Disbelief Can Be Deadly

Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day — just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. 

Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. – Jude 1:5-8 ESV

Jude wastes no time getting to the point of his letter. He has already made it clear that he is writing in regards to a group of individuals who are having a negative impact on the local body of believers. And he describes them as “ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality” (Jude 1:4 ESV). Jude isn’t interested in making friends with these people. He is out to expose them for what they were: A danger to the spiritual well-being of the body of Christ. In fact, Jude flatly states that they “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Those are serious words that clearly reveal Jude’s disdain for these people and the perverted message they were preaching.

And, having exposed the perpetrators of the false doctrine that had infiltrated the church, Jude provides a wake-up call to all those within the church. He wanted them to understand the gravity of the situation and to recognize their need to resist falsehood at all costs. For Jude, this was all about the issue of belief. Were they going to believe God and take Him at His word, or listen to the lies of those who were preaching and teaching heretical and dangerous half-truths?

To drive home the gravity of the situation, Jude used a well-known historic event: The exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. But what is interesting is that Jude places Jesus in the midst of that Old Testament context, claiming, “Jesus, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 1:5 NLT). Revealing his belief in the deity and divinity of Jesus, Jude stresses that it was He who rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. But it was also Jesus who destroyed an entire generation of Israelites because they failed to believe the promises of God. Rather than entering into and taking possession of the land of Canaan promised by God to Abraham, the Israelites let their fear of the occupants of the land to replace their faith in God. The chose to disbelieve God and, as a result, that generation died in the wilderness.

Next, Jude brings up the story of the angels who chose to side with Satan in his attempt to make himself god. The book of Isaiah records this event:

“How you are fallen from heaven,
    O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
    you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
    ‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
    I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
    in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.” – Isaiah 14:12-14 ESV

In his attempted rebellion, Satan was accompanied by angels, who were later cast out of heaven by God. Jude states that God’s fate concerning these rebellious angels was they be “kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day” (Jude 1:6 ESV). Many of these fallen angels were placed in confinement in a place called the Pit or the Abyss. And, as Jude alludes to, the day is coming when they will be released. The book of Revelation associates this event with the 5th trumpet judgment.

He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. – Revelation 9:2-3 ESV

These fallen angels or demons will wreak havoc on the earth, tormenting mankind for five months during the period of time called the Great Tribulation. But Jude’s emphasis is on their current state of incarceration in the pit, because they refused to believe God. Rather than believe in and trust God, they had sided with Satan in an ill-fated attempt be overthrow God. They failed to believe in the power and sovereignty of God. They failed to believe in the judgment of God against all who rebel against Him. And, as a result, they found themselves living in exile from God.

Next, Jude brings up the infamous Old Testament cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. These two cities had become icons for sin and rebellion. They had also become the symbols of God’s wrath against sin. He completely destroyed them and they remain unoccupied to this day. Jude reminds his audience that the occupants of these two large cosmopolitan enclaves had “indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire” (Jude 1:13 ESV). They were wicked beyond belief. Their sin was so eggregious, that God decided to wipe them off the face of the earth. One of the angels who visited Lot in order to rescue he and his family from the cities before their destruction told him, “we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it” (Genesis 19:13 ESV). Once again, the issue was one of belief. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah did not believe in or worship God. And so, God destroyed them. But Peter tells us that God “rescued Lot out of Sodom because he was a righteous man who was sick of the shameful immorality of the wicked people around him” (2 Peter 2:7 NLT).

Jude is attempting to drive home the danger of disbelief. Failing to take God at His word can have devastating, even deadly, consequences. The disbelieving Israelites died in the wilderness. The disbelieving angels were locked away for all time, until God chooses to release them during the Tribulation. And the people of Sodom and Gomorrah disbelieved that God hated their sin, and they died as result.

When Jude addresses the topic of belief and disbelief, he is not necessarily talking about salvation. The Israelites who died in the wilderness believed in the existence of God, but they failed to believe the expressed word of God. And it would seem that Jude is attempting to stress the disbelief of these “ungodly” people. He is addressing their actions, not making a sweeping judgment about their salvation. They were guilty of teaching doctrine that was in conflict with the expressed word of God. As we will see, they were guilty of adding to the gospel, something to which Jude and the apostle Paul were vehemently opposed.

This little history lesson by Jude is intended to set the stage for his attack against these false teachers who were negatively impacting the faith of the church. Jude accuses them of “relying on their dreams,” a direct attack on the veracity of their teaching. These men were not teaching the Word of God, but the thoughts of man. Jesus had some strong words for those in His day who did the same thing:

“Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” – Matthew 15:9 NLT

As a result of their twisting of and adding to the Word of God, the individuals of whom Jude spoke ended up defiling the flesh, rejecting authority, and blaspheming the glorious ones. While all of this has an ominous tone about it, Jude doesn’t clarify what he means by these things. But he will.

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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Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You.

1 A long time afterward, when the Lord had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years, Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and heads, its judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years. And you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you. Behold, I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. The Lord your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the Lord your God promised you. Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, but you shall cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day. For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. 10 One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, just as he promised you. 11 Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God. 12 For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, 13 know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you.

14 “And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. 15 But just as all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the Lord will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the Lord your God has given you, 16 if you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you.” Joshua 23:1-16 ESV

Years have passed. Joshua has been in leadership over Israel for quite some time and is coming to the end of his life. And like his predecessor, Moses, Joshua feels compelled to give the people under his care one last word of instruction. He probably remembered well the words spoken to him by Moses when the mantel of leadership had been transferred.

