How Righteous Do You Have To Be?

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:10-13 ESV

When it comes to our salvation, most of us have no trouble acknowledging our sin. After all, as Jesus infers above in his statement to the Pharisees, He came to save sinners, not saints. In fact, Paul reminds us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and His death was proof of God’s love for us (Romans 5:8 ESV).  God didn’t require us to get our spiritual act together or our moral house in order. No, He sent His Son to die for us because we were sinners. And Jesus made the point behind His earthly mission quite clear: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10 ESV).

Obviously, by definition, sinners do not measure up to God’s righteous standard. And Paul stated that fact quite plainly when he wrote: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT). It was our lack of righteousness that made Christ’s righteousness necessary. All attempts by the Jews, God’s chosen people, to keep the righteous standard of God, as revealed in the Mosaic law, had fallen far short. Which is why God could look down on mankind and pronounce, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10 ESV). And it was into this abysmal state of affairs that God sent His Son so that He would become the source of righteousness that sinful men so desperately need. The apostle Paul explains the details behind God’s plan for man’s sin problem.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:21-26 ESV

God’s righteousness was made manifest or known by the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. The kind of righteousness God required became physically and visibly apparent in the life of Jesus, the Son of God. But the righteousness of God was also revealed in that He did not overlook or ignore man’s sin problem, He dealt with it by delivering a death sentence against it. But He did so by sacrificing His own Son on behalf of and in place of sinful men. In keeping with the Old Testament sacrificial system, God provided a substitute or stand-in; an unblemished, flawless Lamb who gave His life in the place of unrighteous sinners. The author of Hebrews the full import behind Jesus’  death on the cross.

With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever.

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. – Hebrews 9:12-14 NLT

It was His righteousness that satisfied the just demands of a holy God. In His human state, Jesus lived a completely sin-free life, keeping each and every command God had given. He was perfectly obedient and fully submitted to the will of God, in spite of being “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are” and “yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV). And because of His perfect obedience and sinless life, Jesus became “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

The apostle Paul would have us remember that it is our faith in Christ that makes us right with God. It is only as sinful men stop relying upon their own self-righteousness and turn to the righteousness made possible through Christ that they are restored to a right relationship with God the Father. It is when they recognize that their sin debt has been paid for by Jesus and accept His gracious gift of salvation, that sinners become righteous. But look closely at what Paul says:

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. – 1 Corinthians 1:30 NASB

He has made us right with God. In other words, we are righteous in God’s eyes. Not only that, we are seen by God as pure and holy or sanctified. And we have been set from sin. Yet, we know from experience that sin remains alive and active in our lives. We commit sins regularly and have to constantly fight the temptation to live unrighteous lives in spite of our righteous standing.

And this is where the confusion regarding sanctification comes in. We begin to believe that we have an obligation to improve our righteous standing before God. When we sin, we conclude that we have taken a step backward and regressed in our relationship with God, leaving us with no other choice but to regain the righteousness we lost. We have fallen out of favor with Him, and it is up to us to gain our way back into His good graces. But is this biblical? Is it true?

The danger behind this kind of thinking is that it diminishes the finished work of Jesus. It belittles and minimizes what He accomplished on the cross, by teaching a need for additional righteousness. By focusing on our need to replace our unrighteousness actions with righteous ones, we negate the righteousness of Christ. It is His righteousness alone that can satisfy a holy God. It is His blood alone that can make the impure clean and the defile holy. And that transaction happened the moment we placed our faith in Him as our sin substitute. There is no additional righteousness needed.

It’s interesting to note that Paul said, “For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live” (Romans 1:1 NET).  He didn’t say from righteousness to righteousness or from sanctification to sanctification. All the righteousness we need is revealed through faith in Jesus Christ. And faith never stops being the means by which we avail ourselves of that righteousness. We don’t need to produce more. We need to believe that we have more than enough in Christ. The danger we face as believers living in a fallen world and wrestling with our old sinful natures is that we can become convinced that we don’t measure up. And the enemy constantly accuses us of falling short of God’s standard by using our sins as proof of our inadequacy. So, we start trying to earn our way back into God’s good graces. We fall back into the faulty mindset that we can somehow produce a righteousness of our own.

But notice what Paul told the believers in Philippi.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. – Philippians 3:8-9 ESV

Paul depended upon a righteousness that came from outside of himself. It was an alien righteousness, produced by Christ and imputed to Paul. And Paul kept placing His faith in that righteousness, not in any kind of self-produced righteousness he might attempt to manufacture.

So then, why should we attempt to do righteous deeds? Why should we bother to live worthy of our calling? If we are already as righteous as we will ever need to be, what’s the point of attempting to live holy lives? These are important questions, and we will address them in our next post.

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

 

Advertisements

Knowledge of the Holy

10 You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean…– Leviticus 10:10 ESV

26 Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things. They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. – Ezekiel 22:26 ESV

When God commanded His people, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV), it was clear that He had certain expectations He was communicating. This divine imperative is found in a whole section of Scripture in which God reiterates His  requirements for what it meant to “be holy.” In verse 2 of chapter 19, God commanded Moses to tell the people, “You shall be holy,” and then He followed it up with a list of specific rules and regulations outlining acceptable and unacceptable behavior for His people.

Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father – vs 3

you shall keep my Sabbaths… – vs 3

Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal – vs 4

When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. – vs 5

On that last one, God was very specific and indicated that the portion of the offering that was theirs to eat had to be consumed on the day the offering was made or no later than the day after. Failure to heed God’s command came with dire consequences.

If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people. – vs 7-8

Don’t miss what God says here. Deciding to keep the portion of the sacrifice graciously provided by God for His people and eat it just one day late resulted in the entire offering being made profane. Not only that, the one who offered it was to be cut off or separated from the rest of the congregation. The Hebrew word is karath, and it carries the idea of a body part being cut off. This was a severe punishment, resulting in the removal of the guilty party from the family of Israel. They were to be banished from the faith community. Why? Because they had profaned what was holy to the Lord.

