What Does God Require?

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:6-8 ESV

In verse 3, Micah records God confronting the people of Israel with a series of questions:

“O my people, what have I done to you?
    How have I wearied you? Answer me! – Micah 6:3 ESV

God is demanding to know the reason for their disobedience and disrespectful treatment of Him. Was it something He did or said? Was He to blame? But before the Israelites would answer, God reminded them of His faithfulness by recalling His actions on their behalf. He had delivered them out slavery in Egypt. He had provided them with qualified leaders. He had protected them from their enemies. And He had miraculously aided their crossing of the Jordan River so they could enter the land of promise.

And then God explains why He had done all these things for them:

that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” – Micah 6:5 ESV

They had experienced the righteous acts of God, firsthand. He had displayed His righteousness in tangible ways that they could see and appreciate. But it is important that we understand what God means by “righteous acts.” His deeds, done on behalf of the people of Israel, were righteous and just. All that He had done for them had been accomplished in a just manner, without pretense and unstained by sin. Moses was able to say of God:

“his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” – Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV

Every single action of God, done on behalf of His chosen people, was fully just and right. He had made no mistakes. He had done nothing with impure motives or in violation of His own righteous standards. So, the people of Israel could not point their fingers at him and accuse Him of wrong-doing. They could excuse their behavior by blaming God.

God describes His actions as “righteous.” The Hebrew word is tsedaqah, and it means “justice, righteousness, things done justly.” As Moses stated, all of God’s ways are perfect, right, and just. He sets the standard for righteousness and justice. And that seems to be the point of this passage. God had given the people of Israel tangible evidence of what justice and righteousness look like. They had seen them lived out in their own lives through His acts of deliverance, protection, mercy, grace, and undeserved kindness.

But God had not stopped there. He had also provided them with His law as a concrete example of what acts of righteousness were to look like in their own lives.

“And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness [tsedaqah] for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.” – Deuteronomy 6:24-25 ESV

God was just and right in all His ways, and He expected His chosen people to emulate His behavior. That is why He had told them, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV). God had expected them to live distinctively different lives than the pagan nations which occupied the land of Canaan. So, He had given them a standard for their conduct that clearly differentiated between right and wrong. And God had warned them against following the ways of the world.

“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them.” – Leviticus 20:22-23 ESV

They were not to emulate the ways of the world. They were not to use human reasoning or secular solutions to guide their lives or to determine their conduct.

“I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples.You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” – Leviticus 20:24, 26 ESV

This idea of separation is essential to understanding what Micah is trying to communicate in these verses. The people of Israel had been “set apart” by God. But their separateness was to manifest itself in tangible ways, not so much in physical segregation from the rest of the world, as through their daily behavior. And Micah clarifies that God was not interested in external displays of piety or religious zeal. He was not swayed by outward acts of obedience that were only righteous in appearance.

The people of Israel had a reputation for going through the motions, performing their God-appointed rituals and observing the feasts and festivals with a certain degree of religious zeal, but God accused them of hypocrisy.

“…this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 ESV

And Micah picks up on that theme by asking a series of probing questions designed to illustrate how the people of Israel had missed the point of what it means to do acts of justice or righteousness.

What can we bring to the Lord?
    Should we bring him burnt offerings?
Should we bow before God Most High
    with offerings of yearling calves?
Should we offer him thousands of rams
    and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should we sacrifice our firstborn children
    to pay for our sins? – Micah 6:6-7 NLT

God was not interested in outward displays of obedience that were nothing more than unrighteous people going through the motions. The people of Israel had been doing all the “right” things, but their hearts had been in the wrong place. And it was King David who had pointed out what God really desired from His people.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:16-17 ESV

The peoples’ hearts were far from God. Their hearts were anything but contrite. Their spirits remained unbroken. And their actions, no matter how righteous in appearance, were anything but pleasing to God.

Jesus pointed out the danger of turning our acts of righteousness into nothing more than performance art, done for the praise and admiration of others.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1 ESV

In today’s nomenclature, we might call this “virtue signaling.”

virtue signaling: the sharing of one’s point of view on a social or political issue, often on social media, in order to garner praise or acknowledgment of one’s righteousness from others who share that point of view, or to passively rebuke those who do not.  – dictionary.com

We post and repost. We display images on our Facebook pages that convey our convictions and confirm our stand on particular issues and social concerns. We affirm our positions on various hot-button topics with the click of a button. And, in doing so, we practice our righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.

But Micah provides us with some sobering food for thought. Yet, these verses are often lifted out of their context and used to justify the very behavior condemned by Jesus and described in the dictionary.com definition above.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

Micah makes it quite clear that God has already communicated what He deems to be “good” or acceptable behavior. And he sums it up in three simple statements:

…to do justice

…to love kindness

…to walk humbly with your God

But what do these phrases mean? And who gets to determine their definitions? Here is where this verse gets abused and misused, even by well-meaning Christians. We take those three imperatives and define them according to our cultural context. We allow the world to dictate what justice means. We let others determine what true kindness looks like in everyday life. But the context of Micah 6:8 is the rest of chapter 6 and the entirety of the book of Micah. God is speaking to the people of Israel. He is addressing the sins of those whom He has chosen as His own. And the justice He has in mind is not some form of outward behavior mandated by the prevailing culture. He is speaking of acts of righteousness that emulate His own. He is demanding that His people do what he has deemed to be right. They are to live according to His standards, not those of the world. They are to use His definitions, not those of a secular society that are nothing more than commandments taught by men (Isaiah 29:13).

The people of God are to do what God would have them do. They are to do what is right and just, but according to His definitions, not their own. The world will always be quick to tell us what is the right thing to do. The prevailing society will always attempt to influence our actions by dictating the rules for acceptable behavior. And our desire to fit into this world will constantly tempt us to mimic the world’s ways.

To do justice is to do what God would have us do. It is to live according to His will and not our own. And it will require a separateness and set-apartness that puts pleasing Him ahead of any desire to please the world.

These three attributes found in Micah 6:8 are focused on God, not man. They are not meant to be an outline for enacting social justice in the world. They are a reminder to the people of God that the standards for right living are determined by our righteous God. They are a call to love the mercy and kindness of God more than we love this world. When we fail to do so, we find ourselves seeking to be loved and accepted by the world. We do what the world would have us do. We live up to its standards of righteousness and justice. We virtue signal. We post. We blog. We posture. We give in to the world’s demands. And when we do, we fail to walk humbly with our God.

Self-righteousness is the greatest danger we face. Pride in our achievements and the desire for the praise of men are constant threats to our effectiveness as God’s people. Micah wanted the Israelites to know that good deeds done with good intentions were not what God was looking for. He was looking for people who lived according to His standards of holiness, fully appreciated His acts of kindness, and were willing to walk humbly before Him.

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

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

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

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Repentance or Regret

For this I will lament and wail;
    I will go stripped and naked;
I will make lamentation like the jackals,
    and mourning like the ostriches.
For her wound is incurable,
    and it has come to Judah;
it has reached to the gate of my people,
    to Jerusalem.

