The Unwise, the Powerless, and the Despised

1 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. Luke 5:1-11 ESV

When comparing the four gospel accounts it becomes readily apparent that there are minor discrepancies that some have labeled as errors or contradictions. But these differences are simply evidence of each author’s attempt to tell the story of Jesus’ life and ministry from his own personal perspective. Even under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, each man was allowed to craft the narrative so that it effectively supported his primary thesis. This entailed the decision to add and omit specific details concerning Jesus’ life. In some cases, the authors took the liberty to rearrange the chronological order of some events in order to accentuate a key aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry.

In chapter five of Luke’s gospel, he opens with the words, “on one occasion.” He then tells the story of when Jesus addressed the growing crowds on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee by speaking from a boat belonging to Simon Peter. The Greek word Luke used is ginomai, which means “it came to pass” or ”it happened that.” At first glance, it would appear that Luke is placing this event after the one in which Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Yet in Mark’s gospel, he reverses the order. But Luke is not contradicting Marks’ account, he is simply rearranging the sequence of events to better support his primary point: The power and authority of Jesus.

Luke has been highlighting the words of Jesus and the impact they had on those who heard Him speak. As Jesus made His way through Galilee, speaking in the synagogues on the Sabbath, the crowds had begun to grow in size. And as the people heard Him teach and watched Him heal the sick and cast out demons, they grew increasingly more amazed.

“What authority and power this man’s words possess! Even evil spirits obey him, and they flee at his command!” – Luke 4:36 NLT

The rumors concerning Jesus began to spread, and each time He arrived in a new town, the size of the crowd would be larger than ever before. So, Luke recounts one such occasion, when Jesus was in the town of Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Luke reports that “the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God” (Luke 5:1 ESV), so Jesus was forced to use a nearby fishing boat as an impromptu speaking platform. It just so happened that the owner of the boat was a man named Simon Peter, the brother of Andrew. By arranging the story in this order, Luke is explaining to his readers how Jesus ended up as a guest in Simon’s home, where He healed the fisherman’s mother-in-law.

But Luke’s primary point was to stress the power behind the words of Jesus. After Jesus had finished addressing the crowd from the safety of Simon’s boat, He commanded Simon to go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish” (Luke 5:4 NLT). It’s important to note that Simon was a seasoned fisherman and this command from an unknown itinerant rabbi would have sounded absurd. Yet, Simon addressed Jesus as “Master,” a term that reveals his deep respect for Jesus as a teacher.

“Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” Luke 5:5 NLT

Simon explained his reticence but obeyed. His compliance reveals that he must have known something about Jesus’ reputation and was willing to do as ordered. And he was not disappointed.

…this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! – Luke 5:6 NLT

The catch was so large that Simon feared his boat would sink because of the weight of the fish-filled net. He and his brother Andrew were forced to call their business partners, James and John, to come to his aid. All four of these men were blown away by this experience. In all their years of fishing on the Sea of Galilee, they had never seen anything like this. It was clearly a miracle and Simon immediately recognized that Jesus was far more than just another rabbi. He fell to his knees in deep humiliation and reverence, shouting, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m such a sinful man” (Luke 5:8 NLT). It’s unclear why Simon felt the immediate need to confess his sinfulness, but it seems obvious that he recognized Jesus to be a holy man. This rough fisherman was struck by the miraculous power of Jesus’ words. And it seems apparent that Simon had experienced some doubt when Jesus had first commanded Him to “go out where it is deeper.” Now, he was convinced that Jesus was someone special, a holy man of God who had the ability to perform divinely empowered miracles.

Struck by his own unworthiness to be in the presence of such a godly man, Simon asked Jesus to “depart.” But little did he knew that his experience with Jesus was just beginning. And while this miracle had left Simon on his knees in awe and humiliation, in time he would learn the true identity of this relatively unknown rabbi from Nazareth.

In response to Simon’s plea that He depart, Jesus simply stated, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” (Luke 5:10 NLT). Jesus informed Simon that his life was about to change forever. Everything he had come to know was about to be radically and unalterably transformed. And the experience had such an impact on Simon, Andrews, James, and John, that “as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus” (Luke 5:11 NLT).

Don’t miss that Simon and his companions left behind the largest catch of fish they had ever experienced. But Jesus left behind the crowd of people standing on the shoreline. This was not about miracles and masses of people. It was not about nets filled with fish or shorelines filled with curious crowds. Jesus was calling the men who would walk with Him for the next three years and carry on His ministry after He was gone. The Master was choosing His disciples and preparing the way for the future of His Kingdom. And Simon, Andrew, James, and John would become four of the 12 men whom God had set apart as the future ambassadors for the Kingdom of Heaven.

As the apostle Paul would later write, these four men became the vanguard for a host of individuals who would form the unlikely and undeserving citizens of Christ’s future Kingdom.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 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

In the Fullness of Time

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him. Luke 1:57-66 ESV

When Mary made her trip to visit Elizabeth in Judah, her cousin would have been in the sixth month of her pregnancy (Luke 1:36). Luke tells us that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, then returned home (Luke 1:56). It would appear that Mary returned home to Nazareth before Elizabeth gave birth.

But not long after Mary’s departure, Elizabeth’s due date arrived and she bore a son just as the angel Gabriel had told Zechariah (Luke 1:12). For the entire nine months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Zechariah had suffered from temporary muteness because he had failed to believe the message of the angel.

“…behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” – Luke 1:20 ESV

It appears that Zechariah’s ailment included an inability to hear as well. When his neighbors attempt to question him about the child’s name, they are forced to use hand signals, which would indicate that he was deaf as well as dumb. The Greek word Luke used to refer to Zechariah’s muteness is kōphos, and it can also be used to refer to deafness. So, for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Zechariah was forced to live in silence, unable to speak or hear anything. And this condition would have made his vocation as a priest virtually impossible to fulfill. He lived in a state of silent isolation, waiting for the fulfillment of Gabriel’s prophecy. And no one could have been more anxious or excited about Elizabeth’s due date than Zechariah. He was looking forward to seeing the fulfillment of all his prayers, but he must have also had high hopes that the birth would bring about the restoration of his speech and hearing.

Throughout this chapter, Luke puts a great deal of emphasis on time. Gabriel told Zechariah that his words would “be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:20). Luke records that Zechariah left the temple and returned home “when his time of service was ended” (Luke 1:23). Then we are given time markers focused on the stages of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

for five months she kept herself hidden – Luke 1:24 ESV

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth – Luke 1:26 ESV

“…behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month…” – Luke 1:36 ESV

And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. – Luke 1:56 ESV

Then Luke begins this section with the statement, “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son” (Luke 1:57 ESV). Everything was happening according to God’s divine timeline. While Elizabeth’s pregnancy was normal, in that it lasted the usual nine months, it was supernatural and sovereignly ordained. Luke does not want his readers to forget that she was advanced in years and had suffered from barrenness. The birth of this baby was anything but normal, and the timing of all these events was meant to remind the reader that these were extraordinary and divinely sanctioned days in the history of Israel. A formerly barren woman was giving birth to a son. A young virgin girl was three months pregnant and carrying within her the Son of God. And it was all happening according to God’s preordained and perfectly timed plan.

