A Call to Commitment

54 Now as Solomon finished offering all this prayer and plea to the Lord, he arose from before the altar of the Lord, where he had knelt with hands outstretched toward heaven. 55 And he stood and blessed all the assembly of Israel with a loud voice, saying, 56 “Blessed be the Lord who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised. Not one word has failed of all his good promise, which he spoke by Moses his servant. 57 The Lord our God be with us, as he was with our fathers. May he not leave us or forsake us, 58 that he may incline our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his rules, which he commanded our fathers. 59 Let these words of mine, with which I have pleaded before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, and may he maintain the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel, as each day requires, 60 that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other. 61 Let your heart therefore be wholly true to the Lord our God, walking in his statutes and keeping his commandments, as at this day.” 

62 Then the king, and all Israel with him, offered sacrifice before the Lord. 63 Solomon offered as peace offerings to the Lord 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. So the king and all the people of Israel dedicated the house of the Lord. 64 The same day the king consecrated the middle of the court that was before the house of the Lord, for there he offered the burnt offering and the grain offering and the fat pieces of the peace offerings, because the bronze altar that was before the Lord was too small to receive the burnt offering and the grain offering and the fat pieces of the peace offerings.

65 So Solomon held the feast at that time, and all Israel with him, a great assembly, from Lebo-hamath to the Brook of Egypt, before the Lord our God, seven days. 66 On the eighth day he sent the people away, and they blessed the king and went to their homes joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the Lord had shown to David his servant and to Israel his people. 1 Kings 8:54-66 ESV

After Solomon had finished his prayer of dedication for the temple, he turned to address the crowd of spectators who had gathered to witness this auspicious occasion. But it’s interesting to note what the author of 1 Kings leaves out of his description of this event. For some strange reason, he chose to ignore what appears to be a rather significant meteorological phenomenon. Evidently, the close of Solomon’s prayer was accompanied by an extremely powerful sign from heaven that would have been hard to miss or misinterpret. And, fortunately, the book of 2 Chronicles fills in the gaps, providing a detailed description of exactly what happened.

When Solomon finished praying, fire flashed down from heaven and burned up the burnt offerings and sacrifices, and the glorious presence of the Lord filled the Temple. The priests could not enter the Temple of the Lord because the glorious presence of the Lord filled it. When all the people of Israel saw the fire coming down and the glorious presence of the Lord filling the Temple…– 2 Chronicles 7:1-3 NLT

Solomon had been kneeling before the bronze altar that stood in the courtyard, outside the entrance to the temple. Hiram had constructed. On it, there had been placed the bodies of the sacrificial animals which had been dedicated to God. When Solomon closed his prayer,  fire came down from heaven and completely consumed the carcasses of the animals. At the same time, the glory of the Lord filled the temple, most likely in the form of a dark cloud. God had heard the prayer of Solomon and signaled His answer in a powerful and demonstrative way. By consuming the sacrifices, God deemed them to be acceptable. By filling the Holy of Holies with His Shekinah glory, He placed His seal of approval on the temple itself. And this unexpected display of power made a powerful impression on the people.

…they fell face down on the ground and worshiped and praised the Lord, saying,

“He is good!
    His faithful love endures forever!” – 2 Chronicles 7:3 NLT

They were blown away by what they witnessed. And their amazement turned to shouts of praise as they reflected on God’s goodness and unfailing love. He had graciously deemed to accept their sacrifices and to grace the temple with His presence. And they were overjoyed at being able to witness this mind-blowing demonstration of HIs covenant commitment to them. Solomon put into words what the people were thinking.

“Praise the Lord who has given rest to his people Israel, just as he promised. Not one word has failed of all the wonderful promises he gave through his servant Moses. – 1 Kings 8:56 NLT

Their very presence in the land was evidence of God’s faithfulness. Hundreds of years earlier, He had made a promise to Moses that He would give the people of Israel the land of Canaan as their inheritance. And that promise had been a reiteration of the one He had made to Abraham centuries before that.

Speaking to the audience gathered before him, Solomon expressed his hope that God would show Himself just as faithful to them as He had been to their ancestors. But he also declared his understanding that, besides God’s abiding presence, they would need His divine assistance to remain faithful themselves. He knew that, without God’s help, they were powerless to live in obedience to commands outlined in the Mosaic Law.

“May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our ancestors; may he never leave us or abandon us. May he give us the desire to do his will in everything and to obey all the commands, decrees, and regulations that he gave our ancestors.” – 1 Kings 8:57-58 NLT

As a people, they were completely dependent upon God for all their needs. He was to be their provider, sustainer, and protector. And, as illustrated by the content of his prayer, Solomon was well aware that the people of Israel would falter and fail. Their hearts would wander. Their commitment to God would wain. There would be moments marked by disobedience and rebellion. So, he expressed his hope that God would not forget the content of his prayer.

“may these words that I have prayed in the presence of the Lord be before him constantly, day and night, so that the Lord our God may give justice to me and to his people Israel, according to each day’s needs.” – 1 Kings 8:59 NLT

He was asking that God faithfully fulfill His covenant commitment to them – in spite of them. And Solomon called the people to strongly assess their commitment to God as well.

“may you be completely faithful to the Lord our God. May you always obey his decrees and commands, just as you are doing today.” – 1 Kings 8:61 NLT

After the amazing display they had just witnessed, there was no reason they should ever doubt the faithfulness of God. And the proper response to such a powerful reminder would be a heartfelt commitment to remain obedient to the One who had already done so much for them. And their determination to live in faithful obedience to their good and gracious God would become a witness to the nations around them.

“Then people all over the earth will know that the Lord alone is God and there is no other.” – 1 Kings 8:60 NLT

That was the bottom line. While the temple would serve as a physical manifestation of God’s glory, their lives were meant to be a visible demonstration of how sinful men could have a relationship with a holy God. They were to be witnesses to the world of God’s gracious love and, through their adherence to His commands, they were to illustrate their submission to and faith in His divine will.

Solomon’s address to the people was followed by the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of cattle, sheep, and goats. Gallons upon gallons of blood were spilled. Countless unblemished animals were sacrificed one after the other as offerings to Yahweh. They also offered up burnt offerings, grain offerings, and the fat of peace offerings. And this went on for days – “fourteen days in all—seven days for the dedication of the altar and seven days for the Festival of Shelters” (1 Kings 8:65 NLT).

And when the festivities finally came to an end, “They blessed the king and went to their homes joyful and glad because the Lord had been good to his servant David and to his people Israel” (1 Kings 8:66 NLT)

This was a high point in the history of the Hebrew people. They had a king, just as they had always hoped for, and he was wise, powerful, and wealthy. They were living in a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity. And now, their seven-year effort to complete the temple had culminated with God’s divine seal of approval. He had graciously renewed His covenant commitment to them, and now, all they had to do was remain faithful in return.

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

Confess, Repent, and Return

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven, 23 and said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart; 24 you have kept with your servant David my father what you declared to him. You spoke with your mouth, and with your hand have fulfilled it this day. 25 Now therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant David my father what you have promised him, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your sons pay close attention to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.’ 26 Now therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you have spoken to your servant David my father.

27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! 28 Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, O Lord my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day, 29 that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you have said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers toward this place. 30 And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.

31 “If a man sins against his neighbor and is made to take an oath and comes and swears his oath before your altar in this house, 32 then hear in heaven and act and judge your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing his conduct on his own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding him according to his righteousness.

33 “When your people Israel are defeated before the enemy because they have sinned against you, and if they turn again to you and acknowledge your name and pray and plead with you in this house, 34 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and bring them again to the land that you gave to their fathers.

