Do the Right Thing

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their watchman, and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people, then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.

“So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.

10 “And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ 11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?

12 “And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. 13 Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. 14 Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16 None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.

17 “Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just. 18 When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it. 19 And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this. 20 Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.” Ezekiel 33:1-20 ESV

In this chapter, Ezekiel records the message he received from God concerning his ministry and mission. It seems to announce a shift in the focus of Ezekiel’s message. The earlier portions of his book contain repeated warnings of God’s pending judgment. They foreshadow the coming destruction of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem. But in chapters 32-33, Ezekiel received and delivered the news that those prophetic events had become reality. The Babylonian siege of Jerusalem had ended and the city had been destroyed.

At this point, it seems that any calls to repentance would be unnecessary. The people of Judah had failed to turn from their sins and return to the Lord, so the judgment of God had come just as He had promised. But this chapter provides the people of Judah with a much-needed reminder that God was not done with them. His judgment, while just and well-deserved, was not the final chapter in His relationship with them.

The chapter opens with a personal message from God to Ezekiel that explains his role as “a watchman for the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:7 ESV), and it is not the first time the prophet has heard these words. All the way back in chapter 3, Ezekiel recorded the original commission he received from God.

“Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman for Israel. Whenever you receive a message from me, warn people immediately.” – Ezekiel 3:17 NLT

It is as if God is recommissioning Ezekiel. With the fall of Jerusalem, it would have been easy for Ezekiel to assume that his work was done. He had warned of Judah’s coming destruction and now it had taken place. Jerusalem had been leveled and its people taken into captivity or scattered to the four winds. There was no longer any incentive left that might provide the people with sufficient motivation to repent. But God was not done and He wanted Ezekiel to know that his mission had not ended with the fall of Jerusalem. There was more to do.

God begins by reminding Ezekiel of the watchman’s role. He describes the scene of a city facing a possible attack from enemy forces sent by His hand. With the threat of divine judgment looming, the citizens of that city would appoint an individual to serve as an early warning system. His job would be to patrol the walls and announce any signs of enemy encroachment.

In ancient days, most of the larger cities were surrounded by massive defensive walls. On those walls were posted sentries or watchmen, whose responsibility it was to watch for potential threats. Day and night, as long as they were on duty, they had to keep an eye out for possible enemy attacks. When they saw trouble on the horizon, they were to sound an alarm to let the people inside the walls know that danger was imminent and that appropriate action was needed. If the watchman did his job and the people failed to listen, he was absolved of any responsibility for their deaths. But if he saw the threat and refused to warn the people, their deaths would be on his head.

Everything in this message is a repeat of the one Ezekiel received in chapter 3. God is reiterating His call for Ezekiel to serve as the watchman for the people of Israel. While he wasn’t standing high on the wall of a city, Ezekiel was prominently placed in the middle of the exiles living in Babylon. He had a unique vantage point that allowed him to see the future and warn the people of God what was going to happen next. As has already been proven true, his warnings were not idle threats, but God-given predictions of coming disaster, and his job came with obvious dangers. The most prominent one was that if he failed to sound the alarm and warn the people, he would be held responsible for the fate of their souls. But God makes it clear that if Ezekiel continues to do his job and the people fail to listen, then he will be absolved of any responsibility. He would have done his job.

But God wants Ezekiel to know that his ministry is far from done. Though the judgment of God had come and the nation of Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, there was more for Ezekiel to do. That is why God recommissions His prophet by stating, “Now, son of man, I am making you a watchman for the people of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:7 NLT).

This time, God gives Ezekiel a message to deliver to the people that is much more personal than corporate. It focuses on the actions of the individual.

“If I announce that some wicked people are sure to die and you fail to tell them to change their ways, then they will die in their sins, and I will hold you responsible for their deaths. But if you warn them to repent and they don’t repent, they will die in their sins, but you will have saved yourself.” – Ezekiel 33:8-9 NLT

With the fall of Jerusalem, the Jews living in exile alongside Ezekiel found themselves in a state of depression and despair. They had lost hope of ever returning to their homeland and wondered what was going to happen to them. There was a palpable sense of guilt pervading the exiles as they questioned their own culpability in Judah’s fall. Were they responsible? Was God going to bring judgment on them? They had become conscious of their sins and were fearful of the possible repercussions, and God knew exactly what they were thinking.

“Son of man, give the people of Israel this message: You are saying, ‘Our sins are heavy upon us; we are wasting away! How can we survive?’ – Ezekiel 33:10 NLT

The hope of returning to Judah one day was all that had kept them going. Now that hope was gone. With their homeland in shambles, they were stuck in Babylon and facing an uncertain future. But God wanted them to know that it was not too late, and He gave Ezekiel a new message to deliver to His despondent people.

“As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?” – Ezekiel 33:11 NLT

In the next nine verses, God delivers a simple message of repentance. He calls on His people to do the right thing. Yes, they were guilty of sin and rebellion against Him, but they could reverse that trend. It was not too late.

In this passage, God is not suggesting that behavior can guarantee one’s eternal security. He is not promoting salvation by works. He is simply explaining the natural consequences of human actions. A man who lives a righteous life and yet commits a sin against God, cannot assume that his past acts of righteousness will exempt him from judgment. And an unrighteous man who decides to turn from his wicked ways must not assume that his past deeds will prevent him from enjoying God’s forgiveness.

