Giving God What Is Rightfully His

19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. Luke 20:19-26 ESV

While some of Jesus’ parables left the crowds scratching their heads in confusion, this was not one of them. Its meaning was far from hidden or obscured. And Luke indicates that the scribes and the chief priests understood that they had been portrayed as the villains in His story. The only thing that kept them from arresting Jesus right on the spot was their fear of the people. They knew they would have a riot on their hands if they so much as touched Jesus. So, they decided to bide their time, waiting for a better opportunity to catch Jesus saying or doing something that would justify His arrest.

As they had done on so many other occasions, the religious leaders sent some of their own to spy on Jesus. These men were instructed to blend in with the crowds by pretending to be sincere followers of Jesus. Luke doesn’t reveal whether they ditched their clerical robes in order to disguise their identities, but it seems likely that they did what they could to fit in with the rest of the people who flocked around Jesus. Of course, it could be that they hired individuals to act as spies. The Greek word for “spies” is egkathetos and it means “one who is bribed by others to entrap a man by crafty words” (“G1455 – egkathetosStrong’s Greek Lexicon (kjv).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 2 Oct, 2021.).

But whoever these people were, their mission was simple: “get Jesus to say something that could be reported to the Roman governor so he would arrest Jesus” (Luke 20:20 NLT). They were tasked with shadowing Jesus and looking for some kind of proof that He was a threat to the Roman government. By this time, the religious leaders had already decided that Jesus needed to die (Luke 19:47), but the Romans prohibited the Jews from carrying out capital punishment. So, it was important that they find evidence that would incriminate Jesus and force the Roman authorities to put Him to death. In chapter 23, where Luke records Jesus trial before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, the Sanhedrin level a charge against Jesus that they knew would seal His fate:.

“This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king.” – Luke 23:2 NLT

This accusation had not come out of thin air, but it was a blatant misrepresentation of Jesus’ answer to a question the spies had directed to Him. Not long after telling His parable about the wicked tenants, the spies sent by the Sanhedrin asked Jesus one of their cleverly worded questions.

“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you speak and teach what is right and are not influenced by what others think. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us—is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” – Luke 20:21-22

This question had been carefully crafted and was designed to put Jesus in an awkward and untenable predicament. It was a simple question, but because it involved the Roman government and the hot-button topic of taxation, it was politically charged and a potential landmine.

In keeping with their charge to feign sincerity, these men prefaced their question with statements of false flattery designed to disguise their real intent. But Jesus saw through their little charade and knew exactly what they were attempting to do. So, He asked someone in the crowd for a denarius, a Roman coin that bore the image of the emperor. Holding up the coin for all to see, Jesus asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?,” and the crowd answered, “Caesar’s” (Luke 20:24 NLT).

Jesus had not been stumped by their trick question. The spies had thought it would put Jesus in a no-win situation. If He declared that the Mosaic law required the Jews to pay taxes or tribute, the people would turn on Him because they despised the oppressive and excessive burden place on them by the Romans. But if Jesus stated that the Jews owed no taxes to Rome because it was a godless and immoral government, He could be accused of undermining the authority of Caesar. This would give the Sanhedrin what they were looking for – evidence that Jesus was fomenting political unrest.

But Jesus avoided controversy by stating, “Well then, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God” (Luke 20:25 NLT). In other words, if the coin bears Caesar’s image and name, then it is rightfully his and must be returned. But the spies took this very clear statement from Jesus and twisted it into a declaration of rebellion and anarchy. They misrepresented Jesus’ words and told the Sanhedrin that Jesus had promoted tax evasion, and that is exactly what the religious leaders later reported to Pilate.

“This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king.” – Luke 23:2 NLT

These men were willing to do anything to get rid of Jesus, including lie. And Jesus had already confronted them about their propensity for falsehood.

“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

Because they were unable to trick or trap Jesus, they resorted to lies. They fabricated their own version of the truth, propagating a false narrative that would protect and preserve their domain.

But Jesus had not promoted social unrest or some kind of affirmative action. He had clearly told them to give Caesar what rightfully belonged to him. But He had also stated that the Jews were obligated to do the same with God.

“…give to God what belongs to God.” – Luke 20:25 NLT

The denarius bore the image of Caesar, but mankind bears the image of God. Genesis 1:27 records that God made the first man and woman in His own image.

God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Just as the Roman coin was stamped with the image of Caesar, every man and woman is stamped with the image of their Creator. And even in their fallen state, they still reflect the ownership of the one who made them. So, in effect, Jesus was encouraging His audience to honor Caesar by returning his property to him. But at the same time, Jesus was insisting that they honor God by returning to God what was rightfully His: Their lives. The apostle Paul would later expand on this idea in his letter to the Romans. In chapter13 of that letter, he gave a series of admonitions to honor and submit to governing authorities because “all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (Romans 13:1 NLT).

Paul went on to address the topic of paying taxes.

So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience. Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. – Romans 13:5-6 NLT

The same Roman government was in charge during Paul’s day. Nothing had really changed. Rome was no less authoritarian and abusive, yet Paul continued to promote the very same mindset that Jesus had recommended.

Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. – Romans 13:7 ESV

The last part of this verse reflects what Jesus had been trying to convey. If Caesar wanted his coins back, then return them to him. But it is God alone who deserves man’s respect and honor. Because we bear His image, we belong to Him. And Jesus was demanding that the people of Israel give God what was rightfully His: Their lives and their unwavering devotion.

At the heart of this entire exchange is man’s love affair with money and materialism. All the way back in His sermon on the mount, Jesus had warned about the dangers of a divided love.

“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

He knew that the people were inordinately tied to the treasures of this world and, as a result, they had a divided allegiance. So, He warned them:

“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

The religious leaders of Israel were enslaved to money, materialism, power, and prestige. They may have faithfully worshiped at the altar of Yahweh but the real focus of their devotion and desire was earthly treasures. And while they had no love for the Roman government, they were willing to do business with the enemy because they benefited greatly from the relationship. Their greatest fear was that Jesus would disrupt their symbiotic and self-serving relationship with the Romans. They had a bird’s nest on the ground and this upstart Rabbi from Nazareth was threatening to destroy it all. That’s why Caiaphas the high priest would later tell his fellow members of the Sanhedrin that Jesus’ death was preferable to the nation’s demise at the hands of the Romans.

“You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” – John 11:50 NLT

Caiaphas was out to preserve the status quo, and if it required the death of one man, then it would be well worth it. But what Caiaphas failed to realize was that his words were really prophetic.

He did not say this on his own; as high priest at that time he was led to prophesy that Jesus would die for the entire nation. And not only for that nation, but to bring together and unite all the children of God scattered around the world. – John 11:51-52 NLT

Jesus, as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), would eventually give back to God what was rightfully His. He would sacrifice His own life on behalf of sinful mankind and satisfy the just demands of a holy God by offering His body as the ultimate tribute. Through the willing sacrifice of His life, Jesus would render unto God what was rightfully His.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. – Colossians 1:19-20 NLT

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

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

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

The Prodigal Son and the Prideful Brother

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” – Luke 15:11-32 ESV

This particular story that Jesus told has come to be known as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But if one considers the context in which this parable was originally told, it might be better titled, The Parable of the Disgruntled Brother. This entire section of Luke’s gospel, beginning in chapter 14 and continuing through the closing verses of chapter 15, contains a lengthy discourse by Jesus that exposes the true character of the religious leaders of Israel.

