Hardened Hearts

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. – John 6:16-21 ESV

According to the gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark, after Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, He told the disciples to travel by boat to the city of Bethsaida, located on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He told Him He would join them there after he had dismissed the crowds. But Jesus delayed His departure until that evening because He went needed time alone with His Heavenly Father.

So, once again, the scene is set for yet another display of His divine glory. The disciples had just witnessed the power and authority of Jesus as He miraculously transformed five loaves of bread and two small fish into a feast that fed 5,000 men, plus their wives and children. Everyone ate as much as they liked and yet, the disciples collected 12 baskets full of uneaten leftovers.

This incredible demonstration of Jesus’ power brings to mind the words of Paul, written to the church in Ephesus.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. – Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV

God’s power is unlimited and He had displayed that power through the hands of His own Son. Jesus had taken the bread and fish, miraculously multiplying what had been deemed insufficient by the disciples and turning it into abundantly more than anyone in the crowd could have ever imagined. In doing so, Jesus demonstrated the kind of power at His disposal. But His actions were also meant to encourage the disciples and let them know that, as His followers, they would have access to that same divine power.

It seems that the disciples had followed Jesus’ instructions and had sailed to Bethsaida. But when Jesus failed to show up, they decided to sail on the Capernaum, assuming that Jesus would meet them there. But Matthew indicates that things did not go well for them. By the time Jesus arrived in Bethsaida, it was somewhere between 3:00 and 6:00 o’clock in the morning, and the disciples were caught in a storm.

…but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. – Matthew 14:24 ESV

Due to the strong wind, the disciples had only made it about three miles, and they were struggling to make any further headway. There is no indication that they were in fear for their lives. Many of the disciples were seasoned fishermen and they would have been very familiar with these kinds of storms, which were a common occurrence on the Sea of Galilee. But they would have rarely traveled by boat after dark. It seems likely that they were tired, having just recently returned from the mission Jesus had sent them on, and from the long day of feeding the 5,000. They were probably a bit put out with Jesus for having delayed their departure by not showing up when He said He would.

So, in the midst of their difficulties on the lake, they were shocked to see what looked like a ghost, walking on the water towards them. Matthew indicates that “they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’” (Matthew 14:26 ESV). And Mark adds that “they all saw him and were terrified” (Mark 6:50 ESV). Whether it was due to the darkness or the wind and the blowing mist, they were unable to recognize Jesus. This boat-full of grown men responded like a group of frightened adolescent girls.

But despite the roar of the wind and the cries of the disciples, Jesus spoke and they were able to hear Him.

“It is I; do not be afraid.” – John 6:20 ESV

Once again, this scene brings to mind the 23rd Psalm. The feeding of the 5,000 was a demonstration of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, caring for His helpless sheep.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
   He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
   He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake. – Psalm 23:1-3 ESV

Jesus had demonstrated His compassion for the people by meeting their physical need for food. He had restored their physical stamina by feeding their bodies. But He had come to do so much more.

And now, we see His disciples, caught in a storm and struggling to make their way to safety. They were expending great amounts of energy but were making little progress. And there were probably a few of the disciples who wondered if they would make it Capernaum at all. And this is where David’s psalm comes in.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4 ESV

Jesus spoke into the chaos of their situation, and He simply stated, “It is I.” But Jesus was doing so much more than announcing Himself to His disciples. In a sense, He was indicating to His disciples that the entire circumstance in which they found themselves was His doing. It was all part of His plan for further demonstrating to them His divine power and authority. In spite of what they saw and were experiencing, He was still Jesus, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.

And Mark indicates that as soon as Jesus spoke to them, He got into the boat, and the wind immediately ceased. His very presence calmed the storm. And then Mark adds, “and they were utterly astounded” (Mark 6:51 ESV).

If you recall, the disciples had displayed no reaction to Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000. None of the gospels indicate any kind of response on the part of the disciples after having witnessed this incredible demonstration of Jesus’ power and authority. The crowd had reacted with awe and wonder, declaring their belief that Jesus must be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy spoken by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15 ESV).

“This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” – John 6:14 ESV

But the disciples appeared to remain strangely silent. And Mark provides some insight into what was going on.

And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. – Mark 6:51-52 ESV

These men were completely blown away by what they had just witnessed. They had just witnessed Jesus doing the impossible, by walking on water and defying the laws of nature. But Mark indicates that their astonishment was due to the fact that they had not understood what Jesus had done earlier that day. In His miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus had already demonstrated His power over nature. As the Son of God and the co-creator of the universe, Jesus held absolute authority over the entire creative order.

And what is amazing about this entire story is that the disciples had already been eyewitnesses to Jesus’ power over the wind and waves. Mark and Matthew both record an earlier occasion in which Jesus and the disciples were caught in a severe storm on the Sea of Galilee. As the storm raged, Jesus slept. But the disciples, in fear for their lives, had awakened Jesus, demanding that He do something to save them. And He had responded to their fear by rebuking the winds and waves and calming the storm. And the disciples, awed by what they had just witnessed, stated, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:27 ESV).

And yet, here they were on the same sea, facing similar circumstances, and they still could not understand what sort of man Jesus truly was. Mark indicates that their hearts were hardened. They were not yet capable of seeing and understanding the true nature of Jesus’ identity. Yes, they had seen Him turn water into wine. They had witnessed Him perform signs and wonders. They had watched Him feed more than 10,000 people with nothing more than five loaves of bread and two small fish. Now, they had just seen Him walk on water. But while they were shocked by all that they had seen, their hearts were still hardened by disbelief. They just couldn’t bring themselves to see Jesus for who He truly was.

John indicates that they were simply relieved to have Jesus back in the boat with them.

…they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. – John 6:21 ESV

With Jesus in the boat, things were back to normal. The wind had died down and they found themselves back in the safe and more familiar surroundings of Capernaum. But little did they know that their lessons were far from over. Jesus was far from done when it came to teaching His disciples about His identity and preparing them for their ultimate role as His apostles. They had much to learn and Jesus was going to continue softening their hearts and enlightening their minds so that they would be ready for the task that lie ahead.

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

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

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

Not Enough

1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. – John 6:1-15 ESV

After recording Jesus’ less-than-flattering address to the religious leaders, John picks up the story with Jesus leaving Jerusalem and traveling back to the region of Galilee. As is clear from a reading of the other gospels, John chooses to skip a lot of other important events in Jesus’ life and picks up his narrative with the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. It was not that John was unaware of these other details of Jesus’ life because he would have been an eyewitness to all of them. It is that he was purposefully piecing together key events that provided further evidence to support his theme of Jesus’ deity. For John, the whole point of his gospel was to prove that Jesus was the Word of God made flesh.

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

Throughout his gospel, John concentrates his attention on those events surrounding the life of Jesus that help support his thesis. He intentionally chooses the stories that he feels best illustrate the point he is trying to make. John is not so much interested in providing a day-by-day account of the life of Jesus as he is in demonstrating and proving the deity of Jesus.

So, he picks up the story with Jesus arriving at “the other side of the Sea of Galilee” (John 6:1 ESV). We know from Luke’s gospel that the scene for this miracle was near a town called Bethsaida, located on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Luke 9:10). According to Matthew’s account, upon hearing the news of John the Baptist’s beheading by Herod, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 14:13 ESV). But when He returned to shore, Jesus found a large crowd had gathered to see Him. Mark adds that Jesus viewed the crowd as “sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34 ESV) and His compassion led Him to heal many of those who were sick among them. According to John, Jesus’ actions attracted an even larger crowd, filled with people from the neighboring towns who were anxious to see this miracle worker for themselves. 

