Believe It Or Not

25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. – John 5:25-29 ESV

The Jewish leaders have deemed Jesus as worthy of death. His claim of equality with God has left them no other choice. According to the law, He has blasphemed and the prescribed penalty for that crime was death. But Jesus, fully aware of their plans for Him, has decided to address their concern by further emphasizing His claim to be the Son of God. Even when facing the threat of death, He refuses to deny His identity. In fact, Jesus only escalates the tension between He and His adversaries by establishing Himself as the judge of all mankind.

For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son…” – John 4:22 ESV

To the Pharisees and Sadducees, this bold claim would have sounded not only blasphemous but highly offensive. Who was this uneducated Rabbi from Nazareth to think that He could stand in judgment over them? They represented the religious elite of Israel and considered themselves to be the epitome of righteousness and holiness. Yet, here was Jesus telling them that He, not God, would be their ultimate judge and the determiner of their eternal fate.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” – John 5:24 ESV

It seems quite apparent that the Pharisees and Sadducees failed to understand the nature of Jesus’ claim. And all His talk about future judgment and eternal life would have caused a major rift within their ranks. These two religious sects, while united in their hatred of Jesus, were divided over several key doctrines, and one of them was the idea of the bodily resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees rejected this doctrine along with the concept of any kind of afterlife. They preferred to believe that, upon death, the soul simply perished. But the Pharisees fully embraced the idea of an afterlife that would be preceded by a physical resurrection of the body and include a judgment by God that would be followed by either reward or punishment according to the deeds done in this life.

So, you can imagine how the words of Jesus must have created an uncomfortable tension between these two disparate factions within His audience. For the Sadducees, just the mention of eternal life would have left them shaking their heads in disbelief and disgust. But the Pharisees, while fully on board with the idea of an afterlife and a future judgment, would have been appalled by Jesus’ claim that He would be their judge.

And Jesus refuses to let up. He continues to expand on this controversial topic, throwing additional fuel on the fire of their anger.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” – John 5:25 ESV

With this statement, Jesus brings the timeline back into the present. With the minds of the Pharisees and Sadducees firmly fixed on the idea of the resurrection and the future judgment, Jesus adroitly shifts the focus to the here-and-now. He is letting them know that the key to securing a reward in the future judgment is to be found in the present. While the Pharisees were convinced that their acts of righteousness were enough to secure their eternal state in God’s kingdom, Jesus is debunking that myth.

He had come to bring new life to the spiritually dead. All who stood in His presence that day were dead in their trespasses and sins, including the Pharisees and Sadducees (Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13). They were totally incapable of earning their way into God’s good graces because, according to the prophet Isaiah, all their works were no better than filthy rags in the eyes of God (Isaiah 64:6 ESV).

But Jesus is announcing that the spiritually dead can receive new life in this life, if they will only “hear the voice of the Son of God.” He promises that all who hear and believe will live. This claim would have been radical and heretical to the Pharisees. That Jesus would dare to hold the key to eternal life was one thing, but for Him to seemingly negate the need for doing works of righteousness to earn that reward was unthinkable and unacceptable.

But as difficult as it was for them to accept Jesus’ claim, He assures them that this was all part of the Father’s plan. God had granted His Son the divine authority to bestow the gift of eternal life.

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” – John 5:26 ESV

Later on in his gospel, John records the words of Jesus, when He claims to be the door through which all must go if they want to find access to the Father and enjoy the promise of abundant life.

“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” – John 10:9-10 ESV

The key to eternal life is to be found in this life, but only through belief in the giver of life. John opened up his gospel with the bold claim concerning Jesus:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. – John 1:4 ESV

And John went on to declare that “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 ESV).

According to Jesus, the Father has not only given Him the authority to bestow eternal life but to also execute future judgment.

“And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” – John 5:27 ESV

Jesus has the right to execute judgment, not just because He is the Son of God, but because He is the Son of Man. Jesus was God incarnate, deity in the form of humanity. The Son of God had humbled Himself by becoming one of us and choosing to dwell among us. And He would live His earthly life in complete obedience to His Heavenly Father, without sin and in full compliance with every command given by God to Moses. And it would be His sinless perfection that made Him the acceptable sacrifice to pay for the sins of men. That is why John the Baptist had referred to Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

Jesus would eventually “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). He would pour out His blood “as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many” (Matthew 26:28 NLT). And because He would willingly give His life as payment for the sins of man, He would become the ultimate judge of all mankind. And the future judgment that all mankind must face will be based on belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is the point Jesus had tried to make with Nicodemus.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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. 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 3:16-18 ESV

The key to eternal life is to believe in Jesus as the giver of life. It is to believe that His sacrificial death satisfied the just demands of a holy God and paid in full the debt owed by the sinner. But that belief must take place in this life. The guarantee of eternal life comes when we place our faith in Jesus in this life. And Jesus assures the confused and consternated religious leaders standing before Him that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a future judgment.

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” – John 5:28-29 ESV

But the key to earning entrance into the Kingdom of God will be based on belief in the Son of God. This final statement from Jesus could easily leave the impression that He is tying eternal life to good works. After all, He seems to state that eternal life is reserved for “those who have done good.” But Jesus will later clarify the only “work” that will earn anyone entrance into God’s Kingdom.

This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:29 ESV

Belief. It’s as simple as that. But for the Pharisees and Sadducees, the content of this message from Jesus was anything but simple and it would prove far from acceptable. And Jesus, aware of their stubborn refusal to believe in who He is and what He is claiming to offer, will go on to expose them for their disbelief and inform them of their future fate.

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

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

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

The Gift of God

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” – John 4:7-15 ESV

It is interesting that John makes special note that Jesus stopped in “a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph” (John 4:5 ESV). This reference to Joseph has special significance because of the role he played as Israel’s “savior” hundreds of years earlier. Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, and he ended up in Egypt. But through a series of divinely orchestrated events, Joseph eventually became the second-highest-ranking official in all of Egypt. Years later, when a famine struck the land of Canaan, Jacob sent his remaining sons to Egypt to seek food. But what they discovered was their long-lost brother. And to their surprise, rather than use his position and power to punish them for their past treatment of him, Joseph showed them mercy and grace. He provided them with forgiveness for their sins against him as well as well-watered land for their flocks. So the Israelites, just 70 members strong at that time, settled in Egypt. And, in response to his brothers’ concern that he might seek to harm them, Joseph told them:

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

Jacob and Joseph would both die in Egypt. But, years later, when the sons Jacob returned to the land of Canaan, they brought the bones of Joseph and buried them in Shechem (Sychar), near the spot where Jesus had chosen to take His midday rest stop.

John mentions, almost in passing, that Jesus was weary from His journey. This rather oblique reference is intended to remind the reader that Jesus, while fully God, was also fully human. And in His humanity, Jesus experienced the same physical attributes as any other man, including hunger, thirst, fatigue, and pain. In this little scenario, Jesus would have looked like any other travel-worn Jew making his way through the region of Samaria. So, when the Samaritan woman appeared on the scene, she would have taken very little interest in this unknown Jewish man – until He spoke to her.