7 “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deuteronomy 31:7-8 ESV

And Joshua had seen that promise fulfilled. He had watched God work and was able to say to his people, “you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you” (Joshua 23:3 ESV). They had possessed the land, but not without the help of God. He had fought for them and had routed their enemies before them. But, even all these years later, there was still more work to be done. There were still more enemies to conquer and land to possess. But Joshua simply passed on to the people what he had heard from Moses:

Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left. – Joshua 23:6 ESV

Nothing had changed. Even after all the years that had passed, God was still in control and His demand for obedience and faithfulness still held. He had proven Himself to be trustworthy and true to His word. He had exhibited His power, time and time again. And Joshua reminded them, “the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day” (Joshua 23:9 ESV). So, any nations that remained would prove to be no problem. But Joshua knew his people well. After decades of leading the people of Israel, he had come to know their strengths and weaknesses. He was well aware of their shortcomings and the possibility that, after all these years, they could still end up turning their backs on God. So, like a loving father, he warned his sin-prone children.

11 So be very careful to love the Lord your God. 12 “But if you turn away from him and cling to the customs of the survivors of these nations remaining among you, and if you intermarry with them, 13 then know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive them out of your land. Instead, they will be a snare and a trap to you, a whip for your backs and thorny brambles in your eyes, and you will vanish from this good land the Lord your God has given you. – Joshua 23:11-13 NLT

Joshua knew that love for God had to be expressed in obedience to God. Lip-service was not going to cut it. The prophet Isaiah would later record the words of God, spoken in accusation against the future descendants of this very group of people listening to Joshua’s final charge.

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

Joshua had a sneaky suspicion that his people were going to constantly struggle with faithfulness. He knew that the remaining presence of the unconquered Canaanites in the land was going to be a constant problem, because of their false gods. He also knew that there was going to be a temptation for the people of Israel to compromise their convictions and disobey the expressed will of God by intermarrying with the Canaanites, rather than destroying them. But Joshua warned that accommodation could bring condemnation. Making concessions would only make things worse, not better. God was not going to tolerate any decision on their part to do His will their way.

It’s interesting to note that Joshua was passing on to the people the very same words God had spoken to him years earlier, when the mantel of leadership had become his.

Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:6-7 ESV

Those words had been proven true. Joshua believed them, because he had seen them fulfilled in his own lifetime. He had learned the value of obedience and faithfulness. He wanted the people he left behind to remain true to God and His Word. And why wouldn’t he? As he reminded them, “not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed” (Joshua 23:14 ESV). God had been faithful to them, so why in the world would they ever choose to disobey His commands? But Joshua understood human nature. And he was very familiar with his own sin nature. Covenant faithfulness was always in jeopardy because of the presence of indwelling sin. The presence of God’s law was not enough to cause obedience. In fact, the apostle Paul would later write of his own experience with the law of God.

7 I would not have known sin except through the law. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of wrong desires. For apart from the law, sin is dead. – Romans 7:7-8 NLT

Paul knew that the law could not prevent sin. It could only reveal it. Which he made perfectly clear in his letter to the Galatians.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

God had forbidden intermarriage with the Canaanites, but here was Joshua warning them once again not to do just that. Why? Because he knew that they were prone to do what God had told them not to do. God’s ban on intermarriage was meant to be a protection. It was to keep his people from worshiping false gods and turning their backs on Him, the one true God. He was trying to protect them from experiencing His wrath. As God, He is obligated by His very nature, to punish sin. He cannot and will not tolerate unfaithfulness. His holiness and righteousness will not allow Him to do so. Compromise is not an option for God.

But we know how this story ends. The book of Judges and the history of the kings of Israel, recorded in the books of 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings, remind us of Israel’s failure to keep God’s commands. In spite of Joshua’s warning, they would prove to be unfaithful. They would intermarry. They would make compromises and concessions. They would worship false gods and turn their backs on the one true God. And the prophetic words of Joshua would come to pass: “the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you” (Joshua 23:16 ESV).

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

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

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

One Bad Decision Leads to Another.

16 At the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, they heard that they were their neighbors and that they lived among them. 17 And the people of Israel set out and reached their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim. 18 But the people of Israel did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel. Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders. 19 But all the leaders said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them. 20 This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.” 21 And the leaders said to them, “Let them live.” So they became cutters of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation, just as the leaders had said of them.

22 Joshua summoned them, and he said to them, “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ when you dwell among us? 23 Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” 24 They answered Joshua, “Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. 25 And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.” 26 So he did this to them and delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them. 27 But Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to this day, in the place that he should choose.  Joshua 9:16-27 ESV

Had there been an Academy Awards ceremony in those days, the entire nation of Gibeon would have not only have been nominated for a Best Actor award, they would have taken home the Oscar. Their portrayal of a poor, disheveled people who had traveled many miles in order to secure a peace treaty with Israel was so convincing that Joshua and the elders of Israel had been duped into believing them. And not only did they make a treaty of non-aggression with the Gibeonites, they swore an oath before God.

“We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them.” – Joshua 9:19 ESV

 

By invoking the name of God, Joshua and the leaders of Israel had bound themselves to Him, not the Gibeonites. They were now obligated to God. If they broke their commitment, they would answer to God. And it is important to note that this vow or oath was in direct violation of God’s command that they completely destroy and eliminate all the nations living in the land of Canaan. They had made a vow to God obligating themselves to disobey the command of God. We can attempt to excuse their behavior by pointing out that they had been deceived by the Gibeonites. But their real sin was that they had failed to seek the counsel of God (vs 14).

One of the things that stands out in this chapter is the seeming incongruity of the opening verses. It opens with a rather ominous announcement that when the nations west of the Jordan heard about Israel’s conquests and the building of their altar at Mount Ebal, they formed alliances against Israel.

