The Son of the King.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” – Matthew 20:21 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sinners in Need of a Savior.

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

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:9-13 ESV

By this point in Matthew’s narrative, it is obvious that there is something radically different about Jesus. He is not your average rabbi or teacher. He has supernatural powers that allow Him to heal with a touch of His hand or a word from His mouth. He exhibits a never-before-seen authority that allows Him to cast out demons and control the wind and waves of the sea. To the Jews, He’s like nothing they have ever seen before. To the religious leaders, He is an enigma and a growing concern, because of His increasing popularity among the people.

And in today’s passage, we are going to see yet another aspect of Jesus’ radically different nature. We have already seen that He has no problem associating with the unclean, such as the leper whom He touched and healed. And unlike most Jews, Jesus was willing to have contact with Gentiles, even healing the servant of the Roman centurion. Now, in Matthew’s account of his own calling by Jesus, we are going to see that Jesus broke all rules of social protocal by associating with known sinners, such as tax collectors. It just so happens that Matthew himself had been a tax collector, and his retelling of his call by Jesus provides the perfect occasion to, once again, illustrate the radically different nature of Jesus’ ministry.

Just as He had done with Peter, Andrew, James and John, Jesus used a simple two-word phrase to issue His call to Matthew: “Follow me.” And Matthew records that he did just that. Luke provides us with a bit more information regarding this initial encounter between Jesus and Matthew.

Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. – Luke 5:27-28 ESV

We’re not given an explanation as to why Matthew (Levi) had two different names, but it was probably nothing more than a case of him having a given name as well as a nick-name. But Luke makes it clear that Matthew “left everything” and followed Jesus. He turned his back on what had to have been a lucrative business as a tax collector in order to obey the invitation of Jesus. And one of the first things he did was invite Jesus into his home for a meal. It was this occasion that set the stage for yet another illustration of Jesus’ out-of-the-ordinary behavior. Evidently, Matthew wanted his friends and business associates to meet Jesus, so he records that he invited “many tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:10 ESV). Notice the close association between these two groups. From a Jewish perspective, tax collectors were despised and seen as some of the worst of all sinners. They were traitors to their people, choosing to make a profit off their fellow Jews by collecting taxes for the Roman government. Tax collectors were well known for their corruption and vice. They were viewed as social pariahs by the Jewish community. Which explains why Matthew invited other tax collectors and known sinners to his party. And yet, Jesus willingly accepted Matthew’s invitation, choosing to dine with those whom the average Jew would readily shun.

The Pharisees who witnessed this appalling scene addressed their shock to the disciples of Jesus, asking, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And before the disciples had a chance to respond, Jesus provided the Pharisees with an answer:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” – Matthew 9:12 ESV

This carefully worded retort from Jesus was like a missile aimed at the prideful arrogance of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus knew exactly what they were thinking and was well aware that these men saw His actions as unacceptable and unworthy of someone who claimed to be a faithful Jew, let alone a rabbi or teacher. In their minds, Jesus had discredited Himself by His actions. But Jesus’ statement revealed the radical difference between His outlook on sinful humanity and their own. The Pharisees saw themselves as anything but sinners. They were not only Jews and, therefore, part of the chosen people of God, but well-respected religious leaders and experts in the law of Moses. They were professional law-keepers, priding themselves on their knowledge of the law and their adherence to it. But as Jesus had revealed in His sermon on the mount, most of their interpretations of the Mosaic law were flawed. And their so-called righteousness was deemed inadequate by Jesus when viewed from God’s perspective.

The problem, as Jesus exposes it, was that these men did not see themselves as sinners. They prided themselves on their righteousness and their ability to earn a right standing with God through their actions. Which is why Jesus refers to them sarcastically as “those who are well.” They had the mistaken impression that they were somehow better than the tax collectors and sinners sitting at the table with Jesus. It is reminiscent of the story Jesus told about the two men praying in the temple. Luke tells us that “Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else” (Luke 18:9 NLT). In the story, Jesus compares the prayers of tax collector and a Pharisee. The tax collector “dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner’” (Luke 18:13 NLT). But the Pharisee exhibited a dramatically different attitude.

“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’’” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

Notice that the Pharisee prided himself on a sinlessness that was based on his self-manufactured righteousness. He fasted and tithed. He didn’t cheat, commit adultery or sin. But remember what Jesus said in His sermon on the mount: “But I warn you–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). This self-produced kind of righteousness was inadequate. It was insufficient to earn anyone a place in the Kingdom of God. No man could earn his way into God’s favor. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT).

The Pharisees, standing outside Matthew’s house and shaking their judgmental fingers in the face of Jesus and His disciples, pridefully viewed themselves as non-sinners. They were above the fray, having already earned their right standing with God through their status as God’s chosen people and their strict adherance to the law. But Jesus reveals that He came to minister to those who recognized their need for a physician. In other words, He came to provide spiritual healing to those who recognized their sinfulness. Like the tax collector in Jesus’ story, they cry out, “be merciful to me, for I am a sinner!”

When Jesus stated, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” He was not commending the Pharisees or indicating that they were somehow exempt from the need for His salvation. He was simply stating that their prideful belief in their own self-produced righteousness was going to keep them from ever admitting their need for a righteousness outside of themselves. They were convinced that they could earn a right relationship with God on their own. They needed no Messiah. But they were wrong. Dead wrong.

Jesus refers the Pharisees to an Old Testament passage they would have not quite well: Hosea 6:6:

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Like their Old Testament ancestors, the Pharisees prided themselves on their strict adherance to the laws of Moses and their keeping of the religious rules and rituals associated with temple worship. But in all their activity they had lost their knowledge of God. It had become all about rule-keeping, not a relationship with God. And these arrogant men were as guilty as their ancestors, whom God condemned as little more than hypocrites.

