To the End of the Age.

11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:11-20 ESV

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Of all the gospel authors, Matthew provides us with the most abbreviated version of the events associated with Jesus last hours on earth. For whatever reason, he chooses to leave out all the appearances Jesus made after His resurrection. We know from the accounts penned by John, Luke and Mark, that Jesus appeared repeatedly to His followers during the hours between His resurrection and His ascension. He had appeared to the two distraught disciples walking on the road to Emmaus discussing the recent death of their master (Luke 24:13-32). Those two had made a beeline to the room where the 10 of the disciples were gathered together, informing them of their encounter with Jesus. And at the very moment when they had shared the exciting news, Jesus had suddenly appeared among them (Luke 24:33-40). John records that Thomas had not been in the room that day, and when his fellow disciples told him what had happened, he had his doubts. So, eight days later, Jesus made yet another surprise appearance, telling Thomas, “Do not disbelieve but believe” (John 20:27). The apostle Paul gives us a succinct summary of all of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.

He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. – 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 NLT

But Matthew chose to leave all of this out. Not only that, He doesn’t even mention the ascension of Jesus. Dr. Stanley Toussaint provides us with a compelling explanation for Matthew’s decision to leave out this seemingly vital part of the narrative.

The reason for Matthew’s diligence in approaching the resurrection in such an apologetic manner is evident since so much is dependent upon the resurrection of the Messiah. It authenticated His person. To the nation of Israel, His resurrection was the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matthew 12:38-39) attesting the fact that Jesus was the Messiah. The reason Matthew says nothing about the ascension is bound up in this point. If Jesus is the Messiah, then an account of the ascension is both unnecessary and self-evident to the Israelite. He would yet come in clouds of glory. What mattered to Matthew was that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and the resurrection proved that fact; therefore he goes no further. – Toussaint, Stanley D. Behold the King: A Study of Matthew. Portland, Oreg.: Multnomah Press, 1980.

For Matthew, the resurrection said it all. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, which Matthew clearly believed, then His ascension would have been an undisputed fact. Matthew’s primary point was to prove the Messiahship of Jesus. That’s because, as a Jew, Matthew had aimed the content of his gospel on a Jewish audience. He had been ought to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God and the Savior of the world. And, for him, the resurrection was clear evidence and conclusive proof of that claim.

The tomb was empty and news of that reality had already begun to spread. In fact, the temple guards who tasked with protecting the tomb had made their way to the Caiaphas the high priest and his father-in-law, Annas, to break the bad news. These guards had been charged by the high council with the task of preventing the disciples from stealing the body of Jesus. The high priest and his fellow Sanhedrin members knew of Jesus’ claim that He would rise again and they feared His disciples would attempt to steal the body and boast that Jesus was alive.  And much to their surprise and chagrin, that exactly what the guards reported. And Matthew records that the guards told the high priest “all that had taken place.” That would have included exactly what Matthew had reported.

…there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. – Matthew 28:2-4 ESV

These men would have feared for their lives. They had no reason to lie and every reason to tell the truth – as crazy as it may have sounded. Not only had they failed to secure the tomb, but they had also fallen asleep on the job. So, they most likely told their bosses exactly what had happened, in great detail. But Matthew records that Caiaphas, having heard the unwelcome news from the guards, assembled the rest of the high council. Amazingly, Caiaphas determined that the best strategy was to pay off the guards and spread the rumor that the disciples had stolen the body – the very thing he had hoped to prevent. It seems clear that he knew something else had happened, and this decision was nothing more than a poor attempt at a coverup. The last thing he wanted was news spreading throughout the city that Jesus was alive.

And yet, that fact was Matthew’s primary point. Jesus was alive. He had risen from the dead, just as He had promised He would. He was the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. Matthew had opened up his gospel with the encounter between Joseph and the angel.

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:20-21 ESV

He had followed that story with the one involving the arrival of the wise men who had asked, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?(Matthew 2:2 ESV). He recorded Herod’s attempt to eliminate Jesus as a threat by having all the male babies executed. He reported Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and the divine pronouncement from God, stating, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV).

Matthew had been out to prove that Jesus was Immanuel, when means, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23 ESV). And the resurrection of Jesus was the final, conclusive piece of evidence.

Jesus had directed His disciples to meet Him at a mountain in Galilee. We are not told which mountain, but it may have been the very place where Jesus had given His sermon on the mount recorded in Matthew 5-7. But regardless of the exact location of their place of rendezvous, Jesus appeared yet again to His followers. Matthew reports that while all 11 of the disciples worshiped Him, some still harbored doubts. He doesn’t explain what he meant by this. Were they doubting Jesus’ resurrection? That seems hard to imagine, based on the fact that He was standing right in front of them. Did they doubt that He was the Messiah? Perhaps. It could be that they were still harboring hopes that He would reveal Himself to be the king they had long hoped for.  The Greek word translated as “doubted” is edistasan and it refers to a spirit of hesitation. They were unsure of all that was going on. They were probably fearful of all that was going to happen next. What would Jesus’ next steps be? What would happen to them? The Sanhedrin had already proven just how far they would go to eliminate Jesus as a threat, and they were not going to give up easily.

But Jesus attempted to calm their fears and doubts by telling them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18 ESV). This statement was meant to assure His wavering, fear-focused disciples that He was in complete control of the situation. The very fact that He was standing before them alive and well was proof that He had authority from God Almighty. He had done what no other man had ever done before – He had conquered death and the grave. And they had no reason to fear.

But they did have work to do. And Jesus, according to His God-given authority, authorized His followers to continue His work in His absence.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20 ESV

No more hiding. No more fearing. They were to boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus’ Messiahship. He was the Son of God. He was Immanuel, God with us. He was the King of the Jews and the Savior of the world. And that news was to be spread around the world. While the temple guards and the Sanhedrin were busy spreading lies, the disciples were to spread the truth about who Jesus was and is.

And Jesus promised them that He would be with them. This promise was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit came to dwell in them at Pentecost. The Spirit would be their constant companion and source of divine power. And, while Jesus would soon depart and return to His Father’s side in heaven, the Spirit of God would remain with them all the days of their lives. And He will remain with the followers of Christ, His bride, the church, until the end of the age.

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

I Do Not Know You.

” 1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” – Matthew 25:1-12 ESV

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Jesus has been trying to get His disciples to think of the Kingdom of Heaven with a long-term perstpective. While He was the Messiah, the one whom the people of Israel had long expected, He was not going to be establishing His kingdom at that moment. He has already told them that He was going to have to go to Jerusalem, be betrayed, falsely accused, tried, beaten and eventually crucified. But He would also rise again. His mission on this, His first coming to earth, was to serve as the sacrificial offering for the sins of mankind. But there was a day coming when He would return to earth a second time. But there was much that would have to take place before His return. And He told the disciples, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36 ESV).

And He had warned them, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44 ESV). The point Jesus seemed to be making had to do with preparedness. He wanted His disciples to live with a sense of eager expectation and anticipation that His return could happen at any moment. And this led Jesus to tell a few parables to drive home His point.