It all began with Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. This miracle took place in the home of a ruler of the Pharisees, where Jesus had been invited to dine with other members of the ruling class. It had all been a set-up, designed to put Jesus on the spot. In the middle of the dinner, a man suffering from dropsy just happened to appear, seemingly out of nowhere. But it seems likely that he had been sent for by the host of the party, in order to see if Jesus would attempt to heal him and violate the Mosaic law forbidding work on the Sabbath.

Jesus healed the man and then told a series of parables designed to expose the hearts of these religious leaders who claimed to be the overseers of the people of Israel but who showed little compassion for their spiritual or physical needs. In His first parable, Jesus warned the Pharisees and scribes, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11 ESV). These were men who took great pride in their social standing and what they believed to be their superior spiritual status. They craved recognition and coveted the praise of men.

Jesus publicly rebuked His host for only inviting those to his dinner party who could return the favor. He had stacked his guest list with the names of those who would be most likely to reciprocate his kindness by extending him an invitation to dine in their homes. Yet, Jesus suggested that he do just the opposite.

“…when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” – Luke 14:13-14 ESV

But the Pharisee would have found this advice to be thoroughly appalling and illogical. What possible benefit could he receive from inviting those whom he considered cursed by God? In his perverse way of thinking, the poor, crippled, lame, and blind were suffering because they were sinners. He considered them unclean and unworthy of his attention. And, not only that, even if he did invite them into his home, they had no way of returning the favor. The Pharisee could not imagine a return on his investment. But Jesus told him:

“…you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” – Luke 14:14 ESV

But the Pharisee already considered himself to be just. He had earned his right standing with God through meticulous adherence to the Mosaic Law. But Jesus warned the man that his future standing with God might not be as secure as he supposed. He told another parable about a man sending out invitations to a great banquet. But when the day arrived for the banquet to begin, the invited guests all failed to show up. They each gave an excuse for not being able to attend. In anger, the host sent out his servant to “bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Luke 14:21 ESV). The servant did as he was told and, before long, the banquet hall was filled with those who couldn’t believe their good fortune to be invited to a feast of this magnitude. And the host declared that his original guests would not be allowed in, even if they showed up.

“…none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.” – Luke 14:24 ESV

Despite all His teachings, the Pharisees continued to view His association with tax collectors and sinners as unacceptable behavior for a religious leader. In their minds, Jesus suffered from poor judgment and was invalidating His ministry through His constant contact with the ceremonially unclean. But Jesus continued to expose their calloused hearts through the use of parables. He used the analogies of the lost sheep and the lost coin to illustrate God’s love and compassion for all those whom the Pharisees had written off as worthless. God had sent His Son into the world to save the lost. He had come to minister to the weak, suffering, sick, and dying. But the Pharisees refused to see themselves as helpless and hopeless. They were self-made men who believed their superior spiritual health rendered them immune from God’s judgment. They were healthy, whole, and in no need of a physician.

At one point, early on in His ministry, Jesus visited the house of Matthew, who happened to be a tax collector. The scribes and Pharisees who witnessed Jesus sharing a meal with Matthew and his fellow tax collectors expressed their disgust that He would associate with such sinners. To this Jesus replied, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mark 2:17 NLT).

This brings us to the parable of the prodigal son. In this parable, Jesus tells of two brothers who share the same father from whom they hope to one day receive their inheritance. According to the Mosaic Law, the older son was to receive a double portion of the inheritance. The father was to “the rights of his oldest son…by giving him a double portion. He is the first son of his father’s virility, and the rights of the firstborn belong to him” (Deuteronomy 21:17 NLT). But typically, the inheritance was not distributed until the father’s death. But in the parable that Jesus told, the younger son came to his father demanding to receive his inheritance early.

Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me. – Luke 15:12 ESV

The father gave in to his younger son’s demands but chose to award both sons with their designated inheritance. He divided up his wealth between them. This is a point that often gets overlooked. The older brother received his double-portion of the inheritance at the very same time. But the younger brother “packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living” (Luke 15:13 NLT). Before long, he was broke and broken, and ready to return to his father’s house, even if it meant he had to do so as a hired servant. He had been greatly humbled by his experience in the big city and recognized how much he missed his father’s love and affection. So, he came up with a plan.

‘I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’ – Luke 15:18-19 NLT

This is where the story gets interesting. The young man returned and was shocked to find his father not only waiting for him but eager to welcome him back into the family. He exclaimed, “this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found” (Luke 15:24 NLT). In celebration of his son’s return, the father threw a great feast. He even supplied his son with a new robe, sandals, and an expensive ring. The son had expected to be treated as little more than a slave, but instead, he was welcomed back with joy and treated like a celebrity.

But the older brother, who had been working in the fields, returned to this scene of unexpected celebration and was infuriated. And it doesn’t take much imagination to guess who the older brother represents in the story. He had stayed at home, faithfully fulfilling his duties, while his ungrateful brother had been off committing unmentionable sins in faraway lands. While the younger brother had been busy squandering his inheritance, the older brother had played the part of the dutiful son, caring for the land his father had bequeathed to him. As part of his inheritance, the older son would have received the double-portion, which would have included the land. It was his to care for. It now belonged to him. But he painted a very different picture. He became angry at his father’s ostentatious treatment of his younger brother and declared his frustration.

“All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” – Luke 15:29-30 NLT

In true pharisaical fashion, the older brother denounced the actions of his father. He wrestled with what he believed to be a great injustice and a clear case of inequity. Notice his emphasis on faithful obedience and the years he had spent “slaving” away on this father’s behalf. But, in reality, he had been working his own land. He had been tending his own fields and benefiting from the inheritance he had been given by his father. He viewed himself as the victim in this story. Somehow, he had been aggrieved by his father’s actions. And yet, all along he had been enjoying the gracious gift of his father’s wealth and lands. He had not suffered. He had not gone without. He had not been cheated in any way. But his pride and jealousy prevented him from rejoicing at the return of his brother. Like the Pharisees who could not understand Jesus associating with tax collectors and sinners, the older brother couldn’t comprehend his father’s treatment of his undeserving brother. But the father tried to help him understand the heart behind his actions.

“Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!” – Luke 15:31-32 NLT

This seems to be the crux of Jesus’ message throughout these two chapters. The Pharisees, who viewed themselves as the faithful children of God, refused to show mercy to those who were the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6). When Jesus saw the crowds of people following Him, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 ESV). But the Pharisees could not bring themselves to care for the shepherdless sheep. Just as the older brother could not understand his father’s over-the-top treatment of his undeserving sibling, the Pharisees could not comprehend Jesus’ care and concern for the undeserving multitudes. But the prodigal son had returned in repentance and humility, fully aware of his sins and ready to beg for his father’s forgiveness. But the older brother revealed his true colors. As long as he remained the center of his father’s attention and the beneficiary of his father’s blessings, he was happy. But his brother’s return and his father’s response were more than he could bear. He may have shared his father’s inheritance, but he did not share his father’s heart.

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

Seek, Knock, and Ask

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” – Luke 11:5-13 ESV

Jesus continues His lecture on prayer to His disciples. Once again, He has given them a model prayer intended to illustrate the manner in which we are to pray. Our prayers are to be God-directed, cognizant of His holiness, submissive to His will, reliant upon His gracious provision, and grateful for His forgiveness and loving leadership. 

But now, Jesus moves from talking about how to pray to the why behind our prayers. Instead of continuing to discuss methodology, He switches to motivation. And to make His point, Jesus uses a parable intended to make the rather esoteric topic of prayer much more practical and applicable. Jesus describes a real-life scenario in which an individual receives a midnight visit from an unexpected out-of-town guest. To make matters worse, he lacks the resources to show proper hospitality to his friend. So, in desperation, he attempts to wake up a nearby neighbor so that he can borrow three loaves of bread. 

