Hard Words Concerning Hard Hearts

1 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce. It’s a controversial topic among Christians that not only destroys marriages but that can do serious damage to a wide range of relationships. The loss of long-term friendships can be an unfortunate byproduct of divorce. Children can be forced to take sides in a divorce, leaving them alienated and estranged from one of their own parents.  Churches have found themselves divided over how to properly handle the divorces taking place among their congregations.

Divorce is divisive and destructive. And it was never intended as an option by God. The book of Genesis clearly reveals the will of God concerning marriage.

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:24 ESV

There was to be a unity and permanency to marriage. The very fact that God created Eve from the rib of Adam conveys the intimacy and indissolubility of their union. In God’s eyes, the man and the woman were one, inseparable whole.

But sin eventually entered the scene and damaged everything God had made, including the marriage union. It would not be long before the sanctity of marriage would be destroyed by the selfishness and self-centeredness of sin-prone human hearts. Marriages would continue to take place but, far too often, they would be driven by lust, not love; and marked by an egocentric, what’s-in-it-for-me attitude that puts self-interest ahead of God’s will.

In this section of Deuteronomy, Moses finds himself having to deal with the topic of divorce yet again. Sadly, divorce had become a real-life issue among the Israelites. Their marriages were just as susceptible to brokenness and division as those of the pagan nations around them. The Jews were just as prone to falling in and out of love as anyone else. But Moses wanted them to remember that God had very strong feelings about marriage and divorce. The prophet Malachi would later articulate God’s view concerning divorce:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” – Malachi 2:16 ESV

And this is the very issue Moses deals with in this passage. Moses describes a case where a husband has “found some indecency” in his wife that has caused her to lose favor in his eyes. In essence, he has fallen out of love with her. Moses does not elaborate on the nature of the indecency committed by the wife, but the Hebrew word is `ervah, which can literally be translated as “nakedness.” The context seems to indicate that the wife has been found guilty of sexual sin, as in adultery. And, as a result, the husband has chosen to issue her a certificate of divorce.

This brings up an important question. Does this passage condone or sanction divorce in the case of unfaithfulness or adultery? Jesus addressed this very question in His Sermon on the Mount.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus seems to support the idea that divorce is acceptable when sexual immorality is involved. But he also makes it clear that anyone who divorces his wife for any other reason will ultimately be held guilty of adultery – his own and that of his ex-wife. If they divorce for any reason other that sexual immorality and end up marrying other individuals, they will be committing adultery in God’s eyes.

Later on in His earthly ministry, Jesus would have to address this issue again. A group of Pharisees approached Him with a question regarding divorce. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3 ESV). This was a hot topic among the Jews and they were attempting to get Jesus to share His opinion on the matter. If He came down on the side of those advocating divorce, He would alienate the conservative hardliners. If He stood opposed to divorce under any circumstances, He would find Himself losing favor among the common people. So, Jesus answered them:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” – Matthew 19:3-6 ESV

Jesus went back to the book of Genesis and the creation account. He reminded them what God had done to set apart a man and woman as one. And He clarified that no one had the right to separate what God had joined together.

This answer prompted the Pharisees to ask a second question. They sensed that they had Jesus in a predicament, because it appeared that He was contradicting the Mosaic Law. So, the crafted a question based on the words of Moses found in Deuteronomy 24:1: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7 ESV).

They had Him, or so they thought. According to their interpretation of the Mosaic Law, Moses had clearly given a get-out-of-jail-free card when it came to sexual immorality on the part of a spouse. But Jesus took the opportunity to explain the underlying motivation for Moses’ words.

He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”– Matthew 19:7-9 ESV

Yes, Moses had provided sexual immorality as the single circumstance under which divorce could be sought. But it had never been God’s will. Sin had left mankind with permanent heart-damage and this had produced the need for this exemption clause concerning marriage. But none of this was what God had wanted.

Sin never produces anything of value. It is always damaging and destructive. And while Moses had provided a means by which a man could divorce his unfaithful wife, it was going to result in the potential for further sin. Take a look at the scenario that Moses paints. A man divorces his wife for marital unfaithfulness, then she goes and marries another man. That man ends up divorcing her as well. And Moses has to go out of his way to explain that the first husband is not free to remarry his wife. Why would he have to bring that up? Because of the wickedness of the human heart.

This whole convoluted scene illustrates just how twisted things can get when man does things his own way. Moses is having to paint every conceivable scenario that can come about as a result of divorce. He even describes that woman remarrying and her second husband dying. Even in that case, the first husband is not free to remarry his ex-wife.

You almost need a program to keep up with all the various permutations Moses paints. But why did he go into such great detail? Because he knew the hearts of his own people. He knew what Jesus knew: that their hearts were hard and they would find themselves following one sin with another one. So, he had to cover every conceivable scenario, providing the people of Israel with precise instructions designed to prevent further sin in the camp.

When all was said and done, this had less to do with divorce than it had to do with holiness. Moses had an ulterior motive behind these regulations regarding divorce and remarriage.

“…you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 24:4 ESV

It is a non-debatable fact that one sin tends to lead to another. While Moses had provided the Israelites with the certificate of divorce as a means of dealing with sexual immorality within the marriage union, it was going to produce further problems. The very fact that Moses describes the husband as willing to remarry his ex-wife reveals that he had not really fallen out of love with her. Her unfaithfulness had angered and hurt him, and caused him to seek a divorce from her. But as the old saying goes, time heals all wounds. Eventually, he would find himself missing his wife and tempted to remarry her when the opportunity presented itself. But Moses had to restrict his behavior. One sin could not be followed by another. Two wrongs do not make a right.

It would seem that God would prefer that the husband and wife not divorce, even in the case of unfaithfulness. Forgiveness and restoration would take precedence over divorce and the destruction of the marriage. But as Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.”

Hardened, sin-filled hearts rarely produce wise decisions. The heat of the moment can produce unhealthy outcomes that bring little more than regret and further heartache. God designed marriage to be permanent, not perfect. Two sin-prone people make a perfect marriage impossible. But when Christ is part of that marriage, and the Spirit of God indwells the two people who make up that marriage, unity and permanency is achievable – even in the face of unfaithfulness.

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

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

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

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Free From the Curse

22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 21:22-23 ESV

God’s rules regarding the corporate stoning of a morally and spiritually degenerate son are now followed by strict instructions regarding the public display of the dead man’s body. Once the guilty party was put to death, it was common practice to hang the dead man’s body from a tree as a visual demonstration of the consequences of sin. It was also meant to serve as a deterrent, a somewhat macabre but effective means of discouraging others to take the same deadly path.

But God provided strict regulations concerning the disposal of the body.  It had to be removed from the tree and buried the same day as the execution. Otherwise, the curse of God, which resulted in the man’s death, would extend to the land. The public display of the man’s corpse was meant as a further means of humiliating and degrading the guilty one for his death-deserving sin. Even in death, he would be subjected to ridicule and scorn. The hanging of the body did not bring about the curse. It was a result of the curse that had deemed the man deserving of death.

