How Can You Believe?

37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” – John 5:37-47 ESV

As the Son of God, Jesus had every right to stand in judgment of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their rejection of Him was baseless because they had been given more than enough evidence to prove His identity. And, one of the primary pieces of evidence was to be found in the Hebrew scriptures, where the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah clearly pointed to Jesus as their fulfillment.

The men whom Jesus addressed were avid students of the Old Testament Scriptures and their familiarity with the many Messianic passages found there should have given them special insight into all that was happening right in front of them. Of all people, they should have recognized that Jesus was the one for whom they had long been waiting. But these men, like every Jew before them, had misread and misinterpreted these prophecies and had created a narrative concerning the Messiah that focused solely on His role as a conquering king and their political savior. They tended to ignore all the passages that pointed to the Messiah’s role as the suffering servant.

In his gospel, Luke records the moment when the recently resurrected Jesus appeared to His grieving disciples as they huddled together in a room somewhere in Jerusalem. Upon seeing Jesus, the disciples “stood there in disbelief, filled with joy and wonder” (Luke 24:41 NLT). But then Jesus spoke to them and what He had to say reveals a great deal about the blind ignorance and stubborn resistance of the Jewish religious leaders.

“When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said, “Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: ‘There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.’ You are witnesses of all these things.” – Luke 24:44-48 NLT

The Pharisees and Sadducees had missed all of this. They were not expecting a Messiah who would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. And they had no desire for such a Messiah. And, as far as repentance for the forgiveness of sins, they had no need for that either. They considered themselves to be fully righteous because of their faithful adherence to the Mosaic law so, they had no need to repent and required no one to save them from their sins.

But these men, while familiar with the written word of God, were oblivious to the testimony of God found there. God had spoken through the men who had penned the Old Testament books. He had revealed the truth regarding His Son’s coming and yet, these religious leaders had failed to recognize the voice of God. And Jesus issues a stinging condemnation concerning them: “you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you” (John 5:38 NLT).

The Pharisees and Sadducees had a love affair with the Scriptures. They revered them and dedicated their lives to studying them. Jesus even admitted as much. 

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” – John 5:39-40 NLT

They spent countless hours pouring over the Scriptures, seeking to know the key to eternal life. They were desperate to know what God required of them so that they might keep God’s law and earn their way into His eternal kingdom. Their incessant need to “search” the Scriptures was based on their fear that they might overlook a commandment and fail in their quest for righteousness. It’s interesting to note that their obsession with the law caused them to seek the opinion of Jesus. On one occasion, they came to Him, asking, “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” (Matthew 22:36 NLT). They had prioritized the commands of God, giving some higher priority than others. This way, they could concentrate their efforts on keeping the more important laws.

And Jesus had responded to their question by saying, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38 NLT).

In a sense, Jesus was accusing these men of loving the Scriptures more than they loved God. They were more concerned about discovering the laws they needed to keep in order to be deemed righteous by God than they were in loving and listening to God.

As Jesus continued His indictment of these pious religious leaders, He told them that He had no need of their approval or official sanctioning of His ministry.

Your approval means nothing to me, because I know you don’t have God’s love within you.” – John 5:41-42 NLT

What a slap in the face this must have been to these prideful men. They considered themselves to be the spiritual elite of Israel, yet Jesus was accusing them of having no love for God. Even worse, He was inferring that God’s love was not within them. In his first epistle, John would later pen the following words of warning:

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

John had learned a great deal from observing Jesus’ many encounters with the Pharisees and Sadducees. At one time, he would have revered these men as icons of virtue and examples of spiritual sophistication. But he had discovered the truth that they were nothing more than hypocrites who loved the praise of men more than they loved God. They put more value in their own achievements than they did in the words and works of God.

So, when Jesus appeared claiming to be the Son of God sent to do the will of God, they refused to hear what He had to say.

“For I have come to you in my Father’s name, and you have rejected me.” – John 5:43 NLT

Because they had no real understanding of who God was, they were incapable of recognizing His Son. Their concept of God was skewed. Their understanding of righteousness was flawed. Their thinking concerning salvation was totally works-based and, therefore, inaccurate. That is why John the Baptist came preaching a message of repentance. He had repeatedly proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And the Greek word that is translated “repent” literally means “to change one’s mind for better.” It carries the idea of a radical change of mindset. John the Baptist was calling the people to rethink everything they believed concerning God, the kingdom, salvation, and righteousness. These were not what they seemed to be. Their understanding of God’s redemptive plan was inaccurate and insufficient.

With the arrival of Jesus, the truth of God concerning the salvation of mankind had become visible and knowable. But to believe in Jesus as the Savior of the world, the Jews were going to have to repent or radically change their way of thinking. They were going to have to listen to what Jesus had to say because He was the living Word of God. And even Moses had predicted that this day would come. He had foretold of a future prophet would come in the name of the Lord. And He would have a message for the people of God that came directly from the mouth of God.

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. – Deuteronomy 18:15 NLT

I will raise up a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf.” – Deuteronomy 18:18-19 NLT

The Pharisees and Sadducees would have been very familiar with the words of Moses. And Jesus infers that they would have placed their hopes in the promises expressed by Moses. But they refused to recognize Jesus as the very fulfillment of those promises.

“But since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” – John 5:47 NLT

It all boiled down to belief. They refused to believe the words of the prophets. Which means they failed to believe the testimony of God. And that resulted in their refusal to accept the words and the works of Jesus, the Son of God. They found it impossible to repent of their preconceived notions regarding God, sin, righteousness, and salvation. Their minds were set. Their belief system was firmly in place and nothing was going to change their way of thinking. Not even the Son 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

In Spirit and Truth

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” – John 4:16-26 ESV

The woman wanted what Jesus had to offer. The thought of a source of freely flowing water that would eliminate her constant need to draw water from the well of Jacob was more than appealing to her. But, like Nicodemus, she was missing the point of Jesus’ words. She had come to the well to meet a physical need. Her mission had been to draw water from the well for use in drinking, bathing, and cleaning. Water was a daily necessity that made living in that arid region possible. Without it, life would be impossible.

But even water has its limitations. It can be consumed to quench thirst, but in time, the thirst will return. Water can be used to wash away the dirt and grime of life, but it can’t prevent one from becoming filthy again. That’s why the woman was forced to return to the well on a daily basis. Her need for water was insatiable.

Yet Jesus had piqued the woman’s interest with His mention of  “living water.” But don’t miss how He had opened His conversation with her.

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” – John 4:10 ESV

The woman was clueless as to Jesus’ identity. When she had arrived at the well, she was surprised to find an unknown Jewish man waiting there. And her surprise turned to shock when this stranger dared to speak to her – “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9 ESV). Yet Jesus assured her that, had she known who He was and the nature of the gift He had to offer, she would have been the first to speak that day.

Jesus, in need of water to satisfy His thirst, had stopped at the well. But as the woman pointed out, He had “nothing to draw water with” (John 4:11 ESV). So He had asked her for help because she was the only one who had the means by which to satisfy His need. Yet, the inference behind the story is that the woman had a need for something far greater than water. And if she had only known the true identity of the stranger at the well and what He was capable of offering her, she would have been begging Him for the gift of God. 