This man finds himself with an unexpected problem that he has no capacity to solve. But his impassioned plea for his neighbor’s assistance is met with cold-hearted rejection.

“Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.” – Luke 11:7 NLT

Jesus clearly intended for this response to strike a nerve. The disciples would have been shocked and angered by the neighbor’s refusal to help. Hospitality was a high priority in their culture and to think that this lazy neighbor would refuse to help this man save face was totally unacceptable. It would have taken little effort for the neighbor to get out of bed and give the man three loaves of bread. And notice that the neighbor doesn’t deny having the bread. He simply refuses to help.

But Jesus wants the disciples to see this story from their own perspective. He wants them to personalize it by considering what they would do if they were the man who had received the calloused response from his neighbor. And Jesus, knowing exactly what they are thinking, puts their thoughts into words.

But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence.” – Luke 11:8 NLT

At least one of the disciples is thinking, “I would keep banging on the door until he gives me what I need!” And Jesus affirms that mentality by inferring that the man’s unrelenting and persistent knocking would finally end up shaming the neighbor into action. Driven by his unexpected problem, the first man was willing to make an embarrassing spectacle of himself, waking up the entire neighborhood if that’s what it took to get what he needed. And his persistence would pay off. Eventually, the neighbor would get up and give him what he needed, otherwise he would be exposed as stingy and unhospitable himself.

But what’s Jesus’ point in all this? What is He trying to say? Remember, the topic is prayer and He seems to be stressing the motivation behind our conversations with God. What often gets overlooked in the story is the basis of the man’s need. We tend to think it was the arrival of the late-night guest. But the man’s real need was his lack of bread. This ties directly back to Jesus’ model prayer: “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3 ESV).

The arrival of the guest simply exposed the need. The man had learned to live without, but when his friend showed up unannounced, he was forced to seek help. He lacked what he needed to be a good host. So, he took that need to a neighbor. When his neighbor proved reluctant, the man’s need didn’t suddenly go away. His guest was still sitting in his home and the cupboard was still as bear as before. And that pressing need caused the man to knock all the harder. He refused to give up asking because his need was great and his resources were few. He had no other option.

And Jesus makes the logical connection between the story and the lesson it provides concerning prayer.

“And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. – Luke 11:9-10 NLT

Life has a way of exposing our needs and insufficiencies. Had the guest not shown up at midnight, the man never would have made his late-night visit to his neighbor. His lack of bread would have remained unknown to all those around him. But circumstances forced him to make his need known. And Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that, in time, they would have their needs exposed by the circumstances of life. And when those unexpected “guests” showed up on their doorstep, they were to take their need to God. Unlike the stubborn neighbor in the story, Yahweh is gracious, merciful, and generous. Jesus is not suggesting that getting God to answer our prayers requires stubborn and persistent asking, seeking, and knocking. The lazy neighbor was not intended to represent God. Jesus is simply stating that the neighbor eventually relented because the man with the need kept asking until his need was met. And we are to continually, repeatedly, and persistently take all our needs to God. The apostle Peter reminds us to “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7 NLT).

This entire exchange between Jesus and His disciples is a repeat of the message He delivered in His sermon on the mount.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” – Matthew 7:9-11 NLT

Jesus was simply reiterating what He had already taught them. In that same sermon, Jesus had told the disciples, “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!” (Matthew 6:7-8 NLT).

The neighbor had no idea the man lacked bread. And even when he became aware of the man’s need, he refused to meet it. But it is not that way with God. He knows our needs before we even ask. And sometimes God will use the surprising and unexpected circumstances of life to expose our needs so that we will come to Him for assistance. And when we seek, knock, and ask, our gracious God always provides. He is nothing like the reluctant neighbor. We don’t have to shame Him into action. He doesn’t require us to beat down the door of heaven to get what we need. Like a parent who gives their child exactly what they request, God lovingly and graciously meets our needs. But first, we have to seek, knock and ask. And that requires that we acknowledge our needs. Like the man in the story, we have many needs that remain hidden and out of sight. Our friends and neighbors know nothing about them. But God, because He loves us, allows our needs to become known. He brings circumstances and situations into our lives that expose our needs and force us to seek His aid. And Jesus encourages His disciples to understand prayer as a means by which they were to take their needs to God – seeking, knocking, and asking for His gracious and loving assistance. As James would later write in his letter, “You do not have, because you do not ask”(James 4:2 ESV). 

And the apostle Paul provides us with strong encouragement to make our requests known to God.

…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7 ESV

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

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

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

Debt Relief

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:36-50 ESV

Almost as if on cue, Jesus gets an opportunity to demonstrate exactly what he meant He described “the people of this generation” as “children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another” (Luke 7:31, 32 ESV). Jesus portrayed the unbelievers who refused to accept Him and John the Baptist like petulant children who always have to have their own way.

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’’ – Luke 7:32 ESV

And it just so happened that one of these childish, self-absorbed, and unbelieving individuals invited Jesus into his home for a meal. He was a Pharisee, a member of one of the leading religious sects of the day, which meant he was a very powerful and influential man in the community.

Luke does not reveal the motivation behind Simon’s invitation, but it would appear from the context that he was not a follower of Jesus. It seems much more likely that he was either curious to find out more about this mysterious Rabbi from Nazareth or he had been commissioned by the Sanhedrin to catch Jesus in a trap. It could be that the entire affair was a set-up, including the sudden appearance of the woman. Simon may have prearranged for her to show up on cue so that he could see how Jesus would react. In a sense, Simon the Pharisee wanted to see if Jesus would “dance to his tune.” Would He respond to this woman in an appropriate manner, recognizing her as a sinner and treating her accordingly, or would He prove HImself to be “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34 ESV)?

What’s fascinating is that Jesus accepted Simon’s invitation, even though He was probably aware of his intentions. And as they reclined together at the table to share a meal, an unidentified woman appeared. Luke does not provide her name, but simply identifies her as “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37 ESV). The Greek word Luke used is hamartōlos and it refers to someone “devoted to sin.” While there has been much speculation regarding the woman’s particular sin, Luke doesn’t provide any details. Throughout the passage, she is simply referred to as a sinner, even by Simon. It was not uncommon for the Pharisees and other religious leaders to refer to all people of the lower class as sinners because they failed to live up to their impossible standards. These arrogant and pride-filled men viewed themselves as spiritually superior because they believed themselves to be scrupulous when it came to keeping the law. But in their self-righteous minds, the average Jew was nothing more than a law-breaking sinner who refused to dance to the tune they were playing. And this woman was just such a hopeless and helpless case.

But this “sinner” came in search of the Savior. Whether she had been hired by Simon or had simply heard that Jesus was a guest in Simon’s home, she came prepared with a gift with which to bless Jesus. In a sense, she brought a sin offering with which to anoint the Son of God. Luke describes the scene:

Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them. – Luke 7:38 NLT

Jesus would have been laying on his side, His elbow resting on a pillow and his head nearest the table. His feet would have extended away from the table. So, this woman came up behind Him and began to pour the expensive perfume on His feet and clean His feet with her own hair. It is interesting to note that Simon makes no attempt to stop her. This lends credibility to the idea that he had expected her arrival. Simon simply watched the woman, silently ridiculing Jesus for His apparent ignorance of her sinful state.

“If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” – Luke 7:39 NLT

Simon judged Jesus. He condemned Jesus for failing to recognize this woman as unworthy to be in their presence. But Simon failed to recognize that Jesus knew exactly what he was thinking. Jesus had quietly allowed the woman to do what she did, all the while knowing what was going through Simon’s mind and the woman’s heart. So, when she had finished, Jesus said to Simon, “I have something to say to you” (Luke 7:40 ESV).