John indicates that Jesus was the first to speak, saying to the woman, “Give me a drink” (John 4:7 ESV). While this scene may appear somewhat innocuous to us, for the original readers of John’s gospel, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman would have been shocking. Here was Jesus, a Jewish male, daring to strike up a conversation with a Samaritan woman. This kind of thing wasn’t done in Israel. First of all, Jesus broke social protocol by speaking to a woman in public. And to make matters worse, the woman to whom He spoke was a lowly Samaritan. She would have been considered idolatrous and, therefore, unclean. Yet, shockingly, Jesus chose to speak to her. 

Even the woman reveals her surprise that this Jewish man would dare to address her.

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” – John 4:9 ESV

Just so his audience understands the gravity of the moment, John adds an important aside: “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9 ESV). This entire encounter was out of bounds and unexpected. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was smack-dab in the middle of Samaria, in the middle of the day, and speaking to an unclean Samaritan woman. Not only that, but He was also asking her to serve Him water from the vessel she used to draw from the well. What Jesus was about to do would render Him ceremonially unclean and in need of purification.

But Jesus shows no concern for His own spiritual well-being. Instead, He seems focused on the plight of the woman and replies to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10 ESV). 

In a sense, Jesus was informing the woman of His true identity. He was much more than an unidentified Jewish man asking for a drink of water. He was someone who had the power and authority to offer her “the gift of God,” a source of “living water.”

Confused by Jesus’ words, the woman responded, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (John 4:11 ESV). At this point in the exchange, the reader should recall the earlier conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, the highly orthodox member of the Pharisees. He too had been perplexed by the words of Jesus concerning the new birth from above and had quizzically replied, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 ESV). 

Don’t miss the contrast: A well-educated Jewish Pharisee and an idolatrous Samaritan woman. Both found themselves in a conversation with Jesus, the Son of God. But their minds were stuck on a horizontal plane, and incapable of understanding the spiritual nature of Jesus’ words. The woman, well-acquainted with the task of drawing her daily water from the well, could not understand what Jesus meant by His reference to “living water.” In her mind, Jesus was offering her a source of free-flowing water, like that found in a mountain stream. It stood in stark contrast to the well water to which she was accustomed. Access to water from a stream would mean she would no longer have to go through the arduous task of drawing stagnant water from a well. But as far as she could see, Jesus had no means of providing the “the gift” of which He spoke.

The woman not only found Jesus’ words confusing, but also a bit off-putting. Who was He to denigrate the water from Jacob’s well? Was it not good enough for Him? It had served to meet the needs of Jacob, so it was good enough for her. But Jesus pointed out the limitations inherent in Jacob’s well and the water it provided.

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again…” – John 4:13 ESV

Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to understand that there was a physical and a spiritual dimension to life. Being born into the family of Israel was not going to be enough to earn Nicodemus entrance into the kingdom of God. And drinking water from the well of Jacob was not going to satisfy the Samaritan woman’s spiritual thirst. Both of these individuals had a need that could only be met through Jesus. He was the light of life and the source of living water.

And Jesus informed the woman that the gift He was offering her was far greater than any water she might draw from a well.

“…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:14 ESV

At this point in the story, we know nothing about this woman, other than her status as a Samaritan. Her very presence at the well reveals her need for and dependence upon water in order to survive. But Jesus knew there was a much greater need in this woman’s life. Her thirst was far more than physical. Just as Nicodemus was going to need a different kind of birth if he wanted to enter God’s kingdom, the Samaritan woman was going to need a different kind of water if she ever wanted to have her deep spiritual thirst satisfied. But the woman’s response to Jesus reveals just how blind she was to her own neediness.

“Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” – John 4:15 ESV

She was intrigued by the thought of a source of free-flowing water. And if this unknown Jewish man could tell her where to find it, she was all ears. The thought of never having to draw water from the well again was appealing to her. But like Nicodemus, she was missing the point. She was neglecting to see her real need. Nicodemus had seen himself as fully righteous and fully deserving of entrance into God’s kingdom. But he had been wrong. Just like everyone else, he required a birth from above. And this woman was never going to satisfy her real spiritual need with water from a well. Her sins, like those of Nicodemus, were great. Yes, they may have been of a different sort, but they were sins nonetheless. And she, like Nicodemus, stood before the Son of God, condemned by her sin and in need of a Savior.

Which brings us back to the story of Joseph and his brothers. The day came when they found themselves standing in front of the brother they had sold into slavery and left for dead. They were guilty and deserving of judgment. But Joseph showed them mercy. He extended grace. He used his power and authority to reward rather than punish them.

And like the brother’s of Joseph, this unidentified woman was going to discover the joy of having her sins forgiven. Jesus was about to let her know that God “brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people” (Genesis 50:20 NLT). And she would be graciously and unexpectedly included among the saved.

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 What He Expected

19 “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”– John 3:19-21 ESV

Nicodemus’ head must have been ready to explode. In just a few short minutes, Jesus has delivered some of the most shocking and paradigm-shifting news this Pharisee has ever heard. Nicodemus’ entire belief system has been shaken to its core. For starters, Jesus has informed him that unless he is born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That was news to Nicodemus. As a Jew and a well-respected member of the Pharisees, he believed himself to already have full rights and privileges to a place in God’s coming kingdom. When the Messiah finally came and restored the Jews to power and prominence, Nicodemus believed he would be among those who enjoyed the joys and delights of a reinvigorated kingdom.

But Jesus had put a strange and unexpected condition on anyone who hoped to be a part of the coming kingdom of God: “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). Then Jesus upped the ante by adding a further requirement: “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5 ESV).

Nicodemus was having a difficult time understanding what Jesus was saying. He was mind was focused on earthly, temporal concepts of the kingdom, while Jesus was speaking of spiritual matters. His concept of the coming Messiah was centered around a human deliverer who would lead Israel in an overthrow of the Roman occupying forces and reestablish the Davidic dynasty and Israel’s dominance in the region. But all that Jesus has shared with this highly esteemed religious leader has been spiritual in nature. It is not that Jesus is eliminating the idea of an actual physical kingdom of God, but He is letting Nicodemus know that something new is happening. The kingdom was coming, but not in the form Nicodemus expected. And entrance into that kingdom was going to require far more than Nicodemus could ever imagine.

While Nicodemus was secretly longing that Jesus was the Messiah and had come to set up the kingdom of God on earth, Jesus let him know that the real reason for His coming was to offer eternal life.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16 ESV

In all his study of the Hebrew scriptures, what Nicodemus had failed to understand was that when the Messiah came, His mission would be to suffer and die, not rule and reign. He would come to wear a crown of thorns, not a crown of gold. He would be lifted up and nailed to a Roman cross rather than placed on a royal throne in David’s palace.

Jesus, the Son of God, had come to earth in order to provide sinful mankind with a means to escape the coming condemnation of God. He was going to become “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). He would sacrifice His life in the place of humanity, taking on the sins of the world in order to satisfy the just and righteous judgment of God. The apostle Peter would later describe the full impact of Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf.

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 NLT

And Peter was presenting the atoning death of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Isaiah had penned centuries earlier.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 ESV

But Jesus reveals a sad truth to his mystified and mind-muddled guest.

“…the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV

Jesus’ reference to Himself as the light ties directly back to the opening lines of John’s gospel.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV

Now we can see where John got the idea of Jesus being the light of men and the true light that shines in the darkness. He had heard it directly from the lips of Jesus Himself. And Jesus reveals that his entrance into the darkness of this world would be met with disbelief and indifference. His life, death, and resurrection would fail to convince many that He truly was the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

Everyone, including Nicodemus, recognized that there was something remarkable about this itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth. His message and miracles were like nothing they had ever heard or seen before. Some were impressed. Others were intrigued. A few were even convinced. But the majority continued to reject the light because they preferred to continue living in the darkness of sin.