10 Tell it not in Gath;
    weep not at all;
in Beth-le-aphrah
    roll yourselves in the dust.
11 Pass on your way,
    inhabitants of Shaphir,
    in nakedness and shame;
the inhabitants of Zaanan
    do not come out;
the lamentation of Beth-ezel
    shall take away from you its standing place.
12 For the inhabitants of Maroth
    wait anxiously for good,
because disaster has come down from the Lord
    to the gate of Jerusalem.
13 Harness the steeds to the chariots,
    inhabitants of Lachish;
it was the beginning of sin
    to the daughter of Zion,
for in you were found
    the transgressions of Israel.
14 Therefore you shall give parting gifts
    to Moresheth-gath;
the houses of Achzib shall be a deceitful thing
    to the kings of Israel.
15 I will again bring a conqueror to you,
    inhabitants of Mareshah;
the glory of Israel
    shall come to Adullam.
16 Make yourselves bald and cut off your hair,
    for the children of your delight;
make yourselves as bald as the eagle,
    for they shall go from you into exile. Micah 1:8-16 ESV

After describing the coming judgment of God against the kingdom of Israel and its capital city of Samaria, Micah’s reaction is one of deep sorrow. He doesn’t rejoice over the pending fall of Judah’s northern neighbor, even though they had sided with the Syrians and attacked the city of Jerusalem (2 Kings 16:5). Micah mourned over the fate of the northern kingdom because it was comprised of ten of the tribes of the sons of Jacob. Their fall would leave only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remaining in the land of promise. And Micah knew that the same fate awaited the southern kingdom because they had been just as unfaithful.

The book of 2 Kings recounts the rise of Ahaz to the throne of Judah, describing his reign in less-than-flattering terms.

He did not do what was pleasing in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done. Instead, he followed the example of the kings of Israel, even sacrificing his own son in the fire. – 2 Kings 16:2-3 NLT

So, Micah declares his intent to mourn over the fall of Israel because he knows it is only a matter of time before Judah finds itself suffering under the righteous wrath of God Almighty. He compares Israel’s spiritual and moral condition to a deadly disease, totally incurable and highly infectious.

her wound is incurable,
    and it has come to Judah;
it has reached to the gate of my people,
    to Jerusalem. – Micah 1:9 ESV

Sin, like cancer, never remains localized but has a way of metastasizing and spreading, and Micah knew that Judah had already been negatively influenced by its neighbor to the north. But Micah also knew that the cure is sometimes worse than the disease. Judah’s sin was going to bring the judgment of God and His punishment was going to be severe, leaving the nation in a state of physical, emotional, and mental devastation. The prophet Isaiah could not imagine why the people of Judah would refuse to repent, choosing instead to suffer the ongoing and merciless anger of God.

Why do you continue to invite punishment?
    Must you rebel forever?
Your head is injured,
    and your heart is sick.
You are battered from head to foot—
    covered with bruises, welts, and infected wounds—
    without any soothing ointments or bandages. – Isaiah 1:5-6 NLT

In an attempt to personalize the coming judgment of God, Micah uses his hometown of Moresheth-gath as the epicenter of all that is going to happen. He mentions the names of various cities in Judah that encircle his hometown, including Gath, Beth-le-aphrah, Shaphir, Zaanan, Beth-ezel, Maroth, and Lachish. Each of these towns seem to have been chosen for their location as well as the meaning of their names. Micah is using a not-so-subtle play on words to drive home the extreme nature of God’s coming judgment.

Gath means “winepress” and the residents of this city were going to experience “the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Revelation 19:15 ESV). Beth-le-aphrah means “house of Aphrah” but Aphrah can be translated as “dust.” So, Micah states that the citizens of “the house of dust” will soon find themselves rolling in the dust as a form of mourning. Shaphir means “fair” or “beautiful” but it would soon be marked by “nakedness and shame” (Micah 1:11). The name Zaanan is similar in sound to the Hebrew word for “come out” and Micah informs these people that they will not be able to escape the coming judgment of God. Zanaan actually means “place of flocks” and sadly, Micah lets them know that they will be trapped like sheep in the fold when God pours out His wrath.

Beth-ezel means “house of firm root.” Yet Micah delivers the bad news that their “house has no support” (Micah 1:11 NLT) and God will level it in His anger. The name of the city of Maroth is similar in sound to the Hebrew word for “bitterness.” Like a thirsty person seeking for refreshing water, they will “anxiously wait for relief, but only bitterness awaits them” (Micah 1:12 NLT). The name of the city of Lachish, which means “invincible,” sounds very similar to the Hebrew word rekesh, which means “steeds.” Micah warns this “invincible” town to “Harness your chariot horses and flee” (Micah 1:13 NLT). He accuses them of being “the first city in Judah to follow Israel in her rebellion” and of leading Jerusalem into sin (Micah 1:13 NLT).

Achzib, which means “deceit,” would end up deceiving the kings of Israel by failing to resist the coming invaders. Every single town would fall at the hands of the Babylonians. Even Micah’s hometown of Moresheth-gath, which means “possession of Gath” would become the possession of the Babylonians.

Marashesh (“crest of a hill”) will not be high enough to escape the coming judgment of God. Adullam (“justice of the people”) will experience the justice of God as He forces “the glory of Israel” (its kings and leaders) to run there in a vain attempt to escape His wrath.

Over and over again, Micah uses these plays or words to drive home the message of God’s pending judgment and the devastating impact it is going to have on the entire nation of Judah. It will be unavoidable and its consequences, inescapable. From the streets of the smallest village to the gates of Jerusalem, the story will be the same: The people of Judah will find themselves mourning just like Micah.

Oh, people of Judah, shave your heads in sorrow,
    for the children you love will be snatched away.
Make yourselves as bald as a vulture,
    for your little ones will be exiled to distant lands. – Micah 1:16 NLT

They had made their bed, now they were going to have to sleep in it. But God still longed for His rebellious people to return to Him in repentance. He greatly desired to bless them and restore them to their place of honor as His chosen people. But the prophet Isaiah declared God’s requirements for judgment to be avoided.

“Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
    the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
    and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinful and false.
    I want no more of your pious meetings.
I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals.
    They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!” – Isaiah 1:13-14 NLT

God wasn’t interested in watching them through the motions, perfunctorily performing their religious rituals like mindless robots. He wanted true heart change and legitimate repentance.

“Wash yourselves and be clean!
    Get your sins out of my sight.
    Give up your evil ways.
Learn to do good.
    Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
    Defend the cause of orphans.
    Fight for the rights of widows.” – Isaiah 1:16-17 NLT

The choice was up to them. They could obey and experience God’s blessings, or they could continue to rebel and endure His wrath. He was ready to forgive and cleanse them. But it was going to require obedience and submission to His will for them.

“Though your sins are like scarlet,
    I will make them as white as snow.
Though they are red like crimson,
    I will make them as white as wool.
If you will only obey me,
    you will have plenty to eat.
But if you turn away and refuse to listen,
    you will be devoured by the sword of your enemies.
    I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Isaiah 1:18-20 NLT

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

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

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

The Set-Apart Life

20 Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.

