Fatalism Versus Faithfulness

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.

17 The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good. Ecclesiastes 9:7-18 ESV

According to Solomon’s way of seeing things, there are two things that can make a man’s life miserable and meaningless: Time and chance. He makes that point clear in verse 11.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. – Ecclesiastes 9:11 ESV

From his experience, these two things played irrefutable roles in the lives of men, determining their destinies far more often than ability, intelligence, or preparedness. Solomon supports his assertion with a series of observations about life.

The fastest runner doesn’t always win.

The most powerful army isn’t always the victor.

Wisdom won’t necessarily put food on the table.

A surplus of intelligence doesn’t guarantee wealth or success.

And those with know-how aren’t always appreciated or given a chance to show what they know.

Sometimes it’s all in the timing, or it’s simply a matter of chance. Things just happen. The faster runner trips and falls, leaving a slower runner to win the race. The smarter one fails to get the job. The one lacking discernment gets the promotion. It’s like a grand cosmic crap shoot, where no one knows what the outcome will be. It just happens. So, once again, Solomon offers up the sage advice to “So go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne!” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-8 NLT).

As noted in an earlier post,, this is not a recommendation to embrace unbridled hedonism or to spend your days in a drunken stupor. It is counsel designed to encourage the enjoyment of what you already have – your job, spouse, children, and life. Solomon knew what it was like to spend his life in pursuit of what he didn’t have. He had an abundance of God-given wisdom, but he was never satisfied. He had plenty of houses, but he kept building more. He had hundreds of wives and concubines but his harem continued to grow. He spent so much time adding to his already overstocked life, that he never took time to enjoy all that he had. So, writing the book of Ecclesiastes at the end of his life, he passed on what he had learned: Enjoy what you have while you have it because no one knows what tomorrow holds. In a sense, he is telling us to stop and smell the roses. And his advice is supported by a story Jesus told His disciples.

Then he told them a story: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’ Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’

“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” – Luke 12:16-21 NLT

There is a danger in always living with our hopes set on tomorrow. This doesn’t preclude planning for the future, but if we do plan, we should not short-change the present day. None of us know what tomorrow holds. In that sense, Solomon is right. But notice the emphasis behind the story Jesus told. His point is that the man in the story was neglecting his relationship with God. He found his significance and satisfaction in material things. And it was only when he thought he had enough, that he believed he would be able to enjoy life. There is a certain dissatisfaction and discontentment portrayed in the man’s decision-making. And that same problem seemed to have plagued Solomon.

But in his latter years, Solomon appears to have learned the lesson of being satisfied with what he had. He recommends seeing your spouse as a gift from God and a reward for all your hard work in this life. He strongly advises that we take time to enjoy good food, the feel of clean clothes, and the fragrance of fine perfume. But there remains a certain sense of nagging pessimism in his words.

Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom. – Ecclesiastes 9:10 NLT

In other words, this is all there is., so enjoy it while you can. Because once you’re dead, you won’t get the opportunity again. Solomon never qualifies or clarifies his views on the hereafter, but he gives a distinct impression that he prefers the here-and-now. All his emphasis is on what he can see, touch, and feel. He was a man driven by his senses. The pursuit of pleasure was important to him. Enjoyment was a high priority for him. And he seemed to operate on the premise that death would bring all of that to an abrupt stop.

So, he learned to live in the present, taking in all that he could while there was still time. And what drove that mentality was the recognition that “man does not know his time” (Ecclesiastes 9:12 ESV). He compares man to a fish caught in a net or a bird trapped in a snare. When we least expect it, our end comes. Which led Solomon to resort to his quest for immediate gratification. He seems to have lived his life based on the old Schlitz Brewing Company slogan from the mid-1960s: “You only go around once in life, so you’ve got to grab for all the gusto you can.”

But as Jesus warned, what a waste of time if you don’t seek a right relationship with God.

Solomon next provides us with a real-life example of wisdom on display, but unappreciated. He tells the story of a city that was besieged by a powerful army. The citizens of the city were few in number and their fate seemed sealed. But help and hope came from an unexpected source: A poor wise man.

There was a small town with only a few people, and a great king came with his army and besieged it. A poor, wise man knew how to save the town, and so it was rescued. – Ecclesiastes 9:14-15 NLT

Notice Solomon’s emphasis. The man was wise but poor. Remember Solomon’s earlier point: “The wise sometimes go hungry.” And yet, this impoverished man’s wisdom saved the day. Solomon doesn’t explain how, but this man used his wisdom to rescue the city from destruction. And yet, his efforts went unrecognized and unrewarded.

But afterward no one thought to thank him. – Ecclesiastes 9:15 NLT

So Solomon concludes: “even though wisdom is better than strength, those who are wise will be despised if they are poor. What they say will not be appreciated for long” (Ecclesiastes 9:16 NLT).

The plight of poverty trumps wisdom. The man saved the day but went to bed that night still poor and forgotten. And what insight does Solomon provide us from this story?