It is easy to overlook the fact that both Nicodemus and this woman were worshipers of Yahweh. He was an orthodox member of the sect of the Pharisees. She was a Samaritan. He worshiped the God of Abraham at the temple in Jerusalem. Her people chose to worship Him at Mount Gerizim. Nicodemus prided Himself on his identity as a purebred Jew and a strict adherent to the Mosaic Law. The Samaritan woman, though viewed as a half-breed by the Jews, believed that her people were worshiping Yahweh in the manner prescribed by Moses. But what both failed to take into account was their need for a Savior. While the Jews and the Samaritans believed in the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, they were clueless as to His real mission. 

The primary message found in chapters 3 and 4 is that of need, and Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman had the same need in common. The need for eternal life. But in order to have eternal life, they would have to experience cleansing from their sin. Jesus had described it to Nicodemus as birth from above. He described it to the woman at the well as living water. Both of these individuals, despite their obvious differences, would be denied access into God’s kingdom for the very same reason: Sin.

Nicodemus, while outwardly righteous in appearance, was guilty of hypocrisy, just like the rest of his fellow members of the Pharisees. Jesus would have some harsh words of indictment against these well-respected members of Israel’s religious elite.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” – Matthew 23:25 NLT

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

But the woman at the well had her own set of issues. Not only was she a Samaritan and, therefore, guilty of practicing idolatry, but she was also guilty of violating the law of God. As Jesus was about to point out, she was an adulteress. When he asked her to go get her husband, she confessed that she was unmarried. But Jesus knew more about her than she could have ever imagined, and He revealed to her the true nature of her need.

“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” – John 4:17-18 ESV

Suddenly, Jesus shifted the topic of conversation away from water to sin. He made it painfully personal. And while the woman’s statement had been anything but a confession, Jesus declared that what she had said was more true than she realized. She had no husband because she was in an adulterous relationship. She was guilty of sin.

But in a somewhat awkward attempt to change the subject, the woman declared, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” (John 4:19 ESV). She desperately wanted to talk about something other than her five failed marriages and her current live-in relationship. So, sensing that Jesus had some kind of prophetic powers, she decided to ask Him about an important point of controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans.

“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” – John 4:20 ESV

By refocusing the topic of conversation, she was hoping to divert attention away from her own personal problems. But Jesus was not going to allow that to happen. He addressed her question, but in a way that brought the focus right back on her. In essence, Jesus let her know that the issue had less to do about where God should be worshiped, but the motive behind the worship. The Jews and Samaritans were busy debating about location, but Jesus was far more interested in motivation. Why were they worshiping God?

And Jesus dropped a bombshell on her that must have left her reeling.

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. – John 4:21 ESV

The worship of God wasn’t about a temple in Jerusalem or a shrine on Mount Gerizim. It was a matter of the heart. While the Jews had a more accurate understanding of God, they were guilty of worshiping Him falsely. Jesus would later declare of the Jews, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God” (Matthew 15:8-9 NLT).

And He told the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know” (John 4:22 ESV). The Samaritans practiced a form of syncretism that blended the worship of Yahweh with that of false gods. Their doctrine was polluted and filled with pagan ideas that rendered Yahweh virtually unrecognizable.

Jesus fast-forwarded the conversation to the future, revealing that a day would come when “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23 ESV). Worship will no longer be about location and the ritual observation of rules and regulations. It will be about a relationship with God based on spirit and truth. And Jesus informed the woman that the future hour to which He referred was actually “now here.” It had arrived. And He had been the one to usher it in.

But what did He mean by “spirit and truth?” And how had His arrival changed the nature of man’s worship of God? The two terms “spirit and truth” are actually meant to convey one idea. Jesus is attempting to define worship that which is “truly spiritual.” In other words, it is not some physical activity practiced in a particular place and according to some man-made set of governing rules. It is a matter of the heart, not the head. It is spiritual in nature and not physical. Going through the religious motions either in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim was not going to cut it. Both the Jews and the Samaritans had been guilty of worshiping the one true God falsely and unfaithfully.

But Jesus had come to make the true worship of God possible, by restoring sinful men and women to a right relationship with Him. To do so, they would have to be born of the Spirit, just as He had told Nicodemus. They would have to have their spiritual thirst quenched by the living water Jesus would provide. And just a few chapters later, John will describe Jesus standing in the temple courtyard, shouting:

Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”(When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. But the Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet entered into his glory.).” – John 7:38-39 NLT

The true worship of God would be made possible by the presence of the indwelling Spirit of God. And to receive the Spirit, one would have to accept the gracious gift of salvation made possible through the sacrifice of God’s own Son.

These words left the woman in a state of confusion. She was having a difficult time following what Jesus had to say. But she proclaimed her belief in the coming of the Messiah and her hope that He would clear up all the confusion regarding where to worship God. And that’s when Jesus boldly proclaimed to her, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26 ESV). The not-yet had become the now. The long-awaited Messiah had shown up and He was talking to her. The answer to her question regarding the true worship of God was standing right in front of her.

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

What Does God Require?

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:6-8 ESV

In verse 3, Micah records God confronting the people of Israel with a series of questions:

“O my people, what have I done to you?
    How have I wearied you? Answer me! – Micah 6:3 ESV

God is demanding to know the reason for their disobedience and disrespectful treatment of Him. Was it something He did or said? Was He to blame? But before the Israelites would answer, God reminded them of His faithfulness by recalling His actions on their behalf. He had delivered them out slavery in Egypt. He had provided them with qualified leaders. He had protected them from their enemies. And He had miraculously aided their crossing of the Jordan River so they could enter the land of promise.

And then God explains why He had done all these things for them:

that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” – Micah 6:5 ESV

They had experienced the righteous acts of God, firsthand. He had displayed His righteousness in tangible ways that they could see and appreciate. But it is important that we understand what God means by “righteous acts.” His deeds, done on behalf of the people of Israel, were righteous and just. All that He had done for them had been accomplished in a just manner, without pretense and unstained by sin. Moses was able to say of God:

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

Every single action of God, done on behalf of His chosen people, was fully just and right. He had made no mistakes. He had done nothing with impure motives or in violation of His own righteous standards. So, the people of Israel could not point their fingers at him and accuse Him of wrong-doing. They could excuse their behavior by blaming God.

God describes His actions as “righteous.” The Hebrew word is tsedaqah, and it means “justice, righteousness, things done justly.” As Moses stated, all of God’s ways are perfect, right, and just. He sets the standard for righteousness and justice. And that seems to be the point of this passage. God had given the people of Israel tangible evidence of what justice and righteousness look like. They had seen them lived out in their own lives through His acts of deliverance, protection, mercy, grace, and undeserved kindness.

But God had not stopped there. He had also provided them with His law as a concrete example of what acts of righteousness were to look like in their own lives.

“And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness [tsedaqah] for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.” – Deuteronomy 6:24-25 ESV

God was just and right in all His ways, and He expected His chosen people to emulate His behavior. That is why He had told them, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV). God had expected them to live distinctively different lives than the pagan nations which occupied the land of Canaan. So, He had given them a standard for their conduct that clearly differentiated between right and wrong. And God had warned them against following the ways of the world.

