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

A Sacrifice Worth Making

18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 28 And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” Luke 18:18-30 ESV

It’s amazing to consider the sovereign nature of all of Jesus’ encounters. Nothing that ever happened to Him was ever a case of luck or blind chance. It was all providentially orchestrated by His Heavenly Father. Every lame person who ever came to Jesus for healing did so of their own free will, but under the sovereign direction of God. Even those individuals whose lives were under the oppressive control of a demonic spirit somehow scored a face-to-face encounter with the Son of God. Even the demon within them could not stop the inevitable and irresistible will of God.

God’s timing was always impeccable, and the Son’s adherence to His Father’s will was always irreproachable. So, as Jesus walked in lock-step with His Father’s plan, it was inevitable that He would encounter those whom God had providentially preordained Him to meet. And that is exactly what happens when the rich, young ruler comes to Jesus with an important question. This was not just a case of good timing. It was an example of God’s carefully orchestrated oversight of every phase of His Son’s life and ministry. This particular man showed up at this particular time and with this particular question on his mind.

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” – Luke 18:18 ESV

Keep in mind that Jesus had just made a startling admission regarding entrance into the kingdom that left His disciples dazed and confused.

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” – Luke 18:17 ESV

And prior to dropping that bombshell on His disciples, Jesus had made another unexpected disclosure regarding justification before God.

“…everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:14 ESV

So, this man’s appearance could not have come at a better time. And his question could not have been more appropriate and applicable to the circumstances.

Luke tells us that this man was a ruler, which infers that he was both powerful and influential. The other synoptic gospels add that he was also rich and young. In other words, he had a lot going for him. We are not told what kind of ruler this man was. He could have served in some kind of governmental capacity. Perhaps he was a leader in the local synagogue. Or he could have been a member of the Sanhedrin. But regardless the nature of his leadership capacity, he seeks out Jesus. And notice how Jesus responds to the him.

“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. – Luke 18:19 ESV

Jesus seemingly ignores the man’s question and focuses on a single word contained within it. The man referred to Jesus as a “good” teacher, but uses this polite but overused description to make an important point. According to psalmist, only God alone is good.

God looks down from heaven
    on the children of man
to see if there are any who understand,
    who seek after God.

They have all fallen away;
    together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
    not even one. – Psalm 53:2-3 ESV

So, why was the young ruler using this word to describe Jesus? The truth is, the man meant nothing by it. But whether the man or anyone else in the crowd understood it, Jesus was subtly inferring His own deity. Jesus really was a “good” teacher. In fact, He was the God-teacher, the God-man.

But Jesus doesn’t belabor the point. Instead, He points out five of the Ten Commandments.

“Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.” – Luke 18:20 ESV

Matthew adds that the man’s request was focused on what “good deed” he must do to inherit eternal life. From the conversation that followed, it seems clear that the man believed he had already done enough. He was young and rich, and from the perspective of most Jews, he was already blessed by God because of his wealth. He was also a religious man because when Jesus listed the five commandments and told the man to keep them, he proudly announced, “All these I have kept from my youth.” (Luke 18:21 ESV).

This man was looking for confirmation, not a list of things to do. As a faithful Jew, he believed he was a child of Abraham and, therefore, a rightful heir to eternal life. As a descendant of Abraham, he was guaranteed a place in God’s eternal Kingdom. Now, he was asking Jesus to place His Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on his life.

The wording of the man’s question is very specific. He uses the word klēronomeō, which means “to obtain by inheritance.” This reveals that he believed eternal life was already rightfully his, but he wants to know how to he can get his hands on it now. He was not willing to wait. His attitude is similar to that of the young man in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. In that story, Jesus described another young man from a wealthy family who was destined to inherit his father’s vast riches. But unwilling to wait for his father to die, he demanded that he be given his inheritance right way.

“I want my share of your estate now before you die.” So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. – Luke 15:12 NLT

Finding himself suddenly wealthy beyond belief, that young man ended up spending everything he had on a life of excess and immorality. He had gotten what he wanted but had misused and abused it.

And, in a similar way, the rich young man kneeling before Jesus was demanding that he be given what was rightfully his: His guaranteed inheritance of eternal life. This man had it all but he wanted more. He coveted the one thing that was missing from his portfolio: Assurance of eternal life.

Because of his wealth, social standing, and success at religious rule-keeping, this young man believed himself to be blessed by God. He viewed himself as a good man who deserved everything that was due to him. And if Jesus could guarantee him that he had done enough to earn eternal life, he could live the rest of his life in ease and comfort. But when Jesus emphasized that “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19 ESV), He was letting this man know that there was only one “good man” participating in this conversation. And it wasn’t the rich, young ruler.

And while this man could brag about having kept the commandments, Jesus knew the truth about his heart. It’s interesting that Jesus only listed five of the commandments and they all had to do with the horizontal relationships between individuals.

These five commandments bring to mind Jesus’ sermon on the mount. In that message, Jesus stated, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19 ESV).

And Jesus had gone on to explain what it looked like to “relax” one of God’s laws. He put hatred on the same par as murder (Matthew 5:22). He compared lust to adultery.

“…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28 ESV

Lust, like adultery, is essentially taking what does not belong to you. It is a form of stealing. And Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29 ESV).

All throughout His sermon on the mount, Jesus painted a radically different picture of what it means to keep God’s law. It wasn’t just about rule-keeping. It was about a change of the heart. Those who hoped to inherit God’s kingdom would have to live sacrificially and selflessly. Their adherence to God’s laws would have to manifest itself in their relationships with others. That’s why Jesus said, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42 ESV).

Which brings us back to the rich young man. Jesus turned to him and said, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22 ESV). This proved to be the deal-breaker. This one “good deed” was more than the man could handle. He was unwilling to part with his wealth. All his law-keeping had cost him nothing. But now Jesus was demanding that he do one thing that would cost him everything.

The man was focused on what Jesus was asking him to give up. But the real tragedy of this story is what the young man eventually turned his back on. He was willing to walk away from eternal life so that he could keep living the “good life.” Mark sadly reports that the man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22 ESV).

He was possessed by his possessions. He was held captive by the things of this world. His love of material goods and temporal pleasures proved too great. And years later, the apostle John would probably recall this sad scene when he wrote the following words.

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

This man had been young and full of life. He was wealthy and blessed by every imaginable earthly pleasure. He was a ruler who wielded tremendous power and responsibility. In other words, He was great. He was all that the disciples hoped to become. When they looked at the rich young ruler, they saw the image of what they aspired to be. And as the disciples stood in stunned silence watching the young man walk away, Jesus further exploded their misconception of greatness.

“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” – Mark 10:23 ESV

This led some in the crowd to exclaim, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26 ESV). If the wealthy, who were obviously blessed by God, were going to find it difficult to enter the kingdom, what hope did they have?  But Jesus assured them, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27 ESV).

At this point, the ever-impulsive Peter stepped into the conversation and reminded Jesus how he and his companions had sacrificed all to follow Him. They weren’t rich like the young ruler, but they had given up everything to be His disciples. Peter was hoping that Jesus would confirm that they had eternal life locked in. According to the criteria Jesus had given the young ruler, Peter figured they had done enough.

But Jesus surprises them by stating: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30 ESV). What Peter did not yet understand was that, with Jesus’ coming death on the cross, he and the other disciples would eventually inherit the Holy Spirit. Not only that, they would end up becoming part of the much larger family of God. But the greatest blessing they would receive would come at the end of the age: Eternal life. But all of it would be based on the work of Christ, not their own human effort. Eternal life was a gift, not a reward for work well done.

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

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

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

I Once Was Lost…

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” – Luke 15:8-10 ESV

Jesus continues to reveal the true nature of the Pharisees, scribes, and their fellow religious leaders. This entire scene had been instigated by their verbal complaint that Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners. In response, Jesus launched into a parabolic monologue designed to expose these men as frauds and fakes. While they took great pride in their religious zeal and wholehearted commitment to the Mosaic Law, they showed no signs of compassion for the materially and spiritually less fortunate. These self-righteous men looked down their noses at the common people, deeming them to be uneducated illiterates whose lives were marked by constant disobedience to God’s commands. And the religious leaders of Israel held a special contempt for all those who were outside the household of Abraham. In other words, they despised any and all Gentiles, especially the Romans who served as their taskmasters and overlords.