But Jesus had come to illuminate the darkness of sin and to eliminate the penalty that accompanied it. And throughout the years of His earthly ministry, He continued to declare His divine mission to bring light to a sin-darkened world and life to a spiritually dead people.

Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12 ESV

“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” – John 9:5 ESV

“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. – John 12:46 ESV

And Jesus makes it clear that the peoples’ refusal to believe in Him would be based on their love affair with sin.

“…people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV

No one likes having their sins exposed. So, they try to keep them concealed. They attempt to hide them from others. Darkness serves as a metaphor for the secrecy that accompanies a life of sinfulness. But that darkness takes a variety of forms. Too often, we can try to veil our sinfulness with acts of self-righteousness. That is exactly what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 25-28 NLT

So, we can attempt to cover our sins with a thin veneer of righteous-looking deeds or we can simply commit our sins in secrecy, hidden away from the sight of others. As long as no one sees what we are doing, our reputations remain intact. The apostle Paul warns that even believers can find themselves attempting to harbor secret sins, hidden away from the eyes of others. But light has a way of exposing what is hidden.

Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. – Ephesians 5:11-14 NLT

Jesus made it painfully clear that “everyone who does wicked things hates the light” (John 3:20 ESV). Their sinful natures crave hiddenness and despise exposure. Like a roach that scatters when a light is turned on, a sinner will tend to run from the illuminating light of the gospel “lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20 ESV).

One of the most indicting statements Jesus ever made was directed at the sect to which Nicodemus was a member. Luke records a scene in which Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees for having eaten with tax collectors and sinners. They were appalled by His actions and arrogantly asked, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?” (Luke 5:30 NLT). And Jesus simply responded:

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” – Luke 5:31-32 NLT

The Pharisees were living in darkness, convinced that their outward displays of righteousness were enough to cover up their inward need for repentance and restoration. They were diseased, dying, and in need of a doctor, but refused to admit it. Because they loved the darkness rather than the light. 

Even Nicodemus would refuse to have his deeds exposed by the light. He had come under the cover of darkness, attempting to find out if Jesus was the Messiah. But he would walk away, still in the dark, both physically and spiritually. He had come into the presence of the light but would walk away just as he had come.

Jesus leaves Nicodemus with a final word that re-emphasizes the spiritual nature of all that He has said.

“…whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” – John 3:21 ESV

Salvation is a work of God. And this would have been a foreign concept to Nicodemus. He had been raised to believe that human effort was the essential ingredient for finding acceptance with God. Good works were the criteria by which men were judged by God and deemed worthy of His love. But Jesus was letting Nicodemus know that no man could earn a right standing with God through self-effort. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, put it this way:

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

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT

For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

This would have been shocking news to Nicodemus. And he would walk away that night with his head spinning from all that he had heard. Jesus had just enlightened him as to the true means by which sinful men can be made right with a holy God. Now, Nicodemus had a decision to make.

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

Diligence, Not Desire, Determines Your Destiny

1 You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. 11 The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself. 2 Timothy 2:1-13 ESV

Paul, an older and more experienced minister of the gospel, is pouring out his heart to his young protégé, Timothy, in an attempt to prepare him for what lies ahead. Paul was imprisoned in Rome awaiting a hearing before the emperor. He was well aware that his fate, while in God’s hands, could end poorly. He had no delusions that he would receive a fair and just trial at the hands of the Romans. And the Jews had been relentless in their efforts to hold Paul accountable for what they considered to be his disruptive and divisive ministry.

As Paul sat in jail awaiting his hearing, he had written to the believers in Philippi, telling them, “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21 ESV). He knew that his days were numbered and that death was inevitable. His greatest concern was that his life would continue to honor Christ, whether through ministry or martyrdom.

As Paul penned this letter to Timothy, he must have thought about the message he had received from Christ after praying on three different occasions that his “thorn in the flesh” be removed. Jesus had told him, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT). And this promise from the Savior had prompted Paul to respond, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT).

The power of Christ, made available through the means of His grace, was all that Paul needed and it provided him with an overwhelming sense of confidence and peace, regardless of the circumstances he faced.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

Now, Paul is passing on the promise of Christ’s grace to Timothy. He tells him to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1 ESV). Timothy was in a difficult spot, trying to minister to the fledgling congregation in Ephesus while his mentor was behind bars in Rome. He was on his own and surrounded by hostile forces who opposed his ministry and message. He also faced dissension in the ranks as some of his own parishioners began to question their decision to follow Christ. Persecution and difficulty had begun to set in, causing some to lose faith, like Phygelus and Hermogenes, who had abandoned Paul in Asia.

Paul wanted Timothy to understand that he was no longer the disciple, but had moved into the role of disciple-maker. His days of serving as Paul’s assistant were behind him. It was now time for him to step up and embrace his responsibilities as a minister of the gospel. And that would require Timothy to raise up others to assist him in his work. There had been a day when Paul had chosen Timothy and determined to teach him and train him for the gospel ministry. Now it was time for Timothy to take the baton and run the next leg of the race on his own. But he was not to run alone. Paul encouraged Timothy to “teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others” (2 Timothy 2:2 NLT).

This was all about propagating and multiplying the ministry by constantly preparing others to share the burden. Jesus had told His disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields” (Matthew 9:37-38 NLT). But along with asking God to supply the workers, comes a responsibility to train these individuals in the disciplines required to harvest well. And that would require discipline on Timothy’s part. A landowner would not send inexperienced or untrained workers into his fields to harvest his crops. He would make sure they were trained to do the job well so every ounce of grain was gleaned. No loss. No waste.

Paul drives home the seriousness of Timothy’s role as a disciple-maker by using three different analogies. First, he compares Timothy to a soldier, who faithfully fulfills his duties, undistracted by the cares of this world.

Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them. – 2 Timothy 2:3-4 NLT

A distracted soldier will prove to be a disloyal soldier. If Timothy allows himself to become preoccupied with the things of this world, he will lose sight of his God-ordained mission. This is exactly what Jesus was warning His disciples about when He said, “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39 NLT).

Discipleship, like military service, requires a commitment that carries a high cost. Part-time soldiers make lousy warriors. And believers who allow their love for the things of this world to distract them will prove to be less-than-successful disciple-makers.

The next analogy Paul uses is that of an athlete. This particular imagery was a favorite of Paul’s and he used it repeatedly to illustrate the level of commitment required to live the Christian life.

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! – 1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT

Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:13-14 NLT

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. – 2 Timothy 4:7 NLT

Living the Christian life requires perseverance and determination. There are no easy paths to the finish line. There are no shortcuts. And, as Paul warns Timothy, victory cannot be expected if the runner fails to follow the rules. Timothy was not free to fudge on the God-ordained regulations established for the Christian life. He could take the path of least resistance and still expect to win the prize at the end of the race. Avoiding difficulty, taking shortcuts in the pursuit of spiritual growth, and running the race just to finish rather than to win, are unacceptable. God demands more.

The final analogy Paul uses is an agrarian one, highlighting the obvious life lesson that hard work has its rewards.

