Unexpected and Unaccepted.

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written,

“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” – Matthew 11:7-19ESV

John had questions for Jesus, but Jesus had no questions regarding John. He was not put off by John’s inquiries regarding His identity, because He knew that John was unaware of the exact nature of His ministry and mission. So, as soon as John’s disciples left, Jesus turned to the crowd and presented a defense of John. First of all, Jesus asked the people why they had flocked to see John in the wilderness. What had been their motivation? Was it to see a man who was driven by the wind and susceptible to the whims of culture? No, John had been a strong-willed and passionate speaker who was not afraid to preach a message of repentance to the people of Israel. Matthew described him as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (Matthew 3:3 ESV).

Secondly, Jesus asked if the crowds had pursued John because he dressed in fine clothes and was a man of means. Of course, the answer was no. According to Matthew’s earlier description of John, he “wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4 ESV). John wasn’t a wealthy or powerful man. He had no reputation as a man of influence or learning. So, that brings Jesus to ask His third and final question: “What then did you go out to see? A prophet?” (Matthew 11:9 ESV). And the answer to that question was a resounding, “Yes!” That exactly what the people believed John to be. And he was. Jesus confirmed John’s prophetic role and even added that he was “more than a prophet.” What did Jesus mean by that statement? John was a spokesman for God just like all the Old Testament prophets had been. But there had been a 400-year silence between the time of the last prophet and the day when John had begun his ministry. And when John had showed up on the scene to break that silence, he had been the fulfillment of prophecy himself. That is what set him apart from all the other prophets. Jesus paraphrased Malachi 3:1 when he said:

“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
    who will prepare your way before you.’ – Matthew 11:10 ESV

John was the God-ordained forerunner of Jesus, having been given the sole responsibility and privilege of announcing the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. And by quoting this Old Testament passage, Jesus was declaring His role as the Messiah and John’s role as the prophet who would prepare the way before Him.

Later on in the book of Malachi, the prophet wrote of the return of Elijah the prophet.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

John had come in the spirit of Elijah, calling the people to prepare for the coming Kingdom and to accept the newly arrived Messiah. And Jesus declared that “he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:14 ESV). But the people had refused to believe the words John had spoken. Yes, many of them had chosen to be baptized by John, but they would end up refusing to accept Jesus as their Messiah. The majority of the Jewish nation would turn against Him, denying Him as their Lord and Savior.

Jesus declared John’s superiority because he had been given the one-of-a-kind task of preparing the way for the Messiah. As far as Jesus was concerned, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). That’s extremely high praise, when you consider men like Abraham, Moses, and David. John was far greater than any of them, not because of anything he had done, but because of the extreme importance of his role as the herald for the coming Messiah. But Jesus added an important and, somewhat confusing statement regarding John. He said that “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). John’s ministry was an earthly one. He was relegated to announcing the arrival of the Kingdom, but was not yet a part of it. He had a very important role to play on earth, but Jesus lets His audience know that those who inherit the Kingdom will be far greater than John. Jesus is not saying that there will be degrees of worth in heaven. If anything, He is insinuating that even the least – the prostitutes, tax collectors and other worthless sinners in this life – who place their faith in Him and inherit eternal life, will be greater than John. John got to proclaim the coming Kingdom, but those who participate in it will have the greater reward.

Next, Jesus turned His attention to those in His audience, comparing them in not-so-flattering terms to “children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates” (Matthew 11:16 ESV).

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ – Matthew 11:17 ESV

In essence, Jesus is accusing the Israelites of rejecting Him because He refused to dance to their tune or react in the way they had expected. They were like spoiled children who had their view of how the Messiah should appear and what He should do when He did. And Jesus didn’t meet their demands. So,they rejected Him. They were critical and impossible to please. That’s why Jesus describes them as having “neither eating nor drinking,” and the people wrote him off as having been possessed of a demon. If John was the forerunner of the Messiah, the people wondered why he dressed and ate the way he did. He was an aesthetic, set himself apart and limited his diet, so the people labeled him as demon-possessed. But Jesus had come along, and rather than being a separatist, He ate and drank with sinners, so the Jews described Him as a glutton and a drunkard. Not only that, He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. This was not the kind of Messiah they were expecting.

But Jesus ends His address to the crowd with a simple statement:

Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” – Matthew 11:19 ESV

Time would tell. The future would vindicate the lifestyle choices of John and Jesus. They were acting in unity with God and in complete submission to His will. While the people would end up rejecting Jesus as their Messiah, His status as the chosen one of God was not in jeopardy. He was no less the Messiah because of their stubborn refusal of Him. And the day will come when all mankind will realize that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords.

11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” – Revelation 5:11-13 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

Are You the One?

1 When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  – Matthew 11:1-6 ESV

For whatever reason, Matthew chose to leave out what happened when the disciples went on their mission. He seems less interested in what the disciples ended up doing, than with what Jesus continued to accomplish as part of His messianic activities. Remember, Matthew is out to prove that Jesus is the Messiah so, it makes sense that he would ignore the accomplishments of the disciples. What they ended up doing was secondary in importance to what Jesus was doing and saying.

This chapter opens up with an encounter between Jesus and a few of the disciples of John the Baptist. John sits in a prison cell, by the order of Herod Antipas. His crime? Speaking out against the king’s immoral relationship with his own brother’s wife, Herodias. She had been incensed by John’s remarks and arranged to have him imprisoned. From his cell, John sent two of his own disciples to ask Jesus an interesting question. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3 ESV). Was John’s question an indication of a lagging faith or a growing impatience? Was he beginning to doubt whether Jesus truly was the Messiah? It is likely that he was more than a bit confused by his imprisonment, wondering how it fit into the coming of the Kingdom as he had been preaching. Was he simply wondering when Jesus was going to begin acting like a Messiah and usher in His Kingdom? The passage doesn’t tell us what was going on in John’s mind, but based on the tone of his question, it seems as if John is struggling with both doubt and impatience. After all, he is sitting in a prison cell and Jesus is traveling around the countryside drawing crowds, but also drawing the anger and animosity of the nation’s religious leadership. If John is suffering from a case of doubt, who can blame him? While he had been chosen by God as the one to pave the way for the Messiah, he did not have in-depth knowledge of just how Jesus’ ministry would unfold. I don’t think John is wrestling with his imprisonment as much as he is with his expectations of just what should be happening outside the walls of his prison cell. Like all Jews, he had an image of what the coming of the Messiah would look like. John had preconceived ideas of what Jesus should be doing and he was probably wondering just what was going on.

