The Unbreakable Bond Between Belief and Behavior

The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. – Titus 3:8-11 ESV

Paul has just reminded Titus of the core message of the gospel: Jesus Christ appeared in human form as a visible expression of God’s goodness and love. And Jesus proved the love of God by offering His own life as payment for the sins of humanity. His death made salvation possible, not based on mankind’s efforts to live righteous lives, but because of the mercy of God the Father. The death of Jesus on the cross provided a means for sinful man to be forgiven, cleansed, and restored to a right relationship with God the Father. And after His resurrection and return to His Father’s side, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell all believers. The result was their “new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 NLT). And the Holy Spirit’s presence within the life of each and every believer is a guarantee of the eternal life awaiting them.

And Paul tells Titus that this is a trustworthy saying. In Greek, the phrase is pistos logos. It means that these are words that can be relied upon and believed in. They are true and worthy of our trust because they hold the key to our present effectiveness and our future hope.

The reason Paul can place such high expectations upon the believers living on Crete is because of the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. His death has made possible a life filled with a never-before-available power to live above and beyond the norms of everyday life. A Christian is a new creation whose purpose for life has been radically changed because of his relationship with Jesus Christ. And Paul expects Titus to hold the believers on Crete to the higher standard that comes with their newfound status as God’s children. Jesus died in order that sinful men might be saved but His death also makes possible their ongoing spiritual transformation. He doesn’t just provide them with a clean slate, wiped free from the sin debt they owed, but He also makes it possible for them to live righteous lives. So, Titus was to “insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8 NLT).

The good news regarding Jesus Christ is not just about gaining entrance into heaven someday. It’s about the daily manifestation of our faith through tangible works that reveal the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Notice what Paul told the believers in Ephesus:

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:10 NLT

Paul insists that every believer is the handiwork of God. The Greek word he used is poiēma, and it refers to “the thing that is made.” Each believer is the work of God. No one saves themselves. No one becomes a Christian. The work of salvation is entirely up to God, from beginning to end, just as Jesus told the believers in Rome.

For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory. – Romans 8:29-30 NLT

Paul was consistently emphatic when declaring man’s non-existent role in salvation.

Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT

The believer owes his salvation entirely to God.

because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 ESV

But while man’s works cannot make him a Christian, they can certainly provide evidence that he is one. Which is the point of Paul’s letter to Titus. He wanted the believers on Crete to live their lives in the power of the Spirit, fulfilling the preordained plans God had in place for them. There was work to be done. There were lost individuals who needed to hear the gospel message. There was a divine strategy in place that called for all believers to live in obedience to God’s will and in total submission to His Spirit.

All that Paul has been sharing with Titus was to be considered good and beneficial. This wasn’t pie-in-the-sky-sometime rhetoric. Christianity wasn’t to be viewed as some future escape plan from eternal torment. It was to be the key to abundant life in the present, and Paul lived his life that way. This is why he could so boldly state:

I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20 NLT

Paul fully believed that his old self was crucified alongside Christ, “so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless” ªRomans 6:6 BSB). He regularly experienced the reality of his own teaching in his own life.

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. – Galatians 5:24 NLT

And if those old passions and desires have been nailed to the cross, it is essential that they be replaced with new passions and desires. The believer’s new nature in Christ should come to the fore, giving evidence of the power of God’s Spirit residing in him. So, all that Paul has instructed Titus to teach the believers on Crete is tied to the good works God has created them to accomplish. That includes submission, self-control, love, patience, temperance, kindness, sacrifice, and a host of other qualities that are in short supply in this world. Paul wanted the behavior of all believers to reflect what they said they believed.

…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! – 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT

Paul expected them to believe and behave in a way that displayed their new status as God’s adopted sons and daughters. From God’s perspective, they were new creations, so why would they continue to live according to their old natures? God had new things for them to do. He had a radically different lifestyle in mind for them that was intended to prove the reality of their new identities.

Put on your new nature, created to be like God – truly righteous and holy. – Ephesians 4:24 NLT

But the sad reality was that many of the believers on the island of Crete were struggling. There were those who were causing dissension by teaching unadulterated lies. Arguments were breaking out within their gatherings. Sides were being taken, damaging the unity of the church. And Paul makes it brutally clear what Titus was to do with those who caused divisions within the local church.

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him – Titus 3:10 ESV

Remember, the point of Paul’s letter is godly behavior. He is calling all professing Christians to live as who they are: The sons and daughters of God. As such, they were to reflect the character of Christ. They were to devote themselves to good works. Anything that distracted from the objective was to be avoided at all costs. Anyone who distorted or took away from that goal was to be rejected for being warped, sinful, and self-condemning. These people were guilty of twisting and perverting the trustworthy words of the gospel, and their actions condemned them. As a result, they were to be avoided like a plague. The spiritual well-being of the body of Christ was at risk and the believers on Crete would find it nearly impossible to accomplish the good works God had prepared for them to do as long as these individuals were allowed to remain in their midst. As Paul warned the believers in Galatia, there was no place for tolerance or complacency when it came to anything that threatened the truth of the gospel.

This false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough! I am trusting the Lord to keep you from believing false teachings. God will judge that person, whoever he is, who has been confusing you. – Galatians 5:9-10 NLT

Paul had no tolerance for false teachers and neither should they. Right living becomes virtually impossible when wrong doctrines are allowed to exist. Accomplishing good works is difficult when bad teaching is left unchallenged in the church. The church must always take the truth seriously and deal with falsehood decisively. The world may be filled with lies, driven by deception, and motivated by selfishness, but the church of Jesus Christ is to be the rock-steady foundation of God’s truth. And Paul was providing Titus with the same powerful reminder that he had given Timothy, so that both men might “know how each one must conduct himself in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 BSB).

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.

Silencing the Ungodly

10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. 12 One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. – Titus 1:10-16 ESV

Like Timothy, Titus was one of Paul’s protégés. He was a Greek Gentile whom Paul had evidently led to Christ. This young man had actually accompanied Paul on several of his missionary journeys. Over time, he earned the apostle’s trust, so that Paul was confident in sending him out on his own on numerous occasions. In fact, Paul had sent him to the island of Crete to appoint elders and establish some sense of order among the congregations there.

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you. –  Titus 1:5 NLT

As he had done with Timothy, Paul provided Titus with advice on how to deal with false teachers who had become a recurring problem within the fledgling churches on Crete.

Titus found himself ministering in a place where the reputation of the inhabitants was far from stellar. Paul even quoted Epimenides, a 6th Century BC philosopher and religious prophet who happened to be from Crete and who held a low view of his fellow Cretans.

Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. – Titus 1:12 ESV

Paul concurred with Epimenides’ assessment and went out of his way to paint a less-than-flattering picture of the people of Crete. He described them as  “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10 ESV). Evidently, the false teachers were not the only people of poor repute on Crete. So were some of the members of the local churches. That’s why Paul spends a great deal of time in his letter talking about good works. He wanted Titus to understand just how important good character and moral behavior were to be in the life of a believer.

Paul commanded Titus to deal harshly and firmly with those whose lives were marked by laziness and lying. He didn’t want his young disciple to tolerate the disorder and chaos these kinds of people were bringing into the church. He told Titus to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13 ESV). Rebuking and restoration were both to be a part of Titus’ ministry on Crete.

Paul’s objective was for these individuals to become “sound in the faith,” because they were spreading false and deceptive ideas concerning faith in Christ. Paul’s use of the term “faith” refers to eternal salvation made possible through belief in Jesus Christ as Savior. The false teachers were confusing and even contradicting what Paul, Titus, and others had taught regarding what it means to have faith in Christ, experience forgiveness of sins, and have a restored relationship with God.

