Is It Lawful?

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
    my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21     and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” – Matthew 12:9-21 ESV

The Pharisees have just accused Jesus’ disciples of violating the laws against reaping on the Sabbath because they had picked a few heads of grain to satisfy their hunger. And Jesus responded by claiming Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath. This tense exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel was just the beginning of what would become a growing battle over authority and control. As members of the Pharisees, these men held sway over the people of Israel, acting as a kind of religious oversight board, with the self-appointed responsibility of managing the spiritual affairs of the people. They were a religious sect and not members of the priestly order ordained by God.

The name, Pharisee, comes from a Hebrew word meaning, “separate,” and it reflects a belief that they were somehow set apart and separated from the common and less-fortunate people of Israel. The Pharisees were comprised of middle-class businessmen for whom membership served as a kind of social club. It provided them with prestige and honor and allowed them to influence the affairs of the nation. Their primary point of influence had to do with the Mosaic law. But they were strict adherents to the oral law as well, deeming it to have equal weight and authority over the lives of the people. In fact, at the time of Jesus, they stringently enforced the more than 600 laws found in the Torah, many of which were man-made and not God-ordained.

In keeping with his thematic style, Matthew records that immediately after Jesus had His confrontation with the Pharisees over His disciples’ Sabbath violation, Jesus made His way to the synagogue – on the Sabbath. This whole scene appears to be a set-up by the Pharisees. They had prepared for this occasion and had one purpose behind their plans: To accuse Jesus of violating the Sabbath. They were looking for ammunition to use against Him. If they could get Him to break the established laws concerning the Sabbath, including their oral regulations, they could dismiss and discredit Him.

It seems obvious that the scene which Matthew describes was all preplanned by the Pharisees and designed to place Jesus in a difficult situation. As soon as He arrived in the synagogue, he found Himself facing a man with a withered hand. The very fact that this man was in the synagogue would have been odd and unexpected because the Jews tended to view people with disabilities and diseases as cursed by God. The Jewish sages taught that anyone with a disability or visible blemish was to be excluded from communal gatherings in the synagogue so that they would not be a distraction to the rest of the congregants. So, the very fact that Jesus stood facing a man with a withered or paralyzed hand would have been unexpected and unusual.

And Matthew points out that the Pharisees immediately asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:10 ESV). This had all been a staged affair. The man with the paralyzed hand was nothing more than a prop, a helpless tool in their efforts to frame Jesus. But Jesus was not fooled by their efforts. He knew exactly what they were up to and seemingly plays along with their little ploy.

Rather than answer their question directly, Jesus responded with a question of His own. He turned the tables, placing the onus on them to answer their own question. He asked them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11 ESV). His question was rhetorical in nature, requiring no answer. The Pharisees were businessmen who knew the value of livestock and would do whatever it took to protect their investment. Knowing this, Jesus pointed out that a man, even one with a withered hand, has far more value than a sheep. So, if they believed the rescue of a sheep was lawful on the Sabbath, then His healing of a man with a withered hand was as well. And with that said, Jesus healed the man.

And the Pharisees were furious. Not just because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, but because He had duped them. He had turned the tables on them and had made them appear like fools. And Matthew points out that they “went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matthew 12:14 ESV). This was war. And they were not interested in a long-term, drawn-out affair. Their intentions were immediate and driven by an unwavering commitment to destroy Jesus as soon as possible. This is why Matthew reports, “Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there” (Matthew 12:15 ESV).

But Jesus was anything but scared. He was not running for His life or going into hiding. In fact, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus continued to heal others, even though it remained the Sabbath. But in each case, He commanded those whom He healed to “not to make him known” (Matthew 12:16 ESV). Jesus was not interested in building His reputation or manufacturing larger crowds of followers. He was on a God-ordained mission, and there was a divine timeline in play. He knew that each and every time He healed someone, the focus of the people would fall on the nature of the miracle performed. And with each miracle, Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker would be further reinforced in the minds of the people. But He had come to be their Messiah. His real mission was to bring healing of a spiritual nature, not physical. But the more that people heard about the blind having their sight restored, the crippled being able to walk, and the demon-possessed being set free, the greater the chance that they would miss the real purpose behind Jesus’ coming.

