Raising the Dead Back to Life

10 In the thirty-seventh year of Joash king of Judah, Jehoash the son of Jehoahaz began to reign over Israel in Samaria, and he reigned sixteen years. 11 He also did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin, but he walked in them. 12 Now the rest of the acts of Joash and all that he did, and the might with which he fought against Amaziah king of Judah, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? 13 So Joash slept with his fathers, and Jeroboam sat on his throne. And Joash was buried in Samaria with the kings of Israel.

14 Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, Joash king of Israel went down to him and wept before him, crying, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” 15 And Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and arrows.” So he took a bow and arrows. 16 Then he said to the king of Israel, “Draw the bow,” and he drew it. And Elisha laid his hands on the king’s hands. 17 And he said, “Open the window eastward,” and he opened it. Then Elisha said, “Shoot,” and he shot. And he said, “The Lord‘s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Syria! For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” 18 And he said, “Take the arrows,” and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground with them.” And he struck three times and stopped. 19 Then the man of God was angry with him and said, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.”

20 So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. 21 And as a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha, and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.

22 Now Hazael king of Syria oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz. 23 But the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and he turned toward them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, nor has he cast them from his presence until now.

24 When Hazael king of Syria died, Ben-hadad his son became king in his place. 25 Then Jehoash the son of Jehoahaz took again from Ben-hadad the son of Hazael the cities that he had taken from Jehoahaz his father in war. Three times Joash defeated him and recovered the cities of Israel. 2 Kings 13:10-25 ESV

Keeping up with the revolving door of kings who reigned over Israel and Judah is hard enough as it is, but it becomes even more difficult when two kings with the same name end up ruling at the same time. That’s the case in this particular passage. Jehoash ascends to the throne of Israel after the death of his father, Jehoahaz. And it just so happens that the king of Judah bears the same name. It seems only fitting and a bit ironic that these two nations that shared the same predilection for idolatry and apostasy would end up with rulers who shared the same name. And while their reigns would only intersect for a period of about two years, they shared far more than a common name. In the end, both men proved to be ungodly leaders who failed to lead their people back to the worship of Yahweh.

When Jehoash the king of Judah had received a less-than-encouraging message from God, he ordered the stoning of the messenger. It just so happened that the man he executed was Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada the priest. This was the same Jehoiada who had saved Jehoash from the hands of Queen Athaliah by providing him with sanctuary in the temple for six years. On Jehoash’s seventh birthday, Jehoiada had anointed him the king of Judah. But years later, when Jehoiada had died, Jehoash began to listen to the counsel of his ungodly advisors. He ended up forsaking Yahweh and, as a result, suffered defeat at the hands of a much smaller Syrian force. He was wounded in the battle and while recuperating from his injuries, he was assassinated by two of his own officials.

And the king of Israel, who bore the same name, shared a similar story of unfaithfulness and rebellion. The author sums up his 16-year reign with the words: “he did what was evil in the Lord’s sight. He refused to turn from the sins that Jeroboam son of Nebat had led Israel to commit” (2 Kings 13:11 NLT). He too forsook the Lord and led the people to continue their love affair with false gods. And it’s interesting to note that the heir to his throne was his son, Jeroboam II, whom he had named after the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel. His admiration for Jeroboam seems obvious but undeserved. After all, Jeroboam had been responsible for leading the Israelites into idolatry. When God had split the nation of Israel in two after the reign of Solomon, He had given the ten northern ten tribes to Jeroboam as his kingdom. But Jeroboam had responded to this gracious gift from God by erecting two golden calves and encouraging his people to forsake the worship of Yahweh. Yet, Jehoash thought enough of this man that he named his own son after him.

But sometime during his reign, Jehoash of Israel received word that the prophet Elisha was on his deathbed. Surprisingly, the king was grieved over this news and made a personal visit to see the dying prophet. While Jehoash was anything but a faithful worshiper of Yahweh, he knew that Elisha had great power and influence. This elderly prophet had proven time and time again that he spoke on behalf of God and was backed by the power of God. That’s why Jehoash greeted him with the somewhat cryptic statement: “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Kings 13:14 ESV). Evidently, Jehoash had heard the story of Elijah’s miraculous departure and Elisha’s role in it. Perhaps Elisha had shared with the king the details of that fateful day when God had used a whirlwind to  Elijah from the earth.

…as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. – 2 Kings 2:11-12 ESV

This event had followed Elisha’s request for Elijah to provide him with a double portion of his spirit. He was to be Elijah’s replacement and he felt ill-equipped for the task. It could be that King Jehoash was hoping that Elisha would pour out his spirit on him as well. He understood that Elisha possessed power and had direct access to Yahweh. With the prophet’s death, all of that might be lost.

But rather than pour out his spirit on the apostate king, Elisha commanded him to take his bow and shoot an arrow out the window.

Elisha said, “Shoot,” and he shot. And he said, “The Lord‘s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Syria! For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” – 2 Kings 13:17 ESV

Next, the prophet told the king to take his remaining arrows and shoot them into the ground. Jehoash dutifully obeyed, but when he stopped after the third arrow, Elisha responded in anger.

“You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.” – 2 Kings 13:19 ESV

In a sense, Elisha had poured out his spirit on King Jehoash. He had placed his hands on those of the king and, together, they had shot the first arrow out the window. He then assured the king of his victory over the Syrians. But the extent of that victory would be based on the faith of Jehoash. By limiting the number of arrows he shot into the ground, Jehoash was unwittingly revealing his lack of faith. The first arrow had symbolized the Lord’s victory over the Syrians. When Elisha had commanded Jehoash to shoot additional arrows, he should have understood that the symbolism remained the same. Each arrow was to have represented the Lord’s victory. But Jehoash had chosen to leave some of his arrows in the quiver. In doing so, he had inadvertently limited his chances of success over his enemy.

Having pronounced his last prophetic message, Elisha died. But the author relates a story that reveals one last miracle associated with the prophet of God. Sometime later, the body of a recently deceased man was inadvertently thrown into the cave containing Elisha’s bones. When the body of the dead man came into contact with Elisha’s remains, he was immediately restored to life. Amazingly, the author provides no further details to the story. We have no idea what happened to this newly resurrected man or how the story became known. But it was meant to reveal that, though Elisha was dead,  Yahweh was alive and well. Elisha’s departure was not meant to be mistaken as the abandonment of Israel by God. He was still fully capable of restoring life to the lifeless. The all-powerful God of Israel used the bones of a dead prophet to restore life to a dead Israelite, a clear symbol of His desire to renew those among His chosen people who were marked by spiritual death.

And the author reminds his readers that God remained faithful to His disobedient people, refusing to abandon them despite their constant rejection of Him.

…the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and he turned toward them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, nor has he cast them from his presence until now. – 2 Kings 13:23 ESV

The author also reveals that God kept His word concerning the fate of the Syrians. Jehoash experienced three separate victories over his enemy, matching the exact number of arrows he had shot into the ground. No more, no less. God gave allowed Jehoash to recover some of the territory stolen by the Syrians, but the fighting would continue throughout the rest of his reign. The sad reality is that the same God who raised a dead man back to life was fully capable of restoring a spiritually dead nation. But their continued stubbornness and lack of faithfulness would prevent them from experiencing the life-transformative power of Yahweh.

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 Day of Good News

Now there were four men who were lepers at the entrance to the gate. And they said to one another, “Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say, ‘Let us enter the city,’ the famine is in the city, and we shall die there. And if we sit here, we die also. So now come, let us go over to the camp of the Syrians. If they spare our lives we shall live, and if they kill us we shall but die.” So they arose at twilight to go to the camp of the Syrians. But when they came to the edge of the camp of the Syrians, behold, there was no one there. For the Lord had made the army of the Syrians hear the sound of chariots and of horses, the sound of a great army, so that they said to one another, “Behold, the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come against us.” So they fled away in the twilight and abandoned their tents, their horses, and their donkeys, leaving the camp as it was, and fled for their lives. And when these lepers came to the edge of the camp, they went into a tent and ate and drank, and they carried off silver and gold and clothing and went and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent and carried off things from it and went and hid them.

Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell the king’s household.” 10 So they came and called to the gatekeepers of the city and told them, “We came to the camp of the Syrians, and behold, there was no one to be seen or heard there, nothing but the horses tied and the donkeys tied and the tents as they were.” 11 Then the gatekeepers called out, and it was told within the king’s household. 12 And the king rose in the night and said to his servants, “I will tell you what the Syrians have done to us. They know that we are hungry. Therefore they have gone out of the camp to hide themselves in the open country, thinking, ‘When they come out of the city, we shall take them alive and get into the city.’” 13 And one of his servants said, “Let some men take five of the remaining horses, seeing that those who are left here will fare like the whole multitude of Israel who have already perished. Let us send and see.” 14 So they took two horsemen, and the king sent them after the army of the Syrians, saying, “Go and see.” 15 So they went after them as far as the Jordan, and behold, all the way was littered with garments and equipment that the Syrians had thrown away in their haste. And the messengers returned and told the king.

