The Last Will Be First, and the First Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” –  Matthew 19:23-30 ESV

It’s essential that we not separate the content of these verses from the encounter that Jesus had with the rich young man. Verse 22 ended with the sobering statement: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

When Jesus had instructed the man to sell all he possessed, give it to the poor and follow him, the man had simply walked away. He considered the cost too high. In his mind, the price Jesus seemed to have placed on eternal life was too steep to pay. This man couldn’t bear the thought of giving up all that he possessed in order to gain eternal life. So Matthew records that the man went away sorrowful.

But we must not miss two critical statements made by Jesus that help give clarity to what Jesus told His disciples after the man’s departure. Two different times in His exchange with the young man, Jesus addressed his desire to know what he had to do to gain eternal life.

If you would enter life… – vs. 17

If you would be perfect… – vs. 21

And in both cases, Jesus had followed up those statements with action steps:

…keep the commandments. – vs. 17

go, sell what you possess and give to the poor. – vs. 21

Jesus knew something the disciples didn’t know. It was not a case of whether the man would or wouldn’t keep Jesus’ instructions. It was that he couldn’t. It was impossible. While the young man claimed to have kept the five commandments Jesus outlined, there was no way he had done so perfectly. And it is painfully clear that the young man loved his wealth and possessions more than he loved God. In other words, he had broken the very first commandment because he had made a god out of material things. And he was willing to sacrifice the hope of eternal life with God in order to hold on to his false god of materialism.

So, as the disciples watched the man walk away, Jesus used the moment as a teaching opportunity. He made a statement that must have caught them by surprise.

“Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:23-24 ESV

For the disciples, this statement made no sense. As Jews, they had always understood a person’s wealth to be a sign of God’s blessing. They had been taught to believe that one of the primary ways in which God bestowed His favor upon men was through material possessions. When they looked at the lives of the patriarchs, like Abraham, Joseph, and David, they saw men who had been greatly blessed by God with great wealth. And they aspired to be blessed in the same way.

So, the words of Jesus caught them off guard. They were inconsistent with their understanding of how life worked. Which explains their astonishment and their question to Jesus: “Who then can be saved?”

Their train of thought had jumped the tracks. The words of Jesus were illogical and disturbing. Their question to Jesus might be expressed this way: “If those who are obviously blessed by God are going to have a difficult time entering the kingdom of heaven, then what hope do we have?”

The disciples were far from wealthy. They had little in the way of possessions. And nobody looked up to them or aspired to be like them. But their whole concept of God’s blessings was warped. They had not yet understood what Jesus had said in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…”

“Blessed are the merciful…”

“Blessed are the pure in heart…”

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…”

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…” – Matthew 5:3-11 ESV

God’s standard of blessing or approval was not wealth. It was an attitude of spiritual poverty and complete reliance upon God. When it came to the kingdom of heaven, the self-reliant and self-sufficient would be denied entrance. Those who determine to make comfort and ease their goal in this life will miss out on the joys of eternal life.

This discussion left the disciples confused and led them to ask, “Who then can be saved?” It’s important to note that they were not using the term “saved” in the same sense we would. They were not tying salvation to the gospel, but to man’s entrance into eternal life. And their understanding was much like that of the rich young man. They believed that eternal life was a reward for the good things done in this life.

But Jesus shocked them when He said, “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV). The word “this” ties back the idea of salvation or the earning of eternal life. It is impossible for any man to earn his way into God’s kingdom. And not only that, it was going to be particularly difficult for the wealthy. Why? Because, like the young man who had just walked away, they would find their wealth to be a barrier to saving faith. Materialism has a way of masking our needs. It keeps us from recognizing our true spiritual poverty. Money can buy us a false sense of peace and security. It can make us feel invincible and invulnerable. 

And if you believe that your wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, you will have little impetus to see yourself as someone in need of God’s forgiveness.

This whole exchange began with Jesus describing the need for childlike faith. The disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest. They falsely viewed prominence and position as a sign of favor with God. But Jesus had told them, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). Now, He was expanding on this thought by saying it was impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because a rich man lacked the humble, innocent, and completely dependent faith that displayed his need for God.

And Jesus stressed the sheer impossibility of it all by using an extremely ludicrous illustration. A rich man could no more earn his way into God’s kingdom than a camel could squeeze through the eye of a needle.

Always quick to share his opinion, Peter asked, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

It’s obvious that Peter was thinking of the words Jesus had spoken to the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21 ESV). In Peter’s mind, he had done what Jesus had asked. He had sacrificed greatly in order to follow Jesus so, he wanted to know what was in it for him. What would be his reward? Remember what Jesus told the young man. If he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor, he would “have treasure in heaven.” So, Peter wanted to know what he was going to get for all of his sacrifices.

Jesus answered Peter’s question, but not in the way that he had hoped.

“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:28-29 ESV

Jesus assured Peter that he would have a reward, but it would be far different than what he was expecting. Jesus revealed that there was a day coming when He would establish His kingdom on earth. He would sit on the throne of David and rule from Jerusalem. But that day was in the far-distant future. He was speaking of His millennial kingdom, which will take place after His second coming. And in that kingdom, the 12 disciples will receive their reward. They will rule over the 12 tribes of Israel. They will have positions of power and prominence. They will rule alongside the Messiah in His millennial kingdom.

But in the meantime, they were going to be called to sacrifice. The disciples would be required to give up far more than could imagine. Most of these men would end up sacrificing their lives on behalf of the kingdom of God. They would face persecution and difficulty. And Jesus had already warned them of the reality of their future fate.