So even though wisdom is better than strength, those who are wise will be despised if they are poor. What they say will not be appreciated for long. – Ecclesiastes 9:16 NLT

Wisdom could be beneficial but it couldn’t guarantee food on the table or replace the stigma of poverty. Yet Solomon warns that it’s better to listen to one man speaking quiet words of wisdom, than to the shouts of a powerful king who rules over fools. The citizens of the besieged city had been saved because they listened to the wisdom of a poor man. But once victory was assured, they turned their back on the one whose wisdom had saved them. And Solomon reaches a rather sad conclusion. While wisdom is more beneficial than weapons, it just takes one sinner to destroy all the good that wisdom brings. There was a good chance that the city’s victory celebration would end up being short-lived due to the sinful actions of a single fool.

Once again, you can sense Solomon’s cynicism. The advice of the wise isn’t always heeded. Their efforts aren’t always appreciated. And it only takes one foolish, unrighteous sinner to undermine all the efforts of the wise.

You can see why Solomon repeatedly went back to the recommendation: Eat, drink and be merry. To him, the world was controlled by time and chance. Man is the unwilling occupant of a canoe hurtling through rapids without a paddle. The best he can do is hang on and enjoy the scenes along the way. He knows there’s probably a less-than-pleasant ending around every bend, but he has no way of knowing when it will come. So, Solomon had determined that the best thing to do was to sit back and enjoy the ride. But what a defeatist attitude.

Yes, there is some value in living for the moment. There is truth in Solomon’s assessment that the strong don’t always win and the fastest runner doesn’t always come in first. But the apostle Paul would strongly disagree with Solomon’s assessment, arguing instead: “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win!” (1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT). And he supports that argument even further in his letter to the church in Philippi.

I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things. – Philippians 3:14-15 NLT

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

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

The Heart of the Matter

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. Ecclesiastes 2:12-26 ESV

I’m sure there was a day when Solomon was fun to be around, but at this point in his life, he comes across as a pessimistic, old curmudgeon who has long lost the capacity to smile. His gloomy rhetoric portrays him as a glass-half-empty kind of guy. But it might be more accurate to say that his glass is bone dry and his temperament is dark and depressing. But he still has his wisdom and the ability to see things that many of us tend to miss. And recognizing his responsibility as the “preacher” or speaker in the assembly, Solomon deigned to share his somewhat somber life lessons with others. Which is the whole reason he took the time to write this book.

Solomon seemed to believe that his role as king, equipped with virtually unlimited resources, unbridled autonomy, and unparalleled wisdom, placed him in a unique position to investigate the true meaning of life. So, he did. And he did so with all his heart, expending a great deal of time, money, and energy in his pursuit. In fact, Solomon repeatedly refers to his heart throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. He mentions it no less than eight times in this chapter alone.

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” – vs 1

I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom – vs 3

I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. – vs 10

Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. – vs 15

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun – vs 20

For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. – vs 23

While Solomon talks a great deal about the pursuit of pleasure, the accumulation of possessions, and his many accomplishments and acquisitions, the real focus of his attention is the state of his own heart. Everything he did in life was meant to fill the void that existed there. His focus on external remedies was an attempt to address an internal problem. But he discovered that they were all like mist, fleeting and ephemeral. They brought temporary relief and short-lived satisfaction, but could never address his real problem: The spiritual condition of his heart.

Solomon even viewed the wisdom given to him by God as an insufficient and inadequate resource for addressing his heart problem. From his perspective, he could spend a lifetime using his wisdom to accomplish great good and for achieving noble goals, but when he died, he would leave it all behind, never knowing if his successor would be wise or foolish.

I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 ESV

All his accomplishments, regardless of how significant or praiseworthy, would be left in the hands of another. His wealth, possessions, palace, and even his concubines, would become the possession of someone else. And this thought cast a dark shadow over all of Solomon’s many successes.

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. – Ecclesiastes 2:20-21 ESV

And his conclusion was simple: “This also is vanity and a great evil.

Solomon is not downplaying the significance of hard work or achievement, and he is not suggesting that we simply avoid work altogether. He is addressing the need to live life with a recognition that our time on this earth is limited and we have little to no control over our own destiny. That is why he spends such much time discussing the inevitable futility of life lived under the sun. Generation after generation comes and goes, and the only thing that remains is the earth itself. The sun rises and sets, in a never-ending cycle, and man disappears from the face of the earth in a similar manner, never to be seen again.

All of this led Solomon to conclude: “So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 NLT).

We have to be careful when interpreting the meaning behind Solomon’s words. They can come across as defeatist in tone. He sounds like a man who has thrown up his hands in despair and resigned himself to simply endure life until he dies. But notice what he says: “I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 NLT).

This is one of the few times Solomon has mentioned God up to this point. He recognizes that the joy and pleasures of life are a gift from God, to be enjoyed and appreciated. Solomon is not a fatalist, proposing that we simply give up and fill up our lives with the mindless pursuit of pleasure. He is a realist, who is attempting to share his painful life lessons with others. He is preaching a message that promotes finding enjoyment in the things God has graciously given to mankind. We are to enjoy them, but not worship them. We are to experience pleasure from them, but not make them the source of our pleasure. This perspective was echoed by James. 

Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. – James 1:17 NLT

In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, Derek Kidner shares a powerful insight into Solomon’s message, revealing that the danger we all face is the temptation to worship the gifts more than the Giver, to seek satisfaction from the things of life, instead of the Creator of life.