22 So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. 2 Timothy 2:20-26 ESV

Quarrelsome words. Irreverent babble. Gangrenous talk.

Paul pulled no punches when describing the erroneous teaching that was influencing and infecting the church in Ephesus. As far as Paul was concerned, it was all like a deadly disease slowly spreading its way through the congregation, upsetting the faith of some by raising doubts about their true spiritual condition. The doctrinal errors being propagated by individuals like Hymenaeus and Philetus were contrary to the message Paul had preached concerning the truth of the gospel. And Timothy had the unenviable, but necessary responsibility of addressing this problem by “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV).

Paul encouraged Timothy to do his job with an eye towards seeking the approval of God and not men.

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. – 2 Timothy 2:15 NLT

Telling people what they want to hear might help Timothy win over some of the dissenters in the congregation, but it would not score him any points with God. As a minister of the gospel, Timothy had a responsibility to teach the truth, regardless of how his audience responded. He answered to God. And Paul reminded Timothy that “God’s truth stands firm like a foundation stone with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and ‘All who belong to the Lord must turn away from evil’” (2 Timothy 2:19 NLT).

There was confusion within the congregation in Ephesus. With men like Hymenaeus and Philetus teaching contrary doctrine and sowing seeds of doubt and dissent, it had become difficult to tell who was telling the truth. But Paul emphasized that God knew. The Shepherds knows His sheep. And all those who belong to the flock of God were expected to “turn away from evil.” As in any congregation, the fellowship in Ephesus was going to be comprised of both the faithful and the unfaithful. There would be those who adhered to the truth of God and sought to abstain from evil, and there would be those who “swerved from the truth” (2 Timothy 2:18 ESV) and, in doing so, embraced wickedness.

This fact led Paul to use yet another illustration to help Timothy understand what he was facing in Ephesus.

Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. – 2 Timothy 2:20 ESV

This simple analogy was intended to expose the diverse composition of any local congregation. Within any church, as with a fine home, it would be only natural to find both honorable and dishonorable vessels. This is not a reference to those who are saved and those who are lost. Paul’s point has to do with honor, a word which in the Greek language refers to value or esteem.

Paul’s point seems to be that those who rightly divide the word of truth are deemed as honorable by God. They meet His approval. But those who twist and distort the truth, while still HIs vessels, are viewed as dishonorable or unworthy. A wealthy homeowner would not use clay dishes to serve his dinner guests. To do so would dishonor himself and his guests as well. And God will not use those individuals who distort the truth of the gospel because to do so would bring dishonor to His name.

The primary issue here is that of holiness or the state of being set apart. Those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ have been set apart by God for His use. Having been saved by God through the sacrificial death of His Son, they now belonged to Him.

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

Those who belong to God are expected to honor Him. But when a believer embraces teaching that is contrary to God’s truth or commits sins that are unacceptable for God’s children, he renders himself unfit for service. Paul is not teaching that a believer can lose his salvation. He is simply stating the very real fact that even a Christian can fail to live a set-apart life by choosing to follow the desires of their sinful nature. And when they do, they disqualify themselves from service to God. But don’t miss the point that disqualification can also result from believing or teaching false doctrine. Paul insists that this “irreverent babble…will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (2 Timothy 2:16 ESV).

The word “irreverent” is actually the Greek word bebēlos, which refers to something that is “common” or “unholy.” It stands in direct opposition to the idea of being set apart by God for His honor and glory. In veering from the truth of God and encouraging others to follow suit, a believer renders themself unfit for service. They become common rather than holy. They become a vessel for dishonor rather than honor.

And just to ensure that Timothy doesn’t miss his point, Paul puts his warning in practical, everyday terms that his young disciple can understand.

Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace. Enjoy the companionship of those who call on the Lord with pure hearts. – 2 Timothy 2:22 NLT

Paul is essentially challenging Timothy to live a set-apart life. He needed to live in a way that reflected his status as a new creation in Christ. And he was to seek the company of those who shared his desire to live a holy life.

But Paul wasn’t telling Timothy to form a “holy huddle,” an elite group of super-serious Christians who chose to sequester themselves away from the less honorable members of the congregation. Paul wanted Timothy to teach and train up a group of believers who would positively influence the rest of the church body through their words and actions. Rather than pick a fight with those who disagreed with them, they were to “Gently instruct those who oppose the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25 NLT). The goal was to provide loving instruction with an eye toward reconciliation.

Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. Then they will come to their senses and escape from the devil’s trap. For they have been held captive by him to do whatever he wants. – 2 Timothy 2:25-26 NLT

In Paul’s mind, the “dishonorable” vessel was not doomed to remain that way. He could be renewed and restored. And it was the responsibility of every believer to compassionately care for their wayward brother or sister in Christ.

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. – Galatians 6:1 NLT

Take note of those who refuse to obey what we say in this letter. Stay away from them so they will be ashamed. Don’t think of them as enemies, but warn them as you would a brother or sister. – 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 NLT

Paul greatly desired that the church be marked by a spirit of unity and solidarity. But he knew that the sin natures of those who made up the church would make that difficult at times. But he also knew that the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of every believer provided an ample source of power to overcome sin and resist the lies of the enemy. But Timothy, as a minister of the gospel, was going to have to set the example, modeling the life of an honorable vessel, “set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21 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

Diligence, Not Desire, Determines Your Destiny

1 You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. 11 The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself. 2 Timothy 2:1-13 ESV

Paul, an older and more experienced minister of the gospel, is pouring out his heart to his young protégé, Timothy, in an attempt to prepare him for what lies ahead. Paul was imprisoned in Rome awaiting a hearing before the emperor. He was well aware that his fate, while in God’s hands, could end poorly. He had no delusions that he would receive a fair and just trial at the hands of the Romans. And the Jews had been relentless in their efforts to hold Paul accountable for what they considered to be his disruptive and divisive ministry.

As Paul sat in jail awaiting his hearing, he had written to the believers in Philippi, telling them, “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21 ESV). He knew that his days were numbered and that death was inevitable. His greatest concern was that his life would continue to honor Christ, whether through ministry or martyrdom.

As Paul penned this letter to Timothy, he must have thought about the message he had received from Christ after praying on three different occasions that his “thorn in the flesh” be removed. Jesus had told him, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT). And this promise from the Savior had prompted Paul to respond, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT).

The power of Christ, made available through the means of His grace, was all that Paul needed and it provided him with an overwhelming sense of confidence and peace, regardless of the circumstances he faced.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

Now, Paul is passing on the promise of Christ’s grace to Timothy. He tells him to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1 ESV). Timothy was in a difficult spot, trying to minister to the fledgling congregation in Ephesus while his mentor was behind bars in Rome. He was on his own and surrounded by hostile forces who opposed his ministry and message. He also faced dissension in the ranks as some of his own parishioners began to question their decision to follow Christ. Persecution and difficulty had begun to set in, causing some to lose faith, like Phygelus and Hermogenes, who had abandoned Paul in Asia.

