An Invitation-Only Event.

1 And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.” –  Matthew 22:1-14 ESV

wedding feast

In this, the final of the three parables Jesus told on this occasion, He told the story of a king who prepared a wedding for his son. On the day of the wedding, the king sent his servants to escort all the invited guests to the festivities. But all those who had received the king’s gracious invitation refused to come. So, he sent additional servants, equipped with details concerning the feast king had prepared for them.

“Look! The feast I have prepared for you is ready. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.” – Matthew 22:4 NLT

They were told that the king had them in mind when he prepared the feast. He had spared no expense in planning a magnificent feast just for them. But each of those who had received the king’s personal invitation to this very special occasion chose to ignore his kind offer. Instead, they found other, seemingly more important things to do with their time. They showed no interest in the king, his son or the feast that had been prepared on their behalf.

Amazingly, some of the invited guests showed their disdain for the king by verbally and physically abusing his servants, and even putting them to death. Obviously, they had never heard the age-old maxim, “Don’t kill the messenger.” Their violent treatment of the innocent servants of the king revealed their attitude toward him as their sovereign. They showed him no respect and refused to extend to him the honor associated with his title. They displayed no fear of retribution on the part of the king. Their actions revealed a total disregard for the king’s position and power.

But they were in for a big surprise. Upon hearing of their murder of his servants, the king ordered his army to destroy these people and burn their town. He accused them of being murderers and treated them accordingly. And the king made it clear that their actions had exposed their inherent unworthiness to be guests at the wedding feast of his son.

“The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy.” – Matthew 22:8 ESV

Their actions had disqualified them. But it wasn’t the fact that they had murdered the king’s servants. It was that they had refused his gracious and repeated invitation to be guests at his son’s wedding feast. They had placed no value in the king’s decision to include them as his guests to this invitation-only event.

By now, Jesus’ intent behind this parable should be clear. He was telling His disciples about the coming kingdom of God. The king is the parable represents God the Father. The king’s son is Jesus. The wedding feast is the marriage supper of the lamb, a future event described in Revelation 19.

Let us rejoice and exult
    and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
    and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
    with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” – Revelation 19″7-9 ESV

And the original guests invited to the wedding feast represent the nation of Israel. God had extended His invitation to the Jewish people, sending His Son to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of heaven. But as John records in his gospel, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). Not only that, God had sent His prophets, years in advance of Jesus’ incarnation, and they had clearly told of the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish people had been “invited” by the servants of God to be guests at His Son’s coming wedding feast. But the Jewish people had rejected the words prophets, even putting some of them to death. Jesus will later declare His sorrow over Israel’s rejection of Him.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” – Matthew 23:37 ESV

In the parable, Jesus described the king’s decision to extend his invitation to others. He sent his servants to invite anyone they saw – good, bad or indifferent – to fill the banquet hall for his son’s wedding. Evidently, the king even supplied wedding clothes to these people, because they would not have had any. Having not been part of the original group invited to the wedding feast, they would not have had time to prepare for the ocassion. But, in spite of the king’s gracious provision of garments fit for a wedding, one man had the audacity to show up improperly dressed, having failed to put on what he had been given. He was promptly bound and thrown out.

So what’s the point? God had invited the nation of Israel into His kingdom. Over the centuries He had sent His messengers, the prophets, to the Jewish people, with His call to repentance, but they had refused God’s messengers, rejecting and even killing them. So Jesus told His listeners that God was going to deal harshly with that generation and with those of His own day. As a result, the invitation would be extended to any and all, a clear reference to the Gentiles. God would open up the invitation to those outside the Jewish community, even providing the proper “attire” for the wedding. Through His upcoming death on the cross, Jesus would clothe those who believed in Him with His own righteousness. He would replace their rags of sin with the white garments of righteousness, making them acceptable before God the Father. But if anyone tries to enter God’s Kingdom clothed in their own righteousness, they will be rejected.

Jesus had authority as the Son of God. The entire Old Testament message from the prophets spoke of Him. The nation of Israel had been invited to enter into His kingdom, but they would refuse. They had rejected the message of the prophets, of John the Baptist and would reject the offer of Jesus Christ. And the question you have to ask today, is whether Jesus Christ is the authority in your life. Do you listen to what He says and obey it? Have you accepted His invitation, or are you too busy, too good, or too smart to buy into something so hard to believe? Does the way you live your life reveal that you sometimes question whether Jesus has authority over your life? Do you refuse to put on the righteousness He has provided because you prefer your life just the way it is? Jesus not only wants to be the Savior, He wants to be your King. He wants to rule and reign in your life. He wants to lead you and direct you. He wants you to worship and obey Him. He wants you to live in submission to Him. Because He loves You and He alone knows what is best for you. He is a gracious, loving, merciful, righteous King who longs to provide for and protect His people.

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

Unearned and Undeserved.

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 ended this section the same He did the last one – with the words, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30 ESV). Jesus was still attempting to provide His disciples with further insight into His encounter with the rich young man. While Jesus was trying to clarify their misconceptions, they were still struggling with the content of the exchange between Jesus and the young man. 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 asked, “Who then can be saved?”, Jesus had dropped the bombshell, “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 told them a parable. It was clearly designed to explain what He meant by the first will be last, and the last first. He used 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 was 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 of 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. It was in 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 for their wage. 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 had come to an end, the landowner called all the men together in order to pay them for their labor. And this is where the main point behind the parable appears. The landowner paid every man a denarius, regardless of how long they had worked. The only group he had agreed to pay a denarius had been the first one. And Jesus made it a point to reveal that the last group hired had been 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 had earned more because they had done more.