When the two disciples arrived and presented John’s question to Jesus. In his Gospel, Luke tells us that “at that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he restored sight to many who were blind” (Luke 7:21 NLT). And Matthew states that Jesus responded to John’s disciples with a command to return to John and describe what they were seeing.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” – Matthew 11:4-5 ESV

John was the herald, the offical God-appointed prophet, tasked with announcing the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah and His Kingdom. But even John had to have been a little confused by all that was going on. His concept of the Kingdom was markedly different than what was going on outside the walls of his prison cell. The activities of Jesus were not lining up with his expectations.

And Jesus wants John to understand that His immediate mission was far different than any of the Jews had expected. If you recall, John had a fairly strong view of Jesus’ role as the Messiah. Part of his message to the people entailed a fairly clear vision of Jesus as judge.

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. – Matthew 3:12 ESV

He had told the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7 ESV). So, in John’s mind, Jesus should have been taking names and dishing out some well-deserved wrath on those who stood opposed to Him. And this encounter between Jesus and John’s disciples opens up a section in which Matthew begins to reveal that rejection of Jesus by the Jews. Which is why, when Jesus said, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Most would end up finding Jesus offensive and reject not only His message of salvation, but His claim to be the Messiah of Israel.

Jesus seems to be trying to assure John that His miracles were evidence of His authority and power, and that His message of Good News spoke of His agenda. Jesus encouraged John to stay faithful in the face of adversity. There were going to be bumps along the road. Not everyone was going to believe in Jesus or His message, just as not everyone believed in or took advantage of John’s baptism. In refusing John’s baptism, the Pharisees and experts in religious law were really rejecting God’s plan for them and that seems to be the real message of this passage.

The people to whom John had been sent and to whom Jesus was ministering were cynical and skeptical of this new message. They were attracted to Jesus’ miracles, but didn’t know quite what to do with His message. He tended to challenge them and raise the bar of expectation for them. He seemed to be making it harder, not easier. Jesus challenged the status quo and made them uncomfortable in their self-satisfied little worlds.

For John and all those who heard the message of Jesus, it tended to make no sense at times. It was confusing and seemingly contradictory to all that they had come to know about how to have a relationship with God. Jesus’ message was about faith in who He claimed to be – the Son of God, sent directly from the throne of God with a message of repentance and a plan of salvation for restoring man’s marred relationship with God. And the wisdom of what Jesus was saying would be proved true in time – for John and all those who chose to have faith in Him.

Jesus wanted John to know that everything was happening just as God had ordained it to happen. Yes, John was in jail, but that was no indication that the Kingdom was in trouble or that Jesus had lost His focus. John would be executed long before Jesus was tried, crucified, buried and raised again. But the disciples of Jesus would see the wisdom of Jesus’ message proved true. They would see their own lives radically changed. They would witness a literal revolution that would spread throughout the known world in a very short period of time, as the Gospel of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, exploded onto the scene and into the lives of men at Pentecost. So Jesus encourages patience and faith. Give Him time to do what He came to do, in the manner in which He came to do it. Things would never be the same again.

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

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

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

Not For the Feint of Heart.

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” – Matthew 10:34-42 ESV

The message of Jesus Christ is divisive in nature. It demands a reaction. It polarizes and stirs controversy because it is not of this world. It has already become clear that Jesus’ very presence on the earth had stirred up trouble. Satan had tried to tempt Him in the wilderness, attempting to keep Him from His appointed duties as Messiah. The Pharisees have labeled Him as a troublemaker and potential source of conflict and controversy. So, as Jesus prepared to send His disciples on their first independent foray into the world with the message of the Kingdom, He warned them about the dangers they would encounter. What they had to say would not always be well-received. But He didn’t want that to surprise or defeat them. While they must have believed that the news of the Messiah’s arrival would be met with excitement and enthusiasm, especially among the Jews, Jesus wanted them to know that His presence on earth was actually going to cause a great deal of conflict. It would divide families, pitting children against their parents, and disrupting entire households.

But Jesus wanted His disciples to know that the message of Gospel was going to end up causing a lot of strife. And at this point in their relationship with Jesus, the disciples had no way of knowing about His eventual death. They were still under the impression that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who was going to set up His Kingdom on earth – in Jerusalem. He would reign with power, just as David had. He would return the people of Israel to power and prominence. But little did they know that their Messiah was going to have to suffer and die. And after His death, resurrection and ascension, their message of the good news was going to become even more controversial.

Paul would later write of the incredible news regarding Jesus, that would become the essence of the good news he and the other apostles would bring to the world.

1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. – 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 ESV

That message would leave many incredulous and others furious. Paul would find himself under constant attack for sharing the good news regarding Jesus. He would be arrested multiple times, thrown into jail, beaten, and even stoned and left for dead. And Paul would learn the invaluable lesson that faith in Christ would require commitment and a refusal to compromise. Those who accepted the message of Jesus Christ would have to make the difficult choice between following Him and maintaining their relationships with family and friends. Because as Jesus said in His sermon on the mount, “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14 ESV).

Each and every individual who hears the Gospel will be forced to choose between this life and the life to come. They will be required to place their faith in the message of salvation from sin and death made possible through the sacrifice of the sinless Son of God. Or they will have the option of putting all their hope in this life. Jesus describes this difficult choice of accepting the Gospel message as taking up your cross. It will prove uncomfortable at times. It will result in conflict and difficulty.

But there is a reward associated with the message of Jesus Christ. The disciples would discover that their faithful obedience to their assignment from Jesus would come with some incredible benefits. And after His eventual ascension back into heaven and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, they would find themselves filled and equipped with a power like nothing they had ever experienced before. Their work would be dangerous and difficult, but they would be provided with a source of strength and wisdom beyond their wildest dreams. And the same thing would be true for all who received their message.

