Bright Hope For Dark Days

1 How lonely sits the city
    that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
    she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
    has become a slave. – Lamentations 1:1 ESV

As of midnight last night, my community is under a “shelter-in-place” order mandated by the local authorities. It is just the latest in a long list of changes to our way of life. And it is likely that there will be more to come. We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, that is radically altering life as we know it.

This unprecedented worldwide catastrophe has impacted the health of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe, with the current number of cases reaching the half-million mark. And sadly, as of this writing, there have been in excess of 20,000 deaths as a result of this deadly disease.

On top of the devastating toll it is taking on human life, COVI-D-19 has wreaked havoc on the global economy, shutting down countless businesses both large and small, putting millions of people out of work and without sources of income. It would be an understatement to say that these are difficult days.

So, as I was preparing to begin a new Devotionary, I was drawn to the Old Testament book of Lamentations. Sadly, the unfortunate title given to this book has kept many people from ever digging into its rich and rewarding content. Yes, the name is a bit depressing, but as the old saying goes, “There’s more to a book than its cover.”

The title “Lamentations” was given to the book long after it was written and actually comes from the Hebrew Talmud. The Hebrew Bible provided the book with a different, but no less depressing title: “Ah, how” or “Alas” (Heb. ‘ekah). It comes from the first word in the first, second, and fourth chapters.

There is no clear consensus as to the book’s author, but tradition has usually pointed to Jeremiah. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, opens the book of Lamentations with the following preface: “And it came to pass after Israel had been taken away into captivity and Jerusalem had been laid waste that Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented this lamentation over Jerusalem and said.”

The content of the book focuses on the immediate aftermath of the fall of the city of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians. As God had warned repeatedly through His prophets, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had destroyed the nation of Judah and its capital city, taking captive tens of thousands of its people and leaving a destroyed economy, a ravaged landscape, and an emotionally devastated people behind.

For centuries, after the book was written, the people of Israel would read its content as part of an annual fast day recalled Jerusalem’s destruction. It was intended to be a much-needed reminder to future generations of Israelites that unfaithfulness was unacceptable to God. The destruction of Judah and Jerusalem had been the result of their ancestors’ disobedience and disloyalty to God. But the book also chronicles God’s remarkable faithfulness. Despite the failure of God’s chosen covenant-people to remain faithful to Him, He would refuse to abandon them completely.

The message contained in Lamentations, while directed at the nation of Judah, has lasting implications and timeless lessons that remain applicable for the people of God in all ages. Charles Swindoll describes the book’s relevance for anyone who would consider themselves a child of God.

“It [Lamentations] is a mute reminder that sin, in spite of all its allurement and excitement, carries with it heavy weights of sorrow, grief, misery, barrenness, and pain. It is the other side of the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ coin.” – Charles R. Swindoll, The Lamentations of Jeremiah

This book reveals the God-ordained ramifications of a life of disobedience. The fate of the people of Judah was directly tied to their refusal to keep their covenant commitment to God. Long before the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, God had warned the people of Judah what would happen as a result of the unfaithfulness to Him.

“The Lord will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone. And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away.” – Deuteronomy 28:36-37 ESV

And God had left them with no doubt as to the cause of their future suffering.

“All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you.  – Deuteronomy 28:45 ESV

Centuries later, the apostle Paul would pick up on the basic theme of this book when he wrote to the believers in Galatia.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. – Galatians 6:7-8 ESV

Simply put, sin has consequences. That is the message of Numbers 32:23: “be sure your sin will find you out.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not insinuating that the COVID-19 virus is the punishment of God on the sins of mankind. I am not trying to make a correlation between the destruction of Jerusalem and the current state of affairs in America. All I want to do is allow this Spirit-inspired book to remind each of us that our God is faithful. Even in the midst of the worst circumstances, our God is loving, gracious, kind, merciful, and all-powerful. He does not abandon His own.

I am reminded of the words David wrote in the 23rd Psalm.

Even when I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
    for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
    protect and comfort me. – Psalm 23:4 NLT

These are dark days. We are walking (six-feet apart) in “the valley of the shadow of death,” but our God is by our side. Of all people, we should be able to rest and rejoice in the faithfulness of our God. We should find comfort in His consistency. We should find hope in His heart of compassion and mercy. The truly remarkable thing about the book of Lamentations is that while it vividly portrays Judah’s suffering, it also revels in the goodness of God.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness. – Lamentations 3:22-23 ESV

For the Lord will not
    cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
    or grieve the children of men. – Lamentations 3:31-33 ESV

What could God be trying to teach us during these difficult days? In what ways could He be trying to get our attention in order to remind us that His love is steadfast, His mercies are never-ending, and His faithfulness is great? The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. Will we choose to believe this great truth about our God, even when the circumstances of life seem to call it into question? That is the message of Lamentation.