Paul wanted Timothy to understand that he was no longer the disciple, but had moved into the role of disciple-maker. His days of serving as Paul’s assistant were behind him. It was now time for him to step up and embrace his responsibilities as a minister of the gospel. And that would require Timothy to raise up others to assist him in his work. There had been a day when Paul had chosen Timothy and determined to teach him and train him for the gospel ministry. Now it was time for Timothy to take the baton and run the next leg of the race on his own. But he was not to run alone. Paul encouraged Timothy to “teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others” (2 Timothy 2:2 NLT).

This was all about propagating and multiplying the ministry by constantly preparing others to share the burden. Jesus had told His disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields” (Matthew 9:37-38 NLT). But along with asking God to supply the workers, comes a responsibility to train these individuals in the disciplines required to harvest well. And that would require discipline on Timothy’s part. A landowner would not send inexperienced or untrained workers into his fields to harvest his crops. He would make sure they were trained to do the job well so every ounce of grain was gleaned. No loss. No waste.

Paul drives home the seriousness of Timothy’s role as a disciple-maker by using three different analogies. First, he compares Timothy to a soldier, who faithfully fulfills his duties, undistracted by the cares of this world.

Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them. – 2 Timothy 2:3-4 NLT

A distracted soldier will prove to be a disloyal soldier. If Timothy allows himself to become preoccupied with the things of this world, he will lose sight of his God-ordained mission. This is exactly what Jesus was warning His disciples about when He said, “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39 NLT).

Discipleship, like military service, requires a commitment that carries a high cost. Part-time soldiers make lousy warriors. And believers who allow their love for the things of this world to distract them will prove to be less-than-successful disciple-makers.

The next analogy Paul uses is that of an athlete. This particular imagery was a favorite of Paul’s and he used it repeatedly to illustrate the level of commitment required to live the Christian life.

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! – 1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT

Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:13-14 NLT

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. – 2 Timothy 4:7 NLT

Living the Christian life requires perseverance and determination. There are no easy paths to the finish line. There are no shortcuts. And, as Paul warns Timothy, victory cannot be expected if the runner fails to follow the rules. Timothy was not free to fudge on the God-ordained regulations established for the Christian life. He could take the path of least resistance and still expect to win the prize at the end of the race. Avoiding difficulty, taking shortcuts in the pursuit of spiritual growth, and running the race just to finish rather than to win, are unacceptable. God demands more.

The final analogy Paul uses is an agrarian one, highlighting the obvious life lesson that hard work has its rewards.

…hardworking farmers should be the first to enjoy the fruit of their labor. – 2 Timothy 2:6 NLT

In an agrarian culture, laziness could be a death sentence. The farmer who failed to plow and plant had no business expecting to reap a harvest. But the diligent farmer, who put in the required labor to prepare his fields and plant his crops at the proper time, could expect to enjoy the fruits of his labors. It was only natural, logical, and fair. Paul wanted Timothy to know that the Christian life also required commitment, diligence, perseverance, and hard work. And just in case Timothy missed the very obvious point behind Paul’s three analogies, he assures him that “the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7 ESV).

Then, as if out of nowhere, Paul changes the topic altogether, shifting his focus to Christ and His resurrection from the dead. But his point remains the same. He is simply using Jesus, “the offspring of David” (2 Timothy 2:8 ESV), as an example of someone who lived a life fully committed to God’s plan for His life. He was a descendant of King David and the rightful heir to the throne, and yet He willingly suffered on behalf of sinful mankind so that He might become the sinless substitute and the selfless source of salvation for all those who would believe in Him. Jesus never shirked His God-given responsibility to be the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV).

And Paul uses himself as another example of someone who refused to compromise his convictions or cut corners when it came to his spiritual life. After all, he was writing this letter from prison, bound by chains and facing a trial on trumped-up charges intended to result in a death sentence. But Paul boldly proclaimed, “I am willing to endure anything if it will bring salvation and eternal glory in Christ Jesus to those God has chosen” (2 Timothy 2:10 NLT).

The bottom line for Paul was that there was no place for faithlessness in the life of the believer. Jesus Christ had sacrificed Himself so that we might live in newness of life. He provided us with the Holy Spirit as a permanent source of power and direction. His death assures us of eternal life. Our endurance in this life comes with the guarantee of an inheritance in the next life. But even if we fail to remain faithful, Jesus Christ will never fail to keep His promise to keep and preserve us.

…if we are faithless, he remains faithful. – 2 Timothy 2:13 ESV

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

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

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

A God You Can Count On

1 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
    and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
    in the midst of the years make it known;
    in wrath remember mercy. Habakkuk 3:1-2 ESV

Habakkuk has heard from God. The Almighty has provided the prophet with an assurance that Babylon will receive a just sentence for its role in the judgment of Judah. Yes, they will be used by God to bring about the divine discipline of God’s chosen people, but the Babylonians will also fall under His divine wrath for every act of aggression and subjugation they enact against Judah.

And with this assurance from God, Habakkuk begins to sing another tune – literally. This closing chapter is written in the form of a psalm or song. It is a prayer of praise in the form of a poem that was most likely put to music so that it could be sung by the people of God. The phrase, “according to Shigionoth” may be a reference to the melody that was to accompany Habakkuk’s words. The singular form of the Hebrew word is found in the introduction to Psalm 7, a psalm of David.

A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite.

But the Hebrew root word, shagah, provides some insight into what Habakkuk may have in mind with his prayer of praise to God. It means “to err, wander, go astray (morally), to sin through ignorance.” In David’s psalm, faced with apparent accusations of guilt from the lips of someone named Cush, he declares his innocence and asks God to either acquit or convict him.

O Lord my God, if I have done wrong
    or am guilty of injustice,
if I have betrayed a friend
    or plundered my enemy without cause,
then let my enemies capture me. – Psalm 7:3-5 NLT

He goes on to ask God for vindication and protection.

Declare me righteous, O Lord,
    for I am innocent, O Most High! – Psalm 7:8 NLT

He appeals to God as the one who “judges the nations” (Psalm 7:8 NLT).

God is my shield,
    saving those whose hearts are true and right.
God is an honest judge.
    He is angry with the wicked every day. – Psalm 7:10-11 NLT

And David is convinced that God will judge him fairly and eventually, fully vindicate him.

I will thank the Lord because he is just;
    I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High. – Psalm 7:17 NLT

It seems likely that Habakkuk’s song carries the same idea. Nowhere does he claim the nation of Judah to be innocent, but he does seem to appeal to God as a righteous judge who will one day vindicate His people. Having heard from God regarding the future judgment of Babylon, Habakkuk shares his intense longing to see that day come. He is expressing his belief that God will prove Himself faithful by fulfilling every promise He has made regarding Judah’s eventual vindication through Babylon’s destruction.

Habakkuk begins his song with a statement of wonder and praise for God’s remarkable reputation. As a prophet of God, he had been exposed to the very words of God, hearing firsthand what Yahweh had planned for Judah’s future. And it left him in a state of awe and amazement.