God knew that the exiles were accusing Him of injustice. They felt as if they had been treated unfairly and that His judgment of them had been too severe. They exclaimed, “The Lord isn’t doing what’s right” (Ezekiel 33:17 NLT). But God turned the tables on them by stating, “it is they who are not doing what’s right” (Ezekiel 33:17 NLT). He was calling them to repentance and they were refusing to obey. God was looking for a change in attitude that showed up in a change of actions. He expected the righteous to continue pursuing righteousness. If they didn’t, they would face the consequences. He expected the wicked to turn back to Him in repentance. If they did, they would receive forgiveness. If they didn’t, they could expect to be judged accordingly.

And through it all, Ezekiel was expected to maintain his role as God’s watchman and messenger. He was to watch and warn. He was to continue encouraging the people to do the right thing by calling them to pursue righteousness rather than wickedness. God makes the message plain and simple.

“…when righteous people turn away from their righteous behavior and turn to evil, they will die. But if wicked people turn from their wickedness and do what is just and right, they will live.” – Ezekiel 33:18-19 NLT

And God knew that the people would continue to accuse Him of being unjust and unfair, but He reminded them, “I judge each of you according to your deeds” (Ezekiel 33:20 NLT). They each had a personal responsibility to heed the warnings of the prophet and respond accordingly. God, the just and righteous one, was simply reiterating the call He had given them from the very beginning.

“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. – Leviticus 19:2 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

Repent and Turn

19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24 But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.

25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?

30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” Ezekiel 18:19-32 ESV

God has made it clear that the previous generations of Israelites had failed to live their lives in faithful obedience to Him. But He was not going to allow the present generation to blame their current condition on others. They were just as guilty and deserving of punishment as their parents and grandparents had been.

In this message to Ezekiel, God clears up a common misunderstanding and lets them know that each and every individual is responsible for their own behavior. But God has anticipated the reaction Ezekiel will get from his audience.

“What?’ you ask. ‘Doesn’t the child pay for the parent’s sins?’ No! For if the child does what is just and right and keeps my decrees, that child will surely live. The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent’s sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child’s sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness.” – Ezekiel 18:19-20 NLT

God informs His people that His justice is not indiscriminate or applied in a one-size-fits-all manner.

“…if wicked people turn away from all their sins and begin to obey my decrees and do what is just and right, they will surely live and not die. – Ezekiel 18:21 NLT

God was reminding His chosen but rebellious people that there was a way to restore their relationship with Him. All they had to do was reject wickedness for righteousness. If they make the decision to live in obedience to His commands, “all their past sins will be forgotten, and they will live because of the righteous things they have done” (Ezekiel 18:21 NLT). And God informs them that He takes no delight in the deaths of the wicked. His desire is that they repent and replace their wickedness with righteousness.

I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.” – Ezekiel 18:23 NLT

This divine mindset was meant to be a source of encouragement to the rebellious people of Judah. They still had time to change their ways. They could reverse the downward spiral of their spiritual trajectory by returning to God in humble contrition. It was not too late. But God was not interested in those who were simply seeking “fire insurance.” In other words, He was not offering His forgiveness to those who thought they could go through the motions by offering up a temporary display of repentance to buy themselves time. God wanted to see true repentance that resulted in a long-term lifestyle of righteousness. To return to a life of righteousness only to reverse course and embrace wickedness again would not cut it with God.

“…if righteous people turn from their righteous behavior and start doing sinful things and act like other sinners, should they be allowed to live?” – Ezekiel 18:24 NLT

God answers His own question with an emphatic, “No!” An individual’s temporary display of righteous behavior would not preserve them from judgment if they decided to jettison a  life of godliness for one of wickedness.

“All their righteous acts will be forgotten, and they will die for their sins.” – Ezekiel 18:24 NLT

But God knew that His people found His methods appalling. They even accused Him of practicing injustice.

“The Lord isn’t doing what’s right!” – Ezekiel 18:25 NLT

Because the Jews living in exile believed themselves to be undeserving of their punishment, they found God’s treatment of them to be unfair. He had wrongly punished them for the sins of their forefathers. In their minds, they had done nothing wrong or deserving of such harsh treatment by God. After all, they were His chosen people, the apple of His eye. How could He have allowed their deportation to the land of Babylon?

Yet God pulls no punches when He states, “O people of Israel, it is you who are not doing what’s right, not I.” (Ezekiel 18:29 NLT). They couldn’t blame Him for their predicament. They had brought it on themselves through their repeated acts of unfaithfulness and unrighteousness.

The judgment of God was inescapable without repentance. So God offers them another gracious opportunity to do the right thing and revive their status as His chosen people.

“Therefore, I will judge each of you, O people of Israel, according to your actions, says the Sovereign Lord. Repent, and turn from your sins. Don’t let them destroy you! Put all your rebellion behind you, and find yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O people of Israel?” – Ezekiel 18:30-31 NLT

As the righteous judge of the universe, God is obligated to deal justly with sin. He cannot overlook or ignore it. He cannot turn a blind eye to HIs peoples’ blatant displays of rebellion and their refusal to live in obedience to His commands. But He wants them to know that His preference for them is that they choose life over death.

I don’t want you to die, says the Sovereign Lord. Turn back and live!” – Ezekiel 18:32 NLT

God’s standard of righteousness was demanding. He expected obedience, faithfulness, adherence to His Law, and unflinching worship of Him and Him alone. And no man was able to meet that standard. That is the whole reason God gave the Israelites the sacrificial system. It was intended to provide His people with a way of receiving atonement and forgiveness for the sins they committed. But they had turned the sacrificial system into a mechanical and ritualistic performance. Their hearts weren’t in it.

