The Son of the King.

22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.

24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” 25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” 26 And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”  –  Matthew 17:22-27 ESV

You may have noticed something missing in this passage: A verse 21. In several of the ancient manuscripts containing the Gospel of Matthew, verse 21 was not included. It appears that copyists had chosen to include a line that Mark had included in his account of this same event.

And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” – Mark 9:29 ESV

It had not been a part of Matthew’s account but had been added later by copyists in an attempt to better harmonize the two gospel accounts. But the older, more reliable manuscripts do not include that verse in Matthew’s account. Thus, the missing verse 21.

But following His transfiguration and verbal castigation of the disciples’ lack of faith, Jesus chose to bring up again the touchy subject of His coming death in Jerusalem. When He had brought it up before, it had produced a shocked response in His disciples and had elicited a stern rebuke from Peter.

“Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” – Matthew 16:22 ESV

The news regarding His coming death was unacceptable to the disciples. It made no sense to them and most certainly did not fit into their preconceived notions regarding the coming Messiah. Nowhere in their understanding of the Messiah was there a place for His death at the hands of the people. And Jesus infers that He will be “delivered into the hands of men.” The Greek word is paradidōmi and it carries the idea of delivering someone up through treachery. Not only would He die, it would be the result of His betrayal.

And Matthew records that the disciples were “greatly distressed.” While we recognize that the death of Jesus is an essential part of the Gospel or Good News, it was anything but good news to the disciples. While Jesus had clearly stated that He would be raised up on the third day, that important aspect of the news escaped the disciples. All they heard was betrayal and death. The concept of His resurrection escaped them. And Jesus chose not to elaborate on what He had said, leaving them in a state of distress. It seems that He was slowly revealing to them the truth about His mission, and it was in direct conflict with their perceptions. They had not been looking for a suffering Savior. Ever since they began following Jesus, these men had been expecting big things. They were growing in their belief that He was the long-awaited Messiah and they had high hopes that He was going to establish His kingdom on earth. And because they had been the first to follow Him, they were convinced that they would play significant roles in that kingdom. Their expectations did not include His death.

But Jesus was preparing them for the inevitable and unavoidable. He had to die. It was why He had come. But the disciples did not yet understand this. In fact, they would continue to wrestle with the idea of Jesus’ death, almost refusing to accept it as a possibility. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records the request made to Jesus by the mother of James and John.

“Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” – Matthew 20:21 ESV

She was convinced that Jesus had come to establish His earthly kingdom, and she wanted her sons to play important roles in that kingdom. But Jesus told her she had no idea what she was asking. His immediate future held suffering and death, not honor and glory. And His disciples were going to share in His suffering. Then Jesus gave all the disciples a valuable lesson on leadership, using His own life as an example.

25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:25-28 ESV

His death, while opposed by the disciples, would have great value. It would become the means by which sinful mankind could be restored to a right relationship with God. A restored Jewish state with a reconstituted monarchy was not going to solve the problem of sin and mankind’s separation from God. The Jews had had many kings over the years, but even the most righteous of them had failed to restore the people to a right relationship with God. And it had resulted in God punishing the people of Israel with exile at the hands of their enemies. Their problem was spiritual, not political. Their Sovereign was to have been God, not a man. But they had rejected God and had demanded that they be given a king, just like all the other nations. And God had given them what they asked for.

But now, God was preparing to give them what they really needed: A Savior. Someone who would restore the broken relationship between God and man. Jesus had come to pay the penalty for mankind’s rebellion against God. His death would act as a sacrifice, covering the sins of man and satisfying the just demands of a Holy God. The disciples did not yet comprehend this aspect of Jesus’ mission. Their understanding of His role was incomplete and inaccurate. But over time, Jesus would continue to reveal the truth about His identity and His God-ordained responsibility to act as the atonement for man’s sin.

From this difficult exchange, Matthew shifts gears and describes an encounter between Jesus and a few temple-tax collectors. These men were out collecting the two-drachma tax from all the adult Jewish males between the ages of 20 and 50. This was a mandatory tax used to provide for the upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem. These men approached Peter and asked Him whether Jesus paid this tax? Peter responded, “Yes.”