The immediate burial of the body was essential in order to prevent ceremonial defiling of the land. Had the body been left hanging overnight, there is a greater likelihood that animals and birds would have desecrated the body, causing blood to spill onto the ground and essentially bringing the curse of the man upon the entire land. God had warned the Israelites about practicing the ways of the Canaanites. Their pagan, godless ways had literally cursed the land of Canaan, requiring God to ceremonially purge it by having the Israelites remove every vestige of Canaanite influence from the land.

“You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.” – Numbers 35:33-34 ESV

This requirement to bury the dead man’s body was meant to keep the Israelites from following one sin with another. Once the man was executed for his sin, his body was to be displayed, but then properly disposed of, so that the curse of death could be removed.

Sin against God has always carried with it a curse. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, their actions brought about a series of curses from God, including the entrance of physical death into the equation.

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:17-19 ESV

Adam’ sin brought a death sentence upon all mankind. It placed every single one of his descendants under a curse. And the apostle Paul goes out of his way to stress this sobering reality.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT

For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. – Romans 5:15 NLT

For Adam’s sin led to condemnation… – Romans 5:16 NLT

For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. – Romans 5:17 NLT

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone… – Romans 5:18 NLT

Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. – Romans 5:19 NLT

Don’t miss what Paul is saying. All mankind is under a curse and worthy of death. For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard of righteousness (Romans 3:23). There is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10).

It Israelites who stood back and threw the stones that took the guilty man’s life were no more righteous. They were no less deserving of death. Their sins, while perhaps less egregious, we no less worthy of death. Their very existence made them worthy of death because they stood under the same curse that had condemned Adam. But God didn’t require them to die. Instead, He had extended them mercy.

This brings to mind the encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. The scribes and Pharisees, seeing Jesus visiting the Mount of Olives, dragged a woman whom they claimed to be guilty of the crime of adultery. They said to Jesus, “Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5 ESV).

And Jesus wisely responded to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 ESV). And then John records, “when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (John 8:9 ESV).

There was no one in the crowd that day who could claim to be sin-free. The spiritual state of every single human being is that of a sinner who is deserving of death for their rebellion against a holy and righteous God. And that brings us to the vital link between this obscure regulation regarding the burial of an executed criminal and the remedy for the curse of death.

In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul provides us with a connecting point that makes this Old Testament passage relevant. He reminds his readers that the Jews, who were required to live according to the Mosaic law, were under a God-ordained curse if they didn’t keep the entire law perfectly.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV

The painful reality was that no Jew had ever kept all of God’s law without fail. As a result, every single Jew stood condemned, cursed, and worthy of death.  And Paul points out that keeping the law was never going to make anyone right with God. It was an impossible standard for sinful men to keep.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Galatians 3:11-12 ESV

The law was the righteous standard provided by God, but no one was able to live up to that standard. And them, Paul provides the missing link.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV

Jesus became the curse. He took on the sins of mankind and personally bore the full brunt of God’s righteous wrath against rebellious humanity. And His death was not by stoning. By time Jesus began His earthly ministry, the Romans had outlawed the Jewish practice of stoning because they wanted to control all forms of capital punishment. So, when Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, they needed to accuse Jesus of a crime that would warrant the Romans putting Him to death. They chose to accuse Jesus of claiming to be the rightful king of the Jews and of mounting an insurrection against the Romans. This resulted in Jesus being  “hanged on a tree” or crucified.

The prophet, Isaiah prophesied about Jesus and the death He would suffer on behalf of sinful mankind.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:4-5 ESV

With His death, Jesus provided a means by which sinful men and women could escape the curse of the law. By placing their faith in His personal sacrifice on their behalf, they could be freed from living under the looming curse of death associated with failure to keep God’s law.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul provided another encouraging connection between Adam and Jesus.

So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. – 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NLT

No one need die for their own sins anymore. God sent His Son to pay the penalty for every single violation of His law. But the gift of salvation made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection is only available to those who will accept it as what it is: A free gift made possible by God’s grace and received by faith alone in Christ alone.

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 Abomination to the Lord

1 “You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever, for that is an abomination to the Lord your God.

“If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones. On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. – Deuteronomy 17:1-7 ESV

One of the reasons God instructed the people of Israel to elect judges and officials in each of their communities was to protect against idolatry. As time passed and each of the tribes began the process of possessing the land allotted to them, it would become increasingly more difficult to police the activities of the people, especially their natural tendency to worship false gods. So, Moses expected these appointed officials to judge the actions of those who violated God’s laws concerning idols and idol worship. Moses had clearly communicated God’s restrictions, which were nothing more than an elaboration on the first commandment.

“You must never set up a wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build for the Lord your God. And never set up sacred pillars for worship, for the Lord your God hates them. – Deuteronomy 16:21-22 NLT

This section is all about proper worship – the kind of worship that is acceptable by God. He has not left it up to mankind to decide how, when, or who to worship. The form of Israel’s worship is just as important to God as the focus of their worship. Not only were they prohibited from worshiping false gods, they were denied the freedom of worshiping the right God in the wrong way.

“You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever, for that is an abomination to the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 17:1 ESV

They were not allowed to borrow and incorporate elements from the pagan religions around them in the worship of God. Asherah poles were off limits. These wooden totems were dedicated to the worship of Asherah, a Canaanite fertility god who was considered the wife or sister of another one of their deities. God has strictly forbadding the Israelites from incorporating these kinds of pagan rituals and forms in their worship of Him.

But God would also not allow the Israelies to use proper forms of worship in the wrong way. They couldn’t bring their sick or blemished animals and offer them as sacrifices to God. That was unacceptable worship. He described these kinds of sacrifices as “abominations.” The Hebrew word is tow`ebah and it refers to “a disgusting thing (morally).”

Someone who offered a blemished lamb as an offering to God was technically obeying the command of God. But he would be violating the intent behind the command. The sacrifice was meant to cost the one offering it. By sacrificing an unblemished, perfect lamb, the worshiper was giving the best of what he owned. He was dedicating to God the animal that would have made the best breeding stock. In doing so, he would be placing his faith in God to provide for his needs.

But that unblemished animal was also intended to represent the idea that God’s forgiveness and atonement from sin required a sacrifice that would be acceptable to Him. It had to satisfy His demand for holiness or imperfection. The lamb was acting as a substitute for the sinful human being was offering it. It stood in the place of the sinner, acting as his proxy or replacement.

Because demanded that His people worship Him in a way that reflected His holy and righteous character. They had to honor Him for who He was and all that He had done. And beyond worshiping Him in the wrong way, the most egregious sin they could commit would be failing to worship Him at all. Which is why Moses provides these future judges of Israel with instructions about dealing with idolators. He describes idolatry as doing “evil in the sight of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 17:2 NLT). It was considered a violation of the covenant the Israelites had made with God. And just so they knew what kinds of actions constituted idolatry, Moses spelled it out: “they might serve other gods or worship the sun, the moon, or any of the stars—the forces of heaven—which I have strictly forbidden” (Deuteronomy 17:3 NLT).

Moses commands these future judges to investigate thoroughly any reports of this kind of behavior among the people. If they found the reports to be true, the violator was to be dealt with quickly and severely.

