Control Over Kings and Countries

20 In the eleventh year, in the first month, on the seventh day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 21 “Son of man, I have broken the arm of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and behold, it has not been bound up, to heal it by binding it with a bandage, so that it may become strong to wield the sword. 22 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against Pharaoh king of Egypt and will break his arms, both the strong arm and the one that was broken, and I will make the sword fall from his hand. 23 I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations and disperse them through the countries. 24 And I will strengthen the arms of the king of Babylon and put my sword in his hand, but I will break the arms of Pharaoh, and he will groan before him like a man mortally wounded. 25 I will strengthen the arms of the king of Babylon, but the arms of Pharaoh shall fall. Then they shall know that I am the Lord, when I put my sword into the hand of the king of Babylon and he stretches it out against the land of Egypt. 26 And I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations and disperse them throughout the countries. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel 30:20-26 ESV

Less than four months after receiving the first divine oracle concerning Egypt, Ezekiel was given another installment. The first part came in “the tenth year, in the tenth month, on the twelfth day of the month” (Ezekiel 29:1 ESV). This one arrived “in the eleventh year, in the first month, on the seventh day of the month” (Ezekiel 30:30 ESV). The New Living Translation places the date of this second oracle as “January 7, during the tenth year of King Jehoiachin’s captivity” (Ezekiel 30:20 NLT). Thomas L. Constable calculated the date in question to be April 29. But both agree that it took place in the year 587 B.C.

In this oracle, God informs Ezekiel that the king of Egypt has suffered a debilitating wound that has left him incapable of wielding a sword or putting up a fight. This divinely inflicted wound, while not life-threatening, would prove to be decisive.

“Son of man, I have broken the arm of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. His arm has not been put in a cast so that it may heal. Neither has it been bound up with a splint to make it strong enough to hold a sword. – Ezekiel 30:21 NLT

Pharaoh’s arm, a symbol of his power, had been broken by God but never set, so it had healed properly. Unable to grasp a sword, Pharaoh was reduced to a state of impotence and defenselessness. As the sovereign ruler over the mighty nation of Egypt, he was reduced to a weakened and helpless state. This imagery was meant to be symbolic in nature, using the king as the representative of the kingdom. Many scholars believe this passage is a reference to Egypt’s debilitating defeat at the Battle of Carchemish.

As the Babylonians continued to assert their will in that part of the world, the Egyptians attempted to play the spoiler, clandestinely assisting nations like the Assyrians and Israelites in their efforts to oppose Nebuchadnezzar’s advances. In 612 B.C., the Assyrian capital of Nineveh had fallen to Babylonian forces. Unwilling to admit defeat, the Assyrians moved their capital to Haran. But two years later, that capital suffered the same fate. Still refusing to capitulate, the Assyrians moved their headquarters to Carchemish, some 38 miles east of Haran.

As Pharaoh Neco and his Egyptian forces made their way to Carchemish to fight alongside the Assyrians, King Josiah of Judah decided to stand in his way. This would prove to be an unwise decision on Josiah’s part, resulting in his death from wounds suffered during the battle. The story is recorded in the book of 2 Chronicles.

After Josiah had finished restoring the Temple, King Neco of Egypt led his army up from Egypt to do battle at Carchemish on the Euphrates River, and Josiah and his army marched out to fight him. But King Neco sent messengers to Josiah with this message:

“What do you want with me, king of Judah? I have no quarrel with you today! I am on my way to fight another nation, and God has told me to hurry! Do not interfere with God, who is with me, or he will destroy you.”

But Josiah refused to listen to Neco, to whom God had indeed spoken, and he would not turn back. Instead, he disguised himself and led his army into battle on the plain of Megiddo. But the enemy archers hit King Josiah with their arrows and wounded him. He cried out to his men, “Take me from the battle, for I am badly wounded!”

So they lifted Josiah out of his chariot and placed him in another chariot. Then they brought him back to Jerusalem, where he died. – 2 Chronicles 35:20-24 NLT

This battle at Megiddo delayed Neco’s arrival in Carchemish. And with Josiah’s death, Neco found himself embroiled in the local politics of Judah. Jehoahaz, the son of Josiah, had ascended to the throne, but his reign only lasted three months before Neco had him imprisoned and replaced with one another of Josiah’s sons. Neco ended up pocketing a sizeable fortune in gold and silver in the form of tribute from Judah, but his eventual arrival in Carchemish proved too little, too late. Nebuchadnezzar had already defeated the Assyrians and, when the Egyptians arrived on the scene, they too were soundly routed. The battle of Carchemish brought about the end of the Assyrian Empire and reduced Egypt to a second-rate power in the region.

Now, some 25 years later, God warns that He is going to do a number of Egypt again. This time, He will break both arms, including the recently healed one.

“…this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am the enemy of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt! I will break both of his arms—the good arm along with the broken one—and I will make his sword clatter to the ground. I will scatter the Egyptians to many lands throughout the world.” – Ezekiel 30:23-23 NLT

The Egyptians had failed to learn their lesson. Despite their weakened state, they continued to try to exert their will in the region. But God wants Ezekiel to know that the Egyptian’s hope of regaining their former stature was a pipe dream. He was going to use Nebuchadnezzar to end their centuries-long role as major players on the world stage.

“…when I put my sword in the hand of Babylon’s king and he brings it against the land of Egypt, Egypt will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 30:25 NLT

God describes Egypt’s defeat as a mortal blow, not just a couple of broken arms. Without any way to defend themselves against the Babylonians, the Egyptians would suffer a devastating defeat that would render them “mortally wounded, groaning in pain” (Ezekiel 30:24 NLT).

Like the Israelites and the people of Judah, the Egyptians would find themselves scattered to the four winds. Some would end up as captives in Babylon, while others would seek refuge in foreign lands where they would live as refugees and outcasts.

I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, dispersing them throughout the earth.” – Ezekiel 30:26 NLT

Their defeat will be God’s doing, as will be their dispersion among the nations. This great and powerful nation would fall as a result of God’s sovereign, omnipotent will. Each of these nations; the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, were instruments in the hand of God. They served at His pleasure and were nothing more than bit players in the drama of His providential and irrepressible plan.

And, as always, God informs Ezekiel that. with their fall, the Egyptians will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is Lord. They will recognize that their defeat was His doing. And when they find themselves scattered to the four winds, living as helpless and hopeless exiles in foreign lands, their recognition of God’s Lordship will be confirmed.

“I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, dispersing them throughout the earth. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 30:26 NLT

As the prophet Daniel so aptly put it, God “controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings” (Daniel 2:21 NLT). Neco, Nebuchadnezzar, and even Josiah, lived their lives according to the will of God Almighty. They ruled at His discretion. Their countries flourished only as long as He deemed it necessary and critical to the accomplishment of His overarching plan. Their rise and fall was up to His sovereign will. Nothing happens on earth that is outside the providential plan of Yahweh.