In their role as the messengers of Jesus, the disciples would be acting as prophets, speaking on His behalf and carrying the message of God. Those who listened to them would receive the reward of the prophet. This seems to be a reference to the good news that the prophet of God offered. Prophets tended to have two messages – one was a message of pending judgment for those who refuse to listen, and the other was a message of forgiveness and restoration to those who hear and obey the words of the prophet. In the same way, all those who would hear and obey the good news regarding Jesus would receive the reward of eternal life. And for those who receive the message of Jesus’ righteousness as the Son of God and Savior of the world, will be rewarded with His righteousness as their own.

To wrap up His message, Jesus turned His attention to those who would hear what His disciples had to say. For all those who treated His messengers with respect by offering them even a cup of cold water, would find themselves rewarded for their effort. Their kindness would be an indication of their receptivity of the messenger and their message.

The disciples of Jesus were about to enter an exciting new era in their relationship with Jesus. They would be the ones dessiminating the message and working the miracles. No longer would they be spectators. They were about to enter the game. But Jesus wanted them to know that their mission would be accompanied by difficulty. And the day was coming when He would leave them behind, returning to His Father in heaven, and assigning them with the formidable task of taking the message of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

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

Misplaced Fear.

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

In His address to His disciples, as He prepares to send them out on their first independent ministry mission, Jesus uses a number of proverbial statement that must have sounded confusing and even a bit contradictory to His audience. There were already reeling from His announcement that they were going to face persecution and even death as His emmissaries. Of course, they didn’t understand that much of what He had told them was prophetic in nature and dealing with events far into the future, long after they were gone. Jesus was addressing not only the twelve, but all those who would become His disciples after His death and resurrection. Future Christians would face persecution and difficulties of all kinds, including martyrdom. And the greatest period of persecution will happen during the period known as the Great Tribulation, just prior to Jesus’ second coming.

So, in light of His announcement that the disciples would face difficulty and possibly death, Jesus encouraged them “fear not.” Three separate times, Jesus emphasizes that they were to have no fear of those who would harrass and harm them,

So have no fear of them – Matthew 10:26 ESV

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul – Matthew 10:28 ESV

Fear not, therefore – Matthew 10:31 ESV

And knowing that His disciples would find these words difficult to obey, Jesus provided them with the reasoning that should motivate and alleviate their fears. First of all, using a proverbial statement, Jesus told them, “nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Matthew 10:26 ESV). The news that they were to share regarding His Kingdom was going to become known. They could allow their fears to silence their tongues, but the message would still become known. The news about the arrival of the Messiah would be spread one way or another, so they might as well speak up. All that they had seen Jesus do and heard Him say was to be broadcast to their fellow Jews. The Messiah had come and they were to let everyone know. And they were not to let their fear of man silence them.

And Jesus was realistic, acknowledging that there was always the real chance of death associated with their mission. Not only was there the potential for people to reject their message, there was the distinct possibility that they could take their lives. But Jesus tells them “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” His words were meant to focus the attention of the disciples on the eternal rather than the temporal. All men could do to them was kill their bodies. They could not touch their souls or impact their future destiny. Men could eliminate the disciples’ physical lives but do nothing to influence eternal life.

But while Jesus clearly told His disciples to “fear not,” He was not telling them fear nothing. They were to have a healthy fear of God.

…fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. – Matthew 10:28 ESV

Too often, we live with a misplaced fear, caring far more about men think of us or might do to us, rather than fearing the power and holiness of God. We are eternal creatures, whose souls will last long after our bodies have died and decayed. Men can harm our bodies, but they cannot touch our souls. And yet, the afterlife is far more important than our earthly life. Where we spend eternity is of greater importance than how we spend out lives on this planet. The disciples could allow their fear to keep their mouth’s shut, in hopes that they could avoid possible suffering, but Jesus wanted them to focus their attention on the future – on eternity.

The judgment of God is far greater and more devastating than anything man can do to us. He has authority over the physical bodies and the eternal desitinies of all men. So, it is much more important that we fear Him, rather than wasting our time worrying about what men might do to us. Jesus was not suggesting that a believer could lose their salvation if they failed to remain faithful. He was simply reminding the disciples that God was the ultimate determiner of men’s fate, and the eternal destiny of men was of greater importance than any temporal suffering they may face or attempt to avoid.

Jesus summarized the need for their fear of God by trying to get them to recognize His sovereign care for them.

Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. – Matthew 10:31 ESV

The God who cares for the physical well-being of birds, cares far more about the souls of men. He feeds the birds and even knows the fate of each and everyone of them. But He cares more about men. Birds and animals have no souls, but men do. And God cares deeply about the souls of every man and woman He has created. And the whole reason He sent His Son to die on the cross was in order that men and women, whose souls are condemned to hell because of sin, could be restored to a right relationship with Him. God knows us so intimately, that He has the hairs of our heads numbered. He is closely aware of every one of the billions of human beings on this planet, and He longs that their souls be preserved through faith in His Son.

But the fate of the souls of men is tied directly to their acknowledgement of Jesus as the Christ. Those who faithfully acknowledge Him as their Savior, in spite of persecution and opposition, will be acknowledged by Jesus as one of His own when they stand before God. Their willingness to face possible rejection and death on this earth for their faith, will result in full acceptance by God when they stand before Him. The disciples were to take the message of the Kingdom to their fellow Jews, knowing that they would face opposition. They were to shout their message from the rooftops, refusing to remain silent even in the face of persecution. All because they trusted that their eternal destiny was in the hands of God Almighty.

The apostle Paul would later write, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9 ESV). That is what Jesus is calling us to do. And it is not to be a one time event. Our confession of Jesus as Lord is to be ongoing, and it is something we should be willing to do before men. Our faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ should be something we are willing to broadcast to all those around us. The good news of Jesus Christ was not meant to be kept secret or hidden from others. It is to be shouted from the rooftops and proudly proclaimed to any and all. Yes, we will face rejection and ridicule. We might even face bodily harm and death. But we will be saved. Our souls are preserved by God. Our eternal destiny is secure. We have nothing to fear.

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

Sheep Among Wolves.

16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. – Matthew 10:16-25 ESV

Try to put yourself in the sandals of the disciples. It was still early in their relationship with Jesus and He has just told them that He is going to send them out on their own with the responsibility of sharing the news of His Kingdom to their fellow Jews. Not only that, He has informed them that they will be able to perform the same incredible miracles He has done. All of this must have sounded strange to them, but also a bit exciting. They were being commissioned by the Messiah and given a level of responsibility that must have seemed way above their pay grade. After all, they were simple fishermen, laborers, and tax collectors. Yet, they were being sent by Jesus and this assignment from Him must have left them with a sense of pride. But Jesus was about to tap the brakes on their enthusiasm.

