The Light of the World

21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:21-23 ESV

17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ! – Ephesians 4:17-21 ESV

Why was a second Adam necessary? Why did Jesus, the Son of God, have to humble Himself by becoming a man and subject Himself to all the temptations and trials that come with living as a human in a fallen world?

The answer to those questions is provided by the apostle Paul.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 ESV

It might be easy to assume that God overreacted to the sin of Adam and Eve. The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. When God discovered what His two image bearers had done, He pronounced curses on both of them, and these curses would be long-term and cross-generational. To Adam God said:

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:17-19 ESV

Death entered the equation for the very first time. And this death involved much more than the termination of life. It included physical separation from God. One of the immediate aftereffects of the fall was God’s expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden.

He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. – Genesis 3:24 ESV

Rather than enjoying constant fellowship with God in the beauty of the garden, Adam and his wife found themselves set apart from God. They were denied further access to the garden and prevented from having any further contact with God. Not only that, they lost the right to eat of the tree of life, which appears to have been the source of eternal life. This seems clear from God’s reaction after their transgression.

“Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” – Genesis 3:22 ESV

God did not want Adam and Eve to continue eating of the tree of life in their current fallen state. Eternal life had been intended for the sole purpose of bringing glory to God and enjoying unbroken fellowship with Him. But sin had changed all that. A holy, righteous God cannot tolerate sin in His presence. As the apostle Paul rhetorically asked: “For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14 ESV).

One of the immediate results of the sin of Adam and Eve was a change in their awareness. They experienced a significant alteration to their consciousness.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. – Genesis 3:7 ESV

Interestingly enough, this was exactly what Satan had said would happen if they disobeyed God and ate of the forbidden fruit.

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5 ESV

Their eyes were opened. But they didn’t like what they saw. For the first time, they experienced guilt and shame. They knew they had sinned and were overcome by the condemnation they felt. Their guilty consciences caused them to view themselves differently. They suddenly saw their God-created state in a new and sin-darkened light. The beauty of their bodies became nakedness, and they tried to cover it up. Their eyes were opened, but their vision had become distorted by sin. And this is the very same state into which every man and woman has been born ever since.

As Paul states in the Roman’s passage above, “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Opened eyes do not always see clearly. And humanity would find itself blinded by sin and incapable of seeing the truth regarding God and their own fallen state. They would understand their need for God and would spend their lives searching for a means by which they might be restored to their former state of fellowship with Him. 

But unable to find God, they would seek out false gods, exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23 ESV). In his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul describes lost mankind in very unflattering terms.

They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them… – Ephesians 4:18 ESV

But he doesn’t stop there. Paul goes on to describe the outcome of their darkened understanding.

They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity… – Ephesians 4:19 ESV

Created to bear God’s image, but damaged by sin, mankind has spent centuries living in open rebellion to God and failing to reflect His glory. Paul says they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” Denied access to the one true God, they sought substitutes. As His image bearers, they were to have been the glory of God. But God’s glory in their lives became veiled by sin.

Think of it like the sun darkened by clouds. The glory of God still shines, but sin prevents it from casting God’s shadow on the earth. Which takes us back to what it meant for man to be created in the image of God. The Hebrew word for image is tselem, and according to the Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, it means “an image, likeness (so called from its shadowing forth).” Man was intended to be the shadow of God on earth, created by the glory of His majesty. Like the shadow of a man, created by the brilliance of the sun, humanity was to have revealed the reality of God by its very existence.

Jesus came into the world as the very light of God. The apostle John describes Him this way: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5 ESV). “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him” (John 1:9-10 ESV).

Why was the second Adam necessary? Because sin had darkened the minds of men. They no longer had the capacity to see truth. Their lives no longer shadowed God’s glory. The darkness of sin had veiled the Light. And John goes on to paint a bleak picture of the world when Jesus arrived on the scene as the second Adam.

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. – John 3:19-20 ESV

Jesus came into the world as the light of God. He shadowed the glory of the light of God perfectly to the world, exposing man’s sin and extending an invitation to step into the light of God’s glory once again. But for man to enjoy fellowship with God again, the guilt and shame of sin must be removed. The darkness veiling the eyes of men must be healed. Blind men can never see the light. Those who have learned to love the darkness of sin will never know what it means to live in the light of God’s glory, without the sin-shattering, darkness illuminating power of the second Adam. It is only through Jesus, the second Adam, that we are able to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24 ESV). 

Jesus makes it possible for the cloud of sin to be removed so that man can once again reflect the glory of God. Read the following words from the apostle Paul and consider the remarkable gift provided to you by Jesus Christ.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV

But God is greater than Satan.

For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. – 2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV

God sent the light of His Son into the darkness and made it possible for sinful men to be restored to their original purpose: to reflect the glory of God.

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. – 2 Corinthians 4:7 ESV

The light has shown in the darkness. Jesus, the Son of God and the second Adam, has come into the world so that the darkness of sin might be replaced with the light of God’s glory. He has made it possible for man to be restored to his former position as God’s image bearer.

“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”  – John 8:12 ESV

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

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

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

 

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Repent and Return.

21 How the faithful city
    has become a whore,
    she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,
    but now murderers.
22 Your silver has become dross,
    your best wine mixed with water.
23 Your princes are rebels
    and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
    and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
    and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

24 Therefore the Lord declares,
    the Lord of hosts,
    the Mighty One of Israel:
“Ah, I will get relief from my enemies
    and avenge myself on my foes.
25 I will turn my hand against you
    and will smelt away your dross as with lye
    and remove all your alloy.
26 And I will restore your judges as at the first,
    and your counselors as at the beginning.
Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,
    the faithful city.”

27 Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
    and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
28 But rebels and sinners shall be broken together,
    and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.
29 For they shall be ashamed of the oaks
    that you desired;
and you shall blush for the gardens
    that you have chosen.
30 For you shall be like an oak
    whose leaf withers,
    and like a garden without water.
31 And the strong shall become tinder,
    and his work a spark,
and both of them shall burn together,
    with none to quench them. – Isaiah 1:21-31 ESV

God had a problem with the people of Judah, and He had chosen Isaiah to deliver His stinging indictment and call them to repentance. This opening chapter is a no-holds-barred denunciation of their attitudes and actions that provides ample evidence for God’s coming judgment of them. And God is anything but polite or politically correct in His assessment of them.

