You Can’t Clean Up Your Act

43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” – Matthew 12:43-45 ESV

With the content of three verses, Matthew seems to be inserting a topic that makes no sense within the context. This part of the conversation appears to come out of nowhere. But it actually provides a link back to the accusation leveled against Jesus by the Pharisees.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

Jesus is simply revisiting the topic that had begun this entire conversation with the Pharisees. He had cast out a demon from a blind and mute man, resulting in the man’s healing. But the Pharisees, unwilling to acknowledge the divine nature of the miracle they had witnessed with their own eyes, chose to attribute the source of Jesus’ healing power to none other than Satan. And Jesus had responded by telling them they had evil hearts, because “the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:35 ESV). Their words gave evidence of their unbelief and their unbelief would eventually result in their judgment.

Jesus then stated that the Pharisees will not be alone in the future judgment, but will find themselves part of “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39 ESV), who will all stand condemned before God.

In these verses, we have Jesus changing the focus of the topic from Himself to the demon He had just cast out. In a sense, the incredible nature of the miracle had been lost due to the Pharisees’ unexpected and undeserved accusation against Jesus. So, Jesus circled the conversation back to the fate of the demon He had cast out. Where had it gone? What had happened to the demon after it had been forced to leave the man’s body? There was much debate among the Jews as to the answers to these questions. But Jesus doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the demon. His real point is the fate of the one from whom the demon had been cast out.

When Jesus had healed the blind and mute man by exorcising the demon that had been the source of his ailments, there is no indication that the man believed in Jesus. Yes, the man was healthy and whole, having had his sight and ability to speak restored. But he remained unchanged in terms of his spiritual condition. He was no longer demon-possessed, but he was still unrepentant and unredeemed. He was physically whole, but not so spiritually.

And Jesus indicates that in his unbelieving state, the man would make a perfect destination for the recently dispossessed demon. Jesus referred to the demon as seeking “rest,” passing through “waterless places” until it finds it. It is difficult to build a theology of demon possession from these few verses. It may be that Jesus was using the common Hebrew perception regarding demons to make His point. The book of Tobit, part of the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical scriptures, believed to have been written in the 400-year period between the Old and New Testaments, mentions demons preferring desert conditions. So, perhaps Jesus is utilizing this Jewish perception to make His point.

The only reason a demon would leave a human host would be if it were forced to do so. Jesus had cast the demon out of the man, but that demon would not be content until it possessed another human being because that was its primary reason for existence. Once cast out, the dispossessed demon will seek rest, but not find it, because its main purpose is the torment of human beings. So, Jesus suggests that the demon, driven by its demonic responsibilities, will eventually seek to return to its original host.

And Jesus indicates that the formerly possessed individual will prove to be an easy target for the demon. Why? Because nothing had changed. Yes, the man had cleaned up his act. He appeared to have his life back together. And Jesus describes the demon finding his former “house empty, swept, and put in order” (Matthew 12:44 ESV). But the man was really no different than before. His spiritual condition remained the same. And Jesus replies that the demon will return, making himself at home and bringing seven, more wicked demons with him.

It is doubtful that Jesus is attempting to provide us with a doctrine on demons. He is simply making a statement regarding the man’s need for something or someone to occupy his life. In Jesus’ story, a man whose life is swept clean and in order and free from demon possession is not safe from the attacks of the enemy. In fact, he is an easy target and will find his last state worse than the first.

Not having a demon is not enough. Having your life swept clean and in order is no protection from the attacks of the enemy. The outward appearance of righteousness is not the same as a life made righteous by faith in Christ.

Jesus once again refers to the Jews of His generation as evil. He does so because they refuse to accept Him as their Messiah. And their rejection of Him will end up condemning them. He had come to expose the darkness in their lives, and yet, they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV).

Jesus had said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign,” and yet, Jesus was a visible sign of God’s promise of redemption. He was the Messiah, the visible image of the invisible God. But they would end up rejecting Him. They were evil and adulterous because they refused to believe in the promise of God. And Jesus’ use of that phrase would not have escaped the scribes and Pharisees.

With their superior knowledge of the Scriptures, they would have recognized that Jesus was using the very same words God had used of the Jews who refused to enter the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses.

“Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!” – Deuteronomy 1:35-36 ESV

Later on, in the very same book, Moses would speak of the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of the people of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.
They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Do you thus repay the Lord,
    you foolish and senseless people?
   Is not he your father, who created you,
    who made you and established you?” – Deuteronomy 32:4-6 ESV

The Jews had a habit of treating God with contempt, refusing to honor Him as their God. Instead, they lived according to their own desires, treating His faithfulness with disdain. They had been chosen by God. They had been rescued from slavery by God. He had promised to give them a land flowing with milk and honey. But they had refused to trust Him. They had been unfaithful to Him. And Moses described them as a crooked and perverse generation.

Now, centuries later, the people of God remained unchanged. This generation of Jews was no different. The promise of God was being fulfilled in their midst, but they were going to reject it. The Messiah had come, just as God had said He would, but they would choose not to accept His offer of salvation. Jesus had come, offering to free them from their slavery to sin and their captivity by the enemy. He came to transform their lives from the inside-out. But they were going to have to place their faith in Him, believing that He was who He claimed to be. And not long after Jesus had died, been resurrected, and ascended into heaven, the apostle Peter would preach a powerful message of redemption to the Jews in Jerusalem gathered on the day of Pentecost.

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. Acts 2:37-41 ESV

Save yourselves from this crooked generation. Believe the promise of God. Accept God’s gracious offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. You can attempt to sweep the house clean and put your life in order, but only Christ can make all things new.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

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

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

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

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 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. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” – Matthew 12:38-42 ESV

As has been mentioned before, Matthew is less interested in providing a detailed, chronologically-ordered history of Jesus’ life and ministry, than he is in supporting the theme of his book. From the outset, he has been working diligently to prove Jesus’ divine nature and Messianic credentials. In this section of his gospel, Matthew has assembled an assortment of incidents involving the Pharisees; designed to illustrate their growing animosity toward Jesus, but also to provide further support to his overall thesis regarding the power and authority of Jesus.

The word “then” should be taken as a link to the previous paragraph, but instead, should be read as “on another occasion.” Matthew is about to share yet another confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in which their evil intentions will be exposed, and the superiority of Jesus will be expressed. Earlier in this chapter, Matthew recorded the words of Jesus, spoken to the Pharisees, saying, “something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 11:6 ESV). Now, he shares a similar and equally bold statement from the lips of Jesus: “something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42 ESV).

But what is the point Jesus is attempting to make? Why does He describe Himself as greater than or more superior to the temple or even King Solomon? What does He mean when He claims to be “lord of the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:8 ESV).