The Hebrew word for “profaned” is chalal, and it refers to the polluting or desecrating of something that had once been sacred or set apart as holy. The offering became unacceptable to God because the one who offered it failed to follow God’s explicit instructions. And not only did the sacrifice become profaned and, therefore, unacceptable, so did the one who offered it. They were no longer fit for God’s presence. They were no longer welcome among God’s people. This is serious stuff.

And God was far from done. His list of requirements for holy living goes on for several more paragraphs, and notice how everyday practical they are.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge… – vs 9

you shall not strip your vineyard bare… vs 9-10

You shall not steal… vs 11

you shall not deal falsely… vs 11

you shall not lie to one another… vs 11

You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God… vs 12

You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him… vs 13

The people of Israel were not free to live however they wanted to live. Their daily activities and interactions with one another were regulated by God and not left up to their own opinions or devices. The rules regulating their behavior were far from subjective and never left up to the personal whims of the individual. God was demanding behavior that was in keeping with His will, not theirs. And if you look closely, so much of what God commanded them to do was in direct opposition to the natural inclinations of the human heart.

God required selfless behavior, reflecting a concern and care for others. He was demanding that His people treat one another justly and with dignity. They were to view one another as holy, set apart by God, and worthy of respect and honor. They had been sanctified or set apart by God as a unit. The entire nation of Israel was considered as God’s chosen people, His possession. And they were to practice holiness as a community, not just as individuals.

Which brings us to the two verses that opened today’s blog. In the Leviticus passage, God warned Aaron, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.”  As the God-appointed priest over the people of Israel, Aaron had a responsibility to teach the people what God considered holy and clean. In doing so, he was also to make clear distinctions as to what was common and unclean. These words are important for us to understand if we are to grasp the concept of sanctification.

Just a few verses prior to this one, we have the record of God destroying Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, who had offered strange or unacceptable fire before the Lord. Acting as priests before God, they had done something God had not authorized or commanded them to do.

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. – Leviticus 10:1 ESV

And so, God cut them off – literally. He put them to death. And then He instructed Moses to give the following message to their father, Aaron:

“This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” – Leviticus 10:3 ESV

Their behavior had not sanctified the Lord. Their actions had not glorified Him. So, God punished them for their unsolicited and unacceptable behavior. And then He had Moses gather the remaining priests together and provided them with additional words of warning and instructions concerning their behavior in their role as priests. And this concluded with His words: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.”

They were to recognize and respect the differences between the qodesh and the chol, the tame’ and the tahowr. The Hebrew word qodesh is derived from the word for “sanctified”: qadesh. They were to know the difference between set-apartness and profaneness. The Hebrew word chol refers to anything unholy or unsanctified. It is common, having not been set apart for God’s use and His glory. As priests, Aaron and his sons had been set apart by God, and they were no longer free to live common lives, doing things according to their own wills or wishes. As God’s chosen possession, the people of Israel were no longer free to live common lives, conducting themselves like all the other nations around them. They had been set apart and were now considered holy by God. And He expected them to live that way. But to do so, they needed to know the difference between the holy and the common. They also needed to know the difference between the pure and the impure.

The Hebrew word tame’  refers to that which is unclean or defiled. And in this context, it means anything that had not been set apart and sanctified by God. This included not only the people of Israel, but their behavior as well, and all the rules that were intended to regulate that behavior. The Hebrew word tahowr is intended to reflect the opposite of defilement. It has to do with purity and cleanness. And God’s commands were to be considered pure, clean, and holy, and treated that way. That is why the apostle Paul wrote, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12 ESV).

Every rule and regulation that came from the lips of God was to be considered holy and pure, and worthy of obedience. To disregard God’s commands was to treat them as unclean, an act that profaned and desecrated them. That’s why God wanted Moses to clearly articulate the difference between the holy and the unholy, the clean and the unclean. There was to be no confusion on the part of His people. They needed to know the difference so that they might live set-apart lives, in keeping with God’s commands. And that’s why God commanded Aaron and his fellow priests “to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses” (Leviticus 10:11 ESV).

An essential part of sanctification is the knowledge of what God expects of His people. It is impossible to live a holy life if you have no idea what that life is to look like. God does have expectations of His people. As Christians, we are to live lives that are in keeping with God’s holy requirements, just as Jesus did. We do not do so to win favor with Him or to earn our way into heaven. We do so because He has set us apart for His glory. Our lives are to reflect our status as His children. But we must be able to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean. And to do that, we must know God’s Word and be willing to receive instruction from His Holy Spirit. God did not save us and sanctify us so that we can continue to live our old lives according to our own selfish desires. We are no longer common. We have been set apart by God for His use and for His glory. We are holy, and our daily behavior should reflect that reality. 

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

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

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

 

A Present-Tense Reality

2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. – 1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV

As we continue our discussion of sanctification, one of the aspects of this vital doctrine that creates confusion is the biblical language used to describe it. In the verse above, Paul is addressing the believers in Corinth as those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus. Writing in the Greek language, Paul used the word hagiazō, which is in the perfect passive participle verb form. As such, it describes an action which is viewed as having been completed in the past, once and for all, not needing to be repeated. In other words, Paul was telling the Corinthian believers that they had already been set apart by God. It was a completed task. And later on in the same letter, Paul reemphasized this past-tense action when he reminded them, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV). In a sense, Paul is telling them that they were, but they still are. It was an event that happened at the point of their salvation, but it has long-term ramifications. Their sanctification by God was permanent, not temporary.