“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

Jesus willingly associated with sinners, because they are the ones for whom He came give His life. And while the Pharisees refused to admit it, they too were sinners in need of a Savior. But pride and self-sufficiency would prevent them from seeing and admitting their need. Their self-reliance would keep them turning to Jesus for the salvation they so desperately needed.

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

Paralyzed by Sin.

1 And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. – Matthew 9:1-8 ESV

According to the other two synoptic Gospels, this event actually occurred before the scenes depicted in chapter eight, but Matthew chose to place it here in order to continue his effort to prove Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. Matthew seems less interested in providing us with an accurate timeline of the events in Jesus’ life than with evidence for His deity. Matthew has grouped these scenes together in an effort to display Jesus’ power over disease, nature, the demonic realm and, with this story, sin itself.

There are several interesting aspects to this story. First, there is the reference by Jesus to the faith of the men who brought the paralytic. There is no mention in the story of the paralyzed man exhibiting faith. His friends brought him to Jesus in order that he might be healed. And we know from Luke’s account of this same story, that the men had been unable to make their way through the crowds that had gathered inside the home where Jesus was teaching. So, they got creative.

…finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. – Luke 5:19 ESV

They were so determined to get their paralyzed friend in front of Jesus and so certain that Jesus could heal him, that they went out of their way to make it happen. And this leads us to the second interesting part of this story. The text tells us that Jesus saw their faith. Their actions were a visible manifestation of their faith. They had been willing to go the extra mile because they fully believed that Jesus had the power to heal their friend. This was exactly the point made by James in the book that bears his name.

Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds. – James 2:18 NLT

And the visible faith of these men resulted in the physical healing of the paralyzed man. Nowhere does Jesus mention the faith of the man himself. The paralytic had been the fortunate recipient of the faith of his friends. But this brings us to the third interesting aspect of this story. Notice what Jesus said to the man.

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” – Matthew 9:2 ESV

He didn’t say, “Rise up and walk!” He forgave the man’s sins. This is not necessarily an indication that the man’s paralysis was a result of sin. It also does not mean that the man had been paralyzed by God as a form of punishment for a sin he had committed. Jesus is simply indicating that there is a close association with sin and sickness. Both are the result of the fall. Disease and death are the byproducs of sin’s entrance into the world. And by addressing the issue of the man’s sin, rather than his paralysis, Jesus was clearly indicating that sin was the greater problem. The man’s paralysis kept him from walking, but sin kept him from walking in newness of life. His paralysis left him bed-ridden, but his sin left him in bondage and condemnation, destined to an eternity separated from God. So, Jesus did for the man what only He could do: Forgive his sins. And in doing so, Jesus displayed His divine authority, not just over disease, but over death.

This action on the part of Jesus did not go unnoticed by the Jewish religious leaders. Upon hearing Jesus’ words, they immediately accused Him of blasphemy. From their perspective, Jesus was assuming divine authority, the ability to forgive sins. That was something only God could do. And that’s the point of the entire story. It’s the reason Matthew chose to place it at this point in his Gospel. Jesus had already proven He could heal, cast of out demons and calm storms. But in this scenario, He had upped the ante, displaying a unapologetic claim to have power over sin. What the scribes viewed as blasphemy was simply Jesus displaying His divine authority. He wasn’t claiming to have god-like authority, He was announcing that He was God.

And Jesus responds to these men with a question.

“For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” – Matthew 9:5 ESV

Of course, the answer to His question is simple. It is far easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven” because there is no way to prove the veracity of your statement. How would anyone know if the man’s sins were truly forgiven? Only time would tell if what Jesus said was true. It wouldn’t be until the man died that even he would know whether his sins had been actually been forgiven.

So, Jesus does the more difficult thing. He tells the man to pick up his bed and walk and, not surprisingly at this point in the story, that’s exactly what the man does. But Jesus provides the scribes with the reason behind his actions.

“…that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” – Matthew 9:6 ESV

Jesus spoke and the man was healed. He was restore to perfect physical health. And the fact that the man did just as Jesus had commanded him, picking up his bed and walking home, was proof that Jesus had God-given authority over disease. But the real point of the story is that Jesus had authority over sin and death. Jesus had not come to restore men and women physically, but spiritually. The greater miracle performed that day was the forgiveness of the man’s sin debt. He had been spiritually paralyed by the debt of sin that hung over his life. He had been incapable of walking in community with God because of his unforgiven sin.

The fact is, every person in the crowd that day, including the scribes, were in the same sad state as the paralyzed man. While they had full use of their limbs, they too were paralyzed by sin. And as the author of Hebrews makes clear, “it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4 ESV). The sacrificial system was never intended to remove sin.

Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. – Hebrews 10:11 NLT

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. – Hebrews 9:13 NLT

The scribes may have been ceremonially pure, but their sin debt had left them stained and impure before a holy God. And they were right when they assumed that only God could forgive sin. But that was the whole point of this entire exchange. Jesus was God. He was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29 NLT). And John reminds us, “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5 ESV).

Matthew wraps up this account by describing the reaction of the crowd who had witnessed it all.

When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. – Matthew 9:8 ESV

The crowd had seen yet another miracle performed by Jesus and they were appropriately amazed by what they had seen. They even saw Jesus’ actions as God-ordained. There was no doubt in their minds that Jesus had divinely-provided power. But that does not mean they saw Him as their Messiah and Savior. It is likely that their response was driven by the man’s physical healing, because that had been visible and verifiable. They had no way of knowing whether the man’s sins had been forgiven or not. And for most of them, it probably didn’t even matter. They were stuck on a physical plane and more interested in the miracle of a paralyzed man suddenly able to walk. But had they realized that Jesus had come to provide forgiveness from sin and escape from the sin debt that paralyzed each and every one of their lives, they would have been truly amazed and glorified God all the more.