Simon diplomatically refers to Jesus as a teacher, but in his mind, Jesus had lost all credibility. Jesus’ decision to allow Himself to be touched by this sinful woman had rendered Him unclean and unworthy of Simon’s respect. In Simon’s mind, Jesus was no more the Messiah than He was a prophet. He was just an itinerant Rabbi from the backwater town of Nazareth who was a friend of the dregs of society.

But Jesus responded to Simon by telling him a story.

“A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver to one and 50 pieces to the other. But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?” – Luke 7:41-42 NLT

Jesus returned the favor and set Simon up. He told him a simple story about two people who had sizeable debts forgiven. Neither individual was capable of clearing up their debt on their own. They were hopelessly and helplessly obligated to their lender and facing possible indentured servitude in order to fulfill their financial indebtedness. But to their surprise and joy, each had their entire debt forgiven. And Jesus asks the Pharisee which one of these individuals would have had the greater reason for gratitude and love.

Simon knows the right answer but seems a bit reluctant to share it. He seems to know he is being set up. But he responds, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt” (Luke 7:43 NLT). Simon could sense what Jesus was doing but there was nothing he could do about it. The answer was obvious and so was Jesus’ point. Simon was smart enough to know that the two characters in the story represented him and the woman. Simon fully understood that Jesus was inferring that he too was a sinner. And Jesus affirmed the correctness of Simon’s answer.

“You have judged rightly.” – Luke 7:43 ESV

In quoting Jesus’ response, Luke uses the Greek word krinō. This word has a variety of meanings. It can mean “pronounce an opinion concerning right and wrong ” or “to pass judgment on the deeds and words of others.” It seems that Jesus is confirming two different things about Simon. He had been correct in his judgment of the woman as a sinner and he had given the correct answer to Jesus’ question. And in answering the question correctly, Simon had judged himself to be a sinner as well. In fact, he had unknowingly confessed his indebtedness to God and his inability to repay what he owed. He stood in need of forgiveness just like the sinful woman he so despised.

And Jesus confronted Simon for his insensitivity and judgmentalism by comparing his actions with those of the penitent and grateful woman.

“Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume.

“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” – Luke 7:44-47 NLT

By her actions, the woman had shown her awareness of the overwhelming nature of her sin debt. She sacrificed her dignity and her livelihood in order to express her sorrow for her sin and her hope for forgiveness. She never said a word to Jesus but her actions clearly indicated how much she longed to be cleansed from her sin. But Simon had done nothing. He hadn’t even shown Jesus the common courtesies that any host would show a guest in their home. He had invited Jesus into his home but then failed to treat Him with the respect and honor He deserved as the Son of God. Simon didn’t feel as if he owed Jesus anything because he didn’t think he was a sinner in need of a Savior.

And Jesus reveals the ignorance of Simon’s self-righteous perspective.

“…a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” – Luke 7:47 NLT

In essence, Simon showed Jesus no love at all because he saw himself as owing nothing to God and in no need of forgiveness. But in a shocking display of His divine authority, Jesus turned to the woman and said, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48 NLT). And at this point, Luke reveals that there were others reclining at the table with Simon and Jesus. We have no idea who there were, but it is likely that they were peers of Simon. Their response to Jesus’ statement reveals their surprise and incredulity at His words.

“Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?” – Luke 7:50 NLT

They are appalled at Jesus’ audacity. He was claiming the right to forgive sins, something only God could do. And Jesus, knowing their thoughts, adds fuel to the fire burning in their hearts by telling the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50 NLT). Jesus was clearly insinuating that it was the woman’s faith, not her sacrifice that had led to her salvation. It was not the expensive perfume or her selfless act of washing His feet that had led to her forgiveness and salvation, but her belief that He had the right and authority to forgive her insurmountable sin debt.

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 Lord Gave Israel a Savior

1 In the twenty-third year of Joash the son of Ahaziah, king of Judah, Jehoahaz the son of Jehu began to reign over Israel in Samaria, and he reigned seventeen years. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and followed the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin; he did not depart from them. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them continually into the hand of Hazael king of Syria and into the hand of Ben-hadad the son of Hazael. Then Jehoahaz sought the favor of the Lord, and the Lord listened to him, for he saw the oppression of Israel, how the king of Syria oppressed them. (Therefore the Lord gave Israel a savior, so that they escaped from the hand of the Syrians, and the people of Israel lived in their homes as formerly. Nevertheless, they did not depart from the sins of the house of Jeroboam, which he made Israel to sin, but walked in them; and the Asherah also remained in Samaria.) For there was not left to Jehoahaz an army of more than fifty horsemen and ten chariots and ten thousand footmen, for the king of Syria had destroyed them and made them like the dust at threshing. Now the rest of the acts of Jehoahaz and all that he did, and his might, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? So Jehoahaz slept with his fathers, and they buried him in Samaria, and Joash his son reigned in his place. 2 Kings 13:1-9 ESV

God had used the Syrians to inflict judgment upon the southern kingdom of Judah. Because of the rebellion of His people, God had given King Hazael and his Syrian troops a resounding victory over the much larger and more powerful army of King Jehoash. Having been wounded in battle against the Syrians, Jehoash became an easy target for some of his disgruntled officials. They had strongly opposed his murder of Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada the priest, and saw the nation’s recent defeat by a much smaller Syrian force as a sign of God’s judgment. So, these two men took it upon themselves to assassinate the king while he lying in bed recovering from his injuries. He was then replaced by his son, Amaziah.

In the meantime, the northern kingdom of Israel was having its own set of struggles with the Syrians. Jehoahaz had ascended to the throne of his father, Jehu, and had managed to keep Israel’s legacy of apostasy alive and well.

He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and followed the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin; he did not depart from them. – 2 Kings 13:2 ESV

In other words, it was business as usual in Israel. But, God had grown weary of watching each successive royal administration try to outdo the sins of their predecessors. Fed up by their stubbornness and blatant unfaithfulness, He unleashed His righteous indignation against Israel and “gave them continually into the hand of Hazael king of Syria and into the hand of Ben-hadad the son of Hazael” (2 Kings 13:3 ESV).

The Syrians became the proverbial thorn in the side of the disobedient Israelites. This imagery was in keeping with God’s earlier warnings against Israel compromising with the pagan nations that occupied the promised land.

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. – Numbers 33:55 ESV

God would later provide the Israelites with another warning, meant to encourage them from intermarrying with the pagan nations that occupied the land of Canaan.

…know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you. – Joshua 23:13 ESV

And when the Israelites failed to drive out the inhabitants of the land, God announced that they were on their own. They would have to deal with the consequences of their disobedience.

“So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” – Judges 2:3 ESV

Yet, when God sent the Syrians to plague and provoke the unfaithful people of Israel, King Jehoahaz “sought the favor of the Lord” (2 Kings 13:4 ESV). The constant pain inflicted by this divinely-ordained “thorn” was more than Jehoahaz could bear, so he did something none of his predecessors had ever done: He humbled himself and cried out to God. And his cry was heard and answered. The author states that God, the very nne who had sent the Syrians, “saw the oppression of Israel, how the king of Syria oppressed them” (2 Kings 13:4 ESV). This statement makes it sound like God was surprised by what He saw. But it would be better interpreted as a declaration of God’s recognition of the suffering His chosen people were having to endure. His judgment, while fully just and well-deserved, had produced its intended results, and He felt compassion for the plight of His people. His discipline of His children was not an indication that He had fallen out of love with them. In fact, the book of Proverbs reminds us, “the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights” (Proverbs3:12 NLT). And the author of Hebrews quotes this very proverb, then adds a further point of clarification.