In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps. – Proverbs 16:9 NIV

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

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

Boot Camp for the Coming Battle

21 Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, 22 “Let me pass through your land. We will not turn aside into field or vineyard. We will not drink the water of a well. We will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” 23 But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. He gathered all his people together and went out against Israel to the wilderness and came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. 24 And Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as to the Ammonites, for the border of the Ammonites was strong. 25 And Israel took all these cities, and Israel settled in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages. 26 For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and taken all his land out of his hand, as far as the Arnon. 27 Therefore the ballad singers say,

“Come to Heshbon, let it be built;
    let the city of Sihon be established.
28 For fire came out from Heshbon,
    flame from the city of Sihon.
It devoured Ar of Moab,
    and swallowed[f] the heights of the Arnon.
29 Woe to you, O Moab!
    You are undone, O people of Chemosh!
He has made his sons fugitives,
    and his daughters captives,
    to an Amorite king, Sihon.
30 So we overthrew them;
    Heshbon, as far as Dibon, perished;
    and we laid waste as far as Nophah;
    fire spread as far as Medeba.”

31 Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites. 32 And Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there. 33 Then they turned and went up by the way to Bashan. And Og the king of Bashan came out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. 34 But the Lord said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people, and his land. And you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.” 35 So they defeated him and his sons and all his people, until he had no survivor left. And they possessed his land. Numbers 21:21-35 ESV

This is the Numbers’ version of the story of Israel’s unfortunate confrontation with the Sihon, the king of the Amorites. It’s also recorded in Deuteronomy 2, but in this rendition, Moses reveals that “Israel settled in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages” (Numbers 21:25 ESV). Not only did they conquer the Amorites, but they confiscated their cities and villages and moved into them. For the first time since leaving Egypt 39 years earlier, the Israelites found themselves living in real houses and enjoying all the amenities of a semi-settled existence.

On this occasion, they refused to walk away from a fight as they had in Edom because the territory of the Amorites provided the only access point to the land of promise. The Amorites were attempting to block the Israelites’ way to their inheritance. And while Moses tried to reason with Sihon, he soon discovered that brute force would be the only negotiating tool that got the king’s attention.

God provided the Israelites with a decisive victory over the Amorites, and Moses makes it clear that the land Israel conquered and confiscated had originally belonged to the Moabites. This is significant because, according to Deuteronomy 2, God had commanded the Israelites to avoid any conflict with the Moabites and had forbidden them from attempting to occupy any of their land. The territory of the Moabites was off-limits and under a divine ban.

“Do not bother the Moabites, the descendants of Lot, or start a war with them. I have given them Ar as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.” – Deuteronomy 2:9 NLT

But it appears that God provided Moses with a special dispensation regarding these cities and villages because Sihon had stolen them from the Moabites. These lands had transferred hands and, technically, no longer belonged to the Moabites.

Heshbon had been the capital of King Sihon of the Amorites. He had defeated a former Moabite king and seized all his land as far as the Arnon River. – Numbers 21:26 NLT

This transfer of ownership officially rendered the land open for conquest and occupation. But Moses points out that the Israelites went as far as the border of the Ammonites and no further. This is because the Israelites had been forbidden from taking any land belonging to the Ammonites or Moabites. These two people groups were the descendants of the two sons born to Lot through his incestuous relationship with his own daughters (Genesis 19:34-38).

But God had been explicit when issuing His prohibition about Moabite and Ammonite land.

“Do not bother the Moabites, the descendants of Lot, or start a war with them. I have given them Ar as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.” – Deuteronomy 2:9 NLT

“Today you will cross the border of Moab at Ar and enter the land of the Ammonites, the descendants of Lot. But do not bother them or start a war with them. I have given the land of Ammon to them as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.” – Deuteronomy 19:18-19 NLT

The land occupied by the Moabites and Ammonites was not part of the inheritance God had promised to Abraham. So, there was really no need for Israel to get comfortable on this side of the river. Their land lay to the west and would be theirs soon enough.

But for the time being, God allowed them to live in the cities and villages they had taken from the Amorites. And Moses relates the lyrics of a so-called “Song of Heshbon,” a ballad that had been composed by the Amorites commemorating Sihon’s defeat of the Moabites.

“Come to Heshbon and let it be rebuilt!
    Let the city of Sihon be restored.
A fire flamed forth from Heshbon,
    a blaze from the city of Sihon.
It burned the city of Ar in Moab;
    it destroyed the rulers of the Arnon heights.
What sorrow awaits you, O people of Moab!
    You are finished, O worshipers of Chemosh!
Chemosh has left his sons as refugees,
    his daughters as captives of Sihon, the Amorite king.
We have utterly destroyed them,
    from Heshbon to Dibon.
We have completely wiped them out
    as far away as Nophah and Medeba.” – Numbers 21:27-29 NLT

This little ditty provided justification for Israel’s occupation of the former Moabite cities because they had originally been stolen and occupied by the Amorites. So, technically, Israel had not violated God’s decree.

Notice that Moses is very specific with his wording.

Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites.” – Numbers 21:31 ESV

And God allowed Israel to continue their conquest of additional Amorite-occupied land. He also provided them with decisive victories over the kingdom of Bashan.

“So the Lord our God handed King Og and all his people over to us, and we killed them all. Not a single person survived. We conquered all sixty of his towns—the entire Argob region in his kingdom of Bashan. Not a single town escaped our conquest. These towns were all fortified with high walls and barred gates. We also took many unwalled villages at the same time. We completely destroyed the kingdom of Bashan, just as we had destroyed King Sihon of Heshbon. We destroyed all the people in every town we conquered—men, women, and children alike. But we kept all the livestock for ourselves and took plunder from all the towns. – Deuteronomy 3:3-7 NLT

Israel’s wandering days were over. And with these battles, God was giving them on-the-job training, preparing them for the day when they crossed over the Jordan River and began their conquest of the land of Canaan. These victories on the east side of the Jordan were less about land acquisition than they were about providing the Israelites with much-needed military experience. They were learning how to conduct urban warfare. They were developing tactical strategies and honing their skills as warriors. And their access to well-fortified cities provided them with protection from their growing list of enemies. Until God gave them their marching orders to cross the Jordan, they would live on the east side and fine-tune their fighting skills.

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

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

No Shortcuts to Holiness

14 Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that we have met: 15 how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt a long time. And the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our fathers. 16 And when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt. And here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. 17 Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from a well. We will go along the King’s Highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” 18 But Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.” 19 And the people of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.” 20 But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large army and with a strong force. 21 Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him.

22 And they journeyed from Kadesh, and the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came to Mount Hor. 23 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom, 24 “Let Aaron be gathered to his people, for he shall not enter the land that I have given to the people of Israel, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah. 25 Take Aaron and Eleazar his son and bring them up to Mount Hor. 26 And strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron shall be gathered to his people and shall die there.” 27 Moses did as the Lord commanded. And they went up Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. 28 And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron died there on the top of the mountain. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. 29 And when all the congregation saw that Aaron had perished, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days.  Numbers 20:14-29 ESV

The Israelites were nearing their final destination and as they approached the borders of Canaan, God was cleaning house. Chapter 20 opens with the death of Miriam. But the end of the chapter records the death of her brother, Aaron, the high priest of Israel. He too was disciplined by God for his part in the affair at Meribah. God had accused both Aaron and Moses of treating Him disrespectfully before the people.

“Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” – Numbers 20:12 ESV

While Moses had been the one to strike the rock three times in anger, Aaron had done nothing to stop his brother from disobeying God’s command. God had clearly communicated His orders to both men.