…hardworking farmers should be the first to enjoy the fruit of their labor. – 2 Timothy 2:6 NLT

In an agrarian culture, laziness could be a death sentence. The farmer who failed to plow and plant had no business expecting to reap a harvest. But the diligent farmer, who put in the required labor to prepare his fields and plant his crops at the proper time, could expect to enjoy the fruits of his labors. It was only natural, logical, and fair. Paul wanted Timothy to know that the Christian life also required commitment, diligence, perseverance, and hard work. And just in case Timothy missed the very obvious point behind Paul’s three analogies, he assures him that “the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7 ESV).

Then, as if out of nowhere, Paul changes the topic altogether, shifting his focus to Christ and His resurrection from the dead. But his point remains the same. He is simply using Jesus, “the offspring of David” (2 Timothy 2:8 ESV), as an example of someone who lived a life fully committed to God’s plan for His life. He was a descendant of King David and the rightful heir to the throne, and yet He willingly suffered on behalf of sinful mankind so that He might become the sinless substitute and the selfless source of salvation for all those who would believe in Him. Jesus never shirked His God-given responsibility to be the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV).

And Paul uses himself as another example of someone who refused to compromise his convictions or cut corners when it came to his spiritual life. After all, he was writing this letter from prison, bound by chains and facing a trial on trumped-up charges intended to result in a death sentence. But Paul boldly proclaimed, “I am willing to endure anything if it will bring salvation and eternal glory in Christ Jesus to those God has chosen” (2 Timothy 2:10 NLT).

The bottom line for Paul was that there was no place for faithlessness in the life of the believer. Jesus Christ had sacrificed Himself so that we might live in newness of life. He provided us with the Holy Spirit as a permanent source of power and direction. His death assures us of eternal life. Our endurance in this life comes with the guarantee of an inheritance in the next life. But even if we fail to remain faithful, Jesus Christ will never fail to keep His promise to keep and preserve us.

…if we are faithless, he remains faithful. – 2 Timothy 2:13 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

The Hope of Things to Come

“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples
    to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord
    and serve him with one accord.
10 From beyond the rivers of Cush
    my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones,
    shall bring my offering.

11 “On that day you shall not be put to shame
    because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;
for then I will remove from your midst
    your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty
    in my holy mountain.
12 But I will leave in your midst
    a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord,
13 those who are left in Israel;
they shall do no injustice
    and speak no lies,
nor shall there be found in their mouth
    a deceitful tongue.
For they shall graze and lie down,
    and none shall make them afraid.” – Zephaniah 3:9-13 ESV

In 1719, the hymn, “O God, Our Help In Ages Past” was published by Isaac Watts as part of a collection entitled, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. The opening words of this classic anthem to God’s glory read:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

This heartfelt declaration of God’s sovereign intervention in the lives of His people provides a perfect segue to this section of Zephaniah’s prophecy. After warning the people of Judah of God’s pending judgment and declaring God’s future plans for the destruction of sinful mankind, Zephaniah reminds the citizens of Jerusalem that their God is not yet done.

While the judgment of Judah and the nations of the world was inevitable and inescapable, the people of God were to maintain hope in their merciful and always faithful God.  The prophet Jeremiah spoke of God’s gracious, hope-inducing plans for His people.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”– Jeremiah 29:11-14 ESV

While God was going to discipline His people for their rebellious behavior and their repeated refusal to repent of their sins, He would not completely forsake or forget them. The day was coming when a remnant of His people would return to Him with repentant hearts, fully forgiven for their past indiscretions.

On that day you shall not be put to shame
    because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me – Zephaniah 3:11 ESV

But the repentant Jews will not be alone. Zephaniah reveals that another remnant, made up of people from among the nations of the earth will also turn to God, accepting the gracious offer of salvation and forgiveness through His Son. The apostle John recorded his vision of this great throng of redeemed people, standing before the throne of God Almighty.

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10 NLT

While Zephaniah’s warnings of judgment and God’s promises to completely eradicate mankind may leave us wrestling with feelings of uncertainty and confusion, we must not overlook God’s promises of redemption for a remnant of sin-plagued and rebellion-prone humanity.

There were dark days ahead for the people of God and the majority of mankind will one day stand before God, justly condemned and fully deserving of their punishment. But the future will not be all doom and gloom. Notice the silver lining that accompanies the dark cloud of Zephaniah’s prophecy:

“Then I will purify the speech of all people,
    so that everyone can worship the Lord together.
My scattered people who live beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
    will come to present their offerings.” – Zephaniah 3:9-10 NLT

The future is actually quite bright. The sovereign God of the universe has a plan that will involve the return of His Son, the defeat of Satan, the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, and the judgment of the unbelieving world. But there will a remnant on earth, made up of every tribe, nation, and tongue, who will joyfully and gratefully worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

God describes a scene of unprecedented peace and tranquility. The days marked by godlessness and faithlessness will be no more.

“Those who are left will be the lowly and humble,
    for it is they who trust in the name of the Lord.
The remnant of Israel will do no wrong;
    they will never tell lies or deceive one another.
They will eat and sleep in safety,
    and no one will make them afraid.” – Zephaniah 3:12-13 NLT

Jesus provided a description of how this elimination of the godless and faithless will take place.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46 ESV

Obviously, this section of Zephaniah’s prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. But it will be. That is why it was intended to bring hope to the people of Judah, even though they would not live to see it come to pass. God was attempting to give them the big picture view of His redemptive plan. And that plan is not relegated to one generation or nation. It spans the centuries, moving from the creation of Adam and Eve in the garden all the way to the Second Coming and the recreation of the earth.

Long ago, God made a promise through the prophet Isaiah.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” – Isaiah 65:17 ESV

And God promised the people of Israel that this new heaven and new earth would be permanent in nature, reflecting His permanent commitment to them as His chosen people.

“For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain.” – Isaiah 66:22 ESV

And as John reveals in the book of Revelation, the end of the age will be accompanied by this newly created heaven and earth.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. – Revelation 21:1 ESV

God is going to make all things new. He will restore His creation to its former glory and remove all vestiges of sin. Death will be no more. Wickedness will have no place in God’s creation. The righteous will live in unbroken fellowship with the Holy Trinity and the influence of Satan will be permanently eradicated from the face of the earth.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” – Revelation 21:5-8 ESV

In the meantime, the people of God are to have hope. Despite what may be happening to them or around them, they are never to lose sight of God’s divine plan of redemption. He is not done. There is reason to hope. Because He is the covenant-keeping God who never fails to fulfill His promises. And while the future remains out of sight and out of our control. we can have faith in the faithfulness of God. This is why the author of Hebrews reminds us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV).

And may the words of Isaac Watts ring in our ears as we wait for God to fulfill His perfect plan.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
are like an ev’ning gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

Our God, our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come,
be Thou our Guide while life shall last,
and our eternal Home!

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

   

 

Selling Out the Savior

14 Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.

17 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” 19 And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover.

20 When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve. 21 And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22 And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” 23 He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” 25 Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He said to him, “You have said so.” – Matthew 26:14-25 ESV

30 pieces of silver.jpgMary, the sister of Lazarus, the man whom Jesus had raised from the dead, had just anointed the head of Jesus using “an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment” (Matthew 26:7 ESV). In reaction to her exorbitant display of gratitude to Jesus, the disciples became incensed at what they believed to be an unnecessary waste of resources. But, in his gospel, John makes it clear that the disciple who showed the greatest concern over Mary’s actions was Judas. 

