A Real and Present Danger.

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-6 ESV

Paul is still dealing with the problem taking place in Corinth. There is disunity in the fellowship over eating meat sacrificed to idols. Actually, it was about much more than that. There were those within the church who were most likely using their newfound freedom in Christ to excuse their continued participation in the sacrificial feasts or meals offered on behalf of false gods. These individuals saw nothing wrong with their participation in these pagan events because they rationalized that false gods don’t really exist. But there were others who once worshiped those same false gods, who felt that it was wrong for a Christian to have anything to do with idols. And while Paul agreed that the logic behind the first group’s argument was sound, their motivation was not. They were more concerned about their own rights than they were about the spiritual well-being of their fellow believers. He let them know that their rights needed to take a back seat to the spiritual health of the church, and he used himself as an example.

Now he lets them know that there is something even more dangerous going on that they are overlooking. The serious threat of falling into idolatry. While there were those in the church who pridefully felt free to associate themselves with others who worshiped false gods, Paul warns them that they are playing with fire. While idols are not really gods, idol worship is real and dangerously deadly. And their relationship with God as His chosen people was not an antidote or protection from the temptation of idol worship. Paul uses the people of Israel as a primary example and he utilizes five comparative illustrations to make his point. First, he talks about the pillar of cloud that guided them. It represented the glory and presence of God. He led, directed and protected them.

And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people. – Exodus 13:21-22 ESV

As they were leaving Egypt, the cloud came to rest between the people of Israel and the advancing armies of Pharaoh. God protected them throughout the night.

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night. – Exodus 14:19-20 ESV

The next day, the people of Israel passed through the sea on dry ground. That is Paul’s second illustration. God miraculously provided a way of escape, delivering every one of the Israelites to the other side, while completely devastating the armies of Pharaoh. They were witnesses to the salvation of the Lord.

Next Paul refers to their “baptism” into Moses. In following the cloud and passing through the Red Sea, they were actually submitting to or immersing themselves under the leadership of God’s chosen deliverer: Moses. He was to be their God-ordained instrument of redemption, leading them all throughout their time in the wilderness. Next, Paul refers to the spiritual food and drink they ate in the wilderness – the manna and quail, as well as the water God provided from the rock. God miraculously provided for their physical needs, providing food and water when none was available. And in both cases, He did so in spite of their grumbling and complaining. Paul makes it clear that the rock was symbolic of Christ, the provider of living water.

But Paul brings all of these marvelous illustrations to a sudden and surprising close by stating: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5 ESV). Regardless of their unique status as God’s chosen and redeemed people, and in spite of all that God had done for them, they were “overthrown in the wilderness.” In reality, they all died. An entire generation of Israelites would spend the rest of their lives wandering in the wilderness and never experience the joys of entering the promised land. And Paul is going to unpack just exactly why this was the case and how their mistake was to be a warning to the people of God living in Corinth.

One of the most significant moments in the history of the people of Israel took place early on in their wilderness wanderings. They had not been free from bondage very long, when God called Moses up to Mount Sinai to receive the law. While he was there, something happened back down in the valley. Moses records the tragic event for us:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. – Exodus 32:1-6 ESV

Idol worship. They had been delivered by God, led by God, protected by God and were about to receive the law of God. They had also been given the instructions to build the tabernacle, a structure designed to house the very presence of God. But they returned all the favors of God with unfaithfulness. They had seen God perform ten miraculous plagues. They had seen Him part the waters of the Red Sea. They had walked across on dry land, then witnessed the devastating destruction of the armies of Pharaoh. And yet, they chose to put their trust in a false god rather than the one true God. And Paul tells us, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6 ESV). Their deadly mistake was to be a warning to us. Their ingratitude and unfaithfulness was to be a reminder to us. They enjoyed the presence, provision and protection of God as His chosen people, but that did not make them immune from the punishment of God. And that seems to be Paul’s point. As God’s chosen people, we must never think that we are incapable of sin or insusceptible to temptation. Unfaithfulness ia a real and present danger for each of us. As Paul warned the Ephesians:

For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. 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. – Ephesians 5:8-12 NLT

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They Shall Return.

I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily; he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; his shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon. They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; they shall flourish like the grain; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon. 

