The Just and Righteous Judgment of God

17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, 18 “Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who is in Samaria; behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. 19 And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Have you killed and also taken possession?”’ And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.”’”

20 Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. 21 Behold, I will bring disaster upon you. I will utterly burn you up, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. 22 And I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, for the anger to which you have provoked me, and because you have made Israel to sin. 23 And of Jezebel the Lord also said, ‘The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the walls of Jezreel.’ 24 Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the heavens shall eat.”

25 (There was none who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord like Ahab, whom Jezebel his wife incited. 26 He acted very abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the Lord cast out before the people of Israel.)

27 And when Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly. 28 And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, 29 “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster upon his house.” 1 Kings 21:17-29 ESV

Ahab was busy surveying his newly acquired vineyard when he received a surprise visit from his old arch-nemesis, Elijah the prophet. The king had been making plans to transform Naboth’s vineyard into his own personal garden, but Elijah was about to replace Ahab’s dream with a nightmare.

Elijah, speaking on behalf of God, leveled the charge against Ahab in the form of a condemning question: “Haven’t you committed murder and taken possession of the property of the deceased?” (1 Kings 21:19 NET). Elijah wasn’t looking for a confession from Ahab because his guilt was well-established. Jezebel’s little ploy to falsely accuse Naboth of cursing God and the king had fooled no one, most especially God. And before Ahab could respond, Elijah delivered the next part of his message.

“This is what the Lord has said: ‘In the spot where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood they will also lick up your blood—yes, yours!’” – 1 Kings 21:19 NET

It’s important to recall that Ahab was already under a curse from God for his refusal to execute Ben-hadad, the king of Syria. After Ahab had decided to spare Ben-hadad so that he might sign a trade agreement with him, God had sent a prophet with a dire pronouncement:

Because you have spared the man I said must be destroyed, now you must die in his place, and your people will die instead of his people.” – 1 Kings 20:42 NLT

Ahab had spared the life of a man whom God had condemned to death, and then he had murdered a man who undeserving of death. And, as a result, Ahab found himself under a double-curse from God. The first prophet had told Ahab that he would die for his first act of rebellion against God. Now, Elijah informed Ahab that his murder of Naboth had determined the nature of his death. It would be a violent and humiliating death, with the king’s blood poured out on the very same spot where Naboth had been unjustly stoned to death. And the only ones present at his death would be the wild dogs that would feast on his blood.

But Elijah’s words appear to have made no impact on Ahab. He simply responded, So, my enemy, you have found me! (1 Kings 21:20 NLT). He expresses no fear. He acknowledges no guilt. So, Elijah provided the stubborn and unrepentant king with further details concerning his fate. The prophet had traveled all the way to Jezreel for this confrontation because Ahad was totally committed to doing evil in the sight of the Lord. He had no morals or scruples and displayed no fear of or respect for Yahweh. He did whatever he wanted to do without ever considering whether his actions were in keeping with the will of God. And now he would learn the price he would have to pay for his rebellion. Ahab would face the same fate as two of his predecessors: Jeroboam and Baasha.

“I will bring disaster on you and consume you. I will destroy every one of your male descendants, slave and free alike, anywhere in Israel! I am going to destroy your family as I did the family of Jeroboam son of Nebat and the family of Baasha son of Ahijah, for you have made me very angry and have led Israel into sin.” – 1 Kings 21:21-22 NLT

Ahab’s dreams of building a kingdom and a legacy that would last for generations had been forfeited. There would be no dynasty because God was going to eliminate all his male heirs. Ahab would have no sons to sit on his throne after him. And it should be noted that Elijah delivered this message on the very plot of land on which Ahab had hoped to build a garden. His dreams of fruitfulness were being dashed by God. He and his wicked wife, Jezebel, would be the last of their line because God was going to wipe out their heirs and destroy all hope of them propagating their legacy of sin and rebellion. Elijah let the king know that Jezebel would also pay dearly for her role in leading Israel into idolatry and apostasy. In fact, Ahab’s entire household would end up suffering degrading deaths as judgment for his sin.

“Dogs will eat Jezebel’s body at the plot of land in Jezreel. The members of Ahab’s family who die in the city will be eaten by dogs, and those who die in the field will be eaten by vultures.” – 1 Kings 21:23-24 NLT

At this point, the author provides a parenthetical commentary, intended to explain the harshness of God’s judgment. When it came to committing acts of wickedness and evil among the rulers of Israel, Ahab and Jezebel were the poster-couple. Despite the abysmal track records of Jeroboam and Baasha, Ahab and Jezebel had managed to establish an all-new low when it came to doing evil in the sight of the Lord.

Even for the callous and hard-hearted Ahab, this news was far more than he could bear. When the full scope of God’s judgment had finally registered in Ahab’s brain, he was devastated.

…he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly. – 1 Kings 21:27 ESV

And, evidently, his display of sorrow and repentance was real because God acknowledged it as such.

“Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has done this, I will not do what I promised during his lifetime. It will happen to his sons; I will destroy his dynasty.” – 1 Kings 21:29 NLT

Because Ahab had finally managed to display a semblance of humility and remorse for his actions, God would show mercy to Ahab. He would allow Ahab to live out his life, but Ahab’s son, Joram, would have to suffer in his place. Joram would have his blood spilled on the ground where Naboth was stoned to death (2 Kings 9:25-26). And there is no indication that Jezebel ever repented, so she would still have to endure the judgment God had prescribed for her many sins. Her humiliating and gruesome death is recorded in the book of 2 Kings.

When Jezebel, the queen mother, heard that Jehu had come to Jezreel, she painted her eyelids and fixed her hair and sat at a window. When Jehu entered the gate of the palace, she shouted at him, “Have you come in peace, you murderer? You’re just like Zimri, who murdered his master!”

