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

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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).

Calling Out the Called Out.

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,

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: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. – 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 ESV

Paul began this letter as he had most of his others. First, he introduces himself. This was not because they did not know him. He had actually lived among them for 18 months after he had helped found the church there on one of his missionary journeys. Paul’s point in re-introducing himself was to establish his calling as an apostle of God. This will become an important factor as his letter unfolds.

Paul was cordial, even complimentary, in his greeting to the believers in Corinth. But there was a subtle, underlying purpose behind his words. He referred to them as “the church of God in Corinth.” This too will prove to have a purpose behind it. Paul wanted them to understand that they belonged to God and no one else. He was preparing the way to deal with a problem of division that had made its way into the church there. Paul also referred to them as “sanctified in Christ Jesus” and “saints.” Paul used two words, ἁγιάζω (hagiazō) and ἅγιος (hagios) to describe the believers in Corinth. First of all, at salvation they had been set apart as God and dedicated for His purposes. They belonged to Him. And this made them saints, or set-apart ones (“G37 – hagiazō, G40 – hagios – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). They no longer belonged to themselves or to this world. And yet, as Paul would eventually point out in his letter, they were not living up to their calling as saints. Their actions were not reflecting their set-apartness.

Paul’s emphasis in the opening of his letter was on God. He even thanked God for all He had done in bringing the Corinthians to faith. It had been God who had extended His grace to them by making the good news of Jesus Christ known to them. The “testimony about Christ was confirmed” among them (1 Corinthians 1:6 ESV) as they came to faith in Christ and had their lives radically transformed. The believers there in Corinth had received the gift of the Holy Spirit and, along with Him, the gifts of the Spirit. In fact, Paul said that they were “not lacking in any gift” (1 Corinthians 1:7 ESV). God had been good to them. He had called them and He would be faithful to them as He continued His work among them. He would sustain them to the end. The problem, Paul seems to be saying, was not with God, but with them. It was the Corinthians who were proving to be unfaithful. They had lost their focus. They had lost sight of their unique standing as God’s holy people. The calling of God on their lives had taken a back seat to their own selfish agendas and worldly outlooks on life. They were missing the point.

Paul was preparing to deal harshly with his readers. He was setting them up so that he might call them out. He was not going to tolerate their behavior. The honor of God and the integrity of the gospel was at stake. Their behavior was not in keeping with their status as God’s chosen people. Rather than living as set apart and distinctive from the world around them, they were allowing themselves to blend in and take on the ungodly characteristics of the society in which they lived. Their professed beliefs and practical behavior did not seem to match. There was a disconnect between their faith and their daily practice. Their spiritual talk and their daily walk were in conflict. So Paul started his letter reminding them of who they were and to whom they belonged. Paul will remind them a little later on in this same letter, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV). 

Paul was about to call out the called out ones. He was going to sit down the set-apart ones and give them a piece of his mind – in love. He would not tolerate their actions or excuse their sinful attitudes. God had sacrificed His Son on their behalf. He had paid a high price for their salvation and Paul was not willing to sit back and watch them waste God’s grace or bring shame to His name. It was essential that their profession of faith show up in their walk and talk. Their conduct needed to match their confession. Their status as sons and daughters of God was to be reflected in their actions and attitudes.

A Loving Father.

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them. – Hosea 11:1-4 ESV

Sometimes, because God is transcendent and invisible to our eyes, we can see Him as distant and difficult to comprehend. After all, He is the creator of the universe. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. He is sinless and perfect in all His ways. So we find it hard to relate to Him. While we speak of His love and rely upon His grace and mercy, it’s not always easy to feel those things in daily life. After all, we can’t experience a hug from God. We have never been able to talk a walk with Him and have Him put His arm on our shoulder to encourage us. There is a sense in which His transcendence makes Him unapproachable and somewhat aloof to us. But God would have us see Him as our Father. In fact, He uses the imagery of fatherhood throughout the Scriptures. And Jesus Himself encouraged His disciples to approach God in prayer with the word, “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9 ESV).

Here in chapter 11, God addresses the people of Israel as a father would speak to his child. He reminds them of their past and jars their collective memory in order to get them to recall what their relationship with Him used to be like. He had been like a father to them. They had been like a helpless child, trapped in the bonds of slavery in Egypt. They were oppressed. They were crying out in pain and suffering. And God had heard them. When He had called Moses, God had told him, “I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt into their own fertile and spacious land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8 NLT). And that is exactly what He had done. He had rescued them, set them free and led them to the land of Canaan, just as He had promised to Abraham hundreds of years earlier.

God had shown the people of Israel unconditional love. He had rescued them, not because they deserved it, but because of His love for them. And yet, their response to His love had been to refuse it. The failed to recognize and appreciate the incredible miracle that the God of the universe had chosen to shower His love on them. He had adopted them as His own and yet, they had treated His love with contempt. The prophet Isaiah recorded these indicting words from God against the southern kingdom of Judah.