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  – Matthew 10:17-20 NLT

Their reward would be in the future. And it would be tied to eternal life in the kingdom of God. So, rather than seeking their reward in the here-and-now, they were to focus their attention on the hereafter. In this life, they would be required to sacrifice. They would have to die to self and serve God, not material things. Their faith was to be based on the future reward promised to them by God through Christ. They needed to stop viewing the kingdom from a worldly perspective. Wealth, power, and prominence in this life were no guarantees of eternal life. Salvation is a work of God. And nothing is impossible for Him. While we can never earn our salvation, God has made it possible for all who place childlike faith in His Son to receive the unmerited reward of life everlasting.

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

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

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

The Standard For Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something New

53 And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, 54 and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” 58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. – Matthew 13:53-58 ESV

When Jesus had finished sharing His parables concerning the kingdom, He asked His disciples if they understood their meaning, and they responded, “Yes” (Matthew 13:51 ESV). But did they really understand, or were they simply afraid to admit that they were still confused? Jesus seemed to know that their answer did not reflect the true state of their hearts and minds. He was well aware that all this talk of the kingdom had left His disciples with more questions than answers. They had taken it all in, but it would take time for them to digest all that they had heard.

Jesus responded to their affirmative answer with another parable-like statement:

“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” – Matthew 13:52 ESV

In ancient Israel, scribes were considered an expert in the Hebrew scriptures. Their job was to study the Law and write commentaries on it. They were also responsible for transcribing the Scriptures, taking meticulous care to see that there were no errors made in the copying process. Their intense preoccupation with the Scriptures gave them an unparalleled familiarity with its content. Of all people, they should have been the most aware of the countless passages concerning the kingdom of heaven. The Pentateuch, the writings of the prophets, the books of history and poetry – they all pointed toward the coming Messiah and the establishment of His kingdom.

And Jesus compares these learned men to the master or head of a house. This man has a treasury (thēsauros) filled with a variety of items he has deemed of great value. Some are old, and some are new. But they have all been placed in a storehouse for safekeeping. A scribe would have been familiar with all the books of the Old Testament and would have known that they were all written over a period of 1,400 years by some 40 different authors. But this collection of diverse writings would have all been considered sacred to a faithful scribe. And he would treat the more recent texts of Scripture with just as much honor as the earlier ones. They would all be God’s Word and worthy of consideration. The newer books were to shed light on the older ones. And together, taken in their entirety, the Scriptures would shed light on the coming kingdom. They would all point toward the Messiah.

From the book of beginnings, the book of Genesis, the scribe would have read the words of God spoken to Satan in response to his role in the fall of Adam and Eve:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.” – Genesis 3:15 ESV

This was a prophecy concerning the coming Messiah. Satan would eventually be paid in full for his wickedness, suffering at the hands of an offspring of Eve – the future Messiah. And if you fast-forward to the last verse in the last book of the Old Testament, you find another prophecy concerning the coming kingdom and the work of the Messiah:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

Old and new treasure. It was all to be considered of equal value. And Jesus was sharing even more recent and revelatory information that the scribes should have considered in light of all that they already knew about the Messiah. They should have been able to put all the pieces together and see the bigger picture. But they didn’t. Instead, they rejected Jesus as the Messiah. They treated the new “treasure” provided to them through Jesus’ words and works, with contempt. Rather than accept the gift of God’s Son as the final piece to their collection of prophetic treasures, they rejected Him.

And Jesus wanted His disciples to take in all that they were hearing and seeing, considering it as new revelation, but fully in keeping with all that had come before. As God had said through the prophet, Isaiah:

“For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness.” – Isaiah 43:19 NLT

And as the apostle Paul would later write:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

Something new and significant was happening. And Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that what they were witnessing was unlike anything the scribes or other religious leader had ever anticipated or expected.

And it is no coincidence that Matthew chooses to include Jesus’ return to His hometown of Nazareth at this point in his narrative. After completing this series of parables, Jesus left Capernaum and made the 20-mile journey to Nazareth, the place where He had spent His childhood. Jesus would have been returning to familiar territory, where He should have met a receptive audience. But things did not turn out that way. In this little section, which ends chapter 13, Matthew provides an important transition that brings his description of Jesus’ rejection by His own to a close.

Upon His return to Nazareth, Jesus made His way to the synagogue. This was not the first time Jesus had visited the synagogue since leaving Nazareth. Luke records that Jesus went back to Nazareth not long after His temptation in the wilderness. On that occasion, Jesus had stood before the congregation and read from the book of Isaiah. After reading the text, a prophecy concerning the Messiah, Jesus had boldly stated, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 ESV).

While Luke records that the people “all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Luke 4:22 ESV), they had a difficult time reconciling who they knew Jesus to be with what they heard Him saying. They couldn’t help but ask, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” They remembered Jesus growing up in Nazareth, along with his brothers and sister. They viewed Jesus as just another one of the sons of Joseph. They had no concept of the virgin birth or of Jesus’ deity. He was just another son of Joseph the local carpenter.

So, Matthew records yet another occasion when Jesus spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth. And we find his neighbors still trying to reconcile their perception of Jesus with all that they had heard He had done since leaving Nazareth. They respond:

“He’s just the carpenter’s son, and we know Mary, his mother, and his brothers—James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. All his sisters live right here among us. Where did he learn all these things?” And they were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. – Matthew 13:55-57 NLT

They were having trouble reconciling the old with the new. The more recent version of Jesus didn’t gel with their preconceived notions of who He was. That was the core of their struggle. Rather than receive Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah, they couldn’t help but view them as nothing more than just another Jewish boy from Nazareth. They were incapable of seeing the treasure in their midst.