O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit. Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them. – Hosea 14:4-9 ESV

The northern kingdom would end up in exile in Assyria. They would fall to the Assyrian army and see their beloved kingdom come to an abrupt and ignominious end. And their fate would be well-deserved, the result of their ongoing rejection of God and refusal to live according to His commands. And yet, these closing verses of the book of Hosea remind us of something remarkable that will happen in the future. They point to a coming event that reminds us of the unfailing love and unwavering faithfulness of our God. In spite of all that Israel had done to offend God, He would one day save and redeem them. He boldly states, “I will heal their apostasy” (Hosea 14:4 ESV). Even as they await His coming judgment, He comforts them by saying, “I will love them freely” (Hosea 14:4 ESV). While His punishment of them was inevitable, His love for them was inexhaustible. He would remain faithful. The prophet Isaiah recorded the words of God that remind us of His unfailing love.

For I will not fight against you forever; I will not always be angry. If I were, all people would pass away—all the souls I have made. I was angry, so I punished these greedy people. I withdrew from them, but they kept going on their own stubborn way. I have seen what they do, but I will heal them anyway! I will lead them. I will comfort those who mourn, bringing words of praise to their lips. May they have abundant peace, both near and far,” says the Lord, who heals them. – Isaiah 57:16-19 NLT

Without God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness, “all people would pass away.” There would be no hope for anyone. And even when His people “kept going on their own stubborn way,” God saw, but said, “I will heal them anyway!” Rather than simply giving them what they deserved, He would give them His undeserved mercy and grace. He would lead them, comfort them, and cause them to worship Him once again. What they could not bring themselves to do, He would do for them.

The day is coming when God will restore His people. Israel will once again enjoy a right relationship with Him. He will be their God and they will be His people. Isaiah speaks of this coming day.

In that day the heir to David’s throne will be a banner of salvation to all the world. The nations will rally to him, and the land where he lives will be a glorious place. In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to bring back the remnant of his people—those who remain in Assyria and northern Egypt; in southern Egypt, Ethiopia, and Elam; in Babylonia, Hamath, and all the distant coastlands.He will raise a flag among the nations and assemble the exiles of Israel. He will gather the scattered people of Judah from the ends of the earth. – Isaiah 11:10-12 NLT

With the return of Christ and the establishment of His earthly kingdom in Jerusalem, the nation of Israel will be miraculously restored to the land and renewed in their relationship with God. “He will make a highway for the remnant of his people, the remnant coming from Assyria, just as he did for Israel long ago when they returned from Egypt” (Isaiah 11:16 NLT). This will all be the work of God. It is part of His divine plan for the nation of Israel and for the world. He will keep the covenant He made with Abraham. He will fulfill the promise He made to David that one of his descendants would sit on his throne in Jerusalem and reign forever (2 Samuel 7:16). Our God is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. He keeps His word. His love is unfailing and His commitment to His promises, unwavering.

Hosea would have us remember: “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them” (Hosea 14:9 ESV). The reason we should faithfully walk in the ways of the Lord should be because of His faithfulness. When we read of God’s commitment to keep His promises to Israel, we should be encouraged that He will do the same for us. He will not leave us, forsake us, turn His back on us, or fail to keep His promises to us. His love for us will never end. His future restoration of us to a permanent and sinless relationship with Him is guaranteed. Nothing can separate us from His love. As God promised the nation of Judah regarding their exile in Babylon:

You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. – Jeremiah 29:10-11 NLT

The people of Israel will one day be restored. A remnant of His chosen people will enjoy unbroken, undeserved fellowship with Him. And those of us who have placed our faith in Christ will also know what it means to enjoy the benefits of God’s grace and mercy as we spend eternity with Him, not because we deserve it, but because He is loving, faithful and a promise-keeping God.

God’s Marvelous Mercy.

