Nothing to Fear

1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ESV

As chapter five opens, Paul shifts his focus from the Rapture, the end-times event when the church is “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air, to the “day of the Lord.” Though closely related and timed to happen in sequence, these are two separate events, and Paul treats them as such. The Rapture of the church will usher in the Tribulation, a literal seven-year period of intense judgment from God upon the earth. With the church removed, He will turn His attention to the lost who will make up the entire population of the planet, including His original chosen people, the nation of Israel. Prophetically, the “day of the Lord” begins with the Tribulation, includes Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the seven years, and concludes with the Millennium, the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth.

Having encouraged the Thessalonians regarding the fate of their deceased brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul begins to address the living rather than the dead. He wants them to have a well-developed understanding of the sequence of events that will make up the end times. He has already addressed the Rapture, and with that reality firmly fixed in their minds, the Thessalonians have nothing to fear regarding the day of the Lord. Yes, it “will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2 ESV), unexpectedly and surprisingly.

Jesus also warned His disciples about the sudden and unexpected nature of this end-times event.

“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” – Luke 21:34-36 ESV

Jesus was not suggesting that His disciples would live to see that day. Obviously, none of them did. He was also not teaching that believers would experience the day of the Lord. But notice that He does suggest that they pray for “strength to escape all these things” so that they might “stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36 ESV). Jesus was encouraging His disciples and all true believers to live their lives with a sense of soberness and alertness, eagerly anticipating His return for them. He assures them that those who remain in Him will “escape all these things that are going to take place.”

But Paul describes a drastically different fate for all those who are alive when the day of the Lord begins: “sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3 ESV). Living with a false sense of peace and security, they will be caught completely by surprise at the sudden and unexpected nature of God’s judgment. And the prophets provide sobering details regarding the extent of the wrath God will pour out on sinful mankind in those days.

For see, the day of the Lord is coming—
    the terrible day of his fury and fierce anger.
The land will be made desolate,
    and all the sinners destroyed with it.
The heavens will be black above them;
    the stars will give no light.
The sun will be dark when it rises,
    and the moon will provide no light.

“I, the Lord, will punish the world for its evil
    and the wicked for their sin.
I will crush the arrogance of the proud
    and humble the pride of the mighty.” – Isaiah 13:0-11 NLT

“That terrible day of the Lord is near.
    Swiftly it comes—
a day of bitter tears,
    a day when even strong men will cry out.
It will be a day when the Lord’s anger is poured out—
    a day of terrible distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and desolation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness,
    a day of trumpet calls and battle cries. – Zephaniah 1:14-16 NLT

Even Jesus described the devastating nature of God’s judgment.

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

But Paul is informing the Thessalonians that they have no reason to fear those dark days. Not because they will die long before the events take place but because, as followers of Christ, they will be protected and preserved from judgment.

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ – 1 Thessalonians 5:9 ESV

The period of the Tribulation is intended as a divine judgment against sinful mankind. With the church removed at the Rapture, the remaining population of the earth will be made up solely of unbelievers. And as Jesus indicated, the divine judgment that God will bring upon them will be like nothing anyone has ever seen before. The book of Revelation outlines the nature of these catastrophic judgments.

…hail and fire mixed with blood were thrown down on the earth. One-third of the earth was set on fire, one-third of the trees were burned, and all the green grass was burned. – Revelation 8:7 NLT

…a great mountain of fire was thrown into the sea. One-third of the water in the sea became blood, one-third of all things living in the sea died, and one-third of all the ships on the sea were destroyed. – Revelation 8:8-9 NLT

a great star fell from the sky, burning like a torch. It fell on one-third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star was Bitterness. It made one-third of the water bitter, and many people died from drinking the bitter water. – Revelation 8:10-11 NLT

…and one-third of the sun was struck, and one-third of the moon, and one-third of the stars, and they became dark. And one-third of the day was dark, and also one-third of the night. – Revelation 8:12-13 NLT

In the chronicle of his divinely inspired vision, John goes on to describe days marked by darkness, disease, intense suffering, unprecedented meteorological events, devastating natural disasters, and demonic activity. John leaves no doubt as to the intensity of these judgments and their impact on the inhabitants of the world.

In those days people will seek death but will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them! – Revelation 9:6 NLT

They will be days of darkness, literally and figuratively. But Paul reminds his readers:

But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. – 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 ESV

The judgments of the Tribulation are not for Christ-followers. They are reserved for all those who have rejected God’s offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. And yet, God in His mercy will make His offer of salvation available to those living during the Tribulation. John describes 144,000 Jews who will come to faith in Christ and become witnesses during the days of the Tribulation (Revelation 7:1-8). And, as a result of their evangelistic efforts, many will turn to Christ, even in the midst of all the pain and suffering. John describes seeing “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10 ESV). And when he inquires who these people are, he is told, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14 ESV).

Even while pouring out His wrath on rebellious mankind, God will extend mercy to those who accept His gracious offer of salvation.

But for believers this side of the Rapture, there is no need to fear the coming wrath of God. But at the same time, Paul warns that we are not to live with a sense of misplaced confidence. He warns the Thessalonians, “let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6 ESV). They were to live with a sense of keen awareness and sober-minded seriousness regarding their new life in Christ. Paul reminds them, “you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5 ESV).

This is the same message Paul gave to the church in Colossae.

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

And the Ephesian believers were not left out.

Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. This is why it is said,

“Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” – Ephesians 5:10-14 NLT

As children of light and those who have been transferred into the Kingdom of Christ and, as a result, “we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8 ESV). We have the resources necessary for living godly lives. And we have the assurance of our future glorification. We have no reason to fear death or to worry about ever having to face God’s judgment.

Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:10-11 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

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A Coming Cleansing

Then the remnant of Jacob shall be
    in the midst of many peoples
like dew from the Lord,
    like showers on the grass,
which delay not for a man
    nor wait for the children of man.
And the remnant of Jacob shall be among the nations,
    in the midst of many peoples,
like a lion among the beasts of the forest,
    like a young lion among the flocks of sheep,
which, when it goes through, treads down
    and tears in pieces, and there is none to deliver.
Your hand shall be lifted up over your adversaries,
    and all your enemies shall be cut off.

10 And in that day, declares the Lord,
    I will cut off your horses from among you
    and will destroy your chariots;
11 and I will cut off the cities of your land
    and throw down all your strongholds;
12 and I will cut off sorceries from your hand,
    and you shall have no more tellers of fortunes;
13 and I will cut off your carved images
    and your pillars from among you,
and you shall bow down no more
    to the work of your hands;
14 and I will root out your Asherah images from among you
    and destroy your cities.
15 And in anger and wrath I will execute vengeance
    on the nations that did not obey. Micah 5:7-15 ESV

Micah describes a scene that is radically different than the one facing his 8th-Century B.C. audience. They were living in a time when constant threats from the likes of the Assyrians and Babylonians were a part of everyday life. So, the latter-day events that Micah is telling them about had to have sounded alien to their ears. Would there really be a day when they would have the upper hand on the enemies? Would the tables turn and the Israelites be the dominant force in the region once again?

