A Crisis of Identity

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 ESV

Before we dig into what Jesus is saying in these verses, take a close look at the list of those whom He refers to as approved by God:
…the poor in spirit
…those who mourn
…the meek
…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
…the merciful
…the pure in heart
…the peacemakers
…those persecuted for their righteousness
…those reviled, persecuted and slandered because of their association with Him

Now think about how His audience would have reacted to that list. Most, if not all, of those descriptions, would have been off-putting to his listeners. What would have been remotely attractive to these oppressed and, oftentimes, impoverished people about spiritual poverty? How in the world were they supposed to see mourning as a form of blessing from God? And within the culture and times during which they existed, meekness wasn’t exactly a handy asset. It got you nowhere and achieved nothing.

Then there’s his mention of hunger and thirst. For what was likely a crowd made up predominantly of farmers, shepherds, and other common laborers, the mention of hunger and thirst stirred up fairly negative connotations. They knew what it was like to suffer both and would not have viewed either as a blessing from God.

What about mercy? These were people living under the cruel and sometimes crushing rule of Rome. The Romans weren’t exactly known for being merciful, so what possible good could come out of showing mercy? And peacemaking wasn’t exactly an attractive option for Jesus’ listeners either. Peacemaking meant giving in and compromising with your enemy. Once again, the average Jew didn’t want peace with Rome, they wanted their destruction. For hundreds of years, ever since returning to the land of promise from captivity, the Jews had been without a king and at the mercy of virtually every nation that wanted to enslave them. They had become easy prey to anyone who wanted what they had. And the last thing they wanted was peace.

And how would they have reacted to His mention of purity of heart? For a people raised on the belief that a strict adherence to the Mosaic Law was their only hope, the idea of purity of heart would have been foreign. Theirs was a behavior-based society. You had to live up to certain rules, laws, and regulations. You had to keep the prescribed holy days, feasts, and festivals. You had to do what the law required. It was your outward actions that mattered most. The heart had nothing to do with it.

And then Jesus ends His list by bringing up persecution, reviling, and slander. In other words, He tells them that those who suffer for His sake will be approved by God. Now, would that have been great news to his listeners? Probably not. Persecution, reviling, and slander would have been the last things these people wanted to experience – for anybody’s sake.

Can you imagine the murmurs going through the crowd as Jesus spoke? Can’t you just see people in the crowd turning to one another with looks of confusion and even disgust? Who is this guy? What is He talking about? If He truly is a rabbi trying to attract followers, He isn’t getting off to a great start. Maybe He should give up public speaking and stick to doing miracles.

I believe there were many in the crowd that day who, after hearing Jesus’ opening remarks, began to have serious questions about not only His subject matter but His sanity. But He had their attention. And He was just getting started.

One of the things we must remember is that John the Baptist and Jesus both showed up on the scene preaching a message of repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). The Greek word for “repent” is metanoeō and it means “to change one’s mind for the better.” It entailed changing how you believed about things. We tend to think of repentance as turning from our sins and heading in another direction. But before you can turn from your sins, you have to have a change of mind regarding your sins. For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, they were going to have to experience a change of mind about everything from the Law and works to the kingdom of God, and who was qualified to be a citizen of it. They were going to have to change their minds about what it meant to be approved by God. And they had been indoctrinated by hundreds of years of teaching that taught them that they were the chosen people of God. They were the descendants of Abraham. And to receive the blessings of God, they simply had to obey the commands of God. But Jesus called them to repent. And now He was giving them an explanation of just exactly what their repentance or change of mind should look like.

First, they should be marked by poverty of spirit, a personal knowledge of their own spiritual bankruptcy. For a people who prided themselves on their status as God’s chosen people, this would have been difficult to hear and comprehend. But Jesus was telling them that, in order to be approved by God, they would first have to become conscious of their own unworthiness before God. Jesus would later tell the Pharisees, who took great pride in their spirituality, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do” (Matthew 9:12 NLT). It is not until we recognize our spiritual unworthiness that we will see our need for a Savior.

Jesus was telling them that, in order to be approved by God, they would first have to become conscious of their own unworthiness before God.

Next, Jesus mentions an attitude or mournfulness, a personal grief over personal sin. Paul will later refer to this as “godly grief.”

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. – 2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV

Our mournfulness stems from an awareness of our spiritual poverty. It is the emotional reaction to our impoverished standing before God. We react with sorrow, which leads us to salvation.

Jesus then mentions meekness, the controlled desire to see someone else’s interests advanced ahead of our own. Meekness is not weakness, it is a life of willing selflessness and sacrifice. It is the opposite of self-assertiveness and self-interest. In a world where everyone is out for themselves, Jesus was teaching that selflessness was what God was looking for in His people. And Jesus would go on to model this very characteristic throughout His life, all the way up to His selfless, sacrificial death on the cross.

Meekness is not weakness, it is life of willing selflessness and sacrifice. It is the opposite of self-assertiveness and self-interest.

When Jesus mentions a hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is speaking of having an insatiable desire for conformity to the will of God. Righteousness becomes the objective and our primary obsession. But righteousness on His terms, not ours. To hunger and thirst after righteousness is to desire a life lived in conformity to God’s will, not our own. It is a longing for life as He has planned it.

What about mercy? What is Jesus saying? Mercy is the gracious and generous response to the mercy we have received from God. We are to extend mercy to others because we have received mercy from God. And just as the mercy we received from Him was undeserved and unmerited, so we are to show mercy to those around us who have no right to it.

The Christian forgives because he has been forgiven; he forgives because he needs forgiveness. In precisely the same way, and for the same kind of reasons, the disciple of Jesus Christ is merciful. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

What does Jesus mean by purity of heart? Is He calling for perfection? The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). So how can we be pure of heart? But Jesus has something else in mind here. When Jesus was later asked what the greatest commandment was, He responded:

“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” – Matthew 22:37 NLT

Purity of heart is not outward conformity to rules. The Greek word for “purity” is sometimes translated as “blameless.”  In the Old Testament, purity was associated with the idea of wholeness, completeness, or integrity. God called Abraham to walk before Him and to be blameless. We are to live our lives with integrity before God and man. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of our life. No compartmentalization. No holding back.

Purity of heart is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of our life. No compartmentalization. No holding back.

Again, the prophet, Jeremiah speaks of the heart.

“If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 29:13-14 NLT

Jesus is calling for a wholehearted desire for God, not just a half-hearted attempt to keep His laws. Obedience is possible without love, but that is not what God requires or desires. In fact, later on in His ministry, Jesus would quote from the prophet, Isaiah, in order to make a point to the Pharisees and religious leaders.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 NLT

Peacemaking is ultimately the desire for reconciliation between God and man. It has less to do with being at peace with those around me, than desiring that they have peace with God. And this desire will come from having been made right with God ourselves. The apostle Paul will later write, “Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us” (Romans 5:1 NLT). And he will go on to say, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NLT).