The first had to do with a wedding. It involved ten virgins who were anticipating the arrival of the bridegroom. The question that must asked is, “Who are these ten virgins and what do they represent?” Based on the immediate context, it seems clear that Jesus has been addressing His second coming, which will take at the end of the 7-year period of tribulation. Since the church is to be raptured before the tribulation begins, these ten virgins cannot act as representatives of the church. It makes much more sense to see them as Jews who will be alive during the period of the tribulation. And, as the text will reveal, the ten virgins break down into two groups. Five of them are prepared, while five are not. This would seem to indicate that the first five represent Jews who will come to faith during the days of the tribulation, which the book of Revelation tells us will take place. John was given a vision in which “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9 ESV). Then John was told their identity. “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14 ESV). There will be many who come to faith during the period of the tribulation, including Jews and people from every tribe, nation, and tongue.

But the second group of five virgins represents all those Jews who will remain unrepentant and unbelieving during the tribulation, all the way up to the point of Jesus’ return.

In the story, all ten virgins share a common expectation of the bridegroom’s arrival. They are eagerly anticipating his coming. This is why the ten virgins appear to indicate Jews, because they alone would have anticipated the arrival of the Messiah. During the days of the tribulation, Jews living at that time will long for the arrival of the Messiah. For believing Jews, they will understand it to be His second coming. For unbelieving Jews, they will view it as His first coming. But all will greatly desire His arrival

But again, the issue is one of preparedness. There is a delay. The bridegroom has not shown up as expected. But, as part of the welcoming party, they were to have been ready, because, as Jesus had said, the groom was “coming at an hour you do not expect.”

Sadly, the story reveals that half the group were foolish, failing to take oil for their lamps. They were unprepared. They thought they would have plenty of time. But when news of the groom’s arrival was made known, they had lamps, but no oil. They begged the first group to share their oil with them, but were refused and told, “Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves” (Matthew 25:9 ESV). They were on their own. It’s likely that the reference to oil in the story was meant to be a symbol for the Holy Spirit. The believing Jews had the Spirit of God within them. The unbelieving Jews did not.

And when the groom arrived, the wedding feast began. But by the time the second group of foolish, unprepared virgins showed up, it was too late. The door was shut. They were left on the outside. And the wedding feast would seem to represent that Marriage Supper of the Lamb, revealed in chapter 19 of Revelation.

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

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. – Revelation 19:7-8 ESV

One of the things that will happen at the end of the tribulation will be that Christ, the bridegroom, will hold a feast for His bride, the church. And John was told, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9 ESV). Those who come to faith during the tribulation will be participants in this great celebration. But those who fail to accept Jesus will be left on the outside, looking in. And as Jesus indicated, their destination will be “that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51 ESV).

One of the saddest statements in the Scriptures is found in this parable. It is the words of the bridegroom, spoken to those virgins who showed up late and without oil for their lamps. He told them, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:12 ESV). They had been invited. They even had lamps. But they without oil. They did not have what was necessary to respond when news of the groom’s arrival was announced.

The apostle Paul would later tell the Ephesian believers: “In him [Jesus] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14 ESV). Those who lack the Holy Spirit will find themselves outside the feast. And, as Paul makes clear, the receipt of the Spirit is based on belief in the Son.

Again, the point of the parable is preparedness. How are the Jews living during the tribulation to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah? By placing their faith in Him as their Savior. He alone could save them from the persecution of the Antichrist and the judgments of God. He alone could preserve and protect them. Carrying a lamp with no oil is similar to placing your faith in your church attendance or good behavior. It is not enough. Your good works cannot save you. Your membership in a local church does not guarantee you a place in the Kingdom of God. Without the oil of God’s Spirit, you will find yourself on the outside looking in, and hearing these sad and sobering words from Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”

It’s impossible to read this parable and not reflect on the words of Jesus spoken years earlier in His sermon on the mount.

“On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you.’” – Matthew 7:22-23 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.

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

To Fulfill All Righteousness.

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 3:13-4:1 ESV

For three decades, Jesus had lived in relative obscurity in the region called Galilee. The four Gospels provide us with few details regarding his childhood and nothing regarding his formative years as a young man. Matthew picks up the story of the life of Jesus at His baptism by John in the wilderness. And John, while a relative of Jesus, evidently had no idea that Jesus was the one of whom he was speaking when he said, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6 ESV). John had been sent by God to act as a forerunner, a kind of herald whose job it was to proclaim the coming of the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. And evidently, there were those who wondered if John was the himself the Messiah. But John knew his role and clearly stated that there was one coming who would fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the promised Messiah.

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” – John 1:19-23

And again, John had no idea that Jesus was the one until God confirmed it for him at the baptism of Jesus.

32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” – John 1:32-34 ESV

But once John had seen the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus at His baptism, he had known without a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, and he knew exactly why Jesus had come.

29 “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” – John 1:29-31 ESV

The baptism of Jesus acted as the inauguration of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It officially launched His campaign to take away the sins of the world. And it was marked by His anointing by the Holy Spirit and the verbal confirmation by God of His public ministry. John had been reluctant to baptize Jesus, feeling inadequate for the task and viewing Jesus as having no need of repentance. But Jesus persuaded John that this was a necessary part of God’s divine plan for His life.

“Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” – Matthew 3:15 ESV

Jesus was encouraging John to do what was right – that which was in keeping with the will of God. Matthew’s use of the word, “righteousness” has nothing to do with salvation or a right standing with God, but with conformity to the will of God. Jesus was letting John know that His baptism was God’s will and, therefore, they were morally or ethically obligated to do what God commanded. And the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus and the audible expression of God’s favor were both forms of God’s confirmation that this had all been part of His divine will.

Because Jesus was sinless, His baptism was not for the remission of sins or because He was in need of repentance. It was an act of submission to the will of His Father, and a means of identifying Himself with all those who had obeyed John’s call to baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Many had come to the wilderness to be baptized by John. But John warned them that their willingness to undergo water baptism had to be marked by true life change. He demanded that they, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:3 ESV). And when pressed by the people as to what that fruit should look like, John had given them specific examples.

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” – Luke 3:10-14 ESV

Their lives were to be marked by distinctively different behavior. Their repentance was to be characterized by life change. But what John was asking them to do was impossible. They did not have the inner capacity to live out what John was commanding. There was something missing. And John, whether he fully understood it or not, declared to the people what that missing ingredient was: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16 ESV). The water baptism John offered was insufficient to provide people with the power they needed to live truly repentant lives. But there was a baptism coming, made available by Jesus, that would include the Holy Spirit and fire, and empower all those who received it to fulfill all righteousness. Not only would they be able to do the will of God, they would find themselves in a right standing with God. And the baptism to which John eluded was that which took place years later in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples who had gathered in Jerusalem after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:1-4 ESV

The power to live radically different lives was going to come from the Holy Spirit, But the Holy Spirit would not be made available until Jesus had fulfilled all righteousness, completing God’s plan for His life, which was to include His death on the cross. And it’s essential that we note that even Jesus’ earthly ministry was begun with the anointing of the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit of God descended upon Him at His baptism, empowering Him for the task that lay ahead. All that Jesus would do in the coming days would be done in the power of the Holy Spirit. He would be led by the Spirit. And the very first verse of the very next chapter reveals that Jesus was now going to be under the guiding influence of the Spirit of God until He fully accomplished the will of God.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. – Matthew 2:1 ESV

Jesus had come to fulfill all righteousness – to do the will of His Father in heaven. And He made that point perfectly clear when He stated: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38 ESV). He would later tell His disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34 ESV). The baptism of Jesus was just the beginning of His willing submission to His Father’s plan for His life. And each step He took from that day forward, including His journey into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, was in order that He might fulfill all righteousness – doing all that God had planned for His life – so that He might be the means by which sinful mankind might have eternal life.