“. . . in themselves, and rightly used, the basic things of life are sweet and good. Food, drink and work are samples of them, and Qoheleth will remind us of others [cf. 9:7-10; 11:7-10]. What spoils them is our hunger to get out of them more than they can give; a symptom of the longing which differentiates us from the beasts, but whose misdirection is the underlying theme of this book.” – Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance

Solomon ends this chapter with what he believes to be an insight into the ways of God.

God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. – Ecclesiastes 2:26 NLT

Solomon believed that God rewarded those who pleased Him. He shared the commonly held view of his day that God blessed those who were faithful to Him, even taking what belonged to the wicked and giving it to the godly. According to this way of thinking, all the rewards of a life lived well were to be enjoyed in the here-and-now. We get our rewards in this life. And for Solomon, this was further proof of the futility of it all. Even if you worked hard, it really didn’t matter because God could simply take what was yours and give it to someone He deemed as more worthy.

But Solomon failed to recognize what the author of Hebrews understood.

…without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. – Hebrews 11:6 NLT

Yes, God rewards those who believe in Him and who seek to draw near to Him. But that reward has little to do with this life. It involves the life to come. While God does shower us with many blessings and graciously allows us to enjoy all the pleasures that come with life under the sun, our greatest reward lies in the distant future. Solomon had lost sight of that fact and had immersed himself in a never-ending pursuit of immediate significance and satisfaction. He wanted it all and he wanted it now. But no matter how hard he worked and how much he achieved, he always came to the same disappointing conclusion: “This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind.

In his head, Solomon was convinced that satisfaction could only be found in the things of this world. But nothing could fill the void in his heart. Even the temporal blessings of God were unfulfilling because they could be lost or would eventually be left behind. But Solomon was learning the painful yet crucial lesson that nothing would ever fill the God-shaped hole in his heart.

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

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

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

The Faithful Few

13 “Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ 14 You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? 15 And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”

16 Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. 17 “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. 18 Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. – Malachi 3:13-18 ESV

The returned exiles found life in Judah difficult and far below their expectations as God’s chosen people. After having made the arduous journey from Babylon to their former homeland, things had not turned out quite as they had hoped. From their perspective, God had not done His part, having left them relatively defenseless and struggling to make ends meet while the nations around them prospered and threatened their very existence.

As a result, they had taken matters into their own hands, compromising their convictions by worshiping the false gods of their pagan neighbors. They defended their actions as just and necessary, even convincing themselves that they were better off because of the things they had done. To them, God was part of the problem, because they believed His laws to be too restrictive and any attempt to keep them to be far from beneficial.

“What’s the use of serving God? What have we gained by obeying his commands or by trying to show the Lord of Heaven’s Armies that we are sorry for our sins?” – Malachi 3:14 NLT

This attitude led them to minimize their need for obedience or repentance. They refused to alter their behavior or even admit that they were out of step with God’s will. Instead, they arrogantly boasted about their decision to live their lives in a way that was antithetical to the commands of God.

“From now on we will call the arrogant blessed. For those who do evil get rich, and those who dare God to punish them suffer no harm.” – Malachi 3:15 NLT

They had come to the conclusion that God was either powerless to do anything about their behavior or altogether indifferent as to what was going on in Judah. Having wrongly determined that God was not keeping His end of the covenant agreement, they had chosen to go their own way. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

But years earlier, God had delivered a powerful indictment against such flawed thinking. This was not the first time that the people of Israel had decided to establish a code of conduct that was diametrically opposed to God’s law. Long before God brought the Babylonians to destroy Judah, He had warned His people about their arrogant tendency to establish their own standard of righteousness.

What sorrow for those who say
    that evil is good and good is evil,
that dark is light and light is dark,
    that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
    and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:20-21 NLT

Spiritually speaking, things were looking bleak in Judah. But according to Malachi, things were not yet hopeless. He indicates that there were a faithful few who remained committed to maintaining their covenant relationship with Yahweh. Evidently, this righteous remnant regularly met together to encourage and motivate one another to remain faithful. While everyone around them was compromising their convictions and joining in the spiritual apostasy of the prevailing culture, these few were determined to stand their ground in the face of overwhelming odds. And God took notice.

God was anything but indifferent or distant. He heard their discussions and took note of their plight. And Malachi indicates that He had each of their names recorded for posterity.

In his presence, a scroll of remembrance was written to record the names of those who feared him and always thought about the honor of his name. – Malachi 3:16 NLT

These people stood out from the crowd. They were outliers in the midst of a nation that had sold out and given in to moral compromise. While everyone else was calling evil good and good evil, this small contingent of believers remained dedicated to God, choosing to show Him reverence and honor by living according to His will rather than their own. They too were suffering, but they refused to blame God. Their lives were just as difficult as anyone else’s, but they were unwilling to turn their backs on God or blame their circumstances on Him. He had repeatedly proven Himself to be faithful and they were willing to continue placing their trust in Him.

And God responded, “They will be my people” (Malachi 3:17 NLT). Having recorded their names in His scroll of remembrance, God assures that their faithfulness will not be forgotten or go unrewarded. He doesn’t promise immediate deliverance or a timely display of compensatory blessings. No, He indicates that their reward will come in the form of deliverance on the coming day of judgment.

