A Fate Worse Than Death

1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” – Luke 13:1-5 ESV

Jesus was adept at using the comments and questions of His listening audience to further the point He was trying to make. Unperturbed by these seeming distractions from His primary discourse, Jesus would simply and seamlessly integrate them into His message, and in chapter 13 of his gospel account, Luke provides a perfect illustration of Jesus displaying this particular oratory skill.

Jesus’ ongoing discussion regarding judgment must have left the 12 disciples and everyone else in the crowd more than a bit confused and less than thrilled. All His talk about wakefulness, watching, and waiting for His eventual return must have disappointed them. And His admission that He had come to bring division, not peace, would have seemed counterintuitive. Yes, since they believed Him to be the long-awaited Messiah, they fully expected Him to wage war with the Romans, dividing the enemies of God from the children of God. But Jesus had been talking about dividing households – pitting “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:53 ESV). None of this was what they had been expecting.

As Jesus was speaking, some individuals arrived with news of a tragic event that had just happened in Jerusalem. The way in which Luke records this scene implies that these people were bringing news about something that had just taken place. It was fast-breaking news that no one in the crowd had yet heard, including Jesus.

Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple. – Luke 13:1 NLT

It is important to remember that Jesus was currently in the southern region of Judea. But He had spent a great deal of His ministry in Galilee. His birthplace of Bethlehem was located there, as well as His hometown of Nazareth. While ministering in Galilee, He and His disciples had made Capernaum their unofficial headquarters. And most of His disciples were Galileans. So, this news would have had a particularly strong impact on these men. There is some speculation that this horrible tragedy took place during the annual celebration of Passover since this was the only time when non-priests were allowed to offer sacrifices. But whatever the case, this news was devastating and would have reminded everyone in the crowd of their hatred for the Romans.

Pontius Pilate was appointed by Emperor Tiberius to be the Roman governor over Judea, and he served in that post for ten years, from A.D. 26-36. His job was to maintain peace within the province of Judea, using the Roman military as a kind of police force to keep the Jews in check. The ubiquitous presence of the Roman legions made life for the average Israelite miserable, providing a constant reminder of their oppressed state. Because of the high taxes levied by the Romans, the average Jew lived in a state of near poverty.  And now, the news has arrived that this Roman-appointed governor has slaughtered innocent Jews who were offering sacrifices at the temple of Yahweh.

But rather than express outrage at the actions of Pilate and his Roman goons, Jesus directs a rather strange question to the crowd.

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? – Luke 13:2 ESV

It could be that Jesus overheard the discussions going on in the crowd. As the people attempted to process this horrible news from Jerusalem, they probably speculated as to the cause. While some placed all the blame on the Romans, there were likely those in the crowd who deemed the dead Galileans as somehow deserving of their fate. This was a common idea within Judaism that they applied to everything from disease to poverty and even death.

John records an occasion when Jesus and His disciples encountered a man who had been blind since birth. Upon seeing the man, Jesus’ disciples asked for an explanation for the man’s tragic state.

Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” –Luke 9:2 NLT

It’s clear that they associated this man’s blindness as a form of curse from God. The question in their minds was not whether the man’s condition was a result of sin, but whether it had been him or his parents who had committed the sin. Since the man had been blind since birth, it seems that the disciples were expecting Jesus to expose the parents as the guilty party. But Jesus surprised His disciples by stating, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins…This happened so the power of God could be seen in him” (John 9:3 NLT).

And, in Luke’s account, Jesus takes the news regarding the murder of the Galileans to expose the faulty teaching of the religious leaders of Israel. They were primarily responsible for the propagation of this false understanding of sin and suffering. The self-righteous and prideful Sadducees and Pharisees deemed themselves to be blessed by God because of their health, wealth, and prosperity. They were quick to spread the lie that anyone who struggled with poverty or disease must have offended God and were only getting what they so richly deserved.

But Jesus blows holes in the false teaching of the religious leaders by stating, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3 ESV). Once again, Jesus deftly steers the discussion back onto His original topic: The coming judgment of God. The tragic fate of the Galileans had nothing to do with their sin. They had simply experienced one of the inevitable outcomes of living in a fallen world. They had been in the right place but at the wrong time. What happened to them could have happened to anybody.

Just a few minutes earlier, Jesus had warned the crowd about the difference between death at the hands of men and final judgment at the hands of God.

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. – Luke 12:4-5 ESV

Jesus went on to say, “everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8-9 ESV). He wanted His audience to realize that there was going to be a future judgment where men would stand before God Almighty. And the only way they could escape the judgment of God would be through belief in His Son.

Those Galileans had not suffered death at the hands of Pilate due to their sin. The Roman governor could put them to death but he had no power to condemn them to hell. Only God could do that.

Not long after this exchange, Jesus would find Himself standing in the very presence of Pilate. The man who had put the Galileans to death would stand in judgment over Jesus of Nazareth, another Galilean accused of crimes against the state. And Pilate, irritated by Jesus’ silence, will state, “Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you?” (John 19:10 NLT). To which Jesus will reply, “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above. So the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11 NLT). The lowly Galilean Rabbi will stand before the all-powerful governor of Judea, who believes he holds the fate of Jesus in his hands. But he will be wrong. And while Pilate will be the one who ultimately sanctions Jesus’ death on the cross, it will be Caiaphas, the high priest, whom God will hold responsible. Because of the false accusations leveled by Caiaphas, Jesus will die a criminal’s death on a Roman cross. But it will be Caiaphas who will one day stand before the judgment seat of God and answer for his rejection of the Son of God.

What is interesting about this story is the way the messengers described the fate of Galilean martyrs. Pilate had “mingled their blood” with their sacrifices. And that is exactly what will happen when Jesus goes to the cross. His own blood will flow down and mingle with the sacrifice – His body. And in the upper room on the night of His betrayal, during the celebration of Passover with His disciples, Jesus will explain the significance of His death.

He took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.” – Luke 22:19-20 NLT

Those Galileans had shed their blood, but not because of their sin. Yet Jesus, the Galilean, will willingly pour out His blood as an atonement for the sins of mankind. His body will be broken and His blood will be shed so that others might one day stand before the Father fully forgiven and uncondemned.

Jesus wanted His audience to understand that death was the inevitable outcome for all humanity. It was inescapable and unavoidable. But there is a second death that is far worse than physical death. In the book of Revelation, the apostle John records the words of Jesus spoken as He sits enthroned as King.

It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” – Revelation 21:7-8 ESV

This was the death that all men need to fear. Attempting to live a good and moral life will not prevent death or suffering. While you might make it through life relatively unscathed, you will still face the ultimate judgment of God and the reality of the second death. This is why Jesus repeated His point for emphasis.

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” – Luke 13:5 ESV

Jesus had begun His earthly ministry by declaring, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15 ESV). He was the Messiah and He had come to usher in the Kingdom of God. But it would not come in the manner they had hoped or according to the timeframe they were expecting. Yes, Jesus was the Messiah, but He had not come to rule and reign, but to offer Himself as a ransom for the sins of many. He had come to provide freedom from sin, not emancipation from Roman rule. But unless one chose to repent and believe in Him, they too would likewise perish. Their fate would be no better than the Galileans or those who were crushed beneath the tower of Siloam. All who refuse to place their faith in the Messiah’s death will ultimately face the second death.

