You Won’t, But I Will

11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken. Ezekiel 34:11-24 ESV

God has leveled His indictment against the leaders of Judah. From the priests and prophets to the king and his court, they all stand before God guilty of malfeasance. Not only have they neglected their God-ordained duties, but they have used their roles for personal profit and self-advancement. Personally responsible for the physical and spiritual well-being of God’s flock, these men had left the people of Judah in a weakened and vulnerable state. God describes them as scattered and defenseless. And, repeatedly, God accuses His undershepherds of failing to do anything about it.

“…my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them. – Ezekiel 34:5-6 NLT

“…you abandoned my flock and left them to be attacked by every wild animal. And though you were my shepherds, you didn’t search for my sheep when they were lost.” – Ezekiel 34:8 NLT

These men were guilty of abandonment and neglect. They were so self-absorbed with their own well-being that they failed to provide for the ones under their care. And because of their poor job performance, God declares the prophets, priests, and king to be His enemies.

I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock. I will take away their right to feed the flock, and I will stop them from feeding themselves.” – Ezekiel 34:10 NLT

And God emphatically declares His intentions to step in and rectify the problem these men have created.

I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey.” – Ezekiel 34:10 NLT

Four times in verse 10, God states, “I will.” He will not stand back and watch this travesty of leadership any longer. He will get involved intimately and personally. He offers His personal promise to do what the shepherds should have been doing all along.

In the next 14 verses of Ezekiel 34, God continues to use that same phrase, stating 21 more times that He is about to engage His divine powers on behalf of his neglected and disenfranchised sheep.

His use of the sheep metaphor is quite telling. Sheep are not the brightest of animals. They have a herd mentality and rarely think for themselves. They tend to wander, are virtually defenseless, susceptible to disease, easily frightened, injury-prone, and without proper care, can become filthy, matted, and insect-infested. That’s why they need a shepherd.

Throughout the Old Testament, God refers to His people as sheep and their leaders as shepherds. God appoints leaders to shepherd His flock. He expects them to care for and protect His people. But instead, they tended to fend for themselves and take advantage of the people, leading them into sin and causing them to stumble spiritually. Their lousy leadership was devastating to the nation, and it is chronicled in sordid detail in the history of Israel’s kings. Far too many of them proved to be godless men who led the people astray and caused them to seek sustenance and safety from false gods.

Even the spiritual leaders proved to be more harmful than helpful to the well-being of the people. And God was going to hold them all accountable. Ezekiel 34 is God’s indictment against the shepherds of Israel who had failed to do their jobs. He tells them, “You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty” (Ezekiel 34:4 NLT).

They had failed to do their job. They had left the sheep defenseless and helpless. So, God said He would step in and do what the shepherds had failed to do. Over and over again He says, “I will…” He will search, rescue, feed, care for, tend, bandage, judge, and set over them a true shepherd who will care for them properly.

At the point Ezekiel penned these words from God, the northern kingdom of Israel had been non-existent for hundreds of years. It had fallen to the Assyrians centuries earlier. And, just recently, the southern kingdom of Judah had fallen to the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar and his forces had ended their long siege of Jerusalem by breaking through the walls and completely destroying the capital city of Judah. The temple was demolished, the city looted, and the people were taken back to Babylon as captives. Those who didn’t end up as slaves fled for their lives. That is why God describes them as scattered and wandering “through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth” (Ezekiel 34:8 NLT).

But repeatedly declares that He is ready, willing, and able to do something about their plight. In the final verse of this chapter, God emphatically states His relationship with His sheep.

“You are my flock, the sheep of my pasture. You are my people, and I am your God.” – Ezekiel 43:31 NLT

The psalmists understood this unique relationship between God and His people.

Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock. – Psalm 80:1 NLT

Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
    He made us, and we are his.
    We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. – Psalm 100:3 NLT

And as their shepherd, God promises to do what all good shepherds do: Care for His flock. They had been scattered to the four winds, but He would search for them until He found them. Then He would oversee their return to the land of promise where they will enjoy peace and prosperity once again.

Yes, I will give them good pastureland on the high hills of Israel. There they will lie down in pleasant places and feed in the lush pastures of the hills. I myself will tend my sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign Lord. – Ezekiel 34:14-15 NLT

God is promising a future day when His scattered, skittish, and scarred sheep will find themselves living in the rich pasturelands of Canaan again. It is an image of complete restoration, both physically and spiritually. They will once again be the sheep of His pasture.

The prophet, Micah, echoes this powerful promise from God.

“Someday, O Israel, I will gather you;
    I will gather the remnant who are left.
I will bring you together again like sheep in a pen,
    like a flock in its pasture.
Yes, your land will again
    be filled with noisy crowds! – Micah 2:12 NLT

And Micah takes this powerful prophecy one step further when he writes:

“In that coming day,” says the Lord,
“I will gather together those who are lame,
    those who have been exiles,
    and those whom I have filled with grief.
Those who are weak will survive as a remnant;
    those who were exiles will become a strong nation.
Then I, the Lord, will rule from Jerusalem
    as their king forever.”
As for you, Jerusalem,
    the citadel of God’s people,
your royal might and power
    will come back to you again.
The kingship will be restored
    to my precious Jerusalem. – Micah 4:6-8 NLT

But in the midst of all this good news, God delivered a bit of bad news.

I will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats.” – Ezekiel 34:17 NLT

It’s hard not to see the foreboding nature of this statement. The warning of separation is meant to convey judgment. Jesus Himself used this same imagery when speaking of the final judgment in His Olivette discourse.

“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. – Matthew 25:31-33 NLT

But in Ezekiel 34, the separation seems to be a statement of judgment against the underperforming shepherds of Israel. He accuses them of having kept the best pastures for themselves. In their zeal for self-promotion and personal gain, they had taken advantage of the people, leaving them in a neglected and weakened state. So, God warns them “I will surely judge between the fat sheep and the scrawny sheep. For you fat sheep pushed and butted and crowded my sick and hungry flock until you scattered them to distant lands” (Ezekiel 34:20-21 NLT).

Then with the sheep restored and the shepherds judged, God promises to give them a new shepherd, a man cut from the same cloth as King David.

“I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David. He will feed them and be a shepherd to them. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be a prince among my people. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Ezekiel 34:23-24 NLT

In the midst of all the turmoil surrounding Judah’s fall, God promises that a day is coming when the people of Israel will be restored and enjoy the protection of a king who, like David, will shepherd them just as David did.

He chose David his servant
    and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
    to shepherd Jacob his people,
    Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
    and guided them with his skillful hand. – Psalm 78:70-72 ESV

God will make it happen.

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

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

Lord of All

17 In the twenty-seventh year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 18 “Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre. Every head was made bald, and every shoulder was rubbed bare, yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had performed against her. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. 20 I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he labored, because they worked for me, declares the Lord God.

21 “On that day I will cause a horn to spring up for the house of Israel, and I will open your lips among them. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel 29:17-21 ESV

Some 17 years later, Ezekiel received yet another oracle from God concerning Egypt, and this one came sometime around his 50th birthday. The prophet placed it immediately after the prior message to identify Babylon as the source of Egypt’s fall. King Nebuchadnezzar would be the one wielding the sword against Pharaoh and his people. The same nation that brought about the end of Judah and Tyre would sweep down on the unsuspecting citizens of Egypt, “and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste” (Ezekiel 29:9 ESV).