Jehu looked up and saw her at the window and shouted, “Who is on my side?” And two or three eunuchs looked out at him. “Throw her down!” Jehu yelled. So they threw her out the window, and her blood spattered against the wall and on the horses. And Jehu trampled her body under his horses’ hooves.

Then Jehu went into the palace and ate and drank. Afterward he said, “Someone go and bury this cursed woman, for she is the daughter of a king.” But when they went out to bury her, they found only her skull, her feet, and her hands.

When they returned and told Jehu, he stated, “This fulfills the message from the Lord, which he spoke through his servant Elijah from Tishbe: ‘At the plot of land in Jezreel, dogs will eat Jezebel’s body. Her remains will be scattered like dung on the plot of land in Jezreel, so that no one will be able to recognize her.’” – 2 Kings 9:32-37 NLT

Ahab and Jezebel had lived their lives according to their own standards. They had attempted to replace Yahweh with their own gods. They had repeatedly violated His commands and had ruled the people of Israel according to their own selfish agenda. But they would pay dearly for their rebellion. Their wickedness would result in the righteous and just 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

A Prophet Pity Party

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.

There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 1 Kings 19:4-14 ESV

While everything had gone extremely well for Elijah on Mount Carmel, he soon found himself disappointed in how things turned out. His challenge of Baal and his false prophets had proven to be successful and, from the immediate reaction of the people, it had appeared that revival had come to the land. And this spiritual renewal of the people seemed to be symbolized by the torrential rain that had brought an end to the three-and-a-half-years of drought. It all appeared as if the nation was headed in the right direction. And as a prophet of God, Elijah longed to see the repentance and restoration of the people of God.

But upon his triumphant return to Jezreel, he was met with intense opposition from the very woman who had begun all this trouble in Israel. Queen Jezebel had become incensed when she heard what had Elijah had done to the 450 prophets of her god. So, she sent Elijah a life-threatening message.

“So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” – 1 Kings 19:2 ESV

She swore an oath to her gods that she would avenge the deaths of the prophets of Baal by killing Elijah within 24 hours. If she failed to do so, her gods could take her life as payment. Despite the abject failure of her god to defeat Yahweh on Mount Carmel, she was still very much a believer. She exhibited no remorse or repentance but instead, warned Elijah that while he had won the battle on Mount Carmel, the war was far from over. She was willing to fight to the death – either his or her own.  And Elijah did not take this news well.

…he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. – 1 Kings 19:3 ESV

The man who had run from Mount Carmel to Jezreel after his victory over the prophets of Baal was now running for his life. But this time, he was powered by fear, not faith. And Elijah didn’t stop running until he had reached Beersheba, the last town of any size in the southernmost region of Judah. Then, leaving his servant behind in the city, Elijah traveled another day’s journey into the wilderness, where he finally stopped to rest.

In a state of deep depression and disillusionment, Elijah asked God to take his life. Since Ahab and Jezebel remained fully committed to their false gods, Elijah had concluded that his prophetic mission had been an abysmal failure. There would be no revival in Israel as long as those two wielded all the power and influence over the people. They were calling the shots and determining the nation’s religious affiliation.

Elijah had run out of faith and energy. He was physically, emotionally, and spiritually spent. And in his despondent state, he cried out to God, saying, “I have had enough, Lord.…Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died” (1 Kings 19:4 NLT). Exhausted, he fell asleep. But he was soon awakened by an angel who commanded him to eat. There beside him was a loaf of bread and a jar of water. Rather than taking Elijah’s life, God had provided his faith-famished prophet with sustenance, miraculously delivered by the hand of an angel. Elijah may have decided that he was done, but God was not done with Elijah. The prophet ate and fell back asleep. 

But his rest was disturbed yet again by another visit from the angel, who had brought more food and a message.

“Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.” – 1 Kings 19:7 NLT

Elijah had not reached his final destination. He had run, but not far enough. And when he had abruptly fled Jezreel, he had done so because he thought his life was over. Either Jezebel was going to take his life or God would. But God had other plans. He sent Elijah on a 40-day journey further south, all the way to Mount Sinai. And the food God provided miraculously sustained Elijah for this long and arduous journey.

…the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. – 1 Kings 19:8 ESV

This trip should have taken no more than 15-20 days by foot, but Elijah found himself wandering in the wilderness for 40 days and nights. This number is significant because it corresponds to the 40 years that the disobedient Israelites had spent wandering in the wilderness because they had failed to obey God and enter the land of Canaan (Numbers 13-14). Having heard the report of the spies that the land was full of giants and well-fortified cities, the people of Israel had refused to trust God and made plans to return to Egypt.

“If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained. “Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:2-3 NLT

Now, centuries later, Elijah, the prophet of God, had chosen death in the wilderness rather than face the “giants” in his day. He had determined that Jezebel was too big for God. But God had brought Elijah to the very place where He had revealed Himself to the people of Israel. It had been at Mount Sinai that God had given His law to Moses. And it had been on Mount Sinai that God had displayed His glory and demonstrated His unparalleled power.

And when God had safely sequestered Elijah in the recesses of a cave, He asked His doubting prophet a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9 ESV). He was wanting Elijah to explain the motivation behind his most recent actions, and the prophet responded with a pitiful portrait of his Don-Quixote-like quest to defeat the enemies of God. He deemed himself the last-man-standing, the sole survivor of an ill-fated battle against the forces of evil.