The day is coming when the Israelites will be dispersed among the nations, but not as a result of God’s judgment. This time it will be so that they might refresh the nations of the earth by their very presence.

Then the remnant left in Israel
    will take their place among the nations.
They will be like dew sent by the Lord
    or like rain falling on the grass,
which no one can hold back
    and no one can restrain.
The remnant left in Israel
    will take their place among the nations. – Micah 5:7-8 NLT

Like dew and rain, the redeemed and restored people of God will have a positive and beneficial impact on the world of that day. But like God Almighty, they will also be a powerful presence in the world, displaying the strength of a lion among sheep.

They will be like a lion among the animals of the forest,
    like a strong young lion among flocks of sheep and goats,
pouncing and tearing as they go
    with no rescuer in sight.
The people of Israel will stand up to their foes,
    and all their enemies will be wiped out. – Micah 5:8-9 NLT

What a dramatic change of circumstances. Israel will find itself in the driver’s seat, operating from a position of strength, not weakness. And this will be in fulfillment of the promise Moses made to the people of Israel as they waited to cross into the promised land for the very first time.

If you listen to these commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today, and if you carefully obey them, the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always be on top and never at the bottom. – Deuteronomy 28:13 NLT

For the foreseeable future, Israel was going to find their fortunes to be quite the opposite of what Moses described. They would be the tail and not the head. And it would be their misfortune to be on the bottom rather than the top. Defeat, destruction, and exile were headed their way, but Micah wanted them to know that God had future plans for them that would reverse that trend – completely and permanently.

But there will also be a period of purging when God cleanses the land of all the vestiges of idolatry and rebellion that were the cause of His judgment against them. God will not be content to restore them to the land just to see them continue to live in the same way they did before. It will be a time of intense cleansing as God removes anything and everything that the people of Israel allowed to draw them away from their faithful worship of Him.

“In that day,” says the Lord,
“I will slaughter your horses
    and destroy your chariots.
I will tear down your walls
    and demolish your defenses.
I will put an end to all witchcraft,
    and there will be no more fortune-tellers.
I will destroy all your idols and sacred pillars,
    so you will never again worship the work of your own hands.
I will abolish your idol shrines with their Asherah poles
    and destroy your pagan cities.” – Micah 5:10-12 NLT

Horses and chariots represent man’s dependence upon military might. The psalmist wrote, “Some nations boast of their chariots and horses, but we boast in the name of the Lord our God. Those nations will fall down and collapse, but we will rise up and stand firm” (Psalm 20:7-8 NLT). And yet, virtually every king of Israel and Judah had accumulated horses and chariots for himself, in a misguided attempt to provide a source of power and protection other than God Almighty.

The kings of Israel and Judah had constructed elaborate defensive fortifications, in a vain attempt to protect them from enemy attack. But what they failed to remember was that they had the Lord of Hosts as their champion. He was to have been their sole source of strength and the one on whom they relied for victory.

“When you go out to fight your enemies and you face horses and chariots and an army greater than your own, do not be afraid. The LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, is with you!” – Deuteronomy 20: 1 NLT

Witchcraft, fortune-tellers, idols, and sacred pillars were all symbols of their misplaced trust in man-made replacements for God. Rather than place all their confidence in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the people of Israel had developed a litany of alternative sources of help, hope, and deliverance. He would no longer tolerate their spiritual infidelity. In the new Kingdom established by His Son, God would ensure that there would be no substitutes and stand-ins available that could draw the people away from worshiping Him in spirit and in truth.

During the thousand-year reign of Christ, often referred to as the Millennial Kingdom, He will sit in righteous judgment over the entire world. And we are told that He will rule with a “rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15). The nations of the earth will all recognize that He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. That does not mean that they will worship Him as their Lord and Savior, but they will acknowledge His sovereign rule over all the earth.

In those days, God will no longer tolerate sin and rebellion. He will not put up with insurrection and insubordination, among His chosen people or the nations of the earth. His Son will sit on the throne of David, ruling in righteousness and judging the world with perfect justice.

But the millennial reign of Christ will come to an end. The thousand years will pass and then God will bring one last judgment upon the world.

When the thousand years come to an end, Satan will be let out of his prison. He will go out to deceive the nations—called Gog and Magog—in every corner of the earth. He will gather them together for battle—a mighty army, as numberless as sand along the seashore. And I saw them as they went up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded God’s people and the beloved city. But fire from heaven came down on the attacking armies and consumed them.

Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. – Revelation 20:7-10 NLT

Amazingly, during the thousand years, Satan will be bound and incapable of influencing the nations of the earth. But he will be released and lead one more misguided insurrection against God and His Son. He will rally the nations of the world to his side and attempt one last overthrow of God’s power and dominion. But he will fail. And his evil influence over the world will be done away with once and for all.

And the apostle John provides us with insight into what happens next.

And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire. – Revelation 20:11-15 NLT

The final judgment – the Great White Throne Judgment  – when Jesus Christ will deliver a just and righteous verdict on all those who have refused to accept Him as their Savior and Lord. All during the period of the Great Tribulation, God will offer mankind one more opportunity to accept His free gift of salvation through His Son. But the majority will choose death over eternal life. They will prefer judgment over redemption.

But the people who did not die in these plagues still refused to repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. They continued to worship demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood—idols that can neither see nor hear nor walk! And they did not repent of their murders or their witchcraft or their sexual immorality or their thefts. – Revelation 9:20-21 NLT

The day will come when no more opportunities for salvation are made available. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27-28 NLT).

Those who have placed their hope in Christ can face the future unafraid and fully confident in the eternal security of their relationship with God Almighty. But for all those who refused God’s gracious offer of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, death will be followed by judgment. And the judgment of God, without forgiveness made possible through faith in the Son of God, will end in eternal separation from 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

Remember, Restore, and Renew!

1 Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
    look, and see our disgrace!
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
    our homes to foreigners.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
    our mothers are like widows.
We must pay for the water we drink;
    the wood we get must be bought.
Our pursuers are at our necks;
    we are weary; we are given no rest.
We have given the hand to Egypt, and to Assyria,
    to get bread enough.
Our fathers sinned, and are no more;
    and we bear their iniquities.
Slaves rule over us;
    there is none to deliver us from their hand.
We get our bread at the peril of our lives,
    because of the sword in the wilderness.
10 Our skin is hot as an oven
    with the burning heat of famine.
11 Women are raped in Zion,
    young women in the towns of Judah.
12 Princes are hung up by their hands;
    no respect is shown to the elders.
13 Young men are compelled to grind at the mill,
    and boys stagger under loads of wood.
14 The old men have left the city gate,
    the young men their music.
15 The joy of our hearts has ceased;
    our dancing has been turned to mourning.
16 The crown has fallen from our head;
    woe to us, for we have sinned!
17 For this our heart has become sick,
    for these things our eyes have grown dim,
18 for Mount Zion which lies desolate;
    jackals prowl over it.
19 But you, O Lord, reign forever;
    your throne endures to all generations.
20 Why do you forget us forever,
    why do you forsake us for so many days?
21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
    Renew our days as of old—
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
    and you remain exceedingly angry with us.
Lamentations 5:1-22 ESV

The state of affairs in Judah could not have been any worse. And Jeremiah had an up-close and personal perspective on every aspect of the suffering and pain. He had been there for the days of the Babylonian siege. He had lived through the fall of Jerusalem. And he had watched as the enemies of Judah had leveled the royal capital, destroyed the temple, and murdered vast numbers its citizens. Jeremiah had been forced to watch as thousands of his fellow Jews had been placed in chains and forced to march all the way back the Babylonian capital as slaves.