Like Elijah and Elisha, Jesus was a prophet without honor in His own hometown. This was in fulfillment of the words of John, recorded in his Gospel: “He came to his own people, and even they rejected him” (John 1:11 NLT).

Jesus had faced rejection elsewhere in Israel, particularly by the religious leadership. But if there should have been a place where Jesus found receptive ears and a willing acceptance of His message, it should have been Nazareth. But He found the residents of His hometown just as resistant to His claims as anyone else in Israel. As a result, Jesus “did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58 ESV). They would have loved to have seen Jesus perform some of the miracles for which He had become famous. They weren’t opposed to Jesus healing the sick or casting out demons, but they were not willing to accept His claims to be the Messiah.

John records that even the half-brothers of Jesus struggled with doubt concerning His claims. They were more than happy for Jesus to become famous as a miracle worker, but they could not bring themselves to believe that He was their Messiah.

…and Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, where your followers can see your miracles! You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” For even his brothers didn’t believe in him. – John 7:3-5 NLT

Unbelief. That was the problem. The people of Israel refused to believe who Jesus claimed to be. They could not accept this new version of the Messiah because it did not reconcile with their old, well-established ideas. Jesus did not look like what they were expecting. The kingdom of heaven Jesus preached about wasn’t anything like the earthly kingdom their Messiah would bring. And so, they rejected Him.

Something new had happened, but they couldn’t see past their old perceptions. And, sadly, they missed out on a priceless treasure provided to them by God Almighty and at no cost.

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 Righteous Wrath of God

19 “The Lord saw it and spurned them,
    because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters.
20 And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them;
    I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.
21 They have made me jealous with what is no god;
    they have provoked me to anger with their idols.
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
    I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
22 For a fire is kindled by my anger,
    and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase,
    and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

23 “‘And I will heap disasters upon them;
    I will spend my arrows on them;
24 they shall be wasted with hunger,
    and devoured by plague
    and poisonous pestilence;
I will send the teeth of beasts against them,
    with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.
25 Outdoors the sword shall bereave,
    and indoors terror,
for young man and woman alike,
    the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.
26 I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces;
    I will wipe them from human memory,”
27 had I not feared provocation by the enemy,
    lest their adversaries should misunderstand,
lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.”’ Deuteronomy 32:19-27 ESV

We love to talk about God’s love, mercy, and grace. And while these divine characteristics are essential to understanding His nature and bring us great comfort, they can also paint a rather one-dimensional image of God. An overemphasis of these positive aspects of God’s character can cause us to downplay His righteous anger and just judgment. This is one of the reasons so many people find such a disparity between the Old and New Testaments. They see conflicting images of God portrayed and choose the kind and compassionate God of the New Testament over the harsh and seemingly heartless God of the Old Testament.

But there is only one God, and He is unchanging in His nature. Yes, we may prefer to dwell on His more loving and father-like characteristics, but that does not mean He is incapable of displaying anger or dispensing harsh justice when necessary. And while the Old Testament is the primary place where this darker side of God’s character is displayed, it does not mean He has mellowed with time. Here are just a few reminders of God’s unchanging nature.

“For I the Lord do not change…” – Malachi 3:6 ESV

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
    but you are the same, and your years have no end. – Psalm 102:25-27 ESV

And there countless passages in both the Old and New Testaments that reveal the righteous indignation of God.

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

In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
    you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. – Exodus 15:7 ESV

“Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord, who strikes.” – Ezekiel 7:8-9 ESV

But when he [Jesus] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? – Matthew 3:7 ESV

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. – Romans 2:5 ESV

And in this portion of the song given by God to Moses, the anger of God is clearly revealed.

They have made me jealous…” – vs. 21

“…they have provoked me to anger.” – vs. 21

“…a fire is kindled by my anger…” – vs. 22

“…I will heap disasters upon them…” – vs. 23

I will spend my arrows on them…” – vs. 23

I will send the teeth of beasts against them…” – vs. 24

Not exactly the kind of sentiments you might find on a Hallmark card. These are clear expressions of God’s anger against the people of Israel and the tangible means by which He intends to manifest His indignation. He even goes so far as to say that He would have completely “cut them to pieces” and wiped them “from human memory” (Deuteronomy 32:26 ESV), but He knew their enemies would have taken credit for it.

God knew that, if He completely destroyed His people, their enemies would arrogantly assume that they were the ones responsible for Israel’s demise.

“Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.” – Deuteronomy 32:27 ESV

And God hates the prideful and arrogant as much as He does the unfaithful and spiritually adulterous. He was not about to give the pagan nations the pleasure of taking credit for something He had done. They were simply instruments in His hands, doing His bidding and acting as His servants. Neither Babylon or Assyria, whom God would use to punish His rebellious people, could take credit for their success. God would raise them up and use them to accomplish His divine will by meting out His just and righteous judgment against His chosen people.

And God points out that His anger was brought on by the actions of those whom He had redeemed and rescued from slavery. His own adopted children had spurned His love and thrown His mercy and grace back in His face through their unfaithfulness.

They stirred him to jealousy… – vs. 16

They sacrificed to demon… – vs. 16

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you… – vs. 19

…and you forgot the God who gave you birth. – vs. 19

And God makes His damning assessment of His rebellious people.