But the landowner, unmoved by their complaint, told them to take what they had been offered. It was exactly what they had agreed to in the beginning. They had no right to question the generosity of the landowner. He was free to pay each man whatever he chose to pay them. And he 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 would 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 term of labor and reward. He 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 no 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 based on 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 of us will receive the same reward, not based on how long we have labored or the work we have done, 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

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

All Things Are Possible With God.

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 saMy Sitesid 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 wih the sobering statement: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

He was wealthy and, when Jesus told him to sell all he possessed, give it to the poor and follow him, the man simply walked away. The cost was too high. In his mind, the price for eternal life was too steep to pay.

But we must not miss two important statements made by Jesus that will 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 the man’s 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 cbases, 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

But 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 way, Jesus had used the moment as a teaching opportunity. He made a statement that 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 that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. They had been taught to believe that one of the primary ways in which God bestowed His favor on 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?”

In essence, what they were thinking was, if those that are blessed by God are going to have a difficult time entering eternal life, then what hope did they 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

When the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” they were not using the term 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 a rich man. 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 need. 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, 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.

Then, the always-ready-to-speak-up 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 sacrifice.

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 would take place after His second coming. And in that kingdom, the 12 disciples would receive their reward. They would rule over the 12 tribes of Israel. They would have positions of power and prominence. They would rule alongside the Messiah in His millennial kingdom. But in the meantime, they would be called to sacrifice. They 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 guarantee of eternal life. Salvation is a work of God. And nothing is impossible for Him. While we can never earn eternal life, 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 Favor of God.

1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:1-11 ESV

The Gospel of Luke provides us with additional insight into the timeline going on in this scene. He records that Jesus took time to hand-pick the remainder of His 12 followers, who He would later designate as His apostles.

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. – Luke 6:12-16 ESV

The mention of the term, “apostle” is important, because it helps differentiate the 12 men Jesus chose from the rest of those who are called “disciples” in the story. Often, when reading the Gospel accounts, we can see the term “disciple” and automatically assume it only refers to the 12 men whom Jesus had called. But as we will see, a disciple was simply a designation for anyone who followed Jesus for any length of time. A disciple was a learner, someone who followed a particular teacher or rabbi in order to glean from them their wisdom or beliefs. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus had many followers, but this did not mean that they viewed Him as their Messiah or Savior. In fact, when Jesus began to teach truths that were more difficult to comprehend, the crowds began to disperse. His disciples or followers turned their backs on Him. In John’s Gospel, he records an exchange between Jesus and His followers where He told them, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:54 ESV). This statement confused His audience, leaving some a bit repulsed by the imagery He used. But rather than back down, Jesus took the metaphor a step further.

53 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” – John 6:53-58 ESV

John records that the people found the words of Jesus difficult to hear and even harder to understand. And Jesus knew there were many in His audience who did not believe what He had to say. Sadly, John records, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66 ESV).

Why is this important? Because as we begin this portion of Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus addressing a crowd of His disciples or followers, and it is essential that we not mistakenly assume that the term “disciple” refers to someone who is a Christian or believer in Jesus. At this early stage in His ministry, there are relatively few who could be truly termed Christ-followers. Even the 12 are operating with a very limited understanding of just exactly who Jesus is. So, when Matthew records what has come to be known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the makeup of the crowd was a mixed bag of individuals who were there for a variety of reasons and who made up a cross section of Jewish culture of Jesus’ day. There were plenty of peasants or common people in the crowd that day. But there were also representatives of the Jewish religious leadership. And, of course, there were the 12 apostles whom Jesus had just recently called. Luke lets us know that many were there out of curiosity and for purely self-centered reasons, having come “to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:18-19 ESV).

And Jesus, taking advantage of their presence and their undivided attention, addressed them about a topic that was near and dear to all of them: The kingdom of heaven. But He was about to bring a radical new perspective to this familiar subject. As Jews, they would have considered themselves honorary citizens of the kingdom of heaven. They were the “chosen ones,” the descendants of Abraham and the hand-picked children of God. But Jesus is about to rock their world, presenting the kingdom of heaven and those who live in it, in a much different light than that to which they have grown accustomed. If you recall, Jesus had begun His ministry preaching the very same message that John the Baptist had preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV) The repentance He called for had to do with a change of mind, a rethinking of their current views on everything from God, righteousness, sin, salvation, and citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. As Jews, they thought they had it all figured out. They were the chosen people of God who had been given the law of God and access to the temple and the sacrificial system that allowed them to maintain a right standing with God. They were the apple of God’s eye, His prized possession and the designated recipients of His grace and love.

But in this paradigm-shifting message, Jesus will present a radical new perspective on what it means to live in the kingdom of heaven. And most of what He is going to tell them will leave them confused and conflicted. This will not be business as usual. His message will not confirm and conform to their present understanding of life in the kingdom of God. His words are meant to shock and surprise, to upset the status quo and reveal that something revolutionary was about to happen.