“On the day when I act in judgment, they will be my own special treasure. I will spare them as a father spares an obedient child. – Malachi 3:17 NLT

Malachi opened this chapter with a reminder from God concerning the coming “messenger of the covenant,” stating, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2 ESV).

And God vowed that, in that coming day of judgment, He will hold the people of Israel accountable for their actions. Their conduct will be exposed, judged, and condemned.

“At that time I will put you on trial. I am eager to witness against all sorcerers and adulterers and liars. I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive the foreigners living among you of justice, for these people do not fear me.” – Malachi 3:5 NLT

God is warning of a future day of retribution and reward that will take place at the second coming of Christ. The tiny remnant who honored and revered His name in the face of growing opposition will stand before God and be rewarded for their faithfulness. But all those who chose to treat His law with disdain and dishonor the holiness of His name will be held accountable.

Before His death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus provided His disciples with a vivid description of His return and the day of judgment that will take place for all mankind, Jew and Gentile alike.

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

There will be a separating of the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the unrighteous. This judgment will not involve those who came to faith in Christ after His ascension. But it will include all the Old Testament saints and everyone else who has lived since the beginning of time. That small remnant of faithful Yahweh followers will be included in the vast crowds that will stand before the Lord. And they will find that their names have been recorded in God’s scroll of remembrance, deeming them free from condemnation and worthy of the reward of eternal life.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.’” – Matthew 25:34 NLT

The key differentiator between the sheep and the goats will be their behavior. But it will not be their behavior that saves them. It will be their faith in God as illustrated by their willingness to live in keeping with His will. These individuals will have displayed a trust in God that manifested itself in a selfless display of care and concern for others. Rather than putting their own needs first, they will have sacrificed their security and comfort for the benefit of others. These people are the ones who offered the full amount of their tithes and offerings so that all the oppressed among them, including the widows, orphans, and foreigners might be cared for. And that is exactly what Jesus describes in His depiction of the day of judgment.

“For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” – Matthew 25:35-40 NLT

The righteous remnant will be rewarded. Not because they have a righteousness of their own, but a righteousness based on their faith in the promises of God. Their unfailing belief that God was faithful and true motivated them to live their lives in keeping with His commands and trusting in His future reward.

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

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

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

The Promise Maker

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15-1-6 ESV

Abram has just received a blessing from Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God.

Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
    Creator of heaven and earth. – Genesis 14:19 NLT

Sometime after his encounter with the king-priest Melchizedek, God provided his servant with a confirmation and explanation of that blessing in the form of a vision. The Most High God referred to Himself as Abram’s shield or protector. In the same way that Abram had protected and delivered his nephew Lot during his time of captivity, God would be Abram’s defender and deliverer. And while Abram had turned down the king of Sodom’s offer of all the plunder taken from Sodom, he could be certain that God would reward him with something of far greater value.

One of the questions this passage raises is why God opened up His address to Abram with the words, “Fear not.” What was it that Abram feared? Some believe that, upon receiving an unexpected vision of the Most High God, Abram was filled with fear and awe. This would have been a normal and natural reaction to such an encounter with God. When Moses was given a vision of God in the form of a burning bush, “he hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6 ESV).

But based on the context of chapter 14, it makes more sense to see Abram’s fear as horizontal in nature, rather than vertical. Due to his victory over the four Mesopotamian kings, Abram had just made himself some powerful enemies. Not only that, by displaying his military might, he had inadvertently placed a target on his back. Whether he liked it or not, he was the new sheriff in town and everyone would be gunning for him. Abram was essentially a shepherd and not a warrior, and the thought that his enemies might seek retribution on him and his household was keeping him up at night. So, God assured his fearful servant that he had nothing to worry about. Abram could rest in the knowledge that God would protect and provide for him. It is the same message that God would give to Abram’s descendants centuries later.

“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10 NLT

Abram’s response to God’s words of comfort and encouragement is less than confident.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” – Genesis 15:2 NLT

With this statement, Abram reveals that his greatest fear was that of failure. He knew that God had promised to bless him. He couldn’t stop thinking about the words God had spoken when he was still living in Haran.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV

Abram had been 75-years-old when God made that promise. And now, years later, he had only grown older and his wife’s fertility problem had not improved. All the way back in Genesis 11:30, Moses had disclosed the sad state of Sarai’s reproductive health: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.”

All of these factors weighed heavily on Abram’s mind. Based on the circumstances, he could see no way that God’s promise could ever come to fruition. Abram had resigned himself to the fact that one of his household servants would end up as his heir. He informed God about the desperate nature of his situation and even blamed Him for it.

You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.” – Genesis 15:3 NLT

It appears that Abram was growing impatient. During his time in the land of Canaan, he had seen his financial prospects improve. He had grown rich and his herds had grown in number. And here was God promising to shower him with further rewards. But what difference would it make if he had no one to whom he could leave his great wealth?

It’s not difficult to ascertain how Abram had assessed his situation and come up with a possible solution. He had given up on Sarai ever giving birth to a son, and had assumed that they would end up adopting one of their household servants as their son and making him the rightful heir to their estate. There had probably been a time when Abram had believed Lot, his nephew, would be the logical choice. But there had been a fallout between the two of them. So, at this point, Abram had determined that his heir would end up being Eliezer of Damascus.