And Matthew, quoting from the writings of the prophet, Isaiah, lets us know that Jesus had not come seeking publicity and popularity. He was not some grandstanding miracle worker in search of a reputation and in need of recognition. No, He was the chosen Servant of God, destined to bring hope to a lost and dying world, mired in sin, and living under divine condemnation.

“Look at my Servant, whom I have chosen.
    He is my Beloved, who pleases me.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not fight or shout
    or raise his voice in public.
He will not crush the weakest reed
    or put out a flickering candle.
    Finally he will cause justice to be victorious.
And his name will be the hope
    of all the world.” – Matthew 12:18-21 NLT

Matthew quotes from Isaiah 42:1-4, an Old Testament passage that speaks of the coming Messiah, but in terms of His role as the suffering servant. Jesus had not come to crush the opposition, but to be crushed and to serve as the payment for the sins of mankind. And it should not be missed that Isaiah describes the Messiah as “the hope of all the world.”

The Hebrew word Isaiah used refers to the inhabitants of the earth. This would have included all people, of all nations, tribes, and tongues. And Matthew, when translating this passage into Greek, used the word ethnos, which means “Gentiles.” Jesus was coming to offer hope to all – not just to the Jews, but to the entire world. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the universal nature of Christ’s redeeming work.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:22-26 ESV

The Pharisees were looking for a way to bring Jesus to justice. They were searching for an excuse to put Him to death for what they deemed to be His blatant disregard for the laws of God. But Jesus had been sent by God to fulfill the law. He would provide a means by which God could remain just, holding sinful men responsible for their rebellion against Him, while at the same time justifying all those who placed their faith in the sacrificial death of His Son.

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

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

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

No Condemnation

1 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. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:1-11 ESV

No condemnation. Let those two words sink in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But look closely at what Paul says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jesus, Our Refuge.

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’”

So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland, from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh. These were the cities designated for all the people of Israel and for the stranger sojourning among them, that anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there, so that he might not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, till he stood before the congregation. Joshua 20:1-9 ESV

10-cities-of-refuge

God had given His people the land He had promised them. But they were not free to live in the land according to their own standards or apart from His divine law. He had provided them with His law while they were still in the wilderness and He had intended for them to take the law with them into the promised land, where it would determine the nature of their relationship with Him and with one another. And God, knowing the reality of man’s sin nature, had made provision for the inevitable presence of sin among His people. The entire sacrificial system was designed to provide atonement for their sins and restore them to a right relationship with God. And because the sacrificial system could not remove sin, it would be a permanent part of their communal experience for generations to come.

One of the sad realities the law was forced to address was the human potential for murder. Even though the Israelites were united in their common bond as children of God, they were sinners who were fully capable of turning on one another out of jealousy or motivated by anger, and willfully taking the life of a brother or sister. So, God had made provision for such acts of violence, telling Moses, “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:12 ESV). And God went on to clarify and qualify the conditions for putting a man to death for murder. His actions had to be premeditated.

“if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.” – Exodus 21:14 ESV

God knew that there would always be the potential for extenuating circumstances. In other words, there might be unforeseen issues at play that dictated whether the murder was willful or simply an accident. So, He had added an important addendum to His law, stating, “But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee” (Exodus 21:13 ESV). God had gone on to provide the people of Israel with detailed plans concerning this important aspect of His judicial system. 

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. 15 These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there. – Numbers 35:9-15 ESV

God had predetermined that the Israelites would designate six cities within the land of promise that would serve as places of refuge for anyone who committed murder. And these six cities, located strategically throughout the land, were intended to be easily reached by anyone who was guilty of murder. Within the confines of these cities, the guilty party was to be offered sanctuary and protection from anyone who might want to avenge the death of the victim. And it’s important to note that these six cities were among the 42 cities set aside for the tribe of Levi as their places of residence.