As soon as all the kings who were beyond the Jordan in the hill country and in the lowland all along the coast of the Great Sea toward Lebanon, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, heard of this, they gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel. – Joshua 9:1-2 ESV

Perhaps news of these military alliances had reached Joshua and the elders of Israel and had played a role in their decision to make a treaty with the Gibeonites. The temptation would have been great to form an alliance with another nation in the hopes of avoiding yet another conflict and of having someone to come to their aid should they need it. But God had clearly forbidden the making of alliances. He wanted the Israelites to depend upon Him. And the fact that the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites were joining forces against the Israelites was no concern to God. And it should have been no concern to Joshua. God had promised to give them ALL the land and ALL the nations living in the land.

But the oath was made and the treaty sealed. The Israelites were committed to sparing the lives of the Gibeonites. And when they discovered that they had been lied to and that the Gibeonites were actually inhabitants of the land of Canaan and not foreigners from a distant nation, all the Israelites could do was get angry. The people of Israel turned their anger against Joshua and the elders, questioning their leadership and the wisdom behind their decision. This passage forms a turning point in the corporate history of Israel. The defeats of the cities of Jericho and Ai should have been an example of how things were going to go from that point forward. Those two victories were to have been the first of many God-ordained battles. But with the swearing of the oath to spare the people of Gibeon, Israel set a new standard of partial obedience and dangerous compromise that would haunt them for years to come. In fact, when Saul became the first king of Israel, he had violated the oath made by Joshua and put some of the Gibeonites to death. And as a result, God was forced to bring a famine on the nation of Israel for their breaking of the alliance and of their oath to God.

1 Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. – 2 Samuel 21:1-2 ESV

The fateful decision made by Joshua and the elders of Israel had long-term ramifications. And once they had made their choice to spare the people of Gibeon, they were forced to make yet another decision: What to do with them. And once again, it appears that Joshua did not seek the counsel of God, but made a unilateral decision to turn the Gibeonites into servants, humiliating them for their deception by forcing them into a life-long role of subjugation and servitude. He made them “cutters of wood and drawers of water.” But look closely at what Joshua decided to do and the exact nature of the role he assigned to these pagan idol-worshipers.

Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to this day, in the place that he should choose. – Joshua 9:27 ESV

While these people had feigned a fear of God, they had no love for God. They had only hoped to escape annihilation at the hands of Israelites. When Joshua had questioned them about the motive behind their deception, they had responded:

“Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing.” – Joshua 9:24 ESV

They had feared for their lives, but they had no fear of or love for God. And yet, Joshua was giving them access to the altar of God. He was making a decision to allow these pagan foreigners to play a part in the worship of God even though, as idol worshipers, they were unholy and unacceptable to God. On top of that, Joshua was contaminating the people of God by allowing the inhabitants of Gibeon and the surrounding cities to remain alive, risking the influence of their idolatrous habits and setting up the potential for intermarriage. Joshua had compromised the integrity of his own people by refusing to seek the counsel of God. He and the elders of Israel had made a decision without God that could only lead to future decisions that violated the will of God.

The people of God have always faced the temptation to compromise with the world. Even today, we find ourselves living in a land that is hostile to our faith and our God. And while some oppose us, others seek to make alliances with us. They call on us to compromise our convictions in order that we might all “just get along.” They challenge our beliefs and tempt us to question the validity of God’s commands regarding everything from the sanctity of life to His ban on same-sex marriage. They ask us to join them in their effort to create a more loving and tolerant society. But we must seek God’s will. We must ask what He would have us do. Our decisions will have long-lasting and far-reaching ramifications. The little compromises we make today will cost us dearly tomorrow.

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

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

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

The High Cost of Compromise.

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.

13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’” Revelation 2:12-17 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapTo the church in Smyrna Jesus referred to Himself as “the first and last, who died and came to life.” Now, He introduces Himself to the church in Pergamum as “him who has the sharp two-edged sword.” Not exactly a welcoming image. If you recall, this description was also included in what John wrote in the opening chapter after having been transported to the throne room of heaven. There he saw and heard “one like a son of man” (Revelation 1:13 ESV). And John wrote that “In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword” (Revelation 1:16 ESV). That imagery of the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth is intended to represent divine judgment. We see this same imagery used in conjunction with Jesus near the end of the book of Revelation.

11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. – Revelation 19:11-15 ESV

Jesus is not only the Prophet, Priest and King, He is the righteous Judge of all mankind. But what is important is that this sword proceeds from the mouth of the Savior. It is symbolic of the Word of God. That Word is powerful and able to convict and comfort, condemn and commend. The author of the book of Hebrews writes:

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. – Hebrews 4:12 NLT

Paul told Timothy that the Word of God was of great value.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. – 2 Timothy 3:16 NLT

And Jesus introduces Himself to the church in Pergamum as one who has the sharp, two-edged sword. He wields God’s Word, offering life in the form of forgiveness for sin and freedom from the condemnation of death – to all those who will receive it. But to those who refuse its offer of salvation, the Word condemns and rejects, relegating all those who turn down God’s gracious gift of eternal life to the very real outcome of an eternity lived apart from God.

Jesus is going to warn some within the church in Pergamum that, unless they repent, He is going to deal with them in no-uncertain terms.

I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” – Revelation 2:16 ESV

Jesus is well aware of what the church there in Pergamum is up against. He refers to the city as the place where Satan’s throne is located and where Satan dwells. Not exactly a description the local tourist board would welcome. Pergamum was an idolatrous city with temples, altars and sacred groves dedicated to such gods as Athena, Asklepios, Dionysus, and Zeus. The temple of Asklepios was a magnificent structure featuring an idol to its god in the form of a serpent. This city was antithetical to all that the church of Jesus Christ stood for. And yet, Jesus commends them for staying faithful in the midst of all the pressure from the surrounding false religions. In fact, Jesus points out that one of their own, Antipas, whom Jesus refers to as his faithful witness, was martyred, and yet his brothers and sisters in Christ did not deny their faith. They held fast.