As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all. – Hebrews 12:7-8 NLT

God had lovingly disciplined them for their disobedience and unfaithfulness. But, as the text reveals, He heard the humbled cry of their king and responded in love and compassion. He did for them what they couldn’t do for themselves. He rescued them from the very plight they had brought upon themselves.

Therefore the Lord gave Israel a savior, so that they escaped from the hand of the Syrians, and the people of Israel lived in their homes as formerly… – 2 Kings 13:5 ESV

This scene brings to mind the book of Judges, which chronicles the period of Israelite history long before they had a king. They had managed to enter Canaan, but had failed to completely eliminate the pagan nations that had occupied the land before them. As a result, they ended up intermarrying with these nations and worshiping their false false gods. Which led God to punish them.

…the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.  So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. – Judges 2:11-14 ESV

But in time, God would raise up a deliverer who rescued His wayward people and restored them to a right relationship with Him.

Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. – Judges 2:17 ESV

Sadly, this cycle would repeat itself over and over again. The people would sin, so God would send a plunderer, Then, when the suffering became unbearable, the people would cry out, and another deliverer would show up to rescue them.

Now, hundreds of years later, the people of Israel would reveal that little had changed. They cried out and God sent them a savior. We have no way of knowing the identity of this individual. Some have speculated that it was King Adad-Nirari III of Assyria. The Assyrians were the new kids on the block, an up-and-coming nation that was beginning to flex its military muscle in the region. In order to access the Mediterranean Sea and the fertile valleys located in Canaan, they would have to pass through the land belonging to Syria. It could be that God used this rapidly expanding world power to harass and distract the Syrians, buying King Jehoahaz and the Israelites a much-needed respite.

But regardless of the identity of this God-appointed “savior,” the people of Israel proved to be far from grateful for their rescue. In time, they fell back into their old habits.

But they continued to sin, following the evil example of Jeroboam. They also allowed the Asherah pole in Samaria to remain standing. – 2 Kings 13:6 NLT

Nothing had changed. Jehoahaz remained just as stubborn and unrepentant as always. Even the fact that God had allowed the Syrians to drastically reduce the fighting capacity of Israel’s army failed to elicit a change in Jehoahaz. The oppression of the Syrians had gotten his attention and forced him to cry out to God. But, once rescued, he continued to pursue the same ungodly agenda as before. The loving discipline and gracious deliverance of God failed to make a lasting impression on Jehoahaz. He was allowed to complete his reign but, with his decimated army,  he was a king in name only. He would die and his son would inherit his throne and diminished kingdom.

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

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

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

 

A Dreaded and Difficult Conversation

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” John 21:15-19 ESV

The moment Peter had been dreading finally arrived. Ever since he had peered into the empty tomb, he must have experienced a growing sense of irrepressible joy at the thought that Jesus was alive and he might get see Him again. But his excitement was tempered by a nagging sense of guilt over his public denials of Jesus. On that night in the upper room, when Jesus had announced that one of the 12 would betray Him, Peter had boldly proclaimed, “I will lay down my life for you!” (John 13:37 ESV). But Jesus had responded with an equally bold statement of His own:

“Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times. – John 13:38 ESV

And that very same night, as Jesus was being interrogated by the high priest and the members of Sanhedrin, Peter fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy.

The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”  – John 18:17 ESV

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” – John 18:25 ESV

One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.  – John 18:26-27 ESV

Three separate times, Peter had been asked about his personal relationship with Jesus. Three different individuals asked him to confirm his identity as a disciple or follower of Jesus, and three times he vehemently denied any knowledge of or relationship with Jesus.

Now, standing on the shore of the sea of Galilee, Peter’s worst fear was realized. He found himself alone with Jesus. Peter had been avoiding the inevitable. The weight of his guilty conscience must have become unbearable, preventing him from fully experiencing the joy of being with Jesus. Every time Peter looked at Jesus’ face or caught a fleeting glimpse of the nail prints in His hands and feet, a sense of shame and self-loathing must have welled up within him. It is difficult to imagine just how tortured Peter must have felt each time he looked on his resurrected Master and friend.

And now, Jesus approached him one on one. There is no way of knowing what was going through Peter’s mind at that moment, but one would expect that Peter had been rehearsing the apology he would need for just such a moment. Yet, mercifully, Jesus broke the awkward silence by speaking first. And what Jesus had to say to Peter speaks volumes. One might have expected Jesus to say something like, “I told you so” or “Well, what have you got to say for yourself?” But instead, Jesus asked Peter a series of three questions.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” – John 21:15 ESV

“Simon, son of John, do you love me? – John 21:16 ESV

“Simon, son of John, do you love me? – John 21:17 ESV

Actually, it was one question asked three different times. That night in the garden, Peter’s inquisitors wanted him to confirm his relationship with Jesus, and three times he had denied having one. But now, Peter is being asked to publicly confess and confirm his love for Jesus. And this time, the one asking the questions is the very one Peter had denied.

Peter’s brash and impulsive nature had finally caught up with him. Over the years he had been with Jesus, he had made a habit of speaking his mind and trying to set himself apart from the rest of the disciples. He was naturally competitive and driven to do whatever it took to stand out from the crowd. All three of the Synoptic gospels record his pride-filled response when Jesus had declared, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (Matthew 26:31 ESV). Peter had boldly proclaimed, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (John 26:33 ESV). He was declaring himself to be better than the rest. He was made of better stuff. But little did Peter know that his bold claim was going to be put to the test and he would end up failing miserably.

But at the heart of Jesus’ questions is the issue of love. The very first iteration of Jesus’ question compared Peter’s love with that of the other disciples. When Jesus asked, “do you love me more than these?,” He was not asking if Peter’s love for the other disciples was greater than his love for Him. This was a question designed to expose whether Peter still harbored feelings of superiority, and considered himself to be more committed to Jesus than his fellow disciples.

Remember, Peter had accused the rest of the disciples of a lack of commitment. He had predicted that they would all fall away at the first hint of trouble. But he was different. He would stay the course and remain by Jesus’ side through thick or thin. Or so he had thought.

But standing face to face with Jesus, all Peter could say was “Lord; you know that I love you” (John 21:15 ESV). No comparison. No competition. He was not willing to speak for or compare himself with the other disciples. All he could do was confirm his own love for his friend.

Over the years, much emphasis has been placed on the two Greek words for “love” that appear in this passage. One is the word agapaō and the other is phileō. The first is said to be a description of divine love – a selfless, sacrificial love expressed by God to men. While the latter was more commonly used to refer to a lower, earthly form of love – the love between two human beings. And while there is some truth to this distinction, it is also true that these two words were often used interchangeably in the Greek language. Yet, John seems to establish a clear pattern in this passage. He records that Jesus repeatedly used the word agapaō, while Peter responded by using the word phileō. There is a subtle, yet important, point of clarification being made as Jesus discusses the nature of Peter’s love. Does Peter love Jesus in the same way that Jesus loved him?

Jesus had laid down His life for Peter. He had personally demonstrated the very definition of love He had given to the disciples.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13 ESV

Jesus had faithfully fulfilled His role as the Good Shepherd.

“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” – John 10:11-12 ESV

By his actions that night in the courtyard, Peter had proven himself to be a hired hand. The wolf had come and he had fled. But now, Jesus was offering Peter an opportunity to prove his love. With each successive query, Jesus responded to Peter’s answer with a directive.