Rather than teaching faith alone in Christ alone, these false teachers were proclaiming novel messages regarding salvation that were contradictory to the gospel proclaimed by Paul and the other apostles, and it was weakening the faith of the Cretan believers. They didn’t know who or what to believe anymore.

One of the qualifications for elders that Paul gave Titus was “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9 ESV). These men were to be knowledgeable of the truth so that they might refute falsehood and rebuke those who taught it. As far as Paul was concerned, sound faith was totally dependent upon sound doctrine.

But these false teachers were teaching “what they ought not to teach” and all “for shameful gain” (Titus 1:11 ESV). Paul refers to them as being from the circumcision party. This is a reference to Jews who had expressed faith in Christ, but who held to the idea that Gentiles who became believers in Christ must also keep the Law of Moses and undergo the rite of circumcision in order to be truly saved.

Paul fought this heresy with every fiber of his being. And Paul’s fear was that, based on the reputation of the Cretans, they would easily accept this false teaching, and end up “devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:14 ESV).

The Cretans were easily swayed by the “commands” or teachings of these people, readily accepting what they had to say about circumcision, abstinence from certain foods, the keeping of Jewish feasts and festivals, and adherence to the Mosaic law. But Paul warned Titus that these false teachers “claim they know God, but they deny him by the way they live. They are detestable and disobedient, worthless for doing anything good” (Titus 1:16 ESV).

Paul made it clear that the real problem with these false teachers was their hearts.

Everything is pure to those whose hearts are pure. But nothing is pure to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, because their minds and consciences are corrupted. – Titus 1:15 NLT

They were obsessed with the externals: the keeping of laws and commands and adherence to rituals and religious rules.

There was an occasion when Jesus was approached by a group of Jewish religious leaders who wanted to know why His disciples didn’t follow their man-made tradition of ceremonial hand-cleansing before they ate. Jesus responded to them:

“And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:3-9 NLT

Jesus went on to say: “It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth” (Matthew 15:11 NLT).

These self-righteous religious leaders had missed the point. They were so busy keeping external rules that they missed the real issue: The condition of their hearts. And Paul knew that the false teachers who were so negatively impacting the churches on Crete were suffering from the same problem. Their minds and consciences were defiled. Their hearts were hardened to the truth regarding faith in Christ. They were convinced that there had to be more to salvation. Faith alone in Christ alone was not enough. Works of self-righteousness were necessary. But Paul describes them as defiled and unbelieving. They were wrong and they were dangerous.

So, Paul tells Titus to rebuke them sharply. He was to deal harshly with the false teachers, and he was to rebuke the Cretans who were so easily buying into their lies. Sound doctrine and sound faith go hand in hand. The Word of God is not open to our interpretation. We are not free to add to the gospel or alter the truth of God in any way. And we are not to tolerate those who attempt to mislead by misinterpreting what God has said. Again, that is why Paul told Titus an elder must “have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong” (Titus 1:9 NLT).

Paul had also written to Timothy, telling him that the purpose of his letter was that “you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God. This is the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 NLT). The church and its leaders were to adhere to and uphold the truth of God, especially as it relates to the message and means of salvation. There is no other gospel except the one we have been given: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 ESV).

We live in the midst of an ungodly world and there is an ongoing need for godly men who will step forward and provide leadership and protection for the flock of God. The church needs men of character who are led by the Spirit of God and committed to the Word of God. Disorder and disruption are all around us. That’s why qualified men are in great need, even today.

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.

A Difficult Assignment

As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. – 1 Timothy 1:3-11 ESV

The book of Acts records that Timothy accompanied Paul on his third missionary journey, including a lengthy stay in the city of Ephesus. During their time there, Timothy was able to witness his mentor ministering to the Jewish residents of this prosperous Roman city. And, as usual, Paul’s efforts met with mixed results.

Paul went to the synagogue and preached boldly for the next three months, arguing persuasively about the Kingdom of God. But some became stubborn, rejecting his message and publicly speaking against the Way. So Paul left the synagogue and took the believers with him. Then he held daily discussions at the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for the next two years, so that people throughout the province of Asia—both Jews and Greeks—heard the word of the Lord. – Acts 19:8-10 NLT

Timothy had a front-row seat to Paul’s zealous preaching and teaching ministry in the bustling environs of this cosmopolitan melting pot. And he must have been awestruck by Paul’s supernatural ability to do the inexplicable and impossible.

God gave Paul the power to perform unusual miracles. When handkerchiefs or aprons that had merely touched his skin were placed on sick people, they were healed of their diseases, and evil spirits were expelled. – Acts 19:11-12 NLT

Timothy would have recalled a particular incident in Ephesus involving seven Jewish brothers who tried to emulate Paul’s Spirit-imbued power by attempting to cast out a demon. They seemed to believe that they could replicate Paul’s miraculous crowd-drawing power by simply mimicking his words.

They tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus in their incantation, saying, “I command you in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, to come out!” – Acts 19:13 NLT

But they were in for a rude awakening. The demon they tried to cast out questioned their identity and credentials.

“I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?” – Acts 19:15 NLT

Then Luke records the rather Monty Python-esque scene that transpired.

…the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, overpowered them, and attacked them with such violence that they fled from the house, naked and battered. – Acts 19:16 NLT

But this incident had a sobering effect on the city. Luke reports that news of the demonic attack “spread quickly all through Ephesus, to Jews and Greeks alike. A solemn fear descended on the city, and the name of the Lord Jesus was greatly honored. Many who became believers confessed their sinful practices” (Acts 19:17-18 NLT). 

The impressionable young Timothy would have been deeply impacted by these events. He stood back and watched as the gospel message radically transformed the lives of the people in Ephesus. This city was a hotbed of sorcery and witchcraft, and the gospel message began to make an impact on those who embraced these pagan practices.

A number of them who had been practicing sorcery brought their incantation books and burned them at a public bonfire. – Acts 19:19 NLT

While many were coming to faith in Christ, others in the city saw Paul and his companions as a threat to their religion and their way of life. After Paul sent Timothy on to Macedonia, a riot broke out in the city of Ephesus, spurred on by the guild of the local silversmiths who had seen a dramatic decrease in their sale of idols. They enlisted the other craftsmen in town and launched a crusade against Paul.

“…this man Paul has persuaded many people that handmade gods aren’t really gods at all. And he’s done this not only here in Ephesus but throughout the entire province! Of course, I’m not just talking about the loss of public respect for our business. I’m also concerned that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will lose its influence and that Artemis—this magnificent goddess worshiped throughout the province of Asia and all around the world—will be robbed of her great prestige!” – Acts 19:26-27 NLT

Eventually, Paul was forced to leave Ephesus for the region of Macedonia. But all of these events would have had a dramatic impact on the life of Timothy. When he eventually returned to Ephesus, he knew he was facing an uphill battle. And Paul’s letter to him was intended to provide encouragement and support in the midst of a hostile environment. Paul had given Timothy a very difficult assignment.

When I left for Macedonia, I urged you to stay there in Ephesus and stop those whose teaching is contrary to the truth. – 1 Timothy 1:3 NLT

Paul’s emphasis was on the state of the local church in Ephesus. It had become infiltrated by men who were promoting doctrines that contradicted the words of Jesus and the teachings of Paul. The apostle reminded Timothy of the purpose of his ministry:  “…that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith” (1 Timothy 1:5 NLT). But things in Ephesus had taken a turn for the worse. The influence of the false teachers had already begun to take effect, leaving the believers in Ephesus focusing on the wrong things.

The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith.