But Jesus was not happy with everyone in the church. He accused some within the fellowship of following the teaching of Balaam. This is a reference to an Old Testament character of the same name, who tried to destroy the people of God by tempting them to compromise. Balaam was a prophet who was offered money by the king of Moab, if he would curse the people of Israel. But God would not allow Balaam to do what King Balak had asked. Instead, Balaam ended up blessing Israel. But he provided King Balak with a workaround, suggesting that if the women of Moab could tempt the men of Israel to sleep with them, they would end up worshiping their false god. And that’s exactly what happened.

1 While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.  – Numbers 25:1-3 ESV

Jesus is accusing some within the church in Pergamum of counseling spiritual compromise. They were encouraging their fellow church members to eat meat sacrificed to idols and to participate in the immoral religious activities associated with the false gods of Pergamum. Whether the Christians were intermarrying with pagans in unclear, but there was definitely moral and spiritual compromise taking place that had weakened the testimony of the church. On top of that, there were others in the church who held to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Unlike the Ephesians, who hated the teaching of the Nicolaitans, the Pergamum church was embracing their false doctrines. And Jesus warns that these people must repent or face the consequences of His divine wrath and judgment. Whether Jesus’ warning of vengeance involved literal death or their physical removal from the fellowship is not clear. It is possible that these individuals were never really believers in the first place and that Jesus is predicting their actual deaths as a result of their damaging influence on the body of Christ. The apostle Paul had some very strong words to say about those who mislead the flock of Jesus Christ with false teaching.

Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. – Galatians 1:8 NLT

The Greek word Paul used that is translated as “curse” is anathema, and it can literally mean “to put to death.” Interestingly enough, the people of Israel, under the leadership of Moses, eventually paid back Balaam for his part in the moral and spiritual compromise of the nation. Numbers 31:8 tells us that they killed Balaam with the sword.

As He did with the first two churches, Jesus calls out, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:17 ESV). He wants anyone and everyone, in every church in every age, to listen to what He has to say. This message is not just for the 1st-Century church in Pergamum. It contains a timeless warning about spiritual compromise and the danger of embracing the culture of the day in an attempt to fit in and avoid persecution. That danger is alive and well in our own day. Tolerance is the word of the day, demanding that we lay aside our God-given mandate to be salt and light in the midst of a decaying and sin-darkened world. 

Jesus calls us to conquer, not compromise. He demands that we stand up for our faith, not back down to the pressures of the fallen culture around us. And He offers the one who conquers three things: Hidden manna, a white stone, and a new name. What is He talking about? What is the significance of these three rather obscure items? The hidden manna is divine spiritual nourishment that the world cannot see or experience. Jesus had long ago claimed, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again” (John 6:35 NLT). He offered Himself as the source of eternal life. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh” (John 6:51 NLT).

The white stone is a bit more difficult to understand. There has been a tremendous amount of speculation over the centuries as to what this white stone actually symbolizes. There are many options, but the one that seems to make the most sense involves what was called a tessoron.

A tesseron was, “. . . given to those who were invited to partake, within the precincts of the temple [at Pergamum], of the sacred feast, which naturally consisted only of meats offered to the idol. That stone bore the secret name of the deity represented by the idol and the name was known only to the recipient.” –  Frederick A. Tatford, The Patmos Letters

In keeping with the idea of manna, this explanation seems to suggest access to something unavailable to the larger audience. It was unique and provided access to something special. In this case, the white stone allows the believer access into the marriage feast described later in the book of Revelation.

Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb… – Revelation 19:9 NLT

Whatever the stone means, it conveys the idea of favor and acceptance. And the new name to which Jesus refers would seem to indicate His own. It should remind us of Paul’s wonderful description of Jesus’ glorification after He had successfully completed all that God had commissioned Him to do on this earth.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  – Philippians 2:8-11 NLT

It would seem that the “new” name received by Jesus was His well-deserved designation as Lord. And every believer, Jesus infers, will have that name written on the stone they receive, inviting them to feast with Him in His Kingdom, on the authority vested in Him as King of kings and Lord of lords. As Paul pointed out in his letter to the Romans, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9 NLT). The only ones who will receive the stone with Jesus named as Lord are the ones who confessed Him as their Lord.

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

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

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

Imperfectly Perfect.

32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet.– Acts 4:32-5:2 ESV

In these verses, Luke reiterates something he had stated earlier regarding the spiritual condition of the early church.

44 All who believed were together and held everything in common, 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need. 46 Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, 47 praising God and having the good will of all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved. – Acts 2:44-47 NLT

Evidently, moved by the Spirit of God, the early converts to Christianity practiced a kind of communal lifestyle in which those who were better off assisted the needy within their number. We have to keep in mind that the size of the congregation in Jerusalem had grown exponentially in a very short period of time. On one occasion, they had seen nearly 3,000 people believe in the name of Christ (Acts 2:41). And we’re told that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47 ESV). Then, at the very start of chapter four, we were told that, as a result of the preaching of Peter and John, “many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand” (Acts 4:2 ESV). The church had grown from the initial group of 120 who had been gathered in the upper room on the day the Holy Spirit came. They now numbered in the thousands, perhaps as high as 10,000, if women and children are included.