Peacemaking is ultimately the desire for reconciliation between God and man. It has less to do with being at peace with those around me, than desiring that they have peace with God.

We prove our status as sons of God by seeking what God desires: reconciliation between God and man. Once again, Paul provides us with insight into what Jesus is saying:

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. – Romans 12:17-19 NLT

Finally, Jesus speaks of persecution, reviling, and slander. But His primary point is that those who are approved by God had a future focus that sees them through present suffering. Jesus would later tell His disciples:

“If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” – John 15:18-19 NLT

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 NLT

We can endure suffering in this life because we are confident of Jesus’ promises regarding the next life. As Paul reminds us, “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later” (Romans 8:18 NLT).

All of this was difficult to hear and even harder to comprehend. Remember, these people were on the opposite side of the cross from us. Jesus had not yet died. He had not yet been resurrected. He was speaking of life made possible by His death, burial, and resurrection. He was describing a life available only through faith in His sacrificial death and empowered by His indwelling Holy Spirit. But He was preparing them for what was to come. It was not what they were expecting, but it was exactly what they needed.

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

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

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

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 ESV

Jesus wastes no time. Once the crowd has taken their seats in front of Him, He jumps right into His lecture, and begins with what has come to be known as the “beatitudes.”  This portion of His message derives its name from the repetitive use of the word “blessed” that appears at the beginning of each line. The Greek word for blessed in the original text of Matthew’s gospel is makarios. In the Latin Vulgate, the word is beati, which is derived from the Latin beatitudo/beatus. Therefore, the name of this section of Jesus’ message became known as “The Beatitudes.”

In order to fully understand what Jesus was saying, we must know what He meant by using the word “blessed.”  There is no doubt that it has a positive connotation. To be blessed was a good thing. But what kind of blessing did Jesus have in mind? We tend to use the word quite loosely and indiscriminately. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say something like, “He’s been blessed with good genes” or “Grandchildren are such a blessing.” From our perspective, we can be blessed by good health, a new job, a strong constitution, a loving spouse, and good friends.

Even in Jesus’ day, the word carried the connotation of being “supremely blest; by extension, fortunate, well off” (“G3107 – makarios – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 21 Apr, 2017). The problem we face in reading The Beatitudes is applying our definition or understanding of what it means to be blessed and missing out on what Jesus was actually saying. Our natural tendency, just like the 1st-Century Jews sitting in Jesus’ audience that day, is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Our natural tendency is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Warren Wiersbe states that the blessing to which Jesus referred is “an inner satisfaction and sufficiency that does not depend on outward circumstances for happiness.” So, while we might connote blessing with personal prosperity and a lack of problems, Jesus was speaking of something entirely different. The root idea behind blessing is approval. God does not bless that which He does not approve. If you take the full context of Jesus’ message, it becomes clear that He is teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven and the character of those who belong to it. In essence, He is teaching about justification; how to be made right or approved by God. In the very next section, Jesus will bring up the Mosaic law. Why? Because for the Jews in His audience, the Law had always been the sole requirement for attaining a right standing with God. It was through the keeping of the Law that man attempted to gain God’s approval or blessing.

All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, we have recorded the words spoken by Moses to the people of Israel on behalf of God.

“Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.” – Deuteronomy 30:15-16 NLT

They were to live in obedience to the commands of God. If they did so, they would be blessed by God. If they refused to do so, they would be cursed. In the previous chapter, Moses made clear just what the blessing He promised would entail.

“You are standing here today to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God. The Lord is making this covenant, including the curses. By entering into the covenant today, he will establish you as his people and confirm that he is your God, just as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 29:12-13 NLT

By obeying God, they would enjoy the approval and presence of God. They would know what it was like to have His protection and to experience His provision. The curses would be the result of having lost that relationship. But the Jews had ended up placing a higher value on the material blessings they enjoyed than on God’s approval. The idea that the God of the universe approved of them was less important to them than the personal prosperity they enjoyed as God’s people. And this misunderstanding of the blessing of God had resulted in them turning the Law into a means to an end. They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy. He had become nothing more to them than a conduit to more important things: health, happiness, material goods, crops, children, peace, long life, or whatever else they desired.

They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy, so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy.

So, here comes Jesus, preaching a radically different message of what it means to be truly blessed by God. And what He said must have rocked the world of His listeners. Much to their shock and dismay, He tied the blessing of God to such things as poverty, mourning, meekness, deprivation, and persecution. He talked about heavenly rewards versus earthly ones. He commanded His listeners to rejoice when they were persecuted, to turn the other cheek when they were slapped, to willingly go the second mile, to love their enemies, and to give to those who ask to borrow, expecting no payment in return.

None of this would have made sense to His listeners. None of it would have sounded the least bit appealing. In the mind of the average Jew, it was the wealthy who were blessed by God, while the sick and the lame were cursed by God. They believed material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, so poverty must be a curse.

But what Jesus says in this passage turns the tables on that kind of thinking. A great deal of His message is in direct contradiction to their skewed understanding of the Law and what they believed was necessary to be right with God. They tied proof of righteousness (a right relationship with God) to outward signs of His blessing. But Jesus was going to blow up that presupposition. He was going to go to the heart of the issue – literally. Because Jesus was out to change the hearts of men. With His coming, the days were finished when men would be able to judge their righteousness based on outward evidence.

God looks at the heart. And Jesus came to die so that men’s hearts might be redeemed, and their behavior radically changed. What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment.

What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment.

He is speaking to a pre-cross crowd, explaining to them a post-cross reality. He knows something to which they are oblivious. He recognizes that all He is saying to them is not only impossible for them to understand, but impossible to pull off until He has died, been resurrected, and the Holy Spirit comes. His words are preparatory in nature. He is expanding on His previous message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV).

Things were about to change. The Messiah had come. The Savior of the world was in their midst. And the means by which men might be made right with God, permanently and perfectly, had finally arrived. But before anyone could accept what Jesus had come to provide, they would have to recognize their need. And Matthew later records Jesus’ offer of the Great Invitation:

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

The Sermon on the Mount is not intended to be a new list of laws, rules, and requirements for people to follow in order to gain God’s approval. It is a glimpse into the lifestyle of those who will find their approval by God through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. It is a pre-cross explanation of how right behavior will flow from having a right relationship with God made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sins of mankind. The key message behind the Sermon on the Mount is the approval of God. And Jesus is in the process of helping His audience understand that right behavior stems from having a right relationship with God, not the other way around.