And this past-tense language used in reference to sanctification is not uncommon in Scripture. In Acts 20, Luke documents Paul addressing the elders from Ephesus and providing them with the following words of encouragement.

And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. – Acts 20:32 ESV

But look closely at Paul’s words. He used that same perfect passive participle verb form and yet, he describes God as being able to build them up. God had set them apart as His own, but He was not done with them. He had more in store for them. And Paul used similar language in his letter to the believers in Corinth. He addressed them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus” but then provided them with God’s purpose behind their sanctification: They were “called to be saints.” The Greek word translated as “called” is klētos and it refers to someone being divinely selected and appointed for something. And Paul was challenging his readers to understand that their sanctification by God was so that they might be “saints.”

The word “saint” is another one of those biblical terms that carries a lot of baggage. But in its simplest form, it refers to one who has been set apart. The Greek word is hagios, and it has to do with something or someone that is considered holy or having been consecrated to God and His use. But it is not just a statement about status. It carries the idea of purity and moral blamelessness. 

Paul was letting the Corinthian believers know that they had been set apart by God, but he wanted them to know that their status as God’s sanctified ones was so that they might live holy lives. They were to live up to their status as God’s special possession.

There is a sense in which every believer in Jesus Christ is a saint, having been set apart by God and belonging to Him. And because of the imputed righteousness of Christ, God sees us as holy in His eyes. We are positionally and practically holy because we have been imputed the righteousness of Christ. Paul found great comfort in that reality

I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. – Philippians 3:9 NLT

Paul emphasized this same powerful truth to the believers in Rome when he told them:

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Romans 1:16-17 NLT

Our righteousness comes to us by virtue of faith in Christ. It is His righteousness that God looks at and uses to deem us as worthy to be saints. At no point in the Christian life does our merit before God shift from Christ’s righteousness to our own. In other words, Christ’s righteousness is what saves us, but it is also what keeps us saved. Sanctification is not man attempting to live up to the righteous standard of Christ in order to keep his standing before God. And yet, that is how far too many Christians view the doctrine of sanctification. While we firmly believe that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone, we somehow think that our sanctification is up to us.

But Paul would have us remember that we have already been sanctified. We stand before God as His set apart ones, having been sprinkled by the blood of the unblemished Lamb of God. And, as a result, we have been cleansed and made righteousness in the eyes of God.

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. – Hebrews 9:13-14 NLT

Just like the Corinthian believers to whom Paul wrote, we have been sanctified by God. We enjoy the unique and undeserved status of being His children. And it is because the blood of Jesus has cleansed us and made us acceptable to a holy God. The doctrine of sanctification is not about believers earning brownie points with God. It is not to be understood as some kind of divine contest by which we prove to God our worthiness to be His children or attempt to earn a ticket into His eternal kingdom.

Our sanctification is a present reality, made possible by God and paid for by the blood of Christ. God has set us apart as His own. Now, we are to live as who we are: His children. While we live on this planet, waiting for the return of Jesus Christ, we are to live as those who belong to God. We are to emulate the life of Christ, following His example of selflessness and sacrificial service to others. But we do not do so to earn favor with God. We don’t pursue righteousness in order to make God love us. He has already proven His unwavering love for us by sending His Son to die for us.

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

We are already sanctified, set apart by God for His use and His use alone. We no longer belong to ourselves. His will superseded our own. His plan for our lives takes precedence over any goals or objectives we may have. And while we enjoy status as God’s sanctified saints, Paul would have us know that God’s will is our continued sanctification.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 NLT

Our status as God’s chosen ones comes with an expectation that we live up to our calling. And Paul emphasized this divine expectation when he addressed the believers in Ephesus.

Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. – Ephesians 4:1-4 NLT

We have been set apart, and our greatest desire should be to live in keeping with who we are. And as we continue to explore the deep doctrine of sanctification, we will discover the rich and rewarding blessings that come to those lead lives worthy of their calling.

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

 

Jerusalem Shall Be Holy

17 “So you shall know that I am the Lord your God,
    who dwells in Zion, my holy mountain.
And Jerusalem shall be holy,
    and strangers shall never again pass through it.

18 “And in that day
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
    and the hills shall flow with milk,
and all the streambeds of Judah
    shall flow with water;
and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord
    and water the Valley of Shittim.

19 “Egypt shall become a desolation
    and Edom a desolate wilderness,
for the violence done to the people of Judah,
    because they have shed innocent blood in their land.
20 But Judah shall be inhabited forever,
    and Jerusalem to all generations.
21 I will avenge their blood,
    blood I have not avenged,
    for the Lord dwells in Zion.” Joel 3:17-21ESV

God cares about His chosen people. In spite of their open rebellion against Him and their rejection of Him as the one true God, He would remain faithful to them – literally, to the end – to the final moments of the great day of the Lord. And He assures the people of Judah that when He finishes with all that He has planned for them and the world, they will know that He is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Lord their God.

It is amazing to think back on all that God had already done of on behalf of the people of Judah and their northern neighbors, the nation of Israel. God had chosen them and had blessed them beyond belief. In choosing them, God had set them apart from all the nations of the earth.

You have been set apart as holy to the LORD your God, and he has chosen you from all the nations of the earth to be his own special treasure. – Deueronomy14:2 ESV

What a privilege. But it was a privilege that came with great responsibility. They were to live as who they were: God’s chosen people. When He had freed them from their captivity in Egypt, He had told them:

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 15:5-6 ESV

The position as His chosen possession was conditional. They were to obey His commands and to live as His representatives on this earth, modeling to the nations around them what it meant to have a relationship with God Almighty. God had made it perfectly clear that they were to live differently and distinctively from the pagan nations who surrounded them in the land of Canaan. And God had provided them with an extremely high standard: Himself.