“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them.” – Leviticus 20:22-23 ESV

They were not to emulate the ways of the world. They were not to use human reasoning or secular solutions to guide their lives or to determine their conduct.

“I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples.You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” – Leviticus 20:24, 26 ESV

This idea of separation is essential to understanding what Micah is trying to communicate in these verses. The people of Israel had been “set apart” by God. But their separateness was to manifest itself in tangible ways, not so much in physical segregation from the rest of the world, as through their daily behavior. And Micah clarifies that God was not interested in external displays of piety or religious zeal. He was not swayed by outward acts of obedience that were only righteous in appearance.

The people of Israel had a reputation for going through the motions, performing their God-appointed rituals and observing the feasts and festivals with a certain degree of religious zeal, but God accused them of hypocrisy.

“…this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 ESV

And Micah picks up on that theme by asking a series of probing questions designed to illustrate how the people of Israel had missed the point of what it means to do acts of justice or righteousness.

What can we bring to the Lord?
    Should we bring him burnt offerings?
Should we bow before God Most High
    with offerings of yearling calves?
Should we offer him thousands of rams
    and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should we sacrifice our firstborn children
    to pay for our sins? – Micah 6:6-7 NLT

God was not interested in outward displays of obedience that were nothing more than unrighteous people going through the motions. The people of Israel had been doing all the “right” things, but their hearts had been in the wrong place. And it was King David who had pointed out what God really desired from His people.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:16-17 ESV

The peoples’ hearts were far from God. Their hearts were anything but contrite. Their spirits remained unbroken. And their actions, no matter how righteous in appearance, were anything but pleasing to God.

Jesus pointed out the danger of turning our acts of righteousness into nothing more than performance art, done for the praise and admiration of others.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1 ESV

In today’s nomenclature, we might call this “virtue signaling.”

virtue signaling: the sharing of one’s point of view on a social or political issue, often on social media, in order to garner praise or acknowledgment of one’s righteousness from others who share that point of view, or to passively rebuke those who do not.  – dictionary.com

We post and repost. We display images on our Facebook pages that convey our convictions and confirm our stand on particular issues and social concerns. We affirm our positions on various hot-button topics with the click of a button. And, in doing so, we practice our righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.

But Micah provides us with some sobering food for thought. Yet, these verses are often lifted out of their context and used to justify the very behavior condemned by Jesus and described in the dictionary.com definition above.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

Micah makes it quite clear that God has already communicated what He deems to be “good” or acceptable behavior. And he sums it up in three simple statements:

…to do justice

…to love kindness

…to walk humbly with your God

But what do these phrases mean? And who gets to determine their definitions? Here is where this verse gets abused and misused, even by well-meaning Christians. We take those three imperatives and define them according to our cultural context. We allow the world to dictate what justice means. We let others determine what true kindness looks like in everyday life. But the context of Micah 6:8 is the rest of chapter 6 and the entirety of the book of Micah. God is speaking to the people of Israel. He is addressing the sins of those whom He has chosen as His own. And the justice He has in mind is not some form of outward behavior mandated by the prevailing culture. He is speaking of acts of righteousness that emulate His own. He is demanding that His people do what he has deemed to be right. They are to live according to His standards, not those of the world. They are to use His definitions, not those of a secular society that are nothing more than commandments taught by men (Isaiah 29:13).

The people of God are to do what God would have them do. They are to do what is right and just, but according to His definitions, not their own. The world will always be quick to tell us what is the right thing to do. The prevailing society will always attempt to influence our actions by dictating the rules for acceptable behavior. And our desire to fit into this world will constantly tempt us to mimic the world’s ways.

To do justice is to do what God would have us do. It is to live according to His will and not our own. And it will require a separateness and set-apartness that puts pleasing Him ahead of any desire to please the world.

These three attributes found in Micah 6:8 are focused on God, not man. They are not meant to be an outline for enacting social justice in the world. They are a reminder to the people of God that the standards for right living are determined by our righteous God. They are a call to love the mercy and kindness of God more than we love this world. When we fail to do so, we find ourselves seeking to be loved and accepted by the world. We do what the world would have us do. We live up to its standards of righteousness and justice. We virtue signal. We post. We blog. We posture. We give in to the world’s demands. And when we do, we fail to walk humbly with our God.

Self-righteousness is the greatest danger we face. Pride in our achievements and the desire for the praise of men are constant threats to our effectiveness as God’s people. Micah wanted the Israelites to know that good deeds done with good intentions were not what God was looking for. He was looking for people who lived according to His standards of holiness, fully appreciated His acts of kindness, and were willing to walk humbly before Him.

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

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

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

The Set-Apart Life

20 Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.

22 So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. 2 Timothy 2:20-26 ESV

Quarrelsome words. Irreverent babble. Gangrenous talk.

Paul pulled no punches when describing the erroneous teaching that was influencing and infecting the church in Ephesus. As far as Paul was concerned, it was all like a deadly disease slowly spreading its way through the congregation, upsetting the faith of some by raising doubts about their true spiritual condition. The doctrinal errors being propagated by individuals like Hymenaeus and Philetus were contrary to the message Paul had preached concerning the truth of the gospel. And Timothy had the unenviable, but necessary responsibility of addressing this problem by “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV).

Paul encouraged Timothy to do his job with an eye towards seeking the approval of God and not men.

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. – 2 Timothy 2:15 NLT

Telling people what they want to hear might help Timothy win over some of the dissenters in the congregation, but it would not score him any points with God. As a minister of the gospel, Timothy had a responsibility to teach the truth, regardless of how his audience responded. He answered to God. And Paul reminded Timothy that “God’s truth stands firm like a foundation stone with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and ‘All who belong to the Lord must turn away from evil’” (2 Timothy 2:19 NLT).

There was confusion within the congregation in Ephesus. With men like Hymenaeus and Philetus teaching contrary doctrine and sowing seeds of doubt and dissent, it had become difficult to tell who was telling the truth. But Paul emphasized that God knew. The Shepherds knows His sheep. And all those who belong to the flock of God were expected to “turn away from evil.” As in any congregation, the fellowship in Ephesus was going to be comprised of both the faithful and the unfaithful. There would be those who adhered to the truth of God and sought to abstain from evil, and there would be those who “swerved from the truth” (2 Timothy 2:18 ESV) and, in doing so, embraced wickedness.

This fact led Paul to use yet another illustration to help Timothy understand what he was facing in Ephesus.

Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. – 2 Timothy 2:20 ESV

This simple analogy was intended to expose the diverse composition of any local congregation. Within any church, as with a fine home, it would be only natural to find both honorable and dishonorable vessels. This is not a reference to those who are saved and those who are lost. Paul’s point has to do with honor, a word which in the Greek language refers to value or esteem.

Paul’s point seems to be that those who rightly divide the word of truth are deemed as honorable by God. They meet His approval. But those who twist and distort the truth, while still HIs vessels, are viewed as dishonorable or unworthy. A wealthy homeowner would not use clay dishes to serve his dinner guests. To do so would dishonor himself and his guests as well. And God will not use those individuals who distort the truth of the gospel because to do so would bring dishonor to His name.