He could probably tell from the looks in their eyes that they were thrilled with the prospect of being able to perform miracles. And the idea of being able to pronounce either a blessing or a curse on those to whom they spoke must have left them with a sense of power and authority that showed up on their faces. So, He threw a bit of cold water on their enthusiasm by telling them, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV). Remember, He had just described the people of Israel as “lost sheep.” Now He refers to the disciples as sheep. And that reference would have been well-understood by the twelve. Sheep were innocent and highly vulnerable animals. They were virtually defenseless, lacking no real capacity to protect themselves from harm. And Jesus told them they would find themselves like sheep among wolves. Not exactly an encouraging picture. Then He followed this up with a warning to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV). What does that even mean?

The Greek word translated as “wise” carries the idea of being prudent or shrewd. It is a kind of street savvy that would allow them to survive in a very difficult environment. But to prevent them from becoming jaded and ruthless in their behavior, Jesus warned them to maintain a sense of innocence. He did not want them to become like the wolves. Rather, they were to be aware of the wiles of the enemy, without emulating his ways.

Then Jesus dropped the bomb on them.

17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. – Matthew 10:17-18 ESV

What the disciples didn’t know was that Jesus was talking about the future. He was addressing the period of time that would take place after His death, resurrection and ascension. At this point in their relationship with Jesus, they had no way of knowing that His earthly ministry was going to end in His voilent death by crucifixion. He had yet to break that news to them. And they were completely oblivious to the fact that, upon His return to heaven, they would find themselves His ambassadors and earthly representatives, tasked with the responsibility of taking the good news of His sacrificial death on the cross to the world. They would be His witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV). And they would find themselves facing stiff resistance in the form of persecution and even death.

All of this had to have left the disciples slack-jawed and dumbfounded. All this talk of courts, flogging and being handed over to death had to have left them shaking their heads in confusion. Their eager enthusiasm would have turned to abject fear and revulsion at the thought of having to endure such things. But Jesus gave them a bit of good news, informing them that the Spirit of God would be with them, so they had no reason to be anxious. The Holy Spirit would give the words they needed to defend themselves when standing before the courts. And even if their own families end up turning against them and they find themselves facing the hatred of those who once claimed to love them, they can rest in the knowledge that God will be with them. They will be saved. This doesn’t mean they will escape death, but that they will be ultimately delivered to eternal life.

None of this probably sounded like good news to the disciples. They must have been staring at one another in disbelief and confusion, trying to comprehend all that Jesus was telling them. And it is important to keep in mind that they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, but their understanding was that He had come to set up His Kingdom on earth NOW. They were looking for a new day to dawn for the people of Israel. They had joined up with Jesus because they thought He was going to restore Israel to its place of power and prominence and they hoped to get in on the ground floor of His new administration.

But now, Jesus had clouded their vision of the future. In essence, Jesus was revealing to them that God’s agenda was far different than their own. There was a divine plan in place that was going to include not only Jesus’ first coming, but a second one that would culminate God’s plan for the redemption of mankind and the recreation of the world. But in the meantime, there were some important events that would have to take place, including Jesus’ death on the cross, His return to heaven, His rapture of the church and His Second Coming at the end of the period of the tribulation.

The disciples lived with a here-and-now mentality that focused all their attention on the period of time in which they lived. They were not thinking about the distant future. They were not concerned about things that were to happen long after they were gone. But Jesus was trying to expand their understanding and open their eyes to the reality that His mission was far greater than they imagined. The redemptive plan of God went way beyond the physical restoration of the nation of Israel as a political force on earth.

The Son of Man had come, but He was going to have to come again. And it would be at His second coming that Jesus would accomplish many of the things the disciples were expecting. They would be long gone by that time. But they were the first of many who would spread the good news regarding Jesus to the world. They would start with the Jews, but after Jesus’ death, they would be told to take the Gospel to the nations. And after the disciples were gone, the offer of salvation through Christ would be carried around the world by future disciples who would face persecution, rejection, and even death. And one day Jesus will return to complete the mission He has been given by God.

In the meantime, we are called to be like our Teacher. We are to serve as He served, love as He loved, share as He shared. And, as a result, we will suffer as He has suffered. We will be falsely accused and maligned just as He was. But we have the knowledge and reassurance that one day He is coming back. We also rest in the fact that our destiny is secure and our eternal state guaranteed by His death and resurrection. We have nothing to fear and everything for which to look forward.

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

Victory Over Death.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God,
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
    and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
    the sun shall not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:9-17 ESV

John now sees another group of individuals made up of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9 ESV). This is obviously a different group than the 144,000 mentioned in the first eight verses. John describes this group as innumerable and comprised of people from every tribe, nation and tongue. In other words, these are non-Jews or Gentiles. And while the 144,000 were located on earth, this group is in heaven “standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” So, this begs the question: Who are these people? Do they represent the church, as some have speculated? They are described as wearing white robes, waving palm branches, and crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They sound like they could be Christians, and they most likely are. But the real question is whether they comprise the church that was raptured before the tribulation began. John is at a loss as to who these people are, which is made clear when he is asked by one of the 24 elders to tell him their identity. John seems to know intuitively that the elder has the answer to his own question and so he responds, “Sir, you know.” And the elder clears up any confusion as to who this vast crowd may be.

“These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” – Revelation 7:14 ESV

While the 144,000 Jews are on earth, these individuals are in heaven, and it would seem that they are there as a result of their martyrdom. They are described as wearing white robes, a sign of their righteousness. And their righteousness is a result of the blood of the Lamb. They have been washed clean, purified by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Which indicates that they had come to faith some time during the tribulation and were put to death because of their belief in Jesus. This appears to be the same group John saw back in chapter six.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. – Revelation 6:9 ESV

They are shown holding and waving palm branches, a symbol of victory and joy. They are celebrating and worshiping their salvation. But they are also crying out for vengeance. They want to know when God will avenge their persecution and deaths at the hands of of the Antichrist.