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

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

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

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The Power to Obey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Persistently Patient God

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
 
– Psalm 145:8 ESV

18 The Lord is slow to anger and filled with unfailing love, forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion. But he does not excuse the guilty. He lays the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations. Numbers 14:18 NLT

The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. 10 But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. – 2 Peter 3:9-10 NLT

The patience of God. We all desperately depend upon it because, without it, we would be in trouble. Most of us understand the holiness of God and have no trouble recognizing that we are anything but holy. So, we count on God’s longsuffering nature to overlook our many shortcomings. We memorize verses that speak of God’s slowness to get angry. We meditate on those passages that speak of His unfailing love. The doctrines of His mercy and grace become near and dear to us. In fact, Exodus 34:6 combines many of these attributes of God into a single verse.

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…

David wrote about these very same characteristics in one of his psalms.

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities. – Psalm 103:8-10 ESV

The mercy, grace, and patience of God go hand in hand, but they remain separate and distinct qualities or attributes of God. Wayne Grudem provides us with succinct definitions for each of them.

God’s mercy means God’s goodness toward those in misery and distress

God’s grace means God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment

God’s patience means God’s goodness in withholding of punishment toward those who sin over a period of time – Wayne Gruden, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine

All three are expressions of God’s inherent goodness. We know He is good because He is merciful, gracious, and patient. And we regularly find ourselves the undeserving recipients of His mercy, grace, and patience. Yet of these three, His patience is the one we tend to take for granted the most. Notice Gruden’s definition. He specifically states that Go’s patience is His withholding of well-deserved punishment from those who have sinned repeatedly and regularly. Their activity warrants God’s judgment but instead, He responds in patience.

The apostle Paul describes this as God’s forbearance. In chapter 3 of Roman, Paul writes about “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:24-25 ESV). The Greek word Paul used is anochē and it can also be translated as self-restraint or tolerance. It involves a wilful action on God’s part to acknowledge the sins of men while choosing to withhold His divine judgment for a time. It does not mean that God “overlooks” or “excuses” our sin. To do so would be out of character for God. It would go against His very nature. But as Paul states, God was willing to put on hold His condemnation of man’s sin because He knew He was sending His Son as the propitiation or means of providing a satisfactory solution for the problem.

God could have punished all mankind and been totally just in doing so. As Paul states, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NLT), and God, as the righteous judge of the universe, would have been right and just for pronouncing and carrying out judgment upon all humanity. But He showed patience instead. He postponed the inevitable because He was about to do the unimaginable.

God was going to send His own Son as the payment for mankind’s sin debt. And that debt was formidable and well-deserved. Paul describes mankind as…

…full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. – Romans 1:29-33 NLT

Paul goes on to say that this sad description of mankind’s state was universal and all-inclusive.

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. – Romans 3:23 NLT

All deserved to die, but God was willing to forego the inevitable until the time came when He could send His Son into the world. And God’s timing was perfect.

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

Just one verse later, Paul adds, “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). A lot of time had passed since that day on which God made mankind after His own image to the moment when He sent His Son, in the form of a man, but bearing the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). And with each passing century, God displayed His divine patience, postponing His right to mete out His wrath upon sinful humanity, in order that He might one day display His love through the sacrifice of His own Son.

Paul reminds us that God “did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32 NLT). God’s patience and love are inseparable. God was willing to wait  because He wanted to shower His undeserved love on His creation.

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. – John 3:16-17 NLT

A. W. Tozer describes God’s patience in this way:

The patience of God is that excellency which causes Him to sustain great injuries without immediately avenging Himself. He has a power of patience as well as a power of justice. – A. W. Tozer, The Attributes of God

God has the power to judge. But He also possesses the power to forego judgment for a season. Because of our sin natures, we can end up using any power we possess as a weapon. The evil in our hearts causes power to go to our heads, resulting in injustice and inequity. We become the judge, jury, and executioner, meting out our brand of vigilante justice rather than choosing to show patience, mercy, and grace. Part of the problem is that we lack the strength to control our own power. Unlike God, we do not possess the self-control that would allow us to replace our need for justice with a desire to show loving patience.