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

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

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

The Kingdom Is At Hand

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them… Matthew 5:1 ESV

It was Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, who first referred to this text as the Sermon on the Mount. But that title is somewhat of a misnomer, in that the content and the context appear to make it much more of a teaching than what we would know as a sermon. Obviously, the setting is outdoors, on a hillside located at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It is early on in Jesus’ ministry, and yet, we know from chapter four, that Jesus has already begun attracting vast crowds.

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. – Matthew 4:23-25 ESV

Those who made up the audience sitting on the hillside that day to listen to Jesus speak were made up of all kinds of people from all over the area. And within the crowd would have been disciples or followers of Jesus. This term was not exclusively used of the 12 but was commonly used to refer to any and all who followed Jesus and were attracted to His message and miracles. As John will make clear in his gospel, many of these individuals would later choose to abandon Jesus when His message became increasingly more convicting and the price of discipleship, more costly (John 6:66).

Also in the crowd that day were the men whom Jesus called to be His official students. Chapter four reveals how Jesus had called two brothers: Simon (Peter) and Andrew, as well as another two siblings: James and John. All four of them were common fishermen. But when Jesus extended the invitation to join His ranks as His disciples, they all willingly followed. These four were accompanied by Nathanael and Philip, who had also responded affirmatively to Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me.”

Another group that listened to Jesus teach that day were the merely curious. They probably made up the largest contingent within the crowd. These were people who were enamored with Jesus’ miracles and intrigued by what He taught, but, for the most part, were attracted by the novelty of it all. So, as Jesus sat down to teach, He found an audience made up of the called, the semi-committed and the curious. And it is essential to keep these three groups in mind as we listen to Jesus’s words because each of them will have a slightly different take on what He has to say.

The danger we face in reading a passage like this one is to do so from our modern vantage point and with our unique perspective as modern believers who know how the story ends. In other words, we have insights the people in Jesus’ audience would not have had. We know about His death, burial and resurrection. We are well aware of the Holy Spirit and the role He plays in helping us live out the Christian life. We know that our salvation is based on faith alone in Christ alone, and not on words or human effort. We also know that our ongoing sanctification is based on faith, as well. We can’t make ourselves more holy. We must depend upon the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the Word of God.

So, when we read the Sermon on the Mount, we hear it with redeemed ears. We are privy to insider information that the original hearers would not have had. They were not yet sure who Jesus really was. Some would have thought Him to be the Messiah, but they would have been few in number. Even the men whom Jesus called likely had some doubts and reservations about Jesus’ identity. Yes, when Philip had told Nathanael about his encounter with Jesus, he had seemed fairly convinced of who He was.

“We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” – John 1:45 ESV

And it was Nathanael who, upon meeting Jesus for the first time, responded, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49 ESV). But at this point in their relationship with Jesus, these men were still wrestling with what they believed about the Messiah and what they saw in Jesus. There were points of disconnection and discontinuity. Not all they saw about Jesus was matching up with their expectations concerning the coming Messiah.

It would be sometime later that Jesus would ask them who the people believed Him to be. And they would respond, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say you are one of the other ancient prophets risen from the dead” (Luke 9:19 NLT). So, at this point, early on in His ministry, there would have been much confusion and speculation about His true identity. And that point will make what He has to say in this sermon that much more critical.

How would they have heard His message? What kind of impact would His words have made on them? The challenge we face when reading this all-too-familiar passage is to not allow our status as modern, 21st-Century Christians to taint or influence the message. Because we know how the story ends, we can have the unfortunate tendency to remove from Jesus’ words all their power and revolutionary nature. What Jesus had to say that day in that bucolic setting was radical and unheard of. His teachings would have grated on the ears of his listeners, kike fingers on a blackboard, causing them great confusion and raising all kinds of questions in their minds.

For too many of us, because of over-familiarity, His words have long ago lost their power. The radical, counter-cultural calling found in the words of Jesus no longer has the same impact as it did the day He spoke it. It is almost as if we know too much. Our privileged insights into the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, His death, and resurrection, have robbed what He had to say that day of its intended impact and shocking significance.

The challenge is to read the Sermon on the Mount with fresh eyes. To the best of your ability, get into the mindset of someone hearing His words for the very first time. In fact, try to hear them like a 1st-Century Jew. It is important to remember that even the disciples of Jesus were not yet technically believers. They had not heard all of His teachings. They knew nothing about His impending death. They were unaware of His eventual resurrection. He had not yet told them about the future coming of the Holy Spirit. No one in the audience would have known what we know. So, listen to His words from their perspective. Hear what they would have heard. Allow yourself to be shocked by the radical nature of what He said and how it would have dramatically altered your concepts of life, religion, relationships, and God.

Everything these people knew to be true was about to be turned on its head. All they had been taught and had learned to lean on as reliable, right, and non-negotiable, was about to get rocked. There would be no mind-blowing miracles performed, no demons cast out, or lame people healed. That hillside was not going to be some carnival sideshow, but a classroom. And the subject was going to be the kingdom of heaven. For the very first time, Jesus was going to expand on what He and John the Baptist had been preaching. Both of them had been declaring, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). Now, Jesus was going to begin explaining what life in the kingdom was to be like. And it was going to be more mind-blowing then any miracle He could have performed. This was going to be radical stuff.

Jesus is going to teach that persecution and poverty bring blessing, that lust carries the same penalty as adultery, anger is equivalent to murder, enemies are to be loved, and reconciliation trumps revenge or retaliation. He is going to demand a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. And any righteous acts done in order to get noticed don’t count. He’s going to outlaw worrying and judging. He’s going to require that his audience put the needs of others ahead of their own, including their enemies. And to top it all off, Jesus is going to demand fruitfulness. Oh, and as if that were not enough, He throws in a life of perfection for good measure.

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48 ESV

It all sounds impossible. And it is. It all sounds so radical. And it was. So much so, that over the years, there have been many who have decided that Jesus’ words were never intended to be followed. They have concluded that this message was speaking of some future time when sin would be eliminated, and men enjoyed a perfection made possible by God. In other words, they believe Jesus’ words that day were a prophetic message concerning His future Millennial Kingdom.

But while there is some truth to this notion, I don’t believe Jesus would have said all that He did if there were not some expectation on His part that obedience to these commands was not only possible but non-negotiable. The key to understanding what Jesus was teaching is to realize the impossible nature of it all. Like the Law of Moses, Jesus’ words were exposing the inability of men to live up to the holy standards of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was not teaching a new set of rules or requirements in order for men to be made right with God. He was teaching a new way of life that was possible only by the power of God. The righteousness Jesus was demanding was not to be self-made but Spirit-produced. The behavior that He was expecting would not be the result of human effort, but divine power.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus had told the people the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Now Jesus is going to explain what life in that kingdom was to look like.