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

A Possession and a Rejection.

28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” 32 And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. 33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. – Matthew 8:14-27 ESV

Matthew has already mentioned Jesus’ power to cast out demons.

So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. – Matthew 4:24 ESV

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. – Matthew 8:16 ESV

But in this case, he provides us with a first-hand description of one such case. This one involved two men who were both possessed by demons. Jesus and His disciples encountered these two demoniacs in the country of the Gadarenes, which was located on the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee. This was a region populated primarily by Gentiles, which would explain the herd of swine mentioned in the story. Swine were considered unclean by the Jews and they were forbidden by the Mosaic law from not only eating them, but coming into contact with them.

In contrast to the accounts of Mark and Luke, Matthew mentions that there were two men who were demon possessed. In their Gospels, Mark and Luke describe there being only one man. But rather than writing this off as a contradiction or proof that the Bible is full of errors, it is more likely that Matthew and Mark concentrated their attention on the one man whose demon did all the talking. The important thing is that all three synoptic Gospels include the story, thus validating its authenticity.

The truly significant aspect of this story is that all three of the Gospel authors took seriously the spiritual warfare portrayed by this encounter between Jesus and the demonic spirits. Mark and Luke both describe the demon as falling down before Jesus in fear, displaying a recognition of Jesus’ divinity. And all three Gospel accounts carry the verbal reaction of the demon(s), as they lie prostrate before Jesus.

What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” – Matthew 8:29 ESV

Reflecting their awareness of Jesus’ divinity, the demons address Jesus with His messianic title, “Son of God.” They knew exactly who He was. Which provides an interesting contrast to the reaction of the disciples when Jesus had calmed the storm.

“What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” – Matthew 8:27 ESV

The demons had no doubt as to Jesus’ identity, but their use of His messianic title does not reflect any sense of worship or reverence for Him. They simply recognized that He was the Son of God and had the power to do with them as He wished. At this point in Jesus’ earthly ministry, these demons had a better awareness of Jesus’ true identity than the disciples did. And James makes it clear that demons have a belief in God, but that is not a mark of saving faith.

You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. – James 2:19 NLT

Even as the disciples would eventually grow in their awareness of Jesus’ identity, their belief in His deity would not be enough to secure their salvation. It was going to be their faith in His death, burial and resurrection that marked them as true believers.

Later on in his Gospel, Matthew records a conversation between Jesus and His disciples in which He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15 ESV). And Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). And Jesus replied in return, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17 ESV). Peter correctly described Jesus as the Son of God and was blessed by Jesus for his answer. But just a few verses later in the same chapter, Matthew reveals another exchange between Jesus and Peter. Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21 ESV). 

And Peter took exception to Jesus’ announcement, rebuking Him for even saying it.

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

Peter had known Jesus’ true identity, but he was totally unaware of Jesus’ earthly mission. He was fully convinced of Jesus’ role as Messiah, but had no idea that death was part of the divine plan for salvation to be possible. Peter’s refusal to accept the reality and necessity of Jesus’ death and resurrection caused Jesus to identify him with Satan himself.

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” – Matthew 16:23 ESV

Like the demons, Peter was willing to recognize Jesus’ deity, but was unable to accept the need for Jesus to die in order that men might have eternal life. The demons wanted salvation from the eternal torment they knew was inevitable. But they were not looking for salvation that resulted in eternal life. Their question, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?,” seems to indicate that they knew there was future judgment awaiting them. They were aware of their fate, but were afraid that their encounter with Jesus was going to bring about a premature end to their existence. The book of Revelation records the ultimate destination of Satan and his demons.

…and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. – Revelation 20:2 ESV

Fearing that Jesus was going to relegate them to the lake of fire, the demons begged Jesus to cast them into a herd of swine. And with a word, Jesus did just that. The result was that the entire herd of swine “rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters” (Matthew 8:33 ESV). Matthew does not tell us what happened to the demons after the swine were killed. That doesn’t seem to be of relevant interest to him. He also doesn’t provide us with an explanation as to why Jesus cast the demons into the swine, thereby destroying someone’s form of livelihood. The real issue for Matthew was the power of Jesus over the spiritual realm. And it’s interesting to note that, upon seeing what Jesus had done to their swine, the herdsmen fled in terror, returning to town and telling their neighbors what had happened. And the townspeople, rather than worshiping Jesus, begged Him to leave their region. They saw Jesus as a threat, not a Savior. They were more interested in the loss of the swine than they were the miraculous deliverance of the two men. Salvation had come to the region of the Gadarenes in the form of the exorcism of the demons from these two men. But rather than worship Jesus as the Messiah, they begged Him to leave. Rather than rejoice over the deliverance of these two men, they mourned the loss of a herd of swine. And the very next chapter begins with the rather sad statement, “And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city” (Matthew 9:1 ESV).

Jesus left. He exhibited His power and proved His claim to be the Messiah. But He had been rejected. He delivered two demon-possessed men, but was forced to leave behind an entire community of people who, while not possessed, were just as equally under the control of the enemy. They remained enslaved to Satan and captive to sin and death. The Messiah had come and they had turned Him away. And that pattern would repeat itself over and over again in the weeks, months and years to come.

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

A Healing, a Calling, and a Calming.

14 And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. 15 He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. 16 That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”

18 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21 Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” – Matthew 8:14-27 ESV

In these three short narratives, Matthew provides us with condensed glimpse into the life of Jesus. He uses these three scenes to reveal not only the kinds of circumstances Jesus regularly encountered, but to further support his claim that Jesus was the Messiah.