“O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” – Revelation 6:10 ESV

They are grateful for their presence in God’s Kingdom, but they want to know when He is going to deal with those on earth who persecuted them for their faith and murdered them for the decision to follow Christ. This makes it clear that there will be many who become Christians during the tribulation, and it is likely the 144,000 witnesses who will help bring this about. These Jewish converts to Christianity will become God’s ambassadors, witnessing to the Gentile nations regarding the salvation made possible through faith in Jesus Christ, their Messiah.

But John hears what appears to be bad news. These martyrs are told that they must be patient. God will deal with all those on earth who oppose Him and who persecute His chosen ones. But that time has not yet come. The exact moment for His Son’s return to earth has not arrived. So, in the meantime, there will be additional converts to the faith and, sadly, even more martyrs, “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Revelation 6:11 ESV).

Back in chapter seven, John sees these very same individuals enjoying the protection provided by God as they stand in His presence. They serve Him day and night in His holy temple in heaven. And though, while they were on earth, they suffered greatly for their faith, they now enjoy complete safety and freedom from pain and suffering of any kind. John is told:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
    the sun shall not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat. – Revelation 7:16 ESV

Later on in this very same book, John will reveal the marvelous reality that, for those who have a relationship with Jesus Christ, eternity will be a time of great peace. There will be no more pain, suffering or sorrow of any kind.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. – Revelation 21:4 ESV

John echoes this sentiment in chapter seven as he views this scene of rejoicing taking place in the heavenly temple.

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. – Revelation 7:17 ESV

When the elder disclosed to John the identity of these people, he described them as having come out of the “great tribulation.” This the very phrase Jesus used in His Olivet Discourse when referring to the second half of the seven year tribulation.

“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV

According to the book of Daniel and the words of Jesus in His Olivet discourse, the first half of the seven years of tribulation will be marked by relative peace. The Antichrist will appear as a global political leader who brokers a peace treaty with Israel. But at the midway point or three-and-a-half years into the seven year period, he will break his covenant with Israel, unleashing a devastating persecution against the people of God. Daniel alludes to this very time in his prophecy.

“And he [Antichrist] shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” – Daniel 9:27 ESV

All of this will be revealed in greater detail as the book of Revelation unfolds. But in this vision, John is seeing the results of Antichrist’s work in the second half of the tribulation period. He will put to death countless individuals who have placed their faith in Christ. And he will persecute the Jews without mercy, all in an attempt to wipe them from face of the earth. Which raises the question: Why? What would cause the Antichrist to spend so much time and energy attempting to destroy the Jewish people? He seems to know that they are a key element behind the Lord’s eventual return. If he can eliminate them, he believes there will be no reason for Christ to come back. If there are no people to redeem and restore, there will be no purpose behind the Lord’s return. But the Antichrist is mistaken. He operates under the power and influence of Satan, but even Satan has no clue as to how all this is going to turn out. At one time, he believed he had defeated Jesus by having Him crucified. But that seeming victory was turned to defeat when God raised Jesus back to life. And there is the day coming when Satan will yet again attempt to thwart God’s plans and put an end to Christ’s return. But he will fail.

The very fact that John sees 144,000 Jews protected by God from the assault of the Antichrist shows us that God is in control of all that is going on during these days. And that John sees these martyred believers standing in the very presence of God reminds us that death is not a dead end for those who place their faith in Jesus. As Paul told the believers in Rome:

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39 ESV

Which is why the martyred saints can stand before God and shout with unabandoned joy and thankfulness:

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” – Revelation 7:12 ESV

 

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

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

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

 

Remain Faithful.

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ Revelation 2:8-11 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapThe city of Smyrna was only about 35-miles north of Ephesus. Like Ephesus, it was a wealthy and prosperous city, but also had a reputation for its wickedness and strong resistance to the gospel at the time John would have written this letter. The name Smyrna actually means “bitter.” It is translated from the Hebrew mor or myrrh, which was a fragrant perfume used in the embalming of dead bodies. The fragrance of myrrh is released when it is crushed, and this will prove to be an accurate metaphor for the little congregation of believers trying to exist within the confines of this immoral city. Jesus introduces Himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8 ESV). This designation is intended to provide the members of the church in Smyrna with encouragement, relating to them the eternal nature of the one whom they worshiped. Jesus had died, but He was alive. He had risen from the dead and was seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. He had returned to His rightful place, where He has existed for all eternity. These people were experiencing tribulation and poverty as a result of their faith, and Jesus lets them know that He is fully aware. He reminds them that they are actually rich, having received the gift of God’s grace in the form of His Son’s sacrificial death. The apostle Paul had a lot to say about the richness that comes from our restored relationship with God the Father made possible through the death of Jesus, His Son. He described he and his fellow ministers as, “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10 ESV). He also told the Corinthians that Jesus had graciously taken on human flesh and offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of men, “so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV). And James, the half-brother of Jesus, reminded his readers that God had chosen “those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5 ESV).

The believers in Smyrna were poor according to every measurable standard of their day. But Jesus wanted to remind them of the value of their relationship with Him. They had something money could not buy: a right relationship with God the Father, purchased by the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Along with their poverty, these Christians were having to endure slander from Jews living in the city. But Jesus describes these people as not being Jews at all, but instead, labels them as “a synagogue of Satan.” The apostle Paul provides us with additional insight into what Jesus is saying about these people.

28 For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. 29 No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

The local Jewish population was attacking the fledgling church, slandering its members in the community. In his commentary on Revelation, Charles C. Ryrie notes that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred in A.D. 155, and “these Jews eagerly assisted by gathering on the Sabbath wood and fagots for the fire in which he was burned” (Charles C. Ryrie, Revelation). The animosity against Christians was intense in the sophisticated society of Smyrna. Even other religious minorities like the Jews treated the believers there with contempt.

But Jesus warns them that it is going to get worse before it gets better.

Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. – Revelation 2:10 ESV

And yet, He tells them not to fear. He encourages them to remain faithful even to the point of death. In essence, Jesus is giving the church in Smyrna more bad news. They were already suffering persecution, poverty and slander. Now, He was letting them know that Satan himself was about to unleash his full fury on them, resulting in some of them ending up in prison. And Jesus lets them know that it will all be a test. This is an indication that the entire ordeal will pass through the sovereign hands of God Almighty. Satan has no power to persecute them without God’s divine permission. Satan’s intentions would be to test their faithfulness to God, using ever-more intense persecution in an  attempt to get them to abandon their hope and trust in God. But Jesus wants them to remain faithful. God will use this same test to prove their allegiance to Him. Again, the apostle Paul, who was well-acquainted with suffering and persecution, wrote:

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. – Romans 5:3-5 ESV

Jesus lets them know that their tribulation will be short in duration. It will last only ten days. There is no way to know if this is to be taken literally or figuratively. But it would seem that Jesus is attempting to juxtapose the short-term nature of their suffering with the long-term benefits of the eternal glory awaiting them.

Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. – Revelation 2:10 ESV

Even if their persecution should result in death, Jesus reminds them that death is followed by eternal life. The crown of life is not an additional reward reserved for those who go through martyrdom for their faith. It is a reference to eternal life itself. That’s why Jesus encourages them to be faithful even to the point of death. For the believer, death is not something we are to fear. As Paul put it:

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow–not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.
 – Romans 8:38 NLT

Our suffering in this life is temporary in nature. Even if that suffering should result in death, it is not the end. And our death will only result in our immediate transfer into God’s presence. Which is what led Paul to state, “we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NLT).

And Jesus closes His message to the church in Smyrna with a reminder to every church in every age:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. – Revelation 2:11 ESV

The “second death” is a reference to the great white throne judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15.

11 And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. 12 I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. 14 Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. 15 And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Jesus assures the believers in Smyrna and every other believer who has ever lived, that we will not have to worry about this judgment. We won’t be there. It is reserved for those who have refused to accept the free gift of salvation offered through faith in Jesus Christ. Those who suffer and die as a result of their faith in this life, don’t have to worry about suffering eternal death in the next life. Our eternity is secure. Jesus wanted these believers to remain strong, even in the face of persecution. He wanted them stay faithful, even if it resulted in their deaths. Jesus was not making light of their troubles, but was attempting to remind them of the magnitude of their eternal reward.

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 NLT

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

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

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

Misdirected Zeal.

37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” 40 And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying:

1 “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.”

And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. And he said:

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.” Acts 21:37-22:5 ESV

At the close of chapter seven and the beginning of chapter eight, Luke introduced us to Saul for the very first time. Luke indicated that Saul “was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison” (Acts 8:3 NLT). He was a man on a mission. He was obsessed. And he honestly thought he was doing God a huge favor by ridding the world of any and all Christians he could get his hands on. In fact, in today’s chapter, he explains the mindset behind his passionate persecution of the church.

3 I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. – Acts 22:3-4 NLT
He was highly motivated and demonstrated extreme eagerness to please and honor God through his actions. We know that when he had stood by and watched the stoning of Stephen, he not only held the coats of those who threw the stones, he “agreed completely with the killing of Stephen” (Acts 8:1 NLT). He was convinced that the killing of Christians was a good thing. He saw them as dangerous heretics and criminals who opposed the Mosaic law and the Jewish religion. But something had happened to Saul. He had a personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus and his life had been dramatically transformed and the trajectory of his life had been radically altered. He was no longer the same man.
And as he stood in the Court of the Gentiles, having been rescued by the Roman cohort, from a beating at the hands of the Jews, he recounted to the crowd just what had happened to change his life. He asked the captain of the Roman soldiers if he could be given a chance to address the crowd, the very ones who had been attempting to end his life. Paul saw this as a unique and unavoidable opportunity to share his story. And when the captain, having learned that Paul was not the radical Egyptian revolutionary he supposed him to be, allowed him to speak. And Paul addressed the crowd of Jews in their own language.
Not only did Paul address the crowd in their own language of Aramaic, he let them know that he was one of them, a Jew born in Tarsus of Cilicia. He was a Hellenistic Jew, born in the Roman-controlled region of Cilicia. Tarsus was a major city, located in what is today southern Turkey. Paul wanted the Jews in his audience to know that he was a Jew, not some upstart Greek-speaking troublemaker. And he proceeded to give them his curriculum vitae, explaining that he had a significant Hebrew heritage and a formal education that was more than a little bit impressive. Paul wasn’t bragging, but he was attempting to get his audience’s attention by highlighting his religious and educational resumes.
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel.” – Acts 22:3 NLT
He wasn’t a newcomer to Jerusalem or some kind of country bumpkin from the sticks. He had been raised in the capital city and trained under one of the most revered of all the Jewish rabbis and teachers of the day. He was well-educated and more than familiar with the religion of his forefathers. Paul had been a Pharisee. and he would later describe himself as having been one of the best of all the Pharisees.
I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. – Philippians 3:5-6 NLT
Paul had been a law-keeping, card-carrying Pharisee who had an impeccable record of human-based righteousness. He had Hebrew blood coursing through his veins and a no-holds-barred obsession with the Hebrew faith. If you looked up the word, “zealous” in the dictionary, you would have found Paul’s picture out beside it. In fact, Paul referred to himself as “being zealous for God.” The Greek word he used is zēlōtēs, and it refers to someone who burns with zeal for something, but also someone who defends and upholds something, vehemently contending for it with all his power. Paul had seen his pre-conversion mission as somehow God-ordained. But he had really appointed himself, having determined that he was doing the will of God, without having ever received his assignment from God. Paul was a self-appointed vigilante for God. He was kicking tail and taking names. His mission in life was to eliminate any and all Christians from the face of the earth – one at a time, if necessary. And Paul openly confessed, “I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison” (Acts 22:4 NLT). He had taken his job very seriously. And he had not been content to restrict his efforts to the city of Jerusalem. He had gone to the high priest and solicited formal documents that would allow him to take his little show on the road, seeking out Christians wherever he could find them.
Back in chapter eight, Luke recorded that “A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.) But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison” (Acts 8:1-4 NLT). And he had received official papers giving him permission and power to search and destroy all Christians found in the city of Damascus.
I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished. – Acts 22:5 NLT
And he challenged his listeners to fact-check his claim by talking to the high priest himself. He would corroborate the authenticity of his story.
But this is where his tale takes a dramatic turn. He had set them up. They were on pins and needles, having heard him share some insights into his life story that none of them would have ever guessed in a million years. Here was a former Pharisee and student of the famous Gamaliel, and he had just been accused of teaching against the law of Moses and of desecrating the temple by bringing uncircumcised Gentiles into the area reserved only for Jews. How could he have done such a thing? What had forced this Pharisee to abandon his Jewish faith and turn his back on his own people? At this point, the crowd is far less interested in beating Paul, as they are in hearing what he has to say. They were mesmerized and intrigued. And Paul was going to take advantage of their rapt attention to share the most dramatic and unexpected part of his story. He had been one of them. He had grown up in the same culture and under the same conditions as they had. He had been circumcised, taught in the synagogue, attended the various feasts and festivals, trained as a Pharisee, and emersed in the rights, rituals and religious rules of Judaism. So, what had happened? That’s where Paul will pick up his story:
“As I was on the road, approaching Damascus…” – Acts 22:6 NLT
Remember. He had been on a mission. He thought he was acting on behalf of God. He had truly believed he was doing God a favor. He was zealous and energetic in his efforts. He had been determined and disciplined to carry out his mission. And, like the people standing in the crowd, listening to his words, Paul had been convinced that he was right. He had fully believed that his agenda had been God’s agenda. But he was in for a big surprise and so were they.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