…some people have missed this whole point. They have turned away from these things and spend their time in meaningless discussions. – 1 Timothy 1:6 NLT

And it was Timothy’s job to confront these false teachers and to correct the misguided members of the local congregation who were buying into their rhetoric. These purveyors of manmade doctrines wanted “to be known as teachers of the law of Moses,,” but Paul said, “they don’t know what they are talking about” (1 Timothy 1:7 NLT). They were making stuff up as they went along and yet billed themselves as experts in the law of Moses.

In the early days of the church, it was easy for anyone to set themselves up as an expert. There were no seminaries and no established criteria for examining anyone’s leadership credentials. Just about anyone could declare themselves a spokesman for Jesus Christ and promote their own agenda and dogma. But Paul warned Timothy that the basis for judging sound teaching was “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11 ESV). If anyone taught anything that contradicted the gospel of Jesus Christ, they were to be avoided like the plague. This was a pervasive problem in the early church. In fact, Paul warned the believers in Galatia about this very thing.

You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed. – Galatians 1:6-9 NLT

He accused the believers in Corinth of succumbing to the same false rhetoric.

You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed. – 2 Corinthians 11:4 NLT

So, Paul repeated the same warning to Timothy, preparing him to do battle with the flagrant falsehoods being propagated by the self-proclaimed teachers of the gospel. They were to be exposed for what they were – liars and deceivers. And their false teaching was to be rejected and replaced with the pure and life-transforming power of the gospel.

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 Taming of the Tongue

17 Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own
    is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.
18 Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death
19 is the man who deceives his neighbor
    and says, “I am only joking!”
20 For lack of wood the fire goes out,
    and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.
21 As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
    so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.
22 The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels;
    they go down into the inner parts of the body.
23 Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel
    are fervent lips with an evil heart.
24 Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips
    and harbors deceit in his heart;
25 when he speaks graciously, believe him not,
    for there are seven abominations in his heart;
26 though his hatred be covered with deception,
    his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.
27 Whoever digs a pit will fall into it,
    and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.
28 A lying tongue hates its victims,
    and a flattering mouth works ruin.
– Proverbs 26:17-28 ESV

When I think of the Proverbs I can’t help but think about the fool. This collection of wise sayings from the pen of Solomon contains a large number of references to the fool and foolish behavior. It also mentions other behavior closely associated with the fool, such as laziness, lying, dishonesty, unreliability, and an uncontrolled tongue. Some of the things Solomon has to say about fools seem humorous when you read them, but they are meant to be taken seriously. “Honoring a fool is as foolish as tying a stone to a slingshot” (Proverbs 26:8 NLT). The image this Proverb conjures up is meant to be ridiculous and ludicrous. Nobody in their right mind would do something as silly as tying a stone to a sling. It makes no sense. It would serve no purpose. It would be a waste of time. And that’s exactly Solomon’s point. Showering honor on a fool is useless and will produce no beneficial results. As The Message paraphrases this verse, honoring a fool would be “like setting a mud brick on a marble column.” Absolutely ridiculous.

So why does Solomon have it out for fools? Why does he have such strong words of warning against foolish people and foolish behavior? Because he understands the danger they pose to themselves and to society. In Solomon’s mind, fools are the epitome of the person who lives their life as if there is no God. David, Solomon’s father, had warned him early on in life, “Only fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good” (Psalm 53:1 NLT). In the minds of David and Solomon, the fool was not some innocent, bumbling buffoon who just happened to be a few bricks short of a full load. No, fools were a danger to society because they failed to honor God with their lives. Fools were pariahs and a drain on society, because of their refusal to work and their tendency to excuse their laziness with lies. They didn’t carry their load and were not to be trusted or tolerated. In this section of chapter 26, the emphasis seems to be on their words, which were worthless because they refused to listen to the wisdom of God.

Fools are just as prevalent today as they were in Solomon’s day. But we have become so much more tolerant of them. We have fools in places of power and influence. We watch fools entertain us on TV and in the movies, then listen intently as they share their words of wisdom with us on everything from marriage to politics and religion. We idolize and envy them for their lifestyles of excess and hedonism. Our government is well-stocked with fools who use clever words and inspiring speeches to win over constituents and solidify their power base. Yet as Solomon warns:

Smooth words may hide a wicked heart,
    just as a pretty glaze covers a clay pot.

People may cover their hatred with pleasant words,
    but they’re deceiving you.
They pretend to be kind, but don’t believe them.
    Their hearts are full of many evils.Proverbs 26:23-25 NLT

And fools populate the body of Christ as well. Yes, you can be a believer in Jesus Christ and still live like a fool. A fool is simply someone who actively spurns the ways of God. He lives his life as if there is no God in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And the fool is one who hears God’s call but refuses to listen. The Christian fool is the man or woman who is spiritually lazy, avoiding the effort demanded to live according to God’s standards. They refuse to spend time in God’s Word, making up all kinds of excuses. They want the benefits of godliness without putting in any effort. They learn to cover what is really in their hearts with “smooth words.” They pretend to be something they’re not, and they are a danger to the body of Christ. Foolishness is the opposite of wisdom. It is the natural and unavoidable consequence of a life lived apart from the life-changing wisdom of God found in His Word. Avoid the fool at all costs. Avoid foolishness at all costs.

And do everything in your power and with the Holy Spirit’s help to avoid sounding like a fool. It’s amazing how much the Book of Proverbs has to say about the tongue, which is just another way of talking about what comes out of our mouths. From flattery to lying, gossip to arguing, and rumors to wise words, there are countless passages that warn us about watching what we say. But as challenging as it is to keep a close eye on our tongue and the words it produces, we must also be wary of the words others speak to us.

It is amazing just how susceptible we can be to the words of others. As human beings, we can be so desperate for praise that we become easy prey for those who have less-than-righteous objectives. We can easily be taken in by flattery and false praise, which can be a dangerous mistake to make.

Solomon warns us to look beyond the words themselves to the heart of the one speaking. Words can be used to hide true motives, disguise intent, and distract the hearer by telling them what they want to hear. Like colorful glaze used to cover a drab clay pot, smooth-sounding words may be just a cover up to dress up what’s really there.

These kinds of people know full well what they’re doing. They’re hiding what’s really in their hearts and attempting to make you think that all is well. This can happen between a husband and wife, a parent and child, two friends, or two fellow believers. The real danger is that because we can be so susceptible to smooth words, we end up soaking in what they’re saying like a dry sponge. We’re so desperate to hear words of praise and flattery that we fail to consider the source or think about the intent.

Solomon makes it clear that he is talking about those who have wicked hearts that are filled with evil. He is warning us against people who have a reputation for hatred and wrongdoing. And yet, we can find ourselves actually buying into their lies because we find their deceptive words so appealing. We can be so desirous of kind words, that we will accept from even the most suspect source. But Solomon warns, “Don’t believe them!”

They’re lying. They don’t believe what they’re saying and you shouldn’t either. Consider the source. Think carefully about the heart of the one praising you. “A lying tongue hates its victims, and flattering words cause ruin” (Proverbs 26:28 NLT). Do not allow your need for praise to numb you to the truth.

In Greek mythology, the Sirens were portrayed as dangerous and devious creatures, who usually took the form of beautiful women in distress and lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices. Casting caution to the wind and falling prey to the flattering cry of the Sirens, these seasoned sailors would steer their ships directly into the rocks along the coastline, resulting in their own deaths.

