Thy Will Be Done

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. Colossians 4:2-6 ESV

Paul has emphasized the believers’ relationship with one another. He encouraged them to “make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you” (Colossians 3:13 NLT). They were to patiently and lovingly respond to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, forgiving as they had been forgiven, and seeking to promote an atmosphere of Christlike peace and harmony.

Now, Paul calls on the Colossian believers to make prayer a priority in their lives. And Paul practiced what he preached. He opened his letter with several statements concerning the ongoing prayers that he and Timothy prayed on behalf of the Colossian church.

We always pray for you, and we give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Colossians 1:3 NLT

…we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. – Colossians 1:9 NLT

We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. – Colossians 1:11 NLT

Prayer was a vital part of Paul’s ministry. With responsibility for the spiritual well-being of so many congregations spread over such a large geographic area, Paul was limited in his ability to make personal appearances. So, he utilized prayer as the means by which he called on the power of God to protect and provide for his far-flung flocks. Paul understood the power and necessity of prayer. He considered it the most vital relationship a Christian could cultivate in their lives. The author of Hebrews, whom many believe to have been Paul, wrote, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16 BSB). Paul wrote something similar in his letter to the church in Ephesus.

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. – Ephesians 3:12 NLT

Paul was committed to cultivating the interpersonal relationships of the Colossians believers. He wanted them to live out their Spirit-transformed lives by displaying Christlike behavior toward one another. But he also desired that the Colossians maintain a healthy and ongoing dialogue with their heavenly Father. For Paul, prayer was the primary way for a believer to express their dependence upon God. He viewed it as far more than a means of getting what we want from God. Prayer was a way for the believer to align their will with that of the Father. It was to be an ongoing form of two-way communication between the Heavenly Father and His child. Through prayer, petitions could be shared and directions could be received. For Paul, prayer was an expression of faith. It displayed the believer’s dependence upon and trust in God. It was a privilege provided by a gracious God that allowed His children to call upon Him at any time. It was to be a delight, not a duty.

Paul was familiar with the proverbs that promoted the efficacy of prayer.

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him. – Proverbs 15:8 ESV

The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous. – Proverbs 15:29 ESV

He would have known what King David had written concerning God and the prayers of His people.

The Lord is near to all who call on him,
    to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;
    he also hears their cry and saves them. – Psalm 145:18-19 NLT

And he would have concurred with the words of James.

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail. – James 5:16 BSB

So, Paul begins to close out his letter to the Colossians with an emphasis on prayer. He urges them to devote themselves to the practice of prayer. And he warns them to be “watchful” (grēgoreō), a word that carries the idea of being alert and ready to see how God will answer their prayers. And when God does answer, they are to express their gratitude for His gracious intercession. Prayer requires faith but not blind faith. It has God as its object and, therefore, answers to prayer should come as no surprise. Prayer and thanksgiving should go hand in hand because God is a faithful God who longs to fulfill the desires of His people.

That’s why Paul asks the Colossians to pray for him. He understood the power of prayer and was not ashamed to request their prayers on his behalf. But Paul was specific in terms of his prayer request. He wanted them to pray that God would open up additional opportunities for him and Timothy to share the good news concerning Christ. At first glance, this seems like an unnecessary prayer. The spread of the gospel was God’s will. He didn’t need to be coerced or cajoled into opening up new opportunities for unbelievers to hear the news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. According to Paul’s letter to Timothy, God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4 ESV). So, why was it important that the Colossians pray this prayer on Paul’s behalf?

It seems that Paul wanted them to pray in keeping with the will of God. It was clearly God’s will that many would be saved and the Colossians had the opportunity to align themselves with God praying for His will to be accomplished. In doing so, they would be setting their minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2). They would be praying in keeping with God’s revealed will.

What makes Paul’s prayer request even more fascinating is that he shared it while under house arrest in Rome. He didn’t ask them to pray for his release. He didn’t covet their prayers for protection or provision. They would have known about his predicament. And by focusing their attention on the spread of the gospel, Paul was helping them to understand that God’s will trumped his own. If God deemed it necessary for Paul to be released in order for the gospel to be spread, He would make it happen. But Paul’s prayer request was selfless in nature. He wanted the good news to go out and for God to get the glory.

Paul also wrote a letter to the believers in Philippi while imprisoned in Rome. And rather than requesting that they pray for his release, he declared God’s sovereign will concerning his imprisonment.

I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear. – Philippians 1:12-14 NLT

And Paul went on to express the tension he felt regarding his ongoing imprisonment and possible death and the thought of release and continued ministry.

For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. – Philippians 1:20-24 NLT

Paul longed to be with Jesus but he was also committed to the work to which he had been commissioned by Jesus. So, for Paul, it boiled down to the will of God. The gospel must go out and if God wanted Paul to be an ongoing participant in that mission, God would orchestrate Paul’s release. And if God should set Paul free, he asked that the Colossians pray for him to have clarity when proclaiming the message of the gospel.

And he reminds them that they too must live out their faith, constantly mindful of its impact on “those who are not believers” (Colossians 4:5 NLT). As they prayed for God’s will to be done, they must also live their lives in accordance with God’s will for them. They must be salt and light. They must live wisely and circumspectly, always recognizing their role as Christ’s ambassadors on earth. That is why Paul encourages them, “Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone” (Colossians 4:6 NLT). Their words were just as important as their works. Their daily interactions with the unsaved would be vital to the continued spread of the gospel. And their patient and loving treatment of one another would go a long way in demonstrating the life-changing nature of the good news.

In a sense, Paul is encouraging his flock in Colossae to practice the model prayer that Jesus gave His disciples.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:10 ESV

Their petitions and their actions were to be in keeping with the will of God. They were to pray and behave in ways that aligned with God’s revealed will for the world. So, that the gospel could continue to spread and the lost 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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

A Powerful Prayer for God’s People

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. – Colossians 1:9-14 ESV

Paul’s response upon hearing of the Colossians’ ongoing display of faith, hope, and love was to let them know that this was an answer to his prayers for them. He states that he and Timothy had regularly and zealously prayed that God would fill them with “the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9 ESV).

The prayers of Paul, many of which are recorded in his letters, reveal a shepherd’s heart for his dispersed and ever-increasing flock. These prayers provide a rare glimpse into the approach to ministry and discipleship of this great 1st-Century apostle, missionary, and church planter. Paul had a passion for the gospel and a love for people that revealed itself in how he prayed for them. While it’s likely that he received many personal requests from Christians he met along the way during his many journeys, his recorded prayers are more universal in nature and deal with the spiritual needs of the congregations to which he wrote. There is little doubt that he faithfully lifted up to the Lord the personal requests of individual believers, his real passion for people went way beyond the surface needs, wants, and desires they may have had. While he took their physical needs seriously and cared deeply about their health and well-being, his real concern was for their spiritual lives and their relationship with God.

In the opening lines of his letter to the believers in Colossae, Paul encourages them by informing them that they have been in his prayers – constantly. He tells them that he and Timothy have not ceased to pray for them. What a blessing it is to hear that someone has been praying for you. What an encouragement to know that someone cares enough about you to lift you up before the throne of God. And Paul reveals to them the content of his prayers. This is where it gets interesting and revealing.

Paul says that his request to God for them was that they would have a knowledge of His will. Paul has been asking God to give them knowledge or awareness of His will. But he is doing much more than just asking. Paul is begging. The Greek word, proseuchomai,  carries much more force behind it than our English word for prayer. It means “to pray earnestly for” and reflects Paul’s strong desire for God to provide the believers in Colossae knowledge of His will for them. Not only that, he wants God to fill them with that knowledge.

Once again, the original Greek language is much more rich and forceful in its meaning. When Paul asks God to fill them, he means “to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim.” In other words, he is asking God to fill them so fully that there isn’t room for anything else – including their own wills. For the believer, knowing the will of God is essential. It is what directs our actions and influences our attitudes. It is what gives us direction in our lives. As we live life in this world, we will be constantly influenced by our own sin nature and the world around us. We will constantly be tempted to control our lives according to our own will.