The first involved the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus found her bedridden, suffering from a fever. In the Hebrew mindset, a fever was seen as a disease, not simply a symptom of something more serious. We are not told what was causing this woman’s fever, but only that Jesus healed her with a touch of His hand. And Matthew indicates that her healing was immediate and complete. There was no lingering weakness or recovery time necessary. She was able to get up out of bed and serve Jesus and His disciples. It’s important to notice that there is no expression of faith mentioned in this story. Unlike the leper and the centurion, Peter’s mother-in-law said nothing and showed no sign of belief in Jesus. And there is no indication that Peter had asked Jesus to come to his home in order to heal his mother-in-law. Jesus saw the woman’s need and, in an act of mercy, healed her. As always, word of this miracle got out and that evening Jesus found Himself surrounded by more people desiring to be healed. Matthew tells us that Jesus cast out demons and healed all those who were sick, and all in fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy found in Isaiah 53:4:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows

For Matthew, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and the subsequent miracles performed by Jesus that evening were all further proofs that Jesus was the Messiah.

Jesus performed His miracles without discrimination or prejudice. He healed an unclean leper, a pagan centurion, the Jewish mother-in-law of one of His followers, and a host of other unnamed individuals who suffered from all manner of diseases and disorders, including demon possession. Again, there is no indication that these people expressed faith in Jesus or declared their belief in Him as their Messiah. They simply came to Him in hopes of receiving healing, and Matthew records, “he healed all who were sick.”

Jesus did not turn away any of those who came to Him with their needs. And these acts of physical restoration provide a foretaste of the spiritual restoration that Jesus would make possible by His death.

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

Jesus would be a equal opportunity Savior, offering His life as a ransom or payment for the sins of many. He would die on behalf of Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, the educated and uneducated, and slaves and freemen. The people Jesus healed had done nothing to earn their restoration to health. And those whom Jesus saves find themselves the undeserving recipients of God’s grace as made possible through the selfless sacrifice of His Son.

As always, the healing ministry of Jesus attracted followers. News of His miracles spread quickly and the number of His followers increased exponentially. Which is exactly what Matthew records in the next vignette. As Jesus attempted to sail to the other side of the lake to escape the crush of the crowds, a scribe approached Jesus, boldly declaring, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go” (Matthew 8:19 ESV). This man was an expert in the Mosaic law and he is obviously intrigued by Jesus. So much so, that he indicated his desire to follow Jesus as one of His disciples. This was not an indication that the man believed Jesus to be the Messiah. He addressed Jesus as “teacher,” which was nothing more than a display of his respect. And Jesus seems to have seen through the man’s intentions, declaring, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20 ESV). This was less a statement of Jesus’ poverty than it was a declaration of His vagabond lifestyle. He rarely stayed in one place very long, but traveled all throughout the region of Judea, lacking any place that He could truly call home. The most important part of Jesus’ statement was His reference to Himself as the Son of Man. This term is used 80 times in the gospels and, in virtually every case, it is a clear reference to Jesus as Messiah. This scribe was not following Jesus because he believed Him to be the Messiah. He saw Jesus as a popular teacher who was attracting vast crowds of people, but nothing more. And Jesus knew the day would come when men like this would lose interest in His ministry and message.

Matthew follows this encounter with yet another one that involves a disciple stating his desire to follow Jesus, but asking for permission to bury his father first. This man was asking for a leave of absence in order to take care of a pressing family matter, but Jesus somewhat callously replied, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22 ESV). As He had done with His 12 disciples, Jesus called this man to follow Him, and that call involved a leaving and forsaking of everything and everyone. It was to involve an all-out commitment to the cause of Christ. And it would seem that this man was unwilling or unable to to make that kind of commitment. Receiving healing from Jesus is easy, but following after Him requires commitment and involves cost. 

The third scene described by Matthew involved Jesus and His disciples in a boat. As they sailed across the Sea of Galilee, a fierce storm arose, swamping the boat with waves and pelting the disciples with rain. But while all this was happening, Jesus slept, undisturbed and seemingly unconcerned. In fear for their lives, the disciples wake Jesus up and demand that He save them. What were they expecting Him to do? While they had seen Jesus perform acts of healing, they had no way of knowing that He had power over the wind and waves. But in their fear and desperation, they called out to Him. And Jesus, rather than immediately solving their perceived problem, addressed the real danger they faced: Their lack of faith.

“Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” – Matthew 8:26 ESV

These men had seen Jesus do the impossible. He had healed the sick and cast out demons from the possessed. And while none of them suffered from a physical ailment that required the healing touch of Jesus, they suddenly found themselves in desperate need of salvation. Their lives were in danger. They were at the mercy of the elements, facing certain death, and there was nothing they could do to remedy the situation – in spite of the fact that many of the men on that boat were seasoned fishermen.

Evidently, none of the disciples had an answer for Jesus’ question, because Matthew records that Jesus “rose and rebuked the winds and the sea.” In the original Greek, that word, “rebuked” means “to admonish, reprove, censure severely.” Jesus didn’t just speak to the wind and waves, He scolded them. He read them the riot act. The life-threatening fierceness of the storm came face-to-face with the power of the Messiah. The Savior attacked the very thing that was threatening the lives and intimidating the faith of His followers. And at His word the storm immediately ceased. Matthew states that there was a great calm, which not only refers to the elements, but to the hearts of the disciples. They had been miraculously saved from certain death by the Savior. And all they could say was, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

Little did they know that this scene was to serve as foretaste of the greater salvation to come. Jesus came, not just to calm the storms of life, but to rebuke the spiritual wind and waves of the enemy that threaten to overwhelm the lives of men. These 12 men would would day discover that their greatest foe was not the elements of nature, but the prince of this world. And their greatest fear was not that of physical death, but eternal separation from God the Father. But Jesus had come to defeat sin and death, and to calm the spiritual storm created by Satan and intended to drown mankind in the tempest of temptation.

55 “O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15:55-57 NLT

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

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

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

Love vs Lust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And James wasn’t done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Death of a Generation.