So, in this series of parables, Jesus uses a variety of analogies that are designed to expose these men as uncaring legalists who have placed their religion and their lengthy list of man-made rules ahead of the spiritual needs of the people. Matthew records a particularly harsh indictment that Jesus leveled against these men for their missionary-like, but misguided zeal for making converts.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” – Matthew 23:15 ESV

They were adept at propagating their particular style of religious ritualism, marked by rule-keeping and motivated by pride and self-reliance. But all the while, they remained blind to the true spiritual need in their midst. They rejected Jesus’ call to repentance because they didn’t believe it applied to them. And they showed no concern for the “sinners” in their midst because they believed these people were only getting what they deserved for their failure to keep the law. They were poor because they lacked piety. Those who suffered from blindness were being punished for their unrighteousness. The lame, infirmed, and diseased were reaping the consequences of their immoral lifestyles. So, rather than dine with these kinds of people, the Pharisees avoided them like the plague. But not Jesus. And that is the point of these parables.

In the second parable, Jesus describes a woman who finds that one of her silver coins is missing. Jesus’ Jewish audience would have understood this coin to be a Greek drachma, which was equivalent to a Roman denarius. And they would have immediately recognized the extreme nature of this woman’s loss because that one silver coin was worth a day’s wage. So, they would not have been surprised to hear that the woman in the story began a feverish search to find the object of great worth.

And, as in the first parable, Jesus presents his story in the form of a rhetorical question.

Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? – Luke 15:8 NLT

It’s not hard to visualize the people in the crowd shaking their heads in affirmation. That’s exactly what they would do if they were in the woman’s place because they each understood the extent of her loss and the degree of her determination to find the missing coin.

This parable is very similar to an actual event that occurred at a later date while Jesus was making His way to Jerusalem. Luke records that Jesus was “passing along between Samaria and Galilee” (Luke 17:11 ESV). The context is important because it reveals that Jesus has ventured back to the north. Luke provides no reason for Jesus making this rather lengthy detour, but it provides the backdrop for what takes place.

As Jesus entered a village, He was accosted by the shouts of ten men who suffered from the devastating disease of leprosy. When they saw Jesus, they cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13 NLT). Luke indicates that these men, while desperate to receive healing from Jesus, remained at a distance, in keeping with the requirements of the Mosaic Law. Their condition rendered them unclean and severely restricted their movements. As long as they suffered from leprosy, they were unwelcome in the local synagogue and were denied access to the temple in Jerusalem. Everywhere these men went they were persona non grata.

What Jesus did next is significant. Rather than reaching out and healing the men, He gave them a command.

“Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Luke 17:14 ESV

Usually, this process would have come after healing had taken place. It was the priest’s duty to affirm that someone had recovered from the disease before they could be accepted back into the open arms of the community. But Jesus sent these men to the priest while they were still suffering from leprosy. And as they made their way, they were miraculously healed.

And as they went they were cleansed. – Luke 17:14 ESV

For each of these men, the journey to see the priest required tremendous faith. They had no way of knowing what was going to happen when they arrived but it is safe to assume that they expected the priest to reject them as unclean, just like always. But as they walked, they were healed. And when they arrived, they were pronounced clean by the priest. The disease was gone. Their days of isolation and loneliness were over. The curse of a slow and painful death from leprosy had been replaced with new hope and new life.

But Luke reports that only one of the men returned to thank Jesus for what He had done, and he just happened to be a Samaritan. So, not only had he suffered the indignity of having a dreaded disease that made him a social pariah, he had endured the added pressure of being a lowly and despised Samaritan. The Jews viewed Samaritans as half-breeds, the descendants of the remnant who had been left in the land of Canaan after the Babylonian exile. These people had committed the unpardonable sin of intermarrying with Gentiles. On top of that, they had created their own syncretistic religion that combined the worship of Yahweh with pagan idols. They had even established their own priesthood and holy site. They were considered by the Jews to be little more than dogs, unwanted, unclean, and unworthy of any sympathy or association.

Yet Luke records that it was this man who took the time to return and thank Jesus for what He had done.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. – Luke 17:15-16 NLT

What happens next is significant and provides an important link to the parable of the woman and the ten coins. Notice what Jesus said when the Samaritan had returned and expressed his deep appreciation.

Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” And Jesus said to the man, “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you. – Luke 17:17-19 NLT

Ten coins. Ten men. One coin was missing and found. One man was healed and returned. It’s almost as if the second event had been preordained and intended to bring the parable to life. Everything Jesus said and did had a purpose behind it. He was always teaching, instructing, revealing, and preparing His disciples. No moment was wasted.

It seems clear that in both cases, Jesus’ intention was to subtly expose the Pharisees. In the parable, they were the nine coins that remained un-lost. They required no search to be found because they had never strayed away. They were the “faithful” ones. But Jesus emphasized that the woman went out of her way to find the one coin that had gone missing. And it’s important to note that each coin had the same value in the eyes of the woman. No one drachma was of greater worth than the other. Regardless of which coin was lost, she would have searched just a diligently and relentlessly.

And the ten lepers all suffered from the same abysmal fate. They had not caused it and could do nothing to alleviate it. They were helpless and hopeless, which is why they cried out to Jesus for help. And what is important to realize about this scene is that nine of the men were Jews, while only one was a Samaritan or “foreigner.” But their national identity had done nothing to prevent them from succumbing to the ravages of this deadly disease. They were all equally infected and facing the same unavoidable fate.

And when Jesus commanded that they go and present themselves to the priest, they all obeyed. In a sense, this portrays the law-keeping tendencies of the Pharisees. They were all about “doing” and took great pride in their ability to keep the commands of God. So, the nine Jews did exactly what they were told to do. They went to the priest and on the way, they received healing. But what was their response to this life-changing moment? They went on their way. They joyfully returned to their former way of life, free from leprosy and no longer considered unclean and unwelcome by their community. Luke makes no commentary about the nine, leaving the reader to assess the nature of their reaction. The best way to understand what was going on in their hearts is to look at the response of the Samaritan. He praised God and “fell to the ground at Jesus’ feet, thanking him for what he had done” (Luke 17:16 NLT).

The Samaritan recognized that his healing had been the work of God. And He realized that Jesus had been the means by which God had brought about this life-changing miracle. To a certain degree, this man’s return was an act of repentance. He came back to the source – to the one who had given him back his life. He knew he had nothing to do with his healing. It had all been the work of God.

But what about the nine Jews who went on their way? Why did they not respond with the same degree of gratitude and humble praise? It is likely that they took some responsibility for their own healing. After all, they had been the ones to cry out for mercy. And when Jesus had commanded them to go to the priest, they had been quick to do so. The fact that they were healed as they faithfully obeyed Jesus’ command was proof that they had somehow earned their miraculous transformation. This mindset was prevalent among the Jews, especially among the religious leaders. We see it in another encounter Jesus had with one of them.

Once a religious leader asked Jesus this question: “Good Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” – Luke 18:18 NLT

And Jesus responded by reciting five of the Ten Commandments.

“‘You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother.’” – Luke 18:20 NLT

To which the man proudly replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young” (Luke 18:21 NLT). He viewed himself as a faithful adherent to the Mosaic Law. But Jesus exposed a flaw in his self-righteous assessment when He added one thing that the man had overlooked.

