The Fatal Flaw of Favoritism

1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:1-13 ESV

James ended the previous section of his letter by inviting his readers to take a long, close look at themselves in the mirror to determine the true nature of their spiritual condition.

For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. – James 1:23-24 NLT

The Word of God requires obedience. Intellectual assent is not enough. Knowledge without application is nothing more than hypocrisy.

…don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. – James 1:22 NLT

So, James provided a practical and timeless illustration of the Word applied to everyday life. He raises the ugly specter of partiality within the body of Christ. And there is an interesting, yet subtle, connection between James’ warnings about practicing partiality and their handling of the trials of life.

Back in chapter one, James mentioned two different groups of people who comprise the church: the rich and the poor.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. – James 1:9-10 NLT

Now he expands on the potentially contentious relationship between these two disparate groups. Their coexistence within the church is a potential time bomb that threatens to destroy the corporate unity of the fellowship. And, sadly, many of the trials of the less fortunate are due to the inequitable and unjust actions of the wealthy and influential – even within the body of Christ.

There was a common misconception in James’ day that the wealthy were blessed by God. Their affluence was seen as a sign that they had found pleasure with God and had been deemed to be more spiritual. At the same time, poverty was viewed as a curse from God. Despite James’ earlier statement, most people saw no honor in being poor. That condition was to be avoided at all costs. And if you could somehow escape your impoverished circumstances, you should do so without delay.

This errant perspective on wealth and poverty was negatively impacting the health of the local congregation to which James wrote. They were allowing a spirit of unjustified favoritism to influence their daily interactions, and it was motivated by the potential for personal gain. When the church gathered for worship, the wealthy were being treated as first-class citizens and given the best seats in the house – all in the hopes of securing their favor. But James questions the motivation behind their actions.

…how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? – James 2:1 NLT

And he doesn’t sugarcoat his assessment of their problem. Instead, he goes straight to their practice of partiality in worship.

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

James introduces a real problem within the church by presenting it as a thinly veiled hypothetical situation. It’s as if he is saying, “So, for instance, let’s just say a rich man comes into your church and you show him preference over a poor man…”

James isn’t suggesting this scene could happen; he was subtly declaring that it already had. And he declares that this kind of unjustified partiality was motivated by prejudice and pride. They were guilty of judging one another based on an unrighteous standard.

“The form of James’ question in the Greek text expects a positive answer: ‘You have, haven’t you?’ The usher made two errors. First, he showed favoritism because of what the rich man might do for the church if he received preferential treatment. He should have treated everyone graciously, as God does. This reflects a double-minded attitude in the usher, thinking like the world in this case while thinking as God thinks in other respects (1:8).” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on James

The practice of partiality is a form of prejudice. It elevates one individual over another based on a false set of external criteria that have nothing to do with the individual’s true value or worth. Rich people are not inherently more spiritual or worthy of honor. Poor people are not to be treated as second-class citizens simply because their clothes and financial status don’t measure up to some arbitrary social standard.  James was warning his readers that they needed to view one another the same way God does.

When God commissioned the prophet Samuel to find the next king of Israel, He warned His servant not to be taken in by the outer appearance of the candidates.

“Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 NLT

Just because someone looked like a king didn’t mean he had the attributes necessary to fulfill the role of king. God was more interested in the inner character of the man than any external traits he may have displayed.

But how easy it is to judge one another based on an arbitrary and inconsistent set of standards that have nothing to do with spiritual maturity or holiness. This led James to remind his audience that many of them had come to faith in Christ while in a state of abject poverty. God had chosen to redeem them, not because they were wealthy and influential, but based solely on His grace and mercy.

Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? – James 2:5 NLT

God didn’t reserve salvation for the well-to-do. He didn’t send His Son to die only for those who measured up to some worldly standard of worth and merit. No, Jesus came to offer the gift of salvation to all those who were humble enough to admit their need for it. He spent the vast majority of His time on earth ministering to the poor and disenfranchised. He reached out to the dregs of humanity – the tax collectors, prostitutes, maimed, blind, demon-possessed, and even the lowly and despised Gentiles.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:7 ESV). Spiritual poverty has nothing to do with financial status but it has everything to do with humility and an awareness of one’s own unworthiness. Eternal life is not reserved for the wealthy and well-off. It is the gift of God made possible through the death of His Son and is available to any who will receive it in humility and faith – regardless of their earthly status or social standing.

Yet, James accuses his audience of dishonoring the poor by showing favor to the wealthy. Then he reminds them of the ludicrous nature of this kind of behavior.

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

They were treating the poor like social pariahs while honoring the very people who were oppressing and mistreating them. What would possess these people to show favoritism to the very ones who were causing them trials and troubles? The simple answer is greed. They hoped to gain something from the flattery of their more well-to-do foes. Perhaps if they treated their rich guests with dignity and respect, they might return the favor. After all, the wealthy had resources and wielded great influence in the community, and the poor were nothing more than a burden on the faith community.

But James warns that this kind of logic was not only dangerous, but it was also ungodly and in violation of God’s law.

But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. – James 2:9 NLT

James specifically mentions one particular law: “the royal law according to the Scripture” (James 2:8 ESV). Then, just to make sure they understood what he meant, he quotes the law for them.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” – James 2:8 ESV

Again, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus affirmed this “royal law” when He stated, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT). Jesus was not recommending the practice of preferential treatment in order to get a preferred response. He was promoting the practice of equity and selfless love. We are not to love based on what we get out of it. Christlike love is not a form of quid pro quo where our love is reciprocal in nature. It is not a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-your-back kind of equation. Yet the practice of partiality is almost always selfish and self-centered. 

To drive home his point, James reminds his readers of the importance of every one of God’s laws. They were not free to cherry-pick which laws they wanted to obey. And he uses the rather absurd example of murder and adultery. They weren’t free to commit murder just because they had never committed adultery.

the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. – James 2:10 NLT

God expected His children to keep all of His laws, including His royal law to love one another. So, favoritism had no place in the household of God. As far as God was concerned, partiality was a sin and unacceptable behavior among His chosen people. And James provides them with a stern reminder of how God views those who receive His undeserved mercy but refuse to share it with others.

There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. – James 2:13 NLT

And once again, James seems to be echoing the words of Jesus, spoken in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. – Matthew 5:7 ESV

The apostle Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of just how important it is to live according to God’s standards and not the world’s. There is no place for partiality in the family of God.

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

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

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 Good and Godly Life

27 Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
    when it is in your power to do it.

28 Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
    tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.
29 Do not plan evil against your neighbor,
    who dwells trustingly beside you.
30 Do not contend with a man for no reason,
    when he has done you no harm.
31 Do not envy a man of violence
    and do not choose any of his ways,
32 for the devious person is an abomination to the Lord,
    but the upright are in his confidence.
33 The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked,
    but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous.
34 Toward the scorners he is scornful,
    but to the humble he gives favor.
35 The wise will inherit honor,
    but fools get disgrace. – Proverbs 3:27-35 ESV

At this point in his lecture on wisdom to his son, Solomon turns to some practical advice on wise behavior. It is not enough to seek wisdom; one must also be willing to put it into practice. The wisdom of God is intended to influence and inform every area of life, including our relationships with others.