He portrays them as a once faithful wife who is now no more than an adulterous whore. While the city of Jerusalem had once been home to the just and righteous, it was now full of murderers. While we might be tempted to view God’s words as a clear case of hyperbole, over-exaggeration for the sake of dramatic effect, these charges are of a very serious nature.

God goes out of His way to describe the sorry state of affairs in Jerusalem and the rest of the southern kingdom of Judah. Nothing is as it should be. He compares them to precious silver that has become contaminated with impurities, diminishing its value. They were like fine wine mixed with water, diluting its taste and destroying its worth.

Everything about Judah was the opposite of what God had intended. The leaders of the city were guilty of taking bribes and associating with those who take advantage of the helpless. God, like a prosecuting attorney, clearly states their crime:

They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
    and the widow’s cause does not come to them. – Isaiah 1:23 ESV

And this was in direct violation of God’s commands.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the Lord your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul. – Deuteronomy 10:12 NLT

They were to love God, but that love was to show up in their love for others. Their actions and attitudes toward one another were to be a tangible expression of their love for God. The prophet, Micah, would reiterate this divine expectation.

No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 NLT

But the people of Judah had become self-serving and self-loving. Each individual was out for their own good and obsessed with seeking their own glory. Their religious observations had become little more than business-as-usual. They were going through the motions, feigning faithfulness to God, but all the while breaking His commands and ignoring His call to repentance.

So, God let them know that He was going to step in and do something about their apostasy. There were going to be some significant changes taking place. And the first one would involve purification.

“I will turn my hand against you
    and will smelt away your dross as with lye
    and remove all your alloy.” – Isaiah 1:25 ESV

Like contaminated silver, they were going to require the heat of God’s divine furnace. He was going to expose them to the purifying, dross-exposing blast of His judgment. And, later on in this very same book, God will explain the nature of this refining heat.

“I have refined you, but not as silver is refined.
    Rather, I have refined you in the furnace of suffering.
I will rescue you for my sake—
    yes, for my own sake!
I will not let my reputation be tarnished,
    and I will not share my glory with idols!” – Isaiah 48:1-11 NLT

This was all about the glory of God’s name. As the chosen people of God, they bore His name. They were His children. And all that they were doing reflected poorly on His reputation as their God and Father. So, He was going to do what was necessary to restore them to righteousness.

“And I will restore your judges as at the first,
    and your counselors as at the beginning.
Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,
    the faithful city. – Isaiah 1:26 ESV

He was going to do for them what they were unable and unwilling to do for themselves. But their restoration would have to be prefaced by repentance.

“Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
    and those in her who repent, by righteousness.” – Isaiah 1:27 ESV

Unrepentant sinners and defiant rebels would end up broken by God. Those who refused to return to Him would be consumed. The idol worshipers who stubbornly continued to visit the sacred groves and gardens where they kept their false gods, would find themselves the victims of God’s wrath. And their lifeless idols would not be able to save them.

And the day was coming when they would regret their decision to forsake God and worship false gods. While their love affair with idols had made perfect sense to them at the time, God was going to expose their so-called gods for what they were: False.

The irony in all of this is how the people of Judah had turned their back on the one true God. He had chosen to make of them a great nation. He had blessed them beyond belief. He had given His law to guide them, provided a sacrificial system designed to cleanse them from sin, and repeatedly loved them in spite of them. But enough was enough. Yes, it is true that “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Psalm 103:8 ESV). But that same verse reminds us that “he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Judah was guilty, and God was out to prove it. But His goal will be repentance in order that His people might experience redemption. He desires to restore them. He longs to reestablish His relationship with them. But they were going to have to acknowledge their sin and turn back to Him. Or face the consequences.

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

Hail, King of the Jews!

24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. 28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. – Matthew 27:24-31 ESV

Jesus mockedPilate washed his hands of Jesus. He wanted nothing to do with the death of this innocent man, but because of the growing anger of the mob that had gathered outside his home, he gave in to their demands and turned Jesus over to be crucified. Yet, he made his position on the matter perfectly clear: “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (Matthew 27:24 ESV).

According to Luke’s account, Pilate had attempted to set Jesus free. His own wife had warned him not to have anything to do with putting Jesus to death because she had experienced disturbing dreams about him. Upon discovering that Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate had sent Jesus to Herod in order that he might examine him.

“…after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. I will therefore punish and release him.” – Luke 23:14-16 ESV

The people could have cared less what Pilate or Herod thought. Their minds were made up. They wanted Jesus dead, and the continued to cry out, “Crucify, crucify him!” (Luke 23:21 ESV). And Luke records that, for the third and final time, Pilate had responded:

“Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” – Luke 23:22 ESV

But the people would have none of it. They were not interested in the facts of the case. The guilt of Jesus had been established by the religious leaders and that was enough for them. And Luke continues his account:

But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. – Luke 23:23-24 ESV

Fearing a riot, Pilate gave into the demands of the people, and handed Jesus over to his guards to begin the process. The people responded with what would be a prophetic statement that would seal their own fates, as well as their descendants for generations to come.

“His blood be on us and on our children!” – Matthew 27:25 ESV

With this rashly spoken vow, these people unknowingly admitted their culpability for Jesus’ death, and included their children and grandchildren in their guilt. Sometime later, after Jesus was resurrected and had ascended back into heaven, Peter would address the high priest and the Sanhedrin and would remind them:

“The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after you killed him by hanging him on a cross.” – Acts 5:30 ESV

Peter was simply restating what the crowd had declared. The blood of Jesus was on them. They would be held responsible by God for the death of His Son. And it would be because of their refusal to accept Jesus as their Messiah, that God would turn to the Gentiles with the good news of salvation through His Son. The apostle Paul makes this fact perfectly clear in his letter to the Romans. But he also reminds us that, in spite of their blood-guilt, God is not yet done with Israel.

Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves. Now if the Gentiles were enriched because the people of Israel turned down God’s offer of salvation, think how much greater a blessing the world will share when they finally accept it. – Romans 11:11-12 NLT

And just in case, we don’t understand the weight of his words, Paul adds:

What does all this mean? Even though the Gentiles were not trying to follow God’s standards, they were made right with God. And it was by faith that this took place. But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures when he said,

“I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that makes people stumble,
    a rock that makes them fall.
But anyone who trusts in him
    will never be disgraced.” – Romans 9:30-33 NLT

The people of Israel had stumbled over Jesus. His arrival on the scene had left them disappointed and disillusioned. He was not the kind of Messiah they had been expecting, so they rejected Him. And their refusal to accept Him led to the gospel being sent to the Gentiles. But there is a day coming, when God will refocus His divine will and His everlasting love on His chosen people: Israel. Paul goes on to state the unmistakable reality of that fact.

Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. And so all Israel will be saved. As the Scriptures say,

“The one who rescues will come from Jerusalem,
    and he will turn Israel away from ungodliness.
And this is my covenant with them,
    that I will take away their sins.” – Romans 23:25-27 NLT

The people in the crowd gathered outside Pilate’s residence had demanded the death of Jesus. They had rejected Him as their Messiah and demanded that a common criminal be released in His place. They would be complicit in the death of the Savior of the world. But it would be His death that made redemption possible for the world. Their rejection of Jesus made His offer of salvation available to the Gentile world. And since the day of Pentecost, when the church began, millions upon millions of Gentiles of all tribes, nations and tongues, have come to faith in Jesus. But the day is coming when the full number of Gentiles that God has ordained for salvation will be complete. Then, He will turn His attention to Israel once again, extending His grace and mercy to a people responsible for the death of His own Son. The blood of Jesus, covering their heads as a sign of their guilt, would also be used by God to cleanse them from all unrighteousness. The one they crucified would be the one who would deem them justified.

But first, Jesus would have to suffer and die. And HIs suffering began with the guards of Pilate, who stripped Him, beat Him and sarcastically mocked Him as the king of the Jews. In this depressing scene we see Jews and Gentiles alike rejecting the Savior of the world. They ridicule rather than revere Him. They spit in the face of the one who created them. They crush a crown of thorns onto the head of the King of kings and Lord of lords. And in their ignorance, they jokingly, and prophetically, cry out, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Little did they know just how true were the words they spoke. Jesus was the King of the Jews and He was willingly laying down His life for His people. He was dying so that they might live. He was taking on their guilt and suffering the death they deserved, so that they might receive His righteousness and God’s forgiveness.

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

Jesus, Our Refuge.

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’”

So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland, from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh. These were the cities designated for all the people of Israel and for the stranger sojourning among them, that anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there, so that he might not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, till he stood before the congregation. Joshua 20:1-9 ESV

10-cities-of-refuge

God had given His people the land He had promised them. But they were not free to live in the land according to their own standards or apart from His divine law. He had provided them with His law while they were still in the wilderness and He had intended for them to take the law with them into the promised land, where it would determine the nature of their relationship with Him and with one another. And God, knowing the reality of man’s sin nature, had made provision for the inevitable presence of sin among His people. The entire sacrificial system was designed to provide atonement for their sins and restore them to a right relationship with God. And because the sacrificial system could not remove sin, it would be a permanent part of their communal experience for generations to come.

One of the sad realities the law was forced to address was the human potential for murder. Even though the Israelites were united in their common bond as children of God, they were sinners who were fully capable of turning on one another out of jealousy or motivated by anger, and willfully taking the life of a brother or sister. So, God had made provision for such acts of violence, telling Moses, “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:12 ESV). And God went on to clarify and qualify the conditions for putting a man to death for murder. His actions had to be premeditated.

“if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.” – Exodus 21:14 ESV

God knew that there would always be the potential for extenuating circumstances. In other words, there might be unforeseen issues at play that dictated whether the murder was willful or simply an accident. So, He had added an important addendum to His law, stating, “But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee” (Exodus 21:13 ESV). God had gone on to provide the people of Israel with detailed plans concerning this important aspect of His judicial system. 

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. 15 These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there. – Numbers 35:9-15 ESV

God had predetermined that the Israelites would designate six cities within the land of promise that would serve as places of refuge for anyone who committed murder. And these six cities, located strategically throughout the land, were intended to be easily reached by anyone who was guilty of murder. Within the confines of these cities, the guilty party was to be offered sanctuary and protection from anyone who might want to avenge the death of the victim. And it’s important to note that these six cities were among the 42 cities set aside for the tribe of Levi as their places of residence.

“The cities that you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities.” – Numbers 35:6 ESV

The one who committed the act of murder was allowed to seek refuge in one of these Levitical cities. As long as he was in the city, he was to be provided protection, until such time as the residents of the city were able to ascertain whether his act was accidental or premeditated. If it was determined that he had committed murder willfully, he was to be turned over to the “avenger” in order that he might be put to death. If evidence was produced that proved the murder was accidental, the guilty party was confined to the city of refuge for life or until the death of the high priest, at which time the prisoner was to be set free and absolved of all guilt. The death of the high priest acted as an atonement for the sin of the guilty party. But if the manslayer willingly left the protective confines of the city of refuge at any time, he would be fair game for the avenger. He took his life into his own hands. But as long as the guilty party placed his life in the hands of the Levites, he was safe. If he chose to leave the city, he forfeited his right to life.

The cities of refuge are a picture of the role that Christ was to eventually play in the life of each and every guilty sinner. The book of Hebrews provides us with a comforting reminder that we, as guilty sinners, can seek refuge in Christ, our high priest.

18 Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. 19 This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. 20 Jesus has already gone in there for us. He has become our eternal High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 6:18-20 NLT

We can run to Christ and find safety and protection from the condemnation of sin and death. And Paul would have us remember that our condemnation has been removed because of Christ’s death on our behalf.

1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. – Romans 8:1-2 NLT

Paul goes on to tell us that because we have sought refuge in Christ, we are freed from any and all accusations of guilt or any calls for our execution.

33 Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. 34 Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. – Romans 8:33-34 NLT

God knew His people were going to sin. That’s why He gave them His law and His sacrificial system. He also knew His people would commit murder, either willingly or accidentally. So, He provided cities of refuge. But notice that the only way the manslayer could be absolved of his guilt was through death. The high priest had to die. And the only way that sinners can be absolved of their guilt before God is through the death of the great High Priest, Jesus Christ. He gave His life so that we might have forgiveness of sin and be freed from condemnation. Jesus is our High Priest, in whom we find refuge. But we don’t just hide from our guilt and sin, we are completely freed from it because of what He has done on our behalf.