The amazing thing about this passage is its insistence that Nebuchadnezzar acted as an agent of God Almighty. He was an instrument in the hands of God, carrying out the divine will exactly as God had intended. Unknowingly serving as God’s instrument of judgment, Nebuchadnezzar would lay siege to Tyre for 13 long years, forcing his army to endure a lengthy and costly campaign that resulted in little benefit.

“Son of man, the army of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon fought so hard against Tyre that the warriors’ heads were rubbed bare and their shoulders were raw and blistered. Yet Nebuchadnezzar and his army won no plunder to compensate them for all their work.” – Ezekiel 29:18 NLT

This kind of expenditure against a relatively small coastal city made no sense for a global juggernaut like Babylon. It had little to gain from pouring such much time and resources into a single campaign against a city-state that posed little threat to its empire. But Nebuchadnezzar was doing God’s bidding. He was serving as God’s agent of wrath against Tyre, and he would perform the same role against Egypt.

In fact, God makes it clear that the Egyptian campaign would be a form of payback for Nebuchadnezzar’s losses suffered at Tyre.

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. He will carry off its wealth, plundering everything it has so he can pay his army.” – Ezekiel 29:19 NLT

The wealth of Egypt made that of Tyre pale by comparison. Nebuchadnezzar’s plunder of the vast Egyptian empire would more than compensate for any losses he suffered in his capture of Tyre.

In ancient days, plunder was one of the primary sources of payment for a nation’s armed forces. A soldier’s base salary was relatively small but the appeal of military service was in the sense of adventure it provided and the potential windfall of booty a successful campaign might bring. The conquest of a wealthy city could result in a sizeable bonus for the average footsoldier. Part of the incentive for defeating their enemies was the right to ransack and loot at will. Victorious soldiers were free to take whatever riches they could carry off as plunder, and the cities and towns of Egypt would prove to be a boon for the Babylonian forces.

“The scant historical data indicates that Egypt and Tyre became allies under Pharaoh Hophra (Apries). The extended siege of Tyre was perhaps due to the aid Tyre received from the Egyptians. In such an act Hophra was going contrary to God’s purposes. Not only was the siege prolonged by Egyptian support, but some also surmise that Egypt’s maritime aid enabled Tyre to send away her wealth for security during the siege. When Tyre surrendered about 573 B.C. . . ., Babylonia gained almost no spoils from the long siege.” – Ralph H. Alexander, Ezekiel

God rewarded Nebuchadnezzar for services rendered. This pagan king and his army would receive ample compensation for their role in the defeat of Tyre and it would come in the form of a successful military campaign against one of the greatest nations on earth at that time: Egypt.

This stunning victory against a perennial powerhouse in the region would be directly attributable to God, and this insight was meant to bring a sense of joy and hope to the exiled people of Judah.

“I have given him the land of Egypt as a reward for his work, says the Sovereign Lord, because he was working for me when he destroyed Tyre.” – Ezekiel 29:20 NLT

As the Jewish refugees living in Babylon heard this oracle from the lips of Ezekiel, they couldn’t help but recall the long and storied history of Israel’s relationship with Egypt. Their ancestors had lived as exiles in the land of the Pharaohs for more than 400 years. In the land of the pyramids and sphinxes, the descendants of Jacob had labored as slaves, building the very edifices that made Egypt the envy of the world (Exodus 1:8-14). They had heard the stories of how the Pharaoh had ordered the enslavement of their forefathers and foremothers. They knew the chilling details concerning the royal edict that ordered the infanticide of all the male children born to the Israelites (Exodus 1:15-22). The stories of Pharoah’s repeated refusals to allow Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt would have been seared into their collective conscience. The people of Judah had no reason to love the Egyptians, so the report of their demise at the hands of the Babylonians should have come as welcome news to the exiles. Any time an oppressor nation got a taste of its own medicine was music to the ears of all those who had suffered at their hand.

And to add a further ray of hope to the exiles’ dark and difficult existence, God informs them that the day is coming when they will experience His undeserved grace and mercy as He restores them to their former glory as a nation.

“And the day will come when I will cause the ancient glory of Israel to revive, and then, Ezekiel, your words will be respected. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 29:21 NLT

God had predicted the falls of Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, and now, Egypt. The nations would fall like dominoes under the divinely ordained hand of King Nebuchadnezzar. Even Judah would succumb to Babylon’s insatiable and unstoppable quest to expand its empire and secure its place as the world’s most powerful nation.

But the Babylonians wold prove to be just another pawn in God’s strategic unveiling of His sovereign will for mankind. And while Babylon would enjoy its moment in the sunlight, it would prove to be shortlived. God’s real interest was in the well-being of His chosen people, and back in chapter 28, He revealed His intentions to restore them to the land He had given them.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: The people of Israel will again live in their own land, the land I gave my servant Jacob. For I will gather them from the distant lands where I have scattered them. I will reveal to the nations of the world my holiness among my people. – Ezekiel 28:25 NLT

God exists outside of time. He is transcendent and all-knowing, possessing the unique ability to see past, present, and future all at the same time. Time means nothing to Him. As the eternal God, a thousand years are like a day (2 Peter 3:8). For the exiles, their stay in Babylon seemed endless and hopeless. They couldn’t see past the next morning. And all this news of Judah’s destruction just seemed to make matters worse. But God was letting them know that He had plans and was working those plans to perfection. He was in control of all things, including their future. The nations were under His rule and operated according to His sovereign will. Their rise and fall were His doing. Their victories and defeats were ordained from His throne room in heaven. And the exiles living in Judah needed to understand that their God was more powerful than their captor. Their circumstance was not a sign of God’s demise. The news of Jerusalem’s pending fall was not to be read as His abandonment of them. He was still on His throne and fully in control of all things at all times. And the day was coming when they would know that He is and will always be the Lord.

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

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

Our Multidimensional and Merciful God

20 The word of the Lord came to me: 21 “Son of man, set your face toward Sidon, and prophesy against her 22 and say, Thus says the Lord God:

“Behold, I am against you, O Sidon,
    and I will manifest my glory in your midst.
And they shall know that I am the Lord
    when I execute judgments in her
    and manifest my holiness in her;
23 for I will send pestilence into her,
    and blood into her streets;
and the slain shall fall in her midst,
    by the sword that is against her on every side.
Then they will know that I am the Lord.

24 “And for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord God.

25 “Thus says the Lord God: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall dwell in their own land that I gave to my servant Jacob. 26 And they shall dwell securely in it, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall dwell securely, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord their God.” – Ezekiel 28:20-26 ESV

We tend to struggle with a lot of the imagery and words used in a book like Ezekiel. In it, we get a glimpse of God that tends to make us a little bit uncomfortable. He appears angry, vindictive, and violent, using His power like a neighborhood bully.

After a steady diet of the more attractive version of God depicted in the New Testament, the wrathful, vindictive image found in the Old Testament can come across as a bit disconcerting. It can be difficult to reconcile the God found in Ezekiel with the loving, forgiving, merciful, and grace-giving God we have come to know and love.