35 “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, 36 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk, and grant rain upon your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance.

37 “If there is famine in the land, if there is pestilence or blight or mildew or locust or caterpillar, if their enemy besieges them in the land at their gates, whatever plague, whatever sickness there is, 38 whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house, 39 then hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind), 40 that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our fathers.

41 “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake 42 (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.

44 “If your people go out to battle against their enemy, by whatever way you shall send them, and they pray to the Lord toward the city that you have chosen and the house that I have built for your name, 45 then hear in heaven their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause.

46 “If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, 47 yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ 48 if they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, 49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause 50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them 51 (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace). 52 Let your eyes be open to the plea of your servant and to the plea of your people Israel, giving ear to them whenever they call to you. 53 For you separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God.” 1 Kings 8:22-53 ESV

This prayer, offered up at the opening of the temple, provides tremendous insights into Solomon’s knowledge about God and his keen awareness of human nature. His words reveal how greatly he revered and honored Yahweh, the all-powerful God of Israel. While Solomon had built a temple that would be considered one of the wonders of the world, it was no match for the majestic and holy God of the universe. Even in all its glory and splendor, Solomon’s temple was an insufficient dwelling place for the one true God who created the heavens and the earth, and he admitted it.

“…even the highest heavens cannot contain you. How much less this Temple I have built! – 1 Kings 8:27 NLT

Solomon boldly proclaimed Yahweh’s unique nature as the one true God.

“O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in all of heaven above or on the earth below.” – 1 Kings 8:23 NLT

Yahweh was incomparable. He was without rival. All other gods were the figments of men’s imagination and, therefore, non-existent. But Israel’s God was real, and He had proven His existence through tangible acts of power, grace, mercy, and love. He was a covenant-making, promise-keeping God who always fulfilled every commitment He made. The very fact that Solomon was dedicating the temple was proof that God had kept His promise to David.

“It is Solomon your son who shall build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father. I will establish his kingdom forever if he continues strong in keeping my commandments and my rules, as he is today.” – 1 Chronicles 28:6-7 ESV

And as Solomon stood before the temple with his arms outstretched in humble supplication, he pleaded with the God of heaven, asking Him to continue to extend His mercy, grace, and forgiveness upon His people. But Solomon knew that God’s unfailing love and faithfulness was conditional. It required the faithful and obedient worship of His people. They had been set apart for His glory and were expected to worship Him and Him alone. They were to refrain from worshiping other gods. They were expected to keep His commandments and demonstrate to the world their status as His chosen people – “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6 ESV).

Solomon makes it clear that he understood God’s expectations. They were to be a people who were wholeheartedly committed to God – “servants who walk before you with all their heart” (1 Kings 8:23 ESV). And Solomon fully understood that God demanded of him the same degree of obedience. God had promised to extend David’s dynasty as long as his successors mirrored David’s faithfulness.

“You shall not lack a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your sons pay close attention to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.” – 1 Kings 8:25 ESV

Solomon knew that the presence of the temple alone was not going to be enough to ensure the ongoing favor of God. It would offer no guarantee of God’s presence and could never serve as a substitute for the faithfulness of the people. It could only serve as a place of intercession, where the people could come and offer their confessions for sins committed, declare their intentions to repent, and humbly ask God for His forgiveness.

Speaking on behalf of himself and the entire nation of Israel, Solomon prays, “May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kings 8:30 NLT).

What Solomon says next is quite revealing. And his words, while directed at God, seem to be spoken for the benefit of the people as well. As they stand in the courtyard of the newly completed temple, they can hear every word Solomon speaks, and the full import of his prayer was not lost on them.

Solomon felt the need to provide God with a series of hypothetical scenarios in which the people might find themselves needing forgiveness.

“If someone wrongs another person…” – Vs. 31 NLT

“If your people Israel are defeated by their enemies because they have sinned against you…” – Vs. 33 NLT

“If the skies are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you…” – Vs. 35 NLT

“If there is a famine in the land or a plague or crop disease or attacks of locusts or caterpillars, or if your people’s enemies are in the land besieging their towns—whatever disaster or disease there is…” – Vs. 37 NLT

“If your people go out where you send them to fight their enemies…” – Vs. 44 NLT

“If they sin against you—and who has never sinned?—you might become angry with them and let their enemies conquer them and take them captive to their land far away or near. – Vs. 46 NLT

Solomon tried to cover all the bases. He offered up a wide range of potential circumstances that reveal his astute understanding of human nature and man’s propensity to sin. He was fully aware that the nation of Israel, while set apart by God, would not always live up to its special status. So, he wanted to remind the people that, when they sinned, and they would, there was a proper and preferred response.

“…if they turn to you and acknowledge your name and pray to you here in this Temple, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel.” – 1 Kings 8:33-34 NLT

Sin was inevitable. But forgiveness was always available. It simply required confession and repentance – an admission of guilt and a willing realignment of their love, back to God alone. It didn’t matter how egregious or grievous the sin; God would forgive, as long as they came in humble repentance. And this offer of forgiveness was available to all the people of God, whether they were natural-born Jews or foreigners who had converted to Judaism.

“In the future, foreigners who do not belong to your people Israel will hear of you. They will come from distant lands because of your name, for they will hear of your great name and your strong hand and your powerful arm. And when they pray toward this Temple, then hear from heaven where you live, and grant what they ask of you. In this way, all the people of the earth will come to know and fear you, just as your own people Israel do. They, too, will know that this Temple I have built honors your name.” – 1 Kings 8:41-43 NLT

Solomon even described the worst-case scenario of the people of Israel being defeated by their enemies and exiled to a foreign land. This must have seemed like a far-fetched and unlikely concept to the people standing in the temple courtyard. After all, they lived in one of the most powerful nations on earth at that time. But Solomon prophetically poses a potential situation in which the people’s sins result in their expulsion from the land. And he reminds them that, even in that dark hour, their response should be the same: Pray, confess, and repent.

And if the worst should ever happen, Solomon begs God to honor His covenant commitment and answer the prayers of His people.

“Forgive your people who have sinned against you. Forgive all the offenses they have committed against you. Make their captors merciful to them, for they are your people—your special possession—whom you brought out of the iron-smelting furnace of Egypt.” – 1 Kings 8:50-51 NLT

Little did Solomon know that his words would be recorded for posterity. They would become permanently etched on the pages of this book and passed down from generation to generation. And hundreds of years later, when the people of Israel found themselves exiled in the land of Babylon because of their sin and rebellion against God, they would find in God’s Word a record of Solomon’s prayer and a reminder that God’s forgiveness was theirs to have – if only they would repent and return to Him.

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

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

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

The Beginning of the End

26 And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 27 And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” 30 And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same.”

32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? 38 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. 41 And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” Mark 14:26-42 ESV

As part of their Passover celebration, Jesus and the disciples closed their time together with a hymn. Then they made their way out of the city and back to the Mount of Olives, located on the opposite side of the Kidron Valley, just east of Jerusalem. There Jesus made yet another shocking announcement to His men: “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:27-28 ESV).

Jesus used a verse from the prophet Zechariah to predict the falling away of His disciples. Not only was one of them going to betray Him, but the rest would end up deserting Him. These men had been His closest companions for 3-1/2 years, yet Jesus was letting them know that the events of the next 48 hours would result in their abandonment of Him. Shocked and shamed by this less-than-flattering disclosure from Jesus, Peter spoke up and vehemently denied that it applied to him.