The apostle Paul emphasized the impeccable timing behind God’s plan.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman… – Galalians 4:4 ESV

Time had reached its fulness or completeness. Each element of the plan was happening at just the right time and at the prescribed moment that God had preordained. There was no chance involved. It was all part of the perfect will of God Almighty.

Elizabeth gave birth to a son – just as Gabriel had said she would. And the new parents were surrounded by friends and neighbors who came to celebrate this joyous occasion with them. Even they recognized the hand of God behind Elizabeth’s pregnancy and delivery, and rejoiced that “the Lord had shown great mercy to her” (Luke 1:58 ESV). But they were completely ignorant of God’s plans for this newly born infant. They had no way of knowing that he would “be great before the Lord” and “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:15), or that he would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16 ESV). To them, he was just another healthy baby boy who would be a welcome addition to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. This faithful priest now had a son and an heir. 

And because this baby would likely be the only child born to this aging couple, the friends of Zechariah and Elizabeth fully expected them to name the boy after his father. But eight days after giving birth to her son, Elizabeth surprised her friends by informing them that his name would be John. She and Zechariah chose to reveal this news on the day scheduled for their son’s circumcision. This God-ordained rite was meant as a sign that their newborn son was dedicated or set apart to God. It was a sign of the covenant that God had made between Himself and the offspring of Abraham.

“As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations…” – Genesis 17:9-12 ESV

Zechariah and Elizabeth knew that their son had been graciously given to them by God and that he had a divine mission to accomplish. They were merely stewards, charged with the task of keeping God’s vessel pure and prepared for his future role: “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:170 ESV). Gabriel had warned them to keep their son away from wine and strong drink. He would be filled with the Spirit of God and set apart as an instrument to accomplish God’s divine plan. And this godly couple was determined to follow the words of the angel of God. When Zechariah was questioned about their strange choice of name, he used a writing tablet to affirm his wife’s answer, scrawling the words: “His name is John” (Luke 1:63 ESV).

At that exact moment in time, God restored Zechariah’s ability to speak and hear. By obeying the word of the angel and naming his son, John, Zechariah proved his faith and was healed of his infirmity. And the first thing he did was bless God. We are not told what Zechariah said, but it seems likely that he reiterated some of what Gabriel had said regarding John’s future role. Luke indicates that “fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea” (Luke 1:65 ESV).

In blessing God, Zechariah must have divulged some of what the angel Gabriel had said. This news obviously made an impact on those who were in the range of Zechariah’s voice. And the fact had not escaped them that Zechariah’s voice had been miraculously and instantaneously restored. There was something supernatural going on in their midst. But they had no way of knowing that God had just invaded time and space, sending his servant, John, so that he might one day begin his ministry of announcing the coming of the kingdom of God and calling the people of Israel to repentance. Three decades would pass before the baby born to Zechariah and Elizabeth launched his divinely ordained ministry. In the meantime, another baby would be born to a young virgin girl named Mary. Months, years, and decades would pass. But God was at work. He was methodically and painstakingly preparing the way for the long-awaited Messiah. And in the fullness of time, His plan of redemption would begin.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Orderly Account

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. – Luke 1:1-4 ESV

We are about to embark on a study of the longest book in the New Testament. It bears the name of the man who is believed to have been its author. Luke was either a Gentile or a Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jew. In his letter to the churches in Colossae, The apostle Paul informs his readers that Luke was a physician by trade (Colossians 4:14). And while Luke was not an apostle of Jesus, he had close relationships with some of those who were, including Paul. He used his access to these men to conduct interviews and gather information so that he could compile an “an accurate account ” (Luke 1:3 NLT) of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Luke was not the first to attempt such an ambitious and daunting undertaking. He readily admits that “Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1 NLT). Of course, we know that Matthew and Mark both produced records of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and together with Luke’s account, they comprise what are known as the Synoptic Gospels. The word “synoptic” simply means “together sight” and refers to the many similarities found in these three books. They each record the life of Jesus, including many of the same stories and following a common timeline. Each author provided his own particular writing style and had a specific audience in mind when compiling his book.

Luke makes it clear that he had penned his gospel account with one person in mind, a man named Theophilus. And this would not be the only book Luke wrote to his friend and fellow believer. The book of Acts, also written by Luke, was addressed to this same individual.

In my first book I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit. During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God. – Acts 1:1-3 NLT

In this passage, Luke clarifies that his purpose for writing his gospel account was to record everything that Jesus began to do and teach while He was on this earth. He begins with the incarnation of Jesus and ends with His ascension. And Luke painstakingly researches and records the many events that transpired between those two paradigm-shifting moments in human history.

Evidently, Theophilus was of Greek origin and his name meant “friend of God.” It would appear that he was a rather recent convert to Christianity and had come out of a pagan religious background. Much of what Paul records in his gospel is intended to provide his young friend with proof of Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection. This young Greek convert to Christianity would have had little knowledge of Jewish history or the many references to the coming Messiah found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In a sense, Theophilus would have represented a highly educated and secularized Gentile audience who were lacking any understanding of Jesus’ identity as the Jewish Messiah and all that title entailed. Since coming to faith in Christ, Theophilus had been given instructions regarding Jesus’ identity and earthly ministry.  But Luke wanted to make sure that his friend’s faith was based on solid evidence and not on some fictional, fairy tale story that mirrored the myths about the Greek gods.

Jesus was not the figment of someone’s fertile imagination. And He was far more than just a man who lived a moral life and left behind a good example to follow. He was the Son of God and, ultimately, the Savior of the world. Yes, He was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but He was also the light to the nations. The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming servant of God, who would one day restore rebellious Israel to a right relationship with God. But this same servant would shed the light of God’s glory and grace to the ends of the earth.

And now the Lord speaks—
    the one who formed me in my mother’s womb to be his servant,
    who commissioned me to bring Israel back to him.
The Lord has honored me,
    and my God has given me strength.
He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
    I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
    and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:5-6 NLT

If you recall, this is exactly what Jesus commissioned His disciples to do before He ascended back into heaven. Luke recorded these fateful words of Jesus in the opening chapter of the book of Acts.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 NLT

These men had listened to the words of their resurrected Lord and taken the good news to the ends of the earth. As a result, men and women like Theophilus had come to faith and begun the lifelong process of sanctification that followed their salvation. While Luke had not been a disciple of Jesus, he had taken His words to heart, following His instructions to go and make disciples of all the nations.

“I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20 NLT

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke provided Theophilus with further instructions regarding the faith, while at the same time addressing the needs of a growing number of Gentile converts who were in need of solid teaching and reliable evidence about their Lord and Savior.

Little did Luke know that this letter, penned to his young friend, would become a part of the canon of Scripture. By God’s divine providence and through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, these carefully researched and well-crafted words have been preserved so that generations of Gentile converts to Christianity might grow up in their salvation. We owe this man a debt of gratitude for his willingness to research and write this powerful biography of the most seminal characters in all of human history: The Lord Jesus Christ.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A False Assumption and a Faulty Conclusion

18 And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, 19 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. 21 And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. 22 And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. 23 In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”

24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” Mark 12:18-27 ESV

Driven by their mutual hatred for Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians had set aside their long-standing differences and joined forces in a vain attempt to bring His ministry to an end. But they had failed. They had tried to expose Jesus as a political insurrectionist who stood opposed to the Roman government and its excessive taxation of the people of Israel. But these men had misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ Kingdom. It was not of this world. He had not come to free Israel from slavery to Rome, but from slavery to sin and death. And His mission was spiritual in nature and not political. 