What is ironic about Abram’s conclusion is that Eliezer’s name means “God is help.” Yet, it would appear that Abram was the one who was attempting to help God. He was offering God a logical solution to the whole fruitlessness problem. Abram was willing to settle for less. He was willing to accept a foreign-born “member” of his house as his heir rather than wait on God to do the impossible. But God had other plans. He was not going to compromise. And Sarai’s barrenness was not going to be a problem. So, God gently but firmly broke the news to Abram.

“No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.” – Genesis 15:4 NLT

In essence, God said, “Thanks for the tip, but no!” The Creator-God didn’t need Abram’s help or advice. If anything, Eliezer’s presence in Abram’s house was meant to be a constant reminder that “God is help.” Eliezer wasn’t intended to be the solution. No, every time Abram said Eliezer’s name, it should have reminded him that God was the solution. And to stress the miraculous nature of His promise, God took Abram outside and told him to “look up into the sky and count the stars if you can” (Genesis 15:5 NLT). Then, as Abram stood staring up into the night sky, overwhelmed by the sheer number of stars, God boldly proclaimed, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” (Genesis 15:5 NLT).

This was not the first time Abram had heard such an outlandish prediction from God. Earlier, when Abram had separated from Lot, God had assured him that all the land of Canaan would be his and that land would be filled with his descendants.

I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! – Genesis 13:16 NLT

This blessing would not come through Eliezer or any other substitute. God had promised to give Abram a son, and He was well aware of Sarai’s barrenness. In fact, as the sovereign God of the universe, her barrenness had been part of His plan all along. The improbability and impossibility of it all had been baked into the cake. God wanted Abram to understand that everything about this promise would be miraculous and supernatural.

And then Moses adds a somewhat surprising conclusion. Despite all of Abram’s former doubts and fears, he “believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith” (Genesis 15:6 NLT). Suddenly, Abram’s mental state went from doubt to assurance. He went from trying to help God out to having hope in God’s promise. His confidence in God grew deeper and richer.

It’s interesting to note that Abram had always believed that God would give him an heir. His doubts had been focused on the means by which God would fulfill that promise. He had been hung up on Sarai’s barrenness. That’s why he had come up with what he believed to be an acceptable and logical alternative solution. But now, his belief focused in on the power of God to accomplish the impossible. He went from believing in the promise to believing in the God who made the promise. And there is a huge difference.

In the great “Hall of Faith” found in chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, the author states, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV). Abram was learning that his faith in God was the key to the promise of God. That does not mean that faith is what determines our reward, but that faith or belief in God is the means by which we appropriate the promises of God. We have to believe, trust in, and place our confidence in the God behind the promise.

The author of Hebrews goes on to explain how Abram displayed faith in God. And he describes how Abram’s faith developed and deepened over time until it influenced even his wife, Sarai.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. – Hebrews 11:8-12 ESV

Moses declares that God counted or credited Abram’s faith as righteousness. Abram was justified or made right with God because he chose to believe and trust, not only in the promises of God but in the God behind the promises. Abram had transferred his hope in the promise to the divine promise maker. And the author of Hebrews goes on to point out that faith in the God of the promise is what sets His people apart. Whether a child of God ever sees the promise fulfilled in their lifetime, they will continue to trust in the word and reliability of the promise maker.

All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. – Hebrews 11:39 NLT

Abram would eventually see a son born to his barren wife. But he would never own any land in Canaan. He would never live to see the day when his descendants, as numerous as the stars in the sky, would occupy that land. But he would continue to believe that His God was good and could be trusted to do what He promised, whether Abram lived to see it or not. That is the essence of faith.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1 ESV

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

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

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

The Heights of Humility

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:5-7 ESV

The church needs godly leadership. So, Peter called on the elders of the local congregations in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia to step up and do their God-appointed duty well.

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. – 1 Peter 5:2 NLT

But Peter knew it was almost impossible to lead those who refused to follow. That’s why he turned his attention to the members of those local congregations and urged them to live lives of humble submission and obedience, graciously and willingly submitting themselves to their elders and to one another. And he began by addressing the young men who, in every generation, sometimes find submission to authority to be a difficult and distasteful proposition. Naturally headstrong and strongly independent, young men inherently desire to come out from under the authority of their elders. They want to sow their oats, captain their own ship, and operate as the masters of their own fates. But Peter challenged them to “accept the authority of the elders” (1 Peter 5:5 NLT).

Peter knew that the health of the church was dependent upon the willingness of its members to lovingly submit to one another. There was no place for competition within the body of Christ. While the church requires a God-ordained hierarchy of leadership, there is no excuse for attitudes of superiority or favoritism. Paul addressed the unique nature of the body of Christ in his first letter to believers living  in the city of Corinth.

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 12:12 NLT

He went on to use the human body as an apt illustration of the spiritual body of Christ – the church.

Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything? – 1 Corinthians 12:14-17 NLT

Each part of the body is necessary and serves its own unique purpose. It is only as they function in harmony that they all enjoy the mutual benefits inherent in their relationship. And the same is true of the church. That is why Paul insisted, “our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it” (1 Corinthians 12:18 NLT). Yes, there are those who are designated as elder and teachers, but that does not mean they have greater value or worth. It is as each member of the body of Christ learns to utilize its unique attributes for the benefit of the whole, that the church grows and thrives. And Paul insisted that it was all of God’s divine plan.