“The cities that you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities.” – Numbers 35:6 ESV

The one who committed the act of murder was allowed to seek refuge in one of these Levitical cities. As long as he was in the city, he was to be provided protection, until such time as the residents of the city were able to ascertain whether his act was accidental or premeditated. If it was determined that he had committed murder willfully, he was to be turned over to the “avenger” in order that he might be put to death. If evidence was produced that proved the murder was accidental, the guilty party was confined to the city of refuge for life or until the death of the high priest, at which time the prisoner was to be set free and absolved of all guilt. The death of the high priest acted as an atonement for the sin of the guilty party. But if the manslayer willingly left the protective confines of the city of refuge at any time, he would be fair game for the avenger. He took his life into his own hands. But as long as the guilty party placed his life in the hands of the Levites, he was safe. If he chose to leave the city, he forfeited his right to life.

The cities of refuge are a picture of the role that Christ was to eventually play in the life of each and every guilty sinner. The book of Hebrews provides us with a comforting reminder that we, as guilty sinners, can seek refuge in Christ, our high priest.

18 Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. 19 This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. 20 Jesus has already gone in there for us. He has become our eternal High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 6:18-20 NLT

We can run to Christ and find safety and protection from the condemnation of sin and death. And Paul would have us remember that our condemnation has been removed because of Christ’s death on our behalf.

1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. – Romans 8:1-2 NLT

Paul goes on to tell us that because we have sought refuge in Christ, we are freed from any and all accusations of guilt or any calls for our execution.

33 Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. 34 Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. – Romans 8:33-34 NLT

God knew His people were going to sin. That’s why He gave them His law and His sacrificial system. He also knew His people would commit murder, either willingly or accidentally. So, He provided cities of refuge. But notice that the only way the manslayer could be absolved of his guilt was through death. The high priest had to die. And the only way that sinners can be absolved of their guilt before God is through the death of the great High Priest, Jesus Christ. He gave His life so that we might have forgiveness of sin and be freed from condemnation. Jesus is our High Priest, in whom we find refuge. But we don’t just hide from our guilt and sin, we are completely freed from it because of what He has done on our behalf.

24 But because Jesus lives forever, his priesthood lasts forever. 25 Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf.

26 He is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin. He has been set apart from sinners and has been given the highest place of honor in heaven. 27 Unlike those other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices every day. They did this for their own sins first and then for the sins of the people. But Jesus did this once for all when he offered himself as the sacrifice for the people’s sins. 28 The law appointed high priests who were limited by human weakness. But after the law was given, God appointed his Son with an oath, and his Son has been made the perfect High Priest forever. – Hebrews 7:24-28 NLT

Jesus Christ, our refuge. His death set us free from our guilt and condemnation. And there is no one who can accuse us anymore.
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

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 Wonderful Ways Of God.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 ESV

Paul sums up all he has said in the last three chapters regarding Israel’s rejection of God, their partial hardening and their ultimate restoration as God’s people with a statement about God. He marvels at God’s incomparable riches, wisdom and knowledge. He confesses that God’s ways and judgments are unsearchable and inscrutable. But what does all this mean? What is Paul really saying about God?

I think the New American Standard Version has a more accurate rendering of Paul’s opening line: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” The word, “riches” refers to abundance or fullness. Paul is saying that God is overflowing in wisdom and knowledge. “God’s ‘wisdom’ is His ability to arrange His plan so it results in good for both Jews and Gentiles and His own glory. His ‘knowledge’ testifies to His ability to construct such a plan” (Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes On Romans, 2009 Edition). We may not always understand what God is doing, but we can always trust that what He is doing is right and good. Paul goes on to say that God’s judgments are unsearchable. The word, “judgment” carries a judicial sense to it. It can mean “condemnation of wrong, the decision (whether severe or mild) which one passes on the faults of others” (Outline of Biblical Usage). We have no right to judge God for what He does, including His judgment of the sins of men or His choosing to show mercy to some who deserve His judgment. His “ways” or actions are beyond our comprehension. His thought processes are out of our realm of understanding. Isaiah confirmed this reality when he wrote, “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the Lord. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT).

