A Firmly Fixed Faith

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV

Let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so close. How?

Let us run. To where?

With endurance. For how long?

Looking to Jesus. Why?

After providing us with a long list of the faithful from history past, the author of Hebrews gives us the application: We are to do as they did.

We are to live as they lived. Each of their lives are witness to the faith life to which we have been called. It is not easy, but is filled with moments of apprehension and periods of doubt. We are told to have an assurance of things hoped for and a strong conviction in things we can’t even see. We are encouraged to take God at His word and rest in the promises He has given us, even when they seem doubtful and their fulfillment is so far out in the distance as to make them seemingly out of reach.

The two verses above are beautifully composed and provide a wonderful summary of the previous chapter, but do we believe them? Better yet, do we heed the counsel they provide? The four simple questions found at the beginning of this blog are legitimate and beg for answers. I will attempt to answer them but in reverse order.

First, why should we look to Jesus, and, better yet, what does that even mean? The New English Bible translates it as “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.” The New International Version says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.” The English Standard Version has “looking to Jesus.”

The Greek word is aphoraō and it means “to turn the eyes away from other things and fix them on something” (Greek Lexicon :: G872 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible). This definition provides us with invaluable insight into what it means for us to look to Jesus. This word does not refer to a casual glance or one-time look but to an ongoing focus bordering on fixation. We are to look to Jesus and not take our eyes off of Him and, in doing so, we inevitably have to take our eyes off of other things.

But first things first. What does it mean to look to Jesus? How are we supposed to pull that off when we can’t even see Him? The Scriptures provide us with some insight. Jesus Himself told the Jewish religious leaders,  “But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69 ESV). Stephen, just moments before he was stoned to death, received a vision of Jesus.

But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” – Acts 7:55-56 ESV

Paul provided the believers in Rome with insight into the location or whereabouts of Jesus. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34 ESV). On another occasion, Paul told the Ephesian believers that the Father of glory “raised him [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:16-21 ESV).

So where is Jesus? He is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. So when the author of Hebrews tells us to look to Jesus, to fix our eyes on Jesus, he is not simply telling us to rely on Him. He is encouraging us to remember where He is and what He is doing at this moment. Paul tells us, “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34 ESV).

Jesus is in heaven, and it is from there that He intercedes for us. It is from there that He will one day return for us. And it is to there that He will take us.

Just prior to His death, Jesus told His disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3 ESV). Heaven is our destination. Eternal life with God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son is the objective. We must never forget where Jesus is because that is where we are going. That is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise of God. Our salvation culminates with our glorification. 

When will our glorification take place? We don’t know. Which is why we need endurance. Jesus didn’t tell us when He would return. He didn’t tell us how long we would have to wait. But that is where faith comes in. It is the assurance of things hoped for. But do we hope for His return? Do we long for His coming? Do we prefer heaven over earth and our future life to our current one?

Like Abraham, are we “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10 ESV)? We must remain fixated on where Jesus is because that is where we belong and where we are going. And we are to run in that direction. That must be the primary aim and objective of our lives. To do so effectively,  we must lay aside every weight and sin which clings so close. The things of this earth can only inhibit our progress toward heaven, not enhance it. Earthly things can become distractions and weigh us down from the pursuit of our heavenly calling. That is why the apostle John reminded us:

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

Jesus is to be our model for life. When He lived on this earth, He had a clear focus and calling. He knew why He had come and what He was to do. He also knew where He was going. The author of Hebrews tells us this concerning Jesus:

…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:2 ESV

Jesus endured. He had a future-focused faith. He ran the race with endurance, looking forward to His return to heaven and His reunion with His Heavenly Father. He knew His time on this earth was temporary. His suffering would be intense but impermanent. His humiliation would result in His resurrection. His death would end in life. His agony would result in glory.

We must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. To do so, we have to take our eyes off the things of this world. We can’t live as if this is our home. We can’t afford to act as if this is our final destination. Focusing on where Jesus is will help us remember that heaven is where we belong. Our true home will be with Him and God the Father. Paul summed it up well when he wrote. “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18 ESV).

And there are countless millions of faithful “witnesses” who have gone ahead of us into God’s presence and whose lives bear witness to the truth of God’s word and the reality of His promises. They cheer us on from their vantage point in heaven, shouting out their words of encouragement to keep the faith and run the race with endurance. They have achieved their eternal reward and eagerly and enthusiastically challenge us to fix our eyes on Jesus and our hope fixated on the finish line of faith.

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

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

The Subtle Snare of Self-Sufficiency

1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. James 5:1-6 ESV

It would seem that much of the conflict within the congregation to which James wrote had to do with the haves and the have-nots. There was obviously some kind of tension taking place between the wealthier members and those who were of less fortunate means. James has already addressed this cause of disunity several times in his letter.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements. – James 1:9-11 NLT

In chapter two, he addressed their problem of showing partiality to the rich while treating the poor with contempt. He even presented them with a hypothetical scenario that was probably more fact than fiction.

suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? – James 2:1-4 NLT

James pointed out that those who attempted to flatter the wealthier members of their community were doing so for the wrong reasons. They were motivated by greed and hopeful of winning over the very ones who were making their lives miserable.

…the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:6-7 NLT

It seems that some of the believers were inviting their affluent oppressors to visit their worship services where they treated them like celebrities. But in doing so, they were discriminating against the poor whom God had chosen to extend His grace and mercy. In fact, James reminded them that God had chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Not only that, they stood to inherit the Kingdom God had promised to all those who love him (James 2:5).

In chapter four, James addressed the curse of self-confidence. He pointed out that there were those who somehow believed that they were in control of their own lives.

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” – James 4:13 NLT

This describes a person of means, someone with the financial resources to relocate to another city in order to set up a new business. Only a person with substantial capital could afford such a costly and potentially risky proposition. But just because they have the financial wherewithal to pull off such a grandiose plan doesn’t mean they should. James warns that their sense of self-sufficiency was a bit presumptuous because they had no way of knowing what the future held.

How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:14 NLT

The problem with having ample financial resources is that it can create a sense of autonomy and an attitude of independence from God. James wanted the wealthy to understand that their capacity to make things happen could cause them to replace God’s will with their own, and that would be a risky proposition. So, he encouraged them to put their money and their means at God’s disposal, to do with as He saw fit.

What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:15-16 NLT

It was Jesus who said, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money” (Matthew 6:24 NLT).

Money is amoral and not inherently evil. But it can become a source of temptation and a means of living outside the will of God. Rather than waiting on God to confirm His will through the provision of resources, the wealthy can formulate and fund their plans independently. It is this propensity for prideful self-sufficiency that James addresses in this section of his letter. In a rather prophetic and unapologetically harsh tone, James calls out the privileged class. He doesn’t seem to be differentiating between believers and unbelievers but is pointing out the fate of all who use their wealth for unjust purposes. And he is unsparing in his criticism.

Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. Your gold and silver are corroded. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This corroded treasure you have hoarded will testify against you on the day of judgment. – James 5:1-3 NLT

To a certain degree, James is also addressing the have-nots within the local congregation by opening their eyes to the less-attractive side of financial independence. They all aspired to have more. They longed to experience all the pleasures and benefits that money could provide. But James wanted them to understand that wealth could be both a blessing and a curse. It is as if he had in mind the words that Paul wrote to Timothy.

…people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. – 1 Timothy 6:9-11 NLT

With wealth comes great responsibility. And the rich to whom James referred were guilty of abusing their responsibilities by taking advantage of the less fortunate. They were lining their pockets by defrauding their employees. They were increasing their wealth by fleecing the poor and defenseless. But James warns them that their immoral and unethical actions had not gone unnoticed.

For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – James 5:4 NLT

This is a direct reference to the Mosaic law, where God warned His people against abusing their less-fortunate laborers.

“Never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns. You must pay them their wages each day before sunset because they are poor and are counting on it. If you don’t, they might cry out to the Lord against you, and it would be counted against you as sin.” – Deuteronomy 24:14-15 NLT

James is continuing to remind his readers that faith is always tied to behavior. That’s why had told them, “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it” (James 4:17 NLT). To know the will of God and then fail to carry it out was nothing less than sin and worthy of His judgment. To claim to have faith in God but to live in disobedience to the will of God rendered your faith lifeless and impotent. There was no evidence of transformation. And regardless of whether someone was wealthy or poor, they had an obligation to demonstrate the sanctifying nature of their faith through acts of righteousness. In this passage, James is simply supporting what he said earlier in his letter.

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. – James 2:17 NLT

And James declares that the wealthy to whom he referred had more than proven the lifeless nature of their faith. Their works gave testimony to the worthlessness of their so-called faith in Christ.

You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you. – James 5:5-6 NLT

James is merciless in his condemnation because of the serious nature of the problem. He seems to infer that the unethical actions of the wealthy had resulted in the deaths of innocent people. Whether James is speaking hyperbolically or literally is unclear. If these affluent landowners were guilty of underpaying their employees, it could have easily resulted in the starvation of some of the more destitute among them.

“. . . for day laborers it was very serious not to find work or not to be paid. For this reason James personifies the salary, seeing it as the very blood of the exploited workers crying out pitifully. The case was the same for the peasants. The peasants die because they pour out their strength in their work, but the fruit of their work does not come back to them. They cannot regain their strength because the rich withhold their salaries. Therefore James accuses the rich of condemning and killing the just (5:6).” – Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead

Our behavior should be a reflection of our beliefs. The presence of wealth or poverty should not determine the nature of our lives. For the Christ follower, the indwelling Holy Spirit should be the motivating force behind our every action and activity. The apostle John provides a much-needed reminder that we should emulate Christ in all that we do. His love for us should show up in our love for others, and be evidenced by our willingness to use every resource at our disposal to benefit those around us.

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. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. – 1 John 3:16-19 NLT

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

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

He Has No Equal

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. – Colossians 1:15-20 ESV

As far as Paul was concerned, one of the most non-negotiable aspects of God’s will that the Colossians needed to understand concerned the preeminence of Christ. Evidently, Epaphras had informed Paul that the doctrine of Christ was under direct assault by men claiming to have apostolic authority. These unnamed individuals were teaching false doctrines concerning Christ that had left the Colossian congregation confused and dangerously close to diminishing the fruitfulness for which Paul had so graciously complimented them.

In order to redirect the focus of his letter to Christ, Paul adeptly and somewhat abruptly shifts the emphasis from God the Father to Jesus Christ the son.

For he [God] has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins. – Colossians 1:13-14 NLT

Following this reminder of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross and its eternal implications for their redemption and justification, Paul states, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NLT). In coming to earth and taking on human flesh, Jesus, the Son of God and second person of the Trinity made God both visible and knowable. He became the visible image of the invisible God on earth.

In his gospel account, the apostle John elaborates on this unique aspect of Christ’s earthly ministry.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14 ESV

And John boldly proclaims that Jesus was more than just another messenger from God. He was God Himself.

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made Him known. – John 1:18 BSB

The author of Hebrews expands on the God-reflecting nature of Jesus and further solidifies the doctrine of His divinity.

The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. This shows that the Son is far greater than the angels, just as the name God gave him is greater than their names. – Hebrews 1:3-4 NLT

For Paul and these other authors of the New Testament, the divinity of Jesus was an essential doctrine that must be defended at all costs because it was the hinge upon which the door of salvation swung. If Jesus was not divine, then His death on the cross would prove to be ineffective. His sinlessness was the key to His death’s effectiveness.

…we have an advocate before the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins… – 1 John 2:1-2 BSB

But you know that Christ appeared to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin. – 1 John 3:5 BSB

And what makes this atoning work of Jesus even more significant is the fact that, as God, He was the Creator laying down His life for those whom He created. Paul further enhances Christ’s divine credentials by stressing His eternality and the essential role He played in the creation story.

…by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. – Colossians 1:16 ESV

And, once again, the apostle John provides ample support for Paul’s claim.

He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made. – John 1:2-3 BSB

Paul would present this same message concerning Christ’s role in the creation account when writing to the believers in Corinth.

…there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we exist. – 1 Corinthians 8:6 BSB

As the Creator-God, Jesus was responsible for all that existed, including the believers in Colossae. He was not just a Messiah who came to save them, but He was the God who had created them. He was responsible for their very existence as well as their salvation. He had formed them and forgiven them. He had breathed in them the breath of life and had become for them the means for experiencing new life.  And by His divine power, Jesus would hold them safe and secure to the end.

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:17 ESV

Paul is going out of his way to stress the unique nature of Christ. He was adamant that the believers in Colossae grasped and appreciated the significance of Jesus’ life-giving and life-transforming role as the Son of God. Jesus had been so much more than a teacher, Rabbi, healer, and miracle worker. He was supreme in all things. He had no equal and there was no one who could replicate His accomplishments or diminish His one-of-a-kind status as the sovereign Savior of the world. That is why Paul stresses the headship of Christ over the church, and promotes His well-deserved position as the preeminent one.

And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. – Colossians 1:18 ESV

Paul’s point seems to be that the church would not exist without Christ. Had He not died and risen again, there would be no church because there would be no Christ-followers. He was not a martyred teacher who had managed to cultivate a faithful host of committed followers who continued to propagate His teachings. He was the “firstborn from the dead” who, through His death and resurrection, made possible the spiritual transformation of countless men and women.