“The Book of Proverbs is the best manual you’ll find on people skills, because it was given to us by the God who made us, the God who can teach us what we need to know about human relationships, whether it’s marriage, the family, the neighborhood, the job, or our wider circle of friends and acquaintances. If we learn and practice God’s wisdom as presented in Proverbs, we’ll find ourselves improving in people skills and enjoying life much more.” – Warren Wiersbe, Be Skillful

So, knowing that wisdom that remains un-applied is unhelpful, Solomon gives his former advice some practical application. He begins with five statements that each start with those two words that no young person likes to hear: “Do not…”

But it isn’t just young people who dislike being told what they can or cannot do. People of every age bristle at the idea of having any kind of restrictions placed upon their behavior. It goes against the grain and wreaks havoc with our fallen human nature. Ever since the fall, we human beings are inherently wired for autonomy. We want to be the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls. Yet, Solomon knows that the kind of wisdom God graciously grants requires that we behave in such a way that our actions reveal just how wise we truly are. Our actions give evidence that we have heard from God.

The first thing Solomon addresses is the goodness that the godly should display.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
    when it is in your power to do it. 
– Proverbs 3:27 NLT

This is an interesting verse. At first glance, it appears that any goodness we show others must be somehow deserved. The phrase “from those to whom it is due” might better be translated “from its owners.” The idea seems to be that acts of goodness rightfully belong to those who need them. If God has blessed us with resources, He has not intended them solely for our own benefit. They are to be shared with others, especially those in need. The apostle Paul provides further insight into this lifestyle of generosity and openhandedness that flows from a wisdom-filled life.

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. As the Scriptures say,

“They share freely and give generously to the poor.
    Their good deeds will be remembered forever.”

For God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increase your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity in you.

Yes, you will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous. And when we take your gifts to those who need them, they will thank God. – 2 Corinthians 9:7-11 NLT

The next point Solomon addresses is deferred goodness. In other words, he warns about putting off you acts of generosity to another day.

Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
    tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you. – Proverbs 3:28 ESV

There is such a thing as delayed gratification, which is a good. It’s the idea of putting a hold on fulfilling a desire you have so that you might see if you truly need it. To put it more simple terms, it is the ability to wait to get what you want. But delayed goodness is something different altogether and, it is never the right thing to do. If someone is in need and you have the power to help them, do so. Don’t put it off. Don’t delay.

James dealt with this problem of delayed or deferred goodness in his letter.

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? – James 14-16 NLT

To put of till tomorrow what you could easily do today is the definition of procrastination. But to put of doing an act of goodness for someone in need is the definition of wickedness. It is insensitive and evil, and does not reflect a reverence for God or a heart for the less-fortunate, for whom He cares greatly. Solomon’s book contains other proverbs that encourage timely care for the down and out.

If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord
    and he will repay you! – Proverbs 19:17 NLT

Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing,
    but those who close their eyes to poverty will be cursed. – Proverbs 28:27 NLT

Don’t rob the poor just because you can,
    or exploit the needy in court.
For the Lord is their defender.
    He will ruin anyone who ruins them. – Proverbs 22:22-23 NLT

The third admonition appears to be directly tied to the second. It involves a neighbor in need.

Do not plan evil against your neighbor,
    who dwells trustingly beside you. – Proverbs 3:29 ESV

What Solomon describes is the opposite of doing good. It is the intent to do evil. And Solomon continues to us the illustration of a neighbor in need. As a wealthy individual, his son was not to allow his affluence to affect his relationship with the less-fortunate. He was not to use his wealth as a weapon to oppress or take advantage of the down and out. Another proverb describes this unacceptable relationship between the haves and the have-nots.

The poor is disliked even by his neighbor,
    but the rich has many friends.
Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner,
    but blessed is he who is generous to the poor. – Proverbs 14:20-21 ESV

Think about it. To purposefully delay your assistance to a needy neighbor is to “plan evil” against him. You know of his need and you have the ability to meet it, but you choose not to do so. And it would appear that Solomon is inferring that the one who delays his goodness has no intentions of ever helping is needy neighbor. You promise to come back to tomorrow, and he believes you, because he trusts you. But when tomorrow comes, he finds himself still in need and his “generous” neighbor a no-show.

Next, Solomon warns about unnecessary and unprovoked conflict between neighbors.

Do not contend with a man for no reason,
    when he has done you no harm. – Proverbs 3:30 ESV

Solomon continues to warn about the unjust treatment of the poor and needy among us. There is never a reason for a rich man to take advantage of someone who, because of his poverty, appears to have fewer rights. There is unacceptable and not in keeping with wise behavior. In fact, the last proverb on this book will promote a completely different attitude toward the marginalized and defenseless.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
    ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
    and see that they get justice. – Proverbs 31:8-9 NLT

Finally, Solomon warns his son about guilt by association. He begs him to avoid those people who lack wisdom and who are prone to behave in ways that are in violation of God Word and will.

Do not envy a man of violence
    and do not choose any of his ways,
for the devious person is an abomination to the Lord,
    but the upright are in his confidence. – Proverbs 3:31-32 ESV

His son was to avoid these people like the plague. Instead, he was to surround himself with the upright and righteous. In fact, Solomon recommends a life of wisdom, righteousness, and humility. He promotes a lifestyle marked by generosity and care for the needy. Wisdom is not intended to be a self-centered attribute. First of all, it comes from God, and it is designed to reflect His nature. Wisdom allows us to live in keeping with His heart and in community with His people. It provides us with the insights we need to live in a fallen world and not be corrupted by its evil influences. Wisdom flows from the throne of God through the people of God and impacts the lives of all those whom God has made.

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

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

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

 

The Godly Life Versus the Good Life

1 My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but let your heart keep my commandments,
for length of days and years of life
    and peace they will add to you.

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
    bind them around your neck;
    write them on the tablet of your heart.
So you will find favor and good success
    in the sight of God and man.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
    fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
    and refreshment to your bones.

Honor the Lord with your wealth
    and with the firstfruits of all your produce;
10 then your barns will be filled with plenty,
    and your vats will be bursting with wine.

11 My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
    or be weary of his reproof,
12 for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
    as a father the son in whom he delights. Proverbs 3:1-12 ESV

The Proverbs are full of comparisons, juxtapositions, and contrasts. There is wisdom and foolishness, wickedness and righteousness, and the God-follower and the self-worshiper. These sayings of Solomon paint a vivid picture that contrasts the life of the man who seeks after God and the man who turns his back on God, setting himself up as the master of his own fate and the captain of his soul.

Solomon writes from the perspective of a father appealing to his child, begging his son to make the attainment of wisdom and understanding his highest priority. But in doing so, Solomon is not suggesting that his son pursue an academic-based education. He is not recommending an increase in human reason or mere head-knowledge. He is spurring on his son to pursue God – the sole source of all wisdom, knowledge, reason, and common sense.

Getting to know God is the goal, not gaining wisdom for wisdom’s sake. Solomon tells his son, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5 NLT). How easy it is for each of us to trust in anything and everything but God. Rather than trust God, we turn to our own limited understanding and attempt to explain the complexities of life and solve the difficulties that come with living life on this sometimes perplexing planet.