“…they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

What God describes here is serial apostasy. This is not a case of the occasional failure to remain faithful, but of the habitual and willful refusal to follow God’s will. This song is revealing what will become Israel’s because of Israel’s faithlessness.

God will spurn them and hide His face from them. Why? Because that is exactly how they will treat Him. They will turn their backs on Him, choosing instead to worship false gods and demons. They will hide from Him, attempting to disguise their spiritual infidelity and mask their apostasy by feigning faithful adherence to His laws. And so, God will give them a taste of their own medicine. But when God hides His face, the consequences are devastating. When He spurns them, they will experience a form of loss they could have never imagined or anticipated.

God warns of disasters, hunger, plagues, and pestilence. He describes suffering caused by “the teeth of beasts” and “the venom of things that crawl in the dust” (Deuteronomy 32:24 ESV). He foretells of death brought on by the sword and arrows. And no one will be spared. Young men and women will suffer. The nursing child and the old man with gray hair will each endure the same fate. There will be no mercy shown and no grace given.

And while we might not like this image of God, we cannot assume it is somehow incorrect or inconsistent with His character. He is God. And He is fully righteous. All that He does is right, just, and good. In fact, the opening stanza of this poem declared the justice of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he. – Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV

He is not the one we should judge. He does not deserve our criticism and, most certainly, does not merit our disdain.

“They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

God had poured out His love, mercy, and grace upon the people of Israel. He had redeemed and rescued them from captivity in Egypt. He had led them across the wilderness and put up with their repeated displays of ingratitude and constant bickering and complaining. He had brought them to the border of the land of promise and watched as they stubbornly refused to enter in because they didn’t believe He would see them through.

And now, as the next generation stood at the very same border, preparing to enter into the land under the leadership of Joshua, God was informing them that their unfaithfulness would continue. They would conquer the land, but would never enjoy victory over their own apostasy. They would experience the power and presence of God, but would constantly turn their back on Him, seeking instead to give their affections to and place their hopes in false gods.

But God had long ago warned them about what He would do if they proved unfaithful.

“You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.” – Exodus 20:5-6 NLT

We might not like reading about God’s anger. We may find His judgment difficult to understand or justify. But it is the righteous judgment of God that makes the grace and mercy of God so meaningful. The fact that God would spare a remnant of the people of Israel so He could send His Son as their Messiah shows us just how loving He really is. If we do not understand how just God is in judging those who reject Him and rebel against Him, we will never fully appreciate the value of the mercy and grace He offers. God has chosen to provide justification in place of judgment. He has made a way for sinful men and women to enjoy exoneration rather than condemnation. He has made a way possible for those dead in their trespasses and sins to experience forgiveness and eternal life. And it was all made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

It is not until we fully understand the justice of God’s wrath that we will fully appreciate the joy of God’s love.

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

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

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

Set Apart By God

10 “He found him in a desert land,
    and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
    he kept him as the apple of his eye.
11 Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
    that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
    bearing them on its pinions,
12 the Lord alone guided him,
    no foreign god was with him.
13 He made him ride on the high places of the land,
    and he ate the produce of the field,
and he suckled him with honey out of the rock,
    and oil out of the flinty rock.
14 Curds from the herd, and milk from the flock,
    with fat of lambs,
rams of Bashan and goats,
    with the very finest of the wheat—
    and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.

15 “But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked;
    you grew fat, stout, and sleek;
then he forsook God who made him
    and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
16 They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
    with abominations they provoked him to anger.
17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
    to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
    whom your fathers had never dreaded.
18 You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,
    and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Deuteronomy 32:10-18 ESV

The Lord’s song continues. It recounts how God discovered Jacob and his family, the nation of Israel, in Egypt, a desert land. God rescued the descendants of Jacob from their captivity in Egypt, where they had served as the slaves of Pharaoh for hundreds of years. God had heard their cries of despair and had sent Moses to be their deliverer.

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. – Exodus 2:23-25 NLT

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saw the plight of His chosen people and responded with compassion. He protected them like a mother eagle would its chicks. Using Jacob as a synonym for Israel, the poem describes how God cared for His own.

he encircled him, he cared for him,
    he kept him as the apple of his eye” – Deuteronomy 32:19 ESV

Centuries of captivity in a foreign land had not changed God’s feelings about Jacob and his descendants. The circumstances surrounding their years in Egypt were not to be seen as proof of God’s abandonment of them. The promise He had made to Abraham still held. In fact, it was during their stay in Egypt that the family of Jacob increased in number from just over 70 people to a great nation numbering in the millions.

But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:7 ESV

And this meteoric growth was exactly what God had promised Abraham so many years earlier when He had called out of Haran.

I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3 NLT

God had kept His promise. But His ways are not man’s ways. His methods don’t always make sense to us. The nation of Israel was born out of adversity. It grew up in the context of slavery and servitude. It was a nation in bondage, enslaved by the enemy and incapable of delivering itself from its predicament.

And it was in the midst of their darkest moment that God stepped in and did for them what they could not do for themselves. He delivered them from bondage. He set them free from captivity. And their rescue is indicative of what God has done for all those whom He has rescued from slavery to sin.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. – Romans 5:6 NLT

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

Paul describes us as having been “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:20). And Jesus said, “everyone who sins is a slave of sin” (John 8:34 NLT). But He has set us free. And “if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT).