The temple, Solomon, and the Sabbath were all revered icons of the Hebrew faith. The temple was the house of God, a beautiful and highly ornate structure where God’s presence was said to dwell. It was the focal point of their entire religious system, critical to their practice of the required sacrificial system ordained by God, and a symbol of their unique status as His chosen people. And Solomon had been the one who had been given the privilege by God to construct this magnificent structure. He was the son of David, who had been divinely ordained to fulfill his father’s dream of building a house for God. And the Sabbath was another God-ordained feature of the Hebrew religious system that set them apart from all the other nations on earth.

But Jesus claimed to be greater than any of them. And these audacious assertions did not escape the notice of the Pharisees. They heard all that Jesus was saying and took great exception with His ridiculous and sacrilegious claims of superiority.

So, as was their growing custom, they approached Jesus with the intent of tricking Him into saying something they could use against Him. They were rarely disappointed in their efforts because Jesus was not shy about saying what was on His mind. He had no fear of the Pharisees. In fact, He took every opportunity to expose them as what they were: Religious charlatans and hypocrites of the highest order. They may have fooled the people with their outward demonstrations of piety and righteousness, but Jesus knew the condition of their hearts. And, over time, His attacks on them will only increase in intensity.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 NLT

On this particular occasion, the Pharisees were joined by the scribes. This was a group of learned men tasked with protecting and preserving the law of Moses. As their name implies, they would scribe or copy the law, using painstaking methods to ensure that there were no errors in their transcriptions. They would count letters and spaces in a line of text to check for errors and guarantee accuracy. These men were considered experts in the law and were most likely invited by the Pharisees in order to spot any violations of the law that Jesus might be committing.

The request they made of Jesus was most likely not spontaneous but prearranged. They expressed the desire to see Jesus perform a sign. Earlier, the Pharisees had attributed the miracles of Jesus to the power and influence of Satan. So, it seems unlikely that they are requesting Jesus to perform another miracle. They were looking for something more significant: A sign.

The Greek word is sēmeion, and it refers to a sign by which anything future is pre-announced (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). In essence, they were requesting that Jesus perform a particular type of miracle, something far more difficult than healing the blind or the diseased. If Jesus was truly divine, as He so claimed, then He should be able to do something out-of-the-ordinary and impossible, such as predict the future. They were asking Jesus to make a prophetic prediction. But the motivation behind their request was evil to its core. They knew what the law said regarding anyone prophesied falsely in the name of God.

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. “ – Deuteronomy 18:20-22 ESV

Simply put, they were in search of an excuse to put Jesus to death. But He saw through their ploy and responded to their request with a stinging indictment.

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” – Matthew 12:39 ESV

These were men who took great pride in their righteousness and faithful adherence to the law of Moses. So, for Jesus to address them as evil and adulterous was nothing less than a verbal slap in the face. Not only that, Jesus refused their request for a prophetic pronouncement and, instead, announced a sign of coming judgment. The story of Jonah would have been very familiar to these men. But Jesus gave the story an intriguing new twist. He tied it to His future death, burial, and resurrection. Just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish, Jesus predicts His own 3-day-long interment in a tomb. And just as Jonah had been sent by God to bring a message of repentance and salvation to the people of Ninevah, Jesus, by His death and resurrection, would make possible the salvation of all those who hear and accept His offer of justification by faith.

In a way, Jesus was answering the request of the scribes and Pharisees, but not in a way that they would have recognized. He was predicting the future, clearly indicating the manner of His own death and the means of salvation it would make possible. But He was also predicting the fate of the scribes and Pharisees, as well as all those who refuse to accept the salvation that Jesus’ death will make available.

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it… – Matthew 12:41 ESV

The pagan, Gentile people of Ninevah heard and responded to Jonah’s message of repentance and were saved from destruction. But the scribes and Pharisees, like most of the Jews of Jesus’ day, would refuse His offer of salvation, choosing instead to rely on their own self-made righteousness. And Jesus made it clear that, at the future judgment, the repentant people of Ninevah would stand as witnesses against the unrepentant Jews. Jesus predicts that the Jews will refuse God’s gracious offer of salvation made possible by His coming death on the cross.

And then, Jesus adds another claim of superiority to His growing list.

something greater than Jonah is here – Matthew 12:41 ESV

Jonah was a prophet of God and the only one who had been sent by God to the Gentiles. The scribes and Pharisees would have related well to Jonah’s initial reluctance to take God’s message of repentance to non-Jews. The story of Jonah attempting to get out of this undesirable assignment would have resonated with them. Now, here was Jesus was claiming to be superior to Jonah.  But, in reality, Jesus was placing Himself on a higher plane than their own Scriptures. He was claiming to precedence over the stories of Scripture because He was the ultimate fulfillment of those stories. Jonah had been nothing more than a foreshadowing of Jesus Himself. Jonah had been just a man, and he had fulfilled the command of God reluctantly. His “death” in the belly of the great fish had been a form of judgment for his own disobedience. But Jesus would prove to be a faithful and obedient servant, willingly giving His life so that others might experience eternal life.

And Jesus used another familiar Scriptural account to drive home His point, claiming to be greater than the wisest man who ever lived: King Solomon. The queen of Sheba had traveled all the way to Jerusalem to see the great wisdom of Solomon. But Jesus claimed to possess a wisdom that far surpassed anything Solomon ever hoped to know.

The apostle Paul would later describe the superior nature of God’s wisdom as displayed in the life of His Son, Jesus.

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. – 1 Corinthians 30 NLT

Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:24-25 NLT

And Jesus predicted that the queen of Sheba would join the people of Ninevah in witness against the Jews when the coming day of judgment arrived. Jesus was going to die, be buried, and rise again from the grave, and all those who placed their faith in His sacrificial death on their behalf would receive forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. But when that sign appeared, the majority of the Jews, including the scribes and Pharisees, would refuse to believe the truth. They would refute Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and refuse His offer of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. And they would stand condemned.

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

 

You Had Your Chance

20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” – Matthew 11:20-24 ESV

The cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and they hold the unenviable distinction of having been condemned and cursed by Jesus Himself. But why? What possessed Jesus to issue His stinging statements against these Galilean cities, and why did He choose to do it at this time in His ministry?

Matthew provides a partial answer when he records that these three cities were “where most of his [Jesus] mighty works had been done” (Matthew 11:20 ESV). In other words, Jesus had done a great many miracles in the vicinity of these cities, but, in spite of personally witnessing the power of Jesus on display, the residents of these cities “did not repent” (Matthew 11:20 ESV). They had been eye-witnesses to the miraculous nature of Jesus’ ministry, and they had heard the message of repentance uttered by John the Baptist and Jesus Himself. But they had refused to accept that call, choosing instead to display a stubborn resistance to the message accompanying the miracles of Jesus. They loved what their eyes were seeing, but rejected what their ears were hearing.

These verses mark a watershed moment in the life and ministry of Jesus. Up to this point, He has spent most of His time ministering in and around this region of Israel. His base of operations had been located in the city of Capernaum. He had preached His sermon on the mount not far from there. The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 took place not far from Bethsaida. The people living in and around these three cities had been privileged to witness His works and hear His words but had failed to grasp the truth that Jesus was the Messiah.