“You and Aaron must take the staff and assemble the entire community. As the people watch, speak to the rock over there, and it will pour out its water. You will provide enough water from the rock to satisfy the whole community and their livestock.” – Numbers 20:8 NLT

But Moses and Aaron were fed up with the constant bickering and complaining of the people. Despite what God had ordered them to do, they were going to use this God-ordained miracle as an opportunity to teach the people a lesson.

Then he and Aaron summoned the people to come and gather at the rock. “Listen, you rebels!” he shouted. “Must we bring you water from this rock?” Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the staff, and water gushed out. So the entire community and their livestock drank their fill. – Numbers 20:10-11 NLT

Moses, speaking on behalf of himself and his brother, tried to leave the impression that they were the ones who would meet the Israelite’s needs by providing water from the rock. In essence, they tried to rob God of glory. Then, by striking the rock rather than speaking to it, Moses violated the command of God. And God would hold both men accountable for their actions.

It was on the southern border of the land of Edom that God delivered the devastating news to Aaron and Moses.

“He will not enter the land I am giving the people of Israel, because the two of you rebelled against my instructions concerning the water at Meribah.” – Numbers 20:24 NLT

In a rather sobering ceremony atop Mount Hor, Moses took the priestly robes off of Aaron and gave them to Aaron’s son, Eleazar. It appears from the text that Aaron did not get to live out the rest of his life wandering in the wilderness, but died on top of the mountain while Moses and Eleazar looked on. They descended the mountain without him and the people of Israel mourned his death for 30 days.

Now Moses was alone. For nearly 40 years he had led the people of Israel with the help of his brother and sister, but their deaths had left him with the sole responsibility of getting the people of Israel to the land of Canaan. But Moses knew that he was never going to set foot in the land because of his role in the affair at Meribah. Like Aaron, he would be denied access to the land of promise and breathe his last breath in the wilderness.

But Moses continued to fulfill the duties God had given to him some four decades earlier. He mourned the loss of his brother but then set about leading the people of Israel to the border of Canaan. To do so, he had attempted to take a shortcut through the land of Edom.

Edom was located on the southernmost border of Canaan and was occupied by distant relatives of the Israelites. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, the firstborn son of Isaac and the twin brother of Jacob. When Esau had been cheated out of his birthright by Jacob, he decided to relocate his family to another part of Canaan.

Esau took his wives, his children, and his entire household, along with his livestock and cattle—all the wealth he had acquired in the land of Canaan—and moved away from his brother, Jacob. There was not enough land to support them both because of all the livestock and possessions they had acquired. So Esau (also known as Edom) settled in the hill country of Seir. – Genesis 36:6-8 NLT

Once there, Esau’s descendants prospered and developed a thriving kingdom. During the four centuries that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, the Edomites lived under a long line of kings (Genesis 36:31) and enjoyed a measure of peace and prosperity.

So, when Moses sent emissaries to the king of Edom seeking permission to pass through their territory, he expected a favorable response.

“This is what your relatives, the people of Israel, say: You know all the hardships we have been through. Our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we lived there a long time, and we and our ancestors were brutally mistreated by the Egyptians. But when we cried out to the Lord, he heard us and sent an angel who brought us out of Egypt. Now we are camped at Kadesh, a town on the border of your land. Please let us travel through your land. We will be careful not to go through your fields and vineyards. We won’t even drink water from your wells. We will stay on the king’s road and never leave it until we have passed through your territory.”– Numbers 20:14-17 NLT

The kingdom of Edom covered a large swath of land and without the right of safe passage through its territory, Moses and the people of Israel would be forced to take a much longer route around it. But no matter how hard Moses pleaded, the king of Edom refused to grant access to their land. He even threatened them with war if they tried. He even “mobilized his army and marched out against them with an imposing force” (Numbers 20:20 NLT). 

Rejected by their own kin, the Israelites were forced to reverse course and take the long detour around Edom. What’s interesting to consider is that the Israelites had always been led by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. God had used these two phenomena to guide His people throughout their four-decade-long journey. So, was Moses’ attempt to go through Edom an unauthorized decision on his part? Had the cloud led him to this point or was the negotiations with Edom something he had come up with on his own? Was Moses trying to shorten the distance to Canaan by taking an unauthorized path through the land of Edom?

It seems unlikely that God would have chosen to use the Edomites to help His chosen people reach the land He had promised to provide for them. These two nations remained in constant conflict with one another long after Israel conquered and occupied the land of Canaan. And the book of Obadiah describes God’s anger against Edom for the way it took advantage of Israel’s later misfortunes when the Babylonians conquered them and left the land desolate and depopulated.

“Because of the violence you did
    to your close relatives in Israel,
you will be filled with shame
    and destroyed forever.
When they were invaded,
    you stood aloof, refusing to help them.
Foreign invaders carried off their wealth
    and cast lots to divide up Jerusalem,
    but you acted like one of Israel’s enemies.

“You should not have gloated
    when they exiled your relatives to distant lands.
You should not have rejoiced
    when the people of Judah suffered such misfortune.
You should not have spoken arrogantly
    in that terrible time of trouble.
You should not have plundered the land of Israel
    when they were suffering such calamity.
You should not have gloated over their destruction
    when they were suffering such calamity.
You should not have seized their wealth
    when they were suffering such calamity.
You should not have stood at the crossroads,
    killing those who tried to escape.
You should not have captured the survivors
    and handed them over in their terrible time of trouble.– Obadiah 10-14 ESV

The Israelites received no assistance from their distant relatives and were forced to travel southeasterly toward the Arabian desert. This unexpected setback must have disappointed Moses and it’s clear from the next chapter that it left the people of Israel far from pleased.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. – Numbers 21:4 ESV

God was not done teaching them the lessons they needed to learn. They were not yet ready to enter His rest. So, God continued to purge their leadership and purify their hearts in preparation for the day when He would lead them into their promised inheritance.

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

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

I Am Your Portion

20 And the Lord said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.

21 “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, 22 so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. 23 But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the people of Israel they shall have no inheritance. 24 For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.”

25 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 26 “Moreover, you shall speak and say to the Levites, ‘When you take from the people of Israel the tithe that I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present a contribution from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe. 27 And your contribution shall be counted to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the winepress. 28 So you shall also present a contribution to the Lord from all your tithes, which you receive from the people of Israel. And from it you shall give the Lord‘s contribution to Aaron the priest. 29 Out of all the gifts to you, you shall present every contribution due to the Lord; from each its best part is to be dedicated.’ 30 Therefore you shall say to them, ‘When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be counted to the Levites as produce of the threshing floor, and as produce of the winepress. 31 And you may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward in return for your service in the tent of meeting. 32 And you shall bear no sin by reason of it, when you have contributed the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy things of the people of Israel, lest you die.’” Numbers 18:20-32 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been set apart by God and assigned responsibility for caring for the tabernacle and overseeing the elaborate sacrificial system He had ordained for the nation of Israel. Of the 12 tribes of Israel, they were the only one that would not be given an allotment of land in Canaan. Rather than inheriting a designated area within the land of promise, they would be given 48 cities located within the territorial boundaries of the other tribes.