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

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

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

The Fruit of Repentance

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Luke 3:1-14 ESV

Once again, Luke establishes a firm timeline in order to prove the historical veracity of Jesus’ life and ministry. The last chapter ended with the statement: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52 ESV). Luke’s last biographical entry concerning Jesus portrayed Him as a 12-year-old boy. But now, Luke has fast-forwarded nearly two decades and he establishes the timeline by providing a list of key historical figures with whom his readers would have been familiar.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas – Luke 3:1-2 NLT

Luke doesn’t provide the specific year in which John the Baptist began his ministry, but by listing these seven historical figures, he narrows down the possibilities. The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar would have been somewhere around A.D.29. The last year of Pontius Pilate’s governorship of Judea was A.D. 37. Herod Antipas was deposed as the tetrarch of Galilee in A.D. 39. His brother Philip, who was tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, died in A.D. 34. Annas and Caiaphas, his son-in-law, shared the tile of high priest until the spring of A.D. 37. The only name on the list for which there is little historical record is that of Lysanias, the tetrarch of Abilene.

So, it would seem that somewhere between the A.D. 26 and the spring of A.D. 37, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2 ESV). After a long delay, John received his official marching orders from God. Luke doesn’t reveal how this information was conveyed to John, but he does clarify the nature of John’s assignment.

He went into all the region around the Jordan River, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. – Luke 3:3 NLT

John’s ministry and message had been given to him by God and it was in direct fulfillment of the words of Isaiah, written centuries earlier.

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” – Luke 3:4-6 ESV

Luke appears to be quoting from Isaiah 40:3-5, using the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). By utilizing this prophetic passage, Luke is establishing that John was the divine fulfillment of this promise. He had come to prepare the way for the salvation of God. And to do so, he was given the task of “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3 ESV). As a prophet himself, John had been commissioned by God to call the people of Israel to repentance. The word “repentance” (metanoia) carries the idea of changing one’s mind. While we tend to think of repentance as an alteration in behavior or conduct, the New Testament concept of repentance conveys, first and foremost, a change in perspective or outlook. 

With the fulfillment of the Isaiah 40 passage, something new was about to happen in Israel. The old way of doing things was going away. Something new had come. And John’s job was to call the people to embrace a new way of thinking about everything, from the nature of the kingdom of God to the character of the Messiah, and even the means for achieving a right standing before God. Nothing was going to remain the same. With the launch of John’s ministry and the imminent arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, God was preparing to bring a radically new form of salvation – like nothing they had ever seen before.

John’s call to repentance and his offer of baptism was eagerly embraced by the crowds who flocked to see him in the wilderness. But it seems that John had suspicions concerning the sincerity of those who were verbally declaring their readiness to repent. He sensed that they were simply going through the motions, declaring with their lips that they were willing to change but with no intent to do so. In a sense, they were hedging their bets, desiring to receive forgiveness for their sins, but with no plans to change the way they lived their lives. So, John blasts them for their hypocrisy.

“You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Luke 3:7-9 NLT

Whether John realized it or not, he was demanding that these people do something that was utterly impossible. He was calling them to “produce fruit that proves your repentance.” In other words, he was requiring that they change their behavior. And for centuries, that had been the call of every prophet of God.

“Yet even now,” the Lord says,
“return to me with all your heart—
with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Tear your hearts,
not just your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate,
slow to anger and boundless in loyal love—often relenting from calamitous punishment. – Joel 2:12-13 NLT

But no generation of Israelites had ever been effective in fulfilling this command. Even the prophet Isaiah would record God’s words of condemnation concerning the Israelites less-than-sincere attempts at behavior modification.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Their hearts weren’t in it. And by demanding that the crowds show genuine fruit that proves their repentance, John was asking them to do the impossible. In reality, the Jews who came to hear John preach were of the opinion that they were God’s chosen people. As descendants of Abraham, they believed themselves to be honorary citizens of God’s kingdom. But John reveals that their prideful dependence upon their status as Abraham’s seed was not going to save them. What they failed to recognize was that God had made them out of nothing. He had formed the nation of Israel from a single man and his barren wife. And John drops the not-so-flattering bombshell: “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8 ESV).

Something new was about to happen, and John was trying to prepare the people for what God had in store for them. It would no longer be business as usual. Their half-hearted attempts at giving up their old ways were no longer going to cut it. God was done waiting for His rebellious people to return to Him in true repentance and contrition. He was no longer willing to allow those who bore His name to drag His reputation in the dirt by their ungodly behavior. God knew that the only hope of changing their behavior would come with a change in their hearts.

The prophet Ezekiel had recorded the words of God pronouncing His divine plan to one day do for the Israelites what they could never have accomplished on their own.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign LORD: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign LORD, then the nations will know that I am the LORD. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:22-27 NLT

But at this point in the inaugural days of John’s ministry, he is calling the people to display the fruit of true repentance. And when they ask him for examples of what that might look like, he gets very specific.

“The person who has two tunics must share with the person who has none, and the person who has food must do likewise.” – Luke 3:11 NLT

To the tax collectors who came seeking to be baptized, John said, “Collect no more than you are required to” (Luke 3:13 NLT). Soldiers were told, “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14 NLT). Everyone, regardless of their status in life, was expected to change the way they lived. But this would prove to be a pointless endeavor. They didn’t have what it takes to produce true and lasting heart change. In fact, their hearts remained as stony and stubborn as ever. 

For generations, the people of Israel had attempted to please God by keeping His laws, and when they failed to live up to His holy standards, they took advantage of His sacrificial system so that they could receive atonement and forgiveness. But this cycle of sin and sacrifice had produced no lasting change in their behavior. But all that was about to change. God was preparing to introduce a new means of atonement that would produce lasting heart change and the ability to display the fruit of righteousness.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Evil and Not for Good

1 I saw the Lord standing beside the altar, and he said:

“Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake,
    and shatter them on the heads of all the people;
and those who are left of them I will kill with the sword;
    not one of them shall flee away;
    not one of them shall escape.

“If they dig into Sheol,
    from there shall my hand take them;
if they climb up to heaven,
    from there I will bring them down.
If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel,
    from there I will search them out and take them;
and if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea,
    there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them.
And if they go into captivity before their enemies,
    there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them;
and I will fix my eyes upon them
    for evil and not for good.”

The Lord God of hosts,
he who touches the earth and it melts,
    and all who dwell in it mourn,
and all of it rises like the Nile,
    and sinks again, like the Nile of Egypt;
who builds his upper chambers in the heavens
    and founds his vault upon the earth;
who calls for the waters of the sea
    and pours them out upon the surface of the earth—
the Lord is his name.

“Are you not like the Cushites to me,
    O people of Israel?” declares the Lord.
“Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,
    and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?
Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
    and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground,
    except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,”
declares the Lord.

“For behold, I will command,
    and shake the house of Israel among all the nations
as one shakes with a sieve,
    but no pebble shall fall to the earth.
10 All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword,
    who say, ‘Disaster shall not overtake or meet us.’Amos 9:1-10 ESV

In this final vision, Amos sees God standing next to an altar. But this scene does not take place at the temple in Jerusalem. Ever since the kingdom of Solomon had been divided in two by God, the ten northern tribes had abstained from worshiping Yahweh at the temple that Solomon had constructed in Jerusalem. Instead, they worshiped the false gods that Jeroboam I had set up in Dan and Bethel.

Jeroboam thought to himself, “Unless I am careful, the kingdom will return to the dynasty of David. When these people go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple of the Lord, they will again give their allegiance to King Rehoboam of Judah. They will kill me and make him their king instead.”

So on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”

He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom. But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there.