“Feed my lambs.” – John 21:15 ESV

“Tend my sheep.” – John 21:16 ESV

“Feed my sheep. – John 21:17 ESV

In essence, Jesus is demanding that Peter prove his love for Him by loving those for whom He died. Jesus had told the disciples, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16 ESV). And now, Jesus was turning the care and feeding of the flock over to Peter and his companions. If Peter wanted to prove his love for Jesus, he was going to love and care for those whom Jesus gave His life.

In His teaching on the Good Shepherd, Jesus had stated, “he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:4 ESV). In a sense, Jesus was turning over to Peter the responsibility for shepherding and leading His flock. Peter and the other disciples would become under-shepherds, commissioned by the Good Shepherd to feed and tend His sheep. These men could express no greater love for Jesus than to care for His sheep. Jesus was leaving and He was going to turn over the care and protection of His flock to His disciples.

And then Jesus reveals to Peter that his shepherding of the sheep will be costly. Peter too will end up laying down his life for the sheep. This impulsive, self-assertive man will one day find himself being led by others. But as a sheep to the slaughter. This somewhat poetic-sounding prophecy by Jesus was meant to reveal to Peter “by what kind of death he was to glorify God” (John 21:19 ESV).

“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” – John 21:18 NLT

Peter’s life was going to be dramatically different from this point forward. No longer would he live the self-willed, ego-driven life he had known up until that day. He will live a long life, but one that will be dedicated the the flock of Jesus Christ and end in him laying down his own life for the sheep – just as Jesus did. And according to the early church father, Eusubius, Peter was crucified in the midsixties A.D. during the purges of the Roman emperor, Nero.

But when Jesus had completed His one-on-one conversation with Peter, He ended it the same words He had used when they first met: “Follow me.” But this time, Jesus wasn’t asking Peter to become His disciples. He was inviting Peter to follow His example of selfless, sacrificial love for the sheep. And one day, when Peter had fully followed Jesus’ example, he would follow Jesus to heaven.

“When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” – John 14:3 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

No Greater Love

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” John 15:12-17 ESV

It’s rather odd to hear Jesus speaking about love when you consider the fact that He is just hours from His own death. And for the disciples, all His talk about dying and leaving them behind must have sounded like a strange way to show His love. Yet, for these men and all who would come to faith through their future ministry, the cross would become the greatest expression of love.

Just a short time earlier, in the upper room after Judas had departed, Jesus had disclosed to His remaining disciples a new commandment.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35 ESV

Notice the point of qualification that Jesus adds: They were to love one another, “just as” He has loved them. Jesus made this statement just hours before He would hang on a cruel Roman cross as the payment for their sin debt. He was going to follow through on His earlier promise concerning His role as the Good Shepherd.

“The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.” – John 10:11 NLT

And it would not be until Jesus had died, resurrected, and ascended back into heaven, that the disciples fully grasped the full import of what Jesus meant about loving as He had loved them. In a later letter, John would disclose His Spirit-enabled understanding of Jesus’ incredible expression of selfless, sacrificial love.

If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. Anyone who hates another brother or sister is really a murderer at heart. And you know that murderers don’t have eternal life within them.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. – 1 John 3:14-16 NLT

The sacrifice Jesus was about to make on the cross was totally motivated by love, and not just His own. The death of Jesus was going to be a priceless expression of God’s love for mankind. This is exactly what Jesus had told Nicodemus.

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

The apostle Paul was blown away by this reality and saw the death of Jesus as ongoing evidence of the Father’s love for him.

But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8 BSB

God had loved Paul in the midst of his sinfulness. He didn’t require Paul to get his spiritual act together. It was while Paul was still firmly entrenched in his rebellion and sin that God sent His Son to die in Paul’s place. And the same thing is true for each and every follower of Christ. Paul makes that point clear later on in his letter to the believers in Rome.

…he [God] did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all… – Romans 8:32 NLT

And Paul would encourage the believers in Ephesus to use the selfless love of God as a model for their own lives.

Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant sacrificial offering to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 BSB

According to Jesus, the greatest expression of love was someone willingly sacrificing their life for the sake of another.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13 ESV

The disciples were not ye able to grasp the full significance of this statement. But in time, they would come to understand and appreciate what Jesus had meant. They would stand by and watch their friend and mentor die a gruesome death on a cross. They would weep and mourn as His life slowly and painfully ebbed away. They would see His broken and beaten body removed from the cross and placed in a borrowed tomb. And in the days following this hope-shattering event, they would gather together in sorrow and self-pity, as they tried to wrap their minds around what had just happened. But then they would receive the shocking and mind-blowing news: “he has risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:6 ESV). The would discover the tomb to be empty, Jesus to be alive, and their lives to be forever changed.

But on the other side of the cross, Jesus called His confused and concerned disciples to love one another. He referred to them as His friends, further indicating His love for them. He did not view them as servants or slaves, but as close friends to whom He was sharing the most intimate details concerning His life. Rather than leaving them in the dark, Jesus was disclosing the content of His private conversations with His Father.

“…all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” – John 15:15 ESV

They were the recipients of privileged information, passed down from God through His one and only Son. And Jesus makes it clear that the time they had spent with Him had been divinely ordained.

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…” – John 15:16 ESV

He had chosen them. But as Jesus will disclose in His high priestly prayer, God had been the guiding hand behind His selection of these men.

“I have revealed you to the ones you gave me from this world. They were always yours. You gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” – John 17:6 NLT

While each of them had chosen to follow Jesus on their own accord, they were actually operating according to the sovereign will of God. Their selection by Jesus had been preordained by God and He had great things in store for them. The events of the last three years would pale in comparison to what was going to happen in the days ahead. Their greatest days were ahead of them because Jesus loved them and was going to lay down His life for them. That selfless, sacrifical act of love would make possible the fulfillment of the promise He had made to them.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the one believing in Me, the works that I do, also he will do. And he will do greater than these, because I am going to the Father. – John 14:12 BSB

They didn’t realize it at the moment, but they were going to bear much fruit, just as Jesus had told them.

“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” – John 15:8 ESV

But their fruitfulness would be accompanied by access to God. The imagery of the vine and the branches comes into play here. God, as the vinedresser, would fulfill His will through the Vine, producing lasting fruit through the branches. This interdependency between the Father, Son, and the Son’s faithful followers, would result in a harvest of lasting fruit. And the disciples will experience the joy of desiring to do the will of the Father. Like Jesus, they will learn to say, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV). Their desires will change. Their requests of God will become less selfish and more selfless. And Jesus assures them that His words are meant to produce in them a love for one another. But it will be His actions, not His words, that make that kind of selfless, sacrificial love possible. His death, as the ultimate expression of God’s love for sinful mankind, will provide the power they need to keep His commands, love one another, bear fruit, and do greater things.

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 Best is Yet to Come

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” John 14:15-21 ESV

Jesus has just assured His confused and shell-shocked disciples that they will do “greater works” than He has done. But this amazing promise is only for those who believe in Him and will only be available after He has returned to His Father (John 14:12). And Jesus further assures then that when that day comes, they will be able to ask Him anything “in His name” and He will do it (John 14:14). The ability to do greater things and the promised of answered prayer. Those two promises were meant to encourage the disciples but, like so many of His other statements, they went right over their heads. All throughout His time with them, Jesus had fielded all kinds of questions from these men. They had constantly bombarded Him with requests about everything from the nature of the kingdom to the meaning of His parables. They were naturally curious and filled with childlike inquisitiveness, anxious to know more about who Jesus was and what He had come to do. But the closer He got to the cross, the less they seemed to comprehend His true identity and purpose.