These new converts were more than likely experiencing the early stages of persecution for their faith. It seems that the vast majority of those added to the number of the early church were Jews, and their conversions would have caused a great deal of resentment on the part of their fellow Jews. Many would have found themselves ostracized by their friends and families. Some could have lost their jobs. And when you couple this with the stagnant economic status in Jerusalem, caused by an recent famine, the number of the needy within the rapidly expanding congregation would have been high. But Luke records that the believers illustrated visibly the change that had taken place internally. They showed love for one another. He describes them as being “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32 ESV), and this unity was expressed in their selflessness and generosity. Those who had were more than willing willing to share with the have-nots among them. Luke says, “they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32 ESV). This was not in response to a rule laid down by the apostles, but a reaction to the indwelling Spirit of God. They were moved by the Spirit to care for one another. And those who owned property were prompted by the Spirit to sell what they had and lay the proceeds at the apostles’ feet; a sign of submission and of their willing release of all rights to the money. Luke makes it clear that they didn’t sell their property, then dole out the proceeds as they saw fit. They liquidated their assets and turned over all the profits to the apostles. Again, this seems to have been a Spirit-directed effort.

And Luke describes the atmosphere surrounding the early church in very positive terms. He says that the apostles were preaching with great power. The church was experiencing great grace. And because of the generosity of the people, there wasn’t a needy person among them. And he provides us with a real-life illustration of how all this worked, describing the efforts of Joseph, a Levite from Cypress, who “sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles” feet” (Acts 4:37 ESV). This man must have had a reputation for generosity and compassion, because the apostles had nicknamed Him Barnabas, which means, “son of encouragement.” The selling of his land would have been in keeping with his temperament, and it is likely that he received much thanks and praise from the needy within the congregation for his efforts. And it can easily be assumed that the disciples spoke highly of his example of generosity. Joseph had not done what he did for the praise of men, but under the direction of the Holy Spirit. He had not been looking for accolades, but the fact that Luke knew and recorded his name, makes it clear that his efforts were not done in secret. The church knew what he had done and those whose needs had been met as a result, would have expressed their appreciation to him.

But in the midst of all this good news and Luke’s description of Spirit-led generosity and communal sharing, there appears a sudden and unexpected dark cloud. Chapter four ends on a high note, but chapter five opens up with the word, “but.” The nearly perfect atmosphere is suddenly marred by the stark contrast provided the story of Ananias and Sapphira. It is as if Luke wants us to understand that the early church, while Spirit-filled and directed, was far from perfect. Sin had not been eradicated. The presence of the Spirit in the lives of the believers had not eliminated their sin natures. The apostle Paul described the situation well.

16 So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. 17 The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. – Galatians 5:16-17 NLT

And in the story of Ananias and Sapphira, we are provided with an illustration of just what this looks like in real life. This couple was a part of the early church. They had been among those who had believed in Jesus. But, like all believers, they had their old sin natures to contend with and, when they saw what Joseph had done and the recognition he had received as a result of his action, they determined to do the same. It is likely that their initial compulsion to sell their property came from the Holy Spirit. Based on Peter’s later accusation that they had lied to the Holy Spirit, it would make sense that they had been acting under the Spirit’s prompting, but had been motivated by the need for recognition and their own hearts filled with greed.

But Luke provides us with an insider’s view behind the curtain of the early church, revealing that, even then, there was a dark side. Then, as now, saved, but sin-prone, people made up the church. Ananias and Sapphira are not presented as wicked, sinful people, but as part of the local body of believers. Their story is intended to reveal the vulnerability and susceptibility of the early church to both external and internal attack. In the midst of all the unity and selflessness, they are presented as an example of selfishness and self-centeredness. External persecution, while always dangerous, is nothing when compared with the impact of internal compromise and spiritual deceit. At first glance, what Ananias and Sapphira did does not appear to be that egregious. Luke simply records that they “sold some property.” Then he writes, “He brought part of the money to the apostles, claiming it was the full amount. With his wife’s consent, he kept the rest” (Acts 5:2 NLT). Like Joseph, they sold some property. Like Joseph, they gave the proceeds to the apostles. But unlike Joseph, they didn’t give it all. There is no indication that they were required to give it all. Their sin seems to be that they claimed to be giving it all. They gave the impression that they were donating all the profit from their sale to the communal needs of the body of Christ. And their little charade, rather than garnering them the praise of men, was going to bring down the judgment of God. And the new life of the church, marked by growth, unity, selflessness and community, was going to be darkened by death.  

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

Risky Business.

O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. – Jeremiah 20:7-8 ESV

Jeremiah 20:7-18

Being a prophet of God was not an easy task. While it was a job that came with a certain amount of power and authority, prophets were far from popular. They didn’t get invited to a lot of parties. They could count their number of friends on one hand. Their role as spokesmen for God put them in an awkward place socially. Their God-given responsibility was to warn the people about the coming judgment of God and to call them to repentance – not exactly a popularity-producing message. Prophets tended to be lonely and had to suffer the rejection and ridicule of the very people they were trying to save. They were most often misunderstood and frequently mistreated. And Jeremiah was no exception. “Jeremiah was hated, jeered at, ostracized, continually harassed, and more than once almost killed” (John Bright, A History of Israel, pp. 313, 314). But in spite of all the difficulties they faced, the one thing each of the prophets enjoyed was a close relationship with God. They heard from Him regularly and dialogued with Him freely. The loneliness and isolation of their job produced in them a dependence upon God that few others have ever experienced.