John describes Jesus gathering His 12 disciples and taking them to the crest of a local hillside. They had just returned from their first official missionary assignment (Mark 6:30-32; Luke 9:10) and Jesus knew they needed rest and a time to debrief from their experience.

The scene is set. John the Baptist is dead. The disciples of Jesus have returned from their assignment, tired and hungry, but anxious to share about all the miracles they had performed (Luke 9:6). A large crowd has gathered, drawn by news of the miracles of Jesus. And John adds the somewhat random note that the Feast of the Passover was just around the corner. That reference will become more important as his story unfolds.

John, in his recollection of the day’s events, describes Jesus as turning to Philip and asking, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” (John 6:5 ESV). None of the other gospel accounts include this conversation between Jesus and Philip. It may be that John was the only one of the disciples who overheard this exchange. It is significant because Philip was the only disciple who was from Bethsaida (John 1:44). He would have had firsthand knowledge of the area and known where bread could be purchased. But John indicates that Jesus’ question was really just a test.

Philip and his companions had just returned from the assignment given to them by Jesus, and Luke provides the instructions they had received.

One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick. “Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes. Wherever you go, stay in the same house until you leave town. And if a town refuses to welcome you, shake its dust from your feet as you leave to show that you have abandoned those people to their fate.”– Luke 9:1-5 ESV

And Luke adds that they had followed Jesus’ instructions, traveling from village to village, “preaching the Good News and healing the sick” (Luke 9:6 ESV). These men had been given “power and authority” by Jesus so that they had been able to cast out demons and heal the sick, just as He did. And when they returned to Jesus, they told Him all that they had done.

Now, Jesus gave His disciples a test. He wanted to see how they were going to handle this particular moment in time. Had their faith been strengthened by their recent experience? Did they believe that the power and authority given to them by Jesus was enough to handle any circumstance they might encounter?  Jesus wasn’t interested in knowing whether Philip had a source for the purchase of bread. He wanted to know if His disciples were convinced that He was the source of all things. He had given them power and authority, and they had seen it in action. But now, when faced with what appeared to be an overwhelming physical problem, would their faith fail them?

Philip’s response to Jesus’ question provides the answer:

“Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” – John 6:7 ESV

From Philip’s perspective, the problem was greater than their capacity to solve it. There were just too many people to feed. And Andrew reveals just how dire the situation really was: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” (John 6:9 ESV). The other gospel writers indicate that the disciples concluded that the best solution was to let the people fend for themselves.

“…send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” – Matthew 14:15 ESV

“Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” – Mark 6:36 ESVC

“Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” – Luke 9:12 ESV

They failed the test. Their personal experience wielding the power and authority given to them by Jesus had been real, but its effect had been shortlived. They were unable to look at their current situation and see that the solution was well within their reach. But Jesus knew that nothing was impossible. So, He instructed the disciples to gather the crowd (the sheep without a shepherd) and seat them on the grassy hillside. Then John records that Jesus “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted” (John 6:11 ESV).

Jesus, with the power and authority given to Him by God the Father, fed the sheep. He shepherded the flock of God, miraculously meeting their need in full. This amazing event should bring to mind the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
    He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake. – Psalm 23:1-3 ESV

John points out that the people “ate their fill.” They were completely satisfied. No one went without and there was no one who failed to have their need fully met. The Shepherd fully satisfied the needs of His flock. In fact, there were 12 baskets of leftovers gathered by the disciples. Each of them held in his hands a basket full of tangible proof that with the Lord as their shepherd, they would never have a single unmet need.

But it is interesting to note that John describes the reaction of the people, but not of the disciples.

“This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” – John 6:14 ESV

The people were amazed by what they had seen and experienced. But John portrays the disciples as strangely silent. Jesus had just displayed His divine power and authority yet again, yet the disciples had nothing to say. But the people were ready to crown Jesus as their king. And John concludes the story with a telling comment:

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. – John 6:15 ESV

Jesus withdrew. He left the crowds and His disciples behind, choosing instead to seek time alone. And Mark tells us that Jesus went up on the mountain to pray” (Mark 6:46 ESV). Escaping the craving crowds and His disconcerted disciples, Jesus sought the companionship of His Heavenly Father. The Son of God returned to the source of His power and authority, seeking to hear from the one who knew Him best.

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

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

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

A Heavenly Calling

22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).

25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:22-30 ESV

Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus ended somewhat abruptly, with John providing no details concerning the Pharisee’s final reaction to all that he had heard. The next time John mentions Nicodemus is in chapter 7, in reference to a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews, of which Nicodemus was a member. They had called a meeting in order to discuss the disturbing reactions of the people regarding Jesus.

…some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee?” – John 7:40-41 ESV

Even the high priest’s personal guard, who had heard Jesus speak, reported, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46 ESV). But Pharisees reacted angrily, shouting, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (John 7:47-49 ESV). These men, who prided themselves in their superior knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures believed themselves to be too astute to be fooled by this charlatan from Nazareth. But the people were fools and easily deceived. But John adds an interesting note concerning Nicodemus, “who had gone to him before, and who was one of them” (John 7:50 ESV). Nicodemus risked his reputation by speaking up on the behalf of Jesus.

“Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” –John 7:51 ESV  

It seems clear that Nicodemus’ nighttime discussion with Jesus had made an impression on him. The words of Jesus had been bouncing around in his head and he was wrestling with what he believed about this man from Galilee. The next time we hear about Nicodemus is in chapter 19, in reference to the death and burial of Jesus. John records that Joseph of Arimathea, who he describes as a disciple of Jesus, had sought permission from Pilate to bury the body of Jesus. And John adds that Nicodemus, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight” (John 19:39 ESV). This prominent member of the Pharisees took the risk of bringing spices and oils to anoint the body of Jesus. This does not prove that Nicodemus believed Jesus to be his Messiah and Savior, but it is hard to imagine that Nicodemus did not have the following words of Jesus in mind.

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15 ESV

After his late-night encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus had returned to his life as a Pharisee, but with much to think about. But John describes Jesus as returning to the Judean wilderness, where He had been baptized by John the Baptist.

John sets up another contrast between these two men. He describes both Jesus and John the Baptist as baptizing all those who came. In the very next chapter, John points out that Jesus “was making and baptizing more disciples than John” (John 4:2 ESV), but adds the following point of clarification:although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples” (John 4:3 ESV).

John the Baptist had appeared on the scene first and he had garnered his fair share of disciples. But with the arrival of Jesus, things began to change. The disciples who had chosen to follow John the Baptist were confused by the notoriety of Jesus and had begun to see Him as competition. And they brought their concern to John the Baptist.

“Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” – John 3:26 ESV

With the arrival of Jesus, John the Baptist had not shut down his ministry and sought early retirement. He had continued to preach his message that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, and he baptized all those who were willing to repent and seek forgiveness for their sins. But further down the Jordan River, Jesus and His disciples were doing the same thing.

The disciples of John the Baptist have just had a discussion with a Jew concerning the exact nature of the baptisms they were performing. The Greek word John uses is katharismos, and it refers to the practice of ceremonial cleansing or washing with water. It seems likely that the debate or discussion between John the Baptist’s disciples and the unnamed Jews had centered around a question of just what kind of baptism Jesus and His disciples were performing. John the Baptist had made it clear, “I baptize you with water for repentance” (Matthew 3:11 ESV). But what was the nature of the baptism or ceremonial washing that Jesus and His disciples offered?