Jesus had evidently overheard this exchange, because when He and the disciples were alone, He brought it up with Peter. While this was a Jewish tax and not a civil tax required by the Romans, Jesus compared the two. He asked Peter if the son of a king was required to pay taxes instituted by his own father. And Peter stated that the king collected taxes from others, not his own son. His son would have been exempt from such taxes. Jesus confirmed this by stating, “Then the sons are free.” The whole point of this exchange was to emphasize Jesus’ role as the Son of God. He was the son of the King. And as such, He was exempt from having to pay taxes to His Father. But in order to keep from offending the religious leaders, Jesus agreed to pay the tax. But He did so in an unusual way. He sent Peter, a fisherman, to catch a single fish. And in that fish’s mouth Peter would find the money for the tax, enough to pay for he and Jesus. 

This story almost seems out of place. But it reveals the tension that existed in Jesus’ life as He continued to walk this earth in human form. He was a man, but He was also the Son of God, fulfilling the will of His heavenly Father. While on earth, He had to live in keeping with the laws of men, adhering to the religious requirements established by the Mosaic law. But the whole time, His focus was on His God-ordained mission. Yet, it would be the sinlessness of Christ that made Him the perfect sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

And you know that Jesus came to take away our sins, and there is no sin in him. – 1 John 3:5 NLT

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. – Hebrews 4:15 NLT

Jesus was modeling for His disciples a life of obedience. He was letting them know that His role as Messiah did not exempt Him from living in harmony with the laws of the land. He may have been the Son of the King, but He was willing to keep the laws of the King. Not only that, He was willing to live in obedience to the laws of the Romans. And His disciples would learn that their lives would be models for all those around them. Peter would later articulate the lesson he learned from the lips of Jesus.

13 For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, 14 or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right.

15 It is God’s will that your honorable lives should silence those ignorant people who make foolish accusations against you. 16 For you are free, yet you are God’s slaves, so don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. 17 Respect everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect the king. – 1 Peter 2:13-17 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

Love vs Lust.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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 God had clearly commanded, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 ESV), Jesus informs them that God had far more in mind with this law 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. Listen to the strong words He had for 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 in Jesus’ audience that day 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. When Jesus refers to lust, He uses the Greek word epithymeō, which meansto set the heart upon.” The word itself was not positive or negative in its meaning. It all depended upon the context. And in the context of another person’s spouse, lust was wrong. It was to strongly seek what 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 and that begins in the heart. This was not a new concept. Jesus was not introducing something radical here, but simply reminding His listeners of what the Bible had always said.

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 or 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 not 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 drastic 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, an over-exaggeration in order to drive home a point. So, what is His point? To understand what Jesus is saying, it might help to use a real-life scenario as an illustration. Early on in the reign of King David, 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 warfare took place. 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 it in order 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 would 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 you soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 2:37 NLT). Purity of heart is not outward conformity to 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 and 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. But their capacity to love God rather than lust after everything but God, would only be possible because of God’s love for them. God had sent His Son, Jesus, to die in their place as the payment for their sins. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the true extent of God’s matchless love.

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

Love was to replace lust. But their ability to love as God demanded would only be made possible by God’s love for them as expressed in the death of His Son on the cross. As the apostle John put it, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 ESV). Jesus was describing life in His Kingdom, a radical new way of living and loving that would not be based on law-keeping, but on the heart-transforming, life-reforming love of God.

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

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

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

By Faith.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV

In Paul’s own inimitable style, he begins to weave Old Testament Scripture into his defense of justification by faith. First he quotes from Deuteronomy 27:26 using the Greek Septuagint translation: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all the things written in the book of the law, to do them.” And he concludes that those who attempt to keep the law to achieve justification before God are cursed because they are incapable of keeping ALL of the law perfectly and completely. So for Paul, “it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law.” And it is clear to him that even the Old Testament Scriptures teach that “the righteous shall live by faith.” Here he quotes from Habakkuk 2:4. In Paul’s understanding of the Old Testament, even the great saints of the past achieved righteousness before God through faith in Him. The passage from Habakkuk that he quotes could better be translated: “The one who is righteous by faith will live.” In other words, our righteousness is achieved by faith in the word of God and, as a result of our faith, we live. It is NOT our living that produces righteousness. That was the false message of those who were troubling the Galatians and distorting the gospel of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:7).

Once again, Paul appeals to the Old Testament Scriptures, this time quoting from Leviticus 18:5: “The one who does them shall live by them” (Galatians 3:12 ESV). Here Paul addresses the problem with law-keeping. If you’re going to use the law as your basis for justification before God, you will have to spend your entire life keeping them. It will be a never-ending task of trying to live up to and keep every single command given by God. There will be no room for mistakes. You can’t afford to have an off-day. Every single sin will count against you. In fact, the apostle James puts the gravity of this point in fairly disturbing terms: “For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws” (James 2:10 NLT). So if you want to make law-keeping your preferred method of maintaining a right relationship with God, you will have your work cut out for you. And that work will never achieve its desired goal.