The primary issue here is that of holiness or the state of being set apart. Those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ have been set apart by God for His use. Having been saved by God through the sacrificial death of His Son, they now belonged to Him.

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

Those who belong to God are expected to honor Him. But when a believer embraces teaching that is contrary to God’s truth or commits sins that are unacceptable for God’s children, he renders himself unfit for service. Paul is not teaching that a believer can lose his salvation. He is simply stating the very real fact that even a Christian can fail to live a set-apart life by choosing to follow the desires of their sinful nature. And when they do, they disqualify themselves from service to God. But don’t miss the point that disqualification can also result from believing or teaching false doctrine. Paul insists that this “irreverent babble…will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (2 Timothy 2:16 ESV).

The word “irreverent” is actually the Greek word bebēlos, which refers to something that is “common” or “unholy.” It stands in direct opposition to the idea of being set apart by God for His honor and glory. In veering from the truth of God and encouraging others to follow suit, a believer renders themself unfit for service. They become common rather than holy. They become a vessel for dishonor rather than honor.

And just to ensure that Timothy doesn’t miss his point, Paul puts his warning in practical, everyday terms that his young disciple can understand.

Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace. Enjoy the companionship of those who call on the Lord with pure hearts. – 2 Timothy 2:22 NLT

Paul is essentially challenging Timothy to live a set-apart life. He needed to live in a way that reflected his status as a new creation in Christ. And he was to seek the company of those who shared his desire to live a holy life.

But Paul wasn’t telling Timothy to form a “holy huddle,” an elite group of super-serious Christians who chose to sequester themselves away from the less honorable members of the congregation. Paul wanted Timothy to teach and train up a group of believers who would positively influence the rest of the church body through their words and actions. Rather than pick a fight with those who disagreed with them, they were to “Gently instruct those who oppose the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25 NLT). The goal was to provide loving instruction with an eye toward reconciliation.

Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. Then they will come to their senses and escape from the devil’s trap. For they have been held captive by him to do whatever he wants. – 2 Timothy 2:25-26 NLT

In Paul’s mind, the “dishonorable” vessel was not doomed to remain that way. He could be renewed and restored. And it was the responsibility of every believer to compassionately care for their wayward brother or sister in Christ.

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. – Galatians 6:1 NLT

Take note of those who refuse to obey what we say in this letter. Stay away from them so they will be ashamed. Don’t think of them as enemies, but warn them as you would a brother or sister. – 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 NLT

Paul greatly desired that the church be marked by a spirit of unity and solidarity. But he knew that the sin natures of those who made up the church would make that difficult at times. But he also knew that the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of every believer provided an ample source of power to overcome sin and resist the lies of the enemy. But Timothy, as a minister of the gospel, was going to have to set the example, modeling the life of an honorable vessel, “set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21 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

A Holy Calling

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, 11 for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, 12 which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. 2 Timothy 1:8-12 ESV

Paul’s letter to Timothy, while personal in nature, is global in its scope and impact. Originally written with Timothy in mind, Paul’s words are applicable and appropriate for any child of God who understands their calling as an ambassador and servant of Christ. The decision by the early church fathers to include this letter in the canon of Scripture is evidence of their belief that it was Spirit-inspired and, therefore, its message was intended for a larger audience than one.

In a way, Timothy serves as a model or representative for the rest of the body of Christ. He was a relatively new believer who was privileged to have the apostle Paul as his personal mentor and spiritual guide. And although it seems clear that Timothy was commissioned for the gospel ministry and had received spiritual gifts commensurate with that responsibility, the instructions he received from Paul apply to each and every Christ-follower.

If we read this letter with the perspective that we’re eavesdropping on a personal conversation between two close friends, we will the vital truths contained in it. Paul’s admonitions and instructions, while directed at Timothy, have a much broader application intended for a much larger audience. They span the boundaries of time and continue to speak to all those who share Timothy’s “sincere faith” (2 Timothy 1:5 ESV) and who desire to “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6 ESV).

Paul issued the same challenge to all Christ-followers: “imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT). He intended his life to be a model of Christlikeness and he expected every believer to be mentored by his example. So, when Paul declares himself to be an ambassador for Christ entrusted with “the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19 ESV), there is a sense in which he expects all followers of Christ to share in that responsibility. When he tells the Corinthian believers, “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20 ESV), he is including them as fellow ambassadors whom he expected to share the same divine invitation: “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20 ESV).

There is a sense in which all believers are being mentored by Paul as they read his letters and allow the Holy Spirit to apply God’s truth to their hearts. We are to read Paul’s words to Timothy with an eager expectation that we will discover personal applications that will radically alter the spiritual trajectory of our lives.

So, when Paul tells Timothy, “do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord” (2 Timothy 1:8 ESV), his words apply to us. As believers, we should never find ourselves ashamed to tell others about God’s message of reconciliation made possible through faith in Christ. Paul knew that Timothy was having a difficult time reconciling the imprisonment of his mentor. He was probably having to field difficult questions from the believers in Ephesus who wondered what they could expect if the apostle Paul had been imprisoned for his faith. How could that be part of God’s divine plan? Would they be next? And Paul knew that Timothy was probably embarrassed by his mentor’s untimely and inexplicable confinement and struggling to explain what was going on.

But rather than making excuses for his predicament, Paul invited Timothy to “share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8 ESV). Paul wasn’t ashamed of his imprisonment. He viewed it as a privilege and something to be understood as good rather than bad.

I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:10 NLT

And Paul saw his life as exemplary rather than as some kind of anomaly. He even pleaded with the believers in Corinth to see every aspect of his life as worthy of emulation – highlighting the good along with the seemingly bad.

…we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. – 2 Corinthians 6:4-10 ESV

And, in his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul reminded them that suffering for Christ was to be expected because they were all caught up in a spiritual war.

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. – Philippians 1:29-30 ESV

And the apostle Peter shared Paul’s recognition that suffering was a non-negotiable aspect of the Christian life.

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. Remember that your family of believers all over the world is going through the same kind of suffering you are.

In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation. – 1 Peter 5:8-10 NLT

So, Paul reminds Timothy (and by extension, us) that he had been saved and “to a holy calling” (2 Timothy 1:9 ESV). Timothy had been set apart by God for a divine purpose and, like Paul, had a responsibility to live up to his calling. Paul acknowledged his own appointment as “a preacher and apostle and teacher” (2 Timothy 1:11 ESV). And he knew that calling was the reason for his imprisonment. That’s why he could “take pleasure” in it. He knew he was doing exactly what he had been commissioned to do and if his faithful carrying out of his job resulted in suffering, he saw himself as sharing in the sufferings of Christ. He was simply getting a small taste of what His Savior endured on his behalf.

And Paul found no shame in his imprisonment. In fact, he boldly proclaimed, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Timothy 1:12 ESV). Despite his less-than-ideal circumstances, Paul remained confident in the faith he had placed in Christ. The presence of difficulties had not caused his faith to waver or his trust in Jesus’ saving work to diminish. Paul was not looking for heaven on earth. He didn’t expect his belief in Christ to result in a trouble-free life marked by health, wealth, and prosperity.