“Even though they all fall away, I will not.” – Mark 14:29 ESV

He refused to accept Jesus’ assessment of his loyalty, and boldly proclaimed his ever-lasting allegiance. But Peter was speaking from the point of ignorance. He had no idea what was about to take place. Even though Jesus had disclosed the fate that awaited Him in Jerusalem, the disciples had failed to grasp the full import of His words.

Jesus’ allusion to the scattered sheep ties back to His earlier declaration regarding His identity as the Good Shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” – John 10:11 ESV

What Peter refused to come to grips with was the pending death of Jesus. He could not bring himself to believe that Jesus was actually going to die in Jerusalem. With a sincere yet false sense of bravado, Peter declared that he would remain by Jesus’ side no matter what happened. But Jesus knew something Peter didn’t know: The future. And Jesus revealed to HIs well-intentioned friend that not only would he prove to be a deserter, but he would also end up being a denier.

“Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” – Mark 14:30 ESV

And, once again, the ever-eager and over-confident Peter rejected Jesus’ accusation, vociferously declaring his to-the-death commitment to Jesus.

“If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” – Mark 14:30 ESV

And Mark indicates that the other 10 disciples, not wanting Peter to get all the glory, voiced their own determination to stick with Jesus to the bitter end. But they, too, were unaware of all that was about to take place. Even that night, the intensity of the spiritual battle surrounding Jesus was going to intensify dramatically, causing each of them to scatter to the four winds.

With the words of Jesus still echoing in their ears, the disciples followed Jesus from the Mount of Olives back to the Garden of Gethsemane. In essence, they reversed their steps and headed back to the city of Jerusalem, where all the events of the next 48 hours would take place. But in the garden, Jesus took three of His closest disciples and sought out a secluded spot in which to pray. He handpicked Peter, James, and John, the same men who had witnessed His transfiguration on the mountaintop (Mark 9:2-3). On that occasion, they had seen Jesus conversing with Isaiah and Moses. This time, they would be given the privilege of listening in as Jesus spoke with His Heavenly Father. He shared with these three men the agitated state in which He found himself, declaring,  “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch” (Mark 14:34 ESV). Unlike Peter, Jesus didn’t attempt to cover up His apprehensions with bold-sounding rhetoric. He willingly shared exactly what He was feeling at that moment. In this scene, we are given a glimpse into the humanity of Jesus. He was the God-man, 100 percent God and 100 percent human. And nowhere else in Scripture do we see His human nature displayed with greater clarity.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus, our High Priest, can empathize with our pain and suffering because He endured it all. There is nothing we will face that He did not encounter during His days on this earth.

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. – Hebrews 4:15-16 NLT

As Jesus knelt in the garden that night, He felt the full weight of the burden He was about to bear. He knew all that would happen that in the hours ahead, and He was fully aware of the pain and suffering that would accompany His crucifixion. So, He called out, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39 ESV).

Jesus found Himself in a state of inner turmoil. It was only natural for His human nature to find the physical suffering He was about to endure to be something to avoid. But, as the Son of God, He knew that His full obedience to His Father’s will was necessary. Again, the author of Hebrews describes the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ mission.

…when Christ came into the world, he said to God, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings. But you have given me a body to offer.” – Hebrews 10:5 NLT

He had come to suffer and die, but that did not mean He had to enjoy the prospect of all that was about to happen. And, as Jesus prayed, He poured out His heart to His Father, displaying a deep sense of grief and foreboding. Luke records that God sent an angel to minister to Him in His agony.

…there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. – Luke 22:43-44 ESV

But as Jesus wrestled with the thought of His pending suffering and death, the three disciples slept soundly. And Jesus, finding them asleep, confronted the self-appointed ring-leader of the group.

“Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” – Mark 14:37-38 ESV

The one who had bragged that he would not fall away or deny Jesus couldn’t even manage to keep his eyes open while his Master agonized just a few feet away. On three separate occasions, Jesus returned to find His three proteges sound asleep. They meant well, but, as Jesus indicated, their spirit was willing, but their flesh was weak. They didn’t have the inner strength to counter their fleshly desires. Weariness made watchfulness impossible. And in a matter of moments, fear would overshadow any sense of faithfulness they had to Jesus.

His time of prayer having ended, Jesus woke His sleeping companions and announced that the end was about to begin.

“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” – Mark 14:41-42 ESV

And the weary disciples, still wiping the sleep from their eyes, woke to find themselves amid a living nightmare. The darkness of the night was now pierced by the flames of torches and the shouts of men. Their peaceful slumber was replaced by a chaotic scene filled with armed guards carrying swords and spears. And there, in the midst of the crowd, stood their friend and companion, Judas.

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

All Things Are Possible

14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26 And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Mark 9:14-29 ESV

The next day (Luke 9:37), when Jesus, Peter, James, and John rejoined the other disciples, they were greeted by a scene of chaos and confusion. There was a large crowd encircling the other nine disciples, who were in a heated argument with the scribes. But as soon as Jesus arrived on the scene, He became the focus of attention, drawing the crowds like moths to a flame.

Like a father who arrives home to find his children in an unexpected predicament, Jesus attempts to discern the cause of the trouble. And it doesn’t take Him long to discover that the conflict involves His disciples and one other man in the crowd. The rest of the crowd were like rubberneckers at an accident, drawn by the spectacle of it all and curious to see what was going to happen next.

When Jesus demanded to know the cause of the argument taking place, a father in the crowd spoke up.

“Teacher, I brought my son so you could heal him. He is possessed by an evil spirit that won’t let him talk. And whenever this spirit seizes him, it throws him violently to the ground. Then he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.” – Mark 9:17-18 NLT

This man had come expecting to find Jesus but instead, he had encountered the nine disciples whom Jesus had left behind. In his account of this event, Matthew describes the man as kneeling at the feet of Jesus. His actions reveal his high regard for Jesus and his belief that Jesus was capable of assisting him with his need. He had brought his son to Jesus for healing but when he had discovered Jesus to be gone, he had turned to the disciples for help.

“So I asked your disciples to cast out the evil spirit, but they couldn’t do it.” – Mark 9:18 NLT

Disappointed by his failure to find Jesus, the anxious father had turned to the disciples for help. And it seems clear from the text that these men had made a valiant effort to cast the demon from the man’s son but with no success. What makes their failure so significant is that Jesus had given all of the disciples the authority to cast out demons (Mark 3:15). And they had successfully proven their possession of that authority when Jesus had sent them out in pairs to preach, teach, and heal. Mark reports that “they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13 ESV).

And yet, on this occasion, their efforts had come up short. The argument that had ensued must have begun when the disciples started making excuses for their failed attempts at exorcising the demon. Perhaps they began to question whether this man or his son had broken a particular Mosaic law and this violation had resulted in the boy’s condition. They were obviously frustrated at their inability to exercise their authority over the demon, and were trying to figure out what was standing in their way. When all the dust had settled, they even asked Jesus, “Why couldn’t we cast out that evil spirit?” (Mark 9:28 NLT).

The scribes may have been dragged into the argument in order to explain the Mosaic Law and to give their opinions on the boy’s condition and the demon’s persistent power over him. The whole scene had quickly devolved into a shouting match, with each side pointing fingers at the other. And all the while, the boy remained demon possessed.

Into this storm of confusion and chaos, entered the only one who could bring peace and calm. Jesus, disappointed at the sordid scene taking place in front of Him, declared His frustration.

“O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” – Mark 9:19 ESV

To fully appreciate Jesus’ words, one must recall the transfiguration that Jesus had just experienced on the mountain top. For a brief moment in time, Jesus had been transformed into His future, glorified state. He had been joined by Moses and Elijah, two of the great patriarchs of the Hebrew people, and the three of them had discussed His coming “exodus” or departure from this life. It had all been a much-needed reminder that His days on this earth were coming to a close and He would soon be returning to His Father’s side. But upon His descent from the mountain, Jesus had encountered a scene of faithlessness and spiritual apostasy.