As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. – Romans 11:28-32 ESV

This is a fascinating and difficult passage. It presents us with a somewhat confusing picture of God’s grace that could easily leave us accusing Him of injustice. For the time being, the Jews are experiencing “a partial hardening” until “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11: 25 ESV). While Israel had been seeking righteousness, a right relationship with God, they had been going about it the wrong way, by attempting to keep the law in their own human strength. And when the true path to righteousness was revealed, Jesus Christ, they rejected Him. So, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day” (Romans 11:8 ESV). But God did not cause their hardening or spiritual callousness. He simply allowed their hearts to go where they were naturally bent to go. He did not intervene. He did not extend mercy. And if we conclude that God’s treatment of the Jews was  unfair or unjust, we misunderstand mercy. Mercy is not required by God. By definition, mercy is a gift, not a requirement. Justice is required. Mercy is non-justice. In other words, when God determines to extend mercy to anyone, He is choosing NOT to enact justice, or to give them what they truly deserve. We see over and over again in Scripture God extending mercy to the people of Israel. Repeatedly, they turned their backs on Him and proved unfaithful as His people. As a result, they deserved His justice, His righteous, holy sentence of just punishment. But instead, God graciously chose to show them mercy, His undeserved kindness, goodness, favor and compassion. And to do so is God’s prerogative. “For God said to Moses, ‘I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose’” (Romans 9:15 NLT). When God shows mercy, we have no cause to complain or to cry foul. What should amaze us is that God, in His patience and love, chooses to show anyone mercy. Because mercy is never deserved. It is never earned. Paul has made it clear that all men deserve God’s justice: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV). So if God chooses to extend His mercy to some, can we accuse Him of injustice? Paul would say, “No!”

“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” – Romans 9:14-16 ESV

Which brings us back to our passage. As it pertained to the gospel, the good news regarding salvation through Christ, the Jews were essentially enemies of God, Paul contends. Their rejection of the Jesus as their Messiah had opened the door for the gospel to be preached to the Gentiles. But when it comes to God’s sovereign election or choosing of the nation of Israel, they are still beloved in His eyes. At this point, it would appear that Paul is now talking about the future state of Israel as a nation or a people. It would not appear that he is referring to individual Jews or individual Gentiles in these verses. At one time in history, the Gentile nations had been apart from God. They were separated from Him because of their sin. Paul puts it this way: “Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called ‘uncircumcised heathens’ by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope” (Ephesians 2:11-12 NLT). But Paul says that something changed all that. “But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 NLT). Notice that he addresses them as a whole, as Gentiles. This does not mean that ALL Gentiles have come to faith in Christ, but that the Gentile nations have now been shown the mercy of God.

The same will be true for the nation of Israel. While they are currently experiencing a hardness of heart and a spiritual callousness toward God and His offer of salvation through His Son, the day is coming when God will show them mercy just as He has done for the Gentiles. “For just as you [the Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [the Jews] disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy” (Romans 11:30 ESV). In other words, Paul wants us to understand that this is not a case of Gentiles replacing Jews as God’s favored people. This is about God extending mercy to those to whom He sovereignly chooses. God’s mercy knows no prejudice. He is an equal-opportunity mercy provider. “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32 ESV). Again, this does not mean that all will be saved, but that all share a common state of disobedience and alienation from God, and if He does not choose to show mercy, none will be saved – either Jew or Gentile.

Israel’s rejection of the Messiah did not put them beyond God’s mercy. His inclusion of the Gentiles was not a sign of His exclusion of the Jews. It is a matter of timing. Right now, during the period of the Gentiles, His focus is on bringing the full number of those from among the Gentiles to faith in His Son. Then He will turn His attention to the nation of Israel. Yes, this is all hard for us to understand. It is difficult to comprehend why God does things the way He does. But Paul will clarify that for us in the closing verses of this chapter.

A Remnant.

And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved,  for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.”  And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.” – Romans 9:27-29 ESV

All mankind is deserving of God’s righteous judgment. From His holy perspective, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10 ESV). All are guilty of rebellion against Him and of breaking His holy commands. At no point in the history of mankind has there lived a man or woman who deserved God’s mercy or grace. No one has ever been able to live up to His righteous standards or fulfill His laws perfectly and completely. Abraham was not even a worshiper of God when he was called by God. Noah, while a good man who knew and worshiped God, was far from sinless. And yet God chose to spare him. Moses was a murderer, but God, in His sovereign will, chose Moses to deliver His people from captivity. And the very people Moses was chosen to set free from their captivity had long ago abandoned the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and were guilty of worshiping the gods of Egypt. But God chose to deliver them anyway. All throughout the history of the nation of Israel, we see God choosing to bless some and reject others. He rejected Saul as king of Israel because of his disobedience. He chose David and anointed him to be Saul’s replacement. David, while a man after God’s own heart, was far from perfect. He would end up allowing his passions to lead him to commit adultery, resulting in an illegitimate pregnancy and his attempt to cover it up resulting in the murder of the woman’s husband. But God graciously forgave David and continued to bless his reign.