16 Then the people went out and plundered the camp of the Syrians. So a seah of fine flour was sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, according to the word of the Lord. 17 Now the king had appointed the captain on whose hand he leaned to have charge of the gate. And the people trampled him in the gate, so that he died, as the man of God had said when the king came down to him. 18 For when the man of God had said to the king, “Two seahs of barley shall be sold for a shekel, and a seah of fine flour for a shekel, about this time tomorrow in the gate of Samaria,” 19 the captain had answered the man of God, “If the Lord himself should make windows in heaven, could such a thing be?” And he had said, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.” 20 And so it happened to him, for the people trampled him in the gate and he died. 2 Kings 7:3-20 ESV

A protracted siege by the Syrians had left the royal city of Samaria in dire straits. The people inside the walls were starving to death due to the lack of food and some had even resorted to cannibalism, eating their own children to survive. Jehoram, the king of Israel, was powerless to do anything about the situation. He recognized that this was some form of punishment from the hand of Yahweh, but he refused to repent of his apostasy and idolatry. Defenseless against the Syrians and completely powerless to thwart the divine wrath of Yahweh, Jehoram turned his anger and frustration against the prophet Elisha.

Jehoram knew that Elisha was somehow to blame for the devastating conditions in Samaria. And he fully expected the prophet to bring nothing but bad news regarding the ultimate outcome of the siege. But to his surprise, Elisha predicted a dramatic and virtually instantaneous reversal of fortunes.

“By this time tomorrow in the markets of Samaria, six quarts of choice flour will cost only one piece of silver, and twelve quarts of barley grain will cost only one piece of silver.” – 2 Kings 7:1 NLT

Elisha informed the king that within 24 hours, the conditions within the walls of Samaria would improve so dramatically that it would be as if the siege never took place. But Elisha provided no explanation as to how this remarkable transformation would take place. And at least one individual responded to his words with doubt and derision.

The officer assisting the king said to the man of God, “That couldn’t happen even if the Lord opened the windows of heaven!” – 2 Kings 7:2 NLT

The author then transitions his story from the doubting officer to four lepers who sat at the gate of the city. Because of their disease, these men were social outcasts whose survival was based on the generosity of others. They were forced to beg for handouts in order to survive. And the siege had made their circumstances worse than ever. Their appearance in the story at this particular point in time is purely intentional. In a sense, they serve as proxies for the entire nation of Israel. Their disease reflects the spiritual state of God’s people. And their abject state of hopelessness and helplessness is meant to mirror the plight of all those who have abandoned Yahweh.

As they sat at the gate of the city, these four men assessed their situation and determined to do something about it. They could stay where they were and starve to death, or they could risk entering the Syrian camp and placing themselves at the mercy of the enemy. So, sometime before sunrise, they made their fateful decision and walked the short distance from the walls of Samaria to the Syrian encampment. Fully expecting to encounter a Syrian sentry somewhere along the way, they were surprised to find that they were able to walk into the camp uninhibited and unaccosted. The place was a virtual ghost town with not a single Syrian sight. It was as if the entire Syrian army had just evaporated into thin air, leaving behind all their tents, equipment,  and provisions, including mass quantities of food and wine. These four starving lepers found themselves living in a dream come true. Suddenly and unexpectedly, these men who had spent their entire lives begging for food, found themselves surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of delicious delicacies and fine wines.

…they went into one tent after another, eating and drinking wine; and they carried off silver and gold and clothing and hid it. – 2 Kings 7:8 NLT

Like kids let loose in a candy store, they greedily stuffed their faces and their pockets. They had no idea what had happened to the Syrians, and they didn’t seem to care. Their minds were focused on the perpetual feast in front of them and all the silver and gold that had been left for them. Little did they know that their good fortune had been an act of God.

For the Lord had caused the Aramean army to hear the clatter of speeding chariots and the galloping of horses and the sounds of a great army approaching. – 2 Kings 7:6 NLT

Sometime before the lepers had made their decision to enter the Syrian camp, God had performed a miracle. He had caused the Syrians to hear what sounded like a large army headed their way. They immediately concluded that the Israelites had somehow gotten word to their allies and help was on the way.

“The king of Israel has hired the Hittites and Egyptians to attack us!” they cried to one another. So they panicked and ran into the night, abandoning their tents, horses, donkeys, and everything else, as they fled for their lives. – 2 Kings 7:6-7 NLT

There were no Hittites or Egyptians. There were no chariots or horses. It had all been a divine ruse. And when the four lepers finally stopped pillaging long enough to consider the incredible nature of what they were witnessing, they had second thoughts.

“This is not right. This is a day of good news, and we aren’t sharing it with anyone! If we wait until morning, some calamity will certainly fall upon us. Come on, let’s go back and tell the people at the palace.” – 2 Kings 7:9 NLT

But when their good news reached the ears of King Jehoram, he reacted with derision. He saw it as nothing more than a clever ploy by the Syrians to lure the Israelite troops out of the safety of the city. It was all too good to be true. Jehoram could not bring himself to believe that victory could come that easily. There was no way that the long-standing siege could end without a fight and the fall of the city. So, he sent scouts to verify the report of the lepers, and they discovered “a trail of clothing and equipment that the Arameans had thrown away in their mad rush to escape” (2 Kings 7:15 NLT).

It was true. The Syrians were gone and the siege was over. But not only that, the Syrian camp was filled with more than enough food to feed the citizens of the city. And when the Israelites had finished plundering the camp, the conditions within the walls of Samaria were instantaneously reversed.

Then the people of Samaria rushed out and plundered the Aramean camp. So it was true that six quarts of choice flour were sold that day for one piece of silver, and twelve quarts of barley grain were sold for one piece of silver, just as the Lord had promised. – 2 Kings 7:16 NLT

And the author makes sure that we understand the nature of this amazing turn of events.

…everything happened exactly as the man of God had predicted. – 2 Kings 7:17 NLT

God had intervened on behalf of His disobedient children. He had graciously and mercifully delivered them from their enemy and rescued them from imminent death. Overnight, the four lepers had experienced a dramatic shift in their fortunes. They not only had full stomachs but they had hidden enough treasure to transform themselves from paupers to princes. And the people of Samaria were blessed with food they didn’t deserve and riches they had not earned. Their good and gracious God had lovingly spared them – one more time.

But the one man who had expressed doubt concerning God’s ability to deliver His people would find himself suffering a different fate. Elisha had warned him, “You will see it happen with your own eyes, but you won’t be able to eat any of it!” (2 Kings 7:2 NLT). And when the starving masses flowed out of the city to plunder the Syrian camp, this man was crushed to death. He never lived long enough to see what God had done. And not one morsel of the fine Syrian cuisine or one drop of their wine ever touched his lips. He had doubted the power of God and suffered the consequences. The day of good news turned out to be very bad news for him.

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 Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

41 Jehoshaphat the son of Asa began to reign over Judah in the fourth year of Ahab king of Israel. 42 Jehoshaphat was thirty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Azubah the daughter of Shilhi. 43 He walked in all the way of Asa his father. He did not turn aside from it, doing what was right in the sight of the Lord. Yet the high places were not taken away, and the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. 44 Jehoshaphat also made peace with the king of Israel.

45 Now the rest of the acts of Jehoshaphat, and his might that he showed, and how he warred, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? 46 And from the land he exterminated the remnant of the male cult prostitutes who remained in the days of his father Asa.

47 There was no king in Edom; a deputy was king. 48 Jehoshaphat made ships of Tarshish to go to Ophir for gold, but they did not go, for the ships were wrecked at Ezion-geber. 49 Then Ahaziah the son of Ahab said to Jehoshaphat, “Let my servants go with your servants in the ships,” but Jehoshaphat was not willing. 50 And Jehoshaphat slept with his fathers and was buried with his fathers in the city of David his father, and Jehoram his son reigned in his place.

51 Ahaziah the son of Ahab began to reign over Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned two years over Israel. 52 He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. 53 He served Baal and worshiped him and provoked the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger in every way that his father had done. 1 Kings 22:41-53 ESV

Once again, the author shifts the focus of his narrative from Israel to Judah. With Ahab’s God-ordained demise, the northern kingdom of Israel found itself with a new ruler, Ahaziah, the son of Ahab. But in Judah, Jehoshaphat, who had survived the failed battle against Ramoth-gilead, continued his long reign over the southern kingdom. While Ahab’s exploits clearly portray him as the most wicked of all the kings of Israel, Jehoshaphat provides a refreshingly stark contrast. The author provides a brief, yet positive summary of his reign:  “Jehoshaphat was a good king, following the example of his father, Asa. He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight” (1 Kings 22:43 NLT).