Nine different times in the opening lines of His message, Jesus uses the word, “blessed,” and He uses it to refer to those who are part of the kingdom of heaven because they have found favor with God. Their blessedness or right standing with God and designation as citizens of His kingdom has little do with what the Jews in Jesus’ audience would have deemed necessary for finding favor with God. Notice that Jesus doesn’t mention having a Jewish heritage as a prerequisite for blessedness. He doesn’t even bring up Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Instead, He mentions the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Those are the characteristics He uses to describe the blessed, those who have found favor with God and a place in His kingdom. But take a look at those attributes. Why would any of those seemingly negative characteristics qualify anyone for receiving God’s favor? For the average Jew, those descriptions would have represented everything to be despised and hated about life on this planet. Poverty of spirit was to be avoided at all costs. Mourning, while inevitable, was never seen as preferable. The Jews were a people who had suffered hundreds of years of oppression under the heavy-handed rule of outside forces like the Romans. Poverty, persecution, suffering, and mourning had become par for the course. And the idea of making peace with the Romans was about as far from the mind of the average Jew as showing mercy to a Gentile.

But Jesus is painting a radically different picture of life in the kingdom of heaven. It is not what they think. It is not what they have come to expect. And the description of it’s citizens is quite different than they would have imagined or desired. As Jesus begins to unpack this message, He is going to bring a new outlook on an old, familiar topic. He is going to rock their world and reform their view on what it means to receive God’s favor. What Jesus is about to reveal to them is the message of the grace of God. He is going to destroy the myth of self-righteousness that permeated the mindset of the Jewish people. Their confident belief in their status as God’s chosen people was going to crumble as Jesus revealed the impossibility of living up to the standards of kingdom life. What Jesus is going to show them is the radical nature of God’s righteous requirements, their own inadequacy, and the need of God’s grace. Those who find comfort, receive mercy, find God, and enjoy life in the kingdom of heaven will be those who accept the free gift of God’s grace made available through His Son.

Life in the kingdom of heaven cannot be earned. The favor of God cannot be merited through good deeds or right behavior. Righteousness is not a state one achieves through self-effort, but is a gift provided by a gracious God through the sacrifice of His own Son. A new day had dawned. The Son had come. The light was shining in the darkness.

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

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

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

The Matchless Grace of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I took… (vs 3)

I led… (vs 3)

I made… (vs 4)

I gave… (vs 4, 8, 11, 13)

I sent… (vs 5, 12)

I plagued… (vs 5)

I did… (vs 5)

I brought… (vs 5, 6)

I destroyed… (vs 8)

I delivered… (vs 10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eat, Drink and Be Joyful.

All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.

10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.

14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. Ecclesiastes 8:9-17 ESV

In this life, things don’t always turn out the way we think they should. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Good people experience a lot of bad things. And, far too often, bad people seem to come out on top. Solomon is wise enough to know that, in the end, everybody dies. But some wicked people can spend their whole lives fooling others into thinking they were actually good and godly people who lived religious lives. So, when they die, they receive the praise and honor of men. They lived a lie, and in death, they receive unwarranted admiration. As far as Solomon is concerned, this is just another proof of the vanity and futility of life. At the time of death, good people get forgotten, while the wicked get a parade in their honor.

When Solomon refers to the wicked, he is not just speaking of the godless and immoral. He is referring to those who hurt others, abusing and taking advantage of them. They are the oppressors he mentioned in chapter four.

Again, I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power, and their victims are helpless. – Ecclesiastes 4:1 NLT

These people don’t commit their wicked deeds in a vacuum. Their behavior inevitably impacts the lives of those around them. There are always victims involved, because wickedness is an equal-opportunity destroyer. And sadly, it is usually the innocent who end up suffering because of the lifestyle choices of the wicked. Prostitution and human sex trafficking destroy the lives of countless individuals every year. The drug cartels line their pockets with cash payed out by those seeking yet another high in a hopeless attempt to escape the lows of life. Abusive husbands have abused wives. Rapists have victims. Con artists have their marks. Bullies have the helpless. Liars have the gullible. The powerful have the defenseless. The list goes on and on. And when the wicked see that they can get away with whatever it is they do, they feel emboldened to do more. Solomon put is this way: “When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong” (Ecclesiastes 8:11 NLT). 

But Solomon introduces a vital point of clarification. Even though the wicked may appear to escape any retribution or justice, he knows there will eventually be payback. He has confidence that God’s justice will one day be meted out on all those who have made wickedness their lifestyle.

it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. – Ecclesiastes 8:13 ESV

From our perspective, it may appear as if the wicked just keep on sinning, committing evil after evil, with no apparent ramifications. It can even seem as if they live charmed lives, marked by longevity and free from accountability. But Solomon knows that it is those who fear God who will prosper in the long run. They may not experience it in this life, but our righteous God will one day ensure that all is made right. But in the meantime, we have to live with the incongruous reality that things don’t always seem to add up in this life. It is full of contradictions and apparent paradoxes. Which is why Solomon observes:

good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good . – Ecclesiastes 8:14 NLT

It’s all so meaningless and futile. And trying to figure it all out is about as productive as chasing the wind. You get nowhere. You expend a lot of energy but have nothing to show for it in the end. So, Solomon simply concludes. “I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15 NLT). Now, let’s take a look at this advice from Solomon. Is it wise? Does it even make sense? It may sound appealing. And just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean its godly counsel. This isn’t the first time that Solomon has reached this conclusion and passed it on to his readers. He offered up the same basic conclusion back in chapter five.

Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. – Ecclesiastes 5:18 NLT

He said virtually the same thing in chapter two, verse 24. He repeated it in chapter three, verses 12-13 and then again, here in chapter five. Eat, drink and enjoy your work. Eat, drink and be joyful. What’s Solomon saying and how should we take his advice? He is not advising a life of hedonism and self-centered pleasure. He is not advocating unbridled self-satisfaction. But he is suggesting that there are joys associated with hard work and diligent effort in this life. We get to reap the rewards of our work. We can enjoy the warmth and safety of a home we helped provide for through our labor. We can take advantage of the many material blessings that God allows us to enjoy as a result of our work. Unlike a slave, who receives no personal benefit from his labors, but must watch the rewards be consumed by his master, we can enjoy the fruit of our effort. We can find joy in a job well done and the rewards it offers. And Solomon would have us remember that “To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God” (Ecclesiastes 8:20 NLT). We may not have much, but what we do have, we should appreciate and view as a gift from God. The ability to find joy in our labor is something God supplies, and it comes from having a healthy reverence for God. If you despise your job and resent the time you spend having to work for a living, you are essentially expressing to God your ungratefulness for His provision. Your job is not good enough. The benefits it provides are not sufficient enough. So, rather than joy, you express resentment and disappointment. You begin to look at the wicked who seem to have more, and then question the goodness of God. This can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with the past that produces a ledger of God’s supposed failures to come through for you. No fear of God. No reverence, honor, glory or gratitude.

A big part of learning to fear God is learning to trust Him. It is coming to grips with who He is and who we are in comparison. He is God. He is sovereign, all-knowing and all-powerful. He is not wise. He is wisdom itself. He knows what is best. He always does what is right. The words of Moses, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, say it far more eloquently than I can.

I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
    how glorious is our God!
He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect.
    Everything he does is just and fair.
He is a faithful God who does no wrong;
    how just and upright he is! – Deuteronomy 32:3-4 NLT

Yes, there are many things in this life that appear unfair and unjust. There are paradoxes and incongruities galore. Our circumstances may scream to us that God is nowhere to be found, but the Scriptures tell us something radically different. He is always there. The wicked may appear to get away with murder, both literally and figuratively, but God is still in control. He has a plan. He will do what is just and fair. He can do no wrong. And if we could learn to view life through the lens of God’s transcendent power, glory, goodness and love, we would be better able to enjoy our lives on this planet – in spite of the seeming contradictions and incongruities that surround us.

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

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

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

The 800-Pound Gorilla In the Room.

1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15:1-11 ESV

Paul and Barnabas eventually arrived back in Antioch in Syria, reuniting with those in the church who had commissioned them and sent them on their first missionary journey. While they were there, “they reported all the things God had done with them, and that he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27 NLT). But their good news concerning the Gentiles was soon met with strong opposition, fueled by a contingent of Jewish Christians who had come from Judea with the expressed purpose of clearing up what they believed to be false and misguided teaching regarding these so-called Gentile converts. These individuals, while believers in Jesus, still held fast to their Hebrew heritage and viewed Christianity as an extension of Judaism. After all, Jesus had been a Jew and a rabbi. He had lived His life according to the Mosaic law, having kept it to perfection. He had attended synagogue and had been a student of the Hebrew Scriptures. And all of His disciples had been Jews, as well as the rest of those who had received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. So, in their minds, it was essential that any Gentile who wished to be saved, must first become a Jewish proselyte. In other words, they must be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law in order for their salvation to be complete and acceptable. So, all of those Gentiles who had come to faith on the island of Cyprus, and in Iconium, Lystra, Derby and Pisidian Antioch, as a result of the ministry of Paul and Barnabas, were not really save at all. The men from Judea had made their case known, loud and clear. “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1 ESV). And Luke, who can at time come across as the king of understatement, simply says, “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them” (Acts 15:2 ESV). We can only imagine how incensed these two men were at the suggestion that their work had been in vain. It’s not that the opposition was denying that Gentiles could be saved, but they were clearly stating what they believed to be the mandatory requirements concerning their salvation. And this so-called “debate” was going to become a major dividing point within the early church, as these believing Jews, sometimes referred to with the collective term of Judaizers, continued to propagate their particular salvation mandate.

It was determined that this matter must be taken to the church leadership in Jerusalem, so, Paul and Barnabas were sent along with others to present their opinions on the matter before Peter and the rest of the apostles. After having arrived in Jerusalem, they provided the apostles with a detailed accounting of all that had happened on their trip. They told of all those who had come to faith in Christ and how God had clearly been validating their efforts among the Gentiles. But the opposition was also present and they stated their case in all-too-clear terms: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5 ESV). They weren’t questioning the veracity of these Gentiles’ salvation experiences, but they were denying their validity. They were only partially saved. There was something missing. They had to become Jews, with all the males submitting to the rite of circumcision, and every man, woman and child agreeing to keep the Mosaic law. According to these men, the salvation of each and every Gentile was is a sort of spiritual limbo until these conditions were met.

Luke indicates that this matter produced a great deal of debate. And one can only imagine how vehemently Paul and Barnabas argued their side of the case. Their whole ministry was in question and the salvation of every Gentile convert they had witnessed was in jeopardy. And at the heart of the debate was the argument over what was required for someone to be saved. Had Jesus taught that circumcision and adherence to the law was required? Was that what He had commissioned the disciples to take to the nations? Had Jesus intended for all who come to faith in Him to first become card-carrying, law-abiding Jews?

It was Peter, the recognized leader among the apostles, who eventually stood up and addressed those gathered. And the first thing he did was remind all those in the audience how God had sent Him to the Gentiles.