These verses provide a link back to Jesus’ commissioning of the 12 disciples found in chapter 10. Just prior to sending them out on their first missionary journey, Jesus had told them:

“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 10:5-8 ESV

Not only had Jesus limited their ministry to the Jews, but He had told them to focus their attention on those who would receive them and their message.

“And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it.  And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” – Matthew 10:11-15 ESV

Notice what Jesus told His disciples. If the residents of a city or home refused to receive them or listen to their words, they were to “shake off the dust” from their feet.

To shake the dust off represented, on one level, shaking off the uncleanness from one’s feet. At another level, however, it is similar to a prophetic sign, representing the termination of all fellowship with those individuals or localities that have rejected the messengers along with their message of the coming kingdom of heaven. This in essence constitutes a sign of eschatological judgment, as confirmed in the following verse. (NET Bible study notes)

Accepting the miracles performed by the disciples while rejecting their call to repentance would be unacceptable. Physical restoration without spiritual regeneration would not be enough. As Jesus later told the Pharisee, Nicodemus:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV).

Jesus makes it clear that repentance is key to any hope of spiritual regeneration. They must change their minds and embrace their need of a Savior. Their status as God’s chosen people would not be enough to save them. Their confident assumption that their Hebrew heritage was enough was going to have to change. But Jesus knew that wasn’t going to happen. In fact, He asserts that the predominantly Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon would fare better on the day of judgment than these three Jewish communities. Jesus had gone out of His way to take the message of the kingdom to His own people. He performed the majority of His miracles in their presence. He displayed His power among them and declared the coming of His kingdom to them. But they refused to listen. And just to make sure His audience understood the severity of His words, Jesus compared them to the infamous city of Sodom. According to Jesus, the wicked inhabitants of Sodom would have repented if they been seen only a fraction of the mighty works of God done among the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.

Jesus would eventually remove Himself from Galilee and make His way to Tyre and Sidon (see Mark 7:24). He would perform miracles there, including casting out a demon from a young Gentile girl whose mother was a Syrophoenician. Mark records that when the woman begged Jesus to help her, He responded, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27 ESV). But the woman, nonplussed by His response, simply said, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28 ESV).

And, amazed by the woman’s faith, Jesus told the woman, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29 ESV). The woman believed, and her daughter was healed. She did not defend her status or become offended that Jesus had compared her to a dog. She simply expressed her belief that, in spite of her lowly status as a non-Jew, Jesus would extend mercy and grace to her. And He did.

One of the things that Jesus was looking for from those to whom He ministered was a recognition of their need. That is why He tended to minister to those who came to them with their disabilities, pains, brokenness, and extreme sense of unworthiness. That is why Jesus had said:

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” – Mark 2:17 NLT

A major aspect of repentance is the acknowledgment of sin and the need for salvation – a salvation outside of oneself. The people who came to Jesus for physical healing did so because they had either exhausted all other avenues or their ailment was beyond the scope of human help. They were forced to turn to Jesus in the hope that He could do something about their problem. But the same would be true for those who suffered from the disease and destruction caused by sin. That is why Jesus would offer what has become known as the Great Invitation, which we will cover tomorrow,

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28 NLT

The city of Capernaum was filled with God-fearing Jews who believed they were the chosen people of God and so, in no need of a Savior. But Jesus asked them rhetorically, “will you be exalted to heaven?” And, just in case they failed to understand that the question was rhetorical, He clarified the answer for them.

“You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” – Matthew 11:23 ESV

They would end up rejecting His message and His offer of salvation. And the result would be judgment and eternal punishment. Their refusal to accept Him as Messiah would have dire consequences. They would remain unrepentant and sadly, unforgiven.

And from this moment on, Jesus would begin to take His message to the Gentiles. He had come to His own, but His own had rejected Him (John 1:11). So, now He would expand His ministry and message to those outside the household of Israel.

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

To Fulfill All Righteousness

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:11-17 ESV

John was the opening act for the main attraction. He was the precursor to the primary player in God’s redemptive plan. His job was to prepare the people for the arrival of the anointed one of God. And no one knew this better than John. Luke records that many of those who were making their way to the Judean wilderness were doing so because they believed John might be the long-awaited Messiah.

…the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ. – Luke 3:15 ESV

But John quickly put these rumors to rest by stating, “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11 NLT). There was to be no confusion. John was not going to tolerate any misperception on the part of the people. He was not the Messiah. He could not offer the people of Israel salvation from their sins. All he could do was baptize them in water as a sign of their willingness to repent of their sins. But the true Messiah was coming to offer far more. And He would have a power far greater than anything John or the people of Israel could ever imagine. 

The Jewish people were very familiar with the prophetic passages found in the Hebrew Scriptures that told of the coming of the Messiah. They knew there were to be great signs and wonders associated with His coming. And John reminded them that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This imagery was designed to tie Jesus to the words of God as spoken through the prophets.

“And it shall come to pass afterward,
    that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” – Joel 2:28-29 ESV

John wanted the people to know that the Messiah would bring the capacity for true life change. He would offer far more than repentance from sin. He would bring release from slavery to sin and the condemnation of death. But there was more. The Messiah would also bring judgment. He would separate between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean. He would create a clear delineation between the sheep and the goats, the saved and the unsaved.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. – Malachi 3:2-5 ESV

John was prophesying about aspects of Jesus’ role as the Messiah that had long-term implications. These prophetic statements concerning the Messiah would not all take place at once – at the moment of His arrival. But they spell out the full scope of His redemptive role, from start to finish. Jesus was going to show up on the scene as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But the day will come when He returns as the conquering King of kings and Lord of lords. His first advent was not as judge, but as the sacrificial offering to satisfy the just judgment of God Almighty. The second time He comes, He will appear as the judge of all mankind. The apostle John was given a preview of coming attractions when he saw and wrote about the Messiah and His second advent.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. – Revelation 19:11 ESV

Yes, Jesus came to make possible atonement for the sins of mankind. But the complete eradication of sin will not take place until He returns a second time. And John the Baptist knew that there was going to be far more to the ministry of Jesus than baptizing for the repentance of sin. He came to deal sin a death blow.

But before that happens, Jesus was going to have to do the will of His Father. And part of that will involved His incarnation, but also His submission to the Spirit’s leading in His life. Matthew makes it clear that “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him” (Matthew 3:13 ESV). It was time, and Jesus, moved by the Spirit of God, knew where He was supposed to be and what He was supposed to do. He showed up that day in order to follow His Father’s preordained plan for His life.

John, recognizing the superior nature of Jesus, was reluctant to baptize one “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (Matthew 3:11 ESV). But Jesus responded to him with an interesting and somewhat cryptic statement: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15 ESV). But what did Jesus mean by the phrase: “to fulfill and righteousness?”