Paul brings out an important point. The law is not of faith. Keeping the law has little to do with faith in God. It is all about faith in self. It is based on self-reliance and depends upon self-sufficiency. God has given the rules, now it is up to man to live up to them. And in order to make the task more attainable, man, in his law-keeping, begins to justify or rationalize his law-breaking. Sin becomes subjective. Man develops loop holes and work-arounds to somehow make his sin seem less sinful. He begins to compare his sins with those of others. He attempts to find others whose sins are more egregious than his own. It becomes a case of righteousness by comparison. Somehow we convince ourselves that God will grade on the curve and excuse those sins we’ve committed. He will simply reward us for having tried hard. But Paul would have us remember that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV). Our sin demands a payment. Our rebellion against a holy God brings us under His wrath and condemnation and, in His justice, He must punish our sin.

This is where Paul brings in the good news. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13 ESV). In other words, Jesus took our place on the cross and suffered in our place. The punishment for man’s sins fell on Him. The prophet Isaiah predicted the death of Jesus and the impact it would have on mankind:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5-6 ESV

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV). It is interesting to note that the Mosaic law had a requirement regarding the death of a law-breaker. “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23 ESV). Paul refers to this passage when he says, referring to Christ’s death on the cross, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13 ESV). Even the method by which Jesus died illustrated the curse of God He took on in order that men might be made right with God. He endured what we deserved and did for us what we could never have done for ourselves. His death gave us access to life. Our death would have led to eternal separation from God.

We are made right with God through faith and faith alone. Law-keepers don’t live by faith, they attempt to live by keeping the law. Their hope is in themselves and their ongoing efforts to live up to God’s holy standard, rather than in the finished work of Jesus Christ.  Faith requires dependence upon God. We must accept His means of salvation rather than attempting to rely on our own. We must recognize our incapacity to live holy lives and place our trust His Son’s death on the cross in our place. He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. And by His wounds we are healed.

The Wonderful Ways Of God.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 ESV

Paul sums up all he has said in the last three chapters regarding Israel’s rejection of God, their partial hardening and their ultimate restoration as God’s people with a statement about God. He marvels at God’s incomparable riches, wisdom and knowledge. He confesses that God’s ways and judgments are unsearchable and inscrutable. But what does all this mean? What is Paul really saying about God?

I think the New American Standard Version has a more accurate rendering of Paul’s opening line: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” The word, “riches” refers to abundance or fullness. Paul is saying that God is overflowing in wisdom and knowledge. “God’s ‘wisdom’ is His ability to arrange His plan so it results in good for both Jews and Gentiles and His own glory. His ‘knowledge’ testifies to His ability to construct such a plan” (Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes On Romans, 2009 Edition). We may not always understand what God is doing, but we can always trust that what He is doing is right and good. Paul goes on to say that God’s judgments are unsearchable. The word, “judgment” carries a judicial sense to it. It can mean “condemnation of wrong, the decision (whether severe or mild) which one passes on the faults of others” (Outline of Biblical Usage). We have no right to judge God for what He does, including His judgment of the sins of men or His choosing to show mercy to some who deserve His judgment. His “ways” or actions are beyond our comprehension. His thought processes are out of our realm of understanding. Isaiah confirmed this reality when he wrote, “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the Lord. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT).

Paul even uses the words of Isaiah to support his point. “Who is able to advise the Spirit of the Lord? Who knows enough to give him advice or teach him? Has the Lord ever needed anyone’s advice? Does he need instruction about what is good? Did someone teach him what is right or show him the path of justice?” (Isaiah 40:13-14 NLT). In verse 35, Paul even pulls in the thoughts of Elihu, one of Job’s well-meaning friends. “If you are good, is this some great gift to him [God]? What could you possibly give him?” (Job 35:7 NLT). He also quotes the words of God given in response to Job’s questioning of His ways. “Who has given me anything that I need to pay back? Everything under heaven is mine” (Job 41:11 NLT).