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

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

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

The Call to Repentance.

1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,\

The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:1-12 ESV

In compiling his Gospel, Matthew chose to leave out any mention of Jesus’ childhood, skipping straight to the beginning of His ministry which was inaugurated by His baptism by John. Matthew’s intent was to prove Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah, the legitimate king of the Jews and the Savior of the world. So, he picks up the story of Jesus’ life with His arrival in the wilderness of Judea and His encounter with John the Baptist. Unlike Luke, Matthew provides no background regarding John’s birth or his relationship with Jesus. He simply states that John showed up on the scene, “proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 3:1-2 ESV). He was the God-ordained forerunner of Jesus, preparing the way for the one who was to come. But we also know from Luke’s gospel, that John and Jesus were somehow related. According to Luke 1:36, Mary, the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth, the mother of John were relatives. In some translations, they are referred to as cousins. But regardless of the exact nature of their relationship, John and Jesus would have known each other, having grown up at the same time and in relative close proximity to one another.

John’s birth, which Matthew ignores, was significant, because like the birth of his relative, Jesus, John was born under divine circumstances. Luke tells us that John’s parents were advanced in years and his mother was barren. Zechariah, the father of John, was a priest, and he received a visit from an angel, telling him the good news that he and his wife would have a child.

15 “for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:15-17 ESV  

And God fulfilled that promise, miraculously allowing Elizabeth to conceive and give birth to a son, whom they named John. And on the day of his son’s circumcision, Zechariah prophesied over John, stating:

76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:76-79 ESV

Matthew picks up the story some 30 years later, when John had begun his ministry of prophecy and preparation for the coming of Jesus. And, like Luke, Matthew ties John to the earthly ministry that Elijah had performed.

For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’” – Matthew 3:3 ESV

Like Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, John just suddenly appeared on the scene, almost as if out of nowhere. He had been silent for nearly 30 years, and then showed up in the wilderness preaching a message of repentance and offering baptism as a sign of that repentance, all tied to the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Everything about John was strange, from his choice of attire and lifestyle to the content of his message. But he attracted a crowd. Matthew tells us:

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:5-6 ESV

John was calling the people of Israel to repentance, and it is essential that we understand the meaning behind his message. His call to repentance involved a change in mind, a radical realignment of their understanding of God and His ways. The Greek word is metanoeo and it means “to change one’s mind or purpose.” It is far more than sorrow over sin. It is a a complete change of attitude towards God, involving one’s spiritual and moral perspective. John was calling the people of Israel to rethink their attitude about everything, including their relationship with God, the nature of their own sin, and the reality of their so-called status as God’s chosen people. The Jews had been living under the delusion that, as descendants of Abraham, they were somehow right with God. In spite of the literally hundreds of years their ancestors had spent in open rebellion against God and their suffering defeat and eventual exile at the hands of God, they had never fully returned to Him. Even at the time John began his ministry, Israel was a place of spiritual darkness. In his Gospel, John describes Jesus as the light that came to penetrate the darkness of the world, particularly that of His own people.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. – John 1:4-8 ESV

The spiritual climate of Israel was dark and John came to call the people of God back to a right relationship with God. But they were going to have to change their minds about everything. Their long-awaited Messiah was coming and they were not ready for His arrival. Their hearts were full of sin, but they saw themselves as the chosen people of God. They placed high value in their status as Israelites and in their possession of the temple of God. They were overly confident in the forgiveness made available to them through the sacrificial system. But John was letting them know that all of that was about to change. This was a new day. There was going to be a new plan of salvation made available that was no longer tied to the law or dependent upon men attempting to live in perfect obedience to that law.

John’s words were attracting huge crowds made up of all kinds of people from all walks of life, including the religious leaders of his day. But when these Pharisees and Sadducees showed up, John confronted them, saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:7-8 ESV). These two groups of individuals, the Pharisees and Sadducees, represent the hypocritical religious leadership of John’s day. The Pharisees were the religious rule-keepers, the experts in the law who prided themselves on their knowledge of the law and adherence to it. The Sadducees were the liberals of their day, who denied the supernatural and rejected everything from the existence of angels to the future resurrection of the body. These two groups showing up to be baptized was nothing more than a show on their part. They had no intention of changing their minds about anything. They were marked by arrogance and pride and John demands that they bear fruit in keeping with repentance. In other words, he calls them out for their unwillingness to see themselves for what they really were: religious hypocrites.

Their status as descendants of Abraham was not going to be enough to save them from the wrath of God, and John the Baptist makes that point painfully clear.

“And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” – Matthew 3:9 ESV

Their current relationship with God was not going to be enough to save them. Their Jewish heritage was not going to keep them from suffering the consequences of God’s wrath against sin. God was looking for fruit in keeping with true repentance. No more hypocrisy and play-acting. No more lip-service and false professions of sorrow over sin. God was about to introduce a brand new way for men to be justified, made right, with Him. Self-righteousness had never worked. Religious law-keeping had never earned anyone a right standing with God, because no one had been able to keep the law perfectly. But with the coming of the Messiah, God was going to change all that. While John was able to baptize with water those people who were willing to come with an attitude of true repentance, he made it clear that the baptism they would receive from Jesus was going to be radically different. His baptism would involve the Holy Spirit and fire. It would supernatural in scope and cleansing in nature. It would be a baptism of purification and radical transformation. It would be far more than a ritualistic act meant to symbolize a change of attitude. No, the baptism of Jesus would be completely transformational in nature, leaving the one baptized radically changed forever. And His baptism would eventually be the means by which those who truly belong to God can be distinguished from those who don’t.

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

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

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

The Unholy Trinity.

11 Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666  Revelation 13:11-18 ESV

John sees yet another beast. But this time, the beast is rising up out of the earth, not the sea. Yet, John describes it as “another” using the Greek phrase, allo therion, which means “one of the same kind.” These beasts are similar in nature, but distinctively different. This one has two horns like a lamb, and yet speaks like the dragon. He is not described with the same scary imagery as the first beast, but in spite of his less-formidable appearance, he is under the influence of the dragon, or Satan himself. While the first beast was described as having the features of a leopard, a lion and a bear, three ferocious and predatory animals, the second beast appears as a lamb, seemingly innocent and harmless. He has two horns, perhaps symbolizing his power, but it is limited in scope and authority. No one fears the horns of a lamb. But because of his association with the first beast and the influence of Satan on his life, this individual will prove dangerous.

He will operate as a second-lieutenant to the first beast, the Antichrist, and will exercise “all the authority of the first beast in its presence” (Revelation 13:12 ESV). He will use his power and influence to cause the people of the earth to worship Antichrist. During the first 3-1/2 years of the tribulation, there will arise an apostate church, a false church that will set itself up as the replacement for the true church that has been raptured. This false church is described by John in Revelation 17.

3 I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. – Revelation 17:3-6 ESV

During the first half of the tribulation period, the Antichrist will allow this apostate church to exist, but at the midway point, he will turn against, demanding that all worship be directed at him alone. Antichrist will use his power and his military might to destroy the false church.

16 They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, 17 for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. – Revelation 17:16-17 ESV

We know from the book of Daniel, that the Antichrist will come to power in the first half of the tribulation period. He will make a peace treaty with the people of Israel, allowing them to rebuild the temple and reinstitute the sacrificial system. But at the midway point, he will turn against them, breaking his agreement with them and putting an end to the sacrifices.