This recalls a similar scene that took place hundreds of years earlier. Moses, the great deliverer of the Hebrew people, had just spent 40 days and nights on the top of Mount Sinai. He had enjoyed an intimate communion with God and had received the Ten Commandments from the hand of God. But when He descended from the mountain, he had found the people of Israel worshiping before a false god. He had returned to a scene of chaos and confusion prompted by the faithlessness of the people of God.

Jesus, having descended from the mountain of transfiguration, was being forced to look upon a scene where faith was in short supply and the enemy was having his way among the people of God. The disciples’ inability to cast out the demon had left the boy still possessed and persecuted. But even more important, their failure of faith had left the people in a state of doubt and uncertainty.

But Jesus stepped into the darkness of the moment and focused His full attention of the state of the boy. The father provided Jesus with a blow-by-blow description of his son’s condition, explaining in great detail how relentlessly the demon had tormented his child. And you can sense his growing state of desperation as he begs Jesus for help.

“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” – Mark 9:22 ESV

At this point, he is not even sure if Jesus can do anything about his son’s condition. He is losing hope. But Jesus gently rebukes the man’s timid and half-hearted expression of faith, stating, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes” (MRK 9:23 ESV). Jesus seems to be telling the man that it is not so much a matter of if He can heal the boy, but if He will. This was less an indictment of the man’s faith, so much as it was an exposure of his lack of understanding of who Jesus was.

The father, anxious to see his son healed, cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 ESV). He desperately wanted to believe that Jesus could heal his son, but he had seen the disciples try and fail. He still harbored doubts and asked Jesus to remove any and all doubts by casting the demon from his son. And Jesus did just as the man wished. He addressed the demon directly, commanding it to leave the boy and to never return.

“You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” – Mark 9:25 ESV

And the demon obeyed, convulsing the boy one last time and leaving him in a catatonic state that made it appear as if he was dead. But Jesus raised the boy up, revealing him to be fully restored to health.

This entire scene had been a demonstration of faith. But the focus was not on the faith of the father. Jesus was exposing the faithlessness of His disciples. Matthew records that after Jesus had exorcised the demon and the disciples had asked why they had been unsuccessful, He had responded, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20 ESV).

Remember, Jesus had told the man, “All things are possible for one who believes.” The emphasis was on His own faith, not that of the father. Jesus fully believed He had the power and authority to cast out the demon, and He proved it by doing so. He knew who He was and what He was capable of accomplishing with the power He had been given by God. But the disciples were another matter. Their belief had proven insufficient. But it was not the amount of their faith that was the problem. It was their inability to understand the true source of their power. According to Jesus, all they needed was the smallest portion of faith but in the full power of God, and they could literally “move mountains.”

Their ability to cast out demons did not reside in themselves. It was not some inherent power they possessed but it was meted out to them by God. That is why Jesus told them that “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29 ESV). They had failed to understand that their earlier experience of casting out demons had been authorized by Jesus and made possible by God’s power, not their own. But they had somehow believed that they were in personal possession of that power. They had wrongly assumed that it had become permanently resident within them.

In trying to cast out the demon, they had put their faith in themselves. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, the disciples had ended up worshiping a false god: Themselves. They thought they were the possessors of power, but Jesus reminded them that even the smallest of faith placed in the power of God could produce the greatest of miracles. Jesus believed He had authority over the demon because He believed He had the power and authority of God at His disposal. His life was living proof that “All things are possible for one who believes.”

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

Sorrow Turned to Joy

19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? 20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23 In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. John 16:19-24 ESV

Seven times in just four verses, John records Jesus using the phrase, “a little while.” It is the Greek word mikron, and it refers to a small or brief space of time. Jesus basically told His disciples that it would not be much longer before He would be gone. But then He followed up that bit of bad news by assuring them that, in no time at all, they would see Him again. Rather than finding Jesus’ words encouraging, the disciples became further confused and increasingly anxious. They had no idea what He was talking about. He seemed to be speaking in riddles that left them with more questions than answers. And, while Jesus had so much more He wanted to share with them, He knew they lacked the mental and emotional bandwidth to handle it.

Jesus, always alert and aware of what was going on in His disciples’ hearts, heard them discussing among themselves.

“What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” – John 16:18 ESV

They were afraid to admit their ignorance to Jesus, so they polled one another, hoping that one of them might have a clue as to what He was talking about. But Jesus, knowing that they were dying for an explanation, graciously answered the question they were too scared to ask.

Their confusion revolved around that little Greek word, mikron. They wanted to know just how long “a little while” was going to be. In other words, they were focused on the length of time, rather than on the events themselves and their subsequent outcome. How long would it be before they could no longer see Jesus? How much time did they have left? And then, how long would they have to wait before they could see Him again?

These men were stuck on an earthly plane, unable to see behind the veil and incapable of understanding the spiritual dimension of the moment. Jesus had already told them all that was going to take place in Jerusalem, but they had failed to grasp the significance of His words.

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” – Matthew 20:18-19 ESV

Just two days before the Passover Festival was to begin, Jesus had reiterated the details concerning His fate to His disciples.

“You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” – Matthew 26:2 ESV

And later, on the Mount of Olives, just outside of the walls of Jerusalem, Jesus would add another new twist to the pending proceedings.

“You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” – Matthew 26:31-32 ESV

Jesus had spoken to them about His death and resurrection, but the news appears to have gone in one ear and out the other. It had never fully registered with them. In fact, Matthew provides powerful proof that the disciples had failed to comprehend what Jesus had told them. It seems that immediately after Jesus had announced He would be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, condemned to death, mocked, flogged, crucified, and raised on the third day, the mother of James and John approached Jesus with a request.

“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

And the text reveals that these two brothers were standing right next to their mother when she made this request on their behalf. They were hoping for positions of power and prominence in Jesus’ earthly kingdom. They believed Him to be the Messiah and were fully expecting Him to rule as the King of Israel from David’s throne in Jerusalem. Nothing of what Jesus had said to them about His death and resurrection had sunk in. And now, as He revealed to them that time was running out and His death was at hand, they were still unable to get their minds around the epic nature of what was happening around them.

And Jesus breaks the news to them that things were going to get worse before they got better.

I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. – John 16:20 NLT

The unbelieving world, comprised of the Jewish religious leaders and all those former followers of Jesus who had turned their backs on Him, would rejoice over His death. But all those who believed Him to be the Messiah would weep and mourn because His death would be proof that they had been wrong. Their hopes would be dashed. Their eager anticipation that their Savior had come would die alongside Jesus as He hung on the cross.

But Jesus gives them the good news: “You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy” (John 16:21 NLT). Their sorrow will be real, but it will also be brief. It will only last “a little while.” Just when everything appears dark and grim, something remarkable will take place. And the words of Jesus will be fulfilled. 

“…the Son of Man…will be raised on the third day.” – Matthew 20:19 NLT

Just three days after being placed in a grave and written off as a failure and a fraud, Jesus will appear to His disciples. They will see Him again. And while the period of time is significant, it pales in comparison to the reality of the resurrection. For the disciples, those three days will feel like an eternity. They will be days filled with fear, sorrow, confusion, and a growing sense of despair. All will look lost. The future will appear bleak. But then, the impossible will take place. And their sorrow will be turned into joy. They will discover the truth of the psalm written by King David.

