someone accidentally. These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community. Designate six cities of refuge for yourselves, three on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west in the land of Canaan. These cities are for the protection of Israelites, foreigners living among you, and traveling merchants. Anyone who accidentally kills someone may flee there for safety.” – Numbers 35:11-15 NLT

God was in no way minimizing the taking a human life. Even in the cases of accidental, un-premeditated murder, there was still a consequence associated with the act. The guilty party was to remain in the city of refuse for the rest of their life, or until the death of the high priest, in which case they were to be released as a free man. As long as they remained within the walls of the city, they were protected from the avenger. But if they ever ventured outside, their assylum was waived and they became fair game for anyone seeking vengeance.

God knew that sin would be inevitable and unavoidable for the people of Israel. And the Law was designed to expose all that God considered to be a sin. Any violation of His Law was sin. Any failure to live up to His holy standards was sin. And every one of the people of Israel would be guilty of sin. But they could find refuge in God. The individual who accidentally took the life of another had a place where he could find rescue and relief for his crime. The man or woman who sinned against God could find forgivness and cleansing through the sacrificial system.

God was never surprised by the sinfulness of mankind. In fact, He had planned for mankind’s redemption long before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the garden. He had formulated His plan for providing refuge from the guilt of sin even before He created the universe into which sin came. Paul points this out in his letter to the Ephesians.

Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. – Ephesians 1:4-5 NLT

And the apostle Peter tells us that God had planned for Jesus, His Son, to become our refuge long before the world was ever made. Before sin ever entered the scene, God had prepared for His Son to become a city of refuge for sinful mankind.

God chose him as your ransom long before the world began… – 1 Peter1:20 NLT

The Israelites had not yet entered the land of promise. The three tribes had not fully taken possession of the land east of the Jordan. But God was making preparations for the sins of His people by providing cities of refuge.

God was not light on sin. The sacrificial system revealed just how seriously He took any transgressions of His Law. Death was required. Blood had to be spilled. The innocent had to die in the place of the guilty. As the author of Hebrews states, “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). And just prior to that statement, we read, “according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT).

So, as Moses prepares to review God’s Law to the people of Israel, it will serve as a sobering reminder that their inevitable breaking of the Law was going to require the shedding of blood. Their transgressions would demand an atoning sacrifice. Holiness was going to be difficult, but it was also going to be costly. Failure to obey God’s Law was going to come with a stiff penalty: Death. And escape from that penalty was going to require that someone satisfy the just demands of a holy God. But God provided a means for the guilty to find refuge. They could find help and hope in the mercy of God.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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The Illusiveness of Holiness

With today’s post, we will be taking a detour from our normal approach of unpacking entire books of the Bible, verse-by-verse. Instead, this will be a topical study on a singular topic that will explore various passages of Scripture from both the Old and New Testaments.

The topic I have chosen to explore is sanctification. While the word may be unfamiliar to you, the topic won’t be, especially if you are a follower of Christ. All of us, regardless of whatever Christian denomination or church we grew up in or currently align ourselves with, will have a perspective on this critical topic. At its most basic, sanctification has to do with the spiritual growth or ongoing maturity of the believer. But as we will see, there is far more to this word than we might imagine. And we will be unpacking its rich and significant meaning in the weeks ahead.

Virtually all Christian denominations that hold an orthodox view of Scripture share a common understanding that the believer’s status as a child of God was made possible by the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. God sent His Son to serve as the unblemished sacrifice for the sins of mankind, offering His life in place of ours, so that He might atone for or pay the penalty levied by a holy God against rebellious humanity. The Scriptures make it clear that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). In other words, there is a “wage” or payment due for mankind’s rejection of God, and it is death. And no one gets to escape that outcome, because, “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT).

But Jesus made it possible for sinful men and women to be restored to a right relationship with God by providing Himself as their substitute or stand-in. He took the punishment we deserved and, in exchange, we received His righteousness.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

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

Sinful men and women can be restored to a right relationship with God by placing their faith in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By accepting God’s gracious gift of His Son as the payment for their sin debt, sinners can become saints, children of God, and joint heirs with Christ. They receive forgiveness for their sins – past, present, and future. They also receive a new standing before God. The apostle Paul told the believers in Colossae that is was God “who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:12-14 ESV).

The most remarkable aspect of this redemptive work of God on man’s behalf is that it is permanent in nature. It can’t be lost. God doesn’t change His mind. We can’t screw it up. In fact, the apostle Paul reminds us:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. – Romans 8:29-30 ESV

God stands behind the work of His Son. He guarantees it. Christ’s atoning work is efficacious or effective, never failing to accomplish its redemptive work. At the point of salvation, sinful men and women become permanent citizens of the Kingdom of God. And from that point forward, God no longer sees them as sinners, but as saints. Which simply means that they have been set apart for His use. They belong to Him. They are His children.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:12 ESV

And yet, while enjoying their privileged position as children of God and citizens of His eternal Kingdom, Christians must remain on this earth and do battle against an assortment of enemies who stand opposed to them. These include the world, their own indwelling sin nature, and the devil himself. Jesus Himself warned us that the world would hate us.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. – John 15:18-19 ESV

He also told us we would face difficulties in this life.