“…the man or woman who has committed such an evil act must be taken to the gates of the town and stoned to death.” – Deuteronomy 17:5 NLT

Once again, Moses refers to this kind of behavior as tow`ebah – an abomination. God sees idolatry as disgusting and unacceptable. And those who practice idolatry, because they are guilty of failing to remain set apart unto God, are to be set apart from the community by taking them outside the gates of the town, and then executed.

While this sounds like harsh and unusual punishment to our modern ears, we must understand that it was intended to act as a purifying and preserving agent among the Israelites. Sin of any kind, in left unchecked, would act as a cancer among the people, eventually infecting the entire community and resulting in the judgment of God. The death of one, while difficult for us to understand, was to be preferred to the ultimate judgment of God against the entire community.

The death of Jesus incorporates both illustrations used in these verses. First of all, He became sinless Lamb of God who offered His life as the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. He became the unblemished substitute who gave His life so that others could live. The apostle Paul points out the vivid contrast between Adam, the first man, and Jesus, the God-man.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT

In other words, Adam’s sin spread to all mankind. His disobedience brought the curse of sin and death onto all humanity. But Paul goes on to explain that Jesus offered a permanent solution to the sin problem created by Adam.

Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. – Romans 5:14-15 NLT

God would not allow the sin of Adam to permanently destroy His creation, so He sent His Son as the sinless sacrifice to atone for the sins of man.

Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. – Romans 5:16-17 NLT

God takes sin seriously. Because He is holy, God must punish those who commit sin, and the Bible clearly states that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But God graciously offered His Son as the payment for man’s sin debt. He offered His life as a substitute for sinful man. And while the death of the sinner stoned outside the gates of the city had no atoning value, it would prevent further infection of the community.

The judges of Israel were to treat sin with a seriousness and soberness that reflected God’s hatred for it. But they were to be careful to ensure that any accusations concerning idolatry were fully investigated and thoroughly proven so that no one was punished unjustly. And just to make sure that no one would be tempted to use a false accusation of idolatry in order to enact vengeance against another, Moses commanded, “never put a person to death on the testimony of only one witness. There must always be two or three witnesses. The witnesses must throw the first stones” (Deuteronomy 17:6-7 NLT).

One man could not falsely accuse another. There had to be corroborating witnesses. And it was these men who had to cast the first stone to take the life of the guilty party. This added feature was intended to place the heavy burden of taking the life of the accused on the heads of those who brought the charges. If they had lied, they would be responsible before God for the death of an innocent man.

God considers the worship of false gods to be disgusting and unacceptable. But even the worship of the right God in the wrong way is equally repugnant to Him. Man’s worship is the greatest gift he has to offer. God doesn’t need our gifts. He doesn’t require our sacrifices. What God is looking for is true worship. As the prophet Micah so aptly put it:

What can we bring to the LORD? Should we bring him burnt offerings? Should we bow before God Most High with offerings of yearling calves?

Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins?

No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:6-8 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

 

 

 

Something Worth Celebrating

“You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. 10 Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. 11 And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there. 12 You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.

13 “You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. 14 You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns. 15 For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.

16 “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. 17 Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you. – Deuteronomy 16:9-17 ESV

Moses has been reminding the people of their obligation to offer the appropriate sacrifices at the appropriate time and place. Now, he is going to elaborate on the particular feasts and festivals at which these various offerings were to be made.

All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock.You shall eat it, you and your household, before the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose. – Deuteronomy 15:19-20 NLT

There were seven annual feasts as prescribed by God. In the Spring of each year, the Israelites were to celebrate the feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, and Weeks. An additional four feasts were to be held in the Fall. These included the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. These annual events were, in part, commemorations or memorial celebrations, intended to help the Israelites retain the memory of God’s miraculous intervention in their lives. But they were also to be annual occasions when the Israelites could offer thanks to God for all that He had done in providing for their needs over the preceding year.

These feasts or festivals were closely tied to the annual spring and fall harvests and were timed to remind the Israelites of God’s faithful protection and provision. But, there is something even more significant about these annual celebrations that is often overlooked. They were intended to serve as prefigurement or foreshadowing of something or someone to come. The Messiah. Each of these annual feasts present a glimpse into the redemptive work of Jesus. And while the Israelites would not have recognized these signs, those of us on this side of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are able to look back and see how the saving work of Jesus was foretold in this seven festivals.

One of the first things we should notice is the inclusive nature of these events. They were non-discriminatory and intended for everyone in the camp.

Celebrate with your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites from your towns, and the foreigners, orphans, and widows who live among you.…” – Deuteronomy 16:11 NLT

“This festival will be a happy time of celebrating with your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows from your towns.” – Deuteronomy 16:14 NLT

No one was to be left out. The invitation to participate in the joy of the celebration was extended to all. It reminds me of the invitation offered by Jesus:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light. – Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

Notice how Jesus incorporated agricultural terms in his invitation. Just as the feasts were tied to the annual harvest and provided the people a much-needed respite from their work of providing for their basic needs, Jesus offered mankind rest from the back-braking work of trying to earn righteousness through self-effort. And this invitation was offered to every individual with no strings attached or restrictions based on ethnicity, gender, or social status.

And for all who accepted the gracious invitation of Jesus Christ, they became part of an all-inclusive family comprised of people from all walks of life. The apostle Paul describes them this way:

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. – Galatians 3:28-29 NLT

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. – Romans 10:12 ESV

The imagery associated with these annual events is closely tied to Jesus. From the unblemished Passover lamb to unleavened bread, these Old Testament types foreshadow the Messiah, the sinless Son of God. Leaven was a symbol of sin and the Israelites were to spend seven days purging any leaven from their homes. But Jesus came as the sinless Lamb of God who made possible foregiveness for sin – once and for all.

At the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, the Israelites were instructed to build temporary shelters in which they were to live during the days of the festival. These structures were intended to remind them of their nomadic existence during the days of the exodus. But they are also a foreshadowing of something greater to come. With His arrival on earth, Jesus became Immanuel, literally “God with us.” He came to tabernacle among His people and to provide a means by which they could enjoy a permanent and eternal existence with God the Father. No more temporary shelters. No more wandering in the wilderness of sin. God has a permanent place of shelter and refuge planned for all those who place their faith in His Son.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. – Revelations 21:3 NLT

“I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” – Ezekiel 37:27 NLT

These feasts were temporary occassions and the Israelites were required to observe them on an annual basis. But the sacrifice of Jesus was once-for-all, providing a permanent means of salvation for all who who accept His gracious invitation. No more feasts and festivals were necessary. No more sacrifices were required. There was no more need to remove the leaven of sin or to find the spotless lamb to offer as atonement for that sin. Jesus became the sole source of redemption. And the celebration of these annual feasts was one day replaced by a much more simple, yet highly significant event that would commemorate His death on man’s behalf.

At the Feast of Passover, Jesus would gather with His disciples in the upper room and share the Passover meal with them. But during their celebration of that annual event, Jesus would institute another, much more important, celebration which would take its place: The Lord’s Supper.

…the Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NLT

Moses said of the Feast of Tabernacles, “This festival will be a time of great joy for all” (Deuteronomy 16:15 NLT). But it is the sinless sacrifice of Jesus that provides true cause for joy and celebration. His death made man’s restoration with God possible. His sacrifice provides all who accept it with complete forgiveness from sin and the replacement of their guilty verdict with the announcement of their justification before God. And that is truly cause for celebration.