But two significant stains marred Jehoshaphat’s 25-year reign. First, while he remained committed to the worship of Yahweh, he failed to remove all the pagan shrines dedicated to the false gods of the Canaanites. As a result, the people continued to offer practice idolatry in direct violation of God’s command. Secondly, Jehoshaphat had made a treaty with Ahab, the king of Israel. Like his father before him, Jehoshaphat put his faith in an outside power rather than trust in Yahweh. In Asa’s case, he had chosen to align himself with Ben-hadad, the king of the Syrians, hoping he could protect Judah from the ongoing threat of Israelite aggression. But he had been reprimanded for placing his trust in someone other than God.

“Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you. Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet because you relied on the Lord, he gave them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.” – 2 Chronicles 16:7-9 ESV

Now, his son, Jehoshaphat, was guilty of the same sin. Rather than making a treaty with the Syrians, he had chosen to work hand-in-hand with Ahab, the king of Israel. According to 2 Chronicles 19:1, Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance with Israel, agreeing for his son, Jehoram, to marry Ahab’s daughter, Athaliah. And this decision would end up putting Jehoshaphat in an awkward position, forcing him to side with Ahab in his ill-fated battle against Ramoth-gilead. While Ahab lost his life in the battle, Jehoshaphat was able to return to the safety of Jerusalem, where he was immediately confronted by the prophet of God over his role in the whole affair.

“Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord. Nevertheless, some good is found in you, for you destroyed the Asheroth out of the land, and have set your heart to seek God.” – 2 Chronicles 19:2-3 ESV

Yet, despite these two rather egregious mistakes, Jehoshaphat was a good king who tried to encourage the people of Judah to worship God. Early on in his reign, he had sent a contingent of officials, including Levites and priests, to all the cities of Judah, with instructions to teach the Book of the Law to the people (2 Chronicles 17:7-9).

He also appointed judges in the land, instructing them to do their jobs with integrity and honesty, providing the people with just and wise decisions.

“Always think carefully before pronouncing judgment. Remember that you do not judge to please people but to please the Lord. He will be with you when you render the verdict in each case. Fear the Lord and judge with integrity, for the Lord our God does not tolerate perverted justice, partiality, or the taking of bribes.” – 2 Chronicles 19:6-7 NLT

But sadly, the righteous reign of Jehoshaphat did not end well. Once again, he made an unholy and unwise alliance with the king of Israel – this time with Ahaziah, the son of Ahab. We get a more detailed explanation of this failed agreement in the book of 2 Chronicles.

Some time later King Jehoshaphat of Judah made an alliance with King Ahaziah of Israel, who was very wicked. Together they built a fleet of trading ships at the port of Ezion-geber. Then Eliezer son of Dodavahu from Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat. He said, “Because you have allied yourself with King Ahaziah, the Lord will destroy your work.” So the ships met with disaster and never put out to sea. – 2 Chronicles 20:35-37 NLT

What makes this decision by Jehoshaphat so difficult to understand is that it came after God had provided Judah with a stunning victory over the Ammonites and Moabites. The people of Judah had found themselves outnumbered by their enemies, but God had given His assurance that He would fight for them. They had no reason to fear.

“Listen, all you people of Judah and Jerusalem! Listen, King Jehoshaphat! This is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid! Don’t be discouraged by this mighty army, for the battle is not yours, but God’s. Tomorrow, march out against them. You will find them coming up through the ascent of Ziz at the end of the valley that opens into the wilderness of Jeruel. But you will not even need to fight. Take your positions; then stand still and watch the Lord’s victory. He is with you, O people of Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid or discouraged. Go out against them tomorrow, for the Lord is with you!” – 2 Chronicles 20:15-17 NLT

And God had kept His word. Not only did He destroy their enemies, but he blessed the people of Judah with an abundance of unexpected wealth.

When Jehoshaphat and his people came to take their spoil, they found among them, in great numbers, goods, clothing, and precious things, which they took for themselves until they could carry no more. They were three days in taking the spoil, it was so much. – 2 Chronicles 20:25 ESV

Their God had not only protected them, but He had provided for them. They lacked nothing as long as they placed their hope and trust in Yahweh. Yet, for some reason, Jehoshaphat chose to join Ahaziah in the construction of ships to bring back gold from Ophir. But those ships never made it to sea. They were destroyed before they could ever leave the port. Like his father before him, Jehoshaphat placed his trust in someone other than God and paid a high price for his mistake. And his unwise decision left a permanent stain on his legacy.

But as 2 Chronicles 17-19 reveals, there were many positive aspects to Jehoshaphat’s reign. All in all, he was a good king who loved Yahweh and tried to shepherd the people of Judah as his ancestor David had done. Yet, the same thing cannot be said of Ahaziah, the son of Ahab and the king of Israel. The author paints a rather bleak portrait of his short and sin-stained reign.

He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. He served Baal and worshiped him and provoked the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger in every way that his father had done. – 2 Kings 22:52-53 ESV

And with that assessment, the book of 1 Kings comes to an abrupt and less-than-flattering end. The two kingdoms continue the downward spiral that began with the reign of Solomon. There have been brief glimpses of faithfulness, but for the most part, the nations of Israel and Judah remain plagued by infidelity and idolatry. Their kings are revealed as flawed men who tend to use their God-given power to promote themselves and their own agendas rather than lovingly shepherd the flock of God according to the will of God. And that pattern will continue as the author begins the second half of his history of the divided kingdom.

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 Prophet Pity Party

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.

There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 1 Kings 19:4-14 ESV

While everything had gone extremely well for Elijah on Mount Carmel, he soon found himself disappointed in how things turned out. His challenge of Baal and his false prophets had proven to be successful and, from the immediate reaction of the people, it had appeared that revival had come to the land. And this spiritual renewal of the people seemed to be symbolized by the torrential rain that had brought an end to the three-and-a-half-years of drought. It all appeared as if the nation was headed in the right direction. And as a prophet of God, Elijah longed to see the repentance and restoration of the people of God.

But upon his triumphant return to Jezreel, he was met with intense opposition from the very woman who had begun all this trouble in Israel. Queen Jezebel had become incensed when she heard what had Elijah had done to the 450 prophets of her god. So, she sent Elijah a life-threatening message.

“So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” – 1 Kings 19:2 ESV

She swore an oath to her gods that she would avenge the deaths of the prophets of Baal by killing Elijah within 24 hours. If she failed to do so, her gods could take her life as payment. Despite the abject failure of her god to defeat Yahweh on Mount Carmel, she was still very much a believer. She exhibited no remorse or repentance but instead, warned Elijah that while he had won the battle on Mount Carmel, the war was far from over. She was willing to fight to the death – either his or her own.  And Elijah did not take this news well.

…he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. – 1 Kings 19:3 ESV

The man who had run from Mount Carmel to Jezreel after his victory over the prophets of Baal was now running for his life. But this time, he was powered by fear, not faith. And Elijah didn’t stop running until he had reached Beersheba, the last town of any size in the southernmost region of Judah. Then, leaving his servant behind in the city, Elijah traveled another day’s journey into the wilderness, where he finally stopped to rest.

In a state of deep depression and disillusionment, Elijah asked God to take his life. Since Ahab and Jezebel remained fully committed to their false gods, Elijah had concluded that his prophetic mission had been an abysmal failure. There would be no revival in Israel as long as those two wielded all the power and influence over the people. They were calling the shots and determining the nation’s religious affiliation.

Elijah had run out of faith and energy. He was physically, emotionally, and spiritually spent. And in his despondent state, he cried out to God, saying, “I have had enough, Lord.…Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died” (1 Kings 19:4 NLT). Exhausted, he fell asleep. But he was soon awakened by an angel who commanded him to eat. There beside him was a loaf of bread and a jar of water. Rather than taking Elijah’s life, God had provided his faith-famished prophet with sustenance, miraculously delivered by the hand of an angel. Elijah may have decided that he was done, but God was not done with Elijah. The prophet ate and fell back asleep. 

But his rest was disturbed yet again by another visit from the angel, who had brought more food and a message.

“Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.” – 1 Kings 19:7 NLT

Elijah had not reached his final destination. He had run, but not far enough. And when he had abruptly fled Jezreel, he had done so because he thought his life was over. Either Jezebel was going to take his life or God would. But God had other plans. He sent Elijah on a 40-day journey further south, all the way to Mount Sinai. And the food God provided miraculously sustained Elijah for this long and arduous journey.