“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, where a person who has accidentally killed someone can flee for safety. In addition, give them forty-two other towns. In all, forty-eight towns with the surrounding pastureland will be given to the Levites. These towns will come from the property of the people of Israel. The larger tribes will give more towns to the Levites, while the smaller tribes will give fewer. Each tribe will give property in proportion to the size of its land.” – Numbers 35:6-8 NLT

This meant that members of the tribe of Levi would be distributed among the other tribes of Israel. In a sense, as God’s “holy ”ones, they were to permeate the rest of God’s people and provide a positive spiritual influence on the nation as a whole. In return for their faithful service as priests and caretakers of the tabernacle, the Levites would enjoy the provision of God.

“You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.

“To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting – Numbers 18:20-21 ESV

God promised to meet all their needs. But their compensation would not come in the form of agricultural commodities or livestock. They would grow no crops of their own. They would own no flocks or herds. Yet, God would provide for them through means of the sacrificial system. God would graciously share with the Levitical priests the gifts given to Him by the people.

“These are the parts the priests may claim as their share from the cattle, sheep, and goats that the people bring as offerings: the shoulder, the cheeks, and the stomach. You must also give to the priests the first share of the grain, the new wine, the olive oil, and the wool at shearing time. For the Lord your God chose the tribe of Levi out of all your tribes to minister in the Lord’s name forever.” – Deuteronomy 18:3-5 NLT

“God was the unique inheritance to the Levites. He was the focus of their service, the source of their sustenance, and the significance of their calling. Their inheritance included cities, daily food, and a constant vocation, but it did not include the same type of land inheritance given to the other tribes of Israel.” – http://www.gotquestions.org

In their position as God’s mediators, the Levites played a vital role in protecting the spiritual and physcial well-being of the people. They served as guardians of the tabernacle with the responsibility of preventing any unauthorized individual from attempting to enter the holy place or come in contact with the consecrated items contained within it.

“From now on, no Israelites except priests or Levites may approach the Tabernacle. If they come too near, they will be judged guilty and will die. Only the Levites may serve at the Tabernacle, and they will be held responsible for any offenses against it. – Numbers 18:22-23 NLT

Failure to do their job would have dire consequences for all involved. So, God stressed to Aaron the serious nature of their role. Holiness was a high priority for God and the Levites were to help the nation of Israel maintain their set-apart status by requiring obedience to His commands

In return, God would provide for all their needs. Yet, the Levites were still expected to contribute a tithe on the basis of His gracious gifts to them. In other words, they were to offer a tithe on the tithe. When the people gave their tithes to God, the Levites would receive a portion as a gracious gift from God. But God expected them to a tithe in return, as a token of their gratitude toward and complete reliance upon Him.

“You must present one-tenth of the tithe received from the Israelites as a sacred offering to the Lord. This is the Lord’s sacred portion, and you must present it to Aaron the priest. Be sure to give to the Lord the best portions of the gifts given to you.” – Numbers 18:28-29 NLT

They were instructed to treat the tithes of the people as if they were the produce they had grown, the flocks they had raised, and the fruits they had cultivated.

When you present the best part as your offering, it will be considered as though it came from your own threshing floor or winepress. – Numbers 18:30 NLT

This was intended to create a sense of total dependence upon God. He was to be their sole source of provision and by giving a tenth of what they received back to Him, they would be demonstrating their complete reliance upon His grace and mercy. But God warned them to take this command seriously and obey it religiously. There was no room for debate or differences of opinion.

You Levites and your families may eat this food anywhere you wish, for it is your compensation for serving in the Tabernacle. You will not be considered guilty for accepting the Lord’s tithes if you give the best portion to the priests. But be careful not to treat the holy gifts of the people of Israel as though they were common. If you do, you will die.” – Numbers 18:31-32 NLT

Disobedience would result in God’s disapproval and, ultimately, the death of the guilty party. If they treated the tithes of the people with disrespect, they would pay with their lives. Those gifts and offerings had been dedicated to God and were to be revered as His possessions. He was graciously sharing with them what was rightfully His. And what He really wanted them to understand was that He was to be their portion. The Hebrew word is חֵלֶק (ḥēleq), and it can be translated as “portion,” “part,” or “territory.”

While they would receive no land as their inheritance, God would serve as their territory. The benefits they would normally expect to receive from land ownership would be provided by God Himself, and He would prove to be a more than sufficient source of sustenance. Yet, His goodness would be directly tied to their obedience.

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

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

The 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

A Model Prayer.

“Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. – Matthew 6:9-15 ESV

Jesus has just told His audience how not to pray. They were not to pray hypocritically, pretending to be concerned with God, while actually trying to impress those around them with their prayerful piety. And He told them not to pray lengthy, repetitive prayers, in the hopes that God might see them as more holy, and answer their prayers more readily. Jesus knew there was a lot about the practice of prayer that was misunderstood by His listeners and causing them to misuse and abuse it. They had turned prayer into little more than an outward display of their own apparent righteousness. They prayed to impress and to gain the approval of men. So, what should proper prayer look like? That is the question that Jesus answers in these verses. He opens with the statement: “Pray then like this…” (Matthew 6:9 ESV).  What follows is a model for prayer. It was not intended to be a stand-in for your own prayers or to become some kind of daily recitation that we pray routinely and mechanically. In these verses, Jesus provides us with a model to be followed, not a prayer simply to be recited. It contains the key elements that should be found in every prayer we pray. It provides a simple, easy-to-follow outline for proper prayer.

First of all, Jesus would have us remember that prayer is not about us. It is, first and foremost, about God and our relationship with Him as child to Father. We are more than free to come to God with our needs, wants, and even our desires. But we must attempt to bring those needs, wants and desires within His will. So, Jesus begins His model prayer with the words:

Our Father in heaven…

Jesus sets up an interesting juxtaposition. He refers to God as our Father, but reminds us that His residence is in heaven. The term “father” communicates intimacy. We are to come before God as a child, recognizing that He loves and cares for us. Realizing that He is our provider and protector. He is responsible for us. Which is why Jesus would have us never forget that, in prayer, we are talking to the transcendent God of the universe. He is in heaven. We are on earth. The word, “heaven” is intended to remind us of God’s divinityand our own humanity. He is eternal and we are temporal. He is holy, while we are marred by sin. And yet, we can come before Him and talk with Him. In fact, the author of Hebrews tells us to “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (Hebrews 4:16 NLT). But we must always remember that God is both good and great. He is approachable, but we must never come into His presence flippantly or disrespectfully. One of the problems that can develop from the father/child relationship is a spirit of over-familiarity. Children can become too comfortable with their parents and begin to treat them like peers. A parent who refuses to maintain their proper position of authority may end up with a child who becomes demanding toward them, even demeaning. The old phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt” can become true of the parent/child relationship. It can produce an attitude of flippancy and disrespect. And the same thing can happen in our relationship with God the Father. We are His children, but that relationship should not cause us to forget about His sovereignty over us. We should never fail to remember that it is Christ who provides us with access to God. Jesus would later boldy claim, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). And Paul reminds us:

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. – Ephesians 3:12 NLT

But let us do so respectfully, honoring Him as both God and Father. We must not let our newfound familiarity with God breed contempt for Him.