Paul even uses the words of Isaiah to support his point. “Who is able to advise the Spirit of the Lord? Who knows enough to give him advice or teach him? Has the Lord ever needed anyone’s advice? Does he need instruction about what is good? Did someone teach him what is right or show him the path of justice?” (Isaiah 40:13-14 NLT). In verse 35, Paul even pulls in the thoughts of Elihu, one of Job’s well-meaning friends. “If you are good, is this some great gift to him [God]? What could you possibly give him?” (Job 35:7 NLT). He also quotes the words of God given in response to Job’s questioning of His ways. “Who has given me anything that I need to pay back? Everything under heaven is mine” (Job 41:11 NLT).

God is not someone we should question. While His ways of doing things may seem odd to us or even distasteful, they are always right, just and good. There is always a method and a meaning to what may appear to us at times as His madness. He doesn’t need our advice. He isn’t in need of our counsel. He doesn’t owe us anything, including His mercy. God does not have to redeem anyone. He is not obligated to extend saving grace to any man or woman. That He does so at all should blow us away. It should leave us in awe of His incredible love, patience, and faithfulness. When Paul wrote, “For God has consigned all to disobedience” (Romans 11:32 ESV), he was saying that God was justly passing sentence on all men for their sin and rebellion against Him– “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). Every single human being has been guilty of disobedience or “obstinate opposition to the divine will” (Outline of Biblical Usage). And that includes both the Jews and the Gentiles. But God has decided to show mercy to both the Jews and the Gentiles. Because they deserved it? No. But as Paul wrote, God shows “mercy on whomever he will, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:18 ESV). His mercy and compassion have nothing to do with human will or self-effort (Romans 9:16), but are the sole prerogative of God. Which is why Paul concludes, “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36 ESV). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory.”

Salvation is a gift of God. It is based solely on the mercy of God. It has nothing to do with anything inherently good in the one who receives it. None of us deserve God’s mercy. What He chooses to do in regards to sinful mankind is completely up to Him. As God, He is free to do whatever He deems to be just and good. And all that He does, He does for His own glory. His actions always reveal His character in such a way that He is lifted up. Whenever He acts, He expresses His judgment and He does so in a perfectly just and righteous manner. When He punishes, He never does so unjustly. It is always deserved. When He shows mercy, it is never at the expense of His justice. In other words, it is never unjust or unfair. When God pardons the sins of men who believe in His Son, He doesn’t just turn His back on their sins and act as if they never happened. That would be unjust and unrighteous. Their sins deserve punishment. The crime requires sentencing and a payment of the penalty due. So God took care of the penalty with the death of His Son. He paid the price for our sins by sending His Son to die in our place. How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable are His ways! How wonderful are the ways of God!

The Mercy of God.

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. – Romans 9:14-18 ESV

Paul had just made the point that not all who are descendants of Abraham are considered children of the promise. God chose Isaac over Ishmael. He chose Jacob over Esau. And His choosing of one over the other had nothing to do with their behavior or perceived righteousness. In fact, while Jacob and Esau were still in the womb, God told Sarah, “The older will serve the younger” (Romans 9:12 ESV). And Paul comments that God made this announcement “though they were not yet born and had done nothing ether good or bad” (Romans 9:11a ESV). Why? “In order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls” (Romans 9:11b ESV). God chose. His plan, ordained by Him before the world was even created, included His choosing of some over others. He chose Abraham over all the other men on the earth at the time, and not because of anything inherently righteous about Abraham. He chose Isaac over Ishmael, even though Ishmael was Abraham’s first-born son. He chose Jacob over Esau, even though they were twins and Esau was the older of the two. He chose Moses, in spite of his murder conviction. God chose David over all the other sons of Jesse. Then He chose to replace  Saul as the king of Israel with David.Paul even quotes the very words of God, spoken through the prophet Malachi. “‘I have always loved you,’ says the Lord. But you retort, ‘Really? How have you loved us?’ And the Lord replies, ‘This is how I showed my love for you: I loved your ancestor Jacob, but I rejected his brother, Esau, and devastated his hill country. I turned Esau’s inheritance into a desert for jackals’” (Malachi 1:2-3 NLT).