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 ESV

Which brings us to our topic of sanctification. As we live in this world as followers of Christ, we enjoy a right standing before God. He deems us as righteous because we have received the righteousness of Christ. And yet, we are also commanded to pursue righteousness.

…pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. – 2 Timothy 2:22 ESV

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. – 1 Timothy 6:11 ESV

Not only that, Paul tells us that we are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Colossians 3:12 ESV). Yet, Peter seems to tell us we have to pursue holiness.

…as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:15-16 ESV

Even Paul appears to contradict himself when he states, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1 ESV). The truth is, the New Testament is filled with countless passages that seem to teach that, while we enjoy a right standing before God, we are not to stand pat. We are not to coast or rest on our laurels. Paul told the believers in Ephesus “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1 ESV). He told the Thessalonian believers “to live in a way that is pleasing to God” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 BSB).

Peter encourages us to “long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 ESV). Paul tells us that “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 2:15 ESV). Peter encourages us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18 ESV). The author of Hebrews would have us “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 ESV). And Paul provides us with a word regarding our salvation and our sanctification.

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. – Romans 6:22 ESV

As we will see, there is a sense in which we have been sanctified and are being sanctified. There is the positional aspect of our sanctification and the progressive dimension, which we will be exploring over the next few weeks. But the real issue we want to examine is the delicate and somewhat confusing nature of our role in the process. Can we make ourselves more holy? Do we have the capacity to make ourselves any more acceptable to God than we already are? Is sanctification our job or God’s? Is it a goal to be pursued or a reality to be embraced?

As Peter has pointed out, God has high standards for His children: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16 ESV). Yet Paul tells us, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10 ESV), and Isaiah adds fuel to the fire when he writes: “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6 ESV).

So, what are we to do? And what is the purpose behind our pursuit of righteousness if we have already been declared righteous by God? These are the questions we hope to explore and answer as we make our way through this difficult, yet vital topic. The Bible’s many admonitions concerning spiritual growth are indisputable. But that doesn’t make them understandable. And many of us as Christians struggle with what it means to grow up in our salvation. Spiritual maturity seems unachievable. Christlikeness appears impossible. And any efforts we have put towards growing in godliness seem to fall short.

But it is my hope that as we dig into God’s Word together, we will be able to better understand the true nature of sanctification and our role in it. And that we might be able to say with the apostle Paul:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:12-14 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

 

The Sacrificer Becomes the Sacrifice.

1 Ah, Ariel, Ariel,
    the city where David encamped!
Add year to year;
    let the feasts run their round.
Yet I will distress Ariel,
    and there shall be moaning and lamentation,
    and she shall be to me like an Ariel.
And I will encamp against you all around,
    and will besiege you with towers
    and I will raise siegeworks against you.
And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak,
    and from the dust your speech will be bowed down;
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
    and from the dust your speech shall whisper.

But the multitude of your foreign foes shall be like small dust,
    and the multitude of the ruthless like passing chaff.
And in an instant, suddenly,
    you will be visited by the Lord of hosts
with thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
    with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire.
And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel,
    all that fight against her and her stronghold and distress her,
    shall be like a dream, a vision of the night.
As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating,
    and awakes with his hunger not satisfied,
or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking,
    and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched,
so shall the multitude of all the nations be
    that fight against Mount Zion. – Isaiah 29:1-8 ESV

In this chapter, Isaiah delivers yet another woe against Jerusalem, addressing the city of David as “Ariel.” There is some debate as to the exact meaning of this word and why it was used as a reference to Jerusalem. There are two possible meanings. The first is from the Hebrew word, ‘ariy’el, which means “lion of God.” The second is very similar in spelling but carries a much different meaning and connotation. It is ‘ari’eyl and it means “altar hearth.” While either meaning would be an appropriate description of the city of Jerusalem, it would seem, based on the context of the surrounding verses, that the second makes the most sense.

Isaiah warns them that their destruction is eminent, but sarcastically tells them, “Keep observing your annual rituals, celebrate your festivals on schedule” (Isaiah 29:1 NLT). In other words, keep doing what you’re doing. Continue to practice your religious feasts and festivals as if nothing is going to happen. In a sense, Isaiah is mocking their stubborn belief that they will be protected by God if they simply continue to go through the motions of keeping all the rites associated with the sacrificial system. In verse 13 of this chapter, Isaiah shares God’s opinion of their efforts:

“…this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 ESV

The New Living Translation puts it in even starker terms:

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

Jerusalem should have been the altar of God, the very place where the people came to worship Him and to seek forgiveness from Him. It is interesting to note that, in the book of Ezekiel, the prophet received a vision from God that revealed a future temple. He was taken to the east gate of the temple compound, where he saw the glory of God enter.

“As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple.” – Ezekiel 43:4-5 ESV

And the next thing Ezekiel heard was the voice of God speaking to him from inside the Holy of Holies.

“Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place where I will rest my feet. I will live here forever among the people of Israel. They and their kings will not defile my holy name any longer by their adulterous worship of other gods or by honoring the relics of their kings who have died. They put their idol altars right next to mine with only a wall between them and me. They defiled my holy name by such detestable sin, so I consumed them in my anger. Now let them stop worshiping other gods and honoring the relics of their kings, and I will live among them forever.” – Ezekiel 43:7-9 NLT

Jerusalem was to have been the place where God dwelt among His people. And the temple was the house that Solomon had built for God. And yet, God indicted His people for their desecration of His temple and their defilement of His holy name. So, the day was coming when God would provide a new temple to replace the first one that would be destroyed by the Babylonians and the second one destroyed by the Romans. In preparation for this new temple, the Lord commanded Ezekiel to provide the people with a lesson on the exact meaning of each and every part of the temple.

“Son of man, describe to the people of Israel the Temple I have shown you, so they will be ashamed of all their sins. Let them study its plan, and they will be ashamed of what they have done.” – Ezekiel 43:10-11 NLT

Ezekiel-43-Altar-of-SacrificeAnd here is where it gets interesting. In describing the brazen altar, where all the blood sacrifices were made, God uses the word, ‘ari’eyl, when speaking of the very top section of the altar.

“…and the altar hearth, four cubits; and from the altar hearth projecting upward, four horns. The altar hearth shall be square, twelve cubits long by twelve broad.” – Ezekiel 43:15-16 ESV

This is the same word used by Isaiah to refer to Jerusalem. They were to have been the altar hearth, the very pinnacle of the altar of sacrifice. And yet, they had failed to live in covenant faithfulness to God. So, God has Isaiah deliver the stark warning:

“Yet I will bring disaster upon you,
    and there will be much weeping and sorrow.
For Jerusalem will become what her name Ariel means—
    an altar covered with blood.” – Isaiah 29:2 NLT

And God lets them know that, when the Babylonians finally arrive and erect their siege walls around the city, they will be acting on God’s behalf.

“I will be your enemy,
    surrounding Jerusalem and attacking its walls.
I will build siege towers
    and destroy it.” – Isaiah 43:3 NLT

He wanted them to understand that, when the destruction came, it was not just a case of bad luck or fate. It would be the hand of God Almighty giving them exactly what they deserved for the desecration of His temple and their defilement of His holy name. God was letting them know that if they treated the sacrificial system lightly that He had provided for the forgiveness of their sins, they would become the sacrifice themselves. Their blood would be spilled. He would remove the temple and the altar hearth so that no more sacrifices could be offered for the remission of sin. They would be on their own.

God describes their coming destruction as being like a bad dream. It will come suddenly, and the number of their enemies will be too great to count. And the enemy’s appetite for destruction will be insatiable. They will be like a man who dreams he is eating, only to awake and discover he is still hungry. They will lay siege to the city for a long period of time, with each day increasing their desire to breach the walls and destroy everyone and everything inside.

The sacrificers were about to become the sacrifice. Rather than animals on the altar hearth, it would be the people of God. Their sins would be atoned for, but not by substitutes. They would pay with their own lives.

God had provided a way for His people to receive forgiveness for their sins. He had given them an entire system, including the temple itself, by which they could have their sins atoned for and their relationship with God secured. In Ezekiel’s vision, God told to remind the people:

“On the eighth day, and on each day afterward, the priests will sacrifice on the altar the burnt offerings and peace offerings of the people. Then I will accept you. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!” – Ezekiel 43:27 NLT

But the people of Judah had rejected God. Therefore, He was going to reject them. He was going to punish them for their sins and bring on them the curses He had warned them about generations earlier. They had chosen to treat God Almighty with disdain. But their sins still had to be atoned for. The sin debt must be paid, because “under the law, almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” Hebrews 9:22 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

The Son of the King.

22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.

24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” 25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” 26 And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”  –  Matthew 17:22-27 ESV

You may have noticed something missing in this passage: A verse 21. In several of the ancient manuscripts containing the Gospel of Matthew, verse 21 was not included. It appears that copyists had chosen to include a line that Mark had included in his account of this same event.

And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” – Mark 9:29 ESV

It had not been a part of Matthew’s account but had been added later by copyists in an attempt to better harmonize the two gospel accounts. But the older, more reliable manuscripts do not include that verse in Matthew’s account. Thus, the missing verse 21.

But following His transfiguration and verbal castigation of the disciples’ lack of faith, Jesus chose to bring up again the touchy subject of His coming death in Jerusalem. When He had brought it up before, it had produced a shocked response in His disciples and had elicited a stern rebuke from Peter.

“Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” – Matthew 16:22 ESV

The news regarding His coming death was unacceptable to the disciples. It made no sense to them and most certainly did not fit into their preconceived notions regarding the coming Messiah. Nowhere in their understanding of the Messiah was there a place for His death at the hands of the people. And Jesus infers that He will be “delivered into the hands of men.” The Greek word is paradidōmi and it carries the idea of delivering someone up through treachery. Not only would He die, it would be the result of His betrayal.

And Matthew records that the disciples were “greatly distressed.” While we recognize that the death of Jesus is an essential part of the Gospel or Good News, it was anything but good news to the disciples. While Jesus had clearly stated that He would be raised up on the third day, that important aspect of the news escaped the disciples. All they heard was betrayal and death. The concept of His resurrection escaped them. And Jesus chose not to elaborate on what He had said, leaving them in a state of distress. It seems that He was slowly revealing to them the truth about His mission, and it was in direct conflict with their perceptions. They had not been looking for a suffering Savior. Ever since they began following Jesus, these men had been expecting big things. They were growing in their belief that He was the long-awaited Messiah and they had high hopes that He was going to establish His kingdom on earth. And because they had been the first to follow Him, they were convinced that they would play significant roles in that kingdom. Their expectations did not include His death.