It seems obvious that Jesus was not inferring that His baptism by John would somehow make Him righteous. This verse is not a reference to salvation, but to ethical righteousness, which has to do with doing that which is in keeping with the will of God. It was God’s will that Jesus be baptized and, in obediently doing what God had willed, John and Jesus would be acting righteously – in keeping with God’s desires.

God desired that Jesus be baptized, not as a sign of his repentance of sins, but as a way to validate the message and ministry of John, and to associate Himself with all those who had repented because the kingdom was at hand. The King was aligning Himself with His subjects. In allowing Himself to be baptized, Jesus was illustrating His complete submission to the will of His heavenly Father, something all those who would eventually come to faith in Him would do.

It is interesting to note that, upon His baptism, God validated and lauded Jesus’ actions by stating: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). God affirmed the deity of Jesus. And He let all those who had witnessed the baptism of Jesus know that His Son’s actions had been pleasing because they had been in keeping with His will.

And the apostle John records that John the Baptist had been given a divine tip concerning the coming Messiah. He would know who He was based on the Spirit descending on Him in the form of a dove.

“I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” – John 1:32-34 ESV

The Spirit’s presence and God’s own words both confirmed Jesus’ identity. He was the Son of God. And, as we have seen, that is one of the primary point Matthew was attempting to make with the writing of his Gospel account. Jesus’ identity as the Son of God had been firmly established from the moment the angel told the virgin Mary she was going to have a baby.

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:31-33 ESV

When Jesus was born, He came into the world as the Son of God. When He went to the temple at the age of 12, He had done so as the Son of God, which is why he had declared to his parents, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 ESV). Jesus had been the Son of God all those years He had worked alongside His earthly father, Joseph, in the family business. But the earthly ministry of Jesus began with His baptism by John. The Son of God, anointed by the Spirit of God, and validated by the words of God, officially launched His ministry to fulfill the will 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

The Messiah Has Come!

1 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.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume 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. 10 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.” – Matthew 3:1-10 ESV

Matthew has an agenda and he wastes no time on anything that will not support his overall objective. His primary interest is to establish Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, and so, after providing an abbreviated overview of Jesus’ birth, Matthew fast-forwards to His baptism and the beginning of His earthly ministry.

In keeping with his more truncated and sparse narrative style, Matthew provides little details regarding the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. Luke’s Gospel contains a much-more detailed account of this seminal character, providing information about his birth, unique lifestyle, and the nature of his God-given assignment to prepare the way for Jesus.

But Matthew eliminates all the background information regarding John the Baptist, introducing him into the narrative in a somewhat abrupt and jarring manner. Matthew fast-forwards from the news that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had settled in Galilee and brings us to a future point in time when John was baptizing somewhere in the Judean wilderness. He makes no effort to explain who John was, but simply gives us a description of his work and his wardrobe.

John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea – Matthew 3:1 ESV

John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. – Matthew 3:4 ESV

It’s fairly clear that Matthew saw John as a supporting character in the story. He was vital to the narrative but played a clearly subordinate role to that of Jesus. And John the Baptist had been fully comfortable with his secondary status, having recognized the divine nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission. The apostle John records the words that John the Baptist spoke to his disciples when they expressed concern that Jesus was also baptizing in the Jordan and drawing large crowds.

“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.“ – John 3:28-31 ESV

Once again, Matthew sees the events surrounding the life of Jesus as fulfilling the words of Scripture. He refers to John the Baptist “preaching in the wilderness of Judea” and calling the people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1 ESV). And these actions by John were in direct fulfillment of a message delivered by Isaiah hundreds of years earlier.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” – Isaiah 40:3 ESV

John had been sent by God to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He had delivered his message of repentance, warning that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. The long-awaited Messiah was about to reveal Himself.

In his Gospel, Mark shares that John “appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4 ESV). But what was this “baptism of repentance?” What exactly were these people repenting of? And why was John attracting such large crowds?

Some of John’s attraction might be linked to his rather strange attire and bizarre lifestyle. Matthew describes him as wearing “a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist” and subsisting off a diet of “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4 ESV). John’s attire linked him with the Old Testament prophet, Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). After the last Old Testament prophet spoke his final words, God went silent for 400-years. There were no prophets. There was no communication from God. And then, suddenly, John the Baptist shows up on the scene, bearing a striking resemblance to Elijah and reminding the people of the words spoken by God to the prophet, Micah, hundreds of years earlier.

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

John was the fulfillment of this prophetic promise. He came in the spirit of Elijah, accomplishing the same prophetic ministry as his Old Testament predecessor. And God had promised Zechariah,  the father of John, that all of this would take place.

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:13-17 ESV

Once again, Matthew is establishing Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. And John the Baptist was sent to prepare for his arrival by calling the people to repentance. But as we asked earlier, what kind of repentance? The Greek word for “repentance” is metanoeō and it means “to change one’s mind.” We tend to think of repentance as exclusively linked to behavior, but it has a much more robust and all-encompassing meaning. Repentance begins, first and foremost, in the mind, not the actions. John was calling the people of Israel to change their minds about everything. They were going to have to radically change their minds about God. They had developed a warped perspective about Yahweh that had allowed them to treat Him with a bit too much familiarity. They were going to have to change their minds regarding righteousness. They were living under the false impression that their status as descendants of Abraham and their relationship with the Mosaic Law made them righteous. But all of that was about to change. They were going to have to change their mind about sin and the means by which the sinner is made right with a holy God. The sacrificial system had never been intended to make anyone righteous.

Years later, the apostle Paul asked the question: “Why, then, was the law given?” and then he answered his own question: “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). And now, here was John letting the people know that the child who was promised had arrived. He was now a 30-year-old man and, as John would later describe Him, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NLT).

But John’s ministry included proclamation and immersion. He baptized, which is how he got his nickname, John the Baptist. John was calling the people to prepare for spiritual restoration. The anointed one of God had arrived and they were going to have to confess their sins and prepare their hearts for what God had in store. Just as the prophet, Elijah, had called the Jews of his day to repentance, so was John. The Israelites were guilty of spiritual complacency and, at worst, apostasy. And God had graciously sent His messenger, John, to call them back.

But when John saw the religious leaders showing up to be baptized, he accused them of hypocrisy.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” – Matthew 3:8 ESV

They were simply going through the motions, attempting to align themselves with the large crowds that John was attracting. But John’s baptism was intended to reveal the heart of the one being baptized. It was a baptism of repentance, symbolizing a desire to be restored to a right relationship with God. But John saw through the charade of the Pharisees and Sadduccees. They were unrepentant because they saw no need for it. They viewed themselves as fully righteous and John knew that their false concept was based on their status as sons of Abraham. Which is why he stated:

Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.” – Matthew 3:9 NLT

Not exactly PC-language. But John was out to prepare the people for the arrival of the Lamb of God, who alone can take away the sins of the world. The Pharisees and Sadduccees saw themselves as sinless and, therefore, in no need of a Savior. But John warns these self-righteous men that their lack of fruit in keeping with true righteousness was going to result in their removal.

“Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:10 NLT

There was a change coming. The status quo that had existed in Israel for centuries was about to be rocked. With the arrival of Jesus, everything was about to change. The first would be last and the last would be first. The self-righteous were about to be exposed as unrighteous. The sinners of the world were about to be embraced by the Savior of the world. The weak would find new strength. The spiritually blind would gain their signt. The captives would be set free. And the lost would be found. Because the Messiah had 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

No Empty Word

39 “‘See now that I, even I, am he,
    and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
    I wound, and I heal;
    and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
40 For I lift up my hand to heaven
    and swear, As I live forever,
41 if I sharpen my flashing sword
    and my hand takes hold on judgment,
I will take vengeance on my adversaries
    and will repay those who hate me.
42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood,
    and my sword shall devour flesh—
with the blood of the slain and the captives,
    from the long-haired heads of the enemy.’

43 “Rejoice with him, O heavens;
    bow down to him, all gods,
for he avenges the blood of his children
    and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays those who hate him
    and cleanses his people’s land.”

44 Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua the son of Nun. 45 And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, 46 he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. 47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 32:39-47 ESV

This was no vapid ditty to be sung with a light heart or whistled absent-mindedly as one walked along their merry way. This was a poem containing the words of God and they were powerful and portentous. As God had told Moses, this divine ode was intended to act as a witness against the Israelites, testifying in advance to their future disobedience and unfaithfulness.

And while this song might be best classified as belonging to the blues genre, it contained more than a hint of hope and a glimpse of God’s gracious compassion and goodness. Yes, He was going to punish Israel for their spiritual adultery, but He also reveals that He will one day redeem and restore them. He will keep His covenant promises. While they would prove to be unfaithful and disobedient, God would never fully forsake them. There would be ramifications for their unfaithfulness and unrepentance though.

“I will hide my face from them;
    I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

The end would come, in the form of the Assyrians and Babylonians.

Outside, the sword will bring death,
    and inside, terror will strike
both young men and young women,
    both infants and the aged.
– Deuteronomy 32:25 NLT

But God would repay these nations for their role in Israel’s demise. God, “the Rock,” would pour out His vengeance and wrath upon all those who took advantage of His people.

I will take revenge; I will pay them back.
    In due time their feet will slip.
Their day of disaster will arrive,
    and their destiny will overtake them.
– Deuteronomy 32:35 NLT

And all of this will be possible because God is God. There are no other gods beside Him. He has no competition. The nations of the earth are no threat to Him. The kings of the earth are set on their thrones by Him. The plans of all men are established by Him.

“Look now; I myself am he!
    There is no other god but me!
I am the one who kills and gives life;
    I am the one who wounds and heals;
    no one can be rescued from my powerful hand!”
– Deuteronomy 32:39 NLT

This message is an integral part of the song. God’s sovereignty and power were non-negotiable and non-debatable aspects of His character. That is why God could demand that Babylon and Assyria call on “their rock” and see what good it would do them. They would be left all alone and at the full mercy of “The Rock” of Israel.

But notice what God declares about Himself. He kills and He gives life. He wounds and He heals. He has the power to remove or to restore, and the choice is completely His. He can bring the full force of His wrath to bear or He can choose to extend His grace and mercy, bringing healing and wholeness. It is completely up to Him.

And God warns, “when I sharpen my flashing sword and begin to carry out justice” (Deuteronomy 32:41 NLT), you better watch out because He finishes what He starts.

he will avenge the blood of his children;
    he will take revenge against his enemies.
He will repay those who hate him
    and cleanse his people’s land.” – Deuteronomy 32:43 NLT

This news was meant to cause rejoicing among the people of Israel. This was the upbeat portion of the song that was intended to bring a smile to the face of God’s people, even in light of all the dire predictions of doom and gloom. While the message of this poem contained ample cause for sadness, it also provided a reason for rejoicing.

God wins. He will avenge His people. He will repay their enemies. He will accomplish His plan concerning the people of Israel – in spite of their unfaithfulness and His well-justified punishment of them. And after Moses taught the words of this song to the people, He commanded them to burn them into their collective memory.

“These instructions are not empty words—they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River.” – Deuteronomy 32: 47 NLT

All that Moses had taught them, which included the laws of God and the words of this song, were to be recalled, recited, and revered. From the promise of blessings and the warning of curses to the assurance of His presence and the threat of His abandonment, all of these matters were to be passed down from generation to generation. They were to remember the ways and the words of God. They were to teach them to their children. And, more importantly, they were to obey the words of God.

The promised land lay before them. But so did the decision to either obey and disobey God. They had been warned what would happen if they disobeyed. They had even been told that they would disobey. But God assured them that His will would be done, with our without them. His redemptive plan would be accomplished in spite of them, not because of them. Why? Because He alone is God.

Look now; I myself am he!
    There is no other god but me! – Deuteronomy 32:39 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

It’s All About God

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. And the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you. And you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today. The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, 10 when you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Deuteronomy 30:1-10 ESV

When studying a book like Deuteronomy, with its emphasis on the covenant and God’s expectations that the people of Israel know and keep the commands associated with that covenant, it is easy to place all the emphasis on man. After all, their future seems to be in their own hands. If they would simply keep the requirements of the law as God had commanded and as they had agreed to do, all would go well. They were the masters of their fate. Their decision to obey God’s law would bring blessing. Their choice to disobey would bring the curses of God.

And even a cursory study of Israel’s history would seem to indicate that they chose to take the latter path. After entering the land of promise, the general pattern of their corporate existence was that of disobedience and rebellion. Yes, there were moments when they adhered to God’s commands and experienced His blessings. But, for the most part, they proved to be far less compliant, earning themselves a reputation for unfaithfulness and a designation by God as an adulterous generation. And, eventually, all that God had warned them about happened. They ended up in captivity. It began with the split of the kingdom immediately after the reigh of King Solomon. His failure to remain faithful to God, evidenced by his construction of shrines to the false gods of his many wives, resulted in God dividing the once-powerful kingdom his father David had built.

The northern kingdom of Israel would be plagued by a long line of disobedient and idolatrous kings who would lead the nation into further rebellion against God. And, just as Moses had warned, the people would find themselves conquered and taken captive by the Assyrians.

The southern kingdom of Judah would take a bit longer to experience the same fate, but eventually, they too would suffer defeat at the hands of a foreign power. In their case, it would be the Babylonians, who would destroy the capital city of Jerusalem, demolish the temple, and haul the brightest and best of Judah back to Babylon as slaves.

That’s the less-than-flattering picture of Israel’s history, after they had conquered and possessed the land of Canaan. But in this chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses is still addressing them prior to their entrance into the land. And he tells them that, even if they should fail to obey God and one day find themselves living in captivity in a foreign land, they can still be restored. All they have to do is repent.