For those who remained behind in Judah, the prospects were grim. Their nation had been destroyed. Their homes had been reduced to rubble and the national economy was non-existent. They had no king, no army, and, therefore, no means of protection from the enemies. They were weak, defenseless, and hopeless. Their army had not protected them. Their allies had abandoned them. And every one of their false gods had failed to come through for them.

But while everyone around him was wringing their hands in fear and dismay, Jeremiah was taking his concerns to the one source who could do anything about it. He was pleading his case directly to God Almighty. And the first thing he asks God to do is remember.

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
    look, and see our disgrace! – Lamentations 5:1 ESV

Jeremiah is not afraid that God will somehow forget what has happened to Judah. He is calling on God to reflect upon their current circumstances and to consider them soberly and circumspectly. Jeremiah had his perspective on things, but he knew that only one viewpoint mattered and that was God’s.

And Jeremiah appeals to God as to a Father, describing the devastated condition of His children.

Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
    our homes to foreigners.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
    our mothers are like widows. – Lamentations 5:2-3 ESV

The land of Judah had been part of the inheritance provided by God to the people of Israel when they had arrived in the land of Canaan. It had been His gift to them, in keeping with the promise He had made to Abraham centuries earlier.

“And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:8 ESV

But Jeremiah reminds God that the land was no longer controlled by the descendants of Abraham. It was being ruled by the Babylonians. The Judahites who had been left in the land were nothing more than caretakers for their Babylonian overlords. And without any army, the people of Judah would find themselves incapable of defending the land from incursions from foreign raiding parties. Before long, what little remained of the former inheritance given by God to the descendants of Abraham would be lost.

And Jeremiah appeals to God’s sense of justice by describing the people of Judah as fatherless orphans and widows. They are like children who have lost their fathers and have no one to protect them. Their status is no better than that of a recently widowed woman who, upon the death of her husband, finds herself without a home and without access to any legal rights to ensure her future. And as a prophet of God, Jeremiah was very familiar with God’s stance on widows and orphans.

Learn to do good.
    Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
    Defend the cause of orphans.
    Fight for the rights of widows. – Isaiah 1:17 NLT

Jeremiah knew that God had strong feelings for the helpless and the defenseless, and took exception to those who abused them.

Your leaders are rebels,
    the companions of thieves.
All of them love bribes
    and demand payoffs,
but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans
   or fight for the rights of widows. – Isaiah 1:23 NLT

And Jeremiah had repeatedly conveyed God’s message of concern for the helpless and hopeless to the people of Judah.

This is what the LORD says: Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Quit your evil deeds! Do not mistreat foreigners, orphans, and widows. Stop murdering the innocent! – Jeremiah 22:3 NLT

But no one had listened. No one had cared. They had refused to take God’s commands seriously. And, as a result, the entire nation had become widows and orphans. They had gone from being the abusers to being abused. Before the fall of Jerusalem, when it was business-as-usual in Judah, the people had practiced injustice by taking advantage of the helpless and hopeless. Everybody had been out for themselves. But now, the table had turned. And Jeremiah describes just how radical the shift in circumstances had been.

Clean drinking water, which used to be readily available and free, was now exorbitantly expensive. Firewood had become a not commodity as well. And food had become virtually non-existent because of famine and the constant presence of foreign raiding parties. Children were dying of starvation. Women were being raped. Young men and boys were being forced to do manual labor like slaves. Civil society had fallen apart, with village elders being shown no respect, former princes being treated like common thieves, and the general population left in a state of abject despair.

Joy has left our hearts;
    our dancing has turned to mourning. – Lamentations 5:15 NLT

Jeremiah is sharing his heart with his God. He is telling the King of Judah the sorrowful state of His citizens. He is appealing to the loving Father of the children of Israel and asking Him to consider their fate and intervene on their behalf. Not because they deserve it, but because He is God.

The garlands have fallen from our heads.
    Weep for us because we have sinned.
Our hearts are sick and weary,
    and our eyes grow dim with tears. – Lamentations 5:16-17 NLT

Jeremiah knew full well that this fate had long been coming. It had been the inevitable outcome of generations of unfaithfulness.

Our ancestors sinned, but they have died—
    and we are suffering the punishment they deserved! – Lamentations 5:7 NLT

But now, Jeremiah calls on His faithful God to intervene. Jerusalem may have been destroyed, but the God of Jerusalem was alive and well, sitting on His throne in heaven.

But you, O Lord, reign forever;
    your throne endures to all generations. – Lamentations 5:19 ESV

Nothing that had happened on earth had changed anything about God’s rule and reign in heaven. The current conditions in Judah were no indictment on the power and sovereignty of God. He had not lost a step. He had not diminished in His authority or power. That is why Jeremiah knew that any delay in the reversal of their affairs was up to God. He was obviously not out of control, so He must have had a reason for postponing His deliverance.

So, Jeremiah begs God to act now! No more delay. If there was no reason for delaying His deliverance, then why not bring it now?

Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
    Renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us,
    and you remain exceedingly angry with us. – Lamentations 5:21-22 ESV

Remember, restore, and renew. That is what Jeremiah longed for God to do. He was counting on the fact that God had not utterly rejected them. His knowledge of God would not allow him to go there. He knew that God was faithful and would not abandon His children forever. He had punished them, but He would also restore them. This was the God Jeremiah knew and believed in. It was the God he had served with his life and in whom He relied upon for salvation.

Like his fellow prophets, Jeremiah continued to place his hope in the trustworthiness of God.

Where is another God like you,
    who pardons the guilt of the remnant,
    overlooking the sins of his special people?
You will not stay angry with your people forever,
    because you delight in showing unfailing love.
Once again you will have compassion on us.
    You will trample our sins under your feet
    and throw them into the depths of the ocean!
You will show us your faithfulness and unfailing love
    as you promised to our ancestors Abraham and Jacob long ago. – Micah 7:18-20 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

God Is Ready When You Are

41 Let us lift up our hearts and hands
    to God in heaven:
42 “We have transgressed and rebelled,
    and you have not forgiven.

43 “You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us,
    killing without pity;
44 you have wrapped yourself with a cloud
    so that no prayer can pass through.
45 You have made us scum and garbage
    among the peoples.

46 “All our enemies
    open their mouths against us;
47 panic and pitfall have come upon us,
    devastation and destruction;
48 my eyes flow with rivers of tears
    because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.

49 “My eyes will flow without ceasing,
    without respite,
50 until the Lord from heaven
    looks down and sees;
51 my eyes cause me grief
    at the fate of all the daughters of my city.

52 “I have been hunted like a bird
    by those who were my enemies without cause;
53 they flung me alive into the pit
    and cast stones on me;
54 water closed over my head;
    I said, ‘I am lost.’