I have heard all about you, Lord.
    I am filled with awe by your amazing works. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

But, as a Hebrew, Habakkuk had also been raised on a steady diet of the stories of God’s intervention in the lives of His people. He had heard the creation story, the account of the flood and the preservation of Noah and his family. He had been told the story of God’s call of Abraham’s and the promise to make of him a great nation. As a child, he would have been exposed to all the stories about Joseph and the sons of Jacob in Egypt. The account of God’s amazing redemption of His people and their exodus out of Egypt would have been very familiar to him. The conquering of the land of promise, the rise of King David, the greatness of Solomon, the division of the kingdom, and the historical record of all the kings of Judah and Israel would have been well known to him. And through all those accounts, Habakkuk would have recognized the “amazing works” of God and been blown away by His power and persevering patience with His less-than-faithful people.

Unlike David, Habakkuk could not appeal to God based on a claim of Judah’s innocence. There was no way he could ask God to vindicate them because they were undeserving of His judgment. He knew full well that the people of Judah were guilty. In fact, he had begun his book with the admission that things had gotten so bad in Judah, that the wicked outnumbered the righteous.

So, Habakkuk looked to God’s well-established track record of showing up and delivering His people in times of trouble.

In this time of our deep need,
    help us again as you did in years gone by. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

Sadly, this was not the first time Judah had been faced with difficult circumstances. There had been countless other occasions when the people of God had found themselves faced with insurmountable odds and the potential for a devastating outcome. But Habakkuk knew that God had intervened on behalf of His people. He had repeatedly rescued them from their predicaments, graciously restoring them and providing them with yet another undeserved opportunity to prove their faithfulness to Him. And Habakkuk longed to see God do the same thing in his day.

But Habakkuk recognizes that the people of Judah were fully deserving of all that God was about to do to them. They stood guilty and condemned before a holy God. So, he appeals to God’s covenant faithfulness and track-record of extending undeserved mercy.

…in your anger, remember your mercy. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

It seems likely that Habakkuk would have been familiar with the content of the prayer prayed by Solomon at the dedication of the newly constructed temple. King Solomon had begun his prayer with a statement concerning God’s faithfulness: “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in all of heaven above or on the earth below. You keep your covenant and show unfailing love to all who walk before you in wholehearted devotion” (1 Kings 8:23 NLT).

But Solomon knew that he and his people were prone to unfaithfulness. He was concerned that their behavior would fail to live up to the terms of God’s covenantal agreement with them. So, he began describing potential scenarios in which the nation might violate their covenant commitment and stand guilty before God. And he petitioned God: “May you always hear the prayers I make toward this place. May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place” (1 Kings 8:29-30 NLT). 

Solomon was appealing to God’s faithfulness because he knew there was little likelihood that the people of Israel would keep their end of the bargain. And when they failed to do so, He wanted to know that God would still intervene on their behalf. Solomon even included a worst-case scenario in which the people of Israel found themselves defeated and living in exile as a result of their disobedience to God.

“If your people Israel are defeated by their enemies because they have sinned against you, and if they turn to you and acknowledge your name and pray to you here in this Temple, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and return them to this land you gave their ancestors. – 1 Kings 8:33-34 NLT

Solomon knew that the only hope that Israel had for their present protection and future restoration was to be found in God alone. And Habakkuk echoed that same sentiment. He was appealing to his awe-inspiring, grace-bestowing, miracle-working God. And he greatly desired that God would continue to season His righteous anger with mercy. It was all the hope that the people of God had left. They had forsaken God. They had proven themselves incapable of living in faithful obedience to their covenant with God. And unless God showed them mercy, their future would be dark, and any hope of restoration, dim.

The words of the prophet, Jeremiah, written in the book of Lamentations, seem to indicate the heart behind Habakkuk’s prayer.

The thought of my suffering and homelessness
    is bitter beyond words.
I will never forget this awful time,
    as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope
    when I remember this:

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
    therefore, I will hope in him!” – Lamentations 3:19-24 NLT

God’s mercies are new every morning. Like the sun that shows up like clockwork at the start of each new day, God’s mercies never fail to arrive when needed. His faithfulness is unfailing. His love is unwavering. And, therefore, our hope in Him should be constant and abiding.

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

Missing the Point

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:1-8 ESV

From this point forward in his gospel, Matthew will reveal an increasing and palpable tension between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. Their disdain for Jesus will grow as His popularity among the people spreads. This obscure rabbi from Nazareth was rocking their religious world by openly contradicting their authority and establishing Himself as some kind of savior of the people. To them, Jesus was nothing more than a charlatan and the next in a long line of would-be Messiahs, attempting to garner His 15-minutes of prominence in the national spotlight.

One of the central themes that will arise in this conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders will be that of authority. In their minds, they were the sole arbiters of religious rules and decorum. They viewed themselves as the spiritual police force, with responsibility for maintaining a tight reign on the ethical and moral behavior of the people. They were the self-appointed enforcers of the law, and they took their job seriously. These pride-filled men were religious elitists, who looked down their noses at the common people, viewing them as law-breakers and the cause of all the nation’s problems.

It is important to remember what Matthew recorded at the end of chapter 11. He recounted Jesus’ offer of rest to those “who labor and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28). And now, Matthew reports a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, all centered around the supposed violation of the laws regarding the Sabbath. For the Jews, the Sabbath, or seventh day of the week, was considered sacred. The ongoing observation of this day had been decreed by God as part of the Ten Commandments.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” – Exodus 20:8-11 ESV

The Sabbath was to be a day of rest and was intended to be a sign of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.

“Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.” – Exodus 31:13 ESV

But over time, God’s laws concerning the Sabbath had been heavily appended by the religious leaders, as they added a litany of man-made rules and regulations that made the keeping of the Sabbath onerous and burdensome. According to the Talmud, there were 39 categories of prohibitions tied to the keeping of the Sabbath. The first 11 categories featured restrictions associated with the baking of bread. The next 13 categories detailed rules concerning the making of a garment. Another 9 categories are restricted activities associated with the making of leather. And the final 6 categories were concerned with rules concerning the construction of any building.

In this passage, the disciples of Jesus are accused by the Pharisees as having violated the Sabbath restriction concerning reaping. They were caught picking the heads of grain and eating them. And in their self-righteous fervor, they confront Jesus for having allowed this egregious act to have happened.

“Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:2 ESV

But rather than admit any guilt or apologize on behalf of His disciples, Jesus gave the Pharisees a history lesson. He reminded them of a story concerning David that was recorded by the prophet, Samuel. David, who had been anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel, was running for his life. The current king, Saul, was out to kill him. So, David and his men came to Ahimelech, the priest in Nob, and requested that he provide them with bread. But all that Ahimelech had available was consecrated bread or the bread of the Presence. This was bread that was set out every Sabbath as an offering to God and, according to the book of Leviticus, was only to be eaten by the priests. But on this occasion, Ahimelech made an exception and gave the bread to David and his men.

This story, which would have been very familiar to the Pharisees, must have caught them off guard. It must have also infuriated them that Jesus was comparing He and His disciples to David and his men. After all, David had been the greatest King Israel ever had. Who was Jesus to place Himself on the same level as the one whom God had deemed “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14 ESV)?