“I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” – 1 Kings 19:10 NLT

Elijah was throwing himself a pity party and he had invited God to attend. But God was not interested in celebrating Elijah’s accomplishments or validating his woe-is-me mentality. Instead, God instructed His despondent prophet to step out of the cave and into the shadow of Mount Sinai. And as Elijah stood there, God revealed Himself. At first, He came in the form of a fierce windstorm so powerful that it blew boulders off the face of the mountain. Then He appeared in the form of a massive earthquake that shook the ground under Elijah’s feet. Finally, God disclosed Himself to Elijah in the form of fire. And all of these manifestations of God’s glory and power were exactly what the people of Israel had seen when God had appeared to them centuries earlier at the very same spot.

On the morning of the third day, thunder roared and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram’s horn, and all the people trembled.… All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. – Exodus 19:16, 18 NLT

But in Elijah’s case, these dramatic revelations of God, while impressive, were not meant to represent the presence of God. The text clearly states that the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Yes, they were manifestations of His greatness, but they were not how God was going to speak to His prophet. After the ear-piercing blast of the wind, the earth-shaking rumble of the earthquake, and the roar of the fire, Elijah heard “the sound of a low whisper” ( 1 Kings 19:12 ESV). Evidently, the three previous displays of God’s power had driven Elijah back into the recesses of the cave. But upon hearing the gentle sound of the whisper, he timidly made his way back outside. And there, in the quiet of that moment, he heard God repeat His previous question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13 NLT). 

And, once again, Elijah gave the same well-rehearsed reply. And don’t miss the focus of Elijah’s response. It was all about him. He alone had zealously served Yahweh. While everyone else in Israel had turned their backs on God, Elijah had remained faithful and fully committed. He was the last line of defense against the forces of evil, and now he was as good as dead.

Where was God? Even after the dramatic displays of divine power on Mount Sinai, Elijah had been unable to get his mind off of himself. For some reason, he believed that the future of Israel had been dependent upon him, and he had failed. He had let God down. Despite his victory over the prophets of Baal, Ahab and Jezebel were firmly entrenched and in charge of the affairs of the nation, or so Elijah thought. From his perspective, all was lost. But God had news for Elijah. And He had plans for Ahab and Jezebel. God was about to whisper His sovereign secret for Israel’s future in the ear of his self-consumed prophet. And Elijah was going to discover God’s answer to the question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

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 Lord, He is God

22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. 23 Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. 24 And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” 25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 26 And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28 And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. 29 And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.

30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” 32 and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. 33 And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34 And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. 35 And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.

36 And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” 40 And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there. 1 Kings 18:23-40 ESV

The battle for the hearts of the people of Israel was about to begin. Having accepted Elijah’s challenge, King Ahab had decreed that the people assemble at nearby Mount Carmel. He also ordered the 450 prophets of Baal to come, ready to prove the power of their god. But as Elijah stood before the gathered assembly, he issued them a stern challenge.

“How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” – 1 Kings 18:21 ESV

His words are reminiscent of those spoken by Joshua hundreds of years earlier, as he addressed the nation of Israel near the end of his life. He too had called the people to choose who they were going serve, the one true God or the false gods of Egypt and Canaan.

“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:14-15 ESV

The fickle nature of the Israelites had not changed much over the centuries. They remained prone to chasing after any and every god who came along. They were equal-opportunity idolaters who seemed to have no sense of guilt or shame. Their willingness to accept and affirm any and all gods placed before them had been a problem from the beginning. While they never entirely abandoned their worship of Yahweh, they were constantly trying out new gods in a vain attempt to cover all their bases. Their syncretistic approach to religion and worship was driven by self-interest and greed. In a sense, they seemed to operate on the belief that two gods would be better than one. But Elijah was demanding that they make up their minds. He would not allow them to play the field and continue to offend Yahweh with their spiritual adultery.

In an attempt to stress the lopsided nature of the battle that was about to ensue, Elijah claimed that he was the only prophet of Yahweh still standing in Israel. But he was wrong and he knew it. In his earlier encounter with Obadiah, he had learned that there were at least 100 prophets whom God had spared. But Elijah chose to ignore this detail so that he could paint as bleak a picture as possible. At that moment, the odds were 450 to one. He was the sole prophet of God, preparing to face the overwhelming numbers of the prophets of Baal.

But Elijah knew that this day was not about a battle between him and the more numerous adversaries on the other side. It would be a divine display of Yahweh’s power and Baal’s impotence. Just as Baal had been unable to stop the ravages of the drought that had devasted the land for three years, he would prove incapable of hearing and answering the desperate cries of his prophets.

Elijah set the rules of the contest. Each side was to select an appropriate sacrifice, then offer it up on an altar before their respective god. Then they were to cry out to their deity of choice, and whichever god responded by consuming the offering with fire would prove to be the true god.

In describing the ensuing scene, the author clearly attempts to lampoon the efforts of the prophets of Baal. Their energetic and somewhat odd behavior displays their desperate hope that their god will show up.

…they called on the name of Baal from morning until noontime, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no reply of any kind. Then they danced, hobbling around the altar they had made. – 1 Kings 18:26 NLT

And the harder they try to garner the attention of their seemingly distant and disinterested god, the more Elijah taunts their efforts.

“You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!” – 1 Kings 18:27 NLT

In desperation and growing frustration, they resort to shedding their own blood, vainly hoping that their self-mutilation might appease and awaken their god to action. But the author summarizes their prolonged and ineffective efforts with the simple statement: “there was no sound, no reply, no response” (1 Kings 18:29 NLT). Their god remained silent and unseen.