The Israelites were set free from slavery in Egypt. God guided them out of their captivity, having delivered from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. And when they left the land of Egypt, they did so with God alone as their guide and companion, having left the false gods of the Egyptians behind them. And God led them, fed them, and protected them all the way through the wilderness. But more than that, He taught them about obedience and faithfulness, using trials and difficulties to increase their trust in Him.

“Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell. Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good.” – Deuteronomy 8:2-5 NLT

God was gracious and good to the people of Israel, providing them with an abundance of blessings in the form of tangible and practical resources intended to prolong and improve life.

…produce of the fields
…honey for from the cliffs
…olive oil from the hardest of rocks
…butter from the herd
…milk from the flock
…the fat of lambs
…rams and goats of Bashan
…the best of the kernels of wheat
…the juice of grapes

Even in the wilderness, they enjoyed the blessings of God. They ate well and were well-cared for by God. Even their wilderness experience was better than the years they had spent in captivity in Egypt. Walking with God in the wilderness is always better than living in slavery without Him.

God had set apart Israel as His own precious possession. They had done nothing to earn or deserve His gracious deliverance of them. And Moses had made this point quite clear earlier in the book of Deuteronomy.

“For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the LORD rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT

The blessings of God were undeserved. His love for them was not based on any inherent worth in them. And He would continue to love them, in spite of them.

But this song was intended to bring witness against the Israelites, convicting them of their unfaithfulness to God. And to do so, it accentuates the unmerited favor of God. When they had been helpless slaves, God heard their cries and rescued them. He set them free from their oppression and misery, making them His own chosen possession, “the apple of his eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10 ESV). But would they remain so? Were the Israelites going to honor the one who set them free by keeping His commands and living in obedience to His will for them?

Even as they stood on the edge of the promised land, preparing to cross over and claim it as their own, God was revealing the sad truth about their fate. They would become slaves yet again. The people whom God had set free would once again find themselves living in bondage and surrounded by false gods and foreign overlords. They had been set apart by God but would choose not to live that way. They had been made His precious possession but would end up as little more than the property of their enemies. And the next verses of the song will explain how this dramatic change in circumstances will happen.

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

Christ in You

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. – Romans 6:3-5 ESV

17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. – 1 Corinthians 6:17 ESV

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. – Romans 8:1 ESV

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:9-11 ESV

In our last post, we discussed the incredible reality that the Holy Spirit dwells within each and every Christ-follower. At the point of salvation, the Spirit of God takes up residence within the life of the believer, signifying their new righteous standing and full acceptance by God as clean and worthy vessels. The blood of Christ has cleansed them from sin and transformed them into a pure and worthy dwelling place for God’s Spirit.

But there is another important change that takes place when the believer comes to faith in Christ. He or she is immediately united with Christ. This is a familiar phrase to most of us, but it tends to lack any real sense of meaning for us. When we read the words of Paul found in Romans 6, we are hard-pressed to understand the true significance of what he is trying to tell us. He states that we have been baptized into Christ. But not only that, we have been baptized into His death. And then Paul adds that we have been buried and raised with Christ. When Christ died, so did we. And because He was raised back to life, so were we, because we are united with Him. Our union with Him in His death ties us directly to Him in His resurrection. He died and rose to new life and, by virtue of our relationship with Him, so did we.

We died to sin and were raised so “we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4 ESV). And it is our inseparable union with Christ that makes us acceptable to a holy God. When God looks at us, He sees His resurrected, fully righteous, and completely sinless Son. Because Christ conquered sin and the grave, we are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6:6). No longer dead in our trespasses and sins, we are spiritually alive and fully capable of producing the fruit of righteousness (Philippians 1:11). And it all because of “…our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10 ESV).

This union with Christ is what brought us new life (Ephesians 2:5). We became a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). We received release from the sentence of condemnation that hung over our heads as sinners and were given the ability to live in the power of the indwelling Spirit of God (Romans 8:1). We became a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), received “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3 ESV), and “everything we need for living a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT).

That’s quite a list. But do we believe it? If so, do our lives reflect that we do? Most of us have no trouble accepting the fact that our salvation was completely dependent upon Christ and His sacrifice on the cross in our place. But Paul would have us understand that far more happened at the point of our salvation than we know or appreciate. We didn’t just benefit from Christ’s sacrifice, we took part in it. We were there with Him. It was our sins that he bore.

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

…he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 ESV

And as Paul makes clear, while Jesus took our sins upon Himself, He graciously shares His new life with us. That’s quite a deal. He takes our sin and death, while we get His righteousness and a new life. The amazing reality is that the believer in Christ enjoys an undeserved and unlimited union with Him.

It is his relation to Christ (and that alone) which qualified him to enter the Father’s House; and it is his relation with Christ (and that alone) which gives him the right to now draw nigh within the veil. True, the believer still carries around with him “this body fo death (a depraved nature), but that affects not his perfect standing, his completeness in Christ, his acceptance, his justification and sanctification before God. – A. W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification

As stated earlier, the believer receives the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation. And as Paul points out, the believer becomes one spirit with Christ by virtue of the presence of the Spirit of God (2 Corinthians 6:17). John Owen puts it this way:

Believers are united to Christ in God by the Spirit. This unions is a unilateral action by God, in which those who were dead are made alive, those who lived in darkness begin to see the light, and those who were enslaved to sin are set free to be loved and to love. When one speaks of “union,” it must be clear that the human person is merely receptive, being the object of God’s gracious action. This is the state and condition fo all true saints. – John Owen, Communion With the Triune God

To a certain degree, all of us struggle with the idea of our union with Christ. After all, we are told that “he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us” (Romans 8:34 NLT). That seems to indicate quite a distance between Jesus and those of us who claim to be His followers. How can we be united with Him if He is seemingly so far away? But remember what Jesus told His disciples, just prior to His death.