When the Pharisees and Herodians returned to the Sanhedrin and reported the results of their less-than-successful mission, they were replaced by a contingent of Sadducees. These men would form the second phase of their well-orchestrated attack on Jesus. The Sadducees were a powerful religious/political sect made up of the wealthy and influential upper class of Israel. They held the majority of the 70 seats in the Sanhedrin and controlled much of what happened in and around the temple. Their aristocratic mindset caused them to disdain the common man and to elevate themselves as members of the religious and political elite.

In order to preserve their superior status within the nation, the Sadducees had become reluctant partners with Rome, willingly accepting their presence as a necessary evil. Compromise with Rome allowed them to maintain their control over the nation of Israel. The Sadducees were essentially a political party that dabbled in religion. And while they expressed strong belief in the books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy), they rejected many of the established doctrines of the Hebrew religion.

For instance, they denied any resurrection of the dead. And this led them to reject the concept of an afterlife. They had concluded that the soul perishes at death, so this eliminated any idea of rewards or penalties. Therefore, in their theology, there was no heaven or hell. And to top it all off, they discounted any belief in an invisible spiritual realm populated by demons and angels. In a sense, they were the religious progressives of their day, espousing liberal views on a wide range of important doctrines that put them at odds with the more traditional Pharisees.

But since the Pharisees and Herodians had failed in their mission to entrap Jesus, the more liberally minded Sadducees were given their chance. And they approached Jesus with a very carefully concocted and convoluted story that was meant to expose His more conservative and antiquated religious views. These men knew that the majority of the peasant class also clung to the more traditional views on the doctrines of the afterlife and resurrection. So, they made up a hypothetical story that was meant to reveal the absurdity of these beliefs.

But like the Pharisees and Herodians who preceded them, the Sadducees were going to meet their match in Jesus. While they viewed Him as nothing more than an uneducated peasant from the backwater village of Nazareth, He would prove to be far more knowledgeable of the Scriptures and more than able to defend the doctrines of the resurrection and the afterlife.

And it is important to remember that Jesus had made many comments about eternal life. In fact, Jesus had told Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). He had offered the Samaritan woman water that would permanently satisfy her thirst and provide her with eternal life.

“…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:14 ESV

And most recently, Jesus had told Martha, the sister of Lazarus, that her dead brother would rise again.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” – John 11:25-26 ESV

These statements, and others like them, would have made their way back to the Sadducees. Jesus’ persistent claims regarding eternal life and the resurrection of the dead would have infuriated them. So, they decided to use their superior intelligence and vast knowledge of the Scriptures to expose Him as an uneducated fool.

They set up their trap by recounting a well-known law of Moses.

“Moses gave us a law that if a man dies, leaving a wife without children, his brother should marry the widow and have a child who will carry on the brother’s name.”  – Mark 12:19 NLT

They were referring to the levirate law, as outlined in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. This law required that the brother of a man who died without a male heir was obligated to marry his brother’s widow. The primary purpose of the law was to preserve the name of the deceased and to prevent the widow from becoming destitute.

But in an attempt to expose the ridiculous nature of belief in the resurrection, they created a convoluted and highly unlikely story. It involved a woman who ends up marrying seven different brothers, each of whom dies unexpectedly and prematurely, leaving her a widow without a male heir. Their strange tale ends with the death of the woman who had the unfortunate burden of being widowed seven different times. And they summarize their story with a question:

“So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her.” – Mark 12:23 NLT

You can almost see the smug expressions on their faces as they drop this bombshell on the unsuspecting Rabbi from Nazareth. They had Him. There was no way He would be able to answer this confusing conundrum and maintain His naive belief in the resurrection.

Little did they know that their whole story was built around a false premise. Jesus was about to expose their ignorance regarding the doctrine of the resurrection and it was because they did not understand God”s Word.

“Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven.” – Mark 12:24-25 NLT

Jesus gave them a one-two combination that must have been a devastating blow to their overinflated egos. First, He accused them of not knowing the Scriptures. Then He added that they had no idea of the nature of God’s power. Because they could not fathom the idea of life after death, they had simply discounted it. And in spite of all their careful study of the books of Moses, they had been unable to appreciate the fact that nothing was impossible for God. They worshiped a God of limited power whose only interactions with mankind were relegated to this life.

They were trying to take an earthly-oriented law and apply it to eternal matters. But it was as Jesus had told Nicodemus: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12 ESV). These men were incapable of understanding eternal truths. They were trying to comprehend the ways of God by looking through the cloudy lenses of their earthly perspective. And, had he been around, the apostle Paul would have told them, “Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (Romans 11:33 NLT).

Their limited understanding had led to a limited view of God. They could not conceive of an afterlife because they viewed it as implausible and impossible. They were intimately familiar with death and probably feared it. And since they could not see what lie beyond the grave, they simply refused to acknowledge that anything was there. This life was all there was. But the whole story they had concocted had been based on misconceptions and misinterpretations of the Scriptures. Jesus informed them that there would be no marriage in the afterlife. So, it really didn’t matter how many husbands the fictitious widow had in this life. There will be no marriage because there will be no need to procreate. By virtue of His vast power, God will give resurrected and glorified bodies to all those who live in His eternal Kingdom. Men and women will no longer be expected to bring new life into the world. Their God-given order to fulfill the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply will no longer apply.

And Jesus adds another not-so-subtle point of clarification that was meant to blow holes in one of the Sadducees’ other errant beliefs. He states that, in their eternal state, men and women will be much more like angels than human beings. They will be divine creatures who have the capacity to live in unbroken fellowship with God the Father for eternity. And like the angels, they will focus all their time and energy on His glory and offering Him their ceaseless praise.

Jesus ends His response with a lesson on the Old Testament Scriptures. He takes them back to the writings of Moses, recounting the story of the burning bush as recorded in the book of Exodus. It was there in the Midianite wilderness, that God appeared to Moses and called him to be the deliverer of His people. Out of the burning bush, God had declared to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6 ESV). By the time Moses had come along, all three of these men had been long dead, and yet God refers to Himself as their God – present tense, not past tense. Jesus was trying to reveal to these so-called experts in the Pentateuch what they had missed. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not gone, they had just been relocated. They were in the presence of their God.

Like the Pharisees and Herodian before them, the Sadducees failed. They proved no match for Jesus, the Son of God. They had put all their hope in this life, so when Jesus appeared offering the gift of eternal life, they could not bring themselves to believe what He had to say. But the doctrine of the resurrection was a central tenet of Jesus’ teaching. And it would be His own resurrection from the dead that would give His offer of eternal life validity. The apostle Paul summed it up well.

…if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. – 1 Corinthians 15:13-20 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

Prepare the Way

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
    who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:1-8 ESV

While the author never refers to himself by name anywhere in his gospel account, there was a strong consensus among early church fathers believed that John Mark was the one who provided this chronicle of the life and ministry of Jesus.

One of the earliest references to John Mark as the book’s author is found in The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus. Written in the 4th-Century, this landmark work provides a chronological history of early Christianity that spans the 1st through the 4th-Century. In it, Eusebius records that John Mark, while not a disciple of Jesus, based his gospel on eyewitness accounts, including those of the Apostle Peter.