He knew that the salvation Christ died to provide was eternal in nature, not temporal. Jesus had not sacrificed Himself so that Paul could live a comfortable, pain-free life in the here-and-now. He died so that Paul, Timothy, and every other individual who placed their faith in Him could one day experience an eternity free from sin, pain, suffering, and sorrow.  As Jesus Himself said, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 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

The Glory of God

12 “Woe to him who builds a town with blood
    and founds a city on iniquity!
13 Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts
    that peoples labor merely for fire,
    and nations weary themselves for nothing?
14 For the earth will be filled
    with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.’ Habakkuk 2:12-14 ESV

As we saw in yesterday’s post, these woes against Babylon have a familiar ring to them. While the Babylonians were the primary target of God’s warnings of pending judgment, His choice of words seems to be carefully considered in order to drive home a point to Habakkuk and the people of Judah. If you recall, God had instructed Habakkuk to “Write my answer plainly on tablets, so that a runner can carry the correct message to others” (Habakkuk 2:2 NLT). This apocalyptic vision was intended to send a message to the people of Judah, not the Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar would never hear what God had to say. But God wanted each and every citizen of Judah to hear His indictment concerning the sins of the Babylonians because they were just as guilty. In fact, it was their sin that was leading God to bring judgment upon them in the form of this wicked pagan nation.

With His third “woe,” God condemns that Babylonians for profiting from the misery of others. Their towns and cities were built on blood and iniquity, constructed by the treasures they had pilfered from their conquered foes. Their great wealth and prosperity had come at the expense of others. And their conquering of Judah had not yet taken place. The Babylonians would ransack the entire region of Palestine, leaving a wake of destruction in their path. And they would use all the spoils of war to construct beautiful homes, magnificent cities, and a nation of great renown.

But there is a thinly veiled message to the people of Judah contained in this woe. And it is one that God had spoken through His other prophets. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were just as guilty as the Babylonians, having built their own cities on blood and iniquity. Consider these stinging indictments from the lips of God and directed at His chosen people.

“Now this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
What sorrow awaits Jerusalem,
    the city of murderers!
For the blood of her murders
    is splashed on the rocks.
It isn’t even spilled on the ground,
    where the dust could cover it!” – Ezekiel 24:6, 7 NLT

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
What sorrow awaits Jerusalem,
    the city of murderers!
    I myself will pile up the fuel beneath her. – Ezekiel 24:9 NLT

“Listen to me, you leaders of Israel!
    You hate justice and twist all that is right.
You are building Jerusalem
    on a foundation of murder and corruption. – Micah 3:9-10 NLT

The apostle Paul warned the Galatian Christians of the divine precept concerning sowing and reaping. “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7 ESV). But this life maxim was not of Paul’s creation. It is found throughout Scripture.

You have plowed wickedness and reaped injustice… – Hosea 10:13 BSB

Those who plant injustice will harvest disaster… – Proverbs 22:8 NLT

…those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. – Job 4:8 ESV

By citing the sins of the Babylonians, God was pointing a finger of condemnation against His own people. Their ultimate demise at the hands of the Babylonians would be the just recompense for their own sins. They would be reaping exactly what they had sown. Their own iniquity and injustice would result in disaster and defeat at the hands of an enemy whose wickedness was like sin on steroids.

But the Almighty warns that the unbridled pursuit of comfort at all costs was ungodly. Those who work incessantly to build a mighty nation or even a successful career will find their labor to be in vain.

“Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts
    that peoples labor merely for fire,
    and nations weary themselves for nothing? – Habakkuk 2:13 ESV

The Jews had great national pride, pointing to the splendor of their capital city, Jerusalem, and the presence of the spectacular temple, constructed by Solomon. Under the leadership of King David, they had enjoyed a long and illustrious history of global dominance. Under the reign of David’s son, Solomon, the nation had experienced a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity. But the subsequent years had been marked by civil strife, a splitting of the kingdom, and a period of rampant spiritual apostasy. And all during that time, the people of God had been plagued by an insatiable appetite for personal pleasure and personal success at all costs. Even Habakkuk had complained to God about the wicked outnumbering the righteous and the perversion of justice among his own people (Habakkuk 1:4).

It was for these very sins and others that God was bringing the Babylonians against the people of Judah. In Ezekiel 24, God gives His prophet a last-minute explanation for their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians.

“Son of man, write down today’s date, because on this very day the king of Babylon is beginning his attack against Jerusalem.I, the Lord, have spoken! The time has come, and I won’t hold back. I will not change my mind, and I will have no pity on you. You will be judged on the basis of all your wicked actions, says the Sovereign Lord.” – Ezekiel 24:2, 14 NLT

Verse 14 of Habakkuk 2 provides a very important insight into the motivation behind God’s actions toward sin and unrighteousness – whether in His own people or among the lost of the world.

“For the earth will be filled
    with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.” – Habakkuk 2:14 ESV

When God, in His justice, deals with sin, He brings glory to Himself. He reveals His own holiness and distinguishes the stark difference between His righteousness and the unrighteousness of men. God, because He is holy, righteous, and just, cannot allow wickedness to go unpunished. And while Habakkuk lived in a day when sin ran rampant among his own people, God was preparing to deal with it. And even though the Babylonians would used by God to mete out His judgment against the people of Judah, they too would one day suffer under His hand. And in all of this, God would be glorified as the one true God.

Like Habakkuk, we can find ourselves questioning God’s wisdom and ways, wondering why He allows the sins of others to go unpunished. We see evil all around us and can’t help but struggle with questions concerning God’s power and presence. Is He not strong enough to deal a knock-out blow to sin? Or is it that He doesn’t care or isn’t there? Has He left us to struggle and suffer alone, battling the evil that seems to surround us on every side?

God wanted Habakkuk to know that nothing was more important than His own glory. And He would not allow the rebellious people of Judah or the pagan inhabitants of Babylon to rob Him of glory. He had spoken through the prophet, Isaiah, warning that He was selfishly stingy about His glory.

“I am the Lord; that is my name!
    I will not give my glory to anyone else,
    nor share my praise with carved idols. – Isaiah 42:8 NLT

All that God created was intended to bring Him glory. And man was the apex of God’s creative order. But sin entered the scene when Adam and Eve decided to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). Their decision to eat of the forbidden fruit was robbing God of glory because it was motivated by a desire to share God’s divine knowledge of “both good and evil.” And that penchant to rob God of glory continued through the generations. The apostle points out the long-term ramifications of sin on human society.

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:22-23 ESV

Worship of anything other than God robs Him of His glory. Whether we worship ourselves, another man, our own success, a false god, comfort, ease, or prosperity, we exchange the glory of God for something of far less value and worth. And while God will allow this behavior to go unpunished for a time, He will not permit it indefinitely. The day will come when God restores His glory and reestablishes His rightful rule over all the earth. His Son will come again and put an end to sin and death, once and for all. He will set up His Kingdom on earth where He will rule in righteousness and all imposters, posers, and usurpers of God’s glory will be eliminated – for eternity.