The prayer of Jeremiah above came about after an unfortunate incident that took place between he and Pashtur, a priest and the chief officer over the house of the Lord. Jeremiah had come to the temple to prophesy and had warned the people, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, behold, I am bringing upon this city and upon all its towns all the disaster that I have pronounced against it, because they have stiffened their neck, refusing to hear my words” (Jeremiah 19:15 ESV). It seems that Pashtur didn’t like what Jeremiah had to say, so he “beat Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the Lord” (Jeremiah 20:2 ESV). Upon his release the next day, Jeremiah had some less-than-comforting words from God to share with Pashtur. “And you, Pashhur, and all who dwell in your house, shall go into captivity. To Babylon you shall go, and there you shall die, and there you shall be buried, you and all your friends, to whom you have prophesied falsely” (Jeremiah 20:6 ESV). It was this uncomfortable confrontation that led to Jeremiah’s prayer.

He was tired and frustrated. No doubt he was still feeling the effects of the beating he had suffered at the hands of Pashtur. Jeremiah was faithful to his calling, but he was still human. He had feelings. He longed for a normal life. But Jeremiah felt deceived and betrayed by God. For years he had done what God had called him to do. He had faithfully and boldly warned the people, but no one had repented. No one had returned to God. His message had fallen on deaf ears. And Jeremiah felt like a failure. He was nothing more than a laughingstock, a social pariah, and, in his own estimation, a lousy prophet. He sarcastically boiled down the essence of his message to the words, “Violence and destruction!” He was the perpetual bearer of bad news, and he was feeling defeated and more than a bit depressed by it all. But God had warned Jeremiah that his job was not going to easy. On the day God called him, Jeremiah had been told, “And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:18-19 ESV). God’s word had proved to be true. They had fought against Jeremiah. He had faced all kinds of opposition. But God was also true to His word because He was still with Jeremiah. He had not left or forsaken him. No one, including Pashtur, would be able to prevail against Jeremiah, because God was with him. He would deliver him.

The role of the faithful servant of God is not an easy one. To live your life set apart for His use and to speak His truth in a culture that does not want to hear it, will not result in popularity. Jesus warned us that the world would hate us. Paul warned that the day would come when people would much rather have their ears tickled with falsehood than hear the truth of God. And the sad thing is that this has become a reality within the church today. Those who attempt to speak the truth of God to the people of God will often find their words falling on deaf ears. Their message of repentance will be rejected by many who call themselves chosen by God. And they will find themselves competing with others whose messages are far more palatable. But this is nothing new. Jeremiah faced the same problem. God had already warned the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day. “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:13-14 ESV).

The days in which we live call for God’s people to live differently and distinctively. We cannot afford to blend in with the culture around us. We have been called to be salt and light. We have been given a message to share that involves dealing honestly with sin and the need for repentance. We are ambassadors for God. Our task will not be easy. Our message will not always be accepted or appreciated. There will be days we feel like giving up. But we must remain faithful, trusting that God will be with us and that He will deliver us.

What Shall We Say?

And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, “The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.” – Ezra 9:10-12 ESV

Ezra 9:6-15

As far as Ezra was concerned, all the people could say was, “Guilty as charged.” They had clearly violated God’s command. It was right there in black and white. God had told them when they first took possession of the land He had promised them that they were NOT to intermarry with the people living in the land. But hundreds of years later, even after having just spent 70 years in captivity for their many violations of God’s laws, the people had broken this command once again. And there was nothing they could say. No amount of rationalizing or justifying could change the fact that they had disobeyed God. It was not just that they had intermarried with non-Jews, it was the dangerous spiritual outcome of their decision to do so. God had warned them, “You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4 NLT). Obviously, there was far more going on here than Jews and non-Jews being tied in wedlock. It was all about allegiance to God. The banned marriages had resulted in exactly what God had warned would happen: Forsaking of God and His ways.

There is no doubt that this was a different context than the one in which we live. But there are some fascinating parallels and some important lessons we can learn from this story. It was the apostle John who wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16 ESV). As believers, we live in a constant state of tension. We are to resist and reject the things of this world and yet we are called to live among and love those who make up this world. We are called to remain distinct and different, set apart from the influences of this fallen world; while at the same time sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with all those who live in the world. Jesus prayed for us, saying, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:15-17 ESV). We are not of this world. Yet we have been called to live in it and yet not become part of it. We must constantly walk the fine line between being those who influence and those who are being influenced. Our job is to be salt and light. Yet there are many believers today that seem to think that it is impossible to love while maintaining our saltiness and refraining from keeping our lights hidden. There is a growing sentiment that we must love others by loving what they love – regardless of whether those things are offensive to God or not. There is also a growing movement toward assimilation and acceptance of the culture. We are becoming increasingly “married” to the ways of this world – all in an attempt to love them. But Jesus, while loving the lost, never lowered His standards or compromised His convictions. He loved while demanding change. He would embrace and welcome sinners, all the while demanding, “Go and sin no more.” His mission was a transformation of the heart. He loved so that He could redeem and restore. At no point did He embrace the sins of those He came to save. As He did with the woman at the well, He exposed their sin. “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true” (John 4:17-18 ESV).

So what shall we say? Are we guilty of compromise? In our efforts to be relevant and relational, have we confused tolerance with love, diminishing the holiness of God? Have we lost our saltiness and hidden our lights under a basket, all in order to “love” the lost? For many of us, the acceptance of this world is far more important to us than the approval of God. We want to be thought of as tolerant, progressive, inclusive, and always in keeping with the times. But some things never change. We have been called to live lives that are set apart and distinct from the world. We are to live in the world while remaining apart from its influences. We are to love the lost while never accepting or approving of their sin. No one said that would be easy. No one said we would find a ready reception if we lived that way. In fact, we were told that the world would hate us. We would be called intolerant and inflexible. We would be accused of everything from radicalism to irrationalism. But the greatest expression of our love for the lost is our desire to tell them the truth – about God, their own sin, and the one and only source of salvation: Jesus Christ.

And Yet, God.