There were those who were teaching that the resurrection of Jesus was a fable or myth, and downplaying its importance to the Christian faith. Paul addressed the misguided musings of these dangerous “false teachers”sovereign in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. – 1 Corinthians 15:12-14 ESV

Christ’s resurrection made possible the redemption of condemned humanity and guarantees the future resurrection and glorification of all those who accept His free gift of salvation. Again, Christ was more than a gifted teacher with a message of life transformation based on behavior modification. He had not just modeled a new way of living, but He had died so that sinful men and women might receive new lives and new natures that emulated His.

Paul emphatically states that Jesus is preeminent and one-of-a-kind. He has no equal. Jesus was the sole means by which God chose to redeem fallen humanity. That’s why Paul claims, “God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ” (Colossians 1:19 NLT), and no one else. And it was only through Christ that “God reconciled everything to himself” (Colossians 1:20 NLT). No one else could take credit for the role that Jesus had played in God’s grand redemptive plan. God used Jesus to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself. And anyone who diminished Jesus’ role as Savior or presented another means of salvation was to be avoided at all costs.

You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ. Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. – Galatians 1:6-8 NLT

You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed. – 2 Corinthians 11:4 NLT

It seems quite obvious that Paul held strong views concerning this topic. He was obsessed with defending the doctrine of Christ at all costs. He would not tolerate anyone who attempted to diminish Christ’s divinity or who tried to devalue His role as the God-man who, through His life, death, and resurrection made it possible for sinful men to be made right with a holy God.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Well Worth the Wait

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 2 Peter 3:8-13 ESV

The false teachers were raising doubts about one of the most important doctrines the apostles taught concerning Jesus:  His Second Coming. They did so by questioning the reason for its delay.

Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” – 2 Peter 3:4 ESV

Peter and his fellow apostles had been teaching about the coming Day of the Lord ever since Jesus had ascended back into heaven. Before His departure, Jesus had repeatedly told them He would be going away but He also assured them would be returning one day. But it still had not happened yet, and its delay had caused the false teachers to question the validity of the doctrine of Christ’s Second Coming. And because the members of the congregations to whom Peter wrote found themselves suffering for their faith, their hopes for Christ’s return had already begun to fade. This made them vulnerable to any teaching that cast doubts about some future day when Jesus would return and make all things right.

To make matters worse, the false teachers had begun to propagate the idea that there was no future judgment. This led them to mock and scorn the teachings of the apostles. With no fear of coming judgment, they followed their own sinful desires (2 Peter 3:3). They promised freedom but were slaves of corruption themselves (2 Peter 2:19). They seduced others to abandon godly living. Without the fear of God’s judgment, they promoted a lifestyle based on sinful passions of the flesh (2 Peter 2:18). They operated on the philosophy of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”

But Peter had some bad news for these people. They were deluded by their misinterpretation of God’s future plans. Peter fully admitted that the return of Christ had not yet occurred, but that did not mean it should be ruled out altogether. Peter saw the delay as a sign of God’s patience and grace.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. – 2 Peter 3:9 ESV

To those who were having to endure unexpected suffering for their faith, the delay in Christ’s coming seemed unfair and unnecessary. If His return was supposed to make all things right and restore righteousness to the world, why was He waiting? From their perspective, there was no better time than the present for Jesus to return and set up His Kingdom. But Peter reminds his readers to “not overlook this one fact … that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8 ESV).

Time isn’t an issue with God. Because He is eternal, He exists outside of time and is free from its constraints. From man’s temporal perspective, it appears as if God is taking His sweet time when it comes to the return of His Son and the final redemption of His creation. But God is in no rush. And Peter tells us why.

…he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. – 2 Peter 3:9 NLT

It is not God’s desire to destroy people. He does not love condemning the disobedient and rebellious to hell. But as a holy, just, and righteous Judge, He is obligated to do so. It is His moral responsibility to deal with the sinfulness of men. To not do so would be in violation of His godly character. He would love to see all men repent, but He knows that will not happen. As a matter of fact, without God’s sovereign intervention, no one would repent. Jesus Himself said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44 ESV). In that same chapter, Jesus stated, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them” (John 6:65 NIV). And He also claimed, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37 ESV).

Because all men are dead in their trespasses and sins, each is condemned to die and to spend an eternity separated from God. That is the righteous punishment reserved for them by God. But God has made it possible for some to be saved. His desire would be that all be saved, but that will not happen because not all will accept His offer of salvation through faith in Christ. But God is graciously delaying His judgment on all mankind until all who are going to be saved have been restored to a right relationship with Him. And according to Paul, God knows the exact number of those who will be saved. He assured the believers in Rome:

I want you to understand this mystery, dear brothers and sisters, so that you will not feel proud about yourselves. Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. – Romans 11:25 NLT

There is a divinely appointed number of those who will be saved. And when all those who have been called by God have been restored to a right relationship with Him through faith in Jesus Christ, then His Son will return. Jesus Himself said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14 ESV). So we should view God’s delay as a sign of His grace, not as a reason to deny to His coming judgment.

Peter assured his readers that God’s judgment was coming. There was no reason to allow its delay to lead to its denial. It would come according to God’s divine timeline and when it came, it would catch everyone unaware, like a thief in the night. Even Jesus had admitted to His disciples that He was not privy to God’s schedule for His own return.

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” – Matthew 24:36 ESV

That’s why Jesus told them, “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42 ESV). And Peter gave his readers similar advice:

Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. – 2 Peter 3:11-12 ESV

Jesus is coming back. Judgment is coming. God will finish what He has started. So, as we wait for the promised fulfillment of His plan, we are to live holy and godly lives. Our hope is based on God completing His redemptive plan for mankind and the universe. God is going to make all things new, but before that can happen, He will destroy the former things so that He can make a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13 ESV).

Jesus spoke of this divine destruction and recreation of the heavens and the earth. He told His disciples, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35 ESV). He knew that His Heavenly Father had long-term plans to renew and restore all that He had made, including the heavens and the earth. And Peter reminds his readers, “we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13 NLT). He wanted them to understand that their hope was not to be based on this world. They were to focus their attention on the new world to come. Jesus was not coming back to fix all their personal problems or mitigate their present trials and suffering. God had a far greater future in store for them.

Peter wanted them to understand that God’s final judgment would have to take place before His plan for the glorification of His creation could happen. Just as Jesus had to suffer and die before His glorification could take place. As followers of Christ, they were having to endure suffering in their present life, but they could rest in the hope of their future glorification. And they could live with the end in mind. And the apostle Paul provides all believers of all times with these encouraging words:

While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 NLT

This earth and all it contains will one day be destroyed. But, as followers of Christ, we know how the story ends. After the Second Coming of Christ, God will make a new heaven and a new earth. And then He will have the grand opening of His masterpiece, the new city of Jerusalem, which He has been preparing from before the foundations of the world. And in that remarkable city, God will make His permanent dwelling place with man, just as the apostle John described it.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” – Revelation 21:1-5 ESV

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

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

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Work While You Wait

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 4:7-11 ESV

One thought that Peter and the other apostles couldn’t get out of their heads was the words Jesus had spoken to them not long before He left them.