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” – John 12:4-5 ESV

Judas conveyed his displeasure with what he deemed Mary’s extravagant and wasteful demonstration of gratitude. Jesus rewarded her act with words of commendation and praise, while Judas questioned the spendthrift nature of her actions. But John provides us with some context, explaining that Judas was responsible for the combined financial resources of Jesus and the disciples. At first glance, it might appear that he was simply practicing good stewardship. But John adds a less-than-flattering insight into the character of Judas.

He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. – John 12:6 ESV

Judas saw Mary’s display of worship as nothing more than a waste of money. Had the perfume been sold and the money turned over to him as treasurer, he could have benefited personally. But by pouring the expensive perfume on the head of Jesus, Mary had “robbed” Judas of the opportunity to line his own pockets. Yet, Jesus described what Mary had done as beautiful. He stressed that His time with them was short. His death was imminent, and Mary’s actions had actually anointed His body for His coming burial.

In this scene, we have the conflict between the selfless sacrifice of Mary and the selfish mindset of the disciples, exemplified by the words of Judas. They weren’t thinking about Jesus. They were seemingly unconcerned about His pending death. It’s all reminiscent of another scene involving Mary and Jesus, recorded in Luke’s gospel.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”  – Luke 10:38-42 ESV

On this occasion, Mary had chosen to sit at the feet of Jesus, listening and learning from Him as He taught. In contrast, her sister Martha had busied herself with activities that left her with no time for Jesus. She was so busy doing things for Jesus that she didn’t have time to receive from Jesus. And Jesus informed Martha that Mary had “chosen the good portion” (Luke 10:42 ESV). She had made time for Him.

And in this passage, Matthew reveals that Mary, once again, had chosen the good portion. She had done the right thing. Her focus was on Jesus, not herself. She showed no concern for the cost of her actions. But that was not the case for the disciples. And the actions and attitudes of Judas exemplify and exaggerate the self-centered perspective of these men.

Matthew records that, after the scene at Bethany, Judas made his way to the religious leaders of Israel. Nowhere in the gospels are we given a rationale behind Judas’ actions. We are not told what motivated him to betray Jesus. But as John pointed out, Judas was a thief, and, as a thief, he was driven by a love for money. Like the rest of the disciples, Judas had chosen to follow Jesus because he had hopes that He was their long-awaited Messiah. And, as was true of the other disciples, his association with Jesus was tainted by purely selfish motives. If Jesus truly was the Messiah, Judas hoped to profit personally from his membership in Jesus’ inner circle of followers.

Perhaps, when he began to hear Jesus speak of His coming death, Judas had second thoughts and growing doubts about who Jesus was. He knew he would not benefit from following a dead Messiah. So, he decided to make the best of a bad situation. He came up with a plan to betray Jesus to the religious leaders, asking them, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” (Matthew 26:15 ESV). They offered him the sum of 30 pieces of silver. Not exactly an exorbitant amount. Notice that Judas had estimated the worth of the perfume Mary had used to anoint Jesus as being 300 denarii. A single denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wage for a common laborer. So, Mary had sacrificed 10-months-worth of income to express her love for Jesus.

And if the silver coins Judas was given were denarii, it means he had been willing to betray Jesus for a single month’s income. He put little value in Jesus’ worth and placed his own desires above any display of love or loyalty to his master. The sum of 30 pieces of silver becomes even more important when we consider that it was the exact amount determined by the Mosaic law for the restitution of the lost value of a slave.

If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned. – Exodus21:32 ESV

Judas had bargained away the life of Jesus for the price of a common slave. Unlike Mary, he had placed little or no value on the life of Jesus. And his actions revealed that he had no true love for Jesus. Judas loved Judas.

One of the incredible aspects of this little vignette in the life of Jesus is its direct correlation to the prophecies of the Old Testament, Over in the book of Zechariah, there is a prophetic passage that tells of the coming Shepherd of God, who was to be the “shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter” (Zechariah 11:4 ESV).

Zechariah goes on to say that this Shepherd would try to show favor to the doomed sheep, attempting to unify them under His leadership (Zechariah 11:7). But they would detest Him. So, the Shepherd removed his favor and said, “I will not be your shepherd” (Zechariah 11:9).

This is where it gets interesting. The rejected Shepherd demanded his wages.

Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. – Zechariah 11:12 ESV

And then, Zechariah records that God demanded that the Shepherd refuse the payment.

Then the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter. – Zechariah 11:13 ESV

Now, fast-forward to the very next chapter of Matthew, where he reveals what happened to Judas and his ill-gotten gain. After receiving his reward from the religious leaders, Judas had second thoughts about his decision to betray Jesus.

Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. – Matthew 27:3-8 ESV

For 30 pieces of silver, Judas had been willing to sell out the Messiah. He had lined his own pocket with blood money, made from his betrayal of the one whom he had followed for three years. Mary had willingly given the best of what she had in an attempt to express her love and appreciation to Jesus. Judas had sold out His master and friend, not to mention his fellow disciples, all in order to make up what he thought were his losses for having followed Jesus. But Judas had missed the point. He had not listened to the words of Jesus when He said:

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.
 – Matthew 19:29 ESV

Judas sacrificed the promise of eternal life for temporary gain in this life. Rather than sacrificing everything so that he might enjoy salvation through Christ, Judas sacrificed Christ so that he might have the short-term joy of temporal treasure. He willingly sold out the Savior. And his regret over his actions would have eternal ramifications.

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.

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

The Love of Christ Made Visible

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-46 ESV

Matthew’s entire gospel has been centered around the Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus’ right to rule as the heir of David. And Matthew has recorded the efforts of Jesus to correct His disciples’ errant views of that Kingdom. They fully expected that when the Messiah appeared, He would set up His kingdom in Jerusalem and restore Israel to its former place of power and prominence. But Jesus, as the fulfillment of all the prophetic promises concerning the Messiah, had been out to change their perceptions regarding the Kingdom.

First of all, rather than sitting on a throne in David’s former palace, Jesus would hang on a cross, wearing a crown made of thorns, not of gold. His first coming required His sacrificial death on behalf of sinful mankind. He had come to redeem, not reign. He had come to conquer sin and death, not Israel’s earthly enemies. He had come to restore men to a right relationship with God, not return Israel to its pre-exilic condition.

As His two parables inferred, Jesus was going to go away. He would die, be raised back to life, and then return to His Father’s side. But He would return one day. First, He would come for His bride, the church.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 ESV

This event will usher in the period known as the Great Tribulation. With the removal of the church at the Rapture, the Holy Spirit, who indwells each and every believer, will be removed. The apostle Paul refers to this reality in his second letter to the Thessalonians.

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. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed… – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8 ESV

Jesus made it clear that only one thing kept the “man of lawlessness” from showing up: The Holy Spirit who indwells His church. When the church is removed at the Rapture, the restraining influence of God’s Spirit, in the form of God’s people, will allow the Antichrist to rise to power. The period of the Great Tribulation, which will follow the Rapture of the church, will be a time of unprecedented suffering, marked by unrestrained sin and unsurpassed rebellion against God. Jesus described this seven-year period in stark terms:

“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV

And at the end of the seven years of tribulation, when Jesus returns to earth the second time, He will come as a conquering king. John describes His arrival in the book of Revelation.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 ESV

And this time, the Messiah will judge all those who live on the earth at that time. The book of Revelation makes it clear that many will come to faith during the period of tribulation. In spite of the absence of the church, God will continue to show grace and mercy to the world, bringing both Jews and Gentiles to faith. His Holy Spirit will once again move among the people of the earth, convicting of sin and leading many to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. But a great number of those tribulation saints will suffer martyrdom at the hands of the Antichrist. All of them will face persecution and endure the plagues, famines, wars, and cosmic upheavals that God will bring on the earth during those days.