If we lack joy, we attempt to find it through the means that this world makes possible. If we feel unloved, we seek satisfaction and significance through the pursuit of pleasure or even promiscuity. We seek – but we tend to seek in the wrong places.

But Solomon tells his son, “Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take” (Proverbs 3:6 NLT). He reminds his son that wisdom brings joy, is profitable, valuable, precious, and is the key to long life. But that kind of wisdom is only available from God. Wisdom, true wisdom, flows directly from God and nowhere else. Our ability to live life well on this planet is completely dependent upon the wisdom and understanding that God alone provides. And it comes from a relationship, not just a book.

We learn wisdom from watching and coming to know God, not just by reading about Him. Wisdom isn’t a product that God imparts. It is the essence of who He is. It is His very character. Wisdom, understanding and knowledge do not exist apart from God. So, what the world offers as wisdom is a cheap substitute.

At their core, wisdom and understanding are spiritual resources, not academic or cerebral ones. They flow from a right relationship with God. Solomon tells us, “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1:7 NLT). The fool wants nothing to do with God. He desires wisdom and understanding for their own sake, for what he might get out of them. But he has no desire to have a personal relationship with the One who makes them possible. He does’t want the loving discipline that also comes from God and is necessary for acquiring true wisdom and understanding. But those who long to have a relationship with God will find that wisdom, understanding, and knowledge are the byproducts of their pursuit of God.

One of the things Solomon desires for his son is the sense of peace and well-being that come through a right relationship with God. By pursuing and availing himself of the wisdom God has to offer, this young man can experience a wide range of beneficial and highly attractive blessings from God.

Length of days and years of life… – vs 2

Peace… – vs 2

Favor… – vs 4

Good success… – vs 4

Straight paths… – vs 6

Healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones… – vs 8

Full barns and vats bursting with wine… – vs 10

The loving reproof of God… – vs 12

This isn’t Solomon’s version of the prosperity gospel. He isn’t offering his son the key to having his best life now. He is simply stating that godly wisdom results in godly character and those whose lives bring glory and honor to God will be rewarded.

It is Solomon’s hope and prayer that his son will remember and ingrain all that he has taught. He wants his son to implement his teachings and commandments. But Solomon isn’t speaking of human insights or mere fatherly wisdom. He is calling his son to listen, learn, and appropriate all the godly wisdom that he has tried to impart, including steadfast love and faithfulness (vs 3). These things are of such value that Solomon compares them to priceless jewels to be hung on a necklace and worn around the neck. They are to be written down and preserved for posterity, kept close to the heart so that they are always within reach when needed.

The godly life is a profitable life because it brings favor with God and also with men.

you will find favor with both God and people,
    and you will earn a good reputation. – Proverbs 3:4 NLT

Godly people stand out in the crowd. Their relationship with God sets them apart and makes them distinctively different from the rest of the world. Unlike other people, those who place their trust in God display a reliance on His will instead of their own. They depend upon His wisdom rather than trusting on their own flawed and highly limited understanding. They make it a habit to turn their backs on evil and keep their eyes focused on the only One who can help them walk the straight path that leads to life rather than death.

Since God is their sole source of wisdom, comfort, security, and significance, they are willing to give back to Him what rightfully belongs to Him, including their material resources. That’s why Solomon encourages his son to be generous with God.

Honor the Lord with your wealth
    and with the best part of everything you produce.
Then he will fill your barns with grain,
    and your vats will overflow with good wine. – Proverbs 3:9-10 NLT

God doesn’t need our “stuff.” He doesn’t require our possessions in order to fill His depleted treasury. By giving our resources to God, we are acknowledging that they have not taken His place as the source of all our needs, wants, and desires. We have not allowed the gifts to take precedence over the Giver.

And the one who understands and appreciates the role of God as the sole source of sustenance in his life will also warmly receive and accept God’s loving discipline. God provides for all our needs, from the physical to the spiritual and the psychological to the moral. He loves us enough to discipline us. He patiently trains and lovingly corrects us.

My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline,
    and don’t be upset when he corrects you.
For the Lord corrects those he loves,
    just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. – Proverbs 3:11-12 NLT

So, the one who willfully seeks the wisdom of God through an ever-deepening relationship with God will always experience a well-balanced does of blessings and discipline.

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

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

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

 

Peace, Love, and Faith

21 So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything. 22 I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts.

23 Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 24 Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. Ephesians 6:21-24 ESV

For the first time in his letter, Paul turns his attention to himself. He has written the letter while under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial. He had been arrested in Jerusalem having been accused by the Jews of allegedly bringing Gentiles into the temple and defiling it (Acts 21:28-30). The Jews had been so incensed at Paul that they wanted to kill him, but he had been rescued by Roman soldiers. Paul ended up having to defend himself before the Sanhedrin, the Roman governor, and King Agrippa. Eventually, he was shipped off to Rome because, as a Roman citizen, he had appealed for a trial before Caesar. So, while under house arrest, he wrote this letter to the Ephesians. In fact, Paul wrote many of his letters while physically detained in Rome. He made very good use of his time and continued to minister to the churches he had helped to plant.

Paul had a special place in his heart for the believers in each of the cities to which he wrote. He saw them as his spiritual children. He had a pastor’s heart for them, worrying about their spiritual well-being because he knew they were under spiritual attack from the enemy. That is why he wrote his many letters. He wanted to educate, encourage, and instruct them in the faith. He desired to see them grow in Christ-likeness and continue to spread the good news of Jesus Christ around the world.

Paul was also aware that the believers to whom he had ministered so faithfully worried about him as well. They were concerned with his well-being and felt a certain sense of dependency upon him as their spiritual mentor and father in the faith. So Paul regularly them about his circumstances. With everything else going on in their lives, he didn’t want them worrying about him. So, he told them he would send Tychicus, “the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord” to bring them up to speed. It seems that Paul used Tychicus in this way quite often (Acts 20:4; Colossians 4:7; Titus 3:12; 2 Timothy 4:12). He was one of Paul’s constant companions and was able to travel to these various cities and keep the believers there informed as to the current status of Paul’s imprisonment and trial. Paul’s main purpose in sending Tychicus was that they might be encouraged. He knew that they didn’t need any more distractions or discouragement than they already had.

Paul loved others. He cared deeply about them and was willing to do whatever it took to see that they grew in faith. He could be hard on them, pointing out their weaknesses and flaws. But he could also be deeply compassionate, encouraging them in their weaknesses, and calling them to remain faithful. Like a loving parent, Paul wanted what was best for his children, and he was willing to sacrifice his own life to see that the flock of God was healthy and whole. Paul was the consummate shepherd. He shared the heart of Jesus, who said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 ESV). As a matter of fact, prior to heading to Rome to await his trial before Caesar, Paul had called for the elders from Ephesus and told them, “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock – his church, purchased with his own blood – over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders” (Acts 20:28 NLT). And Paul had lived out that admonition in his own life – all the way from Rome. Paul had lived out the calling for elders penned by the apostle Peter.