There are additional records from the early church fathers that also mention John Mark as the book’s author. These include the mid-1st-Century to early-2nd-Century writings of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. In one of the earliest prologues to the Gospel of Mark, written somewhere between 160-180 A.D., it describes John Mark as the author and states that he wrote his gospel account while in Italy. In his classic work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus, adds that John Mark completed his work sometime after the death of Peter.

John Mark is mentioned repeatedly in the book of Acts, where his relationship with the Apostle Paul is described in great detail. John Mark was one of Paul’s disciples, who accompanied him and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Later, he would prove to be of great help and comfort to Paul during his imprisonment in Rome as he awaited trial before the emperor Nero. So, due to his close relationship with Paul, John Mark would have access to the original disciples and other eyewitnesses to Jesus’ earthly ministry.

One of the first encounters between Peter and John Mark is recorded in the book of Acts. Under pressure from the Jewish religious leaders, Herod, the king who had been placed on the throne of Israel by the Romans, had begun to round up the disciples of Jesus. He had already killed James the brother of John and had Peter thrown in prison. But God miraculously rescued Peter from his imprisonment and, upon his release, Peter made his way to the home of John Mark.

…he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. – Acts 12:12 ESV

Luke, the author of Acts, also records that John Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, but left them when they arrived in Pamphylia. He returned to Jerusalem and would later travel with Barnabas, his cousin, to Cyprus. So, John Mark was very involved in those early days of the church as the apostles took the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. He had been able to travel with and sit under the teaching of such luminaries of the faith as Paul, Peter, and Barnabas.

There is still much debate as to the dating of Mark’s gospel. If it was written after the deaths of Paul and Peter, that would place its publication somewhere around A.D. 67-68. Since there is no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, it seems likely that the book had to have written before that date.

From the content of the gospel, it appears that Mark with a Gentile audience in mind. If he wrote it from Italy, as believed by many of the early church fathers, the Gentile-oriented focus of his gospel makes more sense. He takes great pains to explain certain Jewish customs and rituals that would have been unfamiliar and strange to a Gentile readership. He incorporated Latin words and phrases that seemed aimed at a Roman audience. But his emphasis was on Gentile believers living under persecution in a predominantly Roman world. The early church found itself facing attack from the Jews as well as the pagan world. Mark would have experienced firsthand the persecution that Paul encountered from the dispersed Jewish community and the pagan cultures of the cities they visited on their first missionary journey.

Yet, despite Mark’s emphasis on a predominantly Gentile audience and his effort to communicate to them in language and terms with which they would be familiar, he opens his gospel with a quote from the Hebrew scriptures.

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
    who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’” – Mark 1:2-3 ESV

This is actually a combination of three separate passages: Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3. He blends the words of three Old Testament prophets: Moses, Malachi, and Isaiah, but attributes the quote the latter. For Mark, a proper understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry had to begin with prophecy. And these three prophetic passages each spoke of the coming Messiah of Israel. These men, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, predicted the coming of the Anointed One of God. But they also foretold of the one who would “prepare the way” for His coming. Before the Messiah would appear on the scene, His arrival would be prefaced by another, a messenger who would warn the people of His imminent arrival.

Like the other gospel writers, Mark was interested in establishing from the outset the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. He was Jesus the Christ or Messiah (the word “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of Messiah). Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. He was Jesus, a man was born in the city of Bethlehem, but He was also the Christ, the Son of God. Which means He was fully divine.

According to Mark, God had sent a messenger or, literally, an angel (angelos) to prepare the way for the Messiah. And he describes exactly who this “angel” was. He was a man and not a heavenly being. His name was John and he appeared in the wilderness of Judea, preaching a baptism of repentance. In essence, John was calling the people to be baptized, but it was a baptism characterized by repentance. In the Greek language, the word “repentance” is metanoia and it means “to change the mind.” He was calling the Jews to change their minds concerning a wide range of issues, including their concept of what it means to be righteous, their expectations concerning the Messiah, their understanding of their relationship with God, and their need for forgiveness.

We know from Matthew’s gospel the basic content of John’s message.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 3:2 ESV

And upon His arrival, Jesus would pick up this very same message.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” – Mark 1:15 ESV

The basic gist of their message was that the long-awaited Messiah had finally appeared and was bringing His Kingdom with Him. And Mark indicates that John’s preliminary declaration that the Kingdom of God was near was met with an enthusiastic response.

…all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Mark 1:5 ESV

For the Jews, the coming of the Kingdom of God would be accompanied by the arrival of the Messiah. For them, the coming Messiah would be a king, just like the great warrior-king, David. He would be a deliverer and a military leader who would restore Israel’s fortunes. For centuries, the people of Israel had suffered under the heavy hand of a litany of foreign powers who had subjugated and persecuted them. The most recent iteration of Gentile domination over the people of God was the Romans. The land of Judah was occupied by Roman soldiers who enforced the laws of the empire, protected the interests of the emperor, and ensured that the Jews remained compliant and docile.

So, the people of Israel longed for the Messiah to come. It had been centuries since the nation of Judah had fallen to the Babylonians. And while a remnant of the people taken captive to Babylon had returned to the land and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem and the temple of God, the only king they had known was their current one, Herod, the puppet king placed on the throne by the Roman emperor. He was actually an Edomite, a descendant of Esau. And while his title of “King of the Jews” had been given to him by the Roman Senate, his reign was never accepted by the Jews. They considered him to be a usurper to the throne who tried to gain their favor through a series of ambitious building projects, including the expansion of and improvements to the temple.

But as a pawn of the Romans, and due to his love of power, Herod placed his own personal needs ahead of the nation. So, when John the Baptist appeared on the scene preaching a message of repentance because the kingdom of God was near, the people immediately assumed something great was about to happen. Their hopes were raised that Messiah was near and their days of oppression and subjugation would soon be over.

This wild-eyed, strangely dressed preacher made an impression on his audience.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. – Mark 1:6 ESV

His bizarre attire gave him the demeanor of an Old Testament prophet and his message of repentance echoed those of his predecessors. But when he spoke of the One to come, he added a new twist to the description of the Messiah.

“After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” – Mark 1:7-8 ESV

John’s sudden appearance on the scene had gotten the peoples’ attention. It had been over 400 years since they had heard from God. For four centuries, there had been no prophets speaking on behalf of God. He had gone silent. But now, with the arrival of John, it was as if God was speaking again. But John wanted his audience to know that there was something even more amazing about to take place. John’s arrival on the scene would pale in comparison to the coming of the Messiah. He would be greater, more glorious, and have a ministry that was far more significant than anything John had done.

While John could offer a physical baptism that represented or illustrated cleansing from sin. The Messiah would offer a far greater form of baptism that would actually remove all sin in preparation for the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God.

tEnglish 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

Free Indeed

30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” 

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” John 11:30-44 ESV

After confessing that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27 ESV), Martha ran to tell her sister Mary that He had come to Bethany. And Mary, filled with emotion, ran to meet Him and fell to her knees in front of Him. Likely through tears, Mary greeted Jesus with the same words that her sister had used.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” – John 11:32 ESV

And like her sister, Mary was not expressing anger at Jesus for arriving too late. She was simply expressing her firm belief that He could have prevented the death of Lazarus. Had Jesus been able to come just four days earlier, her brother would still be alive.