29 After these things Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being 110 years old. 30 And they buried him in his own inheritance at Timnath-serah, which is in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash.

31 Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.

32 As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money. It became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph.

33 And Eleazar the son of Aaron died, and they buried him at Gibeah, the town of Phinehas his son, which had been given him in the hill country of Ephraim. Joshua 24:29-39 ESV

Joshua lived to the ripe old age of 110. He had served Israel for many years and had led them into the promised land, but also in their efforts to conquer and possess it. Under his guidance, the Israelites had gone from a rag-tag assemblage of former slaves to a powerful force in the Middle East. They had successfully and, in most cases, miraculously defeated the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, taking over their cities, villages, pastures and fields. By the end of his tenure as Israel’s spiritual and military leader, the Israelites were well-established in the land promised to them by God many centuries earlier. But as they say, all good things must come to an end, and Joshua’s life-span reached its allotted course. He died, leaving the people of Israel without an appointed leader. Joshua had not followed the example of Moses, who had passed on the mantel of leadership to him before his own death. Perhaps Joshua assumed that each of the 12 tribes, now established in the land with their own inheritance to manage, would appoint their own leadership. After their renewal of the covenant at Shechem, each of the tribes had dispersed to their own cities and villages, and they were to have begun the final stage of God’s command to eliminate the Canaanites from the land. There were no longer going to be any joint military efforts combining the forces of all 12 tribes. Instead, each tribe would be expected to police and possess its land allotment on its own. And one of the things that will become increasingly clear as their story unfolds is that, without proper leadership, the people of Israel tended to lack follow-through.

In the opening verses of the book of Judges, which chronicles the next chapter in the story of the Israelite’s conquest of the land of Canaan, it becomes clear that the tribes are attempting to follow the example for them by Joshua. They seek the counsel of God in order to determine their next steps.

1 After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” The Lord said, “Judah shall go up; behold, I have given the land into his hand.” And Judah said to Simeon his brother, “Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites. And I likewise will go with you into the territory allotted to you.” So Simeon went with him. Then Judah went up and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand, and they defeated 10,000 of them at Bezek. – Judges 1:1-4 ESV

They begin to form some strategic alliances among themselves in order to improve their chances of success against the Canaanites. And God gave the tribes of Judah and Simeon success in their efforts. But there is a nagging pattern of incompleteness that permeates the opening chapters of Judges. They enjoyed success, but it seems that it was always marked by a failure to finish what they had started.

And the Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron. – Judges 1:19 ESV

Notice what this verse says: The Lord was with Judah…BUT. God was fighting alongside the people of Judah and Simeon and they had enjoyed numerous victories as a result. But the presence of chariots of iron had stopped their progress. They had come up against a superior force that had somehow stymied their efforts. But years earlier, long before the Israelites had made it into the land of Canaan, God had told them:

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 20:1 ESV

Their inability to stand against an enemy with chariots and horses was due to a lack of faith on their part, not a deficiency in God’s power to deliver. And their failure to trust God would become a pattern that would repeat itself in the story of each of the tribes.

But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem, so the Jebusites have lived with the people of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day. – Judges 1:21 ESV

Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. – Judges 1:27 ESV

And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them. – Judges 1:28 ESV

Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol, so the Canaanites lived among them – Judges 1:29 ESV

Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob, so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out. – Judges 1:31-32 ESV

Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. – Judges 1:33 ESV

The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain. – Judges 1:34 ESV

These are not just statements of military failure or incomplete conquest. They are a reflection of the state of Israel’s spiritual health. They were failing because they were no longer trusting God. They were making compromises and concessions. Allowing their enemies to remain in the land was easier than stepping out in faith and eliminating them completely as God had commanded them to do. And God reprimanded them for their lack of faith, accusing them of not only disobedience, but of failing to keep the covenant they had made with Him.

1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” – Judges 2:1-3 ESV

Their disobedience to God was going to be costly. They were going to learn just how difficult spiritual warfare was going to be without God’s help. And the book of Judges provides us with an important detail concerning the leadership of Joshua and its impact on the people of Israel.

…the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. – Judges 2:7 ESV

But this is followed by a sobering caveat, a all-telling addendum that will set the stage for all that comes later in the book of Judges.

And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. – Judges 2:10 ESV

The final chapter of the book of Joshua chronicles the deaths of Joshua and Eleazar. It also provides details concerning the interment of Joseph’s bones, brought back from Egypt. But it really paints a bleak picture concerning the death of an entire generation. Those who had come from Egypt under the leadership of Moses had died in the wilderness because of their failure to enter the land the first time. And all those who had played a role in conquering the land under Joshua’s leadership would eventually die as well. Their days in the land would be numbered, just as Joshua’s had been. And as long as he was alive, they had served the Lord. But with his death, they began to falter and fail in their commitments to God and their capacity to trust His word. And by the time they pass off the scene, the next generation had long forgotten who God was or any of the great things He had done.

11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. 13 They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. – Judges 2:11-13 ESV

It happened just as God said it would. They had failed to do what God had commanded and, as a result, their hearts were led away from Him. The failure of a single generation to maintain their covenant faithfulness to God resulted in an entire spiritual meltdown on the part of their descendants.

The book of Psalms provides a stark reminder of just how different things should have turned out, had the people of Israel done what they had been told to do.

What we have heard and learned—
that which our ancestors have told us—
we will not hide from their descendants.
We will tell the next generation
about the Lord’s praiseworthy acts,
about his strength and the amazing things he has done. – Psalm 78:3-4 NLT

so that the next generation, children yet to be born,
might know about them.
They will grow up and tell their descendants about them.
Then they will place their confidence in God.
They will not forget the works of God,
and they will obey his commands.
Then they will not be like their ancestors,
who were a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation that was not committed
and faithful to God. – Psalm 78:6-8 NLT

But, sadly, there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.