55 “I called on your name, O Lord,
    from the depths of the pit;
56 you heard my plea, ‘Do not close
    your ear to my cry for help!’
57 You came near when I called on you;
    you said, ‘Do not fear!’”Lamentations 3:41-57 ESV

In these verses, we have recorded a powerful prayer of intercession, as the prophet of God models for the suffering citizens of Judah what true repentance must look like. He begs them to take stock of their circumstances and learn the lesson God is attempting to teach them. It is not too late. But they are going to have to take ownership for their actions. Complaining over their condition must be replaced with confession for their sins. And Jeremiah walks them through the painful, yet necessary process of returning to the Lord with humble and contrite hearts.

First, they must admit their guilt.

We have transgressed and rebelled,
    and you have not forgiven. – Lamentations 3:42 ESV

They were in the midst of the furnace of God’s judgment and there was no sign of relief in sight. It was as if God had vacated the premises and left them to fend for themselves. Even their prayers seemed to bounce off the ceiling and return to them unheard and unanswered. Their conditions were abysmal and any hope of rescue seemed unlikely. Things were so bad in Judah that their neighbors considered to be “scum and garbage.” Those two words are very graphic, comparing the condition of the people of God to dung or refuse. Nobody had it as bad as the people of Judah.

And Jeremiah puts their feelings of despair into words: “We are filled with fear, for we are trapped, devastated, and ruined” (Lamentations 3:47 NLT). This brutal assessment of their condition was a vital part of the repentance process. They could not afford to treat their circumstances lightly or to wrongly assume that “this too shall pass.” It was essential that they come to grips with the devastating reality of their condition and the true cause behind it: Their sin.

Their suffering was directly tied to their willful rebellion against God. And all the innocent lives that had been lost in Judah could be laid at their doorstep. And Jeremiah expresses his deep sorrow and regret over all those who had died unnecessarily as a result of Judah’s stubborn resistance to God’s call to repentance.

My tears flow endlessly;
    they will not stop
until the Lord looks down
    from heaven and sees.
My heart is breaking
    over the fate of all the women of Jerusalem. – Lamentations 3:49-51 NLT

Jeremiah’s grief is not self-centered or focused on his own pain and suffering. He expresses his deep heartache over all those whose lives have been dragged down the path of sin and forced to suffer its consequences.

As a prophet of God, Jeremiah was well-acquainted with suffering. He knew from first-hand experience what it was like to confront the prospect of death, even while innocent of any wrong-doing. He describes a point in time in which he had been thrown in a pit by his enemies and left to consider an untimely end.

My enemies, whom I have never harmed,
    hunted me down like a bird.
They threw me into a pit
    and dropped stones on me.
The water rose over my head,
    and I cried out, “This is the end!” – Lamentations 3:52-54 NLT

This event is recorded in Jeremiah 38:6.

So the officials took Jeremiah and put him in the cistern of Malkijah, one of the royal princes, that was in the courtyard of the guardhouse. There was no water in the cistern, only mud. So when they lowered Jeremiah into the cistern with ropes he sank in the mud.

This personal experience had left a lasting impact on Jeremiah. He describes how he had prayed from the bottom of that cistern, begging God to rescue him.

But I called on your name, Lord,
    from deep within the pit.
You heard me when I cried, “Listen to my pleading!
    Hear my cry for help!”
Yes, you came when I called;
    you told me, “Do not fear.” – Lamentations 3:55-57 NLT

During one of the darkest moments of his life, Jeremiah had called out to God from the pit and God had graciously answered, telling His servant, “Do not fear.” Trapped in darkness, mired in the mud, and left for dead, Jeremiah called on His God. And that is exactly what he wants the people of Judah to do. Yes, their circumstances were bleak. Things couldn’t have been any worse for them. But all they had to do was call on the name of the Lord.

The Lord is righteous in everything he does;
    he is filled with kindness.
The Lord is close to all who call on him,
    yes, to all who call on him in truth. – Psalm 145:17-18 NLT

God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. – Psalm 46:1 NLT

But did the people of Judah believe that truth? Were they willing to trust in the righteousness of God and place their hope in His goodness and grace? They were in trouble, but their God was bigger than their greatest problem. He had brought judgment upon them, but He was more than willing to restore them if they would only confess their sin and cry out for His help.

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 King Has Left the Building

He has laid waste his booth like a garden,
    laid in ruins his meeting place;
the Lord has made Zion forget
    festival and Sabbath,
and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest.

The Lord has scorned his altar,
    disowned his sanctuary;
he has delivered into the hand of the enemy
    the walls of her palaces;
they raised a clamor in the house of the Lord
    as on the day of festival.

The Lord determined to lay in ruins
    the wall of the daughter of Zion;
he stretched out the measuring line;
    he did not restrain his hand from destroying;
he caused rampart and wall to lament;
    they languished together.

Her gates have sunk into the ground;
    he has ruined and broken her bars;
her king and princes are among the nations;
    the law is no more,
and her prophets find
    no vision from the Lord. – Lamentations 2:6-9 ESV

The city of Jerusalem had been reduced to a heap of rubble. Its gates had been burned and torn from their hinges. Every home in the city had been looted and destroyed, including the king’s royal palace. The streets lay deserted because the majority of the city’s inhabitants were now living in exile in Babylon. Those who had been left behind, the poorest of the poor, had been relegated to serving as vinedressers and plowmen for their Babylonian overlords.

But for the people of Judah, the greatest loss, and the one they had the most difficult time processing, was the destruction of the temple. They never expected to see that happen. After all, it was God’s house, the place where His divine presence hovered over the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. How could God allow His dwelling place to be destroyed by the Babylonians?  And yet, that is exactly what had happened. The book of 2 Kings provides a description of its destruction.

Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard and an official of the Babylonian king, arrived in Jerusalem. He burned down the Temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. – 2 Kings 25:8-9 NLT

But before they destroyed the temple, they pillaged it and plundered every ounce of gold, all precious gems, every bolt of fine fabric, and every holy object that had been consecrated to the service of God.

The Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars in front of the Lord’s Temple, the bronze water carts, and the great bronze basin called the Sea, and they carried all the bronze away to Babylon. They also took all the ash buckets, shovels, lamp snuffers, ladles, and all the other bronze articles used for making sacrifices at the Temple. The captain of the guard also took the incense burners and basins, and all the other articles made of pure gold or silver. – 2 Kings 25:13-15 NLT

The value of their haul was incalculable, both financially and spiritually.

The weight of the bronze from the two pillars, the Sea, and the water carts was too great to be measured. These things had been made for the Lord’s Temple in the days of Solomon. – 2 Kings 25:16 NLT

But the Babylonians had not been content to ransack and loot the temple. They had summarily executed Seraiah the chief priest, Zephaniah the second priest, and the three keepers of the threshold.

Now, you can begin to understand the significance of the statement, “The Lord has blotted out all memory of the holy festivals and Sabbath days” (Lamentations 2:6 NLT). As horrific as the destruction of the temple may have been, the real loss suffered by the people of Judah was of far greater significance. It was about far more than the destruction of a building. It was about the elimination of the entire sacrificial system that God had ordained.

Consider closely the full import of the following verse.