“And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” – Daniel 9:27 ESV

Jesus refers to this as the “abomination of desolation,” a phrase he picks up from Daniel.

15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:15-21 ESV

This will mark the beginning of the “great tribulation” or second half of the tribulation period. And as Jesus makes clear, it will be a difficult time for all living on earth. And Daniel lets us know that it will last for 1,290 days or 3-1/2 years.

And from the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be 1,290 days. – Daniel 12:11 ESV

This second beast is going to act as a kind of prophet for the Antichrist. He will be a religious figure, replacing the leadership of the apostate church and guiding the people of earth to worship Antichrist. Verse 14 seems to indicate that the abomination that takes place in the temple will be the erection of an idol to the Antichrist. This false prophet will cause the people to worship this idol, using powers provided by Satan to convince them. He will have the ability to call down fire. With his seemingly miraculous powers, he will be able to convince the people to make an idol, set it up in the temple, and worship the Antichrist. And it seems that he will have the power to cause this idol to come to life and even speak. It will all be a deception, because Satan is the father of lies and can only imitate, not replicate, what God can do.

There is much debate as to the meaning of verse 14. John refers to the first beast as having died and come back to life. Verse 12 states that the first beast receives a mortal, death-inducing wound, but that he somehow comes back to life. He dies, but is resuscitated. There are those who say this is simply an indication that the first beast represents a resuscitated world power, the once-fallen Rome. But it would seem that all Satan is doing in these days is meant to replicate and mimic the work of God. Satan is setting himself up as the god of this world. And Antichrist becomes his stand-in for Jesus, the Messiah. Like Jesus, who is worshiped because He died and came back to life, the Antichrist will be worshiped for the same reason. John describes him as having been “wounded by the sword and yet lived” (Revelation 13:14 ESV). There are those who argue that this is impossible, because only God can give life. They reject that idea that Satan could resurrect a dead body, having no power to do so. But all that happens in these days will be under the direct supervision of God. Perhaps He will allow Satan to have the power to give life to the Antichrist, all so that the nations will show their true colors and fall down in worship of this false messiah. Or perhaps, Satan will only imitate the power of resurrection, deceiving the people into believing a lie. 

Whatever happens, the second beast, or false prophet, will cause the people to worship Antichrist. And, according to Daniel 3:11, all those who refuse to worship himwill be put to death. He will take that worship a step further, demanding that all people be marked with the symbol of the Antichrist.

16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. – Revelation 13:16-17 ESV

This mark will be a sign of ownership. Back in chapter 7, John was given a glimpse of the 144,000, the servants of God who had been chosen out of the people of Israel. These Jewish believers were given a mark on their forehead that designated them as belonging to God (see Revelation 7:3). And here in the second half of the tribulation, the false prophet will demand that all those who worship the Antichrist bear a sign of their allegiance to him. But all those who take the mark of the beast will do so willingly. It will allow them to buy and sell goods, providing them with certain rights and privileges that will be denied to all those without the mark. And we know from the next chapter, that there will be those who refuse to take the mark. But bearing the mark of God will prove to be dangerous and, ultimately, deadly. Many believers will be persecuted and die as a result of refusing to bear the mark of the beast and to bow down before him.

In this unholy trinity of Satan, the Antichrist and the false prophet, you have Satan’s attempt to replicate the persons and power of the holy trinity. Satan is making a futile attempt to set himself up as God, with the Antichrist serving as his false messiah or savior, and the false prophet acting as the Holy Spirit, influencing people to worship the resurrected Antichrist. But it is all a lie, a pathetic replication of the real thing. And God will allow it to happen, revealing man’s ongoing susceptibility to the lies of the enemy. Millions of people will willingly take on the mark of the beast. And John warns “This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666” (Revelation 13:18 ESV). He is not telling us that we can somehow figure out who the Antichrist is or will be by carefully deducing the meaning of this number. It would appear that John is saying that no one will be able to discover the identity of the Antichrist until he appears. But those believers who are alive when the end times take place, will be able to discover this individual’s identity. Early on in the tribulation period, they will be given the ability to determine who this man is so that they might avoid his deceptions and escape his wrath.

But as bad as all this sounds and as difficult as these days are described to be, we must not lose sight of the fact that God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit will all three be in full control of all that is going to happen in those days. Satan’s power, while formidable, is not comparable to that of God. Antichrist’s ability to provide for the needs of mankind, while significant, cannot compete with that of Jesus. And the false prophet, while highly influential, cannot begin to replicate the life-changing, Christ-honoring influence of the Holy Spirit. Satan and his forces will fail in their attempt to supplant God. All that he and his companions accomplish will take place only because God allows it to happen. They will be on a short leash, operating under the sovereign hand of God Almighty. And their power and influence will end when He deems it so.

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

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

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

 

Holy, Holy, Holy!

1 After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.

And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come!”

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
    and by your will they existed and were created.” Revelation 4:1-11 ESV

When reading the book of Revelation, it is easy to become so enamored with all the fantastic imagery that we lose sight of the real message being communicated. The book becomes little more than a giant puzzle to be put together, full of countless riddles to be solved and complicated metaphors to be deciphered. As we will see in this chapter, John is going to struggle describING what he sees. He is being given a glimpse into the distant future and into the heavenly realm, where he sees things never-before-seen by the eyes of men. In many cases he will be attempting to describe the indescribable and will find himself hampered by the inadequacies of human language in his efforts. He will repeatedly use the word “like” in an attempt to describe what he is seeing.

the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet – vs 1

the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. – vs 8

As John is transported by the Spirit into heaven, he is given the incredible privilege of seeing God Himself, seated on His throne. He immediately begins the difficult task of trying to put into words the indescribable nature of what he is seeing.

And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. – vs 3

Even the sounds he hears prove difficult to describe. He is surrounded by the supernatural and the sights and sounds he encounters are like nothing he has ever experienced before. He describes hearing a voice speaking to him like a trumpet, but he clearly hearS the words, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this” (Revelation 4:1 ESV). Perhaps John used the description of a trumpet in order to convey the sheer power of the voice that he heard, but the important point is that John was being invited into the heavenly throne room. He is being given a one-OF-a-kind privilege to experience a vision of God in all His indescribable glory. And it leaves John struggling to communicate the remarkable nature of it all. He is mesmerized by the many colors he sees. John mentions seeing two stones, one being like jasper and the other like carnelian. One is white and the other is red. Perhaps these two stone represent God’s holiness and wrath, His righteousness and judgment. That would seem to fit the scene that John is witnessing, because He is viewing God as seated upon His throne, representing His sovereignty over all things. And the rest of the book will reiterate this image of the throne 45 times. God is about to reveal to John “what must take place.” He is going to show John all that is going to happen in the future, regarding the earth and its inhabitants. And God appears seated on His throne, revealing His rule and reign over all the world and all that it contains. 

John sees something encircling the throne of God that appears to be like a rainbow, but it is green in color, like an emerald. We are not told the meaning behind this vision, but it could be that the rainbow represents the mercy of God, much as it did when God gave it as a sign to Noah immediately after the flood that destroyed the world. God’s holiness and judgment are always accompanied by His mercy. But it is interesting to note that this rainbow appears before the coming storm of God’s judgment, not after it.