Jeroboam also erected buildings at the pagan shrines and ordained priests from the common people—those who were not from the priestly tribe of Levi. – 1 Kings 12:26-31 NLT

And long after Jeroboam’s death, the kingdom of Israel continued to worship the golden calves he had set up in Dan and Bethel. So, the altar in Amos’ vision is most likely in one of those locations. He sees God standing next to the sacred shrine dedicated to the golden calf of Jeroboam – the false god that had been meant to replace Him.

Amos sees Yahweh, the one true God, standing in judgment over the altar of the false god that the people of Israel had chosen to worship instead of Him. In essence, God is standing next to one of the golden calf statues that Jeroboam I had created. And in the very presence of this false god, Yahweh calls for the destruction of his house.

Strike the tops of the Temple columns,
    so that the foundation will shake.
Bring down the roof
    on the heads of the people below.
I will kill with the sword those who survive.
    No one will escape!” – Amos 9:1 NLT

Amos is being given a glimpse of the coming judgment of God upon the house of Jacob (Israel). With the destruction of the temple dedicated to Israel’s false god, Yahweh is displaying His unparalleled power and declaring His well-deserved judgment upon them for their rejection of Him. While a literal destruction of this pagan temple would only result in a few deaths, God assures Amos that “no one will escape” His wrath. They can run but they won’t be able to escape the judgment of God Almighty. And God uses language that is reminiscent of the words of King David, recorded in Psalm 139.

I can never escape from your Spirit!
    I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there;
    if I go down to the grave, you are there.
If I ride the wings of the morning,
    if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
even there your hand will guide me,
    and your strength will support me. – Psalm 139:7-10 NLT

It doesn’t matter where they go, God will find them and mete out His judgment upon them. Rather than guidance and strength, they will find only the righteous indignation and full fury of the God they have chosen to abandon. And one of the fascinating things about this passage is its rather veiled but obvious reference to Jonah. God states, “Even if they hide at the very top of Mount Carmel, I will search them out and capture them. Even if they hide at the bottom of the ocean, I will send the sea serpent after them to bite them” (Amos 9:3 NLT).

Amos was a contemporary of Jonah, another prophet that God had appointed to the northern tribe of Israel. But at one point, God had given Jonah a commission to take His message of pending judgment to the Assyrians living in the capital city of Nineveh. Fearing that the pagan people of Nineveh would hear God’s message and repent, Jonah refused to obey God’s command. Instead, he booked passage on a ship to Tarshish, hoping to escape the presence of the Lord. But through a series of divinely ordained events, God pursued His rebellious and disobedient prophet. God sent a storm that placed Jonah and his fellow passengers in great danger.

Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once! The sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him.

Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights. – Jonah 1:15-17 NLT

When Jonah was cast into the sea, he sank beneath the waves. He began to drown. And he later described for God what that experience had been like.

You threw me into the ocean depths,
    and I sank down to the heart of the sea.
The mighty waters engulfed me;
    I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves. – Jonah 2:3 NLT

But God sent the sea serpent to bite him (Amos 9:3). But in Jonah’s case, the “serpent” was actually a symbol of God’s salvation. Even Jonah recognized that the “great fish” had been an agent of God’s mercy.

I sank down to the very roots of the mountains.
    I was imprisoned in the earth,
    whose gates lock shut forever.
But you, O Lord my God,
    snatched me from the jaws of death! – Jonah 2:6 NLT

After three days and nights inside the great fish, Jonah was unceremoniously vomited out on dry land. He was rescued and redeemed from death by the sovereign hand of God. After his miraculous and God-ordained deliverance, Jonah went to Nineveh and delivered God’s message of judgment, and the people repented. God’s will was done.

Jonah had rebelled against God and had suffered the consequences. He had thought He could escape the wrath of God and was proven wrong. And the people of Israel were going to learn the same painful lesson. Just as God had appointed the wind to create the storm that resulted in Jonah’s drowning, He would appoint enemies to destroy the people of Israel. The same God who “draws up water from the oceans and pours it down as rain on the land” (Amos 9:6 NLT), was going to use His sovereign power to rain down judgment upon the disobedient people of Israel.

But, like Jonah, they would find that their God was merciful and longsuffering. Jonah did not drown, and the people of Israel would not be completely destroyed.

“I, the Sovereign Lord,
    am watching this sinful nation of Israel.
I will destroy it
    from the face of the earth.
But I will never completely destroy the family of Israel…” – Amos 9:8 NLT

Jonah lived to tell the story of his own rebellion. And a remnant of the people of Israel would live to tell about God’s undeserved mercy and grace toward them. In the midst of His declaration of judgment, God promises to redeem a remnant of His people.

“For I will give the command
    and will shake Israel along with the other nations
as grain is shaken in a sieve,
    yet not one true kernel will be lost.” – Amos 9:9 NLT

There were still those in Israel who remained true to Yahweh, and He would preserve and protect them. Why? Because He was not yet done. The rebellion of His people would be punished, but His sovereign plan for the world would still be accomplished. God had set apart the people of Israel so that they might be a light to the nations, but they had failed to accomplish God’s will. Yet, He had a plan in place that would bring about the fulfillment of His original mandate that Israel be a light to the nations. And it would come about through His Son, the true Israel.

God, the Lord, created the heavens and stretched them out.
    He created the earth and everything in it.
He gives breath to everyone,
    life to everyone who walks the earth.
And it is he who says,
“I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.
    I will take you by the hand and guard you,
and I will give you to my people, Israel,
    as a symbol of my covenant with them.
And you will be a light to guide the nations.
    You will open the eyes of the blind.
You will free the captives from prison,
    releasing those who sit in dark dungeons.” – Isaiah 42:5-7 NLT

Jesus would accomplish what Israel had failed to do. He would be a descendant of Abraham and the son of King David who would fully accomplish God’s will. But for that to happen, God would spare a remnant of His people so that His Son could one day enter the world, born of the virgin, Mary, and the rightful heir to the throne of David. And, as Amos was about to see, while God was prepared to judge Israel, He was far from done with them, because He had a plan in place.

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

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

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

Not An Easy Job

1 The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.Amos 1:1 ESV

Amos describes himself as a shepherd from Tekoa, a city located 10 miles south of Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah. And later on in his book, he elaborates on his background by adding a few additional facts: “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” (Amos 7:14-15 ESV). Amos’ somewhat adamant-sounding statement, “I was no prophet” may seem strange, considering the fact that he admits that he was called by God to prophesy to the northern kingdom of Israel.

But Amos was only trying to make the point that he had not always been a prophet. For most of his adult life, Amos had been a herdsman (bôqēr), a Hebrew term that was often translated as “shepherd.” Over the centuries, biblical scholars have speculated that Amos was actually far more than a lowly shepherd. In the opening verse of his book, he refers to himself as a being “among the shepherds of Tekoa.” The term he uses there is nōqēḏ, which can be translated as sheep-raiser or sheep-dealer. It is the same term used in 2 Kings to describe the king of Moab.

Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheep breeder (nōqēḏ), and he had to deliver to the king of Israel 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. – 2 Kings 3:4 ESV

Either Amos worked as a shepherd-for-hire, contracting himself out to the sheep breeders of Tekoa, or he was one of them. When he refers to himself as a “dresser of sycamore figs,” he seems to be describing the process of “gathering” (bālas) the fruit of the tree. This involved the scoring or cutting of the skin of the fruit so that it would ripen. So, it could be that Amos was nothing more than a seasonal day-laborer, who made his living by hiring himself out as a shepherd or field hand.

But regardless of whether Amos was a wealthy sheep breeder or a lowly sheepherder, he found himself going through a mid-life career change that was divinely ordained. Amos was called by God to leave behind the figs and flocks and begin his new life as a prophet. And whether Amos was rich or poor, highly successful or barely making ends meet, this would have been a significant change in his career trajectory.