Broken and bloodied by their hours-long effort to call down fire from their god, they finally gave up. Then it was Elijah’s turn. After rebuilding the altar to Yahweh that Jezebel had ordered destroyed, Elijah had the altar and the sacrifice drenched in water. He purposefully stacked the deck against God, creating what would appear to be impossible odds. Elijah used 12 stones to build the altar and then drenched the altar and the sacrifice with 12 large jars of water. Even though this event was taking place among the ten tribes of the northern kingdom, Elijah wanted them to realize that Yahweh was the God of all Israel. They were a divided nation because of idolatry. But in God’s eyes, they were still His chosen people.

And Elijah’s simple prayer illustrates his belief that God longed to restore His covenant people. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still loved His people and greatly desired that they would repent and return to Him.

“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.” – 1 Kings 18:36-37 NLT

No histrionics. No desperate displays of emotional cajoling and pleading. Elijah simply asked God to display His power so that the people might know He was there and that He cared. Elijah was asking God to demonstrate His covenant faithfulness in spite of their unfaithfulness. And, unlike Baal, God heard and responded.

Immediately the fire of the Lord flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up all the water in the trench! – 1 Kings 18:38 NLT

The impact of this divine demonstration of power was immediate. Blown away by this supernatural display, the people fell on their faces and cried out, “The Lord—he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!” (1 Kings 18:39 NLT). The altar to Baal remained untouched, just as the prophets had left it. But the altar to Yahweh had been completely consumed, rocks and all. God had more than accepted the sacrifice that Elijah had offered. And in doing so, He confirmed His power, reconfirmed His covenant commitment, and validated His prophet. He was the one true God, and Elijah was His chosen messenger.

And as a final demonstration of God’s unparalleled greatness and His prophet’s authority to act on His behalf, Elijah ordered the capture of every single prophet of Baal. The people obeyed his command and brought all 450 of these false prophets to the Kishon Valley, where Elijah meted out divine judgment and justice on every single one of them. These men had played a major role in the nation’s spiritual decline. They were the visual representation of their false god, and their lies and deception had caused the people of Israel to abandon Yahweh for a god that was nothing more than a figment of man’s fertile imagination.

Looking on as this unexpected scene unfolded before their eyes, King Ahab and his wife Jezebel had to have been reeling from the shock of it all. Not only had their god not shown up, but his prophets had been destroyed. But, as we will see, rather than repent for their sins against God, they will respond in anger and resentment, attempting to take out their wrath on God’s messenger. This arrogant and self-consumed couple will continue to reject Yahweh, stubbornly refusing to admit, “The Lord—he is God! Yes, the Lord is 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

Confess, Repent, and Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing the Signs

11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13 And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.

14 Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16 And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” Mark 8:11-21 ESV

After dismissing the crowds who had benefited from His miraculous transformation of the bread and fish, Jesus and His disciples sailed across the Sea of Galilee to Dalmanutha, in the region of Magadan (Matthew 15:39). It seems likely that the disciples had stashed in the bow of the boat the 7 baskets of leftover bread and fish they had gathered. Mark provides no insights into the conversations these men may have had as they sailed to their next destination, but it only makes sense that they would have discussed the events of that day, including the miracle Jesus had just performed.

As soon as their boat touched the shore, they were met by another contingent of Jewish religious leaders. Matthew records that, on this occasion, the Pharisees were accompanied by a group of Sadducees.

“. . . the Sadducees were a wealthy, conservative party concentrated in Jerusalem. Their members were from aristocratic families of patrician and priestly stock. They refused adherence to the tradition of the elders and advocated a rigorous application of the law of Moses to the life of the nation. In general, they espoused a political and religious policy, including cooperation with Rome, aimed at preserving the status quo.” – Kingsbury, J. D., Conflict in Mark: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples. Minneapolis: Fortress
Press, 1989

The Pharisees and Sadducees both had representatives who sat on the 70-member Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews. But these two powerful and highly influential religious sects were not on friendly terms with one another. While they shared a common belief in God and held the Hebrew Scriptures in high regard, they held differing views on a wide range of topics, including the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees rejected the idea of an afterlife, arguing instead that the soul simply perished at death. So, the whole concept of a resurrection and a system of rewards and punishments after death was unacceptable to them. In fact, they rejected any notion of a spiritual dimension populated by demons and angels. And all of these beliefs put them at odds with the Pharisees.

Yet, oddly enough, these two opposing parties were willing to set aside their differences in order to take on their common enemy: Jesus.

Mark indicates that these men confronted Jesus, “seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him” (Mark 8:11 ESV). They were not asking Jesus to perform a miracle. They had already been eye-witnesses to many of Jesus’ more spectacular displays of power. What they were demanding was a “sign from heaven” – some kind of celestial proof that would verify His claims once and for all time. They had refused to accept any of His many miracles as being evidence of His divine calling. Instead, they had accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Satan (Mark 3:22). As Mark states, this was all nothing more than a test, an attempt to force Jesus’ hand and expose Him as the fraud they believed Him to be.

And Jesus, exasperated by their stubborn refusal to receive Him as their Messiah, “sighed deeply in his spirit” and responded, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12 ESV).

Jesus exposes their true intentions. There was nothing He could have done that would have satisfied their demand. They were already convinced that He was a charlatan and no sign or celestial manifestation was going to change their minds. Mark indicates that Jesus simply walked away, leaving these men with neither a sign from heaven nor the definitive proof that He was a fraud. But, Matthew adds an important detail in his account of this same scene. He reports that Jesus confronted these men about their inability to recognize the obvious.

“You know the saying, ‘Red sky at night means fair weather tomorrow; red sky in the morning means foul weather all day.’ You know how to interpret the weather signs in the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times! – Matthew 16:2-3 NLT

They could predict the weather based on “the signs” in the sky, but they were unable to recognize the Messiah based on the preponderance of evidence taking place around them. According to Jesus, everything He had said and done had been more than enough proof to support His claim to be the Son of God and the long-awaited Messiah. He was not going to provide them with any other “signs” other than “the sign of Jonah.”

“Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign, but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah.” – Matthew 16:4 NLT

This was not the first time Jesus had used this kind of language with the religious leaders. Matthew records an earlier encounter in which Jesus said the very same words and added, “For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40 NLT). Jesus used the well-known story of the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, in order to predict His own pending death, burial, and resurrection. The Jewish religious leaders would have been familiar with the story of Jonah but would not have understood the connection Jesus was making.

And Jesus condemned these men for their stubborn refusal to believe in Him. Jonah had been “resurrected” from the belly of the great fish and taken the message of God to the people of Ninevah. As a result, they had believed and repented. But even the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus would not be enough to make these stubborn religious leaders believe. And Jesus predicts the outcome they will face for their unbelief.

“The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent.” – Matthew 12:42 NLT

The Ninevites to whom Jonah ended up preaching had been Gentile pagans. And yet, when they heard the message of God from the lips of the prophet of God, they had repented and been saved. And yet, the religious leaders of the Jewish people were refusing to hear the message of God from the lips of the very Son of God, choosing instead to remain unconvinced and unrepentant.  And Jesus, unwilling to debate with them any further, got back in the boat with His disciples and sailed away.

What happens next reveals a great deal about the men whom Jesus had chosen to be His disciples. Mark records that they got back in the boat and then adds, “they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat” (Mark 8:14 ESV). So, they had not brought along the seven baskets of leftovers after all. We’re not told what they did with all that food, but only that they brought a single loaf of bread to share among 13 hungry men. Perhaps they thought that Jesus could multiply that loaf as well, so they decided to travel light and left the rest of the food behind.

But whatever the thought process behind their decision, Jesus took advantage of the moment to teach a valuable lesson.

“Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” – Mark 8:15 ESV

The disciples, confused by Jesus’ words, immediately assumed that He was upset with them for their failure to bring enough bread. It’s likely that they began casting blame, each accusing the other for this obvious lapse in judgment. And Jesus had to remind them that the quantity of bread was not the issue. He was not talking about literal bread at all.

“Why are you arguing about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Have your hearts been hardened? Though you have eyes, don’t you see? And though you have ears, can’t you hear? Don’t you remember?” – Mark 8:18-19 NLT

Had they already forgotten what He had done? Were they so hard-hearted that they couldn’t recall how, on two separate occasions, He had miraculously fed thousands of people with nothing more than a few loaves and fishes?

Their problem was not a lack of bread, but a lack of belief. In fact, Matthew adds that Jesus confronted them for their lack of faith.

“O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? – Matthew 16:8 ESV

While they were busy arguing about their paucity of bread, Jesus was trying to warn them about the teachings of the religious leaders. These men posed a serious threat because their prominent positions allowed them to propagate dangerous doctrines that could keep others from hearing and accepting Jesus as their Messiah. And Jesus would later condemn these men for the infectious and deadly nature of their influence.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:13-16 NLT

Jesus posed a rhetorical question to His disciples: “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:21 ESV). He knew the answer and was well aware that it would only be after the coming of the Holy Spirit that the disciples would be able to comprehend all that He had said to them while He had been with them. But He would continue to use His confrontations with the religious leaders as prime teaching opportunities to instruct His 12 disciples. He wanted them to continue to believe, regardless of what the Pharisees and Sadducees might say. Their greatest need was not bread, but to continue to place their hope and trust in the Bread of Life.

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

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

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

How Can You Believe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not What He Expected

19 “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”– John 3:19-21 ESV

Nicodemus’ head must have been ready to explode. In just a few short minutes, Jesus has delivered some of the most shocking and paradigm-shifting news this Pharisee has ever heard. Nicodemus’ entire belief system has been shaken to its core. For starters, Jesus has informed him that unless he is born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That was news to Nicodemus. As a Jew and a well-respected member of the Pharisees, he believed himself to already have full rights and privileges to a place in God’s coming kingdom. When the Messiah finally came and restored the Jews to power and prominence, Nicodemus believed he would be among those who enjoyed the joys and delights of a reinvigorated kingdom.

But Jesus had put a strange and unexpected condition on anyone who hoped to be a part of the coming kingdom of God: “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). Then Jesus upped the ante by adding a further requirement: “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5 ESV).

Nicodemus was having a difficult time understanding what Jesus was saying. He was mind was focused on earthly, temporal concepts of the kingdom, while Jesus was speaking of spiritual matters. His concept of the coming Messiah was centered around a human deliverer who would lead Israel in an overthrow of the Roman occupying forces and reestablish the Davidic dynasty and Israel’s dominance in the region. But all that Jesus has shared with this highly esteemed religious leader has been spiritual in nature. It is not that Jesus is eliminating the idea of an actual physical kingdom of God, but He is letting Nicodemus know that something new is happening. The kingdom was coming, but not in the form Nicodemus expected. And entrance into that kingdom was going to require far more than Nicodemus could ever imagine.

While Nicodemus was secretly longing that Jesus was the Messiah and had come to set up the kingdom of God on earth, Jesus let him know that the real reason for His coming was to offer eternal life.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16 ESV

In all his study of the Hebrew scriptures, what Nicodemus had failed to understand was that when the Messiah came, His mission would be to suffer and die, not rule and reign. He would come to wear a crown of thorns, not a crown of gold. He would be lifted up and nailed to a Roman cross rather than placed on a royal throne in David’s palace.