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

But as the history of Israel so painfully and clearly reveals, they never lived up to God’s holy standard. Yes, there were occasions when they obeyed His commands and lived in submission to His will, but those moments of corporate allegiance to God were rare and never lasted long. Yet, here in Joel 3, God assures His disobedient people that He has unbelievable plans in store for them. Despite their disobedience and unfaithfulness, God was going to faithfully fulfill each and every one of His covenant promises to them. And He would do for them what they had failed to do on their own: Live set apart, holy lives.

In fact, God promises, “Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it” (Joel 3:17 ESV). The city of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and the home to the fantastic temple constructed by Solomon, would once again be set apart as God’s holy dwelling place. We know from history, that it would not be long before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the Solomonic temple was destroyed. The city of Jerusalem would become occupied by foreign invaders and this dismal scene would continue for generations, even to the days of Jesus, when the Romans ruled the entire region of Palestine, including the of David, Jerusalem.

God had warned that this would happen. All the way back to the day when Solomon dedicated the temple he had constructed, God had warned him:

“But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins. Everyone passing by it will be astonished and will hiss, and they will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord their God who brought their fathers out of the land of Egypt and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore the Lord has brought all this disaster on them.’” – 1 Kings 9:6-9 ESV

And it happened just as God predicted it would. The city was eventually invaded and the house of God was turned into a heap of ruins. The once holy city became a visual representation of Israel and Judah’s sin and God’s righteous judgment of them. But here in Joel 3, God assures the people of Judah that the day is coming when the city will be restored, not only to its earlier beauty, but to its place as the dwelling place of God. The apostle John was given a vision of this future scene and he recorded it his book of Revelation.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” – Revelation 21:1-3 ESV

The scene Joel presents is one and the same, and he adds details that describe the fruitfulness of that new city. It will be rich, abundant, and filled with the glory of God. He even mentions a fountain coming from the house of the Lord. Again, the apostle John echoes his words and adds some interesting details of his own.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. – Revelation 22:1-5 ESV

In contrast to the restoration of Jerusalem, Joel describes the devastation of Edom and Egypt, two long-time adversaries of Israel. These two nations act as stand-ins for the rest of the world’s countries that have placed themselves in opposition to Israel over the centuries. Because of their animosity toward the people of God and the city of God, they will experience the wrath of God.

But God promises to shower His chosen people with His unmerited grace and mercy.

But Judah shall be inhabited forever,
    and Jerusalem to all generations. – Joel 3:18 ESV

This entire chapter was intended to provide the people of Judah with words of encouragement. Even in the face of their coming destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, they could rest in the fact that God was not yet done with them. He had long-term plans for them that guaranteed their permanent place as His chosen possession. He wanted them to have an eternal perspective, not a temporal one.

And as Jesus told the apostle John at the close of the book of Revelation:

“These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” – Revelation 22:6 ESV

We can trust Him, because His words and trustworthy and true.

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

 

Think On These Things

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:8-9 ESV

Paul has challenged the Philippian congregation to make their unity a high priority. He has pleaded with them to see that their behavior lines up with their belief so that the way they live their lives fully complements their calling in Christ. That will require them to work out their salvation, or to put it another way, to put in the necessary effort so that their faith in Christ bears tangible fruit. He has encouraged them to stand firm in the faith – as expressed in the gospel message and made possible through the death and resurrection of Christ. They were to have the same attitude that Christ had, choosing to follow His example of humility, selflessness, obedience, and sacrifice. And, like Paul, they were to find reason to rejoice, even in the face of opposition and oppression. And if they did these things, Paul knew they would shine like bright lights in the darkness surrounding them in Philippi.

But before Paul closes out his letter, he offers one more word of wisdom. As if returning to his earlier admonition that they have the mind of Christ, Paul tells them to “think about these things.” The Greek word he uses is logizomai, and it means “to consider” or “to meditate” on something. But Paul leaves no uncertainty as to what kinds of “things” they are to consider or concentrate their minds upon. He provides them with a very specific list of subjects with which to fill their minds and on which to focus their thoughts and attentions.

Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. – Philippians 4:8 NLT

The first item on his list is truth. They were to fill their minds with whatever is true and, therefore, trustworthy. Because Satan is the father of lies, we must constantly be on guard for the subtle falsehoods and deceptive half-truths he attempts to use against us. And since there is no greater truth than the gospel message, Christ-followers must constantly focus their minds on the reality that they were once condemned sinners in need of a Savior. At one time, they had been in debt to God and completely incapable of satisfying His just and holy demands, but He sent His Son to die in their place. And now they stood before Him as pure and holy, clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Paul was constantly reminding those under his care to consider the remarkable truth regarding their restored relationship with God.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. – Ephesians 2:1-2 NLT

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) – Ephesians 2:4-5 NLT

Paul adds “whatever is honorable” to the list. That word has to do with anything worthy of veneration because of its character. In a sense, this is truth lived out. It is Christlikeness that shows up in trustworthy conduct.

Next, Paul encourages them to fill their minds with whatever is “right” or just. This has to do with righteousness, but according to God’s terms, not man’s. It carries the idea of living your life so that your way of thinking, feeling, and acting is fully conformed to the will of God.

It makes sense that Paul would follow “right” thoughts with right behavior in the form of moral purity. Sexual sin is fully outside the revealed will of God. And it’s not just the actual act that can get us into trouble. Even our thoughts can leave us impure and guilty before God. It was Jesus who said, “anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28 NLT). Which is why Paul told the Corinthians:

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. – 1 Corinthians 6:18 NLT

Purity is a high priority for God. He not only expects it, He demands it. He has called us to be holy, just as He is holy. And we must fill our minds with those kinds of things that are pure and undefiled, not contaminated and contrary to His will for us.