A prophet (nāḇî’) was considered to be an “inspired man” – a divinely commissioned spokesman who operated under the influence of the Spirit. The Hebrew word actually means “to bubble forth, as from a fountain.” A prophet of God was divinely inspired to speak on behalf of God. And that is exactly what God had commissioned Amos to do.

“Go, prophesy to my people Israel…” – Amos 7:15 ESV

What is interesting is that Amos, a citizen of the southern kingdom of Judah, was being called to go as a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel. Ever since the end of King Solomon’s reign, the nation of Israel had been divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was comprised of ten of the original 12 tribes of Israel. Samaria was its capital and Jeroboam II was its king at the time Amos was called. The southern kingdom was made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and their king was Uzziah, who ruled from the throne of David in Jerusalem.

It is important to note that this division of the kingdom of Israel had come about because of Solomon’s disobedience and unfaithfulness. As the son of David, Solomon had inherited a powerful kingdom that was marked by peace and prosperity. And while Solomon had been gifted by God with great wisdom, he ended up amassing a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines. And the author of the book of 1 Kings makes it clear that Solomon’s actions were far from acceptable to God.

King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” – 1 Kings 11:1-2 ESV

Solomon allowed his love of women to diminish his love for God. In order to appease his many foreign wives, he allowed them to worship their foreign gods. But eventually, he became influenced by their idolatry and began to promote the worship of false gods within the land of Israel.

…when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. – 1 Kings 11:4-6 ESV

As a result, God determined to punish Solomon for his unfaithfulness by splitting his kingdom in half. Solomon would be allowed to finish out his reign, but his son would inherit a kingdom much diminished in power, size, and influence.

“Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant.” – 1 Kings 11:11 ESV

By the time Amos comes along, the two kingdoms have co-existed for hundreds of years, but their relationship was strained and marked by constant conflict. From its inception, the northern kingdom of Israel had been plagued by idolatry and apostasy. Its very first king, Jeroboam I, had commissioned the creation of two golden calf idols, placing one in Dan and the other in Bethel. Then he instructed the people of Israel:

“You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” – 1 Kings 12:28 ESV

From that point forward, the people of the northern kingdom of Israel were effectively “paganized.” They no longer kept the Law of God or made the annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate the prescribed feasts and festivals. Instead, they made their way to their own sacred sites to worship their own man-made gods. And Amos will declare God’s dissatisfaction with them.

“Come to Bethel, and transgress;
    to Gilgal, and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
    your tithes every three days;
offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened,
    and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them;
    for so you love to do, O people of Israel!”
declares the Lord God. – Amos 4:4-5 ESV

And God will use Amos to call the rebellious people of Israel to repent.

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:

“Seek me and live;
   but do not seek Bethel,
and do not enter into Gilgal
    or cross over to Beersheba;
for Gilgal shall surely go into exile,
    and Bethel shall come to nothing.” – Amos 5:4-5 ESV

And Amos, the newly appointed prophet, will begin his career by calling his northern neighbors to give up their idolatrous ways and return to the worship of Yahweh.

Seek good, and not evil,
    that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
    as you have said.
Hate evil, and love good,
    and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
   will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. – Amos 5:14-15 ESV

But Amos will find his new job to be much more difficult than tending sheep or dressing figs. He will quickly discover the obstinance of the people of Israel and, eventually, he will be required to deliver a sobering message to their king, Jeroboam II.

“‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
    and Israel must go into exile
    away from his land.’” – Amos 7:11 ESV

Just imagine the change that took place in Amos’ life as a result of God’s call. His world was turned upside down. He went from herding sheep to haranguing kings. Rather than scoring figs so that they might ripen, he was now excoriating the faithless so they might repent. Amos would quickly learn that being a prophet was a far-from-glamorous job that required great commitment and total reliance upon God. Despite the divine origin of his message, he would find his audience unreceptive and his presence unwelcome. He spoke on behalf of God but was treated as a pariah by the people of God. They didn’t want what he was selling, and they will repeatedly reject the God he was representing.

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

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

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

They Believed God

Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. Jonah 3:4-5 ESV

Jonah arose and went to Nineveh. Those six simple words would have hit the author’s Jewish audience like a brick. The thought of the lone prophet of God entering the gates of the infamous city would have created in them a sense of fear and foreboding. The Assyrians had a well-deserved reputation for immorality, idolatry, and wanton cruelty. Their empire-building aspirations had been marked by incessant conquest and marred by violent savagery. During the ninth century to the end of the seventh century BC, they were an unstoppable military juggernaut that used the torture and executions of its conquered enemies as a powerful public relations tool. They eagerly promoted this less-than-flattering aspect of their success to create a sense of fear and subjugation among those nations that remained yet unconquered.

One of their kings, Ashurnashirpal II, referred to himself as the “trampler of all enemies…who defeated all his enemies [and] hung the corpses of his enemies on posts” (Albert Kirk Grayson, Assyrian Royal Inscriptions, Part 2: From Tiglath-pileser I to Ashuer-nasir-apli II, Wiesbadan, Term.: Otto Harrassowitz, 1976, p. 165). He proudly chronicles his treatment of the nobles of one city that had refused to surrender.

“I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me [and] draped their skins over the pile [of corpses]; some I spread out within the pile, some I erected on stakes upon the pile…I flayed many right through my land [and] draped their skins over the walls” (Grayson, p.124).

It was not uncommon for the Assyrians to behead and dismember their conquered foes. One particularly gruesome form of torture was their impaling of prisoners on wooden stakes. These gory displays were intended to be a macabre form of outdoor advertising, informing the remaining citizens of a conquered city to cooperate or face a similar fate.

But the Assyrians were more than cruel. They were idolatrous and immoral. And as the capital city of this godless nation, Nineveh would have been the epicenter of Assyrian power and perversion. The author describes Nineveh as “an exceedingly great city” (Jonah 3:3 ESV). In Hebrew, the phrase actually says, “a great city even in God’s sight.” The word translated as “exceedingly” in the ESV is actually ‘ĕlōhîm, which was most commonly used to refer to a god or divine being. Throughout the book of Jonah, the author substitutes the name ‘ĕlōhîm for Yahweh when speaking of God in association with the Gentiles. So, when he describes Nineveh as “great,” he is essentially saying that “Nineveh was a great metropolis belonging to God.” Another interpretation of this enigmatic phrase is “an important city for God’s purposes.”

It seems that the author wants us to know that Nineveh’s greatness has been sovereignly ordained. It is an allusion to God’s divine role in Assyria’s rapid rise to power and fame. They are divinely appointed instruments in His hands, created to accomplish His coming judgment against the rebellious people of Israel. And if this book was written after the fall of Israel to the Assyrians in 722 BC, then its readers would have clearly understood the author’s reference to Nineveh as belonging to God.

The greatness of Nineveh had been God’s doing. And this brings to mind another powerful and pride-filled king whom God would raise up as His instrument of judgment against the rebellious southern kingdom of Judah. King Nebuchadnezzar would eventually rise to power and use his Babylonian army to conquer the city of Jerusalem in 587 BC. But this very same king would end up taking credit for his success. At one point, he would stand on the balcony of his palace, pridefully surveying the work of his hands.

“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” – Daniel 4:30 ESV

But Nebuchadnezzar would learn an important, if not humbling, lesson. God told the arrogant king that he was about to lose his mind and his kingdom. He would suffer a sudden bout of insanity and be forced to live like a wild animal in the wilderness. And the prophet Daniel told the king that his condition would last “until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:32 ESV).