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

The prophet Jeremiah declared God’s dissatisfaction with His peoples’ meaningless sacrifices.

“I will not accept your burnt offerings.
    Your sacrifices have no pleasing aroma for me.” – Jeremiah 6:20 NLT

Hundreds of years earlier, God had given His prophet, Amos similarly stinging words to convey to the rebellious citizens of the northern kingdom of Israel. They too had ignored God’s calls to repentance, wrongly assuming that they were immune from God’s judgment. They viewed themselves as deeply religious and, therefore, as righteous in God’s eyes. But God had a different perspective.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
    an endless river of righteous living. – Amos 5:21-24 NLT

When King Solomon finished constructing the temple in Jerusalem, he held a magnificent dedication ceremony to commemorate its grand opening. At that event, God made the following promise.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT

That time had come. The people were wicked and the wrath of God had begun to descend upon the citizens of Jerusalem. But more was on its way. God was far from done because the people were far from repentant. But there was always an opportunity for God’s people to humble themselves, pray, seek His face, and turn from their wicked ways, and Ezekiel was letting them know that there was no time like the present.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

The Soul Who Sins Shall Die

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.

10 “If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things 11 (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

14 “Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 15 he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity. Ezekiel 18:1-18 ESV

There was a common proverb among the Israelites in Ezekiel’s day that promoted the idea of transgenerational culpability for sin. It went something like this: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children’s mouths pucker at the taste”(Ezekiel 18:2 NLT).

It was a subtle form of the blame game. Rather than accept responsibility for their own sins and the subsequent consequences, Ezekiel’s peers preferred to blame their problems on their ancestors. In a sense, they had a point. Their forefathers had been guilty of committing egregious sins against God. The previous generations had failed to live their lives in faithful obedience to Him. But He was not going to allow the present generation to blame their current condition on others. They were just as guilty and just as deserving of punishment as their grandparents and parents had been.

God was clearing up a common misunderstanding in their day and letting them know that each and every individual was responsible for their own behavior. And both Ezekiel and Jeremiah were given clear instructions by God to dispel any lingering suspicions among the people of Israel that they were unjustly suffering for the sins of others. And God had Jeremiah predict a future day when everyone will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God’s punishment for sin is just and never capricious or misapplied.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:

“‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
    and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.” – Jeremiah 31:27-30 ESV

There is little debate that the sins of one generation can negatively influence the lives of the next. A sinful father can bring great sorrow to his own wife and innocent children. They can end up suffering greatly for his selfish decision to live in disobedience to the will of God. But God wants Ezekiel to understand that God never enacts His justice unfairly or applies His divine judgment inequitably.

God has already gone out of His way to prove the guilt of the current generation of Judahites. He transported Ezekiel to the temple in Jerusalem and revealed the gross sins being committed in the temple. The prophet was exposed to the hidden sins of the priests and civic leaders as they secretly offered sacrifices to their false gods in the inner recesses of God’s house.

By the time Ezekiel was penning the words of his prophecy, Zedekiah had ascended to the throne of Judah and, like the generations before him, he “did what was evil in the LORD’s sight” (2 Kings 24:19 NLT). He may have inherited a lot of his wicked traits from his father and forefathers, but he had made his own bed and would now have to suffer the consequences of having to sleep in it. The prophet Jeremiah warned Zedekiah of the fate that awaited him and his royal officials.

“But thus says the Lord: Like the bad figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. And I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.” – Jeremiah 24:8-10 ESV

And at the end of his book, Jeremiah describes the actual details concerning Zedekiah’s fall.

But Zedekiah did what was evil in the LORD’s sight, just as Jehoiakim had done. These things happened because of the LORD’s anger against the people of Jerusalem and Judah, until he finally banished them from his presence and sent them into exile.

Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. So on January 15, during the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon led his entire army against Jerusalem. They surrounded the city and built siege ramps against its walls. Jerusalem was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah’s reign.

By July 18 in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign, the famine in the city had become very severe, and the last of the food was entirely gone. Then a section of the city wall was broken down, and all the soldiers fled. Since the city was surrounded by the Babylonians, they waited for nightfall. Then they slipped through the gate between the two walls behind the king’s garden and headed toward the Jordan Valley.

But the Babylonian troops chased King Zedekiah and overtook him on the plains of Jericho, for his men had all deserted him and scattered. They captured the king and took him to the king of Babylon at Riblah in the land of Hamath. There the king of Babylon pronounced judgment upon Zedekiah. The king of Babylon made Zedekiah watch as he slaughtered his sons. He also slaughtered all the officials of Judah at Riblah. Then he gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him in bronze chains, and the king of Babylon led him away to Babylon. Zedekiah remained there in prison until the day of his death. – Jeremiah 52:2-11 NLT

Zedekiah was not punished unjustly. He got exactly what he deserved for his rebellion against God. The prophet Jeremiah had warned him repeatedly about the consequences that awaited him if he refused to repent, and God did exactly what He said He would do.