John also sees 24 thrones positioned around the throne of God, on which are seated 24 elders. We are not told who these individuals are. And there has been much speculation over the years as to their identity. Some have determined them to be angels, while others have described them to be men. They are clothed in white, a symbol of purity, and they are wearing golden crowns on their heads. The Greek word John uses for “crown” is stephanos and it usually referred to a kind of wreath that was used to reward those who were victors in battle or in an athletic competition. While it is not clear who these individuals are, it seems obvious that they are intended to be representative of something. It is likely that they are meant to stand for the entire body of Christ, much as the Old Testament priesthood had 24 orders, each represented by a single priest.

John describes hearing the sounds of thunder and seeing flashes of lightning emanating from the throne. Once again, this imagery suggests the power and sovereignty of God. It is reminiscent of the scene on top of Mount Sinai, when God appeared before the people of Israel.

16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. – Exodus 19:16-20 ESV

In front of the throne, John sees seven torches of fire, which he describes as the seven spirits of God. He also sees what appears to be a sea of glass, like crystal in appearance. Once again, there is much debate as to the exact meaning of these images. But we have heard him mention the seven spirits of God before. In chapter one, John addressed his letter as having come from “him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness” (Revelation 1:4-5 ESV). Based on this context, it appears that the seven spirits are a reference to the Spirit of God, with the number seven representing His perfection and completeness.

The sea extends before God’s throne and may represent a kind of barrier that separates the holy, transcendent God from sinful mankind. It is crystal clear, a representation of His holiness and purity. Everything John sees is symbolic, and while we may not know the exact meaning behind each item, it is clear that John is trying to describe the remarkable holiness of God. This entire scene shouts of God’s holiness. In fact, John describes seeing “four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Revelation 4:8 ESV). It would be easy to spend all our time attempting to determine what these beasts represent, and neglect to notice what it is that they do. They are worshiping God, night and day. Yes, they are fantastic in nature. They are “full of eyes in front and behind” (Revelation 4:6 ESV). It is hard not to notice that one looks like a lion, another like an ox, the third like a man, and the final one like an eagle. But before we get too absorbed into trying to decipher who they are or what they represent, let’s take notice of what it is they are doing, night and day. They are worshiping God, by giving Him glory, honor and thanks. And when they do, the “twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever” (Revelation 4:10 ESV). And the 24 elders take off their crowns and cast them at the feet of God, exclaiming, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:11 ESV).

Who are these four beasts? We don’t know. Perhaps they symbolize all of God’s creation, with the lion representing the wild beasts, the ox standing in for domesticated animals, the eagle symbolizing all flying creatures, and the man representing humanity. And they are all giving God glory. Why? Because He created all things, and it is by His will that they exist. God is sovereign over all His creation. And the rest of the book of Revelation is going to reveal the extent of that sovereignty as God reveals those things “that are to take place after this” (Revelation 1:19 ESV). Remember, John was invited into the throne room of God in order that He might see “what must take place after this” (Revelation 4:1 ESV). The incredible scene John witnessed in the throne room of heaven was the prequel to the main event. It simply set the stage for what was to come. By transporting John into the presence of God, he was given a stark reminder that all that he was about to see was the work of God. The incredible nature of all that was going to take place in the future was going to be the handiwork of a holy and righteous God who reigns in power from His heavenly throne room. Chapter four is a transitional chapter, moving us from what is, the current church age which will culminate with the rapture of the church, to the future judgment of God coming upon the world. It is essential that the rest of this book be viewed through the lens of God’s holiness and righteousness. As difficult and disturbing as the content of the rest of the book may be, we must never lose sight of God’s holiness and sovereign right to rule over His creation as He sees fit. He is holy, holy, holy.

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

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

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

At A Loss For Words.

13 Now when some days had passed, Agrippa the king and Bernice arrived at Caesarea and greeted Festus. 14 And as they stayed there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying, “There is a man left prisoner by Felix, 15 and when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews laid out their case against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. 16 I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. 17 So when they came together here, I made no delay, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. 18 When the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed. 19 Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. 20 Being at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wanted to go to Jerusalem and be tried there regarding them. 21 But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.” 22 Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” said he, “you will hear him.”

23 So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24 And Festus said, “King Agrippa and all who are present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish people petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. 25 But I found that he had done nothing deserving death. And as he himself appealed to the emperor, I decided to go ahead and send him. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him. Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write. 27 For it seems to me unreasonable, in sending a prisoner, not to indicate the charges against him.”

1 So Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense: Acts 25:13-26:1 ESV

Paul had made an appeal to have his case transferred to Rome, so that he might stand trial before Caesar himself. Because Paul was a Roman citizen, Festus, the governor, was obligated to fulfill Paul’s wish. But before he could send Paul to the emperor, he was required to include a formal document outlining Paul’s crimes. And that was where Festus was at a loss. He had no clue as to what charges he could file against Paul that would warrant a hearing before the emperor. Festus had listened to the accusations leveled against Paul by the Jewish Sanhedrin, but he had heard nothing that would make Paul a threat against the state. Sure, the Jews had accused Paul of inciting riots and desecrating the temple, but they had been unable to prove anything (Acts 25:7). Their rhetoric was unaccompanied by realistic facts that could be backed up by hard-and-fast evidence.

It just so happened that King Agrippa and his sister, Bernice, were visiting Caesarea about that time, so Festus shared his predicament with the king, relating the situation involving Paul and the Jewish religious leadership. Festus explained that it all had to do with “…something about their religion and a dead man named Jesus, who Paul insists is alive” (Acts 25:19 NLT). In other words, it all appeared to be nothing more than an internal, religious dispute among the Jews. He expressed his predicament to King Agrippa in no uncertain terms:

25 But in my opinion he has done nothing deserving death. However, since he appealed his case to the emperor, I have decided to send him to Rome.

26 “But what shall I write the emperor? – Acts 25:25-26 NLT

King Agrippa was intrigued and asked for an opportunity to hear Paul for himself. Now, at this point, a little background is necessary. The Agrippa Luke refers to in this passage is Marcus Julius Agrippa II, the son of Agrippa I (Acts 12:1-25) and great-grandson of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1-23). His great-grandfather was the Herod who had ordered all the Jewish baby boys under the age of two to be slaughtered – in an attempt to eliminate the “newborn king of the Jews” who the wise men had informed him about (Matthew 2:1-1). So, Agrippa came from wicked stock. And he had not fallen far from the family tree. Luke records that he was accompanied by Bernice. In some translations, she is described as his wife. But she was actually his younger sister. At one point, she had been married to her uncle Herod, the king of Chalcis. But upon his death, she had moved in with her brother and the two of them began an incestuous relationship, a fact that was well-known throughout Palestine and Rome. So, Paul was brought before this notoriously sinful and extremely powerful couple to state his case.

Festus set up the interview by reiterating his belief that Paul was innocent of any crime worthy of his death. The Jews had demanded that Festus condemn Paul (Acts 25:15). In other words, they were looking for a death sentence. They were demanding the right to put Paul to death for desecrating the temple, even though they had provided no definitive proof. But Festus made it perfectly clear that he had heard nothing that warranted the handing down of a death sentence. It was his hope that perhaps, after having heard Paul’s story for himself, Agrippa might be able to shed some light on the matter and help come up with a believable charge against Paul that would make sending him to Caesar worthwhile and not a waste of the emperor’s time.