They also took all the ash buckets, shovels, lamp snuffers, ladles, and all the other bronze articles used for making sacrifices at the Temple. – 2 Kings 25:14 NLT

Everything necessary for atonement had been destroyed or removed, leaving the people of Judah to face the stark and inconceivable reality that the guilt of their sins was permanent and unabsolvable. They no longer had any means of offering sacrifices to God and, therefore, no hope of receiving forgiveness for their sins. This would have been inconceivable to the people of Judah. They were the chosen people of God. He had promised to be with them forever. In fact, when Solomon had dedicated the temple, God had promised to make it His permanent dwelling place.

“I have heard your prayer and your petition. I have set this Temple apart to be holy—this place you have built where my name will be honored forever. I will always watch over it, for it is dear to my heart. – 1 Kings 9:3 NLT

But God had also warned Solomon that this promise came with conditions.

“But if you or your descendants abandon me and disobey the commands and decrees I have given you, and if you serve and worship other gods, then I will uproot Israel from this land that I have given them. I will reject this Temple that I have made holy to honor my name. I will make Israel an object of mockery and ridicule among the nations.” – 1 Kings 9:6-7 NLT

And when people ask, “Why did the Lord do such terrible things to this land and to this Temple?” (1 Kings 9:8 NLT), the answer would be simple and clear.

“Because his people abandoned the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and they worshiped other gods instead and bowed down to them.” – 1 Kings 9:9 NLT

But the perspective of the people of Judah who found themselves suffering the aftermath of God’s judgment was quite different. Rather than admit their own guilt and culpability, they accused God of rejecting and despising His own temple.

The Lord has rejected his own altar;
    he despises his own sanctuary.
He has given Jerusalem’s palaces
    to her enemies.
They shout in the Lord’s Temple
    as though it were a day of celebration. – Lamentations 2:7 NLT

According to their misguided and misinformed logic, God’s anger had been directed against the temple and the city, not against them. In their minds, the temple had become the symbol of God‘s presence. They had turned it into a kind of talisman or good luck charm that guaranteed their security and safety, regardless of their behavior. They could sin and then make their way to the temple, offer their obligatory sacrifices, and walk away with their spiritual slate wiped clean.

But God had repeatedly reminded the Israelites that sacrifice alone was not enough. He was looking for repentant hearts. They had been guilty of simply going through the motions, offering sacrifices to stave off punishment, but without any intention of changing their ways.

“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”
    says the Lord.
“I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fattened cattle.
I get no pleasure from the blood
    of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to worship me,
    who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony?
Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
    the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
    and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinful and false. – Isaiah 1:11-13 NLT

It was King David who wrote the following words after his sin with Bathsheba had been exposed by God.

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
    You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
    You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. – Psalm 51:16-17 NLT

And yet, the people of Judah remained unbroken in spirit and unrepentant of heart. They mourned the loss of their city and grieved over the elimination of the sacrificial system, but they displayed no remorse over their conduct. In their minds, the temple had been their salvation. The building itself, along with its religious accouterments, and the ritualistic nature of the sacrificial system, had been their get-out-of-jail-free card. Now it was gone.

But long before the Babylonians invaded their city and destroyed the temple, Jeremiah had pleaded with them to refocus their attention on God.

“‘Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the LORD’s Temple is here. They chant, “The LORD’s Temple is here! The LORD’s Temple is here!” But I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever.”’ – Jeremiah 7:3-7 NLT

Now, the temple was gone. But God was not. The building had been destroyed, but the One whose glory had once hovered over the mercy seat was still very much alive and well. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had punished His people but had not abandoned them. The temple had never been intended to “contain” God. It had never been meant to be worshiped in place of God.

This is what the Lord says:

“Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?
    Could you build me such a resting place?” – Isaiah 66:1 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

The Power to Obey

21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. – Philemon 1:21-35 ESV

Paul’s use of the word “obedience” seems odd in light of the fact that this entire letter has been couched in terms of a request. Just a few verses earlier, Paul had admitted that he could have used his authority as an apostle and simply issued a command to Philemon but he had refused to do so. He wanted this to be Philemon’s decision.

…though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you… – Philemon 1:8 ESV

Because all of this revolved around a relationship, Paul had not wanted to dictate the terms of Philemon’s decision or to use coercion to force his hand. He knew that any healing between the two men would have to come from the heart and not the head.

I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. – Philemon 1:14 ESV

So, what prompts Paul to bring up obedience at this point in his letter? And why does he express such confidence that Philemon will do the right thing? I think it goes back to what Paul knew and believed about Philemon. He had every confidence that Philemon would respond positively and correctly because of his relationship with Jesus Christ. Remember what he said about his friend earlier in his letter: “I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (Philemon 1:5  ESV).

Philemon had a track record of doing the right thing. And Paul was confident that his friend would face this latest test with the wisdom and strength of the indwelling Spirit of God. Philemon was not left to his own devices or relegated to operating according to his sinful flesh. He was a new creation. He had a new heart. He had a supernatural power available to him that would enable him to respond with justice, mercy, grace, and love.

Paul’s confidence was in the power of God to reform the hearts of men. He knew that the reconciliation of these two men was God’s will and that God would equip Philemon with the strength to obey that will. Paul knew from personal experience that, because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, nothing was impossible. He confidently told the believers in Philippi,  “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV).

His prayer for the believers in Ephesus had been that God would “from his glorious, unlimited resources…empower you with inner strength through his Spirit” (Ephesians 3:16 NLT). And Paul had been confident that God would answer that prayer, boldly claiming, “Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20 NLT).

Paul believed that Philemon would obey the will of God because Paul believed in the power of God. His job had been to present the facts of the case to Philemon and then leave the result up to the Spirit of God. The resolution of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was going to have to be divinely empowered. It had to be a “God thing.” If Philemon tried to accomplish this in his own strength, he would fail. If he attempted to muster up the resolve to free Onesimus from slavery and treat him as a brother in Christ, only to please Paul, he would end up having regrets and harboring resentment over his financial losses.

If Philemon’s motivation to do the right thing came from an external source, his decision, no matter how righteous in nature, would be shortlived. It wouldn’t last. But Paul had every confidence that God was going to work a miracle of heart-transformation between these two men. And, as a result, God would get the glory. The news of their reconciliation would spread. The paradigm-shifting precedence of Philemon emancipating his former slave and treating him as his social and spiritual equal would leave an indelible mark on the community. And the only explanation would be the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And Paul rested in the knowledge that God would accomplish far more than even he could imagine. Philemon, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, would far exceed Paul’s words of counsel and his hopes for reconciliation.

He closes his letter by asking Philemon to prepare a room for him. He fully expected to be released from his house arrest at any moment and had every desire to visit his friends in Asia Minor. And, as always, Paul was grateful for the prayers of all those who had been praying for him during his confinement in Rome. Never one to take the petitions of others lightly, Paul found great encouragement in the knowledge that his needs were being lifted to God’s throne in heaven. And he believed that God would answer those prayers.