Nineveh and Babylon were “great” cities ruled over by “great” kings. But their domains and dominion were the sovereign work of God. And, whether he realized it or not, as Jonah walked through the gates of the “great” city of Nineveh, he wasn’t entering into enemy territory. He was walking into the realm of Yahweh. Nineveh did not belong to Sennacherib any more than Babylon belonged to Nebuchadnezzar. And while Ishtar was the primary god worshiped by the Ninevites, Yahweh was the one true God of the universe.

Just imagine this lone prophet of God walking through the streets of this massive metropolis declaring, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4 ESV). That took courage. He was delivering a divine ultimatum to the citizens of the most powerful nation on earth. Jonah’s little encounter with the fish had made a powerful impression. He was motivated and took to his task with a renewed sense of vigor. But despite his zeal and enthusiasm, it seems that Jonah was fixated on one thing: The destruction of Nineveh. The author only records one message coming from the lips of the prophet: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And Jonah was probably counting the days. He was hoping and praying that God would rain down judgment upon the wicked people of Nineveh.

Jonah had been given a message from God, but it seems that he might have misunderstood what God had in mind. The key to understanding his confusion is found in the Hebrew word translated as “overthrown.” While that is an acceptable meaning of the word hāp̄aḵ, it is more often translated as “turn” in the Hebrew scriptures. It conveys the idea of turning about or turning back. Or to put it another way, it can refer to conversion. What God was telling Jonah was that within 40 days, the people of Nineveh would turn to Him. But Jonah heard what he wanted to hear. To him, the meaning of God’s message was clear: The Ninevites were about to face the wrath of Yahweh. So, he eagerly and enthusiastically walked the streets of Nineveh, delivering God’s divine ultimatum.

But he was in for a shock. His message did get a reaction, but not the one he had been expecting. It is likely that Jonah had fully expected to be arrested and executed for his efforts. After all, he had spent days walking through the capital city declaring its pending destruction. It was only a matter of time before his message was conveyed to the authorities and his prophetic career came to an abrupt and less-than-pleasant end.

Yet, the author states, “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5 ESV). What’s fascinating to consider is that nowhere in Jonah’s message does he seem to share the nature of their crime or the form of their pending punishment. There’s no indication that he provided them with a way to avert their “overthrow.” And the most glaring omission is his failure to mention the name of Yahweh. And yet, the people “believed God (ĕlōhîm).” Whether or not Jonah told them about God didn’t seem to matter. The Ninevites inherently understood that Yahweh, the God of the Israelites was sending them a message. And they heard that message and believed.

They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. – Jonah 3:5 ESV

We can only imagine how this sudden and surprising reaction impacted Jonah. He must have been beside himself with frustration and anger. This was exactly what he feared would happen, and it’s what had motivated him to run away in the first place. He longed for judgment against his enemies but instead, God had shown grace, mercy, and love. Jonah had been hoping for their overthrow but, instead, God orchestrated their conversion. They believed and repented. And they exhibited their change of heart by entering a state of mourning. They knew they were guilty and deserving of God’s judgment, but He had graciously provided them with an opportunity to turn to Him.

Once again, this story would have conveyed a powerful and convicting message to its original readers. The Jews living in exile in Assyria would have understood that they were being exposed for their own stubbornness and refusal to turn to Him. God had given them ample opportunities to hear His calls of repentance and respond in humility and belief. But they had refused – time and time again. And yet, here were the pagan Ninevites, hearing the message of God’s prophet for the very first time and responding in belief and humble repentance. Centuries later, Jesus recognized the underlying message found in the book of Jonah and conveyed it to His Jewish audience.

“The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” – Luke 11:32 ESV

Even in 1st-Century Israel, the people of God remained just as obstinate and unwilling to hear God’s message of repentance. Jesus, the greater Jonah, had appeared, declaring, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). But as the apostle John points out, Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). They refused to believe His message and rejected His offer of salvation. But John goes on to write, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13 ESV).

Jesus’ message of the Kingdom would be heard by Gentiles and they would believe. But the majority of His Jewish brothers and sisters would continue to reject His offer and remain stubbornly unwilling to repent and believe.

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

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

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

Men on Mission

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. Mark 6:7-13 ESV

In the closing half of verse 6, Mark reveals that Jesus “went about among the villages teaching.” At this point in His ministry, Jesus is concentrating His energies and efforts on the region of Galilee. Having been rejected by the citizens of His own hometown of Nazareth, Jesus has moved on, taking His message of the Kingdom to other towns and villages where He will find a more receptive audience.

In this section, Jesus, as Master and Teacher, begins to prepare His disciples for the role they will play when the time comes for Him to return to His Father’s side in heaven. These men had been hand-picked by God (John 17:6) and assigned to serve by Jesus’ side, but their greater contribution to the Kingdom would come after the Son’s eventual departure.

For some time now, they have been witnesses to the witnesses of Jesus. They have seen Him cast out demons, heal the sick, minister to the needy, display His power over the elements of nature, and confound the people with His preaching and parables. But now, they were going to become participants rather than spectators. These men were going to be given an opportunity to practice what Jesus has preached. Instead of standing in the background safely observing the ministry of Jesus, they will find themselves on the frontlines of the effort to declare the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. And to validate their message, they will be given unprecedented power to perform miracles, just like their Lord and Master.

Jesus chooses to send them out in pairs, most likely in keeping with the Old Testament teaching concerning witnesses. Since these men would be declaring the news regarding the kingdom’s arrival and the reality of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, a second witness would serve to validate that message. And Jesus knew that these men would need the strength and encouragement that comes with companionship.

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NLT

This entire enterprise was intended for the benefit of the disciples. While the nature of their message and ministry was vital, Jesus was giving them this assignment to prepare them. As He has been doing all along, Jesus is attempting to strengthen their faith. Despite their constant exposure to His teaching and their front-row seats to His amazing displays of power, they still struggled to comprehend His true identity. Even after witnessing Him calm the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee, they had expressed their shock and displayed their uncertainty.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” – Mark 4:41 ESV

Jesus knew that His disciples remained unconvinced as to who He was. They wanted to believe He was the Messiah of Israel, but so much of what He said and did seemed to contradict their expectations and aspirations. They couldn’t deny His power and it was clear, from the crowds that followed Him wherever He went, that Jesus was growing in popularity. But His ongoing disputes with the religious leaders confused the disciples. How did He expect to unite the people and lead them in victory over the Romans if He continued to alienate the most powerful men in the nation?

But the disciples had much to learn about the Kingdom and the reign of the Messiah. They were going to have to repent of their preconceived ideas concerning God’s plans for His people. They had their own visions of the future and when Jesus did not do things the way they expected, they found themselves wrestling with doubt.

So, this brief mission on which they were being sent was meant to put them on the frontlines of the battle and bolster their belief in the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. As He prepared to send them, He gave them “authority over the unclean spirits” (Mark 6:8 ESV). They would find themselves possessing the very same power He had displayed and that had allowed Him to cast out the demons from the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). But, while they would have access to great power, they were to place themselves on the mercy and provision of God. Jesus instructed them to travel light and to trust God for all their needs.

He told them to take nothing for their journey except a walking stick—no food, no traveler’s bag, no money. He allowed them to wear sandals but not to take a change of clothes. – Mark 6:9 NLT

Matthew reveals that Jesus provided strict instructions regarding the destination of the disciples. They were to focus their efforts on the Jews and were prohibited from ministering among the Gentiles and Samaritans.

“Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” – Matthew 9:5-8 ESV

Their message was clear. They were to declare the same news that John the Baptist had preached in the wilderness of Judea. It was the same message of the kingdom that Jesus had been spreading throughout Galilee. And to validate their message, they were given the power to perform the same kind of miracles that Jesus did. These signs and wonders would provide proof that their message was from God and that its content should be heard and heeded.

And, Jesus warns, if anyone should refuse to listen to their message, the disciples are to walk away. They are not to waste their time on those who reject the message of the kingdom and the call to repentance. He instructs them to “shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” (Mark 6:11 ESV). This symbolic act was meant to condemn the unrepentant Jews as unbelieving, defiled, and subject to divine judgment. And Jesus knew that there would be plenty of Jews who would refuse to listen to His disciples. These men would experience the same level of rejection Jesus had encountered in Nazareth.

All of this is in keeping with the words of John found in the opening chapter of his gospel.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:11-13 ESV

Sadly, all those Jews who believed themselves to be the children of God but who refused to accept Jesus as the Son of God would find themselves rejected by God.

Equipped with divine power and a clear message, the disciples made their way into the far reaches of Galilee. They called the people to repentance and “cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13 ESV). This brief but eventful venture would do wonders for the disciples’ confidence and go a long way in solidifying their faith in Jesus. It would provide them with a glimpse of the future when they would receive the Great Commission from their resurrected Lord and Savior. The day was coming when He would depart and turn over the ministry of the gospel to these very same men. And they would take the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. But for now, they were being given a taste of things to come.

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

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

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

How Can You Believe?

37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” – John 5:37-47 ESV

As the Son of God, Jesus had every right to stand in judgment of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their rejection of Him was baseless because they had been given more than enough evidence to prove His identity. And, one of the primary pieces of evidence was to be found in the Hebrew scriptures, where the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah clearly pointed to Jesus as their fulfillment.

The men whom Jesus addressed were avid students of the Old Testament Scriptures and their familiarity with the many Messianic passages found there should have given them special insight into all that was happening right in front of them. Of all people, they should have recognized that Jesus was the one for whom they had long been waiting. But these men, like every Jew before them, had misread and misinterpreted these prophecies and had created a narrative concerning the Messiah that focused solely on His role as a conquering king and their political savior. They tended to ignore all the passages that pointed to the Messiah’s role as the suffering servant.

In his gospel, Luke records the moment when the recently resurrected Jesus appeared to His grieving disciples as they huddled together in a room somewhere in Jerusalem. Upon seeing Jesus, the disciples “stood there in disbelief, filled with joy and wonder” (Luke 24:41 NLT). But then Jesus spoke to them and what He had to say reveals a great deal about the blind ignorance and stubborn resistance of the Jewish religious leaders.

“When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said, “Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: ‘There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.’ You are witnesses of all these things.” – Luke 24:44-48 NLT

The Pharisees and Sadducees had missed all of this. They were not expecting a Messiah who would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. And they had no desire for such a Messiah. And, as far as repentance for the forgiveness of sins, they had no need for that either. They considered themselves to be fully righteous because of their faithful adherence to the Mosaic law so, they had no need to repent and required no one to save them from their sins.

But these men, while familiar with the written word of God, were oblivious to the testimony of God found there. God had spoken through the men who had penned the Old Testament books. He had revealed the truth regarding His Son’s coming and yet, these religious leaders had failed to recognize the voice of God. And Jesus issues a stinging condemnation concerning them: “you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you” (John 5:38 NLT).

The Pharisees and Sadducees had a love affair with the Scriptures. They revered them and dedicated their lives to studying them. Jesus even admitted as much. 

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” – John 5:39-40 NLT

They spent countless hours pouring over the Scriptures, seeking to know the key to eternal life. They were desperate to know what God required of them so that they might keep God’s law and earn their way into His eternal kingdom. Their incessant need to “search” the Scriptures was based on their fear that they might overlook a commandment and fail in their quest for righteousness. It’s interesting to note that their obsession with the law caused them to seek the opinion of Jesus. On one occasion, they came to Him, asking, “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” (Matthew 22:36 NLT). They had prioritized the commands of God, giving some higher priority than others. This way, they could concentrate their efforts on keeping the more important laws.

And Jesus had responded to their question by saying, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38 NLT).

In a sense, Jesus was accusing these men of loving the Scriptures more than they loved God. They were more concerned about discovering the laws they needed to keep in order to be deemed righteous by God than they were in loving and listening to God.

As Jesus continued His indictment of these pious religious leaders, He told them that He had no need of their approval or official sanctioning of His ministry.

Your approval means nothing to me, because I know you don’t have God’s love within you.” – John 5:41-42 NLT

What a slap in the face this must have been to these prideful men. They considered themselves to be the spiritual elite of Israel, yet Jesus was accusing them of having no love for God. Even worse, He was inferring that God’s love was not within them. In his first epistle, John would later pen the following words of warning:

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

John had learned a great deal from observing Jesus’ many encounters with the Pharisees and Sadducees. At one time, he would have revered these men as icons of virtue and examples of spiritual sophistication. But he had discovered the truth that they were nothing more than hypocrites who loved the praise of men more than they loved God. They put more value in their own achievements than they did in the words and works of God.

So, when Jesus appeared claiming to be the Son of God sent to do the will of God, they refused to hear what He had to say.

“For I have come to you in my Father’s name, and you have rejected me.” – John 5:43 NLT

Because they had no real understanding of who God was, they were incapable of recognizing His Son. Their concept of God was skewed. Their understanding of righteousness was flawed. Their thinking concerning salvation was totally works-based and, therefore, inaccurate. That is why John the Baptist came preaching a message of repentance. He had repeatedly proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And the Greek word that is translated “repent” literally means “to change one’s mind for better.” It carries the idea of a radical change of mindset. John the Baptist was calling the people to rethink everything they believed concerning God, the kingdom, salvation, and righteousness. These were not what they seemed to be. Their understanding of God’s redemptive plan was inaccurate and insufficient.

With the arrival of Jesus, the truth of God concerning the salvation of mankind had become visible and knowable. But to believe in Jesus as the Savior of the world, the Jews were going to have to repent or radically change their way of thinking. They were going to have to listen to what Jesus had to say because He was the living Word of God. And even Moses had predicted that this day would come. He had foretold of a future prophet would come in the name of the Lord. And He would have a message for the people of God that came directly from the mouth of God.

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. – Deuteronomy 18:15 NLT

I will raise up a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf.” – Deuteronomy 18:18-19 NLT

The Pharisees and Sadducees would have been very familiar with the words of Moses. And Jesus infers that they would have placed their hopes in the promises expressed by Moses. But they refused to recognize Jesus as the very fulfillment of those promises.

“But since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” – John 5:47 NLT

It all boiled down to belief. They refused to believe the words of the prophets. Which means they failed to believe the testimony of God. And that resulted in their refusal to accept the words and the works of Jesus, the Son of God. They found it impossible to repent of their preconceived notions regarding God, sin, righteousness, and salvation. Their minds were set. Their belief system was firmly in place and nothing was going to change their way of thinking. Not even the Son of God.

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

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

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

No Comparison

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. – John 1:19-28 ESV

Beginning with verse 19, John provides a more detailed introduction to the life and ministry of John the Baptist. He first alluded to this important character in verses 6-8.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. – John 1:6-8 ESV

As John continues to establish the unique identity of Jesus as the God-man, he will use John the Baptist as a point of contrast. Like Jesus, John the Baptist was a man sent from God. But unlike Jesus, John the Baptist was just a man. He had been commissioned by God to prepare the way for the Messiah, by testifying to the people of Israel about His imminent arrival. The one for whom they had long waited had arrived. But as the text makes clear, John the Baptist was not the light. And John will confirm the contrast between the light and the witness to the light by using the testimony of the witness himself.