Weeping may last through the night,
    but joy comes with the morning. – Psalm 30:5 NLT

Jesus doesn’t diminish the reality of their sorrow and suffering. Instead, He puts it into perspective by comparing it to a woman in labor. In the midst of giving birth, she suffers very real and intense pain. It is overwhelming and all-consuming. And while her labor may seem to last an eternity, it will all be over in “a little while.” And all the suffering will turn to overwhelming joy because it has resulted in the birth of a child.

“…her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world.” – John 16:21 NLT

And Jesus lets His disciples know that what they are experiencing is natural and normal, and to be expected. But like the birth of a child, their suffering and sorrow will be turned into joy and celebration when they see the miracle of “new birth” that God will bring about through the resurrection of His Son.

“So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again; then you will rejoice, and no one can rob you of that joy.” – John 16:22 NLT

Not only will they witness the supernatural transformation of Jesus from death to life, but they will also experience a spectacular alteration in their relationship with God. Things will be radically different. With Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the disciples will find themselves experiencing an intimacy with God the Father that they have never known before. With the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit, they will be able to communicate directly with God. And Jesus informs them that even the nature of their questions will change.

“In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” – John 16:23 ESV

Up until this point, the disciples had aimed all kinds of questions at Jesus. And most of their inquiries had to do with points of clarification and explanation. They rarely, if ever, petitioned Jesus for anything. Unless you include the request made by the mother of James and John. Jesus seems to be saying that the very nature of their questions is going to change. They will be less self-focused and motivated by ignorance. With the Spirit’s assistance, their questions will fall in line with God’s will and guarantee His gracious answer.

The disciples had been great at asking questions like, “when will all this happen? What sign will show us that these things are about to be fulfilled?” (Mark 13:4 ESV). They asked questions because they were looking for answers. But Jesus wants them to know that, in the future, their questions will become less focused on receiving information and more desirous of asking for God’s will to be done. The Holy Spirit will provide them with all the insight and information they will need. So, they won’t have to focus their questions on things they need to know. Instead, they can ask God for things that will further their task of making Him known.

And Jesus points out the key difference between their current line of questioning and how they will ask in the future.

“Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” – John 16:24 ESV

They will ask in His name. This means that they will ask according to the very character and nature of Jesus as the Son of God. They will make requests of God in the same way that Jesus did, in keeping with the will of God. And John wrote of this Christlike attitude of petitioning the Father in a later letter he penned.

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. – 1 John 5:14-15 NLT

All of their questions will be answered. All their requests will be in keeping with God’s will and guaranteed to come to fruition. And all their sorrow will be turned to joy.

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

Faith and Love

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13 ESV

At some point, Timothy left Thessalonica and rejoined Paul in Corinth. Upon his arrival, he had shared with the apostle some encouraging news regarding the spiritual and emotional state of the Thessalonian believers.  And upon hearing of their “faith and love,” Paul was indeed encouraged, referring to his report as “good news”(euaggelizo).

Normally, Paul used this Greek word only when referring to the Gospel message – the good news concerning Jesus Christ. In fact, this is the only place in the entire New Testament where it is not used in that way. But for Paul, news of the steadfast faith and love of the Thessalonians was directly linked to the life-transforming power of the Gospel. Their persevering faith was evidence of God’s power, made possible by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. In his first epistle, the apostle Peter reminded his readers that, because of “God’s power,” they were “being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5 ESV). God was preserving them through faith, and guaranteeing their future inheritance of eternal life. This comforting fact prompted Peter to exhort the believers to whom he wrote.

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. – 1 Peter 1:6-7 NLT

And Paul knew that the capacity of the Thessalonian believers to express love was proof that they had experienced the love of God. The apostle John clarified that those who truly loved others were exhibiting the life-changing love that God had graciously shown them.

We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:19-21 NLT

Faith and love were on display in Thessalonica and Paul could not have been more pleased. He was also encouraged by Timothy’s report that the Thessalonian believers maintained a strong love for Paul and Silas, manifesting itself in a desire to be reunited with them.

He reports that you always remember our visit with joy and that you want to see us as much as we want to see you. – 1 Thessalonians 3:6 NLT

Paul didn’t always receive a warm welcome in the many cities he visited. He knew what it was like to face rejection and had even endured physical abuse at the hands of those with whom he had shared the Gospel. So, it was comforting and encouraging to hear that the Thessalonian believers had not lost their affection for him. This was particularly meaningful to Paul when he knew that there were those who were constantly trying to undermine his authority and diminish his influence. To hear that the believers in Thessalonica had not turned their backs on him or the Gospel he had preached was especially encouraging to Paul. And Paul let them know that news of their persevering faith had brought him comfort in the midst of his own personal circumstances.

So we have been greatly encouraged in the midst of our troubles and suffering, dear brothers and sisters, because you have remained strong in your faith. – 1 Thessalonians 3:7 NLT

He had found the content of Timothy’s report to be spiritual rejuvenating.

It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord. – 1 Thessalonians 3:8 NLT

Paul was a man of prayer and, while physically separated from the believers in Thessalonica, he had been interceding for them before the throne of God.

Night and day we pray earnestly for you… – 1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT

And they were in good company because Paul made it a habit to pray for all the churches he had helped to plant. He told the church in Ephesus:

I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly… – Ephesians 1:16 NLT

He informed the Colossian church:

So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. – Colossians 1:9 NLT

And he wrote to the believers in Rome, letting them know that they were on his heart and in his prayers.

Let me say first that I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith in him is being talked about all over the world. – Romans 1:8 NLT

And Paul told the Thessalonians that his prayers for them were filled with expressions of thanksgiving to God. He was able to enter into God’s presence with gratitude and with great joy because he knew that his spiritual children in Thessalonica were thriving, even in the midst of difficulty. But along with prayers of thanksgiving to God for all that He was doing among them, Paul was also “asking God to let us see you again to fill the gaps in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT).

Paul was the consummate pastor/shepherd. He loved to see people come to faith in Christ, but he also found great joy in helping them grow up in their faith. He was an evangelist and a spiritual mentor. He shared Peter’s passion to see new believers move from spiritual infancy to maturity.

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation… – 1 Peter 2:2 NLT

Paul told the believers in Ephesus, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT). And so, Paul made the spiritual growth of the various flocks he had helped to found a high priority in his prayer life. When he couldn’t physically be present among them, he made sure he was regularly interceding on behalf of them.

And along with his prayer for permission to return to Thessalonica, Paul asked God to increase their capacity to love others.

…may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows. – 1 Thessalonians 3:12 NLT

And this love was not to be myopic, focused solely on the members of their congregation. It was to flow outside the fellowship and into the streets of Thessalonica, so their lost friends, family members, and neighbors could also experience the love of God. Paul was simply asking God to empower them to do what Jesus had expressed in His sermon on the mount.

“…love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” – Matthew 5:44-48 NLT

Anyone can love those who love them in return. But the love of God was best expressed in the gracious gift of His Son. It was while we were still mired in our sins and incapable of expressing love to Him, that God loved us. And no one describes the love of God better than the apostle John.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. – 1 John 4:9-12 NLT

Faith and love. Paul knew these two things were the key to their ongoing spiritual health and vitality. And both come from God. They are not self-manufactured or the by-products of human will power. That is why Paul reminded the Thessalonians that one of his ongoing prayers for them was that God would continue to increase their love and strengthen their faith. And his request had an eternal focus. He was thinking long-term, not short-term.

May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. Amen. – 1 Thessalonians 3:13 NLT

Paul was a man on a mission and that mission had a goal. There was a finish line at the end of the face. There was a prize at the end of the contest. And while there might be obstacles and difficulties along the way, there is a reward waiting for all those who run the race with endurance.