“There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” – Luke 18:22 NLT

Jesus had subtly revealed the man’s real problem: His love affair with materialism. He was wealthy and the thought of selling all he had and following Jesus was more than he was willing to sacrifice. He had come hoping that Jesus would validate his works ethic by affirming that he had done enough to earn eternal life. But no one can earn salvation. And on one articulated this essential doctrine of the faith more readily and succinctly than the apostle Paul.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

A coin that was lost, then found. A man that was leprous, then healed. Both are evidence of the value that God has placed on all those He has made. And He sent His Son “to seek and save those who are lost” (Luke 19:10 NLT). The coin couldn’t find itself. The leper couldn’t heal himself. But their hopeless and helpless state was not insurmountable. It simply required the loving, compassionate care of a gracious and merciful God. Salvation is impossible, but as Jesus later said, “with God everything is possible” (Matthew 19:26 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

Mission: Impossible

27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:27-36 ESV

Because Luke is writing to his Greek friend, Theophilus, he does not include all that Jesus taught in His sermon on the mount. Matthew, writing to a primarily Jewish audience, recorded all of Jesus’ lessons concerning the Mosaic Law. In his account, Jesus addressed such topics as murder, adultery, divorce, the making of oaths, and retaliation, and He did so by taking what they understood about the law and expanding upon it. In other words, Jesus began with a common point of interest, the law and its list of well-known prohibitions or restrictions. Then He went beyond the letter of the law to explain the intentions of God that lie behind it. God’s command to not murder was really a call to refrain from anger. In His eyes, the two were inseparable and carried the same moral weight. The same was true of adultery and lust. To do one was to do the other. According to Jesus, merely keeping the letter of the law was not enough.

But due to the Greek nature of his audience, Luke chose to focus on the more general aspects of Jesus’ message, leaving out all references to the Mosaic Law. After letting Theophilus know what Jesus had to say about the blessings and woes, Luke picks up Jesus’ comments concerning love for one another. And what Jesus had to say would have sounded strange and impossible, regardless of whether Theophilus was a Greek or a Jew. Jesus boldly declared, “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies…” (Luke 6:27 ESV). In any culture, that admonition sounds counterintuitive because it goes counter to human nature. Regardless of your religious affiliation, ethnic background, or cultural context, the command to love your enemies would have sounded impossible and illogical. It made no sense.

Yet, Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on to add, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28 ESV). It’s important to remember that as Jesus spoke these words, He had His newly appointed disciples in mind. Yes, there were others in the crowd that day, but Jesus is focusing His attention on the men He has chosen to be His future apostles or messengers. This would have been the first of many lectures they would receive from their new teacher, and it would have left their minds reeling with confusion and filled with questions.

First of all, the twelve would not yet have been aware of the intense hatred to which they would be subjected as disciples of Jesus. From their perspective, they saw Jesus as a popular figure who was attracting huge crowds and gathering a growing number of followers. They believed Him to be the Messiah and had high hopes that He was going to usher in the utopian-like future of Israel. So, all this talk of loving their enemies must have sounded strange to them. Each of them could have probably counted the number of their enemies on one hand. But before long they would learn that their association with Jesus would place them in the eye of the storm of controversy and contention that would engulf His life and ministry.

And Jesus gave them very specific examples of what He meant by loving their enemies.

“If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.” – Luke 6:29 NLT

All of this would have sounded unthinkable and highly unappealing to His disciples. For the most part, these were unsophisticated men who would have considered Jesus’ words to be a call to social suicide. No one would survive the rough-and-tumble culture of 1st-Century Palestine if they followed this kind of advice. The kind of meekness and mild-mannered mousiness Jesus was describing would get you abused, if not killed.

But what these men don’t yet understand is that Jesus is describing the character of those who belong to the Kingdom of God. He is presenting them with a picture of their future sanctified, Spirit-filled state. Jesus knew that all of this was impossible in their current condition. They were still operating in the power of their fallen human natures. They had not yet received the indwelling presence and power of the Spirit of God. But Jesus wanted them to know that His followers were expected to live distinctively different lives, and through faith in Him, they would one day receive the power to put into practice all that He is describing.

Jesus was describing a life of true righteousness. With His arrival, things were about to take a dramatically different turn. Up to this point, the disciples and every other Jew living at that time were trying to earn favor with God by keeping the law and observing all the rites and rituals associated with the sacrificial system. Their hope of getting into God’s good graces was based on their ability to live up to the exacting standard of His commands. And now, Jesus seemed to be upping the ante. He was demanding even more from them. But His whole point was that a truly righteous life was impossible to attain without His help.

His call to love was nothing new. The Old Testament law had demanded that they love God and love others. But, according to Jesus, anyone could do that. Loving those who love you earned you no special favor with God.

“If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them.” – Luke 6:32 NLT

No, Jesus was describing a kind of love that was indiscriminate and non-reciprocal. In other words, it was a kind of love that expected nothing in return. And this same one-directional mindset applied to acts of kindness as well. Simply doing good to those who did good to you was not going to cut it.

“And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much!” – Luke 6:33 NLT

Jesus was letting His disciples know that God expected behavior that was not based on what you get out of it. Giving to get and loving only when loved were not sufficient. Even sinners can do that. But the kind of life Jesus was describing was impossible. It was humanly unachievable and unattainable.

But Jesus promises all those who can somehow pull off what He is describing, “your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35 ESV). The selfless and sacrificial kind of love He is describing will end up paying off in the long run. It comes with a remarkable reward: Inclusion in the family of God and citizenship in the Kingdom of God. And that would be true for Jesus’ 12 Jewish disciples and Luke’s Greek friend, Theophilus.

Jesus was calling His disciples to mirror the very character of God, “who is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35 ESV). God is not a discriminator of persons. He shows no favoritism. As Peter later put it, He “shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35 NLT). So, Jesus calls His disciples to emulate the very nature of God.

“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” – Luke 6:36 ESV

Even for those of us living on this side of the cross, these words still convey a sense of impossibility. They sound unattainable. Jesus seems to be asking us to do something that is beyond our capacity as fallen human beings. But we fail to remember that we have been equipped with the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. As Peter reminds us, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT).

But for the disciples of Jesus, sitting on that hillside, His words were impossible. They did not yet have the Spirit of God living within them to energize and empower them. They were enthusiastic and motivated men who believed Jesus to be their long-awaited Messiah, but they were not yet ready or equipped to accomplish all that Jesus was calling them to do. But in time, they would be.

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

Not What They Were Expecting

38 And he arose and left the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. 39 And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them.

40 Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. 41 And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.

42 And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, 43 but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” 44 And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea. Luke 4:38-44 ESV

After casting out the demon(s) from the man in the synagogue, Jesus made His way to the home of Simon and Andrew (Mark 1:29), two of His disciples who lived in the town of Capernaum. Upon entering the house, He discovered that the mother-in-law of Simon (Peter) was bedridden, suffering from the effects of a high fever. Luke’s account of this scene differs slightly from that of Matthew and Mark. They both indicate that Jesus healed the woman by taking her by the hand. But Luke states that Jesus “rebuked the fever.” As he has done before, Luke places the emphasis on the words of Jesus. When Jesus had cast out the demon, the crowd had responded, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” (Luke 4:36 ESV). When Jesus had taught in the synagogues, Luke reports that he was “praised by everyone” (Luke 4:15 NLT).

So, while Matthew and Mark place their emphasis on the physical touch of Jesus, Luke focuses on the power and authority of His words. Just as the demons were subject to the command of Jesus, so was the fever. Whatever illness had caused the fever was immediately eliminated from the woman’s body, leaving her completely whole. So much so, that each of the gospel authors indicates that she set about preparing a meal for her son-in-law’s guests.

For Luke, everything about Jesus revolved around His God-given power and authority. He records that Jesus began His ministry by visiting the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth and reading from the book of Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19 ESV

After reading this text, Jesus told the audience, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 ESV). In doing so, He was making the bold claim that He had been sent by God and was the Messiah, the anointed one for whom they had long waited. He was filled with the Spirit of God and had the power and authority to proclaim good news to the poor, set free all those who were enslaved and oppressed, and restore sight to the blind. He had come to declare that “the time of the Lord’s favor has come” (Luke 4:19 NLT). 