On that day the LORD will become King over all the earth—the LORD alone, and His name alone. – Zechariah 14:9 BSB

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

More and More

1 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ESV

Paul had an overwhelming desire to see the Thessalonian believers face-to-face. But this was about far more than a chance to reconnect and get reacquainted with old friends. Paul had something far more important in mind. As he told them in the previous section of his letter, the motivation behind his desire to see them again was that he “might supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 ESV). He had sent Timothy “to establish and exhort” them in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:2 ESV). 

And while Paul has confessed that Timothy’s good news regarding their faith and love had brought him comfort, he still felt the pressing need to see them so that he might “fill in the gaps” of their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT).

It seems quite obvious that Paul loved these people. He had a pastor’s heart that cared for their spiritual well-being. And while their faith was strong, even in the midst of trying circumstances, Paul knew that there was much they needed to know if they were going to remain strong in the days ahead. The battle was far from over. The enemy had not thrown in the towel. The opposition had not given up their efforts to demoralize the sheep and discredit the shepherd.

So, Paul feels compelled to share with them one final word of counsel. He has complimented them on their faith and love. He has described them as “standing fast in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8 ESV). But there is one more thing they need to hear him say.

we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God. – 1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV

Paul was not admonishing these people or demanding that they correct their sinful behavior. In fact, he added the statement, “…just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV). They were already living in a way that pleased God. But Paul wants them to know that they were going to need to do so “more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV).

In the short time Paul and Silas had spent in Thessalonica, they had instructed them how they ought to walk and please God. The Greek word translated as “walk” is peripateo, and it was a favorite term of Paul’s. It could be used to refer to the physical act of walking, but Paul commonly used it as a metaphor for spiritual life. When he used the term “walk,” he was referring to the daily conduct of one’s life. In those days, the average person went from place to place by walking. It was the primary mode of transportation. You couldn’t go anywhere or conduct your life without utilizing walking. So, Paul used this normal, everyday means of mobility as an analogy for living the Christian life. And he used it often.

who walk (peripateo) not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… – Romans 8:4 ESV

Let us walk (peripateo) properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. – Romans 13:13 ESV

Only let each person lead the life (peripateo) that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. – 1 Corinthians 7:17 ESV

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk (peripateo) in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called – Ephesians 4:1 ESV

walk (peripateo) in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.  – Colossians 1:10 ESV

As followers of Christ, their spiritual walk or manner of life was to be distinctively different than that of their lost friends and family members. They were to live set-apart lives, marked by holiness and righteousness. But their spirituality was never meant to remain in a static state. Being saved was never meant to be a one-time event but was to be an ongoing, regularly occurring, and lifelong transformational process. The apostle Peter referred to it as growing up in salvation (1 Peter 2:2).  Paul told the Ephesians believers to “grow up in every way into him” (Ephesians 4:15 ESV) – referring to Christ.

There is no place for complacency in the Christian life. At no point are we to become satisfied with the status quo. We are not the ones who get to determine whether we have successively achieved spiritual maturity. And Paul makes that point perfectly clear to his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification – 1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV

Paul put it in blunt terms. What God wanted of them and for them was simple: Their sanctification. But what did he mean by this? The Greek word he used is hagiasmos, and it can be translated as “holiness.” It derives from another Greek word, hagiazo, which means “to separate from profane things and dedicate to God.” To be holy was to be set apart or consecrated for a specific purpose. In the case of a believer, they were set apart to God. To be sanctified is the process of being constantly and consistently set apart for God’s use. It involves a separation from all that is ungodly or unrighteous. Or as Paul liked to put it, it involves putting off the old and putting on the new.

 …put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires…put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22, 24 ESV

Just a few verses earlier in his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul challenged them: “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do…” (Ephesians 4:17 ESV). They were not to conduct their lives in the same way they had before. In fact, in chapter two of Ephesians, Paul pointed out the stark difference between their new life in Christ and that of their old, pre-salvation nature.

…you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked (peripateo), following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. – Ephesians 2:2-3 ESV

But Paul stressed the change that had taken place in their lives.

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—by grace you have been saved… – Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV

The lives of the Ephesians believers had been radically changed when they placed their faith in Christ. The same thing was true of the believers in Thessalonica. And that change was to be tangible and visible. It was to be evident in their behavior and in every facet of their daily lives. And just to make sure they understood the non-negotiable and all-pervasive nature of this change, Paul provided them with the details.

God’s will is for you to be holy, so stay away from all sexual sin. Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 NLT

There was to be no compromising of their faith. There was no place for their old habits in their new life in Christ. Or as Paul put it to the Corinthian believers:

…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! – 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT

The old adage, “something old, something new” wasn’t going to cut it with God. He expected life transformation and had provided His Holy Spirit to make it possible. A life marked by sexual sin and immorality was unacceptable for the Christ-follower. It violated the will of God and failed to model a life of holiness. In the Greek culture of that day, sexual promiscuity was an accepted way of life. It was Demosthenes, a Greek statesman and orator who wrote:

“We keep prostitutes for pleasure; we keep mistresses for the day to day needs of the body; we keep wives for the begetting of children and for the faithful guardianship of our homes.” – Demosthenes

In a culture marked by self-indulgence and the willful gratification of all sexual desires, the Christian was to live in such a way that distinguished them as having been set apart or consecrated to God – separated from the profane and dedicated to His glory. To do so, Paul states would require self-control. They would need to control their physical passions and desires, choosing instead to “live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways” (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5 ESV).

And, once again, Paul puts his thoughts in simple, easy-to-understand terms:

God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. – 1 Thessalonians 4:7 NLT

Not a lot of wiggle room there. Paul leaves no room for negotiation or debate. God’s will was their sanctification. His expectation was holiness, not impurity. He was interested in set-apartness, not sameness. And if anyone rejected this idea was not rejecting the teachings of Paul, they were actually disobeying and, ultimately, denying the will of God Almighty.

Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:8 ESV

Paul was teaching the need for ongoing life transformation. The Thessalonian believers were to walk and please God – more and more. There was to be no end to their spiritual journey. At no point were they to assume that they had arrived. Salvation was to result in ongoing sanctification – a never-ending, Spirit-empowered conformity to the image of Christ.

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

Faith and Love

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13 ESV

At some point, Timothy left Thessalonica and rejoined Paul in Corinth. Upon his arrival, he had shared with the apostle some encouraging news regarding the spiritual and emotional state of the Thessalonian believers.  And upon hearing of their “faith and love,” Paul was indeed encouraged, referring to his report as “good news”(euaggelizo).

Normally, Paul used this Greek word only when referring to the Gospel message – the good news concerning Jesus Christ. In fact, this is the only place in the entire New Testament where it is not used in that way. But for Paul, news of the steadfast faith and love of the Thessalonians was directly linked to the life-transforming power of the Gospel. Their persevering faith was evidence of God’s power, made possible by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. In his first epistle, the apostle Peter reminded his readers that, because of “God’s power,” they were “being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5 ESV). God was preserving them through faith, and guaranteeing their future inheritance of eternal life. This comforting fact prompted Peter to exhort the believers to whom he wrote.

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. – 1 Peter 1:6-7 NLT

And Paul knew that the capacity of the Thessalonian believers to express love was proof that they had experienced the love of God. The apostle John clarified that those who truly loved others were exhibiting the life-changing love that God had graciously shown them.