But the Bible gives us a complete and holistic view of God. Yes, He is at times angry and wrathful. Yet He is also patient and forgiving. He punishes, but He also protects. He destroys, but He also restores. And in each and every case, all that He does is so that the world might know that He alone is God. Every action God takes is aimed at revealing who He is.

Two times in the closing verses of chapter 28, God declares that what He is about to do will result in a greater knowledge of Him.

“Then they will know that I am the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 28:24 ESV

Then they will know that I am the Lord their God.” – Ezekiel 28:26 ESV

Throughout the Bible, we see evidence of God displaying His power. From the creation account in the opening chapters of Genesis to the cataclysmic events recorded in the book of Revelation, the immense and unmatchable power of God is evidenced for all to see. But at the same time, He also reveals His holiness. Not only is He all-powerful, but He is also completely righteous in all that He does.

The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works. – Psalm 145:17 ESV

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! – Deuteronomy 32:4 NLT

He makes this clear in His message to the Sidonians.

“Give the people of Sidon this message from the Sovereign Lord: ‘I am your enemy, O Sidon, and I will reveal my glory by what I do to you. When I bring judgment against you and reveal my holiness among you, everyone watching will know that I am the Lord.’” – Ezekiel 28:22 NLT

God’s judgment of the people of Sidon and His eventual destruction of them would reveal His holiness. But how? In its simplest form, God’s holiness refers to His set-apartness, His transcendence. He alone is God. There is no one and nothing else like Him. He is distinct and unmatched in all His attributes. He is not a God among gods. He is the only true God. And when God acts against evil and punishes sin, He reveals His distinctive nature. He displays His holiness.

Yet God also reveals His holiness through His kind, gracious, and undeserving treatment of His people. In the same chapter where God warns of His holy judgment against the Sidonians, He promises the restoration of His rebellious people.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: The people of Israel will again live in their own land, the land I gave my servant Jacob. For I will gather them from the distant lands where I have scattered them. I will reveal to the nations of the world my holiness among my people. – Ezekiel 28:25 NLT

God declares that He is going to reveal His holiness, distinctiveness, and set-apartness by returning His people to their land and restoring them to a right relationship with Himself. He is a promise-keeping God, and while He must punish His people for their sins, He will never fully abandon them. His holiness required Him to punish them for their sins, but He would also forgive and restore them.

“They will live safely in Israel and build homes and plant vineyards. And when I punish the neighboring nations that treated them with contempt, they will know that I am the Lord their God.” – Ezekiel 28:26 NLT

God reveals His holiness; His unmatched, unparalleled, distinctiveness in all that He does. Both His wrath and restoration reveal His one-of-a-kind nature. There is no other god like Him. There is no other god BUT Him. The Sidonians, neighbors and close allies to the residents of Tyre, were going to experience God’s judgment because of their unfair treatment of the people of Judah. And their false gods would prove to be no match for Yahweh. He declares Himself their enemy and vows to bring judgment against them. And for the third time, God announces, “Then everyone will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 28:23 ESV).

The people of Sidon will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Yahweh, the God of Judah, is the one true God. They will have experienced His power and irrefutable presence in the form of their own destruction. While the citizens of Tyre and Sidon gloated over Judah’s demise, they had no idea that a far worse fate awaited them. When they had chosen to align themselves against God’s people, they had unknowingly declared war against Him. They had made God Almighty their sworn enemy. But when the dust settled and the realization of their defeat had sunk in, they would know that He alone is the Lord.

The God of judgment and the God of love and mercy are one and the same God. His holiness requires that He judge sin justly and completely. He cannot turn a blind eye to it. That is why He had to punish the sins of Israel and Judah. Even though they were His chosen people, He could not ignore or overlook their rebellion against Him. But God’s judgment of them was always to be temporary and followed by a remarkable display of His unfailing love and covenant faithfulness, and the author of Hebrews reveals just how compassionate and forgiving God can be.

But when God found fault with the people, he said:

“The day is coming, says the Lord,
    when I will make a new covenant
    with the people of Israel and Judah.
This covenant will not be like the one
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    and led them out of the land of Egypt.
They did not remain faithful to my covenant,
    so I turned my back on them, says the Lord.
But this is the new covenant I will make
    with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
    and I will write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
And they will not need to teach their neighbors,
    nor will they need to teach their relatives,
    saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’
For everyone, from the least to the greatest,
    will know me already.
And I will forgive their wickedness,
and I will never again remember their sins.” – Hebrews 8:8-12 NLT

And centuries earlier, God spoke of this very same covenant to Ezekiel.

“And I will make a covenant of peace with them, an everlasting covenant. I will give them their land and increase their numbers, and I will put my Temple among them forever. I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And when my Temple is among them forever, the nations will know that I am the LORD, who makes Israel holy.” – Ezekiel 37:26-28 NLT

And when God restores His people, rebuilds His temple, and takes up residence among them once again, the nations will know that He alone is Lord.

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

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

Faithfulness: The Key to Preventing Spiritual Failure

12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. – 1 Timothy 1:12-20 ESV

Paul was a man who was comfortable in his own skin. He was well aware of his past and not afraid to confess it or to come face to face with it. He regularly revisited the life he lived before coming to faith in Christ and recognized that his past was a vital part of his present identity. He unabashedly admits to Timothy, “I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people” (1 Timothy 1:13 NLT). 

There was a dark side to Paul’s past that he was more than willing to admit. He didn’t attempt to hide or gloss over it. In fact, it was his honest recognition of his past that made his present state of grace in Christ that much more amazing. It wasn’t that Paul had lived a life of moral degeneracy and spiritual bankruptcy. No, he had been a faithful adherent to the Hebrew religion and a committed member of one of the most strict religious sects of his day.

I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. – Philippians 3:5-6 NLT

It had been his zeal for his religious faith that had led him to attack the followers of Jesus. Like most Jews of his day, Paul had viewed the disciples of Jesus as members of a dangerous religious sect that were falsely proclaiming that the Jewish Messiah had come. And Paul saw this rapidly growing religious movement as a threat to his Jewish faith. That led him to wage a one-man crusade against the followers of “the way.”

I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. – Acts 22:3-4 NLT

Paul was brutally honest about his past, fully admitting the role he had played in trying to exterminate any and all Christians from the fact of the earth.

You know what I was like when I followed the Jewish religion—how I violently persecuted God’s church. I did my best to destroy it. – Galatians 1:13 NLT

But Paul’s sordid past had not proved to be a problem for God Almighty. In fact, God had redeemed Paul in spite of his former way of life.

He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him – 1 Timothy 1:12 NLT

It was not Paul’s zeal that earned him a right standing with God. His well-intentioned but misguided efforts to purge the world of all Christians had failed miserably, because God had other plans for this hard-driving, high-energy crusader.

Paul regularly shared the story of how God transformed his life from a persecutor of the church to a proclaimer of the good news of Jesus Christ (Acts 9). While on his way to Damascus to arrest and imprison Christ-followers, Paul had an unexpected encounter with the resurrected Jesus Christ that changed the entire trajectory of his life. Paul would later be discipled by a man named Ananias, who revealed to him his new God-ordained life’s mission.

“The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and hear him speak. For you are to be his witness, telling everyone what you have seen and heard. What are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized. Have your sins washed away by calling on the name of the Lord.’ – Acts 22:14-16 NLT

And Paul freely admitted to Timothy that his salvation had been the gracious work of God, who had sent His Son into the world to save sinners just like him.