News of what Jesus had done for Simon’s mother-in-law soon spread throughout the town of Capernaum. By that evening, Jesus found Himself surrounded by people who were sick, lame, and even demon-possessed. What’s interesting to note is that Luke indicates that Jesus “laid his hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4:40 ESV). For some undisclosed reason, Luke changes his emphasis and focuses on the “hands-on” approach of Jesus. Yet Matthew reports that Jesus “cast out the evil spirits with a simple command” (Matthew 4:16 NLT). Each of these men wrote their respective gospel accounts with a particular audience in mind and with a specific message concerning Jesus that they were trying to convey. Matthew was an eye-witness to these events, while Luke was writing based on interviews he had conducted with those who were there at the time the events took place. The slight variations in their accounts do not reflect contradictions in the Scriptures, but they simply reflect each man’s attempt to communicate his particular message concerning Jesus. 

Each of the gospel authors was trying to illustrate the power and authority of Jesus. Just as the Isaiah passage had predicted, Jesus was preaching, teaching, proclaiming, healing, releasing, and displaying the favor of God to sinful men and women. He was the Messiah. And even the demons were subject to His commands.

And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” – Luke 4:41 ESV

Jesus spoke and they were obligated to obey because they recognized Him for who He was: The Son of God. The demons were not worshiping Jesus but they were acknowledging His identity as the Messiah. They inherently understood that Jesus was more than just a rabbi from the town of Nazareth. When He spoke, they were forced to obey His command. They had no choice but to do as He said because He had the full power and authority of God behind His words.

But Jesus “rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ” (Luke 4:41 ESV). At first glance, it might seem odd that Jesus prevented the demons from declaring His identity as the Son of God. But Jesus was on a God-ordained mission that had a firm and highly specific timeline attached to it. The testimony of the demons could have led the people to see Jesus as the political/military Messiah they had been looking for. His obvious power over the spiritual realm could have led them to speculate that He could just as easily defeat the physical enemies of Israel, such as the Romans. As we will see later on in Luke’s gospel, the people were looking for a Messiah who would set them free from Roman rule and oppression, and, on more than one occasion, they would attempt to take Jesus by force and make Him their King. So, Jesus silenced the demons, refusing them to declare His true identity. He had a job to do and it would not be complete until He had faithfully obeyed His Father’s will by sacrificing His life on the cross.

After a busy day in the town of Capernaum, Jesus sought a place of refuge, to rest and, most likely, to seek time alone with His Heavenly Father. But the crowds were persistent and eventually found Him. The needs of the people were great and they begged Jesus to remain with them. You can sense that they knew He was someone special and they wanted to keep Him for themselves. But Jesus responded by informing them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43 ESV).

The people of Capernaum were focused on the physical benefits that Jesus seemed to provide. They had seen Him heal the sick and set free those who were demon-possessed, and they wanted more. But Jesus had a different agenda in mind. He had come to preach the good news of the kingdom of God. Whether they believed Him to be the Messiah or not, Jesus had not come to set up an earthly kingdom or rule from a throne in Jerusalem. He had come “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19 ESV). God was preparing to show His undeserved favor and mercy on a condemned and death-deserving mankind by offering His Son as the substitutionary atonement for their sin debt. They were looking for a Messiah who would set them free from Roman rule, but Jesus had come to provide freedom to those who were held captive by sin and death. And as Jesus would later state, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 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

An Unlikely Vessel

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.’ 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38 ESV

The birth of John to Elizabeth and Zechariah, while obviously divinely ordained and miraculous in nature, was meant to be a precursor to the more important and paradigm-shifting birth that was to follow. John’s entire life and ministry would be that of a herald or preparer of the way.

“…he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:17 ESV

In the same way, Luke records John’s birth as if it was merely a sign of greater things to come. While there are obvious similarities between the two birth accounts, Luke wants his readers to understand that there were glaring and significant differences as well. Years later, after beginning his ministry announcing the arrival of the Messiah and the Kingdom of Heaven, John would elaborate on the differences between him and Jesus.

“You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but am sent ahead of Him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom stands and listens for him, and is overjoyed to hear the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.  He must increase; I must decrease.

The One who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. The One who comes from heaven is above all.” – John 3:28-31 BSB

Once again, the angel Gabriel is sent to earth by God with a message. This time, he appears to a young virgin girl named Mary. Unlike Zechariah, Mary bears no title or job responsibility that would give her an air of importance or worth. She lived in Nazareth, a relatively obscure town located in the region of Galilee. With the mention of her place of residence, Luke has moved the narrative outside the walls of the capital city of Jerusalem where Zechariah received his message from Gabriel. In doing so, he has shifted the reader’s attention from the sacred environs of the temple to the less-than-holy confines of Nazareth. The reputation of this backwater town was far from stellar. Years later, when Philip told Nathanael “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph,” (John 1:45 ESV), Nathanael sarcastically responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 ESV).

But it was in this unimpressive place and to an unassuming young girl that God sent His angelic messenger with unexpected news.

“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” – Luke 1:28 ESV

Luke records that Mary’s response to seeing an angel was markedly different than that of Zechariah. He had been troubled and filled with fear at the sight of Gabriel but Mary seems to have been more disturbed by the content of the message than the heavenly status of its deliverer.

…she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. – Luke 1:29 NLT

Mary was a nobody. It’s likely that she was no more than a teenager at the time. And besides her name and the fact that she was a virgin, all Luke tells us about her is that she was “betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (Luke 1:27 ESV). There is nothing about Mary that should have set her apart as special in any way. And that seems to be the point. When Gabriel announced her “favored” status, he was not declaring that she had somehow earned her way into God’s good graces.

The Greek word is κεχαριτωμένη, and it means “to grace” or “to indue with special honor.” It is only used one other time in the New Testament. In his letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul refers to the grace or unmerited favor that God had poured out on them.

In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. – Ephesians 1:4-6 ESV

They had done nothing to earn their adoption as sons and daughters of Jesus Christ. It had all been a gift from God. And he would elaborate on the undeserved nature of that gift in the very next chapter.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

Mary had done nothing to merit her visitation from Gabriel, and her designation as God’s “favored one” was unearned as well. God had chosen her. He had set her apart to be the earthly vessel that would carry the priceless treasure of His Son. It was her relative obscurity and apparent inadequacy that set her apart. And Mary seemed to recognize the incongruity of Gabriel’s words with her own understanding of her value. She was troubled by what she heard and couldn’t reconcile the confusing nature of the angel’s message. But the apostle Paul provides us with a statement that helps to explain what was going on as Gabriel declared God’s message to Mary.

Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:24-289 NLT

Mary was an unlikely vessel to contain the glory of God. But then, so are we.

For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. – 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 NLT

This young girl was going to be used by God to bring light into the world. She would bear and give birth to the Son of God. For nine months, she would carry the hope of the world in her womb, and eventually, she would deliver God’s priceless gift of grace into the waiting arms of a rebellious and sin-stained world.

Gabriel assured Mary that she had “found favor with God!” (Luke 1:30 NLT). Once again, this does not mean that Mary had earned favor, but that God had graciously chosen to act on her behalf. He was gracing her with His favor. And then Gabriel explains to her how the favor of God would manifest itself.

“You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” – Luke 1:31-33 NLT

If Mary had been troubled before, she had to have been reeling at this point. This was mind-boggling, earth-shattering information that must have left her head spinning and her heart racing. And her confusion is evidenced by her reaction: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34 ESV). She and Joseph were still in the betrothal stage of their relationship and were not yet officially married. It sounded like Gabriel was getting the cart before the horse. She and Joseph still needed to complete their betrothal, go through the marriage ceremony, and then consummate their relationship.

That’s when Gabriel drops the next bombshell.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God. – Luke 1:35 NLT

This was all uncharted waters for this young Jewish girl. She had no way of understanding what Gabriel meant. There was no precedent to which she could turn to understand this kind of supernatural explanation. It is doubtful that she fully comprehended the nature of Gabriel’s words. But rather than ask more questions, she simply responded: “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 NLT). There may have been a tone of confused compliance behind Mary’s statement. She had no idea what was about to happen but because it was the will of God, Mary was ready to humbly submit.  