In Matthew’s gospel he records a parable by Jesus designed to illustrate the Kingdom of Heaven.

“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.” – Matthew 18:23-27 NLT

The servant owed more than he could ever pay, so he begged his master for patience. To his shock and surprise, he received the complete forgiveness of his debt. But the story goes on.

 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.” – Matthew 18:28-30 NLT

The king, who possessed great power, showed remarkable patience. The servant, who had been the recipient of the king’s undeserved patience, showed his own sinful heart by having his fellow servant thrown into jail. This man had been more than willing to accept the gracious, merciful, and loving gift of the king’s patience and forgiveness. But he was unwilling to pass on the goodness of his master to his fellow servant.

We must never undervalue or overlook the patience of God. It is on display all around us. We are daily the recipients of it. A. W. Tozer reminds us to consider the wonderful reality of the patience of God.

How wondrous is God’s patience with the world today. On every side people are sinning with a high hand. The divine law is trampled underfoot and God Himself openly despised. It is truly amazing that He does not instantly strike dead those who so brazenly defy Him. Why does He not suddenly cut off the haughty infidel and blatant blasphemer, as He did Ananias and Sapphira? Why does He not cause the earth to open its mouth and devour the persecutors of His people, so that, like Dathan and Abiram, they shall go down alive into the Pit? And what of apostate Christendom, where every possible form of sin is now tolerated and practiced under cover of the holy name of Christ? Why does not the righteous wrath of Heaven make an end of such abominations? Only one answer is possible: because God bears with “ much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction.” – A. W. Tozer, The Attributes 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

Our Amazingly Gracious God

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

9 My grace is all you need. 2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT

6 “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” – Exodus 34:6-7 ESV

11 For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. – Titus 2:11 NLT

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt,
yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
there where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.

Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace,
freely bestowed on all who believe:
you that are longing to see his face,
will you this moment his grace receive?

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that is greater than all our sin.

The grace of God. We’ve all heard of it and have probably sung songs it. But what exactly is it? Tony Evans describes God’s grace as “His inexhaustible supply of goodness by which He does for us what we could never do for ourselves” (Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On). A much older, but no less accurate definition comes from the pen of Abraham Booth: “It is the eternal and absolute free favor of God, manifested in the vouchsafement [favor] of spiritual and eternal blessings to the guilty and the unworthy” (Abraham Booth, The Reign of Grace, 1793).

Grace is a gift of God that flows from the very character of God. God is gracious and grace is available from Him because of who He is, not because of anything we have done. His grace is unmerited, unearned, and completely undeserved. No one can ever say to God: “You owe me this!”

A. W. Tozer puts it this way: “Divine grace is the sovereign and saving favor of God exercised in the bestowment of blessings upon those who have no merit in them and for which no compensation is demanded from them” (A. W. Tozer, The Attributes of God). And the apostle Paul clearly understood the amazing nature of God’s grace.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – Ephesians 2:8 ESV

God’s grace is closely tied to His love. It is because of love that He extends His grace. In fact, it was Peter who said, “we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11 NLT). And the apostle Paul expands on that thought by adding that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24 ESV). A. W. Tozer provides us with further insight into the one-sided nature of God’s grace. It flows in one direction, from our gracious God to a world of undeserving sinners.

…it is the favor of God shown to those who not only have no positive deserts of their own, but who are thoroughly ill-deserving and hell-deserving. It is completely unmerited and unsought, and is altogether unattracted by anything in or from or by the objects upon which it is bestowed. Grace can neither be bought, earned, nor won by the creature… – A. W. Tozer, The Attributes of God

All of this seems to run counter to our human understanding of how things should work. We have been raised to believe that you don’t get something for nothing. There is no such thing as a free lunch. You only get what you deserve or what you have legitimately earned. And while modern society seems to have run amuck with the idea of entitlement, we all seem to know that earning and effort go hand in hand.

But not with God. God owes us nothing. He is beholden to no one. The apostle Paul, quoting from the book of Isaiah, asks the rhetorical question: “who has given a gift to him [God] that he might be repaid?” (Romans 11:35 ESV). Then Paul adds that the flow of God’s grace is one-directional. For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36 ESV). 

One of the things we have to understand is that the goodness of God is only accessible to fallen mankind through the grace of God. Romans 3:23 reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And Romans 6:23 provides us with the non-negotiable consequences of man’s sin: “the wages of sin is death.”