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly – not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. – 1 Peter 5:2 NLT

And in keeping with his role as a shepherd, Paul closed out his letter with a prayer for his flock in Ephesus. He prayed for three things: peace, love, and faith. Peace is not an absence of trouble, but an awareness of God’s presence in the midst of trying times. Peace also can mean harmony between individuals. Paul knew that there would be plenty of potential for turmoil in the Ephesian church because churches are comprised of people. And he knew that peace was going to be necessary if they were going to grow together and experience the unity that God desired for them. But peace is only possible when love is present. Mutual love is what brings about peace. The sacrificial, selfless love for which Paul was praying is unifying, not dividing. It is healing, not hurtful. It is other-oriented, not self-centered. And that kind of love is only possible through faith in Christ. It is not a self-manufactured kind of love but is a natural expression of the love that God expressed to us by sending His own Son to die on our behalf.

We love each other because he loved us first. – 1 John 4:19 NLT

All three of these attributes – peace, love, and faith – come from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. They are divine gifts to the church and they are to be used for the mutual edification of one another.

Paul closes his letter the same way he opened it, with an emphasis on the grace of God.

Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. – Ephesians 6:24 ESV

The grace of God, His undeserved favor, is the most remarkable thing any of us have ever received. But it is easy to lose sight of His grace and mistakenly assume that we somehow deserved or earned His love. We can end up thinking that we are worthy of His forgiveness and capable of living the Christian life in our own strength. But Paul would have us remember that it is the grace of God that made our salvation possible and it is the grace of God that makes our sanctification achievable. It is the grace of God that makes loving Him and His Son feasible. All that we are and all that we do is made possible by the grace of God.

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
there where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that is greater than all our sin!

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

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

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

 

Let’s Get Practical

18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. 22 Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.

1 Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. Colossians 3:18-4:1 ESV

Paul now takes those other-oriented, selfless, and love-motivated character traits and applies them to everyday life. And since he was writing to believers living in Colossae, he customized his words for their particular context. He wanted them to know what seeking and setting their minds on things that are above would look like on a daily basis. He wasn’t promoting some kind of ethereal and impractical brand of religious pietism and asceticism. No, he was recommending a highly practical brand of faith that revealed the transformative nature of the gospel in everyday life. They were to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10 ESV). As chosen ones of God, they were to put on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12 ESV). But none of these “add-ons” would be effective without love.

…put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony… – Colossians 3:14 ESV

And since God is love and He best expressed that love through the gift of His Son, Paul called the Colossians to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17 ESV). But what does that look like? How were they supposed to make these powerful admonitions practical? Well, Paul makes it plain and simple for them. And he begins with the family unit, one of the most foundational and universal arenas of relationship in this life.

The family was God’s idea. It was He who originated and ordained the union of one man and one woman, creating an indissoluble bond between them as husband and wife. The creation account found in the opening chapters of Genesis records God’s creation of the first marriage.

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
    because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:21-24 ESV

And Jesus Himself confirmed the validity of the Genesis account by stating, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6 ESV).

So, Paul begins at the beginning, with the family unit. He calls believing wives to submit to their believing husbands. But he adds an important, yet often overlooked, distinction: “as is fitting in the Lord” (Colossians 3:18 ESV). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “as is fitting for those who belong to the Lord.”

For Paul, the use of the word “submission” was directly linked to his call that all believers conduct themselves with compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. If ever there was ever a relationship where those characteristics were necessary, it was that of a husband and wife. So, he calls wives to lovingly, humbly, meekly, and patiently relate to their husbands in such a way that honors their role as the God-appointed head of the household. Paul provided additional insight into the headship role of the husband when writing to the church in Ephesus.

…submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything. – Ephesians 5:21-24 NLT

The biblical concept of submission has nothing to do with superiority or inferiority. Paul is not suggesting that women are somehow second-class citizens. He is simply articulating the divinely-ordained concept of headship within the family unit. Just as Christ is the head of the church, the believing husband is given responsibility for the well-being of his family. And that responsibility comes with a heavy dose of accountability.

Paul made it painfully clear that one of the primary leadership responsibilities of a godly husband was to selflessly love his wife. And, once again, Paul provides further clarity in his letter to the church in Ephesus.

…this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. – Ephesians 5:25-26 NLT

In order to lovingly, graciously submit to her husband, a wife would have to surrender her pride and natural desire for autonomy. In other words, she would have to “put off the old self with its practices” (Colossians 3:9 ESV). Submission doesn’t come naturally or easily. It requires a sacrifice of the human will. In order for anyone to submit in a way that “is fitting for those who belong to the Lord” (Colossians 3:18 NLT), they will have to “put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within” (Colossians 3:18 NLT). And according to Peter, submission isn’t something that is reserved for wives alone.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God – 1 Peter 2:13-15 ESV

The life of a believer, regardless of their gender, is to be marked by an attitude of humble submission to others – for this is the will of God. And, according to Paul, one of the greatest displays of death-to-self was to be a husband’s selfless expression of love for his wife. He was to put his wife’s life ahead of his own. He was to be willing to die on her behalf.

At the core of Paul’s teaching on submission was the idea of humility versus pride. There was no place for self-aggrandizement in the life of a believer.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:3-4 BSB

Even children had a part to play in God’s divine order for the home. They were to obey their parents in everything. Why? Because this was pleasing to the Lord. It was in keeping with His divine will. And a child’s obedience was a form of submission to the God-ordained authority of their parents. Again, this is not normal or natural. As the proverb states, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child…” (Proverbs 22:15 BSB).

And it’s interesting to note that disobedience to children was one of the characteristics Paul listed when describing the future state of the world in the last days.

You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. – 2 Timothy 3:1-4 NLT

But, according to Paul, an obedient child is the byproduct of a loving and godly father.

Fathers, do not aggravate your children, or they will become discouraged. – Colossians 3:21 NLT

That same proverb goes on to say, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” Yet, too much discipline, done in an unloving and heavy-handed manner can do more harm than good. It can cause a child to become discouraged. Discipline that is unloving and lacking in compassion can lead a child to become disinterested in trying to obey. It can actually result in rebellion rather than submission. So, Paul warns fathers to use their role as heads of their households with care.

Next, Paul moves from addressing the family unit to dealing with another relationship that was a ubiquitous part of the Colossian community: Slavery. While we find this topic uncomfortable and somewhat off-putting, it was a normal part of everyday life for the citizens of Colossae.

Scholars estimate about 10% (but possibly up to 20%) of the Roman empire’s population were enslaved. This would mean, for an estimated Roman empire population of 50 million (in the first century AD) between five and ten million were enslaved. This number would have been unequally distributed across the empire, with a higher concentration of enslaved people in urban areas and in Italy. – © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Slavery was an everyday part of daily life in Colossae. Yet Paul doesn’t attempt to address the moral implications of slavery. Instead, he tried to show the Colossian believers how their new identity in Christ should impact every area of life. The reality was that slaves were coming to faith in Christ and becoming a part of the local congregation of believers. It was highly likely that the church in Colossae had slaves attending worship services with their own masters. And this presented a particularly difficult problem for Paul and the leadership of the church. How were these people supposed to relate to one another? How was their mutual relationship with Christ to impact their interpersonal relationship with one another?

Paul addresses both parties. He tells slaves, “obey your earthly masters in everything you do. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Serve them sincerely because of your reverent fear of the Lord” (Colossians 3:22 NLT). And he tells masters, “be just and fair to your slaves. Remember that you also have a Master—in heaven” (Colossians 4:1 NLT).