This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. – 1 Timothy 1:15 NLT

Paul was still blown away by God’s unmerited favor and immeasurable grace.

God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. – 1 Timothy 1:13-14 NLT

As far as Paul was concerned, his life was meant to be an example to others of just how gracious and forgiven God could be.

God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. – 1 Timothy 1:16 NLT

Paul wanted Timothy to understand the magnitude of God’s power and undeserved goodness. It was essential that Timothy fully embrace the one-of-a-kind nature of God Almighty.

He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. – 1 Timothy 1:17 NLT

All of this was meant to be an introduction or preface to the primary point behind Paul’s letter to Timothy. Paul knew that Timothy was in a difficult spot. He was a young man attempting to minister to a small congregation of believers living in the hostile environment of Ephesus. They were surrounded by pagan unbelievers and a vocal and sometimes violent contingent of local Jews who had targeted them as enemies.

So, Paul was desperate to prepare and encourage Timothy for the battle ahead. This young pastor was facing strong opposition from a zealous and determined foe. And Paul fully understood what it was like to have a strong opinion about something. He also knew that passion and zeal did not make someone right. The individuals who were negatively influencing the believers in Ephesus and causing problems for Timothy were all convinced that they were right. Paul describes them as wanting “to be known as teachers of the law of Moses, but they don’t know what they are talking about, even though they speak so confidently” (1 Timothy 1:7 NLT).

At one time, Paul had been much like them. He had been an expert in the law and a Pharisee. He described himself as “a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today” (Acts 26:3 NLT).

During that period of his life. Paul had done everything in a misguided attempt to honor God. He did what he did with confidence and a clear conscience, including blaspheming the name of Christ and persecuting the people of God. But as Paul looked back on his life, he recognized that it all had been done “in ignorance and unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13 NLT).

Paul wanted Timothy to know that even those individuals who were causing confusion and conflict within the church in Ephesus were not hopeless cases. They were not lost causes. If God could extend mercy and grace to Paul, He could certainly do the same with those who “have turned away from these things and spend their time in meaningless discussions” (1 Timothy 1:6 NLT). It seems that Paul was attempting to encourage Timothy to trust in the grace and mercy of God in the midst of all that he was facing. God had been able to take a man like Paul and miraculously change his heart and his life through an encounter with His Son, Jesus Christ.

God had mercy. God extended grace. Paul’s life had not been beyond the reach of God. His life had not been too far gone for Jesus to transform. He had not been irredeemable. Paul’s life had become “a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:16b NLT).

Paul reminded Timothy to never lose sight of the fact that, despite all the opposition, confusion, setbacks, false teachers, uncommitted congregants, limited converts, and trying circumstances. He gave Timothy one simple directive: “Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear” (1 Timothy 1:19 NLT).

Faith in what? Faith in Christ. Jesus Christ was the one who made it possible for men to be made right with God. He was the one who provided redemption and restoration with the Father. It was through Him that all men gain access to God’s incredible mercy, grace, power, presence, and provision. Paul wanted Timothy to remain faithful to Christ and faithfully fulfill his work as God’s minister of the Gospel. Some had failed to do so, and Paul used them as an example and a warning.  

Hymenaeus and Alexander, evidently believers and members of the local fellowship there in Ephesus, had not remained faithful to Christ. They had violated their consciences, somehow disobeying what they knew to be true and right, and, as a result, they had shipwrecked their faith. Their lives were spiritually “on the rocks,” out of commission, and under God’s discipline.

Faithfulness is the key to preventing spiritual failure. God was going to use Timothy in a powerful way, but Timothy would need to remain faithful to Christ and focused on God’s power to extend grace and mercy to all, even the worst of sinners. Timothy’s God was still on His throne.

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

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

Mistakes Will Happen

22 “But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, 23 all that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations, 24 then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the rule, and one male goat for a sin offering. 25 And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake, and they have brought their offering, a food offering to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord for their mistake. 26 And all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole population was involved in the mistake.

27 “If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. 28 And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. 29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” 

32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. Numbers 15:22-36 ESV

The people of Israel were guilty of having committed the sin of rebellion. They had purposefully rejected His command to enter the land of Canaan, because they doubted His ability to give them victory over its current occupants. According to the assessment of the ten spies, the pagan nations that populated the promised land were too powerful and the odds of failure were insurmountable. There was no way a rag-tag militia comprised of former slaves, shepherds, and farmers were going to defeat the well-armed and highly-trained armies of the Canaanites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. So, they had decided to disobey God’s will, dismiss His appointed leaders, and return to Egypt.

But rather than reining down judgment and wiping them off the face of the earth, God sentenced them to a lifetime of meaningless wandering in the wilderness – until the last of that generation had died off. They would pay for their sin by experiencing a permanent ban from entering the land of promise or ever enjoying the promise of God’s rest.

Their sin had been deliberate and premeditated. They had intentionally rejected God’s will and would have to suffer the consequences. But in verses 22-26, God graciously made provision for unintentional sin. He knew there would be occasions when His children sinned “by mistake.” In other words, they would accidentally or unintentionally violate His commands without knowing they had done so. And God made provision for those inevitable occasions.

God provided Moses with a hypothetical, “what-if” scenario that was designed to eliminate the guilt that came from inadvertently violating His commands. He made a provision for man’s built-in propensity for committing sin. And this special dispensation was to be a long-standing and applicable to every successive generation.

And suppose your descendants in the future fail to do everything the Lord has commanded through Moses. If the mistake was made unintentionally, and the community was unaware of it, the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” – Numbers 15:23-24 NLT

The kind of sacrifices referred to in these verses were meant to cover sins of commission as well as omission. Whether the guilty party simply forgot to keep a command (omission) or unknowingly violated a command (commission), as long as they had done so by mistake, they could receive forgiveness. But it was to be a community-wide affair. Once they discovered the presence of sin in the camp, the entire nation was to take a part in making atonement for the  offense.

“…the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. It must be offered along with its prescribed grain offering and liquid offering and with one male goat for a sin offering.” – Numbers 15:24 NLT

Sin is sin, and its impact is universal. No one sins alone. The nature of sin is that it is highly contagious and infectious. It can spread like yeast in a lump of dough or like cancer cells in the human body. And it doesn’t matter whether the sin was committed intentionally or not. Any violation of God’s law requires confession and restitution. The sin must be atoned for and that atonement required a sacrifice.

And God knew that anyone was capable of committing unintentional sin, including the high priest.

“If the high priest sins, bringing guilt upon the entire community, he must give a sin offering for the sin he has committed. – Leviticus 4:3 NLT

And the price for his atonement was an unblemished young bull. And if the entire community happened to commit corporate sin without realizing it, they were also required a young bull. If one of the nation’s leaders committed an unintentional sin, he was required to offer an unblemished goat as payment. And in all three cases the blood of the sacrificed animal was to be placed on the horns of the altar within the tabernacle. The Leviticus passage makes it clear that even sins committed by mistake would render the individual, leader, or community as guilty before God. And, unless atonement was made, that guilt would lead to condemnation.

Yet, when the sin was exposed, the guilt was admitted, and the proper sacrifice was made, the individual could expect to receive the forgiveness of God.