But Jesus was preparing them for the inevitable and unavoidable. He had to die. It was why He had come. But the disciples did not yet understand this. In fact, they would continue to wrestle with the idea of Jesus’ death, almost refusing to accept it as a possibility. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records the request made to Jesus by the mother of James and John.

“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 convinced that Jesus had come to establish His earthly kingdom, and she wanted her sons to play important roles in that kingdom. But Jesus told her she had no idea what she was asking. His immediate future held suffering and death, not honor and glory. And His disciples were going to share in His suffering. Then Jesus gave all the disciples a valuable lesson on leadership, using His own life as an example.

25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:25-28 ESV

His death, while opposed by the disciples, would have great value. It would become the means by which sinful mankind could be restored to a right relationship with God. A restored Jewish state with a reconstituted monarchy was not going to solve the problem of sin and mankind’s separation from God. The Jews had had many kings over the years, but even the most righteous of them had failed to restore the people to a right relationship with God. And it had resulted in God punishing the people of Israel with exile at the hands of their enemies. Their problem was spiritual, not political. Their Sovereign was to have been God, not a man. But they had rejected God and had demanded that they be given a king, just like all the other nations. And God had given them what they asked for.

But now, God was preparing to give them what they really needed: A Savior. Someone who would restore the broken relationship between God and man. Jesus had come to pay the penalty for mankind’s rebellion against God. His death would act as a sacrifice, covering the sins of man and satisfying the just demands of a Holy God. The disciples did not yet comprehend this aspect of Jesus’ mission. Their understanding of His role was incomplete and inaccurate. But over time, Jesus would continue to reveal the truth about His identity and His God-ordained responsibility to act as the atonement for man’s sin.

From this difficult exchange, Matthew shifts gears and describes an encounter between Jesus and a few temple-tax collectors. These men were out collecting the two-drachma tax from all the adult Jewish males between the ages of 20 and 50. This was a mandatory tax used to provide for the upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem. These men approached Peter and asked Him whether Jesus paid this tax? Peter responded, “Yes.”

Jesus had evidently overheard this exchange, because when He and the disciples were alone, He brought it up with Peter. While this was a Jewish tax and not a civil tax required by the Romans, Jesus compared the two. He asked Peter if the son of a king was required to pay taxes instituted by his own father. And Peter stated that the king collected taxes from others, not his own son. His son would have been exempt from such taxes. Jesus confirmed this by stating, “Then the sons are free.” The whole point of this exchange was to emphasize Jesus’ role as the Son of God. He was the son of the King. And as such, He was exempt from having to pay taxes to His Father. But in order to keep from offending the religious leaders, Jesus agreed to pay the tax. But He did so in an unusual way. He sent Peter, a fisherman, to catch a single fish. And in that fish’s mouth Peter would find the money for the tax, enough to pay for he and Jesus. 

This story almost seems out of place. But it reveals the tension that existed in Jesus’ life as He continued to walk this earth in human form. He was a man, but He was also the Son of God, fulfilling the will of His heavenly Father. While on earth, He had to live in keeping with the laws of men, adhering to the religious requirements established by the Mosaic law. But the whole time, His focus was on His God-ordained mission. Yet, it would be the sinlessness of Christ that made Him the perfect sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

And you know that Jesus came to take away our sins, and there is no sin in him. – 1 John 3:5 NLT

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. – Hebrews 4:15 NLT

Jesus was modeling for His disciples a life of obedience. He was letting them know that His role as Messiah did not exempt Him from living in harmony with the laws of the land. He may have been the Son of the King, but He was willing to keep the laws of the King. Not only that, He was willing to live in obedience to the laws of the Romans. And His disciples would learn that their lives would be models for all those around them. Peter would later articulate the lesson he learned from the lips of Jesus.

13 For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, 14 or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right.

15 It is God’s will that your honorable lives should silence those ignorant people who make foolish accusations against you. 16 For you are free, yet you are God’s slaves, so don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. 17 Respect everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect the king. – 1 Peter 2:13-17 NLT

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

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

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

Fully Forgiven.

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. – Hebrews 10:11-18 ESV

Year after year, sacrifice after sacrifice, the Israelites followed God’s instructions regarding His pattern for receiving atonement for their sins. The Hebrew word for atonement is kaphar and it means “to cover.” In the sacrificial system, atonement was achieved when an innocent, unblemished lamb, bull or goat was sacrificed and its blood shed. That blood was then sprinkled on the altar and used to “cover” the sins of the guilty party. The death of an innocent animal was used to pay for the sins of a guilty individual. The sacrifice, the shedding of blood, atoned for the sins, essentially hiding them from God’s eyes. But this process was only partial in nature. It could not completely remove the guilt of sin and the penalty of death pronounced by God on all who sin. Each sacrifice was temporary in terms of its effectiveness and limited in duration. Every day, the priests had to stand ready to offer additional sacrifices on behalf of the sins of the people. Why? Because they could not stop sinning against God. They were incapable of keeping His divine laws and holy decrees. And the sacrifices they offered could “never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11 ESV) – at least not completely or permanently.