But Jesus is letting them know that things are about to change, and not just for Him. While His life will end in death, it will be followed by His miraculous resurrection. Then, when Jesus has returned to His Father’s side, their lives will be forever changed. They will end up doing “greater things” than He has done. But what does this mean? Is this a promise that they will raise the dead just as He did? Will followers of Jesus have the capacity to walk on water or turn water into wine? While some believe that is exactly what Jesus is promising, the context seems to indicate something far different. While the “great things” that Jesus did had amazed His onlookers, what truly made them great was that they were done in the power of God, according to the will of God, and for the glory of God. They were intended to be signs of who Jesus was and were meant to bring glory to the one who had sent Him. And Jesus is telling His disciples that the same will be true for them. They will do “greater things” because they will be greater in number. And their numbers will grow. But the point of emphasis is not the nature of things they will do, but the power in which they will do it and the fact that what they do will be done in God’s power and for His glory.

And they will still be able to make requests of Jesus, but now they will ask in His name and according to His will. They will no longer be driven by selfish concerns but will pray according to the will of God and in keeping with the character of Jesus Himself. Their motivations will shift from self-gratification and personal pleasure to asking for those things that will bring glory to God.

But how will the death and resurrection of Jesus make all this possible? How will His departure bring about such radical transformations in the lives of His disciples? The answer is found in verses 14-31. Jesus introduces His disciples to the secret that will allow them to do greater things and pray in His name.

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.” – John 14:16 ESV

Jesus informs His dispirited disciples that His departure will be followed by the Spirit’s arrival. This “helper” or “advocate” will be the Spirit of truth. The Greek word is paraklētos, and it refers to “one who comes alongside.” This word has been translated as counselor, helper, assistant, and intercessor. But Jesus is referring to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Yet Jesus is not insinuating that the Holy Spirit’s arrival will be the first time He has come to earth. He is letting the disciples know that the Spirit, who has been with them all along, will take up residence in them.

You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” – John 14:17 ESV

Their relationship with the Spirit will change. As long as Jesus was with them, He served as their helper or advocate. But with His departure, they would need “another helper,” one who would step in and guide the followers of Jesus in His absence. The Spirit of God would play a more integral and intimate role in their lives. He would not only be with them, but he would also come to dwell within them. And once again, the full weight of this news escaped the disciples. They had no way of understanding what Jesus was talking about. But it would be the Holy Spirit’s presence within them that would empower them to do the greater things that Jesus promised.

And this power would only be available to those who believe in Jesus – those who love Him and keep His commandments. But what are the commandments to which Jesus is referring? It would seem that, based on the context, Jesus is referring back to His two earlier statements concerning belief.

“Believe in God; believe also in me.” – John 14:1 ESV

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.” – John 14:11 ESV

The greatest expression of their love for Jesus would be their willingness to believe in who He was – all the way to the end. Notice that Jesus provided them with a conditional statement:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper…” – John 14:15-16 ESV

The conjunction, kai can also be translated as “then,” and it would seem that Jesus is letting them know that their love for Him will allow them to believe in Him, in spite of all that is about to happen. And their belief will not be in vain. He will rise from the dead, ascend to His Father, and send the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide, and empower them for future service for God.

Knowing exactly what is going through His disciples’ minds, Jesus assures them that He is not going to leave them to live in the world like abandoned children. While His death will seem like the end of the world to them, He lets them know that they will see Him again. The world, referring to all those who refused to believe in Him, would never see Jesus again. The Pharisees would assume that their adversary was permanently gone. The Jews who had followed Jesus would return to their old lives and, in time, would forget that Jesus ever existed. But after His resurrection, Jesus would appear to hundreds of His followers – those who loved Him and had continued to believe in Him.

And Jesus provides His disciples with a powerful message of encouragement.

“Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” – John 14:19 ESV

His resurrection would be life-changing for them. And it would fulfill what He had said to Martha just prior to raising her dead brother back to life.

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

With His resurrection and the subsequent coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus and the Father were one. And they would know it because they would experience unity with the Father and the Son through the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God.

Jesus is encouraging His disciples to keep believing. He knows they are struggling with doubt and fear. They are confused by all that He has been saying and are finding it difficult to understand how any of this could be in the will of God. And as the events unfold in the hours ahead, it will only appear to get worse. But Jesus assures them:

“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” – John 14:21 ESV

While the disciples would continue to display fear and doubt, even abandoning Jesus at His moment of greatest need, they would never stop loving Him. And even in their weakness and filled with all kinds of questions, they would continue to believe in Him. And their belief would not be disappointed. Their love and belief would be rewarded by the love of the Father, expressed in the gracious gift of His Son as the payment for their sin debt. And when Jesus had fulfilled His mission, God would raise Him to life again, guaranteeing the hope of eternal life to all those who loved and believed in His Son.

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

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

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

More and More Part 2

9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ESV

It’s interesting to note how, in this passage, Paul contrasts love and lust. In verses 1-8, he points out the need for the Thessalonian believers to “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). They were to refrain from practicing sexual sin or, as the word means in Greek, “to hold one’s self off.” As believers, they had been given a new capacity to refrain from their old desires, driven by their sinful natures. Upon placing their faith in Christ, they had received the presence and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And, as a result, they were able to say no to lustful desires.

The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. – Galatians 5:17 NLT

The sinful nature lusts or desires the wrong things. And Paul pointed out to the Galatian believers that those who allowed their lives to be driven by the desires of their old nature, rather than the Spirit, would produce ungodly fruit in their lives. And the first three he mentions are tied to sexual sin.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

And Paul has warned the Thessalonian church: “each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5 ESV). John Piper defines lust as “a sexual desire that dishonors its object and disregards God” (John Piper, Battling the Unbelief of Lust, http://www.desiringgod.org). And he expands on that definition by adding:

“Sexual desire in itself is good. God made it in the beginning. It has its proper place. But it was made to be governed or regulated or guided by two concerns: honor toward the other person and holiness toward God. Lust is what that sexual desire becomes when that honor and that holiness are missing from it.” – John Piper, Battling the Unbelief of Lust, http://www.desiringgod.org

Paul wanted the Thessalonians to understand that they had a new obligation to live their lives in such a way that everything they did brought glory and honor to God. With the Spirit’s help, they were to learn to control their bodies, not allowing their natural, God-given desires to become perverted or distorted by sin. Sexual desire is not a sin, but it is actually a gift from God. But like everything else in life since the fall, this godly gift can be stained by the presence of sin. Rather than being an expression of self-sacrificing love for another, it turns in on itself, demanding that someone satisfy our selfish desires for sexual pleasure. God gets left out of the picture. And love gets replaced by lust. That is why Paul points out that their lives were to be marked by holiness, not impurity.

For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 ESV

And this was not a message Paul reserved for the Thessalonians. He shared the same warning to the believers in Rome.

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. – Romans 6:12-13 NLT

Lust versus love. One dishonors the other person by using them for purely selfish reasons. And, in the end, this disobeys and dishonors God. But when we truly love as God has called us to love, sacrificially and selflessly, the other person is treated with value, dignity, and honor. And God receives glory.

A Christian marriage is to be a proving ground of the Spirit’s life-transforming power, where the selfless, sacrificial love of Christ is modeled in everyday life. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul wrote: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NLT). Then he provided them with specific application of what that mutual submission would look life in the marriage context.

For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.