The nation of Israel would prove to be unfaithful to God over and over again. Their disobedience and that of their king, Solomon, the son of David, would result in the split of the kingdom. Their continued rebellion would force God to send the northern nation of Israel into captivity at the hands of the Assyrians. Years later, the southern nation of Judah would suffer the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians. God had warned both nations to return to Him. He had sent His prophets to call the people back to Him or face His righteous wrath. They refused and God, in His justice, punished them for their rebellion. And yet, in spite of their sin, God chose to spare a remnant. While the entire nation of Israel had been God’s chosen people, they ended up split in two. The northern tribes would be exiled and never return to the land. The southern tribes would only see a small portion of their descendants return to Judah and Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah predicted what would happen.

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. For the Lord God of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in the midst of all the earth. – Isaiah 10:20-23 ESV

God had fulfilled His promise to Abraham and had made his descendants as numerous as the sand of the sea. But only a remnant would return. Not all of them would enjoy God’s grace and mercy. The Greek word Paul used is hypoleimma and it means “a remainder, a few.” The Hebrew word used by Isaiah is shĕ’ar and it means “residue, remainder.” Out of all the nation of Israel, only a handful were allowed to return to the land and enjoy God’s restoration of them as His people. Quoting from Isaiah, Paul writes, “If the Lord of Heaven’s Armies had not spared a few of our children, we would have been wiped out like Sodom, destroyed like Gomorrah” (Romans 9:29 NLT).

So what is Paul’s point in all of this? That unless God chooses to show mercy on some, none will ever experience it. All of Israel deserved to experience God’s full wrath and destructive powers, just as much as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had. The people of Israel were no less guilty of sin and worthy of God’s wrath than the pagan and immoral people of those two wicked cities. This all goes back to Paul’s attempt to explain that no one, including God’s chosen people, the Jews, was worthy of receiving God’s mercy. God calls and men must respond. When God got ready to send the people of Israel back to Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon, not everybody chose to return. Many had become comfortable in their new surroundings. They had acclimated themselves to living in Babylon. Only a relative handful returned.

Not all men will be saved. Not everyone will respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation made possible through faith in His Son. Compared to the mass of mankind who have ever lived, the number of those who place their faith in Christ will be a remnant, a few. And none of us who enjoy a right relationship with God because of our faith in Christ can ever brag about our position or boast in our righteous standing. Paul told the believers in Ephesus, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT). He said the same thing to Timothy. “For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:9 NLT).

God saved us. We didn’t save ourselves. He chose us. We didn’t choose Him. According to Romans 8:30, He called us, He justified us, and one day He is going to glorify us. We are part of God’s remnant, the redeemed. We didn’t do anything to deserve His grace and mercy. We can’t brag about our position as His children. He adopted us. He made us His sons and daughters. He has declared us His heirs. All as a result of His grace and mercy made possible through the priceless gift of His Son.

If You Point Your Finger, You Missed the Point.

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man – you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself – that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. – Romans 2:1-5 ESV

Paul was writing to the church in Rome and, like many of the churches in those days, it was made up of converted Gentiles and Jews. Chapter one seemed to be addressed to the former pagans or Gentiles. He wrote that he wished to come visit them so that he might “reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (Romans 1:13 ESV). He made it clear to them that, like all men, prior to their conversion, they had been without excuse. They had been given the natural or general revelation of God in His creation. He had made His “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20 ESV) clearly perceived to all men. Yet, like all men, they had rejected God’s revelation of Himself and had chosen to worship the creation rather than the Creator. And it had been the gospel that had revealed to them God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes. They had discovered that the kind of righteousness God requires was available only through faith in His Son. They had once been under God’s wrath for their dishonor and disregard of Him. They had been given up by God to reap the consequences of their darkened hearts and foolish choices. And the city of Rome was still filled with tens of thousands of people living according to “the lie.”