Paul warned the believers in Rome, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2 NLT). So there is a sense in which we have to turn our attention from the things of this world and concentrate on God’s will as revealed in His Word. God is out to transform us by influencing our thinking and altering our behavior – from the inside out.

But Paul goes on to qualify his request. He says that he is asking that they be filled with a knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. In other words, God’s will must be spiritually discerned. It is not of this world. In fact, the wisdom of God will often, if not always, stand in conflict with the ways of this world. It will make no sense from a human perspective. It will appear illogical. To know God’s will requires spiritual wisdom and understanding, which can only be provided by the Spirit of God. Paul told the believers in Corinth, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV). Then he reminded them, “But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16 ESV). We have the mind of Christ because we have the Spirit of Christ living within us. We are spiritual creatures with a God-given capacity to understand and know His will. And Paul’s prayer was that his brothers and sisters in Christ be filled to overflowing with that knowledge.

But for Paul, to be aware of and filled with the knowledge of God was not enough. Knowing the will of God is useless if it is not put into action. That is why Paul states that his prayers for them had an objective. He wanted them “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10 ESV). The knowledge of God should produce obedience to God. Knowing His will should produce a desire to live it out in daily life.

While the Greek word, peripateō, can be translated as “walk,” it can also convey the idea of conducting one’s life. Paul is expressing his prayerful desire that the Colossians live their daily lives in submission to and in keeping with God’s will. Doing so will please the Father, produce a life of spiritual fruitfulness, and result in an even greater awareness of His will. Paul wanted them to know that, as they expended energy in doing God’s will, they would tap into an inexhaustible supply of power based on His “glorious might” (Colossians 1:11 ESV). Rather than growing weak or weary, they would find themselves with an overabundance of endurance and patience even amid the trials of life. God would supply them with strength for the task and they would respond with joyful thanksgiving. 

Paul desperately desired for the Colossian believers to understand the magnitude of the gift they had received upon placing their faith in Jesus. Something truly remarkable had taken place when they accepted the free gift of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. They had been immediately “delivered…from the domain of darkness and transferred…to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13 ESV). As a result, they shared in the inheritance of the saints in light. They had a permanent place reserved for them in God’s eternal kingdom. The apostle Peter expressed it this way:

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see. – 1 Peter 1:3-5 NLT

The author of Hebrews also wrote of this inheritance of the saints. In his great “Hall of Faith,” he mentions such Old Testament luminaries as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, and describes how they were distinguished by their faith in God.

All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. – Hebrews 11:13-16 NLT

And when Paul tells the Colossians that God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13 ESV), he is letting them know that they are as good as there. The promises of God are so sure and certain that the Colossians can live in perfect peace in the here-and-now because their hereafter has been guaranteed by God. They were already citizens of that eternal kingdom, even while living their lives here on earth.

And Paul lets them know that this kingdom to come belongs to Jesus Christ, the one who made possible their redemption and forgiveness from sin. Jesus was not only their Savior but their coming King. Their redemption and justification would one day result in their glorification. And Paul’s ongoing prayer for them was that they might continue to grow in their knowledge of the full scope of God’s grand redemptive plan for them.

It would seem that this prayer of Paul is a great example of how we should be praying for one another. There is nothing wrong with praying for someone’s physical healing, for their marriage, their financial needs, or any other concern they may have. But how much more important it is to desire that they grow in their knowledge of God’s will. One of the problems believers face is understanding what it is we’re supposed to do in life. We need to know how we are to use our time, talents, and resources. We need to know what it is that God is trying to teach us through the trials and troubles we face in life. How God would have us respond to the situations and circumstances in which we find ourselves? It is not difficult to discern our will. That comes easy. But knowing the will of God takes intention. It requires listening to the Spirit of God and patiently waiting to hear God speak. But what greater prayer could anyone pray for a friend or family member than that God would fill them with a knowledge of His will – his good, pleasing, and perfect will?

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Mixing Prayer and Payola

1 Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.

And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’”

And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”

And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12 But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”

13 So he stayed there that night, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 These he handed over to his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me and put a space between drove and drove.” 17 He instructed the first, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he is behind us.’” 19 He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you find him, 20 and you shall say, ‘Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.’” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” 21 So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp. Genesis 32:1-21 ESV

After a 20-year absence, Jacob was about to come face-to-face with his estranged brother, Esau. Years earlier, they had not parted on the best of terms. Angered at having been swindled out of his birthright and blessing by Jacob, Esau had been plotting his brothers murder. But their mother had intervened and sent Jacob to go live with her brother, Laban, in Mesopotamia. She had hoped this would prove to be a temporary separation, and had assured Jacob that, as soon as Esau calmed down, she would send word that it was safe to come home. That message was never delivered.

So as Jacob and his caravan drew closer to home, he became increasingly more concerned about what might happen when he finally encountered his brother. He had no way of knowing whether Esau had calmed down or if he would still be harboring thoughts of revenge.

Somewhere along the way, Jacob had an encounter with some angelic beings. It had been 20 years earlier that Jacob had received a vision from God in which he saw “a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12 ESV). Now, as he returned to the land of promise two decades later, he had another divine encounter. Moses provides no details about this meeting, but simply states that Jacob called the place Mahanaim, which means “two camps.” Perhaps he saw the angels of God encamped in the region and decided this was a good spot to stop for the night. The presence of these heavenly messengers must have provided Jacob with a sense of comfort and security, and prompted him to set up camp nearby.

But his anxiety is on full display as he instigates a plan designed to assuage the anger of his disgruntled brother. Jacob sends messengers ahead with a carefully worded greeting for Esau.

“Humble greetings from your servant Jacob. Until now I have been living with Uncle Laban, and now I own cattle, donkeys, flocks of sheep and goats, and many servants, both men and women. I have sent these messengers to inform my lord of my coming, hoping that you will be friendly to me.” – Genesis 32:4-5 NLT

Jacob was attempting to get some idea of his brother’s emotional state. How would he react to the news that Jacob was back in Canaan? Would it cause him to rejoice or simply reignite the long-simmering rage that lie hidden in his heart? And as the messengers departed, Jacob was left to wait, worry, and wonder about what was going to happen next. Moses doesn’t provide a timeline for how long it took the messengers to make the round-trip from Laban’s home back to Jacob’s encampment. But as the minutes stretched into hours and, possibly, days, Jacob’s anxiety must have reached an all-time high.

And when the messengers returned, the news they delivered was far from encouraging. Jacob was petrified by what he heard.

“We met your brother, Esau, and he is already on his way to meet you—with an army of 400 men!” – Genesis 32:6 NLT

This doesn’t sound like Esau is preparing to roll out the red carpet. And the army of 400 men doesn’t sound like the local welcome wagon. Moses reveals that “Jacob was terrified at the news” (Genesis 32:7 NLT). So, he immediately went into self-preservation mode, coming up with a plan for buying off his vengeance-seeking brother.

He divided his household, along with the flocks and herds and camels, into two groups. He thought, “If Esau meets one group and attacks it, perhaps the other group can escape.” – Genesis 32:7-8 NLT

Fearing the worst, Jacob divided his possessions, including his family members, into two separate groups, preparing to use them as guinea pigs to test the degree of his brother’s anger. He was hoping that Esau would be moved to show sympathy when he encountered the innocent women and children. By staggering the departure of the two groups, Jacob hoped to test Esau’s resolve. Would he be willing to slaughter his sisters-in-law and nephews or would the sight of them soften his hardened heart? If Esau proved to be inappeasable, Jacob was willing to risk the deaths of his loved one, hoping that at least one of the two groups would have time to escape and survive.

It’s interesting to note that, having committed himself to his own plan, Jacob also decided to get God involved. But his prayer almost comes across as an afterthought. It’s almost as if, once he had come up with his strategy, he asked God to bless it.

“O Lord, please rescue me from the hand of my brother, Esau. I am afraid that he is coming to attack me, along with my wives and children.” – Genesis 32:11 ESV

Jacob had not yet sent the first wave of flocks and family members to meet Esau, so he decided to ask God to step in and save the day. And, in his prayer, he reminds God of His earlier promise to protect and preserve him.