But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.Ezra 9:8-9 ESV

Ezra 9:6-15

Ezra was in mourning over the sorry state of the people of Judah. They had been returned the land by God after 70 years in captivity due to their own sinfulness, and here they were, still living in rebellion against Him. Ezra, having just returned to Judah from the land of Babylon, was appalled and devastated by what he saw. So he took it upon himself to confess the corporate sins of the people to God. Ezra was personally ashamed for their conduct. As a scribe, an expert in the Mosaic law, he was well aware that what they were doing was in direct violation of God’s commands. And he knew that God would not take their disobedience lightly. The most amazing thing to Ezra was that the people were doing all of this in spite of God’s amazing grace and mercy. He had shown them favor. He had taken a remnant of them and arranged for them to return to the land to rebuild the temple and to restore the city of Jerusalem. God had not forsaken them, but had fulfilled His promise to restore them to the land after their 70 years of captivity were complete. They hadn’t deserved it or in any way earned it. Even their time as slaves in Babylon had been marked by continuing rebellion against God. They had regularly worshiped false gods. They had continued to reject and rebel against the one true God. And yet, He had kept His word. He had fulfilled His promise.

Ezra did not take God’s grace lightly. He was shocked that the people who had experienced that grace could so easily snub their noses at God and blatantly live in open rebellion to His commands. Their lives were marked by compromise. Rather than separate themselves from the other nations that had taken up residence in the land during their absence, they gladly coexisted with them, marrying off their sons and daughters to them. Not only that, they compromised their allegiance to God by taking on the false gods of their neighbors, diluting their faith and offending the very One who had rescued them from captivity.

In a very real way, this parallels the experience of so many of us as believers. God has redeemed us from slavery to sin. He has made it possible for us to be restored to a right relationship with Him, and yet we find ourselves comingling with the world around us. Rather than remaining separate and set apart, we determine to blend in and, in the process, end up compromising our convictions. Many of us, having been set free by God, find ourselves enslaved to the world. We seek our self-worth and satisfaction from what the world can offer. We long to be accepted by the world. Rather than stand out for our faith, we prefer to blend in. And slowly, steadily, we begin to make compromises and concessions. We find ourselves rationalizing our behavior and excusing our actions. We refuse to accept Jesus’ warning that we would be hated by the world. Instead of living as strangers and sojourners in this land, recognizing that we are citizens of another kingdom, we choose to get to cozy and comfortable with this world. We gladly adopt their ways and accept their standards as our own. The convictions of the culture around us slowly begin to influence and infect us, and we begin to lose our distinctiveness. Chosen and set apart by God, we find ourselves looking more and more like the world around us. Our distinction as Christians becomes more a label than a lifestyle. That was the problem Ezra encountered when he arrived in Judah. The saints had lost their saltiness. The intensity of their light had diminished and they were close to being overwhelmed by the surrounding darkness.

And yet, God was still showing them favor. He was still extending to them mercy. He had sent back Ezra with the sole task of reestablishing His law in the land. He had allowed them to rebuild the temple. He would eventually send back Nehemiah with another wave of exiles to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem and reoccupy the city. God was not done. And He is not done today. In spite of all we see happening around us and the distinct feeling that the darkness is overwhelming us, God is on His throne. He is still in charge. But He is looking for a remnant of His people who will boldly stand apart from the crowd and speak up for the truth. He is calling His people to come back to Him, to reject the ways of this world and renew their commitment to live lives of holiness. For the believer, compromise is deadly. And the temptation to do so is greater than it has ever been. The world wants to silence our voices, stifle our faith, compromise our convictions, and distract us from our devotion to God. But we must never forget that God has redeemed us from the world. We can live in it and yet not become part of it. We have been called to make a difference, not blend in. We have been saved so that we might tell others of the truth regarding man’s sin and God’s plan of salvation. Some of us have compromised our faith. Others of us have allowed ourselves to succumb to defeat and despair. We live as if all hope is lost and the enemy is winning. But our God reigns. He wins in the end. His victory is assured. We must live like we believe it. All is not lost. But it is time for the called out to stand up and to live out their faith.

Shame On Us.