Unlike the three synoptic gospels, John’s gospel provides few details concerning John the Baptist’s ministry. He seems much more interested in using the testimony of John the Baptist concerning Jesus as proof of Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God and the son of man. Yet a bit of background into John the Baptist’s unique ministry and message can be helpful. So, Matthew provides some essential details concerning this rather strange character who had suddenly appeared on the scene in Judea.

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:1-6 ESV

Luke records that the appearance of John the Baptist attracted large crowds of people who made their way to the Judean wilderness in order to be baptized by him. But there was tremendous speculation regarding his identity.

Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon, and they were eager to know whether John might be the Messiah. – Luke 3:15 NLT

As John the Baptist proclaimed the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven, the people couldn’t help but wonder if he was the Messiah. And John records that even the Jewish religious leaders were curious about this strange-looking individual who was proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom.

the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” – John 1:19 ESV

Notice that John prefaces this exchange between John the Baptist and the religious leaders with the words: “And this is the testimony of John.”  What follows is the clear testimony from John the Baptist that clarifies the identity of the Christ (Greek: Messiah). First and foremost, John the Baptist wanted to squelch any rumors about himself.

He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” – John 1:20 ESV

John the Baptist had come to witness, not be worshiped. He had no interest in passing himself off as the long-awaited Messiah. But if he was not the Christ, then who was he? And why had he suddenly appeared on the scene preaching about the coming kingdom? The religious leaders were perplexed and continued their questioning by asking if he was Elijah or the prophet.

Their first inquiry had to do with an Old Testament prophecy found in the book of Malachi.

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

Based on this passage, the Jews expected the long-dead prophet, Elijah, to reappear and his arrival would signal the imminent arrival of the Messiah. But John the Baptist confession that he was not Elijah led the religious leaders to ask whether he was “the Prophet.”

As students of the Hebrew Scriptures, these men were well-versed in those passages that were associated with the coming Messiah. And they were familiar with the promise that God had made to the people of Israel during their days in the wilderness, prior to the arrival in the land of promise.

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” – Deuteronomy 18:15-18 ESV

The Jews had long believed that the arrival of the Messiah would be accompanied by the return of Elijah and the appearance of the Prophet of God. And this threesome would usher in a period of great revival and renewal in Israel. They would lead the people of God and help reestablish the nation to its former glory. But John the Baptist denies being the Prophet.

John the Baptist’s inquisitors were perplexed and knew that they were going to have to give a report to their superiors back in Jerusalem. So, they simply asked John: “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (John 1:22 ESV). If he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, then who was he? And John the Baptist gives them the only answer he knows.

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” – John 1:23 ESV

Knowing that these men were highly knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures, John the Baptist identifies himself by quoting from the writings of Isaiah. In doing so, he affirms that they were right in assuming that his arrival had something to do with the Messiah. He quotes from what the Jews considered to be Messianic passage and applies it to himself.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” – Isaiah 40:1-5 ESV

John the Baptist was nothing more than a voice crying in the wilderness. He was the witness, testifying to the arrival of the glory of the Lord. He was not the Word but was simply the voice. He was not the Messiah but was the one who had been chosen to announce His arrival. And that led the religious leaders to ask the next logical question.

“Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” – John 1:25 ESV

This was a question regarding authority. If John the Baptist was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, he had no right or authority to baptize anyone. The Jews understood baptism to be reserved for ritual cleansing. So, why was this unknown and unqualified individual “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3 ESV)? The Jews, because they were God’s chosen people, believed they had no need for repentance. They viewed themselves as already in right standing with God by virtue of their status as descendants of Abraham and as heirs of the promise.

But Luke goes on to record that John the Baptist saw through the over-confident self-righteousness of his audience, and he delivered a stinging indictment against the religious leaders.

“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Luke 3:8-9 ESV

Their heritage was no guarantee of righteousness. And their identity as Jews was not going to preserve them from the coming wrath of God against all those who have sinned against Him. That is why John the Baptist had come on the scene preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV).

John confesses that his authority to baptize came from a source far superior to himself or the religious leaders of the Jews. And this supreme source was about to make Himself known.

“I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” – John 1:2-27 ESV

John was just a man who baptized repentant people with physical water. But there was another one who would follow who had the authority to offer true cleansing from sin and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The messenger was proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah.

“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
” – Matthew 3:11 NLT

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

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

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

The Good, the Bad, and God

34 To crush underfoot
    all the prisoners of the earth,
35 to deny a man justice
    in the presence of the Most High,
36 to subvert a man in his lawsuit,
    the Lord does not approve.

37 Who has spoken and it came to pass,
    unless the Lord has commanded it?
38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come?
39 Why should a living man complain,
    a man, about the punishment of his sins?

40 Let us test and examine our ways,
    and return to the Lord! – Lamentations 3:34-40 ESV

Jeremiah was painfully aware that the nation of Judah stood fully and justifiably condemned before God. They were guilty as charged and their fate had been ordained by the hand of God. It was the just and righteous punishment they so thoroughly deserved. And while God had graciously delayed His judgment for generations, He had not forgotten His promise to punish His chosen people for their rejection of Him. Their spiritual infidelity had become so pervasive that He could no longer allow them to defame His holy name through their unholy actions.

Jeremiah reminds his fellow citizens that God had not been blind to their behavior. He had seen it all. And He had grown tired of their blatant disregard for His holy law. They had long ago forgotten what it means to live in obedience to God’s law. The admonition delivered by Moses to the Israelites while they were still in the wilderness had been clear and compelling.

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the LORD your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul. And you must always obey the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good. – Deuteronomy 10:12-13 NLT

And yet, over the centuries, God’s people had failed to live in a way that pleased Him. They made it all about themselves. God became little more than a cosmic Genie in a bottle, whom the Israelites turned to when all else failed. They had long ago forgotten what it means to fear God, treating the Almighty as if He was just one more god in a long list of possible options. And over time, their outward behavior stood as evidence of their unbelief. Their actions condemned them.

And Jeremiah had spent years pointing out the glaring wickedness of their ways.

“Among my people are wicked men
who lie in wait for victims like a hunter hiding in a blind.
They continually set traps
to catch people.
Like a cage filled with birds,
their homes are filled with evil plots.
And now they are great and rich.
They are fat and sleek,
and there is no limit to their wicked deeds.
They refuse to provide justice to orphans
and deny the rights of the poor.
Should I not punish them for this?” says the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself against such a nation?” – Jeremiah 5:26-29 NLT

And now, Jeremiah reminds his fellow sufferers that they had received the just recompense for their sins against God.

If people crush underfoot
all the prisoners of the land,
if they deprive others of their rights
in defiance of the Most High,
if they twist justice in the courts—
doesn’t the Lord see all these things? – Lamentations 3:34-36 NLT

They had lived their lives as if God was blind or oblivious to their actions. But now they knew that He had seen it all and He had held them accountable. Everything that had happened to them was the direct result of God’s sovereign will. It had not been a mistake. It had not been the result of poor timing, bad luck, or the fickleness of fate. It had been the providential plan of God Almighty.