Finally, Paul provides Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus with greetings from some of their mutual friends. He includes Epaphras, an evangelist whom Paul describes as “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus” (Philemon 1:23 ESV). This doesn’t mean that Epaphras was imprisoned with Paul in Rome, but that as a fellow minister of the Gospel, he shared the risks that Paul did. He was “imprisoned” or held captive to his role as an ambassador of Jesus Christ.

Paul adds the names of four other individuals and then closes his letter with the words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 1:21 ESV). And it’s hard to imagine that Paul did not have in mind the words spoken to him by God regarding the empowering nature of His grace.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Philemon had all the power he needed to do all that God was calling him to do.

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

Free to Love One Another

12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. – Philemon 1:12-16 ESV

Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon. And Paul makes it clear that this had not been an easy decision. In a sense, Paul was sending his very heart. He loved Onesimus as if he was his own son. This young man had come to mean a great deal to the apostle and it must have grieved him deeply to think of him leaving his side. But Paul wanted to do the right thing. He knew that the rift between Onesimus and Philemon needed to be healed.

But as difficult as it was for Paul, stop and consider the feelings of Onesimus. They say there are two sides to every story, and in the case of Onesimus, we know next to nothing about how he came to be a slave, why he ran away, or what kind of conditions he had lived under while serving in Philemon’s house. But it seems likely that his decision to escape his condition as a slave was motivated by something. Perhaps it was nothing more than the natural human desire to be free.

It is fascinating to speculate on the back story of Onesimus. Perhaps he had sold himself into servitude in order to pay back a debt he owed to Philemon. Or he could have been born into his condition, the unfortunate son of slave parents. Then there’s the very real possibility that Onesimus had been a prisoner of war who Philemon purchased from the slave market.

But regardless of how Onesimus had come to be a slave or why he had decided to run away, Paul had somehow convinced him to return. What a fascinating conversation that must have been. Just imagine how long Paul must have wrestled with the idea before he ever brought it up with Onesimus. And then, consider how Onesimus must have received Paul’s counsel that he go back to Philemon and make things right.

There were great risks involved. And yet, Onesimus had agreed to follow Paul’s advice, despite knowing that his return could result in his re-enslavement. Not only that, but he could also face severe legal repercussions for his actions. As a runaway slave, he could be beaten, sold, or even put to death. His fate would be in the hands of Philemon. But this young man had willingly chosen to take the risks in order to do what he believed to be the right thing.

In an attempt to prepare Philemon for the arrival of his former slave and newfound brother in Christ, Paul uses an interesting tactic. He implies that all the while Onesimus had been ministering to him during his imprisonment in Rome, he had done so on Philemon’s behalf. And Paul states that he had been tempted to maintain this arrangement, but had not wanted to make that decision for Philemon.

I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. – Philemon 1:13-14 ESV

Interestingly enough, Paul seemed to view Onesimus as a gift from Philemon. And yet, the only way Paul could have known about the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was because Onesimus had divulged it to him. At some point in their relationship, Onesimus had revealed his status as a runaway slave. And when Paul had heard the name of Onesimus’ master, Paul had recognized the hand of God in it all. Philemon was a dear friend of Paul’s. And Philemon had a slave who had run away and ended up in Rome, where he had met Paul and come to faith in Christ. Paul knew that none of this had been the result of happenstance, luck, kismet, or karma. It was the handiwork of God.

And Paul tried to get Philemon to view these events from a divine perspective, stating, “It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever” (Philemon 1:15 NLT). For Philemon, the loss of his slave had been nothing more than a financial setback. He had lost his property. But Paul reminded Philemon that his loss had actually resulted in great gain. He had lost a slave but was receiving back a brother in Christ.

He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:16 NLT

The young man who was about to walk through Philemon’s door was no longer his property, but a fellow member of the family of God. Onesimus was no longer Philemon’s personal possession. His life had been paid for by the blood of Jesus Christ.

At one point, early in his earthly ministry, Jesus had returned to Nazareth, where he had entered the synagogue and read from the book of Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT

And having read this Messianic passage, Jesus handed the scroll back to the attendant and said, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21 NLT). Jesus had come to proclaim liberty to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed. Of course, He was speaking in terms of spiritual captivity to sin and death, and freedom from the oppression that comes with trying to earn favor with God through human effort. And that is exactly what Onesimus had experienced. He had been set free and, as Jesus had said, “if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT). 

That verse is found in the middle of a discourse by Jesus in which he was discussing the ability of the truth to set men free. And he describes all those who sin as slaves.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” – Philemon 8:35-36 NLT

Prior to coming to faith in Christ, Philemon had been a slave to sin. But he had been set free and now enjoyed status as a son of God. But the same thing was true of Onesimus. He had also been set free from slavery to sin and death, and he had become Philemon’s spiritual brother. So, why would Philemon continue to treat his brother as a slave?

Paul was asking both of these men to make difficult decisions. Onesimus had made his choice and was returning home. But Philemon still had a choice to make. How would he respond? What would he do when he saw Onesimus?

Jesus came to change the condition of the human heart. He died so that men might experience the life-transformative power of God, that could not only restore fallen men to a right relationship with Himself but with one another.

“The supreme work of Christianity is to transform men, so that out of their transformed lives shall come the transformation of all social conditions, and the victories of righteousness and of love.” – G. Campbell Morgan, Living Messages of the Books of the Bible

Paul greatly desired that these two men, who both meant a great deal to him, would allow their faith in Christ to transform the relationship between them. Paul knew that their choice to live as brothers rather than as slave and master would be a testimony to the Gospel’s power. And it would spread throughout the local congregation and into the community.

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 Great Parenthesis

32 As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. 36 Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 37 And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 38 Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. 39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. – Matthew 27:32-44 ESV

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 9.10.59 AMThe crucifixion is a well-known and highly venerated part of Jesus’ earthly life. It is the fulcrum upon which the message of the Gospel balances. His sacrificial death on behalf of sinful mankind is what makes the Gospel good news. Had He not died, there would be no remission for sin. God’s righteous indignation for the rebellion of mankind against His sovereign rule would remain unsatisfied. The debt owed by sinful men to a holy and righteous God would remain unpaid. The penalty of death and subsequent separation from God for eternity would still loom large over the lives of every single human being, with no hope of a solution to their dilemma.

But Jesus died. And that scene, described by the gospel writers, has been illustrated in countless ways by a vast array of painters, sculptures, and artisans. And while most are familiar with the details surrounding this well-documented scene, there is one aspect that begs further examination and concentration. Matthew records, “two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left” (Matthew 27:38 ESV). John puts it this way: “they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them” (John 19:18 ESV).

It is fascinating to consider what these two statements reveal. While we’re familiar with the idea of Jesus being crucified alongside two common criminals, we probably haven’t given this dimension of His death much thought. After all, there is so much going on in the story that appears to be of greater importance. The deaths of these two unknown criminals appear to have no significance. Other than the conflicting statements each of them makes to Jesus while they are being crucified, these men seem to be little more than side notes in this grand drama.

And yet the gospel writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, make it a point to include these two men in their descriptions of Jesus’ death. And John makes it clear that they were crucified on either side of Jesus. In a sense, their crosses bracketed that of Jesus. And, as has been depicted in so many artistic renderings of the scene, John describes Jesus as hanging on the middle cross. Don’t overlook the scene as it is presented by the gospel writers. On either side of Jesus was a criminal, an unknown and unnamed individual whose guilt had warranted his execution. Each of them deserved to die. In fact, one of these men would freely admit their guilt and the appropriate nature of their executions.