Next. Jesus provides us with an interesting way to address our Father God:

…hallowed be your name…

Now, why would Jesus insert this line in His model prayer? Think about what this statement is saying. The word translated “hallowed” is from the Greek word hagiazo, which means “to separate from profane things and dedicate to God.” The English word “hallow” means “to honor as holy; consider sacred; venerate.” But why would we need to say to God that His name be treated as holy? Isn’t His name always holy? One of the things we must understand is the extreme importance a man’s name held in the Hebrew culture. An individual’s name was tied to his character. So to say to God, “hallowed be your name” was a statement of desire. We are not asking God to keep His name holy, but that we, as His children, might live in such a way that we do nothing to profane His name. To say, “hallowed be your name” is to express to Him our desire and intention to live in such a way that we bring honor and glory to Him. We are pledging to treat His name as holy, and we do so by our actions. God will never do anything that will discredit or dishonor His own name. But as His children, we can do immeasurable harm to the character of God by the manner in which we conduct our lives on this planet.

The next part of Jesus’ model prayer states:

…your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…

Notice the emphasis: His kingdom. His will. Not ours. Prayer is not to be focused on us, but on God. Despite what we may believe, prayer is not primarily an opportunity to tell God things all the things we think He doesn’t know and when we get to provide Him with a lengthy list of things we think we need. Jesus has just said, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8 ESV). Prayer is an opportunity to align our will with His. It is a chance to remind ourselves that we exist for the good of His kingdom, not the other way around. And to ask that His kingdom and will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” is to say to God that we want His rule and reign to permeate every area of our life, just as it does in heaven. It is a willful submission to His authority over us.

One of the things Jesus seems to want us to know is that prayer is about sharing our hearts, not information. Prayers allows us to…

…realign our perspective

…refocus our attention

…reveal our sin

…refresh our commitment

…request His assistance

Prayer should focus on His kingdom, not ours. It should stress His will, not ours. But that does not mean we are unable to make requests of God. But Jesus provides us with a sobering reminder of just what we should focus on when we do.

Give us this day our daily bread…

Here is the interesting thing about Jesus’ model prayer. Wanting God’s will to be done should change what we ask for. If we truly believe that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving and fully capable of providing for us what we need for life, we will trust Him to do so. Our priorities will change. Rather than seeking significance and satisfaction from those things the world offers, we will be content to trust God to meet our daily needs. Thomas L. Constable describes our daily bread as:

“the necessities of life, not its luxuries. This is a prayer for our needs, not our greeds. The request is for God to supply our needs day by day.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Matthew, 2008 Edition

The next request Jesus makes in His prayer is that of forgiveness.

…and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…

But weren’t all our sins paid for on the cross? Why do we need forgiveness? Because we still have sin natures. Because we still sin. And sin creates a barrier between God and us. The forgiveness Jesus is talking about has nothing to do with salvation, but with restoring fellowship with God. Sin indebts us to God. When we confess those sins, it brings forgiveness.

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

Confession restores fellowship. Fellowship with God should mean more to us than anything else. But is Jesus teaching that our forgiveness from God is tied to our willingness to forgive others? To refuse to forgive others shows open disregard for the forgiveness of God. To refuse to forgive is sin. It is against the will of God for His children.

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:12-13 NLT

The next part of His prayer is intriguing.

…and lead us not into temptation…

Is Jesus suggesting that we ask God not to tempt us? If so, He would be contradicting what James would later write, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13 ESV). Paul seems to muddy the waters even more:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV

The Greek word for “temptation” is peirasmos and it can mean a trial or testing. It can refer to an inner temptation to sin, but also to a trial that tests the character. So what is Jesus suggesting? That we have an awareness of our dependence upon God. That we recognize that God’s way never leads us to sin. That doesn’t mean we WON’T sin. It is to ask God to protect us from falling into sin along the way. We need His help not to sin as He leads us. Following God’s leadership will not be easy. There will be trials along the way. Which is what Jesus is referring to when He adds:

…but deliver us from evil…

God will not only lead us, He will deliver us. He can keep us from committing evil. He can protect us from the evil committed against us. Remember what Jesus prayed in the garden:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. – John 17:15 ESV

Jesus ends this section by revisiting the issue of forgiveness. It was obviously important to Him. An unforgiving person has never fully understood or appreciated the forgiveness of God. How can we, who have been forgiven so much, be unwilling to forgive others? The key to receiving God’s forgiveness is confession – an acknowledgement of our sin. To not forgive others is to sin against them. And we can’t just confess that sin, we need to rectify it. We need to forgive, as we have been forgiven. In fact, we demonstrate whether we have been forgiven by whether or not we will forgive others.

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 Matchless Grace of God.

1 Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac. And to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. And I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. And I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in the midst of it, and afterward I brought you out.

“‘Then I brought your fathers out of Egypt, and you came to the sea. And the Egyptians pursued your fathers with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. And when they cried to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did in Egypt. And you lived in the wilderness a long time. Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan. They fought with you, and I gave them into your hand, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. Then Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, arose and fought against Israel. And he sent and invited Balaam the son of Beor to curse you, 10 but I would not listen to Balaam. Indeed, he blessed you. So I delivered you out of his hand. 11 And you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, and the leaders of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And I gave them into your hand. 12 And I sent the hornet before you, which drove them out before you, the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.’” Joshua 24:1-13 ESV

The last chapter revealed that “Joshua was old and well advanced in years” (Joshua 23:1 ESV). He knew his days were numbered and his time for leading the people of Israel was coming to an end. So, in this closing chapter of the book of Joshua, we see him attempting to prepare them for the next phase of their spiritual and physical journey with God. And he chose to prepare them for the future by looking at the past. Joshua gathered all the tribes together at Shechem. This was an important location that held significant memories for the Israelites. It was at Shechem that Abraham had built an altar to God, in response to the promise made to him by God: “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7 ESV). At that point in time, Abraham had no children, a barren wife, and the land was filled with Canaanites. But it was a promise made to him by God and Abraham took God at His word. 

Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD counted him as righteous because of his faith. – Genesis 15:6 NLT

Now, hundreds of years later, Joshua and the offspring of Abraham stood on the very same spot where Abraham had built his altar to God. It was at this strategic location that Joshua chose to give the people a brief, but vital history lesson. But from the outset, he let them know that this was actually a message from Yahweh, prefacing his remarks, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel” (Joshua 24:2 ESV). This was a message from God Himself, reminding His people of the role He had played in their founding as a nation. And the entire timeline concerning God’s interactions with the nation of Israel is filled with exampled of His unmerited grace and favor. He began with the call of Abraham, the son of Terah, an idolatrous pagan living beyond the Euphrates River in the land of Ur. God had chosen Abraham, not the other way around. God, in His grace and according to His sovereign will, had picked Abraham out of all the other inhabitants on the earth at the time. Notice that God mentions Nahor, the brother of Abraham, but that he was not the one selected. God’s choice was Abraham, and in spite of his idolatrous background. God had plans for Abraham, and those plans included a long and arduous journey to the land of Canaan. It was in Canaan that God provided Abraham with a son, Isaac. And, once again, this abbreviated version of the story stressed God’s matchless grace. It fails to mention Abraham’s old age and Sarah’s barrenness. It doesn’t point out their failure to trust God and their attempts to bring about His promise through human means. Abraham had tried to convince God to accept his manservant, Eliezer, as his heir. Sarah had tried to help God out by convincing Abraham to have a child by her maidservant, Hagar. But God had something far greater in mind. He was the God of the impossible and His promise was not going to be fulfilled through human cunning and cleverness. Sarah gave birth to a son, Isaac, another example of God’s grace. And from this one son came Jacob and Esau, from whom would come the nations of Israel and Edom. And while the Edomites would settle in the land of Seir, it was God’s sovereign will that the Israelites end up in Egypt, just as God had promised to Abraham.