The real issue seems to be the practice of ritual and completely external ceremonial cleansing. Jesus had come offering something completely different. He had told Nicodemus that entrance into the kingdom of God would require birth from above. His ministry was focused on heart purification, not some form of external and temporary physical cleansing. And what Jesus was saying and doing could have been seen as contradictory to the accepted teachings of Judaism. So, this could be what motivated John the Baptist’s disciples to bring their concerns to him.

But he responded by reminding his disciples that “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27 ESV). As far as John the Baptist was concerned, Jesus was doing what He was doing by the sovereign will of God. And if God wanted to make the ministry of Jesus more impactful and successful, so be it.

John the Baptist reminded his disciples that he had never claimed to be the Messiah. He had simply been the faithful witness, preparing the way for the one “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27 ESV). He wanted his followers to know that his star was fading because the one he had been proclaiming had finally appeared. The focus was shifting away from John the Baptist and onto the ministry of Jesus, and he was perfectly at peace with that transition.

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:30 ESV

John the Baptist was fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Which is why he told his disciples, “It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success” (John 3:29 NLT). He had never been the star of this show. He had simply been the first act, preparing the way for the principal protagonist in God’s divine play. And now that Jesus had appeared on the scene, John the Baptist was willing to fade into the background, having played his part and completed his divine task.

But it’s interesting to note that, a short time later, John the Baptist would seem to have a change of heart. His confidence in Jesus’ identity as the Messiah would be put to the test by an unexpected change in his own circumstances. He would find himself arrested and imprisoned for having accused King Herod of committing adultery with his deceased brother’s widow. Suddenly, his optimistic outlook began to fade and he sent two of his disciples with a question for Jesus that reveals his growing doubt.

“Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” – Luke 7:19 NLT

His less-than-satisfactory circumstances were causing him to question whether Jesus really was the Messiah. You can sense that John the Baptist had been expecting Jesus to fulfill the commonly held view that the Messiah would restore the Davidic kingdom. Things would get better, not worse. And with his arrest, he had questions as to whether Jesus really was the one they had been expecting.

But Jesus had an interesting answer to John the Baptist’s inquiry.

“Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.” – Luke 7:22-23 NLT

In a sense, Jesus told His imprisoned friend to take his eyes off his own circumstances and to look closely at what was happening all around him. Jesus used prophetic terminology to describe His earthly ministry. He was doing the very works that the prophets had ascribed to the coming Messiah.

“I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.
    I will take you by the hand and guard you,
and I will give you to my people, Israel,
    as a symbol of my covenant with them.
And you will be a light to guide the nations.
   You will open the eyes of the blind.
You will free the captives from prison,
    releasing those who sit in dark dungeons.” – Isaiah 42:6-7 NT

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
    for the Lord has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed. – Isaiah 61:1 NLT

Jesus was pointing to the evidence of His works. He was doing the very ministry that the prophets had predicted the Messiah would do. But notice that Jesus leaves something out. He does not stress that He will “free the captives from prison” or release “those who sin in dark dungeons.” He doesn’t tell John the Baptist that  the “captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.” Because John the Baptist would never experience freedom from his imprisonment. He would be beheaded by Herod.

Jesus had come to bring spiritual healing to people who were spiritually blind, lame, poor, and imprisoned by sin. He had come to provide something far more significant than ceremonial cleansing from sin. His ministry was from above and His miracles were intended to point to a form of healing that would be eternal and not temporal in nature.

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

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

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

Committed to the Cause

13 Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

15 You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. 16 May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, 17 but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me— 18 may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day!—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus. 2 Timothy 1:13-18 ESV

Even while imprisoned in Rome, Paul took a keen interest in the affairs of the many local congregations he had helped to start. He wrote a great many of his pastoral epistles while under arrest, using his time to encourage the church of Jesus Christ, providing doctrinal instruction, relevant application of Jesus’ teaching, and an occasional admonishment aimed at false teachers and all those who had been swayed by their words.

But Paul also took advantage of his confinement by penning this letter to his young friend and disciple, Timothy, attempting to bolster his faith and strengthen his commitment to his calling as a minister of Christ. Paul knew from firsthand experience the kind of opposition Timothy was facing. He also understood the constant pressure his young friend was under to compromise his message and discredit his calling.

Timothy was a young man and yet, he had been thrust into a high-intensity role with responsibility to oversee the growing flock in Ephesus. He was the God-appointed shepherd to the sheep placed under his care and Paul knew that his young friend was struggling. Even Paul’s imprisonment had left Timothy wrestling with questions and doubts about the future. After all, his mentor had been arrested and accused of crimes against the state. And Paul’s enemies had used his arrest as an opportunity to undermine his work and destroy his reputation. But Paul encouraged Timothy to “not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner” (2 Timothy 1:8 ESV).

Paul assured Timothy that there was only one reason behind his imprisonment: His preaching of the gospel. He wasn’t an insurrectionist or an enemy of the state. He was simply a “preacher and apostle and teacher” (2 Timothy 1:11 ESV), who had been faithfully fulfilling his God-ordained responsibilities. So, for him, confinement in prison was a badge of honor, a symbol of his alignment with the sufferings of Christ. And Paul wanted Timothy to have the same mindset.

Timothy had become part of Paul’s entourage, traveling alongside the apostle and watching him preach the good news of Jesus Christ all throughout the Roman Empire. And he had witnessed the sheer power of the gospel message as countless individuals from all walks of life had placed their faith in Christ. He had seen small congregations spring up in the most unlikely of places. Gentiles who had grown up in pagan cultures worshiping a pantheon of false gods had discovered the truth about Yahweh and His Son. They had turned their backs on idolatry and been restored to a right relationship with the one true God, through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

And Timothy must have found all of this incredibly encouraging to his faith. He had enjoyed a front-row seat experience to the gospel’s transforming power and to Paul’s obvious calling as an ambassador of Jesus Christ. And he was compelled to follow Paul’s example – until things went south and Paul was imprisoned. But Paul didn’t want Timothy to lose heart. So, he challenged Timothy to quit focusing on his imprisonment and to remember all that he had taught him.

Hold on to the pattern of wholesome teaching you learned from me—a pattern shaped by the faith and love that you have in Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 1:13 NLT

Paul’s circumstances had done nothing to alter the gospel message. His imprisonment had not confined the good news any more than Jesus’ death had prevented His resurrection and ascension. The sovereign plan of God was alive and well and Timothy had a responsibility to continue the work of spreading the message of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone.

Confined to prison, Paul passed the responsibility of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles to Timothy and warned him to “carefully guard the precious truth that has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14 NLT). And he was to do it “through the power of the Holy Spirit” (2 Timothy 1:14 NLT). Nothing had changed. Paul’s imprisonment was not a problem for God. It had not caught the Almighty by surprise or left Him desperately trying to develop a “Plan B.” It was all part of God’s divine strategy and Paul wanted Timothy to know that he had been chosen by God for this very occasion. He had been called, gifted, and empowered by God. He had been sent to Ephesus by Paul. And he was right where he was supposed to be in order to accomplish what God had for him to do.

Paul wanted Timothy to understand that his role was not up for debate. He may not have liked the circumstances surrounding his life, but he had no choice but to embrace the gift of grace bestowed on him by God.