“We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” – Luke 23:41 ESV

Why is this important? It is because this scene depicts the sinless Son of God surrounded by two sinful men. He is innocent, while they are guilty. They are receiving the just punishment for their sins, while He is dying as a substitute for their sins and the sins of all mankind. In a sense, these two men form a kind of human parenthesis, with Jesus, the focal point of all human history, located between them.

One of the men, unrepentant and angry at his fate, shouts at Jesus, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39 ESV). While the other man, just as sinful and just as deserving of his death, cries out, “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 ESV). Two sinners, but two distinctly different responses to the Savior in their midst.

All three men were being executed for the crimes of which they had been accused. But one man, the one in the middle, was guiltless. The Jewish religious leaders had accused Him of blasphemy – of claiming to be the Son of God. Jesus had displayed the audacity and arrogance to declare Himself as divine. And they found His boasts unthinkable and unacceptable. 

But Jesus was the Son of God. He had been speaking truth, not blasphemy. He was innocent. Even the words inscribed on the sign attached to the cross of Jesus were intended to describe His crime: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

John records that the words on this placard had been placed there by the command of Pilate. And the charge it carried had been written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. The Jewish religious leaders had been incensed at the words inscribed on the sign and had demanded that Pilate have them altered. They wanted the statement amended to say, “This man said, I am King of the Jews” (John 19:21 ESV).

But Pilate had refused to change a thing. The sign remained, and the charge stuck. And of this particular charge, Jesus was guilty. He was the King of the Jews. He was guilty of being exactly who He had claimed to be all along. He was the Messiah of Israel, but His own people had rejected Him. He was the sovereign King of the nation of Israel, but they had refused to acknowledge Him as such. Just as the ancient Israelites had rejected God as their King and had demanded that He give them a king like all the other nations, the Jews of Jesus day had rejected the King of kings.

Three men, all accused of crimes. Two of them were guilty as charged, having broken the laws of the land. Their crimes were deserving of death, and they were simply receiving what the law required. But the man in the middle, Jesus of Nazareth, was only guilty of being who He claimed to be: The King of the Jews. He was dying because He was the Savior of the world. He was dying in order to save the world. He was sinless, and yet He would die a sinner’s death. He was completely blameless, and yet He would willingly take on the sins of mankind in order that the penalty for our sins could be marked “paid in full” by God.

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

God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. – Romans 3:24-25 NLT

It is no coincidence that as Jesus hung on the cross, He was bracketed by two guilty sinners who were experiencing the just punishment for their crimes. In-between them hung the Savior of the world. They both had access to Him. They could both see Him and hear the words He spoke. But one chose to curse and insult Him, while the other begged to be remembered by Him. In the midst of his pain and suffering, caused by his own sinful choices, this man called out to Jesus, and he received a response.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Luke 27:43 ESV

And that’s the way it has always been. The life of Jesus has always been bracketed by two parenthetical marks, in the form of two diametrically opposed responses made by equally guilty sinners. One sees Jesus as nothing more than a man, equally hopeless and helpless to do anything about the sinful condition of mankind. But the other sees the suffering, yet sinless Savior who has a kingdom and the power to restore life to all those who submit to His Lordship. Jesus came to the world, a place filled with darkness and mired in sin. He inserted Himself into the hopeless state that plagued mankind and provided a solution to man’s condition. And John puts it in terms that describe why Jesus’ death between two sinners forms the great parenthesis.

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. – John 1:10-13 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

The Standard For Forgiveness

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” –  Matthew 18:23-35 ESV

In an effort to drive home His message regarding forgiveness, Jesus told His disciples a parable. It’s important to remember that this whole section of Matthew’s gospel had begun with an argument among the disciples about who among them was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They were obviously thinking that Jesus was going to set up a kingdom on earth where they would rule and reign alongside Him. That’s why the two brothers, James and John, had asked Jesus to do them a favor.

“When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

Their perception of the kingdom was all about power, position, and prominence. But Jesus was attempting to show them that it was about character and conduct. The day was coming when Jesus would establish His kingdom on earth, but that would not take place until after the Great Tribulation – an event reserved for the end of the age. In the meantime, those who would become members of His spiritual kingdom were to lives marked by humility, compassion, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus had come to change the hearts of men and, as a result, their outward behavior. Rather than arguing about who was the greatest, the disciples should have been introducing others to the Messiah. They should have been following the example of Jesus by serving the needs of those who were burdened by the cares of this world.

One of the marks of a follower of Jesus Christ should be a capacity to forgive others as they have been forgiven by God. Peter wanted to put a limit on how many times he should have to forgive a brother who sinned against him. He chose the number seven. But Jesus raised the ante by stating, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). In essence, there was to be no limit. Just as God puts no limit on the number of times we can come to Him for forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

At the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, Solomon had prayed, “May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kings 8:30 ESV).  Solomon went on to give a list of what-if scenarios, describing situations in which the people of God might sin against God and then call on Him for forgiveness. Because he knew it was inevitable that they would sin.

“The time will come when your people will sin against you (for there is no one who is sinless!) and you will be angry with them and deliver them over to their enemies, who will take them as prisoners to their own land, whether far away or close by. When your people come to their senses in the land where they are held prisoner, they will repent and beg for your mercy in the land of their imprisonment, admitting, ‘We have sinned and gone astray; we have done evil.’ When they return to you with all their heart and being in the land where they are held prisoner, and direct their prayers to you toward the land you gave to their ancestors, your chosen city, and the temple I built for your honor, then listen from your heavenly dwelling place to their prayers for help and vindicate them. Forgive all the rebellious acts of your sinful people and cause their captors to have mercy on them.” – 1 Kings 8:46-50 NLT

Solomon greatly desired that God would extend forgiveness, regardless of the circumstances involved or the number of times a request was invoked. Unlike Peter, Solomon wanted God to place no numerical limits on God’s forgiveness.

Like Solomon, we expect God to forgive us, regardless of the nature of our sin or the number of times we ask. Which brings us to Jesus’ parable. He used a story to drive home His message about forgiveness and life within His kingdom. A certain king called together his bondservants, requiring them to settle their debts with him. In this parable, the debts symbolize sin. The inference in the story is that all of the king’s bondservants owed him something. Remember the words of Solomon: “for there is no one who is sinless!”

One particular bondservant owed the king 10,000 talents. To understand the magnitude of this man’s debt, you have to realize that, at that time, a single talent was equivalent to 20-years wages for a servant. This man’s debt was astronomical and beyond his capacity to repay. So, the king ordered that the man, his family, and all his possessions be sold in order to recoup some of the loss. But the man begged the king for leniency. He knew he was at the king’s mercy and, in spite of the magnitude of his debt, he asked the king to give him time to come up with the money.

This was an absurd request. The servant and the king both knew that repayment was impossible. We are not told how the servant amassed such a debt, but his ability to make restitution was well beyond his means. The king, in an attempt to cut his losses, determined to sell the man and his family as slaves. But the servant begged the king for time, vowing to pay his debt in full. Amazingly, in a display of pity for the man’s predicament, the king “released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:27 ESV).