Now, stop for a moment and consider the gravity of this situation. Paul has been accused of crimes against the state and violations of the Mosaic law that were punishable by death. He has already had to appear before the former governor, Felix, and he had been forced to endure a similar hearing before the new governor, Festus. And now, he was given the opportunity to state his case before King Agrippa. With each one of these encounters, Paul had been given a God-ordained opportunity to speak openly and boldly about the good news concerning Jesus Christ. As Festus had made clear, Paul had spoken to him about the resurrection of Jesus. Now, Paul was going to get the same chance with King Agrippa and sister/mistress. What an incredible occasion. How many people get the opportunity to speak of Jesus before kings? But this was all in keeping with the promise Jesus had made to Ananias, when He had sent him to visit the newly converted Saul.

“Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel.” – Acts 9:15 NLT

Paul had already spoken to a Roman tribune and two Roman governors. Now, he was being provided with a remarkable opportunity to address a king. And, if all went well, he would soon find himself standing before the most powerful man in the world at that time: The emperor of Rome.

Yet, Paul’s life was on the line. The accusations against him were serious and the Jew’s hatred for him was intense. They wanted him dead. Consider how you would react if you suddenly found yourself in his sandals. What would you do? How would you feel? What would you say? It is so easy to read these stories and to assume that Paul, Peter, John and all the rest of the early founders of the church were just some special breed of super saints. They were especially brave and supernaturally gifted to endure the trials and tribulations they experienced. And they were. But it is essential that we remember what Jesus said to His disciples when He was preparing to send them out on their first ministry excursion on their own. He had warned them:

16 “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. 17 But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. 18 You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. 19 When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. 20 For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. – Matthew 10:16-20 NLT

Paul had already experienced the reality of these verses. He had known what it was like to stand before the Roman tribune and two Roman governors. The Spirit of God had given him not only the courage to stand his ground, but the content to speak. And this situation with King Agrippa would prove to be no different. Jesus had told His disciples not to worry.

26 “But don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. For the time is coming when everything that is covered will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. 27 What I tell you now in the darkness, shout abroad when daybreak comes. What I whisper in your ear, shout from the housetops for all to hear! – Matthew 10:26-27 NLT

And while Paul had not been present when Jesus spoke those words, they undoubtedly had been communicated to him in some form or fashion. Either from the disciples themselves, or by the Holy Spirit. And Paul inherently knew that his life was in God’s hands, a fact that Jesus had tried to convey to His disciples.

28 “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” – Matthew 10:28 NLT

Paul saw the opportunity placed before him as a God-send. He was going to get to speak to a king, a man who had a reputation for promiscuity and for unbridled ambition. Yes, he was powerful. He had the authority to set Paul free or to seal his death sentence. But Paul seemed to know the reality of the words spoken by Jesus to His disciples some years earlier:

38 “If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine.” – Matthew 10:38 NLT

As we saw earlier in Luke’s text, Paul had already made his intentions known. “I am ready not only to be jailed at Jerusalem but even to die for the sake of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13 NLT). Now, he was in Caesarea. But his attitude remained the same and he articulated it to the believers in Philippi. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21 ESV). As long as Paul drew breath, he would speak on behalf of Christ – to kings, governors, tribunes, Gentiles, Jews, and anyone else who would listen. But, in Paul’s mind, death, while always a potential, was never a cause for fear. Which is why he was able to say, “I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die” (Philippians 1:20 NLT).

Festus was at a loss for words and incapable of knowing what to write to the emperor. But Paul would prove to be anything but tongue-tied or at a loss for what to say. And what he had to say would have little to do with saving his own skin, and everything to do with seeing others experience the saving grace of God made possible through His Son, Jesus Christ.

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

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

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

Sin, Righteousness and Judgment

22 But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, put them off, saying, “When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.” 23 Then he gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody but have some liberty, and that none of his friends should be prevented from attending to his needs.

24 After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” 26 At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him. 27 When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison. Acts 24:22-27 ESV

Having listened to the impassioned pleas of Tertullus, describing Paul as a radical and dangerous heretic; and the reasoned defense of Paul, expressing his innocence of any and all charges against him, Felix forestalled judgment. He sent the Jews away and left Paul in protective custody, providing him with certain freedoms, including visitations from his friends. It appears that Felix was reluctant to pass judgment, not wanting to infuriate the Jews by siding with Paul. But at the same time, Luke leaves the impression that Felix was anticipating some kind of a bribe or payoff from Paul. This appears to be the motivation behind the frequent discussions he had with Paul over the next two-year period. “He also hoped that Paul would bribe him, so he sent for him quite often and talked with him” (Acts 24:26 NLT).

So, for the next two years, Paul was held in Rome, permitted certain freedoms, but provided no judgment as to his guilt or innocence. It is important to note that Paul was nowhere near Rome yet. He was being held in the city of Caesarea and would remain there for two long years. And during that time, he was given repeated opportunities to meet with Felix and his wife, Drusilla. One of the things this royal couple asked Paul about was faith in Christ. Luke doesn’t tell us the reason behind their curiosity. He provides no insights into what may have motivated their desire to discuss these matters with Paul. He does insinuate that Felix was hoping that some form of cash payment might be a byproduct of their conversations, but it would seem that the curiosity of these two individuals became increasingly greater. They were intrigued by what Paul was telling them. And Luke is very specific about the content of Paul’s discussions with them.

…he reasoned with them about righteousness and self-control and the coming day of judgment… – Acts 24:25 NLT

There is a very strong similarity between these three topics and what Jesus had said the Holy Spirit’s role would be when He came. Just prior to His betrayal, arrest, trials and crucifixion, Jesus had given His disciples the following explanation regarding what the Holy Spirit would do when He came:

And when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me. 10 Righteousness is available because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more. 11 Judgment will come because the ruler of this world has already been judged. – John 16:8-11 NLT

Notice that he lists three things: Convicting the world of its sin, convicting the world of God’s righteousness, and convicting the world of the coming judgment. The NET Bible translates verse 8 in this way: “he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” It seems that Jesus was saying that the Holy Spirit was going to expose and demand a change in mind regarding three things: Sin, righteousness, and judgment. Every individual who has ever lived has had a viewpoint on these three things. Each of us has a personal perspective on what is right and what is wrong. We may not call it sin, but we inherently know that there are some things that are off limits and unacceptable in terms of behavior. And we know that there are certain things that are deemed by us and the society around us, as acceptable or righteous. For the most part, all men live with a mindset that if you sin (do what is wrong), there will be consequences. If you do what is righteous (or good and acceptable), you will be rewarded. Thus, the judgment. Wired into mankind is the God-created sense of right and wrong, with the accompanying ideas of merit and punishment. But Jesus was teaching that the Holy Spirit was going to prove the world wrong in terms of their view on these important topics. One of the Holy Spirit’s primary roles is that of conviction, showing men and women that they are sinners in need of a Savior. He also exposes the futile nature of mankind’s attempt to achieve a righteousness on its own. The Bible makes it painfully clear that “No one is righteous–not even one” (Romans 3:10 NLT), and that the penalty or judgment against unrighteousness is severe: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NLT).