7 “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith.” – Acts 15:7-9 NLT

Notice what Peter says: “he [God] made no distinction between them and us.” The Greek word, diakrinō, means “to separate, make a distinction, discriminate, to prefer.” God had not treated the Gentiles any differently than He had treated the Jews who had been gathered in that upper room on the day of Pentecost. The Gentiles received the outpouring of the Spirit of God just as the Jews had. In other words, the Gentiles were not denied this experience because they were uncircumcised and violators of the Mosaic law. They had been full-fledged non-Jews, but that had not made an ounce of difference to God. So, Peter asks an obvious and highly compelling question: “So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10 ESV). He accuses the Judaizers of putting God to the test. He asserts that they are demanding of these Gentile converts something God never required of them. And the truly unfathomable thing about this to Peter was that these Jews were placing a  “yoke” or burden on the neck of the Gentiles that no Jew had ever been able to bear. They were demanding the impossible of these Gentile converts. There wasn’t a Jew alive who had been able to keep the law. In fact, Paul would later address this issue to the church in Rome.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. – Romans 8:3 NLT

The law was unable to save man. So, then why had God given it? Paul would answer that very question in his letter to the church in Galatia.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

And in that very same letter, Paul would juxtapose the law with the grace of God, exposing the law’s incapacity to save anyone.

I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. – Galatians 2:21 NLT

And Peter brought up this important issue of grace to those gathered in Jerusalem. He wanted them to know that there was nothing to be done by men that would add to or complete the salvation that God had graciously made available to them through Christ.

“…we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.” – Acts 15:11 NLT

Salvation is the work of God, not men. There is nothing men can bring to the table that makes their salvation more acceptable to God than their simple faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The offer of salvation is a gracious gift from God. No one deserves it – neither Jew or Gentile. No one can earn it. And there is no yoke or burden we are required to bear in order to receive the salvation offered to us by God through faith in Christ. Salvation is not based on anything we do, but is based solely on what Christ has done. And again, Paul would make that point over and over again in his letters to the churches.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

The 800-pound gorilla of works-salvation is still present within the church today. It hasn’t gone away and it continues to divide the church and deceive those who think there is more required for salvation than simple faith. The spirit of the Judaizers is alive and well. Their mantra of faith-plus-something still permeates and pollutes the gospel message. We struggle with the idea of getting something for nothing. There must be more that we have to do. The gift of eternal life can’t come without strings attached. But Peter was making it perfectly clear, from the very beginning, that “we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” – nothing more, nothing less.

 

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

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

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

Some Were Saved.

1 Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel. Acts 14:1-7 ESV

acts-pauls-first-missionary-journey

After the Jews incited the wealthy and influential citizens to turn against Paul and Barnabas, they departed the city and made their way east, to Iconium, located on the easternmost border of the region known as Phrygia. Iconium was a Greek city-state, that due to its more distant location, had allowed its citizens to resist the influences of Rome, and maintain their more Grecian way of life and thinking. The city benefited from its location along a major trade route that linked Ephesus with Syria and the rest of the Mesopotamian world. Iconium was a virtual island of green in a sea of desert. It was lush and filled with vineyards, orchards and farms. And according to Greek mythology, it was the place where the gods, Prometheus and Athena, after a devastating world-wide flood destroyed all of mankind, made a race of new human beings by forming them out of mud and then breathing life into them. It was an eclectic city, made up of all kinds of people and, therefore, willing to tolerate a wide range of religious beliefs and practices.

When Paul and Barnabas arrived in town, they followed their usual pattern, and made their way to the local synagogue. As before, they found a congregation made up of ethnic Jews as well as God-fearing Jews or converted Gentiles. Luke tells us that, as a result of their ministry at the synagogue, “a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1 ESV). They found a receptive audience. These people responded positively to the message of forgiveness of sin and eternal life proclaimed to them by Paul and Barnabas. But, as usual, there were those who stood opposed to what they were saying and doing. Luke records that unbelieving Jews, or those Jews who resisted the message of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the world, “spurned God’s message and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 14:3 NLT). The message of the gospel was met with receptivity and animosity, acceptance and resistance. There were those who had their eyes opened and their hearts softened, while others remained blinded and hard-hearted, completely resistant to what they had heard. One of the things we should notice here is that both groups heard the very same message, spoken by the very same individuals. So, why did some respond positively while others reacted negatively. Were some more spiritual than others? Was it because some were more intelligent and able to comprehend what Paul and Barnabas were saying? Or could it be that some were just worse sinners than others and, therefore, harder to reach? You see, if we’re not careful, we can easily make salvation a man-focused event. In other words, we subtly and unknowingly, make it a decision that is completely up to man. But Paul would see a repetitive pattern take place as he ministered. He would see those who believed in Jesus, and those who stood opposed to the offer of salvation. And he would later write, “So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen” (Romans 9:18 NLT). And Paul, anticipating the shocked response of those who question the fairness of this kind of divine, seemingly arbitrary decision making, wrote:

19 Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”

20 No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? 22 In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. 23 He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. 24 And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles. – Romans 9:19-24 NLT

The belief of some and the disbelief of others is not due to the communication skills of the messenger or the intelligence or comprehension levels of the hearer. It is all due to the mercy and grace of God. And while it would be easy for us to question God’s fairness or wonder about the rightness of His methodology, Paul would remind us that “it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it” (Romans 9:14 NLT). Paul, through his ongoing experience of sharing the gospel in all kinds of locations to all kinds of people, began to see and understand that what was happening was completely the work of God, not men. The fact that anyone came to faith in Christ was not because of Paul’s power’s of persuasion or oratory skills. It was due to the grace and mercy of God. Those who believed in the message of the gospel did so, not because they were smarter, more spiritual, or somehow more receptive, but because God chose for them to do so. Here is how Paul came to understand what he was seeing happen in the various cities in which he and Barnabas ministered.