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Firstborn

19 “All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock. 20 You shall eat it, you and your household, before the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose. 21 But if it has any blemish, if it is lame or blind or has any serious blemish whatever, you shall not sacrifice it to the Lord your God. 22 You shall eat it within your towns. The unclean and the clean alike may eat it, as though it were a gazelle or a deer. 23 Only you shall not eat its blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. – Deuteronomy 15:19-23 ESV

Moses returns to a subject that he had brought up earlier: The offering of the firstborn.

“There you will bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, your offerings to fulfill a vow, your voluntary offerings, and your offerings of the firstborn animals of your herds and flocks.” – Deuteronomy 12:6 NLT

“But you may not eat your offerings in your hometown—neither the tithe of your grain and new wine and olive oil, nor the firstborn of your flocks and herds, nor any offering to fulfill a vow, nor your voluntary offerings, nor your sacred offerings.” – Deuteronomy 12:17 NLT

“Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. Doing this will teach you always to fear the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 14:23 NLT

But what is the offering of the firstborn and why was it so important? To understand its significance we have to look back to the book of Exodus and the final plague that God brought upon the people of Egypt.

And that night at midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sat on his throne, to the firstborn son of the prisoner in the dungeon. Even the firstborn of their livestock were killed. Pharaoh and all his officials and all the people of Egypt woke up during the night, and loud wailing was heard throughout the land of Egypt. There was not a single house where someone had not died. – Exodus 12:29-30 NLT

This devastating event took place in conjunction with the establishment of the Passover. God had warned the people of Israel that He was bringing judgment upon the land of Egypt and He had mercifully provided the people of Israel with a means of avoiding His wrath. When His judgment came, it would be non-discriminatory, bringing death to the firstborn of every family living in the land of Egypt, whether Egyptian or Jew. Even the animals belonging to the Egyptians and Jews would suffer under God’s judgment…unless.

The truth was that all deserved God’s judgment. Even the Israelites had long ago abandoned their worship of Yahweh for the false gods of Egypt, and they stood fully condemned before God. But He provided them with a means of escaping His judgment – if they would trust His word and obey His command.

“Announce to the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each family must choose a lamb or a young goat for a sacrifice, one animal for each household. If a family is too small to eat a whole animal, let them share with another family in the neighborhood. Divide the animal according to the size of each family and how much they can eat. The animal you select must be a one-year-old male, either a sheep or a goat, with no defects.

 “Take special care of this chosen animal until the evening of the fourteenth day of this first month. Then the whole assembly of the community of Israel must slaughter their lamb or young goat at twilight. They are to take some of the blood and smear it on the sides and top of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the animal. That same night they must roast the meat over a fire and eat it along with bitter salad greens and bread made without yeast. Do not eat any of the meat raw or boiled in water. The whole animal—including the head, legs, and internal organs—must be roasted over a fire. Do not leave any of it until the next morning. Burn whatever is not eaten before morning.” – Exodus 12:3-10 NLT

As long as the Israelites did exactly as God had commanded them to do, the firstborn of their families and flocks would be spared. The blood of the lamb, sprinkled on the doorframes of their homes, would cause the Death Angel to “pass over” them. They would be spared the judgment of God.

And the Israelites, having followed God’s instructions, were preserved by God, while the Egyptians suffered tremendous loss of life. And devastated by the loss of his own son, Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Israelites to leave. And God commanded the people of Israel:

“Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.”  – Exodus 13:2 NLT

God had spared from death the firstborn among the Israelites and, therefore, considered them as belonging to Him. But later on, God would set apart the tribe of Levi as the surrogates or stand-ins for the rest of the firstborn of Israel.

“Look, I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me, for all the firstborn males are mine. On the day I struck down all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel, both of people and of animals. They are mine; I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:12-13 NLT

The tribe of Levi would serve in the place of all the firstborn of Israel, and from within the Levites would come the priests who served in God’s tabernacle. They would dedicate their lives to the service of the people of God.

But the firstborn of the animals would always belong to God and He required that the people of Israel dedicate them to Him through sacrifice. It was to be an act of obedience and gratitude to God for His having spared them during that fateful night when the Death Angel passed over all the homes in Egypt. As long as the firstborn lamb or bull was alive, they were to be preserved for God. The Israelites were not allowed to shear their wool for clothing. They could not use a firstborn bull to pull a plow. These animals were to be seen as the permanent possessions of God.

And all of this foreshadows another firstborn who would also be dedicated to God and destined for sacrifice. Jesus Christ is described by the apostle Paul as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15 ESV).

Elsewhere Paul writes that “Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live” (Galatians 1:4 NLT). Jesus was the sinless lamb of God, who offered His life as a substitute for sinful mankind. He stood in our place. He took the punishment we deserved. And when we place our faith in Him, the wrath of God passes over us. His blood, sprinkled on the doorframes of our hearts, serves as a payment for our sin debt, satisfying the just and righteous wrath of God and allowing us to enjoy new life, rather than death.

And as a result of our faith in Christ, we become the firstborn, dedicated to God for His service. Paul makes this point perfectly clear in his letter to the Romans.

For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. – Romans 8:29 NLT

We belong to Him. We are His holy possession and our lives are to be dedicated to His use.

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

The Levites became the firstborn of God, serving in the place of all the other Israelites whom God had deemed as His own. They sacrificed their lives in service to God on behalf of all the people of God. And the firstborn bulls, sheep, and goats were dedicated to God, reserved for His use and destined to give their lives in worship of Him.

But today, those of us who are in Christ, enjoy a relationship with God due to the substitutionary death of the firstborn, the sinless Lamb of God. And now, we find ourselves living as the Levites did, set apart by God for His glory. And Peter would have us remember that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV). We belong to Him. Our lives are to be set apart unto Him. We are not our own, but we belong to God, having been bought by Him at a very high price: The death of His own sinless Son.

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Life is in the Blood

15 “However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, as much as you desire, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you. The unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and as of the deer. 16 Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out on the earth like water. 17 You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, or any of your vow offerings that you vow, or your freewill offerings or the contribution that you present, 18 but you shall eat them before the Lord your God in the place that the Lord your God will choose, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your towns. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God in all that you undertake. 19 Take care that you do not neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land.

20 “When the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he has promised you, and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because you crave meat, you may eat meat whenever you desire. 21 If the place that the Lord your God will choose to put his name there is too far from you, then you may kill any of your herd or your flock, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you may eat within your towns whenever you desire. 22 Just as the gazelle or the deer is eaten, so you may eat of it. The unclean and the clean alike may eat of it. 23 Only be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh. 24 You shall not eat it; you shall pour it out on the earth like water. 25 You shall not eat it, that all may go well with you and with your children after you, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord. 26 But the holy things that are due from you, and your vow offerings, you shall take, and you shall go to the place that the Lord will choose, 27 and offer your burnt offerings, the flesh and the blood, on the altar of the Lord your God. The blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the Lord your God, but the flesh you may eat. 28 Be careful to obey all these words that I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 12:15-28 ESV

The Israelites were about to enter the promised land where they would begin a new chapter in the story of their relationship with God. During their years in the wilderness, God had provided them with the tabernacle as their worship center and the place where they offered sacrifices to Him. And He had given them strict rules that accompanied their use of the tabernacle.