Jesus, the Son of God, had come to earth in order to provide sinful mankind with a means to escape the coming condemnation of God. He was going to become “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). He would sacrifice His life in the place of humanity, taking on the sins of the world in order to satisfy the just and righteous judgment of God. The apostle Peter would later describe the full impact of Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf.

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 NLT

And Peter was presenting the atoning death of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Isaiah had penned centuries earlier.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 ESV

But Jesus reveals a sad truth to his mystified and mind-muddled guest.

“…the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV

Jesus’ reference to Himself as the light ties directly back to the opening lines of John’s gospel.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV

Now we can see where John got the idea of Jesus being the light of men and the true light that shines in the darkness. He had heard it directly from the lips of Jesus Himself. And Jesus reveals that his entrance into the darkness of this world would be met with disbelief and indifference. His life, death, and resurrection would fail to convince many that He truly was the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

Everyone, including Nicodemus, recognized that there was something remarkable about this itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth. His message and miracles were like nothing they had ever heard or seen before. Some were impressed. Others were intrigued. A few were even convinced. But the majority continued to reject the light because they preferred to continue living in the darkness of sin.

But Jesus had come to illuminate the darkness of sin and to eliminate the penalty that accompanied it. And throughout the years of His earthly ministry, He continued to declare His divine mission to bring light to a sin-darkened world and life to a spiritually dead people.

Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12 ESV

“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” – John 9:5 ESV

“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. – John 12:46 ESV

And Jesus makes it clear that the peoples’ refusal to believe in Him would be based on their love affair with sin.

“…people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV

No one likes having their sins exposed. So, they try to keep them concealed. They attempt to hide them from others. Darkness serves as a metaphor for the secrecy that accompanies a life of sinfulness. But that darkness takes a variety of forms. Too often, we can try to veil our sinfulness with acts of self-righteousness. That is exactly what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

“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 25-28 NLT

So, we can attempt to cover our sins with a thin veneer of righteous-looking deeds or we can simply commit our sins in secrecy, hidden away from the sight of others. As long as no one sees what we are doing, our reputations remain intact. The apostle Paul warns that even believers can find themselves attempting to harbor secret sins, hidden away from the eyes of others. But light has a way of exposing what is hidden.

Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. – Ephesians 5:11-14 NLT

Jesus made it painfully clear that “everyone who does wicked things hates the light” (John 3:20 ESV). Their sinful natures crave hiddenness and despise exposure. Like a roach that scatters when a light is turned on, a sinner will tend to run from the illuminating light of the gospel “lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20 ESV).

One of the most indicting statements Jesus ever made was directed at the sect to which Nicodemus was a member. Luke records a scene in which Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees for having eaten with tax collectors and sinners. They were appalled by His actions and arrogantly asked, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?” (Luke 5:30 NLT). And Jesus simply responded:

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” – Luke 5:31-32 NLT

The Pharisees were living in darkness, convinced that their outward displays of righteousness were enough to cover up their inward need for repentance and restoration. They were diseased, dying, and in need of a doctor, but refused to admit it. Because they loved the darkness rather than the light. 

Even Nicodemus would refuse to have his deeds exposed by the light. He had come under the cover of darkness, attempting to find out if Jesus was the Messiah. But he would walk away, still in the dark, both physically and spiritually. He had come into the presence of the light but would walk away just as he had come.

Jesus leaves Nicodemus with a final word that re-emphasizes the spiritual nature of all that He has said.

“…whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” – John 3:21 ESV

Salvation is a work of God. And this would have been a foreign concept to Nicodemus. He had been raised to believe that human effort was the essential ingredient for finding acceptance with God. Good works were the criteria by which men were judged by God and deemed worthy of His love. But Jesus was letting Nicodemus know that no man could earn a right standing with God through self-effort. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, put it this way:

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

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT

For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

This would have been shocking news to Nicodemus. And he would walk away that night with his head spinning from all that he had heard. Jesus had just enlightened him as to the true means by which sinful men can be made right with a holy God. Now, Nicodemus had a decision to make.

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

Born From Above

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” – John 3:3-8 ESV

Whatever signs Jesus had performed that day in Jerusalem had gotten the attention of the people and many had believed. But there were others in the crowd who, while impressed by Jesus’ exploits, were choosing to reserve judgment. This included the religious leaders of Israel. Among them were the Pharisees, a fairly conservative religious sect that was comprised predominantly of men from the working class of Israel. On the evening of the day when Jesus had cleansed the temple and performed signs and wonders, Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees, came to call on Him.

Nicodemus came alone. And he does not appear to have been sent by his colleagues in the Sanhedrin, the religious council of Israel. Nicodemus had been impressed by the miracles of Jesus and his curiosity about Jesus got the best of him. He had to more. So, he showed up, addressing Jesus with the respectful title of “Rabbi.” But he seemed to know that there was more to Jesus than met the eye.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” – John 3:2 ESV

Nicodemus sensed that Jesus was anointed by God, and he wanted to know more about Him. His statement stands in stark contrast to that of his religious peers, who, upon hearing that Jesus had healed a blind, mute, and demon-possessed man, had accused Jesus of being in league with the devil.

Then a demon-possessed man, who was blind and couldn’t speak, was brought to Jesus. He healed the man so that he could both speak and see. The crowd was amazed and asked, “Could it be that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah?”

But when the Pharisees heard about the miracle, they said, “No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons.” – Matthew 12:22-24 NLT

But Nicodemus was intrigued. He believed there was something different about Jesus. Unlike his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus believed that the miracles Jesus performed were done by the power of God, not Satan. But Jesus responds to Nicodemus in a rather strange and cryptic manner.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” – John 3:3 ESV

With this rather abrupt statement, Jesus seems to be cutting to the heart of the matter. He knows that Nicodemus has shown up because he is curious to know if Jesus might be the long-awaited Messiah. As a student of the Scriptures, Nicodemus would have expected the arrival of the Messiah to usher in a new age, featuring the much-anticipated revitalization of the kingdom of Israel. Nicodemus seems to have a glimmer of hope that Jesus is the anointed one of God, the Messiah.