25 Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
    I will now call my people.
And I will love those
    whom I did not love before.”

26 And,

“Then, at the place where they were told,
    ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
    ‘children of the living God.’”

27 And concerning Israel, Isaiah the prophet cried out,

“Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore,
    only a remnant will be saved.” – Romans 9:25-27 NLT

 

It was Jesus Himself who said, “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me, and at the last day I will raise them up” (John 6:44 NLT). And later on, in that same conversation with His disciples Jesus had said:

64 But some of you do not believe me.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning which ones didn’t believe, and he knew who would betray him.) 65 Then he said, “That is why I said that people can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me.” – John 6:64-65 NLT

Salvation is the work of God, not man. Paul and Barnabas were nothing more than tools in the hands of God. They spoke, but it was God who chose to open the ears of those who heard so they could respond. It was God who chose to show His mercy on some and not others. And while we may find this hard to accept, we must rest in the sovereign will of God, trusting that He knows what He is doing. That is exactly what Paul and Barnabas did. When their message met with resistance, they didn’t ring their hands and wonder what they had done wrong. You don’t see any sign of them questioning their tactics or making a concerted effort to make their message more user-friendly and appealing. They trusted that they were doing what Jesus had commanded them to do, and that God was doing what only He could do: draw men to Himself. And Luke records that “the apostles stayed there a long time, preaching boldly about the grace of the Lord. And the Lord proved their message was true by giving them power to do miraculous signs and wonders” (Acts 14:3 NLT). They didn’t worry about the number of converts. They didn’t despair over the ones who refused to hear. They simply did their job and left the results of up to God. And Luke tells us that “the people of the town were divided in their opinion about them. Some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles” (Acts 14:4 NLT).

It wasn’t until Paul and Barnabas learned of a plot on their lives, that they finally departed the city and headed for Lystra and Derby. But when they left the city of Iconium, it was far different than when they had arrived. There were new believers there. A congregation of born-again Jews and Gentiles had been formed, and it had been the work of God. And Luke tells us that the pattern continued as Paul and Barnabas began the process all over again, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with the citizens of Lystra and Derby. They were being led by the Spirit of God. They were obeying the command given to them by the Son of God. And they were watching many come to faith because of the sovereign work of God.

English Standard Version (ESV)

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

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

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

Your Wounds I Will Heal.

“For thus says the Lord:
Your hurt is incurable,
    and your wound is grievous.
There is none to uphold your cause,
    no medicine for your wound,
    no healing for you.
All your lovers have forgotten you;
    they care nothing for you;
for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy,
    the punishment of a merciless foe,
because your guilt is great,
    because your sins are flagrant.
Why do you cry out over your hurt?
    Your pain is incurable.
Because your guilt is great,
    because your sins are flagrant,
    I have done these things to you.
Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured,
    and all your foes, every one of them, shall go into captivity;
those who plunder you shall be plundered,
    and all who prey on you I will make a prey.
For I will restore health to you,
    and your wounds I will heal,
declares the Lord,
because they have called you an outcast:
    ‘It is Zion, for whom no one cares!’

“Thus says the Lord:
Behold, I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob
    and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city shall be rebuilt on its mound,
    and the palace shall stand where it used to be.
Out of them shall come songs of thanksgiving,
    and the voices of those who celebrate.
I will multiply them, and they shall not be few;
    I will make them honored, and they shall not be small.
Their children shall be as they were of old,
    and their congregation shall be established before me,
    and I will punish all who oppress them.
Their prince shall be one of themselves;
    their ruler shall come out from their midst;
I will make him draw near, and he shall approach me,
    for who would dare of himself to approach me?
declares the Lord.
And you shall be my people,
    and I will be your God.”

Behold the storm of the Lord!
    Wrath has gone forth,
a whirling tempest;
    it will burst upon the head of the wicked.
The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back
    until he has executed and accomplished
    the intentions of his mind.
In the latter days you will understand this. Jeremiah 30:12-24 ESV

Their guilt was great. Their sins were flagrant. And their pain was incurable and their suffering, unbearable. The people of Israel found themselves under the hand of God, enduring their well-deserved punishment for their rebellion against Him as their God. He had chosen them and made them His own. He had blessed them and provided for and protected them for generations. He had given them the land of Canaan as their very own possession. He had made them powerful and influential. And in return, they had turned their backs on Him, sharing their affections with false gods and willingly disobeying the covenant they had made with Him. So, God was simply fulfilling what He had said He would do if they broke their part of the covenantal agreement.

“Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess. However, if you turn aside and do not obey, but are lured away to worship and serve other gods, I declare to you this very day that you will certainly perish! You will not extend your time in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” – Deuteronomy 30:15-18 NLT

Long before the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they had show a propensity to disobey God. Just months after being set free from captivity in Egypt, they had constructed the golden calf and were worshiping it in place of Yahweh, their deliverer. And years later, after 40 years of leading these people through the wilderness, Moses gave them a short speech from his deathbed.