It all had to have sounded improbable and impossible to Mary. But Gabriel had assured her that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37 NLT). And he gave Elizabeth’s pregnancy as evidence of God’s involvement in all that was going on. The creator of the universe was working behind the scenes to bring about the greatest event in human history, and He was using broken, barren, insignificant, and undeserving individuals to make it happen.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Compassionate, Merciful God

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
    How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my burning anger;
    I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
    the Holy One in your midst,
    and I will not come in wrath.

10 They shall go after the Lord;
    he will roar like a lion;
when he roars,
    his children shall come trembling from the west;
11 they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
    and like doves from the land of Assyria,
    and I will return them to their homes, declares the Lord. – Hosea 11:8-11 ESV

One of the problems we face as fallen human beings is trying to comprehend the ways of a holy and fully righteous God. The prophet Isaiah provides us with God’s explanation for why finite men will never grasp His infinite and inexplicable actions.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

But while we might agree with God’s assessment of the problem, we too often miss the circumstances surrounding our lack of understanding. Take a look at the verses that precede the Lord’s declaration regarding His unfathomable ways. What we have difficulty comprehending is His divine willingness to show compassion on those who least deserve it.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” – Isaiah 55:6-7 NLT

God specifically addresses “the wicked” and “the unrighteous.” He calls on sinners to seek Him while they still have the opportunity. He doesn’t require that they clean up their proverbial act and start living righteous lives before they seek Him. But He does ask them to turn from their wicked lifestyles and their unrighteous ways of thinking, and to seek Him instead. All so that He might shower them with His compassion and bless them with His undeserved pardon.

As sinful human beings, we find this kind of offer incomprehensible and inexplicable. It makes no sense. Because to our way of thinking, love is always conditional. Rewards must be earned. We have been raised on a steady diet of moral rhetoric that has convinced us that you don’t get something for nothing. Yet, the apostle Paul would remind us that it was for our sinfulness that Jesus came to earth and offered up His life.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:6-8 NLT

Even Jesus declared that His incarnation, call to repentance, and offer of redemption was aimed at the spiritually sick and hopeless.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:31-32 ESV

On another occasion, Jesus reiterated this same sentiment, declaring His intention to show compassion on those who least deserved it.

“For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” – Matthew 9:13 NLT

So, when we read a book like Hosea, we can become confused by what appears to be apparent contradictions in the character of God. One minute we find Him castigating and condemning the Israelites for their immorality and idolatry. He declares His dissatisfaction with them and delivers warnings of His pending judgment. Then, almost out of nowhere, God declares His intention to show them mercy.

Take a look a verses 8-9. They stand in stark contrast to verse 7, where God just declared His intention to ignore Israel’s pleas for help. They will cry out, but “he shall not raise them up at all.”

Yet, in the very next verse, God reveals what appears to be a dramatic change of heart.

“How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
    How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my burning anger;
    I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
    the Holy One in your midst,
    and I will not come in wrath.”
– Hosea 11:8-9 NLT

While God is determined to bring judgment against His wicked and unrighteous people, He cannot bear the thought of destroying them completely. He mentions the cities of Admah and Zeboiim, which, at one time, had enjoyed a close physical and moral relationship with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to Deuteronomy 29:23, God destroyed these two cities when He brought His judgment to bear on Sodom and Gomorrah.

And the thought of bringing that level of destruction on His chosen people caused God’s heart to soften. His compassion overwhelmed Him. He declares that “My heart recoils within me” (Hosea 11:8 ESV). That word “recoils” has a very interesting meaning in Hebrew. It is the word, hāp̄aḵ, and it can mean “to turn” or “overturn.” It also has a negative connotation, referring to the overthrow of someone or something. Hans Walter Wolfe provides a helpful explanation regarding what seems to be going on in the heart of God.

“Israel will not be completely ‘overturned’ as the cities mentioned here; rather, there will be an ‘overturning,’ that is, a change, in Yahweh’s heart.” – Wolff, Hans Walter. Hosea. Translated by Gary Stansell. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974

God is holy and must punish sin. But God also desires to extend mercy and compassion to sinners. The apostle Peter describes God as incredibly patient, and reminds us that “He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9 NLT). The same was true regarding His relationship with the people of Israel.

Israel would face God’s judgment, but would not have to undergo the full weight of His divine wrath.

“No, I will not unleash my fierce anger.
    I will not completely destroy Israel,
for I am God and not a mere mortal.
    I am the Holy One living among you,
    and I will not come to destroy.” – Hosea 11:9 NLT

Unlike fallen mankind, God is not motivated by sinful desires. Even in His anger, He always acts righteously and justly. He is never capricious or vindictive. According to the psalmist, “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” (Psalm 145:17 ESV).

This is not a picture of God relenting, repenting, or even changing His mind. He is simply stating that He is a God who is balanced and just in all that He does. He is going to punish Israel, but He is also going to keep every covenant promise He has made to them. His destruction will come, but it will not be complete and comprehensive. He will severely discipline them, but refrain from annihilating them. Why? Because He has promised to use them to bring a blessing to the nations, and He will accomplish that promise through His Son, Jesus Christ.

God’s ways are not our ways. His plans do not always make sense to us. But His grand plan for the redemption of mankind included His Son being born into the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Judah, as a descendant of Abraham, and the rightful heir to David’s throne. And one day, God will restore His people to power and prominence when His Son sets up His earthly Kingdom in the city of Jerusalem at the end of the age. Which is exactly what God promised to the rebellious people of Israel through His prophet, Hosea.

“For someday the people will follow me.
    I, the Lord, will roar like a lion.
And when I roar,
    my people will return trembling from the west.
Like a flock of birds, they will come from Egypt.
    Trembling like doves, they will return from Assyria.
And I will bring them home again,”
    says the Lord. – Hosea 11:11-12 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Measured and Found Wanting

7 This is what he showed me: behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,

“Behold, I am setting a plumb line
    in the midst of my people Israel;
    I will never again pass by them;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
    and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
    and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Amos 7:7-9 ESV

The book of Jonah could easily be classified as a cliff-hanger. It ends rather abruptly, leaving the reader with a lot of unanswered questions, not the least of which is what happened to Jonah. We can safely assume that God did not answer Jonah’s pitty-filled plea to kill him. But did he remain in Nineveh or return home to Gath-hepher in Galilee? Regardless of his disposition or destination, he remained a prophet of God. So, did he receive a new assignment? Was he called to minister God’s Word to the new converts in Nineveh?

All of these questions are left unanswered. We are not even told what happened to the citizens of Nineveh. But we know that God did not rain down destruction on them because the text tells us, “God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10 ESV). God showed them pity and spared their lives. But that is all we know. There is no extant record that corroborates or validates the author’s claim that the people of Nineveh experienced a revival. The Assyrians kept detailed accounts of their many exploits, but no archeological discoveries have ever unearthed a stone or tablet containing evidence of the mass conversion of the city of Nineveh. But that should not come as a shock. The Assyrians were not known for keeping objectively based or unbiased records of their history. The chronicles they penned were intended to glorify their successes while minimizing their failures. So, it would not be surprising that, if the king of Nineveh made a record of what is described in the book of Jonah, it was quickly expunged by his successor. And we know that the repentance of the people of Nineveh was short-lived. Their king’s mournful plea that they “turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence” (Jonah 3:8 ESV), seems to have resulted in a temporary change in behavior. But those same Assyrians would ultimately show up on Israel’s doorstep, besiege their capital city of Samaria, and eventually defeat and deport them.

Then the king of Assyria invaded the entire land, and for three years he besieged the city of Samaria. Finally, in the ninth year of King Hoshea’s reign, Samaria fell, and the people of Israel were exiled to Assyria. They were settled in colonies in Halah, along the banks of the Habor River in Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. – 2 Kings 17:5-6 NLT

God had repeatedly warned the people of Israel that they would suffer destruction for their sinfulness and for their stubborn refusal to repent and return to Him. Even Jonah’s contemporary, Amos, had prophesied that they would one day be defeated and deported, and it would be God’s doing.