God is not someone we should question. While His ways of doing things may seem odd to us or even distasteful, they are always right, just and good. There is always a method and a meaning to what may appear to us at times as His madness. He doesn’t need our advice. He isn’t in need of our counsel. He doesn’t owe us anything, including His mercy. God does not have to redeem anyone. He is not obligated to extend saving grace to any man or woman. That He does so at all should blow us away. It should leave us in awe of His incredible love, patience, and faithfulness. When Paul wrote, “For God has consigned all to disobedience” (Romans 11:32 ESV), he was saying that God was justly passing sentence on all men for their sin and rebellion against Him– “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). Every single human being has been guilty of disobedience or “obstinate opposition to the divine will” (Outline of Biblical Usage). And that includes both the Jews and the Gentiles. But God has decided to show mercy to both the Jews and the Gentiles. Because they deserved it? No. But as Paul wrote, God shows “mercy on whomever he will, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:18 ESV). His mercy and compassion have nothing to do with human will or self-effort (Romans 9:16), but are the sole prerogative of God. Which is why Paul concludes, “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36 ESV). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory.”

Salvation is a gift of God. It is based solely on the mercy of God. It has nothing to do with anything inherently good in the one who receives it. None of us deserve God’s mercy. What He chooses to do in regards to sinful mankind is completely up to Him. As God, He is free to do whatever He deems to be just and good. And all that He does, He does for His own glory. His actions always reveal His character in such a way that He is lifted up. Whenever He acts, He expresses His judgment and He does so in a perfectly just and righteous manner. When He punishes, He never does so unjustly. It is always deserved. When He shows mercy, it is never at the expense of His justice. In other words, it is never unjust or unfair. When God pardons the sins of men who believe in His Son, He doesn’t just turn His back on their sins and act as if they never happened. That would be unjust and unrighteous. Their sins deserve punishment. The crime requires sentencing and a payment of the penalty due. So God took care of the penalty with the death of His Son. He paid the price for our sins by sending His Son to die in our place. How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable are His ways! How wonderful are the ways of God!

The Footsteps of Faith.

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,  and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. – Romans 4:9-12 ESV

The “blessing” Paul refers to is the one mentioned in the previous two verses, where he quoted directly from Psalm 32:1-2: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” This blessing includes the forgiveness of sin because of the atonement or payment for those sins by another, leaving the one forgiven with no guilt or further remnants of that sin. Paul says that remarkable blessing is not just reserved for the Jews, those he refers to as “the circumcised.” Because the blessing is available to all through faith, just as Abraham’s righteous standing was made possible by his faith. Paul makes it clear that the point at which God declared Abraham righteous was long before he had been given the command by God to institute the right of circumcision among his people. “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:11 ESV). In other words, Abraham’s right standing before God had nothing to do with circumcision. But circumcision had everything to do with his right standing before God. It was to be a symbol of his unique relationship with God that was based on his faith in God. Being circumcised did not make anyone right with God, any more than being baptized makes someone right with God. Both were intended to be outward signs of something that had taken place inwardly. The Jews had turned circumcision into the source of their righteousness, when God had intended it as the sign of their righteousness. Circumcision for God without faith in God was worthless. It meant nothing. Paul stated this truth earlier when he wrote: “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:29 ESV). Over in the book of Jeremiah, God prophetically declared, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh…all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart” (Jeremiah 9:25, 26 ESV).

Paul tells us that God declared Abraham righteous prior to the covenant of circumcision because He intended Abraham to be the father of all who believe “without being circumcised.” The righteousness God was looking for was to based on faith, not works; belief, not obedience to a command. It was not a righteousness that could be earned. It was not a standard to be lived up to. It was to be “a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” In plain language, it was to be a work of God, not man. It was to provided by God, not man. So that no man could boast or brag.

Back in the book of Jeremiah, we read the words of God as He pleads with His people to return to Him. “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts! Do not waste your good seed among thorns. O people of Judah and Jerusalem, surrender your pride and power. Change your hearts before the Lord, or my anger will burn like an unquenchable fire because of all your sins” (Jeremiah 4:3-4 NLT). The people of Judah were guilty of unbelief. They had failed to trust God and believe His promises concerning them. They had gone after other gods. They had made alliances with other nations. They had broken His commands and lived in the false security of their status as God’s chosen people. But what God was calling them to do was impossible for them. They would not be able to surrender their pride and power. They would not have what it was going to take to change their hearts. And God’s punishment was going to come. The would experience His wrath against their sin and rebellion. But God would not annihilate them. He would preserve them. And while He would allow them to fall to their enemies and experience 70 years in captivity, He would also restore them to their land and reestablish them as a people. Why? Because He had made a promise to Abraham. God had told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ESV). He had also promised, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7 ESV). But in the book of Galatians Paul makes a clarifying interpretation to these passages. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16 ESV). In other words, God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham was going to be fulfilled through one of his descendants – specifically, Jesus. God made His promise to Abraham long before He gave the law to the people of Israel. And so Paul concludes: “The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses. God would be breaking his promise. For if the inheritance could be received by keeping the law, then it would not be the result of accepting God’s promise. But God graciously gave it to Abraham as a promise” (Galatians 3:17-18 NLT).