Listen, O heavens! Pay attention, earth! This is what the Lord says: “The children I raised and cared for have rebelled against me. Even an ox knows its owner, and a donkey recognizes its master’s care—but Israel doesn’t know its master. My people don’t recognize my care for them.” Oh, what a sinful nation they are—loaded down with a burden of guilt. They are evil people, corrupt children who have rejected the Lord. They have despised the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. – Isaiah 1:2-4 NLT

They were corrupt children who had rejected the love of God. And God uses the imagery of a father teaching his child to walk to illustrate just how painful their rejection of Him was. He had held their hand and lovingly, patiently guided their every step. He had walked alongside them, steadying their way and ensuring their safety. And then had inevitably fallen, He had lovingly healed them. Just like any earthly father would have done. It was Jesus who said of His heavenly Father, “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11 ESV). God is a faithful, loving Father. And yet, Israel, His adopted children, had forsaken Him for false gods. He had “led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love” (Hosea 11:4 ESV), but they had chosen to reject His love and come out from under His protection. Those cords of kindness and bands of love, portrayed through His holy law, had been intended to provide them with loving protection. Like a father’s rules for his children, God’s law was meant to provide appropriate boundaries and protective guidelines for their lives. But they had repeatedly broken God’s laws. They had seen them as oppressive and overly restrictive. But now they were going to understand what the yoke of oppression was really like. The generation to whom Hosea spoke had long ago forgotten the trials and tribulations their ancestors had gone through in Egypt. Slavery was not something to which they could relate. They had been born free and had enjoyed the privilege of growing up in a powerful, successful nation where problems were few and the blessings of God had been many. But the love of the Father had not been enough to hold their attention or keep them faithful.

When we fail to recognize God’s love, His fatherly care and protective presence in our lives, we find it easy to walk away from Him. Like the prodigal son who only saw his father as a source of financial blessing, we can overlook and take for granted our heavenly Father’s unceasing, undeserved love, care and protection. We can end up wanting what we can get from Him more than we want Him. We can treat Him as some kind of genie in a bottle, obligated to grant our wishes and fulfill our every self-centered desire. But God would have us realize just how much He loves us. The apostle John reminds us, “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1 NLT). And God demonstrated just how much He loved us in a powerful and very costly manner. “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 ESV). The Father’s love for His children is real. It is boundless and tireless. It is patient and unceasing. And Paul would have us come to grips with the startling reality that nothing can separate us from God’s love. “If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself” (Romans 8:31-33 NLT).

Built To Last.

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. – 1 Peter 2:4-8 ESV

Peter reminded his readers that they have “tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:3 ESV). He is χρηστός (chrēstos) – kind, gracious and benevolent.And as a result, we come to Him – not just once for salvation, but continually and repeatedly for help and hope as we live our lives on this earth. By coming to Jesus, our Lord, out of our longing for “pure spiritual milk,” we grow. And together, as the body of Christ, we are “built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5 ESV). Jesus becomes the foundation stone upon which the body of Christ, the church, is built. We come to Him, in spite of the fact that He has been rejected by the vast majority of our peers. To us, He is a living stone, the chief cornerstone on which our spiritual lives are built, both individually and corporately. But to others, He becomes nothing more than a stone in their path over which they stumble. To us, He is foundational and supportive. To others, He is fictional and irrelevant.

The key point in this passage seems to be that God desires to build something out of those who place their faith in Christ. He has a grand plan for their lives. Like an architect, He has a design for each and every individual whom He has set apart as His own. Like our Savior, we are living stones, no longer lifeless and dead in our trespasses and sins. We have had new life breathed into us by God Himself, and He has plans for us. He is building us into a spiritual house. Peter compares us to the temple itself. Together, as God’s people, we are the temple, the habitat of God. Paul supports that same thought when he writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 ESV). It is interesting to note that the personal pronoun, you, that Paul uses is plural in these verses. He is referencing the corporate body of believers in Corinth, not individual believers. While the Holy Spirit dwells within individual believers, He also inhabits the corporate body of Christ, the church. Paul says this very same thing in his second letter to the Corinthian church. “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’” (2 Corinthians 6:16-17 ESV).

But not only are we the stones who make up the temple of God, we are the priests who offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5 ESV). Paul told the believers in Rome, “I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him” (Romans 12:1 NLT). We are to be living stones and living sacrifices, offering ourselves up to God for His use. Like the priests who served in the temple, we belong to God. We live to serve Him. One of the greatest sacrifices we can make to God is to willingly and submissively allow Him to do with our lives what He sees fit. When we allow Him to use us as stones in His spiritual house, we are sacrificing our desires to Him. We are giving up our dreams in order to fulfill His. And we will not be disappointed. Peter assures of this very thing when he quotes from Isaiah 28:16:

therefore thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: Whoever believes will not be in haste. – Isaiah 28:16 ESV

The phrase, “will not be in haste” refers to someone acting in a panic, rushing about in disappointment and surprise.When we build out lives on Jesus, we will never end up disappointed or let down. And when we allow God to use us as stones in His spiritual house, we can have every confidence that the final product will be perfect and complete, without flaws and designed to last for eternity. And we should see it as an honor to have God choose to use us as part of His grand, eternal construction project.