Upon seeing the tears of Mary and her companions, Jesus was “deeply moved.” This somewhat cryptic phrase is used two different times in this passage. The Greek verb is embrimaomai, and, according to the NET Bible Study Notes, it “indicates a strong display of emotion, somewhat difficult to translate—‘shuddered, moved with the deepest emotions.’”

John will use the very same phrase to describe Jesus’ emotional state when seeing the tomb of Lazarus. But why would Jesus be indignant or angry at the tears of the weeping women or the sight of Lazarus’ grave? It is because He is witnessing the devastating impact that sin and death have brought upon creation. This was not the way it was meant to be. Jesus, the Word of God, had been with His Father “in the beginning” and “All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created” (John 1:2-3 ESV). Jesus had created life. In fact, John writes that “In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind” (John 1:4 ESV).

So as Jesus, the giver of life, stood watching the tears of Mary and her friends, He was filled with indignation and anger at having to witness the pain and suffering caused by death. And He knew that death was the result of sin. He also knew that death brought delight to Satan, whom Jesus earlier described as “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44 ESV).

At that moment, Jesus must have been filled with a range of emotions. Of anyone, He knew that He could have prevented Lazarus’ death, but to do so would have been out of His Father’s will. The death of Lazarus was part of God’s plan to display His glory and “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4 ESV). Jesus was fully aware of how this was all going to turn out, but it still grieved Him to witness the despair that sin brought upon a helpless humanity. He stood before them as the answer to their problem, but many refused to believe in Him. Unlike Martha, who confessed Him to be “the Christ, the Son of God,” the majority of the Jews could not bring themselves to embrace Jesus as their Messiah.

Jesus had told Nicodemus, “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18 NLT). The women who stood before Jesus, weeping with Mary over the loss of her brother, would one day face the same fate. They too would die and, if they Jesus knew that if they refused to believe in Him, the would be condemned by their unbelief and be destined to face an eternity separated from Him and His Father. All of this angered Jesus because He had come to offer Himself as the one and only solution to the problem.

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” – John 3:16-17 NLT

Jesus was moved to tears. His anger was mixed with sorrow, empathy, and compassion. It is interesting to note that Jesus had begun His public ministry at a wedding feast, a joyous occasion marked by celebration over that start of a new chapter of life. Now, here He was, nearing the end of His ministry and attending a funeral, a somber event marked by sorrow and despair over the end of life.

And as Jesus made His way to the tomb of Lazarus, there were those who expressed their confusion as to why He had not intervened. They had heard about His other miracles and couldn’t help but wonder why, if He loved Lazarus so much, He had not healed him. Their question seems to convey speculation that, perhaps, Lazarus’ condition was somehow out of His league.

Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” – John 11:37 ESV

But their doubt was about to be replaced with utter disbelief. They were going to be eye-witnesses to an amazing display of God’s glory.

Upon coming to the tomb, Jesus demanded that they roll away the stone blocking its entrance. At this point, the readers of John’s gospel should be recognizing the similarities between this story and the one they had heard about Jesus Himself. The tomb, the stone, the mourners. It all sounds familiar. The darkness, the despair, the overwhelming sense of hopelessness. It is eerily similar. But they have a sense of how this is going to turn out because they know the rest of the story.

And despite Martha’s protests, Jesus commands that the stone be rolled away, and He gently reminds her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40 ESV). Jesus had told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26 ESV). And while Martha had boldly proclaimed her belief, she had not envisioned what was about to take place. Even though Jesus had told her, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23 ESV), she had not gone to the tomb expecting to see it happen.

But it did. After a brief prayer to His Father, Jesus proclaimed with a loud, triumphant shout, “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43 ESV). And John, somewhat matter-of-factly and anticlimactically, writes, “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth” (John 11:44 ESV).

Don’t miss this moment. Up until this point in time, the atmosphere has been filled with doom and despair. The mood has been dark and doubtful. Both Mary and Martha had greeted Jesus with words of disappointment: “If only you had…”. The crowds had expressed their speculation as to whether Jesus could have done anything to help Lazarus. The whole scene has been marked by tears, mourning, resignation, and regret. And then, suddenly, “the man who died came out.” Lazarus was alive. And not only had he been restored to life, but any decay his body had experienced had also been miraculously reversed.

It is fascinating and a bit frustrating to consider that John provides no details concerning the response of Mary and Martha to this incredible event. He gives no indication as to how the crowd reacted when the heavily wrapped body of Lazarus hobbled from the tomb. John simply records the words of Jesus that must have broken the stunned silence of the moment.

“Unbind him, and let him go.” – John 11:44 ESV

There is so much wrapped up in these words. They bring to mind what Jesus had said to the religious leaders.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” – John 8:34-36 ESV

The apostle Paul would echo these words when he wrote to the believers in Rome.

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. – Romans 8:32 ESV

He would write virtually the same thing to the believers in Galatia.

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. – Galatians 5:1 NLT

Jesus had just set Lazarus free from the bonds of death. He came out of the tomb alive and well, but he was still wrapped in the vestiges of death, in the form of the cumbersome grave cloths. To be truly free, Jesus demanded that Lazarus be untied and released to enjoy his newly restored life. In a sense, Jesus was communicating an aspect of the Gospel that would become a reality when He had offered His life as an atonement for the sins of mankind.

For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. – Galatians 5:4 NLT

The restoration of Lazarus to life was meant to be a precursor of something greater to come: The resurrection of Jesus Himself. And with Jesus’ death and resurrection, all those who place their faith in Him would find themselves permanently freed from slavery to sin and the condemnation of death. And they would no longer have to try to live up to God’s holy standards in their own strength. They would be free indeed.

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

Misguided Belief

23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” – John 2:23-3:2 ESV

As someone who seems obsessed with providing evidence for the identity of Jesus, John can be maddeningly stingy when it comes to the details. Even when describing Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, John cuts to the chase, providing the basic facts about what happened but leaving a great deal up to the reader’s imagination. He does the same thing in verse 23, where he makes an almost cursory allusion to the signs Jesus performed in Jerusalem.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. – John 2:23 ESV

It’s difficult to read that verse without wanting to ask, “What signs?” But John appears to have no interest in explaining the nature of miracles Jesus performed. It’s not that the signs were unimportant to John because they will become the basis for what he describes in chapter three. It’s almost as if he assumes his audience is already familiar with the topic and he has more important matters to discuss.

The miracles performed by Jesus were an essential facet of His ministry, and, as John alludes to, they produced a certain measure of belief in Jesus. And that seems to be the primary point John wants to make. For John, the details concerning the signs Jesus did were irrelevant, but the belief they produced was not. It is likely that Jesus healed the lame, gave sight to the blind, and cast out demons. And when He did, the people marveled at His indisputable supernatural powers. Not only that, they believed in His name. But what does that mean? What was the nature of their belief and why does John state that their belief was in “the name” of Jesus?

To understand what’s going on, you have to go back to verse 20 of chapter one. The priests and Levites had sent a delegation to make inquiries about John the Baptist. His activities in the Judean wilderness had stirred up a lot of attention and resulted in much speculation as to his identity. And one of the first assumptions people made was that John the Baptist must be the long-awaited Messiah. This seems quite clear because when the delegation asked John the Baptist who he was, he declared, “I am not the Christ.” He knew what the people were saying about him. His call to repentance and his declaration that the kingdom of heaven was at hand had caused people to speculate that the Messiah had finally arrived.