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

To Fulfill All Righteousness

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:11-17 ESV

John was the opening act for the main attraction. He was the precursor to the primary player in God’s redemptive plan. His job was to prepare the people for the arrival of the anointed one of God. And no one knew this better than John. Luke records that many of those who were making their way to the Judean wilderness were doing so because they believed John might be the long-awaited Messiah.

…the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ. – Luke 3:15 ESV

But John quickly put these rumors to rest by stating, “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11 NLT). There was to be no confusion. John was not going to tolerate any misperception on the part of the people. He was not the Messiah. He could not offer the people of Israel salvation from their sins. All he could do was baptize them in water as a sign of their willingness to repent of their sins. But the true Messiah was coming to offer far more. And He would have a power far greater than anything John or the people of Israel could ever imagine. 

The Jewish people were very familiar with the prophetic passages found in the Hebrew Scriptures that told of the coming of the Messiah. They knew there were to be great signs and wonders associated with His coming. And John reminded them that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This imagery was designed to tie Jesus to the words of God as spoken through the prophets.

“And it shall come to pass afterward,
    that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” – Joel 2:28-29 ESV

John wanted the people to know that the Messiah would bring the capacity for true life change. He would offer far more than repentance from sin. He would bring release from slavery to sin and the condemnation of death. But there was more. The Messiah would also bring judgment. He would separate between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean. He would create a clear delineation between the sheep and the goats, the saved and the unsaved.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. – Malachi 3:2-5 ESV

John was prophesying about aspects of Jesus’ role as the Messiah that had long-term implications. These prophetic statements concerning the Messiah would not all take place at once – at the moment of His arrival. But they spell out the full scope of His redemptive role, from start to finish. Jesus was going to show up on the scene as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But the day will come when He returns as the conquering King of kings and Lord of lords. His first advent was not as judge, but as the sacrificial offering to satisfy the just judgment of God Almighty. The second time He comes, He will appear as the judge of all mankind. The apostle John was given a preview of coming attractions when he saw and wrote about the Messiah and His second advent.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. – Revelation 19:11 ESV

Yes, Jesus came to make possible atonement for the sins of mankind. But the complete eradication of sin will not take place until He returns a second time. And John the Baptist knew that there was going to be far more to the ministry of Jesus than baptizing for the repentance of sin. He came to deal sin a death blow.

But before that happens, Jesus was going to have to do the will of His Father. And part of that will involved His incarnation, but also His submission to the Spirit’s leading in His life. Matthew makes it clear that “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him” (Matthew 3:13 ESV). It was time, and Jesus, moved by the Spirit of God, knew where He was supposed to be and what He was supposed to do. He showed up that day in order to follow His Father’s preordained plan for His life.

John, recognizing the superior nature of Jesus, was reluctant to baptize one “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (Matthew 3:11 ESV). But Jesus responded to him with an interesting and somewhat cryptic statement: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15 ESV). But what did Jesus mean by the phrase: “to fulfill and righteousness?”

It seems obvious that Jesus was not inferring that His baptism by John would somehow make Him righteous. This verse is not a reference to salvation, but to ethical righteousness, which has to do with doing that which is in keeping with the will of God. It was God’s will that Jesus be baptized and, in obediently doing what God had willed, John and Jesus would be acting righteously – in keeping with God’s desires.

God desired that Jesus be baptized, not as a sign of his repentance of sins, but as a way to validate the message and ministry of John, and to associate Himself with all those who had repented because the kingdom was at hand. The King was aligning Himself with His subjects. In allowing Himself to be baptized, Jesus was illustrating His complete submission to the will of His heavenly Father, something all those who would eventually come to faith in Him would do.

It is interesting to note that, upon His baptism, God validated and lauded Jesus’ actions by stating: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). God affirmed the deity of Jesus. And He let all those who had witnessed the baptism of Jesus know that His Son’s actions had been pleasing because they had been in keeping with His will.

And the apostle John records that John the Baptist had been given a divine tip concerning the coming Messiah. He would know who He was based on the Spirit descending on Him in the form of a dove.

“I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” – John 1:32-34 ESV

The Spirit’s presence and God’s own words both confirmed Jesus’ identity. He was the Son of God. And, as we have seen, that is one of the primary point Matthew was attempting to make with the writing of his Gospel account. Jesus’ identity as the Son of God had been firmly established from the moment the angel told the virgin Mary she was going to have a baby.

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:31-33 ESV

When Jesus was born, He came into the world as the Son of God. When He went to the temple at the age of 12, He had done so as the Son of God, which is why he had declared to his parents, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 ESV). Jesus had been the Son of God all those years He had worked alongside His earthly father, Joseph, in the family business. But the earthly ministry of Jesus began with His baptism by John. The Son of God, anointed by the Spirit of God, and validated by the words of God, officially launched His ministry to fulfill the will of God.

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

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God With Us

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25 ESV

In this section of Matthew’s Gospel, he takes his defense of Jesus’ messiahship one step further. Not only was Jesus the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, but He was also the Son of God. Right from the very start, Matthew establishes Jesus as being divine, referring to Him by the name pronounced by the angel of God: Immanuel. And, just to make sure his readers understand the significance of that name,  Matthew provides them with its meaning: “God with us” (Matthew 1:23 ESV).

In announcing the coming birth of Jesus and declaring His name and identity, the angel reiterated the words of God recorded by the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” – Isaiah 7:14 ESV

As with many of the prophecies found in the Old Testament, this verse from Isaiah passage had a now/not yet aspect to it. In its original historical context, this message from God was delivered by Isaiah to Ahaz, the king of Judah. It spoke of a child being born during the days of Ahaz and this birth would give evidence that the military alliance between Syria and Israel against Judah would be unsuccessful. The essence of the message was that life would go on in Judah, while the northern kingdom of Israel would suffer defeat at the hands of the Assyrians.

“Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.”

Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered;
    give ear, all you far countries;
strap on your armor and be shattered;
    strap on your armor and be shattered.
Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing;
    speak a word, but it will not stand,
    for God is with us. – Isaiah 8:6-10 ESV

Matthew picks up on this prophetic vision, recognizing its future fulfillment in Jesus. The primary focus of the message delivered by Isaiah to King Ahaz was that God would be with the people of Judah. The Assyrians would come upon the northern kingdom of Israel like a river that has overflowed its banks. They will devastate and destroy everything in their path, even making their way into the southern kingdom of Judah. But they will fail in their efforts to defeat Judah. Why? Because of the presence of God.

And Matthew, knowing that the angel of God had designated Jesus as Immanuel, “God with us,” understood that His birth signified that God had determined to dwell with His people once again. In the darkness that cloaked the land of Israel, a light was shining. The apostle John picked up on this imagery.