“…you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” – Genesis 32:12 ESV

It was Jacob who had chosen to divide his household into two camps, exhibiting his willingness to risk their lives to save his own neck. He was fully prepared to send them out like innocent lambs to the slaughter. Fortunately, Jacob delayed his plan and decided to sleep on it. The next morning, he changed his mind and sent a delegation with a sizeable “bribe” to soften up Esau.

he selected these gifts from his possessions to present to his brother, Esau: 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 female camels with their young, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys, and 10 male donkeys. – Genesis 32:13-15 NLT

Jacob was a wealthy man and he attempted to use his formidable resources to buy off his brother. But, the ever-wary Jacob, chose to send these gifts in waves, creating a buffer zone between himself and Esau. He hoped that the cumulative effect of each successive wave of tribute would slowly transform his brother’s desire for revenge into a growing lust for treasure.

Jacob’s plan and the logic behind it were simple. When Esau encountered each caravan of servants and livestock, he would want to know to whom they belonged. And each servant had been instructed to respond, “They belong to your servant Jacob, but they are a gift for his master Esau. Look, he is coming right behind us” (Genesis 32:18 NLT). One after the other, these traveling treasure troves would come into Esau’s sight and possession. And Jacob hoped that this progressive payment plan would reap huge dividends.

“I will try to appease him by sending gifts ahead of me. When I see him in person, perhaps he will be friendly to me.” – Genesis 32:20 NLT

Jacob had asked God to rescue him, but was putting all his hope and trust in his own intellectual and financial capital. He was attempting to use his sizeable, yet still limited, resources to save the day. And having invested all that he had, he was forced to wait and wonder what the morning might bring. But little did Jacob know that his next confrontation would not be with his unhappy brother but with his holy and all-powerful 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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

In Need of An Attitude Adjustment

1 Then Jacob went on his journey and came to the land of the people of the east. As he looked, he saw a well in the field, and behold, three flocks of sheep lying beside it, for out of that well the flocks were watered. The stone on the well’s mouth was large, and when all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone from the mouth of the well and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place over the mouth of the well.

Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where do you come from?” They said, “We are from Haran.” He said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” They said, “We know him.” He said to them, “Is it well with him?” They said, “It is well; and see, Rachel his daughter is coming with the sheep!” He said, “Behold, it is still high day; it is not time for the livestock to be gathered together. Water the sheep and go, pasture them.” But they said, “We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.”

While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. 10 Now as soon as Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, Jacob came near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. 11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud. 12 And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, and that he was Rebekah’s son, and she ran and told her father.

13 As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he ran to meet him and embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, 14 and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month. Genesis 29:1-14 ESV

In his quest to find a bride, Jacob had traveled nearly 450 miles from Beersheba to Haran, his mother’s hometown in Mesopotamia. Upon his arrival, Jacob made his way to the local “watering hole” or a well, which would have been a natural gathering spot for the citizens of that region. In a sense, Jacob was following the example of Abraham’s servant who, years earlier, had made the same journey in search of Isaac’s wife. It had been at a well that the servant had discovered Rebekah, who would later become Abraham’s wife and Jacob’s mother (Genesis 24). And it seems likely that Jacob had heard this story many times over his lifetime. So, in an attempt to locate his mother’s kin, Jacob began his search at a local well. And he would not be disappointed.

But before proceeding to the rest of the story, it is important to compare the Genesis 24 and Genesis 29 stories. In both cases, there is a man in search of a woman who might serve as a bride for one of Abraham’s descendants. In the case of Abraham, he had commanded his servant, “go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:4 ESV). Abraham was sending his servant to Haran to seek a suitable wife from among the household of his brother, Nahor. It was important to Abraham that his future daughter-in-law be a member of his own clan and so he warned his servant, “you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites” (Genesis 24:3 ESV). Notice that Isaac gave his son similar warnings and instructions.

You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women. Arise, go to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father, and take as your wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother.” – Genesis 28:1-2 ESV

Both men carefully followed the instructions they had been given and made the difficult journey to Haran. And while both began their search at a well, only Abraham’s servant invoked the aid of Yahweh.

“O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. – Genesis 24:12 ESV

Recognizing the importance of his task, this faithful servant of Abraham sought divine assistance from his master’s God. Yet, the first words out of Jacob’s mouth were to shepherds, not Yahweh. It might be argued that Jacob had prayed his prayer all the way back in Bethel.

“If God will indeed be with me and protect me on this journey, and if he will provide me with food and clothing, and if I return safely to my father’s home, then the Lord will certainly be my God.” – Genesis 28:20-21 NLT

It could be that Jacob was operating under the assumption that he already had God’s assurance of success. After all, Jacob had received a hard-and-fast commitment from the Almighty.

“I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:15 NLT

And as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that God was guiding and directing Jacob’s steps. Yet, one can’t help but notice the glaring absence of any vertical communication on Jacob’s part. And this will become a pattern in Jacob’s life. This self-willed and sometimes conniving individual will show a marked propensity for self-reliance. In fact, it will be more than 14 years before any communication takes place between Jacob and the God of his grandfather Abraham, and it will be Yahweh who instigates the conversation.

“Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.” – Genesis 31:3 ESV

But as Jacob stood at the well, he seemed to harbor no thoughts of God and expressed no need of His assistance. Instead, he struck up a conversation with some local shepherds, asking if they were familiar with Laban, his mother’s brother. Much to Jacob’s surprise, the shepherds not only confessed their knowledge of Laban but also announced that his daughter Rachel was on her way to the well with a flock of sheep.

Once again, a quick comparison to the Genesis 24 account is necessary. When Abraham’s servant met Rebekah for the first time, he eagerly waited to see if she was the one for whom he had prayed.

Silently the man watched her with interest to determine if the Lord had made his journey successful or not. – Genesis 24:21 NLT

And when he discovered her to be the answer to his prayer, the servant “bowed his head and worshiped the Lord” (Genesis 24:26 NLT). He gave all the credit to God.

“Praised be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his faithful love for my master! The Lord has led me to the house of my master’s relatives!” – Genesis 24:27 NLT

Yet, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, seemed to be oblivious to God’s presence and provision. The fact seems to have escaped him that his long journey had ended at a well where there just happened to be men who knew his wife’s brother. And he shows no recognition of God’s involvement even at the serendipitous appearance of Laban’s young, unmarried daughter. No prayers of thanksgiving are expressed. No praise to God flows from his lips.

In fact, the entire narrative seems to focus on Jacob’s self-reliant and fiercely independent nature, a recurring theme in his young life. Jacob had repeatedly proven his penchant for obsessive-compulsive behavior. When he saw something he wanted, he showed a powerful and unrelenting determination to do whatever it took to get it. And this occasion was no different.

As soon as Jacob learned that Rachel was Laban’s daughter, he determined to get rid of the other shepherds. He hurriedly ordered them to water their sheep and be on their way but the men insisted that were forbidden from doing so.

“We can’t water the animals until all the flocks have arrived,” they replied. “Then the shepherds move the stone from the mouth of the well, and we water all the sheep and goats.” – Genesis 29:8 NLT

Jacob was a guest in their land and unfamiliar with their local customs and laws. Yet, he had no qualms ordering these men around. And when had refused to remove the stone covering the mouth of the well, he had arrogantly taken matters into his own hands.

Jacob went over to the well and moved the stone from its mouth and watered his uncle’s flock. – Genesis 29:10 NLT

Having discovered that Rachel was his cousin, Jacob displays a self-righteous determination to seal the deal. He wants this woman to be his wife and is prepared to do whatever it takes to make it happen, even if it means disobeying local customs and violating social protocols. Overcome with joy at discovering Rachel was his cousin, Jacob kissed her. There is nothing in the text that suggests this act had sexual connotations, but it would have broken with established social etiquette. The shepherds who stood by watching this scene unfold would have had no idea who Jacob was. He was a stranger in their land. So, when they saw him kiss the young virgin daughter of one of their neighbors, they were likely appalled. This would have been unexpected and unacceptable behavior. But Jacob seems to have lived his life according to his own set of moral standards. He was a non-conformist and a rule-breaker.