The next word on Paul’s list is “lovely.” It is purity lived out so that our conduct remains pleasing and acceptable to God. It was Peter who wrote, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12 ESV). When believers think about the things that bring pleasure to God, they tend to make those things a priority. And, when they do, the world takes notice.

Which brings us to the word, “admirable.” We are to fill our minds with those kinds of things that are worthy of praise. Not self-centered, ego-boosting praise, but praise that reflects on God and His power to transform our lives for the better. So much of what we spend our time thinking about is unworthy of praise. It has no redeeming value or worth. We can end up admiring the wrong people, showering praise on the wrong kind of conduct, and speaking highly of those kinds of things that God finds unworthy.

Throughout his letter, Paul has blended the ideas of belief and behavior. He was overjoyed with the thought of their newfound faith in Christ. But he knew that their spiritual journey was far from over. Which is why he had opened his letter with the words, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6 ESV). They needed to be in it for the long haul. Their walk with Christ was going to require effort on their part and a commitment to live out their faith in practical, visible ways. They could not afford to stand pat, biding their time until the Lord returned. They had work to do. And they were going to have to work together in order to survive and thrive in the hostile environment in which they found themselves.

The Christian life was not going to be easy. But that didn’t mean it was going to be impossible. They had the gospel message, the resurrection power of the Spirit of God, and one another. They also had the teaching of Paul on which to rely. And he encouraged them to take what he had taught and put it into practice. He challenged them to look at his life and follow his example.

Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:9 NLT

Paul’s challenge to “think on these things” was more than a mind game. He wasn’t suggesting that they practice some form of positive motivational thinking. He was encouraging them to fill their minds, to concentrate their thoughts on the kinds of things that truly matter. Our thoughts cannot be separated from our actions. We must desire what God desires. We must fill our minds with those things that God finds true, pure, right, just, and worthy of praise. And one of the best ways to do that is by submitting ourselves to the indwelling power of the Spirit of God. In order to have the mind of Christ and to be able to think as He does, we must rely on the Spirit he has placed within us. Which is why Paul told the Galatian believers:

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. – Galatians 5:16-17 NLT

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

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

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

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

Contaminated.

Thus says the Lord:
“Behold, a people is coming from the north country,
    a great nation is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.
They lay hold on bow and javelin;
    they are cruel and have no mercy;
    the sound of them is like the roaring sea;
they ride on horses,
    set in array as a man for battle,
    against you, O daughter of Zion!”
We have heard the report of it;
    our hands fall helpless;
anguish has taken hold of us,
    pain as of a woman in labor.
Go not out into the field,
    nor walk on the road,
for the enemy has a sword;
    terror is on every side.
O daughter of my people, put on sackcloth,
    and roll in ashes;
make mourning as for an only son,
    most bitter lamentation,
for suddenly the destroyer
    will come upon us.

“I have made you a tester of metals among my people,
    that you may know and test their ways.
They are all stubbornly rebellious,
    going about with slanders;
they are bronze and iron;
    all of them act corruptly.
The bellows blow fiercely;
    the lead is consumed by the fire;
in vain the refining goes on,
    for the wicked are not removed.
Rejected silver they are called,
    for the Lord has rejected them.” Jeremiah 6:22-30 ESV

 

The enemy IS coming. God has ordained it and nothing is going to stop it. Unless of course, the people were to change their minds and return to Him. But God gives a bleak prognosis when it comes to any future repentance on the part of the people of Judah.

“They are as hard as bronze and iron,
    and they lead others into corruption.
The bellows fiercely fan the flames
    to burn out the corruption.
But it does not purify them,
    for the wickedness remains.” – Jeremiah 6:28-29 NLT

They were contaminated by sin. It permeated their very existence. And it didn’t seem to matter how much God brought the heat of His judgment against them, they remained unrepentant and polluted by sin. So, God tells Jeremiah that He will now refer to them as “rejected silver”. They had inherent value, but their unrepentant sin had diminished their worth. At one time they had been declared holy to the Lord.

Remember that the LORD rescued you from the iron-smelting furnace of Egypt in order to make you his very own people and his special possession, which is what you are today. – Deuteronomy 4:20 NLT

For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure. – Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT

They held the distinct privilege of being God’s own possession. Not because they had deserved it, but simply because God had chosen to make them so. He had rescued them from their captivity in Egypt, where they had been undergoing intense testing under the tyrannical hand of the Pharaoh. God had freed them and set them apart as His own. Not because they had deserved it, but simply because God had chosen to do so. And as a result, they belonged to Him, and their lives were to have reflected their new relationship as God’s chosen people. But over the coming years and throughout the successive generations, the people of Israel would prove to be anything but holy.

“Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things. They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. – Ezekiel 22:26 ESV

They had gone from holy to profane. That word, “profane” has very strong connotations. It refers to something that has been polluted or desecrated. But it is directly tied to the idea of holiness. God had set the people of Israel apart or deemed them holy. They belonged to Him. But their constant sin and rebellion had left them profaned, like damaged goods. Rather than being pure silver, they were marred by sin. And it didn’t seem to matter how hot the fire of God’s judgment got, they remained unchanged and unrepentant. The people of Judah had sat back and watched the destruction of their neighbors to the north in the kingdom of Israel. They had seen the devastating impact of the Assyrians as they had swarmed the northern territory, destroying its cities and wiping out its people. But now that they were faced with the same fate, they remained unchanged.

Oh, they were concerned. Jeremiah describes their reaction to his messages of coming destruction:

“We have heard reports about the enemy,
    and we wring our hands in fright.
Pangs of anguish have gripped us,
    like those of a woman in labor.” – Jeremiah 6:24 NLT

They were scared, but they weren’t repentant. They were wringing their hands in worry, but not lifting their hands toward God. They wanted to escape God’s judgment, but weren’t willing to obey His commands. So, Jeremiah warns them that they are going to mourn one way or another. They could choose to repent and come before God in sackcloth and ashes, expressing their sorrow over the rebellion against Him. Or they would find themselves mourning over the loss of their entire nation.