Don’t miss that last part. It is essential to understanding this parable. The king didn’t give the man extra time. He didn’t lower the interest rate on the note or decrease the amount owed. He forgave the man’s entire debt. He wiped the slate clean.

But rather than rejoicing at this incredible news, the forgiven man immediately accosted a fellow servant who owed him money. This man’s debt was a hundred denarii. A denarius was worth a single day’s wages for the average servant. From the debtor’s perspective, it was a lot of money, but nothing when compared to the amount the first man had owed. And yet, the forgiven servant demanded immediate payment. He wanted the debt settled at once. And his fellow servant responded just as he had, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But rather than pass on the grace and mercy he had been shown, the man had his fellow servant thrown into jail.

When the king was informed that one of his servants had been jailed, he was surprised and angered. Calling in the ungrateful servant, the king told him, “Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?” (Matthew 18:32-33 NLT).

This man had been forgiven a great debt – one he could have never repaid. The king had given him what he did not deserve and what he had not asked for: Complete forgiveness of his debt. But then the man had turned around and had refused to extend forgiveness to someone else. It was the apostle Paul who stressed the need for believers to forgive as they have been forgiven.

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:13 NLT

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:32 NLT

It’s important to notice the punishment meted out by the king. He has the man thrown in jail “until he should pay all his debt.” The inference, based on the size of the debt, is that the man will spend an eternity in jail. Even if he was still able to earn a normal day’s wage, it would take him 200,000 years to repay the debt.

And Jesus dropped a bombshell on His disciples by announcing, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35 ESV). Was Jesus announcing that eternal punishment awaits those who refuse to forgive? Was He teaching the possibility of the loss of our salvation? It would seem, based on the context in which Jesus told this parable, that He is simply trying to stress the extreme importance of forgiveness. It is to be a cardinal characteristic of the true follower of Christ. And it is those who recognize the degree of their sin debt and the remarkable grace of God’s forgiveness, who will be willing to express their gratitude by extending forgiveness to others. A man who has been forgiven much, but who refuses to forgive others, has never fully recognized the magnitude of his own sin debt. He is driven by pride, not humility. He is marked by arrogance, not gratitude.

At one point in His ministry, Jesus had his feet washed by a woman whom Luke referred to as immoral. The shocked Pharisees called her a sinner. But Jesus stated, “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love” (Luke 7:47 NLT).

Our sin debt is great. It is beyond our capacity to repay. And yet, Jesus died on the cross in order to ransom us from that debt. He paid the price we could not pay. And our gratitude for what He has done for us should show up in our willingness to forgive those who sin against us. 

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

Restoration, Not Revenge

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” –  Matthew 18:15-22 ESV

Jesus has just finished talking about the danger of causing another believer to stumble in his walk by demeaning or devaluing them. Pride has no place in the family of God. There is no reason for any follower of Christ to consider themselves to be better than anyone else. And the disciples would soon learn that all are equal at the foot of the cross. We are sinners saved by grace, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). And the humility that accompanies our faith in Christ should prevent us from looking down on other believers and setting ourselves up as somehow superior and of greater value in the kingdom.

But that humility will also lead us to lovingly forgive those who sin against us, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we end up on the receiving end of someone else’s pride and arrogance, we are to approach them in humility, not anger, exposing their sin but with the goal of restoring the relationship.

One of the greatest sins we can commit against another believer is to cause them to stumble in their walk or stray from the path on which God has placed them. And if you should find yourself the victim of this kind of sin, Jesus encourages you to seek restoration, not revenge. The goal is not the exposure of the other person’s fault, but the healing of the relationship. And Jesus makes it clear that if you humbly and lovingly approach them and they repent, you will have “gained a brother.”

But, if they refuse to admit their culpability and confess their pride, you are to involve others in the fellowship who can speak to the matter from first-hand experience. Once again, the objective should be to lead them to conviction that results in restoration. This is not about making the other person feel bad. It’s not about exposing their faults before others, but about humbly seeking God’s best for them.

But if the one who has sinned against you remains unconvicted and refuses to repent, you are to bring the matter before the ekklēsia, a Greek word that eventually came to refer to the local body of believers or the local church. But at this point in Jesus’ relationship with His disciples, He had provided them with no insight or teaching regarding the coming church. So, more than likely, Jesus was referring to an assembly of believers who had been called together for an announcement. The disciples probably assumed He was talking about their own close-knit group.

Finally, Jesus told them that if the person remained stubbornly unrepentant, they were to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17 ESV). In other words, they were to exclude this individual from fellowship. If he or she remained unrepentant, they were to be unwelcome by those in the ekklēsia – the small circle of friends who had become privy to the sin. This individual would have forfeited their right to fellowship because they had refused to accept responsibility for their sin. Had they followed the advice of the apostle John, they could have been restored to fellowship and received forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

Again, the objective behind all of this is restoration, not merely punishment. Our motivation in confronting the guilty party is to be love. As the apostle Peter taught:

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8 ESV

In our loving confrontation of the brother or sister who has sinned against us, we are to understand that our treatment of them, when done in humility and out of love, carries weight. When the time comes for a decision to be made regarding the proper discipline of the guilty party, it should be made prayerfully and carefully. We are to see our decision as bearing the full weight of God’s authority. Jesus repeated the same words He used when speaking to Peter back in chapter 16.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  – Matthew 16:19 ESV

The decision made by the local assembly would carry the same weight as if it had been made by God Himself. The binding and loosing have to do with the outward treatment of the one who has sinned against his brother or sister in Christ.

Verses 19-20, while often used as a proof text for corporate prayer, really has much more to do with the issue of one believer who has sinned against another. When the proper steps have been taken and the sinning individual has been confronted one-on-one and then with two or three witnesses, the next step is discipline. And we are to seek God’s will in the matter. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Jesus does not provide a singular prescription for discipline. We are to seek the will of God and then pronounce judgment in the name of God – fully trusting that He is intimately involved in the matter.

Finally, Peter has to get his two-cents in, following up Jesus’ words with a question that he hopes will shed light on the whole discussion. He appears to have a hard time with the idea of forgiving someone who has sinned against him. So, he asked Jesus how many times he was expected to forgive. He was looking for a limit. Surely, this would not be some undetermined number requiring unending forgiveness. But Jesus blew holes in Peter’s theory, by saying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). The number was not the issue. It was the motivation of the heart. Jesus wanted Peter to know that the kind of forgiveness He was talking about had no time limit or date of expiration. It is the very same kind of forgiveness we have received from God.

The apostle Paul would later explain it in terms that each of us can readily understand.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32 ESV

Again, the issue is restoration, not revenge. Our goal is to be reconciliation with our brother or sister in Christ and their ultimate restoration to a right relationship with God. For the disciples, all of this sounded so far-fetched and impossible. It made no sense. But Jesus was raising the bar, just as He has done all along the way in His interactions with these men. He was enlightening them to the reality of life in the kingdom. It would not be as they expected. There would be no place for pride. There would be no room for vengeance. The kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate would be comprised of humility, unity, and love.

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