“…be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20 NLT

He had also assured them, “where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20 NLT). And Jesus let them know that He was not going to leave them alone or on their own. He was going to send help in the form of the Holy Spirit.

“…it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you…” – John 16:7 NLT

Jesus remains united with His followers through the presence of the Spirit of God. He has not left us or forsaken us but has simply passed on the responsibility for us to the third Person of the Trinity.

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’” – John 16:13-15 NLT

And through the Spirit, we still enjoy unbroken union with Christ and the Father. All that Christ is, we are. All the power He has at His possession is available to us – in full. His righteousness is ours. His wisdom is at our disposal. His sanctification and redemption also belong to us. All that we are and all that we possess as children of God is because of union with Jesus Christ.

And because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 ESV

Paul describes this marvelous reality as a mystery. It makes no sense and is difficult to comprehend, but it is true nonetheless. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27 ESV).

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

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

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

 

In Those Days

28 “And it shall come to pass afterward,
    that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female servants
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. Joel 2:28-32 ESV

With the content of these verses, the message Joel is delivering on behalf of God fast forwards to the end times. In the original Hebrew text, verses 28-32 are actually arranged as a separate chapter in the book of Joel. That arrangement further designates this part of the message and accentuates it as being distinct from the rest. The Hebrew text opens up with the words, “Now it will be after this.” Sometime after the events recorded in the rest of chapter two, God is going to do something radically and dramatically different.

Joel refers to this future time period as “those days” and “the great and awesome day of the Lord.” These will not be your run-of-the-mill, ordinary kind of days. They represent a period on the earth that will be marked by extraordinary, never-before-seen events. What Joel describes in these verses are supernatural, one-of-a-kind occurrences that represent the final phase of God’s grand redemptive plan for His chosen people, the Jews, and for the rest of mankind and the created universe.

In the preceding verses, Joel has described how God poured out His judgment on the people of Judah in the form on locusts. And God has warned that He is going to pour out even worse judgment in the form of an invading army. Now, God tells them that a day is coming when He will pour out something quite different: His Spirit.

“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…” – Joel 2:28 ESV

In place of His righteous and just judgment, God will pour out His Spirit. The prophet Ezekiel records a very similar message from God, providing greater detail as to what this divine outpouring will look like.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Lord: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign Lord, then the nations will know that I am the Lord. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:22-27 NLT

The prophet Zechariah provides further proof that this outpouring will be reserved for the people of Israel. And part of its purpose will be to open their eyes to the true nature of Jesus as their Messiah. They rejected Him the first time He came to earth, but when He arrives the second time, their response will be quite different.

“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died.” – Zechariah 12:10 NLT

This future period of time which Joel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah describe, represent the great day of the Lord when Jesus returns to earth as the King of kings and Lord of lords. This will take place at the end of the seven years of Tribulation. And while His return will signal the final destruction of all those on earth who have refused to honor God as the one true God and have rejected Jesus Christ as their only source of salvation, God will extend mercy to a remnant of His people. And this group will be made up of what will likely be millions of Jews who will come to faith during the dark days of the Tribulation. God will redeem 144,000 Jews who will become His evangelists during the Tribulation, and they will lead countless others to faith in Christ, including Gentiles (Revelation 7:1-8). We know from the book of Revelation that there will be a large number of these Tribulation saints martyred by Antichrist. John is given a vision of them standing before the throne of God in heaven.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:8-10 ESV

And John is told who these individuals are.

“These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. – Revelation 7:14 ESV

But in this message given by Joel, the emphasis is on the Jews. God has a special plan in place for His chosen people. Joel envisions God’s grace being poured out on His undeserving children, and it will fall on men and women, the young and old, and even slaves. And it will be accompanied by prophecy, dreams, and visions. This is meant to distinguish this as a time of unprecedented spiritual awakening marked by a pervasive presence of miraculous signs and wonders. Rather than one man speaking on behalf of God, countless young children will be declaring His truth. Even the old will communicate on behalf of God, declaring messages He has given them in the form of dreams. Young men, not recognized for their wisdom, will be given visions by God intended to communicate His word to the entire community. All of this will be the result of God’s powerful presence among His people. As the prophet Ezekiel recorded, God has promised that one day He will reveal Himself to them in unprecedented fashion.

“And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 39:29 ESV

In these coming days, God will reveal Himself in unprecedented ways. Not the least of which will be in the form of His resurrected and returned Son. The emphasis of these verses is not on the miraculous things the people will be able to do, but on the presence of God that makes it all possible. The prophet Jeremiah recorded yet another promise of God concerning this coming day.’

“I will give them hearts that recognize me as the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly.” – Jeremiah 24:7 NLT

And the apostle John heard a similar message concerning the day when God and His Son will take up permanent residence among His people.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.” – Revelation 21:3 NLT

But before all of this happens, God will bring final judgment on the earth.

“I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” – Joel 2:30-31 ESV

But during those days of final judgment, God will still be showing grace and mercy on fallen mankind, offering the gift of salvation to any who will receive it.