These were the very same concepts that Paul discussed with Felix and his young wife. Pretty heavy topics, and they were making an impact on this royal couple. And it’s interesting to note that Paul used the term egkrateia, when discussing the topic of sin. It is a Greek word that refers to self-control, but particularly in regards to one’s sexual appetites or sensual passions. This was a very specific topic that Felix and Drusilla needed to here. It is believed that Drusilla was no more than 16 when Felix married her, and this would have been his third marriage. She was was the youngest daughter of Herod Agrippa I who had been king over Palestine from A.D. 37-44. So, she was from royal blood. Felix had married each of his wives in an attempt to further his career. He was a man driven by his lusts – for physical pleasure, political power, and financial success. They were a power couple, who struggled with self-control, and who operated under the own definition of what righteousness looked like. As long as something met their own selfish desires, they would have deemed it as right and good.

But as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit convicts and Luke records that the discussions Paul had with Felix left the governor alarmed and a bit shaken. He reached the point where he told Paul, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you” (Acts 24:25 ESV). And these impromptu conversations went on for two solid years, and all the while Paul remained in a permanent state of house arrest in the city of Caesarea. We are not provided with much in the way of details concerning Paul’s stay in Caesarea. We know he was able to have visitors and was likely in communication with and through Luke all during his time there. While there are a few scholars who believe that Paul may have penned some of his letters during this time, the majority insist that he wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon at a later date, while a prisoner in Rome.

This lengthy period of relative silence and forced inactivity must have been difficult for Paul. He was a mover and shaker. He was used to teaching, preaching, debating and discussing spiritual matters. He was a missionary, but was forced to take a two-year hiatus from the road. But he remained zealous to share what he knew with anyone who would listen. In this case, it happened to be one of the most powerful men in the entire Roman empire. And this ongoing dialogue with Felix provided Paul with a warmup for even more significant encounters that were coming his way in the not-so-distant future. God was at work, even in the seeming setback of a 24-month-long delay. And, in spite of the lengthy delay, the Jews never stopped plotting and planning for ways to get rid of Paul. He may have been out of sight, but he was never out of their minds. So, when Felix was replaced by Festus as governor, the Jews would see it as an opportunity to reinvigorate their vendetta against Paul. But God was still in control.

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

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

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

New Life in Christ.

And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. 10 This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. 18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily. Acts 19:8-20 ESV

pauls-third-missionary-journey

In Ephesus, Paul would have one of his longest and most spiritually prolific periods of ministry. He would remain in the city, ministering among its people for two years. And Luke tells us that, during that time, “God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul” (Acts 19:11 ESV), and he proceeds to describe just how extraordinary they were. 

…even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. – Acts 19:12 ESV

This is unlike anything we have seen up to this point in Luke’s story. While both Peter and Paul had performed miracles of all kinds, including the healing of the lame, the exorcising of demons and, in Peter’s case, the raising of someone from the dead, we have no previous mention of anyone being healed by handkerchiefs or aprons. But we do have a precedent established in Luke’s gospel, when a woman was healed simply by touching the garment of Jesus.

42 As Jesus went with him, he was surrounded by the crowds. 43 A woman in the crowd had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding, and she could find no cure. 44 Coming up behind Jesus, she touched the fringe of his robe. Immediately, the bleeding stopped.

45 “Who touched me?” Jesus asked.

Everyone denied it, and Peter said, “Master, this whole crowd is pressing up against you.”

46 But Jesus said, “Someone deliberately touched me, for I felt healing power go out from me.” 47 When the woman realized that she could not stay hidden, she began to tremble and fell to her knees in front of him. The whole crowd heard her explain why she had touched him and that she had been immediately healed. 48 “Daughter,” he said to her, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” – Luke 8:42-48 NLT

The key to this woman’s healing was her faith. She believed that Jesus had the power to heal her, but was only doubtful that she might be able to get His attention. So, she simply touched His robe and was completely healed, and Jesus commended her for her faith.

It would seem that the very same thing was taking place in Ephesus. We are not told why this particular form of healing seemed to be prevalent there, but it most likely had to do with the fact that Ephesus was a hotbed of demonic activity due to the large percentage of sorcerers and magicians who practiced their trade there. The people of Ephesus were used to seeing strange and inexplicable things take place. Some, no doubt, was the result of demonic activity, while much was the work of charlatans and religious fakes. So, it would seem that God was confirming Paul’s ministry and message through these out-of-the-ordinary signs and wonders. Luke even indicates that Paul’s reputation in the city had grown to such a degree that a group of traveling Jewish exorcists tried to improve their success rate at casting out demons by saying, “I command you in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, to come out!” (Acts 19:13 NLT). Here were Jews, who didn’t believe in Jesus trying to use His name to further their own ends. And as Luke indicated earlier in this chapter, Paul had found the Jews in Ephesus resistant to his message, forcing him to abandon his efforts to reach them. He had spent three months ministering in the synagogue but had been met with met with unbelief on the part of some, who had publicly ridiculed Paul’s message regarding Jesus. As a result of the stubborn resistance of the Jews, Paul had moved his daily discussions into a public hall owned by a man named, Tyrannus. And, for two years, Paul would continue to use this facility to hold meetings with all who were interested in hearing His messages about Jesus. Luke indicates “that people throughout the province of Asia—both Jews and Greeks—heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10 NLT).

Paul’s presence was having an impact. His preaching, teaching, and miracles, all done in the power of the Spirit of God, were setting him apart and drawing crowds to hear him, in much the same way as the messages and miracles of Jesus had done. But some were drawn to Paul’s power, not his message of salvation. They were attracted to his miraculous ability to perform signs and wonders, not his offer of eternal life through Jesus Christ. And Luke describes the seven sons of Sceva, whose father was a leading Jewish priest. These men were attempting to cast out demons in the name of Jesus, but had no relationship with Jesus. And it would appear that their efforts had been successful, until one particular occasion, when they met resistance from the demon there attempting to exorcise. Now, their previous exorcisms were most likely nothing more than shams. They were simply utilizing the name of Jesus in their fake exorcisms in order to attract the attention of the people and prove that they had the same power Paul had. Since these men were not believers in Jesus, they had no power to cast out demons. And if their efforts were demonic in nature, it would have made no sense for them to cast out a demon. Jesus made this point clear when He had been accused of casting out demons in the power of Satan.  

24 But when the Pharisees heard about the miracle, they said, “No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons.”

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and replied, “Any kingdom divided by civil war is doomed. A town or family splintered by feuding will fall apart. 26 And if Satan is casting out Satan, he is divided and fighting against himself. His own kingdom will not survive. 27 And if I am empowered by Satan, what about your own exorcists? They cast out demons, too, so they will condemn you for what you have said. 28 But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you.” – Matthew 12:24-28 NLT

These men had no power to cast out demons. Satan would not have empowered then to cast out one of his own. That would have made no sense. And, as unbelievers, they had no access to the Spirit of God, so they had no ability to cast out demons by the power of God. And when they eventually ran across a real demon, they were in for a real surprise. When they had tried to cast out the demon in the name of Jesus, it had responded, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?” (Acts 19:15 NLT), and then, Luke records that the demon-possessed man attacked them. They ended up running for their lives, beaten and stripped of all their clothes. They discovered the true nature of spiritual warfare. It is not a show or a game to be played. And Paul would later write to the believers in Ephesus, warning them:

10 Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. 12 For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:10-12 NLT

Demonic activity must have been high in Ephesus. And with the increase in the number of believers, the resistance on the part of Satan grew in strength and intensity. The encounter of the seven sons of Sceva with the demon had made an impact. It left the people in even great awe of Jesus. It attracted more people to the teaching of Paul. And Luke indicates that many of those who had placed their faith in Christ confessed their sinful practices, most likely a reference to their participation in sorcery and the occult. No doubt, some of those who had been involved in exorcisms, witchcraft and demonic activity, had a change of heart when they saw what had happened to Sceva’s seven sons. And as these individuals came to faith in Christ, they were moved by the Spirit of God to change their behavior. And Luke reports that their life change was tangible and costly.