As far as Jacob was concerned, he had met his future bride. But little did he know that he was also about to meet the man who would give him a run for his money when it came to deception and manipulation. In Laban, Jacob would meet his match. He would soon discover that his future father-in-law was more than a worthy challenger when it came to treachery and trickery. Jacob, the consummate deceiver, would soon find himself in the uncomfortable role of the deceived. The master manipulator would become the disgruntled and helpless victim.

Jacob was about to discover the truth behind the well-worn adage, “your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). Yes, he was the descendant of Abraham and the heir to God’s covenant promises. But the sins he had committed against his brother would have consequences. He had received the blessing of God but that does not mean he had received absolution for his crimes. The next 20 years of his life would be marked by a strange mixture of blessing and curses, joy and sorrow. Slowly, but surely, God would lovingly whittle away the unhealthy aspects of Jacob’s life. This self-willed and self-reliant man would find himself in God’s remedial school for slow learners. And, in time, Jacob would learn the timeless truth concerning God’s loving and life-altering use of discipline.

And have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons?

My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline
or give up when he corrects you.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.”

Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. – Hebrews 12:5-8 NLT

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

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

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Work While You Wait

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 4:7-11 ESV

One thought that Peter and the other apostles couldn’t get out of their heads was the words Jesus had spoken to them not long before He left them.

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going.” – John 14:1-4 NLT

While they didn’t fully understand the gist of His message at the time, the promise contained in it had stayed with them. And their eager anticipation of His return can be found throughout their writings. Peter clearly reveals his belief that Jesus’ return, which will signal the end of this age, could not be far away: “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7 ESV). But he was not alone in that estimation. James wrote:

You, too, must be patient. Take courage, for the coming of the Lord is near. – James 5:8 NLT

The apostle Paul, writing with equal intensity and eager anticipation, put it this way:

This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. – Romans 13:11-12 NLT

John understood that the Antichrist and the persecution he would bring would precede the return of Christ. He could sense the increasing intensity of persecution and suffering in the world and believed that the end was nearing.

Dear children, the last hour is here. You have heard that the Antichrist is coming, and already many such antichrists have appeared. From this we know that the last hour has come. – 1 John 2:18 NLT

And the author of the book of Hebrews encouraged his readers to eagerly await the return of Christ.

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, 28 so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. – Hebrews 9:27-28 NLT

Each of these men lived with a sense of anticipation and expectation. They understood that that the return of the Lord was a vital part of God’s redemptive plan. As Paul put it, “the day of salvation” was tied directly to the second coming of Jesus. His return was an essential and non-negotiable requirement for the Kingdom to be restored, and each of these men still longed to see that happen in their lifetimes. Jesus’ departure had delayed but not diminished their hopes. He had promised to return and they believed Him.

“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again. If you really loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, who is greater than I am. I have told you these things before they happen so that when they do happen, you will believe.” – John 14:27-29 NLT

At the time Peter wrote his letter, the apostle John had not yet received his vision from God that eventually produced the book of Revelation. Late in his life, John found himself living on the desolate island of Patmos. He had been exiled there by the Roman Emperor as a punishment for his continued promotion of “the Way” – the derogatory name used by the Romans to refer to the Jewish sect that still followed the martyred Rabbi, Jesus. But as John sat imprisoned on Patmos, he was given a divinely inspired vision of the future, delivered to him by an angel of God.

This is a revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the events that must soon take place. He sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John, who faithfully reported everything he saw. This is his report of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. – Revelation 1:1-2 NLT

Notice that he too believed that the things he saw and later recorded would “soon take place.” John was not given a detailed timeline for the events described in the revelation he received from Jesus. But it seems clear that he believed he would live to witness their arrival. And, once again, he was given ample reason to reach that conclusion when he heard and wrote down the last words Jesus spoke in his vision.

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” – Revelation 22:20 ESV

John and his fellow apostles lived with a deep longing to see their Savior again. They had been faithful to fulfill the commission He had given them and had taken the gospel of the Kingdom to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The size of the church had increased significantly but so had the persecution. And these 1st-Century saints found motivation and determination in the promise of Christ’s return. They lived with the end in mind.

That’s why Peter told his readers to “be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7 ESV). According to Peter, the end of all things was close at hand. In other words, the return of Christ was imminent. It could happen at any moment. Peter knew that his readers were undergoing intense persecution and it would be easy for them to become fixated on their circumstances and lose hope. So, he called them to refocus their attention on the promise of Christ’s return. This was going to require that they think clearly and evaluate their circumstances soundly. The apostle Paul encouraged the believers in Colossae to have the same kind of attitude about life.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. – Colossians 3:1-4 NLT

A clear-headed understanding of Christ’s place of power and prominence at God’s right hand would result in a much-needed reminder of His sovereign control over all things, including their suffering and persecution. Nothing they would endure in this life would prevent their experience of eternal life. But, as Peter warns, the failure to think clearly about the present and the future would negatively influence their prayer lives. When believers lose sight of the goal, their prayers become focused on their present problems and their hope for the immediate gratification of their desires. This life becomes all there is. That’s why Paul said, “set your sights on the realities of heaven.”

It was Jesus who provided His disciples with a model prayer designed to refocus their petitions to God.

“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Pray like this:

Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:7-10 NLT

Even Jesus promoted a future-minded mentality. It is by focusing on the reality of the future, as prescribed by God, that believers can make sense of the present. Jesus went on to encourage prayers for daily provision, forgiveness, and protection from temptation. But all these requests are intended to provide the endurance necessary to survive in this world while waiting for the next. They are focused on the end.

But Peter went on to encourage a lifestyle marked by grace-based love, complaint-free hospitality, and a God-glorifying use of their spiritual gifts. They were to love as they had been loved by God. They were to open their hearts and homes, providing the same gracious and warm welcome into the family of God that they had received. And they were to use the gifts given to them by the Spirit of God in order to bless the people of God. As they waited for the return of the Lord, they were to remain busy about the business of doing good.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:9-10 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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Our Sinless, Suffering Savior

39 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Luke 22:39-46 ESV

One of the truly fascinating things about studying Scripture is how the Spirit of God constantly reveals new insights that had previously been hidden from view. So often, we can find ourselves reading through a passage and focusing on a portion that seems particularly relevant to our current circumstances. Then, at a later date, we read the same passage and discover something we had overlooked. For instance, I had never noticed the statement made by Luke in chapter 21, verse 37.

Every day Jesus went to the Temple to teach, and each evening he returned to spend the night on the Mount of Olives. – Luke 21:37 NLT

I had assumed that Jesus returned each evening to the nearby village of Bethany where Lazarus and his two sisters resided. I had never noticed that Jesus and His disciples had actually been camping out on the Mount of Olives, located just across the Kidron Valley from the Eastern walls of Jerusalem.

But on this night, Jesus led His disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, which was located on the Mount of Olives. Once there, He instructed His disciples to pray, then He took Peter, James, and John and found a more isolated spot where He informed them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matthew 26:38 NLT). According to Matthew, Jesus was “anguished and distressed” (Matthew 26:37 NLT). As the moment of His suffering and death drew nearer, Jesus could feel the intensity and immensity of the burden He was about to bear. The scene as described by the gospel writers paints an image of increasing isolation as Jesus moves from the company of the 11 to the more intimate companions of Peter, James, and John. And then, it ends with Jesus in completely isolated and alone, except for the presence of His Heavenly Father.

…he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed… – Luke 22:41 ESV

From 11 to three to one. Jesus was entering a period marked by extreme sorrow and pain, and none of His disciples could fathom its weight or empathize with His suffering. Matthew describes Jesus as bowing down “with his face to the ground” (Matthew 26:39 NLT). Mark provides an added detail that describes the intensity of Jesus’ actions.

he fell on the ground – Mark 14:35 ESV

Jesus was emotionally vested in the moment. His entire being was experiencing the full brunt of the responsibility given to Him by His Father. In this seminal moment of Jesus’ life, we are given a vivid portrait of both His divinity and humanity. He was fully God and fully human, and nowhere does this unique union of two essences become more evident than in the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane. As the Son of God, Jesus declares His intention to faithfully fulfill the will of His Father. But as the Son of Man, Jesus displays His humanity and a natural aversion to the intense suffering He is about to undergo. He openly and honestly shares His heart with the Father.

“Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. – Luke 22:42 NLT

Jesus was not an automaton, preprogrammed to mechanically adhere to a predetermined set of instructions. He was not simply going through the motions. And we tend to forget that, as a man, Jesus would endure all the intense pain, heartache, physical and emotional trauma that any other man would feel who was forced to endure scourging and crucifixion. And yet, He was prepared to do it on His own initiative and not because He was being forced to do so.

“No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.” – John 10:18 NLT

At one time, Jesus had described Himself as “the good shepherd” and added that “The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 NLT). And He made it perfectly clear that His sacrifice was voluntary and not coerced.

“I sacrifice my life for the sheep.” – John 10:15 NLT

Jesus did not have a death wish. As a human, He knew that the pain ahead would be excruciating. Yet, as God, He knew it was also inescapable. His human nature was revolted at the prospect of death by crucifixion. He knew it would be like nothing He had ever experienced before or ever again. And, in allowing Himself to endure such a devastatingly cruel form of execution, Jesus was making Himself one with us. The author of Hebrews reminds us:

Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. – Hebrews 2:17-18 NLT

One of the things we fail to recognize is that the mental, emotional, and psychological suffering Jesus endured prior to the cross is what makes Him an empathetic and understanding Savior. He understands our pain because He has endured it. He knows the reality of the fear and apprehension that so often grips our lives because He experienced it. He is intimately familiar with those moments when our will stands in direct opposition to God’s. But what He models for us is a complete reliance upon and submission to His Father’s sovereign will for His life.

“Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” – Luke 22:42 NLT

Jesus’ death on the cross was not performance art. He was not pretending to bleed. He wasn’t putting on a well-rehearsed show that appeared real but was really all an act. No, the pain was intense. The beatings took their toll. The nails pierced through real flesh, severing real veins, and spilling real human blood. His muscles were cramped. His breath grew labored. His sight became blurred from the sweat, the blood, and the unrelenting pain. And yet, knowing all of this long before it happened, Jesus was willing to endure it – all for us.

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

Luke provides us with insight into the intensity of Jesus’ prayer time. This was not a “now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep” kind of prayer. It was so emotionally exhausting and draining that “an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him” (Luke 22:43 NLT). But even this divinely ordained respite failed to make the rest of Jesus’ prayer time any less difficult. If anything, it seems to have renewed and re-energized Jesus’ efforts.

He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. – Luke 22:44 NLT

It is impossible to know the exact meaning behind this reference to sweat falling like drops of blood. Suffice it to say, this was an intensely emotional experience for Jesus. Every aspect of His being was engaged and impacted by this moment. Yet, both Mark and Matthew record that while Jesus was pouring out His heart and exhausting every last vestige of emotional energy, the disciples were fast asleep (Matthew 26:40; Mark 14:37). Luke seems to cut them some slack by indicating that they were “exhausted from grief” (Luke 22:45 NLT).

It’s interesting to consider that Jesus was grieved, yet He faced it by asking that His Heavenly Father’s will be done. He knew that His sorrow was real, but that it took a backseat to the divine plan for mankind’s redemption. But the disciples faced their sorrow through escape. They sought relief from their grief by sleep rather than prayer. In a sense, they sought their own will. Instead of facing the unappealing prospect of suffering by submitting to God’s will, they chose the temporary prospect of sleep.

So, Jesus woke them and warned, “Get up and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation” (Luke 22:46 NLT). What Luke chooses to leave out of his narrative is that Jesus directed this statement to Peter, one of the three whom He had chosen to accompany Him further into the garden. And Jesus made this statement the first time He found Peter, James, and John asleep. 

He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” – Matthew 26:40-41 NLT

This was the same man who had boldly declared, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33 ESV). And yet, Jesus knew that it would only be a matter of time before Peter would deny even knowing Him. What Peter needed was divine help, not sleep. What Peter should have been doing was praying. But he was about to learn the truth behind Jesus’ words: The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.

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

Seek, Knock, and Ask

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” – Luke 11:5-13 ESV

Jesus continues His lecture on prayer to His disciples. Once again, He has given them a model prayer intended to illustrate the manner in which we are to pray. Our prayers are to be God-directed, cognizant of His holiness, submissive to His will, reliant upon His gracious provision, and grateful for His forgiveness and loving leadership. 

But now, Jesus moves from talking about how to pray to the why behind our prayers. Instead of continuing to discuss methodology, He switches to motivation. And to make His point, Jesus uses a parable intended to make the rather esoteric topic of prayer much more practical and applicable. Jesus describes a real-life scenario in which an individual receives a midnight visit from an unexpected out-of-town guest. To make matters worse, he lacks the resources to show proper hospitality to his friend. So, in desperation, he attempts to wake up a nearby neighbor so that he can borrow three loaves of bread. 

This man finds himself with an unexpected problem that he has no capacity to solve. But his impassioned plea for his neighbor’s assistance is met with cold-hearted rejection.

“Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.” – Luke 11:7 NLT

Jesus clearly intended for this response to strike a nerve. The disciples would have been shocked and angered by the neighbor’s refusal to help. Hospitality was a high priority in their culture and to think that this lazy neighbor would refuse to help this man save face was totally unacceptable. It would have taken little effort for the neighbor to get out of bed and give the man three loaves of bread. And notice that the neighbor doesn’t deny having the bread. He simply refuses to help.

But Jesus wants the disciples to see this story from their own perspective. He wants them to personalize it by considering what they would do if they were the man who had received the calloused response from his neighbor. And Jesus, knowing exactly what they are thinking, puts their thoughts into words.

But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence.” – Luke 11:8 NLT

At least one of the disciples is thinking, “I would keep banging on the door until he gives me what I need!” And Jesus affirms that mentality by inferring that the man’s unrelenting and persistent knocking would finally end up shaming the neighbor into action. Driven by his unexpected problem, the first man was willing to make an embarrassing spectacle of himself, waking up the entire neighborhood if that’s what it took to get what he needed. And his persistence would pay off. Eventually, the neighbor would get up and give him what he needed, otherwise he would be exposed as stingy and unhospitable himself.

But what’s Jesus’ point in all this? What is He trying to say? Remember, the topic is prayer and He seems to be stressing the motivation behind our conversations with God. What often gets overlooked in the story is the basis of the man’s need. We tend to think it was the arrival of the late-night guest. But the man’s real need was his lack of bread. This ties directly back to Jesus’ model prayer: “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3 ESV).

The arrival of the guest simply exposed the need. The man had learned to live without, but when his friend showed up unannounced, he was forced to seek help. He lacked what he needed to be a good host. So, he took that need to a neighbor. When his neighbor proved reluctant, the man’s need didn’t suddenly go away. His guest was still sitting in his home and the cupboard was still as bear as before. And that pressing need caused the man to knock all the harder. He refused to give up asking because his need was great and his resources were few. He had no other option.

And Jesus makes the logical connection between the story and the lesson it provides concerning prayer.

“And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. – Luke 11:9-10 NLT

Life has a way of exposing our needs and insufficiencies. Had the guest not shown up at midnight, the man never would have made his late-night visit to his neighbor. His lack of bread would have remained unknown to all those around him. But circumstances forced him to make his need known. And Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that, in time, they would have their needs exposed by the circumstances of life. And when those unexpected “guests” showed up on their doorstep, they were to take their need to God. Unlike the stubborn neighbor in the story, Yahweh is gracious, merciful, and generous. Jesus is not suggesting that getting God to answer our prayers requires stubborn and persistent asking, seeking, and knocking. The lazy neighbor was not intended to represent God. Jesus is simply stating that the neighbor eventually relented because the man with the need kept asking until his need was met. And we are to continually, repeatedly, and persistently take all our needs to God. The apostle Peter reminds us to “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7 NLT).