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. – Joel 2:32 ESV

These verses are full of reminders of God’s power, faithfulness, patience, covenant faithfulness, love, mercy, and grace. In spite of all that the people of Judah had done to disobey His commands and dishonor His name, He would keep His covenant promises to them. And even during the dark days of the Tribulation, when mankind will stubbornly refuse to turn to God in repentance, even in the face of His unrelenting judgment, He will save some.

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 Peace and Presence of God

13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.

17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. – 2 Thessalonians 3:13-18 ESV

There is no place for spiritual laziness or apathy within the body of Christ. Each member is expected to do his or her part, ministering through the gift(s) given to them by the indwelling Spirit of God. Both Paul and his fellow apostle, Peter, wrote about these things.

In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly. – Romans 12:6-8 NLT

God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ. All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen. – 1 Peter 4:10-11 NLT

Yet, the Thessalonian church had within it a contingent of individuals who were refusing to do their part. Rather than working, they were living off of the generosity of their fellow church members. And because they had so much time on their hands, they were tending to become busybodies, sticking their noses into everybody else’s business and causing dissension in the church.

Paul has already addressed how he expected the rest of the church to do deal with these individuals, commanding them to “keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6 ESV). And in the closing verses of his letter, Paul gives the church further instructions regarding the treatment of the lazy, idle, and disobedient among them.

Take note of those who refuse to obey what we say in this letter. Stay away from them so they will be ashamed. Don’t think of them as enemies, but warn them as you would a brother or sister. – 2 Thessalonians 3:14 NLT

Notice what Paul is doing here. He is calling for the members of the church in Thessalonica to maintain a mutual awareness of one another’s spiritual condition. He tells them to “take note” of all those who refuse to obey what Paul has written about in this letter – specifically in regards to “walking in idleness.” The Greek word Paul used is sēmeioō, and it means “to mark for avoidance.” It comes from another Greek word, sēmeion, which refers to a sign or mark. Or as the Outline of Biblical Usage describes it: “that by which a person or a thing is distinguished from others and is known.”

These people were to be recognized for what they were in order for the church to deal with them appropriately. There is no call for tolerance or political correctness on Paul’s part. He saw these individuals as detrimental to the spiritual well-being of the body of Christ and, therefore, he called for them to be shunned. No, they were not to be treated with hatred or animosity, like an enemy. They were to be warned about their behavior so that they might be ashamed (entrepō). The Greek word carries the idea of shame, but with a positive purpose behind it. The motivation was to see them turn around or invert their behavior. In a sense, it speaks of the kind of sorrow or regret that Paul wrote about to the believers in Corinth.

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.– 2 Corinthians 7:10 NLT

Paul is not recommending public humiliation or ostracization, he is calling on the body of Christ to heal itself. This is less about individual correction, then communal care. And, knowing that this kind of effort within the body of Christ could be difficult and emotionally draining, Paul encourages the church in Thessalonica to not throw in the towel. “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13 ESV).

This is the very same message Paul gave to the believers in Galatia:

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. – Galatians 6:9 ESV

The walk of faith is not an easy one. It can be difficult at times and strewn with all kinds of obstacles, distractions, and seeming detours. But Paul encourages his readers to not grow faint or weary along the way. For in due season, they will reap. There is a reward. And Paul wanted the Thessalonians to live with their eye on the prize. It was the way he lived his own life, as he made clear in his letter to the church in Philippi.

I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:13-14 ESV

He communicated the very same idea to the believers in Corinth, encouraging them to focus on the goal.

So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. – 1 Corinthians 9:24-26 NLT

As Paul brings his letter to a close, he offers up an interesting prayer. He calls on God, “the Lord of peace,” to give them “peace at all times in every way.” It seems a bit odd that Paul would ask God the Father to provide peace to His own children. But I think this prayer is meant to remind the Thessalonians that God is the author of peace and it is only through their relationship with Him that they will experience peace in the midst of the troubles of life. Jesus told His disciples:

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. – John 16:33 NLT

Paul seems to be communicating the very same promise. The Thessalonians can enjoy peace in the midst of turmoil. But the peace they need will only come from the Lord of peace. They will not find it anywhere else. Which is why Paul told the Philippians believers to take their cares and concerns to God.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7 NLT

The kind of peace Paul is talking about is not just a lack of chaos. The Greek word is rich in meaning, carrying the ideas of tranquility, security, safety, prosperity, and harmony between individuals. Even with all that was going on within their local fellowship, and the presence of brothers and sisters walking in idleness, the church could know and experience the peace of God – a remarkable lack of fear, anxiety, discord, and dissension.

And when Paul states, “The Lord be with you all,” he is not suggesting that God was absent from their midst and needed to show up again. He is reminding them of the undeniable reality of God’s persistent presence among them. As Moses had told the Israelites, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV). God was with them, and He would remain with them all along their journey this side of heaven. Just as God went before and lived among the Israelites as they journeyed from their captivity in Egypt to the land flowing with milk and honey, God will go before His children as they make their way from slavery to sin to their future glorification in eternity.

And as Paul signs off his letter, he gives them one more word of encouragement: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (2 Thessalonians 3:18 ESV). Once again, this is to be seen more as a reminder to the Thessalonians than a request to God. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a fleeting or fickle commodity. It is not something we have to seek or earn. It is a gift given to us by God Himself and as a result of Jesus giving His life on our behalf. And notice that Paul states that the grace of Jesus Christ will be with them all. It is not reserved for the spiritual elite or the religious superstars. His grace is available to all – all the time. But we must constantly acknowledge our need for it and place our hope in it.