For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. – Ephesians 5:22-26 NLT

While we find it easy to get hung up on Paul’s call for the wives to submit, it is essential to understand that he is calling both the husband and the wife to practice selfless submission – out of reverence to Christ. And earlier in the same chapter, Paul provided a call for the Ephesians to imitate God and to follow the example of Christ.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 NLT

And then he added a what-not-to-do element to his instructions.

Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people. – Ephesians 5:3 NLT

Love, not lust. That is the call placed on the believer by God Himself, and the kind of love God had in mind was modeled by Christ. And this selfless love was not just reserved for marriage. It was to be displayed in all their relationships. God has called His children to love others in the same way He has shown love to them.

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

And He expects them to follow the example of Christ.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. – 1 John 3:16 NLT

And Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they don’t require any more instructions regarding the kind of love God has in mind “for God himself has taught you to love one another” (1 Thessalonians 4:9 NLT). And the apostle John lets us know just how God had taught them.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. – 1 John 4:9-11 NLT

Paul compliments the Thessalonian church for having displayed the very kind of love he was writing about. They had already given evidence of their selflessness and willingness to sacrifice on behalf of others. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul bragged on the tangible expressions of love displayed by the Macedonian churches, including the fellowship in Thessalonica.

Now I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, what God in his kindness has done through the churches in Macedonia. They are being tested by many troubles, and they are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity.

For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped, for their first action was to give themselves to the Lord and to us, just as God wanted them to do. – 2 Corinthians 8:1-5 NLT

But Paul didn’t want them to rest on their laurels. In fact, he begged them “to do this more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:10 ESV). They were to keep loving. They were to stop lusting. And then Paul adds three characteristics or marks of a life lived in love.

  1. Their lives would exhibit peace and calm, rather than strife and turmoil. Paul told the Romans, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18 NLT). Peaceful lives create an atmosphere in which others feel safe and secure. And that is an expression of love.
  2. They were to tend to their own affairs, refusing to meddle in the concerns of others. This is not a call to disregard the needs or life circumstances of others, but it is simply an extension of Jesus’ admonition to “get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye” (Matthew 7:5 NLT).
  3. They were to be diligent workers, using whatever skills they had to provide for themselves, and refusing to become a burden to others. There was no place for laziness or a spirit of entitlement in their lives.

And Paul had a purpose behind his call for selfless, sacrificial living.

Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others. – 1 Thessalonians 4:12 NLT

At the end of the day, Paul was interested in seeing the Thessalonian believers live out their faith in tangible ways that exhibited the power of the Spirit and gave proof of their status as God’s children.

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

Faith and Love

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13 ESV

At some point, Timothy left Thessalonica and rejoined Paul in Corinth. Upon his arrival, he had shared with the apostle some encouraging news regarding the spiritual and emotional state of the Thessalonian believers.  And upon hearing of their “faith and love,” Paul was indeed encouraged, referring to his report as “good news”(euaggelizo).

Normally, Paul used this Greek word only when referring to the Gospel message – the good news concerning Jesus Christ. In fact, this is the only place in the entire New Testament where it is not used in that way. But for Paul, news of the steadfast faith and love of the Thessalonians was directly linked to the life-transforming power of the Gospel. Their persevering faith was evidence of God’s power, made possible by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. In his first epistle, the apostle Peter reminded his readers that, because of “God’s power,” they were “being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5 ESV). God was preserving them through faith, and guaranteeing their future inheritance of eternal life. This comforting fact prompted Peter to exhort the believers to whom he wrote.

So be truly glad. 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. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. – 1 Peter 1:6-7 NLT

And Paul knew that the capacity of the Thessalonian believers to express love was proof that they had experienced the love of God. The apostle John clarified that those who truly loved others were exhibiting the life-changing love that God had graciously shown them.

We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:19-21 NLT

Faith and love were on display in Thessalonica and Paul could not have been more pleased. He was also encouraged by Timothy’s report that the Thessalonian believers maintained a strong love for Paul and Silas, manifesting itself in a desire to be reunited with them.

He reports that you always remember our visit with joy and that you want to see us as much as we want to see you. – 1 Thessalonians 3:6 NLT

Paul didn’t always receive a warm welcome in the many cities he visited. He knew what it was like to face rejection and had even endured physical abuse at the hands of those with whom he had shared the Gospel. So, it was comforting and encouraging to hear that the Thessalonian believers had not lost their affection for him. This was particularly meaningful to Paul when he knew that there were those who were constantly trying to undermine his authority and diminish his influence. To hear that the believers in Thessalonica had not turned their backs on him or the Gospel he had preached was especially encouraging to Paul. And Paul let them know that news of their persevering faith had brought him comfort in the midst of his own personal circumstances.

So we have been greatly encouraged in the midst of our troubles and suffering, dear brothers and sisters, because you have remained strong in your faith. – 1 Thessalonians 3:7 NLT

He had found the content of Timothy’s report to be spiritual rejuvenating.

It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord. – 1 Thessalonians 3:8 NLT

Paul was a man of prayer and, while physically separated from the believers in Thessalonica, he had been interceding for them before the throne of God.

Night and day we pray earnestly for you… – 1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT

And they were in good company because Paul made it a habit to pray for all the churches he had helped to plant. He told the church in Ephesus:

I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly… – Ephesians 1:16 NLT

He informed the Colossian church:

So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. – Colossians 1:9 NLT

And he wrote to the believers in Rome, letting them know that they were on his heart and in his prayers.

Let me say first that I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith in him is being talked about all over the world. – Romans 1:8 NLT

And Paul told the Thessalonians that his prayers for them were filled with expressions of thanksgiving to God. He was able to enter into God’s presence with gratitude and with great joy because he knew that his spiritual children in Thessalonica were thriving, even in the midst of difficulty. But along with prayers of thanksgiving to God for all that He was doing among them, Paul was also “asking God to let us see you again to fill the gaps in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT).

Paul was the consummate pastor/shepherd. He loved to see people come to faith in Christ, but he also found great joy in helping them grow up in their faith. He was an evangelist and a spiritual mentor. He shared Peter’s passion to see new believers move from spiritual infancy to maturity.

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation… – 1 Peter 2:2 NLT

Paul told the believers in Ephesus, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT). And so, Paul made the spiritual growth of the various flocks he had helped to found a high priority in his prayer life. When he couldn’t physically be present among them, he made sure he was regularly interceding on behalf of them.

And along with his prayer for permission to return to Thessalonica, Paul asked God to increase their capacity to love others.

…may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows. – 1 Thessalonians 3:12 NLT

And this love was not to be myopic, focused solely on the members of their congregation. It was to flow outside the fellowship and into the streets of Thessalonica, so their lost friends, family members, and neighbors could also experience the love of God. Paul was simply asking God to empower them to do what Jesus had expressed in His sermon on the mount.

“…love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” – Matthew 5:44-48 NLT

Anyone can love those who love them in return. But the love of God was best expressed in the gracious gift of His Son. It was while we were still mired in our sins and incapable of expressing love to Him, that God loved us. And no one describes the love of God better than the apostle John.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. – 1 John 4:9-12 NLT

Faith and love. Paul knew these two things were the key to their ongoing spiritual health and vitality. And both come from God. They are not self-manufactured or the by-products of human will power. That is why Paul reminded the Thessalonians that one of his ongoing prayers for them was that God would continue to increase their love and strengthen their faith. And his request had an eternal focus. He was thinking long-term, not short-term.

May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. Amen. – 1 Thessalonians 3:13 NLT

Paul was a man on a mission and that mission had a goal. There was a finish line at the end of the face. There was a prize at the end of the contest. And while there might be obstacles and difficulties along the way, there is a reward waiting for all those who run the race with endurance.

And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:17-18 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