“For I know that after I die you will totally corrupt yourselves and turn away from the path I have commanded you to walk. Disaster will confront you in the days to come because you will act wickedly before the Lord, inciting him to anger because of your actions.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 NLT

Not exactly a rousing vote of confidence. But he would be proven right. And that is exactly the place where the people of Judah find themselves as Jeremiah speaks the words of God to them concerning their current state of affairs. Things were bad. But God lets them know why they are suffering so greatly.

“I have had to punish you
    because your sins are many
    and your guilt is great.” – Jeremiah 30:15 NLT

But God has good news for them. In spite of their unfaithfulness, God was going to show them favor. He was going to shower them with His blessings once again. But not because they deserved it.

“I will give you back your health
    and heal your wounds,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 30:17 NLT

He was going to bring them back from captivity and restore their fortunes. He was going to bring joy to the land of promise once more. Jerusalem would be rebuilt. The king’s palace would be restored. The people of God would once again occupy the city of God. And much of this was fulfilled when the people of Judah were allowed to return from captivity in Babylon after 70 years in exile. But this would prove to be a partial fulfillment of God’s promise. Because there is a portion of this prediction that has yet to take place.

“They will have their own ruler again,
    and he will come from their own people.
I will invite him to approach me,” says the Lord,
    “for who would dare to come unless invited?
You will be my people,
    and I will be your God.” – Jeremiah 30:21-22 NLT

Israel has no king. There is no descendant of David sitting on the throne of Israel. But God has promised that it will happen. That day is coming. And this King will once again sit on the throne of David, fulfilling the promise that God had made to David generations before.

“And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” – 2 Samuel 7:16 ESV

The prophet Isaiah provides further insight into the nature of this descendant of David who will sit on His throne and rule from Jerusalem.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:6-7 NLT

The amazing thing about all of this is that God was going to bless the people of Israel in spite of them, not because of them. They did not deserve His blessings. They had done nothing to earn His favor. But the apostle Paul reminds us that, as believers in Jesus Christ, and recipients of His grace and mercy made possible through His Son’s death on the cross, we too were undeserving. In fact, we were once enemies of God.

You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. – Colossians 1:21 NLT

…our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies… – Romans 5:10 NLT

And in his gospel account of the life of Jesus, Luke provides us with an encounter that Jesus had in the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth.

When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
   and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” – Luke 4:16-21 NLT

Jesus was and is the Messiah of Israel. He is the descendant of David. And He is the one who will one day fulfill the promises of God revealed to the people of God through Jeremiah. One day, Jesus is going to restore the fortunes of Israel and Judah. He is going to return to earth as the King of Israel. He is going to reign from David’s throne located in Jerusalem, the city of God. He will bring healing to Israel. He will give sight to the spiritually blind. He will grant freedom to those trapped in slavery to sin. He will release those burdened by oppression and weighed down by sin and guilt. And He will rule with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.

In the meantime, Jeremiah reminds the people of Judah and Israel:

Look! The Lord’s anger bursts out like a storm,
    a driving wind that swirls down on the heads of the wicked.
The fierce anger of the Lord will not diminish
    until it has finished all he has planned.
In the days to come
    you will understand all this. – Jeremiah 30:23-24 NLT

One day they will understand. That is why God had Jeremiah put all these words on a scroll. He wanted them recorded for posterity. So that one day, the people of God could look back and be reminded that all that had happened had been the divine will of God Almighty. Their punishment and their ultimate restoration were all the result of the goodness, grace and mercy 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.

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

Trusting A Lie.

In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord‘s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, declares the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”

Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to Hananiah the prophet in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord, and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord make the words that you have prophesied come true, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. Yet hear now this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke-bars from the neck of Jeremiah the prophet and broke them. And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord: Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” But Jeremiah the prophet went his way.

Sometime after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke-bars from off the neck of Jeremiah the prophet, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Go, tell Hananiah, ‘Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars, but you have made in their place bars of iron. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put upon the neck of all these nations an iron yoke to serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and they shall serve him, for I have given to him even the beasts of the field.’” And Jeremiah the prophet said to the prophet Hananiah, “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will remove you from the face of the earth. This year you shall die, because you have uttered rebellion against the Lord.’”

In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died. Jeremiah 28 ESV

Welcome to the Prophet Wars. Ali and Frazier had their Thrilla in Manilla, but this chapter chronicles the epic showdown between two prophets of God on the grounds of the temple itself. Jeremiah had just finished delivering his message from God to the ambassadors of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon, warning them that God was sending Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, to defeat and enslave them along with Judah. They were to return home and tell their respective kings to submit to God’s will by submitting to the authority of the Babylonians. If they obeyed God’s will for them, they would remain in the land and survive the Babylonian occupation. If they chose to ignore God’s will, they would be destroyed. This same warning was given by Jeremiah to King Zedekiah of Judah. If you want to live, submit to the yoke of the king of Babylon and his people” (Jeremiah 27:12 NLT). And as a visual aid, Jeremiah was commanded by God to wear a wooden yoke when he delivered his messages. Jeremiah’s words and the yoke around his neck served as a one-two punch, a potent combination that was sure to have left an impact on the people who were in the hearing of his message. And news of Jeremiah’s pronouncement spread.