God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 1:9 NLT

And to ensure that Timothy remains faithful to his calling, Paul brings up the actions of two individuals named Phygelus and Hermogenes, who had used Paul’s imprisonment as an excuse to abandon him. Evidently, these men had played a leadership role among the churches in Asia and their treatment of Paul had negatively impacted those under their care.

In contrast, Paul points out the efforts of Onesiphorus, someone who had chosen to remain faithful to Paul and his ministry in spite of his imprisonment. Paul points out that this individual and his family “often visited and encouraged me. He was never ashamed of me because I was in chains” (2 Timothy 1:17 NLT). Onesiphorus had even made a special trip to Rome in order to locate Paul and encourage him. And Paul expresses his gratitude by asking the Lord to show special kindness to this man and his family.

Paul wants Timothy to model his life after Onesiphorus, not Phygelus and Hermogenes. He wants his young friend to embrace a mindset of selfless service and sacrificial love, refusing to allow the circumstances of life to deter him from his mission or to distract him from his calling. The gospel does not need fair-weather friends who bail at the first sign of trouble. Paul wanted Timothy to know that his job was going to be difficult but not impossible. He would face trials, but he was not alone. And Timothy was going to need to embrace his role as non-negotiable and fully binding. In fact, in the very next lines of his letter, Paul will call Timothy to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3 ESV).

And, as a soldier of Christ, Timothy was obligated to serve faithfully and obediently. That’s why, in his first letter to Timothy, Paul had provided him with some strong words of instruction.

But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have declared so well before many witnesses. – 1 Timothy 6:11-12 NLT

Paul may have been in jail, but Timothy was free to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and to continue the work of building up the body of Christ. There was no time to doubt and debate the efficacy of God’s strategy. There was work to be done and Paul wanted Timothy to know that he was the man for the hour. And his young age, inexperience, feelings of inadequacy, fear, and reservations were no match for God’s divine calling and Spirit-empowered gifting for the task at hand. Timothy needed to remain committed to the cause and ready to be used by the one who had called him to begin with.

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

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

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

Confusion Over Christ’s Coming

1 Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 ESV

At his point in his letter, Paul jumps into the deep end of the pool. No more paddling around in the shallow waters of easy believe-ism. The Thessalonians have had their faith shaken by some fairly significant doctrinal error brought to them courtesy of false teachers. These individuals had been propagating the idea that the Second Coming of Jesus had already begun and, it seems, they were using the intense persecution of the Thessalonians as their proof. And they could back up their belief with the teachings of Jesus.

While sitting on the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from the city of Jerusalem, Jesus’ disciples came to Him and asked, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3 ESV). Their question had been prompted by a statement by Jesus concerning the temple in Jerusalem.

You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” – Matthew 24:2 ESV

They were wanting to know when this fateful day would take place. And, in an attempt to calm their concerns, Jesus told them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:4-6 ESV).

In other words, a be a great many things would take place long before “the end” occurred. In fact, Jesus included additional seemingly catastrophic events that would precede the end times and His Second Coming:

“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” – Matthew 24: 7-8 ESV

Jesus was attempting to prepare His disciples to expect a great deal of suffering, civil unrest, wars, and even natural disasters. But those were simply the precursors of the end, not proof of its arrival. Things were going to get worse before they got better. And Jesus proves it by adding:

“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” – Matthew 24:9-14 ESV

But it seems that the false teachers who were negatively influencing the believers in Thessalonica were guilty of cherry-picking the teachings of Jesus. They were proof-texting, pulling out certain phrases that supported their view that the end had come and as a result, the Second Coming of Jesus was just around the corner. But this errant view flew in the face of Paul’s teachings concerning the end times.

In chapter one, Paul had assured the Thessalonians that, concerning Christ’s Second Coming, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire,” He would inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 ESV). That had clearly not taken place yet. And it would not take place until the Rapture of the church occurred (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Paul and the other apostles clearly taught in the imminence of Christ’s coming. They wanted believers to know that Jesus could come at any time, but that did not mean that He would. Followers of Christ were to live with a sense of urgency and immediacy, conducting their lives in a manner that reflected their belief in His return and the reality of eternity. This world was not their home. They were to set their minds and hearts on heaven and the promise of their eternal state. And, in his first letter, Paul assured them that God would protect and preserve them for that future day.

Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 NLT

What rankled Paul was the fear and doubt being fostered among the Thessalonians because of the shoddy doctrine of the false teachers. The motivation of these men was probably sincere and well-meaning, but they were doing serious damage to the cause of Christ by speaking about things they didn’t fully understand. And it was causing unnecessary anxiety among the Thessalonians concerning “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him” (2 Thessalonians 2:1 ESV) – a direct reference to the Rapture of the church.

And Paul warns his confused and fearful friends not to let this false teaching deceive and disquiet them.

Don’t be so easily shaken or alarmed by those who say that the day of the Lord has already begun. Don’t believe them, even if they claim to have had a spiritual vision, a revelation, or a letter supposedly from us. Don’t be fooled by what they say. – 2 Thessalonians 2:2-3 NLT

And notice that Paul did not give these false teachers the courtesy of treating their teaching as an alternate view or perfectly acceptable option to consider. They were wrong. Their teaching was false. And it didn’t matter if they claimed that it came with God’s Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

For Paul, the Gospel was far more than just the faithful presentation of God’s offer of salvation through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. His concept of the Gospel was all-inclusive, encompassing the full spectrum of God’s gracious plan for man’s redemption. Salvation was just the beginning, with the sanctification of the believer being just as much an integral part of God’s divine plan. And it would all culminate with the believer’s glorification when they received their new bodies, designed to last for eternity. Paul discussed this miraculous final phase of our Gospel transformation in his first letter to the Corinthians.

But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. – 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 NLT

Salvation – sanctification – glorification. For Paul, that was the Gospel and anyone who deviated from and added to that three-fold plan was to be treated with contempt.

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

According to Paul, the good news regarding faith in Christ had to include all three phases of God’s redemptive plan, and he succinctly articulates it in his letter to Titus.

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation [salvation] to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures [sanctification]. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed [glorificatio]. – Titus 2:11-13 NLT

The believer’s glorification, the final phase in God’s plan, will take place when Christ returned for His bride, the church. Paul knew that the human body was not equipped for eternal life. It was, as he described it, a temporary tent in which we dwell until Christ returns.

“…our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.” – 1 Corinthians 15:50 NLT

But Paul firmly believed that God had a plan that included new bodies, divinely prepared for eternity.

“We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed.” – 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 NLT 

And as Paul told the Thessalonians in his first letter, the Rapture of the church will result in the gathering of all God’s saints, complete with their newly glorified bodies, so they can return with Him to heaven. And that great day will usher in the beginning of the end. With the removal of the church, God’s final plan of judgment for the unbelieving world will be poised to begin. And Paul will expound on that future aspect of the end times in the following verses.

For that day will not come until there is a great rebellion against God and the man of lawlessness is revealed—the one who brings destruction. He will exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship. He will even sit in the temple of God, claiming that he himself is God. – 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 NLT

Paul didn’t want there to be any confusion regarding these matters. The Thessalonians were not to worry or fret over the claims of the false teachers. They had not missed out. The Great Tribulation had not begun. There was much that had to happen before “the end” began. And all that they were experiencing was nothing more than the labor pains that naturally precede the delivery of God’s judgment on the world.

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

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

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

Running On Empty

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
    under the rod of his wrath;
he has driven and brought me
    into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
    again and again the whole day long.

He has made my flesh and my skin waste away;
    he has broken my bones;
he has besieged and enveloped me
    with bitterness and tribulation;
he has made me dwell in darkness
    like the dead of long ago.