…the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. – 1 Kings 19:8 ESV

This trip should have taken no more than 15-20 days by foot, but Elijah found himself wandering in the wilderness for 40 days and nights. This number is significant because it corresponds to the 40 years that the disobedient Israelites had spent wandering in the wilderness because they had failed to obey God and enter the land of Canaan (Numbers 13-14). Having heard the report of the spies that the land was full of giants and well-fortified cities, the people of Israel had refused to trust God and made plans to return to Egypt.

“If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained. “Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:2-3 NLT

Now, centuries later, Elijah, the prophet of God, had chosen death in the wilderness rather than face the “giants” in his day. He had determined that Jezebel was too big for God. But God had brought Elijah to the very place where He had revealed Himself to the people of Israel. It had been at Mount Sinai that God had given His law to Moses. And it had been on Mount Sinai that God had displayed His glory and demonstrated His unparalleled power.

And when God had safely sequestered Elijah in the recesses of a cave, He asked His doubting prophet a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9 ESV). He was wanting Elijah to explain the motivation behind his most recent actions, and the prophet responded with a pitiful portrait of his Don-Quixote-like quest to defeat the enemies of God. He deemed himself the last-man-standing, the sole survivor of an ill-fated battle against the forces of evil.

“I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” – 1 Kings 19:10 NLT

Elijah was throwing himself a pity party and he had invited God to attend. But God was not interested in celebrating Elijah’s accomplishments or validating his woe-is-me mentality. Instead, God instructed His despondent prophet to step out of the cave and into the shadow of Mount Sinai. And as Elijah stood there, God revealed Himself. At first, He came in the form of a fierce windstorm so powerful that it blew boulders off the face of the mountain. Then He appeared in the form of a massive earthquake that shook the ground under Elijah’s feet. Finally, God disclosed Himself to Elijah in the form of fire. And all of these manifestations of God’s glory and power were exactly what the people of Israel had seen when God had appeared to them centuries earlier at the very same spot.

On the morning of the third day, thunder roared and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram’s horn, and all the people trembled.… All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. – Exodus 19:16, 18 NLT

But in Elijah’s case, these dramatic revelations of God, while impressive, were not meant to represent the presence of God. The text clearly states that the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Yes, they were manifestations of His greatness, but they were not how God was going to speak to His prophet. After the ear-piercing blast of the wind, the earth-shaking rumble of the earthquake, and the roar of the fire, Elijah heard “the sound of a low whisper” ( 1 Kings 19:12 ESV). Evidently, the three previous displays of God’s power had driven Elijah back into the recesses of the cave. But upon hearing the gentle sound of the whisper, he timidly made his way back outside. And there, in the quiet of that moment, he heard God repeat His previous question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13 NLT). 

And, once again, Elijah gave the same well-rehearsed reply. And don’t miss the focus of Elijah’s response. It was all about him. He alone had zealously served Yahweh. While everyone else in Israel had turned their backs on God, Elijah had remained faithful and fully committed. He was the last line of defense against the forces of evil, and now he was as good as dead.

Where was God? Even after the dramatic displays of divine power on Mount Sinai, Elijah had been unable to get his mind off of himself. For some reason, he believed that the future of Israel had been dependent upon him, and he had failed. He had let God down. Despite his victory over the prophets of Baal, Ahab and Jezebel were firmly entrenched and in charge of the affairs of the nation, or so Elijah thought. From his perspective, all was lost. But God had news for Elijah. And He had plans for Ahab and Jezebel. God was about to whisper His sovereign secret for Israel’s future in the ear of his self-consumed prophet. And Elijah was going to discover God’s answer to the question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

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

When Faith Turns to Fear

41 And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” 42 So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. 43 And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. 44 And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” 45 And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. 46 And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel. 

1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. 1 Kings 18:41-19:3 ESV

Chapter 18 opened up with the words God spoke to Elijah: “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth” (1 Kings 18:1 ESV). This statement contains a command as well as a promise from God. After his three-and-a-half-year absence, Elijah was to return to Israel from Sidon and confront King Ahab one more time. But while this command would likely involve great risk to the prophet, his obedience would result in a tremendous blessing on the people. God would end the long drought and restore rain to the land.

It is impossible to know if Elijah was aware of all that would have to happen before the rain returned. There is no indication as to when God divulged the rest of His plan and Elijah’s role in it. But before the physical drought could end, the spiritual drought afflicting the people would have to come to a decisive conclusion that involved a dramatic confrontation between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal. But the real battle would be between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and Baal, the god of Ahab and Jezebel.

And God had won the day. He displayed His power by sending fire from heaven that “consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kings 18:38 ESV). This demonstrative exhibition of God’s omnipotence brought the people to their knees in fear and worship of God. What they had just witnessed left them thoroughly convinced that Yahweh was the one true God, and that newly revived awareness left them crying out, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (1 Kings 18:39 ESV). And as if to put an exclamation point on the whole scene, Elijah had ordered the capture and execution of all 450 of Baal’s so-called prophets. When they had cried out to their god, he had remained silent. Now the prophet of Yahweh silenced them – for good. They would no longer deceive and mislead the people of Israel with fallacious promises concerning their false god.

But there was still one thing missing: The rain that God had promised. Baal had been discredited, his prophets had been eliminated, and the peoples’ reverence for Yahweh had been rejuvenated. But the land remained under the God-ordained drought that had turned Israel into a dust bowl where water and food were scarce and daily survival had become critical. The land that God had once described as “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3 ESV) had become fruitless and lifeless, reflecting the spiritual state of the people who occupied it.

Hundreds of years earlier, long before the people of Israel took possession of the land of Canaan, Moses had warned them what would happen if they proved unfaithful.

“And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 11:13-17 ESV

And years later, when God’s people continued to display their propensity for unfaithfulness, His prophet, Joel, would offer this promise of divine restoration even in the face of their disobedience.

Surely the Lord has done great things!
    Don’t be afraid, O land.
Be glad now and rejoice,
    for the Lord has done great things.
Don’t be afraid, you animals of the field,
    for the wilderness pastures will soon be green.
The trees will again be filled with fruit;
    fig trees and grapevines will be loaded down once more.
Rejoice, you people of Jerusalem!
    Rejoice in the Lord your God!
For the rain he sends demonstrates his faithfulness.
    Once more the autumn rains will come,
    as well as the rains of spring.
The threshing floors will again be piled high with grain,
    and the presses will overflow with new wine and olive oil.

The Lord says, “I will give you back what you lost…” – Joel 2:20-25 ESV

That day on Mount Carmel, the people had seen the fire of God fall from heaven, completely consuming the altar, sacrifice, and water. But they had not yet seen or felt His blessing. As Joel stated, “the rain he sends demonstrates his faithfulness.” Their land was in desperate need of restoration and rejuvenation, and so were they. After three-and-a-half-years of spiritual drought, their hearts were parched and hardened. They had lost the capacity for fruitfulness and faithfulness and they needed an outpouring of God’s grace and mercy.

Elijah knew what God had in store. So, he informed the shell-shocked king to “Go get something to eat and drink, for I hear a mighty rainstorm coming!” (1 Kings 18:41 NLT). There was a blessing on the horizon. In spite of Ahab and Jezebel’s wickedness, God was about to pour out His goodness on the land.

The fact that Ahab had food to eat is symbolic of his self-centered approach to leadership. His sins had brought God’s curse upon the nation. But while they suffered severely from the lack of rain, Ahab and Jezebel lived in royal comfort and ease. God would later issue an indictment against the leaders of Israel, warning them of their blatant disregard for the care of His people.

“What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep?” – Ezekiel 34:2 NLT

And as Ahab was busy satisfying his own needs, Elijah interceded on behalf of the people of Israel. He “climbed to the top of Mount Carmel and bowed low to the ground and prayed with his face between his knees” (1 Kings 18:42 NLT). At one point during his prayer, he stops and sends his servant to look toward the Mediterranean Sea in the east. But the servant sees nothing. This pattern repeats itself five more times with the same disappointing result. But the seventh time, the servant returns with a different report.

“I saw a little cloud about the size of a man’s hand rising from the sea.” – 1 Kings 18:44 NLT

Out on the distant horizon, the servant had seen what appeared to be a small glimmer of hope. It was a small and seemingly insignificant cloud. But Elijah knew what it meant. The blessing of God was about to fall and, when it did, it would come in torrents. So, he instructed his servant to warn Ahab to leave immediately or he may not make it back to his winter palace in Jezreel. When Elijah’s servant had looked to the east, he only saw a faint possibility. But through his eyes of faith,  Elijah saw something altogether different. He perceived the imminent arrival of the outpouring of God’s blessing. And before long that small cloud had developed into a massive storm that brought strong winds and torrential rains. And as Ahab tried to outrun the storm in his chariot, “the Lord gave special strength to Elijah. He tucked his cloak into his belt and ran ahead of Ahab’s chariot all the way to the entrance of Jezreel” (1 Kings 18:46 NLT).