God wanted His people to understand that He took sin seriously and that He always dealt with sin personally. That is what He meant when He said, “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4 ESV). Each individual must pay for his own sins. But God assures Ezekiel and his audience that anyone who chooses to live righteously will be exempt from His judgment.  Basically, God provides Ezekiel with a brief synopsis of what it means to live righteously by detailing some of the laws contained in His covenant agreement with the nation of Israel. A just and righteous individual…

…does not feast in the mountains before Israel’s idols or worship them. – vs 6

…does not commit adultery or have intercourse with a woman during her menstrual period. – vs 6

…is a merciful creditor, not keeping the items given as security by poor debtors. – vs 7

…does not rob the poor but instead gives food to the hungry and provides clothes for the needy. – vs 7

…grants loans without interest, stays away from injustice, is honest and fair when judging others… vs 8

…and faithfully obeys my decrees and regulations. – vs 8

The problem was not that God meted out His justice unjustly, but that sin had become a pervasive and permanent fixture among His chosen people. Its influence was widespread and there was plenty of guilt to go around. The prophet Isaiah succinctly summed up the sorry spiritual state of the people of Israel.

You welcome those who gladly do good,
    who follow godly ways.
But you have been very angry with us,
    for we are not godly.
We are constant sinners;
    how can people like us be saved?
We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags.
Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall,
    and our sins sweep us away like the wind. – Isaiah 64:5-6 NLT

And to make matters worse, Isaiah points out that “no one calls on your name or pleads with you for mercy. Therefore, you have turned away from us and turned us over to our sins” (Isaiah 64:7 NLT).

God was not acting unjustly and He was not punishing unfairly. The all-knowing, all-seeing God of the universe knew exactly what was going on among His people, and He was judging each of them fairly and appropriately, according to their sins.

God is the just judge of the universe who always administers justice righteously. If a righteous man bears a son who decides to live an unrighteous life, it will be the son who will face the judgment of God, not the father. And if that unrighteous son grows up to be the father of a son who rejects his sinful ways, that righteous son “will not die because of his father’s sins; he will surely live” (Ezekiel 18:17 NLT).

Zedekiah, the current king of Judah, did not have to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. He had every chance to reject the sins of his fathers and return to God in humble obedience. Jeremiah had repeatedly warned Him.

“Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Quit your evil deeds! Do not mistreat foreigners, orphans, and widows. Stop murdering the innocent! If you obey me, there will always be a descendant of David sitting on the throne here in Jerusalem. The king will ride through the palace gates in chariots and on horses, with his parade of attendants and subjects. But if you refuse to pay attention to this warning, I swear by my own name, says the Lord, that this palace will become a pile of rubble.’” – Jeremiah 22:3-5 NLT

But Zedekiah remained obstinate and unwilling to pursue a life of righteousness. So, he would eventually suffer a just and equitable punishment for his sin. And he would have no one to blame but himself.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

The Last Will Be First, and the First Last

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” –  Matthew 20:1-16 ESV

Jesus ends this section with a familiar refrain: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” It echoes His closing words from chapter 19: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30 ESV). He is still attempting to provide His disciples with further insight into His encounter with the rich young man. Jesus knows they’re struggling with the content of that exchange and can’t quite wrap their minds around what Jesus is trying to tell them.

While they believed the young man’s wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, Jesus had said it was difficult, if not impossible, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. When the disciples had asked, “Who then can be saved?,” Jesus shocked them by replying, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).

The young man had walked away, rather than do as Jesus had commanded. He had been unwilling to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. His love affair with materialism had kept him from following Jesus. The cost was too high. The sacrifice, too great.

Recognizing the angst and anxiety on the faces of His disciples, Jesus tells them a parable. It’s clearly meant to elucidate what He meant by the first will be last and the last first. Jesus uses an easy-to-comprehend scenario from everyday life, intended to illustrate and explain a deeper, more mysterious spiritual reality. The whole purpose behind this parable is to explain life in the kingdom of heaven, and the disciples were going to discover, yet again, that it would not harmonize with their preconceived notions.

It’s essential that we notice that this parable involves the work or efforts of the laborers and the reward given by the landowner. Remember, the rich young man had come to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life. He was thinking in terms of labor or effort in order to gain entrance into God’s kingdom. And when Jesus told him to sell all that he owned and give it to the poor, Jesus was not suggesting that obedience to that one command would provide the man eternal life. He was revealing the true focus of the man’s faith, hope, and security: His wealth.

In Jesus’ story, the landowner went out early in the morning and hired laborers to work in his vineyard, offering each of them a denarius as their wages. And they had all agreed to the conditions of the contract. But throughout the rest of the day, at 9:00 am, Noon, and 5:00 pm, the landowner continued to hire additional workers. In each case, the landowner found men “standing idle in the marketplace” (Matthew 20:3, 6 ESV). And when he asked them why there were not working, the men answered, “Because no one has hired us” (Matthew 20:7 ESV). They had no place to work. They were laborers with nothing to do. But the landowner changed all that. He replaced their idleness with productive activity. They could not create work for themselves. They owned no vineyard of their own. They were at the mercy of the one who owned the vineyard.

When the workday came to an end, the landowner called all the men together in order to compensate them for their labor. This is where the main point behind the parable appears. The landowner paid every man a denarius, regardless of how long they had worked. If you look closely at the parable, the landowner had only told the original group of workers how much he would pay them for their efforts. The others were simply told, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you” (Matthew 20:4 ESV). They had no expectations concerning their compensation.