Notice his emphasis on God. Both parties were to recognize that their earthly relationship with one another had been dramatically altered by their new identity in Christ. While nothing had changed regarding their earthly status, Paul wanted them to know that God viewed them in a whole new light.

In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. – Colossians 3:11 NLT

There is an invaluable and universal lesson to be learned from Paul’s words to slaves. These were individuals who had no choice regarding their condition. Their position as slaves required that they submit, whether they wanted to or not. But Paul challenged them to take a different attitude.

Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. – Colossians 3:23-24 NLT

And this applied to every believer in the local church in Colossae. It’s what Paul meant when he wrote, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2 ESV). A slave was to live his life with an eternal perspective, knowing that his current circumstance was temporal. There was a reward awaiting him that made his present suffering pale in comparison. And that heavenly-minded, future-focused perspective was to motivate the life of every believer in Colossae, regardless of their gender, race, or social status.

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

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

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

 

The God of Israel

1 And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants. And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the servants drew near, they and their children, and bowed down. Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down. And last Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor in the sight of my lord.” But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10 Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. 11 Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it.

12 Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go ahead of you.” 13 But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail, and that the nursing flocks and herds are a care to me. If they are driven hard for one day, all the flocks will die. 14 Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, at the pace of the livestock that are ahead of me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”

15 So Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.” 16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. 17 But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.

18 And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. 19 And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. 20 There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel. Genesis 33:1-20 ESV

The fateful moment Jacob had been dreading for 20 years had finally arrived. His return to the land of Canaan would have to begin with an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous reunion between him and the brother he had wrongfully deceived so many years earlier. It was payback time and Jacob had no idea what to expect when Esau arrived on the scene. So, when he looked up and saw Esau headed his way with a large force of 400 men, Jacob assumed the worst. All his attempts to win Esau’s favor with gifts of livestock appeared to have failed. The horde headed his way did not appear to be a welcoming party. So, he prepared for the worst.

Revealing the order of importance that Jacob placed on his wives and their children,  organized his family into three separate groups. Bilhah and Zilpah, the two slave women through whom he had fathered four sons, were placed in the first group along with their children. Leah came next, accompanied by her seven children. Then, forming the final group was Rachel and her only son, Joseph.

It seems that Jacob harbored hopes that, by placing Rachel and Joseph in the back of the line, they might be spared if Esau was out for revenge. Perhaps his anger would be assuaged long before he made it to them. Jacob was not expecting a happy reunion with Esau. The best he could hope for was some form of leniency and mercy. And he still had the option of placating his brother’s anger with additional payments in livestock.

Having taken his place at the front of the line, Jacob nervously waited to see what was going to happen. When his brother rode and dismounted, Jacob held his breath.

But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. – Genesis 33:4 ESV

Jacob must have been shocked and relieved by this unexpected display of affection from Esau. And an audible sigh of relief must have come from the lips of the nervous retinue standing behind Jacob. They would be spared. And when Esau looked at the long line of four women and 12 children, he asked his brother for introductions. And Jacob replied, “These are the children God has graciously given to me, your servant” (Genesis 33:5 NLT).

Jacob was a clever man and even his words reveal his penchant for cleverness and resourcefulness. Notice how he includes the name of God in his introduction of his children. By referring to them as gifts from God, Jacob was letting Esau know that they were under divine protection. It seems he was still a tad suspicious of his brother’s true intentions. And then, in another subtle, but equally adroit move, Jacob refers to himself as Esau’s servant. The Hebrew term he used is עֶבֶד (ʿeḇeḏ) and it literally means “slave.” Jacob was verbally submitting himself as a bondservant to his older brother. What makes this particularly interesting is that Jacob had worked very hard to cheat Esau out of his birthright and blessing so that he could be the head of the family and the inheritor of all their father’s possessions. But, at this point, Jacob was willing to sacrifice it all to restore his relationship with Esau.

After meeting all of Jacob’s wives and children, Esau revealed his curiosity about all the livestock that Jacob had sent his way.

“And what were all the flocks and herds I met as I came?” – Genesis 33:8 NLT

Jacob explained that they had been intended as gifts for Esau, but his brother politely refused to accept them.

“My brother, I have plenty,” Esau answered. “Keep what you have for yourself.” – Genesis 33:9 NLT

There appears to be a bit of bartering going on in this exchange. Esau is playing the generous host who refuses any thought of reciprocity for his hospitality. And Jacob is the guest who insists on rewarding Esau for his kindness. So, the two brothers continued to barter over the gifts, with Jacob finally winning the day. He wanted Esau to know how grateful he was for the gracious greeting he received and told his brother, “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (Genesis 33:10 ESV). 

Jacob expresses his sincere desire to bless his brother. He assures Esau that God has greatly blessed him and he desires to share divide up his blessing with him. Once again, it is important to consider how much time and energy Jacob had spent attempting to steal away his brother’s birthright and blessing. But now, he is ready to share all that he has with the very one he had defrauded. The last 20 years have produced a dramatic change in Jacob.

Having successfully reunited with his brother, Jacob was determined to continue his journey to Canaan. But Esau was excited to host Jacob in his home in Seir, which was located in the land of Edom. But God had commanded Jacob to return to Canaan, the land he had promised to give him as his possession. So, when Esau offered to escort Jacob and his family to Seir, Jacob politely declined. He suggested that Esau and his men go on ahead because his flocks would need to travel at a much slower and time-consuming pace. Esau agreed to this plan and left Jacob and his retinue to continue the journey on their own.

But Jacob had no intentions of traveling to the land of Edom. He knew his destiny lie on the western side of the Jordan River in Canaan. His first stop was in Succoth, on the eastern side of the Jordan. Once there, he built a temporary dwelling place and shelters for his flocks. But his stay would not be permanent. He knew that his real home was in Canaan so, after some undisclosed time, he set out for the city of Shechem. But like his grandfather before him, Jacob didn’t take up residence in the city. Instead “he camped before the city” (Genesis 33:18 ESV). In time, he purchased the land on which he had pitched his tent, securing for himself and his family a permanent home in Canaan. And there he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel, which means “God, the God of Israel.”

In purchasing the land and erecting an altar to God, Jacob was staking his claim to Canaan and declaring his commitment to Yahweh. This was a watershed moment in Jacob’s life. And to commemorate it, he proudly used the new name given to him by God.

“Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” – Genesis 32:28 ESV

The fortunes and the future of Jacob were about to undergo a remarkable change. Along with a new name and a new home, Jacob was about to experience a brand new way of relating to and relying upon God. He had managed to escape a potential landmine with his brother, but that did not mean his stay in Canaan was going to be a cakewalk. And, as chapter 34 will reveal, things are about to heat up for Jacob.

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

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

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

How Many Righteous Does it Take to Save the World?

22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place. Genesis 18:22-33 ESV

As Abraham prepared to say goodbye to his divine visitors, two of them made their way to the city of Sodom, while one stayed behind. And Moses indicates that the one guest who stayed behind was actually Yahweh Himself, in human form. Abraham found himself standing face to face with God Almighty, and he decided to take full advantage of this unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The two angels who had left were headed to Sodom, and Abraham knew the purpose of their mission. God had make it perfectly clear.