Remember, “They pretend to be kind, but don’t believe them. Their hearts are full of many evils” (Proverbs 26:25 NLT). The wisdom of God gives discernment. It opens our eyes to the truth. Without it, we will listen to the smooth words and be deceived by the glossy veneer. To our own detriment. Don’t listen to the Siren’s call.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Sufficiency of the Gospel

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. Colossians 2:8-15 ESV

Paul now warms to his primary task: Warning the Colossian believers about the dangers of the doctrinal heresy that was threatening their congregation. He has established the preeminence of Christ and emphasized the foundational nature of His divinity and humanity. Now Paul presents a stinging indictment of the false teachers, labeling their rhetoric concerning Jesus as nothing more than captivating a purely human-based philosophy based on tradition and filled with empty deceit. Paul’s use of the term “philosophy” was not meant to refer to an academic or scientific study of thought, but the teaching of “certain Jewish Christian ascetics, which busied itself with refined and speculative inquiries into the nature and classes of angels, into the ritual of the Mosaic law and the regulations of Jewish tradition respecting practical life” (The Online Bible: Outline of Biblical Usage).

Paul was emphasizing that the teaching that had infiltrated the Colossian church was purely speculative in nature and not based on divine revelation. It was not according to or in keeping with the prophetic pronouncement concerning Christ found in the Old Testament. And it was not in line with Christ’s teachings concerning Himself. No, these men were propagating false doctrines based on “the elemental spirits of the world” (Colossians 2:8 ESV). The word translated as “spirits” is στοιχεῖον (stoicheion), which might be better translated as “principles.” Paul seems to be juxtaposing teaching that is Christ-centered focus with that which is worldly and man-centered. According to Paul, the elemental or fundamental theories of a non-Christian, fallen world were insufficient to explain or guide the Christian life. The false teachers were attempting to use human reasoning to explain spiritual truths.

Paul explained to the believers in Corinth that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV). He followed up this statement by quoting Isaiah 29:14.

For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Then Paul excoriated the false teachers and religious traditionalists of his day.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. – 1 Corinthians 1:20-25 ESV

There were those who found the apostles’ teaching concerning Christ to be illogical and unacceptable. For some of them, the idea that Jesus was fully God and fully man was untenable and indefensible. For others, the idea of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection was little more than wishful thinking or a fairy tale. But Paul refers to his teaching concerning Christ as the power and wisdom of God.

Paul considered the false teachers’ denial of Christ’s divinity as a particularly egregious sin. That’s he unapologetically stated, “in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body” (Colossians 2:9 ESV). This was a foundational truth concerning the doctrine of salvation and, without it, the validity of Christ’s substitutionary death was rendered impotent. The sinlessness of Christ was based on His divinity. He was the unblemished God-man who was “tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV).

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

To deny Jesus’ deity was to invalidate His entire ministry. He was the sinless and fully righteous Son of God who took on human flesh so that He might do what no man had ever done: Fully obey every one of the commands of God found in the Mosaic Law.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh… – Romans 8:3 ESV

The deity and humanity of Christ were both non-negotiable aspects of His character. Jesus was fully divine and fully human. He was not a phantom or a god masquerading as a man. There were those who taught that Jesus only appeared to be human. And this erroneous teaching led to a distorted understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross. If He wasn’t truly human, then His death was a sham or little more than a show. And that would mean the substitutionary nature of His death was invalid. Not only that, if Jesus didn’t die, then there was no resurrection. And if there was no resurrection, then mankind has no hope.

if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. – 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 NLT

Paul assures the Colossians believers that the resurrection of Jesus was real and that its implications for their lives were substantial.

…you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. – Colossians 2:12 NLT

He wanted them to understand that they needed nothing more than Christ. Despite the claims of the false teachers, the believers in Colossae were lacking nothing in their spiritual experience. They had been filled with the fulness of Christ. The Spirit of Christ indwelled them, making the nature of Christ available to them. The righteousness of Christ had been imputed to them. And, unlike the Judaizers, who were teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be fully saved, Paul emphasized a  circumcision of the heart.

When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. – Colossians 2:11 NLT

This was the same thought Paul had shared with the believers in Rome.

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

Paul reminded the Colossians that, prior to encountering Christ, they had been spiritually dead because their “sinful nature was not yet cut away” (Colossians 2:13 NLT). But that problem had been taken care of by God.

God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 2:13-14 NLT

And in doing so, God “disarmed the rulers and authorities” (Colossians 2:15 ESV). This is most likely a reference to “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). Paul describes them as “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). In conquering sin and death on the cross, God has effectively silenced Satan and his minions, voiding the accusations of guilt and shame they level against God’s people. In Revelation 12:10, Satan is described as the accuser of the brethren, “who accuses them day and night before our God.” But, because of the atoning nature of the cross, Satan’s accusations carry no weight. His weapons lack any power against the children of God. But, as Paul warned the believers in Ephesus, the Colossians were to “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11 ESV).

The false teachers were attempting to undermine the effectiveness of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection by questioning its validity. These godless men were acting as pawns of the enemy by sowing doubts among the believers in Colossae. But Paul exposed their so-called truths as nothing more than cleverly disguised lies meant to deceive and destroy the faith of God’s people.

For Paul, the gospel was enough. There was no new teaching required. And the power of the cross required no additional enhancement or improvement. As Paul told the believers in Corinth, the message of the gospel required no help from human reasoning and cleverly-crafted rhetoric.

When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified.

Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, 4-5 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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

He Has No Equal

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. – Colossians 1:15-20 ESV

As far as Paul was concerned, one of the most non-negotiable aspects of God’s will that the Colossians needed to understand concerned the preeminence of Christ. Evidently, Epaphras had informed Paul that the doctrine of Christ was under direct assault by men claiming to have apostolic authority. These unnamed individuals were teaching false doctrines concerning Christ that had left the Colossian congregation confused and dangerously close to diminishing the fruitfulness for which Paul had so graciously complimented them.

In order to redirect the focus of his letter to Christ, Paul adeptly and somewhat abruptly shifts the emphasis from God the Father to Jesus Christ the son.

For he [God] has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins. – Colossians 1:13-14 NLT

Following this reminder of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross and its eternal implications for their redemption and justification, Paul states, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NLT). In coming to earth and taking on human flesh, Jesus, the Son of God and second person of the Trinity made God both visible and knowable. He became the visible image of the invisible God on earth.

In his gospel account, the apostle John elaborates on this unique aspect of Christ’s earthly ministry.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14 ESV

And John boldly proclaims that Jesus was more than just another messenger from God. He was God Himself.

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made Him known. – John 1:18 BSB

The author of Hebrews expands on the God-reflecting nature of Jesus and further solidifies the doctrine of His divinity.

The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. This shows that the Son is far greater than the angels, just as the name God gave him is greater than their names. – Hebrews 1:3-4 NLT

For Paul and these other authors of the New Testament, the divinity of Jesus was an essential doctrine that must be defended at all costs because it was the hinge upon which the door of salvation swung. If Jesus was not divine, then His death on the cross would prove to be ineffective. His sinlessness was the key to His death’s effectiveness.

…we have an advocate before the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins… – 1 John 2:1-2 BSB

But you know that Christ appeared to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin. – 1 John 3:5 BSB

And what makes this atoning work of Jesus even more significant is the fact that, as God, He was the Creator laying down His life for those whom He created. Paul further enhances Christ’s divine credentials by stressing His eternality and the essential role He played in the creation story.

…by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. – Colossians 1:16 ESV

And, once again, the apostle John provides ample support for Paul’s claim.

He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made. – John 1:2-3 BSB

Paul would present this same message concerning Christ’s role in the creation account when writing to the believers in Corinth.

…there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we exist. – 1 Corinthians 8:6 BSB

As the Creator-God, Jesus was responsible for all that existed, including the believers in Colossae. He was not just a Messiah who came to save them, but He was the God who had created them. He was responsible for their very existence as well as their salvation. He had formed them and forgiven them. He had breathed in them the breath of life and had become for them the means for experiencing new life.  And by His divine power, Jesus would hold them safe and secure to the end.