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

 

Rescued by God.

1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” Acts 12:1-11 ESV

In the preceding chapter, Luke mentioned the famine taking place in the land of Judea. This devastating natural disaster had left the congregation in Jerusalem in a state of great need and physical suffering. So much so, that an effort was made on the part of the new Gentile converts to raise funds to send to the church in Jerusalem to assist them in their time of need. Luke records that Barnabas and Saul made a trip to Jerusalem to deliver the generous gift of the Gentile church.

29 So the believers in Antioch decided to send relief to the brothers and sisters in Judea, everyone giving as much as they could. 30 This they did, entrusting their gifts to Barnabas and Saul to take to the elders of the church in Jerusalem. – Acts 11:29-30 NLT

But chapter 12 presents an even greater problem taking place back in Jerusalem. The persecution of the church was continuing to increase in magnitude and intensity. Now, Herod, the pseudo king of the Jews, who had been appointed by Rome, was getting in on the act. Herod Agrippa I was part-Jewish, but was greatly disliked by the Jewish people because of his close association with the Roman emperor Gaius, who had given him his position. In an effort to curry favor of the Jewish people, Herod used his political office to carry out attacks on the church, even going so far as to have James, the brother of John, executed. And when he saw how much this pleased the Jews, he made plans to do the same thing to Peter. The murder of James, one of the original apostles and a leader in the Jerusalem church, would have had a devastating impact on its members. And, while the news of his death would have been surprising and unexpected, Jesus Himself had predicted it. Years earlier, while Jesus was still on the earth, James and his brother, John, had come to Jesus with a request.

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came over and spoke to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do us a favor.”

36 “What is your request?” he asked.

37 They replied, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”

38 But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?”

39 “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”

Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering.” – Mark 10:35-39 NLT

Now, James was dead. And Peter was next. At least, that was Herod’s plan. It was as if his plan was to eliminate the leadership of the church, one man at a time. And he was serious about it, having Peter arrested and thrown in jail.

This entire section of the Book of Acts provides us with an important interlude or break that separates the spread of the church to the Gentiles, as recorded in chapter 11, with the trip of Saul and Barnabas to Cyprus, where they continued their evangelistic efforts among the Gentiles. As the gospel made its way into the world, the heat in Jerusalem was intensifying and the rejection of the gospel by the Jews was becoming increasingly volatile and violent. Yes, there had been thousands of Jews who had come to faith in Jesus, but as a nation, both politically and religiously, they were standing opposed to Jesus’ claim to be their Messiah. John, the brother of James, recorded the nature of Israel’s rejection of Jesus, illustrated in their corporate refusal to accept Him as their Messiah.

37 But despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him. 38 This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted:

Lord, who has believed our message?
    To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?”

39 But the people couldn’t believe, for as Isaiah also said,

40 “The Lord has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their hearts—
so that their eyes cannot see,
    and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
    and have me heal them.”

41 Isaiah was referring to Jesus when he said this, because he saw the future and spoke of the Messiah’s glory. 42 Many people did believe in him, however, including some of the Jewish leaders. But they wouldn’t admit it for fear that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue. 43 For they loved human praise more than the praise of God. – John 12:37-43 NLT

Now, years later, and long after Jesus had been put to death by the joint efforts of the religious authorities of Israel and the Roman government, His disciples were facing the same threat of execution. But the hardness of the hearts of the people of Israel, while disappointing, had a purpose. It opened up the door to the Gentiles. Because of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, the gospel was taken to non-Jews, so that they might enjoy the righteousness and redemption provided by faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. And Paul, himself a devout Jew, would later write that Israel’s rejection of Jesus would not be permanent in nature.

11 Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves. 12 Now if the Gentiles were enriched because the people of Israel turned down God’s offer of salvation, think how much greater a blessing the world will share when they finally accept it. – Romans 11:11-12 NLT

This was all part of God’s divine plan. Had the Jewish nation, as a whole, not turned its back on Jesus, the persecution and scattering of the church would not have taken place. But it did, because that was the way God had ordained it. Even Peter’s arrest, while clearly the decision of Herod, was part of God’s sovereign, preestablished will.

Luke tells us that when Peter was arrested, the rest of the church got busy lifting him up in prayer. They feared for the worst. James was dead, and they had no reason to expect that the same thing would not happen to Peter. So, they took their need to God. Luke doesn’t tell us what they prayed, but we can easily assume that they pleaded for God to spare Peter’s life and to deliver him from the hands of Herod. And God did just that. The story of Peter’s deliverance provides us with a startling, but often overlooked reminder of God’s power. Herod, the king of the Jews, who had the full authority of the Roman empire behind him, had placed Peter in jail and had every intent to put him to death. And Luke tells us that, on the very night he had determined to carry out his plan, God stepped in. And He did so in a dramatic and memorable way. Peter was sound asleep, chained to two Roman solders, when suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared, filling the cell with dazzling light. Luke doesn’t tell us what happened to the two guards, but they were either paralyzed or, perhaps, even killed by the angel. All we know is that Peter’s chains dropped off and, after having gotten dressed, he walked out of the prison a free man. And the whole time this was going on, Peter thought he was dreaming. It wasn’t until he had made his way out of the prison complex and the angel suddenly disappeared, that Peter realized that what had happened was real and not a dream.

“Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” – Acts 12:11 ESV

God had much more for Peter to do. His work on behalf of the kingdom was not yet complete. In John 21, we have Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s death, but this was not the time or the place. Herod, even as powerful as he was, stood powerless before God Almighty. His execution of James, could not have happened without God’s approval. We don’t know why God allowed James to die by the sword, any more than we know why God allowed Stephen to be stoned to death. And God is not obligated to explain Himself to us. But we can rest in the fact that God, in His sovereign will and almighty power, was in full control of all the circumstances surrounding His church. He was going to use each and every event – the good, the bad and the ugly – to accomplish His divine will for the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. And as we will see later on in this same chapter, God would eventually deal with Herod, revealing that no one stands outside of or aloof from God’s sovereign hand and righteous judgment.

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

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

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

A Changed Man.

 19 For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. Acts 9:19-25 ESV

Saul was a man of action. Once he got his sight and his strength back, he was back at it again. But this time, his mission in life had a distinctively different direction to it. He was a changed man. He had come to know Jesus, in a very real and personal way. The very one Saul had discounted as dead and had viewed as nothing more than a cause célèbre on which the disciples were building their religious revolution. No, he had discovered that Jesus was anything but dead. This Galilean whose name was causing so much trouble for the Jewish religious leaders, was actually alive and had appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul had been blinded by His glory and convicted by His words: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5 ESV). It is interesting to note that Jesus’ words to Saul were few in number. And what is particularly fascinating is what Jesus doesn’t say. He never claims to be the Messiah. He doesn’t offer Saul living water or eternal life. He doesn’t speak to Saul about his need to be born again. Once Jesus had introduced himself to Saul, He simply said, “But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:6 ESV). Nothing more, nothing less. Short and sweet. But they made an impact on Saul. The whole experience left Saul more than just physically blind. He was spiritually rocked. His religious sensibilities had been shattered. All he knew to be true had been turned on its ears. And while he found himself unable to see, he had a new insight and spiritual eyesight he had never had before. 

The only other words we have recorded by Luke that reveal what was said to Saul are those spoken by Ananias.

“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 9:17 ESV

And the next thing we know, Saul is proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus, giving proof that He really was the Son of God. His words confounded the Jews. His message confused them. They had a difficult time reconciling what Saul was saying with the reputation that had preceded him. Rather than defending Jesus as the Messiah, he should have been apprehending Christians. But Luke tells us, “Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful, and the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah” (Acts 9:22 NLT).

In these verses, we get a glimpse into Saul’s personality. He was an intense individual who had a strong inner drive. He was determined and disciplined. It’s what made him so good at his job as a Pharisee and as a persecutor of the church. And now that he was a follower of Christ, he had the extra-added incentive of the indwelling Holy Spirit. God had taken this hard-driving, passionate, and self-motivated man and transformed him into a Spirit-filled, heat-seeking missile for the cause of Christ. Luke’s description of the early days of Saul’s conversion provide us with a teaser of what the rest of his life would look like. God had redeemed Saul’s zeal and inner drive. Those very same qualities that Saul had used to persecute Jesus and His church, God would now use to proclaim Jesus and build the church.

It didn’t take long before Saul found himself on the receiving end of the persecution he used to mete out. Now, he was the hunted. Luke simply tells us that “some of the Jews plotted together to kill him” (Acts 9:23 NLT). They wanted him dead and they set guards at all the gates of the city to watch for him so they could murder him. But Saul escaped. And he would later provide further details regarding his escape, revealing that the Jews had even enlisted the aid of the local city officials in their plot to have him killed.

32 When I was in Damascus, the governor under King Aretas kept guards at the city gates to catch me. 33 I had to be lowered in a basket through a window in the city wall to escape from him. – 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 NLT

What Luke provides us with in these verses is a summary or abridged version of Saul’s conversion. Later, Saul, writing under his Greek name, Paul, would provide more detail to all that had happened in those days.

15 But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him 16 to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles.

When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being. 17 Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus.

18 Then three years later I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter, and I stayed with him for fifteen days. 19 The only other apostle I met at that time was James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I declare before God that what I am writing to you is not a lie. – Galatians 1:15-20 NLT

 In his Acts account, Luke does not include Saul’s detour into Arabia. But according to Saul, after his conversion, there was a period of time when he went into the wilderness and then returned to Damascus. And it would be three years before he made his trip to Jerusalem, recorded by Luke in the following verses of this chapter.

It was most likely during his time in the wilderness of Arabia, that Saul received additional insight from the Holy Spirit regarding his mission and commission. Saul would arrive back in Damascus fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and he would be fully prepared to defend that belief, even if it cost him his life. And this determination would not fade with time. Luke states, “Saul increased all the more in strength” (Acts 9:22 ESV). He grew stronger in his faith. His assurance that Jesus truly was the Messiah and that He alone was the means by which men could be made right with God, grew stronger with each passing day. We aren’t told what happened during Saul’s days in the Arabian wilderness, but we can easily assume that it had been Spirit-directed and had been filled with further insight from Jesus Himself. Saul most likely wrestled with God, debating with Him about Old Testament passages and receiving direct insight from God regarding the many prophetic passages that spoke of the Messiah. Saul received a theological education from the Godhead. And when he showed back up in Damascus, he was fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. And his determination regarding that matter would grow stronger over time. Saul would not relent. He would never retreat from his belief that the good news of Jesus Christ was real and needed to be shared with any and all. Which is what he would later write in his letter to the Romans.

16 “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. 17 This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Romans 1:16–17 NLT

Saul had met Jesus. He had received the Holy Spirit of God. He had been chosen as an instrument for God. And his life would never be the same again. He had a new mission in life. He had a new purpose for life. And all that had come before, all that he had accomplished up until that time, had all become futile and pointless. His Jewish citizenship, his membership in the sect of the Pharisees, his education and his many accomplishments were nothing when compared to his newfound knowledge of Jesus as his Savior.

5 “I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.

I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” – Philippians 3:5-8 NLT

 

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

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

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