We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:19-21 NLT

Faith and love were on display in Thessalonica and Paul could not have been more pleased. He was also encouraged by Timothy’s report that the Thessalonian believers maintained a strong love for Paul and Silas, manifesting itself in a desire to be reunited with them.

He reports that you always remember our visit with joy and that you want to see us as much as we want to see you. – 1 Thessalonians 3:6 NLT

Paul didn’t always receive a warm welcome in the many cities he visited. He knew what it was like to face rejection and had even endured physical abuse at the hands of those with whom he had shared the Gospel. So, it was comforting and encouraging to hear that the Thessalonian believers had not lost their affection for him. This was particularly meaningful to Paul when he knew that there were those who were constantly trying to undermine his authority and diminish his influence. To hear that the believers in Thessalonica had not turned their backs on him or the Gospel he had preached was especially encouraging to Paul. And Paul let them know that news of their persevering faith had brought him comfort in the midst of his own personal circumstances.

So we have been greatly encouraged in the midst of our troubles and suffering, dear brothers and sisters, because you have remained strong in your faith. – 1 Thessalonians 3:7 NLT

He had found the content of Timothy’s report to be spiritual rejuvenating.

It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord. – 1 Thessalonians 3:8 NLT

Paul was a man of prayer and, while physically separated from the believers in Thessalonica, he had been interceding for them before the throne of God.

Night and day we pray earnestly for you… – 1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT

And they were in good company because Paul made it a habit to pray for all the churches he had helped to plant. He told the church in Ephesus:

I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly… – Ephesians 1:16 NLT

He informed the Colossian church:

So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. – Colossians 1:9 NLT

And he wrote to the believers in Rome, letting them know that they were on his heart and in his prayers.

Let me say first that I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith in him is being talked about all over the world. – Romans 1:8 NLT

And Paul told the Thessalonians that his prayers for them were filled with expressions of thanksgiving to God. He was able to enter into God’s presence with gratitude and with great joy because he knew that his spiritual children in Thessalonica were thriving, even in the midst of difficulty. But along with prayers of thanksgiving to God for all that He was doing among them, Paul was also “asking God to let us see you again to fill the gaps in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT).

Paul was the consummate pastor/shepherd. He loved to see people come to faith in Christ, but he also found great joy in helping them grow up in their faith. He was an evangelist and a spiritual mentor. He shared Peter’s passion to see new believers move from spiritual infancy to maturity.

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation… – 1 Peter 2:2 NLT

Paul told the believers in Ephesus, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT). And so, Paul made the spiritual growth of the various flocks he had helped to found a high priority in his prayer life. When he couldn’t physically be present among them, he made sure he was regularly interceding on behalf of them.

And along with his prayer for permission to return to Thessalonica, Paul asked God to increase their capacity to love others.

…may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows. – 1 Thessalonians 3:12 NLT

And this love was not to be myopic, focused solely on the members of their congregation. It was to flow outside the fellowship and into the streets of Thessalonica, so their lost friends, family members, and neighbors could also experience the love of God. Paul was simply asking God to empower them to do what Jesus had expressed in His sermon on the mount.

“…love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” – Matthew 5:44-48 NLT

Anyone can love those who love them in return. But the love of God was best expressed in the gracious gift of His Son. It was while we were still mired in our sins and incapable of expressing love to Him, that God loved us. And no one describes the love of God better than the apostle John.

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. 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.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. – 1 John 4:9-12 NLT

Faith and love. Paul knew these two things were the key to their ongoing spiritual health and vitality. And both come from God. They are not self-manufactured or the by-products of human will power. That is why Paul reminded the Thessalonians that one of his ongoing prayers for them was that God would continue to increase their love and strengthen their faith. And his request had an eternal focus. He was thinking long-term, not short-term.

May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. Amen. – 1 Thessalonians 3:13 NLT

Paul was a man on a mission and that mission had a goal. There was a finish line at the end of the face. There was a prize at the end of the contest. And while there might be obstacles and difficulties along the way, there is a reward waiting for all those who run the race with endurance.

And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:17-18 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

One Motive In Mind

For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. 11 For you know how, like a father with his children, 12 we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. 1 Thessalonians 2:9-12 ESV

Paul has already compared his ministry among the Thessalonians to that of “a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:8 ESV). He seemed to have no problem with mixing metaphors if it helped him drive home a point. In verse 7, Paul describes the manner of his and Silas’ ministry to that of children.

we were like children among you. – 1 Thessalonians 2:7 NLT

Some translations read, “we were gentle among you.” This is because there are two different variants of this sentence found in the earliest manuscripts. One has the word, ēpioi, which means “gentle or mild.” The other has a very similar word, nēpioi, which can be translated as “little children.” It would seem that the second alternative is the one most likely intended because it fits with the flow of Paul’s logic. In the context of these verses, he transitions from comparing the spirit of his ministry to that of a little child, then to a nursing mother’s compassionate and sacrificial love, and ends with the paternal instincts of a father.

you know that we treated each of you as a father treats his own children. – 1 Thessalonians 2:11 NLT

By referring to themselves as “little children,” Paul was attempting to emphasize the innocence behind their motivation. They had been guileless and without deceit in preaching the gospel among the Thessalonians. Paul has already emphasized the integrity of their ministry by declaring “our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thessalonians 2:3 ESV).

It’s interesting to note how Jesus described one of His disciples, Nathanael, upon meeting him for the first time.

“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” – John 1:47 ESV

The Greek word translated as “deceit” is dolos and it refers to “cunning and craftiness.” It was used to refer to a pattern of hypocrisy or dishonesty in one’s thoughts or actions. Paul is emphasizing their guilelessness, the complete absence of any manipulative efforts meant to distort the truth or deceive the Thessalonians. And Paul reminds them that he and Silas had gone out of their way to be a blessing and not a burden.

Don’t you remember, dear brothers and sisters, how hard we worked among you? Night and day we toiled to earn a living so that we would not be a burden to any of you as we preached God’s Good News to you. – 1 Thessalonians 2:9 NLT

As apostles of Christ, they could have expected and demanded remuneration for their efforts. When Jesus had sent out the 72 on their first missionary journey, He had instructed them, “remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7 ESV). Paul had shared this same idea with Timothy.

Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!” – 1 Timothy 5:17-18 NLT

And both Jesus and Paul had taken a Mosaic law and applied it to the ministry of elders, preachers, teachers, and apostles.

“You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain. – Deuteronomy 25:4 ESV

They could have demanded payment for services rendered, but instead, they had chosen to pay their own way. They took nothing from the Thessalonians in return for their sharing of the gospel. Paul flatly denied any semblance of greed or avarice behind their efforts.

God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! – 1 Thessalonians 2:5 NLT

No, they had ministered out of a spirit of fatherly love, displaying a heartfelt concern for those under their care.

We pleaded with you, encouraged you, and urged you to live your lives in a way that God would consider worthy. – 1 Thessalonians 2:12 NLT

This parental point of view is something Paul talked about frequently. He told the believers in Corinth, “I am not writing these things to shame you, but to warn you as my beloved children” (1 Corinthians 4:14 NLT). He addressed the believers in Galatia with the same sense of parental care and concern.

Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. – Galatians 4:19 NLT

Paul was not interested in fame or fortune. His ministry was not a job or a means to earn a living. It was a divine calling and Paul took it seriously. Like a loving parent, Paul sacrificed constantly, giving up his rights in order to minister to the needs of those under his care. He had gone without sleep. He had endured trials and tribulations. In fact, Paul provided the believers in Corinth with a well-documented list of his “accomplishments” as an apostle of Jesus Christ and a father to the faithful.

I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. 26I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.

Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. – 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 NLT

Paul wasn’t bragging. He was simply driving home the reality of his daily existence. It would be ludicrous for anyone to question Paul’s commitment to his calling or to accuse him of being in it only for what he could get out of it. Paul truly believed it when he said, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21 NLT). And he was not afraid to give his life for the cause of the Kingdom and for the sake of the flock of Jesus Christ. He was happy to be able to serve God, sacrifice on behalf of Jesus, and share the good news of salvation to anyone who would hear.

But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. – Philippians 2:17 NLT

And Paul was content with his lot in life. He needed nothing. He didn’t crave the favor of men. He didn’t desire an easier life. Fame and fortune had no appeal to him. He wasn’t in it for the money. He didn’t preach in order to become popular. Paul simply did what he was called to do – willingly, gladly, and contentedly.

Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. – Philippians 4:11-12 NLT

For Paul, the objective was clear. He was to preach the gospel. And when anyone heard and accepted God’s gracious offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone, he was to come alongside them and lovingly guide them in their spiritual journey. And Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his efforts to do just that in their lives.

…we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. – 1 Thessalonians 2:12 ESV

As important as salvation was, Paul understood that sanctification was equally as vital in the life of a believer. Salvation should result in transformation. Belief should impact behavior. An expression of faith in Christ should express itself in a life of dedication to Him, resulting in a radical change in both inward character and outward conduct.

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

Who Is A God Like You?

18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
    and passing over transgression
    for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
    because he delights in steadfast love.
19 He will again have compassion on us;
    he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
    into the depths of the sea.
20 You will show faithfulness to Jacob
    and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
    from the days of old. Micah 7:18-20 ESV

It was Warren Wiersbe who wrote, “Few passages in Scripture contain so much ‘distilled theology’ as Micah 7:18-20” (Warren Wiersbe, “Micah,” The Bible Exposition Commentary/Prophets). And his assessment could not be more accurate. These four verses are absolutely brimming with theological insights into the character and nature of God. And this amazing thing is that they come at the end of a book that warns of God’s coming judgment against a sinful and rebellious people.

This is the same man who opened chapter 7 with the statement, “Woe is me!” He was living during a time of great turmoil and stress and having to deal with the pending fall of his nation’s capital and the utter devastation of his own people. And yet, in the midst of it all, Micah is able to praise God, the very one who was bringing judgment against Israel and Judah.

While he was sadly confident that God would fulfill His promise to punish His disobedient children, Micah was also completely convinced of God’s plans to restore them. He saw no conflict or contradiction between these two aspects of God’s divine plan for His people. They had sinned against God and deserved His discipline. God was simply doing what any human father would do who loves his children but in perfect righteousness and justice.

My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline,
    and don’t be upset when he corrects you.
For the Lord corrects those he loves,
    just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. – Proverbs 3:11-12 NLT

Yet Micah also knew that God was committed to keeping the promises He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He had made a covenant to these men, guaranteeing to make of them a great nation, and promising to provide shower their descendants with His blessings.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

And the Lord appeared to him [Isaac] and said, …“Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed…” – Genesis 26:2-4 ESV

And behold, the Lord stood above it and said [to Jacob], “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. – Genesis 28:13-14 ESV

God had made a commitment to remain faithful to HIs chosen people and Micah was willing to take God at His word. He opens this prayer of praise by asking the rhetorical question: “Who is a God like you?” Micah wasn’t expecting a response from God, because he already knew the answer. This “question-as-a-statement” device is found throughout Scripture and is intended to declare the greatness and transcendence of God. Moses declared:

“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
    Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
    awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? – Exodus 15:11 ESV

David wrote:

“O Lord, who is like you,
delivering the poor
    from him who is too strong for him,
    the poor and needy from him who robs him?” – Psalm 35:10 ESV

And another unknown psalmist adds:

“Who is like the Lord our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?” – Psalm 113:5-6 ESV

Micah’s own name meant, “Who is like Yahweh?” His parents had given him a name that would constantly remind him of the unique nature of his God. And Micah believed it. But the one aspect of his incomparable God that Micah focused on was His willingness to forgive. What Micah couldn’t stop thinking about that his God “pardons the guilt of the remnant, overlooking the sins of his special people” (Micah 7:18 NLT). The false gods of the pagan nations were not known for their forgiving spirits. They were harsh, vindictive, and quick to mete out judgment, and yet, the people of Israel had made a habit of worshiping these gods in place of the one true God.

The problem with false gods is that they are nothing more than the creations of men. They don’t actually exist. And because they are the creations of men’s imaginations, they are little more than humans with supernatural powers. These gods bear a striking resemblance to fallen mankind, manifesting the same capacity to display uncontrolled anger, greed, vengeance, lust, and a blatant disregard for humanity.

But Micah’s God was different. Yes, He was going to judge His people for their sins, but His judgment would be followed by compassion, love, and forgiveness.

You will not stay angry with your people forever,
    because you delight in showing unfailing love. – Micah 7:18 NLT

Micah would have been very familiar with the story of when God had descended upon Mount Sinai and had declared to Moses:

“Yahweh! The Lord!
    The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
    and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
    I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
    I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected—
    even children in the third and fourth generations.” – Exodus 34:6-7 NLT

The God of Moses was the God of Micah. And he rested in the knowledge that what God had declared to Moses hundreds of years earlier was still true because his God never changes. He never goes back on His Word. He is faithful to keep all His promises and commitments “to a thousand generations.”

And Moses declared his trust in God’s word by stating, “you will have compassion on us. You will trample our sins under your feet and throw them into the depths of the ocean!” (Micah 7:19 NLT). The great king, David, had written a psalm that echoed this same sentiment, declaring the unprecedented character of Yahweh.

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.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
    he remembers that we are dust. – Psalm 103:9-12 ESV

And Micah placed his hope and trust in the very same God that David worshiped and adored. This prophet of God, who had spent years delivering a call of repentance to his disobedient countrymen, was placing his confidence in what he knew about Yahweh. The days ahead were filled with destruction and devastation, but Micah rested in the word of God. He was a loving, compassionate, and forgiving God. He was a covenant-keeping God.

God had promised to bless the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Micah was fully convinced that He would. God had declared that those very same people would be a blessing to the nations of the world, and Micah was confident that, one day, they would be. He rested his hopes in the character of his God. He placed his confidence in the integrity, righteousness, and holiness of Him who was like no other.

Micah began this prayer of praise with the question: Who is a God like you? And he answered his own question by declaring the unparalleled mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness of his God. There was and never will be anyone like 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