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:17 ESV

Paul is going out of his way to stress the unique nature of Christ. He was adamant that the believers in Colossae grasped and appreciated the significance of Jesus’ life-giving and life-transforming role as the Son of God. Jesus had been so much more than a teacher, Rabbi, healer, and miracle worker. He was supreme in all things. He had no equal and there was no one who could replicate His accomplishments or diminish His one-of-a-kind status as the sovereign Savior of the world. That is why Paul stresses the headship of Christ over the church, and promotes His well-deserved position as the preeminent one.

And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. – Colossians 1:18 ESV

Paul’s point seems to be that the church would not exist without Christ. Had He not died and risen again, there would be no church because there would be no Christ-followers. He was not a martyred teacher who had managed to cultivate a faithful host of committed followers who continued to propagate His teachings. He was the “firstborn from the dead” who, through His death and resurrection, made possible the spiritual transformation of countless men and women.

There were those who were teaching that the resurrection of Jesus was a fable or myth, and downplaying its importance to the Christian faith. Paul addressed the misguided musings of these dangerous “false teachers”sovereign in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. – 1 Corinthians 15:12-14 ESV

Christ’s resurrection made possible the redemption of condemned humanity and guarantees the future resurrection and glorification of all those who accept His free gift of salvation. Again, Christ was more than a gifted teacher with a message of life transformation based on behavior modification. He had not just modeled a new way of living, but He had died so that sinful men and women might receive new lives and new natures that emulated His.

Paul emphatically states that Jesus is preeminent and one-of-a-kind. He has no equal. Jesus was the sole means by which God chose to redeem fallen humanity. That’s why Paul claims, “God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ” (Colossians 1:19 NLT), and no one else. And it was only through Christ that “God reconciled everything to himself” (Colossians 1:20 NLT). No one else could take credit for the role that Jesus had played in God’s grand redemptive plan. God used Jesus to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself. And anyone who diminished Jesus’ role as Savior or presented another means of salvation was to be avoided at all costs.

You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ. Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. – Galatians 1:6-8 NLT

You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed. – 2 Corinthians 11:4 NLT

It seems quite obvious that Paul held strong views concerning this topic. He was obsessed with defending the doctrine of Christ at all costs. He would not tolerate anyone who attempted to diminish Christ’s divinity or who tried to devalue His role as the God-man who, through His life, death, and resurrection made it possible for sinful men to be made right with a holy 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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

The God of the Speckled, Spotted, and Flawed

25 As soon as Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own home and country. 26 Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, that I may go, for you know the service that I have given you.” 27 But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your sight, I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you. 28 Name your wages, and I will give it.” 29 Jacob said to him, “You yourself know how I have served you, and how your livestock has fared with me. 30 For you had little before I came, and it has increased abundantly, and the Lord has blessed you wherever I turned. But now when shall I provide for my own household also?” 31 He said, “What shall I give you?” Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this for me, I will again pasture your flock and keep it: 32 let me pass through all your flock today, removing from it every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats, and they shall be my wages. 33 So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come to look into my wages with you. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, shall be counted stolen.” 34 Laban said, “Good! Let it be as you have said.” 35 But that day Laban removed the male goats that were striped and spotted, and all the female goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had white on it, and every lamb that was black, and put them in the charge of his sons. 36 And he set a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob pastured the rest of Laban’s flock.

37 Then Jacob took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the sticks. 38 He set the sticks that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, 39 the flocks bred in front of the sticks and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. 40 And Jacob separated the lambs and set the faces of the flocks toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban. He put his own droves apart and did not put them with Laban’s flock. 41 Whenever the stronger of the flock were breeding, Jacob would lay the sticks in the troughs before the eyes of the flock, that they might breed among the sticks, 42 but for the feebler of the flock he would not lay them there. So the feebler would be Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s. 43 Thus the man increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys.  Genesis 30:25-43 ESV

Years earlier, when Jacob had left Beersheba in search of a wife, God had made promised to remain with him. In a vision, God had declared to him, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” And the story that Moses records clearly reveals how God had been keeping that promise. Jacob had left home as an unmarried man and now he had two wives, an equal number of concubines, and 11 sons. But even Jacob knew that it was time for him to come out from under his father-in-law’s control and return home. He had spent the last 14 years earning the right to marry Rachel and now, after a long delay, she had delivered him a son.

But leaving his father-in-law’s employment would prove to be more difficult than he thought. Laban was resistant to letting go of his two daughters, 11 grandsons, and hard-working son-in-law. He even admitted to Jacob, “I have become wealthy, for the Lord has blessed me because of you” (Genesis 30:27 NLT). It’s difficult to decipher whether Laban was sincere or simply trying to persuade Jacob that his stay in Haran had been a “God thing.” There is no indication that Laban was a religious man or that he worshiped Yahweh. But he knew that Jacob, like his grandfather, Abraham, was committed to God. So, he tried to persuade Jacob that God had ordained his time in Haran. This was true, but it is not clear that Laban had received that message directly from God.

God’s involvement in the entire affair is without question. He had promised to remain with Jacob and bring him back safely to Canaan. In the meantime, God had been protecting Jacob, turning Laban’s deception into a blessing. While Laban had deceived Jacob into marrying Leah, it had resulted in eight of his 11 sons, including Joseph, who would later play an instrumental role in the preservation of Jacob’s family. God had been at work, providing for Jacob’s needs and protecting his life.

The day came when Jacob knew it was time to go. There is no indication that he received a message from God, but it seems that he had finally grown tired of living under another man’s roof and control. So, he approached Laban and said, “Please release me so I can go home to my own country. Let me take my wives and children, for I have earned them by serving you, and let me be on my way. You certainly know how hard I have worked for you” (Genesis 30:25-26 NLT).

It seems that Laban believed Jacob was upset about the way he had been treated and was looking for some kind of compensation for all his labor. For more than 14 years, he had been little more than a slave to Laban and helped make him a wealthy man. And Laban was not ready to give up this valuable resource, so he told Jacob to name his price. What would it take to get him to stay? And Jacob acknowledged that he felt slighted by Laban.

“You know how hard I’ve worked for you, and how your flocks and herds have grown under my care. You had little indeed before I came, but your wealth has increased enormously. The Lord has blessed you through everything I’ve done. But now, what about me? When can I start providing for my own family?” – Genesis 30:29-30 NLT

But Jacob wasn’t interested in staying. He was ready to leaven Haran and Laban behind. Yet, he decided to take Laban up on his offer and proposed a suitable form of compensation.

“Don’t give me anything. Just do this one thing, and I’ll continue to tend and watch over your flocks. Let me inspect your flocks today and remove all the sheep and goats that are speckled or spotted, along with all the black sheep. Give these to me as my wages. – Genesis 30:31-32 NLT

Jacob asked to be paid in sheep. He proposed that he be allowed to take all the non-white sheep from among Laban’s flocks. The spotted and dark-colored sheep would have been in the minority, leaving Laban with a greater number of pure white sheep which were of greater value. In a sense, Jacob was asking to receive the dregs of Laban’s flocks.

The always wily Laban agreed to Jacob’s offer, but immediately took measures to protect his assets. Before Jacob could have a chance to make his selection, Laban ordered his sons to remove all the spotted and speckled sheep from among his flocks and take them 3-days journey away. He cheated Jacob again. And it seems obvious that Jacob would have seen through this charade. But rather than complain, he took decided to give Laban a taste of his own medicine. What happens next is difficult to explain. Jacob’s actions seem to be based more on superstition and folklore than anything else.