“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” – Genesis 14:13 ESV

Through a series of God-ordained events, Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob, ended up in Egypt where he became the second-highest ranking official in the land. And a famine in the land of Canaan forced his father and brothers to turn to Egypt for aid, reuniting the family and fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham. The descendants of Jacob would remain in Egypt for 400 years, until God sent Moses to set them free from their bondage and slavery to Pharaoh. Once again, a picture of God’s grace, because they had long ago stopped worshiping Him as God. During their four-century stay in Egypt they had begun to worship the false gods of Egypt. But God graciously delivered them, using a series of plagues to prove to them that He was the one and only God. God had told Moses:

6 “Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.’” – Exodus 6:6-7 ESV

And their exodus from Egypt had culminated with God’s gracious deliverance of the people of Israel from certain death at banks of the Red Sea. They had walked out of Egypt, only to find themselves standing at the shore of the sea with the armies of Pharaoh bearing down on them. And the people saw their situation as hopeless.

11 They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” – Exodus 14:11-12 ESV

But God had graciously delivered them that day. And He had led them through the wilderness. He had taken to the land of Canaan. He had provided them with victories over their enemies. He had defeated Balak, thwarted the plans of Balaam, handed over the city of Jericho, and given them possession of the land, just as He had promised to do nearly half a century earlier. Over and over again, God stressed His role in their corporate story.

I took… (vs 3)

I led… (vs 3)

I made… (vs 4)

I gave… (vs 4, 8, 11, 13)

I sent… (vs 5, 12)

I plagued… (vs 5)

I did… (vs 5)

I brought… (vs 5, 6)

I destroyed… (vs 8)

I delivered… (vs 10)

And God summarized it all with the statement: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant” (Joshua 24:13 ESV). From the moment God had called Abraham to the day they had begun to occupy the land and enjoy the fruits it provided, God had been actively, graciously working on their behalf. Their entire history had been His story. He had done it all. From beginning to end. And it had all been an act of grace of God’s part – totally undeserved and unmerited. And God had done it all so that He might fulfill His divine plan to send His Son as the Savior of the world. The apostle Paul makes this point perfectly clear in his letter to the church in Galatia.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

God had preordained that the Messiah, the Savior of the world, would be born a Jew, a descendant of Abraham. God’s plan was far greater in scope than just the occupation of a land somewhere in the Middle East by a particular people group. It was about the redemption of mankind and the future restoration of His creation. It was about the ultimate defeat of sin and death, not just the conquest of Canaan. Each and every part of Israel’s story was an expression of God’s grace and mercy, as He orchestrated His plan for the salvation of mankind. God was reminding His people that the many blessings they enjoyed were the result of His grace, not their inherent goodness or greatness.

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

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

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

An Unexpected Ally.

1 And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” And they went and came into the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and lodged there. And it was told to the king of Jericho, “Behold, men of Israel have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land.” But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. And she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.” But she had brought them up to the roof and hid them with the stalks of flax that she had laid in order on the roof. So the men pursued after them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. And the gate was shut as soon as the pursuers had gone out. – Joshua 2:1-7 ESV

JerichoYou would think that Joshua would have learned from Moses’ experience from 40 years earlier. It was at that time that Moses had sent spies into the land of Canaan. Upon their return, the spies had good news and bad news. They had found the land to be rich in produce and abundant in natural resources, but it was also occupied by well-armed nations living in well-fortified cities. And while the spies had brought back proof of the kinds of fruit available in the land, the people only heard the bad news and chose to rebel against Moses and Aaron, refusing to enter the land God had given them.

27 “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” – Numbers 13:27-29 ESV

But, in spite of what had happened four decades earlier, Joshua sent in two spies. Their mission was to reconnoiter the area surrounding the city of Jericho. Jericho was not a large city, but it was located on the eastern border of the land of Canaan and would have been one of the first cities the Israelites encountered as they entered the land from the east, passing across the Jordan River.

One might argue that Joshua showed a lack of faith in God by sending in the two spies. After all, God had assured Joshua, “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses” (Joshua 1:3 ESV). He had given Joshua a guarantee his success. “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life” (Joshua 1:5 ESV). So, why was Joshua intent on sending in spies? It seems that Joshua’s purpose for this mission was not to gather information in order to determine whether or not to enter the land. He was simply seeking news regarding the fortifications of the city of Jericho. He was doing what any good military leader would do – he was assessing the capabilities of his enemy.

We are told that the two spies entered the city of Jericho and chose the house of a woman named, Rahab, in which to spend the night. The Jewish historian, Josephus, describes Rahab as having been an innkeeper. The text tells us she was a prostitute. It could be that Rahab owned and operated a brothel in the city of Jericho. This kind of destination would have provided the spies with a certain amount of anonymity, since it was the kind of place where men’s secrets were well kept and jealously guarded. But the important thing to note is that Rahab’s name is mentioned at all. This obscure woman, who practiced one of the oldest and least respected occupations in human history, has her name included in the story of Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan. And Rahab’s role in the Israelites victory over Jericho would be just the beginning of her influence over and association with God’s people. She is included in chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, a section often referred to as the “Great Hall of Faith.”

By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies. – Hebrews 11:31 ESV

Not only that, we see her name appear in Matthew 1, in the genealogy of Jesus. Rahab would go on to marry a Hebrew named Salmon, and the two of them would have a son named Boaz. Boaz would become the father of Obed. Obed would father a son named Jesse, and Jesse would become the father of David, the eventual king of Israel. But most importantly, from David’s line would come Jesus the Messiah. So, Rahab would not only play an important role in the salvation of the two spies, but in the redemptive plan of God to bring salvation to mankind through the birth of His Son, Jesus Christ.

It seems that news about the people of Israel had gotten out. The people in Jericho had heard about their presence beyond the Jordan River. The size of the Israelite nation had obviously grown over the 40 years they had been wandering in the wilderness. It has been estimated that there were as many as 3.5 million of them by the time they reached the Jordan. It would have been impossible to disguise the movements of a group of that size, so it is no wonder that Rahab knew exactly who the spies were when they arrived. She also knew why they were there. News of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and their conquests in the land east of the Jordan had spread. And Rahab seems to have concluded that it was only a matter of time before this massive force of people made their way into the land of Canaan, wiping out anyone who stood in their way. And from what she ends up telling the two spies, Rahab feared the God of the Jews more than she feared their army.

“…the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” – Joshua 2:11 ESV

Rahab took a great risk in providing shelter for the spies. And the danger inherent in her decision became apparent when the king of Jericho heard about the presence of the two spies and sent soldiers to Rahab’s house in order to find and arrest them. And this sets up a scenario that has raised all kinds of ethical questions over the centuries. When the soldiers asked Rahab about the spies, she lied. She had hidden them in her house, but told the king’s soldiers that they had left and she had no idea where they had gone. Was Rahab wrong in doing this? Did her motive to protect the two spies justify her decision to lie on their behalf? Interestingly enough, in his chapter on the relationship between faith and works, James includes Rahab as an example.