And Jesus makes it a point to reveal that the last group hired was the first to receive the wages for their work. That means that the first group had to stand back and watch as each group of workers received the same level of pay, regardless of the amount of work they had done. In their minds, they assumed that the level of pay would increase based on the number of hours worked. When the first group got a denarius, they automatically assumed that their reward would be greater because they had labored longer and harder. But they were incensed to find out that their pay was no greater, and shared their disappointment with the landowner.

“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” – Matthew 20:12 ESV

Don’t miss what they said: “You have made them equal to us.” This statement provides an essential clue to the primary point of the parable. You have to go all the way back to the scene that began this whole exchange. The disciples had been arguing over which of them was the greatest in the kingdom. And now, we have Jesus telling them a story that shows what appears to be a case of extreme inequality and unfairness. The laborers, like the disciples, were hung up on the idea of earned reward. The men who labored the longest were convinced that their efforts deserved greater compensation. They deserved more because they had done more.

But the landowner, unmoved by their complaint, told them to take what they had been offered because it was the amount to which they had agreed. They had no right to question his generosity or how he chose to distribute his resources. He was free to pay each man whatever he chose to pay them. He even asked the disgruntled laborers a rhetorical question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:15 ESV).

It’s important to recall Peter’s earlier response to Jesus.

Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” – Matthew 19:27 ESV

He was asking Jesus what he could expect to receive in the way of reward based on what he believed to be the greater degree of sacrifice. In essence, he was saying that he and his fellow disciples had earned more because they had done more.

Like the disciples, we hear this story and think in terms of labor and reward. We can’t help but see the actions of the landowner as somehow unfair or unjust. But Jesus is emphasizing the grace of the landowner, not the efforts of the laborers. None of the men had earned their reward. They had not even earned the right to labor. They had been graciously hired by the landowner and given the privilege of working in his vineyard. And he was free to pay them whatever he determined to be just and fair. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for a common laborer. So, even those who men who had labored all day had received fair compensation.

Like the landowner in Jesus’ parable, it is God who calls laborers to work in His vineyard. He finds those who are “standing idle in the marketplace” and invites them to labor on His behalf. He has a predetermined reward prepared for them. And that reward is not based on the length or intensity of their labor. It is determined by His grace and mercy.

The disciples had been the first to be called by Jesus. But that did not make them more worthy of reward. Their position as His disciples was not an indication of their value or a determiner of their right to greater spiritual compensation. Jesus wanted them to understand that their status as His followers was based solely on His invitation to follow Him. He had found them “standing idle in the marketplace” and had called them to labor alongside Him in the kingdom. And Jesus was going to be calling others along the way. And long after Jesus had returned to heaven, the disciples would see others responding to the call of Jesus and joining them in the work of the harvest. And, one day, each will receive the same reward, not based on the length of their labor or the number of their accomplishments, but based solely on the grace of God.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

From the disciples’ perspective, the rich young man who had walked away from Jesus dejectedly, had obviously been blessed by God. His great wealth was a reflection of God’s favor. So, when Jesus inferred that this man’s great wealth would make it difficult for him to enter the kingdom of heaven, the disciples were confused. And when they heard Jesus’ parable about the laborers, they would have sided with the disgruntled group who felt slighted by the landowner’s obvious inequities. They were hung up on the false idea of reward for work done. The society in which they lived was based on the concept that you don’t get something for nothing. Hard work shouldn’t go unrewarded. A workman is worthy of his hire (Luke 10:7).

But the disciples were going to learn that life in the kingdom of heaven is based on grace, not merit. Their efforts on behalf of God would not earn them favor with God. He would not reward them based on the level of their accomplishments or length of their service. God will reward each according to His grace and mercy. And His reward will be just, righteous, and fair.

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

Laws Concerning Justice

14 “You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. 15 You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin.

16 “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.

17 “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, 18 but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this. – Deuteronomy 24:14-22 ESV

Over in the book of Amos, the prophet records some powerful and passionate words of indictment against the people of Israel, and they are from the lips of God Himself.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
an endless river of righteous living.”– Amos 5:21-24 NLT

This message from the Almighty came hundreds of years after Moses and the Israelites had stood on the border of Canaan preparing to possess the land. Generations of their descendants would come after them, but they would fail to live according to all the rules and regulations Moses had so painstakingly taught to their forefathers.

God had desired for His people to obey His laws so that their lives might be marked by justice and righteous living. And that is what this section of Moses’ speech to the people of Israel is all about. He is calling them to practice justice and to display righteousness in their daily interactions with one another. As we have seen, community was and is important to God. He desires the His people conduct themselves in a way that reflects not only a love for Him but a love for one another. In fact, as the apostle John reminds us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 ESV).

Even the great king, David expressed his understanding of God’s desire for unity among His people.

How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!Psalm 133:1 NLT

In this section of Deuteronomy 24, Moses is going to discuss the poor and needy, the innocent, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. In each case, he is addressing those within the community of Israel who represent the helpless or vulnerable among them. No Israelite was to take advantage of the less fortunate. And to help them refrain from doing so, Moses reminded them of their own history of suffering as slaves in Egypt.

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do all this.” – Deuteronomy 24:18 NLT

They were to never forget that their ancestors had been forced to make bricks without straw. They had been mercilessly and harshly treated by the Egyptians for more than four centuries. So, as they prepared to enter their own land, provided for them by God, they were to conduct themselves according to God’s laws, not according to worldly standards or some sin-saturated impulse based on selfish ambition.