24 But because Jesus lives forever, his priesthood lasts forever. 25 Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf.

26 He is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin. He has been set apart from sinners and has been given the highest place of honor in heaven. 27 Unlike those other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices every day. They did this for their own sins first and then for the sins of the people. But Jesus did this once for all when he offered himself as the sacrifice for the people’s sins. 28 The law appointed high priests who were limited by human weakness. But after the law was given, God appointed his Son with an oath, and his Son has been made the perfect High Priest forever. – Hebrews 7:24-28 NLT

Jesus Christ, our refuge. His death set us free from our guilt and condemnation. And there is no one who can accuse us anymore.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

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

Familiarity Breeds Contempt.

“If a man divorces his wife
    and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife,
    will he return to her?
Would not that land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers;
    and would you return to me?
declares the Lord.
Lift up your eyes to the bare heights, and see!
    Where have you not been ravished?
By the waysides you have sat awaiting lovers
    like an Arab in the wilderness.
You have polluted the land
    with your vile whoredom.
Therefore the showers have been withheld,
    and the spring rain has not come;
yet you have the forehead of a whore;
    you refuse to be ashamed.
Have you not just now called to me,
    ‘My father, you are the friend of my youth—
will he be angry forever,
    will he be indignant to the end?’
Behold, you have spoken,
    but you have done all the evil that you could.” Jeremiah 3:1-5 ESV

There was little sign that the people of Judah were going to repent and return to God. But God emphasized just how difficult it would be for Him to accept them back should they do so. He compared their unfaithfulness to that of a wife who walked out on her husband and gave herself to another man, even marrying him. According to the Mosaic law, the first husband was forbidden to take his wife back, even if he wanted to.

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

If a man tried to take back his wife after she had committed adultery and married another man, he would be adding to her original sin. In God’s eyes, he would be making matters worse, not better. His actions, while well-intentioned, would only bring further judgment from God.

And God makes it quite clear that the actions of the people of Judah were far more egregious. They were guilty of having multiple lovers, not one. They were more like a prostitute who willingly and blazenly threw herself at every man she could find, with no sense of remorse or guilt. In fact, God says of the people of Judah: “you are obstinate as a prostitute. You refuse to be ashamed of what you have done” (Jeremiah 3:3b NLT). Their defiance of God’s will and willful determination to seek other gods had resulted in God’s judgment on the land. He had brought famine on the land, a fate He had warned them about hundreds of years earlier.

“I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze.” – Leviticus 26:19 ESV

This was just one of the curses God promised to bring on the people of Israel if they proved to be disobedient and unfaithful.

And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed. – Deuteronomy 28:23-24 ESV

But they proved to be stubborn and hardheaded, unrepentant and without remorse. And they took their relationship with God for granted. They simply assumed that He would always be there and He would always forgive and forget. After all, they reasoned, He had stuck with them through the wilderness years, putting up with their whining and complaining. He had not destroyed them during the years of the judges, when they repeatedly disobeyed Him and proved to be disloyal to Him. He had patiently endured their sins under the reign of King Saul and graciously given.them King David instead. Even now, after having split the kingdom in two because of the sins of King Solomon, Judah was still around and kicking. So, they assumed all would be well. They were God’s chosen people. He wasn’t about to abandon them. Or so they thought.

Like a spoiled child, Judah had grown accustomed to their privileged position as God’s chosen people. They had become presumptuous, believing that their status as God’s children provided them with immunity from His wrath. They fully expected God to forgive and forget.

“You are my father!
You have been my faithful companion ever since I was young.
You will not always be angry with me, will you?
You will not be mad at me forever, will you?”– Jeremiah 3:4-5 NLT

But God exposes the true nature of their hearts. They fully expected God to remain faithful to them, but they had no intention of following His lead. In fact, God says, “you continually do all the evil that you can” (Jeremiah 3:5 NLT). What’s interesting to note is that the people of Judah were demanding that God be the one to change. They knew He was angry, and justifiably so, but they wanted Him to simply let go off His anger. They were unwilling to acknowledge their sins, repent of them and return to Him. What they wanted was forgiveness with no repentance. They were demanding love in the face of infidelity. They had no intentions of changing their ways.

Forgiveness is a wonderful thing. We love being on the receiving end of it. And, as Christians, we can become uncomfortably accustomed to having a never-ending supply of God’s forgiveness at our disposal. After all, as John said, “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). But notice what that verse says: “If we confess our sins.” Confessions is a prerequisite for forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness if readily available to us, but first we must confess or simply agree with God about our need for forgiveness. We have to acknowledge what it is we have done to offend a holy God. And we also have to desire to give up that behavior in the future. Confession without contrition is meaningless. The definition of contrition is “sorrow for and detestation of sin with a true purpose of amendment” (contrition. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/contrition). Confession without contrition is like a child saying “I’m sorry”, but with no intention of changing their behavior. Far too often, our brand of confession is nothing more than remorse, a sorrow for having been caught and a fear of facing punishment. So we “confess” with no intention of changing the way we behave. Like the Israelites, we have the mistaken notion that God is obligated to put up with us – just the way we are. Our familiarity with Him breeds contempt for Him. We treat Him as a cosmic Genie, obligated to grant us our wishes and do as we command. We demand He forgive us, while refusing to give up the behavior that got us into trouble with Him in the first place.

But as King David learned: “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God” (Psalm 51:17 NLT). As the prophet Joel would warn the people of Israel: 

“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
   and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster. – Joel 2:12-13 NLT

How easy it is to take God’s love for granted. We can so quickly assume that God is somehow obligated to ignore our sins or to accept our weak and heartless words of confession. We tell Him we’re sorry and fully expect Him to act as if nothing ever happened. But God takes sin seriously. His Son had to die for our sins. God had to put His own Son to death in order to pay the penalty for our sins. So, He doesn’t take sin lightly. He can’t just excuse sin. And while our gracious, merciful God offers forgiveness for sin, He also demands that we exhibit a brokenness and contrition for our sins.