And Jesus made it clear that David and his men were in violation of the Sabbath law when they had taken the bread and eaten it.

“…it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” – Matthew 12:4 ESV

David was the God-appointed and prophet-anointed king of Israel. He had been deemed by God to be Saul’s replacement, but the leadership of Israel had rejected him. David was the rightful ruler of Israel but had been relegated to living as a fugitive and an outcast. His followers were left to beg for assistance from the priest of God, who willingly broke with the accepted religious protocol in order to satisfy their hunger.

But the Pharisees were not about to bend the rules or make any concessions to Jesus and His followers. They were looking for any and every opportunity to expose Jesus as a Sabbath-breaker and serial violator of the law.

Next, Jesus used the priests themselves as examples of those who violate God’s law in order to keep it. In order to fulfill God’s commands concerning the Sabbath sacrifices, the priests must do work.

“‘On the Sabbath day, you must offer two unblemished lambs a year old, and two-tenths of an ephah of finely ground flour as a grain offering, mixed with olive oil, along with its drink offering. This is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, besides the continual burnt offering and its drink offering.’” – Numbers 28:9-10 NET

And Jesus pointed out this seeming discrepancy.

“…on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” – Matthew 12:5 ESV

In keeping one command of God, they appear to in violation of another. But they were doing exactly what God had instructed them to do. God had the authority to deem the priests as guiltless when it came to violating the Sabbath because they were obeying His commands.

And then, Jesus makes an intriguing observation that must have left the Pharisees shocked and appalled.

“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” – Matthew 12:6 ESV

With this shift from discussing law-keeping to the temple, Jesus was indicating that the temple or house of God operated under a different set of standards. In the temple, the priests were allowed to do things that, for others, would be restricted and in violation of God’s law. The temple provided the priests who worked within it with a dispensation of grace. It allowed them to operate in seeming violation of God’s law while actually fulfilling His divine commands.

And Jesus announced that He was greater than the temple. As the Son of God, He operated under a divine mandate that granted He and His followers with authority to accomplish God’s will with immunity and impunity. That is why Jesus had no qualms about healing on the Sabbath, which He did regularly and, it seems, deliberately.

Jesus accused the Pharisees of having “condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7 ESV) because they failed to understand His divine nature and God-appointed mission. The temple was where God had promised to dwell with and appear to His people. But now, in Jesus, God had come to dwell among men. The glory of God was no longer restricted to the Holy of Holies but had left the recesses of the temple and entered into the daily lives of the people. Jesus deemed Himself to be the Son of Man and “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8 ESV). And, as such, He had the authority to grant special dispensations to His followers. They could pick grain on the Sabbath. They could even heal and cast out demons on the Sabbath. Why? Because, in doing so, they would be doing the will of God.

Jesus accused the Pharisees of being ignorant of the very will of God as expressed in their own Scriptures. He paraphrased the words of God found in the writings of the prophet Hosea.

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6 ESV

The Pharisees were all about law-keeping. They cared nothing for Jesus or His disciples. In their minds, adherence to the law had taken precedence and priority over people. Obeying the commands of God had become more important than knowing God Himself. And their obsession with rules had prevented them from recognizing the Son of God standing in their midst. They loved their laws more than they loved God. And they loved their status as the religious elite more than they loved God’s people. But law-keeping without love is worthless. And elevating the Sabbath over the Lord of the Sabbath makes an idol out of the Sabbath.

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

Fear God, Not Man

26 “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 10:26-33 ESV

This extended monologue by Jesus is meant to serve as the preface for the disciples’ first missionary journey. He is attempting to prepare them for what lies ahead. But, as we have seen, His words up to this point have been far from encouraging or inspiring. He has told them to expect persecution and rejection, warned of floggings to come, and informed them that they would be dragged into court for their efforts on His behalf. Not exactly what one would describe as a motivational speech.

And now, Jesus adds a bit of cryptic content that sounds more like He’s speaking in riddles than providing helpful counsel. But knowing that His 12 disciples are filled with confusion and apprehension, He is trying to let them know that their fear of man is misplaced. All His talk of persecution and rejection has left these men fearful for their own physical well-being. Their little excursion to perform miracles and work wonders has turned into what sounds more like a nightmare. And Jesus senses their reticence.

The prospect of being sent out with the same power that Jesus had and being able to heal the sick and cast out demons, must have thrilled these men beyond belief. They were about to become celebrities. But Jesus had also given them an even more important assignment. He had commanded to “proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10:10 ESV). This was not going to be a miracle-working roadshow, but a mission aimed at the Jewish population of Galilee, designed to inform them that their Messiah had arrived. The miracles were only meant to draw crowds and validate the message of the disciples.

And Jesus wanted these men to proclaim the message of the kingdom boldly, loudly, and fearlessly. This is why He told them, “What I tell you now in the darkness, shout abroad when daybreak comes. What I whisper in your ear, shout from the housetops for all to hear!” (Matthew 10:26 NLT). So much of what Jesus is saying to these men is prophetic in nature. He is speaking of future events and the day when He would no longer be with them. He knew what God had in store for Him. He was well aware of the divine plan that included His own persecution, trials, flogging, and death. But He also knew that His death would be followed by His resurrection and ascension. Then these very same men would be tasked with carrying the good news of salvation to the nations, beginning in Jerusalem and then extending to Judea, Samaria, and to the farthest reaches of the earth.

And in the brief time that Jesus would have with His disciples on this earth, He would continue to tell them truths concerning the kingdom that would escape their understanding. But the day would come when all that He had taught them would be revealed. What was secret would become known. What had been whispered in the dark would be shouted in the light of day.

For the time is coming when everything that is covered will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. – Matthew 10:26 NLT

But what did any of this mean to His confused and frightened disciples? What were they supposed to do with this information? And Jesus’ words of encouragement must have come across as anything but that to the disciples.

“But don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. – Matthew 10:26 NLT

Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul.” – Matthew 10:28 NLT

The admonition to “fear not,” when the future held the prospect of threats and even death, was not exactly comforting. And, Jesus intensifies the conversation by adding, “Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 NLT). 

Again, was this meant to encourage the disciples? Were they supposed to find comfort in these words? It would seem that Jesus has only added to their fear by placing God as a greater threat to their well-being than mere human beings. Men can take your life, but God has control over your eternal destiny. But this was not meant as a threat to the disciples. Jesus was not painting God as some vindictive, trigger-happy deity who would send the disciples to hell if they failed to accomplish their mission.

No, Jesus is attempting to get His disciples to understand that there is an eternal destiny for each and every human being. And while men can threaten and even take life, only God controls the eternal fate of humanity. The message Jesus was giving them was eternal in nature. When He spoke of the kingdom, He was not talking about a temporal, earthly one; but of an eternal kingdom where He would rule forever in righteousness. And citizenship in that kingdom would be based on acceptance of God’s free gift of salvation made possible through the death of His Son.