But when Jesus sacrificed His life on the cross, it was a one-time deal. It never had to be repeated. And because His sacrifice was effective, He was raised back to life by His heavenly Father and restored to His rightful place next to God in heaven. “For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14 NLT). Quoting from the prophet, Isaiah, the author of Hebrews reminds His Jewish readers that God had long-ago predicted the moment when something new and better would happen.

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” – Jeremiahs 31:33 NLT

The day was coming when God would make a new covenant with the people of Israel. Rather than having to rely on some kind of external code of conduct (the law), they would have God’s will planted right in their hearts. The motivation to obey God would come from inside, not outside. And on top of that, God promised to provide permanent forgiveness for sins.

“And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” – Jeremiah 31:34 NLT

No more temporary, partial atonement. God was going to provide a sacrifice that would take care of man’s sin problem once and for all. And “where there is forgiveness…there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18 ESV). Because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, offering His body and blood as the payment for man’s sin debt to God, there is nothing more required of man in order to be made right with God. That does not mean that those who place their faith in Christ’s sacrificial death are free to live however they want to live. Paul dealt with this misconception in his letter to the believers in Rome. “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2 NLT). Paul went on to shoot further holes in this misguided and dangerous assumption. “Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living” (Romans 6:15-16 NLT). We are free from the law (rules and regulations) when it comes to our salvation. But we are not free to live as we choose. As children of God, we are expected to live lives in keeping with our new status. That is why Peter tells us, “So think clearly and exercise self-control. Look forward to the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world. So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy” (1 Peter 1:13-15 NLT).

We no longer have to obey God’s law in order to be made right with Him. We obey God because we HAVE been made right with Him through faith in His Son. We obey out of love, not obligation. We pursue righteousness, not in order to be earn favor with God, but out of gratitude for the favor He has shown us by sending His Son to die for us. Go back to verse 14. Look at what it says. “For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy.” We are already seen as righteous in God’s eyes. And yet, we are in the process of being sanctified or continually set apart for His use. We are positionally holy and we are being made progressively holy.

We are already right with God, but at the same time, God is transforming us into the image of His Son. That is why we are commanded to put off the old nature and put on the new. We are to die to ourselves daily and to live for Christ. We are in a continual process of transformation that will one day be completed by our glorification by God. At that point in time we will receive new redeemed bodies and complete freedom from effects of sin and the threat of death. But Paul would have us remember:

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 NLT

Our salvation is God’s doing, not ours. In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes it as “the gospel of God.” He further defines it as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV). Faith in our own human effort? No. He is talking about faith in the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. Our salvation is based on God’s plan, Christ’s work, and the Spirit’s power. We brought nothing to the table. Paul paints a vivid picture of just how amazing the grace of God and the gift of His Son really is. We have been fully forgiven. Our debt has been paid. Our future is secure. And our response is to live in willful, joyful obedience to the One who made it all possible.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV

The Good Things To Come.

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. – Hebrews 10:1-10 ESV

The law, the tabernacle, the priesthood, the sacrifices – they were all just a shadow, a feint outline of something far greater to come. They were a facade, not the real thing. They were intended to be a temporary representation and a daily reminder of man’s need for something better and more lasting. The sacrifices were ongoing and necessarily repetitive, because they could never fully bring forgiveness of sin. They could not remove the guilt of sin. They could not make someone permanently and completely right with God. In his commentary on Romans, W. H. Griffith Thomas writes, “Some one has well said: ‘The blood of animals cannot cleanse from sin because it is non-moral. The blood of sinning man cannot cleanse because it is immoral. The blood of Christ alone can cleanse because it is moral’” (W. H. Griffith Thomas, Hebrews: A Devotional Commentary). The blood of animals was insufficient. The blood of men was contaminated by sin. Something better was needed.

The author, quoting from Psalm 40, attributes these words, penned by King David, to Jesus. “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart’” (Psalm 40:6-8 ESV). Jesus came to do the will of His Father in heaven. As Paul states, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8 ESV). Jesus died, not as some kind of a martyr, but as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). Jesus was the sinless, unblemished Lamb, whose sacrifice fully satisfied God’s judgment against the sins of mankind. And unlike the animal sacrifices that had to be offered year after year, the sacrifice of Jesus was once and for all. It never had to be repeated. No other deaths were going to be required to satisfy the just demands of God. But to enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice, each individual must place their faith in Him as their sin substitute. Peter tells us, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18 ESV). We must acknowledge our unrighteousness, our lack of a right standing with God due to our sin. We must also accept the sacrifice of Jesus as payment for our sin penalty. There is nothing we can do to satisfy or appease God through our self-effort or attempts at self-righteousness. Paul would have us remember that God “has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault” (Colossians 1:22 NLT). The sad reality is that there are those who believe their right standing with God is dependent upon their own human effort. They spend their days trying to earn favor with God by keeping some set of rules or engaging in some ritualistic behavior in order to keep God happy. They struggle with the idea that someone else could pay for their sins. They wrestle with the idea of Jesus being the Son of God and sacrificing His life on their behalf. They mistakenly view Jesus as nothing more than a model to be followed, a good man who somehow managed to live a sinless life. And they wrongly assume that if Jesus could do it, so can we. That is not the message of the gospel. Paul makes this clear when he writes, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). He doesn’t say, “but God shows his love for us when we figure out how to live without sin.” No, God loved us in the midst of our sinfulness, and He proved it by sending His Son to die for us. The whole sacrificial system makes no sense if this is not the case. The law, the sacrifices, the priesthood – none of it makes sense if Jesus was not the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