God’s justice and righteousness require that He condemn and pronounce judgment against all sin. He cannot leave sin unpunished and still remain holy and just. But in His divine wisdom, God chose to provide undeserving men and women a means by which they could be made right (justified) with Him.

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

God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God. – Romans 4:24-25 NLT

Tony Evans writes, “grace means giving a person something he doesn’t deserve” (Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On). Because of sin, all men deserve death. But grace is God giving men the opportunity to experience forgiveness for their sins and eternal life in place of death and eternal separation from Him. And this amazing grace is available only through faith in God’s Son. As the prophet Isaiah foretold:

…he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

As the old hymn so clearly points out:

Jesus paid it all,
All to him I owe
Sin had left a crimson stain
He washed it white as snow – Elvina M. Hall, 1865

Without the grace of God, every man and woman who has ever lived would stand before God as “a sinner condemned, unclean.” And yet, in 1905, Charles H. Gabriel penned the words to the hymn, My Savior’s Love, providing us with a timeless reminder of just how amazing God’s grace really is.

I stand amazed in the presence
of Jesus, the Nazarene,
and wonder how he could love me,
a sinner, condemned, unclean.

How marvelous, how wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
How marvelous, how wonderful
is my Savior’s love for me!

But God’s grace extends beyond the point of our salvation. It shows up in the everyday affairs of life, providing God’s children with the power to live the life He has called them to live. Each day, we must rely on His undeserved grace in order to experience the joy, contentment, peace, and power He has promised. At no point are we to fall back on our own strength or to live as though our spiritual growth is somehow up to us. Our salvation was based on grace. So is our sanctification. We cannot grow to be more like Christ through self-effort. In fact, it requires death to self. It demands that we give up any hope of transforming our lives by our own power.  We cannot earn God’s favor. We cannot score brownie points with God. But we can rest in His amazing grace and rely upon the power of His indwelling Spirit.

The author of Hebrews would have us remember that grace is a gift from God. And if we want to enjoy it, we must always go to the source of it.

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. – Hebrews 4:16 NLT

And James would add that humility is a non-negotiable prerequisite for those who desire to experience the ongoing gift of God’s grace.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. – James 4:6 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

Our Relentlessly Loving God

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 ESV

9 God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 1 John 4:9 NLT

3 “I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love.
    With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.”
– Jeremiah 31:3 NLT

O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure
The saints’ and angels’ song – Frederick M. Lehman, The Love of God, 1917

God doesn’t just express love, He is love. It is His very nature. Love is not some feeling or outward expression that he conjures up in response to something or someone that is lovely or loveable. No, what sets God apart from humanity is His lovingness (if that is even a word).

God is the very definition of love. And all His other attributes are infused and closely intertwined with His love. His power is always displayed in love. And His love never lacks the strength or energy to express itself. God’s holiness is directly linked to His love. Without love, His holiness or set-apartness could make God unapproachable and unknowable. But because God is love, He has made Himself available to and knowable by mankind.

For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse… – Romans 1:20 NLT

Luke supports Paul’s conclusion when he writes that God “did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17 ESV). And he goes on to describe how God, the all-powerful creator of the universe, has lovingly and graciously made Himself known to mankind.

From one man He made every nation of men, to inhabit the whole earth; and He determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands.

God intended that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. – Acts 17:26-27 BSB

God desires that men might know Him. Why? Because it is through a knowledge of God that men recognize His love for them. It is the love of this all-powerful, holy, and transcendent God that caused Him to send His Son as the payment for mankind’s sin.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV

Jesus, the Son of God, was the greatest expression of His Father’s love, having taken on human flesh and come to earth that He might be Immanuel – God with us.

No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. – John 1:18 NLT

Jesus even made the bold claim, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9 NLT). God’s love was manifested or made visible through the birth, death, and resurrection of His Son.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. – Ephesians 1:4 NLT

Love is invisible to the human eye, but that doesn’t mean it is unperceivable. And while God Himself cannot be seen, His love can be experienced and appreciated. It can be felt, enjoyed, relished, and returned. When we understand just how much God loves us, it creates in us a desire to love Him in return.

This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. – 1 John 4:10 NLT

And it is when we understand that the God of the universe loves us that we are able to express love to the rest of humanity, whom He has made.

We love each other because he loved us first. – 1 John 4:19 ESV

But our love will always pale in comparison to that of God. His love is infinite and holy, while ours is limited and marred by selfishness and self-centeredness. We tend to love, expecting love in return. Ours is a conditional kind of love, while His is unconditional, demanding nothing from us in return.