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

And John went on to describe Jesus, the Word of God, as dwelling among the people of God. The Greek word John used is σκηνόω (skēnoō ), and it literally means “to fix one’s tabernacle.”

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

Jesus was God in human flesh, pitching His “tent” among His people once again. But rather than a tent made of animal skins, this tabernacle would be that of a human body in which God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, would take up permanent residence. Jesus became the God-man, and rather than the Shekinah glory that hovered over the mercy seat in the tabernacle in the wilderness, Jesus would become the glory of God living and walking among men. Jesus was “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 ESV) and “he has made him known” (John 1:18 ESV).

The birth of Jesus was both ordinary and extraordinary. He would be born to an obscure Jewish couple who hailed from the nondescript town of Nazareth. But Joseph would not be the father of Jesus. No, Jesus would be conceived by the Holy Spirit, which meant that His birth would be anything but ordinary. Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, had not yet consummated her marriage to him. This is clear by Joseph’s response to the news that she was pregnant.

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. – Matthew 1:19 ESV

Joseph was shocked by the news but, out of love for Mary, determined to keep the situation under wraps, doing all that he could to protect her name. But the angel of God let Joseph know that his worst fears were unfounded. Mary had not been unfaithful to him. She had been chosen by God to bear the Savior of the world.

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:20-21 ESV

“Jesus” is the Latin form of the Greek name Ἰησοῦς  (Iēsous). It is the same as the Hebrew Yeshua (Joshua), which means “Yahweh saves.”

This entire section is intended by Matthew to convey the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth, but it’s also meant to support his premise that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one of God. Matthew declares that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

As we have seen, this prophecy was originally fulfilled during the days of King Ahaz. But Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is letting us know that there was another aspect of this prophecy that had long-term ramifications. God was looking far into the future and declaring that another birth would take place and another son would be born, whose arrival on the scene would signify that “God is with us.”

Matthew’s primary purpose has been to establish Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. And he has done so by presenting three powerful proofs: His fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant promises made to Abraham and David, as evidenced by the indisputable record of his genealogy, and the miraculous nature of His birth. Jesus was the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, and the Son of God. He was Immanuel, God with us, the very image of the invisible God, who came to earth in order that He might redeem a lost and dying world cloaked in the darkness of sin. And, as the apostle Paul explains, God shattered that darkness by sending His own Son as the light of His glory.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. – 2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV

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

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Christ

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. – Matthew 1:1-17 ESV

Matthew, as one of the original disciples of Jesus, was out to present a first-hand account of His life and ministry. But Matthew’s Gospel was intended to be much more than a historical record of Jesus’ earthly ministry. At the heart of his Gospel is his belief that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews. To establish that claim, Matthew opened up his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus, and, unlike Luke’s version, Matthew began with Abraham, not Adam.

Establishing the Jewishness of Jesus was essential to Matthew’s account. So, he tied Jesus to the patriarchy and the monarchy of the Jewish people. Matthew describes Jesus as the son of Abraham and the son of David. And, as we saw in yesterday’s post, Matthew considered Jesus the fulfillment of the promises made by God to both of these men.

By highlighting these two great legends of the Hebrews, Matthew was tying Jesus to God’s promise to bless the nations of the world through the seed of Abraham, and His promise to establish a permanent kingdom ruled by a descendant of David. Jesus was the fulfillment of both promises. And Matthew provides this truncated genealogy as a way to prove that Jesus was a descendant of both men and, therefore, was the only person who could legally and credibly claim to be the Messiah.

For generations, the Jewish people had anticipated the coming of their long-awaited Messiah. They were familiar with the Old Testament promises concerning his coming and were eager for him to appear. But when Jesus had arrived on the scene, He was not what they were expecting. The Jewish perception of the Messiah was that of a warrior-king, someone like King David, who would reestablish Israel as a major force in the region and remove the yoke of Roman oppression under which the nation struggled.

But Jesus had been born in relative obscurity and under questionable circumstances in the backwater town of Bethlehem. He had grown up in Nazareth, the son of a common carpenter and with no apparent pedigree that would warrant His consideration as the Messiah. After all, Jesus had been little more than a peasant. And even when He began His earthly ministry and began calling His disciples, at least one of them expressed reservations about His less-than-impressive upbringing.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” – John 1:45-46 ESV

But Matthew goes out of his way to trace Jesus’ roots all the way back to King David. And he divides the genealogy of Jesus into three concise sections, each comprised of 14 generations and culminating on the arrival of “the Christ.”

So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. – Matthew 1:17 ESV

The term, “the Christ” is the Greek equivalent of Messiah. Matthew is insisting that Jesus was the one for whom the Jews had been waiting. He was the Messiah. And yet, John records in his Gospel that the Jews refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:11 ESV

From all outward appearances, Jesus appeared to be anything but the fulfillment of God’s promises. He was not kingly in appearance. He had not shown up riding a white horse or leading a massive army. He lacked the trappings of royalty and the obvious signs of success. In fact, long before Jesus showed up, the prophet Isaiah had predicted the unexpected and unimpressive nature of His arrival.

…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not. – Isaiah 53:2-3 ESV

The Jews were looking for a conquering king, not a suffering servant. They were expecting and demanding a contemporary version of David the king not David the shepherd boy. They were seeking liberation from Roman rule, not deliverance from the tyranny of sin and death. But little did they know that the one they rejected and scorned as an imposter, was actually their long-awaited Messiah.

Even the disciples whom Jesus chose would wrestle with their understanding of who He was and what He had come to do. Later on in his Gospel, Matthew records an encounter between Jesus and the mother of James and John. She approached Jesus and delivered the following demand: “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21 ESV). She was thinking of an earthly kingdom, not a heavenly one. Reflecting the understanding of her own two sons, she saw Jesus as the Messiah, but was hoping and counting on Him setting up His kingdom on earth, by releasing the Jews from their Roman oppressors and reestablishing the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem.

But Jesus had a different agenda. He had come to do the will of His Father in heaven. And while a kingdom was part of God’s future plans for His Son, Jesus was going to suffer humiliation and execution long before He experienced glorification and exaltation. And Matthew records that immediately after the mother of James and John shared his maternally-driven request with Jesus, He had responded:

“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:28 ESV

The genealogy found in the opening chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is intended to prove the claim of the early Christians that Jesus was the Messiah. And the rest of his Gospel will chronicle the somewhat surprising and unexpected record of Jesus’ life. What Matthew describes in his account will contradict every expectation the Jews had regarding the Messiah. His life will not seem to match His lineage. His actions will not track with their assumptions. But Matthew wanted his readers to know from the start, that the one He was about to describe was the one for whom they longed. Jesus was the son of David and the son of Abraham. He was the God-ordained fulfillment of the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants. And while the Jews had failed to recognize Jesus as such, it did not change the fact that the Messiah had come. Jesus was who He had claimed to be. And the details of His life, while not what the Jews expected, would provide proof that Jesus was and is the Christ.