He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
    he has made my chains heavy;
though I call and cry for help,
    he shuts out my prayer;
he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;
    he has made my paths crooked.

10 He is a bear lying in wait for me,
    a lion in hiding;
11 he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces;
    he has made me desolate;
12 he bent his bow and set me
    as a target for his arrow.

13 He drove into my kidneys
    the arrows of his quiver;
14 I have become the laughingstock of all peoples,
    the object of their taunts all day long.
15 He has filled me with bitterness;
    he has sated me with wormwood.

16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
    and made me cower in ashes;
17 my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness is;
18 so I say, “My endurance has perished;
    so has my hope from the Lord.” – Lamentations 3:1-18 ESV

The life of a prophet of God was not an easy one. These men had been hand-selected by God and given the unenviable task of delivering His message of pending judgment to His people. From a human perspective, it would appear that each of the prophets failed at their job – if success is measured by the number of people who heard their message and repented. The sad reality is that while everyone heard the message of the prophets, no one heeded their call. And God had warned Jeremiah that his experience would be the same as every other prophet of God. He was just the latest in a long line of men who had been tasked with delivering God’s call to repent or suffer the consequences.

“From the day your ancestors left Egypt until now, I have continued to send my servants, the prophets—day in and day out. But my people have not listened to me or even tried to hear. They have been stubborn and sinful—even worse than their ancestors.

“Tell them all this, but do not expect them to listen. Shout out your warnings, but do not expect them to respond.” – Jeremiah 7:25-27 NLT

And Jeremiah knew what it was like to be the social pariah, unwelcome and even despised for his role as God’s messenger.

“What sorrow is mine, my mother.
    Oh, that I had died at birth!
    I am hated everywhere I go.
I am neither a lender who threatens to foreclose
    nor a borrower who refuses to pay—
    yet they all curse me.” – Jeremiah 15:10 NLT

Jeremiah was in a no-win situation. His message of doom and gloom was unpopular with the people, but as a prophet of God, he was obligated to speak the truth of God. And it certainly didn’t help his cause that there were plenty of others who claimed to be prophets whose messages were much more positive and appealing. They were contradicting Jeremiah’s gloomy forecast, telling the people that all would be well. There had nothing to worry about. But God would have the last say in the matter.

“These prophets are telling lies in my name. I did not send them or tell them to speak. I did not give them any messages. They prophesy of visions and revelations they have never seen or heard. They speak foolishness made up in their own lying hearts. Therefore, this is what the Lord says: I will punish these lying prophets, for they have spoken in my name even though I never sent them. They say that no war or famine will come, but they themselves will die by war and famine! – Jeremiah 14:14-15 NLT

And God had fulfilled that promise. But here was Jeremiah, the faithful prophet, expressing his deep sorrow over his lot in life. Not only had he been required to spend years delivering God’s message of the judgment to come, but he had also been forced to live through it just like everyone else. He had not been spared the pain and suffering. He had not been given an exemption from God or been removed to a safe place while all the devastation and destruction took place. He had been right in the middle of it.

“I am the one who has seen the afflictions
    that come from the rod of the Lord’s anger.” – Lamentations 3:1 NLT

And all that he had witnessed had left a lasting impression on him. He describes himself as being besieged by “bitterness and tribulation.” His body was wasting away. His appetite was shot. He even felt like his prayers never made it past the ceiling. All in all, Jeremiah was in a dark place. Everything he had predicted had come to pass, but he found no satisfaction in knowing he had been right. He grieved over the state of his people. He mourned the loss of so many lives.

But the people had no love-loss for Jeremiah. In fact, they found a sort of perverse joy in knowing that the high-and-mighty prophet was suffering right alongside them. The one who had warned them of God’s judgment was experiencing it too. And they found time to mock Jeremiah for his condition.

“My own people laugh at me.
    All day long they sing their mocking songs.” – Lamentations 3:14 NLT

Jeremiah was emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted. And he could see no light at the end of the tunnel. His depression was so intense that he claimed, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord” (Lamentations 3:18 ESV). He was at a loss as to what to do. His job of delivering God’s message was complete. He had finished what he had been tasked to do. But now he had to sit back and watch the sad plight of his people and wonder what was going to happen next. Where was God in all of this? How could this be His divine will? Was this how it was going to end?

There is something refreshing about Jeremiah’s bluntness. He is not afraid to say what he is thinking or to express his doubts and concerns. In doing so, he is not showing disrespect to God, he is simply sharing his heart. He is being honest. And this tendency toward transparency and honesty can be found elsewhere in Scripture. David, the man after God’s own heart, was particularly adept at expressing his feelings to God. He was not afraid to share his feelings with God because he knew that God was already aware of them.

You know when I sit down or stand up.
    You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
    and when I rest at home.
    You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say
even before I say it, Lord. – Psalm 139:2-4 NLT

As a result, David had no problem sharing his innermost thoughts with God.

O Lord, why do you stand so far away?
    Why do you hide when I am in trouble? – Psalm 10:1 NLT

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
    How long will you look the other way? – Psalm 13:1 NLT

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
    Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
    Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief. – Psalm 22:1-2 NLT

Jeremiah was in good company. Like David, he knew God could handle his complaints. Refusing to say what he was thinking would not fool God because God knew his thoughts before he did. Failing to express his feelings would be nothing less than dishonesty toward God. So, he vented. He complained. He shared his pain and expressed his confusion over his lot in life. But while his hope was at an all-time low, we will see that his faith remained firmly fixed on the character of God.

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

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

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

Rejected, But Still Ruling

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. –  Matthew 21:28-46 ESV

Yesterday’s passage revealed the Pharisees confronting Jesus with a question that was designed to malign His actions. They had witnessed His triumphal entry, His cleansing of the temple, and all “the wonderful things that he did” (Matthew 21:15 ESV), and they were incensed at His audacity to bring His little carnival sideshow onto their turf. Jerusalem was their domain. And as far as they were concerned, Jesus had no right to do what He was doing. So, they had asked Him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23 ESV).

To understand the gist of their question, you have to consider the context. Jesus had walked on to the Temple grounds and angrily cleared out the moneychangers, overturning their tables. He drove away all those buying and selling animals for the sacrifices. And most importantly, Mark tells us, “he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace” (Mark 11:16 NLT). If you think about it, Jesus completely disrupted the entire sacrificial system for that day. He threw a wrench into the well-oiled machine of the corrupt religious system that had turned God’s house into a money-making enterprise that lined the pockets of their robes.

That sets up the passage we are dealing with today. Jesus had arrived back in Jerusalem from Bethany and was immediately confronted by the leading priests, the teachers of religious law, and the elders. They demanded to know who had given Him the authority to do what He had done. And it seems clear that they were talking about His disruption of the sacrificial system the day before.

By asking their question, they were inferring that Jesus had no right or authority to do what He did. His actions were not in keeping with accepted tradition. In their minds, Jesus was a renegade and a trouble maker. He was not one of them. He had not gone through the proper channels or received the necessary training. He had no authority because He had never been a disciple of one of the great rabbis. He was an imposter and needed to be dealt with as such.

Without knowing it, they were actually questioning Jesus’ kingship. Remember, just a few days before Jesus had ridden into town to the shouts of “Praise God! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David! Praise God in highest heaven!” (Mark 11:9-10 NLT).

Jesus had been welcomed as a king. But now they were questioning His authority and attempting to paint Him as a radical and a revolutionary.