So the Lord told Abraham, “I have heard a great outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah, because their sin is so flagrant. I am going down to see if their actions are as wicked as I have heard. If not, I want to know.” – Genesis 18:20-21 NLT

It seems highly likely that Abraham was well aware of the goings on in Sodom and Gomorrah. These two cities had a well-deserved reputation for being “dens of iniquity.” So, he was had little doubt that the two angels were going to find ample evidence of wickedness and full justification for God’s judgment. But Abraham had a problem. His nephew Lot was a resident of Sodom.

This passage reveals a lot about Abraham’s concept of God. He understood God to be holy, just, and righteous. He viewed Him as a just judge who sits in judgment over the affairs of men.

“Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” – Genesis 18:25 NLT

And Abraham also knew that mankind was made of two basic groups of people: The godly and the ungodly. Or, as he put it, the righteous and the wicked.

Abraham approached him and said, “Will you sweep away both the righteous and the wicked?” – Genesis 18:23 NLT

Though by this time, the world consisted of a variety of diverse ethnic-based cultures and people groups, there were really only two categories of humanity: Those who believed in God and those who did not. The righteous (צַדִּיקṣadîq) were the just and lawful, the ones who lived in keeping with the will of God. They were considered Yahweh worshipers. We first learn of them in Genesis 3, when Eve gave birth to a son who would serve as a replacement for Abel, who had been murdered by his brother, Cain. Moses records, “When Seth grew up, he had a son and named him Enosh. At that time people first began to worship the Lord by name” (Genesis 3:26 NLT). Through the line of Seth came a group of people who would call upon the name of the Lord. The apostle Paul explains that ,because God’s “eternal power and divine nature” had been made visible through His creation (Romans 1:20 NLT), mankind had no excuse for failing to recognize and reverence their Creator. But Paul goes on to state that, despite their recognition of God presence, they chose to withhold their worship of Him. 

…they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT

So, by the time this event takes place in the life of Abraham, there were those who considered themselves Yahweh worshipers, and there were those who had chosen to turn their back on Him. They were the righteous because they were aligned with the “right God.” This does not mean that their behavior was pure and sinless. The apostle Paul would later state that “No one is righteous— not even one” (Romans 3:10 NLT). And his less-from-flattering evaluation was based on the Old Testament Scriptures.

Only fools say in their hearts,
    “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
    not one of them does good!

The Lord looks down from heaven
    on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
    if anyone seeks God.
But no, all have turned away;
    all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
    not a single one! – Psalm 14:1-3 NLT

So, when Abraham differentiates between the righteous and the wicked (רָשָׁעrāšāʿ), he is really acknowledging that there are two kinds of people: The innocent and the guilty. And he is concerned that, in His determination to punish the guilty living in Sodom and Gomorrah, God is going to inadvertently take the life of Lot.

Of course, it is easy to question Abraham’s assessment of his prodigal nephew. After all, Lot is the one who made the fateful decision to trade in his tent in the Jordan Valley for the comforts and conveniences of Sodom. And, in doing so, he exposed his entire family to the wickedness that marked this godless community. Shouldn’t he be held responsible for his poor judgment and the unwise stewardship of his family?

And yet, the apostle Peter provides a rather surprising revelation concerning Lot.

God condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and turned them into heaps of ashes. He made them an example of what will happen to ungodly people. But God also rescued Lot out of Sodom because he was a righteous man who was sick of the shameful immorality of the wicked people around him. Yes, Lot was a righteous man who was tormented in his soul by the wickedness he saw and heard day after day. – 2 Peter 2:6-8 NLT

Peter is not suggesting that God saved Lot because he was a sinless and perfectly blameless man. No, he is differentiating between the “ungodly people” of Sodom and the “godly” or Yahweh-worshiping Lot. It was Lot’s relationship with Yahweh that formed the basis of his salvation.

Abraham wants to know if God is going to spare the innocent or allow them to die along with the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah. In doing what was just – punish the wicked – will God end up doing what was unjust – destroy the innocent? And to drive home his point, Abraham puts a number to his question.

Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? – Genesis 18:24 NLT

There is no way to determine how many people lived in the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but it is safe to say that 50 people would have made up a small percentage of their overall populations. Abraham wanted to know if there were as few as 50 innocent people in Sodom, would God spare the city? Notice that Abraham doesn’t ask whether God would save the 50. For some reason, he expected God to spare the guilty for the sake of the innocent. In his mind, the presence of even as few as 50 innocent people would justify the preservation of town’s entire population.  He is not denying the fact that the wicked deserve what’s coming to them, but he is questioning the potential destruction of those who are undeserving.

This passage has always fascinated me. I have wrestled with the motivation behind Abraham’s repeated requests, and I have wondered why God was willing to play this ridiculous game of “What if…?” But there is something very significant going on here, and the key to understanding it begins in verse 19. Consider what the Lord said to the two angels.

“I have singled him [Abraham] out so that he will direct his sons and their families to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” – Genesis 18:19 NLT

God had set apart Abraham and his descendants for a special purpose. They were to be His chosen people, and were expected to live distinctively different lives than all the other nations on earth. But at this point in the story, Abraham’s family was small in number. He had one son, Ishmael, born to him through his wife’s handmaid, Hagar. He had male and female servants. But compared to all the other people groups on earth, Abraham’s clan was quite small and insignificant.

Now, consider what must have been going through Abraham’s mind. As he thought about Sodom and the pending judgment of God, he couldn’t help but think about the insignificant, yet innocent family of Lot. And it seems highly likely that Abraham began to ponder his own family’s status as the innocent few living among the guilty masses. If God was willing to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, what would keep Him from wiping out the rest of Canaan and its godless inhabitants? Abraham wanted to know if God was going to spare the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah so that a righteous remnant might be spared.

Abraham would have been well aware of the flood story. And while he would have known about God’s promise to never destroy the earth by flood again, he would have understood that this left God a lot of other options for bringing judgment against the wicked. So, this led Abraham to question just how few of the “righteous” it would take to prevent God from wiping out humanity again. And he used Sodom as a case study.

But notice how Abraham keeps moving the goal post. He starts out with a quantity of 50 and then slowly works his way down. And notice that each time, as Abraham lowers the number, God continues to assure Abraham that He will spare the city.

“If I find fifty righteous people in Sodom, I will spare the entire city for their sake.” – Genesis 18:26 NLT

He will spare the city, including all the wicked within it – all for the sake of 50 righteous people. But, hedging his bets, Abraham reduces the number from 50 to 45, from 45 to 40, from 40 to 30, and then, ultimately, all the way down to 10. And, once again, God confirms His commitment.

I will not destroy it for the sake of the ten.” – Genesis 18:32 NLT

Again, Abraham’s emphasis is on the city itself. He wants to know how many righteous it will take to save the city. And what appears to be driving his line of thinking is his awareness that the world in which he was living was growing increasingly wicked while the size of his family remained remarkably small. Abraham knew the story of Noah and would have recalled that he too had been a righteous man.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. – Genesis 6:9 ESV

And yet, despite that fact, God had ended up destroying the entire earth, sparing only Noah and his family. It seems that Abraham feared this happening again. Would he, like Noah, be forced to begin again? Or would the presence of a faithful few spare the earth from judgment?