24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? – James 2:24-25 ESV

James indicates that Rahab was showing her faith in God by taking in the two spies and helping them escape. This in no way justifies her decision to lie. Lying is always a sin. God was not dependent upon the lies of a prostitute in order to protect the spies. The truth is, Rahab put herself and her family at great risk for doing what she did. But God protected her in spite of her decision to lie. God did not ask her to lie. That was not part of His plan. But God used this woman, in all her human frailty, to accomplish His divine will for the spies and, eventually, for the fall of Jericho. Not only that, God would include this less-than-stellar individual in the lineage of His Son, Jesus Christ.

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

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

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

To Caesar You Shall Go.

1 Now three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. And the chief priests and the principal men of the Jews laid out their case against Paul, and they urged him, asking as a favor against Paul that he summon him to Jerusalem—because they were planning an ambush to kill him on the way. Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea and that he himself intended to go there shortly. “So,” said he, “let the men of authority among you go down with me, and if there is anything wrong about the man, let them bring charges against him.”

After he stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea. And the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. When he had arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him that they could not prove. Paul argued in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.” But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?” 10 But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. 11 If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” 12 Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.” Acts 25:1-12 ESV

Paul had been held in what amounts to a state of suspended animation for two years by the governor, Felix. A trial had been held, but no decision made. No clear charges had been brought against Paul worthy of his execution, but, rather than release Paul and face the wrath of the Jewish leadership, and a potential riot by the Jewish people, Felix had chosen to leave Paul in Roman custody. Somewhere around 57 A.D., the emperor Nero recalled Felix and replaced him with Porcius Festus, the former procurator of Palestine. He became the new governor of the province of Syria, which included Judea and, therefore, the city of Jerusalem. Luke indicates that three days after having arrived in Caesarea, Festus made a trip to Jerusalem and met with the chief priest and other religious leaders of the Jews, most likely referring to the Sanhedrin or high council, the very same group who had brought charges against Paul two years earlier. The Jews brought Festus up to speed on their complaints against Paul and even begged him to allow them to conduct a trial on their home turf, which would have required that Paul be transferred from Caesarea to Jerusalem. Once again, they had an ulterior and sinister motive, They intended to have Paul ambushed and murdered along the way. Two years earlier, there had been more than 40 men who had vowed to neither eat or drink anything until they fulfilled their pact to put Paul to death. Their plot had been exposed and had resulted in Paul being transferred under Roman armed guard to Caesarea. Obviously, these men had been forced to break their fast, but their hatred for Paul had never diminished. It seems that they were more than willing to renew their vow and recommit themselves to Paul’s destruction when given the opportunity.

But Festus refused the Sanhedrin’s request, instead demanding that they bring a delegation to Caesarea, where he would conduct yet another trial so that he could hear the specifics of the case for himself. This at least reveals that Festus was going to give Paul a fair hearing, rather than simply turn him over to the Jews to do with as they saw fit. Festus most likely had looked into the case enough to have known that Paul was a Roman citizen and, therefore, according to law, deserving of a fair trial.

About a week later, the Jews arrived in Caesarea, and the trial was begun. Once again, the Jews had come prepared to paint Paul in the worst possible light. In fact, Luke records that “the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him” (Acts 25:7 ESV), but he also states that they had no proof. Their charges were all fabricated and fictitious. And when Paul was given a chance to defend himself, he simply stated, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense” (Acts 25:8 ESV). Now, it seems obvious that there was much more to this trial than Luke records. But it was likely a repeat of all that had been said in the trial that had taken place two years earlier before Felix. And there would have been court records from that previous trial to which Festus had access. At this point in his chronicle, Luke doesn’t appear interested in providing a word-for-word record of all that was said in the trial, but in showing that nothing had changed. Two years had passed, but the facts remained the same. The Jews were determined to see Paul put to death, and Paul was convinced of his own innocence.

Now, at this point, we see the political nature of the situation. Festus was a new governor, appointed by the emperor, Nero. He wanted to make a good impression. And, as the former procurator of Palestine, Festus was well acquainted with the volatile nature of the Jewish situation. He also knew that Rome preferred peace over rioting and insurrection, so, seeing an opportunity to throw the Jews a bone and give in to their request to have Paul tried in Jerusalem, he broached the idea with Paul. As a Roman citizen, Paul had a say in the matter and it is clear that Paul knew his rights. He responded to the governor’s request boldly and clearly:

10 “No! This is the official Roman court, so I ought to be tried right here. You know very well I am not guilty of harming the Jews. 11 If I have done something worthy of death, I don’t refuse to die. But if I am innocent, no one has a right to turn me over to these men to kill me. I appeal to Caesar!” – Acts 25:10-11 NLT

There is no indication in the text that Paul had been directed by the Spirit of God to demand a trial before Caesar. It would appear that Paul knew there was still the likelihood of a plot against his life, and he was doubtful that a trial in the city of Jerusalem, where hatred against him was high, would result in a fair and unbiased outcome. Paul was a Roman citizen and knew his rights. He also knew he was innocent and that his hopes of receiving a fair and unprejudiced trial would be under Roman jurisdiction, even if that meant he had to travel all the way to Rome. One of the things that should strike us is that Paul’s Roman citizenship plays a huge factor in this entire portion of Paul’s life story. Had he not been a Roman citizen, he would never have made it out of Jerusalem alive. The Roman tribune who had rescued him two years earlier from the Jewish mob that had been trying to beat him to death in the temple courtyard, would have flogged Paul and allowed him to undergo trial by the Jews. He would never have sent Paul to Felix for trial. And whether we recognize it or not, Paul’s citizenship was part of God’s sovereign will over Paul’s life. Paul was born in Tarsus, not by chance, but because of the preordained plan of God. Paul would state as much in his letter to the church in Galatia: “But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace” (Galatians 1:15 NLT). God had chosen Paul. God had determined the time and place of his birth, and the parents to whom he would be born. Paul’s Roman citizenship was not a coincidence or some form of blind luck. It was a part of God’s plan for Paul’s life and, more importantly, for God’s predetermined plan to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul was appealing to go to Caesar, to stand before the most powerful man in the world at that time, and he had the right to do so. Not only that, he had the God-ordained responsibility to do so.

And, after conferring with his counselors, Festus announced to Paul: “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go” (Acts 25:12 ESV). After a two-year delay, Paul was going to see his dream of going to Rome fulfilled. But it would not be exactly as he had imagined it. Paul had longed to visit Rome for some time. He had a deep desire to minister to the congregation of believers who had formed there. A year or two earlier, Paul had written a letter to the church in Rome, while he was in the city of Corinth, and he had told them:

God knows how often I pray for you. Day and night I bring you and your needs in prayer to God, whom I serve with all my heart by spreading the Good News about his Son.

10 One of the things I always pray for is the opportunity, God willing, to come at last to see you. 11 For I long to visit you so I can bring you some spiritual gift that will help you grow strong in the Lord. 12 When we get together, I want to encourage you in your faith, but I also want to be encouraged by yours. – Romans 1:9-12 NLT

Now, Paul was going to get his prayer answered. Not in a way that he would have imagined or even desired, but according to God’s sovereign will. He was going to get to minister to the believers in Rome, as a prisoner. And while in Rome, Paul would write four of his other letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Paul’s stay in Rome would end up providing him with time to minister and to put his thoughts in writing, ultimately providing the universal church with the vast majority of the content that makes up the New Testament. God had a plan for Paul. He had a purpose for the life of Paul. And that plan included a trip to Rome.