But rather than answer their question, Jesus countered with one of His own. “I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question,” Jesus replied. “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human? Answer me!” (Mark 11:29-30 NLT).

Jesus put them squarely on the horns of a dilemma. If they said John’s authority was from heaven, they would be guilty of rejecting God. If they said it was of human origin, they risked alienating the people who saw John as a prophet. So they decided to plead ignorance. “We don’t know,” they responded. And as a result, Jesus refused to address their question regarding His authority. But in reality, Jesus did answer their question. He did so by telling three short parables. He turned to the crowd and began to teach in His usual method, using simple stories to teach a much deeper truth. But the context tells us what Jesus had in mind by telling these stories. The issue is one of authority and Jesus used these stories to address their original question.

Jesus shares three parables: The parable of the two sons, the parable of the landowner, and the parable of the wedding feast. In the first one, Jesus tells about a father with two sons, who orders the first son to go into the household vineyard and work. The son refused, but later repented and did what the father had asked. He orders the second son to go and he initially agrees, feigning obedience, but later refuses, never doing what the father asked. So, Jesus asked His audience, “Which one obeyed?” and they answered, “The first son.”

So what’s the point? The religious leaders believed they were sons of the kingdom due to their heritage as descendants of Abraham. Jesus made it clear that corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes would get into God’s Kingdom before they did. Why? Repentance and belief. The religious leaders refused to repent. They refused to believe. They would not acknowledge Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and His authority as their rightful King.

In the second parable, Jesus tells of a landowner who planted a vineyard and then leased it out and moved to another country. When the grape harvest came, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. But the farmers to whom he had leased the land beat one servant, killed another, and stoned the last. So the landowner sent a larger group of servants and they were treated in the same way. Finally, he decided to send his own son, hoping that they would show him the respect he deserved. But when he arrived, they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard and killed him. So, once again, Jesus asked the crowd what they thought the landowner would do to those rebellious tenant farmers when he returned. And the Pharisees were the first to respond.

The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.” – Matthew 21:41 NLT

Their own answer condemned them.

Over the centuries, God had sent His prophets to His people, and they had been abused, rejected, and, in many cases, killed. So He had sent more, and they had been treated in the same way. Now, He had sent His Son, but He too would be killed in just a matter of days.

In telling this particular parable, Jesus was referring to a story from the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 5:1-7). Jesus makes sure they get the meaning of the story. “I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce proper fruit. Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on” (Matthew 21:43-44 NLT).

Jesus was the stone that the builders would reject, but in spite of their efforts, He would become the cornerstone. As King, Jesus had the authority to do as He wished – even if it meant taking away the Kingdom of God from those who rejected Him.

The Pharisees didn’t miss the point. Matthew later reveals: “When the leading priests and Pharisees heard this parable, they realized he was telling the story against them – they were the wicked farmers. They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, who considered Jesus to be a prophet” (Matthew 21:45-46 NLT).

Jesus had authority because He was the Son of God, and all the prophecies contained in the Old Testament had predicted His coming. And, upon His arrival, He had called the people of Israel to repent for the kingdom was near because their long-awaited King had appeared. The nation of Israel had been extended an invitation to enter into His newly arrived kingdom, but they would end up refusing the offer. They would reject the messages of the prophets, of John the Baptist, and would refuse the offer of Jesus Christ.

It’s all a question of authority. And even today, each individual must decide whether Jesus Christ will have authority over his life. Will he hear what Jesus says and obey it? Will He accept His gracious invitation or reject it?

It seems that the arrogance and pride of the Pharisees are alive and well today. Many are too busy, too good, or too smart to buy into something so hard to believe. They question the validity of Jesus and, as a result, deny His authority over their lives. But sadly, so do many of us who claim to be Christ-followers.

Does the way you live your life reveal that you sometimes question His authority over your life? Do you refuse to put on the righteousness He has provided because you prefer your life just the way it is? Jesus not only wants to be the Savior, He wants to be your King. He wants to rule and reign in your life. He wants to lead you and direct you. He wants you to worship and obey Him. He wants you to live in submission to Him. Because He loves You and He alone knows what is best for you. He is a gracious, loving, merciful, righteous King who longs to provide for and protect His people.

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

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

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

You Can’t Clean Up Your Act

43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” – Matthew 12:43-45 ESV

With the content of three verses, Matthew seems to be inserting a topic that makes no sense within the context. This part of the conversation appears to come out of nowhere. But it actually provides a link back to the accusation leveled against Jesus by the Pharisees.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

Jesus is simply revisiting the topic that had begun this entire conversation with the Pharisees. He had cast out a demon from a blind and mute man, resulting in the man’s healing. But the Pharisees, unwilling to acknowledge the divine nature of the miracle they had witnessed with their own eyes, chose to attribute the source of Jesus’ healing power to none other than Satan. And Jesus had responded by telling them they had evil hearts, because “the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:35 ESV). Their words gave evidence of their unbelief and their unbelief would eventually result in their judgment.

Jesus then stated that the Pharisees will not be alone in the future judgment, but will find themselves part of “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39 ESV), who will all stand condemned before God.

In these verses, we have Jesus changing the focus of the topic from Himself to the demon He had just cast out. In a sense, the incredible nature of the miracle had been lost due to the Pharisees’ unexpected and undeserved accusation against Jesus. So, Jesus circled the conversation back to the fate of the demon He had cast out. Where had it gone? What had happened to the demon after it had been forced to leave the man’s body? There was much debate among the Jews as to the answers to these questions. But Jesus doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the demon. His real point is the fate of the one from whom the demon had been cast out.

When Jesus had healed the blind and mute man by exorcising the demon that had been the source of his ailments, there is no indication that the man believed in Jesus. Yes, the man was healthy and whole, having had his sight and ability to speak restored. But he remained unchanged in terms of his spiritual condition. He was no longer demon-possessed, but he was still unrepentant and unredeemed. He was physically whole, but not so spiritually.

And Jesus indicates that in his unbelieving state, the man would make a perfect destination for the recently dispossessed demon. Jesus referred to the demon as seeking “rest,” passing through “waterless places” until it finds it. It is difficult to build a theology of demon possession from these few verses. It may be that Jesus was using the common Hebrew perception regarding demons to make His point. The book of Tobit, part of the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical scriptures, believed to have been written in the 400-year period between the Old and New Testaments, mentions demons preferring desert conditions. So, perhaps Jesus is utilizing this Jewish perception to make His point.

The only reason a demon would leave a human host would be if it were forced to do so. Jesus had cast the demon out of the man, but that demon would not be content until it possessed another human being because that was its primary reason for existence. Once cast out, the dispossessed demon will seek rest, but not find it, because its main purpose is the torment of human beings. So, Jesus suggests that the demon, driven by its demonic responsibilities, will eventually seek to return to its original host.

And Jesus indicates that the formerly possessed individual will prove to be an easy target for the demon. Why? Because nothing had changed. Yes, the man had cleaned up his act. He appeared to have his life back together. And Jesus describes the demon finding his former “house empty, swept, and put in order” (Matthew 12:44 ESV). But the man was really no different than before. His spiritual condition remained the same. And Jesus replies that the demon will return, making himself at home and bringing seven, more wicked demons with him.

It is doubtful that Jesus is attempting to provide us with a doctrine on demons. He is simply making a statement regarding the man’s need for something or someone to occupy his life. In Jesus’ story, a man whose life is swept clean and in order and free from demon possession is not safe from the attacks of the enemy. In fact, he is an easy target and will find his last state worse than the first.