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

God Takes Sin Seriously.

Now Joab the son of Zeruiah knew that the king’s heart went out to Absalom. And Joab sent to Tekoa and brought from there a wise woman and said to her, “Pretend to be a mourner and put on mourning garments. Do not anoint yourself with oil, but behave like a woman who has been mourning many days for the dead. Go to the king and speak thus to him.” So Joab put the words in her mouth.

When the woman of Tekoa came to the king, she fell on her face to the ground and paid homage and said, “Save me, O king.” And the king said to her, “What is your trouble?” She answered, “Alas, I am a widow; my husband is dead. And your servant had two sons, and they quarreled with one another in the field. There was no one to separate them, and one struck the other and killed him. And now the whole clan has risen against your servant, and they say, ‘Give up the man who struck his brother, that we may put him to death for the life of his brother whom he killed.’ And so they would destroy the heir also. Thus they would quench my coal that is left and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth.”

Then the king said to the woman, “Go to your house, and I will give orders concerning you.” And the woman of Tekoa said to the king, “On me be the guilt, my lord the king, and on my father’s house; let the king and his throne be guiltless.” The king said, “If anyone says anything to you, bring him to me, and he shall never touch you again.” Then she said, “Please let the king invoke the Lord your God, that the avenger of blood kill no more, and my son be not destroyed.” He said, “As the Lord lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground.”

Then the woman said, “Please let your servant speak a word to my lord the king.” He said, “Speak.” And the woman said, “Why then have you planned such a thing against the people of God? For in giving this decision the king convicts himself, inasmuch as the king does not bring his banished one home again. We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast. Now I have come to say this to my lord the king because the people have made me afraid, and your servant thought, ‘I will speak to the king; it may be that the king will perform the request of his servant. For the king will hear and deliver his servant from the hand of the man who would destroy me and my son together from the heritage of God.’ And your servant thought, ‘The word of my lord the king will set me at rest,’ for my lord the king is like the angel of God to discern good and evil. The Lord your God be with you!” 2 Samuel 14:1-17 ESV

More than three years had passed since Absalom had arranged and carried out the murder of his half-brother, Amnon, as revenge for raping his sister, Tamar. Absalom had fled, knowing he was guilty and deserving of death. He had lived in exile in the land of Geshur the entire time and, while David thought about him every day, he did nothing to mete out justice for what his son had done. And this whole sordid affair would have been well known to all the people of Israel. It would have been common knowledge that one of the king’s sons had raped his half-sister and had then been murdered by her brother. They would have been well aware of Absalom’s exile and the rumor mills would have been busy with all kinds of gossip and speculation.

That’s when Joab, the king’s friend and military commander decided to take action. He determined that it would be in the best interest of the kingdom for David to allow Absalom to return. We are not told why Joab felt compelled to do this. But there is no indication that any of his efforts had the blessing of God. Nowhere in the passage do we hear of him seeking or receiving a word from God. This would appear to have been his own idea and the fruit it would eventually would seem to bear evidence that it was no within God’s will.

When Joab saw how much David longed for Absalom, he concocted a plan to try and convince David to forgive and forget. Perhaps remembering how Nathan the prophet had used a story to trick David into confessing his sin with Bathsheba, Joab came up with a similar strategy. He hired a woman to tell a completely fabricated story to David that entailed the murder of her son by his brother. Her clansmen wanted to put the second son to death for having murdered his brother, but she described herself to David as a widow with no other sons to protect or provide for her. The living son was her last hope. If he was put to death, she would be helpless and hopeless. Her story, while somewhat similar to that of Absalom and Amnon, had some glaring differences. Absalom’s murder of Amnon had not been in the heat of an argument and the result of uncontrolled passion. In other words, his was not a case of unpremeditated murder. He had planned it for over two years. His murder of Amnon had been calculated and carefully orchestrated. And the execution of Absalom for the murder of his brother would not have left David destitute and alone. He was the king. And technically, in spite of what Joab said, Absalom was not the heir to the throne. Amnon would have been, but he had been killed. Next in line would have been Chileab, David’s second-born son (2 Samuel 3:3). And little did Joab know that God had already made a determination to make Solomon the next king of Israel. But Joab did what he thought was best. He believed that by getting David to allow Absalom to return, things would get back to normal in the kingdom.

But the thing we must remember when reading this story is that God had already given His will concerning matters of this nature. In the book of Numbers we find His divine provision for those who commit murder by accident. God established six cities of refuge, designed as places where the guilty could go for safety until their case could be judged appropriately. But God had made it clear that acts of premeditated murder were not covered.

But if someone strikes and kills another person with a piece of iron, it is murder, and the murderer must be executed. Or if someone with a stone in his hand strikes and kills another person, it is murder, and the murderer must be put to death. Or if someone strikes and kills another person with a wooden object, it is murder, and the murderer must be put to death. The victim’s nearest relative is responsible for putting the murderer to death. When they meet, the avenger must put the murderer to death. So if someone hates another person and pushes him or throws a dangerous object at him and he dies, it is murder. Or if someone hates another person and hits him with a fist and he dies, it is murder. In such cases, the avenger must put the murderer to death when they meet. – Numbers 35:16-21 NLT

Absalom deserved death, but Joab was determined to get the king to grant him a pardon. And his reasoning, passed on to David by the woman, would be that this would be best for the kingdom. He even suggests that it would be what God would want. “Certainly we must die, and are like water spilled on the ground that cannot be gathered up again. But God does not take away life; instead he devises ways for the banished to be restored.” (2 Samuel 14:14 NET). She appealed to God’s mercy and love. She emphasized His forgiveness. But in doing so, she painted a one-dimensional view of God, conveniently leaving out His justice and holiness. God cannot overlook sin. He cannot turn a blind eye to the sins of men and simply pardon them without doing something about them. There would be a day coming when God would provide permanent forgiveness for sins of all kinds. But it would be at the cost of His own Son’s life. Payment had to be made. The author of Hebrews reminds us, “For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT).