If they had a hired servant, they were to pay them their wages – in full and on time. And Moses emphasizes the worker who is poor and dependent upon his daily wages for survival. The disadvantaged are always easy to oppress. They have not recourse and no one to stand in their corner to support them. But Moses wanted the people of Israel to know that God was an advocate for the needy. He would see that they received justice, one way or another. Which is why Moses warned the Israelites to treat their poorer servants fairly, “Otherwise he will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 24:15 NLT).

And while on the topic of sin and guilt, Moses turns his attention to the proper administering of justice for sin.  A father was not to be held responsible for the sins committed by one of his adult children.  And no child was to be punished for the sins of his father. This would be a form of revenge, rather than justice. The guiltless and innocent would be suffering unjustly and unnecessarily. Each individual was to be held accountable for their own sins. And you can see why this law would be necessary. If a case came up where the perpetrator of a crime could not be found and punished, it would be tempting for the victim to demand that a someone pay the criminal’s sin debt. But this would not result in a just and righteous outcome. Instead, it would cause the innocent to suffer unjustly.

And justice was to be a high priority among the people of Israel because it was important to God. Which is why Moses told them, “You must not pervert justice due a resident foreigner or an orphan…” (Deuteronomy 24:17 NLT). And to make sure they understood what he meant by justice, Moses gave the example of someone taking a widow’s garment as collateral on a loan. You don’t punish the innocent and you don’t take advantage of the helpless. These kinds of things were not to be done among God’s people. It was unacceptable behavior.

The Israelites were always going to have the poor and needy among them, and this group would be made up of fellow Israelites as well as immigrants from other nations. And in a nation with no welfare system, it was necessary that the people understand their role in the care for the less fortunate among them. And one of the ways in which God provided for the needs of the poor was through the annual harvest.  As God blessed His people with abundant crops, they were to share their bounty with the less fortunate among them. So, each harvest, when the Israelites reaped their fields, any sheaves of grain that were inadvertently left behind were to remain there as gifts to the poor. And when they went to gather olives or grapes, they were commanded to leave some of the produce behind as a gift for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. God had promised to bless them with plenty of crops as long as they remained faithful to Him. And when He blessed them, He expected them to share that blessing with the less fortunate among them. And, once again, Moses used their former status as slaves in Egypt as a source of motivation.

According to the prophet, Amos, God wanted “to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.” He greatly desired that His people display His righteousness through their interactions with one another. They were His chosen possession and He had set them apart from all the other nations on earth so that they might model what true righteousness and justice looks like. The greatest sacrifice the people of Israel could make would be to give up their rights for one another. They could prove their love for God by selflessly loving the less fortunate among them. They could display their honor and reverence for God by willingly and eagerly dispensing justice to all those around them. The prophet, Micah reiterates the words recorded by Amos, reminding God’s people of their responsibility to act as agents of justice in this world.

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:6-8 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

A Community Based on Common Courtesy

“When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be liable for any other public duty. He shall be free at home one year to be happy with his wife whom he has taken.

“No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge.

“If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

“Take care, in a case of leprous disease, to be very careful to do according to all that the Levitical priests shall direct you. As I commanded them, so you shall be careful to do. Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way as you came out of Egypt.

10 “When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. 11 You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. 12 And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. 13 You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 24:5-13 ESV

The corporate community of Israel was made up of millions of people. It was not a small collection of tribes, but a massive gathering of people from all walks of life. They shared a common bond as descendants of Abraham and were one generation removed from a life of captivity in Egypt. And as they stood poised to begin their conquering of the land God had promised to them, Moses provided them with a series of God-ordained rules for living together in unity.

Like any other people group, the Israelites were going to have to work hard to maintain any sense of community as they began the process of inhabiting the land. Once a portion of the land was conquered and its former inhabitants were removed, the Israelites would find themselves focusing on their own individual needs. The corporate context required for successful warfare would be replaced by a more self-focused environment in which each Israelite looked out for his own best interests. The land would need to be cultivated, crops planted, houses built or repaired, flocks cared for, and families begun.

But it was still going to be important for the people of Israel to maintain a sense of community, and that was going to require common courtesy. So, Moses shared with them a series of common-sense rules for living together in unity. The first had to do with the conscription of young men for military service. If one of these men was newly married, he was to be exempted from service for one full year. As we have seen, marriage and the family were to be considered sacred institutions among the Israelites. And the first year of marriage was a critical and foundational time period in which the husband and wife were to be allowed to concentrate on their relationship without unneeded distractions or interruptions.

The second command had to do with the relationship between a borrower and a lender. This particular regulation covered loans made between fellow Israelites. Loans were permissible, but not the charging of interest. So, you could require something as collateral, in order to ensure that the loan was paid back in full. But this law prohibited the taking of anything as collateral that would harm the borrower’s ability to earn a living. So, the example given is a millstone. This was the large stone used to process grain to make bread. To confiscate a millstone as collateral on a loan would leave the borrower with no means to feed his family. These rules were designed to protect the poor and needy and to prevent the people of God from taking unfair advantage of one another.

Any kind of abuse of a fellow Israelite for personal gain was to be considered unacceptable behavior. And Moses provided a specific example. It was unlawful to kidnap a fellow Jew and make him your personal servant or to sell him into slavery. Most likely, this is tied to the issue of debt. If a man was unable to pay back his debt, the borrower might be tempted to kidnap the man and force him into indentured servitude. In a worst-case scenario, the lender might be tempted to sell the man as a slave in order to recoup his losses. Either way, God prohibited such actions.