“If any native Israelite sacrifices a bull or a lamb or a goat anywhere inside or outside the camp instead of bringing it to the entrance of the Tabernacle to present it as an offering to the Lord, that person will be as guilty as a murderer. Such a person has shed blood and will be cut off from the community. The purpose of this rule is to stop the Israelites from sacrificing animals in the open fields. It will ensure that they bring their sacrifices to the priest at the entrance of the Tabernacle, so he can present them to the Lord as peace offerings.” – Leviticus 17:3-5 NLT

The tabernacle had been designed by God to be kind of a pack-and-go temple – a temporary structure that the Israelites carried with them all during their days in the wilderness. They were instructed to follow the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of could by day, both representing God’s guiding presence. Whenever the presence of God stopped, so did they, and they immediately erected the tabernacle, around which the tribes of Israel assembled their camps.

It was only at the tabernacle that the Israelites could slaughter animals and offer them as sacrifices to God. They were prohibited from shedding blood anywhere else within or without the camp. Anyone who violated this command and shed the blood of an animal anywhere else but at the tabernacle was to be cut off from the community. They were exiled.

But their entrance into the land was going to bring about a series of dramatic changes. First of all, God had told them that He would select a location within the borders of the land as the place where He would “make his name dwell” (Deuteronomy 12:11 ESV).

The land of Canaan was their final destination. There would be no more wandering necessary because they had arrived in the place God had promised to give to them as their inheritance. Not long after their initial victories over the cities of Jericho and Ai, the Israelites erected the tabernacle at a place called Gilgal. It would remain there for most of the years it took the Israelites to conquer the land. Eventually, it was moved to Shiloh, and then years later, to Gibeon. But, for the most part, the tabernacle remained in a fixed location during the years of the conquest of the land of Canaan. And God intended to provide Israel with a permanent place within the borders of the land where His glory would dwell and where they would offer sacrifices to Him.

“When he gives you rest from all your enemies and you’re living safely in the land, you must bring everything I command you—your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, and your offerings to fulfill a vow—to the designated place of worship, the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored.” – Deuteronomy 12:10-11 NLT

But until the time in which God designated that place, the Israelites were given a divine dispensation, allowing them to slaughter animals for meat anywhere within the land of promise. In a sense, all the land was considered holy by God because He had set it apart as His own. He had sanctified or consecrated as His possession, which He was giving to the descendants of Abraham. So, they were free to kill and butcher animals anywhere within the boundaries of the land. They were no longer required to bring the animals to the tabernacle. But there is a bit of confusion in God’s command. At first glance, it would appear that He is also allowing them to eat unclean animals, something He had explicitly prohibited in the Mosaic law. Leviticus 11 outlines the various animals that God had deemed as unclean and, therefore, off-limits to the Israelites. Yet, in this passage, it appears that God is changing His mind because He mentions the clean and the unclean. But this is a reference to the status of the people of Israel, not the animals. The New Living Translation helps clarify God’s point.

“All of you, whether ceremonially clean or unclean, may eat that meat, just as you now eat gazelle and deer.” – Deuteronomy 12:15 NLT

This special dispensation was due to the fact that the Israelites were going to be settling all across the land of Canaan, while the tabernacle would be permanently erected in a fixed location. Distance would make it nearly impossible for people to bring their animals to the tabernacle. Which meant that those offering the sacrifice could not receive personal purification, and their animals could not be slaughtered on site. So, Moses let them know that God was amending His laws concerning the sacrifice and consumption of meat.

It might happen that the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—is a long way from your home. If so, you may butcher any of the cattle, sheep, or goats the Lord has given you, and you may freely eat the meat in your hometown, as I have commanded you. Anyone, whether ceremonially clean or unclean, may eat that meat, just as you do now with gazelle and deer. ” – Deuteronomy 12:21-22

But one thing remained unchanged. They were not allowed to consume the blood of the animal. Moses made this point quite clear.

“But never consume the blood, for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the lifeblood with the meat. Instead, pour out the blood on the ground like water. Do not consume the blood, so that all may go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what pleases the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 12:23-25 NLT

While they were free to kill and butcher meat anywhere within the borders of the land, they were not free to consume the blood of the animal. Why? Because the blood is the life. It was the blood of the animal that was used for purification during the sacrificial ceremonies. The blood represented the life of the animal and was sprinkled on the altar in order to purify it. The animal’s life, represented by its blood, had been given in place of the guilty individual who had offered the sacrifice. And the blood provided purification by offering forgiveness from sin.

“…according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” – Hebrews 9:22 NLT

The blood was not to be treated lightly because it represented the life of the creature. And hundreds of years later, Jesus Christ would offer His blood as a sacrifice for many. The author of Hebrews describes the ultimate sacrifice where the blood of the sinless Lamb of God provided atonement for the sins of mankind.

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

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

There is life in the blood. And because Jesus gave His life by shedding His blood on our behalf, we have the guarantee of new life now and eternal life to come. So, even for the Israelites, the blood was to remain sacred. It represented life and was meant to serve as a purifying and cleansing agent in God’s sacrificial system. It was to be shed, not consumed. It was to be treated with reverence and awe. But the day would come when God would amend His commands yet again, making another special dispensation for His people. Fast-forward to the upper room on the night Jesus was betrayed and listen carefully to the words He spoke to His disciples.

And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many. Mark my words—I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” – Matthew 26:27-29 NLT

The life is in the blood. But while the blood of bulls and goats could only be sprinkled and provide temporary forgiveness of sins, the blood of Jesus is to be symbolically consumed, providing permanent forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

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 History of Rebellion, Not Righteousness

 13 “Furthermore, the Lord said to me, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stubborn people. 14 Let me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.’ 15 So I turned and came down from the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire. And the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. 16 And I looked, and behold, you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had made yourselves a golden calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you. 17 So I took hold of the two tablets and threw them out of my two hands and broke them before your eyes. 18 Then I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord to provoke him to anger. 19 For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure that the Lord bore against you, so that he was ready to destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also. 20 And the Lord was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him. And I prayed for Aaron also at the same time. 21 Then I took the sinful thing, the calf that you had made, and burned it with fire and crushed it, grinding it very small, until it was as fine as dust. And I threw the dust of it into the brook that ran down from the mountain.

22 “At Taberah also, and at Massah and at Kibroth-hattaavah you provoked the Lord to wrath. 23 And when the Lord sent you from Kadesh-barnea, saying, ‘Go up and take possession of the land that I have given you,’ then you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God and did not believe him or obey his voice. 24 You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you.

25 “So I lay prostrate before the Lord for these forty days and forty nights, because the Lord had said he would destroy you. 26 And I prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, do not destroy your people and your heritage, whom you have redeemed through your greatness, whom you have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 27 Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do not regard the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness or their sin, 28 lest the land from which you brought us say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land that he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to put them to death in the wilderness.” 29 For they are your people and your heritage, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.’ – Deuteronomy 9:13-29 ESV

If the Israelites still harbored any remaining thoughts that they somehow deserved God’s good favor, Moses was about to deliver the crushing blow. He had made it clear that God was not giving them the land of Canaan because they deserved it, but because He was keeping the promise He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God was going to remove the Canaanites from the land because they were an evil and idolatrous people who desecrated the land with their unbridled immorality.