And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:17-18 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

God Is Ready When You Are

41 Let us lift up our hearts and hands
    to God in heaven:
42 “We have transgressed and rebelled,
    and you have not forgiven.

43 “You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us,
    killing without pity;
44 you have wrapped yourself with a cloud
    so that no prayer can pass through.
45 You have made us scum and garbage
    among the peoples.

46 “All our enemies
    open their mouths against us;
47 panic and pitfall have come upon us,
    devastation and destruction;
48 my eyes flow with rivers of tears
    because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.

49 “My eyes will flow without ceasing,
    without respite,
50 until the Lord from heaven
    looks down and sees;
51 my eyes cause me grief
    at the fate of all the daughters of my city.

52 “I have been hunted like a bird
    by those who were my enemies without cause;
53 they flung me alive into the pit
    and cast stones on me;
54 water closed over my head;
    I said, ‘I am lost.’

55 “I called on your name, O Lord,
    from the depths of the pit;
56 you heard my plea, ‘Do not close
    your ear to my cry for help!’
57 You came near when I called on you;
    you said, ‘Do not fear!’”Lamentations 3:41-57 ESV

In these verses, we have recorded a powerful prayer of intercession, as the prophet of God models for the suffering citizens of Judah what true repentance must look like. He begs them to take stock of their circumstances and learn the lesson God is attempting to teach them. It is not too late. But they are going to have to take ownership for their actions. Complaining over their condition must be replaced with confession for their sins. And Jeremiah walks them through the painful, yet necessary process of returning to the Lord with humble and contrite hearts.

First, they must admit their guilt.

We have transgressed and rebelled,
    and you have not forgiven. – Lamentations 3:42 ESV

They were in the midst of the furnace of God’s judgment and there was no sign of relief in sight. It was as if God had vacated the premises and left them to fend for themselves. Even their prayers seemed to bounce off the ceiling and return to them unheard and unanswered. Their conditions were abysmal and any hope of rescue seemed unlikely. Things were so bad in Judah that their neighbors considered to be “scum and garbage.” Those two words are very graphic, comparing the condition of the people of God to dung or refuse. Nobody had it as bad as the people of Judah.

And Jeremiah puts their feelings of despair into words: “We are filled with fear, for we are trapped, devastated, and ruined” (Lamentations 3:47 NLT). This brutal assessment of their condition was a vital part of the repentance process. They could not afford to treat their circumstances lightly or to wrongly assume that “this too shall pass.” It was essential that they come to grips with the devastating reality of their condition and the true cause behind it: Their sin.

Their suffering was directly tied to their willful rebellion against God. And all the innocent lives that had been lost in Judah could be laid at their doorstep. And Jeremiah expresses his deep sorrow and regret over all those who had died unnecessarily as a result of Judah’s stubborn resistance to God’s call to repentance.

My tears flow endlessly;
    they will not stop
until the Lord looks down
    from heaven and sees.
My heart is breaking
    over the fate of all the women of Jerusalem. – Lamentations 3:49-51 NLT

Jeremiah’s grief is not self-centered or focused on his own pain and suffering. He expresses his deep heartache over all those whose lives have been dragged down the path of sin and forced to suffer its consequences.

As a prophet of God, Jeremiah was well-acquainted with suffering. He knew from first-hand experience what it was like to confront the prospect of death, even while innocent of any wrong-doing. He describes a point in time in which he had been thrown in a pit by his enemies and left to consider an untimely end.

My enemies, whom I have never harmed,
    hunted me down like a bird.
They threw me into a pit
    and dropped stones on me.
The water rose over my head,
    and I cried out, “This is the end!” – Lamentations 3:52-54 NLT

This event is recorded in Jeremiah 38:6.

So the officials took Jeremiah and put him in the cistern of Malkijah, one of the royal princes, that was in the courtyard of the guardhouse. There was no water in the cistern, only mud. So when they lowered Jeremiah into the cistern with ropes he sank in the mud.

This personal experience had left a lasting impact on Jeremiah. He describes how he had prayed from the bottom of that cistern, begging God to rescue him.

But I called on your name, Lord,
    from deep within the pit.
You heard me when I cried, “Listen to my pleading!
    Hear my cry for help!”
Yes, you came when I called;
    you told me, “Do not fear.” – Lamentations 3:55-57 NLT

During one of the darkest moments of his life, Jeremiah had called out to God from the pit and God had graciously answered, telling His servant, “Do not fear.” Trapped in darkness, mired in the mud, and left for dead, Jeremiah called on His God. And that is exactly what he wants the people of Judah to do. Yes, their circumstances were bleak. Things couldn’t have been any worse for them. But all they had to do was call on the name of the Lord.

The Lord is righteous in everything he does;
    he is filled with kindness.
The Lord is close to all who call on him,
    yes, to all who call on him in truth. – Psalm 145:17-18 NLT

God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. – Psalm 46:1 NLT

But did the people of Judah believe that truth? Were they willing to trust in the righteousness of God and place their hope in His goodness and grace? They were in trouble, but their God was bigger than their greatest problem. He had brought judgment upon them, but He was more than willing to restore them if they would only confess their sin and cry out for His help.

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

And He Healed Them

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise’?”

17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there. –  Matthew 21:14-17 ESV

tissot-he-heals-the-lame-in-the-temple-740x545After having cleansed His Father’s house, Jesus proceeded to return it to its rightful status as a place of healing and hope. When Solomon had prayed the prayer of dedication over the original temple, he had asked of God, “listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kings 8:30 ESV).

Solomon deeply desired that the magnificent building he had constructed would be a place where God’s presence dwelt and where those who approached God in humility could find forgiveness and restoration. Which is why he had prayed, “whatever plague, whatever sickness there is, whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind)” (1 Kings 8:37-39 ESV).

After His cleansing of the temple, Jesus remained on the grounds, and as He walked through its courtyards, the crowds came to Him. Even the blind and the lame somehow made their way to Him, and Matthew simply states, “He healed them.” And these would be the last healings Jesus would perform in His earthly ministry. Here in His Father’s house, he was extending mercy and grace to those who come to Him with their physical afflictions.

Jesus restored the temple’s status as a house of prayer. Those with physical needs brought their requests to Him, the Son of God, and He not only heard them, but He also healed them. Remember the prayer of Solomon:

whatever plague, whatever sickness there is, whatever prayer, whatever plea is made…forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways…”

And Solomon had added, “for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind.” Jesus knew their hearts. He was well aware of their true spiritual state. He saw past their physical infirmities and longed to restore their more serious spiritual condition. This is why, within days, He would offer Himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

But the reaction of the scribes and Pharisees speaks volumes. Matthew states that when these men saw “saw the wonderful things that he did,” they became indignant. The Greek word translated as “wonderful” refers to something miraculous or marvelous and worthy of admiration. But instead, these men were filled with indignation or displeasure. They were appalled, not awed. Rather than rendering worship to God for what they had witnessed, they reacted with anger. They were offended by the shouts of the children who were declaring, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And they were appalled that Jesus allowed these ignorant and ill-informed young people to shout their false and dangerous propaganda. 

As far as the Pharisees were concerned, Jesus was either deaf, or He found some kind of perverse delight in hearing these children declare Him to be the Messiah. Either way, He was wrong, and they wanted it stopped. But Jesus calmly responded to them, quoting from one of the psalms, of which they would have been familiar.