No tongue can fully express the infinitude of God’s love, or any mind comprehend it: it “passeth knowledge” (Eph 3:19). The most extensive ideas that a finite mind can frame about divine love, are infinitely below its true nature. The heaven is not so far above the earth as the goodness of God is beyond the most raised conceptions which we are able to form of it. It is an ocean which swells higher than all the mountains of opposition in such as are the objects of it. It is a fountain from which flows all necessary good to all those who are interested in it. – John Brine, 1743

What makes God’s love so remarkable is that He showered it on us in spite of us. He didn’t demand that we get our spiritual act together. He didn’t require that we stop sinning and start living righteous lives before He would love us. No, according to the apostle Paul, God loved us while we were mired in the midst of our sinfulness and rebellion against Him.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:6-8 NLT

We have a difficult time relating to that kind of love because we tend to love the lovely and loveable. We put conditions on our love. And we demand that those we love show us love in return. But, fortunately for mankind, that is not how God operates. God’s love is a purely holy love. “God’s love is not regulated by caprice, passion, or sentiment, but by principle. Just as His grace reigns not at the expense of it, but “through righteousness” (Rom 5:21), so His love never conflicts with His holiness” (A. W. Tozer, The Attributes of God).

God’s love is always sacrificial and constantly beneficial. And while it may sometimes take the form of tough love, it always results in our good. As the proverbs states, “the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 NLT). His love is never smothering or manipulative. It is not a controlling kind of love. At no time does God preface His love with the thought, “What am I going to get out of this?”

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul lists the qualities associated with godly love. “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NLT).

That is the love of God spelled out in terms we can understand and even emulate. But unlike God, we are incapable of expressing this kind of love perfectly and selflessly this side of heaven.  Yet, as we grow to understand the incredible nature of His divine love for us, we can better appreciate how undeserving we are and turn that unmerited affection into tangible expressions of love for others.

God loves you. How much? He sent His Son to die for you. And there are not enough words in the human vocabulary or days on the calendar to fully describe just how great His love truly is. Frederick M. Lehman put it so eloquently in his great old hymn, The Love of God.

Could we with ink the ocean fill
And were the skies of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky

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

Our Amazingly Merciful God

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
– Lamentations 3:22-24 ESV

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Chris Ephesians 2:-45 ESV

15 But you, O Lord,
    are a God of compassion and mercy,
slow to get angry
    and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. – Psalm 86:15 NLT

19 The Lord replied, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will call out my name, Yahweh, before you. For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose. – Exodus 33:19 NLT

The mercy of God. To adequately understand this remarkable attribute of God, one must also dive into the depths of His goodness. Notice the Exodus passage above. Moses had just made a rather bold request of God: “show me your glorious presence” (Exodus 33:18 NLT). And in response, God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Exodus 33:19 NLT). The Hebrew word translated as “goodness” is tuwb, and it can refer to “that which is good, or the best of anything” (Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon). God’s goodness and mercy go hand in hand. It was David who wrote of God, describing Him as the Great Shepherd. And David reveled in the inseparable and indispensable nature of God’s goodness and mercy.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. – Psalm 23:6 ESV

According to Thomas Watson, “Mercy is the result and effect of God’s goodness.” Without the inherent goodness of God, mercy would be unavailable to us. But the psalmist displayed his understanding of and appreciation for the goodness of God when he wrote, “You are good and do only good” (Psalm 119:68 NLT). God’s goodness shows up in the form of mercy.

Think back on that somewhat arrogant request Moses made of God. He asked to see God’s glory. In other words, He wanted to see God face to face. He had heard the voice of God, but now he wanted to see Him. But notice what God said to Moses:

“…you may not look directly at my face, for no one may see me and live.” The Lord continued, “Look, stand near me on this rock. As my glorious presence passes by, I will hide you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and let you see me from behind. But my face will not be seen.” – Exodus 33:20-23 NLT

God was going to allow Moses the unique privilege of seeing His glory and goodness, but to do so, God would have to be merciful. The glory of God is so great that one glimpse of His face would have destroyed Moses. Sinful men cannot stand in the presence of a holy God and live to talk about it. .So, when God appeared before Moses that day, He allowed His servant to see His glory and goodness but only by displaying His mercy at the same time.