“Oh, my people, dress yourselves in burlap
    and sit among the ashes.
Mourn and weep bitterly, as for the loss of an only son.
    For suddenly the destroying armies will be upon you!” – Jeremiah 6:26 NLT

God reminds Jeremiah of his role. “I have made you a tester of metals among my people, that you may know and test their ways” (Jeremiah 6:27 ESV). His words of warning and his constant calls to repentance were going to reveal the exact nature of the people of Judah’s moral and spiritual state. So far, Jeremiah’s messages had fallen on deaf ears. His warnings had been rejected. His threats had been ignored. His prophecies concerning God’s coming judgment had been contradicted by false prophets who promised nothing but peace and prosperity. And God assesses the true nature of His people as being “stubbornly rebellious” (Jeremiah 6:28 ESV).

It’s essential that we keep in mind that the people of Judah were not pagans who knew nothing about God. They were not ignorant of who He was or unfamiliar with His ways. They were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They knew the stories of His rescue of their ancestors Egypt. They had heard about His miraculous miracles as He led them through the wilderness. They had been told of the fall of the walls of Jericho and the ultimate rise of David to the throne of Israel. They were proud to be Jews. But none of this seemed to keep them from turning their backs on God. They had taken His many blessings and turned their noses up at them, acting as if God was not enough. They turned to false gods and sought help from foreign nations. They treated God’s laws as optional. The prophet Ezekiel records God’s less-than-flattering assessment of them.

The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have wronged the poor and needy; they have oppressed the foreigner who lives among them and denied them justice. I looked for a man from among them who would repair the wall and stand in the gap before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it, but I found no one.– Ezekiel 22:29-30 ESV

They were thoroughly polluted, from top to bottom. From the princes in the palace to the peasant in his hut, everyone was stained by sin and polluted by immorality and injustice. They had become profane and, in the end, they had profaned the name of God. Their behavior had given God a black eye. As His representatives, they had done damage to His holy reputation. And that was not something God could or would tolerate. That is why they would end up in captivity. And even there, long after suffering the shame of defeat and deportation, the people of Judah would continue to profane God’s name. The prophet Ezekiel describe what was going to happen and how God, in spite of their continued unfaithfulness, even after their punishment by Him.

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake that I am about to act, O house of Israel, but for the sake of my holy reputation which you profaned among the nations where you went. I will magnify my great name that has been profaned among the nations, that you have profaned among them. The nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the sovereign Lord, when I magnify myself among you in their sight.” – Ezekiel 36:22-23 NLT

God was going to protect the integrity of His name. He would prove to the people of Judah and the nations around them that He was faithful and that He was all-powerful. He would redeem His people once again. He would restore them to favor. He would make them His holy nation once more. Not because they deserved it, but simply because is faithful, loving, gracious and merciful. And He keeps His covenants.

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

Be Perfect!

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:48 ESV

In all that Jesus has said up to this point, this one line jumps out like no other. And He makes it at the tail end of His discussion regarding love. Jesus has let them know that the kind of love God expects from those are blessed and approved by Him is a non-discriminatory love. It isn’t a love that has to be earned or deserved in some way. There is no expectation of love in return. In other words, it’s not reciprocal in nature. Human love says, “I’ll love you, as long as you love me back.” But that’s a self-centered kind of love. Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that” (Matthew 4:47-48 NLT).

Our model for love is to be God, not man. Which is what led Jesus to say, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:49 NLT). And if we’re honest, the very first thought that goes through our minds when we hear that statement is, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Is Jesus serious? Is He really asking us to be perfect, like God is perfect? Is He calling His listeners to do the impossible? YES!

What Jesus is demanding is righteousness. God’s brand of righteousness. Mankind is adept at producing flesh-based righteousness. That is what Jesus has been addressing during this opening section of His message. He knew that those in His audience tended to measure their righteousness based on external adherence to some set of rules or standards. Here’s how they approached righteousness:

“As long as I don’t commit adultery, I’m doing okay with God.”

“If I don’t kill anyone, I am keeping God’s law and keeping Him happy with me.”

“If I happen to divorce my wife, I’ll still be okay with God, as long as I do it in the prescribed manner, according to His law.”

“I thank God for oaths, that allow me to break my word, but in a way that God will accept, even if my friends don’t.”

“God even approves of me when I do harm to others, as long as I’m doing it to get even.”

“And I can keep God loving me as long as I love my neighbor and hate my enemies.”

But all of those thoughts are based on a human understanding of righteousness, a merit-based concept that connects righteousness to behavior. But Jesus is presenting a radically different view that teaches that God’s ultimate expectation of men is nothing short of sinless perfection. In fact, the Greek word Jesus uses that is translated “perfect”, is teleios and it means whole or complete. It was used to refer to consummate human integrity and virtue. Jesus wasn’t calling for a better, slightly improved version of human righteousness. He was calling for sinless perfection. And there wasn’t a single person in His audience that day who could pull it off, including His four disciples. We are all totally incapable of doing what Jesus is saying, without His help.

What Jesus is demanding is simply a reiteration of what His Father had demanded of the Israelites centuries earlier.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” – Leviticus 19:1-2 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “holy” is the word qadowsh. It means “pure, clean; free from defilement of crimes, idolatry, and other unclean and profane things” (“H6918 – qadowsh – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It was also used to speak of someone or something’s status as having been “set apart” by God for His use.

You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. – Leviticus 20:26 ESV

It was a call to separation and distinctiveness. The people of Israel were to be holy, set apart by God for His use. But their holiness was not to be simply a positional reality. It was to have practical ramifications. God had expectations regarding their behavior, but also regarding the condition of their hearts. They were expected to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV). And they were expected to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18 ESV).