Because Jezreel was anywhere from 10-20 miles east of Mount Carmel, some commentators attempt to explain this last verse by saying that Ahab’s chariot got caught in the mud and delayed his arrival. Others speculate that Elijah simply took a shortcut over the ridge of Mount Carmel. But everything about this story has been focused on the matchless power of God. And it should not seem out of the question that God might endow his prophet with a supernatural capacity to outrun the chariot of his arch-nemesis. God had defeated Baal. Now, the prophet of God had defeated the benefactor of Baal.

But while Elijah had won the victory at Mount Carmel and the race to Jezreel, he would have little time to celebrate. Upon hearing the unexpected news of all that had transpired on Mount Carmel, Jezebel was outraged and directed all her anger at Elijah.

“May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.” – 1 Kings 19:2 NLT

Despite all that Ahab told her about the day’s events, she remained unconvinced of Yahweh’s power. She even called on Baal and his queen mother, Asherah, to come to her aid so that she might avenge the deaths of the prophets by killing Elijah. She was still putting her hope and trust in her false gods. Even the sudden arrival of long-awaited rain did nothing to diminish her misplaced trust in her lifeless and powerless gods.

But even more surprising than Jezebel’s stubborn resistance to God was Elijah’s sudden display of fear and doubt. This man who had called down fire from heaven and had singlehandedly executed 450 prophets of Baal found himself intimidated by the idle threats of this self-absorbed, idol-worshiping queen. Her vow to avenge her false god should have made Elijah laugh with scorn. Her god had proven himself to be speechless, powerless, and utterly helpless in the face of Yahweh. Yet, the formerly faithful Elijah was suddenly fearful, and this time, rather than running to the problem in the strength of God, he ran away from it. He fled for his life, covering the 25 miles from Jezreel to Beersheba motivated by fear and in the strength of his own flesh. Faced with the threats of Jezebel, Elijah took his eyes off of God and took his fate into his own hands.

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 Battle for Belief

17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18 And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” 19 And he said to her, “Give me your son.” And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. 20 And he cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?” 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 22 And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives.” 24 And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” 1 Kings 17:17-24 ESV

God had used Elijah to deliver His message of judgment against King Ahab and his foreign queen, Jezebel. In marrying this princess from Sidon, Ahab had also adopted her false god, Baal, and built a temple for its worship. He had also erected a shrine to honor Asherah, the moon-goddess and supposed mother of this pagan deity. And God, angered by these blatant acts of rebellion and apostasy, had sent Elijah to tell the royal couple that their kingdom would suffer under a great drought. Their disrespect and disregard for God had brought His discipline.

But after Elijah had successfully delivered his message, God sent him away. He had ended up at a cave, where God had graciously and miraculously arranged for ravens to deliver all the food he needed to survive. But eventually, Elijah became a victim of the very drought he predicted. Soon, the brook dried up and the daily deliveries of bread and meat no longer appeared. So, God had sent Elijah to the Sidonian town of Zarephath, where he took up residence with a poor widow and her son. She too was suffering from the effects of the drought. But, once again, Yahweh proved Himself to be the one true God by causing her meager supply of flour and oil to miraculously multiply and never run out. In the midst of a drought and severe famine, she had more than enough to sustain herself, her son, and God’s prophet. And through it all, Elijah was learning to trust God for all His needs. But even more importantly, Elijah was discovering that his God was greater than the god of Ahab and Jezebel. While Baal, the so-called fertility god, was powerless to stop the drought or reverse the effects of the famine, Yahweh had turned “a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug” (1 Kings 17:12 ESV) into a never-ending food supply for Elijah and his gracious hostess.

Then suddenly, the story takes a dramatic turn for the worse. The woman’s young son dies unexpectedly. And, faced with this devastating change in her circumstances, the woman vented all her anger and frustration on the prophet of God.

“O man of God, what have you done to me? Have you come here to point out my sins and kill my son?” – 1 Kings 17:18 NLT

It seems that the woman had falsely assumed that her son’s death was a form of divine retribution for a former sin she had committed. Perhaps by this time, Elijah had shared the details of his encounter with Ahab and Jezebel, explaining that he had been the one to predict the drought as a punishment for their sin. So, when her son suddenly died, she would have naturally reasoned that God was using the prophet to deliver yet another judgment for sin – her own.

But ignoring her despair-driven accusation, Elijah took the lifeless body of her son and placed it on his own bed. Then Elijah turned his attention to God. But notice the tone of His prayer. He seems to echo the words of the widow, passing the blame up the food chain and questioning the goodness and graciousness of God.

“O Lord my God, why have you brought tragedy to this widow who has opened her home to me, causing her son to die?” – 1 Kings 17:20 NLT

Elijah’s response reveals his firm belief that God is sovereign over all things. But he is perplexed and confused by the seeming injustice of it all. And, in his frustration, He accuses God of doing something wicked. The Hebrew word is rāʿaʿ, which is most often translated as “evil.” The boy’s death makes no sense to Elijah. It seems unnecessary and completely unproductive. When Elijah had first met the woman, she had been fully expecting her son to die of starvation because of the drought. But God had intervened and provided more than enough food to keep all three of them alive. So, to Elijah, the boy’s death seemed pointless and, if anything, it appeared to be an act of cruelty.

But while Elijah was having a difficult time understanding the ways of God, he remained convinced of the power of God. Three times, he lay across the dead body of the boy and cried out, “O Lord my God, please let this child’s life return to him” (1 Kings 17:21 NLT). And the fact that Elijah repeated this process three separate times demonstrates both his persistence and dependence upon God.

It’s important to consider that Elijah had no precedence on which to base his prayer. He was asking Yahweh to do the impossible – to raise a dead body back to life. And there is no indication that Elijah had ever seen or heard of God doing such a thing. Elijah was not basing his request on some past miracle, recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, contains no instance of God raising the dead back to life. So, Elijah was asking God to something that had never been done before. His request was a tremendous act of faith.

And in a classic example of understatement, the author simply records, “The Lord heard Elijah’s prayer, and the life of the child returned, and he revived!” (1 Kings 17:22 NLT). One can only imagine Elijah’s shock and surprise that Elijah as the lifeless body of the boy was suddenly reanimated. Two times, nothing had happened. But on the third try, God had suddenly chosen to intervene and answer Elijah’s prayer. We’re not told why God didn’t answer Elijah’s prayer the first time. Perhaps it was a test of Elijah’s faith, to see if he would continue to ask and believe even when his request went unanswered. But God had heard and He ultimately answered – in a remarkable way. And you can sense Elijah’s unbridled excitement and enthusiasm as he announced the news to the boy’s grieving mother.

“See, your son lives.” – 1 Kings 17:23 ESV

It would be easy to misread this statement and assume that Elijah is saying something like, “See, I told you so!” It almost appears as if he is chastising the woman for her lack of faith. But at no point in the story did Elijah tell the woman that her son would live. He had no way of knowing that God was going to answer his prayer or not. And, at least two times, God had failed to do so. But when God had finally provided the miracle for which Elijah was asking, the prophet couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. The New Living Translation provides a much more accurate rendering of Elijah’s response.

“Look!” he said. “Your son is alive!” – 1 Kings 17:23 NLT

No one was as shocked as Elijah, and his joy overflowed in a display of emotional celebration. He most likely walked into the room, carrying the boy in his arms, and then handed him over to the smothering embrace of his overjoyed mother. And, through tears mixed with laughter, the woman managed to express her gratitude to the prophet by declaring her belief in his God.

“Now I know for sure that you are a man of God, and that the Lord truly speaks through you.” – 1 Kings 17:24 NLT

While Yahweh had been keeping her and her son alive, she must have had her doubts about Elijah and his God. But now, as she clutched her son in her arms, she finally recognized and confessed the sovereignty of God and the authority of His prophet. Her son had been dead but was now alive. Her greatest loss had been restored to her. Her sorrow had been turned to joy.

And don’t miss the fact that this miracle took place in an obscure village in the region of Sidon. While Jezebel had brought her false god to the land of Israel, Elijah had brought the God of Israel to the land of Sidon. The arrival of Baal had been accompanied by drought and famine. But when Yahweh made His appearance in the pagan land of the Sidonians, He had turned a widow’s poverty into plenty and had replaced death with life. And, in doing so, He had proved Himself to be the one and only God of the universe.

And God intended this powerful lesson to prepare His prophet for all that was about to come. Elijah didn’t know it yet, but the greatest test of his faith was in his future. After three years of a debilitating and devastating famine, God was going to send Elijah back to the land of Israel to go face-to-face with the king and queen and toe-to-toe with their false god.