Jesus came to do the will of His Father, and that will included His death on the cross. But as the author of Hebrews writes, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10 ESV). Under the old covenant, it was the will of God that men offer up sacrifices, the blood of bulls and goats, in order to atone for their sins. But ultimately, those sacrifices were not enough to satisfy the righteous, holy, and just demands of God. He had given His law in order to show men that they were incapable of living righteous lives and obeying His commands. They lived in a constant state of sin. He gave the sacrificial system in order to provide temporary relief from the guilt and condemnation of sin. Without the sacrificial system, men could not enjoy restored fellowship with God. Their sins had to be atoned for. But again, those things were simply a shadow, a glimpse of something far greater to come. Jesus was not just another man who figured out how to live a sinless life. He was the Son of God, who came in human flesh and lived without sin because He was divine. Because He was born of the Spirit, He had no sin nature. He alone could be the sacrifice for which God was looking. He alone could be the payment that would satisfy and propitiate God. Nothing else would do. No other sacrifice would work. No amount of human effort, rule keeping, good works, and righteous deeds will appease the wrath of God. Only the sinless sacrifice of the Son of God. Which is why Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). Notice that He did not say, “No one comes to the Father unless they live like me.” He didn’t say, “No one comes to the Father unless they model their lives after me.” No, He said we must go through Him by placing our faith in His work on the cross, not our works on this earth. 

Blood Bought.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. – Hebrews 9:11-15 ESV

To understand this passage, it is essential to understand God’s view on blood. For those of us living in the 21st-century, the very idea of a blood sacrifice is appalling and distasteful. It sounds barbaric and cruel. But you have to go all the way back to the book of Leviticus to get God’s view on blood and its role in the sacrificial system He established for Israel. “And if any native Israelite or foreigner living among you eats or drinks blood in any form, I will turn against that person and cut him off from the community of your people,  for the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible” (Leviticus 17:10-11 NLT). The blood was a symbol of life. Without blood, life would be impossible. So when innocent animals were sacrificed on the altar of the tabernacle, they were acting as substitutes for the people of Israel. Their blood was spilled so that the guilt of the sinful Israelites could be atoned for. The Israelites, like all people, sinned regularly, and their sin, according to God’s law, deserved death. So God allowed an unblemished animal to serve as a substitute. But the atonement the Israelites received was temporary and incomplete. It could not fully cleanse them from sin. The life on an animal could never fully replace the life of a human.

So the sacrificial system and the tabernacle were both symbols of something greater to come. And the high priest, who acted as a mediator on behalf of the people, was also a type or imperfect representation of someone else to come – namely Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus came to die. Yes, He was born of a virgin, grew up to be a man, performed miracles, taught His disciples, raised the dead, walked on water, and spoke often about His Kingdom. But His mission was to die – to shed His blood, to offer Himself as a substitute for the sins of mankind. The author makes this perfectly clear. “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” (Hebrews 9:12 NLT). The sacrifice Jesus offered was not made in the earthly temple and was not done using the blood of bulls or goats. He shed His own blood. It was just as He had told His disciples the night they shared their final Passover meal together. “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people – an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you” (Luke 22:20 NLT). The blood of Jesus had to be poured out on behalf of all men in order for complete atonement to be made. Jesus was sent by His Father to be the atoning sacrifice, just as John the Baptist had prophesied. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). The prophet, Isaiah, recorded these powerful words centuries before Jesus appeared on the scene.

He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream. But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands. – Isaiah 53:7-10 NLT

Jesus came to earth in order to take on human flesh and do something no other man had ever done: Live in complete obedience to God. Paul tells us, “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8 NLT). His perfect obedience made Him the perfect sacrifice. He was the “spotless lamb”. So His blood was an acceptable sacrifice to God for the sins of man. His atonement was permanent, not temporary. His death was able to “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14 ESV). No longer do men have to carry around a sense of guilt and apprehension because they worry whether they have done enough to please God. They don’t have to wonder if their sacrifice was acceptable. They don’t have to live with a sense of impending doom because they of their inability to stop sinning. The sacrifice of Jesus covered the sins of men completely and permanently. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2 ESV).

Because of what Jesus has done, we can serve the living God, both in this life and in the life to come. We have forgiveness of sins. We have been made right with God. We have the assurance of our salvation and the promise of eternal life. Not based on anything we have done or will do, but based solely on the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

 

The Footsteps of Faith.