The natural, human response to all of this is to question God’s fairness or justice. Our human sensibilities struggle with the idea of God hating one and loving another. We wrestle with the thought of God choosing one and not another. And yet, as Paul illustrates, God’s election or sovereign choosing can be seen all throughout Scripture. God even told Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15 ESV). And what is Paul’s point in all of this? God’s choosing has nothing to do with merit. It is all based on His mercy. “So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it” (Romans 9:16 NLT). Paul even reaches back into the history of Israel to show how God chose to use Pharaoh to accomplish His will and proclaim His own glory. “For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, ‘I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth’” (Romans 9:17 NLT). God used Pharaoh in order to display His own power. Over and over again in the story of the God’s deliverance of Israel from captivity in Egypt, we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He did so to display His power and accomplish His divine will for His people.

We struggle with that thought. We question why God would kill some and not others. We wrestle with the idea of God using people like pawns in some kind of divine game. But in doing so, we fail to ask the question, “Why would a holy God choose to show mercy on anyone?” Why would He choose Jacob over Esau? In a sermon on the story of Jacob and Esau, C. H. Spurgeon commented:

“I can tell you the reason why God loved Jacob; it is sovereign grace. There was nothing in Jacob that could make God love him; there was everything about him, that might have made God hate him, as much as he did Esau, and a great deal more. But it was because God was infinitely gracious, that he loved Jacob, and because he was sovereign in his dispensation of this grace, that he chose Jacob as the object of that love.”

Paul’s goal in this passage is to emphasize the mercy of God. No one deserves His mercy. The Jews, just because they were descendants of Abraham, did not automatically qualify for His forgiveness and mercy. They still had to believe. They had to place their faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Thomas Constable comments, “It is not man’s desire or effort that causes God to be merciful but His own sovereign choice. God is under no obligation to show mercy or extend grace to anyone. If we insist on receiving just treatment from God, what we will get is condemnation” (Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Romans, 2009 Edition).

The Bible states that God “wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (2 Timothy 2:4 NLT). But we know that not all men will be saved. Many have rejected His offer of salvation and died in their sinful state. Many more will do so in the years to come. Some will be saved. Some will not. When Noah and his family were protected by God and placed in the ark, they were extended the grace of God. But many others were condemned by their own sinful state to suffer death in the waters that covered the earth. The thought of this is hard for us to grasp and understand. But the Bible clearly states, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV). All deserve to die. The fact that God extends mercy to any should amaze and astound us. Until we fully understand the gravity of our sin, we will never appreciate the grace and mercy of God. And Paul goes on to say, “but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 ESV). The undeserved, unearned mercy of God should never cease to astound and amaze us.

 

The Free Gift.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. ­– Romans 5:15-17 ESV

Adam’s sin brought death into the world. And his sin, and that of Eve, was the result of disbelief. They doubted God’s word. When the serpent spoke to Eve in the garden, he got her to question the veracity of God’s word. He planted seeds of doubt in her mind and it led to disobedience. Doubt resulted in disobedience. Disobedience resulted in death – for all. But Paul delivers the great news regarding the good news of Jesus Christ: “The free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin.” Adam’s sin brought death. God’s free gift brought righteousness. Adam’s sin brought condemnation. God’s free gift brought justification. And the free gift that Paul is talking about is the grace of God made possible by the death of His Son, Jesus Christ. He speaks of this same amazing gift of God’s grace in his letter to the Ephesian church. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ ­– by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV).