The disciples were going to need boldness to proclaim the gospel message, even in the face of threats to their lives. Because that message had eternal implications. Yes, men could kill them, but if they allowed fear of death to stifle their message of hope, then thousands of others would face the destruction of “both soul and body in hell.”

The apostle Paul would later explain the importance of faithful messengers, who boldly proclaim the gospel in the face of opposition, rejection, and even persecution.

But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!” – Romans 10:14-15 NLT

The disciples did not yet understand the full import of who Jesus was and what He had come to do. Their comprehension of Jesus and His ministry was incomplete and had been filtered through their lens of expectation concerning the Messiah. At this point, they had no clue that He would eventually suffer and die. And even when the time came, and Jesus began to share that aspect of His mission, they would reject it as unacceptable and illogical. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records an encounter between Jesus and a well-meaning but misinformed Peter.

From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead.

But Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. “Heaven forbid, Lord,” he said. “This will never happen to you!” – Matthew 16:21-22 NLT

So, at this point in their relationship with Jesus, all this talk of suffering, rejection, and threats of death must have sounded strange and extremely unexpected.

But Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that their fears were unwarranted. Why? Because the God of the universe cared for them. And Jesus illustrates God’s compassion and concern for these men by pointing them nature. Sparrows were commonplace in Israel and of very little perceived value. They could be purchased for next to nothing – two for a penny. But in God’s eyes, they had value. In His sovereignty and omniscience, He was fully aware when even one sparrow lost its life. And if God knows and cares about the fate of a common bird, how much more so does He care about the fate of man? And Jesus encourages His disciples to focus on God’s sovereign love for them.

“So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.” – Matthew 10:31 NLT

God was so intimately aware of their fate that He even knew the exact count of the hairs on their heads. There was nothing concerning their lives with which He was not aware and about which He did not care. They could trust Him.

So, rather than fear men, they were to place all their hope and trust in a sovereign God who loved them and held their eternal destiny in His hands. And Jesus called on these men to boldly declare their allegiance to His calling and cause. As long as they lived on this earth, they were expected to proclaim His name and preach His message of salvation to all who would listen. And Jesus assures them that, one day, their faithfulness will be rewarded.

“Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” – Matthew 10:32-33 NLT

At this point in His ministry, Jesus has what appears to be a large number of disciples, but few of them are true believers. And in time, many will begin to abandon Him. At His trials, most will turn their backs on Him, replacing their shouts of “Hosannah” with cries of “Crucify him!” And after His death, the vast majority of His followers will simply walk away, returning to their former ways of life.

But there will also be those who claim to be His followers, but whose lives fail to reveal the fruit of true discipleship. Jesus described them in stark terms in His sermon on the mount.

“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’” – Matthew 7:21-23 NLT

Jesus will deny these people before His Father. Their professions of faith will prove to be false. Their good works will prove to be nothing more than filthy rags. And it’s important to note what these people will have done in Jesus’ name. They will have prophesied, cast out demons, and performed miracles in His name. All three of these things are what Jesus has just commissioned His 12 disciples to do. But if they did these things without faith in Him and a fear of the One who sent Him, their efforts would be fruitless and futile.

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

Founded on the Rock

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. – Matthew 7:24-29 ESV

For most of us, when we read these verses, we automatically assume that Jesus’ mention of “the rock” was a veiled reference to Himself. After all, He is the rock. And we get that idea from the Scriptures. Paul would later refer to Jesus as being the foundation he laid and upon which all others were to build.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 ESV

Peter would quote from the Book of Isaiah and the Psalms, describing Jesus as the stone:

For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” – 1 Peter 2:6-8 ESV

So, it would only be natural to assume that Jesus is referring to Himself as the rock. But it is important to look closely at what He says. He prefaces these closing lines of His sermon with the statement: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

His emphasis is on His words or the content of His message. Throughout His sermon, Jesus has been giving commands regarding the lifestyle or behavior of those who are blessed or approved by God. They are to be salt and light. They are to pursue reconciliation with all men, rather than display anger and hatred. They are to love and not lust. They are to remain faithful in their earthly commitments, most especially in the context of marriage. They are to be a people of their word. They are to live lives of willing sacrifice, rather than seeking revenge and retaliation. They are to love and pray for their enemies. Their acts of righteousness are to flow from the heart and are not to be done for recognition and the praise of men. They are to see their eternal reward as their greatest treasure, instead of finding meaning and fulfillment in the temporal things of this earth. Their lives are to be marked by a calm and unwavering trust in God, knowing that He will provide all their needs. They are to regularly examine their own lives, recognizing and repenting of their sinfulness before God. 

Over and over again, Jesus has given them clear indications of how an individual approved by God should live their life. And now, He is telling them that those who hear these words and do them will be seen as wise. They will be the ones whose lives are built upon a solid foundation.

Obedience to the teachings of Jesus has always been a necessary part of the life of the believer. Obedience does not save us, but it marks the life of those who are truly saved. Not long before Jesus was to be betrayed and crucified, He told His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV). And then He told them how they were going to pull that off. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17 ESV).

The Holy Spirit was going to be the key to them obeying the words and teachings of Jesus. But they were still expected to obey. And just to make sure that they didn’t forget anything He had taught them, Jesus let them know that the Holy Spirit would give them perfect memories.

These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” – John 14:25-26 ESV

One of the things we so easily lose sight of is Jesus’ statement to His disciples, found in the Great Commission.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20 ESV

The disciples were to teach all that Jesus had commanded. His words were to be obeyed. And He was not just speaking of His claim to be the Messiah and His offer of salvation through faith in Him alone. Again, obedience to the words of Jesus does not save us, but it is to be the visible proof of one who is saved. Repeatedly in Scripture, we are given the admonition to obey the commands of Jesus.

“When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” – John 15:10 NLT

The apostle John puts the non-optional nature of obedience to Jesus’ commands in very stark terms.

He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.

And we can be sure that we know him if we obey his commandments. If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:2-6 NLT

So, Jesus says that whoever hears the words He has been teaching and does them, will find their life to be built on a solid, reliable foundation. Of course, the very first teaching of Jesus we must believe and obey is His claim to be the Son of God and the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. John makes this point quite clear.

…we can come to God with bold confidence. And we will receive from him whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him.

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. Those who obey God’s commandments remain in fellowship with him, and he with them. And we know he lives in us because the Spirit he gave us lives in us. – 1 John 3:21-24 NLT

Our ability to obey the commands of Jesus begins with our obedience to the command of God to trust in His Son as our Savior. When we place our faith in Him, we receive the Spirit of God and the capacity to love God and to love others, which are the foundational truths behind all that Jesus taught in His sermon. Our faith in Christ is to be transformative. It is to change the way we think and behave. It is to have a revolutionary effect on the way we live our lives in this world. But for far too many today, obedience seems to be optional. They place their faith in Christ and then continue to live as if nothing has happened. They give little or no evidence of the new nature they are supposed to have received. Their lives show no signs of the Spirit’s presence within them. But that is not what Jesus expected. And that is not the outcome His sacrificial death on the cross was meant to provide.