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

Victory!

17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” 19 And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. Revelation 19:17-21 ESV

Verses 6-10 of this chapter revealed to John details concerning the marriage supper of the Lamb. And the angel told John that, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9 ESV). It will be a joyous celebration as Christ consummates His marriage to His bride, the church. But now, John is told about another supper that will take place at the return of Christ. And this will be a radically different kind of supper, where the invited guests will be birds. John is also given a vision of yet another angel who calls out with a loud voice to all the birds of the sky, saying,  “Come, gather for the great supper of God(Revelation 19:17 ESV). This supper will feature the birds as the invited guests and sinful humanity as the main course. These birds are being called “to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great” (Revelation 19:18 ESV). Here we are given an important point of clarification that lets us know that the menu for this supper will contain the corpses of all the armed combatants who have chosen to stand against Christ and His heavenly army. Jesus referred to this scene in His Olivet Discourse.

Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. – Matthew 24:28 ESV

What John is seeing here is the aftermath of the Battle of Armageddon. In chapter 16, in conjunction with the pouring out of the sixth bowl judgment, John was given a rather bizarre vision of three frog-like creatures, coming out of the mouths of the Satan, the Antichrist and the false prophet. And then he was given clarification as to exactly what these creatures were and what they would do.

14 For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. 15 (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) 16 And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. “ – Revelation 16:14-16 ESV

These demonic forces will cause the kings of the earth to gather their armies in order to do battle against Christ and His forces. But in this chapter, John was shown that it would be a lop-sided battle, with Jesus single-handedly winning the day.

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 19:15 ESV

These armies, led by Antichrist himself, will gather “to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army” (Revelation 19:19 ESV). Rather than marvel at the supernatural arrival of Jesus Christ, as He comes out of the sky followed by a great army, these armies of the earth will try to stand against Him. Motivated by demons and led by the Antichrist, they will attempt to overthrow Christ and undermine the will of God. But John says they “were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (Revelation 19:21 ESV). Not only that, but the Antichrist and the false prophet are captured and thrown into the lake of fire. They are not annihilated, but simply relegated to hell, and they will be its first occupants. Hell and Hades are often confused. Hades is the abode of the dead, the place where the souls all those who die apart from Christ are kept until the final judgment. Hell, or the lake of fire, is the place God has reserved for all those who have been judged as unworthy of eternal life in His presence. The Antichrist and his false prophet are sent straight to hell. They do not suffer death, but are captured alive and are sent by God to their final place of judgment. And we will discover in the very next chapter, that Antichrist and the false prophet will be joined in the lake of fire by all those who have refused to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Savior.

14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. – Revelation 20:14-15 ESV

But what happens to all those who die in the Battle of Armageddon? We get the answer to that question in chapter 20.

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. – Revelation 20:11-13 ESV

We will talk more about this event in our next post. But suffice it to say, God has a plan and He is going to enact that plan. He will deal with Satan, Antichrist, the false prophet and all those who have refused to submit to His authority as God. He will judge each according to what he or she has done. Their punishment will be just and well-deserved.

But all that John has seen in this chapter sets up the establishment of Christ’s earthly kingdom, where He will reign in Jerusalem for 1,000 years. Justice will once again return to the earth. Righteousness will once again reign, just as it did in the days before Adam and Eve made their fateful decision to rebel against God and disobey His command. The return of Christ brings the defeat of Antichrist and his forces. His great power will be no match for the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Those who chose to follow and worship him will discover that they have picked the wrong savior. They have sided with the false Christ. Their fall will be great and Christ’s victory will be complete.

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

 

War, Famine and Death.

When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.

When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. Revelation 6:3-8 ESV

SSc_4.jpgbe9d4c41-5f5a-4b83-95fc-c032346dee0cLarge

As noted with the opening of the first seal, each horse and rider that John sees is summoned by one of the four creatures standing before the throne of God. They call, “Come!” and the horse and riders appear. This strongly suggests that all of the events that these images portend are under the control of God. They are not isolated and arbitrary, but preordained by God Himself. And they are happening in just the way He planned at the exact time of His choosing.

While the first horse was white, symbolizing victory and what would appear to be righteousness, its rider was most likely symbolic of the Antichrist. John indicates the he came conquering and to conquer, but his success will not be based on military might, because he was carrying a bow, but no arrows. So, his ability to conquer will be of a more political nature. He will be a strategist who uses the world political stage to his advantage, climbing the ladder to power and prominence and setting himself up as a major player on the world political scene.

But the second horse is red in color, symbolizing war and the bloodshed that comes as a result. Notice what the text says: “Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth” (Revelation 6:4 ESV). This is yet another reminder that all of what is being revealed is under the divine prerogative of God. This rider, whoever he is, can do nothing without God’s approval and permission. But God is allowing this rider to bring warfare and death to the world because of the sins of mankind and in keeping with His promise to bring judgment on the world’s rebellion against His authority. But who is this rider? As usual, there has been a great deal of speculation over the centuries as to the identity of this rider. But the immediate text does not provide us with any real clue as to who this rider may be. There are some who speculate that we are once again looking at a manifestation of the Antichrist. Because these seals and the content they reveal are progressive in nature, it would appear that they are exposing the various iterations of the Antichrist, as his true nature and intent becomes more apparent over time. He begins as a world leader who appears to be nothing more than a successful political candidate who makes a name for himself by brokering a period of peace on the earth. In fact, Daniel 9:27 seems to indicate that the Antichrist will make a seven-year treaty with the nation of Israel, which at the midway point, he will break. This seven year period is considered to be the tribulation, the second half of which will be a time of great unrest and destruction. So, the Antichrist will begin as a man of peace and diplomacy, somehow brokering an agreement between the Jews and Muslims to allow for the rebuilding of the temple on the temple mount in Jerusalem. But as Daniel’s account describes, at the midway point of the tribulation, Antichrist will turn his back on the people of Israel and desecrate the temple, setting himself up as the only god to be worshiped.