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

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

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

A False Assumption and a Faulty Conclusion

18 And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, 19 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. 21 And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. 22 And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. 23 In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”

24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” Mark 12:18-27 ESV

Driven by their mutual hatred for Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians had set aside their long-standing differences and joined forces in a vain attempt to bring His ministry to an end. But they had failed. They had tried to expose Jesus as a political insurrectionist who stood opposed to the Roman government and its excessive taxation of the people of Israel. But these men had misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ Kingdom. It was not of this world. He had not come to free Israel from slavery to Rome, but from slavery to sin and death. And His mission was spiritual in nature and not political. 

When the Pharisees and Herodians returned to the Sanhedrin and reported the results of their less-than-successful mission, they were replaced by a contingent of Sadducees. These men would form the second phase of their well-orchestrated attack on Jesus. The Sadducees were a powerful religious/political sect made up of the wealthy and influential upper class of Israel. They held the majority of the 70 seats in the Sanhedrin and controlled much of what happened in and around the temple. Their aristocratic mindset caused them to disdain the common man and to elevate themselves as members of the religious and political elite.

In order to preserve their superior status within the nation, the Sadducees had become reluctant partners with Rome, willingly accepting their presence as a necessary evil. Compromise with Rome allowed them to maintain their control over the nation of Israel. The Sadducees were essentially a political party that dabbled in religion. And while they expressed strong belief in the books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy), they rejected many of the established doctrines of the Hebrew religion.

For instance, they denied any resurrection of the dead. And this led them to reject the concept of an afterlife. They had concluded that the soul perishes at death, so this eliminated any idea of rewards or penalties. Therefore, in their theology, there was no heaven or hell. And to top it all off, they discounted any belief in an invisible spiritual realm populated by demons and angels. In a sense, they were the religious progressives of their day, espousing liberal views on a wide range of important doctrines that put them at odds with the more traditional Pharisees.

But since the Pharisees and Herodians had failed in their mission to entrap Jesus, the more liberally minded Sadducees were given their chance. And they approached Jesus with a very carefully concocted and convoluted story that was meant to expose His more conservative and antiquated religious views. These men knew that the majority of the peasant class also clung to the more traditional views on the doctrines of the afterlife and resurrection. So, they made up a hypothetical story that was meant to reveal the absurdity of these beliefs.

But like the Pharisees and Herodians who preceded them, the Sadducees were going to meet their match in Jesus. While they viewed Him as nothing more than an uneducated peasant from the backwater village of Nazareth, He would prove to be far more knowledgeable of the Scriptures and more than able to defend the doctrines of the resurrection and the afterlife.

And it is important to remember that Jesus had made many comments about eternal life. In fact, Jesus had told Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees, “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). He had offered the Samaritan woman water that would permanently satisfy her thirst and provide her with eternal life.

“…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

And most recently, Jesus had told Martha, the sister of Lazarus, that her dead brother would rise again.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” – John 11:25-26 ESV

These statements, and others like them, would have made their way back to the Sadducees. Jesus’ persistent claims regarding eternal life and the resurrection of the dead would have infuriated them. So, they decided to use their superior intelligence and vast knowledge of the Scriptures to expose Him as an uneducated fool.

They set up their trap by recounting a well-known law of Moses.

“Moses gave us a law that if a man dies, leaving a wife without children, his brother should marry the widow and have a child who will carry on the brother’s name.”  – Mark 12:19 NLT

They were referring to the levirate law, as outlined in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. This law required that the brother of a man who died without a male heir was obligated to marry his brother’s widow. The primary purpose of the law was to preserve the name of the deceased and to prevent the widow from becoming destitute.

But in an attempt to expose the ridiculous nature of belief in the resurrection, they created a convoluted and highly unlikely story. It involved a woman who ends up marrying seven different brothers, each of whom dies unexpectedly and prematurely, leaving her a widow without a male heir. Their strange tale ends with the death of the woman who had the unfortunate burden of being widowed seven different times. And they summarize their story with a question:

“So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her.” – Mark 12:23 NLT

You can almost see the smug expressions on their faces as they drop this bombshell on the unsuspecting Rabbi from Nazareth. They had Him. There was no way He would be able to answer this confusing conundrum and maintain His naive belief in the resurrection.

Little did they know that their whole story was built around a false premise. Jesus was about to expose their ignorance regarding the doctrine of the resurrection and it was because they did not understand God”s Word.

“Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven.” – Mark 12:24-25 NLT

Jesus gave them a one-two combination that must have been a devastating blow to their overinflated egos. First, He accused them of not knowing the Scriptures. Then He added that they had no idea of the nature of God’s power. Because they could not fathom the idea of life after death, they had simply discounted it. And in spite of all their careful study of the books of Moses, they had been unable to appreciate the fact that nothing was impossible for God. They worshiped a God of limited power whose only interactions with mankind were relegated to this life.

They were trying to take an earthly-oriented law and apply it to eternal matters. But it was as Jesus had told Nicodemus: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12 ESV). These men were incapable of understanding eternal truths. They were trying to comprehend the ways of God by looking through the cloudy lenses of their earthly perspective. And, had he been around, the apostle Paul would have told them, “Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (Romans 11:33 NLT).

Their limited understanding had led to a limited view of God. They could not conceive of an afterlife because they viewed it as implausible and impossible. They were intimately familiar with death and probably feared it. And since they could not see what lie beyond the grave, they simply refused to acknowledge that anything was there. This life was all there was. But the whole story they had concocted had been based on misconceptions and misinterpretations of the Scriptures. Jesus informed them that there would be no marriage in the afterlife. So, it really didn’t matter how many husbands the fictitious widow had in this life. There will be no marriage because there will be no need to procreate. By virtue of His vast power, God will give resurrected and glorified bodies to all those who live in His eternal Kingdom. Men and women will no longer be expected to bring new life into the world. Their God-given order to fulfill the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply will no longer apply.

And Jesus adds another not-so-subtle point of clarification that was meant to blow holes in one of the Sadducees’ other errant beliefs. He states that, in their eternal state, men and women will be much more like angels than human beings. They will be divine creatures who have the capacity to live in unbroken fellowship with God the Father for eternity. And like the angels, they will focus all their time and energy on His glory and offering Him their ceaseless praise.

Jesus ends His response with a lesson on the Old Testament Scriptures. He takes them back to the writings of Moses, recounting the story of the burning bush as recorded in the book of Exodus. It was there in the Midianite wilderness, that God appeared to Moses and called him to be the deliverer of His people. Out of the burning bush, God had declared to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6 ESV). By the time Moses had come along, all three of these men had been long dead, and yet God refers to Himself as their God – present tense, not past tense. Jesus was trying to reveal to these so-called experts in the Pentateuch what they had missed. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not gone, they had just been relocated. They were in the presence of their God.

Like the Pharisees and Herodian before them, the Sadducees failed. They proved no match for Jesus, the Son of God. They had put all their hope in this life, so when Jesus appeared offering the gift of eternal life, they could not bring themselves to believe what He had to say. But the doctrine of the resurrection was a central tenet of Jesus’ teaching. And it would be His own resurrection from the dead that would give His offer of eternal life validity. The apostle Paul summed it up well.

…if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. – 1 Corinthians 15:13-20 NLT

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

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

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

Render Unto God

13 And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. Mark 12:13-17 ESV

Jesus’ ransacking of the temple courtyard had caused quite a stir. And, as a result, His already strained relationship with the Jewish religious leaders took a dramatic turn for the worse. These men questioned His authority as well as His sanity, having earlier claimed that Jesus was possessed by a demon and in league with Satan. But when they met Him face to face, they found that He was anything but crazy. Jesus proved to be a formidable debater who, although an educated Rabbi from Nazareth, could stand toe-to-toe with the best and brightest members of the highly trained Sanhedrin. These professional religious scholars and experts in the Mosaic law found Jesus to be no pushover. And in today’s passage, we find the Sanhedrin taking a tag-team approach, sending wave after wave of their best thinkers to do mental battle with Jesus.

In chapter 11, Mark records the first onslaught. He described the chief priests, scribes, and elders confronting Jesus in the Courtyard of the Gentiles. But their attempt to trap Jesus didn’t turn out so well. Which led the Sanhedrin to send another team made up of Pharisees and Herodians. Now, this was a particularly strange alliance because these two groups were normally diametrically opposed. The Pharisees were a highly conservative religious sect, while the Herodians were essentially a political party that, as their name suggests, supported Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet king of Israel. To the Pharisees, the Herodians were sell-outs, whose support of Herod and willing tolerance of Roman rule greatly compromised Jewish independence.

Yet, these two opposing groups found unity in their shared hatred for Jesus. So, they made an unholy alliance, joining forces in an effort to trap Jesus. And Luke adds that these “spies” were driven by a desire to find condemning evidence that would result in Jesus’ arrest.