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,  and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. – Romans 4:9-12 ESV

The “blessing” Paul refers to is the one mentioned in the previous two verses, where he quoted directly from Psalm 32:1-2: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” This blessing includes the forgiveness of sin because of the atonement or payment for those sins by another, leaving the one forgiven with no guilt or further remnants of that sin. Paul says that remarkable blessing is not just reserved for the Jews, those he refers to as “the circumcised.” Because the blessing is available to all through faith, just as Abraham’s righteous standing was made possible by his faith. Paul makes it clear that the point at which God declared Abraham righteous was long before he had been given the command by God to institute the right of circumcision among his people. “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:11 ESV). In other words, Abraham’s right standing before God had nothing to do with circumcision. But circumcision had everything to do with his right standing before God. It was to be a symbol of his unique relationship with God that was based on his faith in God. Being circumcised did not make anyone right with God, any more than being baptized makes someone right with God. Both were intended to be outward signs of something that had taken place inwardly. The Jews had turned circumcision into the source of their righteousness, when God had intended it as the sign of their righteousness. Circumcision for God without faith in God was worthless. It meant nothing. Paul stated this truth earlier when he wrote: “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:29 ESV). Over in the book of Jeremiah, God prophetically declared, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh…all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart” (Jeremiah 9:25, 26 ESV).

Paul tells us that God declared Abraham righteous prior to the covenant of circumcision because He intended Abraham to be the father of all who believe “without being circumcised.” The righteousness God was looking for was to based on faith, not works; belief, not obedience to a command. It was not a righteousness that could be earned. It was not a standard to be lived up to. It was to be “a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” In plain language, it was to be a work of God, not man. It was to provided by God, not man. So that no man could boast or brag.

Back in the book of Jeremiah, we read the words of God as He pleads with His people to return to Him. “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts! Do not waste your good seed among thorns. O people of Judah and Jerusalem, surrender your pride and power. Change your hearts before the Lord, or my anger will burn like an unquenchable fire because of all your sins” (Jeremiah 4:3-4 NLT). The people of Judah were guilty of unbelief. They had failed to trust God and believe His promises concerning them. They had gone after other gods. They had made alliances with other nations. They had broken His commands and lived in the false security of their status as God’s chosen people. But what God was calling them to do was impossible for them. They would not be able to surrender their pride and power. They would not have what it was going to take to change their hearts. And God’s punishment was going to come. The would experience His wrath against their sin and rebellion. But God would not annihilate them. He would preserve them. And while He would allow them to fall to their enemies and experience 70 years in captivity, He would also restore them to their land and reestablish them as a people. Why? Because He had made a promise to Abraham. God had told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ESV). He had also promised, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7 ESV). But in the book of Galatians Paul makes a clarifying interpretation to these passages. “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). In other words, God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham was going to be fulfilled through one of his descendants – specifically, Jesus. God made His promise to Abraham long before He gave the law to the people of Israel. And so Paul concludes: “The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses. God would be breaking his promise. For if the inheritance could be received by keeping the law, then it would not be the result of accepting God’s promise. But God graciously gave it to Abraham as a promise” (Galatians 3:17-18 NLT).

Our righteousness is made possible by faith in the promise of God, just as it was for Abraham. I am not made right with God by trying to live up to God’s standards. I am made right with Him when I recognize my complete inability to meet His criteria for righteousness and place my faith in His plan for my salvation: His Son’s death, burial and resurrection. He died to pay the penalty for my sins. He rose again to prove that His sacrifice was acceptable to God. He took on my sin and gave me His righteousness. All men are made right with God through faith in His Son. And when we place our faith in God’s plan of salvation, we walk in the footsteps of faith laid down by Abraham all those years ago. The righteous shall live by faith.

Discipline Lovingly.

When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk, and grant rain upon your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance. – 1 Kings 8:35-36 ESV

1 Kings 8:22-53

This is the third of seven scenarios that Solomon used in his prayer as a means of illustrating the potential unfaithfulness of the people of Israel and to plead for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Solomon was no stranger to the promises of God concerning the land of Canaan. He knew that their very existence as a people and their presence in the land was the work of God. He had chosen them as His own and then provided them with a land in which to live. But their privileged position as His people and their possession of the land came with conditions. God had clearly warned them that, as His chosen people, they would be required to live in obedience to His commands. If they obeyed, they would experience His blessings. If they chose to disobey, their would be ramifications in the form of curses.  “And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full.  Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17 ESV).

It is with this warning in mind that Solomon prays. He knew full well that there was always a distinct possibility that they would prove to be unfaithful. As a people, their history was replete with stories of unfaithfulness and idolatry. Remaining true to God had proven to be difficult for them. During their 400 years of captivity in Egypt they had forgotten Yahweh and worshiped the gods of their captors. Even after God’s miraculous deliverance from their slavery in Egypt, it had not taken long before they were worshiping the golden calf in the wilderness. When they had arrived in the land of promise, God gave them victories over their enemies, but the people just couldn’t seem to keep their hearts and hands off the false gods of the very nations they had conquered. So the scenario Solomon used in his prayer was far from unlikely or impossible. He knew in his heart that their unfaithfulness was a distinct and potentially dangerous possibility. If Solomon knew anything about God, it was that He kept His word. So He appeals to God’s promise to forgive. But he knows that God’s forgiveness would be conditioned on their repentance and confession. They would have to acknowledge God’s name and turn from their sin. This would have to be more than just a casual, “I’m sorry.” To acknowledge God’s name was to confess that His unique character as the one true God. It was to openly admit that He alone was holy, righteous, almighty and worthy of their worship. And to turn from their sin was to reject all false gods and renounce their improper dependence upon them. Solomon knew that God’s forgiveness would required their genuine repentance. He also knew that God’s punishment of them would always be positive in nature, designed to turn them from their unfaithfulness and return them to a right relationship with Himself. God disciplines His people for their own good, so that they might give Him glory. “For the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 NLT). “I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference” (Revelations 3:19 NLT).