You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. – 2 Corinthians 8:9 NLT

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

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

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

 

My Child in the Faith

1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began, and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;

To Titus, my true child in a common faith:

Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. – Titus 1:1-4 ESV

This letter from Paul to Titus is one of several examples in Scripture of Paul’s personal correspondence. Unlike his pastoral epistles, written to local congregations, this letter was addressed to a single individual and was intended for his encouragement and instruction. Titus, like Timothy, was one of Paul young protégés or disciples. It is most likely that Paul had played a role in leading Titus to faith in Christ and he had chosen this young man to join him in his ministry of spreading the gospel and planting churches among the Gentiles. Titus, who was Greek, had been a part of Paul’s ministry for quite some time and had accompanied the apostle on one of his trips to Jerusalem.

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. – Galatians 2:1-3 ESV

Titus had been a faithful companion to Paul on many of the apostle’s missionary journeys and had even delivered one of Paul’s letters of rebuke to the church in Corinth. Paul had great confidence in this young man. So, it is not surprising to find that, after visiting the island of Crete, Paul had left Titus behind with specific instructions and responsibilities.

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you. – Titus 1:5 ESV

We are not certain of Paul’s location when he penned this letter, but a widely held view is that he was in the city of Ephesus. He wrote this letter with the purpose of providing Titus with more details instructions regarding his responsibilities. The content of this letter, while personal in nature, is focused on the spiritual well-being of the fledgling congretations on the island. Paul knew Titus had his hands full and that his efforts to “put what remained in order” was not going to be easy. The believers in the churches on Crete were in the minority and lacking in godly leadership. In Paul’s absence, Titus had become the primary source of instruction and oversight. So, Paul was attempting to share with his young co-worker all his years of experience in planting and building churches.

When you consider that this was a personal letter, written to someone whom Paul knew extremely well, the situation appears somewhat formal and out of place. In fact, other than in his epistle to the Romans, this introduction is the longest found in any of all Paul’s letters. But its length and formality probably reflect Paul’s seriousness and his desire that Titus see his role with a certain sense of gravity. What Paul is sharing with Titus was not to be taken as mere human counsel, but the words of a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul served on behalf of God and spoke as a messenger of Jesus Himself. The Greek word, apostolos, referred to a messenger or one sent forth with orders. Paul wanted Titus to receive his instructions as if they had come directly from the lips of Christ. And, as if to convey his humble attitude, Paul stressed his role as a servant, a doulos or bondslave of God.

It is likely that Paul wanted Titus to share this same attitude of selfless submission to the will of God and sober awareness of his role as a spokesman for Jesus Christ. In a sense, Titus was Paul’s personal representative on the island of Crete, acting in his place and wielding his authority among the local congregations.

Paul begins his letter with a reminder to Titus that their ministry was “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth” (Titus 1:1 ESV). And that their knowledge of the truth was intended not only for their salvation but their sanctification as well – their growth in godliness. And the focus of it all was the “hope of eternal life” which God had promised long ago through the prophets and had made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In a sense, Paul is reminding Titus that their job was to preach the gospel so that the lost might come to salvation. But it was also to ensure the sanctification of the saved – their growth in Christlikeness. And, finally, to make sure that Christians remain focused on the ultimate purpose behind their calling: Their future glorification and the promise of eternal life.

It is so easy to focus on any one of the three aspects of God’s plan of redemption while ignoring the other two. Some put all their energy and efforts into sharing the gospel while ignoring the need to grow those who come to faith in Christ. They lead others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ but never take the time and energy to see that these new believers grow up in their salvation. And these infants in Christ remain so, stuck on milk and unable to handle the meat of God’s Word (1 Corinthians 3:2).

There are others who place all their focus on discipleship, insisting that believers grow spiritually. If not careful, these individuals can make it all about the here-and-now, and fail to remember that this life is not all there is. Without a proper emphasis on the hope of eternal life, discipleship can become an endless quest for righteousness in this life, while failing to recognize that our glorification is unachievable this side of heaven.

And yet, there are those who can spend all their time thinking about eternity and lose sight of present reality. They end up being so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good. We must maintain a constant balance between our earthly existence and our heavenly future. Paul wrestled with maintaining this balance. He knew he had a responsibility to lead people to Christ and to make sure they grew in their knowledge of and relationship with Christ. But he also longed to be glorified and experience the joy of eternal life. He wrote of this internal struggle to the believers in Philippi.

I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. – Philippians 1:20-24 NLT

With his lengthy introduction over, Paul addresses Titus with love and affection.

To Titus, my true child in a common faith – Titus 1:4 ESV

Titus was much more than a co-worker or ministry companion to Paul. He was like a son to Paul. And this letter will reflect Paul’s loving heart for his young friend and the believers to whom Titus had been given the responsibility to lead. This entire letter was written out of love. Paul had a shepherd’s heart and a deep desire to care for the flock over which God had given him responsibility. And Paul knew from experience that Titus had his work cut out for him. His task was not going to be an easy one. The building up of the body of Christ was a full-time job that came with few perks and even fewer expressions of gratitude.

Which is why Paul ended his greeting with the words: “May God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior give you grace and peace” (Titus 1:4 NLT). Paul longed for Titus to experience the merciful kindness of God in his life. He knew that Titus was facing difficult days ahead and he would need God’s grace to survive and thrive. And Paul also desired that Titus know the peace that comes from serving God faithfully and selflessly. Even amid opposition and the likely obstinance of those under his care, Titus could experience the peace that comes from doing the will of God.

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

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