Messiah-fever had begun to spread. And so had the news of Jesus’ miracle at Cana. So, when He had shown up in Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and started performing miracles, the people believed in His name: Jesus Christ – Jesus the Messiah. Remember what Andrew told his brother Simon.

“We have found the Messiah” (which means “Christ”). – John 1:41 ESV

Philip had told Nathanael:

“We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” – John 1:45 ESV

And upon meeting Jesus, Nathanael had confessed:

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God—the King of Israel!” – John 1:49 ESV

This news had spread. Word had gotten out that the Messiah had come. So, when Jesus performed signs and wonders, the people took it as evidence that He truly was the Messiah.

But John’s primary concern is in the object of their faith or belief. The people were believing Jesus to be the Messiah, but their understanding of what that meant would prove to be inaccurate. They were expecting the Messiah to be a conquering king and a mighty military leader like King David had been. They were looking for a deliverer, a political savior of sorts, who would lead them against the Roman occupying forces and set them free from the centuries-long misery of subjugation and suffering they had experienced since the Babylonian invasion.

And John points out that Jesus was aware of their misguided and misunderstood belief in Him.

But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. – John 2:24 ESV

Jesus was not fooled by their expressions of faith. He knew their belief in Him was solely based on their deeply held desire that He deliver them from Roman rule. If they had their way, they would take Jesus by force and attempt to thrust Him into their preconceived idea of a super-savior. You see this same fanatical fervor in John’s account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000.

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. – John 6:14-15 ESV

Jesus had not come to be their earthly king. He would lead no armies against the Romans. There would be no battles waged, rebellions launched, or earthly kingdom established – at least, not yet. And that is the point John is attempting to make.

Chapter three opens with an encounter between Jesus and a member of the Pharisees. This highly revered religious leader schedules a somewhat clandestine meeting with Jesus, choosing to meet with Him under the cover of darkness. Due to his prestigious role as a Pharisee and his standing within the community, he wants his meeting to remain a secret.

John is going to use this Pharisee to illustrate the stark difference between what the people believed about Jesus and what Jesus would reveal to be the true nature of His incarnation. Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, would have been well-educated and a student of the Hebrew scriptures, and would have been highly familiar with the many Messianic prophecies they contained. So, when he meets Jesus, he states his own belief that Jesus is a God-ordained messenger from God.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” – John 3:2 ESV

His use of the terms “rabbi” and “teacher” indicate his respect and professional admiration for Jesus. He admired Jesus for His obvious divine anointing. He was intrigued by Jesus’ works and words. But he also knew that any association with Jesus could prove detrimental to his role as a Pharisee. Even at this early stage in His earthly ministry, the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders were beginning to see Jesus as a potential threat. These men were members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council, that was comprised of the high priest and 70 members who represented the various sects within Judaism, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots.

They held sway over the people of Israel, functioning as a kind of supreme court or religious council. Their authority was second only to that of the Roman government. And they took exception to anyone who might attempt to disrupt or displace their sovereign rule over the people. Even the thought of a Messiah would have been threatening to their authority. Someone claiming to be the “chosen one” of God could cause all kinds of trouble, promoting political unrest, stirring up the common people, and, ultimately, angering the Roman government. And, if that happened, the Romans would step in, putting a swift end to any rebellion and holding the Sanhedrin responsible for allowing it to happen.

So, Nicodemus shows up at night, but his presence and his words indicate that he believes Jesus just might be the one for whom they have been waiting. Even he, as a member of the Pharisees, longs to see the Messiah. He greatly desires to see the kingdom of God reestablished on earth in the form of a revitalized Jewish state. But he is about to get a personal lesson from the Messiah Himself that will reveal just how misguided and misinformed he really was about God’s plans for Israel’s future.

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

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

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

God In Human Flesh

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. – John 1:14-18 ESV

In verse 14 John returns to the focal point of his entire gospel: The Word of God. But now, he adds another crucial element to the identity of this one who “was in the beginning with God” (John 1:2 ESV). This life-giving “light” penetrated the darkness of the sin-saturated world.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. – John 1:10 ESV

And adding an important point of specificity, John states:

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:11 ESV

But how did He He come? In what form did the Word of God appear? In verse 14, John shares the incredible truth regarding the incarnation – the miraculous moment when God took on human flesh. In this one verse, John brings together the two seemingly opposing doctrines of God’s transcendence and immanence. The holy and wholly righteous God of the universe not only made Himself known to mankind, He became one with them.

…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… – John 1:14 ESV

God had made Himself known before. He had regularly conversed with Adam and Eve in the garden. He spoke to Noah and Abraham. He appeared to Moses in the form of the burning bush. He revealed Himself to the people of Israel through the pillars of fire and smoke that led them through the wilderness. And God had repeatedly spoken to His prophets, providing them with the words to convey to His rebellious people, warning them of the judgment to come.

But what John is describing here is something different altogether. He is declaring that deity and humanity became one. The God of the universe stepped out of His heavenly palace and took up residence among us. Jesus, the Son of God, left His throne in glory and willingly assumed the nature of an ordinary human being. The apostle Paul describes this remarkable transformation this way:

…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. – Philippians 2:6-7 ESV

At the time at which John wrote his gospel, there would have been few who denied the existence of Jesus. His ministry had made Him a celebrity throughout Judea. His miracles and messages had attracted huge crowds which gained Him the attention of the religious and political leaders. Ultimately, Jesus’ growing celebrity status had threatened the powerful Jewish religious leaders, so they had Him crucified. And even that fateful event had been well-attended and well-documented. So, there would have been little debate over the humanity of Jesus.

But the deity of Jesus was a whole other matter. One of the primary reasons Jesus had been crucified was because the Jewish religious leaders had deemed Him guilty of blasphemy, for having claimed to be God. At one point, Jesus had said to a group of Pharisees, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30 ESV). And their immediate reaction had been to stone Him to death. And they had justified their action by saying, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:33 ESV).

On another occasion, Jesus had said to the religious leaders: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58 ESV), and again, they responded by picking up stones to kill Him. Why? Because with His seemingly innocuous statement, Jesus had identified Himself as God. He had purposefully used the identifier “I am,” a direct reference to God’s own self-identification spoken to Moses at the burning bush.

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” – Exodus 3:14 ESV

The religious leaders had picked up on Jesus’ meaning and immediately understood that He was claiming to be divine. But they refused to accept that Jesus was anything but a man. He was nothing more than a non-descript, uneducated rabbi from the backwater town of Nazareth. He may have been a nuisance and a threat, but He was anything but God.

But for John, the deity of Jesus was essential to understanding the humanity of Jesus. God had taken on human flesh and John claims to have been one of many eye-witnesses to the reality of Jesus’ divinity.

…we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14 ESV

This is most likely a reference to the transfiguration of Jesus that John, James, and Peter had been privileged to witness. Matthew describes this event in his gospel account.

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. – Matthew 17:1-3 ESV

John had been given an eye-witness glimpse of the glory of Jesus. The humanity of Jesus had been transfigured right before John’s eyes, revealing the full divinity and holiness of the one he called master and friend.

John even recalls how John the Baptist had recognized the unique nature of Jesus, describing Him as far more than just another man. When John the Baptist had stated, “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me” (John 1:15 ESV), he was declaring the divinity and eternality of Jesus.