As this story unfolds, it will become clear that there were far fewer innocents in the city of Sodom than Abraham could have known. Things were far worse than he thought possible.

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

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

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

The Battle is the Lord’s

1 In the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, these kings made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). And all these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea). Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and defeated the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, and the Horites in their hill country of Seir as far as El-paran on the border of the wilderness. Then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh) and defeated all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who were dwelling in Hazazon-tamar.

Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim with Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, four kings against five. 10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits, and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country. 11 So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. 12 They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way.

13 Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram. 14 When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people. Genesis 14:1-16 ESV

Abram and Lot have separated, with Lot taking up residence near the city of Sodom, while Abram continued his nomadic lifestyle, setting up a temporary camp by the oaks of Mamre in Hebron. But Abram’s separation from Lot would not last long. His nephew’s presence in the land would come back to haunt him.

This new season of Abram’s more independent life was going to be rocked by unexpected events that were outside of his control. What chapter 14 reveals is that Abram was far from alone in the land of Canaan. Up to this point in the narrative, there has been little mention of other nations, but the story recorded in this chapter will reveal that Abram has company and lots of it.

The chapter opens with news of a coalition of four kings whose nations lie outside the boundaries of Canaan. It’s difficult to determine with any certainty the exact locations of these ancient realms, but it seems that they each were located within the fertile crescent, an area known as the land of Shinar. It is important to recall that Shinar was the location of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11). It was there that God decided to confuse the language of the people who attempted to build a tower that would reach to the sky. As a result of the confusion caused by the proliferation of new languages, the region became known as “Babel,” a word that literally means “confusion.” This region would later bear the name of “Babylon” and play a vital role in the history of the Hebrew people.

These kings all hailed from the region of Mesopotamia that stretched from the northern tip of the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.  One of these kings, Chedorlaomer, had earlier invaded southern Canaan and forced its occupants to become his vassals. The people living in Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (Zoar), had found themselves subjugated to a foreign power for 13 long years. But at one point their kings had decided to throw off the yoke of this foreign oppressor. And their decision had forced King Chedorlaomer to form a coalition with three of his fellow kings from Mesopotamia and invade Canaan yet again.  

This entire scene is meant to display the interconnected nature of all that has gone on before. Every event that has happened up to this point is linked together in God’s plan. There are reasons for everything. And there are repercussions for every decision made by men and consequences for every act of a sovereign God. Nothing happens by chance. The ill-fated decision of the people to disobey God and construct a tower to glorify their own greatness had produced a myriad of nations that were dispersed across the earth. And the confusion created by their disparate languages would eventually turn into conflict.

In chapter 13, Moses recorded God’s reiteration of His promise to Abram.

“Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. – Genesis 13:14-15 ESV

And yet, here we have nine different kings vying for the right to control the land that God had given to Abram and his descendants. Ever since the gates to Eden had been slammed shut, mankind had been busy trying to grab up the remaining territory. Rather than steward that which belonged to God, they had been attempting to claim it as their own. Instead of acknowledging God as King, they had chosen to set up their own petty kingdoms here on earth. And here in this story, nine of these would-be gods were facing off in a battle of will and weapons, all in an effort to control what really belonged to God.

This coalition of four Mesopotamian kings slowly made their way south, defeating various clans, tribes, and nations along the way. They were successfully demonstrating their superior strength and telegraphing to the five kings of southern Canaan that their prospects for victory were dim. But refusing to consider surrender, the five kings joined forces and faced their enemy in the Valley of Siddim. Things did not go well. The tar pits that covered the valley floor proved to be their undoing. Many of the soldiers became mired in the sticky muck and were captured. As a result, the five kings were unable to put up a fight and their forces were easily defeated. And Moses provides a summary of this demoralizing debacle.

So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way. – Genesis 14:11-12 ESV

What makes this rather brief recap of the battle stand out is its focus on Sodom and Gomorrah, and its mention of Lot, the nephew of Abram. If you recall, chapter 13 chronicled Lot’s decision to choose the well-watered lands near Zoar as the place to pasture his flocks. But he actually “settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom” (Genesis 13:12 ESV). This nephew of Abram made a determined choice to seek refuge among “the men of Sodom,” who “were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Genesis 13:13 ESV).

Somewhere along the way, Lot had given up his tent and sought shelter within the walls of Sodom. Moses makes it clear that he “was dwelling in Sodom” (Genesis 14:12 ESV). And that decision would prove to be far from wise. When the four Mesopotamian kings looted Sodom, Lot was taken captive along with all his possessions. He was enslaved.

But news of his capture eventually reached the ears of his uncle. Abram was about to discover that his separation from Lot had been anything but permanent. And his decision to give Lot his choice of the land as his own had probably been a mistake. Now, Abram had a decision to make. Would he intervene and rescue Lot from his predicament or allow him to suffer the consequences? Moses records that Abram spent no time deliberating over his decision.

When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. – Genesis 14:14 ESV

One can debate the wisdom of Abram’s decision, but there is an overwhelming sense of God’s sovereignty woven throughout this entire event. The actions of the five kings, while autonomous and self-determined, are actually the byproducts of God’s providential will. Nothing happens outside His control or in opposition to His predetermined plan. These events came as no surprise to God. They were simply part of the sovereign strategy He was orchestrating so that His will might be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). What He had preordained was coming to fruition, just as He had planned.

Abram and his 318-man army went to battle against the coalition of kings and their superior forces, and he won. That outcome would have come as no surprise to Moses’ readership. They knew that, for them to exist as a people, Abram had to have won. His victory was assured because God had promised to make of him a great nation. And nothing was going to stand in the way of that promise being fulfilled. Whether the number of enemy kings was four or forty, it didn’t matter. Regardless of the size of the foe, God could give victory.

This story should bring to mind another battle fought by a servant of God against superior forces. Years later, Gideon, one of the judges of Israel, would find himself going up against the Midianites. He was outnumbered and outgunned. But much to Gideon’s surprise, God informed him that he had too many soldiers. In a series of bizarre events, God whittled down Gideon’s force until he only had 300 men left. And with that diminutive army, Gideon defeated the Midianites.

And, in a similar fashion, Abram defeated the five kings of Mesopotamia. His “surprising” victory allowed him to rescue Lot and bring back all the possessions that had been stolen. Lot had been redeemed by Abram. He didn’t deserve it and he hadn’t earned it. Abram simply extended unmerited mercy and grace to his young nephew. And this story provides a foreshadowing of another undeserved rescue that will take place in the lives of Abram’s descendants after another army from the north will invade Canaan and take God’s people captive. God will graciously and dramatically rescue them, returning them to the land and fulfilling the promise He had made to Abram.

This event is simply one of many illustrations of God’s goodness, grace, and sovereignty as displayed in the life of Abram. And there are many more to come.