But Moses let the Israelites know that they were no better than the Canaanites. It was not as if they were a spiritually superior people who lived morally upright lives and had somehow earned the right to take possession of the land because of their faithfulness to God. No, it was quite the opposite, and Moses had already delivered the painfully truthful news that God’s provision of the land had nothing to do with their worthiness or righteousness.

“Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” – Deuteronomy 9:6 ESV

They were stiff-necked and obstinate, stubbornly refusing to bow the knee to God and live according to His commands. And they had been that way from the beginning. Which is why Moses goes all the way back to Mount Sinai and the occasion when God gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. He remembered that fateful well and looked back on it, not with nostalgia, but with a certain amount of anger and resentment at the way the people had treated God. Their actions that day had placed Moses in a very difficult position. He had found himself in the awkward place of having to mediate between a holy, angry God, and the very people he had helped to deliver from slavery in Egypt.

While Moses had been on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, his fellow Israelites, with the help of his brother, Aaron, had been busy worshiping a false god they had crafted out of gold. During the 40 days that Moses had been on top of the mountain, they had begun to question everything about their circumstances. And they had somehow forgotten the incredible demonstration of God’s power they had witnessed as His glory had descended upon Mount Sinai.

Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently.  As the blast of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered his reply. – Exodus 19:17-19 NLT

There was no doubt that God was there. His presence was unmistakable. His power was on display. And even when Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, the fire never died down, and the smoke remained. The mountain never ceased to shake. And yet, the people became unimpressed and unwilling to wait to see what God was going to say to His servant, Moses. Tired of waiting, they took matters into their own hands.

When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:1 NLT

And it was that fateful decision that Moses recalled.

“So while the mountain was blazing with fire I turned and came down, holding in my hands the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. There below me I could see that you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had melted gold and made a calf idol for yourselves.” – Deuteronomy 9:15-16 NLT

Notice what Moses says: “So while the mountain was blazing with fire….” The presence of God was still visible. God had not gone anywhere. And Moses was descending the mountain holding the very commandments of God, “inscribed with the terms of the covenant.”

“Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

And the people had eagerly and enthusiastically agreed to the conditions of the covenant, giving their word that they would obey

“We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” – Exodus 19:8 NLT

But that commitment had not lasted long. Before Moses could make it back down the mountain, the people had turned their backs on God. They had come up with the bright idea to make their own gods. And when Moses had seen what had taken place in his absence, he was filled with surprise and anger.

“How quickly you had turned away from the path the Lord had commanded you to follow!” – Deuteronomy 9:16 NLT

They had been in the early days of their journey from Egypt to the promised land and had already chosen to forsake God. And Moses, sensing the anger of God against His people, had chosen to intercede with God on their behalf. He began a 40-day fast, during which time he sought to persuade God to refrain from wiping out the people of Israel for their wickedness.

“I feared that the furious anger of the Lord, which turned him against you, would drive him to destroy you. But again he listened to me.” – Deuteronomy 9:19 NLT

God spared the people and even allowed Aaron to live, in spite of the role he had played in the peoples’ rebellion. God showed mercy. He showered the people with His undeserved favor. And it all goes back to the covenant He had made with Abraham. God had made two promises to Abraham. One was that He would make of Abraham a great nation. The second was that He would bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham. And so, God was going to keep His covenant commitment, not because of the Israelites, but in spite of them.

And Moses reminded the people that Mount Sinai had not been an aberration. It was just one of many occasions in which the people of Israel displayed their stubbornness and rebellion. Moses recalled Taberah, Massah, and Kibroth-hattaavah – three other less-than-flattering moments from Israel’s not-so-distant past that illustrated their propensity to rebel against God. And he brought up that infamous day at Kadesh-barnea, when the first generation of Israelites had refused to enter the promised land, causing God to send them into the wilderness where they would die as punishment for the rebellion.

Moses had pleaded with God to spare them. He had appealed to God’s covenant faithfulness.

“Please overlook the stubbornness and the awful sin of these people, and remember instead your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 9:27 NLT

But notice that Moses did not offer up a single example of Israel’s worthiness or righteousness. What they deserved was God’s wrath. Moses knew that. So he appealed to God’s unwavering faithfulness to keep His commitments. He had promised to make of Abraham a great nation, and He had fulfilled that promise. But God had also promised to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham. And that promise had not yet been fulfilled. But, in time, it would be. And God would continue to bless the people of Israel, not because they deserved it, but because He was going to use them as the means by which He brought the solution to man’s sin problem into the world. And the apostle Paul wrote of this coming fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham.

God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child”—and that, of course, means Christ. – Galatians 3:16 NLT

God was going to bring to earth the source of true righteousness, and He would do it through a people marked by unrighteousness. God would eventually offer the sole means of salvation through a people who deserved His wrath. He would bring about redemption through a nation that would eventually murder its own redeemer.

The people of Israel had a long history of rebellion, not righteousness; but God would eventually make righteousness available through them in the form of His Son, the sinless Savior of the world.

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

 

 

 

We Will Be Like Him

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. – 1 John 3:2-3 ESV

Christlikeness. That is or should be, the quest of each and every follower of Christ. The very phrase, “follower of Christ” suggests a form of imitation or emulation of the one being followed. In his first letter, the apostle Peter encourages his audience to endure suffering well, following the example of Jesus.

But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. – 1 Peter 2:20-22 NLT

The Greek word for “example” is hypogrammos, and according to The Outline of Biblical Usage, it refers to “a writing copy, including all the letters of the alphabet, given to beginners as an aid in learning to draw them.” Jesus’ life of humility, servanthood, suffering, and sacrifice was intended to provide us with a model for living the Christian life this side of the resurrection. As Peter says, we are to follow in his steps, emulating His example of righteousness in the face of suffering.

The apostle Paul took this call to emulate Jesus a step further. He was so confident in his efforts to follow the example provided by Jesus that he could tell the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV). Paul had no problem telling the Corinthians believers to follow his example because he knew he was following in the steps of Jesus Himself. This is not a case of Paul bragging about his spirituality or setting himself up as some icon of religious virtue. He was simply stating that his life was worthy of emulation only because he was following the example left to him by Jesus.

The apostle John provides yet another call to live a life marked by Christlikeness.

But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:5-6 NLT

John provides an inseparable link between the worship of God and a life lived like that of Jesus. In fact, in his gospel, John records the words of Jesus when He boldly claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT). And Jesus went on to say to the Jewish religious leaders, “If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is” (John 14:7 NLT). He was claiming that these highly respected scribes and Pharisees, who were revered for their outward displays of religious zeal, were actually ignorant of God. They didn’t know God because they refused to recognize Jesus as His Son.

Unlike Jesus, these men were full of pride and convinced of their own inherent righteousness. They refused to see themselves as sinners in need of a Savior. But Paul paints a dramatically different picture of Jesus, presenting Him as the humble servant who willingly obeyed His Father, even to the point of death.