But why is all this so important? Why is John beginning his gospel account by stressing the deity and humanity of Jesus? Because there were those who denied that Jesus had been divine. Just like today, there were many who were willing to admit that Jesus had been a good man, a wise teacher, and a worker of miracles. They would even confess that Jesus had lived a life worth emulating. But they could not bring themselves to believe that He had been God in human flesh. That was outside their capacity to comprehend and accept.

But for John, the deity of Jesus was a non-negotiable aspect of His identity. If Jesus was not God in human flesh, then He was just another man who died a martyr’s death. And that death accomplished nothing of long-lasting value.

Yet, as his gospel will reveal, because Jesus was who He says He was, His death did have value. It was efficacious. There was a reason why God sent His Son to earth to live and die as a human being. The author of Hebrews reminds us, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV). The entire Jewish sacrificial system had been ordained by God as a means for sin-stained men and women to receive atonement and cleansing for their sins. But those sacrifices had always been temporary and imperfect. The blood of the animals sacrificed on behalf of sinful men and women was incapable of providing permanent deliverance from the penalty of sin. They provided temporary cleansing from ceremonial impurity and nothing more. Again, the author of Hebrews provides us with an explanation.

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

Jesus, the Word of God, had to become a man so that He could become the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of man. As John will share later on in this same chapter, when John the Baptist first saw Jesus, he described Him as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). Jesus said of Himself, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 ESV). When the angel appeared to Joseph, letting him know that his fiance was pregnant, he announced, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mathew 1:21 ESV).

Jesus took on human flesh so that He could live as a man. But He was born as a Jew so that He would be required to live according to the law given by God to Moses. And because He was divine, He was able to live in perfect obedience to God’s law, making Him the sinless, unblemished, perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of man.

According to John, Jesus had been “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 ESV), and that fulness expressed itself in the form of “grace upon grace” (John 1:17 ESV). What John seems to be saying here is that Jesus provided a new measure of God’s grace that was greater than that which had been made available through the law. Rather than temporary forgiveness from sin, God was making available permanent forgiveness and the right sinful men and women to be justified before Him. And it was all made possible through the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Up until the incarnation, the law reigned supreme. It was the only means by which sinful men could receive forgiveness. But as the apostle Paul states, “no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT). He communicated the same idea to the believers in Galatia.

“…no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Galatians 3:11 NLT

John states that Moses brought the law, but that Jesus made possible grace and truth. It is only through faith in Jesus, that sinful men can receive the grace of God and be truly freed from the penalty of sin. The law could never save. But Jesus, the God-man can and does save. And He made salvation possible by taking on human flesh and making God known to man. He made the invisible God visible. He made the unapproachable God approachable. Because He was God in human flesh.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!” – John 14:6-7 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

In the Fullness of Time

12 I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob;
    I will gather the remnant of Israel;
I will set them together
    like sheep in a fold,
like a flock in its pasture,
    a noisy multitude of men.
13 He who opens the breach goes up before them;
    they break through and pass the gate,
    going out by it.
Their king passes on before them,
    the Lord at their head.
 
Micah 2:12-13 ESV

It was not entirely wrong for the people of Judah to place their hope in their covenant relationship with God. After all, they were His chosen people and He had committed Himself to their care. And that relationship was governed by more than one covenant between God and His people.

The first had been the one God had made with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Long before Abraham even had a single heir, God had promised to create a mighty nation from his descendants. And this, in spite of the fact that Abraham was old and his wife was barren.

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

This covenant was unilateral and unconditional in nature. In other words, its success or failure was completely dependent upon God. Other than leave his native land, Abraham had no requirements placed upon him by God. He simply had to believe in what God had promised to do for him. And while, over the years, Abraham would have his moments of doubt, he continued to trust in the word of God.

On one of those occasions when Abraham doubted, God appeared to him and said:

“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. – Genesis 15:5-6 ESV

And God provided Abraham with insight into how this would all take place.

“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” – Genesis 15:13-14 ESV

Abraham never lived long enough to see that covenant fully fulfilled, but he believed in the promise contained in it. And God fulfilled it. By the time the people of Israel were delivered from their captivity in Egypt, they had become a mighty nation, numbering in the millions. And God had delivered them safely to the land He had promised to give to them as an inheritance. Once there, God placed over them a man after His own heart, a king who would rule them in righteousness: David. And God made a covenant with David as well.

“When your days are fulfilled to walk with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.” – 1 Chronicles 17:11-14 ESV

This too was an unconditional, unilateral covenant, bound only by the word of God. It required nothing from David but was solely based on God’s commitment to make the Davidic dynasty an everlasting one.

As part of that same covenant, God had promised to provide the nation of Israel with a permanent place in the land of Canaan, where they would live peacefully and undisturbed.

“And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly.” – 2 Samuel 7:10 ESV

The third covenant God made with the nation of Israel is known as the Mosaic or Sinai Covenant. From a timeline perspective, this one falls between the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. It was made not long after the people of Israel had departed Egypt and were camped at the base of Mount Sinai in the wilderness. It was there that God made His covenant with Moses and the people of Israel. And, in this case, the covenant was conditional in nature and chapters 19-24 of the book of Exodus contain the conditions or requirements placed upon Israel in order for this covenant to be fulfilled. God promised to keep His part of the covenant, but only as long as Israel lived up to their end of the agreement.

“‘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 19:5-6 ESV

With those three covenants in mind, let’s revisit verses 12-13 of the second chapter of the book of Micah. God has just warned the people of Judah about the judgment He was about to bring on them due to their sin and rebellion against Him. And yet, they were clinging to their belief that they were the covenant people of God.

“Do not preach”—thus they preach—
    “one should not preach of such things;
    disgrace will not overtake us.” – Micah 2:6 ESV

They couldn’t believe that Micah would preach a message of doom and gloom when they were God’s chosen people. Didn’t he know about God’s covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David? Hadn’t God committed to provide and care for His people. Wasn’t David’s kingdom supposed to be an everlasting one and their place in the land guaranteed by God to be permanent? So, how could Micah be preaching a message of destruction? It made no sense.

But what the people of Judah failed to understand was that God’s covenant commitments, while binding, were eternal and not temporal in nature. God had a long-term perspective in mind when He made His covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David. Yet, each generation of Jews had lived with the mistaken belief that all of God’s covenant promises had to be fulfilled in their lifetimes. They failed to understand that God had a much bigger, all-encompassing plan in place that would extend beyond their particular generation and even beyond the ethnic boundaries of Judaism. God had promised Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ESV).

God’s plans for the nation of Israel were global in nature. And the reason God had committed to preserve and protect the nation of Israel was so that He raise up the Messiah from among them, the one who would provide salvation not only for Israel but for all the nations of the world.

In his letter to the believers in Galatia, Paul provided them insight into God’s covenant promise to Abraham.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham. It would be through Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, that all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus would make available to all men, salvation from sin and death. And Jesus would also be the ultimate fulfillment of the promise God made to King David. Jesus was would be born into the house and lineage of David, making Him the rightful heir to David’s throne. And one day, He will return to earth and rule in perfect righteousness from the throne of David in Jerusalem.