But it could be that this rider is nothing more than a symbol for war. In His Olivet Discourse, Jesus warned His disciples:

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. – Matthew 24:6-8 ESV

This rider signals a time of great civil unrest in the world. The text makes clear that people will slay one another. This may refer to actual wars between nations or riots in the streets. But whatever it means, it is clear that any peace that might have been enjoyed will be gone. This foreshadows a time of unprecedented conflict on the earth. And, as is always the case with war, there will be consequences. As the third seal is opened by Christ, the third creature calls out, “Come!” and yet another horse and rider appears. This time, the horse is black and its rider carries a pair of scales in his hands. Black is the traditional symbol for death and it foreshadows a period of tremendous death and devastation caused by famine. The period of warfare will have an impact of the world’s economy, creating hyper-inflation and a shortage of food. The scales indicate that Antichrist, the political leader who has established himself as the dominant force on the world scene, will have control over the buying and selling of goods. In a world wracked by war, where the necessities of life become scarce, he will dictate the price of goods and manage their availability. John hears a voice crying out, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” (Revelation 6:6 ESV). In the first-Century world in which John lived, a denarius represented a day’s wages for a common laborer. So, according to the voice John hears, it is going to take a full-day’s wage to buy enough wheat for one meal. If the cheaper and lower-cost barley is purchased, you could stretch the value of your denarius a bit further. But the bottom line will be that inflation is going to be huge problem and hunger will become commonplace.

With the opening of the fourth seal, the fourth beast calls out, “Come!” and the final horse and rider appear. This horse is described as being pale in color. A more accurate description of the horse’s color would be pale green. The actual Greek word is chlōros, from which we get our word chlorophyll. It would appear that this horse is the color of a decomposing corpse, and riding on this horse is someone who John describes as having the name, Death. And following close behind this horse and rider is Hades. This anthropomorphic description of the abode of the dead is intended to add a sense of complete and utter destruction to the scene. Death is what brings to an end the life of the material body. Hades is the traditional Hebrew word for the abode of the immaterial part of a person. It was believed to be where the soul goes after death. King David spoke about this very place in one of his psalms.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
    my flesh also dwells secure.
10 For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
    or let your holy one see corruption. – Psalm 16:9-10 ESV

This horse and rider are described as the harbingers of death, who “were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:8 ESV). As a result of the wars and conflicts taking place on the earth and the resulting famine, death and Hades will be satiated with the sheer number of the deceased. It will be an unprecedented time of global disaster marked by the deaths of a fourth of the world’s population. Hades following death is simply a way of saying that the souls of all those who die as a result of the judgments of God will end up in the afterlife, where they will one day face the final judgment of God. This is what is referred to later in the book of Revelation as the Great White Throne Judgment.

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. – Revelation 20:11-15 ESV

 The fourth horse and rider represent the fourth phase of God’s judgment on the world. The first four seals reveal the rise to power of the Antichrist and his subsequent impact on the world. The period of time covered by these four signs is the seven years known as the tribulation. It will be a time marked by war, financial instability, famine, disease, and unprecedented loss of human life. It will be like no other time in human history, when some of the most devastating tragedies ever experienced by mankind will be jam-packed into what is a relatively short period of time. Most of what John has described takes place in the second half of the tribulation, a period known as the Great Tribulation. And, as we will see, one of the groups that will suffer the most during this time is the Jewish people. Because of their association with God and the promises made by God to restore them to a right relationship with Himself, Satan will continue to do everything in his power to destroy the people of God. Because of the rapture, the church will no longer be a factor, freeing up Satan to focus all his attention and energies on the Jews. The prophet Jeremiah predicted what would happen, but he provides a wonderful reminder that God has a purpose behind all the devastation and destruction. He is bringing His judgments against His people for the generations of apostasy and rebellion against Him. But in spite of their disobedience and unfaithfulness, God was going to restore them.

“Thus says the Lord:
We have heard a cry of panic,
    of terror, and no peace.
Ask now, and see,
    can a man bear a child?
Why then do I see every man
    with his hands on his stomach like a woman in labor?
    Why has every face turned pale?
Alas! That day is so great
    there is none like it;
it is a time of distress for Jacob;
    yet he shall be saved out of it. – Jeremiah 30:5-7 ESV

Jesus also spoke of these coming days and assured that the outcome would be a positive one for God’s people.

21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. – Matthew 24:21-22 ESV

As we make our way through the rest of this book, it is essential that we recognize and constantly remind ourselves that God has all of this in His hands. These events are written on the scroll that has been in His possession from before the foundation of the world. The seals are being broken by His Son. And the events unfolding before our eyes are the result of the divine will of God Himself.

 

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

 

A Grave Discussion.

1 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 ESV

Solomon ended chapter 11 with an appeal to young people:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 ESV

And he begins chapter 12 in a similar fashion, addressing the same group of individuals: The young. And it would appear that, because of Solomon’s advanced age, he views everyone as younger than he is. But he warns them, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1 ESV). It is as if he wants them to recognize that spiritual wisdom and a God-focused perspective are not attributes that simply come with age. In other words, don’t make the mistake that old age will bring with it a new excitement about and interest in the things of God. That kind of focus begins when you’re young. That’s exactly why Paul told his young protegé Timothy, “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (1 Timothy 4:12 NLT). He gave similar advice to Titus, telling him, “…encourage the young men to live wisely. And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching” (Titus 2:6-7 NLT).