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:6-8 NLT

But Paul goes on to describe what happened after Jesus died on the cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names. – Philippians 2:9 NLT

Jesus died and was buried in a borrowed tomb, but He rose again. He was resurrected from the dead, given a glorified body, and restored to His rightful place at His Father’s side in heaven. And this is a big part of the example that Jesus left us to follow. He lived His earthly life with His eyes set on the heavenly prize.  He never forgot what God had in store for Him. It was what motivated His actions. Yes, He died because He loved us. But as the author of Hebrews makes clear, Jesus also knew that His death was not the end. He also knew that His death would be insufficient if it was not followed by His resurrection and glorification. And we are to live our lives with the same confidence in our future glorification.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. – Hebrews 12:1-3 NLT

Don’t miss the weight of this passage. The author states that it was because of the joy set before Him that Jesus endured the pain, shame, and suffering of the cross. He knew that His death would not be the end. He was fully confident in His resurrection and glorification.

Over in the book of Philippians, the apostle Paul makes an interesting statement that I believe is often misunderstood and misapplied. He writes rather cryptically: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 2:12 ESV).

We tend to read this passage and all our attention focuses on the words, “press on.” This is an action statement and we hear Paul calling us to do something, to pursue after something. In the very next verse, Paul describes himself as “straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13 ESV). But what is it that lies ahead? What is Paul pressing on toward and straining after?

We fail to consider what Paul means when he talks about “this” and “it.” And we run the risk of misunderstanding what Paul means by “what lies ahead.” So, to grasp the significance of Paul’s words, we have to back up to the preceding verses where he states, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11 ESV).

What’s the “it” that Paul is pressing on toward? What is the thing that lies ahead to which Paul is straining forward? It is the resurrection of the dead. And Paul makes that perfectly clear in verse 14.

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:14 ESV

Paul is looking forward to the return of Christ. He even says so just a few verses later.

…we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body. – Philippians 3:14 ESV

But don’t miss why Paul is awaiting the return of Christ. It is so he will experience the transformation of his lowly body into its new and glorious version. Paul expands on this remarkable event in his first letter to the Corinthians. And he describes it to them in order to encourage them.

But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. – 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 NLT

And Paul’s point is not just that we get new bodies, but that we get fully redeemed, glorified bodies just like that of Jesus. And that means those bodies will be without sin. Which is why he joyfully shouts, “thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57 ESV). And with the promise of future glorification in mind, he tells the Corinthians, “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (1 Corinthians 15:58 ESV).

The knowledge of their future glorification was to make an impact on their everyday lives. They were to live with the ultimate goal in mind, pressing on, straining forward to what lies ahead. And, in his second letter, Paul provides them with further encouragement to keep on keeping on.

So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT

Even in this life, we can experience the transformation of these “lowly bodies” into the likeness of Christ. But our full transformation will not take place until He returns. That is why John reminds us, “we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2 ESV). The day is coming when we will be like Him – in all His glory. We will share His glorified nature, completely free from all sin, sorrow, pain, and suffering. And just hours before His death, Jesus prayed to the Father, sharing His desire that all those who would follow Him in this life, would eventually join Him in the life to come.

“Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began!” – John 17:24 NLT

It is the eager expectation of this future reality that should influence our present outlook and behavior.

And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. – 1 John 3 ESV

One day, we will be just like Him. So, why wouldn’t we want to live with that end in mind? If that is God’s preferred future for us, why wouldn’t we make it our life’s focus and objective?

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

 

Love One Another

15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. – 1 John 4:13-21 ESV

Christians are to be known for their love. And that love is not up for debate or a negotiable part of the Christian experience. It’s a mandatory divine imperative. It was Jesus who said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV). It’s a command, not a suggestion. And Jesus uses His love of us as the gold standard. He sets the bar high and expects us to reach it because our love for one another will provide the world with evidence that we belong to Him.

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35 ESV

But, according to the apostle John, our ability to love one another will also provide tangible proof of our salvation – to us.

If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. – 1 John 3:14 NLT

And the kind of love of which Jesus is speaking is not to be confused with the counterfeit kind of love the world offers. Worldly love is fickle because it’s usually based on the loveliness or lovableness of the one being loved. It also tends to be reciprocal in nature. In other words, it’s a love that lasts only as long as the other party loves us back. And worldly love is essentially a love of self. It involves a cost-benefit analysis or risk-reward assessment that helps us determine if the love expended will be worth it.

But Jesus wasn’t using worldly love as the model. He offered His own love as the sole criteria for emulation and evaluation.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” – John 15:10-14 ESV

It’s important to note that these words were spoken to His disciples before His crucifixion. While He had tried to tell them that His death was inevitable and unavoidable, they had refused to believe Him. And, as a result, this command was lacking its full significance for them. They only had the last 3-1/2 years of life with Jesus as evidence of His love. While they recognized Jesus as being special, they probably thought His brand of love was well within their capacity to replicate. And, as far as laying down their lives, it was Peter who had told Jesus, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matthew 26:35 ESV). But when the time came, Peter didn’t follow through on his commitment. Rather than die on behalf of Jesus, he chose to deny Him.

Jesus’ reference to someone laying down their life for a friend probably escaped the disciples. But it would not be long before they recognized the full import of those words. Jesus eventually made His way to Jerusalem, where He was arrested, tried, convicted, and murdered. And the apostle John later explained the full significance of Jesus’ actions and their implications for us as His followers.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. – 1 John 3:16 NLT

That is what Jesus meant when He had said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” And that is the kind of love He expects us to show one another. It’s sacrificial and selfless in nature. It is other-oriented and expects nothing in return. And it has nothing to do with the loveliness and lovableness of the recipient. As the apostle Paul reminds us, it was “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). We didn’t deserve His love. In fact, we were His enemies, standing opposed to the will of He and His Father. And just so we don’t misunderstand and assume that this kind of love is only required for our brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus provided us with clarification.

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. – Matthew 5:43-45 NLT

It’s relatively easy to love a friend. But Jesus calls us to love our enemies. And Paul ups the ante by reminding us, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good” (Romans 5:6-7 NLT). The kind of love Jesus commands is a lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love. It is intended for all. No hidden clauses or list of unworthy candidates. Paul doesn’t want us to miss that “our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies” (Romans 5:10 NLT). And that’s the kind of love Jesus expects us to practice.

But how? It all seems so impossible to pull off? And that’s the point. That’s why Jesus said it would prove to the world that we were His disciples. And it would prove to us that we have truly been saved. That kind of love is impossible. It is divine. It is not something we manufacture on our own. Which is why John said, “We love because he first loved us.” It was His love for us that makes it possible for us to love others. When Jesus commanded His disciples to love others the same way He had loved them, He was speaking prophetically. He was referring to His coming death, when the Good Shepherd would lay down His life for the sheep (John 10:10). It would be His death, burial, and resurrection that made the love He commanded possible.

We can love as He did because He loved us as He did. His selfless, sacrificial death is what makes possible the kind of love He demands of us. And the power behind that kind of love does not come from us, but it does come from within us – in the form of the Holy Spirit. We have been given the capacity to love as Jesus loved. We have the power to live and love as He did.