“With it the priest will purify the whole community of Israel, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven.” – Numbers 15:25 NLT

But what about those who knowingly and deliberately violated one of God’s commands? What hope did they have of receiving God’s forgiveness?

But those who brazenly violate the Lord’s will, whether native-born Israelites or foreigners, have blasphemed the Lord, and they must be cut off from the community.” – Numbers 15:30 NLT

The language suggests that this individual has boldly and unapologetically chosen to disobey the revealed will of God. There is no sense of remorse or regret. No confession is forthcoming and no repentance is displayed. Even when the sin is exposed, this individual persists in justifying and continuing his rebellions ways – with impunity. And the result is drastic: “they must be cut off from the community.”

This is not suggesting their dismissal from the camp or some kind of public ostracization. No, this is a reference to death. The guilty party is to be cut off by virtue of their public execution. What God seems to have in mind here are sins that are committed against Him. This would include the worship of false gods, the fabricating of idols, taking His name in vain, or failing to honor the Sabbath. These violations would incur God’s wrath and demand the death of the perpetrator.

The book of Leviticus indicates that willful sins committed against another individual were to be treated differently. While all violations of God’s laws are ultimately sins against Him, He made special provisions for sins committed against a neighbor.

“Suppose one of you sins against your associate and is unfaithful to the Lord. Suppose you cheat in a deal involving a security deposit, or you steal or commit fraud, or you find lost property and lie about it, or you lie while swearing to tell the truth, or you commit any other such sin. If you have sinned in any of these ways, you are guilty. – Leviticus 6:2-4 NLT

Repentance and restitution were required. Amends must be made. But not only that, a guilt offering was demanded to restore the sinner’s relationship with God.

“As a guilt offering to the Lord, you must bring to the priest your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value. Through this process, the priest will purify you before the Lord, making you right with him, and you will be forgiven for any of these sins you have committed.” – Leviticus 6:6-7 NLT

And, as if to give a concrete example of a non-repentant and brazenly defiant sin against God, Moses includes the story of a Sabbath breaker. The man was discovered collecting firewood on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the fourth commandment. Evidently, he knew exactly what he was doing and was defiant in doing so. And the penalty for his blatant display of disobedience was death.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must be put to death! The whole community must stone him outside the camp.” So the whole community took the man outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:35-36 NLT

Mistakes were inevitable and unavoidable. Everyone would sin at some point. They important distinction was whether that sin was intentional or not. Secondly, it was important to differentiate between horizontal and vertical sin. A sin committed against a brother could be atoned for and forgiven. But any willful and unrepentant violation of one of the first four commandments would bring down the full wrath of God. Mistakes would happen and were redeemable through God’s grace. But brazen sins against God were unforgivable and deserving of His righteous indignation and full justice.

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

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

 

Redeemed!

40 And the Lord said to Moses, “List all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward, taking the number of their names. 41 And you shall take the Levites for me—I am the Lord—instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the people of Israel.” 42 So Moses listed all the firstborn among the people of Israel, as the Lord commanded him. 43 And all the firstborn males, according to the number of names, from a month old and upward as listed were 22,273.

44 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle. The Levites shall be mine: I am the Lord. 46 And as the redemption price for the 273 of the firstborn of the people of Israel, over and above the number of the male Levites, 47 you shall take five shekels per head; you shall take them according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel of twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for those who are over.” 49 So Moses took the redemption money from those who were over and above those redeemed by the Levites. 50 From the firstborn of the people of Israel he took the money, 1,365 shekels, by the shekel of the sanctuary. 51 And Moses gave the redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses. Numbers 3:40-51 ESV

It is easy to view the Levites as nothing more than the priestly order, the one tribe whose sole responsibility was to care for the tabernacle and serve as priests on behalf of the people of God. But there is a much deeper theological significance to their role as the spiritual mediators of Israel.

As has been stated before, God had spared the firstborn sons of Israel when He sent the death angel to punish the nation of Egypt. As a result of Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to release the descendants of Jacob from their captivity, God gave Moses instructions concerning the final plague He would bring upon the Egyptians.

So Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.” – Exodus 11:4-6 ESV

Then God instructed the Israelites to prepare for the coming judgment by selecting an unblemished lamb for every household.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household…. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” – Exodus 12:1-3, 5-6 ESV

Each household was to sacrifice their lamb at the same time and follow God’s exacting instructions.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord‘s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 12:7-13 ESV

When the death angel passed through the land, he would “pass over” those homes on which the blood had been sprinkled on the doorposts and lintels. The sacrifice of the unblemished lambs would redeem any firstborn residing in that home.

“For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.” – Exodus 12:23 ESV

On the fateful night when the death angel passed over the city, “the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:29 ESV). But because of the sacrifice of the unblemished lambs, the homes of the Israelites were protected and their firstborn sons were spared. But “there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead” (Exodus 12:30 ESV).

As a result of this miraculous redemption of Israel’s firstborn sons, God commanded Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Exodus 13:1 ESV).

God had spared the firstborn of Israel, and He commanded that they be dedicated to His service. But as the Israelites were making their way to the land of Canaan, God ordered the tribe of Levi to serve as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel. The males of this one tribe would act as stand-ins for all those firstborn sons of the 11 other tribes who rightfully belonged to God. The Levites would redeem or ransom their brothers and serve on their behalf.

God ordered Moses to make a list of all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward. It would appear that these were the sons who had been born since the Israelites left Egypt. According to verse 43, that number amounted to 22,273 firstborn male sons from the 11 tribes of Israel. Verse 39 reveals that there were 22,000 firstborn male sons from the tribe of Levi.

“The Levites, amounting to twenty-two thousand, were given in exchange for an equal number of the first-born from the other tribes, leaving an excess of two hundred seventy-three; and as there were no substitutes for these, they were redeemed at the rate of five shekels for each (Nu 18:15, 16). Every Israelite would naturally wish that his son might be redeemed by a Levite without the payment of this tax, and yet some would have to incur the expense, for there were not Levites enough to make an equal exchange. Jewish writers say the matter was determined by lot, in this manner: Moses put into an urn twenty-two thousand pieces of parchment, on each of which he wrote “a son of Levi,” and two hundred seventy-three more, containing the words, “five shekels.” These being shaken, he ordered each of the first-born to put in his hand and take out a slip. If it contained the first inscription, the boy was redeemed by a Levite; if the latter, the parent had to pay. The ransom-money…was appropriated to the use of the sanctuary.” – Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary

The Levites were more than just priests, they served as God-ordained substitutes whose lives were used to redeem or ransom those who rightfully belonged to God. They served in place of and on behalf of all those whom God had redeemed from death at the original Passover. And when the number of Levites didn’t match that of the firstborn males from the other 11 tribes, 273 families had to pay a sizeable tax of five shekels. The lack of a substitute came at a high price.

And this cost was meant to convey the value of each Levite’s life. No firstborn male was to take his freedom from service lightly or to treat the life of his Levite counterpart flippantly. This passage should serve as a reminder of the tremendous price God paid on behalf of every sinner whom He redeemed from death through the sacrifice of His Son.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:18-20 ESV

The author of Hebrews refers to the church as “the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23 NLT). Each has been “ransomed with the precious blood of the Son of God. All men are the Lord’s by creation, and all true Christians are his by redemption” (Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary).