Adam’s doubt in God brought disbelief in God, and that disbelief led to disobedience and death. But the faithfulness of Christ to the will of His Father resulted in a life of obedience, even to the point of death. Paul describes it well in his letter to the Philippian church. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). Jesus’ obedience to the Father resulted in justification for all men, not just Himself. His death paid the penalty for the sins of all men, for all time. Adam’s sin brought the reign of death to mankind. Christ’s sacrifice ended the reign of sin. John wrote, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). Jesus Himself said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24 ESV). The free gift that Paul speaks of is free, but it must be accepted. It requires belief in the message of God’s grace as offered through the death of His Son. Any hope we have for being seen as righteous and acceptable in God’s eyes is found only in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Adam’s sin brought death and condemnation to all mankind, but Jesus brings the offer of eternal life and no condemnation to any and all who will place their faith in Him as their sin substitute and Savior. In chapter eight of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 ESV).

Many struggle with the idea of imputed sin. They find it unfair that one man’s sin could have infected and impacted and entire race of people. That we would be held responsible for a sin committed by one man all those years ago seems to make God out to be a tyrant. But it is not as if we stand guiltless and innocent before God. The sin of Adam and Eve introduced sin into the world, and it didn’t take long for it to take root. Adam’s own sons inherited his sin nature. Cain murdered Abel out of a heart of jealousy and anger. And Paul reminds us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). It is not like we are standing before God with our hands clean and our hearts free from sin and rebellion against Him. Adam’s sin brought God’s condemnation against sin into the world. Death became the penalty for man’s disbelief and disobedience. But God brought the cure for man’s inescapable and inevitable death sentence. He sent His Son as the payment for the sins of all men. He satisfied His own wrath against sin with the life of His own Son.

The first Adam could not remain faithful to God. He doubted God. He disobeyed God. But Jesus Christ, the last Adam, lived a life of obedience and faithfulness to God, fully meeting His righteous requirements and fulfilling His law. Which is why Paul writes, “‘The first Adam became a living being’; the last Adam a life-giving Spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45 ESV). All Adam could pass on to us was his human nature and, along with it, his sin nature. Paul continues, “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:47-48 ESV). With our belief in God’s gracious and merciful gift of His Son, we become new creations. We receive new natures. We become children of God, no longer enemies, alienated and under His wrath. We find ourselves standing in His presence covered in the righteousness of Christ and freed from the condemnation of sin and death. Not based on anything we have done to earn it, but solely on the free gift of grace made possible through Jesus Christ.

No, Not One.

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”

“The venom of asps is under their lips.”

“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” – Romans 3:9-18 ESV

Paul has just said that the Jews do have an advantage, because they “were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2 ESV). They had been given the seal of circumcision as a sign of the covenant that God had made with them. They were His chosen people. He had promised to bless them and through them bless all the nations of the earth. He had led them, protected them, given them their own land, provided them with His law, privileged them with His presence and instituted a sacrificial system that provided them with atonement for their sins. So they did have a distinct advantage. And yet, Paul begins verse nine with a question: “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” And then he answers his own question: “No, not at all.”

The Jews, Paul included, did have an advantage, but that did not mean they all took advantage of it. Some did. Some, like Abraham, recognized that their righteousness was determined by faith and not by works. They trusted in God’s promises. Better yet, they trusted in God. Martin Luther writes, “Abraham did not believe God in order that he might become the father of many nations, but he believed God as the One who is true and faithful” (Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans). Abraham believed in the faithfulness of God. He never got to live in the promised land. He never lived long enough to see his descendants become a mighty nation. And yet he believed. He trusted in the faithfulness of God. Quoting St. Augustine, Martin Luther writes, “God is glorified through faith, hope and love. According the a common saying, God is directly insulted by three sins: unbelief, despair and hatred” (Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans). Unbelief in God was an ongoing issue for the Israelites. And it manifested itself in idolatry, disobedience, stubbornness, immorality, selfishness, and the constant urge to achieve righteousness through self-effort.