This entire exchange between Jesus and His disciples is a repeat of the message He delivered in His sermon on the mount.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” – Matthew 7:9-11 NLT

Jesus was simply reiterating what He had already taught them. In that same sermon, Jesus had told the disciples, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 6:7-8 NLT).

The neighbor had no idea the man lacked bread. And even when he became aware of the man’s need, he refused to meet it. But it is not that way with God. He knows our needs before we even ask. And sometimes God will use the surprising and unexpected circumstances of life to expose our needs so that we will come to Him for assistance. And when we seek, knock, and ask, our gracious God always provides. He is nothing like the reluctant neighbor. We don’t have to shame Him into action. He doesn’t require us to beat down the door of heaven to get what we need. Like a parent who gives their child exactly what they request, God lovingly and graciously meets our needs. But first, we have to seek, knock and ask. And that requires that we acknowledge our needs. Like the man in the story, we have many needs that remain hidden and out of sight. Our friends and neighbors know nothing about them. But God, because He loves us, allows our needs to become known. He brings circumstances and situations into our lives that expose our needs and force us to seek His aid. And Jesus encourages His disciples to understand prayer as a means by which they were to take their needs to God – seeking, knocking, and asking for His gracious and loving assistance. As James would later write in his letter, “You do not have, because you do not ask”(James 4:2 ESV). 

And the apostle Paul provides us with strong encouragement to make our requests known to God.

…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7 ESV

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

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

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

Don’t Over-Complicate It

1 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
    for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.” – Luke 11:1-4 ESV

This is the second time in the gospels that we find a record of Jesus delivering to His disciples what has come to be known as The Lord’s Prayer. The other occasion is found in the book of Matthew. But the significant differences in the two accounts seem to indicate that Luke and Matthew were recording two different incidents. This should not be surprising because Jesus often repeated key lessons to His disciples. And since prayer was such a vital part of His own earthly ministry, He must have discussed this topic on more than one occasion. 

Jesus knew there was a lot about the practice of prayer that was misunderstood by His disciples and causing them to misuse and abuse it. Like so many other Jews, they had turned prayer into little more than an outward display of their own apparent righteousness. They prayed to impress and to gain the approval of men. That was the basis of Jesus’ discussion of prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13. He had just covered how not to pray. They were not to pray hypocritically, pretending to be concerned with God, while actually trying to impress those around them with their prayerful piety. And He told them not to pray lengthy, repetitive prayers, in the hopes that God might see them as more holy and, therefore, answer their prayers more readily.

In Luke’s account, he reveals that the topic of prayer was raised by one of Jesus’ disciples. This unnamed individual came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1 ESV). It could be that this man expected Jesus to further elaborate on His original discussion regarding prayer. As the disciples observed Jesus day after day, they were eyewitnesses to His own prayerful disposition. He often spent entire evenings in prayer to His Heavenly Father, and Luke indicates that it was after just such an occasion that this disciple approached Jesus with his request.

It seems likely that this disciple remembered what Jesus had said about prayer when He had discussed the topic earlier. But the man was looking for more. He specifically asked that Jesus teach them as John taught his disciples. It would appear that the disciple was looking for the key to a more effective and powerful prayer life. If you recall, when the disciples had failed to cast the demon out of a young boy, Jesus had told them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29 ESV). Their lack of success in casting out the demon coupled with this insight from Jesus might have prompted a discussion among the disciples regarding their need for more prayer instruction. It wasn’t that they didn’t pray, it was that they must not be praying in the wrong way. Or so they thought.

So, much to their surprise and disappointment, Jesus simply repeats what He had taught them earlier.

And he said to them, “When you pray, say…” – Luke 11:2 ESV

As in the case of Jesus’ teaching found in Matthew’s gospel, what follows is a model for prayer. It was not intended to be a stand-in for the disciples’ own prayers or to become some kind of daily recitation that they were to pray routinely and mechanically. In these verses, Jesus provides a model to be followed, not a mantra to be recited. It contains the key elements that should be found in every conversation between a child of God and their Heavenly Father. And it provides a simple, easy-to-follow outline for proper prayer.

First of all, Jesus would have us remember that prayer is not about us. It is, first and foremost, about God and our relationship with Him as His child. We are more than free to come to God with our needs, wants, and even our desires. But we must attempt to bring those needs, wants, and desires within His will. So, Jesus begins His model prayer by addressing the Father.

The term “father” communicates intimacy. We are to come before God as a child, recognizing that He loves and cares for us. Realizing that He is our provider and protector. He loves and cares for us, and He is also responsible for us. He is holy, while we are marred by sin and yet, we can come before Him and talk with Him. In fact, the author of Hebrews tells us to “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 4:16 NLT).

But we must always remember that God is both good and great. He is approachable, but we must never come into His presence flippantly or disrespectfully. One of the problems that can develop from the father/child relationship is a spirit of over-familiarity. Children can become too comfortable with their parents and begin to treat them as peers. A parent who refuses to maintain their proper position of authority may end up with a child who becomes demanding toward them, even demeaning. The old phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt,” can become true of the parent/child relationship. It can produce an attitude of flippancy and disrespect. And the same thing can happen in our relationship with God the Father. We are His children, but that relationship should not cause us to forget about His sovereignty over us. We are never to forget that it is Christ who provides us with access to God. Jesus would later say, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV).

Next, Jesus provides an interesting way to address our Father God.

…hallowed be your name…

Now, why would Jesus insert this line in His model prayer? Think about what this statement is saying. The word translated “hallowed” is from the Greek word hagiazo, which means “to separate from profane things and dedicate to God.” The English word “hallow” means “to honor as holy; consider sacred; venerate.” But why would we need to tell God that His name should be treated as holy? Isn’t His name always holy? One of the things we must understand is the extreme importance a man’s name held in the Hebrew culture. It was tied to his character. So, to say to God, “hallowed be your name” was a statement of desire. We are not asking God to keep His name holy, but as His children, we are expressing our desire to live in such a way that nothing we do might profane His name. To say, “hallowed be your name” is to express to him our desire and intention to live in such a way that we bring honor and glory to Him. We are pledging to treat His name as holy through our actions. God will never do anything that will discredit or dishonor His own name. But as His children, we can do immeasurable harm to the character of God by the manner in which we conduct our lives on this planet.

The next part of Jesus’ model prayer states, “your kingdom come.” Notice the emphasis: His kingdom. Not ours. Prayer is to be focused on God, not us. Prayer is not primarily a time to tell God about all the things we think He doesn’t know or to give Him the lengthy list of things we think we need. In His earlier lesson on prayer, Jesus had stated, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8 ESV). Prayer is an opportunity to align our will with His. It is a chance to remind ourselves that we exist for the good of His kingdom, not the other way around. And to ask that His kingdom come is to say to God that we want His rule and reign to permeate every area of our life. It is a willful submission to His authority over us.

One of the things Jesus seems to want us to know is that prayer is about sharing our hearts, not information. Prayer allows us to…

…realign our perspective

…refocus our attention

…reveal our sin

…refresh our commitment

…request His assistance

Prayer should focus on His kingdom, not ours. It should stress His will, not ours. That does not mean we are forbidden to ask for things from God. But Jesus provides us with a sobering reminder of just what we should focus on when we do make requests of God.

Give us this day our daily bread…

Here is the interesting thing about Jesus’ model prayer. A sincere desire for God’s kingdom to come should change the nature of our requests. If we truly believe that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and fully capable of providing for us what we need for life, we will trust Him to do so. He is King and knows what is best for us. So, as we pray to Him, our priorities should change. Rather than seeking significance and satisfaction from those things the world offers, we will be content to trust God to meet our daily needs. Thomas L. Constable describes our daily bread as:

“…the necessities of life, not its luxuries. This is a prayer for our needs, not our greeds. The request is for God to supply our needs day by day.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Matthew, 2008 Edition

The next request Jesus makes in His prayer is that of forgiveness.

forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us

But weren’t all our sins paid for on the cross? Why do we need forgiveness? Because we still have sinful natures. Because we still sin. And sin creates a barrier between God and us. The forgiveness Jesus is talking about has nothing to do with salvation, but with restoring fellowship with God. Sin indebts us to God. When we confess those sins, it brings forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgives us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

Confession restores fellowship. Fellowship with God should mean more to us than anything else. But is Jesus teaching that our forgiveness from God is tied to our willingness to forgive others? To refuse to forgive others shows open disregard for the forgiveness of God. To refuse to forgive is a sin. It is against the will of God for His children. That is why the apostle Paul had such strong words regarding our need to forgive others.