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

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

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

Holiness is Not Contagious

10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, 11 “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: 12 ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’” The priests answered and said, “No.” 13 Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.” 14 Then Haggai answered and said, “So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the Lord, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean. 15 Now then, consider from this day onward. Before stone was placed upon stone in the temple of the Lord, 16 how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten. When one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. 17 I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and with mildew and with hail, yet you did not turn to me, declares the Lord. 18 Consider from this day onward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of the Lord‘s temple was laid, consider: 19 Is the seed yet in the barn? Indeed, the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. But from this day on I will bless you.” Haggai 2:10-19 ESV

Back on the 24th day of the sixth month, after a 16-year delay, the people of Judah had finally decided to obey God and commence construction on the destroyed temple of God. Nearly a month later, God encouraged them to complete the project by giving them the promise of His abiding presence (Haggai 2:1-5). But after two months of labor on the project, the people began to question the veracity of God’s word and the profitability of their efforts. Despite all their hard work, their crop production had not increased. They had finally obeyed God and begun construction on the temple, and yet, the drought continued, and the fruit of their harvests remained slim. Where were God’s blessings? Why had He not ended the drought and rewarded them for their faithful service?

They fully expected their obedience to produce some form of compensation from God. They were like disgruntled employees demanding a raise for all their hard work. So, God had Haggai deliver a much-needed lesson on moral purity and holiness. And He did so by posing a series of simple scenarios that concerned matters of holiness and defilement. God laid out these credible case studies and asked that the priests provide a ruling.

The first involved meat that had been set apart for sacrifice. According to the Mosaic Law, any meat that remained after the sacrifice was complete belonged to the priests.

“Give Aaron and his sons the following instructions regarding the sin offering. The animal given as an offering for sin is a most holy offering, and it must be slaughtered in the LORD’s presence at the place where the burnt offerings are slaughtered. The priest who offers the sacrifice as a sin offering must eat his portion in a sacred place within the courtyard of the Tabernacle. Anyone or anything that touches the sacrificial meat will become holy. If any of the sacrificial blood spatters on a person’s clothing, the soiled garment must be washed in a sacred place.” – Leviticus 6:25-27 NLT

“Any male from a priest’s family may eat from this offering; it is most holy.” – Leviticus 6:29 NLT

Based on this commandment, God asks the priests, “If one of you is carrying some meat from a holy sacrifice in his robes and his robe happens to brush against some bread or stew, wine or olive oil, or any other kind of food, will it also become holy?” (Habbai 2:12 NLT). And their answer is an emphatic, “No!”

Their answer was based on their understanding that the meat, the priest, and his garments had all been set apart or made holy by God because they were each used in the sacrificial system. The animal that was sacrificed had to be without blemish before it could be offered to God. The priest had to be ritually purified before he could offer the meat as an offering to God. And he wore garments that had been specifically set apart for use in the sacrificial system. The meat, the priest, and his garments were considered holy because they had all been set apart for one purpose: The honoring of God through sacrifice.

But their holiness was not transferable. Their distinction as being “holy unto the Lord” (Leviticus 27:30) was reserved for them alone. Not just any animal could be sacrificed. Not just any man could offer the meat of that animal to God. And not just any garment could be worn when doing so.

The consecrated priest carrying the consecrated meat in the fold of his consecrated robe was not some kind of a holiness transmitter that could somehow make ordinary food products holy and sacred simply by contact. That’s not how it worked. And yet it seems that the people believed that they were somehow holy by association because they had been working on the construction of God’s holy temple. They expected there to be some kind of transference of holiness accompanied by the requisite blessings that holiness demands. But the answer to the first question put an end to that misguided assumption.

The second question poses a similar but opposite scenario. This time, the situation involves someone who has become ceremonially unclean or impure.

“If someone becomes ceremonially unclean by touching a dead person and then touches any of these foods, will the food be defiled?” – Haggaie 2:13 NLT

Once again, the priests were expected to provide their professional assessment and, as before, they respond, “No!” And this is where Haggai drops an unexpected bombshell on the people.

“That is how it is with this people and this nation, says the Lord. Everything they do and everything they offer is defiled by their sin. – Haggai 2:14 NLT

Yes, they had finally decided to obey God and, for the last few months, they had been making progress on the rebuilding of the temple. But their determination to obey had not absolved them of their track record of sin and guilt. In God’s eyes, they were guilty of sin and, therefore, unclean. Even their offerings were considered unclean by God. This is where the two scenarios come into play. While holiness was non-transferable, the same could not be said of impurity or uncleanness. Just as good health cannot be shared from one person to another, neither can holiness. But disease or illness can be easily transmitted from the sick to the healthy. And the same is true with moral impurity. It can spread like yeast in a lump of dough or cancer cells in the human body.

Ever since the people had returned to the land from their captivity in Babylon, they had been offering sacrifices on an altar they had constructed.

Then Jeshua son of Jehozadak joined his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his family in rebuilding the altar of the God of Israel. They wanted to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, as instructed in the Law of Moses, the man of God. Even though the people were afraid of the local residents, they rebuilt the altar at its old site. Then they began to sacrifice burnt offerings on the altar to the Lord each morning and evening. – Ezra 3:2-3 NLT

But while their intentions were pure, their lives were not. As the book of Ezra points out, they were offering sacrifices before they had even laid the foundation of the temple, where those sacrifices should have been made.

Fifteen days before the Festival of Shelters began, the priests had begun to sacrifice burnt offerings to the Lord. This was even before they had started to lay the foundation of the Lord’s Temple. – Ezra 3:6 NLT

And now, 16 years later, God lets them know that He considered their sacrifices to be impure and unacceptable because they were contaminated by sin. He reminds them that, prior to laying the foundation of the temple, they were suffering from poor harvests caused by the blight, mildew, and hail He had sent upon them. And, even then, they had refused to return to Him (Haggai 2:17).

But now, three months after they had begun to rebuild the temple, God had good news for them. Things were about to change because He had made a determination to bless them. But not because they deserved or had earned it. Up until this very day, they had continued to experience His judgment for their disobedience – despite their efforts at rebuilding the temple. Now, He had something different in store for them.

“But from this day on I will bless you.” – Haggai 2:19 ESV

God could not and would not overlook the 16 years of disobedience that allowed His house to remain a pile of rubble. The people had managed to build homes for themselves but had repeatedly come up with excuses to put off the one thing God had commanded them to do when they returned to the land: Rebuild the temple. In failing to carry out that command, they had dishonored God and brought judgment upon themselves. They had returned to a land that was “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3), but their fields remained fruitless, their cupboards bare, and their stomachs empty – all because of their unfaithfulness. Their past disobedience had to be punished. But now God was ready to pour out His blessings.

They had been set apart by God for His glory. He had chosen them to be His prized possession, a kingdom of priests who were to honor Him with their lives. But they had failed to do so. Amazingly, despite their 16 years of apathy and non-compliance and only three months of faithful service, God graciously determined to bless them.

And all of this was in keeping with the promise God had made to the people of  Israel long before they entered the land of Canaan. Moses had clearly warned them:

“…you must seek the LORD your God at the place of worship he himself will choose from among all the tribes—the place where his name will be honored. There you will bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, your offerings to fulfill a vow, your voluntary offerings, and your offerings of the firstborn animals of your herds and flocks. There you and your families will feast in the presence of the LORD your God, and you will rejoice in all you have accomplished because the LORD your God has blessed you.” – Deuteronomy 12:5-7 NLT

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

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

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

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