If we truly love Him, we will keep His commandments. We will conduct our lives in a radically different manner. We will be salt and light. We will be agents of reconciliation, calling a lost and dying world back to God. We will love and not lust. We will selflessly give, rather than always trying to selfishly focus our lives on getting. We will forgive, show mercy, turn the other cheek, worry less, rejoice more, pray intensely, trust God completely, and share the good news of the gospel regularly.

Jesus tells us that those who build their lives on His words will find their lives to be stable and resilient. They will have a firm foundation that can withstand the storms of life and will survive the future judgment to come. There were those in the crowd that day who would hear Jesus’ words and ignore them. Many of them would later hear of His death and resurrection and refuse to believe it. After His crucifixion, the word of His miraculous resurrection and ascension would spread, and the offer of salvation would be heard throughout all Judea, but most would not accept it. And their lives would be like a house built on sand, unstable and insecure, completely susceptible to the storms of life and unavoidably destined for a great fall.

When Jesus finished His sermon, the crowds were amazed. They were astonished at His teachings. They had never heard anything like this before. He taught with authority. Over and over again in His message, Jesus had said, “But I say….” He referred to the Old Testament Scriptures, but then added His own words. He did not refer to the teachings of the patriarchs or refer to other rabbinic scholars. He spoke as if His words were on a par with the Word of God itself, because they were. He was the Son of God, speaking on behalf of God the Father. He was the Word incarnate. John describes Him as such.

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

He is the Word, and we are to obey Him, not just believe in Him.

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

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

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

A Serious Heart Condition

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. – Matthew 5:27-30 ESV

Notice what Jesus says here. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” For the average Jew, God’s prohibition against adultery was only referring to the physical act itself. And while the Mosaic Law clearly commanded, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 ESV), Jesus informs them that God had far more in mind than they perceived. The issue was the heart.

In the Old Testament, God accused the people of Israel of spiritual adultery time and time again. And not just when they were actually worshiping other gods. They could be unfaithful and adulterous, even in the midst of their worship of Him. Consider this stinging criticism He leveled against them:

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

They had a heart problem, and so did the people listening to Jesus’ sermon on the hillside. They just didn’t know it. They were stuck on the externals, the outward meaning of the law, and their physical adherence to it. As long as they restrained themselves from actually committing the act of adultery, they were good with God, or so they thought.

Jesus uses the Greek word, “lust” (epithymeō), which meansto set the heart upon.” The word could be positive or negative in its meaning. It all depended upon the context in which it was used. But if you set your heart upon another person’s spouse, lust was most definitely wrong. In its negative usage, lust was to strongly seek that which had been forbidden by God. So, what Jesus is really telling His audience is that it’s all about their purity of heart, not the physical act of adultery itself. In other words, it’s all about the motivation that leads up to the act. What would cause someone to set their heart upon something God had forbidden or placed off-limits? And this was not a new concept. Jesus was not introducing something radical here, but simply reminding His listeners of what the Scriptures had always taught about the heart.

Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. – Proverbs 4:23 NLT

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? – Jeremiah 17:9 NLT

To refrain from committing adultery was not enough. Just because someone has the fortitude to keep themselves from having sex with their best friend’s wife, doesn’t mean they don’t want to and haven’t obsessed about it regularly. That seems to be Jesus’ point here. You can brag all you want to about your commitment to God’s law, and you may impress your friends with your piety, but you won’t fool God. Because He knows your heart. He knows your every thought. God isn’t just interested in outward compliance to His law, He wants a wholehearted commitment to Him and His will regarding righteous behavior.

And Jesus gives a shockingly graphic prescription for handling the problem of lust.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:29 ESV

That sounds a bit extreme, doesn’t it? Is Jesus really recommending that we pluck out our eyes to keep from lusting? But wait, He’s not done.

“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” – Matthew 5:30 ESV

Would cutting off of your hand keep you from sinning? Probably not. And that is not what Jesus is teaching here. He is clearly using hyperbole, the use of over-exaggeration to drive home a point. So, what is His point? To understand what Jesus is saying, it might help to use a real-life event as an illustration. Early on in King David’s reign, we are told that a time came “when kings go out to battle” (2 Samuel 11:1 ESV). It was springtime in Israel, the time of year when nations did battle. But the passage tells us that, while Joab and the forces of Israel went to war, “David remained at Jerusalem.” He stayed behind. And then we’re told:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. – 2 Samuel 11:2 ESV

David had time on his hands. And notice what it says: “he saw.” David “saw” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is ra’ah, and it means “to behold, enjoy, look upon.” In other words, he lusted. But his lust was wrong because this woman was not his wife. In fact, the story will reveal that she was the wife of one of David’s soldiers. But notice that, at this point in the story, all David had done was lust. He had looked and enjoyed. But that would prove to be inadequate for David.

So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. – 2 Samuel 11:4 ESV

David “took” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is laqach, which means “to seize, to take, carry away.” He saw and he took. He used his eyes and his hands. He gazed longingly and wrongly on something that was not his, then he seized what he saw to satisfy his own desires. James makes it quite clear what was going on in David’s heart and life at that moment:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT

David saw with his eyes and took with his hands. His lustful thoughts resulted in sinful actions. But it all began in his heart. D. A. Carson provides us with some helpful insight into what Jesus meant by plucking out our eye and cutting off our hand.

We are to deal drastically with sin. We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little bit of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Our greatest desire should be to live in conformity to the will of God. And anything that might prevent us from doing so should be seen as expendable. A big part of our problem is our inordinate love affair with the things of this world. We lust after, covet, desire, and long for the things the world offers. We seek satisfaction and significance from the things of this world. In essence, we commit adultery with the world in order to satisfy our lustful desires. We see and we take. But James gives us a second word of warning:

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:$ NLT

And James wasn’t done.

Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:8-10 NLT

There it is again: Purify your hearts. Adultery is a heart issue. Lust is a heart issue. And impurity of heart is the real problem. That is why Jesus said earlier, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 ESV). Purity of heart has to do with loving God by giving Him every area of your life. It is to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 2:37 NLT). Purity of heart is not outward conformity to a set of rules, but integrity or wholeness of life. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of life. If you are seeking after God, it will be hard to seek satisfaction and significance elsewhere. If you are busy lusting after God, you will find it difficult to lust after someone or something else. Purity of heart flows out and influences our hands and our eyes.

Remember what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees regarding their man-made laws and regulations:

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.” – Matthew 15:19-20 NLT

External behavior is a byproduct of the inward condition of the heart. Adultery is a result of misplaced lust and desire. When we should be seeking all our satisfaction and significance from God, we end up committing adultery in our hearts, proving unfaithful to Him by turning our affections to something or someone other than Him. For Jesus, adherence to the letter of the law was not the point. It was the condition of the heart. He was coming to do radical heart surgery on the people of God. He was trying to get them to realize that their problem with God was not their inability to keep His laws, but their incapacity to love Him faithfully, which kept them from living for Him obediently. Until their hearts were renewed, their affections would remain misplaced. Jesus came to reveal to them just how much God loved them.

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:7-8 NLT

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

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

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

A 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