Not having a demon is not enough. Having your life swept clean and in order is no protection from the attacks of the enemy. The outward appearance of righteousness is not the same as a life made righteous by faith in Christ.

Jesus once again refers to the Jews of His generation as evil. He does so because they refuse to accept Him as their Messiah. And their rejection of Him will end up condemning them. He had come to expose the darkness in their lives, and yet, they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV).

Jesus had said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign,” and yet, Jesus was a visible sign of God’s promise of redemption. He was the Messiah, the visible image of the invisible God. But they would end up rejecting Him. They were evil and adulterous because they refused to believe in the promise of God. And Jesus’ use of that phrase would not have escaped the scribes and Pharisees.

With their superior knowledge of the Scriptures, they would have recognized that Jesus was using the very same words God had used of the Jews who refused to enter the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses.

“Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!” – Deuteronomy 1:35-36 ESV

Later on, in the very same book, Moses would speak of the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of the people of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.
They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Do you thus repay the Lord,
    you foolish and senseless people?
   Is not he your father, who created you,
    who made you and established you?” – Deuteronomy 32:4-6 ESV

The Jews had a habit of treating God with contempt, refusing to honor Him as their God. Instead, they lived according to their own desires, treating His faithfulness with disdain. They had been chosen by God. They had been rescued from slavery by God. He had promised to give them a land flowing with milk and honey. But they had refused to trust Him. They had been unfaithful to Him. And Moses described them as a crooked and perverse generation.

Now, centuries later, the people of God remained unchanged. This generation of Jews was no different. The promise of God was being fulfilled in their midst, but they were going to reject it. The Messiah had come, just as God had said He would, but they would choose not to accept His offer of salvation. Jesus had come, offering to free them from their slavery to sin and their captivity by the enemy. He came to transform their lives from the inside-out. But they were going to have to place their faith in Him, believing that He was who He claimed to be. And not long after Jesus had died, been resurrected, and ascended into heaven, the apostle Peter would preach a powerful message of redemption to the Jews in Jerusalem gathered on the day of Pentecost.

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. Acts 2:37-41 ESV

Save yourselves from this crooked generation. Believe the promise of God. Accept God’s gracious offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. You can attempt to sweep the house clean and put your life in order, but only Christ can make all things new.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

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

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

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

Trust Me

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” – Matthew 11:2-6 ESV

When Jesus had finished giving his pep talk to His disciples, He sent them out. But Matthew provides no details concerning their first missionary endeavor. He simply picks up the narrative with Jesus teaching and preaching. We have to turn to the gospels of Mark and Luke to find any information concerning the disciples. Luke simply states, “they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (Luke 9:6 ESV). Mark provides a bit more detail.

So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” – Mark 6:12-13 ESV

Neither man mentions any form of suffering or persecution. So, was Jesus mistaken? No, He had been speaking prophetically, warning His disciples of what they could expect once He had fulfilled His mission and returned to His Father in heaven. The trials would come, but not until Jesus had died, been resurrected, and ascended back to His rightful place at His Father’s side. Then, His followers would experience all the things He had described. But until that time, they would enjoy a certain amount of celebrity and popularity from their association with Jesus.

But Matthew maintains his focus on Jesus. Throughout the last 10 chapters, he has consistently presented Jesus as the Messiah, the King of Israel. God, Himself confirmed the identity of Jesus at His baptism, when He said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). The many miracles Jesus had performed, and Matthew recorded were also meant to validate Jesus as the Messiah. The lengthy message regarding the Kingdom, given by Jesus on the hillside and found in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel, also points to His unique identity as the Lord’s anointed.

But there was doubt among the followers of Jesus. And these verses reveal that even John the Baptist was having reservations concerning the true identity of Jesus. Matthew records that John sent a couple of his own disciples to Jesus with a very important question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3 ESV).

It’s important to note where John was when he sent this message to Jesus. He was in prison. And it won’t be until chapter 14 that Matthew explains just how John ended up as a prisoner of Herod.

Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” – Matthew 14:3-4 ESV

Remember, John was a prophet of God, and his primary message had been, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And John had told the religious leaders of Israel that their repentance would need to be visible and real. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 ESV). True repentance was to be accompanied by tangible, measurable life change. And John applied that criteria to any and all, including Herod Antipater, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed king of Israel, who tried to have Jesus put to death as an infant. Upon Herod the Great’s death, his son was placed over the regions of Galilee and Perea. And John the Baptist had taken his message of repentance right to the doorstep of this powerful and influential man, confronting him about his relationship with his wife, Herodias. Their relationship had begun while both were still married. Herod divorced his wife and convinced Herodias to leave her husband, who just happened to be Philip, Herod’s half-brother, and another tetrarch.

But John’s bold indictment of Herod had landed him in prison. And it was while in prison that John began to have second thoughts about Jesus. Remember, he is the one who, at one time, described Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ESV).

But now, after having had plenty of time to consider all that had transpired since he had baptized Jesus, John expressed his apprehension and misgivings.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – Matthew 11:3 ESV

John was looking for verbal confirmation. He wanted to hear Jesus unapologetically and undeniably state His identity. And John’s misgivings must have been based on what he believed to be unmet expectations. Things had not turned out quite like he had anticipated. It didn’t help that he was in prison. And he must have wondered how that unexpected outcome could be part of the Messiah’s grand plan. It is likely that John thought his calling out of Herod should have resulted in the tetrarch’s repentance. Didn’t Herod understand that the true king of Israel had come? Was he not aware that the Romans were on their way out, and the Messiah was going to be cleaning house throughout Israel?

But instead of watching Herod repent, John had been dragged off to prison, where he sat pondering this unexpected turn of events. But Jesus doesn’t answer, “Yes” or “No” in response to John’s question. Instead, He says, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-5 NLT).

The proof Jesus provides John is in the form of HIs miracles and message. In a sense, Jesus is inviting John to consider His words and works. John was to listen, watch, and learn. You see, John was wrestling with what he believed to be a disconnect between those very things that Jesus was doing and what he had been telling the people the Messiah had come to do. Look closely at the content of John’s message prior to Jesus appearing for His baptism.

Even now, the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.” – Matthew 3:10-12 NLT

John wanted to know why Jesus wasn’t winnowing, cleaning, gathering, and burning. He had thought Jesus was going to come in judgment and restore the moral, ethical, and political purity of the nation of Israel. The Herods of the world would either need to turn or burn. But John was the one who was in jail, not Herod. The unrepentant, hypocritical Pharisees were on the outside, while John was sitting behind bars wondering how any of this could be part of the Messiah’s kingdom initiative.

But Jesus wanted John to know that He was doing exactly what He had come to do. In his gospel account, the apostle John would later record the words of Jesus, where He stated the purpose behind His mission.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:17 ESV

There would be a time for judgment, but that time was not now. John the Baptist was attempting to compress the ministry of the Messiah by skipping over the saving aspect of His work and fast-forwarding to HIs eventual role as Judge.