The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. – Luke 20:19-20 ESV

As soon as the Pharisees and Herodians begin their questioning of Jesus, it becomes clear why the Sanhedrin had decided to pair these two groups together. The entire scene is a set-up that begins with false flattery. They try to lower Jesus’ defenses by attempting to stroke His ego.

“Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You are impartial and don’t play favorites. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us—is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or shouldn’t we?” – Mark 12:14-15 NLT

Their reputation as enemies was well known, and that was part of their scheme. They led Jesus to believe that they had come to Him for help in settling a dispute. The issue was the Roman poll tax. This was an annual tax imposed upon the Jews by the Romans that the Pharisees found in violation of their own laws concerning the sabbatical year. This was a head-tax that every Jew was required to pay every year, with no break during the seventh or sabbatical year. To the religiously-minded Pharisees, this tax was unacceptable. But to the Herodians, who supported the Roman government, it was a cost they were willing to pay because it helped maintain the peace.

But this entire “debate” was a ploy. The Pharisees must have assumed that Jesus was conservatively minded, just as they were, and would side with them. If He did, this would provide the Herodians with more than enough evidence to accuse Him of fomenting revolution against the Roman government. Their ultimate goal was to get Him in trouble with the civil authorities.

But “Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and said, ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’” (Mark 12:15 NLT). He was not fooled for a second. Their motives were painfully transparent, and Jesus refused to step into their poorly conceived trap. Instead, He was that they show Him a denarius, which was a Roman-minted coin. Jesus was about to turn their question regarding taxation into a lesson on veneration.

When they presented Him with the coin, Jesus asked a simple question: “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” (Mark 12:16 NLT). And they quickly responded, “Caesar.” And what Jesus said next would leave them in a state of amazement.

“Well, then,” Jesus said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” – Mark 12:17 NLT

This had not been what they expected to hear. With His response, Jesus neither favored nor opposed the poll tax. Instead, He turned the whole debate into a lesson on loyalty and spiritual faithfulness. The Herodians placed a high priority on keeping the law of the Romans. The Pharisees countered that the laws of God had greater precedence than those of men. But Jesus was driving home the point that both groups were guilty of worshiping the wrong thing.

“The denarius of Tiberius portrayed the emperor as the semi-divine son of the god Augustus and the goddess Livia and bore the (abbreviated) inscription ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus’ on the obverse and ‘Pontifex Maximus’ on the reverse. Both the representations and the inscriptions were rooted in the imperial cult and constituted a claim to divine honors.” – Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark. New International Commentary on the New Testament

For Jesus, this had nothing to do with taxation or Roman occupation. It had to do with the focus of the heart. Both of these groups were guilty of false worship. In a sense, the Herodians worshiped Caesar because they believed he provided them with protection and allowed them to enjoy their relative power and freedom. On the other hand, the Pharisees worshiped their oral and written laws, treating them with greater veneration than the One who had originally given them to Moses.

In a sense, Caesar required coins that bore his image as payment for services rendered. His troops kept the peace. His government provided social order and stability. And those who benefited from these amenities were expected to pay for them.

Jesus had no problem with rendering unto Caesar what belonged to him. The coins bore his image, so they were rightfully his. But mankind bears the image of God and, therefore, rightfully belongs to Him. That is why Jesus said, “give to God what belongs to God.”

God doesn’t need our money. He doesn’t even need our feeble attempts at religious rule-keeping and pharisaical posturing. Jesus knew that the Pharisees were guilty of going through the motions and only pretending to revere and worship God.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-8 NLT

In a sense, Jesus is taking the conversation back to the issue of authority. Because of his position and power, Caesar had every right to demand a tax from the people over whom he ruled. But God also had the authority to demand worship from those whom He had made. Every man and woman on the planet bore the Imago Dei (the image of God) and were expected to give God what rightfully belonged to Him: Their lives and their worship.

Yet, as the apostle Paul discloses, even since the fall, mankind has repeatedly refused to render unto God what is rightfully His.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT

And for Jesus, the issue was the failure of the religious leaders to honor Him for who He was – the Son of God and the Savior of the world. To the Herodians, Caesar was like a god, worthy of their veneration and willing subjugation. And the Pharisees had made their religion their god,  placing all their hope in the rules and regulations that governed daily life, and provided any hope they had of salvation. But both had failed to recognize that God was in their midst. He had come to dwell with them. And all He asked was that they give Him what was due Him: Their lives and allegiance.

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

Fruit and Faith

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Mark 11:20-25 ESV

When Jesus departed the temple, He and the disciples returned to Bethany for the evening. The next morning, which was probably Wednesday, they made their way back to the city of Jerusalem. After His symbolic exit from the temple the day before, it is likely that Jesus chose to enter the city through the Lion’s gate rather than the Golden Gate, which led directly into the temple complex. They would have taken the same path through the Kidron Valley and the Garden of Gethsemane, so eventually, they came to the spot where Jesus had cursed the fig tree the day before. And to the shock of the disciples, the fig tree was “withered away to its roots” (Mark 11:20 ESV).

Just the day before this same tree had been in perfect health, covered in green leaves and full of life. But despite its outward appearance of vitality, it had been missing one important thing: Fruit. This tree, unlike all the other fig trees in the garden, had bloomed early. Under normal conditions, the presence of leaves would have been an indication that there would be figs present. But when Jesus had approached the tree the day before, He had found it completely barren. So, He had cursed it.

Peter was the first to recognize the dramatic difference in the tree’s appearance. And he recalled the statement Jesus had made to the tree 24 hours earlier: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14 ESV). Surprised by the tree’s sudden demise, Peter felt the need to let Jesus know that His curse had worked. He called out, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered” (Mark 11:21 ESV). Overnight, the once lush tree had dropped all of its leaves and lost every ounce of life-giving sap. It had withered away, from the roots up.

There is so much going on in this scene. The tree is the obvious focal point, and Jesus is going to use the opportunity to convey two different messages to His disciples. One will have to do with fruit and the other with faith. The reason the tree was dead was that it had failed to bear fruit. It had given all the appearances of fruitfulness but, upon closer examination, it was discovered to be barren. For Jesus, the tree was an apt symbol for the fruitlessness of the nation of Israel. Keep in mind that the city of Jerusalem was literally overflowing with pilgrims who had come to celebrate Passover. They were a people who practiced all the prescribed feasts and festivals. They regularly brought their tithes and offerings to the temple. They attempted to keep the Mosaic Law and, when they failed to do so, they counted on their sacrifices to assuage the anger of God.

Three years earlier, John the Baptist had confronted a group of Pharisees who had shown up in the wilderness of Judea where he had been preaching and baptizing. When John had seen them, he responded in prophetic anger, stating, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10 ESV).

As the religious leaders of Israel, these men were thought to be icons of virtue and the symbols of moral rectitude. But John had recognized them for what they were: Withered and lifeless trees incapable of bearing good fruit. Their flowing robes and outward displays of righteousness were nothing more than “green leaves” that gave the impression of fruitfulness but without nothing to show for it.

Jesus would later pick up on this same theme, warning His disciples to be on the lookout for false prophets. And He told them exactly how to spot these dangerous charlatans.

“You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.” – Matthew 7:16-20 NLT

And Jesus had also warned His disciples that only those who abide in Him can bear good fruit. And all those who refuse to abide in Him and fail to produce fruit will be dealt with severely by God.

“He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.” – John 15:2 NLT

The Jewish people were to have been God’s choice vine, but they had failed to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And when God had sent His Son, the people of Israel had rejected Him. So these fruitless “branches” would be cut off, completely eliminating any hope that they would ever produce good fruit.

The apostle Paul would later elaborate on this “cutting away” of the fruitless branches. In writing to the Gentile believers in Rome, he reminded them that they were branches that had been grafted into the olive tree of Israel. But at the same time, some of the natural branches had been removed.

Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among them and participated in the richness of the olive root, do not boast over the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. Then you will say, “The branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted! They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand by faith. – Romans 11:17-20 NLT

With the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus was making a statement about the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel. And His foray into the temple complex the day before had revealed just how spiritually fruitless Israel had become. They were rotten to the core, down to the very roots. Their religious leaders were exactly what John the Baptist had declared them to be: A brood of vipers. And their venom had poisoned the people, leaving them just as withered and lifeless as that fig tree.

But none of this was on the minds of Peter and his companions as they stood looking at the dead tree. They were fixated on how quickly it had died after Jesus had cursed it. And Jesus knew that they were more interested in His display of power than they were in any lesson He might be trying to teach them. So, rather than expounding on the fruitlessness of Israel, Jesus took the opportunity to teach His disciples about faith.

“Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart.” – Mark 11:22-23 NLT

First, He pointed them to God. Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that God Almighty must be the focus of their faith. The reason the people of Israel had become fruitless was that they had failed to remain focused on God. Remember what Paul said: “They [Israel] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you [Gentiles] stand by faith” (Romans 11:20 NLT).

The real point behind Jesus’ lesson was the power of God. The reason we place our faith in God is that He is all-powerful. Nothing is impossible for Him. And Jesus uses an impossible scenario to describe the unfathomable power of God. If the unlikely situation arose where a mountain needed to be moved from one place to another, God could make it happen. The lesson Jesus is trying to teach has nothing to do with getting whatever we pray for. He is not suggesting to His disciples that they have a blank check from God to fulfill their heart’s desires. The focus of their faith was to be God, not the thing they wanted from Him. Having the power to curse a fig tree would end up being a curse in and of itself, if God was left out of the equation. God is not to be viewed as a source of power to accomplish our desires. He is to be the focus of our faith and the object of our affections. His power is not why we love Him, but it is always at the disposal of those who do love Him.

Fruitfulness is the byproduct of faith. As long as the disciples kept believing in God, they would experience His power flowing through their lives and resulting in the good fruit that only He can produce.

But Jesus also wanted His disciples to understand that while their access to God would place His power at their disposal, it came with conditions. The privilege of entering into God’s presence through prayer could prove dangerous. Attempting to avail oneself of God’s power for selfish reasons is always a risk. That is why James wrote, “you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:2-3 NLT).

But there is another, and even more dangerous tendency to avoid. God’s power is not to be used to seek revenge on your enemies. That’s why Jesus warned His disciples, “whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25 ESV).

Jesus didn’t use the power of God to wither the fig tree because He was angry. He did it to teach His disciples a lesson. Jesus never used the power of God to seek revenge or call down divine wrath on His enemies. Yet, He knew that this would be a temptation for His disciples. In fact, just days earlier, as they were making their way to Bethany, Jesus had sent a few of His disciples into a Samaritan city to find accommodations for the night. When they returned, they announced to Jesus and the other disciples that the Samaritans wanted nothing to do with Jesus. This news infuriated James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” and they asked Jesus for permission to use divine power to destroy the entire town.

“Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” – Luke 9:54 ESV

But Jesus rebuked them for their spirit of revenge and their desire to use the power of God for self-centered purposes. This was not what He had taught them.

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:44-45 ESV

Faith and fruitfulness. These two vital characteristics are inseparable. Without faith in God, it is impossible to produce fruit. And the absence of fruit is evidence of a life devoid of faith in God. But as Jesus had previously told His disciples, God was going to be glorified by their future fruitfulness. And the key would be their faith.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” – John 15:7-8 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

The Lowly Life of a Leader

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.” Mark 9:38-41 ESV

Jesus has just finished addressing the disciples’ predilection for power and prominence, yet they seem to have missed the point. Their internal squabble over who was the greatest among them led Jesus to declare, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35 ESV). In His Kingdom, greatness was not measured by the significance of one’s role but the humility of the heart. Jesus, as the Son of God, was the second member of the trinity, yet “though he was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7 ESV). And, as Jesus later told His disciples, “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 28:20 ESV).

But as Jesus wrapped up his object lesson on leadership in the Kingdom, the disciples once again displayed their inability to grasp the vital lesson He was trying to teach them. This time, it was John who spoke up and not the ever-impulsive and quick-tongued Peter. And the topic John chose to raise at this particular moment in time reveals that he and his companions had failed to understand what Jesus was telling them.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” – Mark 9:38 ESV

There’s an air of exclusivity and arrogance in John’s words. He was irritated that someone outside of their circle was performing miracles in the name of Jesus. In fact, this imposter was casting out demons. And from John’s point of view, this was unacceptable because Jesus had only given that kind of power and authority to His 12 disciples (Mark 3:15).

And it is important to recall that all this talk about greatness in the Kingdom had begun immediately after the disciples had failed to cast a demon out of a young boy. The boy’s father had come seeking the help of Jesus, but when He discovered that Jesus was not there, he had turned to the B-Team.

“Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” – Mark 9:17-18 ESV

The disciples had failed. Despite the power and authority that was given to them by Jesus, they had not been able to cast out the demon. But that little setback hadn’t stopped them from arguing over who was greatest among them.

And John shares with Jesus their concern about outside competition. Whoever this individual was, he was operating without a license. From John’s perspective, this exorcist was infringing on their trademark rights. He had no business performing signs that were meant to be the purview of the disciples alone.

Mark does not give us the name of the individual who was casting out demons on an “unofficial” basis. And, in leaving out the man’s identity, it is almost as if Mark places him in the same category as the young child whom Jesus held in His arms. The unknown man was one of the least. In casting out demons in Jesus’ name, he was doing the will of the Father and yet, not for personal gain or glory.

And Jesus gently rebuked John and the others for their prideful attempt to stop the man from casting out demons.

“Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.” – Mark 9:39-40 ESV

In a sense, Jesus was telling the disciples that they were all on the same team. This man was doing good and he was doing it in the name of Jesus. He was not in it for fame or personal gain. And by casting out demons, he was demonstrating the power inherent in the name of Jesus. He was displaying the superiority of the Son of God.

This entire scene is reminiscent of another encounter that is recorded in the book of Acts. Philip had traveled to the city of Samaria in order to preach the Good News concerning Jesus. While there, Philip also performed many signs and wonders.

Many evil spirits were cast out, screaming as they left their victims. And many who had been paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city. – Acts 8:7-8 NLT

But in the city, there was a well-known and revered magician who saw the actions of Philip as unwanted competition.

A man named Simon had been a sorcerer there for many years, amazing the people of Samaria and claiming to be someone great. Everyone, from the least to the greatest, often spoke of him as “the Great One—the Power of God.” They listened closely to him because for a long time he had astounded them with his magic. – Acts 8:9-11 NLT

Simon began to follow Philip, watching his every move, most likely in an attempt to learn and steal the secrets of his power. But in time, Simon came to faith in Jesus.

Simon himself believed and was baptized. He began following Philip wherever he went, and he was amazed by the signs and great miracles Philip performed. – Acts 8:13 NLT

And when Simon observed Philip and the other apostles laying their hands on people so that they might receive the Holy Spirit, he wanted in on the action.

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given when the apostles laid their hands on people, he offered them money to buy this power. “Let me have this power, too,” he exclaimed, “so that when I lay my hands on people, they will receive the Holy Spirit!” – Acts 8:18-19 NLT

But Philip, aware of the motivation behind Simon’s offer, rebuked him.

“May your money be destroyed with you for thinking God’s gift can be bought! 21 You can have no part in this, for your heart is not right with God. Repent of your wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive your evil thoughts, for I can see that you are full of bitter jealousy and are held captive by sin.” – Acts 8:20-23 NLT

Simon, who at one time had been called “the Great One – the Power of God,” was anxious to regain some of his lost prestige and he was willing to pay for it. He was jealous of the apostles’ power and longed to be restored to the position of prominence he had once enjoyed.

This does not seem to be the case with the man who was casting out demons. He remains anonymous and unknown throughout Mark’s account. And Jesus holds up his actions as being positive, not negative. The ones who were displaying jealousy and an unhealthy dose of envy were the 12 disciples.

They viewed this man as their competition. But Jesus insists that he is on their side. He was actually doing what they had failed to do, and he was doing it for the glory of Jesus. And Jesus points out that this man’s actions were actually a form of kindness aimed at the disciples themselves.

“If anyone gives you even a cup of water because you belong to the Messiah, I tell you the truth, that person will surely be rewarded.” – Mark 9:41 NLT

Jesus compares the casting out of a demon to the sharing of a cup of water. One act was spectacular and supernatural, while the other was simple and seemingly unimportant. But each was an act of service. When done in humility and with a servant’s heart, the action brings glory to God and a reward to the servant. But when pride and prominence become the motivation behind what we do, we exhibit the heart of Simon the magician. And Jesus provides a stern warning to all those who would do great works in the name  of Jesus but for self-glorification.

“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’” – Matthew 7:21-23 NLT

The disciples were struggling with a need to be recognized as great. They were obsessed with the desire for significance. And they resented anyone robbing them of potential glory. But Jesus was trying to get them to understand that their true calling was to mirror His own. They were servants who would be called to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Kingdom. And Jesus would later tell the disciples a parable to illustrate the life of service and sacrifice that is to mark the life of a Christ-follower.

“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 creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” – Matthew 25:34-40 NLT

Slowly, but steadily, the disciples were learning the invaluable lesson of true greatness. As Paul described it to the believers in Philippi, true greatness is best seen in the life of Jesus, and we are to follow His example.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. –Philippians 2:3-5 NLT

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

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

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