So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. – 1 Corinthians 12:24-25 NLT

Having addressed the younger generation within the church, Peter expanded the circumference of his message by including every “part” of the body.

…all of you, dress yourselves in humility as you relate to one another, for

“God opposes the proud
    but gives grace to the humble.” – 1 Peter 5:5 NLT

According to Peter, every member of a local congregation had the responsibility to adorn themselves with an attitude of humility. No one was to view themselves as irreplaceable or indispensable. An elder, while holding a leadership position within the body of Christ, was expected to be a servant of all. Every individual within a local fellowship was to maintain a humble evaluation of themselves. The apostle Paul put it a bit more bluntly.

I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. – Romans 12:3-5 NLT

Peter was paraphrasing Proverbs 3:34 when he wrote “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” And James did the same thing in the letter that bears his name.

As the Scriptures say,

“God opposes the proud
    but gives grace to the humble.”

So humble yourselves before God. – James 4:6-7 NLT

Humility is a non-negotiable characteristic of a Christ-follower. That’s why Paul told the believers in Philippi:

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. – Philippians 2:3-5 NLT

And Paul went on to describe exactly what kind of attitude Jesus had.

…he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:7-8 NLT

Jesus was the Son of God and, yet, He did not think of Himself as too good to take on human flesh and live among sinful humanity. The co-creator of the entire universe willingly left His Father’s side and entered this world as the servant of all. He was the suffering servant and the good shepherd, who laid down His life for the sheep. And we are to follow His example. we are to share His mindset of humility and selfless service.

And with Jesus as the prime example, Peter urges his readers: “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor” (1 Peter 5:6 NLT). Slaves who submitted to their masters, wives who lived in loving submission to their husbands, husbands who submissively and sacrificially served their wives, and individual Christians who willingly submitted to one another would each be submitting to God. And He would eventually reward them just as He had rewarded His Son. Which is exactly what Paul had written about our humble and selfless Savior.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:9-11 NLT

As Peter states earlier, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. His grace is our reward. The grace of the gospel, made possible by the selfless sacrifice of Jesus rewards us with salvation, forgiveness, sanctification, and, ultimately, our future glorification. We can look forward to a future reward that will include eternal life in His unshakeable Kingdom.

Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. – Hebrews 12:28 NLT

Peter wanted his readers to live humbly, sacrificially, selflessly, and expectantly. Yes, they would suffer in this life. And yes, they were expected to live submissively in this life. And yet, one day, their humility will be richly rewarded.

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

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

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

 

Timeless Tips On Social Etiquette

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” – Luke 14:7-14 ESV

Jesus is attending a dinner party hosted by a ruler of the Pharisees. The dinner just happened to be scheduled for the Sabbath and it just happened that a man who suffered from dropsy was also on the invitation list. That the host of the party invited a ceremonially unclean man into his home on the Sabbath seems a bit odd, and gives the appearance that the whole affair was a setup. The dinner invite was simply another attempt by the religious leaders to entrap Jesus. They were hoping Jesus would violate the Sabbath laws by healing the man, and He did not disappoint. But before performing the miracle, Jesus asked the host and his fellow Pharisees to give their legal opinion on the matter.

“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” – Luke 14:3 ESV

When they refused to answer His question, Jesus revealed His own opinion on the matter by graciously delivering the man from his dreaded disease. Then, after sending the man away, Jesus turned His attention to the other guests who had also received invitations to the dinner. Luke makes it clear that the room was filled with “lawyers and Pharisees” (Luke 14:3 ESV), who had been invited for the sole purpose of serving as “expert” witnesses when Jesus inevitably broke the laws concerning performing work on the Sabbath. Jesus had knowingly given these men the evidence for which they had been looking. But as the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8), Jesus viewed His actions as perfectly acceptable and commendable to God. He was operating according to His Father’s will, and simply emulating His Father’s heart.

“…the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” – John 5:19 NLT

“…my judgment is just, because I carry out the will of the one who sent me, not my own will.” – John 5:30 NLT

Jesus was walking in step with His Heavenly Father. But the same could not be said for the religious leaders who reclined around the table that day. The meal they were sharing with Jesus was about the only point of commonality between them and the Lord of the Sabbath. He was holy, righteous, and in complete alignment with God, while they were marked by hypocrisy, legalism, and stood in direct opposition to the very One whom God had sent.

On an earlier occasion in His ministry, Jesus had been the guest at another meal, this time in the home of Matthew, a notorious tax collector. “But the Pharisees and their teachers of religious law complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with such scum?’” (Luke 5:30 NLT). To which Jesus had 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).

Jesus had chosen to share a meal with Matthew and his fellow tax collectors because they were just the kind of people He had come to save. In fact, Jesus had just called Matthew to be one of His disciples. The only difference between Matthew and the Pharisees who considered him to be scum was the fact that Matthew recognized his sinful state and his desperate need for a Savior. The Pharisees had an overinflated sense of their own spiritual superiority. They looked down on people like Matthew and found Jesus’ decision to associate with him to be evidence of either a lack of discernment or proof of His own sinfulness.