The unfaithfulness of God’s people was inevitable, but God made provision for it. In Solomon’s day, it came in the form of the sacrificial system. It required repentance and confession. The shedding of blood was necessary. Sin required punishment. But God provided a means by which sin could be atoned for or covered over. It was through the death of an innocent animal whose life was sacrificed as a substitute or stand-in for the guilty party. But those sacrifices were never intended to be permanent or complete in their effectiveness. They simply foreshadowed a greater sacrifice to come. God would eventually provide His own Son as the perfect, sinless sacrifice for the sins of man. His Son, Jesus Christ, would give His life as payment for the sins of all men – past, present and future. He would die in their place, taking on their punishment and paying their debt so that they might have forgiveness from sin and escape the penalty of death – eternal separation from God. But this gift must be received. The payment made by God through His Son must be accepted. Men must acknowledge their sin and turn to God for the forgiveness made possible through the death of Jesus Christ. Many years after Solomon prayed this prayer, Peter would preach a message to the Jews gathered in Solomon’s Portico, an area just outside the temple. “But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus” (Acts 3:18-20 ESV). Repent. Return. And receive forgiveness from the hand of a loving God.

The Blood.

This is he who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. – 1 John 5:6 ESV

1 John 5:6-12

It is fascinating to me that so many Christians today want to reject any image of God as judgmental or wrathful. They cannot stand the idea of God being somehow associated with the events found in the Old Testament. So what they do is re-imagine the Bible, seeing it not as the divine Word of God, but as the writings of men. They portray it as the self-revelation of men, not the self-revelation of God. It is nothing more than men, in their unenlightened state, attempting to portray God. Surrounded by pagan imagery of gods who were characterized by wrath and vengeance, and who rewarded good behavior and punished “sin,” they mistakenly placed these same characteristics on God. But as their relationship with Him progressed, so did their understanding. So by the time Jesus came along, He was able to give them an enlightened view of God as loving, kind, gracious and merciful.

But here’s the rub. That same God who Jesus introduced to the Jews of His day was the same God who required His own Son to die a cruel death on a Roman cross. Jesus had to sacrifice His life in order to pay for the sins of man. That had always been the way God worked. The Old Testament was a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. In fact, the author of Hebrews spends a great deal of time talking about the Old Testament sacrificial system – a bloody, primitive-like and ritualistic collection of gruesome animal butcherings – and ties them to the death of Jesus. In referring to the sacrificial system, the author writes,    “For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). This was a God-ordained system of sacrifice that was intended to provide remission from or forgiveness for the sins of the people. To us it sounds barbaric and cruel. But there was a divine purpose behind God’s plan. “That is why even the first covenant was put into effect with the blood of an animal. For after Moses had read each of God’s commandments to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, along with water, and sprinkled both the book of God’s law and all the people, using hyssop branches and scarlet wool. Then he said, ‘This blood confirms the covenant God has made with you.’ And in the same way, he sprinkled blood on the Tabernacle and on everything used for worship. In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood” (Hebrews 9:18-22 NLT). Every year, thousands of innocent animals had to be sacrificed in order for the sins of the people to be atoned for. Their sins, including sins of omission and commission, inadvertent and premeditated, known and unknown, had to be paid for, or their was no forgiveness. God had a sacrifice or offering for every imaginable sin. Why? Because He is loving and gracious. He wanted His people to have a relationship with Him. But He knew that they were incapable of living sinless lives. He knew they could not remain faithful. So He instituted a system by which they could have their sins paid for and forgiven. But this was a temporary solution. It was a type of something far greater to come. “That is why the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals” (Hebrews 9:23 NLT). For God to restore men to a right relationship with Himself, a greater sacrifice was required. A more precious, permanent and costly offering was going to be necessary.

Again, the author of Hebrews provides us with insight into these seemingly confusing and difficult to understand things. “The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1-4 NLT). The sacrificial system was perpetual because the sins of the people were ongoing. The whole system was designed to show them their sins and remind them of their need for God. The blood of the bulls and goats was a temporary, impermanent fix to their problem. Something greater was needed. “For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf. And he did not enter heaven to offer himself again and again, like the high priest here on earth who enters the Most Holy Place year after year with the blood of an animal. If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice” (Hebrews 9:24-26 NLT).

Jesus died so that we might live. He gave His life so that we might have eternal life. His blood was shed for the permanent forgiveness of mankind’s sins. But in order for that sacrifice to be effective, it must be received. Men must acknowledge their sin and their need for a Savior. They must believe that Jesus is the Son of God, sent by His Father to pay for the sins of the world. Peter makes it quite clear: “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:18-21 NLT). What kind of God would sacrifice His own Son to pay for sins He didn’t commit? A loving, gracious, merciful, kind God. The God of Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, and every other Old Testament character. The God of the Bible. The God of creation. The God of the universe who is out to redeem His creation from the ravages of sin and death, and who chose to do it through the loving sacrifice of His own Son.