“…return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul…” – Deuteronomy 30:2 ESV

Once again, it would be easy to read this and put all the emphasis on the Israelites. All they had to do was repent and return to God. The ball would be in their court. The responsibility would be theirs. And Moses makes it clear what the outcome of their decision to repent will be:

“…then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.” – Deuteronomy 30:3 ESV

Repent and be restored. That seems to be the gist of what Moses is telling them. The reward for their repentance will be their return to the land of Canaan.

“…the Lord your God will gather you…” – Deuteronomy 30:4 ESV

“…the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed…” – Deuteronomy 30:5 ESV

But while a study of Israel’s history does reveal that they were eventually returned to the land of Canaan, it doesn’t seem to be because of a spirit of corporate repentance among the people. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah indicate that only a small remnant of the people was willing to make the journey back to Judah when given permission by the Persian king, Cyrus. The vast majority of the people made the decision to remain right where they were, choosing the comfort of captivity over the prospect of a long and arduous trip back to their homeland where they would find their capital city and temple in a state of ruins.

There was no corporate repentance and the people of Judah had in no way shown that they had returned to the Lord with all their hearts and souls. And yet, God graciously returned a remnant to the land.

And Moses went on to explain in great detail what else God would do for His rebellious and unrepentant people.

“…he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers…” – Deuteronomy 30:5 ESV

“…the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” – Deuteronomy 30:6 ESV

“…the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you.”Deuteronomy 30:7 ESV

The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous…”Deuteronomy 30:9 ESV

“…the Lord will again take delight in prospering you…”Deuteronomy 30:9 ESV

The emphasis is on what God will do for them. He is the main focus of this chapter. God will do for them what they could have never done for themselves. He will restore them to the land, not because they have displayed a heart of repentance, but because He is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. And don’t miss what the result of God’s faithfulness will be.

“…you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today.”Deuteronomy 30:8 ESV

Their obedience will be the result of God’s work, not their own decision to repent and return. The truth is, the people of Israel have yet to repent and return to God. Even after He graciously orchestrated their release from captivity in Babylon and allowed them to enter the land of Canaan once again, they never fully returned to Him with all their hearts and souls. Yes, they eventually rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, restored the temple, and reinstituted the sacrificial system. But they remained a disobedient and rebellious nation for generations to come. Jesus would even say of the people of Israel:

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 NLT

When Jesus showed up on the scene, the people of Israel were living in spiritual darkness. The apostle John describes Jesus as the light of the world who penetrated that darkness, but the “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV). And despite Jesus’ offer of salvation, “his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). In fact, they would be ones to demand His crucifixion and death. 

But God is not done with His people. And so much of what Moses is describing in chapter 30 of Deuteronomy has to do with God’s future restoration of the people of Israel. It has not yet taken place. They are still in a state of rebellion, exhibiting unrepentant hearts and a stubborn unwillingness to turn to Him as their sole source of help and hope. But the prophet Isaiah tells of a day, yet future, when God will change all that. One day He will redeem and restore His chosen people and return them to the land and reclaim them as His own. But it will all be the result of His divine mercy and grace.

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:22-28 ESV

It’s all about God. He is the faithful one. He is the covenant-keeping God who never fails to do what He has promised to do.

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

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

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

From Bad to Worse

25 “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away. 27 The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. 28 The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, 29 and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you shall not prosper in your ways. And you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you. 30 You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall ravish her. You shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but you shall not enjoy its fruit. 31 Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat any of it. Your donkey shall be seized before your face, but shall not be restored to you. Your sheep shall be given to your enemies, but there shall be no one to help you. 32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all day long, but you shall be helpless. 33 A nation that you have not known shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually, 34 so that you are driven mad by the sights that your eyes see. 35 The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.” Deuteronomy 28:25-35 ESV

Let’s face it, bad things happen. Calamity comes to everyone because it is no respecter of persons. And while God had promised that obedience to His law would bring blessings, He had never said that their lives would be trouble-free, disease-resistant, peace-filled, or painless. There would still be plenty of difficulties because they lived in a fallen world. They would still be required to offer sacrifices because they would continue to sin and need atonement.

So, when Moses discusses the curses that will come upon the people of Israel for what appears to be their stubborn and ongoing disobedience to God’s law, he makes sure they understand that this will be difficulties and trials on steroids. These will not be your everyday, run-of-the-mill troubles that are a normal part of everyday life on this planet. No, they will be extreme, and like nothing they have ever experienced before. There will be no relief or escape. They will feature the worst kind of suffering one can image and then take that suffering one step further.

Look closely at how each curse is described. God was going to personally see to it that Israel lost battles against their enemies. That was nothing new for Israel because they had already been defeated at Ai. But Moses describes a demoralizing rout that has the Israelites scattering in seven different directions in an attempt to save their lives. And the failure of the Israelite army will be so catastrophic that it will leave other nations in terror. The fall of Israel at the hands of their enemy will create a sense of fear among the other nations of the region, as they anticipate their own defeat against the same foe. History records that, eventually, Israel was roundly defeated by the Assyrians and Judah fell to the Babylonians. And both of these nations left a wake of destruction in their path, as they ransacked kingdom after kingdom, sending shockwaves of terror among the nations that remained.

And Moses lets the Israelites know that their defeat will be complete, with no one escaping. Their bodies will lie scattered on the ground and become “food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28:26 ESV). No burials or memorials and no one to mourn their deaths. In fact, there will be no one left to scare off the carrion or scavenging dogs. This defeat will not only be demoralizing, but it will also be devasting and irreversible.

Next, Moses reveals that the Israelites will suffer from boils and tumors, just like the ones that God brought upon the Egyptians as part of the ten plagues. God will use the very same diseases that forced the Egyptians to release His people from captivity as a form of punishment for their disobedience. And, once again, Moses takes the suffering a step further, stating that there will be no healing from the pain and itching. These diseases will be permanent and untreatable, with no hope of relief or chance of restoration. And, perhaps as a result of the unrelenting agony caused by the boils and tumors, the people of Israel will suffer from madness, loss of sight, and confusion of mind. Their diminished mental capacity and blindness will leave them incapable of living normal lives, which will result in financial ruin. And, as before, Moses takes his message of doom to another level by warning them, “you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you” (Deuteronomy 28:29 ESV). Just when they think it can’t get any worse, it will.

Next, Moses uses a series of short scenarios to further illustrate the devastating consequences of disobedience to God’s law. He begins with a case of betrothal. A man who experiences the joy of finding a woman to whom he becomes engaged will end up watching another man sleep with her. He will never have the privilege of consummating his own marriage. This most likely describes the grim reality of war. This man will have to watch as his betrothed is raped by an enemy soldier. And as if that was not enough, he and his future wife will never know the joy of living in the house he built for them. They will never enjoy the fruit of the vineyard he planted. And the ox he used to till his fields will be slaughtered and eaten by his enemies. His donkeys and sheep will become plunder, and his children will be taken as slaves. But it will get worse. This man will be left longing for his family but will find no one to help him. His loss will be great, and there will be no relief in sight.