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

Jesus Was Born

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. – Matthew 1:1-17 ESV

Today, we embark on a study of the Gospel of Matthew. This book is part of what is often referred to as the synoptic gospels, which also includes the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry compiled by Mark and Luke. The term “synoptic” is derived from two Greek words, syn and opsesthai, which, when combined, provide the meaning, “to see together.” These three Gospels share a great many similarities but also provide us with distinctively different perspectives on the life of Jesus, as seen from the vantage points of the three authors. Two of them, Matthew and Mark, were disciples of Jesus; while Luke was a friend of the apostle Paul, who compiled his Gospel account for the benefit of an individual named Theophilus. In the opening paragraphs of his Gospel, Luke provides the purpose behind his compilation.

“…it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.” – Luke 1:3 ESV

Each of these men brought their own distinct personalities and insights to bear when writing their account of the life of Jesus. But each was also inspired by the Holy Spirit, who utilized their individual identities and skill sets to compile three contrasting, yet complementary portraits of the life of Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew, as its name suggests, was written by the man who held the distinction of being one of the disciples of Jesus as well as one of the original 12 apostles. Some of the earliest Greek manuscripts of this book begin with the words, “kate Matthaion” which means “according to Matthew.”

The list of early church fathers who believed  Matthew to be the author of this book includes Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. Because of Matthew’s close relationship with Jesus, this book carried significant weight among the members of the early church. Matthew’s former occupation as a tax collector would have ensured that he was able to read and write. And the book of Matthew contains more references to money and finances than any of the other Gospel accounts.

Matthew’s account of his own calling by Jesus is short and sweet, providing little in the way of details. Written in the third-person, Matthew described his initial meeting with Jesus in a rather pedestrian manner.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. – Matthew 9:9 ESV

After making the decision to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him, Matthew decided to return the favor by extending an invitation to Jesus and His other disciples to have dinner in his home.  And Matthew reveals some interesting insights into his own life when he records the details surrounding this rather eclectic dinner party.

Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” – Matthew 9:10-11 NLT

As a tax collector, Matthew would have been considered persona non grata by his fellow Jews. As evidenced by the response of the Pharisees in Matthew’s story, a tax collector was considered the lowest of the low, comparable to the most disreputable sinner. To the Jews, a tax collector was little more than a stooge for the Roman government, collecting exorbitant taxes from his own people and lining his own by adding fees that amounted to little more than extortion. Matthew was likely a well-to-do individual who, though viewed as a pariah by his own people, was well-liked by the less religious and socially unacceptable. Which makes Jesus’ selection of Matthew that much more significant.

And when Jesus heard the judging comment from the lips of the Pharisees, He had responded by saying: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do” (Matthew 9:12 NLT). This somewhat cryptic-sounding statement from Jesus was not as veiled as it may first appear. He was accusing the self-righteous Pharisees of misunderstanding the true state of their own hearts. They viewed themselves as spiritually superior to such people as the sinners who had gathered to dine at the home of a common tax collector. And, the believed, Jesus and His disciples had defiled themselves by choosing to associate with such scum. But as Jesus pointed out, He had come to save the spiritually sick, not those who viewed themselves as perfect specimens of righteousness.

It’s interesting to note that Matthew opens up his Gospel account with the genealogy of Jesus, in which he describes Jesus as the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. These are distinctively Jewish titles that link Jesus to the nation of Israel. Matthew is claiming Jesus to be a descendant of David and, therefore, a legal heir to the throne of Israel. But he also describes Jesus as the Son of Abraham, who was the patriarch of the Hebrew people.

In a sense, Matthew is presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of two promises made by God that are directly tied to the Jewish people. The first was made to Abraham. God had promised Abraham that He would bless him and that he would make him a blessing.

“…and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” – Genesis 22:18 ESV

Somehow God would bless all the nations through the offspring or seed of this one man, Abraham. And the apostle Paul provides us with Spirit-inspired insight into what this promise meant.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

According to Matthew, Jesus was the fulfillment of this Old Testament promise to Abraham. And, when Matthew declared Jesus to be the Son of David, he was letting his readers know that Jesus fulfilled the promise God had made to David.

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” – 2 Samuel 7:12 ESV

While this promise was partially fulfilled in Solomon, the son of David, it had a future aspect to it that would not be completed until the coming of Jesus. God went on to tell David, “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16 ESV). But the day came when there were no more kings in Israel. The nation would go without a king for hundreds of years. And yet, God had told Solomon, “I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel’” (1 Kings 9:5 ESV).

A major part behind Matthew’s purpose for writing his Gospel was to reveal Jesus as the rightful heir to the throne of Israel and the God-ordained fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all the nations of the earth. Both Gentiles and Jews would benefit from the arrival of Jesus on the scene.

Unlike Luke, Matthew begins his genealogy of Jesus with Abraham rather than Adam. He was interested in establishing Jesus’ Jewish heritage. The entire book of Matthew has a distinctively Jewish flavor to it. IT is not so much that Matthew was writing with a Jewish audience in mind, as much as he was trying to establish Jesus’ credentials to serve as the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish people and as the Savior of the world.

It is interesting to note that Matthew closes out his genealogy by referring to Jesus as “the Christ,” the Greek word used to translate the Jewish word for Messiah, which means “anointed one.” This Greek appellation carries the full weight of the original Hebrew title of Messiah.

The Messiah is the same person as “the seed of the woman” (Genesis 3:15), “the seed of Abraham” (Genesis 22:18), the “Prophet like unto Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15), “the priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Psalms 110:4), “the rod out of the stem of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1 Isaiah 11:10), the “Immanuel,” the virgin’s son (Isaiah 7:14), “the branch of Jehovah” (Isaiah 4:2), and “the messenger of the covenant” (Malachi 3:1). This is he “of whom Moses in the law and the prophets did write.” – M. G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Thomas Nelson. 1897. Public Domain. copy freely

As we will see in tomorrow’s post, this genealogy was intended to illustrate and accentuate Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah of the Jewish people and their rightful king. But, even more importantly, He was the God-appointed Savior of the world. In sending His Son in human flesh, God was revealing His divine plan to redeem and restore that which was damaged by the fall. So, Matthew reminds his readers: “Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16 ESV).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The God Behind the Blessings

“Let Reuben live, and not die,
    but let his men be few.”

And this he said of Judah:

“Hear, O Lord, the voice of Judah,
    and bring him in to his people.
With your hands contend for him,
    and be a help against his adversaries.”