But now, Paul turns his attention to another group within the church. We might just describe them as the self-righteous religious snobs – those who were quick to consider themselves as better than the pagans Paul had described. More than likely, Paul was speaking directly to the Jews who had accepted Christ as their Savior and Messiah. When they heard Paul describe those whom God had given up, they more than likely excluded themselves from that list. They considered themselves God’s chosen people. They were descendants of Abraham, the recipients of the covenant and promises of God. But Paul makes it clear that, they too, are without excuse. In fact, to a certain degree, the Jews were even more culpable because they had been given special revelation from God. He had revealed Himself to Abraham. He had given His covenant promises to Abraham. He had rescued them out of captivity in Egypt. He had given them the law through Moses. He had provided for them the sacrificial system as a means of receiving forgiveness for their sins and to allow them to maintain a right relationship with Him. He had given them the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem as places where His holy presence would dwell and they could meet with Him. And yet, throughout their history, the Jews had continually sinned against Him. They had known, without a shadow of a doubt, that God existed and they were fully aware of His divine expectations on them, but they had been incapable of keeping God’s law or of remaining faithful to Him.

In spite of all of this, the Jews of Paul’s day had become self-righteous and prideful because of their unique relationship with God. Their attitude had become like that of the Pharisee in the parable that Jesus had told. “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector!’” (Luke 18:11 NLT). Because they were descendants of Abraham, they somehow thought of themselves as better than the rest of humanity. But Paul warns them, “in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2:1 ESV). They stood just as guilty as the pagans. They could not point their fingers and claim to be exempt from the list of sins listed in Romans 1:29-31. They could not afford to consider themselves as somehow better than the rest

We can’t forget the fact that this entire letter is ultimately about the gospel, “the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16 ESV). It is about “the righteousness of God … revealed from faith for faith” (Romans 1:17 ESV). Paul’s whole point in these opening chapters of his letter is to prove that no one stands before God as righteous. They are all without excuse, whether they are Gentiles or Jews. In fact, a little later on in his letter, Paul writes, “Well then, should we conclude that we Jews are better than others? No, not at all, for we have already shown that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin. As the Scriptures say, ‘No one is righteous – not even one’” (Romans 3:9-10 ESV). Righteousness is not man-made, it is God-given. It is based on faith, not works. It has nothing to do with human merit, but on God’s mercy and grace. Paul wanted the Jews to know that they had been recipients of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience. The fact that they still existed as a people had to do with God’s covenant promises, not their faithfulness or righteousness. He had continually rescued them from their own self-destructive tendencies in order that He might fulfill His promise to send the Messiah as a descendant of David. And when Jesus had showed up on the scene as the Messiah, He had called the people of Israel to repentance. And Paul says that God’s kindness, in the form of the Messiah was meant to lead them to repentance. Yet Paul has to tell them, “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath” (Romans 2:5 ESV). Why? Because the Jews were failing to recognize their own sinfulness and their need for a Savior. In pointing their finger at the sins of the pagans, they were missing the whole point. No one is righteous, no, not one.

Exodus 19-20, Mark 7

Not Up For Interpretation.

Exodus 19-20, Mark 7

Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ”This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”  You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. – Mark 7:6-8 ESV

Most of us have no trouble believing in God. It’s obeying Him that tends to be the problem. All of us have had parents, and none of us would argue that point. Be there were more than a handful of times when we argued with our parents, rejecting to submit to their authority over our lives and refusing to admit that they might know best for our lives. We treat God in the same way and so did the Israelites. They had the normal human tendency to see God as some kind of helpful deity who existed for their good and to bring them glory. They saw themselves as special because they had been chosen by God. They viewed themselves as set apart from the rest of humanity and worthy of some kind of recognition for their status as God’s hand-picked people. In a way, God was little more than a cosmic servant who was there to meet their needs. He provided them with food. When they were thirsty, He gave them water. He was like a divine concierge, providing advice, directions, and helpful travel tips. He had even promised to give them their own land, flowing with milk and honey. It was easy for the israelites to assume that this was all about them. But chapters 19-20 of Exodus provide a stark wake up call to all those who might want to turn God into their own personal genie, obligated to grant their wishes and obligated to obey OUR every command.