Joab wanted everything back to the way it was. He was willing to overlook the sins of Absalom, if it would get David back to being his old self. This whole scene was the brain child of Joab, and was intended to get David to overlook the guilt of his son and allow him to return home with no justice having been served. David, seemingly susceptible to a good story, would give in to the woman’s tale and her plea for David to allow Absalom to be restored. This decision, like so many of David’s, would come back to haunt him. He did not seek God’s will in the matter, but went with his gut. It seems that the woman, armed with the words of Joab, knew exactly what was needed to get to David’s heart. He longed for Absalom and was just looking for an excuse to bring him home. He didn’t want to mete out justice, which is why he had left Absalom living in the land of his maternal grandfather for three years. Now, David seemed to have a viable reason for doing what he had wanted to do all along – absolve Absalom of guilt. But God had not forgotten what Absalom had done. And contrary to the wise woman’s words, God does take away life. He had taken the life of David’s newborn son because of his sin with Bathsheba. God had taken the life of Achan and his entire family for bringing sin into the camp (Joshua 7). God is a just and holy god. He is righteous and always does what is right. David could forgive and forget Absalom’s sin, but God could not and would not.

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 Long Wait Begins.

Then David fled from Naioth in Ramah and came and said before Jonathan, “What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin before your father, that he seeks my life?” And he said to him, “Far from it! You shall not die. Behold, my father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me. And why should my father hide this from me? It is not so.” But David vowed again, saying, “Your father knows well that I have found favor in your eyes, and he thinks, ‘Do not let Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved.’ But truly, as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death.” Then Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.” David said to Jonathan, “Behold, tomorrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit at table with the king. But let me go, that I may hide myself in the field till the third day at evening. If your father misses me at all, then say, ‘David earnestly asked leave of me to run to Bethlehem his city, for there is a yearly sacrifice there for all the clan.’ If he says, ‘Good!’ it will be well with your servant, but if he is angry, then know that harm is determined by him. Therefore deal kindly with your servant, for you have brought your servant into a covenant of the Lord with you. But if there is guilt in me, kill me yourself, for why should you bring me to your father?” And Jonathan said, “Far be it from you! If I knew that it was determined by my father that harm should come to you, would I not tell you?” Then David said to Jonathan, “Who will tell me if your father answers you roughly?” And Jonathan said to David, “Come, let us go out into the field.” So they both went out into the field.

And Jonathan said to David, “The Lord, the God of Israel, be witness! When I have sounded out my father, about this time tomorrow, or the third day, behold, if he is well disposed toward David, shall I not then send and disclose it to you? But should it please my father to do you harm, the Lord do so to Jonathan and more also if I do not disclose it to you and send you away, that you may go in safety. May the Lord be with you, as he has been with my father. If I am still alive, show me the steadfast love of the Lord, that I may not die; and do not cut off your steadfast love from my house forever, when the Lord cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.” – 1 Samuel 20:1-15 ESV

It would still seem as though David was unaware of the true meaning behind his anointing by Samuel. He is at a loss as to why Saul would want to have him killed. He even asked Jonathan, ““What have I done? What is my crime? How have I offended your father that he is so determined to kill me?” (NLT). If David had been aware that he was to be the next king of Israel and Saul’s replacement, then he would have put two and two together and recognized Saul’s attempts on his life for what they were: Acts of jealousy and anger. But instead, David seems to think that he has done something to offend Saul. He is trying to figure out what he could have done to cause such anger in the king that he would want David dead. David even begged his friend Jonathan, “kill me yourself if I have sinned against your father. But please don’t betray me to him!” (1 Samuel 20:8 NLT).

The difficult part of this story is that David’s fear for his life was well-justified. Saul was out to kill him. But what made it all so difficult was that David was oblivious as to the reason. He couldn’t figure out why the king was so angry with, angry enough to want to kill him. How many sleepless nights must David have had trying to determine what he had done to deserve such rage. It seems that David would have gladly confessed whatever it was he had done to offend the king if he could just figure out what it was.Years later, David would compose a psalm that reflects his innate desire to have a guilt-free conscience. David was not one who was content to live with unconfessed sin in his life.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
    and lead me along the path of everlasting life. – Psalm 139:23-24 NLT

But no matter how hard he tried, David was not able to not find a sin to confess or a crime he had committed against Saul for which he could accept responsibility. So he was left with no other option than to run for his life. But he appealed to Jonathan in a last-gasp attempt to resolve his situation with Saul.

The reference in this passage to the “new moon” has to do with a God-appointed sacrifice and meal that was to be celebrated on the first day of each new month.

On the first day of each month, present an extra burnt offering to the Lord of two young bulls, one ram, and seven one-year-old male lambs, all with no defects. These must be accompanied by grain offerings of choice flour moistened with olive oil—six quarts with each bull, four quarts with the ram, and two quarts with each lamb. This burnt offering will be a special gift, a pleasing aroma to the Lord. You must also present a liquid offering with each sacrifice: two quarts of wine for each bull, a third of a gallon for the ram, and one quart for each lamb. Present this monthly burnt offering on the first day of each month throughout the year.

On the first day of each month, you must also offer one male goat for a sin offering to the Lord. This is in addition to the regular burnt offering and its accompanying liquid offering. – Deuteronomy 28:11-15 NLT

David’s plan was to use this feast day as a means to discern the true nature of Saul’s relationship with him. He usually celebrated this feast day in the presence of the king and his family, but on this occasion, David remain in hiding, and Jonathan would tell Saul that he had returned home to Bethlehem to be with his family. If Saul became angry, as David seemed to know he would, it would be proof to Jonathan that David’s fears were well-justified. And the truth is, Jonathan should have been well-aware of his father’s intense anger with David, because Saul had already commanded Jonathan to kill him. But Jonathan, as a loyal son, was probably having a difficult time understanding what was really going on. He knew Saul loved David just as much as he did. His father’s actions were a mystery to him. Jonathan so wanted everything to return to the way it was before. But, sadly, that would not be the case.