All of these things will come upon the Israelites at the hands of a single nation that will leave them “only oppressed and crushed continually” (Deuteronomy 28:33 ESV). God will use this nation to bring about His judgment upon His own people. But it will be their own fault. Their decision to disobey God’s commands will result in their own destruction. And the books of the prophets of God are filled with calls for the people of Israel to repent and return to Him. God will repeatedly issue His compassionate offer of restitution if His people will only repent of their ways. But they won’t, and all that Moses describes in these verses will take place.

These curses are not a form of hyperbole or exaggeration on Moses’ part. They are prophetic pronouncements concerning God’s judgment. So, when Moses says, “the Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head” (Deuteronomy 28:35 ESV), he is not issuing idol threats. He means it. And, as before, this warning of grievous boils will be far worse than they can imagine. They will cover the Israelites from head to foot, and they will not respond to any form of treatment or remedy. Repeated disobedience to God’s commands will bring devastating and debilitating consequences that will leave the people of Israel without hope and devoid of help. And Moses is just getting started.

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

I Will Restore

18 Then the Lord became jealous for his land
    and had pity on his people.
19 The Lord answered and said to his people,
“Behold, I am sending to you
    grain, wine, and oil,
    and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
    a reproach among the nations.

20 “I will remove the northerner far from you,
    and drive him into a parched and desolate land,
his vanguard into the eastern sea,
    and his rear guard into the western sea;
the stench and foul smell of him will rise,
    for he has done great things.

21 “Fear not, O land;
    be glad and rejoice,
    for the Lord has done great things!
22 Fear not, you beasts of the field,
    for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit;
    the fig tree and vine give their full yield.

23 “Be glad, O children of Zion,
    and rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given the early rain for your vindication;
    he has poured down for you abundant rain,
    the early and the latter rain, as before.

24 “The threshing floors shall be full of grain;
    the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
25 I will restore to you the years
    that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army, which I sent among you.

26 “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
    and praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
    and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.” Joel 2:18-27 ESV

In these verses. Joel communicates a much-needed message of hope to the people of Judah. It begins with the word, “Then….” Joel appears to be writing from a vantage point where he looking back and recollecting the response of God to the solemn assembly of the peoples, their mourning and fasting, and their cries of sorrow for their sin. But it could also be true, that Joel is speaking of future events, recording what God will do if and when the people truly repent. The problem of interpreting the first two verses of this section hangs on the Hebrew perfect verbs used by Joel. They can be translated into English as either past or future verbs. So, it is somewhat difficult to determine exactly which perspective Joel is writing from. But the context and the content of the chapter provide us with insight into the timing of God’s message.

God had already brought devastation to the land via the locust plague. He has warned the people of Judah that a great army is coming from the north that will make the destruction of the locusts pale in comparison. And He has called the people to turn to Him in repentance. Now, God assures them that, if they return to Him with all their heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and if they rend their hearts and not their garments (Joel 2:12), He will show them pity. Why? Because “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:14 ESV).

And God tells them exactly what He is going to do, if and when they do repent.

“Behold, I am sending to you
    grain, wine, and oil,
    and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
    a reproach among the nations. – Joel 2:18 ESV

There appear to be two different aspects to God’s promise. The first has to do with the damage done by the locusts. This entire section is full of references to horticulture. God mentions grain, wine, oil, pastures, fields, trees, and vines. He refers to threshing floors full of grain and vats overflowing with wine and oil. It is a picture of abundance and blessing that stand in stark contrast to the conditions described in chapter 1. There, Joel painted a much bleaker image depicting barren vines, stripped fig trees, dried up fields, and fruitless harvests.

Chapter one describes the justified consequences of the peoples’ rebellion against God. Chapter two, verses 18-27 describe the mercy and grace of God in response to true, heartfelt repentance. God had brought His divine judgment upon the people of Judah, and He had warned that more was to come – if they refused to repent. But here He is telling them what the fruit of repentance looks like.

“The threshing floors shall be full of grain;
    the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. – Joel 2:24 ESV

God is assuring them He has the capacity to restore all that had been destroyed.

“I will restore to you the years
    that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army, which I sent among you.” – Joel 2:25 ESV

The key to their restoration was their repentance. All that prevented them from enjoying the manifold blessings of God was their willingness to return to Him in humility and contrition. He wasn’t looking for some kind of mock sorrow or insincere statement of remorse or regret. God wanted true repentance, marked by a rejection of their formal lifestyle of sin and a child-like submission to the will and ways of God. Hundreds of years earlier, God had told them exactly what they were to do if He  “shut up the heavens so that no rain falls, or command grasshoppers to devour your crops, or send plagues among you” (2 Chronicles 7:13 ESV).

Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 ESV

But notice the phrase, “seek my face.” The Hebrew word baqash carries the idea of desire. It conveys a sense of longing and a willingness to continue seeking until you find what it is you desire. It was God’s desire that they desire Him more than anything else. More than their overflowing vats of wine, fields full of ripe grain, fine clothes, comfortable homes, and yes, false gods.

God had communicated a similar message to the people of Judah through the prophet Jeremiah.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the LORD. – Jeremiah 29:11-14 NLT

Again, don’t miss the conditional nature of God’s promise. “If you look for me wholeheartedly” or with all your heart. God wasn’t interested in a form of repentance that looked more like regret and a veiled attempt to escape His discipline. He wanted them to want Him more than they wanted relief from judgment. He wanted them to desire Him more than they desired His blessings. Their wholehearted seeking was to be for Him, not for what they could get from Him.

But there is a second part to God’s promise. Not only will He restore their land to fruitfulness. He promises that He will “remove the northerner far from you, and drive him into a parched and desolate land, his vanguard into the eastern sea, and his rear guard into the western sea” (Joel 2:20 ESV). In other words, their repentance will result in the removal of the threat of foreign invasion. Remember, God had told them that “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13 ESV). He has the power to do whatever He chooses to do. But His relenting was directly tied to their repenting.

All of this had to have sounded like great news to the people of Judah. And it got even better. God promised them great days ahead.

“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
    and praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
    and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.” – Joel 2:26-27 ESV

Two times God promises that they will never again be put to shame. The pain, suffering, humiliation, and feelings of having been abandoned by Him will never be felt again. But has this promise been fulfilled? Even a cursory glance at the history of Israel reveals that they have a long association with shame. The army from the north did eventually show up and destroy their capital, demolish the temple, and take their people captive. And over the centuries, the Jewish people have experienced their share of shame, humiliation, sorrow, and subjugation at the hands of foreign enemies.

But God promises them that He has plans for them. And as Jeremiah recorded,  “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope…” (Jeremiah 29:11 NLT). God was offering them restoration and rejuvenation – if they would repent. But He also promised future redemption, even if they didn’t. God knew His people well. And He was fully aware that true repentance on their part was not going to happen. Therefore, His judgment would come. The Babylonians would show up, the kingdom would fall, and the people would be taken captive.