19 A number of them who had been practicing sorcery brought their incantation books and burned them at a public bonfire. The value of the books was several million dollars. – Acts 19:19 NLT

They were giving up their old ways. They were turning from darkness to the light. And Luke tells us that their visible signs of repentance and rejection of their former lifestyles caught the attention of others in the city. As a result, “the message about the Lord spread widely and had a powerful effect” (Acts 19:20 NLT). The message of the gospel was leaving its mark. Not only were people coming to faith in Jesus, they were experiencing remarkable transformations in the way they lived they lived their lives. It was not going to business as usual. The indwelling presence of the Spirit of God was empowering these people to experience new life in Christ. And Paul would later write about this life-transforming power.

17 …anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! 18 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 NLT

New life. New nature. New hope. New power. The old life is gone; a new life has begun. That is the message of the gospel.

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

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

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

 

True Repentance Made Possible.

1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all. Acts 19:1-7 ESV

pauls-second-missionary-journey

At the close of the last chapter, Luke had Apollos headed to Achaia, while Paul was beginning the first leg of his third missionary journey. Paul would circle back through the regions of Galatia and Phrygia, eventually arriving back in the city of Ephesus. Apollos, meanwhile, was still in Corinth, having not yet left for Achaia. For time being, these two men would pass as ships in the night, but their paths would eventually cross.

If you recall, Apollos had been in Ephesus. That is where he had met Priscilla and Aquila. They had found him there, teaching in the synagogue, where “he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25 ESV). That last point is important because, as we will see, upon his arrival in Ephesus, Paul will meet additional individuals, referred to as disciples, who knew only the baptism of John. This is important. Were these people believers or not? They are referred to as disciples, but that does not necessarily mean they were disciples of Jesus. In fact, in this context, Luke seems to infer that they were disciples of John the Baptist. They had been baptized with his baptism. But what is the difference between the baptism of John and that of the Holy Spirit? All the way back in Acts chapter one, we have recorded Jesus’ command, given to the eleven just before He ascended back into heaven.

While he was with them, he declared, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” – Acts 1:4-5 NLT

Jesus mentioned the baptism of John, and he referred to it as a baptism with water. Why did he bring this up at that particular time? He appears to be contrasting John’s baptism with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which the disciples were soon to receive. But what is the difference? To understand that, we have to go back to the gospels and see how John himself described his baptism.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. – Matthew 3:11 ESV

His was a baptism of repentance. He was unable to offer the baptism of the Spirit because Jesus had not yet begun His ministry, and most certainly had not yet died, been resurrected or ascended. Therefore, the Spirit had not yet come. So, John’s baptism was limited in its scope.

John made the difference between their two baptisms clear.

I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” – Mark 1:8 ESV

John’s baptism was reserved for those who repented. But what does that mean? To repent literally meant to change one’s mind, to change your way of thinking. John was demanding that they turn away from their sin and back to God. He was requiring people to prepare their hearts for the coming Messiah by changing the way they thought about their own sin. And John was also demanding that they change their behavior.

8 “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.…

But listen to how he answers the questions of those who wanted to know what kind of fruit he was expecting.

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” – Luke 3:8,10-14 ESV

John was demanding lifestyle change. He was requiring behavior modification. In other words, he was providing them with a list of works to perform to prove that they were truly repentant and turning from their sins and back to God. But how long could that kind of self-manufactured change last? Would any of those people be able to pull off what John was demanding, over the long-haul? No. But why? Because they lacked the very thing they needed to do it: The Holy Spirit. And John knew that what he was doing was temporary in nature, designed to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.

30 “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”– John 1:30-31 ESV

He also knew that his water baptism was not going to be enough. What the people really needed was the baptism Jesus would make possible: That of the Holy Spirit.

33 “I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” – John 1:33 ESV

So, Paul arrived in Ephesus and met some disciples. They obviously knew about Jesus, but when Paul asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they had believed, they had answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2 ESV). When Paul asked them what kind of baptism they had received, they told him, “The baptism of John” (Acts 19:3 NLT). They had been baptized because they had repented of their sins. And Paul pointed out the difference.

“John’s baptism called for repentance from sin. But John himself told the people to believe in the one who would come later, meaning Jesus.” – Acts 19:4 NLT

John’s baptism had been symbolic in nature. It was done to signify that the one being baptized had repented and agreed to change their behavior, to live a different lifestyle, all in preparation for the arrival of the Kingdom of God. These disciples anticipated the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God, but had not understood that Jesus had been the fulfillment of those expectations. And they had no idea that there was a baptism of the Spirit of God awaiting all those who truly believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. And Luke records that, as soon as these individuals heard the truth that Paul shared, they believed.

As soon as they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied. – Acts 19:5-6 NLT

Their belief in Jesus resulted in the same outpouring of the Spirit that the disciples had experienced in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. These men exhibited the same miraculous manifestations of the Spirit’s indwelling power. Again, it is important that we understand that the events recorded in the Book of Acts are not meant to be prescriptive in nature, but descriptive. What happens here in Ephesus is not intended to be a hard-and-fast example of how the Holy Spirit comes. We have already seen that Cornelius and all those in his home who believed, immediately received the Spirit without the laying on of hands by Peter. Each of these events represent a specific circumstance with unique characteristics surrounding it. Paul was in Ephesus, a hotbed of demonic activity and idolatry. Apollos had been there before Paul, and Luke made it clear in chapter 18, that Apollos had also been baptized in water for having repented of his sins. But he had not yet received the baptism of the Spirit. He most likely propagated among the people what he knew and had experienced. It was Priscilla and Aquila who had come along and opened the eyes of Apollos to the truth. It seems that Paul’s laying on of hands and the subsequent pouring out of the Spirit was a way in which God confirmed the difference between mere repentance and true redemption, available only through belief in the finished work of Jesus on the cross. The arrival of the Holy Spirit by the laying on his hands also validated Paul’s apostleship and authority among the people in Ephesus. Paul would later write to the believers in Ephesus, telling them:

13 And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation)—when you believed in Christ—you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory. – Ephesians 1:13-14 NLT

The Holy Spirit came with belief in the name of Jesus. In the case of those in Ephesus, He came with a slight delay and by the laying on of hands. But that was not to be the norm or the required means by which the Spirit was received. It was only in this instance and under circumstances unique to those in Ephesus at that time.

The real issue is that, with the arrival of the Spirit and His indwelling of the believers in Ephesus, they received the very power that was going to make true repentance possible. Up until that time, they could only hope to live repentant lives. They could try, eagerly and sincerely, but they would ultimately fail, because they lacked the power to keep their promise to repent and live differently. And Paul would later write to these same believers, reminding them that their salvation and subsequent sanctification, was the work of God.

For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT

Now, for the very first time in their lives, they had the capacity to live truly repentant lives, marked by holiness and righteousness. And they could accomplish the will of God because they possessed the power of God in the form of the Spirit of God. Their lives would be radically different, but not based on anything they had done or would do. It was all the work of God.

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

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

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