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:12-13 NLT

The next part of His prayer is intriguing.

…and lead us not into temptation…

Is Jesus suggesting that we ask God not to tempt us? If so, He would be contradicting what James would later write, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13 ESV). Paul seems to muddy the waters even more:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV

The Greek word for “temptation” is peirasmos and it can mean a trial or testing. It can refer to an inner temptation to sin, but also to a trial that tests the character. So what is Jesus suggesting? Based on the context, it would appear that He wanted us to have an awareness of our dependence upon God. We must recognize that God’s way never leads us to sin. That doesn’t mean we won’t sin, but we must ask God to protect us from falling into sin along the way. We need His help not to sin as He leads us. Following God’s leadership will not be easy. There will be trials along the way. And Jesus wanted His followers to know that they could come to God for assistance and deliverance.

The disciple who made this request of Jesus was well-intentioned, but he was overcomplicating the issue. He was looking for a methodology that might result in a more powerful prayer life. We have no way of knowing what John the Baptist had taught his disciples regarding prayer, but this man was wanting Jesus to provide more in-depth instruction on the topic. And yet, Jesus simply reiterated what He had taught them before. Pray humbly to your Heavenly Father. Make it your priority to protect the holiness of His name. Keep your focus on the eternal rather than the temporal. Remain completely dependent upon God for all your needs, including food and forgiveness. And never forget your complete reliance upon Him for surviving the trials and temptations of this life.

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

Unbelievably Unrepentant

“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

“I also withheld the rain from you
when there were yet three months to the harvest;
I would send rain on one city,
and send no rain on another city;
one field would have rain,
and the field on which it did not rain would wither;
so two or three cities would wander to another city
to drink water, and would not be satisfied;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

“I struck you with blight and mildew;
your many gardens and your vineyards,
your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

10 “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;
I killed your young men with the sword,
and carried away your horses,
and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

11 “I overthrew some of you,
as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

12 “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
because I will do this to you,
prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”

13 For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth—
the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!Amos 4:6-13 ESV

In this section of Amos’ message, it would appear that he has 1 Kings 8 in mind. In that passage, King Solomon is offering his prayer of dedication for the newly constructed temple in Jerusalem. Solomon fully realized that it was impossible for the God of the universe to actually take up residence in a building made with human hands. The omnipotent, omnipresent God who created the heavens and the earth could not be contained in a man-made structure. But Solomon God to “watch over this Temple night and day” (1 Kings 8:29 NLT). The temple was being dedicated to God’s glory and would bear His name.  So, with that in mind, Solomon asked God to “hear the prayers I make toward this place” (1 Kings 8:29 NLT). Then he added:

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

Then Solomon outlined for God a series of likely scenarios in which the people would find themselves needing divine assistance. Solomon knew his people well, and he was fully aware that they would commit sins against God that would result in the judgment of God. So, he asked that the temple might be a place of intercession where the people could come in repentance and offer up their prayers to the Almighty. And Solomon asked God to confirm that, if they prayed, He would hear and forgive.

Now, fast-forward to the reign of Jeroboam II. He is ruling over the kingdom of Israel, consisting of the ten northern tribes that broke away from Judah and Benjamin shortly after Solomon’s death. The northern kingdom is wicked and unrepentant. They are idolatrous, immoral, unjust, and guilty of having turned their backs on God. And in verses 6-11 of chapter four, Amos records God’s words concerning their stubborn, unrepentant hearts.

God reminds them that He has brought judgment after judgment against them, in the form of famine, drought, disease, pestilence, and war, but they have repeatedly refused to repent. And with each description of the judgment He sent upon them, God adds the sad refrain, “yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6 ESV).

God had sent a famine among the cities of Israel. And because they had no food, they had “cleanness of teeth” (Amos 4:6 ESV). Their sin had resulted in God’s judgment and a devastating lack of life’s necessities. But Solomon had prayed with just such an incident in mind. He asked God, “If there is a famine in the land and if your people Israel pray about their troubles, raising their hands toward this Temple, then hear from heaven where you live, and forgive. Give your people what their actions deserve, for you alone know each human heart” (1 Kings 8:37, 38-39 NLT).

But notice what Solomon said: If there is a famine and if your people pray….

And there was a famine, but the people did not pray. They never turned to God in repentance. And because they were living in the northern kingdom of Israel, far from the city of Jerusalem, the temple of God was out of sight, out of mind. They had their own temples dedicated to their own false gods.

Next, God reminds them that He had withheld the rain, causing them to suffer the consequences of drought. This should have been no surprise to the people of God, because, generations earlier, Moses had warned them what would happen if they chose to disobey God’s laws:

The skies above will be as unyielding as bronze, and the earth beneath will be as hard as iron. The Lord will change the rain that falls on your land into powder, and dust will pour down from the sky until you are destroyed. – Deuteronomy 28:23-24 NLT

And Solomon, knowing the sinful propensity of the people of Israel, had foreseen this day and had used it as another example of the need for God’s forgiveness.

“If the skies are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you, and if they pray toward this Temple and acknowledge your name and turn from their sins because you have punished them, then hear from heaven and forgive the sins of your servants, your people Israel. Teach them to follow the right path, and send rain on your land that you have given to your people as their special possession.” – 1 Kings 8:35-36 NLT

But the lack of rain had not produced repentant hearts. Instead, the hearts of the people remained as hard as the sun-baked, rain-deprived soil. They remained unwilling to repent and, therefore, they remained unforgiven by God.

But God had not stopped with famine and drought. He had also destroyed their crops with blight and mildew. He sent locusts to devour their fig and olive trees. These natural disasters were actually divine judgments, designed to get the attention of the apostate people of Israel. But, once again, they failed to repent and return. And, once again, Solomon had foreseen this situation and had included it in his prayer to God.

“If there is … a plague or crop disease or attacks of locusts or caterpillars…whatever disaster or disease there is—and if your people Israel pray about their troubles, raising their hands toward this Temple, then hear from heaven where you live, and forgive.” – 1 Kings 8:37-39

All the people needed to do was admit their fault and turn to God in repentance. But they would stubbornly refuse to do so.

And their stubbornness proved costly. After sending diseases on the fields, vineyards, and orchards of Israel, God sent pestilence among the people. He brought upon the Israelites the same kind of plagues that had destroyed the people of Egypt. Solomon had seen this coming as well. He had specifically feared the possibility of this very thing happening when he prayed, “If there is … a plague…” (1 Kings 8:37 ESV).

But not only did God send a devastating and deadly plague, He sent enemy troops who killed the soldiers of Israel, leaving a mass of decaying corpses in their wake.

I killed your young men in war
    and led all your horses away.
    The stench of death filled the air!” – 1 Kings 8:10 NLT

And, according to the prayer of Solomon, the people of Israel had failed to pray to God before entering into battle with their enemies and, as a result, they were defeated.

“If your people go out where you send them to fight their enemies, and if they pray to the Lord by turning toward this city you have chosen and toward this Temple I have built to honor your name, then hear their prayers from heaven and uphold their cause.” – 1 Kings 8:44-45 NLT

The people of Israel didn’t turn to God because they didn’t believe they needed Him. And they refused to return to God because they no longer believed in Him. They had long ago rejected Him as their God. And they had paid the price.

God had even decreed the destruction of some of their cities. Enemy forces had besieged and destroyed many Israelite cities and towns, burning them to the ground and leaving them desolated wastelands, much like the sinful cities Sodom and Gomorrah had become.

“I destroyed some of your cities,
    as I destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.
Those of you who survived
    were like charred sticks pulled from a fire. – Amos 4:11 NLT

But even these devastating consequences failed to produce repentance among the people of Israel.