The Sovereign Lord has sworn this by his holiness:
“The time will come when you will be led away
    with hooks in your noses.
Every last one of you will be dragged away
    like a fish on a hook!
You will be led out through the ruins of the wall;
    you will be thrown from your fortresses,”
    says the Lord. – Amos 4:2-3 NLT

And the author of 2 Kings does not sugarcoat the cause of their destruction.

This disaster came upon the people of Israel because they worshiped other gods. They sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them safely out of Egypt and had rescued them from the power of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. They had followed the practices of the pagan nations the Lord had driven from the land ahead of them, as well as the practices the kings of Israel had introduced. The people of Israel had also secretly done many things that were not pleasing to the Lord their God. – 2 Kings 17:7-9 NLT

The fates of Jonah and Nineveh were not relevant to the author of the book of Jonah because they were not the focus of his story. He was writing to the Hebrew people and the entire purpose behind his book was to remind them of the sovereign will of God. It is likely that this book was penned after the nation of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians. They would have been living in exile “along the banks of the Habor River in Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes” (2 Kings 17:6 NLT). And this story was meant to convict them of their sin and remind them that their God was “a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love” (Jonah 4:2 NLT). He was “eager to turn back from destroying people” (Jonah 4:2 NLT).

And even though they were living as captives of war in Assyria, their God had not forgotten them. If He could redeem the wicked Ninevites, He most certainly could redeem His chosen but rebellious people. But even in their captivity, they remained stubbornly unwilling to obey God. They longed for His deliverance but remained opposed to keeping His commands. In a sense, they were just like Jonah. As they languished in the Assyria (the belly of the fish), they displayed a superficial form of repentance that had no teeth to it.

Come on! Let’s return to the Lord.
He himself has torn us to pieces,
but he will heal us!
He has injured us,
but he will bandage our wounds!
He will restore us in a very short time;
he will heal us in a little while,
so that we may live in his presence.
So let us search for him!
Let us seek to know the Lord!
He will come to our rescue as certainly as the appearance of the dawn,
as certainly as the winter rain comes,
as certainly as the spring rain that waters the land. – Hosea 6:1-3 NET

They were like Jonah, vowing to keep vows and pledging to offer up offerings, only if God would rescue them. But they remained just as stubborn as the prophet of God. And God saw through their sham display of repentance.

“…your faithfulness is as fleeting as the morning mist;
it disappears as quickly as dawn’s dew…” – Hosea 6:4 NET

God was not interested in pretense and false displays of piety. He was looking for true heart change.

“For I delight in faithfulness, not simply in sacrifice;
I delight in acknowledging God, not simply in whole burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6 NET

God had taken stock of Israel and found them to be wanting. As the book of Amos reveals, God had measured the integrity of the house of Israel and found it to be of poor quality and construction. Amos was given a vision of God standing next to a wall with a plumb line in His hand. A plumb line was a simple, yet effective building tool that featured a heavy weight on the end of a string. It used the force of gravity to establish an accurate line of perpendicularity so that a wall would not lean in the wrong direction. And God told Amos, “I will test my people with this plumb line. I will no longer ignore all their sins” (Amos 7:8 NLT). He was going to measure or assess their spiritual integrity. And God made it to Amos that the people of Israel were not going to measure up to His righteous standard.

“The pagan shrines of your ancestors will be ruined, and the temples of Israel will be destroyed; I will bring the dynasty of King Jeroboam to a sudden end.” – Amos 7:9 NLT

God was going to deal with Israel according to their sins. Yes, they were His chosen people. He had set them apart as His prized possession. But they had repeatedly rejected Him as their God, chasing after false gods and refusing to acknowledge of confess their spiritual adultery. And God could not and would not tolerate their sin forever.

“I want to heal Israel, but its sins are too great.
    Samaria is filled with liars.
Thieves are on the inside
    and bandits on the outside!
Its people don’t realize
    that I am watching them.
Their sinful deeds are all around them,
    and I see them all.” – Hosea 7:1-2 NLT

The people of Israel had become arrogant and prideful. Under the reign of King Jeroboam II, they had enjoyed renewed success and prosperity. He had expanded their borders and reestablished them as a major player in the region. Yet, rather than see these successes as the handiwork of God, they took credit for them.

Their arrogance testifies against them,
    yet they don’t return to the Lord their God
    or even try to find him. – Hosea 7:10 NLT

And listen closely to how God describes His chosen people.

“The people of Israel have become like silly, witless doves,
    first calling to Egypt, then flying to Assyria for help.
But as they fly about,
    I will throw my net over them
and bring them down like a bird from the sky.
    I will punish them for all the evil they do.” – Hosea 7:11-12 NLT

The Hebrew word for “dove” is yônâ, which just happens to be the name of the prophet whom God sent to Nineveh. As Jonah flitted about like a witless dove, flying to Joppa and then taking flight to Tarshish, he was mimicking the actions of the rebellious people of God. And just as he could not escape the soveriegn hand of God Almighty, neither would they.

All of this reminds me of another incident recorded in the Word of God. It involves King Belshazzar and the prophet, Daniel. The southern kingdom of Judah has fallen to the Babylonians and Daniel is among those who were taken captive and transported to Babylon as slaves. Fortunately, he has ended up on the payroll of the king. At one point, the king threw an extravagant party, and to impress his guests, he ordered that they bring in all the “gold cups taken from the Temple, the house of God in Jerusalem” (Danuel 5:3 NLT). Belshazzar, in a display of pride and arrogance, had his guests drink wine from these sacred vessels, and they toasted “their idols made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (Daniel 5:4 NLT). And as they reveled in the superior nature of their gods, a startling scene unfolded.

Suddenly, they saw the fingers of a human hand writing on the plaster wall of the king’s palace, near the lampstand. The king himself saw the hand as it wrote, and his face turned pale with fright. His knees knocked together in fear and his legs gave way beneath him. – Daniel 5:5-6 NLT

The king sent for Daniel, who was known for his ability to interpret dreams and visions. And Daniel gave the king a brief, but sobering history lesson.

“Your Majesty, the Most High God gave sovereignty, majesty, glory, and honor to your predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar. He made him so great that people of all races and nations and languages trembled before him in fear. He killed those he wanted to kill and spared those he wanted to spare. He honored those he wanted to honor and disgraced those he wanted to disgrace. But when his heart and mind were puffed up with arrogance, he was brought down from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. He was driven from human society. He was given the mind of a wild animal, and he lived among the wild donkeys. He ate grass like a cow, and he was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he learned that the Most High God rules over the kingdoms of the world and appoints anyone he desires to rule over them.” – Daniel 5:18-21 NLT

Daniel reminded the arrogant king that his predecessor had suffered from the same malady and had paid dearly for it. Nebuchadnezzar had failed to recognize that his success had been God-ordained. He had taken credit for something God had done. And now, Belshazzar was repeating that mistake.

You are his successor, O Belshazzar, and you knew all this, yet you have not humbled yourself. For you have proudly defied the Lord of heaven.” – Daniel 5:22-23 NLT

And when Daniel finally got around to interpreting the vision, he simply informed the king, “…you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27 ESV). In essence, God had given Belshazzar a plumb-line assessment of his reign:

“God has numbered the days of your reign and has brought it to an end.” – Daniel 5:26 NLT

“…you have been weighed on the balances and have not measured up.” – Daniel 5:27 NLT

God is sovereign over all nations. He alone places kings of their thrones. And He had sovereignly chosen to make Israel His set-apart people. They had enjoyed a unique relationship with Him, unprecedented among all the nations of the earth. But they had failed to remain faithful. They had chosen to reject their calling to be a blessing to the nations and a light to the world. As, as a result, God was compelled to punish them.

Listen to this message that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel—against the entire family I rescued from Egypt:

“From among all the families on the earth,
    I have been intimate with you alone.
That is why I must punish you
    for all your sins.” – Amos 3:1-2 NLT

But despite their unfaithfulness, God would remain faithful. He would punish them, but He would also restore them. Yahweh would remain the covenant-keeping God, who fulfills all the promises He has made.