And of Levi he said,

“Give to Levi your Thummim,
    and your Urim to your godly one,
whom you tested at Massah,
    with whom you quarreled at the waters of Meribah;
who said of his father and mother,
    ‘I regard them not’;
he disowned his brothers
    and ignored his children.
For they observed your word
    and kept your covenant.
10 They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.
11 Bless, O Lord, his substance,
    and accept the work of his hands;
crush the loins of his adversaries,
    of those who hate him, that they rise not again.” Deuteronomy 33:6-11 ESV

Moses begins his pronouncement of blessings on the 12 tribes with Reuben. This is in keeping with Reuben’s position as the first-born son of Jacob. And Moses seems to echo the sentiments of Jacob when he bestowed the following blessing on Reuben hundreds of years earlier:

“Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength,
    the child of my vigorous youth.
    You are first in rank and first in power.
But you are as unruly as a flood,
    and you will be first no longer.
For you went to bed with my wife;
    you defiled my marriage couch.” – Genesis 49:3-4 NLT

Reuben had sinned against his father and against God, having slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah. This was a crime punishable by death, and yet, Reuben was allowed to live. But as the words of Jacob reveal, Reuben and his descendants would pay for dearly for his sin. The Reubenites would be one of three tribes who asked for and receive land on the east side of the Jordan, choosing to settle outside the land of promise. In time, they would lose their prestige, fading in prominence and number. It is interesting to note that the tribe of Reuben produced no judges, prophets, or rulers. In spite of his sin, Reuben was allowed to live, but his descendants would never enjoy fulness of life.

Moses deviates from Jacob’s order of blessings by skipping over the tribes of Simeon and Levi and focusing on Judah. And Moses’ blessing, while shorter in length, contains some of the same thoughts as those expressed by Jacob. Both men saw Judah as the preeminent tribe among the 12. Jacob had predicted Judah’s rise to prominence, describing his son as a young lion that grabs its enemies by the neck. Jacob mentions the king’s scepter and the ruler’s staff, symbols of power and authority, and states that from this tribe will come one to whom these things rightfully belong.

“Judah, your brothers will praise you.
    You will grasp your enemies by the neck.
    All your relatives will bow before you.
Judah, my son, is a young lion
    that has finished eating its prey.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down;
    like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.
He ties his foal to a grapevine,
    the colt of his donkey to a choice vine.
He washes his clothes in wine,
    his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes are darker than wine,
    and his teeth are whiter than milk.” – Genesis 49:8-12 NLT

This prophetic statement concerns the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus was born of the tribe of Judah and was a descendant of King David. The scepter and the ruler’s staff belong to Him. And in John’s vision of Jesus recorded in the book of Revelation, he describes Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5 ESV). Obviously, the tribe of Judah would play a significant role in God’s plan of redemption for the world. It would be through this tribe that the Savior would come. And Moses, seeming to understand the future significance of this tribe, pronounces a blessing, asking God to protect and provide for them.

The great king David would come from the tribe of Judah. And it would be he who elevated the nation of Israel to greatness, establishing them as a major political and military force in that region of the world. And after God eventually divided the kingdom of Israel in half, the southern portion would take on the name of Judah, further enhancing this tribe’s prominence among the 12.

Next, Moses turns his attention to the tribe of Levi, and he has much more to say about this tribe than Jacob did. Not only that, his words concerning Levi are much more positive than those of Jacob.

“Simeon and Levi are two of a kind;
    their weapons are instruments of violence.
May I never join in their meetings;
    may I never be a party to their plans.
For in their anger they murdered men,
    and they crippled oxen just for sport.
A curse on their anger, for it is fierce;
    a curse on their wrath, for it is cruel.
I will scatter them among the descendants of Jacob;
    I will disperse them throughout Israel.” – Genesis 49:5-7 NLT

Jacob had a reason to be upset with these two sons. They had brought shame to the house of Jacob by their deceitful treatment of the Hivites. The story is a complicated one, but involves the rape of their sister, Dinah, by “Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land” (Genesis 34:2 ESV). Rather than seeking revenge for the rape of his daughter, Jacob determined to make a treaty with the Hivites, agreeing to allow intermarriage between their two nations, in direct violation of God’s command. Jacob’s sons demanded that Jacob require the circumcision of all the males among the Hivites as part of the agreement. When the Hivites had agreed and followed through on their commitment to be circumcised, Levi and Simeon “took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males” (Genesis 34:25 ESV). And rather than bless them, Jacob had issued a curse, predicting their ultimate dispersal among the rest of the tribes of Israel. And little did he know, that is exactly what would happen. But not as he suspected.

The book of Exodus records a seminal event in the history of Israel. Moses had been on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God when he received the news from God that things were not going well back in the camp of Israel. Moses descended the mountain only to find the people of Israel reveling before the golden calf they had constructed in his absence. While he had been on Sinai receiving God’s law, the people had been in the valley worshiping a false god they had made with their own hands. After destroying the idol they had made, Moses turned his anger against the people of Israel.

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come here and join me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.

Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day.

Then Moses told the Levites, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:26-29 NLT

The tribe of Levi stepped up and used their swords to defend the integrity of God’s name and mete out His justice and judgment against all those who had participated in the idolatry and spiritual adultery. And as a result of their efforts, the Levites were set apart for the service of the Lord. They would become the priestly order, tasked with representing the rest of the tribes before the Lord and for the care and transport of the tabernacle. And when the nation of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, the Levites would not be given land as an inheritance but would be given cities scattered throughout the tribes of Israel, in fulfillment of Jacob’s words.

The Levites had used treachery and deceit to repay the Hivites for the rape of their sister, but they had been motivated by a desire to avenge her mistreatment. They had also stood opposed to the treaty their father had made with the Hivites, knowing that it was improper for them to intermarry with these uncircumcised pagans. But while their hearts had been in the right place, they had taken matters into their own hands and violated the treaty their father had made. Yet, hundreds of years later, God would redeem the Levites, raising them up and using them to serve as His agents of judgment against their own brothers and sisters.

And Moses blesses them for their role as God’s intercessors. They had been used by God to avenge His holy name and mete out His judgment against the wicked at Sinai. And they had been set apart as priests, teaching Israel God’s laws, and offering sacrifices on their behalf so that they might remain in a right standing with God. At Sinai, the Levites had shed the blood of their brothers and sisters in order to assuage the righteous anger of God. But in the tabernacle, they would spill the blood of innocent bulls and goats, pouring it out as a sacrifice to God on behalf of the sins of the people.