But Jesus had come to bring healing to the nations. He had come to provide sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the lame, a cure for lepers, and restored life to the dead. And that is exactly what Jesus had been doing. All in keeping with His earlier claim to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the coming Messiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
    and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT

Jesus had quoted these words from Isaiah 61 and applied them to Himself. And He wanted John to know that He was doing exactly what He had been sent to do. But not just on a physical level. In time, Jesus would restore the spiritual well-being of all those who chose to place their faith in Him. And the apostle John records the words of Jesus, explaining how belief in Him as the Messiah will save anyone from the very judgment John thought was coming.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:18 NLT

John had his doubts, but Jesus wanted him to rest in the knowledge that all was well. Everything was going according to plan, and there were aspects concerning that plan to which John was not privy. And Jesus did not want John to lose hope. The Greek word Jesus used skandalizō, and it means “to cause a person to begin to distrust and desert one whom he ought to trust and obey” (Outline of Biblical Usage). Jesus knew that John was struggling. This faithful servant was having a difficult time understanding all that was taking place around him and to him. But Jesus assured John that all was well and going according to plan.

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

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

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

Robbing God of Glory

23 “And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, 24 ‘O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? 25 Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ 26 But the Lord was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again. 27 Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan. 28 But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he shall go over at the head of this people, and he shall put them in possession of the land that you shall see.’ 29 So we remained in the valley opposite Beth-peor.” – Deuteronomy 3:23-29 ESV

For more than 40 years, Moses had been the God-appointed leader of the people of Israel. He had been the one God had chosen to rescue His people from their captivity in Egypt and to lead them across the wilderness to the land of Canaan. Now, the long-awaited ay to enter the land had arrived and Moses would not be going with them. But why?

Verse 23 opens up with Moses recounting a conversation he had with God, where he pleaded that he be allowed the privilege and pleasure of entering the land of promise. Moses knew what God had already decided and had lived with the knowledge of his ban from the land for some time. It all began at a place called the Wilderness of Zin on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Moses had just recently buried his sister, Miriam and was still dealing with the grief over his loss. But this didn’t stop the people of Israel from coming to Moses with their most recent complaint.

There was no water for the people to drink at that place, so they rebelled against Moses and Aaron. The people blamed Moses and said, “If only we had died in the Lord’s presence with our brothers! Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord’s people into this wilderness to die, along with all our livestock? Why did you make us leave Egypt and bring us here to this terrible place? This land has no grain, no figs, no grapes, no pomegranates, and no water to drink!” – Numbers 20:2-5 NLT

They were literally “unhappy campers” and they voiced their complaint to Moses. In doing so, they accused Moses of trying to kill them. They questioned his leadership by stating that he had somehow managed to guide them one of the most uninhabitable places on the face of the earth.

Frustrated by yet another wave of grumbling and complaining from his wards, Moses went straight to the tabernacle in order to seek guidance from God. He was at a loss as to how to respond to his ungrateful followers. And the Lord told Moses exactly what to do.

“You and Aaron must take the staff and assemble the entire community. As the people watch, speak to the rock over there, and it will pour out its water. You will provide enough water from the rock to satisfy the whole community and their livestock.” – Numbers 20:8 NLT

God gave Moses very specific instructions. And the text tells us that “Moses did as he was told.” But did he? The book of Numbers records exactly what Moses did and provides the explanation for his eventual ban from entering the land. 

He took the staff from the place where it was kept before the Lord. Then he and Aaron summoned the people to come and gather at the rock. “Listen, you rebels!” he shouted. “Must we bring you water from this rock?” Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the staff, and water gushed out. So the entire community and their livestock drank their fill. – Numbers 20:9-11 NLT

Moses was angry. He was put out with the people and fed up with their constant complaining and their unpleasant habit of blaming all their problems on him. So, he took this opportunity to do a bit of grandstanding before these ungrateful and unworthy whiners. You can tell what Moses thought about them by how he addressed them. He called them rebels. The Hebrew word, marah, carries the idea of bitterness or unpleasantness. These people were difficult to live with because they were always complaining about everything. They were ungrateful and disrespectful and Moses had had his fill of them. But he allowed his anger with the people to get the best of him, and rather than do what God had told him to do, Moses improvised. He raised the rod over his head and brought it down in rage, striking the rock two times. Rather than speaking to the rock as God had instructed him to do, Moses took out his anger on the rock.

Amazingly, in spite of Moses’ disobedience, water flowed from the rock just as God had promised. But as Moses watched the miracle of the water flowing from a rock, he heard these fateful words from God.

“Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel, you will not lead them into the land I am giving them!” – Numbers 20:12 NLT

Like the burning bush where Moses first met with God, this rock was going to be a symbol of God’s presence and power. In fact, the apostle Paul would later explain that the rock was Jesus Himself.

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 NLT

God had manifested His presence in a variety of ways, including the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. The manna was another proof of God’s presence and provision. And now, the rock was to have been yet another sign of God’s miraculous power and gracious, life-giving presence.

In striking the rock, Moses took out his anger on God. He lashed out at Savior of his people. And yet, the life-giving water still flowed and the peoples’ thirst was slacked. But why was God so angry with Moses? Couldn’t He understand the frustration Moses must have felt? Yes, God most certainly understood what Moses was going through. After all, the complaints of the people were ultimately aimed at Him. But there is something telling in how Moses spoke to the people that day. He gathered them together and said, “Must we bring you water from this rock?”

Moses was attempting to take credit for something God was going to do. In a sense, he was telling the people, “So, you want to question my leadership? Well, watch this!”

He was hoping to use the power of God to bolster his own reputation among the people. Rather than pointing the people to the majesty and holiness of God, he attempted to steal some of God’s thunder. He wanted the people to respect him. But God does not share His glory with anyone.

“I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone else, nor share my praise with carved idols.” – Isaiah 42:8 NLT

Moses was guilty of setting himself up as a god. He wanted the people to worship and fear him. He was attempting to portray himself as their source of sustenance. He was the one who was meeting their needs. This was a dangerous game to play. Moses was supposed to be pointing the people to God, but in striking the rock, Moses showed disrespect for God.

There is another interesting insight found in the account in Numbers. The whole episode is summarized by the following statement:

This place was known as the waters of Meribah (which means “arguing”) because there the people of Israel argued with the Lord, and there he demonstrated his holiness among them. – Numbers 20:13 NLT

Notice those last seven words: “There he demonsrated his holiness among them.” In spite of Moses’ disobedience, God revealed His holiness. He displayed His “otherness” or transcendence. The Hebrew word translated as “holiness” is qadash. It means “to show oneself sacred or majestic” (“H6942 – qadash – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible.). Through His miraculous provision of water from an ordinary rock, God was demonstrating His set-apartness. In the same way He caused manna to appear each morning and quail to fall from the sky, God was revealing to the people just how powerful He was. He was fully capable of meeting all their needs and He wanted them to trust Him.

But Moses had tried to steal God’s glory and make it his own. And God made perfectly clear what Moses’ sin was. He told Moses that he was guilty of “failing to uphold me as holy at the waters before their eyes” (Numbers 27:13 ESV). Moses was guilty of trying to use God as a prop or tool to reinforce his own significance.

We can see the gravity of this particular sin by looking at the severe consequences it incurred. Moses was banned from the land of promise.

“…because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. 52 For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 32:51-52 ESV

But there’s one more interesting insight into Moses’ outlook on his punishment from God. When informing the people of Israel about his fate, he blamed them.

“But the Lord was angry with me because of you, and he would not listen to me.” – Deuteronomy 3:26 NLT

Not exactly the truth. God had been angry with Moses because Moses had allowed his anger with the people to cause him to steal glory from God. But Moses was not the savior of the people of Israel. He was not their deliverer. God had never intended Moses to be their provider. Moses was nothing more than a servant of the Almighty, and his job was to point the people to the one who had promised to rescue, lead, and provide for them. It was God who would go before the people into the land of promise, not Moses.

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

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

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