The apostle Peter would echo the words of Jesus in his first letter.

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV

Be holy – in all your conduct. Be perfect – just as your heavenly Father is perfect. Those are some staggering concepts to get your mind around. They come across as so far-fetched and impossible, that we end up treating them as some form of hyperbole or over-exaggeration on Jesus’ part. Surely, He can’t be expecting us to be holy like God is holy, or perfect in the same way God is perfect. But Jesus is simply revealing the standard of God. God doesn’t grade on a curve. He doesn’t dumb down the test because of the spiritual acumen of the students in His classroom. One of the issues Jesus is exposing in His message is that the Jews were guilty of lowering God’s holy and righteous standards so that they could somehow measure up. That’s why Jesus said, “if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). And He topped that off with the bombshell: “unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NLT).

God has always expected and demanded perfection. He has always required that His people be holy, just as He is holy. There is no lower standard. God doesn’t take a look at mankind, recognize their inability to live up to His expectations, then lower the bar so more people can qualify. Later on, in this very same message, Jesus will reveal “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it” (Matthew 7:13-14 NLT). God’s way is not the easy way. The kind of righteousness He demands and expects is not easy to achieve. It’s impossible. The life of holiness He requires of those who would be His children is measured by His own holiness. It is a holiness and righteousness that is far superior to anything the Pharisees or teachers of religious law could ever hope to produce.

Holiness and godly perfection are high standards indeed. And they are impossible to produce in the flesh. You can’t manufacture what God is demanding. You can’t be like God without the help of God. The apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth and reminded them:

Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said:

“I will live in them
    and walk among them.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
Therefore, come out from among unbelievers,
    and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord.
Don’t touch their filthy things,
    and I will welcome you.
And I will be your Father,
    and you will be my sons and daughters,
    says the Lord Almighty.” – 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 NLT

Then he follows this up with the logical conclusion or application.

Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God. – 2 Corinthians 7:1 NLT

You see, there is an expectation of separation. We are to love differently and distinctively from those around us. Part of how our holiness should manifest itself is in the alternative way of living that we model. As God’s children, we have a capacity to live differently than all those around us. We have the ability to live truly righteous lives because we have received the righteousness of Christ. We have the Spirit of God living within us and empowering us to live like Christ. We have a high standard to live up to: Jesus Christ Himself. He is the model of righteousness we are to emulate. Not scribes, Pharisees, rabbis, pastors, teachers, evangelists, parents, or friends. That is, unless they are modeling their lives after Christ. Paul put it this way: “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT).

So, when Jesus said to the crowd seated on the hillside that day, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, He wasn’t presenting anything new.  He was simply reminding them that God’s standard had not changed. He had not lowered the bar. Human alterations and addendums to God’s laws might make them easier to live up to, but they couldn’t produce the kind of righteousness God was expecting. That’s why, as Paul reminds us, God did for us what the law could never have done.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

Holiness and perfection are not impossible, unless we try to produce them on our own. God never intended the law to be lived up to. It presented God’s divine criteria for holiness. It made painfully clear what God demanded in the way of behavior from mankind. But in the end, it was intended to reveal our sin and our need for outside help, what Martin Luther referred to as “alien righteousness” – an righteousness outside of ourselves.

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 NLT

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

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

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

Improper Plowing Partners.

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
    and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
    and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
    then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
    and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.” – 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 ESV

There is a huge difference between being a conduit through which God’s redeeming grace can flow to the lost and becoming, as Paul describes, unequally yoked with them. It was Paul’s desire that the Corinthians would be gracious and loving to all, but he feared that they would turn the love of God into tolerance and His graciousness into an inappropriate excuse to associate with the ungodly. Paul had already witnessed their unacceptable handling of the man in their congregation who had been having an affair with his stepmother. Rather than mourning over this man’s immoral behavior, they had arrogantly approved of it, allowing him to remain a part of their fellowship. But Paul had read them the riot act, boldly stating, “You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.” (1 Corinthians 5:2 NLT). Paul’s concern is that the Corinthians would see his appeal to grace as meaning that they should accept anyone and everyone, regardless of their behavior or lifestyle. Paul knew that we must meet people where they are in order to share the gospel, but that the power of the gospel would not allow them to remain in that same state, unchanged. The good news of Jesus Christ is transformative and life-changing.

Associating with the lost is necessary in order to share with them the hope available to them through faith in Jesus Christ. But Paul differentiates between casual acquaintances and unhealthy associations. The issue here is one of a believer being in a close relationship with an unbeliever. Most often, this passage gets applied to marriage, and rightfully so. But it has more far-reaching application, covering everything from business partnerships and even close friendships. The imagery Paul uses is that of a yoke. It was a common farming implement that teamed two animals together in order for them to jointly pull a plow. The idea of being unequally yoked had to do with putting two different animals with two different temperaments in the yoke together, such as an ox and a donkey. These two different animals have different physical characteristics and personalities. They would not naturally associate with one another. So in putting them in a yoke together, they would pull at different speeds and actually fight against one another, making the process of the work inefficient and unacceptable to the farmer. Their efforts would be wasted and the farmer’s goal of plowing the field, thwarted.

This is what Paul has in mind when he tells the Corinthians not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. That kind of partnership is unacceptable. He compares it to light and darkness, righteousness and lawlessness. Unbelievers, by virtue of their unredeemed state, are under the control of Satan. So why would a follower of Christ willingly align themselves with child of Satan? Yes, that sounds harsh, but the apostle John reminds us of its reality.