He came up with a rather strange plan that involved the use of “fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees” (Genesis 30:37 ESV). He then peeled off strips of the bark, revealing the lighter-colored interior. “Then he placed these peeled branches in the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink, for that was where they mated” (Genesis 30:38 NLT). What happens next is inexplicable. It seems that when the sheep mated “in front of the white-streaked branches, they gave birth to young that were streaked, speckled, and spotted” (Genesis 30:39 NLT).

There is no scientific explanation for what occurred. It’s likely that Jacob was utilizing what was nothing more than an old wive’s tale. But for some unknown reason, it worked. As the sheep mated, they produced spotted and speckled lambs. When mating season came around again, Jacob reintroduced these spotted sheep into the flock and the result was more of the same. Over time, he used Laban’s non-spotted sheep to produce a flock that was predominantly spotted, speckled and black. And, as if to add insult to injury, Jacob removed all the weak and feeble sheep when it came time to mate, ensuring that all the lambs that were born were healthy and disease-free. And Moses states that Jacob’s rather strange process produced outstanding results.

As a result, Jacob became very wealthy, with large flocks of sheep and goats, female and male servants, and many camels and donkeys. – Genesis 30:43 NLT

This entire process and the results it produced would have required multiple seasons. So, it extended Jacob’s stay but helped transform him into a wealthy and influential man. He was able to parley his sheep-mating venture into a lucrative business that allowed him to buy servants, camels, and donkeys. He would be returning to Canaan as a very rich man.

But, as always, this story is meant to highlight the sovereign power of God. The only explanation for Jacob’s success is Yahweh. Throwing black and white tree branches into the watering troughs at mating time had nothing to do with anything. Jacob may have been convinced that his efforts had produced the outcome he enjoyed, but it was all the handiwork of God. Jacob could attempt to take credit for his own success, but Moses would have his readers understand that God was the actual hero of the story. What had taken place was a miracle. It was no different than when Moses used a staff to part the water of the Red Sea. God used something common and ordinary to do the uncommon and extraordinary. And in a way, the imagery of the speckled and spotted sheep is a fitting metaphor for the people of Israel. God was going to set apart the small, insignificant, and flawed family of Jacob in order to produce a mighty nation. He would take what others considered to be the rejects and transform them into “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6 ESV). But that is a story for another day.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Sport of Competitive Conception

Then she said, “Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan. Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.” So she called his name Naphtali.

When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10 Then Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11 And Leah said, “Good fortune has come!” so she called his name Gad. 12 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13 And Leah said, “Happy am I! For women have called me happy.” So she called his name Asher.

14 In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” 15 But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” 16 When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. 17 And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Leah said, “God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar.

19 And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son. 20 Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she called his name Zebulun. 21 Afterward she bore a daughter and called her name Dinah.

22 Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. 23 She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” 24 And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!” Genesis 30:3-24 ESV

This story reads like a 1970s television soap opera. The interpersonal intrigues are difficult to keep up with and the sheer number of births is mind-boggling. Moses provides no timeline for this narrative, but suffice it to say, Jacob was a busy man. In the span of 19 verses, Moses describes Jacob as fathering seven sons by four different women. And it’s impossible to read this story and not see the similarities found in the lives of Jacob’s parents and grandparents. But it is if Jacob, Rachel, and Leah have taken the art of conception to a whole new level. It has become a competitive sport, with the women in Jacob’s life batting him like a helpless shuttlecock in a game of badminton.

In fact, it got so bad that Jacob functioned more like a prostitute than as the patriarch of his own family. When his wives ordered him to sleep with their maidservants, he seemed to passively comply. At one point, his wife Leah actually sold some mandrakes to Rachel and used sexual access to Jacob as her bartering chip. Having paid for his services, she simply informed Jacob of the arrangement.

“You must come and sleep with me tonight!” she said. “I have paid for you with some mandrakes that my son found.” So that night he slept with Leah. – Genesis 30:16 NLT

It’s difficult to keep up, but at this point in the story, Jacob has fathered 11 sons. Leah has given him Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. Her handmaid Zilpah has added Gad and Asher. Rachel’s handmaid provided Dan and Naphtali. And, after God opened her womb, Rachel delivered Joseph.

Due to her barrenness, Rachel had been unable to bear Jacob any children – until God had intervened. As her husband’s favorite wife, she found herself shamed by her infertility and her frustrating inability to give Jacob the one thing he desired most: A son. So, in an effort to compete with her sister’s prolific child-bearing capabilities, she had come up with the idea to have children through a surrogate.

“Take my maid, Bilhah, and sleep with her. She will bear children for me, and through her I can have a family, too.” – Genesis 30:3 NLT

In a fit of jealousy and driven by purely selfish motives, Rachel ordered Jacob to father a son through her servant. And just as Abraham had followed the same advice from his wife, Sarah, Jacob complied. Not once, but twice. And this little act of competitive conception encouraged Leah to take up the sport. She too offered her servant to Jacob and, once again, he willingly took her up on the offer. The result? Two more sons.

It would be easy to read this story and be left with the impression that things have gotten completely out of control. There is no referee in this game of one-upmanship. Each of these women seems to make up the rules as the game unfolds. And Jacob comes across like a triple-A prospect who suddenly gets called up to the big leagues. This little country boy from Beersheba was going up against the pros.

But, Moses wants his readers to know that this is not some no-rules, make-it-up-as-you-go-along free-for-all. God is fully in control and operating behind the scenes in order to accomplish His divine will. Yes, it’s messy and incorporates all the subterfuge and self-promotion that Rachel and Leah bring to the table, but it is far from out of control. As Moses lists the various names of the boys born to Jacob, his Jewish readers would have recognized the names of their individual tribes. These boys would grow to become men and father 11 of the 12 tribes of Israel. And on two separate occasions, Moses deliberately pauses the narrative at the mention of the names of Judah and Joseph. When Leah had given birth to her fourth son, she had named him Judah, then Moses wrote, “Then she ceased bearing” (Genesis 29:35 ESV). It seems that God had turned off the tap. He sovereignly sealed her womb, not permanently, but for a period of time.

As stated in yesterday’s blog, Judah was to become the tribe through whom the Messiah of Israel would be born. Judah was going to play a major role in the national affairs of Israel and the future fate of the world. And the same thing is true of Joseph.

Rachel, the favored wife of Jacob, could not bear children. That is until God sovereignly ordained it. And when He miraculously opened her womb, Rachel gave birth to a boy named Joseph. Little did Rachel know that this long-awaited son would play a vital role in the future salvation and preservation of the people of Israel. Moses readers would have been highly familiar with the story of Joseph. He would grow to become the favorite son of Jacob, a designation that would make him the envy of his 10 older brothers. Jacob would lavish the favored son of his favorite wife with affection and gifts, a move that would make Joseph the target of his brothers’ ire.

Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other children because Joseph had been born to him in his old age. So one day Jacob had a special gift made for Joseph—a beautiful robe. But his brothers hated Joseph because their father loved him more than the rest of them. They couldn’t say a kind word to him. – Genesis 37:3-4 NLT

Yet, like Judah, Joseph was destined to play a special role in his family’s future. While Rachel and Leah were busy conniving and competing, God had more serious and world-changing plans in mind. He was using the selfish and shortsighted machinations of these two women to fulfill the covenant promise He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and now, Jacob. As usual, the characters in the story remain oblivious to the unseen actions of God. They believed themselves to be in control and driving the narrative. Oh, they give God lip service.

“God has vindicated me! He has heard my request and given me a son.” – Genesis 30:6 NLT

“God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband as a wife.” – Genesis 30:18 NLT

“God has given me a good reward.” – Genesis 30:20 NLT

“God has removed my disgrace…” – Genesis 30:23 NLT

But they were operating according to their own agendas and in keeping with their own selfish desires. Yet, God was righteously redeeming their flawed actions in order to bring about the plan He had developed long before any of them ever existed.