God had a long-term perspective. His focus was eternal in nature, as the prophet Jeremiah made clear.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ – Jeremiah 23:5-6 ESV

And the prophet Isaiah, a contemporary of Micah, provided insight into the coming of the one who would fulfill God’s covenant to David.

For a child is born to us,
    a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
    And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
    will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
    for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
    will make this happen! – Isaiah 9:6-7 NLT

And Micah echoed the same message of hope regarding Israel’s future. God was going to keep His covenant promises. He was going to do all that He had said He would do.

“Someday, O Israel, I will gather you;
    I will gather the remnant who are left.
I will bring you together again like sheep in a pen,
    like a flock in its pasture.
Yes, your land will again
    be filled with noisy crowds!
Your leader will break out
    and lead you out of exile,
out through the gates of the enemy cities,
    back to your own land.
Your king will lead you;
    the Lord himself will guide you.” – Micah 2:12-13 NLT

But none of this would take place in Micah’s lifetime. He and the rest of the citizens of Judah would not live long enough to see the salvation that God had planned. But it would come nonetheless. In spite of their sin and rebellion, God would send a Savior. A child would be born. A son would be given. And His name would be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). But it would all be according to God’s divine plan and in keeping with His sovereign schedule.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. – Galatians 4:4-7 ESV

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

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

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

Diligence, Not Desire, Determines Your Destiny

1 You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. 11 The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself. 2 Timothy 2:1-13 ESV

Paul, an older and more experienced minister of the gospel, is pouring out his heart to his young protégé, Timothy, in an attempt to prepare him for what lies ahead. Paul was imprisoned in Rome awaiting a hearing before the emperor. He was well aware that his fate, while in God’s hands, could end poorly. He had no delusions that he would receive a fair and just trial at the hands of the Romans. And the Jews had been relentless in their efforts to hold Paul accountable for what they considered to be his disruptive and divisive ministry.

As Paul sat in jail awaiting his hearing, he had written to the believers in Philippi, telling them, “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21 ESV). He knew that his days were numbered and that death was inevitable. His greatest concern was that his life would continue to honor Christ, whether through ministry or martyrdom.

As Paul penned this letter to Timothy, he must have thought about the message he had received from Christ after praying on three different occasions that his “thorn in the flesh” be removed. Jesus had told him, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT). And this promise from the Savior had prompted Paul to respond, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT).

The power of Christ, made available through the means of His grace, was all that Paul needed and it provided him with an overwhelming sense of confidence and peace, regardless of the circumstances he faced.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

Now, Paul is passing on the promise of Christ’s grace to Timothy. He tells him to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1 ESV). Timothy was in a difficult spot, trying to minister to the fledgling congregation in Ephesus while his mentor was behind bars in Rome. He was on his own and surrounded by hostile forces who opposed his ministry and message. He also faced dissension in the ranks as some of his own parishioners began to question their decision to follow Christ. Persecution and difficulty had begun to set in, causing some to lose faith, like Phygelus and Hermogenes, who had abandoned Paul in Asia.

Paul wanted Timothy to understand that he was no longer the disciple, but had moved into the role of disciple-maker. His days of serving as Paul’s assistant were behind him. It was now time for him to step up and embrace his responsibilities as a minister of the gospel. And that would require Timothy to raise up others to assist him in his work. There had been a day when Paul had chosen Timothy and determined to teach him and train him for the gospel ministry. Now it was time for Timothy to take the baton and run the next leg of the race on his own. But he was not to run alone. Paul encouraged Timothy to “teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others” (2 Timothy 2:2 NLT).

This was all about propagating and multiplying the ministry by constantly preparing others to share the burden. Jesus had told His disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields” (Matthew 9:37-38 NLT). But along with asking God to supply the workers, comes a responsibility to train these individuals in the disciplines required to harvest well. And that would require discipline on Timothy’s part. A landowner would not send inexperienced or untrained workers into his fields to harvest his crops. He would make sure they were trained to do the job well so every ounce of grain was gleaned. No loss. No waste.

Paul drives home the seriousness of Timothy’s role as a disciple-maker by using three different analogies. First, he compares Timothy to a soldier, who faithfully fulfills his duties, undistracted by the cares of this world.

Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them. – 2 Timothy 2:3-4 NLT

A distracted soldier will prove to be a disloyal soldier. If Timothy allows himself to become preoccupied with the things of this world, he will lose sight of his God-ordained mission. This is exactly what Jesus was warning His disciples about when He said, “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39 NLT).

Discipleship, like military service, requires a commitment that carries a high cost. Part-time soldiers make lousy warriors. And believers who allow their love for the things of this world to distract them will prove to be less-than-successful disciple-makers.

The next analogy Paul uses is that of an athlete. This particular imagery was a favorite of Paul’s and he used it repeatedly to illustrate the level of commitment required to live the Christian life.

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! – 1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT

Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:13-14 NLT

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. – 2 Timothy 4:7 NLT

Living the Christian life requires perseverance and determination. There are no easy paths to the finish line. There are no shortcuts. And, as Paul warns Timothy, victory cannot be expected if the runner fails to follow the rules. Timothy was not free to fudge on the God-ordained regulations established for the Christian life. He could take the path of least resistance and still expect to win the prize at the end of the race. Avoiding difficulty, taking shortcuts in the pursuit of spiritual growth, and running the race just to finish rather than to win, are unacceptable. God demands more.

The final analogy Paul uses is an agrarian one, highlighting the obvious life lesson that hard work has its rewards.

…hardworking farmers should be the first to enjoy the fruit of their labor. – 2 Timothy 2:6 NLT

In an agrarian culture, laziness could be a death sentence. The farmer who failed to plow and plant had no business expecting to reap a harvest. But the diligent farmer, who put in the required labor to prepare his fields and plant his crops at the proper time, could expect to enjoy the fruits of his labors. It was only natural, logical, and fair. Paul wanted Timothy to know that the Christian life also required commitment, diligence, perseverance, and hard work. And just in case Timothy missed the very obvious point behind Paul’s three analogies, he assures him that “the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7 ESV).

Then, as if out of nowhere, Paul changes the topic altogether, shifting his focus to Christ and His resurrection from the dead. But his point remains the same. He is simply using Jesus, “the offspring of David” (2 Timothy 2:8 ESV), as an example of someone who lived a life fully committed to God’s plan for His life. He was a descendant of King David and the rightful heir to the throne, and yet He willingly suffered on behalf of sinful mankind so that He might become the sinless substitute and the selfless source of salvation for all those who would believe in Him. Jesus never shirked His God-given responsibility to be the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV).

And Paul uses himself as another example of someone who refused to compromise his convictions or cut corners when it came to his spiritual life. After all, he was writing this letter from prison, bound by chains and facing a trial on trumped-up charges intended to result in a death sentence. But Paul boldly proclaimed, “I am willing to endure anything if it will bring salvation and eternal glory in Christ Jesus to those God has chosen” (2 Timothy 2:10 NLT).

The bottom line for Paul was that there was no place for faithlessness in the life of the believer. Jesus Christ had sacrificed Himself so that we might live in newness of life. He provided us with the Holy Spirit as a permanent source of power and direction. His death assures us of eternal life. Our endurance in this life comes with the guarantee of an inheritance in the next life. But even if we fail to remain faithful, Jesus Christ will never fail to keep His promise to keep and preserve us.

…if we are faithless, he remains faithful. – 2 Timothy 2:13 ESV

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

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

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