“But still you would not return to me,”
    says the Lord. – Amos 4:11 LT

At no point do the people of Israel turn their faces to the temple in Jerusalem and turn their hearts to the God whose name it bears. Despite all God’s judgments against them, they refuse to confess their sins and call out for His mercy and forgiveness. So, God provides them with one final and fateful warning: “prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” (Amos 4:12 ESV).

While they consistently refused to return to Him in repentance, they were still going to have to deal with Him. Closing their eyes and their hearts did not make God go away. Just because they failed to acknowledge Him as God, did not mean He no longer existed. And Amos adds his two cents worth by reminding them that Yahweh was the Creator-God, the maker of all things. He was the sovereign God of the universe who holds all things in His mighty hands and is fully capable of dealing justly and rightly with His creation. And He would.

For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
    and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
    and treads on the heights of the earth—
    the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name! – Amos 4:13 ESV

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

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

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

God’s Plan of Deliverance

1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
    I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!” Jonah 2:1-9 ESV

Does the story of Jonah contain allegorical elements? It seems quite clear that the author is attempting to convey more than just a historical recounting of Jonah’s life. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he has recorded the details concerning Jonah’s ordeal in order to convey an important message to his primary audience: The chosen people of God. He reveals distinct and not-so-subtle parallels between Jonah’s life and the descendants of Abraham: The Hebrew nation. But this allegorical connection does not in any way diminish or dismiss the historical nature of the book’s content. If anything, it reinforces it. The real-life experiences of Jonah are meant to be a powerful reminder of God’s sovereignty, power, grace, mercy, and love. And the fact that these events really did take place would have provided the book’s original readers with a sense of God’s control over all things.

This relatively short book is packed with Old Testament scriptural references that its original readers would have quickly recognized. There are allusions to the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, two renowned prophets of God. Its narrative style brings to mind the stories of Ruth and Esther, two other Old Testament books that convey powerful messages concerning God’s sovereignty and power. Both are stories about individuals that carry much broader truths concerning God’s interactions with His chosen people. And the book of Jonah contains countless references to the Psalms. In today’s passage alone, there are at least 21 direct links.

These Old Testament references are intended to provide an indisputable connection between Jonah’s current circumstances and the historical record of Israel. This one man’s ordeal is meant to reflect the corporate experience of the entire nation. And through it all, the reader is encouraged to recognize the sovereign hand of God working behind the scenes to accomplish His divine will – not just for Jonah, but for the people of Nineveh. And they were intended to apply this powerful truth to their own lives. God was in full control and had a plan in place that would bring about His will concerning the redemption of the world through His chosen instrument.

So, as the Jewish audience read of Jonah’s flight from God, the ensuing storm, and his eventual imprisonment in the belly of the great fish, they were meant to see themselves in the story. If the book of Jonah has a post-exilic date of authorship, as many scholars believe, then the people of Israel would have been reading its content while living as slaves in Assyria. The conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel began in 740 BC and culminated nearly 20 years later when the capital city, Samaria, was overtaken by the Assyrians under Shalmaneser V. This devastating defeat resulted in the deportation of thousands of Israelites to Assyria. And this terrible plight could have been avoided had the people listened to the calls of Elijah and Elisha to repent and return to Yahweh.

So, reading of Jonah being trapped in the belly of the fish would have had a particularly powerful impact on these exiles. They were in a similar predicament. But what did Jonah do? How did he respond? Chapter two provides us with the answer.

Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish – Jonah 2:1 ESV

And it’s important to recognize that it was only when he found himself confined to the fish’s stomach that Jonah cried out to God. Earlier, when the storm was raging and the sailors were desperately calling on their various gods to save them, Jonah had been sleeping like a baby. The ship’s captain even chastised Jonah for his lack of concern, shouting, “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives” (Jonah 1:6 NLT). But there is no indication that Jonah ever uttered a single word to Yahweh on their behalf. 

But now, in the darkness and dampness of his aquatic prison, Jonah cried out to God. And the record of his prayer provides a glimpse into Jonah’s knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and his basic understanding of Yahweh. He begins by quoting Psalm 120:1:

In my distress I called to the Lord,
    and he answered me.

Jonah is clearly referencing one of the songs of ascent, psalms that were sung by the people of Israel as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual feasts established by God. These were songs of thanksgiving that celebrated God’s many acts of deliverance. Jonah, in the midst of his predicament, is thanking God for what He is about to do. He expresses confidence in God’s compassion and willingness to deliver the repentant. And clearly referencing Psalm 30, Jonah speaks in the past tense, reflecting his belief that God will hear his prayer and respond.

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
    and you have healed me.
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
    you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” – Psalm 30:1-2 ESV

Like King David, Jonah cries out to God from the literal depths of his despair.

“Save me, O God!
    For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
    where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
    and the flood sweeps over me.” – Psalm 69:1-12 ESV

Jonah finds himself in a hopeless situation, unable to save himself and forced to call out to God for deliverance. He is surrounded by darkness and sinking deeper and deeper into the ocean, further and further away from God. And yet, even in this dire circumstance, his mind recalls the words of King David.

I had said in my alarm,
    “I am cut off from your sight.”
But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy
    when I cried to you for help. – Psalm31:22 ESV

The man who had attempted to “flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 ESV), is now feeling cut off from God. Yet, he is able to express his confidence that God will deliver him. “I shall again look upon your holy temple” (Jonah 2:4 ESV). This is a direct reference to another psalm of David: Psalm 5, verse 7. Jonah is attempting to keep his focus on the faithfulness of God by recalling the many psalms that reflect God’s goodness and past acts of divine deliverance. And he speaks in terms that project hope in the face of adversity.

The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
   at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God. – Jonah 2:5-6 ESV

Once again, Jonah finds comfort in the psalms of David, reminding himself that God is far greater than his worst predicament.

O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
    you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit. – Psalm 30:3 ESV

As Jonah sank deeper and deeper into the sea, he cried out louder and louder, believing that his God could and would hear him from His holy temple. Distance and darkness are no problem for God. As King David said:

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. – Psalm 139:9-12 ESV

But Jonah ends his prayer in a somewhat prideful and arrogant tone, seemingly comparing himself to the pagan sailors who had tossed him overboard.

Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love. – Jonah 2:8 ESV

What Jonah didn’t know was what had happened to those men when they threw him overboard and the storm subsided.

Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. – Jonah 1:16 ESV

These former idolaters believed in Yahweh and expressed their gratitude for His goodness by offering sacrifices and making vows. But Jonah assumes that these men remained worshipers of false gods. He viewed them as pagan Gentiles who would never understand or experience the steadfast love of Yahweh. But he was wrong. And he arrogantly bragged about how he would pay God back for His deliverance.

“But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – Jonah 2:9 ESV

Notice that nowhere in his prayer does Jonah mention Nineveh or the people who live there. He offers up no prayer of intercession on their behalf. Instead, he seems to echo the words of the self-righteous Pharisee from the story told by Jesus in Luke’s gospel.

“I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

Jonah shows no regard for the nations of the earth. He had been more than willing to sleep while the Gentile sailors went to their deaths. And he had chosen to disobey God rather than deliver His message to the wicked citizens of Nineveh. Yet, when he found himself in desperate circumstances, Jonah called upon his gracious and merciful God. As a Jew, he believed he somehow deserved to be saved. And his self-consumed prayer seems to reflect the hearts of the people living in exile. They too had come to believe that they were deserving of God’s deliverance. Even their prophets were prophesying falsehoods, proclaiming that their days in exile would be few. These men were guilty of leading the people astray, allowing them to think that, despite their captivity, all was well between them and God.

After Jonah completed his prayer to God, the author records, “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10 ESV). Don’t miss the significance of that statement. It says that God spoke to the fish, but not to Jonah. Yahweh does not respond to Jonah’s pious-sounding words. Instead, He speaks to the fish and commands that it deliver Jonah to dry land. The fish in which Jonah had been imprisoned suddenly became God’s instrument of deliverance. And not only for Jonah, but for the people of Nineveh. God would use the fish to accomplish His divine plan of redemption, and God would use His reluctant and rebellious prophet as well. The sovereign will of God would be done.

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