But the sad truth is that Jesus was rejected by His own people. The gospel of John reminds us, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:10-11 ESV). But the rejected one became the chosen, precious one. They stumbled over the very one who would become the cornerstone of the true house of God. They found Him to be an offense to their religious sensibilities. He was not the one for whom they were waiting. He did not fit the bill of the Messiah for whom they longed. So they rejected Him. They had Him crucified. And Peter tells us, “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Peter 2:8 ESV). God was not surprised by the reaction of the Jewish nation to His Son. It was all part of His plan. Because, as Paul tells in his letter to the believers in Rome, the rejection of Jesus by the Jews opened up the gospel to the Gentiles. “Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (Romans 11:11-12 ESV). They failed to recognize Jesus as their Messiah and, as a result, the gospel was taken to the Gentiles. But as Paul goes on to say, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob; and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins’” (Romans 11:25-27 ESV).

The Jews will one day be added into this grand structure which God is constructing. He is not done yet. He is building something beautiful and eternal. His plan is flawless and His timing is perfect. He knows what He is doing. Each stone has been personally selected by Him and is being placed where He wants it in order to create a living temple in which He will dwell for eternity.

 

And Yet, God.

But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.Ezra 9:8-9 ESV

Ezra 9:6-15

Ezra was in mourning over the sorry state of the people of Judah. They had been returned the land by God after 70 years in captivity due to their own sinfulness, and here they were, still living in rebellion against Him. Ezra, having just returned to Judah from the land of Babylon, was appalled and devastated by what he saw. So he took it upon himself to confess the corporate sins of the people to God. Ezra was personally ashamed for their conduct. As a scribe, an expert in the Mosaic law, he was well aware that what they were doing was in direct violation of God’s commands. And he knew that God would not take their disobedience lightly. The most amazing thing to Ezra was that the people were doing all of this in spite of God’s amazing grace and mercy. He had shown them favor. He had taken a remnant of them and arranged for them to return to the land to rebuild the temple and to restore the city of Jerusalem. God had not forsaken them, but had fulfilled His promise to restore them to the land after their 70 years of captivity were complete. They hadn’t deserved it or in any way earned it. Even their time as slaves in Babylon had been marked by continuing rebellion against God. They had regularly worshiped false gods. They had continued to reject and rebel against the one true God. And yet, He had kept His word. He had fulfilled His promise.

Ezra did not take God’s grace lightly. He was shocked that the people who had experienced that grace could so easily snub their noses at God and blatantly live in open rebellion to His commands. Their lives were marked by compromise. Rather than separate themselves from the other nations that had taken up residence in the land during their absence, they gladly coexisted with them, marrying off their sons and daughters to them. Not only that, they compromised their allegiance to God by taking on the false gods of their neighbors, diluting their faith and offending the very One who had rescued them from captivity.

In a very real way, this parallels the experience of so many of us as believers. God has redeemed us from slavery to sin. He has made it possible for us to be restored to a right relationship with Him, and yet we find ourselves comingling with the world around us. Rather than remaining separate and set apart, we determine to blend in and, in the process, end up compromising our convictions. Many of us, having been set free by God, find ourselves enslaved to the world. We seek our self-worth and satisfaction from what the world can offer. We long to be accepted by the world. Rather than stand out for our faith, we prefer to blend in. And slowly, steadily, we begin to make compromises and concessions. We find ourselves rationalizing our behavior and excusing our actions. We refuse to accept Jesus’ warning that we would be hated by the world. Instead of living as strangers and sojourners in this land, recognizing that we are citizens of another kingdom, we choose to get to cozy and comfortable with this world. We gladly adopt their ways and accept their standards as our own. The convictions of the culture around us slowly begin to influence and infect us, and we begin to lose our distinctiveness. Chosen and set apart by God, we find ourselves looking more and more like the world around us. Our distinction as Christians becomes more a label than a lifestyle. That was the problem Ezra encountered when he arrived in Judah. The saints had lost their saltiness. The intensity of their light had diminished and they were close to being overwhelmed by the surrounding darkness.

And yet, God was still showing them favor. He was still extending to them mercy. He had sent back Ezra with the sole task of reestablishing His law in the land. He had allowed them to rebuild the temple. He would eventually send back Nehemiah with another wave of exiles to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem and reoccupy the city. God was not done. And He is not done today. In spite of all we see happening around us and the distinct feeling that the darkness is overwhelming us, God is on His throne. He is still in charge. But He is looking for a remnant of His people who will boldly stand apart from the crowd and speak up for the truth. He is calling His people to come back to Him, to reject the ways of this world and renew their commitment to live lives of holiness. For the believer, compromise is deadly. And the temptation to do so is greater than it has ever been. The world wants to silence our voices, stifle our faith, compromise our convictions, and distract us from our devotion to God. But we must never forget that God has redeemed us from the world. We can live in it and yet not become part of it. We have been called to make a difference, not blend in. We have been saved so that we might tell others of the truth regarding man’s sin and God’s plan of salvation. Some of us have compromised our faith. Others of us have allowed ourselves to succumb to defeat and despair. We live as if all hope is lost and the enemy is winning. But our God reigns. He wins in the end. His victory is assured. We must live like we believe it. All is not lost. But it is time for the called out to stand up and to live out their faith.