You have taught children and infants
    to tell of your strength,
silencing your enemies
    and all who oppose you. – Psalm 8:2 NLT

Earlier, when Jesus had first entered Jerusalem, the crowds had shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38 ESV). And the Pharisees had demanded the Jesus rebuke them. But Jesus had told them, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40 ESV). The reality of Jesus’ identity was going to be revealed one way or the other. And now, the children were crying out and declaring that Jesus was the Messiah. These innocent, humble children saw what the well-educated, religious leaders of Israel could not see: The Messiah standing in their midst. Unhampered by religious dogma and man-made doctrines that clouded the mind and obscured the truth of God’s Word, these children were able to respond to the miracles of Jesus with unadulterated awe and wonder.

Their reaction is reminiscent of that of the blind man whom Jesus healed. The restoration of his sight had caused quite a stir because he had been born blind.  And the Pharisees, unable to discount the miracle, demanded that the man give glory to God for his healing and not to Jesus.

So for the second time they called in the man who had been blind and told him, “God should get the glory for this, because we know this man Jesus is a sinner.” – John 9:24 NLT

But the man had simply responded, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner. But I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!” (John 9:25 NLT).

He wasn’t going to have a debate about Jesus’ spiritual qualifications. In his mind, none of that made sense or altered the reality of his miraculous healing. He had been blind, but now he could see. And that’s all he needed to know.

The Pharisees were not stupid. They could see that much of what was taking place around them was further proof of Jesus’ Messiahship. But they refused to admit it or accept it. The shouts of the children were a verbal confirmation, echoing the sentiments of the crowds surrounding Jesus. But the scribes and Pharisees remained stubbornly opposed to Jesus, and blind to the evidence taking place all around them. And yet, they could sense the tide was turning. They were losing control. The influence of Jesus was increasing with each passing day. And as it did, their anger grew, and their desperation to do something about this threat to their power and influence escalated dramatically.

Don’t miss the spiritual battle taking place behind this somewhat idyllic scene. When reading these stories, it’s easy to conjure up the image of Jesus healing the lame and the blind. We can even hear the praises of the children. In our minds, it all appears like some kind of maudlin scene from a Hallmark movie.

But in the background lies the wreckage and confusion left when Jesus assaulted the moneychangers and vendors He had found in the court of the Gentiles. Among the overturned tables and amidst the bleating sheep and bellowing oxen, there were vendors trying to restore order to their once-lucrative booths. And there, lurking in the dark corners, were the religious leaders of Israel, shaking their heads in indignation and disgust. Jesus had once again disrupted the status quo. He had invaded their turf and rocked their religious world. And behind these men stood the prince of this world, Satan himself. He saw Jesus as a threat to his rule and reign and was willing to do anything to eliminate Him.

And Jesus, in a final display of His divine powers, graciously healed the blind and the lame. But Satan, in a last-ditch attempt to thwart the plans of God, would use his influence over the spiritually blind and those sickened by sin, to turn them against the Messiah. The forces of wickedness were gathering against the Son of God. The battle for the souls of mankind was entering its final stages. And here, in the temple courtyard, we see the primary participants in this epic struggle gathering for what will be a spiritual showdown in the city of Jerusalem.

Jesus was about to deal a knockout blow to the powers of sin and death. With His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus would make possible the restoration of sight to the spiritually blind. He would bring spiritual healing to those disabled by the devastating and deadly curse of sin. He would provide freedom to all those held captive by the prince of this world and struggling under his oppressive rule and reign.

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

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

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

The Prayer of Repentance

12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” –  Matthew 21:12-13 ESV

Jesus clearing the templeThere are few scenes related to the life of Jesus that are more recognizable than the one of Him cleansing the temple. But the image of the Savior of the world wielding a whip in His hands and angrily clearing the temple courtyard is difficult for most of us to reconcile. It seems so out of character. Just a few verses earlier, Matthew described Jesus riding serenely on the colt of a donkey, basking in the adulation and praise of the crowd. People were shouting His praises, declaring Him to be “the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:16 ESV).

But here we see the prophet doing what prophets were prone to do: Calling the people of God to account. He walked into the temple, His Father’s house, witnessed the unacceptable, carnival-like atmosphere, and was appalled.

It’s important to remember what the people had said about Jesus as He made His way into Jerusalem. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9 ESV). Jesus was a descendant of David and the legal heir to his throne. And as such, He had a God-given responsibility to protect the integrity of God’s house and name. Here is what God had said to Solomon, David’s son and heir after he had dedicated the newly constructed temple.

And the Lord said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you have made before me. I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’ But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins.” – 1 Kings 9:3-8 ESV

Solomon was responsible for the protection of the temple but, more importantly, he was responsible for protecting the integrity of his own walk. He was to be a model son of God and king of the people of God. But he failed. And, as a result, God would bring about the destruction of His own house. And the book of 2 Kings tells us exactly how it happened.

In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. – 2 Kings 25:8-9 ESV

And here, in Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus walking into Herod’s temple, a far-less-luxurious version of the original temple, and seeing signs of Israel’s sordid spiritual condition yet again.

second_temple1.jpgThis scene most likely took place in the Court of the Gentiles. This was the only place on the temple grounds where non-Jews were allowed to gather. The religious leaders had turned this area into a marketplace filled with money changing booths, as well as vendors selling doves and other sacrificial animals. You would have heard the bleating of goats and lambs, the bellowing of oxen, and been confronted with all the smells that come with domesticated animals. And to top it all off, there was graft and corruption taking place. The priests were responsible for approving the animals brought for sacrifice. And if someone brought an unacceptable animal, they would be sold a replacement, at a healthy profit. Then the priests would take the original “blemished” animal and recycle it for sale to another pilgrim.

It was this atmosphere of blatant sin and corruption that angered Jesus. Quoting from Isaiah 56:7, Jesus emphasized the glaring difference between God’s view of His temple and that of the religious leaders of Israel.

“…these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.” – Isaiah 56:7 ESV

God had been relegated to the background. The Feast of Passover, intended to commemorate and celebrate God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt, had been desecrated by the greed and avarice of men. And the sacred sacrificial system God had provided as a means of atonement for the sins of men had become a man-made spectacle that had little or no bearing on its original intent. God had designed the temple as a place for the people to receive atonement for their sins. Now, they were committing sins within the very gates where sacrifice and forgiveness for sins were to be found.

Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had recorded God’s anger against Israel for their blatant disregard for His holiness and their own unrighteousness.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” – Jeremiah 7:3-4 ESV

The people of Israel were guilty of viewing the temple as a kind of security blanket, providing them with comfort and a sense of God’s approval, regardless of how they actually lived their lives. But God had bad news for them.

“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 7:8-11 ESV

God accused them of exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows. He described them as murderers and idolaters. And yet, they continued to come to the temple to offer their sacrifices to God, as if nothing was wrong. They were unrepentant and unapologetic, stubbornly clinging to their sinful behavior.

And, over the centuries, nothing had changed. There was a new temple, but they suffered from the same old problem. They were putting all their hope in a building. In their minds, it was the temple that assured them of God’s presence. Like their ancestors, they stood before God in the temple courtyard and said, “We are delivered.” But they were wrong. The temple’s existence was not a guarantee of God’s presence. And it certainly was not a sign of God’s approval of their lifestyle.

It is important to remember that Jesus had come to Jerusalem with a single objective in mind. He was on His way to the cross, to give His life as a ransom for the sins of mankind. He was to be the sacrificial lamb who, as John the Baptist had stated, “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ESV). We can only imagine the anger Jesus must have felt at the spectacle He witnessed. The priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, had turned the sacrificial system of God into a farce. It had become nothing more than a ritualistic, holiday-like scene where the grace and mercy of God had been crowded out and long forgotten.

But Jesus had come to change all that. He came to give His life as a payment for man’s sins. And unlike the sacrifices that took place in the temple, His death would be a one-time, and once for-all-time sacrifice.