But Jesus reveals to Nicodemus a detail about the coming kingdom of God about which he was ignorant. Nicodemus could long for it, but he would never see it unless he was “born again.” The Greek word Jesus used is anōthen, and it can mean “again” or “anew.” But it can also mean “from above” or “from a higher place.” It seems that Jesus had the second meaning in mind, speaking of this new birth as being spiritual in nature. Yet Nicodemus clearly understood Jesus to be talking about a second physical birth, an image that left him scratching his head in confusion.

“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” – John 3:4 ESV

Nicodemus, while a wise and well-educated man, was completely puzzled by the words of Jesus. The condition Jesus had placed upon seeing the kingdom of God was a second birth. It made no sense. It was physically impossible. And what Jesus says next doesn’t seem to help clear up the matter.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. – John 3:5 ESV

Jesus provides a bit more information, but it seems to provide little in the way of clarification. Notice that the focus has shifted from seeing the kingdom of God to actually entering it. The new birth Jesus is speaking about will be the key to anyone entering and enjoying life in the kingdom the Messiah will establish on earth.

Verse 5 has been proved to be a difficult passage to interpret. And there are a number of different views as to what Jesus meant by “water and the Spirit.” In the Greek text, the definite article “the” before “Spirit” is not present. It was added by English translators for clarification. So, verse 5 could be translated, “unless one is born of water and spirit.” The point Jesus seems to be making is that this new birth will be from above and it will involve a spiritual cleansing that makes the recipient worthy of entrance into the kingdom of God.

This imagery of cleansing by the Spirit is found throughout the Old Testament and Nicodemus, as a student of the Scriptures, should have been aware of it.

And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. – Isaiah 4:3-4 ESV

Isaiah went on to talk about a future day when the Spirit of God will be “poured upon us from on high” (Isaiah 32:15 ESV). Even John the Baptist had understood that Jesus was going to bring about a different kind of baptism, one that would include a king of purification that was far from symbolic or ceremonial in nature.

“I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” – Luke 3:16 NLT

Jesus’ reference to “water and spirit” is meant to let Nicodemus know that the kingdom he longs to see will only be occupied by those who have received purification from above. Jesus is not talking about physical birth, but spiritual rebirth or regeneration. The kingdom He will eventually establish on earth will be reserved for those who are righteous and holy, having been cleansed from the stains of their sin by faith in the Son of God. And that day will be in fulfillment of God’s promise recorded by Isaiah.

“Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.” – Isaiah 1:18 NLT

Sensing that Nicodemus was still struggling to understand what He was saying, Jesus provides him with an important point of clarification: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Jesus is informing his learned visitor that there are two types of birth – one physical and one spiritual. Nicodemus had already experienced the first, but he was in need of the second. And it was going to require belief. But there would have to be more to that belief than simply an acknowledgment that Jesus was a teacher sent from God.

Nicodemus, like every other Jew of his day, thought of the kingdom of God in physical terms only. It would be a literal kingdom ruled by a literal king who would sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem. And, as far as he understood, entrance into that kingdom was reserved for all those who could claim to be a descendant of Abraham. Nicodemus believed he had an inherited right to the kingdom God due to his birth into the line of Abraham. But Jesus is letting him know that there was going to be another birth required – a new birth – a birth from above.

Nicodemus, like every other Pharisee, took great pride in his position and viewed himself as one of the spiritual elite of Israel. But Jesus was breaking the news that his flowing robes, biblical knowledge, sterling reputation, and longing for the kingdom of God would not be enough to guarantee his entrance into the coming kingdom of God.

Jesus knew that this information had left his visitor perplexed so, He told him, “don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8 NLT).

The things Jesus was describing to Nicodemus were virtually impossible for him to comprehend. Like the wind, the ways of God are invisible and imperceptible. You can hear the wind, but you can’t see it. You can feel the wind, but you can control it. And the new birth Jesus is attempting to describe to Nicodemus is just as impossible to understand. Without the illuminating and regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, Nicodemus would remain incapable of understanding the nature of the new birth and his need for it. And his continued confusion is illustrated by his response: “How can these things be?” (John 3:9 ESV).

But Jesus will go on to answer that question with a clear and concise explanation of how sinful men and women can be made right with God and gain access into His kingdom and presence. And it will all be through belief in God’s Son.

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

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

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

No Comparison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But As For Me

1 Woe is me! For I have become
    as when the summer fruit has been gathered,
    as when the grapes have been gleaned:
there is no cluster to eat,
    no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.
The godly has perished from the earth,
    and there is no one upright among mankind;
they all lie in wait for blood,
    and each hunts the other with a net.
Their hands are on what is evil, to do it well;
    the prince and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul;
    thus they weave it together.
The best of them is like a brier,
    the most upright of them a thorn hedge.
The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come;
    now their confusion is at hand.
Put no trust in a neighbor;
    have no confidence in a friend;
guard the doors of your mouth
    from her who lies in your arms;
for the son treats the father with contempt,
    the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
    a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.
But as for me, I will look to the Lord;
    I will wait for the God of my salvation;
    my God will hear me.
– Micah 7:1-7 ESV

Serving as one of God’s prophets could be a difficult and thankless task. You were required to faithfully deliver God’s message, condemning His people for their sin and calling them to repentance. And few of the prophets were welcomed with open arms or receptive ears. In most cases, they were despised for their efforts and often, physically abused for attempting to save the people from the coming judgment of God.