“I will bring my exiled people of Israel
    back from distant lands,
and they will rebuild their ruined cities
    and live in them again.
They will plant vineyards and gardens;
    they will eat their crops and drink their wine.
I will firmly plant them there
    in their own land.
They will never again be uprooted
    from the land I have given them,”
    says the Lord your God. – Amos 9:14-15 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

Blind to His Own Sin

1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Jonah 4:1-5 ESV

Once again, Jonah finds himself in an unexpected and unpleasant situation. This entire portion of the narrative parallels Jonah’s experience in chapter 2. But this time, rather than praying from the belly of the fish, Jonah cries out to God from inside the walls of Nineveh, where a spiritual revival seems to be taking place. But in both cases, Jonah shares with God his dissatisfaction with his uncomfortable circumstances. Upon finding himself trapped inside the gullet of the giant fish, Jonah turned his attention to Yahweh.

I called out to the Lord, out of my distress – Jonah 2:1 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “distress” is ṣārâ, which literally means “tightness.” Jonah was in a literal and figurative “tight spot.” To put it another way, he was in dire straits, something the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “a very bad or difficult situation.” And it was the unpleasant conditions of his surroundings that produced in him feelings of anguish and distress. He wanted out. He was looking for a way of escape. And he ended that prayer with the confident assertion: “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9 ESV).

But fast forward to chapter four. Jonah now stands in the crowded streets of Nineveh, where the citizens, covered in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of mourning for their sins, are calling out to Yahweh. But rather than rejoicing in this incredible display of repentance, Jonah is “displeased…exceedingly” (Jonah 4:1 ESV). In Hebrew, that phrase literally reads, “Jonah was displeased with great displeasure.” He is enraged by what he is witnessing. And raʿ, the Hebrew word describing his displeasure, is also translated as “evil” elsewhere in the book. The previous chapter ended with the statement, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil (raʿ) way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10 ESV). 

The Ninevites had repented of their evil ways while Jonah was consumed by evil thoughts. He was angered by the thought that God might spare these pagan idolaters. He was repulsed by their displays of mourning and their cries for mercy from his God. And at this point in the narrative, Jonah had no way of knowing whether their actions would result in God sparing their lives. He wasn’t yet aware that God had already “relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 1:10 ESV). But he suspected as much, and the very thought of it left him in a fit of rage. He is literally “hot and bothered.” The Hebrew word is ḥārâ, and it means “to burn up.”

In chapter 3, the king of Nineveh expressed his hope that God might “turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger” (Jonah 3:9 ESV). The Hebrew word translated as “fierce” is ḥārôn, and it comes from the same root word as ḥārâ. It means “burning anger.” So, while God relented or turned from His righteous anger against the Ninevites, Jonah found himself consumed by self-righteous indignation.

So, in his “distress,” he called out to Yahweh, trying to explain the source of his consternation and concern.

“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. – Jonah 4:2 NLT

He justified his rage by claiming that his worst fears had been realized. The potential repentance of the Ninevites was exactly why he had run away in the first place. Now, as he stood in the streets of Nineveh, he realized that his compassionate, gracious, and loving God might change His mind and let the guilty Ninevites off the hook. And that prospect appalled and angered him.

Jonah described Yahweh as being “slow to anger” and yet, here he was filled with uncontrollable rage at the thought of the Ninevites literally getting away with murder, torture, idolatry, and immorality. But Jonah seems to have an inflated sense of his own righteousness and that of the people of Israel. Somehow he believed that the chosen people of God were somehow deserving of God’s mercy and grace, but not the Gentiles of the world.

Back in chapter 1, Jonah slept like a baby while the Gentile sailors desperately struggled to save the ship and their lives. Even when they discovered that Jonah was the source of their predicament, they made one last attempt to row to shore rather than throw him overboard. They showed him mercy and extended him grace. But Jonah seemed unconcerned with either the physical or spiritual well-being of these pagan men. And it was only after he got exposed as the guilty party that he offered to sacrifice himself. But it seems that Jonah was more interested in ending his own life than in saving theirs. He would rather die than have to obey God’s command and go to Nineveh.

And as Jonah considered the unacceptable prospect of Nineveh being spared, he called on God to put him out of his misery.

“Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” – Jonah 4:3 NLT

Jonah would rather die than have to watch the sinful Ninevites escape the wrath of God. But his arrogant attitude failed to recognize his own guilt and worthiness of God’s judgment. When he had been trapped inside the belly of the great fish, Jonah had called on God to extend him mercy and grace. And God had heard his cry and spared his life. But Jonah suffered from short-term memory loss. And he seems to have conveniently forgotten the words of his fellow prophets, who had repeatedly declared the guilt of the people of Israel. Poor Hosea had been commanded by God to marry a prostitute who ended up bearing him three children. The first child was a son, whom God told Hosea to name Jezreel, “because in a little while I will punish the dynasty of Jehu on account of the bloodshed in the valley of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel” (Hosea 1:4 ESV).

At the birth of Hosea’s second child, God told him, “Name her No Pity’ (Lo-Ruhamah) because I will no longer have pity on the nation of Israel. For I will certainly not forgive their guilt” (Hosea 1:6 ESV). When Hosea’s wife gave birth to another son, God told him, “Name him ‘Not My People’ (Lo-Ammi), because you are not my people and I am not your God” (Hosea 1:9 ESV).

And yet, despite these sobering and convicting words from God, Hosea had also recorded the good news of God’s gracious and merciful forgiveness.

“However, in the future the number of the people of Israel will be like the sand of the sea that can be neither measured nor numbered. Although it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it will be said to them, “You are children of the living God!” Then the people of Judah and the people of Israel will be gathered together. They will appoint for themselves one leader, and will flourish in the land. Certainly, the day of Jezreel will be great!” – Hosea 1:10-11 NLT

The nation of Israel was guilty of having rejected God. They stood condemned before Him and worthy of His just and righteous judgment. God would be fully justified in punishing them for having broken their covenant commitment to Him.

“…you broke my covenant and betrayed my trust.” – Hosea 6:7 NLT

God would go on to describe the people of Israel as “silly, witless doves” (Hosea 7:11 ESV). The Hebrew word for “dove” is yônâ, which should sound familiar because it just happens to be Jonah’s name. This arrogant prophet, just like the people of Israel, was worthy of death. He didn’t need to give God an excuse to kill him. He was already worthy of God’s judgment and deserving of death. Yet God had spared his life. Jonah had been miraculously rescued from “the belly of Sheol” (Jonah 2:2 ESV. He had been able to praise God for having, “snatched me from the jaws of death” (Jonah 2:6 NLT). After having been graciously spared by God, Jonah had declared, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9 ESV). And yet, here was this same man demanding that God take his life so he wouldn’t have to witness the salvation of the Ninevites.

But God, who is all-righteous and yet slow to anger, asked his pouting prophet if his rage was justified.

“Is it right for you to be angry about this?” – Jonah 4:4 NLT

Did Jonah really believe he had a right to stand in judgment over the Ninevites? Was he so blind to his own sin that he couldn’t see the hypocrisy of his own actions? But Jonah refused to answer God’s question. Instead, he simply walked away. Jonah “went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there” (Jonah 4:5 ESV). Still unaware of God’s plans for Nineveh, Jonah erected a shelter from which he could view the city and wait to see what God was going to do. The fact that he sought shelter outside the walls of the city reveals that he still had hopes that the destruction of Nineveh was a possibility. And there he sat, “till he should see what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5 ESV).

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

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

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

A Day of Good News

Now there were four men who were lepers at the entrance to the gate. And they said to one another, “Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say, ‘Let us enter the city,’ the famine is in the city, and we shall die there. And if we sit here, we die also. So now come, let us go over to the camp of the Syrians. If they spare our lives we shall live, and if they kill us we shall but die.” So they arose at twilight to go to the camp of the Syrians. But when they came to the edge of the camp of the Syrians, behold, there was no one there. For the Lord had made the army of the Syrians hear the sound of chariots and of horses, the sound of a great army, so that they said to one another, “Behold, the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come against us.” So they fled away in the twilight and abandoned their tents, their horses, and their donkeys, leaving the camp as it was, and fled for their lives. And when these lepers came to the edge of the camp, they went into a tent and ate and drank, and they carried off silver and gold and clothing and went and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent and carried off things from it and went and hid them.

Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell the king’s household.” 10 So they came and called to the gatekeepers of the city and told them, “We came to the camp of the Syrians, and behold, there was no one to be seen or heard there, nothing but the horses tied and the donkeys tied and the tents as they were.” 11 Then the gatekeepers called out, and it was told within the king’s household. 12 And the king rose in the night and said to his servants, “I will tell you what the Syrians have done to us. They know that we are hungry. Therefore they have gone out of the camp to hide themselves in the open country, thinking, ‘When they come out of the city, we shall take them alive and get into the city.’” 13 And one of his servants said, “Let some men take five of the remaining horses, seeing that those who are left here will fare like the whole multitude of Israel who have already perished. Let us send and see.” 14 So they took two horsemen, and the king sent them after the army of the Syrians, saying, “Go and see.” 15 So they went after them as far as the Jordan, and behold, all the way was littered with garments and equipment that the Syrians had thrown away in their haste. And the messengers returned and told the king.

16 Then the people went out and plundered the camp of the Syrians. So a seah of fine flour was sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, according to the word of the Lord. 17 Now the king had appointed the captain on whose hand he leaned to have charge of the gate. And the people trampled him in the gate, so that he died, as the man of God had said when the king came down to him. 18 For when the man of God had said to the king, “Two seahs of barley shall be sold for a shekel, and a seah of fine flour for a shekel, about this time tomorrow in the gate of Samaria,” 19 the captain had answered the man of God, “If the Lord himself should make windows in heaven, could such a thing be?” And he had said, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.” 20 And so it happened to him, for the people trampled him in the gate and he died. 2 Kings 7:3-20 ESV

A protracted siege by the Syrians had left the royal city of Samaria in dire straits. The people inside the walls were starving to death due to the lack of food and some had even resorted to cannibalism, eating their own children to survive. Jehoram, the king of Israel, was powerless to do anything about the situation. He recognized that this was some form of punishment from the hand of Yahweh, but he refused to repent of his apostasy and idolatry. Defenseless against the Syrians and completely powerless to thwart the divine wrath of Yahweh, Jehoram turned his anger and frustration against the prophet Elisha.

Jehoram knew that Elisha was somehow to blame for the devastating conditions in Samaria. And he fully expected the prophet to bring nothing but bad news regarding the ultimate outcome of the siege. But to his surprise, Elisha predicted a dramatic and virtually instantaneous reversal of fortunes.

“By this time tomorrow in the markets of Samaria, six quarts of choice flour will cost only one piece of silver, and twelve quarts of barley grain will cost only one piece of silver.” – 2 Kings 7:1 NLT

Elisha informed the king that within 24 hours, the conditions within the walls of Samaria would improve so dramatically that it would be as if the siege never took place. But Elisha provided no explanation as to how this remarkable transformation would take place. And at least one individual responded to his words with doubt and derision.

The officer assisting the king said to the man of God, “That couldn’t happen even if the Lord opened the windows of heaven!” – 2 Kings 7:2 NLT

The author then transitions his story from the doubting officer to four lepers who sat at the gate of the city. Because of their disease, these men were social outcasts whose survival was based on the generosity of others. They were forced to beg for handouts in order to survive. And the siege had made their circumstances worse than ever. Their appearance in the story at this particular point in time is purely intentional. In a sense, they serve as proxies for the entire nation of Israel. Their disease reflects the spiritual state of God’s people. And their abject state of hopelessness and helplessness is meant to mirror the plight of all those who have abandoned Yahweh.

As they sat at the gate of the city, these four men assessed their situation and determined to do something about it. They could stay where they were and starve to death, or they could risk entering the Syrian camp and placing themselves at the mercy of the enemy. So, sometime before sunrise, they made their fateful decision and walked the short distance from the walls of Samaria to the Syrian encampment. Fully expecting to encounter a Syrian sentry somewhere along the way, they were surprised to find that they were able to walk into the camp uninhibited and unaccosted. The place was a virtual ghost town with not a single Syrian sight. It was as if the entire Syrian army had just evaporated into thin air, leaving behind all their tents, equipment,  and provisions, including mass quantities of food and wine. These four starving lepers found themselves living in a dream come true. Suddenly and unexpectedly, these men who had spent their entire lives begging for food, found themselves surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of delicious delicacies and fine wines.

…they went into one tent after another, eating and drinking wine; and they carried off silver and gold and clothing and hid it. – 2 Kings 7:8 NLT

Like kids let loose in a candy store, they greedily stuffed their faces and their pockets. They had no idea what had happened to the Syrians, and they didn’t seem to care. Their minds were focused on the perpetual feast in front of them and all the silver and gold that had been left for them. Little did they know that their good fortune had been an act of God.

For the Lord had caused the Aramean army to hear the clatter of speeding chariots and the galloping of horses and the sounds of a great army approaching. – 2 Kings 7:6 NLT

Sometime before the lepers had made their decision to enter the Syrian camp, God had performed a miracle. He had caused the Syrians to hear what sounded like a large army headed their way. They immediately concluded that the Israelites had somehow gotten word to their allies and help was on the way.

“The king of Israel has hired the Hittites and Egyptians to attack us!” they cried to one another. So they panicked and ran into the night, abandoning their tents, horses, donkeys, and everything else, as they fled for their lives. – 2 Kings 7:6-7 NLT

There were no Hittites or Egyptians. There were no chariots or horses. It had all been a divine ruse. And when the four lepers finally stopped pillaging long enough to consider the incredible nature of what they were witnessing, they had second thoughts.

“This is not right. This is a day of good news, and we aren’t sharing it with anyone! If we wait until morning, some calamity will certainly fall upon us. Come on, let’s go back and tell the people at the palace.” – 2 Kings 7:9 NLT

But when their good news reached the ears of King Jehoram, he reacted with derision. He saw it as nothing more than a clever ploy by the Syrians to lure the Israelite troops out of the safety of the city. It was all too good to be true. Jehoram could not bring himself to believe that victory could come that easily. There was no way that the long-standing siege could end without a fight and the fall of the city. So, he sent scouts to verify the report of the lepers, and they discovered “a trail of clothing and equipment that the Arameans had thrown away in their mad rush to escape” (2 Kings 7:15 NLT).

It was true. The Syrians were gone and the siege was over. But not only that, the Syrian camp was filled with more than enough food to feed the citizens of the city. And when the Israelites had finished plundering the camp, the conditions within the walls of Samaria were instantaneously reversed.

Then the people of Samaria rushed out and plundered the Aramean camp. So it was true that six quarts of choice flour were sold that day for one piece of silver, and twelve quarts of barley grain were sold for one piece of silver, just as the Lord had promised. – 2 Kings 7:16 NLT

And the author makes sure that we understand the nature of this amazing turn of events.

…everything happened exactly as the man of God had predicted. – 2 Kings 7:17 NLT

God had intervened on behalf of His disobedient children. He had graciously and mercifully delivered them from their enemy and rescued them from imminent death. Overnight, the four lepers had experienced a dramatic shift in their fortunes. They not only had full stomachs but they had hidden enough treasure to transform themselves from paupers to princes. And the people of Samaria were blessed with food they didn’t deserve and riches they had not earned. Their good and gracious God had lovingly spared them – one more time.

But the one man who had expressed doubt concerning God’s ability to deliver His people would find himself suffering a different fate. Elisha had warned him, “You will see it happen with your own eyes, but you won’t be able to eat any of it!” (2 Kings 7:2 NLT). And when the starving masses flowed out of the city to plunder the Syrian camp, this man was crushed to death. He never lived long enough to see what God had done. And not one morsel of the fine Syrian cuisine or one drop of their wine ever touched his lips. He had doubted the power of God and suffered the consequences. The day of good news turned out to be very bad news for him.

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