Jonathan made a pact with David, saying, “I promise by the Lord, the God of Israel, that by this time tomorrow, or the next day at the latest, I will talk to my father and let you know at once how he feels about you” (1 Samuel 20:12 NLT). And Jonathan made David swear that, not matter what happened, he would remain faithful to him. “And may you treat me with the faithful love of the Lord as long as I live. But if I die, treat my family with this faithful love, even when the Lord destroys all your enemies from the face of the earth” (1 Samuel 20:14-15 NLT). Jonathan seemed to know that God’s favor was on David. He sensed that David was going to go on to great things, and continue to experience victories over the enemies of God and Israel. And Jonathan also seemed to have a premonition that things were not going to turn out well for he or his father. And years later, after Saul and Jonathan were dead and David was king, David would recall the pact he made with Jonathan, showing favor to Mephibosheth, the sole remaining son of Jonathan.

Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always. – 2 Samuel 9:7 NLT

It is easy to see why God had referred to David as a man after His own heart. With each passing scene we are given a glimpse into the character of this young man. He is faithful and loving. He is diligent and determined to serve his God and his king well. After each attempt by Saul to kill him, David simply returned to duty, conducting himself with honor and integrity. Not once did he attempt to defend himself. We never see him get angry or vindictive toward Saul. He never utters a single harsh word about Saul. All David wanted to know was what he had done to make Saul angry. If he was guilty, he would confess it. If he had done something wrong, he would attempt to rectify it. In spire of all that had happened to him, David continued to treat Saul with respect, viewing him as God’s anointed and the king of Israel. Not once do we hear him utter the words, “This is not fair!” He doesn’t point his finger at Saul and declare him as the guilty one. He doesn’t defend himself before God or even Jonathan, for that matter. He was confused. He was obviously frustrated. But he remained faithful and willing to accept his lot in life as having come from the hand of God.

Jonathan made a statement to David that rings with prophetic weight: “May the Lord destroy all your enemies!” (1 Samuel 20:16 NLT).  Little did Jonathan know that his words would come true. God would end up bringing about the destruction of Saul, the man who would become David’s most persistent and perplexing enemy. Saul would remain king. He would continue to pursue David, treating him as a fugitive and as an enemy of the state. And yet David would never feel the freedom to defend himself against Saul. He would never sense God’s permission to take Saul’s life. For the next several years of his life, David would be dependent upon God’s mercy and grace to sustain and protect him and to eventually crown him as king over Israel.

 

A Matter of the Heart.

For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. – Romans 2:25-29 ESV

In this chapter, Paul has been dealing primarily with the Jews, those who had been chosen by God, commanded to keep His law and enjoyed a unique and privileged relationship with Him. They believed themselves to be spiritually superior and safe from God’s judgment, because they belonged to Him. But Paul, in his ongoing exposition of the “gospel of God,” is making it clear that the kind of righteousness God demands is impossible for both the Jew and the Gentile to provide. Even though the Jews did enjoy a one-of-a-kind relationship with God, they were no better off when it came to righteousness than their non-Jewish neighbors. Paul even accused them of passing judgment on the Gentiles, while practicing the very same sins. It wasn’t enough to have and to know the law, you had to keep it. Paul said it was “the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13 ESV). In other words, those who wanted to be made right with God were going to have to keep His law perfectly and completely. Paul’s accusations against his own people were anything but mild. “While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law” (Romans 2:21-23 ESV).

Circumcision, the physical, outward sign of the covenant between the people of Israel and God, was to be a constant reminder and a permanent mark of their status as God’s people. But circumcision was not enough. They still had to obey Him. They were still required to be faithful and worship Him alone. Later on, when God gave the law to Moses, the people had a non-negotiable, unarguable outline of God’s righteous expectations. And Paul said, “circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (Romans 2:25 ESV). Being a Jew was directly tied to being obedient to God. The privilege of being God’s chosen people came with a heavy responsibility. It was not enough to have a mark on your body, an external sign of ownership. “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, not is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:28-29 ESV).

All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, we have recorded the words of God spoken to the people of Israel. “Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:15-16 ESV). They were guilty of disobedience and unfaithfulness. While Moses had been on the mountain top receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had been busy worshiping the golden calf down in the valley. In his anger and disappointment, Moses had broken the original tablets, and was forced to return to the mountain to receive a second set. And in spite of their actions, God  made His expectations clear. “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13 ESV). God demanded obedience. He required faithfulness – from the heart. The problem with man has always been an inner one, not an outer one. Our sinfulness flows from within. Jesus Himself had said, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you” (Mark 7:20-23 NLT).

Circumcision is a matter of the heart. It has always been about the heart. And Paul makes it clear that the kind of heart that God is looking for is only available through a work of the Spirit, not the efforts of men. Keeping the law, as long as it was done through outward effort would fail, because man’s heart was inherently evil and unfaithful. The prophet, Jeremiah, had strong words from the Lord for the people of Judah. They had been repeatedly unfaithful and unable to keep the law of God. And that was not going to change. God told them, “Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil” (Jeremiah 13:23 NLT). They had a heart problem. They were incapable of remaining faithful to God or refraining from sin against God.

So Paul wanted his readers to know that all men, whether Jews or Gentiles, stood before God as guilty. It wasn’t a matter of spiritual status or knowledge of God and His ways. It was about obedience, faithfulness, and perfect righteousness – something man was incapable of pulling off on his own. Paul was simply supporting his primary premise that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. The righteousness God demanded and expected was only available through faith in His Son. The kind of heart change required to remain faithful to God was only made possible through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. All men need the gospel.

The Self-Delusion of Self-Righteousness.

 He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. – Romans 2:6-11 ESV

In chapter two of Romans, Paul is addressing the Jewish community. In the first chapter he talked about the non-Jew or pagan, who stands before God as without excuse and guilty. They have had God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20 ESV) clearly revealed to them and yet, they had refused to acknowledge Him as God. Instead, they had ended up worshiping the creation rather than the Creator, leading to God turning them over to their own foolish hearts, dishonorable passions, and debased minds. But as far as Paul was concerned, the Jews were no less culpable or free from guilt. In fact, they were so busy pointing their condemning fingers at he pagans, that they failed to see that they were guilty of the same sins they claimed not to commit. As descendants of Abraham and children of God, they considered themselves exempt from judgment. They somehow thought themselves to be immune from God’s wrath. But Paul warned them that, they too, were without excuse. They stood just as much condemned and guilty as the Gentiles who were outside the family of God. The self-righteous efforts of the Jews aimed at a holy God, were going to be no more helpful in the long run than the self-righteous actions of the Gentiles directed at their false gods. Paul accused the Jews of having hard and unrepentant hearts. They refused to admit their guilt and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. So Paul warned them that “you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5 ESV). Not only that, the day was coming when God was going to render to each of them according to his works.