According to Paul, Jesus is “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29 NLT). He was the firstborn Son of God who served as the sinless substitute for sinful men and women. His death made possible the gift of eternal life for those who at one time stood condemned before God. And had Jesus not offered His life as our substitute, none of us could have afforded to pay the debt we owed to God.

For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world… – Hebrews 10:4-5 NLT

For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. – Hebrews 10:10 NLT

Numbers chapter 3 should remind us of the lines of that great old hymn, “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It.”

Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!
Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;
Redeemed through His infinite mercy,
His child, and forever, I am.

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

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

God’s Mysterious and Magnificent Plan

1 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. 13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. Ephesians 3:1-13 ESV

Chapter three is a continuation of Paul’s thoughts regarding how Christ created “in himself one new man in place of the two” (Ephesians 2:15 ESV). Through His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus provided a means by which both Jews and Gentiles could be reconciled to God and to one another.

So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit. – Ephesians 2:19-22 NLT

It was “for this reason” (Ephesians 3:1 ESV), that Paul was writing his letter to them while under house arrest in Rome. His faithful efforts to fulfill the commission given to him by Christ, to take the gospel to the Gentile world, had resulted in his imprisonment. Paul informs his Gentile readers that his call by Jesus to take imprisonment in Rome was the direct result of his ministry to It was Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles that had resulted in his imprisonment in Rome.

It had all begun with a trip to Jerusalem, where Paul informed James and the other apostles of his work among the Gentiles.

…he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.” – Acts 21:19-21 NLT

Jewish converts to Christianity had been spreading vicious rumors about Paul, accusing him of belittling the Mosaic Law and banning the practice of circumcision. They presented Paul as a threat to Judaism and later accused him of violating the Mosaic Law by bringing a Gentile into the temple.

They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. – Acts 21:30-31 ESV

The Jews drew up plans to assassinate Paul, but he was removed to the city of Caesarea, where he remained imprisoned for two years. Eventually he was summoned to appear before Festus, the Roman-appointed governor. Festus reviewed the charges against Paul and gave him the option of returning to Jerusalem to stand trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin. But Paul, who was a Roman citizen, requested a hearing before the emperor.

But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?” 10 But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.” – Acts 25:9-12 ESV

And Paul was eventually transported to Rome, where he was placed under house arrest while awaiting a trial before the emperor. It was from Rome that he wrote his letter to the Ephesians, and he informs them that he was a prisoner “on behalf of you Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1 ESV). Had he not faithfully fulfilled his commission and taken the gospel to the Gentiles, he would never have ended up in chains. The whole affair in Jerusalem would have never taken place.

But his entire mission had been to proclaim the mystery that had been revealed to him by Christ. It had been Jesus Himself who had ordered Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles. This inclusion of non-Jews into the family of God had been hidden from the prophets. They had never realized that it had always been God’s intention to include people of every tribe, nation, and tongue in the household of faith. This “mystery of Christ” … “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations” (Ephesians 3:4, 5 ESV). Even Jesus’ disciples had been blind to the fact that Jesus was destined to be the Messiah of all nations, not just the Jewish people. And Paul clearly articulates the nature of this mystery.

This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. – Ephesians 3:6 ESV

And Paul declares that it had been his duty, as a minister of God, “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:9 ESV). He had been given the responsibility “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:9 ESV). And he had fulfilled that role faithfully. Even while under house arrest in Rome, he continued to carry out the mandate given to him by Christ.

For Paul, the church was the divine manifestation of God’s glory and grace. It was like a beautiful tapestry, woven from a variety of multicolored threads, all according to a pattern established by God Himself.

God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 3:10 ESV

“The church as a multi-racial, multi-cultural community is like a beautiful tapestry. Its members come from a wide range of colourful backgrounds. No other human community resembles it. Its diversity and harmony are unique.” – Cornelius R. Stam, Acts Dispensationally Considered

The church is not a man-made institution. It was not the result of human ingenuity or insight. It was the mysterious plan that God had put in place before the foundation of the world and was revealed in the atoning death of His Son on the cross. Jesus had come to save the world, not just the Jewish people. He had been born a Jew, a son of Abraham so that He might fulfill the promise made to Abraham. It would be through the seed of Abraham that God would bless all the nations of the earth. And the Gentile believers in Ephesus were proof that God had kept that promise.

And Paul reminds his Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ that, together, “we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him” (Ephesians 3:12 ESV). The world was no longer divided between Jews and Gentiles. Because of the finished work of Christ, the believers in Ephesus were no longer “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12 ESV).

The mystery was no longer hidden. The manifold, multi-variegated wisdom of God was on full display in the church, the body of Christ. And in the book of Revelation, the apostle John records the vision he was given of this multi-ethnic, cross-cultural assembly standing before the throne of God in heaven.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10 ESV

This was how Paul viewed the church, even in his day. And he was honored to be suffering on its behalf. So, he begged the Ephesian believers to view his imprisonment as a blessing, not a curse. They had no reason to be ashamed and he had no cause for regret. It was all part of the mysterious and magnificent plan of God.

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

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

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

 

But God…

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:1-10 ESV

Paul put a strong emphasis on the future but he never forgot the past. When addressing believers, he strived to stress the eternal significance of their redemption. He wanted them to understand that their faith in Christ had both immediate and long-term implications. They could enjoy the present benefits of a restored relationship with God, as revealed by the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
But the Spirit was also intended as a sign or proof of their inheritance to come (Ephesians 1:13-14).

But Paul knew that, in order for believers to truly appreciate the present and future blessings of God, they must constantly recall their former condition as enemies of God. There was a time when all followers of Christ stood on the other side of the door of grace. As Paul will remind the Ephesians believers in the very next section of his letter, “In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope” (Ephesians 2:12 NLT). This is the very same message he gave to the believers in Galatia.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. – Galatians 4:8 ESV

Paul understood the power of recall. He knew that an accurate memory of the past was essential if the Ephesians were going to cultivate an appreciation for all that God had accomplished on their behalf. Looking back could provide a much-needed reminder of just how gracious God had been. Their salvation had been undeserved. They had been enemies of God, living in open rebellion to His will and ways. And Paul pulls no punches in describing the desperate state of their former condition.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. – Ephesians 2:1-2 NLT

Paul believed that having a healthy and honest view of the past was essential for understanding the glorious nature of God’s gift of salvation. Jesus had not come to redeem the righteous. He had not sacrificed His life on behalf of the good and the godly, but for those who were sin-enslaved and recognized their need for a Savior. On one occasion, when the Pharisees ridiculed Jesus for associating with notorious sinners, He responded, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mark 2:17 NLT).

Paul’s mention of the devil was intended to stress the former enslavement of the Ephesian believers. Before coming to faith in Christ, they had not been free to do as they pleased. They had been the slaves to Satan himself, “the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God” (Ephesians 2:2 NLT). In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul described the sinister role of Satan in sobering terms.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

And Paul’s obsession with Satan’s enslavement of the lost was well-founded. It was based on the message he had received from Jesus at the time of his conversion on the road to Damascus. He shared the details of this encounter in his trial before King Agrippa.