But when Jesus finally conquers those in rebellion against Him, including Satan, the Antichrist, and the false prophet, He will judge all those on the earth. And that is what this passage is all about. Jesus told His disciples, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matthew 25:31 ESV).

Notice the conditional nature of this statement. Jesus stated that His reign would begin with His second coming. It will be then that He sits on His glorious throne, not now. And one of His first acts as King will be to judge the nations.

He will gather all the nations, including all Jews and Gentiles, and separate the sheep from the goats, the believers from the unbelievers. And “he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left” (Matthew 25:33 ESV). Then, Jesus will reveal how He made the determination between these two groups of individuals. He will make known the criteria for His judgment. To the group on His right, the sheep, He will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34 ESV). And He will tell them why they are going to inherit the kingdom. The word “for” could be translated “because,” and Jesus will explain that their judgment is based on their expressions of love for Him. He was hungry, and they fed Him. He was thirsty, and they provided Him with water. They had welcomed as a stranger. They had provided Him with clothes and visited Him while He was in prison.

But these people will wonder how they accomplished any of these things since Jesus was not even among them during the days of the tribulation. And Jesus will explain that their treatment of others was an expression of their love for Him.

It is important to point out that Jesus was not teaching a form of salvation by works. I other words, their acts of love to their fellow man will not be the cause of their salvation. But those tangible expressions of love will serve as proof of their salvation. It is exactly what James discussed in his letter.

“How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” – James 218 NLT

During the incredibly difficult days of the tribulation, these people will show incredible faith by loving the unlovely, meeting the needs of the helpless and hopeless, protecting the innocent, and caring for “the least of these.” All at great risk to their lives. Their love for Christ will show up in their love for others. And Jesus makes it clear that their selfless, sacrificial actions are an expression of their faith and love for Him.

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” – Matthew 25:40 ESV

But what about the rest? How does Jesus address all those whom He has gathered on His left? He flatly states: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41 ESV). Then He tells them why.

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” – Matthew 25:42-43 ESV

They showed love to no one. They sacrificed nothing on behalf of others. They ignored the needs of all those around them. And in doing so, they revealed their lack of love for Christ. Their actions will give proof of their sinful state. Their failure to love will be evidence of their lack of faith in Christ. And Jesus makes the fate of both groups perfectly clear

“…these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:46 ESV

As James wrote, “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26 ESV). That truth applies today, and it will apply during the tribulation as well. Faith in Christ brings life change. It is tangible and transferable. Love for Christ manifests itself in love for others. His selfless sacrifice for us should instill in us a desire to sacrifice our own lives for the sake of others. And those who live lives of selfless, sacrificial love for others give the greatest evidence of true saving faith.

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.

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

God of the Living

23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”

29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. –  Matthew 22:23-33 ESV

saducees-and-pharisees

Jesus is facing yet another confrontation with the religious leaders. This time it is the Sadducees. They were the religious liberals of their day who rejected the idea of an afterlife, the doctrine of the resurrection, and the reality of angels. For them, this life was all there was, and it was to be lived in strict adherence to the written law as found in the Torah. They were elitists who rejected the oral law of the Pharisees, the “traditions of the elders” that contained hundreds of additional laws or addendums to the written law. But while they were not exactly bosom buddies with the Pharisees, they shared one thing in common with them: A hatred for Jesus. So, in this passage, the come to Jesus posing a question intended to expose Jesus’ heretical views on the resurrection.

Their question is a lengthy one, in the form of a short story. It’s a fictitious scenario involving what was called the Levirate Law, part of the Law of Moses found in the book of Deuteronomy. This law ruled that when a man died, leaving his wife a widow with no children, one of the deceased man’s brothers was obligated to marry the woman. The intention behind the law was to carry on the deceased man’s name and keep any inheritance he might have had in the family.

The law states, “If two brothers are living together on the same property and one of them dies without a son, his widow may not be married to anyone from outside the family. Instead, her husband’s brother should marry her and have intercourse with her to fulfill the duties of a brother-in-law. The first son she bears to him will be considered the son of the dead brother, so that his name will not be forgotten in Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6 NLT).

These Sadducees had purposely created a highly unlikely scenario where the woman ends up marrying seven different brothers, each one dying before they could father a son with her. And their story ends with the woman’s death, seven times a widow and childless. This complicated and completely contrived tale had a purpose behind it. Matthew makes it clear that the real point behind their question was the resurrection. They were not interested in Jesus’ interpretation of the law but wanted to expose His views concerning the resurrection. Which is why they ended their story with the pointed question: “So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her” (Matthew 22:28 NLT).

They think they have Jesus trapped. Since the Torah did not explicitly teach about the resurrection, they did not believe in it. So, their little story was designed to expose the ridiculousness of the whole idea of the resurrection. In their minds, they had shown that the very concept of the resurrection would conflict with the law itself. How could a woman have seven husbands in heaven? But Jesus exposes the flaw in their thinking and the problem in their lives. He simply states, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God” (Matthew 22:29 NLT).

This would have been like a sucker punch to the stomach. Jesus had caught them off guard and had wiped the smug look of satisfaction off their faces with one simple sentence. These men prided themselves on their knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures, and yet Jesus accused them of not knowing the Word of God or the power of God. They were intelligent but ignorant. In all their study of the Scriptures, they had overlooked God’s power on display. They had relegated all they knew about life to the here-and-now and rejected the idea of a hereafter. So, Jesus rocked their religious sensibilities by informing them that, in the resurrected state, there is no state of marriage.

Jesus rendered their convoluted scenario pointless and irrelevant. In her resurrected state, the woman would not be married to any of the brothers, “For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30 NLT). This statement by Jesus must have totally surprised the Sadducees, catching them completely off guard. And it may be just as shocking to some who are reading these words right now.

Your concept of heaven has always included marriage. You have assumed that if you are married here on earth, you will be married in heaven. But what would be the purpose of marriage in heaven? As an institution, it was designed to illustrate the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church. It was intended to be a physical representation of a spiritual reality.

In heaven, the union of Christ and the Church will be complete. There will no longer be a need for a symbol of that union. And while we may find that idea disturbing and possibly disappointing, we have to remember that our condition in our resurrected state will be one of perfection. We will be like Christ and have perfect fellowship with God the Father. Our primary relationship will be with Him. There will no longer be the need for another person to complete or complement us.

But Jesus knew that the real issue behind their question was their view concerning the resurrection, so He cuts to the chase and takes it head-on.