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

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

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

All According to Plan.

1 And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”

Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” 10 And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks.

11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” Acts 23:1-11 ESV

Paul had caused a riot in the temple. Actually, it would more accurate to say that it was his presence that had led to a riot in the temple. The riot was the result of a contingent of Jews from Asia who, upon seeing Paul in the temple, had wrongly assumed that he had been accompanied by one of his Gentile companions, a violation of the Mosaic law. Their accusation had caused the Jews in the temple grounds to react vehemently and violently to Paul, nearly beating him to death before the Roman guards stepped in. Paul was given a chance to address the crowd, but when it went south, he was taken to the Roman barracks in chains, where the Romans made plans to flog the truth out of him. When Paul announced to them that he was a Roman citizen, he was immediately released and apologized to profusely. But the Roman tribune still had a problem: He needed to know the nature of the crime for which Paul was guilty. When he had rescued Paul from the mob in the temple courtyard, he had been unable to discern what it was that Paul had done to make the Jews so angry. Luke recorded: “He inquired who he [Paul] was and what he had done. Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.” (Acts 21:33-34 ESV).

So, the Roman tribune had determined to bring in the big guns: the Jewish high council or Sanhedrin. He assumed that these religious rulers could help him get to the truth of what was going on. The following day, Paul was brought before the high priest and the council and given an opportunity to speak. But this would prove to be a less-than-receptive audience. No sooner had Paul begun his address, he was slapped in the face by order of the high priest. All Paul had said was, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1 ESV). This simple opening statement had incensed the high priest so much that he had commanded Paul to be publicly humiliated. Luke does not provide us with any details as to why Paul’s words were so upsetting to the high priest. It could have been a number of things. Perhaps he was offended that Paul addressed them as his brothers. Paul had at one time been a Pharisee and, according to his own testimony, had been given letters of authority by the high priest to pursue and arrest Christians in Damascus (Acts 9:2). So, at one time, he had enjoyed a close relationship with the high priest. But it is likely that the high priest was well aware of the radical change that had come over Paul and how he had switched sides and become a follower of the Way. He would no longer have considered Paul a brother.

There is also the likelihood that Paul’s claim of having a clear conscience before God also raised the ire of the high priest. Paul was claiming moral and ethical innocence as it pertained to his actions. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing he had done that was outside of the will of God or in violation of the Hebrew Scriptures. He had done nothing to deserve being beaten or arrested. The high priest most likely sensed that Paul was trying to seize the moral high ground and was not going to allow him to proceed.

Finally, there is a strong chance that the high priest was well aware that Paul was getting ready to launch into the story of his conversion and of his ministry among the Gentiles. He would have remembered what had happened when Stephen was on trial before them and how he had lectured them on their own history and accused them of killing Jesus. The slap might have been an attempt to put Paul in his place and to prevent him from using this forum as an opportunity to spout his heresy. Whatever the case, the indignity of the high priest’s reaction angered Paul and he responded accordingly.

“God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” – Acts 23:3 ESV

Paul’s words seem uncharacteristically angry. It almost appears that he lost his cool and allowed the tension of the last 24 hours to get to him. His words were harsh and vindictive, accusing the high priest of being a whitewashed wall. This statement is very similar to that of Jesus when He had referred to the scribes and Pharisees as whitewashed tombs.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs–beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.” – Matthew 23:27 NLT

Paul was accusing the high priest of hypocrisy. He was supposed to be the keeper of the law, but in ordering Paul to be struck, he was in direct violation of the law. Now, this is where it gets a bit interesting. Immediately after his verbal tongue lashing, Paul was informed that he had been addressing the high priest. This appears to have come as a shock to Paul, because he immediately claims ignorance, stating, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest” (Acts 23:5 ESV). And Paul makes it clear that, had he known, he would not have said what he said, because to do so would have been in violation of God’s law as well. He even quotes from Exodus 22:8: “You must not dishonor God or curse any of your rulers.” So, it would appear that Paul had been unaware that his words, spoken in anger, had been addressed to the high priest. But that begs the question: But would it have mattered? According to Exodus 22:8, Paul would have been guilty no matter which one of the men had ordered him to be slapped. As members of the high council, they were all considered leaders over the people of Israel. So, there is a likelihood that Paul was being a bit sarcastic. In saying that he didn’t know it was the high priest, he may have really been inferring that the high priest had not been acting like a high priest when he had ordered Paul to be slapped. So, how was Paul to know he was addressing a leader of the people of Israel. He hadn’t acted like one, so Paul had addressed him appropriately.

We’ll never know exactly what went on at that moment. But we do know that the tensions were high, and Paul sensed an opportunity to take advantage of what he knew to be the divisive nature of the council’s makeup. The members of the high council were made up of Pharisees and Sadducees. Paul, as a former Pharisee, knew well the differences between the two groups. The Sadducees denied the very idea of the resurrection. This was a major point of disagreement between themselves and the Pharisees and, as a former Pharisee, Paul would have been well aware of this fact. So he exploited it by saying, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial” (Acts 23:6 ESV). Once again, he addressed them as brothers, but this time he directs his attention to the Pharisees in the room. He was dividing his audience and setting up a confrontation. And, for the benefit of the Roman tribune, Paul cut to the chase and established the true reason for his so-called trial: The resurrection of the dead. Specifically, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But he purposefully doesn’t mention Jesus. He simply raises the controversial issue of bodily resurrection and the room explodes. Luke records that, “when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided” (Acts 23:7 ESV). Paul just sat back and watched the fireworks. And the Roman tribune got a first-hand glimpse of Jewish religious politics in action. Paul’s little ploy worked to perfection. Luke states that “a great clamor arose” and at one point, some of the scribes who were Pharisees, shouted that they saw no reason for Paul to be on trial – he was innocent. Then things began to get violent – so much so, that the Roman tribune had to rescue Paul once again and return him to the barracks, so he wouldn’t be torn to pieces by the religious leaders.

Paul was not out of the woods. He was still under arrest and had no idea what was going to happen to him. But the following night he was given words of assurance from Jesus Himself.

The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” – Acts 23:11 ESV

Paul was on his way to Rome. He had longed to go to Rome for some time. He had even written to the believers in Rome, telling them, “I am eager to come to you in Rome, too, to preach the Good News” (Romans 1:15 NLT). And now, after a lengthy delay, he was going to get his opportunity. But while Paul had long harbored a desire to go to Rome, he had not let that sway him from doing his job. He told the believers in Rome:

20 My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else. 21 I have been following the plan spoken of in the Scriptures, where it says,

“Those who have never been told about him will see,
    and those who have never heard of him will understand.”

22 In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places. – Romans 15:20-22 NLT

But there would be no more delay. God was sending Paul to Rome. It would not be quite the way Paul had probably envisioned it, but it was the will of God. The timing was perfect, because it was God’s timing. The means by which Paul would make his way to Rome might appear less-than-ideal, but it was the sovereign plan of God. Paul’s very presence in Jerusalem had been the will of God. His presence in the temple had been part of God’s divine plan. His beating and arrest were as well. And all that had taken place in his trial before the Sanhedrin was just another example of God’s providential plan for his life. Paul was going to enjoy the opportunity of a lifetime: To testify about Jesus in the capital of the Roman empire.

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

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

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