“And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Now get to your feet! For I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant and witness. Tell people that you have seen me, and tell them what I will show you in the future. And I will rescue you from both your own people and the Gentiles. Yes, I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me.’” – Acts 26:15-18 NLT

Paul’s commission from Jesus had been to help set captives free. His entire ministry had been to bring good news, to open the eyes of the blind, and to set the captives free. And Paul knew that, in doing so, he was simply continuing the ministry of Jesus Himself. When Jesus appeared at the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth, He had read a passage from the scroll of Isaiah the prophet.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
   and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT

And when He had finished, Jesus had sat down and calmly but boldly declared, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21 NLT). Now, Paul was carrying on the mission that Jesus had begun. He had been tasked with the job of setting captives free and, somewhat ironically, his efforts had earned him imprisonment in Rome. Yet, he continued to use his pen to proclaim the glorious nature of the freedom made possible through faith in Christ. And he reminded the Ephesians that every believer, including himself, had at one time been a slave to Satan and an enemy of God, “following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else” (Ephesians 2:3 NLT).

But God…

Those two simple words form one of the most powerful and impactful sentences in the entire Bible. Paul reveled in the idea of God’s undeserved, yet undeniable intervention in mankind’s desperate condition.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) – Ephesians 2:4-5 NLT

Mercy, love, grace. Those three words form the foundation of Paul’s thinking on this matter. God showered sinful, enslaved humanity mercy (undeserved kindness). He poured out His unselfish, sacrificial love on those who deserved His justice and wrath. And it was all a display of His unmerited favor (grace) and lovingkindness.

Paul wanted the Ephesians to understand that their salvation had been totally undeserved. They had done nothing worthy of God’s love, mercy, and grace. Their transformation from enemies of God to sons and daughters of God had been the work of God alone. And Paul is unapologetic in his defense of God’s sovereign role in the salvation of sinful humanity.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. – Ephesians 2:8 NLT

This point is essential to Paul’s argument, which is why he repeats it three separate times.

It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved! – vs 5

So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us – vs 7

God saved you by his grace when you believed. – vs 8

For Paul, one of the greatest sins a believer can commit is to attempt to rob God of glory by taking credit for something He alone has done. That is why he places so much emphasis on salvation being a gift and not a reward. It is not earned or merited. It is not a form of payment for services rendered.

Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT

And yet, believers find it so easy to take credit for something over which they had no control. Their only role was to receive that which was freely given. Their blinded eyes were opened by God. The chains that once bound them were broken by God. The sins that once condemned them were forgiven by God. Their remarkable transformation had been the work of a loving, gracious, and merciful God.

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 2:13-14 NLT

And there had been a divine purpose behind this radical reformation of their lives. The gift of salvation was not to be wasted or squandered. Their new identity as God’s chosen people was not to be taken lightly or treated flippantly. God had an objective in mind. His redemptive plan was not arbitrary or pointless. And Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were literal works of art, God’s “workmanship” (poieme). They were like priceless masterpieces, created by the hand of the Creator-God, and intended to bring Him glory. And the greatest way God’s people can bring Him glory is by doing what He redeemed them to do.

He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT

No longer slaves to sin, the Ephesians were free to do the will of God. With their eyes opened, they could clearly see. With their chains broken, they could freely serve. With their former sins forgiven, they could gratefully obey. They were new creations designed to live new lives in the power of the Spirit of God. And God had important work for them to do.

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 Trifecta of Blessing

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:3-14 ESV

After a brief salutation, Paul begins his letter with a virtual flood of carefully crafted words designed to express his deep admiration and appreciation for the saving work of God the Father as expressed through the sacrificial life of the Son and empowered through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Greek, these 12 verses form one long but eloquently worded run-on sentence. It’s as if Paul were speaking the words, and in his excitement, the thoughts in his mind literally explode from his lips without leaving him time to catch his breath.

He is a man possessed by and obsessed with the incredible nature of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. Unable to contain his enthusiasm for all that God has done, Paul explodes in a flood of praise and worship for each member of the Godhead, outlining the vital role that each played. This punctuation-free praise song to the Trinity is designed to instill in the Ephesian believers a deep and abiding awareness of the divine nature of their salvation. They had been chosen, predestined, and adopted by God the Father. They had been redeemed out of slavery to sin by the precious and priceless blood of Jesus Christ. And they had received the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God as a sign of their new identity as God’s children and as a proof of the promises to come.

For Paul, it all begins with God the Father, who made the determination to send His Son as the solution to mankind’s sin problem. And, according to Paul, God came up with that plan “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4 ESV). In other words, long before God made the universe or fashioned Adam out of the dust of the ground, He had come up with the plan to send His Son as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of a not-yet-existent humanity.

God had not been caught off guard by Adam and Eve’s rebellion. He had actually made provision for their fall and had a predetermined plan already in place long before they made the fateful determination to disobey His command. And Paul wanted the Ephesians to know that they had been blessed by God in Christ. Jesus was the sole means by which God had chosen to redeem fallen mankind. Together, the Father and His Son made possible the reconciliation of a guilty and justly condemned humanity – and that included the believers in Ephesus. They had been blessed by God in or through Christ “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3 ESV).

Paul emphasizes spiritual blessings in order to accentuate the eternal nature of the gift the Ephesians had received. God had not sent His son to die so that men and women might have their best life now. The sacrificial death of Jesus was not meant to pave the way to an earthly life marked by health, wealth, and prosperity. His precious blood was spilled so that a spiritual transformation might take place, turning former sinners into sons and daughters of God, holy and blameless in His sight. All “according to the purpose of his will” and “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6 ESV). This radical transformation of sinners into saints had been God’s idea and had only been possible as a result of His grace or unmerited favor. No one deserved to be saved. No one had earned the right to be redeemed.

Paul stresses that God “lavished” His grace on mankind. The Greek word, perisseuō, conveys the idea of a superabundance of grace. God poured out His grace in such a way that it overflowed and exceeded all expectations and requirements. It was, as Jesus told Paul, an all-sufficient grace.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Paul knew that the Ephesian believers were grateful for the forgiveness of sins that came with their faith in Christ, but he wanted them to understand that was just the tip of the iceberg. Paul doesn’t underestimate the value of forgiveness but stresses that God was “so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins” (Ephesians 1:7 NLT). But God’s grace didn’t stop there. He also showered His children with “wisdom and understanding” (Ephesians 1:8 NLT), so that they might know “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ” (Ephesians 1:9 ESV). And by disclosing this previously undisclosed mystery, God revealed His “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10 ESV).

In other words, God’s plan of salvation includes far more than forgiveness of sins. As great as that may be, it pales in comparison to the future God has in store for His children. Forgiveness of sins does not eradicate the presence of sin in the life of a believer. Life on this earth will always be marred by the persistent presence of sin. Believers are no longer slaves to sin but they are not free from its influence. Paul described his own experience with sin in his letter to the Romans.

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. – Romans 7:18-20 NLT

And that’s why Paul places so much emphasis on the inheritance that awaits the believer.

…because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan. – Ephesians 1:11 NLT

It is the promise of this future inheritance that should motivate the believer in this life. It is the assurance of coming glorification that should encourage a life of faithfulness as we wait for God to fulfill the final phase of His grand redemptive plan. That is why Paul reminded the believers in Corinth to focus their attention on the hope to come.

We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:2-5 NLT

In his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul reiterates the role of the Holy Spirit as the downpayment or guarantee of their future glorification.