With the birth of Joseph, a new chapter in the story will begin. For nearly two decades, Jacob had been living in Haran with his father-in-law Laban. He had been waiting on word from his mother, Rachel, informing him that Esau had forgiven him and it was safe to return home. But that message had never come. In all likelihood, Rachel had died while Jacob had been away. He now had two wives, two concubines, and 11 sons. God had blessed him and he realized it was time to return to Canaan. According to God, it was there that his inheritance would be found. When Jacob had stopped in Bethel on his way to Haran, God had appeared to him in a dream and said:

“I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:13-15 NLT

Now, it was time to go back to the land because Jacob knew that Canaan was where the promises of God would be fully fulfilled.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Tables Are Turned

15 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” 16 Now Laban had two daughters. The name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. 18 Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” 19 Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” 22 So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast. 23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her. 24 (Laban gave his female servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.) 25 And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” 26 Laban said, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. 27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” 28 Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. 29 (Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.) 30 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.  Genesis 29:15-30 ESV

Jacob had found his bride-to-be, and as he shared the purpose of his quest with Laban, he must have divulged his intention to marry Rachel. But Laban appears to have been reluctant to hand over his daughter to this newcomer, despite the fact that Jacob was his own nephew. So, to buy time, he convinced Jacob to stay with him, a delay that soon extended to a solid month. During that time, Jacob must have made himself useful, and it seems likely that he offered to help with the flocks because Rachel was a shepherdess. What better way to get to win the affections of his future wife than by serving alongside her as she performed her daily duties.

At the end of the month, Laban decided to offer Jacob some form of compensation for his services. In other words, he attempted to make Jacob a permanent employee. And when he asked Jacob what his salary should be, the young man asked for the right to marry his youngest daughter, Rachel. Jacob was so infatuated with her that he agreed to a seven-year labor contract in order to earn the right to marry her. It seems odd, given the fact that Jacob had come in search of a bride, that he had brought no gifts or money to offer as a bride price.

When Abraham’s servant had gone in search of a bride for Isaac, he had carried gifts for the bride and her family. When he met Rebekah, he had given her “a gold ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels” (Genesis 24:22 ESV). And when the servant eventually met Rebekah’s family, he had presented additional gifts.

And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments. – Genesis 24:53 ESV

And it’s interesting to note that the brother referred to in this passage was Laban. He too had been received expensive gifts from Abraham’s servant and these items had been intended to serve as a bride price for Rebekah.

But when Jacob showed up in Haran and shared his desire to marry one of Laban’s daughters, no gifts were given or exchanged. A month later, there had still been no bride price offered by Jacob. So, in order to win the right to marry Laban’s daughter, he offered to spend seven years as Laban’s indentured servant.

All of this begs the question: Had Isaac failed to give Jacob any gifts to present? Or had Jacob squandered them along the way? Perhaps Jacob had decided to keep the treasures for himself in order to fund what he knew would be an extended stay in Mesopotamia. After all, his mother had told him to not return until she sent word that it was safe to do so.

“Get ready and flee to my brother, Laban, in Haran. Stay there with him until your brother cools off. When he calms down and forgets what you have done to him, I will send for you to come back.” – Genesis 27:43-45 NLT

Whatever the case, Jacob was committed to a lengthy stay in Haran. And it seems that Laban was once again hoping for some kind of profitable exchange between himself and the grandson of Abraham. His overly enthusiastic welcome of Jacob would suggest that Laban was expecting another big payday. As head of the house, he stood to gain a substantial bride price for allowing Jacob to wed Rebekah. And, since no gifts had forthcoming, Laban decided to accept Jacob’s terms. But this is where the story gets interesting.

Moses points out that the deceit-prone Jacob actually kept his word.

Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. – Genesis 29:20 ESV

His love for Rachel overpowered any desire he may have had to cut corners or skirt the rules. But his decision to do things the right way would actually end up costing him.

When his seven-year commitment had been fulfilled, Jacob demanded that Laban keep his end of the bargain.

“I have fulfilled my agreement,” Jacob said to Laban. “Now give me my wife so I can sleep with her.” – Genesis 29:21 NLT

You can almost sense Jacob’s impatience as he rather crassly demands the right to consummate his marriage to Rachel. This almost leaves the impression that Jacob and Rachel had been betrothed the entire seven years, and everyone would have known that Laban had agreed to the arrangement. So, this makes what Laban does next especially evil.

Having agreed to the betrothal and marriage, Laban decided to take advantage of Jacob’s unbridled enthusiasm in order to accomplish another pressing matter. It seems that Leah, Rachel’s older sister, remained unmarried. The text states that “Leah’s eyes were weak” (Genesis 29:17 ESV). The Hebrew word is רַךְ (raḵ) and it can be translated as “tender,” “delicate,” or “weak.” Given the fact that Leah’s eyes are being compared to Rachel’s outward beauty (Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance), it would appear that Leah suffered from some kind of eye condition. Perhaps she was partially blind or had some other ocular ailment.

But as a father, Laban would have felt a special responsibility to find a suitable husband for his firstborn daughter. The day would come when he could no longer care for her, so it was essential that he provide her with a man to provide for and protect her after he was gone. This led Laban to do the unthinkable.

After throwing a feast for the newlyweds and, most likely, after ensuring that Jacob was highly inebriated, Laban snuck Leah into the bridal tent in place of Rachel. This time, the firstborn pretended to be the youngest. In the same way that Rebekah helped Jacob to deceive Isaac, Laban assisted Leah in her deception of Jacob. Overcome by the effects of the alcohol and due to the darkness of the tent, Jacob never realized that he had slept with the wrong woman – until the sun came up.

in the morning, behold, it was Leah! – Genesis 29:25 ESV

What a shock that must have been. And it’s amazing to consider that Leah went along with it all. She willingly participated in the deception, not seeming to consider how her actions would impact her own sister. And the righteous indignation of Jacob, while justified, is still somewhat comical.

“What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me? Genesis 29:25 ESV

How hypocritical these words sound coming from the mouth of Jacob. The deceiver has just been deceived and he can’t believe it. How dare someone take advantage of him? But Jacob had it coming.

In response to Jacob’s anger, Laban provided a rather lame explanation having to do with local social customs. It was not proper to marry off the younger daughter ahead of her older sister. But this excuse doesn’t explain why Laban failed to disclose this rather important detail before he had made the agreement with Jacob. He had withheld it on purpose, having already decided to use Jacob’s love for Rachel as the pretext for marrying off his less-attractive daughter. In a sense, Laban killed two birds with one stone. And then he had the audacity to suggest that Jacob’s seven years of service would be counted as payment for his marriage to Leah. Another seven-year contract would be required if Jacob wanted Rachel as well.

One can only imagine the look on Jacob’s face as he heard these words come out of Laban’s mouth. He must have been beside himself with rage and frustration. But he was not in a position to declare his rights or negotiate a better deal. If he wanted Rachel, he was going to have to swallow his pride and agree to Laban’s less-than-generous terms. And that’s exactly what he did. After a week of honoring his conjugal responsibilities to Leah, Jacob was allowed to marry Rachel as well. But he would spend the next seven years of his life paying off his debt. Suddenly, his one-month stay in Haran had turned into 14 years of forced labor.  The man who had cheated his own brother out of his birthright and blessing had been taken to the cleaners by his future father-in-law.