Who can command things to happen
without the Lord’s permission?
Does not the Most High
send both calamity and good?
Then why should we, mere humans, complain
when we are punished for our sins? – Lamentations 3:37-39 NLT

The people of Judah couldn’t blame Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians for their problems. They had been little more than instruments in the hands of God. They had been His chosen means for delivering His divine judgment against a stubborn rebellious people. The people of Judah had been punished by God for their sins against Him. And they had no cause to complain.

For years, they had lived in a state of overconfidence, basking in the goodness of God’s blessings, while regularly disobeying His commands. They thought they were immune from judgment. As God’s chosen people, they lived with a false sense of security, wrongly assuming that they were divinely protected from harm. But disobedience always leads to discipline. They were wrong to assume that their unique relationship with God made them untouchable by God. If anything, God was holding them to a higher standard. He had expected them to live lives that were distinctively different from all the other nations around them.

But their behavior had brought shame to the name of God. Their actions reflected poorly on His character. As His children, they bore God’s name, but they had failed to live up to their calling as His sons and daughters. Now, they were suffering the consequences for their blatant disregard for His holiness.

“For I, the LORD, am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt, that I might be your God. Therefore, you must be holy because I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:45 NLT

Their holiness was not an option. It had been God’s expectation from the moment He had chosen Abram out of Ur and promised to make of him a great nation. His descendants would be God’s chosen people, unique among all the nations of the earth. And their relationship with God, determined by His law and regulated by His sacrificial system, was to have set them apart as holy and wholly belonging to Him. But their lack of holiness had left a black eye on God’s character. And now they were suffering because of it.

So, Jeremiah calls them to examine their lives and to understand that their current circumstances were ordained by God and were for their own good.

…let us test and examine our ways.
Let us turn back to the Lord. – Lamentations 3:40 NLT

God had blessed them. Now, God was punishing them. But it was all for their good. And Jeremiah wanted them to learn the invaluable lesson that both the good and the bad come from the hand of God. And both are conditioned upon the love of God. He disciplines those whom He loves. But it is often difficult for us to recognize God’s love when it shows up as correction. It feels like anger. It comes across as rejection. But as Jeremiah stated earlier in this same chapter.

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning. – Lamentations 3:22-23 NLT

As God’s children, we must learn to recognize His love in all the circumstances of life. From the good to the bad, the enjoyable to the painful, the indescribable to the inexplicable, God never falls out of love with us. And, like Job, we must learn to see that God’s love never fails, whether we fail to understand it or not.

“Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” – Job 2:10 NLT

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

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

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

Don’t Count God Out

20 Look, O Lord, and see!

    With whom have you dealt thus?
Should women eat the fruit of their womb,
    the children of their tender care?
Should priest and prophet be killed
    in the sanctuary of the Lord?

21 In the dust of the streets
    lie the young and the old;
my young women and my young men
    have fallen by the sword;
you have killed them in the day of your anger,
    slaughtering without pity.

22 You summoned as if to a festival day
    my terrors on every side,
and on the day of the anger of the Lord
    no one escaped or survived;
those whom I held and raised
    my enemy destroyed. – Lamentations 2:20-22 ESV

One of the things that make reading this book so difficult is trying to keep up with who is speaking at any given time. It can get confusing. We have already seen how Jeremiah allows the city of Jerusalem to voice its concerns, personifying the feelings of the people of Judah. But just as quickly, Jeremiah introduces his own perspective on the state of affairs. He is not an indifferent or disinterested party to all that is going on. He cared deeply about the people of Judah and had spent years begging them to repent and return to the Lord. On more than one occasion, Jeremiah had seen his task as a prophet of God to be overwhelming and disheartening. His words had fallen on deaf ears, with no one responding to his message.

My grief is beyond healing;
    my heart is broken.
Listen to the weeping of my people;
    it can be heard all across the land.
“Has the Lord abandoned Jerusalem?” the people ask.
    “Is her King no longer there?” – Jeremiah 8:18-19 NLT

I hurt with the hurt of my people.
    I mourn and am overcome with grief.
Is there no medicine in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why is there no healing
    for the wounds of my people? – Jeremiah 8:21-22 NLT

And earlier in chapter two of Lamentations, Jeremiah had given voice to his sorrow over Judah’s sorrowful condition.

What can I say for you, to what compare you,
    O daughter of Jerusalem?
What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you,
    O virgin daughter of Zion?
For your ruin is vast as the sea;
    who can heal you? – Lamentations 2:13 ESV

But in verse 20, there is a noticeable shift in the tone. In the previous three verses, Jeremiah had told the people that the fall of Judah had been the work of God. He had finally fulfilled His promise to bring judgment upon them for their rebellion against Him. And, as a result, Jeremiah begged the people of Judah to call out to God in repentance.

Cry aloud before the Lord,
    O walls of beautiful Jerusalem!
Let your tears flow like a river
    day and night.
Give yourselves no rest;
    give your eyes no relief. – Lamentations 2:18 NLT

But in verse 20 the dialogue takes on a more accusatory tone. The city of Jerusalem is once again pointing its finger at God and demanding answers to a series of condemning questions:

With whom have you dealt thus?
Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care?
Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?

These words are filled with incredulity. The people of Judah can’t believe that their God would allow these kinds of atrocities to happen. Things had gotten so bad in Jerusalem that the people had been relegated to eating their own children just to survive. How could God allow His chosen people to suffer such degradation? Why would He permit the Babylonians to slaughter priests and prophets in His very own sanctuary? This was all inconceivable and unacceptable. Or was it?

God had told the people of Judah that their sinful behavior was going to result in judgment. There would be serious consequences if they continued to resist His calls to repentance. And not even the temple would save them from the wrath of God.

“‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, “We are safe!”—only to go right back to all those evils again? Don’t you yourselves admit that this Temple, which bears my name, has become a den of thieves? Surely I see all the evil going on there. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Jeremiah 7:8-11 NLT

But Jerusalem remains unbowed and unbroken. The people of Judah have learned nothing from their suffering. In fact, they cast all the blame on God and refuse to take any responsibility for their role in their own demise. The “innocents” lie in the streets – the young and the old, the young women and the young men. And the city points its finger in the face of God, shouting, “…you have killed them in the day of your anger, slaughtering without pity” (Lamentations 2:21 ESV).

This is a dangerous accusation. In essence, they are declaring God to be without compassion. He responded with unmitigated and uncontrolled anger. He was uncaring and unsympathetic, displaying a perverse sense of pleasure from the senseless slaughter of the young and the old. But this conclusion displays a woefully inaccurate understanding of God. God takes no delight in the punishment of the wicked. In fact, the prophet Ezekiel records God’s thoughts on the matter.

“Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign LORD. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.” – Ezekiel 18:23 NLT

“As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?” – Ezekiel 33:11 NLT

God cared about the people of Judah and longed to restore them to a right relationship with Himself. But He could not overlook their rebellion forever. As a holy and righteous God, He was obligated by His own nature to deal with the rampant wickedness of His chosen people. But He had been extremely patient, holding off His judgment for generations, and providing His people with ample opportunity to repent and return to Him. Why? Because He is a compassionate and merciful God.

The LORD is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. – Psalm 103:8

The LORD is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. – Psalm 116:5 BSB

Yes, the people of Judah had suffered greatly. Their capital city had been destroyed. Many of their fellow citizens had been slaughtered or taken captive. Those who remained were left to endure lives of abject poverty and persecution. But God had not forgotten them. He had not abandoned them. And in the very next chapter, Jeremiah will speak up again, declaring the unwavering faithfulness of God even in the midst of pain and sorrow.

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
    therefore, I will hope in him!” – Lamentations 3:22-24 NLT

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

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

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