Some time later, Jeremiah found himself facing off with another prophet: Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon. The text informs us that “One day in late summer of that same year—the fourth year of the reign of Zedekiah” (Jeremiah 28:1 NLT), Hananiah showed up at the temple. It seems that Jeremiah was required by God to show up at the temple wearing his yoke and delivering his message for a prolonged period of time. This had not been a one-and-done situation. Day after day, Jeremiah found himself strapping on his yoke and heading to the temple to pronounce judgment on the people of God and the surrounding nations. But on this day, he would run into competition, in the form of Hananiah. With the priests, the people and Jeremiah watching and listening, Hananiah delivered his message:

“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘I will remove the yoke of the king of Babylon from your necks. Within two years I will bring back all the Temple treasures that King Nebuchadnezzar carried off to Babylon. And I will bring back Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the other captives that were taken to Babylon. I will surely break the yoke that the king of Babylon has put on your necks. I, the Lord, have spoken!’” – Jeremiah 28:2-4 NLT

Like a well-aimed punch, Hananiah’s words hit Jeremiah hard. They directly contradicted the message Jeremiah had been delivering. Here was another recognized prophet of God delivering a message that was dramatically and diametrically opposed to the one Jeremiah had given. Claiming to be speaking on behalf of God, Hananiah was calling Jeremiah a liar and deceiver. He struck at the very heart of Jeremiah’s message, insinuating that it was a lie and not the words of the Lord. And you can imagine the impact this had on the people. While Jeremiah had prophesied that the captivity of the people of Judah in Babylon would last 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12), Hananiah was countering with a prediction of a mere two years. Who do you think the people were prone to believe? Which message was more attractive to the the crowds standing in the temple courtyard that day?

But Jeremiah, while staggered by what Hanahiah had to say, was far from down and out. His counter-punch was classic:

“Amen! May your prophecies come true! I hope the Lord does everything you say. I hope he does bring back from Babylon the treasures of this Temple and all the captives.” – Jeremiah 28:6 NLT

Even he had to admit that Hananiah’s words were appealing. He even hoped they would come true. But he knew they would not. Jeremiah was convinced that he was right and Hananiah was wrong. The attractiveness of Hananiah’s message did not make it true, no matter how much the people wanted to believe it. Presenting God as totally gracious and kind, Hananiah gave the people a one-dimensional view of God that failed to recognize His holiness and hatred for sin. And Hananiah, removing the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and breaking it, attempted to illustrate that, in his view, God was going to break the yoke of the Babylonians, even allowing the exiled King Jehoiachin to return from captivity.

But it was all a lie. Hananiah may have legitimately believed what he was saying, but that did not make it true. His incomplete understanding of God may have led him to speak what he believed to be the words of God, but he was wrong. And Jeremiah reminded Hananiah and the people of the ultimate determining factor when judging the veracity of a prophet of God.

“…a prophet who predicts peace must show he is right. Only when his predictions come true can we know that he is really from the Lord.” – Jeremiah 28:9 NLT

Hundreds of years earlier, God had given the people of Israel His word concerning those who claimed to speak in His name.

“But if any prophet presumes to speak anything in my name that I have not authorized him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet must die. Now if you say to yourselves, ‘How can we tell that a message is not from the Lord?’— whenever a prophet speaks in my name and the prediction is not fulfilled, then I have not spoken it; the prophet has presumed to speak it, so you need not fear him.” – Deuteronomy 18:20-22 NLT

Jeremiah and Hananiah could stand there exchanging verbal punches all day long. They both claimed to be speaking for God, but only one of them could be right. And the only way to prove who was right was to wait and see what was going to happen. Time would be the ultimate determiner of who was really the prophet of God. And in an attempt to portray himself as the winner of this battle of words, Hananiah removed the yoke from around Jeremiah’s neck, broke it and pronounced the words:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Just as this yoke has been broken, within two years I will break the yoke of oppression from all the nations now subject to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.’” – Jeremiah 28:11 NLT

Jeremiah simply walked away. To the priests and people standing in the temple courtyard, it would have looked like a hands-down victory for Hananiah. He had won the day. Jeremiah had abandoned the ring in defeat. Or had he?

Soon after this confrontation with Hananiah, the Lord gave this message to Jeremiah: “Go and tell Hananiah, ‘This is what the Lord says: You have broken a wooden yoke, but you have replaced it with a yoke of iron. The Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: I have put a yoke of iron on the necks of all these nations, forcing them into slavery under King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. I have put everything, even the wild animals, under his control.’” – Jeremiah 28:12-14 NLT

Hananiah may have won the battle, but he was going to lose the war. His bold claim had only made matters worse. He had broken Jeremiah’s wooden yoke, but he had done nothing to change the will of God concerning Judah. Hananiah could deny and contradict the word of God, but it would not change the outcome. In fact, Jeremiah would be the prophet to have the last word:

“Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, but the people believe your lies. Therefore, this is what the Lord says: ‘You must die. Your life will end this very year because you have rebelled against the Lord.’” – Jeremiah 28:15-16 NLT

And the chapter ends with the sobering words: “ In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died” (Jeremiah 28:17 ESV). Less than two months later, the false prophet was dead. And two years later, his predictions of the return of King Jehoiachin and the fall of Babylon would be proven false. His pleasant-sounding prophecies of God’s grace and mercy without repentance would be exposed as what they were: Lies. And God would hold Hananiah personally responsible for causing the people to trust a lie. Those who claim to speak for God must understand that He will hold them accountable. Saying what you hope are the words of God does not make them so. Uttering what you prefer to be God’s will does not obligate God to bring it about. It is better to remain silent than to speak on behalf of God when you haven’t really heard from Him.

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

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

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