But as has become evident all throughout this story, God was operating behind the scene on this occasion as well. Despite the despicable actions of Laban, God had a purpose behind Jacob’s unplanned marriage to Leah. Due to her physical infirmity, she was the unwanted daughter whom no man desired for a wife. But it would be through Leah that the family tree of Jesus would come. This weak-eyed, undesirable woman would become the one through whom God’s plan for the Messiah of Israel would be fulfilled. Jacob loved Rachel. But God had a special love for Leah that would produce the greatest expression of divine affection the world has ever seen.

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16 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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Marvelous and Mysterious Ways of God

26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” 27 So he came near and kissed him. And Isaac smelled the smell of his garments and blessed him and said,

“See, the smell of my son
    is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed!
28 May God give you of the dew of heaven
    and of the fatness of the earth
    and plenty of grain and wine.
29 Let peoples serve you,
    and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
    and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
    and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”

30 As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of Isaac his father, Esau his brother came in from his hunting. 31 He also prepared delicious food and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father arise and eat of his son’s game, that you may bless me.” 32 His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau.” 33 Then Isaac trembled very violently and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? Yes, and he shall be blessed.” 34 As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.

39 Then Isaac his father answered and said to him:

“Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be,
    and away from the dew of heaven on high.
40 By your sword you shall live,
    and you shall serve your brother;
but when you grow restless
    you shall break his yoke from your neck.” Genesis 27:26-40 ESV

Rebekah’s clandestine plan had worked to perfection. Her elderly and half-blind husband had been so thoroughly fooled by Jacob’s slipshod disguise that he truly thought he was about to bestow a blessing on his eldest son, Esau.

Having satiated his appetite with the food that Jacob had prepared, the old man called his son to his side and kissed him. And because Jacob had followed his mother’s advice and was wearing Esau’s clothes, Isaac’s dulled senses were fooled yet again. Esau was an outdoorsman and a hunter, so his clothing carried a unique scent. Isaac described it as “the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed” (Genesis 27:27 ESV). Along with an affectionate fatherly kiss, Isaac bestowed a blessing upon his son. But little did he realize that his blessing was being stolen right from under his clouded eyes.

But completely oblivious to the fraudulent nature of the moment, Isaac placed his hands on his son and passed on the blessing of the firstborn.

“From the dew of heaven
    and the richness of the earth,
may God always give you abundant harvests of grain
    and bountiful new wine.
May many nations become your servants,
    and may they bow down to you.
May you be the master over your brothers,
    and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
All who curse you will be cursed,
    and all who bless you will be blessed.” – Genesis 27:28-29 NLT

This blessing would have been of great value to Isaac because it had been passed down to him by his own father. There had been a time in Isaac’s life when Abraham had declared these very same words to him, and now he was passing them on to his eldest son – or so he thought.

The words contained in the blessing are a reiteration of the promise that God had made to Abraham. In fact, on the day that Abraham obeyed the word of the Lord and prepared to offer up the life of Isaac as an offering, God had intervened and repeated His covenant promise.

“Because you have obeyed me and have not withheld even your son, your only son, I swear by my own name that I will certainly bless you. I will multiply your descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will conquer the cities of their enemies. And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed—all because you have obeyed me.” – Genesis 22:16-18 NLT

That is the core message behind Isaac’s blessing of Esau. It contains the promises of land, fruitfulness, and power. Isaac is declaring his belief that, even after his own death, God will continue to fulfill every aspect of His covenant promise. But while Isaac’s heart was in the right place, his hands were on the wrong son. He was inadvertently bestowing the blessing on Jacob instead of Esau. But despite Isaac’s confusion, God’s will was actually being fulfilled. This convoluted mess was turning out just as God had planned.

God had declared his intentions regarding these two brothers long before they were born. While Rebekah was still carrying them in her womb, He had revealed their preordained destinies.

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the older shall serve the younger.” – Genesis 25:23 ESV

God had already predetermined that Jacob would be the greater of the two. And while Esau had been the first to exit the birth canal providing him with a legal claim to the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn, God had other plans.

This passage provides a powerful reminder that God’s ways are beyond our limited capacity to understand. He declares of Himself, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” and then He adds, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV). God is not required to explain Himself. And Moses provides no explanation for God’s actions in this story. We are not told why God allowed Rebekah to do what she did. There is no rationale given for why God permitted the deceptive and manipulative Jacob to steal his brother’s blessing. 

Each of the characters in the story comes off as fatally flawed and seemingly out of step with the will of God. And yet, God’s will was being done in spite of them but, more importantly, through them. Each of them had been driven by their own selfish agenda, but their wills were completely subject to the sovereign will of God.

Isaac’s misplaced blessing would prove to have long-term implications, but the outcome would be in keeping with God’s predetermined plan. Jacob, the younger, would be blessed so that he might be a blessing. He would inherit the right to rule over his brothers. And his descendants would enjoy the divine protection of God Almighty. Those who cursed them would be cursed. Those who blessed them would be blessed.

It’s difficult to reconcile this news when one considers the ungodly actions of Rebekah and Jacob. They employed deceit, manipulation, and fraud to accomplish their objective. But God was working behind the scenes to ensure their less-than-righteous actions produced good rather than evil. It is the same message that will be conveyed later on in the story of Genesis, when Joseph, a son of Jacob, confronts his own brothers who, out of jealousy and spite, had sold him into slavery. Through the sovereign will of God, Joseph ended up in Egypt and rose from slavery to the second-highest position in the land. And when his brothers came seeking food because of a severe famine in Canaan, Joseph confronted them about their ill-treatment of him.

“But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh—the manager of his entire palace and the governor of all Egypt.” – Genesis 45:5-8 NLT

Joseph could see the hand of God in all that had happened in his life. His brothers had been guilty of selling him into slavery, but Joseph recognized that it had all been a part of God’s sovereign plan. And it is important to remember that Joseph was a son of Jacob, the man who stole the blessing from his own brother. And, even at the end of his life, Joseph was able to reiterate to his brothers his belief in God’s sovereign plan.

“Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. – Genesis 50:19-20 ESV

But the story of Jacob and Esau is still difficult to read and even more difficult to justify. It all seems so unfair and indefensible, especially when Moses relates the impact it had on the unsuspecting and seemingly innocent Esau. He ultimately comes home to find that his blessing has been stolen and he is beside himself with frustration and anger. This is the second time his brother has taken advantage of him and he declares his well-justified resentment at this most recent injustice.

“…he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” – Genesis 27:36 ESV

Esau demands to receive a blessing, but Isaac sadly informs him that Jacob has received it all.

“I have made Jacob your master and have declared that all his brothers will be his servants. I have guaranteed him an abundance of grain and wine—what is left for me to give you, my son?” – Genesis 27:37 NLT

There is nothing left to give. Esau’s brother now owns his birthright and his blessing. And when Isaac hears Esau’s anguished pleas to be blessed, all he can do is restate the negative impact that the blessing of Jacob will have on Esau’s life. It is less a blessing than it is a curse.

“You will live away from the richness of the earth,
    and away from the dew of the heaven above.
You will live by your sword,
    and you will serve your brother.
But when you decide to break free,
    you will shake his yoke from your neck.” – Genesis 27:39-40 NLT

While this story is intended to leave the reader with a sense of dissonance, it should also remind them of the unfathomable nature of God’s ways. There are things going on behind the scenes that we cannot see or comprehend. The dysfunctionality of this family is appalling, but even their worse actions are no match for God’s best-laid plans. The fulfillment of His will is not dependent upon their faithfulness. Jacob did not deserve the blessing, yet it was his. Rebekah’s unrighteous behavior is in no way justified by the outcome it seems to have produced. And she will live to regret the division her behavior has created within her own household. Her sins will have consequences. And, as the story unfolds, it will become painfully clear that Jacob’s sins will have serious consequences as well.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.