The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him. – Ephesians 1:14 NLT

And the gift of the Spirit had been poured out on Jews and Gentiles alike. The body of Christ was made up of people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. It was just as Paul had told the Christians living in Galatia.

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. – Galatians 3:26-29 NLT

While God had set apart the Jews as His chosen people and had ordained that His Son be born of the seed of Abraham, He had always planned for His gracious gift of redemption to be for all mankind. The Jews were a means to an end. They had been blessed by God so that they might be a blessing to the world. And God had accomplished that blessing through the gift of His Son and guaranteed the eternal nature of its consequences through the gift of His Spirit.

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.

 

Rooted, Built Up, and Established

1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. Colossians 2:1-7 ESV

In verse 29 of chapter one, Paul spoke of his ongoing “struggle” to proclaim the true gospel of Jesus Christ. The Greek word, agōnizomai, carries the idea of strenuous effort driven by intense zeal. Paul was a man obsessed with the idea of “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:18 ESV). And he poured out every ounce of his being to accomplish that goal.

Here in chapter two, he uses the root word, agōn, to describe the ongoing “conflict” in which he finds himself engaged. And he confesses that his efforts are on behalf of all those congregations living in the Lycus Valley. The errant teachings concerning Christ had impacted not only the church in Colossae but the one in Laodicea as well. And it’s likely that the nearby community of Hierapolis had also come under the influence of teachers making false claims that denied either the deity or humanity of Jesus.

The members of these three congregations had never met Paul face to face because, at the time of his writing of this letter, he had not yet set foot in the Lycus Valley. His knowledge of their situation had come to him through Epaphras and others. But like a true shepherd, Paul expressed his loving concern for these distant flocks, declaring his intense desire “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (Colossians 2:2 ESV).

Paul was the consummate encourager. Yes, he often displayed a blunt, in-your-face style of confrontational leadership that could be withering in its intensity, but his ultimate goal was correction that led to further spiritual growth. Even in these verses, Paul displays the loving concern of a pastor who longs to see his congregants experience the full measure of their salvation. For Paul, coming to faith in Christ was not a one-time event but an ongoing experience that included the believer’s initial reconciliation to God as well as their ongoing sanctification and ultimate glorification.

The apostle Peter described this full-orbed approach in his first letter, encouraging his readers to “crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 NLT). And Paul warned Timothy that “in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons” (1 Timothy 4:1 NLT). And in a second letter to Timothy, Paul reiterated his concern about the danger of a feeble, non-growing faith.

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. – 2 Timothy 4:3-4 NLT

That’s why Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2 NLT). And Paul practiced what he preached. He was patiently correcting, rebuking, and encouraging the church in Colossae so that they might stand firm against the faith-deflating lies of the false teachers.

Throughout his ministry, Paul strived to keep Jesus Christ as the central focus of all his teaching. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, he referred to the doctrine of Jesus as the foundation upon which every other doctrine or teaching must rest.

I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 NLT

The teachings of Jesus were not the foundation. It was Jesus Himself. The deity, humanity, sacrificial death, Spirit-empowered resurrection, and promised return of Jesus formed the firm foundation on which every believer’s faith must rest and remain. But Paul had been forced to confront the Corinthian believers about their

I am afraid, however, that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may be led astray from your simple and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims a Jesus other than the One we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit than the One you received, or a different gospel than the one you accepted, you put up with it way too easily. – 2 Corinthians 11:3-4 BSB

Paul did not want the believers in Colossae to make the same mistake, which is why he reminded them that in Jesus “lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3 NLT). Anyone preaching an undeified Jesus was proclaiming a lie and disseminating foolishness, not wisdom. Anyone who attempted to refute the humanity of Jesus and discount His sacrificial death on the cross was to be viewed as a liar and not as a messenger from God. 

But Paul realized that many of these false teachers were highly persuasive, using well-crafted and lofty-sounding arguments that seemed to make sense. And to make matters worse, these men were operating within the context of the local church in Colossae, while Paul was hundreds of miles away in Rome. He had been placed under house arrest by the emperor and was denied the ability to travel. So, while the false teachers mingled with the flock in Colossae, Paul was restricted to writing a letter. But he reminded them “though I am far away from you, my heart is with you” (Colossians 2:5 NLT). They were out of sight, but not out of mind. And Paul expressed the joy he felt when Epaphras informed him of their firm commitment to the faith – even in the face of false teaching.

So, Paul exhorts them to remain steadfast and unwavering in their faith. Despite all that was going on around them, they had all the truth they needed to survive and thrive. A new version of the gospel was not necessary. A different take on Jesus was not required. The key to their survival was not some new doctrine or novel take on the identity of Jesus, but a continuing faith in the Jesus that had made their salvation possible. Paul pleads with them to stay the course.

as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him – Colossians 2:6 ESV

They had received Jesus by faith and they would need to continue living their lives according to faith. Once again, Paul is insisting that faith is not a static, one-time act that results in salvation, but an ongoing lifestyle of complete dependence upon the saving work of Jesus that results in our ongoing transformation into His likeness that will ultimately result in our future state of sinless perfection that will take place at His return. Paul firmly believed that his faith in Christ was active and alive, determining every facet of his earthly existence, which is why he told the Galatian believers, “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20 BSB).

The author of Hebrews describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Faith is not wishful thinking. It is not some baseless, unfounded desire for that which has no substance or any chance of fulfillment. The author of Hebrews uses two powerful words to describe the nature of faith. The first is hypostasis, which means “confidence or assurance.” It carries the idea of something being substantive or real – that which has actual existence. The second word is elegchos, which means “proof.” Our faith is based on the belief that God’s promises are real, even when they are not visible to the human eye. Our faith is based on the trustworthiness of God, not the tangible, touchable display of that which He has promised. The Old Testament saints listed in chapter 11 of Hebrews displayed faith because they “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” (Hebrews 11:13 NLT).

In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul reminded them that had God promised them new bodies – “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1 ESV). In their earthly lives, they struggled with pain, sorrow, and affliction. But God had promised that they would day put on their “heavenly dwelling” and experience new life in His eternal kingdom. And then he assured them:

He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. – 2 Corinthians 5:5-7 ESV

That is why Paul called the Colossians to live their lives focused on Jesus, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Colossians 2:7 ESV). They were to keep their eyes fixed on “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2 ESV). Paul did not want them to get distracted or dissuaded from the truth regarding Jesus. They were to remain “rooted” in their faith. Like a healthy, fruitful plant, they were to sink their roots deep into the promises found in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Rootedness results in fruitfulness or, as Paul puts it, being “built up.” Paul uses a word associated with architecture, portraying the steady, sound construction of a structure built on a solid foundation. And finally, Paul uses the term “established” to describe the final outcome of our faith. The Greek word means “to make good the promises by the event.” It conveys the idea of the promise being fulfilled. The assurance and conviction of our faith will become reality. Faith has an object: Jesus Christ. But faith also has an objective: Our future glorification.

That is why Paul wanted them to remain firm in their faith. Because saving faith is an enduring faith that focuses on the unwavering promises of God despite the vicissitudes and difficulties of this life. The apostle John provides us with a timeless word of encouragement that points us to the day when all the promises of God will be established.

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. – 1 John 3:2-3 NLT

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