“But now, as to whether there will be a resurrection of the dead—haven’t you ever read about this in the Scriptures? Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, God said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ So he is the God of the living, not the dead.” – Matthew 22:31-32 NLT

Once again, Jesus questions their knowledge of the Scriptures, letting them know that in spite of all their study, they had missed a key point. When referring to His relationship with the great patriarchs of the Hebrew people, God had spoken in the PRESENT tense. He had said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

These words were spoken long after all three of these men were dead and gone, and yet God refers to His relationship with them in the present tense. Jesus made it clear that this was not a grammatical error but a theological truth. There is an afterlife, and there will be a resurrection. The Sadducees’ problem was that they tended to study the Scriptures with a biased view and a limited understanding of the power of God. The idea of the resurrection was impossible to them. It was inconceivable. So, they simply refused to believe in it. In establishing their doctrinal views, they had unknowingly limited the power of God. Because they couldn’t comprehend something, they simply eliminated it from consideration. But Jesus made it clear that the resurrection was not only possible, it was undeniable and inevitable, because of the power of God.

For the Sadducees, life had become all about what they could see and explain. Their view was limited and restrictive. They had no room in their theology for an afterlife because it made no sense to them. So, they put all their eggs in one basket, concentrating all their efforts on making the most out of this life. In doing so, they missed the whole concept of the afterlife, of heaven, and the resurrected state. For them, this earthly life was the only life. Nothing more, nothing less.

And sadly, there are many who live with that same restrictive mindset today. Even those claiming to be Christ-followers live as if there is no eternal life, focusing all their attention and energies on making the most of this life. They simply ignore what they can’t see or explain. And yet, we are encouraged throughout the Word of God to run the race of life with the end in mind. We are to set our affections on things above, not the things of this earth. We are told to consider ourselves as strangers here and to remember that this world is not our home. We are simply passing through on our way to somewhere better. There is an afterlife. There is a heaven. This is not all there is. And we should live with that reality in mind.

We worship a God of the living. The power of God assures us that the dead in Christ are not gone. They are experiencing the joys of heaven, and one day we will see them again. It is just as Jesus promised:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV

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

Entrance Into the Kingdom

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” –  Matthew 19:23-30 ESV

It’s essential that we not separate the content of these verses from the encounter that Jesus had with the rich young man. Verse 22 ended with the sobering statement: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

When Jesus had instructed the man to sell all he possessed, give it to the poor and follow him, the man had simply walked away. He considered the cost too high. In his mind, the price Jesus seemed to have placed on eternal life was too steep to pay. This man couldn’t bear the thought of giving up all that he possessed in order to gain eternal life. So Matthew records that the man went away sorrowful.

But we must not miss two critical statements made by Jesus that help give clarity to what Jesus told His disciples after the man’s departure. Two different times in His exchange with the young man, Jesus addressed his desire to know what he had to do to gain eternal life.

If you would enter life… – vs. 17

If you would be perfect… – vs. 21

And in both cases, Jesus had followed up those statements with action steps:

…keep the commandments. – vs. 17

go, sell what you possess and give to the poor. – vs. 21

Jesus knew something the disciples didn’t know. It was not a case of whether the man would or wouldn’t keep Jesus’ instructions. It was that he couldn’t. It was impossible. While the young man claimed to have kept the five commandments Jesus outlined, there was no way he had done so perfectly. And it is painfully clear that the young man loved his wealth and possessions more than he loved God. In other words, he had broken the very first commandment because he had made a god out of material things. And he was willing to sacrifice the hope of eternal life with God in order to hold on to his false god of materialism.

So, as the disciples watched the man walk away, Jesus used the moment as a teaching opportunity. He made a statement that must have caught them by surprise.

“Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:23-24 ESV

For the disciples, this statement made no sense. As Jews, they had always understood a person’s wealth to be a sign of God’s blessing. They had been taught to believe that one of the primary ways in which God bestowed His favor upon men was through material possessions. When they looked at the lives of the patriarchs, like Abraham, Joseph, and David, they saw men who had been greatly blessed by God with great wealth. And they aspired to be blessed in the same way.

So, the words of Jesus caught them off guard. They were inconsistent with their understanding of how life worked. Which explains their astonishment and their question to Jesus: “Who then can be saved?”

Their train of thought had jumped the tracks. The words of Jesus were illogical and disturbing. Their question to Jesus might be expressed this way: “If those who are obviously blessed by God are going to have a difficult time entering the kingdom of heaven, then what hope do we have?”

The disciples were far from wealthy. They had little in the way of possessions. And nobody looked up to them or aspired to be like them. But their whole concept of God’s blessings was warped. They had not yet understood what Jesus had said in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…”

“Blessed are the merciful…”

“Blessed are the pure in heart…”

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…”

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…” – Matthew 5:3-11 ESV

God’s standard of blessing or approval was not wealth. It was an attitude of spiritual poverty and complete reliance upon God. When it came to the kingdom of heaven, the self-reliant and self-sufficient would be denied entrance. Those who determine to make comfort and ease their goal in this life will miss out on the joys of eternal life.

This discussion left the disciples confused and led them to ask, “Who then can be saved?” It’s important to note that they were not using the term “saved” in the same sense we would. They were not tying salvation to the gospel, but to man’s entrance into eternal life. And their understanding was much like that of the rich young man. They believed that eternal life was a reward for the good things done in this life.

But Jesus shocked them when He said, “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV). The word “this” ties back the idea of salvation or the earning of eternal life. It is impossible for any man to earn his way into God’s kingdom. And not only that, it was going to be particularly difficult for the wealthy. Why? Because, like the young man who had just walked away, they would find their wealth to be a barrier to saving faith. Materialism has a way of masking our needs. It keeps us from recognizing our true spiritual poverty. Money can buy us a false sense of peace and security. It can make us feel invincible and invulnerable. 

And if you believe that your wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, you will have little impetus to see yourself as someone in need of God’s forgiveness.

This whole exchange began with Jesus describing the need for childlike faith. The disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest. They falsely viewed prominence and position as a sign of favor with God. But Jesus had told them, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). Now, He was expanding on this thought by saying it was impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because a rich man lacked the humble, innocent, and completely dependent faith that displayed his need for God.

And Jesus stressed the sheer impossibility of it all by using an extremely ludicrous illustration. A rich man could no more earn his way into God’s kingdom than a camel could squeeze through the eye of a needle.

Always quick to share his opinion, Peter asked, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

It’s obvious that Peter was thinking of the words Jesus had spoken to the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21 ESV). In Peter’s mind, he had done what Jesus had asked. He had sacrificed greatly in order to follow Jesus so, he wanted to know what was in it for him. What would be his reward? Remember what Jesus told the young man. If he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor, he would “have treasure in heaven.” So, Peter wanted to know what he was going to get for all of his sacrifices.

Jesus answered Peter’s question, but not in the way that he had hoped.

“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:28-29 ESV

Jesus assured Peter that he would have a reward, but it would be far different than what he was expecting. Jesus revealed that there was a day coming when He would establish His kingdom on earth. He would sit on the throne of David and rule from Jerusalem. But that day was in the far-distant future. He was speaking of His millennial kingdom, which will take place after His second coming. And in that kingdom, the 12 disciples will receive their reward. They will rule over the 12 tribes of Israel. They will have positions of power and prominence. They will rule alongside the Messiah in His millennial kingdom.

But in the meantime, they were going to be called to sacrifice. The disciples would be required to give up far more than could imagine. Most of these men would end up sacrificing their lives on behalf of the kingdom of God. They would face persecution and difficulty. And Jesus had already warned them of the reality of their future fate.