If we skip down to verse 10, we see Moses expanding on this topic of loans and pledges. He provides the Israelites with very specific instructions regarding the collection of a pledge or collateral. If a man borrowed money, the lender was not allowed to enter his home and forcibly demand whatever was used as collateral. The rights of the lender did not supersede those of the borrower. And if the item pledged as collateral were necessary for the borrower to maintain any modicum of comfort, the lender was to allow him to keep it. These rules were designed to protect the integrity of the borrower, who in most cases, would be a poor person. This individual’s need would force him to use his most prized possessions as collateral, leaving him not only in debt, but devoid of the very things he needed to survive. So, God placed parameters on the lending process to protect the poor. And Moses clarifies that obedience to these rules “shall be righteousness for you before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 24:13 ESV).

The next topic had to do with disease within the community of Israel. In Leviticus 12-14, Moses outlines God’s detailed instructions regarding leprosy. And here in Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites to take God’s commands seriously. To not do so could result in the deadly spread of disease among the camp. So, the Israelites were to obey everything God had told them regarding leprosy. Ignoring His commands regarding quarantine would have deadly consequences. Failing to follow His rules could bring judgment upon the entire nation.

These rules, while seemingly disconnected and disparate in nature, all have to do with the corporate community of Israel. Living together was going to require that they follow God’s commands together. There was no room for outliers or rebels who refused to do things God’s way. He was not going to allow them to follow their own whims or create their own, self-imposed rules for life. They were a community – His community. He had chosen them and they were to be His representatives on earth.

So, God went out of His way to ensure that every facet of their lives was covered by His righteous decrees. Every area of life was important. Every relationship had value. There was to be no compartmentalization or isolation. Every Israelite was to live in unity with every other Israelite, regardless of their station in life. Individuality was never to take precedence over community, and yet, community was not to override individual rights. In a sense, Israel was to regard itself as one big family, with God as their Father.

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

Day 95 – Matthew 20:1-19; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:31-34

A Kingdom and A Cause.

Matthew 20:1-19; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:31-34

“Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?” – Matthew 20:15 NLT

Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem. His time on earth is coming to a close. His mission is reaching its final conclusion. And as He journeys toward His final destination, He continues to teach His disciples, attempting to prepare them for what they will face when they reach Jerusalem, and to equip them with an understanding of His Kingdom. All of this will be needed when He returns to His Father in heaven, leaving them to continue His ministry as His ambassadors and messengers.

Chapter 20 in Matthew follows nicely after the incident with the rich young man who came to Jesus asking, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16 NLT). His view of the Kingdom of God was based on earning and effort, and he was not alone. The disciples held the same view, because it was prevalent among the people of Israel. Their religion had become performance-based and was based on a concept of earning and reward. This young man had come looking for one more thing that he must do to secure eternal life for himself. He was probably wanting assurance that he had already done all that was necessary, and was basing his belief that he was in God’s favor on the fact that he was richly blessed by God in this life with “many possessions.” Therefore, God was surely going to bless him in the next life. But Jesus broke the news to him that all his possessions were useless to him in either this life or the next. He told the young man to sell all that he had and give it to the poor and follow Him instead. But the man walked away sad. The cost was too high. The commitment too great. His wealth had become his savior and security.

Now Jesus tells His disciples a parable that is designed to give them a better understanding of the Kingdom of God. He compares it to a landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. Through the course of the day, at nine o’clock, Noon, three o’clock, and as late as five o’clock in the afternoon, he hired workers and promised to pay them all “whatever was right at the end of the day” (Matthew 20:4 NLT). When he came upon the group, he had asked them why they weren’t working and they replied, “Because no one hired us” (Matthew 20:7 NLT). This is an important point, because it indicates that these individuals wanted to work, but were deemed either unqualified or incapable. But this landowner was willing to put them on his payroll and invited them to join the others in the vineyard.

At the end of the day, he had his foreman call all the workers in and had him pay each of the workers their wages, starting with the ones who he hired last and working up to those who had put in a full-day’s worth of work. To the surprise of the latecomers and the consternation of those who had worked all day, each received the same amount of money. When those who had worked all day saw that the latecomers had received a full-day’s pay, they expected to get a bonus for all their hard work. But their pay was no bigger or smaller. So they complained to the landowner, making sure he understood that they had put in greater effort and therefore, deserved greater pay. The complained of injustice and demanded justice. But the landowner defended his actions and let them know that he was fully in his rights to do with his money as he saw fit. They had received a fair day’s wages for a full day of work. They had not been cheated or treated unfairly. These people had lost sight of the fact that, until that morning, they were unemployed and without any waged, but the landowner had hired them sight unseen and offered them the opportunity to work for him. And they had received the benefits of accepting the landowner’s invitation. It seems that these people thought their pay was based on their effort and the amount of work they had performed for the landowner. In the story, Jesus makes it clear that each was payed, not based on the amount of work done, but based on the grace of the landowner. Remember, this is a story about the Kingdom of God. The issue is effort and earning versus grace and the unmerited favor of God. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and religious leaders thought that their place was secure because they “worked” for God. They believed that their pious lifestyle secured them a place in God’s Kingdom. But Jesus assures the disciples that that is not how things work in God’s economy. His is a grace-based economy. God can and does invite anyone into His Kingdom that He so chooses. It is not based on their worthiness, hard work, status in life, talents, or treasures. It is not based on how gifted they are or how much they can give. It is completely based on grace. Paul reiterated this point when he wrote, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT).