Look closely at John’s words: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:19 ESV). We have the love of God, in the form of the Spirit of God, living within us. When we love Him, we are simply returning His love to Him. When we love others, we are sharing His love of us with those around us. We become conduits of His love. Loving others is not an option for us, because we have the love of God living within us. Yes, our old natures get in the way and cause us to live out our former patterns of selfish, self-centered, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of love. But John would have us remember that the love of God abides in us. And what is resident in us must flow out from us. Jesus was loved by God and that love did not rest or remain on Him. He shared it with those who didn’t deserve it. Jesus gave His life because He loved His Father. And His love of the Father showed up in His love for the lost.

Again, look closely at John’s words:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. – 1 John 4:20 ESV

The proof of Jesus’ love for the Father is found in His love of others. Jesus lived out His love for God by expressing it in sacrificial, selfless love for others. And He calls us to do the same.

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

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

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

 

I Am

48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. – John 8:48-59 ESV

In the last two blogs, we have discussed the topic of Jesus and His identity. He was the Son of God who took on the form of a man but never lost His identity as the second person of the Trinity. Jesus, though fully man, was also fully God and remained so throughout His entire earthly existence, from the moment of His incarnation to His  His final breath on the cross.

In the passage above, we have yet another example of Jesus expressing His awareness of His identity as the Son of God. In fact, He takes it a step further, clearly declaring Himself to be God.

Jesus had just been accused of being demon-possessed, a charge leveled against Him by the scribes and Pharisees. They had already been shocked at the audacity of Jesus to set Himself up as some kind of authority on religious matters. To them, Jesus was an uneducated nobody who had appeared on the scene, stirring up the crowds with His miracles and radical messages. These seasoned religious leaders questioned His credibility by emphasizing His relatively young age. They saw Him as a troublemaker and viewed His teaching as antithetical to their own. They refused to accept His claim to be a messenger from God and found His tendency to refer to God as His Father to be nothing less than blasphemy.

.And His offer of eternal life really rubbed them the wrong way. After all, even Abraham, the great patriarch of their faith, had died. Did Jesus think He was better than Abraham? They even asked Him, “Who do you make yourself out to be?” And Jesus matter-of-factly responded:

“If I want glory for myself, it doesn’t count. But it is my Father who will glorify me. You say, ‘He is our God,’ but you don’t even know him. I know him. If I said otherwise, I would be as great a liar as you! But I do know him and obey him. Your father Abraham rejoiced as he looked forward to my coming. He saw it and was glad.” – John 8:54-56 NLT

In this statement, Jesus claims God as His Father. Not only that, He claims to know God intimately and, if Jesus said otherwise, He would be lying. And as for Abraham, Jesus states that even this revered founder of their faith had eagerly anticipated the day when Jesus would show up as God’s messenger. Not only that, Jesus claims that Abraham saw it and was glad. He had been given a vision of this day and Jesus was the fulfillment of it.

All of this was too much for the religious leaders. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was a madman and a threat to the religious status quo. But Jesus responds to their anger with an interesting statement that did little to assuage their doubts concerning Him. And the controversial nature of His words was intentional.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” – John 8:58 ESV

Other than what appears to be Jesus’ use of poor grammar, this statement may seem somewhat innocuous to us. But we can tell by the reaction of the religious leaders that they heard Jesus saying something they considered very dangerous and worthy of death. John tells us, “they picked up stones to throw at him…” (John 8:59 ESV).

The key to understanding their anger is found in the last two words of Jesus’ statement: “I am.” Two simple words, but they rocked the world of these learned men. They knew exactly what Jesus was saying and claiming. His choice of words was entirely intentional and it achieved the effect for which He was looking. By uttering those two words, Jesus was clearly declaring Himself to be God. How do we know that? First of all, by the intensity of their reaction. But more importantly, because of what they understood Jesus to be saying.

As religious leaders, they were very familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and especially the story of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. In the book of Exodus, Moses recorded how God chose him to be the deliverer who would free the people of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt and lead them to the land God had promised to Abraham, generations earlier. But when Moses had received His marching orders from God, he expressed his reluctant to God by saying, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13 ESV).

Moses was concerned that the people would have no idea who he was talking about if he announced that the God of their fathers had sent him. Keep in mind, for the 400 years the people of Israel had been living in Egypt they had been worshiping the gods of Egypt. They had long ago given up on the God of Abraham. They had become Egyptianized and had acclimated themselves to the false gods of the Egyptians. And Moses was more than a bit concerned that His announcement from this unknown God would fall on deaf ears. Moses needed a name, something by which to refer to this “new” God who was going to deliver the people from captivity. And God obliged Moses’ request God by describing Himself as I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14 ESV). 

This phase sounds rather cryptic to us, but to the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, it was understood as God’s self-identification as the one who was, who is, and who is to come. It is a claim of His eternal nature, omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. It is an expression of total self-sufficiency, existence without beginning or end, and all-pervasive presence, unhindered by time and space. God’s declaration of Himself as “I am who I am” was His way of saying that He alone was God, and there were no others.

So, you can see why the scribes and Pharisees reacted so strongly to Jesus’ claim to be “I am.” He was declaring Himself to be God, and that was unacceptable and impossible. And according to Jewish law, Jesus’ claim was a crime punishable by death.

But what Jesus said was true. He was God. He was the second person of the Trinity, the holy Godhead. He was the image of the invisible God, the incarnate Son of God – Immanuel, God with us. Not only was He a messenger sent from God, but He was also the Word of God.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV

Don’t miss the significance of what John is saying. Jesus was the Word and the Word was God. Yes, He was greater than Abraham, because He was Abraham’s Creator. He was greater than Moses because He was the Rock that Moses struck in the wilderness that provided water to the people of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:4).

Jesus knew who He was. He was fully aware of His identity and was not ashamed or afraid to admit it. Because it was His identity that gave Him the authority to do what He had come to do. It was C. S. Lewis who said, “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

Just a few chapters later in John’s gospel, he records another encounter between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. This time, Jesus claims to have the ability to bestow eternal life on men. He describes them as His sheep, those who hear His voice and follow Him. When they do, He states, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28 ESV). Of course, this kind of language infuriated the Pharisees, but Jesus makes it even worse by adding, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:29-30 ESV). And His enemies didn’t miss His point, because John states that they “picked up stones again to stone him” (John 10:31 ESV). And they justify their actions by explaining, “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).

Identity. It means everything. Even for those who don’t belong to Christ and who refuse to acknowledge the reality of God, identity is the driving force in their lives. It determines everything about them – what they eat, how they dress, where they live, the kinds of friends they choose, the brand of clothes they wear, the make of car they drive, and the way they feel about themselves. Every human being is in search of their identity. And we have plenty of help in determining what our identity is – including parents, peers, social media, the culture, the world of entertainment, the messages of advertisers and marketing firms, and the morally vacuous voice of modern identity politics and intersectionality.

For the believer, discovering who we are is simple. Our identity is made clear for us by virtue of our relationship with Christ. Because of Him, we are sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ, righteous in the eyes of God, citizens of the Kingdom, members of the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and so much more. Jesus knew who He was. Do you? And if you know who you are, do you live like you believe it? Jesus did, and so should we.

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