Our righteousness is made possible by faith in the promise of God, just as it was for Abraham. I am not made right with God by trying to live up to God’s standards. I am made right with Him when I recognize my complete inability to meet His criteria for righteousness and place my faith in His plan for my salvation: His Son’s death, burial and resurrection. He died to pay the penalty for my sins. He rose again to prove that His sacrifice was acceptable to God. He took on my sin and gave me His righteousness. All men are made right with God through faith in His Son. And when we place our faith in God’s plan of salvation, we walk in the footsteps of faith laid down by Abraham all those years ago. The righteous shall live by faith.

Romans 3

Good News. Bad News.

Romans 3

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. – Romans 3:22 NLT

We’ve all heard plenty of “good news – bad news” jokes. They usually start out with the statement, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.” In a way, that is exactly what Paul is saying in his letter to the Roman believers. Except that his message was anything but funny. He had good news for them, which they had already heard and believed. But he also wanted to make sure they grasped the bad news that “all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9b NLT). Paul was addressing a common misconception that still exists today. In his day, the Jews believed that because they were the chosen people of God, they were exempt from God’s wrath. They saw themselves as a privileged people and because of their position as God’s chosen race, He was somehow obligated to protect and preserve them, regardless of what they did. They put so much stock on the faithfulness of God, that they twisted it into some kind of blind allegiance to them, that would overlook their failures and bless them, in spite of them. In other words, their sins would somehow be ignored by God, just because they were His chosen people.

But Paul doesn’t mince words when he exposes the fallacy in their argument, and he uses the writings of King David to make his point. “No one is righteous – not even one. No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away, all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one” (Romans 3:10-12 NLT). That is the bad news. And just to make sure that there is no confusion as to just how bad the bad news is, Paul reinforces it with these familiar and powerful words: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT). You can’t make it any clearer than that. Everyone has sinned. There are not exemptions and exceptions. All men have failed to live up to God’s glorious standard. The Jews, because they had been given the law by God, somehow thought that was enough. Earlier in this letter, Paul had addressed the Jews directly. “You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law” (Romans 2:17-18 NLT). But here’s the problem: “You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonor God by breaking it” (Romans 2:23 NLT). They knew the law, but didn’t keep it. They knew what God expected, but failed to meet those expectations. And they stood condemned, just like the Gentiles.

But here’s the Good News. In spite of all men, whether Jew or Gentile, having sinned and fallen short of God’s righteous standard, “Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty of our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood” (Romans 3:24-25 NLT). All men can be made right with God, not by keeping the law, but by believing in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Their sinfulness was rebellion against a holy God, and Romans 6:23 tells us that the penalty for that rebellion was death. Yet Jesus paid our penalty in full with His own life. He took our place. He bore our burden. He died the death we deserved and then made available to us a righteousness we could never have achieved on our own. He made us right with God. “He declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus” (Romans 3:26b NLT). That is incredibly Good News. And it all that much greater when we realize just how bad the bad news really is. None of us deserve God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness. None of us can boast, because we have done nothing to be accepted by God. The restoration of our right standing with God is all the result of His grace and Christ’s sacrifice. “We are made right with God through faith” (Romans 3:28 NLT). Now, that truly is Good News!

Father, never let me take for granted the Good News about Jesus Christ. Don’t let me ever assume that I somehow deserved Your grace and mercy. Keep my former sinful state seared into my brain. Yes, I am forgiven, redeemed and restored to a right relationship with You. But don’t ever let me forget that it was my sins that sent Jesus to the cross. It was for my sins that He died. My sins required that You give up Your own Son and that He willingly sacrifice His own life. I deserved death, but He took my place. My condemnation was real. My guilt was deserved. But I am right with You, because of what Jesus did for me. Thank You. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men