But Jesus was always a step ahead of His enemies. He knew that His healing of the man with dropsy had given them the proof for which they had been looking. But rather than panic and room from the room, Jesus told them a parable. He took advantage of the opportunity to teach His disciples a much-needed lesson in social etiquette. But this was meant to be more than a primer on proper behavior. It was designed to expose the hearts of His accusers. Jesus wanted His disciples to stop admiring the Pharisees and see them for who they really were: egotistical and self-centered social climbers who loved the praises of men more than they cared about pleasing God.

Jesus used the setting of a wedding feast to convey an important lesson regarding pride and humility. Knowing the predisposition of His audience, Jesus warned against seeking the seat of honor at a wedding feast. Doing so, uninvited, could result in embarrassment. Someone who would arrogantly and presumptuously occupy the seat of honor might find themselves publicly humiliated when the host of the feast forced them to give up their seat to a more worthy guest. According to Jesus, humility would be a far better strategy.

“Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, ‘Friend, we have a better place for you!’ Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests.” – Luke 14:10 NLT

And Jesus explains why this strategy made more sense.

“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 14:11 NLT

Like all parables, this simple story had a much more profound lesson contained within it. Jesus was dealing with far more than socially acceptable behavior at a wedding. He was exposing the stubborn refusal of the Pharisees to acknowledge their sin and their need for a Savior. Their pride and arrogance had resulted in an attitude of spiritual superiority. They considered themselves to be the religious elite of Israel, fully deserving of God’s favor and guaranteed a place in His future kingdom. But, according to Jesus, the only fate they could count would be far different than what they expected.

“I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel! And I tell you this, that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven. But many Israelites—those for whom the Kingdom was prepared—will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” – Matthew 8:10-12 NLT

Everyone in the room that day had been jockeying for position. They all wanted to be seen as the most important person in the room. But Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that, in the kingdom, humility was the key to exaltation. And this was a lesson He had been trying to convey to them ever since He delivered His sermon on the mount.

“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,
    for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble,
    for they will inherit the whole earth.” – Matthew 5:3-5 NLT

On that occasion, Jesus had gone on to warn His audience, “unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Matthew 5:20 NLT). The kind of righteousness God was looking for was not performance-based and regulated by strict adherence to some set of moral standards. It began in the heart. And it was based on a humble acknowledgment of one’s sin and the need for a righteousness that was impossible to self-produce.

The actions of the Pharisees were nothing more than attempts at behavior modification. But all their efforts to appear righteous were no more effective than someone who whitewashed a tomb. Despite the outer display of purity, the inside would still be full of death and decay. No attempt at self-manufactured righteousness was going to be enough to earn entrance into God’s Kingdom.

Next, Jesus turned His attention to His host, the ruler of the Pharisees who had put together this sham dinner party. And Jesus gave him a bit of friendly advice designed to expose the true intentions of his heart.

“When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. – Luke 14:12 NLT

This man was a social climber who was always thinking about his status in society. He did nothing out of humility or selflessness. Even his dinner invitations were carefully calculated to enhance his standing within the community. Everything he did was based on its ROI (return on investment). His modus operandi was purely selfish and motivated by greed, not goodness. But Jesus was wired differently. He viewed life as an opportunity to give Himself away. That’s why He said of Himself, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 NLT). And Jesus told this man that a life of humility, service, and sacrifice would be far more rewarding in the long run.

“Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” – Luke 14:13-14 NLT

Once again, this simple message was one the disciples had heard Jesus deliver during His sermon on the mount.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1 NLT

But as will become readily apparent, Jesus’ message would go over the heads of His audience. They would fail to hear what He had to say. The Pharisees and scribes were so motivated by pride and arrogance, that the words of this humble Rabbi from Nazareth would escape them.

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

Committed At All Costs

1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 2 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV

Preach the word.

This three-word summary says it all. Paul greatly desired to hear that his young protégé was faithfully fulfilling his God-ordained commission as a minister of the gospel. Paul had poured his life into Timothy; mentoring and instructing him, and providing his own life as a model of dedication and perseverance. Paul had let nothing deter him from his divine calling and he longed for Timothy to follow his example. For Paul, this was a matter of great importance because he knew his time of ministry was drawing to a close. He was writing from prison in Rome, facing trumped-up, yet serious charges that could result in his death. In the very next verse, Paul states, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6 ESV.

The gospel must continue to be preached and Paul was convinced of Timothy’s role in that divine endeavor. His words are intended to provide Timothy with a gentle, yet sobering boost of moral courage and spiritual conviction. And he provides his words with added weight by using the Father and His Son as witnesses. Paul may have been the one who chose to make Timothy his disciple, but he wanted Timothy to understand that calling was by the sovereign will of God. In the opening lines of his letter, Paul recalled the day when Timothy was ordained. He had placed his hands on his young acolyte, using his apostolic authority to commission him for ministry. But it had been God who poured out His Spirit on Timothy, divinely gifting him for service.

I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands – 2 Timothy 1:6 ESV

And Paul wanted Timothy to know that God and Christ Jesus were both witnesses to his ministry. They had a vested interest in his work because it involved the proclamation of God’s gracious gift of salvation, made possible through the sacrificial death of His Son. The very same Jesus whom Timothy preached as having been resurrected from the dead will one day return and “judge the living and the dead” (2 Timothy 4:1 ESV). Timothy needed to constantly remind himself that Jesus was going to show up a second time and establish His Kingdom on earth. And when He does, all the ungodly, who appear to be prospering and profiting from their immoral behavior in this life, will face judgment at His hands.