From the days of Jacob to the time of Moses, God was working behind the scenes,  orchestrating events in such as a way that every blessing bestowed by each man would be fulfilled. But these blessings were not the words of men. They were the Spirit-inspired will of God. Neither Moses or Jacob fully understood the full import of their words or the exact nature of their outcome. But God did. He was and is sovereign over all. And while the tribe of Reuben would settle outside the land of promise, they would assist the rest of the tribes in conquering and possessing their inheritance. And God would raise up the tribe of Judah, allowing them to produce the future Messiah, the Savior of the world. The Levites, while cursed by their father for their deceit, would be redeemed by God and used to carry His tabernacle, communicate His law, and care for the spiritual needs of His people.

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

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

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

A History of Rebellion, Not Righteousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was that fateful decision that Moses recalled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Valley of Decision

Proclaim this among the nations:
Consecrate for war;
    stir up the mighty men.
Let all the men of war draw near;
    let them come up.
10 Beat your plowshares into swords,
    and your pruning hooks into spears;
    let the weak say, “I am a warrior.”

11 Hasten and come,
    all you surrounding nations,
    and gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord.
12 Let the nations stir themselves up
    and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
    all the surrounding nations.

13 Put in the sickle,
    for the harvest is ripe.
Go in, tread,
    for the winepress is full.
The vats overflow,
    for their evil is great.

14 Multitudes, multitudes,
    in the valley of decision!
For the day of the Lord is near
    in the valley of decision.
15 The sun and the moon are darkened,
    and the stars withdraw their shining.

16 The Lord roars from Zion,
    and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
    and the heavens and the earth quake.
But the Lord is a refuge to his people,
    a stronghold to the people of Israel. Joel 3:9-16 ESV

This entire section contains a call to the nations of the earth to prepare for war. The day of the Lord is coming and it will include an epic battle of unparalleled size and scope – like nothing the world has ever seen before. It will involve all the nations of the world, but rather than fighting against one another, they will join forces against God and His people.

The scene Joel depicts is set far into the future, but it grows closer with each passing day. This is not a description of some battle from history-past, but a prophecy concerning the coming day of the Lord and, more specifically, the conflict that will take place in the valley of Jehoshaphat. Since there is no valley by that name in the region around Judah, this appellation is likely a reference to the battle God fought on behalf of King Jehoshaphat and the nation of Judah. In that conflict, God miraculously defeated the enemies of Judah, without them having to shoot a single arrow or throw a solitary spear. The victory was completely His doing. He judged the nations who had risen up against Judah and blessed His people in doing so.

In these verses, the Valley of Jehoshaphat becomes the valley of decision. This will be a place where God will pass judgment on the unregenerate nations of the earth by sending His Son to defeat them in battle. And God states that He “will sit to judge all the surrounding nations” (Joel 3:12 ESV). God the Father will watch as His Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords returns to earth in order to complete the redemptive plan of God.

But what Joel is depicting is the moments leading up to this decisive battle. In fact, he calls out to God, “Bring down your warriors, O Lord” (Joel 3:11 ESV). And he issues a call to the nations, challenging them to “stir themselves up and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat” (Joel 3:12 ESV). It is there that God will mete out His judgment on the nations. He will harvest the grapes and tread them in the winepress of His wrath. This is an image of God gathering up the overripe grapes (sinful men) and crushing them (judging them). We see this same imagery used in the book of Revelation, when John is given a vision of God’s pending judgment of the world.

Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So he who sat on the cloud swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped. – Revelation 14:14-16 ESV

And later on in the same book, John records yet another vision, revealing the second coming of Christ to judge the nations.

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. – Revelation 19:15 ESV

And the prophet Isaiah gives us a description of Jesus after the battle in the valley of decision is complete.

Why is your apparel red,
    and your garments like his who treads in the winepress?

“I have trodden the winepress alone,
    and from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in my anger
    and trampled them in my wrath;
their lifeblood spattered on my garments,
    and stained all my apparel.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
    and my year of redemption had come.” – Isaiah 63:2-4 ESV

This future battle is also known as the Battle of Armageddon, which will take place at the end of the seven years of the Tribulation. Jesus Christ will return to earth and do battle with the nations of the earth which will have joined forces against Him, under the leadership of Antichrist. Once again, the apostle John was given a vision of this battle, and he recorded it in the book of Revelation.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 ESV

Joel describes the winepresses as full and the vats as overflowing, because the sin of the people is great. In Revelation, John puts it this way: “the harvest of the earth is fully ripe” (Revelation 14:15 ESV) and “its grapes are ripe” (Revelation 14:18 ESV). John uses two different words that are both translated as “ripe” in English, but they carry different meanings in Greek. The first is xērainō, and it means “dried up” or “withered.” It describes grain that has been left in the field too long. It is of no value. The second word, used in reference to grapes, is akmazō and it means, “fully ripe.” It actually describes grapes that are overripe or about to burst. Both words are used to illustrate the unredeemable nature of mankind because they are literally bursting with sin.

Joel describes some amazing meteorological events accompanying this battle. He states that the sun and moon will become darkened and the stars will cease to shine. Himself Jesus echoed these words when He told His disciples:

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. – Matthew 24:29 ESV

The Tribulation will be marked by incredible atmospheric disturbances and never-before-seen cosmic signs as God brings His final judgments upon the earth. The book of Revelation describes seas turning to blood, mountains, and islands disappearing, 100-pound hailstones falling from the sky, and long periods of darkness. And while many find these signs and wonders difficult to believe and write them off as nothing more than literary metaphors and spiritual symbolism, there is no reason for us to reject their authenticity. For God, nothing is impossible. And since we are talking about the final days of the earth, it would only make sense that God is going to reveal His power in unprecedented ways during those days.

Yes, the picture Joel paints is unbelievable.

The Lord roars from Zion,
    and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
    and the heavens and the earth quake. – Joel 3:16 ESV

But faith requires belief in the improbable and impossible. And Joel calls on the people of Judah to trust in the Lord. He challenges them to believe in the One who can do the unbelievable and perform the impossible.

But the Lord is a refuge to his people,
    a stronghold to the people of Israel. – Joel 3:16 ESV

God was on their side. And while their immediate future did not look particularly good, they could trust that God had a plan in place that would include His eventual redemption and restoration of them. As the prophet had told the people of Judah hundreds of years earlier when they were facing a similarly bleak future, the people living in Joel’s day could rest in the faithfulness of the Lord.

You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. – 2 Chronicles 20:17 ESV

God has a way of seeing His people through the valleys. He shows up in our darkest moments and rescues us when we are helpless and hopeless. And our enemies stand no chance against the God of the universe. They can turn their plowshares into swords, and their pruning hooks into spears. They can declare, “I am a warrior.” But they will prove to be nothing more than withered grain and overripe grapes in the hand of the Lord.

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