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  – Matthew 10:17-20 NLT

Their reward would be in the future. And it would be tied to eternal life in the kingdom of God. So, rather than seeking their reward in the here-and-now, they were to focus their attention on the hereafter. In this life, they would be required to sacrifice. They would have to die to self and serve God, not material things. Their faith was to be based on the future reward promised to them by God through Christ. They needed to stop viewing the kingdom from a worldly perspective. Wealth, power, and prominence in this life were no guarantees of eternal life. Salvation is a work of God. And nothing is impossible for Him. While we can never earn our salvation, God has made it possible for all who place childlike faith in His Son to receive the unmerited reward of life everlasting.

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

What Must I DO?

13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.

16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. –  Matthew 19:13-22 ESV

The disciples weren’t always the brightest bulbs in the box. Their inability to grasp the teachings of Jesus was always on display, which simply underscores their humanity. These men were dealing with all kinds of baggage, in the form of personal prejudices, cultural mores, religious doctrines, and man-made traditions. In many ways, they had to un-learn as much they were needing to learn. Their heads were filled with all kinds of preconceived notions and faulty concepts about life, religion, God, and the Kingdom the Messiah was supposed to set up when He came.

If you recall, both John the Baptist and Jesus had appeared on the scene preaching a message of repentance. A big part of the idea behind repentance is a change of mind. And whether they realized it or not, the disciples were being forced by Jesus to rethink everything – their concepts of faith, salvation, God, the kingdom, merit, and the Messiah. But they struggled to let go of their faulty, yet all-too-familiar ideas concerning these things.

So, when we read verses 13-15, the reaction of the disciples should not surprise us. This scene simply reveals how difficult it was for the disciples to embrace the teachings of Jesus. Back in chapter 18, Matthew records Jesus’ response when He heard the disciples bickering over which of them was greatest. Using a small boy as a visual lesson, Jesus told them, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). Then, He had proceeded to give them a lesson on the need for humility and child-like faith.

Now, just a short time later, we see the disciples displaying their somewhat pig-headed and hard-hearted natures. Matthew records that people were bringing their small children to Jesus so that He might bless them. This was a common occurrence in Jewish culture, as people frequently brought their young children to rabbis in order to have them pronounce a blessing on them. But for whatever reason, the disciples took exception to what the people were doing and rebuked them. The gospel writers don’t provide us with a reason for the disciples’ somewhat surprising response, but they each indicate that the reaction of these men was strong and unapologetic.

But Jesus quickly intervened, countering their rebuke with a statement of compassion.

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 19:14 ESV

This was a not-so-subtle reminder to the disciples of His earlier teaching. It was intended to help them recall all that He had taught them concerning humility and child-like faith. The disciples were still struggling with pride and prejudice. They saw themselves, and Jesus, as too busy to deal with all these parents and their children. From their perspective, Jesus had better things to do than bless children. But Jesus wanted them to know that He was never too busy to reach out to those who came to Him in humility. As Jesus would later teach them, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). Each of the disciples was dominated by a self-serving attitude. They were in it for themselves. They had chosen to follow Jesus because they expected to get something out of it. And blessing children was not high on their list of personal priorities. But Jesus was teaching them that life in His kingdom was going to be different. Leaders would be servants. The first would be last. The meek would inherit the earth. The humble would be recognized. The hopeless would find hope.

And Matthew records that immediately after this encounter with the children, a young man approached Jesus, asking Him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:15 ESV). Matthew opens this scene with the word, “behold.” In essence, he is telling the reader to look carefully at what is about to happen. These two scenarios are closely linked together for a reason.

Notice the wording of the young man’s question. He asks, “What good deed must I do…?” The emphasis is on himself and his own self-effort. He exhibits the antithesis of childlike, humble faith. His goal was eternal life, but he was wanting to know what steps he needed to take to earn it. He was looking for a to-do list to follow, a set of rules to keep.

Rather than providing the man with a task to be performed, Jesus focuses on his use of the word “good.”  He asks him, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” This man, like every other Jew, knew the revealed will of God. He would have been more than familiar with God’s law and the non-negotiable requirement concerning obedience to it. But he was looking for the magic ticket – the one thing he could do that would guarantee eternal life. 

But Jesus turned the young man’s attention to the source of all that is good: God Himself. He reminded the young man, “There is only one who is good” (Matthew 19:17 ESV). And that good God had given His good, holy, and righteous law. If the young man wanted to have eternal life, he would need to keep each and every one of the commandments. God had already given His standard for righteousness or good-ness.

But the young man, looking for specifics, asked, “Which ones?” This man’s question reflects a common notion held by many in that day, including the religious leaders. There was constant debate among them over which of the commandments of God was the most important and, therefore, more binding. The Pharisees would later come to Jesus and ask Him,  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36 ESV).

For the young man, it was a matter of priority. He wanted to know which commandment he needed to focus on in order to receive the reward for which he sought. And, accommodating the young man’s request, Jesus provided him with a shortlist of commandments. Notice that the list Jesus provided is made up of laws concerning human relationships. They are horizontal in nature, dealing with how we are to relate to those around us. Jesus lists the prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness. But He also lists the laws requiring the honoring of parents and love for others. And without batting an eye, the young man boldly and pridefully declared that he had kept them all. So, he wanted to know what was missing. What other law did he need to keep in order to guarantee himself eternal life?

Then, Jesus dropped a bombshell. He simply stated, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21 ESV).

The Greek word translated, “perfect” is teleios, and it refers to completeness or wholeness. The man was asking Jesus what it was that he lacked. He felt incomplete. He knew that something was missing from his life and wrestled with a fear of not measuring up. He had no assurance that his efforts were going to earn him the eternal reward for which he longed. And Jesus informed him that he would need to give up all that he owned in this life and follow Him. Jesus was not telling this man that his salvation could be earned through some kind of philanthropic acts of selfless sacrifice. He was revealing that this man’s heart was focused on the things of this world. As Matthew reveals, the young man was very wealthy. The idea of selling all that he had and giving it away led him to walk away. That was a sacrifice he was unwilling to make.

The act of selling all his possessions and following Jesus would have required great faith. It would have demanded humility and would have been a blow to this young man’s pride. He was what he owned. His reputation was tied up in his possessions. He was respected because of his great wealth. He enjoyed the comfort and conveniences that money can buy. And the thought of leaving all that behind was more than he could bear. The thought of sacrificing present comfort for future reward was too much for him.

What a marked difference between this self-made man and the little children whom Jesus had just blessed. Helpless and unable to care for themselves, they were brought to Jesus by their parents. They brought nothing to the equation other than their innocence. They could not brag about their good deeds. They had kept no laws. They had not honored their parents because they were too young to do so. And yet, Jesus had blessed them.

This whole exchange was not about what we need to do to earn eternal life. It was about the one to whom we need to come. The children were brought to Jesus and were blessed. And Jesus told the young man that in order to have eternal life, he would need to follow Him. It wasn’t about doing, it was about faith in Jesus.

This is all reminiscent of another exchange that Jesus had with a crowd that had followed him after He had miraculously fed them. They were looking for another free meal. So, He told them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27 ESV). And they responded, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (John 6:28 ESV). Then, look closely at what Jesus said to them.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:29 ESV

Faith in Jesus. That was the point. Jesus was calling this man to release his grip on his earthly possessions and position and place his hope in Him. Faith in Jesus requires that we place our full dependence upon Him and what He alone can do. Like the rich young man, we are incapable of doing anything good that might earn us favor with God. But if we will simply follow Jesus in childlike, humble faith, we will receive eternal life.

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