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going.” – John 14:1-4 NLT

While they didn’t fully understand the gist of His message at the time, the promise contained in it had stayed with them. And their eager anticipation of His return can be found throughout their writings. Peter clearly reveals his belief that Jesus’ return, which will signal the end of this age, could not be far away: “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7 ESV). But he was not alone in that estimation. James wrote:

You, too, must be patient. Take courage, for the coming of the Lord is near. – James 5:8 NLT

The apostle Paul, writing with equal intensity and eager anticipation, put it this way:

This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. – Romans 13:11-12 NLT

John understood that the Antichrist and the persecution he would bring would precede the return of Christ. He could sense the increasing intensity of persecution and suffering in the world and believed that the end was nearing.

Dear children, the last hour is here. You have heard that the Antichrist is coming, and already many such antichrists have appeared. From this we know that the last hour has come. – 1 John 2:18 NLT

And the author of the book of Hebrews encouraged his readers to eagerly await the return of Christ.

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, 28 so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. – Hebrews 9:27-28 NLT

Each of these men lived with a sense of anticipation and expectation. They understood that that the return of the Lord was a vital part of God’s redemptive plan. As Paul put it, “the day of salvation” was tied directly to the second coming of Jesus. His return was an essential and non-negotiable requirement for the Kingdom to be restored, and each of these men still longed to see that happen in their lifetimes. Jesus’ departure had delayed but not diminished their hopes. He had promised to return and they believed Him.

“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again. If you really loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, who is greater than I am. I have told you these things before they happen so that when they do happen, you will believe.” – John 14:27-29 NLT

At the time Peter wrote his letter, the apostle John had not yet received his vision from God that eventually produced the book of Revelation. Late in his life, John found himself living on the desolate island of Patmos. He had been exiled there by the Roman Emperor as a punishment for his continued promotion of “the Way” – the derogatory name used by the Romans to refer to the Jewish sect that still followed the martyred Rabbi, Jesus. But as John sat imprisoned on Patmos, he was given a divinely inspired vision of the future, delivered to him by an angel of God.

This is a revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the events that must soon take place. He sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John, who faithfully reported everything he saw. This is his report of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. – Revelation 1:1-2 NLT

Notice that he too believed that the things he saw and later recorded would “soon take place.” John was not given a detailed timeline for the events described in the revelation he received from Jesus. But it seems clear that he believed he would live to witness their arrival. And, once again, he was given ample reason to reach that conclusion when he heard and wrote down the last words Jesus spoke in his vision.

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” – Revelation 22:20 ESV

John and his fellow apostles lived with a deep longing to see their Savior again. They had been faithful to fulfill the commission He had given them and had taken the gospel of the Kingdom to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The size of the church had increased significantly but so had the persecution. And these 1st-Century saints found motivation and determination in the promise of Christ’s return. They lived with the end in mind.

That’s why Peter told his readers to “be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7 ESV). According to Peter, the end of all things was close at hand. In other words, the return of Christ was imminent. It could happen at any moment. Peter knew that his readers were undergoing intense persecution and it would be easy for them to become fixated on their circumstances and lose hope. So, he called them to refocus their attention on the promise of Christ’s return. This was going to require that they think clearly and evaluate their circumstances soundly. The apostle Paul encouraged the believers in Colossae to have the same kind of attitude about life.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. – Colossians 3:1-4 NLT

A clear-headed understanding of Christ’s place of power and prominence at God’s right hand would result in a much-needed reminder of His sovereign control over all things, including their suffering and persecution. Nothing they would endure in this life would prevent their experience of eternal life. But, as Peter warns, the failure to think clearly about the present and the future would negatively influence their prayer lives. When believers lose sight of the goal, their prayers become focused on their present problems and their hope for the immediate gratification of their desires. This life becomes all there is. That’s why Paul said, “set your sights on the realities of heaven.”

It was Jesus who provided His disciples with a model prayer designed to refocus their petitions to God.

“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Pray like this:

Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:7-10 NLT

Even Jesus promoted a future-minded mentality. It is by focusing on the reality of the future, as prescribed by God, that believers can make sense of the present. Jesus went on to encourage prayers for daily provision, forgiveness, and protection from temptation. But all these requests are intended to provide the endurance necessary to survive in this world while waiting for the next. They are focused on the end.

But Peter went on to encourage a lifestyle marked by grace-based love, complaint-free hospitality, and a God-glorifying use of their spiritual gifts. They were to love as they had been loved by God. They were to open their hearts and homes, providing the same gracious and warm welcome into the family of God that they had received. And they were to use the gifts given to them by the Spirit of God in order to bless the people of God. As they waited for the return of the Lord, they were to remain busy about the business of doing good.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:9-10 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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

To Love Like Christ

13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. 1 Peter 3:13-17 ESV

Peter has just quoted from the book of Psalms in order to encourage his readers. He has used the Old Testament Scriptures to remind them that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous” (Psalm 34:15). But not only that, “the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (Psalm 34:16). He wanted them to know that God the Father was watching over them and was on their side. The presence of difficulties and trials in the their lives was not a sign that God had abandoned them. The psalmist had called the people of God to live in obedience to the will of God, even in the face of opposition and the seeming absence of God’s presence. He was there. He was always there. And not only did God see their righteous response to the unrighteous actions of others, but the full weight of His righteous indignation was against those individuals. He would repay the wicked. Their only responsibility was to not return evil for evil. In fact, they were to turn away from evil and do good.

Then Peter follows up his quotation of Psalm 34 by paraphrasing yet another message found in the psalms.

in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
    What can man do to me? – Psalm 56:11 ESV

The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.
    What can man do to me?
The Lord is on my side as my helper;
    I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. – Psalm 118:6-7 ESV

And the author of the book of Hebrews used these same passages as when trying to articulate God’s unwavering faithfulness and care for His own.

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say,

“The Lord is my helper;
    I will not fear;
what can man do to me?” – Hebrews 13:5-6 ESV

Financial distress was no reason to worry or lose hope. And the love of or desire for money should never replace God as the believer’s sole source of sustenance and comfort. Material goods would make lousy substitutes for God. That is why Jesus warned in His Sermon on the Mount:

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Matthew 6:19-21 NLT

The love of money and the fear of man are two powerful forces that constantly pull on the followers of Christ. We are prone to believe that money can bring contentment and that men are our primary source of acceptance. The world teaches us that material wealth can make us happy, and that our peers can make us or break us. They can build us up or tear us down. Yet the psalmists, Jesus, and Peter teach something quite different. And Peter chooses to make his point by asking a rather strange question that is cleverly worded paraphrase of Psalm 56:11.