What does this passage reveal about God?

After nearly seven weeks of travel, the people of Israel arrive at the foot of Mount Sinai. But this was not going to be just another camping spot. There at that remote place, they were going to get an introduction into the true nature of their relationship with God. He was going to give them an up-close and personal glimpse of His true personality and clearly communicate His expectations of them. Theirs would no longer be a casual relationship, but a covenant and conditional one based on obedience and purity. God didn’t mince any words when He told them, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine;  and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6 ESV). Their relationship with God was conditional. There were going to be expectations and requirements if they wanted to remain His treasured possession. They were going to have to a holy nation. And God would make it unmistakeably clear what that meant.

In order to get the attention of the people, God appealed to their senses. He used imagery and sounds to convey His power and greatness. He did not want them assuming He was anything like the false gods they had worshiped in Egypt. They had been mute and immobile, powerless to do anything for themselves, let alone for the people who bowed before them. The Psalmist described them well when he wrote, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not talk; and they do not make a sound in their throat” (Psalm 115:4-7 ESV).

The Israelites were going to learn that their God was not like the other gods. He appeared in a thick cloud on the top of the mountain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, and the sound of a trumpet blast. His presence caused the entire mountain to quake. And He struck fear into the hearts of the people. He warned them to cleanse themselves and not to come near to Him, lest they die. Their purity was a prerequisite for coming into His presence and a protection against His holy wrath. This God whom they had taken so lightly and treated so disrespectfully was going to make sure they understood the true nature of their relationship with Him. They were going to learn that they existed for HIS glory, not the other way around.

What does this passage reveal about man?

When God laid out the commands He was going to require that the people keep, He included some that dealt with their relationship with Him, and others that had to do with their relationships with one another. It was going to be impossible for them to maintain a right relationship with God if they failed to treat one another with respect and dignity. Their holiness was to be holistic. In other words, it was to affect every area of their lives. Their set-apartness was to be all-encompassing, influencing their interactions with God and with one another. But they would struggle with God’s commands from this point forward. Even all the way up until Jesus’ day, the people of Israel would find themselves struggling to keep their commitment to obey God’s commandments. Which is why Jesus so harshly condemns them, reciting the words of Isaiah the prophet, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6-7 ESV).

They had long lost their awe and fear of God. They had once again turned Him into some kind of disembodied force who existed for their good and their glory. They had taken His commandments and given them an interpretation that better suited their own desires. They had come up with their own set of rules, designed to make them feel holy and righteous. They had so dumbed down God’s standard for holiness that it had long ago lost its holistic sense. Their treatment of God and of one another had become surface-oriented and superficial. Which is why Jesus had to remind the disciples that true purity was personal and internal, not external in nature. “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23 ESV). It’s interesting to note how many of the things listed here by Jesus are directly dealt with in the Ten Commandments given by God at Sinai. The people of Israel had made it all about the externals, and in doing so, had forgotten to deal with their hearts.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

God’s holy requirements are not up for interpretation. It’s not left up to me to decide whether I think I’m holy or not. God sets the standard. And while it might be an impossible standard to keep, that doesn’t give me the right to dumb it down or trick it up by providing my own interpretation. God’s righteous standards remain the same. And God still expects His children to live up to those standards. But He has provided a way to make it possible. He sent His Son to be born as a human being and live a life according to God’s righteous standards. Which is exactly what Jesus did. He did what no other human being had ever done. He kept God’s commands perfectly and completely. He lived a sinless life so that He could become the unblemished sacrifice that would pay the penalty for our sin-stained lives. And then He provided His Holy Spirit to live within us so that we might have the same power to live obediently and holy – according to God’s standard, not our own. Like Paul, I want to be able to say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 ESV). I want to live it in His strength and according to God’s standards. I want to live it holistically and completely, not compartmentalizing my life or categorizing my sins in a convenient attempt to make myself look better.

Father, I want to honor You with my life. I want to make all that I do all about You, and not me. Forgive me for sometimes thinking that You exist for my glory. Give me an ever-increasing awareness of just how holy You are and how You have set me apart to live a distinctively different life – in Your strength and according to Your standards – so that others might know that You are God, not me. Amen

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