As Jesus made His way to Jerusalem, He was giving His disciples an intensive crash-course in the Kingdom of God. Their views were going to have to change. But it was going to be difficult for them. They were not going to get it at first. In fact, each time Jesus tried to inform them that He was on His way to Jerusalem to be unjustly tried and killed, they didn’t understand. Luke tells us, “The significance of his words was hidden from them, and they failed to grasp what he was talking about” (Luke 18:34 NLT). But in time, they would discover that things in the coming Kingdom were going to be a lot different than they ever expected. Humility would replace pride. The first would be last and the last first. The self-righteous would be left out and the repentant sinners included. God’s Kingdom would be grace-based, and made freely available to all who would simply believe.

Father, I can’t thank You enough that inclusion in Your Kingdom is based on grace and not effort. Because otherwise, I would not be included. I have done nothing to deserve Your good favor. My status as one of Your children is solely based on the work of Christ on the cross, and not on anything I have done or attempted to do for You. All of my works are as filthy rags in Your eyes. But the righteousness of Christ has been credited to my account. His work, done on my behalf, is what secures my relationship with You. And I did nothing to deserve it. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org

Day 52 – Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9

Bad News and Good News.

Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9

“As soon as Jesus heard the news, he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone.” – Matthew 14:13 NLT

Over the centuries, the spread of the Good News has not been without its share of difficulties, setbacks and even tragic losses. From the very beginning there have been costs involved in following Christ and spreading His message of salvation through faith in Him alone. Once Christ rose again and returned to heaven, even the disciples suffered greatly as they took over the responsibility of disseminating the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world. In fact, Jesus had just warned them of this reality right before He had sent them out on their first official missionary journey. “But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues” (Matthew 10:17 NLT). He had told them that they would be arrested and tried for being His followers. There would be those who would want to kill them. And many of the disciples would end up dying as martyrs at the hands of those who stood opposed to Jesus. The Gospel is costly. Living for Christ in the midst of a world that despised and hates us is dangerous. And it has been that way from the beginning.

John the Baptist was the first martyr for the cause when he was beheaded by Herod. John had had the audacity to stand up to this powerful leader and call him to account regarding his immoral relationship with Herodias. She was actually his brother’s wife and Herod had stolen her from him. John had warned him against marrying her because it was in violation of God’s law. John’s message was not received well, and it ended up costing him his life. This faithful servant of God was brutally murdered by a corrupt political figure whose life provided a vivid and stark contrast to that of John. It seems so unfair. It doesn’t make sense. Why should someone so gifted and obviously called by God, be snuffed out in the prime of his life. Yet Herod would continue to live a life of luxury and moral license. But this pattern has been painfully repeated over the centuries with the deaths of men like Steven recorded in the early chapters of the book of Acts. And there have been countless others who have suffered and died as a result of their faithfulness to the call of Christ – men like David Brainerd, William Tyndale, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jim Elliot. Even the apostle Paul would eventually die a martyrs death, having spent most of his ministry life imprisoned and persecuted for his faith. And it was a reality he willingly, if not eagerly, embraced. “As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful” (1 Timothy 4:6-7 NLT).

When Jesus received word that John the Baptist had been executed by Herod, He had to get away by Himself, so He went by boat to a remote area. We’re not told what He did there, but I have to believe that Jesus spent time in mourning over the death of His cousin and ministry partner, but also in prayer, asking His Father for wisdom, strength, and perseverance to finish the race strong, just as Paul had desired. It is interesting to note that Jesus would have been without the disciples at this point, having just sent them all out on mission. So He would have been entirely alone when the news of John’s death arrived. Jesus would not have taken the news lightly. I am sure His heart was saddened, but He also would have been fully at peace with His Father’s plan and the timing of it all. I am sure when the disciples returned and heard the news, they were probably just as upset, but also confused by the events surrounding John’s death. They would have had questions and concerns, and raised issues regarding the fairness of it all – just as we would do today. They would have had no idea that a similar fate was awaiting many of them in the not-too-distant future. This was just the opening salvo of a deadly and dangerous spiritual war that is still going on today. Around the world, there are those who are still dying for their faith in Christ. The enemy is still attempting to stop the cause of Christ by attacking the followers of Christ. As Jesus Himself told us, his objective is “to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10 NLT). He is vicious and relentless. He is obsessed with the thwarting of God’s purposes and the destruction of God’s people. But we have a Savior, and He has a plan. His redemptive work is not yet complete. His victory is assured, but the battle still wages on. We must remain steadfast and faithful. We must trust in His purposes and rest in His plan for us. It will not always make sense. It will not always appear fair. But God is faithful. He knows what He is doing. We can trust Him. And we can rest in this timeless truth given to us by John: “But you belong to God, my dear children. You have already won a victory over those people, because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world” (1 John 4:4 NLT).

Father, keep our eyes focused on You. Don’t let us lose hope in the midst of the seeming victories of the enemy. When we see a brother suffer or fall, keep us trusting in Your perfect plan. You never take Your eyes off of us. Your never stop loving us. You are faithful, true, and completely trustworthy. There will be bad news as we continue to spread the Good News. There will be martyr. There will be sufferers. But the battle is won. The victory is assured. The end is already determined. Help me to rest in that reality. Amen.

Ken Miller

Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org