O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. – Ezra 9:6-7 ESV

Ezra 9:6-15

In 537 B.C., 50,000 Jews were allowed to return to the land of Judah from after 70 years of captivity in Babylon. It was all made possible by a decree from Cyrus, the Persian king. They were led by Zerubbabel and their task was to rebuild the temple of God. In 487 B.C., at the decree of the Persian king, Artaxerxes, Ezra and some 2,000 other refugees returned to the land with the responsibility to restore proper worship in the temple and to reestablish and enforce God’s laws. Ezra was a scribe, an expert in the law. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they did not find things as they had expected. Ezra received a report informing him of some rather disconcerting news. “Many of the people of Israel, and even some of the priests and Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the other peoples living in the land. They have taken up the detestable practices of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites. For the men of Israel have married women from these people and have taken them as wives for their sons. So the holy race has become polluted by these mixed marriages. Worse yet, the leaders and officials have led the way in this outrage” (Ezra 9:1-2 NLT).
When Ezra heard this news, he was appalled. The Hebrew word Ezra used to describe his state is shamem. It means “to be stunned, horrified, appalled, and stupified” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance). He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The exiled who had returned to the land thanks to a miracle of God and allowed to rebuild the once destroyed temple, had been breaking one of God’s cardinal laws: intermarriage. Not only that, they had been taking up “the detestable practices” of the pagan people who had occupied the land in their absence. Rather than live set apart and holy lives, dedicated to God, they had compromised their convictions and powerfully diluted their influence as the people of God. And their leaders had set the tone for this shocking display. Ezra went into mourning. Then he took the issue before the Lord. Standing before the people, he raised his hands and prayed. “O my God, I am utterly ashamed; I blush to lift up my face to you” (NLT). He came before God in a state of utter dismay and embarrassment on behalf of the people of Judah. While he had not participated in their sin, he felt a responsibility for it. He knew that, as a people, they represented God’s children. Their sin was corporate in nature. Rather than living as the chosen, set apart people of God, they had decided to become like the world around them, taking on their sinful practices and bringing shame to the very name of God.
How serious was all of this? Ezra put it in very stark terms, saying, “our sins are piled higher than our heads, and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” This was serious business. He knew that God was fully aware of their sin and was not pleased. In fact, this latest transgression against God was a reminder of all the sins the people of Israel had committed over the centuries and that had led to their many defeats and their ultimate fall to the Babylonians. But here they were, even after 70 years of captivity, doing it all again. Ezra couldn’t believe his eyes. He couldn’t gloss over what he had seen and heard. He couldn’t act as if it hadn’t happened or it didn’t matter. Years earlier, when God had prepared to send the people into the land of Canaan for the very first time, He had told commanded them regarding the people living in the land, “You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4 NLT). God had known that the outcome of these marriages would be devastating to the spiritual well being of the Israelites. But they had failed to obey God then, and they were repeating the same mistake again. And the saddest part was that they were unashamed of their actions. It reminds me of a statement made by God before the fall of Jerusalem. Speaking of the religious leaders of Israel, God said, “Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush” (Jeremiah 8:12 ESV). But Ezra was ashamed. He was mortified by the actions of his fellow Jews and he brought his shame before God. 
There comes a time when we must accept the reality of our corporate sin as the people of God. While we may be free from personal guilt, we still bear a responsibility to accept and acknowledge the guilt we share as part of God’s family. We cannot afford to overlook the transgressions committed by fellow believers and believe it has no impact on ourselves. Ezra knew that God’s blessings on the people of Israel would be directly influenced by their behavior. Their sin would bring His displeasure. Ezra knew that and so he too personal responsibility to confess their sins before God. Rather than simply claim his own innocence, Ezra confessed their corporate culpability before God. What good was a rebuilt temple and a restored people if they refused to live their lives set apart to God? Perhaps it’s time that we began to see our corporate sin as the people of God with greater clarity and take personal responsibility before God. Or do we feel no shame? Have we forgotten how to blush at our sin?

The Logical Vs The Impossible.

And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” – Genesis 17:18 ESV

Back in chapter 15 of Genesis, Abraham had expressed some concern with God regarding His plan to make of him a great nation. As far as Abraham was concerned, God’s plan had a couple of significant flaws: He and his wife, Sarah, were old, and she was barren. So he had suggested Eliezer, his servant, as a possible stand-in for the heir-apparent. But God would have nothing to do with it. That was not His will and He made it quite clear. “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:4 ESV). So there would be no substitutes accepted. Then, to drive home His point, God had taken Abraham outside and had him look up at the stars. God then said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5 ESV). Point made. Case closed. And we’re told, “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6 ESV). Abraham got the message. He knew that God was going to give him a son, an heir, and from that son would come a great nation. Abraham believed the promise of God and was considered righteous by God for doing so. He expressed faith in God even thought he could not see the outcome of the promise. He had no proof, no evidence, other than a glance into the nighttime sky and a word from God. But that was enough.

Which brings us to today’s passage. Time had passed. Abraham and Sarah had gotten older. Sarah was still barren. Little had changed in their circumstances. Other than the fact that God had made a covenant with Abraham and told him that his offspring would end up living in a foreign country where they would be slaves, but then would return to live in the land 400 years later. In the meantime, Sarah had come up with her great plan to give Abraham a son through her handmaid, Hagar. The result of this less-than-godly plan, which Abraham wholeheartedly endorsed, was the birth of Ishmael. The logic of Sarah and Abraham was sound. God had promised to make of them a great nation. He had said that it would be through a son born to them. So they decided to help God out. By Abraham having a son through Hagar. But once again, this was NOT God’s plan. And God would patiently reconfirm His plan with Abraham. He told him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 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 17:4-8 ESV). God went on to reassure Abraham that He was going to give him a son of his own. “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her’” (Genesis 17:15-16 ESV). God made Himself perfectly clear. He was going to give Abraham a son through Sarah, not Hagar. He was going to do the impossible. And what was Abraham’s reaction? “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Genesis 17:17 ESV). None of it made sense to Abraham. It sounded ridiculous, far-fetched, impossible. Even for God.

It was at this point that Abraham uttered his small, seemingly innocent prayer. “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” It was as if Abraham was saying, “Won’t you reconsider?” He believed God was going to bless him and make of him a great nation. He even believed God would do it through one of his own offspring. He just didn’t believe God could do it through Sarah. But God had made Himself clear. He had said He would bless Sarah. He had said that Sarah would bear a child. And then to make sure Abraham got the point, God said gave Abraham an answer regarding Ishmael. “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac” (Genesis 17:19 ESV). God had a plan and He didn’t need Abraham’s help. He simply needed Abraham to trust Him. Sarah’s barrenness was not a problem for God, it was simply an opportunity for Him to display His power. Rather than trying to convince God to settle for Ishmael, Abraham needed to be praying that God would bless Sarah. Instead of wasting his time trying to get God to accept the logical, Abraham needed to be asking for and expecting the impossible. Jeremiah the prophet wrote, “Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17 ESV). Abraham believed God could bless him and make of him a great nation. But he struggled believing that God could do it through an elderly, barren woman. Too often, our prayers are based on human reasoning and bolstered by logic. We limit our expectations of God based on what we can see and understand. But as God would eventually tell Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:14 ESV).