So Paul says even the Jews are no better off than the Gentiles. All are under sin. Then to support his statement, Paul turns to the Old Testament Scriptures. Verses 10-18 are drawn from the Psalms and the writings of the prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah. Almost operating in the role of a prosecuting attorney, Paul brings glaring evidence to bare against any and all who might try to claim their righteousness before God. Every single man and woman stands as guilty and condemned. None is righteous. No one understands the truth about God’s holiness and His determination that righteousness if through faith and nothing else. No one truly seeks God. They seek their own will and their own pleasure. They seek what they can get from God, not a relationship with Him. Paul uses the Scriptures to paint a bleak picture of man’s condition. But we must remember that Paul is attempting to explain the glory of the gospel of God, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it, the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV). Paul’s thesis statement for his letter seems to be, “The righteous shall live by faith.” So he goes out of his way to prove that, without faith, no one is righteous. That includes his own people, the Jews.

When John the Baptist began his ministry, he had a singular message. It was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). Later on, after John had been arrested by Herod, Jesus picked up that same message. “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). When we read the word, repent, we tend to think of someone having to turn away from sin. And while that is an accurate reading of the word, it is far from complete. To repent carries the idea of changing one’s mind. So when John and Jesus called the people of Israel to repentance, they were telling them to change their minds. But about what? Sin? No, sin was the outcome of something else. They needed to change their minds about God and the means of achieving a righteous standing before Him. They were still believing that righteousness was based on works. They had long ago stopped believing in the faithfulness of God and started believing in the myth of their own faithfulness. They thought they could earn favor with God through their attempts to keep His law. But Jesus told them to repent, to change their minds. He was calling them to believe in Him. All they believed about God and righteousness was wrong, and therefore, their view of their own sinfulness was wrong. They saw themselves as righteous and without sin.

But Paul was not going to let anyone stand on the lie of self-righteousness. So he proved the guilt of man with the words of God. None is righteous, no, not one. Self-righteousness is self-delusional. The idea of sinlessness is ridiculous. John wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8 ESV). Self-deceit may make us feel better about ourselves, but it does not make us righteous before God. Faith in ourselves is not the kind of faith God is looking for.

The Self-Delusion of Self-Righteousness.

 He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. – Romans 2:6-11 ESV

In chapter two of Romans, Paul is addressing the Jewish community. In the first chapter he talked about the non-Jew or pagan, who stands before God as without excuse and guilty. They have had God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20 ESV) clearly revealed to them and yet, they had refused to acknowledge Him as God. Instead, they had ended up worshiping the creation rather than the Creator, leading to God turning them over to their own foolish hearts, dishonorable passions, and debased minds. But as far as Paul was concerned, the Jews were no less culpable or free from guilt. In fact, they were so busy pointing their condemning fingers at he pagans, that they failed to see that they were guilty of the same sins they claimed not to commit. As descendants of Abraham and children of God, they considered themselves exempt from judgment. They somehow thought themselves to be immune from God’s wrath. But Paul warned them that, they too, were without excuse. They stood just as much condemned and guilty as the Gentiles who were outside the family of God. The self-righteous efforts of the Jews aimed at a holy God, were going to be no more helpful in the long run than the self-righteous actions of the Gentiles directed at their false gods. Paul accused the Jews of having hard and unrepentant hearts. They refused to admit their guilt and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. So Paul warned them that “you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5 ESV). Not only that, the day was coming when God was going to render to each of them according to his works.

Paul is using the Old Testament Scriptures to indict them. He quotes from two different passages. The first is from Psalm 62:11-12: “and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work.” The second is from Proverbs 24:12: “Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?” The Hebrew Scriptures provided a strong understanding of the coming judgment of God. It would be based according to each man’s works. The expectation was righteousness – God’s brand of righteousness, not man’s. The requirement was perfection and nothing less. God had told the Israelites repeatedly, “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. ” (Leviticus 11:44 ESV). Jesus had told the Jews of His day, “unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Matthew 5:20 NLT). James put it in even more practical, if not demanding terms: “For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws” (James 2:10 NLT).