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? – 1 Peter 3:13 ESV

To those hearing Peter’s letter being read to them, the obvious and logical answer might be: Everybody! As they looked at the very real circumstances surrounding their lives, they could easily confess that there were plenty of people ready, willing, and able to do them harm for doing what is good. So much of their suffering was a result of their decision to follow Jesus.

But Peter was trying to get them to understand that their reaction to their suffering was a key demonstration of their faith in Christ. Were they willing to remain committed to doing good, even in the face of opposition and oppression? Would their mistreatment at the hands of their enemies cause them to respond in like manner or would they be a mimētēs or an imitator of Jesus. Centuries before Jesus suffered persecution at the hands of the Sanhedrin and the Roman government, the prophet Isaiah prophesied how He would respond to their unjustified and unrighteous treatment of Him.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth. – Isaiah 53:7 ESV

And Matthew records how Jesus fulfilled this prophecy.

But when the leading priests and the elders made their accusations against him, Jesus remained silent. – Matthew 27:12 NLT

Jesus suffered for the sake of righteousness. He didn’t defend Himself. He didn’t lash out in anger or resentment. And Peter lets his readers know that they too would suffer for the sake of righteousness and, when it happened, they could know that their suffering would bring the blessing of God. They would one day be justly and rightly rewarded for their faithfulness, just as Jesus was.

God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. – 1 Peter 3:14 NLT

Jesus had told His disciples, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 NLT). And He knew what He was talking about. Jesus was well aware that His future fate involved His own physical death at the hands of His enemies. They would kill His body, but fail to touch His soul. Jesus would die, but His body would be resurrected and reunited with His soul in its glorified form. His death was far from the end. It was just the beginning of God’s grand redemptive plan to reconcile lost humanity to Himself. It was on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came, that Peter made the following statement to his Jewish audience.

“So let everyone in Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, to be both Lord and Messiah!” – Acts 2:16 NLT

And it was some time later that Peter would stand before the high council of the Jews,  defending himself for having healed a lame man. And he would tell them:

“Let me clearly state to all of you and to all the people of Israel that he was healed by the powerful name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the man you crucified but whom God raised from the dead.” – Acts 4:10 NLT

Jesus had suffered the ultimate for of persecution: Death by crucifixion. And yet, He was raised to life by the power of the Holy Spirit and it was His resurrection power that enabled Peter, John, and the other disciples to do  “good deeds” even in the face of persecution. Peter knew from first-hand experience what suffering for the faith looked like. And he wanted his readers to know the secret to his ministry and resilience.

…worship Christ as Lord of your life. – 1 Peter 3:15 NLT

You might put it this way: Stop worrying and start worshiping. Rather than obsessing over what men might do to them, they needed to start praising Jesus for all that He had done for them. They were sons and daughters of God. They were heirs of the Kingdom. They were forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and had the Holy Spirit of God living within them. They had much for which to be grateful and plenty of cause to worship Jesus.

But along with praising Jesus for all that He had done for them, they were to tell others about the source of their hope, joy, and peace in the midst of life’s struggles.

if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. – 1 Peter 3:16 NLT

And as they shared their faith, even with their persecutors, they were to do so in love. They were not come across as judgmental or self-righteous. Their relationship with Christ was not to be a badge of honor or superiority that they flaunted before the less spiritual or ungodly. No, Peter told them they were to explain their faith  “in a gentle and respectful way” (1 Peter 3:16 NLT). In doing so, they would maintain a clear conscience, free from hate and marked by gracious humility. And this Christ-like response to suffering for the sake of righteousness would have a remarkable impact on their enemies. 

Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. – 1 Peter 3:16 NLT

It’s one thing to be hated for doing what is wrong. That is to be expected. But it is another thing to be hated for doing what is right and righteous. And Peter wants the believers to whom he is writing to understand the difference. If they respond to mistreatment with hate, they will only receive more hate in return. But if they respond in love, in total contradiction to human nature, their enemies won’t know what to do with it. This is not a promise of immunity from further suffering or even death. It is a reminder that the believer’s power to show love to their enemies is evidence that they belong to Christ.

Jesus told His disciples that they would suffer. He warned them that the world would hate in the same way it hated Him. But Jesus loved the world enough to die for it. And as Jesus told the Pharisee, Nicodemus: “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17 NLT). And, as His followers, we are love the world by sharing that message of divine love and salvation – even in the face of opposition, oppression, and the threat of death.

Remember,” Peter writes,  “it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is what God wants, than to suffer for doing wrong!” (1 Peter 3:17 NLT).

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

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

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

A Traveler’s Guide for Christian Pilgrims

1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you. 1 Peter 1:1-2 ESV

As the salutation of this letter suggests, its author is none other than “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.” This is the very same Peter whom Jesus called to be one of His disciples. He was first introduced to Jesus by his brother Andrew, who was originally a disciple of John the Baptist. These two men were fishermen, who had a business partnership with two other brothers, James and John (Luke 5:10). But Andrew had been drawn to the enigmatic ministry of John the Baptist, the rather bizarre and mysterious character who had shown up in the Judean wilderness declaring that the kingdom of God had come and calling the people to repent and be baptized. John’s message, mannerisms, and style of dress attracted a lot of attention.

John wore clothing made from camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. Then people from Jerusalem, as well as all Judea and all the region around the Jordan, were going out to him, and he was baptizing them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. – Matthew 3:4-6 NLT

John’s unconventional wardrobe and message caused a great deal of conjecture among the people. Many thought he might be a prophet sent from God. Some even believed he might be the long-departed prophet, Elijah. Others went as far as to suggest he was the long-awaited Messiah. But John put all these rumors to rest when he declared, “I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Clear the way for the Lord’s coming!’” (John 1:23 NLT).

The Pharisees, perplexed by John and a bit put out by John’s growing reputation among the people, demanded to know what right he had to say and do the things he did.

“If you aren’t the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, what right do you have to baptize?” – John 1:25 NLT

And John responded emphatically, albeit a bit cryptically, “I baptize with water, but right here in the crowd is someone you do not recognize. Though his ministry follows mine, I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandal” (John 1:26-27 NLT). Andrew would have overheard these exchanges between John and the Jewish religious leaders. And the very next day, he just happened to be standing next to John when Jesus walked by. When he heard John say, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36 ESV), Andrew’s curiosity got the better of him and he followed Jesus. He ended up spending the entire day in the company of this stranger from Galilee and when the day was done, he made a beeline to his brother Simon. 

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of these men who heard what John said and then followed Jesus. Andrew went to find his brother, Simon, and told him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means “Christ”). – John 1:40-41 NLT

After less than 24 hours in Jesus’ presence, Andrew had become convinced that He was the Messiah, the anointed one of God who would restore the fortunes of Israel by re-establishing the Davidic dynasty and restoring the nation to power and prominence. The next morning, his excitement undiminished, Andrew introduced his brother to the man he believed to be the one of whom the prophets spoke.