God had warned them to repent, but they won’t. But He had promised to restore, and He will. And, as we will see, God promise of restoration will include more than just the people of Judah, because He says,  “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…” (Joel 2:28 ESV).

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

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

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

 

Godly Sorrow

12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13  and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
    and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
    for the Lord your God?

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
    consecrate a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people.
Consecrate the congregation;
    assemble the elders;
gather the children,
    even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
    and the bride her chamber.

17 Between the vestibule and the altar
    let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep
and say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
    and make not your heritage a reproach,
    a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
    ‘Where is their God?’” Joel 2:12-17 ESV

The locusts have come and gone. But the threat of invasion and annihilation at the hands of a massive foreign army still looms on the horizon. News of this pending disaster had left the people of Judah demoralized and in fear of their lives. So, God takes the opportunity to call them to repentance. He has already called for a sacred assembly, a gathering of the people for the purpose of fasting and mourning.

Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
    wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
    O ministers of my God!
Because grain offering and drink offering
    are withheld from the house of your God.

Consecrate a fast;
    call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
    and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
    and cry out to the Lord. – Joel 1:13-14 ESV

Even the priests were to have exchanged their robes for sackcloth. And since the locusts had left no grain or wine to offer as sacrifices, the people were to offer up their tears and prayers of contrition instead.  God, in His omniscience, had seen this day coming. Hundreds of years earlier, when Solomon had completed construction of the temple, he had gathered the people of Israel for a special dedication ceremony. And, in response to Solomon’s prayer of dedication, God had responded with a promise. Notice the details found in God’s response:.

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” – Deuteronomy 7:14-15 ESV

The locusts had devoured just as God had commanded them to do. Now, it was the peoples’ turn to respond. Judgment had come, but were they ready to turn to God in humility and contrition? Better yet, were they prepared to reject their sinful lifestyles and return to God’s original call to holiness? Long before the people of Israel ever set foot in the land of Canaan,  God had called them to live according to His commands, a clearly articulated legal code of conduct that would set them apart from every other nation on earth. But their faithful adherence to His commands would not only distinguish them from the rest of mankind, but it would also bring God’s blessings. God had given them His word, communicating it through Moses, their deliverer and leader.

“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God:

Your towns and your fields
    will be blessed.
Your children and your crops
    will be blessed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
    will be blessed.
Your fruit baskets and breadboards
    will be blessed.
Wherever you go and whatever you do,
    you will be blessed.

“The Lord will conquer your enemies when they attack you. They will attack you from one direction, but they will scatter from you in seven!

“The Lord will guarantee a blessing on everything you do and will fill your storehouses with grain. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you.

“If you obey the commands of the Lord your God and walk in his ways, the Lord will establish you as his holy people as he swore he would do. Then all the nations of the world will see that you are a people claimed by the Lord, and they will stand in awe of you. – Deuteronomy 28:9-10 NLT

But God’s promise of blessing had been accompanied by a set of curses. If the people failed to obey God’s commands, there would be ramifications. Disobedience would bring divine discipline.

“But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you.” – Deuteronomy 28:15 NLT

And God had provided them with graphic details concerning the nature of the curses they would have to endure. He had also left no doubt about the cause of the curses when they came.

“If you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and to obey the commands and decrees he has given you, all these curses will pursue and overtake you until you are destroyed. These horrors will serve as a sign and warning among you and your descendants forever. If you do not serve the Lord your God with joy and enthusiasm for the abundant benefits you have received, you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you. You will be left hungry, thirsty, naked, and lacking in everything. The Lord will put an iron yoke on your neck, oppressing you harshly until he has destroyed you.” – Deuteronomy 28:45-48 NLT

Now, generations later, the people of Judah experiencing first-hand the unpleasant consequences of their refusal to obey God. And this was not a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part. He had endured centuries of unfaithfulness on the part of His chosen people. But His patience had run out. He would no longer allow His people to drag His name through the mud and destroy His reputation by their rebellious behavior.

But God does give them an opportunity to repent and return. It was not too late. Yet, don’t miss the conditions He establishes for them.

return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments…” – Joel 2:12-13 ESV

God’s focus was on the inner condition of their hearts, not any outward signs of remorse or regret they might display. He knew that the judgment they were having to endure might cause them to beg for His forgiveness, hoping for relief from the pain and suffering. He was well aware that any sorrow they expressed over their sin might be nothing more than regret, not true repentance. The apostle Paul points out the difference between what he calls godly sorrow and worldly sorrow.

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. – 2 Corinthians 7:10 NLT

Expressing their sorrow for their sin was not going to be enough. Fasting, mourning, and weeping were not to be seen as some kind of magic, get-out-of-jail-free card. Their heart had to be in it and behind it. Regret over sin is not the same as regret over the loss of a relationship with God. Which is why God says, “Return to the Lord your God.” This was all about their broken relationship with Him. They had abandoned Him. They had turned their back on Him. And God wanted them to return because they longed for Him. Running from pain and suffering is not the same thing as running to God.

The people of Judah had made a habit out of running from one false god to another. They were fickle and unfaithful. And God wanted them to return to Him because they longed for Him. To come to God just to get something from God is not an expression of love. It reveals a mindset that views God as some kind of Genie in a bottle, who exists to do our bidding and to fulfill our wishes.

But God is “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13 ESV) to those who return to Him wholeheartedly. The interesting thing to note is that God desires their return to Him, whether He relents from judgment or not. Yes,  He does offer them the hope of relief, but He does not guarantee it.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
    and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
    for the Lord your God? – Joel 2:14 ESV

Again, the goal of their repentance was to escape the pain and suffering they were having to endure. They deserved all that was happening to them. It was the righteous judgment of God for their rebellion against Him. But the point is that, along with God’s judgment, they had lost their ability to commune with Him. Their sin had separated them from God and His blessings. The blessings of God are not the point. It is the presence of God that should be the heartfelt desire of every believer. Loss of communion with Him should be our greatest fear, not the thought of judgment from Him.

It is essential that we see that restoration to a right relationship with God is to be our highest priority. God tells them that if they return to Him in true repentance, one of the blessings they may receive is “a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God.” The locusts had made these offerings impossible. But God was willing to restore them if the people would only restore their commitment to Him. The blessings of God are to be secondary to a restored relationship with God.

This entire chapter is about the people being made right with God. Joel has called the entire community to gather together and to express their desire to return to God. And the focus behind their fasting, mourning, and weeping is not to be the relief of their suffering, but the glory of God’s name.

“Spare your people, Lord!
    Don’t let your special possession become an object of mockery.
Don’t let them become a joke for unbelieving foreigners who say,
    ‘Has the God of Israel left them?’” – Joel 2:17 NLT

A truly repentant heart will express a longing for the glory of God. It will communicate a deep desire to be restored to a right relationship with God, not just escape from the judgment 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