Paul is using the Old Testament Scriptures to indict them. He quotes from two different passages. The first is from Psalm 62:11-12: “and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work.” The second is from Proverbs 24:12: “Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?” The Hebrew Scriptures provided a strong understanding of the coming judgment of God. It would be based according to each man’s works. The expectation was righteousness – God’s brand of righteousness, not man’s. The requirement was perfection and nothing less. God had told the Israelites repeatedly, “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. ” (Leviticus 11:44 ESV). Jesus had told the Jews of His day, “unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Matthew 5:20 NLT). James put it in even more practical, if not demanding terms: “For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws” (James 2:10 NLT).

And Paul seems to give only two options for life, and both end in judgment. One is to live satisfying the self and disobeying the truth regarding God and His gospel offer. Those individuals will end up obeying unrighteousness and earning God’s full wrath and fury on the day of judgment. The other option is to life self-righteously, attempting to obey God’s law and earn a right standing with Him through your own efforts. And if you happen to pull it off, your reward on judgment day will be glory, honor, peace and immortality, while everyone else gets tribulation and distress. But is Paul saying we can earn our salvation by doing good deeds? Certainly not. He is showing that those who are sinners will be judged and condemned, but so will those who consider themselves to be righteous because of their own efforts. In the very next chapter Paul will make it clear that “all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9 NLT), and that “No one is righteous – not even one” (Romans 3:10 NLT). A little further on in that same chapter, Paul will introduce the sobering news, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NLT).

So self-righteousness is no better than sinfulness. Attempting to do good things for God puts you in no better position than those who do bad things against God. God shows no partiality. Nobody gets to earn their way into His good graces. There is one way and one way only for men to be made right with God, and that is through the death of Jesus Christ. Paul goes on in chapter three to say, “all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24 NLT). That includes the Jew and the Gentile, the pagan and the pious, the selfish and the self-righteous. “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).

We can’t earn our salvation. None of us deserve God’s grace and mercy. The Jews were no better off than the Gentiles. They were sinners, condemned and unclean. Paul reminds us that at the foot of the cross, we’ll all equals when it comes to our guiltiness and our need for forgiveness. Which is why he wrote, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). The greatest danger men face is to fall under the delusion of man-made righteousness. We will never be able to achieve our way into God’s presence or earn out way into His good graces. Which is why He sent His Son to live among us, model holiness right in front us, and die on behalf of us. “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT). 

Don’t Fear. He Hears.

I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit; you heard my plea, “Do not close your ear to my cry for help!” You came near when I called on you; you said, “Do not fear!” – Lamentations 3:55-57 ESV

This prayer, recorded in the book of Lamentations is found in the midst of a lengthy section that recounts the faithfulness of God. The book was more than likely written by Jeremiah and is a post-captivity record of his reflections on all that had happened to Judah as a result of their refusal to return to the Lord. Their stubborn rebellion had brought about the fall of the city of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the exile of the people of Judah to the land of Babylon. Jeremiah remained behind and the book of Lamentations contains his thoughts on all that had happened. The book opens with the following statement: “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). The first chapter paints a bleak and depressing scene as Jeremiah, sitting in the abandoned city of Jerusalem, recalls the cause of the nation’s fall from grace. He pulls no punches when he writes, “the Lord has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (Lamentations 1:5 ESV). “Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy” (Lamentations 1:8 ESV). “Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future” (Lamentations 1:9 ESV). All that had happened was the result of their sin and the work of God. “The Lord has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago; he has thrown down without pity; he has made the enemy rejoice over you and exalted the might of your foes” (Lamentations 2:17 ESV).

In chapter three, Jeremiah recounts his own suffering during his days as the prophet of God. He had spent years attempting to call the people of Judah to repentance, but with no success. He endured rejection, ridicule and even physical abuse as a result of his ministry. There had been days when he felt all alone and it seemed as if God had abandoned him. He had gotten so low that it led him to say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord” (Lamentations 3:18 ESV). But in the midst of all his sorrow, he kept going back to the one thing he knew about God. He was loving and faithful. “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, therefore I will hope in him’” (Lamentations 3:21-24 ESV). Even while sitting in the middle of a burned out, broken down, and abandoned city, Jeremiah could think about the love and mercy of God. Even though he knew that the destruction of Judah had been the work of God, it did not change his view of God. He was able to say, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth” (Lamentations 3:25-27 ESV). He knew that God’s punishment had been justified and had been done out of love. He also knew that, “though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Lamentations 3:32 ESV).

For Jeremiah it was pretty simple. The people of Judah had gotten what they had deserved. They had no right to shake their fists at God in anger or accuse Him of injustice. “Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!” (Lamentations 3:39-40 ESV). Their circumstances called for a time of reflection and self-examination. They needed to focus on and own up to their own sinfulness. They desperately needed to come to the point where they could confess, “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven” (Lamentations 3:42 ESV). But Jeremiah knew that no matter how bad things got or how deep their pit of despair may feel, their God would hear them when they called out. He knew it from personal experience. “I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit; you heard my plea.” He had known what it is like to have God come near when called. He had heard God say, “Do not fear!” There is no sin too great for God to forgive. There is no pit so deep that God cannot reach down His hand and rescue. There is no cry He can’t hear. All He asks is that we acknowledge our sin, admit our need for Him, and return to Him in humility and dependence.

Too often, our cries to God are based solely on what we want Him to do for us. We want His deliverance from pain and suffering more than we want Him. We want Him to rescue us from our predicament, but we don’t necessarily want to submit to His lordship over our life. We want Him to fix our problem, but don’t want to admit that we were the cause of it. One of the hardest things for us to do is to test and examine our ways. We don’t want to take ownership for our sin. We don’t want to admit guilt. We would rather justify our actions. It is difficult for us to say, “We have transgressed and rebelled.” But confession is essential if we want to experience God’s 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). We don’t need to fear, because He hears. But he wants to hear us call with repentant hearts, openly confessing our sins and humbly submitting to His will for our lives.