Then Andrew brought Simon to meet Jesus. Looking intently at Simon, Jesus said, “Your name is Simon, son of John—but you will be called Cephas” (which means “Peter”). – John 1:42 NLT

Upon meeting Simon, Jesus promptly changed his name to Cephas, the Aramaic version of the Greek name, Petras or Peter.  But Simon received far more than a name change that day. He didn’t realize it at the time, but his entire life was about to undergo a radical transformation that would have eternal ramifications. Yet, at the time, the newly named Peter seems to have made no plans to become a disciple of Jesus. In fact, according to Luke’s gospel, Peter simply went back to his normal routine. But he would soon learn that his new name was just the beginning of the changes that Jesus had in store for him.

One day as Jesus was preaching on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, great crowds pressed in on him to listen to the word of God. He noticed two empty boats at the water’s edge, for the fishermen had left them and were washing their nets. Stepping into one of the boats, Jesus asked Simon, its owner, to push it out into the water. So he sat in the boat and taught the crowds from there.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish.”

“Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” And this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! A shout for help brought their partners in the other boat, and soon both boats were filled with fish and on the verge of sinking.

When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m such a sinful man.” For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him. His partners, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were also amazed.

Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” And as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus. – Luke 5:1-11 NLT

It would appear that Simon had not initially shared his brother’s enthusiasm and certainty that Jesus was the Messiah. He simply went back to work. But Jesus was not done with Simon. This “change” encounter by the Sea of Galilee would dramatically alter the trajectory of one man’s life and forever change the world. Simon the fisherman would become Peter the fisher of men. This impulsive and, oftentimes, impudent man would end up deserving his new name. He was a “rock” in more ways than one. Hardheaded and quick-tempered, Simon was a speak-first-think-later kind of guy who regularly put his mouth in gear before his brain was engaged. He was competitive, compulsive, prone to pride, and desperate for recognition. He was an overachiever whose rough edges rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. 

And while Simon had been blown away by the miracle of the massive catch of fish, the greatest miracle would be the ultimate transformation of his own life. He would go from fisherman to follower of Jesus. In time, he would become one of three disciples who formed the inner circle of Jesus. He, James, and John would be privileged to witness the transfiguration of Jesus. They would be invited to join Jesus in the garden as He prayed on the night of His arrest. Simon would be the one to declare of Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). But he would also be the one who, three separate times, denied even knowing Jesus. Yet, this man would become a “rock” in the early days of the Church.

After the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Simon would earn his nickname as the “rock,” preaching with boldness and conviction and producing a harvest of new lives for the Kingdom of God.

Peter continued preaching for a long time, strongly urging all his listeners, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!”

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all. – Acts 2:40-41 NLT

It was this same Peter who penned the words of this letter that bears his name. And he wrote to an audience made up of new converts to Christ. These were believers living in such distant lands as Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. They were predominantly Gentiles who were having to live out their newfound faith in the midst of a secular and, oftentimes, hostile culture. Peter refers to them as “elect exiles of the Dispersion” in order to stress the temporary and alien nature of their status as followers of Christ. By aligning themselves with Jesus, they had made themselves enemies of the state. Misunderstood and often maligned, these individuals were facing extreme persecution and harsh retribution for their decision to follow Jesus. Yet, Peter was writing this letter to encourage them to remain strong in the face of opposition

Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. Remember that your family of believers all over the world is going through the same kind of suffering you are.

In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation. – 1 Peter 5:9-10 NLT

Ultimately, Peter wanted the recipients of his letter to understand that God was not only aware of their difficult circumstances, but He had sovereignly ordained them. Nothing they were experiencing was a surprise to God. Their salvation had been His doing, but their suffering and sanctification were also part of His divine plan. Peter knew that these people were beginning to question the efficacy of their salvation experience. They had come to Christ fully expecting the promise of abundant life. But now they were experiencing trials and tribulation, rejection and ridicule. In their minds, the Gospel appeared to be some kind of bait and switch. But Peter wanted them to understand that it was all part of God’s sovereign will for their lives. God had not abandoned them and He was far from done with them. In fact, Peter wanted them to know that their current trials would be the source of great joy.

There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. – 1 Peter 1:6-7 NLT

In a sense, Peter was providing his readers with a traveler’s guide for Christian pilgrims. He was giving them much-needed directions for safely navigating the path that God had laid out for them.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

More Than Alive

50 And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God. Luke 24:50-53 ESV

What’s Up with the Ascension?Luke is a stickler for details. So, it’s not surprising that he adds a very subtle but significant factor when describing the final moments of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He points out that Jesus led His disciples “out as far as Bethany” (Luke 24:50 ESV). This was the same village, located just a few miles east of Jerusalem, where Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. He was returning to the very spot where He had earlier told Martha, the sister of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die” (John 11:25-26 NLT).

According to the apostle Paul, between the time Jesus walked out of the tomb to the moment He stood before His disciples in Bethany, He had appeared to hundreds of individuals in His resurrected form.

He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. – 1 Corinthians 5:4-8 NLT

So, as He stood among His disciples in Bethany, the scene of Lazarus’ death-to-life transformation, there was little doubt in their minds that He truly was “the resurrection and the life.” He was the literal epicenter for all hope of resurrection. Lazarus had been raised from death to life, but he had not been resurrected. His earthly body had been resuscitated, which is a miracle in and of itself, but he would live to die again. In other words, Lazarus’ new life was nothing more than his old one regained.

But what Jesus had said to Martha regarding the resurrection was something altogether different. He told her, “Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die” (John 11:26 NLT). To experience the resurrected life was to enjoy eternal life – a never-ending experience of life without pain, suffering, or physical death. It’s fascinating to consider that Jesus chose Bethany the point of departure for His ascension back to heaven. He had a new body that was prepared for its eternal existence with God the Father. Yes, He still retained the scars and visible wounds He had suffered during His crucifixion, but His “earthly tent” had been transformed into into its glorified state. The apostle Paul talked about this “eternal body” and its implications for all believers.

For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this… – 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 NLT

I don’t think it’s farfetched to consider that Lazarus was in the crowd that day. He was a faithful follower of Jesus and was eternally grateful for the miracle of new life that Jesus had given him. But as Lazarus looked on, he was still inhabiting his old earthly tent, while Jesus stood before him in His new “house,” a heavenly body prepared for the joys of eternal life.

For Jesus, the goal was not restored life, but resurrected life. While Judas was living proof that Jesus could raise the physically dead back to life, that had not been His primary objective. New life was not enough. What sinful man really needs is resurrected life.  The apostle Paul would drive home this point in his first letter to the believers in Corinth.

…if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. – 1 Corinthians 15:13-14 NLT

Belief in a reanimated of a formerly dead Jew was not going to be enough. Jesus wasn’t just another Lazarus – a dead man who had been restored to life. He was the resurrected and glorified Son of God. And it was His resurrection, not His resuscitation that made the difference. Consider what Paul wrote.