So, in a similar way, Solomon shared his words of wisdom with the young, encouraging them to make the most of their youth because, like everything else in the world, this season of life would come and go. And Solomon uses some very poetic words to describe the not-so-subtle signs of aging. As an old man himself, he describes that phase of his life as “evil days” that have little to no pleasure associated with them. For Solomon, old aged was marked by increasing physical weakness due to the diminishing capacity of the human body as it slowly decays. He describes a scenario in which “the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain” (Ecclesiastes 12:2 ESV). His words portray life as seen through the eyes of someone who suffers from the effects of cataracts and failing vision. The sun, moon and stars appear darker than they really are. The contrasts and clarity of normal vision are replaced with the flat grayness of a cloudy day.

Solomon writes from the perspective of someone who knows what he is talking about. He describes what it is like when “the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 NLT). The “keepers” are a reference to his legs, the means by which his body stands erect and makes it way in the world. As old age creeps in, the legs tremble, making mobility an issue. And when the legs shake, the whole body follows suit. The “strong men” are his shoulders, bent over and devoid of the youthful strength and vigor they once held. We see these images lived out right in front of our eyes on a daily basis as we watch the elderly among us shuffling their way along, bent over and shakily attempting to manage life in their diminished capacity. 

And for someone who put a high priority on fine food, good wine and a lifestyle built around culinary delights, the next description most likely left Solomon more than a bit frustrated. He states that “the grinders cease because they are few” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). An obvious reference to his own teeth, which had begun to fall out, leaving him with just a handful left in his mouth, making some foods off limits and his diet more than a bit bland and unappealing. Notice what Solomon is doing here. He is describing the loss of those things that were necessary for him to enjoy all the things around which he had built his life. He’s already mentioned the eyes, but he adds, “those who look through the windows are dimmed” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). The eyes become glazed over, incapable of seeing the beauty of all the things with which he has surrounded himself. He can no longer see and enjoy the beauty of the palace he built. He can’t take in the natural beauty of the gardens he designed and planted. Even the 700 wives and 300 concubines he had chosen because of their physical beauty were indistinguishable from one another.

“The doors on the street are shut” seems to be a reference to his loss of hearing. He could no longer hear what was going on outside his own room. Life was taking place all around him, but he couldn’t hear it or enjoy it. Even “the sound of the grinding is low” (Ecclesiastes 12:4 ESV). In other words, you can’t even hear yourself chew your own food. How frustrating to a man who was used to hearing fine music echoing through the halls of his palace. And the real irony is that this same person, unable to sleep, finds himself waking up with the birds singing outside his window, but him being unable to hear them. The “daughters of song” is a reference to musical notes, no longer audible or distinguishable to the one whose hearing has faded with old age. The beauty available in this life becomes increasingly off-limits and unattainable to the elderly. It is inevitable and unavoidable.

On top of that, the aging process comes with increased fears of all kinds. The fear of falling. Fear of harm. Fear of being alone. And fear of death. Along with all the physical changes Solomon has already described comes the reality that the hair on his head had grown both thin and grey, like the white blossoms of an almond tree. And to make matters worse, there were days when Solomon felt like he was dragging himself along like a dying grasshopper on its last legs.

The next comparison Solomon uses is incredibly insightful and probably represents one of the most dreaded aspects of old age for him. In the original Hebrew, he refers to ‘abiyownah, which is a word for the Capparis spinosa fruit which was eaten as an aphrodisiac in the ancient Near East. Solomon is bemoaning the fact that the aging process had robbed him of all sexual desire. And for a man used to availing himself of the hundreds of wives and concubines in his harem, this loss had to have hit him hard. There is little doubt that Solomon tried any and all of the known cure-alls available in his day. He was known for experimentation and innovation, so it is likely that he would have checked out every available aphrodisiac and sexual enhancement drug on the market, all in a vain attempt to prolong this aspect of his life.

Notice that Solomon’s focus in all of this is death and the grave, not eternal life. Dying is a slow, inexorable process that ultimately and inevitably results in death, with man “going to his eternal home” (Ecclesiastes 12:5 ESV). The literal translation is “house of his eternity.” This is an idiom for the grave, not heaven. It was also a Hebrew euphemism for a burial ground or cemetery. Solomon has his dim eyes set on the grave because he has no idea what happens next. It was all a mystery to him. In verse six, he uses a series of visual illustrations to help convey the abrupt end of life. He refers to the silver cord that is snapped, the golden bowl this is suddenly broken, the pitcher that ends up shattered at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern. All of these images conjure up the sudden cessation of life. It just stops. And like a snapped cord, a broken bowl, a shattered pitcher and a broken wheel, death is an irreconcilable condition.

And Solomon soberly summarizes his view, stating, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7 ESV). The body returns to the earth, where it will decay and turn to dust. The soul returns to God. But notice that Solomon doesn’t state this last fact as if it is good news. There is a finality to his words and a sense of loss. Because for Solomon, the body was the means by which he had enjoyed what life had to offer. With the body gone, he had no way of knowing what would be left for the soul to experience in the afterlife. Which is why he sums up this section the same way he has throughout the rest of his book. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8 ESV). So, what Solomon could assess, from his vantage point as an old man, was that young people should enjoy life while they had it. But they should also recognize that it is God who has given them life and the capacity to enjoy all that it has to offer. The sad reality, for Solomon, was that life passed so quickly. It was as if he was looking back, wondering where all the time had gone. He could remember being young. He could recall the pleasures he had enjoyed. But he was also well aware of all the moments he had missed. He had been so busy building, buying, accumulating, experimenting, working, learning, and trying to discover the meaning and purpose behind life, that he had failed to truly enjoy the life given to him by God. And now, his life was about to end. You can sense the regret in his words. You can feel the remorse in his self-revealing description of old age. He would have done things differently. He would have approached life more gratefully and taken his walk with God more seriously. We have a lot to learn from the wisdom of Solomon.

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