Dear children, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous. But when people keep on sinning, it shows that they belong to the devil, who has been sinning since the beginning. But the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning, because God’s life is in them. So they can’t keep on sinning, because they are children of God.So now we can tell who are children of God and who are children of the devil. Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers does not belong to God. – 1 John 3:7-10 NLT

Paul is in no way suggesting that believers have NO relationships with the lost. That would be impossible. In fact, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote:

When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. – 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 NLT

But he is warning about developing or maintaining unhealthy alliances with the lost. To do so is counterproductive and puts us in a position where our allegiance to Christ will be strained and hampered. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are the temple of God. Then he uses a variety of Old Testament texts to drive home his point. Just as God had chosen the people of Israel to be His people, believers had been hand-picked by God to be members of His family. They had been separated by and consecrated to God. So God expected them to disassociate themselves from the other nations that surrounded them. “Therefore, come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:17 NLT). As Peter points out, we are to live as aliens and strangers on this earth, as if we don’t belong here, because our real home is in heaven. We are Kingdom citizens. We have a different homeland and answer to a different King. And while we are on this earth, we are to operate as His ambassadors, accomplishing His will by doing His work. And that will become increasingly more difficult, if not impossible, if we align ourselves with those who do not share our allegiance to Him. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter: “But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. Those who are spiritual can evaluate all things, but they themselves cannot be evaluated by others” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15 NLT).

As children of God, we are to constantly submit ourselves to the will of God. We are to serve Him at all times. But if we allow ourselves to become unequally yoked to a non-believer, either through marriage, friendship or a business partnership, we will find ourselves in constant conflict. We will discover that our “plowing partner” has a different agenda. Rather than working together, we will fight one another, accomplishing little when it comes to God’s Kingdom work. It is one thing to share the gospel with a lost individual. It is another thing to share life with them. We must love the lost and be willing to share the hope of Christ with them. But we are never to forget that in their unredeemed state, they are still enemies of God, living in rebellion against Him. Our goal for them should be their salvation. Our purpose in associating with them is that they might know the love of God and be set free from their slavery to sin and death. But ignoring their sin in order to enjoy their friendship is dangerous for us and, ultimately, a sign of a serious lack of love for them.

Wholly His To Be Holy.

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. – 1 Corinthians 6:12-17 ESV

At the heart of Paul’s ongoing discussion with the Corinthians was his defense of and belief if the centrality of the gospel. For Paul, the gospel was about far more than a guaranteed place in heaven. There is no doubt that Paul looked forward to the day when he would be with the Lord in His heavenly kingdom. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul states that he “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 ESV). Speaking of our earthly bodies, Paul says, “For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:2 ESV). He knew that the day was coming when he would receive a new body, a spiritual body, created by God for eternal life. “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1 ESV). But even with that assurance of a redeemed body and a reserved place in eternity, Paul lived with his sights fully set on the present. It was his aim to please God with the life he had been given and to do the work to which he had been assigned by God. It was this view that led him to write, “whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:9-10 ESV).

But what does all this have to do with the passage above? It seems that there were those in the church in Corinth who were living as if what they did in their earthly bodies didn’t matter. As Greeks, they probably held the view that the body was unimportant, acting as nothing more than a receptacle to hold man’s soul. “The Greeks always looked down on the body. There was a proverbial saying, ‘The body is a tomb.’ Epictetus said, ‘I am a poor soul shackled to a corpse’” (William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 22.). Evidently, it was this view of the body that was leading some of the believers in Corinth to commit acts of immorality. And Paul used some of their arguments against them. There were those who were justifying their actions by saying, “All things are lawful for me.” In other words, they argued that they were free in Christ. As Paul even taught, they were no longer required to keep the Mosaic law and its host of restrictions in order to be justified before God. But they were taking their newfound freedom in Christ to an inappropriate extreme, replacing legalism with license. They were combining their freedom in Christ with Greek dualism, that said the body didn’t matter, because we are spiritual beings. This viewpoint went contrary to the gospel. Christ came to redeem body and soul. He died to free us from the future penalty of sin, but also from the present power of sin over our lives. That is why Paul was able to say, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 ESV). 

While, as believers, we do experience a newfound freedom in Christ, that does not mean that everything we are free to do is the right thing to do. Paul said that no all things that are lawful for us are helpful. For Paul, the gospel was about life change. It was about becoming other-oriented rather than self-focused. In fact, it was about dying to self and living for others, just as Jesus had modeled. Paul will raise this same issue later on in his letter. “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24 ESV). Living the Christian life is not about what is best for me, but what will benefit the body of Christ and honor God. As Paul so clearly states, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31b ESV).

There is a sense in which the Corinthians did not understand the full impact of their conversion. When they had accepted Christ as their Savior, they had been joined to Him. They now shared His nature. They had been inhabited by His Spirit. As Paul states it, “your bodies are members of Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:15a ESV). The Greek word for “members” was commonly used to refer to a limb of the human body, such as an arm or leg. As Christians, we are members of the body of Christ. We have been joined to Him and He is the head of the body. We do not exist for ourselves. What we do affects the entire body of Christ. Which is why Paul asks, “Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?” (1 Corinthians 6:15b ESV). And he answers his own question with an emphatic, “Never!” What we do in our physical bodies has a direct impact on our spiritual lives. We are not dualistic in nature, but holistic. The Hebrew word for “blameless” is תָּמִים (tamiym) and it means “complete, whole, entire, sound, having integrity” (“H8549 – tamiym – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). We are to live our lives before God with integrity or wholeness. What I think with my mind matters. What I do with my body makes a difference. What I see with my eyes impacts my soul. Christ died to redeem all of me. He came to save me from what Paul refers to as “this body of death” (Romans 7:24). He came to give me new life here and now, and to miraculously re-purpose my body for the glory of God. So Paul would remind us, “Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God” (Romans 6:13 NLT).