…if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. – 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 NLT

The point Paul was trying to make was that Jesus was not simply alive. He is the living hope for all those who have died. His resurrection was not an offer of renewed life on this earth but of eternal life in the coming Kingdom of God. And His resurrection was to stand as a guarantee of all the resurrections to come.

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

And then, Paul went on to compare Jesus to Adam.

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. But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back.– 1 Corinthians 15:21-23 NLT

What’s important to consider is an often overlooked exchange that took place between Jesus and His disciples as they gathered together in Bethany. Luke records this conversation in the opening chapter of the book of Acts.

So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” – Acts 1:6 NLT

As they stood looking at the resurrected Jesus, all they could think about was the fact that He was alive. Just days earlier, Jesus had been a corpse in a tomb. But now, He stood before them in the peak of health and what they hoped would be full fighting form. Their question reveals that they were still hoping Jesus was going to set up His kingdom on earth. They had not given up hope that Jesus would finally declare His Messiahship by overthrowing the Romans and establishing His reign over Israel. Now that He was alive, there was no time like the present.

But Jesus burst their bubble by announcing, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8 NLT).

They had their sights set on a display of military power that would put Israel back on the map. But Jesus promised them a far different kind of power – that which would come from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And the only way that kind of power would become available was if the resurrected Jesus returned to His Father’s side. And according to the gospels and the book of Acts, that is exactly what happened. 

After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. – Acts 1:9 NLT         

and lifting his hands to heaven, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. – Luke 24:50-51 NLT 

When the Lord Jesus had finished talking with them, he was taken up into heaven and sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. – Mark 16:19 NLT

In his gospel account, Luke records that they “worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy. And they spent all of their time in the Temple, praising God” (Luke 24:52-53 NLT). But it seems that in between the time he wrote his gospel and then penned the book of Acts, Luke had gained further details concerning that fateful day. Through interviews or word of mouth, he discovered that the disciples had experienced one last divine encounter. Two angels had appeared and confronted them about their apparent delay in returning to Jerusalem.

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!” – Acts 1:11 NLT

They were standing there, probably slack-jawed and dumbfounded, as their able-bodied, fully alive Messiah slowly disappeared from sight. They had been hoping He would stay and fulfill all their hopes concerning the Kingdom of God. But He was leaving so that they might one day experience the reality of their own resurrections and the joy of life in His eternal Kingdom. And it was news of His promised return that filled them with joy and sent them back to Jerusalem in a state of heartfelt worship and praise. And we too should rejoice and worship the King for the unwavering promise of His return.

“Surely I am coming soon.” – Revelation 22:20 ESV

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

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

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

The Inextinguishable Light

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things. Luke 23:44-49 ESV

The cross is one of the most recognizable symbols in all of human history. And its image conjures up all kinds of emotions and associations. For some, it elicits a strong sense of reverence and veneration. Yet others are repulsed by the sight of it, seeing in its simple form a sinister reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. And there are those who view the cross as an archaic religious icon that no longer holds any relevance in the more complicated and scientifically sophisticated age of post-modernity.

Yet, over the centuries, the cross has left a lasting and indelible impact on the lives of countless millions and continues to do so to this day. Jesus had told His disciples, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32 ESV). And John, the one who recorded those words, added the explanatory note: “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33 ESV). Jesus was clearly predicting that His death would have long-lasting and life-altering implications. And it began the very day He was crucified.

This beaten and bloodied Rabbi from Nazareth hung helplessly on the cross as a wooden placard placed above His head proclaimed His crime: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37 ESV). Jesus was being executed for being exactly who He had claimed to be: The Messiah, the anointed one of Israel. He was the long-awaited seed of Abraham and the son of David. He was the fulfillment of every Old Testament prophecy that had predicted the coming Messiah and He was the divine culmination of every promise God had made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. And yet, on that fateful day in the city of Jerusalem, the Son of God and Savior of the world hung between heaven and earth, nailed to a wooden cross. He had been beaten, spit upon, slapped, and mercilessly mocked. The skin on His back had been laid open by the sharp pieces of bone and metal attached to the flagellum or whip that was used to flog Him. He had endured the excruciating pain of having His wrists and feet pierced by the large iron spikes that were used to nail Him to the cross. And then for hours, He had been put on display and subjected to the ongoing mockery of the onlookers.

those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” – Matthew 27:39-40 ESV

So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” – Mark 15:31-32 ESV

And as Jesus endured the pain of the cross and the unrelenting insults of His enemies, He could see below Him, the soldiers who callously gambled over His garments. Then suddenly, at Noon, “the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:45 ESV). Inexplicably and unexpectedly, the brightness of day was replaced by the darkness of night. This disconcerting cosmic display got everyone’s attention. But few would have understood the relevance of the moment, except John, the one disciple who had faithfully stayed by his Master’s side all throughout His painful ordeal. John records in his gospel account how Jesus had placed upon him the responsibility for caring for Mary, the mother of Jesus.

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. – John 19:26-27 ESV

And as John stood at the base of the cross and watched the light fade, he must have recalled the words that Jesus had spoken.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12 ESV

And years later, long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, he would open his gospel with the statement: “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 1:4-5 ESV). Yet, on the day that Jesus was crucified, he must have seen the sudden appearance of darkness as an ominous sign. The one who had declared Himself to be the light of the world was suddenly plunged into darkness and, from John’s perspective, all hope must have drained from His heart. The Light of the world was about to be extinguished – forever. Or so he must have thought. As John looked up at the cross, with tears streaming from his eyes, he heard what he believed to be the final words he would ever hear from his Master’s lips.

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” – Luke 23:46 ESV

And then, Jesus died. The Light went out.

Yet even in death, Jesus made an impression. There at the foot of the cross stood a Roman centurion. We are not told his name or whether he was on official duty that day. But for some reason, he was struck by the injustice of all that he had observed, and declared, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47 ESV). But even more surprisingly, this pagan military commander praised Yahweh, the God of Israel. What would have possessed him to do such a thing? Could it be that this was the same Centurion whom Jesus had encountered in the city of Capernaum sometime earlier? Luke recorded that scene in chapter seven of his gospel account and revealed how this pagan military leader had approached Jesus with a request. His servant was sick and in need of healing. When Jesus had agreed to come to the Centurion’s house, the man had responded, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself by coming to my home, for I am not worthy of such an honor. I am not even worthy to come and meet you. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:6-7 NLT). And having heard this man’s humble statement, Jesus declared that his servant had been healed. Then He declared, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Luke 7:9 NLT).

Perhaps this Centurion had received orders to bring his troops to Jerusalem to help manage the large crowds arriving for the Passover. And while he was there he heard about the arrest of Jesus and Pilate’s order to have Jesus crucified. This man had once told Jesus, “Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it” (Luke 7:7-8 NLT). Now, he had just witnessed Jesus doing the will of His Heavenly Father. He had heard Jesus say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46 ESV). And putting two and two together, the Centurion realized that this man truly was the Son of God, who had come to do the will of His Father.