These men were not automatons, heartless robots who mindlessly mouthed the words of God. They were not devoid of feeling and they received no joy in having to call out their brothers and sisters for their apostasy and spiritual adultery.

And as Micah begins to wrap up the book that bears his name, he shares his own sense of heartache and despair as he assesses the situation in Judah. He describes the current spiritual condition among his people as fruitless. It’s a scene of barrenness, with not a single cluster of grapes or a solitary fig to be found. Rather than enjoying the blessings of God and the spiritual abundance He had promised, they are living in a time of spiritual famine. They are reaping the God-ordained consequences for their disobedience. He had warned them what would happen if they failed to keep His commands.

“You will plant much but harvest little, for locusts will eat your crops. You will plant vineyards and care for them, but you will not drink the wine or eat the grapes, for worms will destroy the vines. You will grow olive trees throughout your land, but you will never use the olive oil, for the fruit will drop before it ripens.” – Deuteronomy 28:38-40 NLT

The psalmist paints a very different picture, describing how God had uprooted the people of Israel from Egypt and replanted them in the land of Canaan. He had greatly blessed and prospered them, facilitating and cultivating their growth into a mighty nation.

You brought us from Egypt like a grapevine;
    you drove away the pagan nations and transplanted us into your land.
You cleared the ground for us,
    and we took root and filled the land.
Our shade covered the mountains;
    our branches covered the mighty cedars.
We spread our branches west to the Mediterranean Sea;
    our shoots spread east to the Euphrates River. – Psalm 80:8-11 NLT

Yet the psalmist goes on to reveal the sad outcome of Israel’s disobedience.

But now, why have you broken down our walls
    so that all who pass by may steal our fruit?
The wild boar from the forest devours it,
    and the wild animals feed on it. – Psalm 80:12-13 NLT

Micah is writing before the actual fall of Judah and Jerusalem. What he describes in these verses is the scene taking place around him as he completes his prophetic message and awaits the coming judgment of God. And you can sense his deep despair through the hyperbolic, overly-exaggerated he employs.

The godly people have all disappeared;
    not one honest person is left on the earth. – Micah 7:2 NLT

From Micah’s vantage point, the land of Judah appears to have been completely overrun by the godless and the unrighteous. Everywhere he looks he sees the indisputable evidence of their wickedness. And he is unrelenting in his assessment of his countrymen, describing them as murderers who have developed an uncanny capacity to commit evil with both hands. They can sin equally well with either their right or their left hand. In other words, they have no limits or restrictions on their sinfulness.

The officials and judges use their positions to demand bribes. Those with influence and power distort justice for their own advantage. The standard for righteousness has fallen so low that Micah describes the best among them as nothing more than briars and thorn bushes. In other words, they’re worthless.

And Micah warns that “The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come” (Micah 7:4 ESV). God’s punishment was eminent and the watchmen stationed on the walls of Jerusalem would soon be declaring the arrival of the Babylonian army. And with their arrival, the wicked within the walls of the city would be thrown into confusion and dismay, wondering how this terrible tragedy could be happening to them. Those who had rejected Micah’s call to repentance would soon be calling out in despair, begging God to rescue them from the very judgment He had warned was coming.

The people of Judah had refused to trust Micah and his message from God. So, he warns them that now the time has come when they will no longer be able to trust anyone.

Don’t trust anyone—
    not your best friend or even your wife!
For the son despises his father.
    The daughter defies her mother.
The daughter-in-law defies her mother-in-law.
    Your enemies are right in your own household! – Micah 7:5-6 NLT

It will be every man and woman for themselves. In fear and desperation, people will turn on one another. The abuse described in verses 2-4 will become widespread and impossible to escape. The Babylonians will lay siege to the city, slowly starving the residents within its walls and producing an atmosphere of civil unrest and rampant self-preservation. And we have ample descriptions of just how badly things eventually got inside Jerusalem.

So the city was besieged till the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. – 2 Kings 25:2-3 ESV

The prophet Jeremiah provides a vivid portrait of the suffering that took place within the city of Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege.

The parched tongues of their little ones
    stick to the roofs of their mouths in thirst.
The children cry for bread,
    but no one has any to give them.

The people who once ate the richest foods
    now beg in the streets for anything they can get.
Those who once wore the finest clothes
    now search the garbage dumps for food. – Lamentations 4:4-5 NLT

Their skin sticks to their bones;
    it is as dry and hard as wood.

Those killed by the sword are better off
    than those who die of hunger.
Starving, they waste away
    for lack of food from the fields. – Lamentations 4:8-9 NLT

Things were bad in Judah, and they were only going to get worse. The stubbornness of the people was going to result in the judgment of God, and it would be unrelenting and, ultimately, unbearable. Their refusal to hear and obey Micah’s call to repentance would cost them dearly. The years of fruitfulness they had enjoyed as a result of God’s grace would be replaced with decades of barrenness and spiritual famine.

And yet, in the midst of all the apostasy and spiritual adultery, Micah is able to remain committed to his God. He maintains his hope in the saving power of God Almighty.

But as for me, I will look to the Lord;
    I will wait for the God of my salvation;
    my God will hear me. – Micah 7:7 ESV

Micah may have felt like he was surrounded by wickedness and devoid of spiritual companionship, but he knew he was not alone. God was with him. And while no one else seemed willing to wait upon the Lord, Micah was going to place his hope in God, waiting confidently for His salvation. When Micah looked around him, all he saw was evidence of faithlessness. But when he looked up, he saw a faithful, covenant-keeping God who was committed to finishing what He started, doing what He promised, and answering the cries of His repentant people.

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