Moses was undeserving of the privilege of seeing God’s glory. Yes, he was the servant of God, but he was also a man stained by the presence of sin. And he was ignorant of the magnitude of his request. He had no idea what he was asking. But God did. And in His goodness, God showed Moses mercy. In fact, God clearly stated, “I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose” (Exodus 33:19 NLT). And He explained to Moses just how He would do so. “I will hide you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by” (Exodus 33:22 NLT). God promised to protect a sinful man from the unavoidable outcome of standing in the glorious presence of unblemished, fully righteous holiness.

There was another man who was provided the privilege of seeing God in all His glory. It was the prophet Isaiah who was given a glimpse into the throne room of God. And immediately after that experience, rather than boasting about his good fortune, Isaiah displayed an abject sense of fear.

“It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” – Isaiah 6:5 NLT

The mercy of God is not to be taken lightly. That the all-glorious God would deem to show mercy and kindness to undeserving humanity should blow us away. It should leave us stunned. And yet, far too many of us treat God’s mercy with an attitude of flippancy and over-familiarity. We have somehow convinced ourselves that we deserve God’s mercy. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

It is not the wretchedness of the creature which causes Him to show mercy, for God is not influenced by things outside of Himself as we are. If God were influenced by the abject misery of leprous sinners, He would cleanse and save all of them. But He does not. Why? Simply because it is not His pleasure and purpose so to do. Still less is it the merits of the creatures which causes Him to bestow mercies upon them, for it is a contradiction in terms to speak of meriting “mercy.” – A. W. Tozer, The Attributes of God

Mercy is not something we earn. It is not dispensed by God based on the merit or worthiness of the recipient. It is solely the divine prerogative of God to show mercy upon whomever He chooses to do so. Moses did not deserve to see God’s glory. No, he deserved to come under God’s judgment. He was a sinner, condemned, and unclean, just like all the other Israelites.

It reminds me of the lyrics from the old hymn: I Stand Amazed.

I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene
And wonder how He could love me
A sinner, condemned, unclean

The mercy of God should leave us in a state of awe and amazement. Which brings to mind the lyrics of another, even more familiar hymn.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see

What makes God’s mercy so amazing is that He displays it in spite of man’s sinfulness. The apostle Paul reminds us that God displayed His love for us by sending His Son to die for us. We didn’t deserve it. We had done nothing to earn it.

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

God didn’t have to show mercy, but He did. And what makes this fact so difficult to comprehend and even harder to appreciate is that He did so in the face of mankind’s rebellion against Him. The apostle Paul describes just how bad things were when God made the decision to extend mercy.

“No one is righteous—
    not even one.
No one is truly wise;
    no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
    all have become useless.
No one does good,
    not a single one.”
“Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave.
    Their tongues are filled with lies.”
“Snake venom drips from their lips.”
   “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“They rush to commit murder.
   Destruction and misery always follow them.
They don’t know where to find peace.”
   “They have no fear of God at all.”  – Romans 3:10-18 NLT

All men deserve to experience God’s righteous wrath, the outpouring of His just judgment for their rejection of Him. Paul goes on to say, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT). But then he adds that unbelievable addendum. “Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins” (Romans 3:24 NLT).

God showed mercy, and mercy is the withholding of a just condemnation. All have sinned. All have rejected and rebelled against God. And all deserve to experience the wrath of God. But “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 4:4-5 ESV). Paul expanded on this amazing news when he wrote to his young protége, Titus.

…he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. – Titus 3:5 NLT

Our God is amazingly merciful. And His mercies are new every morning. But how easy it is for us to take His mercy for granted or to view His mercy as somehow deserved. But the Puritan writer, Thomas Watson, would have us remember:

God’s mercy is free. To set up merit is to destroy mercy. Nothing can deserve mercy, because we are polluted in our blood; nor force it. We may force God to punish us, but not to love us. I will love them freely.’ Hos 14:4. Every link in the chain of salvation is wrought and interwoven with free grace. Election is free. He has chosen us in him, according to the good pleasure of his will.’ Eph 1:1. Justification is free. Being justified freely by his grace.’ Rom 3:34. Salvation is free. According to his mercy he saved us.’ Titus 3:3. Say not then, I am unworthy; for mercy is free. If God should show mercy to such only as are worthy, he would show none at all.

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 Last Will Be First, and the First Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrance Into the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

If you would enter life… – vs. 17

If you would be perfect… – vs. 21

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

…keep the commandments. – vs. 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

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

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

“Blessed are the merciful…”

“Blessed are the pure in heart…”

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Standard For Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as the apostle Paul would later write:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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