He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. – Hebrews 7:27 ESV

…so also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. – Hebrews 9:28 NLT

What an amazing contrast. Here was the sinless Lamb of God having to cleanse the house of God, because the people of God had defiled it once again with their very presence. The place where atonement was to be found had become a spēlaion or hiding place for thieves, idolaters, liars, the immoral, and the ungodly. They felt no conviction for their sins. Instead, they viewed themselves as right with God. But they were sorely mistaken.

In his gospel account, Luke records that as Jesus was making His way to Jerusalem, He saw the city from a distance and wept over it, stating:

“How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.” – Luke 19:42-44 NLT

Jesus was prophesying the future destruction of Jerusalem, when on August 10, 70 A.D., the Romans would quell a Jewish revolt by putting the city to the torch and destroying the temple. Jesus would later predict the devastating nature of this event, letting His disciples know that the destruction of the temple would be complete.

“Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” – Matthew 24:2 NLT

The people of Israel were not interested in a Savior. They viewed themselves as the chosen people of God and, therefore, protected by His hand. As long as they had the temple and the sacrificial system, they were safe. Or so they thought. They had long ago forgotten that the temple was to be a place of prayer, but a specific kind of prayer. Solomon, in his prayer of dedication of the temple, had been very specific about the kind of prayer that was to be prayed.

“…if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel…” – 1 Kings 8:35-36 ESV

But the people of Israel remained unrepentant. Even now, with the Messiah standing in their midst, they would refuse to accept Him as their Savior. Yet, Jesus would go through with His God-ordained mission to provide a permanent solution for man’s sin problem. He would die. Not in spite of their sin, but because of it. And His death would do what no other sacrifice could: Provide sinful men with a means by which they could be restored to a right relationship with 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

The Art of Self-Denial

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. – Matthew 6:16-18 ESV

After having provided His listeners with a model for how to pray, Jesus turns His attention to the topic of fasting. In order for us to understand what Jesus is trying to say about fasting, it’s essential that we discern its role within the Hebrew cultural context. Otherwise, we will try to apply our modern perception of fasting and miss Jesus’ intended application.

For many of us, fasting is a rather foreign concept. The kind of fasting of which we are familiar seems to be tied to dieting or weight loss. And fasting has also become a popular form of cleansing or purging for health reasons. But that is not what Jesus is talking about. In Jesus’ day, fasting was a religious rite, practiced in conjunction with a particular feast day or religious festival. For instance, fasting was a regular part of the yearly celebration of the Day of Atonement.

Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. – Leviticus 23:26-29 ESV

The phrase “afflict yourselves” is a reference to fasting. The people were to fast or deny themselves their normal intake of food, while at the same time presenting a food offering to the Lord. Fasting, in this case, was intended to be an expression of one’s complete dependence upon God. But it was also a way of focusing your attention solely upon God. Rather than seeking your sustenance from food, you were turning to God to meet your needs. It was a spiritual exercise that was usually accompanied by prayer and confession of sins (1 Samuel 7:5-6). Fasting was not done for its potential health benefits or cleansing properties. While it may have had beneficial side effects, fasting was meant to focus one’s attention on God, not on self. In fact, fasting was, at its core, a denial of self.

But once again, the Jews had managed to turn fasting into an external show of self-righteous piety and religious one-upmanship. And this had been going on for some time. God had confronted the Israelites regarding their false view of fasting before. He had spoken harsh words to them through the prophet Isaiah.

“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
    Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people Israel of their sins!
Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
    and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
    that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
    pretending they want to be near me.
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
    ‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
    and you don’t even notice it!’

“I will tell you why!” I respond.
    It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
    when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
    will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
    by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
    like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
    and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?

Do you really think this will please the Lord?

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
    lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
    and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
    and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
    and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” – Isaiah 58:1-7 NLT

So, when Jesus confronts the Jews in His audience with their false concept of fasting, He is simply reiterating the concerns of His Father. Once again, He refers to “the hypocrites,” a clear reference to the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They had taken fasting, a form of self-denial and self-humiliation, and turned it into a means of self-promotion. They fasted to get noticed. They fasted to garner the praises of men, but not to confess their sins before God. This was not the kind of fasting God desired. He desired fasting that came from the heart. He wanted them to deny themselves the sins they so deeply enjoyed committing. In the case of the Isaiah passage, God expected the Jews to free the wrongly imprisoned, to lighten the burdens of their workers, to let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that held people bound. While they were busy wearing sackcloth and denying themselves food in an attempt to get God’s attention, they were also busy practicing all kinds of moral and ethical injustices. And God was not impressed.

For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, the problem was even worse. The kind of fasting they were exposed to was not even intended to get God’s attention. It was aimed at men. Jesus accuses them of trying “to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting” (Matthew 6:16 NLT). Fasting had become all about the outward impression it left on those around you. But throughout His message, Jesus has been talking about those who are approved by God. And just as we have seen in the Isaiah passage, God does not approve of fasting that is done with wrong motives or in a hypocritical manner.

Like any spiritual discipline, fasting can be abused. It can also be misunderstood and practiced for all the wrong reasons. Reading the Bible is a good thing. It is proper for God’s children to spend time in His Word. But we can make Bible reading a badge of honor and a means by which we show others just how spiritual we really are. The same thing can be said of prayer, Scripture memory, Bible study, and giving. These spiritual disciplines can be twisted and misused, becoming nothing more than outward signs of piety that do not reflect the true condition of the heart. It was King David who wrote these powerful words after having been confronted and convicted by the prophet Samuel regarding his affair with Bathsheba.

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

The external practice of offering sacrifices meant nothing if the heart remained unchanged and unrepentant. Fasting that was merely an outward show done to convince others of our spirituality will never impress God. He sees our hearts. He knows our motives. And Jesus says that if you fast to garner the praise of men, you will get all the reward you are seeking, but you won’t have the approval of God. You won’t know what it means to be blessed by God. Like the Jews in Isaiah’s day, you will find yourself saying, “I have fasted before you! Why aren’t you impressed?”

Seeking the praise of men is a dangerous game to play. It means we value their opinions over that of God. We care more about their perceptions of us than we do about how God sees us. And Jesus warns us that if the reward we seek through our acts of spiritual discipline is the praise of men, we will get exactly what we want, but no more.

Let’s bring it into a modern context. If I tell others I am fasting in order to impress them with my spirituality, but my real intent is to lose weight, I may impress my friends and drop a few pounds, but I will not gain favor with God.

If I truly want to deny myself something as a means of humbling myself before God, Jesus would recommend that I do it in secret. He would tell me to hide what I am doing from others because they don’t need to know. I don’t need to advertise my fast because God sees my heart. I don’t need to tell others how much I read my Bible or how many Scripture verses I have memorized. God knows, and that is all that matters. But it is important to remember that God also knows my motives. He knows why I read my Bible and memorize Scripture. If I do these things while ignoring sin in my life, I am nothing more than a hypocrite, a play-actor. I am attempting to cover up my sin by doing righteous things. But God wants a broken and contrite heart. Listen to the words of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
    Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
    and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
    and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    giving you water when you are dry
    and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
    Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
    and a restorer of homes.” – Isaiah 58:9-12 NLT

Fasting should be an outward expression of the inward condition of the heart. If our hearts are prideful and self-focused, our fasting will end up being done for our own glory, and not for God’s. If our hearts are broken, humble, and dependent upon God and His mercy, our fasting will be done for His glory and His approval, not for the praise of men. God knows our heart, and He will reward us according to the intention of our heart. Our Father, who sees in secret, will reward us.

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