Whoever this Centurion was, his life was changed. We are not told what happened to him but it seems safe to assume that he walked away transformed by what he had seen. Even in the darkness of that moment, the Light still shone forth, illuminating the heart of a hardened Roman Centurion. And he praised God.

But not far from the very spot where the Centurion stood praising the God of Israel, the followers of Jesus looked on in sadness and hopelessness. Their Messiah was dead. Their dreams had been shattered. The darkness of the moment enveloped them like a flood, and they found themselves drowning in sorrow and self-pity as the stark reality of their circumstances began to sink in. From their perspective, the Light had gone out. But what they failed to understand was that the Light, while temporarily dimmed, had not been overcome.

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

Just Call Me Barabbas

18 But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— 19 a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. 20 Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, 21 but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” 23 But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.  Luke 23:18-25 ESV

As far as Pilate was concerned, the Jewish religious leaders had done a poor job of prosecuting their case against Jesus. The litany of charges they had leveled against Him were dubious at best and outright lies at worst. And Pilate knew from the moment Caiaphas and his little entourage had shown up at His palace that their real issue with Jesus was religious in nature. He had seen through their little charade of faux civic duty and told them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law” (John 18:31 ESV). He wanted no part in what was obviously a doctrinal dispute among the Jews.

Even after his personal interrogation of Jesus, Pilate remained convinced that He was innocent and had done nothing worthy of death. And he told the Jewish religious leaders as much.

“Nothing this man has done calls for the death penalty. So I will have him flogged, and then I will release him.” – Luke 18:15-16 NLT

But to men who would settle for nothing less than a death sentence, Pilate’s decision was totally unacceptable and infuriating. They were out for blood – literally – and began to demand that Pilate rethink his position and give in to their demands.

For whatever reason, Luke chose to leave out a significant part of the evening’s proceedings. Matthew and Mark disclose that Pilate had offered what he believed to be a way to spare Jesus’ life. It seems that he sincerely doubted whether the Jews were truly concerned about Jesus being an insurrectionist who posed a danger to the community. So, almost as a test, he offered them a choice between the lives of two men. One was Jesus, whom Pilate had deemed as unworthy of death. The other was a man named Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer (Mark 15:7 ESV).

Apparently, Pilate had made it a custom to allow the people to request the release of one prisoner, in honor of the Feast of Passover. The Jewish religious leaders, who were very familiar with this rather strange policy, began to demand that Pilate honor his annual commitment. Naturally, Pilate assumed they were asking for the release of Jesus.

“Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” – Mark 15:9 ESV

But much to his surprise, the Jews demanded that he set free a man who had already been condemned to death and deserved to be executed for his crimes. Yet Pilate really thought they would come to their senses and recognize that their hatred of Jesus was nothing more than a case of overinflated jealousy. Surely, they would listen to reason and not go through with this ill-fated inquisition. But he was wrong, and they vehemently vocalized their demands.

“Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas.”  – Mark 23:18 ESV

Taken aback by the degree of their hatred for Jesus, he asked,  “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:12 ESV). It seems apparent that Pilate was fully aware of the true intentions of the religious leaders. He was smart enough to know that they didn’t recognize Jesus as their Messiah, and by referring to Jesus as the “King of the Jews,” he was purposely poking the bear.

But Matthew reveals that there was another factor contributing to Pilate’s reticence to condemn Jesus to death. It seems that His wife had “suffered through a terrible nightmare” about Jesus (Matthew 27:19 NLT). She had even warned her husband, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man” (Matthew 27:19 ESV). She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something special about this man.

But when Pilate asked what was to be done with Jesus, the crowd shouted, “Crucify him” (Mark 15:13 ESV). Moved by the content of his wife’s nightmare and his belief that Jesus was an innocent man, Pilate continued to argue for his release. But the people shouted all the more loudly, “Crucify, crucify him!” (Luke 23:21 ESV).

This prompted Pilate to ask yet a third time: “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him” (Luke 23:22 ESV). And Luke records that the crowd, influenced by the high priest, members of the Sanhedrin, and their own elders, continued to demand that Jesus be crucified, “and their voices prevailed” (Luke 23:23 NLT).

Pilate finally gave up the fight. He acquiesced to the demands of the people and turned Him over to be put to death. Yet, Matthew noted that Pilate did so under duress.

Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing. So he sent for a bowl of water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. The responsibility is yours!” – Matthew 27:24 NLT

He literally washed his hands of the matter and placed the responsibility clearly on the heads of the Jewish religious leaders. And their response is sad, yet insightful.

“We will take responsibility for his death—we and our children!” – Matthew 27:24 NLT

What an amazingly arrogant attitude these people displayed. They were basically calling down a curse from God on their own heads and those of their descendants. Driven by anger and a demonic-like hatred for Jesus, these men lost all sense of composure and reason. And their actions had just proven the veracity of the words that Jesus had spoken concerning them.

“For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies.” – John 8:44 NLT

Mark records that Pilate “ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified” (Mark 15:15 NLT). John adds that “the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and struck him with their hands” (John 19:2-3 NLT). And Luke provides the sobering statement: “he delivered Jesus over to their will” (Luke 23:25 ESV). This was exactly what the religious leaders had set out to do. It was their will. And yet, their will was subject to that of God. They did what they did of their own accord and driven by their own sinful hearts, but it was all according to the sovereign will of God Almighty.

But one of the most significant aspects of this story that often goes overlooked is the release of Barabbas. The details concerning this man are few and far between. The gospel authors simply reveal that he was a prisoner, charged with murder and insurrection, and likely facing execution for his crimes. And, of course, the primary form of capital punishment practiced by the Romans was crucifixion.  This man was a condemned criminal facing the most gruesome of deaths. He had already been convicted and condemned. His fate was sealed and there was nothing he could do about it.

Then, someone took his place. Jesus became the substitute for Barabbas, bearing his cross and suffering the death that had been intended for him. The sinner had been set free and the innocent man was crucified on his behalf. What an incredible picture of the entire redemptive story. Jesus, the innocent Lamb of God, was killed so that Barabbas could live. But it seems unlikely that Barabbas experienced a radical conversion experience, placing his faith in Jesus as his sin substitute. He probably went on to live his life just as he always had. He was a sinner, condemned, unclean and yet, Jesus had died in his place. Just as Jesus died in the place of all because all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23).

The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth that they too had been like Barabbas. They had been people imprisoned for their rebellion against God and facing a well-deserved death sentence. Yet, Jesus took their sins upon Himself by taking their place upon a cross that had their name on it. And, as a result, they were free to enjoy the benefits of forgiveness and a restored relationship with God.

Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 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