And Paul seems to give only two options for life, and both end in judgment. One is to live satisfying the self and disobeying the truth regarding God and His gospel offer. Those individuals will end up obeying unrighteousness and earning God’s full wrath and fury on the day of judgment. The other option is to life self-righteously, attempting to obey God’s law and earn a right standing with Him through your own efforts. And if you happen to pull it off, your reward on judgment day will be glory, honor, peace and immortality, while everyone else gets tribulation and distress. But is Paul saying we can earn our salvation by doing good deeds? Certainly not. He is showing that those who are sinners will be judged and condemned, but so will those who consider themselves to be righteous because of their own efforts. In the very next chapter Paul will make it clear that “all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9 NLT), and that “No one is righteous – not even one” (Romans 3:10 NLT). A little further on in that same chapter, Paul will introduce the sobering news, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NLT).

So self-righteousness is no better than sinfulness. Attempting to do good things for God puts you in no better position than those who do bad things against God. God shows no partiality. Nobody gets to earn their way into His good graces. There is one way and one way only for men to be made right with God, and that is through the death of Jesus Christ. Paul goes on in chapter three to say, “all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24 NLT). That includes the Jew and the Gentile, the pagan and the pious, the selfish and the self-righteous. “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:8-9  NLT).

We can’t earn our salvation. None of us deserve God’s grace and mercy. The Jews were no better off than the Gentiles. They were sinners, condemned and unclean. Paul reminds us that at the foot of the cross, we’ll all equals when it comes to our guiltiness and our need for forgiveness. Which is why he wrote, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). The greatest danger men face is to fall under the delusion of man-made righteousness. We will never be able to achieve our way into God’s presence or earn out way into His good graces. Which is why He sent His Son to live among us, model holiness right in front us, and die on behalf of us. “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). 

Case Closed.

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? – Romans 8:33-35 ESV

Not guilty! That is the verdict. Let the magnitude of that statement sink in. In these verses, Paul provides us with a stunning reminder of the staggering reality of our status as completely innocent and totally righteous sons and daughters of God. As he stated when he began this chapter, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 ESV). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul gave them unbelievably good news. “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV). At one time, we were all guilty before God, condemned and deserving of His just judgment: Death. But how we stand before His presence not only forgiven, but sinless in His eyes. We have been justified. So not only have we had our sins forgiven and removed, we have been given the righteousness of Christ. And as a result, no one can condemn us. No one can bring a charge against us. Our debt has been paid. Our death sentence has been commuted. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV). We have received the righteousness of Christ. He took on our sin and we took on His righteousness.

And nothing can change our forgiven, guiltless, uncondemned, fully righteous status. We are completely covered by the unfailing love of Christ. Even at this moment, He intercedes on our behalf. His very presence at the side of God the Father is a constant reminder of the payment that was made and the complete satisfaction of God’s justice that was supplied by His death in our place. And Paul would have us consider the fact that nothing can separate us from that love. He rhetorically asks, “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love?” (Romans 8:35 NLT). And the answer is: Nothing. Absolutely, positively nothing. Even when things appear to be less-than-perfect in our lives or it feels as if God is not there, Paul asks us to consider: “Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?” And again, the answer is, “No!” Christ died for us, as a payment for our sin. He was resurrected by the Spirit as a confirmation that His sacrifice was acceptable to God. And He ascended to the right hand of God, where He intercedes on our behalf. “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25 ESV). We must always remember that our salvation will not be complete until we experience glorification – our finalized adoption as sons and daughters and the redemption of our bodies. Until that day, we must not let the troubles and trials of this life tempt us to doubt God’s love, Christ’s work, or our status as God’s children.

Our case has been completely settled. Our sentence of innocence has been pronounced. Our debt has been settled and our future is secure. Nothing can change that. No one can do anything to reverse God’s declaration of our guiltlessness. Not even us. There is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Let that sink in. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t treat it lightly or flippantly. As the old hymn says, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”