With that thought in mind, Timothy was to “Preach the word of God” (2 Timothy 4:1 NLT).  The Greek word Paul used is kēryssō, which means “to herald” or “proclaim.” Knowing that Jesus will one day judge and condemn all those who remain unbelieving, Timothy was obligated to declare the good news of salvation through faith in Christ. He was to preach the gospel boldly and powerfully, motivated by his awareness of its life and death implications.

to officiate as herald; to proclaim after the manner of a herald; always with a suggestion of formality, gravity, and an authority which must be listened to and obeyed – Thayer’s Greek Lexicon

But for Timothy to be effective, he was going to have to “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2 ESV). Timothy could not afford to be a fair-weather preacher. He couldn’t wait until things were more convenient or the atmosphere was more conducive to his message. Regardless of the circumstances he faced, Timothy had to be prepared to preach the word unapologetically, faithfully, and with equal doses of encouragement and correction. Timothy was to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2 ESV).

The danger in preaching the “good news” is that it can easily leave people believing that the Christian life is a trouble-free existence – a kind of heaven on earth. But nothing could be further from the truth. Salvation does not guarantee a lack of trials or suffering in this life. It offers a way to avoid eternal suffering in the life to come. When Jesus promised His disciples life more abundantly (John 10:10), He wasn’t offering them a life filled with ceaseless pleasure, abundant possessions, and perfect health. In fact, He warned them that they could expect just the opposite.

“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time.” – Matthew 10:16-19 NLT

Jesus went on to tell them, “If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39 NLT).

The abundant life is one in which the believer lives with their eyes focused on eternity. The trials and troubles of this life pale in comparison with the joys to come. That’s exactly what Paul meant when he wrote, “what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later” (Romans 8:18 NLT).

So, Timothy was to preach a well-rounded gospel message, clearly communicating the future glories to come, while also warning of the dangers inherent in this present life. Jesus Himself warned that “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62 NLT). The decision to follow Christ is a costly one, requiring the disciple to reprioritize everything else in their life so that nothing competes with or distracts from their calling.

But Paul warns Timothy that not everyone will embrace the Christian life with the level of zeal and unbridled enthusiasm that is required. They’ll confuse the “good news” with the “good life” and demand that their preachers support their wrong assumptions with false messages that replace the truth with pleasant-sounding lies.

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

But while there will always be those who are little more than people-pleasers willing to offer pious-sounding platitudes in place of truth, Timothy was to remain fully committed to God’s Word.

As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. – 2 Timothy 4:5 NLT

Truth-telling and ear-tickling are antithetical. You can’t please God and please people at the same time. A ministry motivated by a desire for popularity and focused on earthly rewards may garner a following and appear successful, but it will be devoid of God’s presence and power. Timothy’s reward would not come in this life. The true measure of his success would be revealed when he stood before the Lord and heard Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23 ESV).

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

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

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

The Last Will Be First, and the First Last

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” –  Matthew 20:1-16 ESV

Jesus ends this section with a familiar refrain: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” It echoes His closing words from chapter 19: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30 ESV). He is still attempting to provide His disciples with further insight into His encounter with the rich young man. Jesus knows they’re struggling with the content of that exchange and can’t quite wrap their minds around what Jesus is trying to tell them.

While they believed the young man’s wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, Jesus had said it was difficult, if not impossible, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. When the disciples had asked, “Who then can be saved?,” Jesus shocked them by replying, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).

The young man had walked away, rather than do as Jesus had commanded. He had been unwilling to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. His love affair with materialism had kept him from following Jesus. The cost was too high. The sacrifice, too great.

Recognizing the angst and anxiety on the faces of His disciples, Jesus tells them a parable. It’s clearly meant to elucidate what He meant by the first will be last and the last first. Jesus uses an easy-to-comprehend scenario from everyday life, intended to illustrate and explain a deeper, more mysterious spiritual reality. The whole purpose behind this parable is to explain life in the kingdom of heaven, and the disciples were going to discover, yet again, that it would not harmonize with their preconceived notions.

It’s essential that we notice that this parable involves the work or efforts of the laborers and the reward given by the landowner. Remember, the rich young man had come to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life. He was thinking in terms of labor or effort in order to gain entrance into God’s kingdom. And when Jesus told him to sell all that he owned and give it to the poor, Jesus was not suggesting that obedience to that one command would provide the man eternal life. He was revealing the true focus of the man’s faith, hope, and security: His wealth.

In Jesus’ story, the landowner went out early in the morning and hired laborers to work in his vineyard, offering each of them a denarius as their wages. And they had all agreed to the conditions of the contract. But throughout the rest of the day, at 9:00 am, Noon, and 5:00 pm, the landowner continued to hire additional workers. In each case, the landowner found men “standing idle in the marketplace” (Matthew 20:3, 6 ESV). And when he asked them why there were not working, the men answered, “Because no one has hired us” (Matthew 20:7 ESV). They had no place to work. They were laborers with nothing to do. But the landowner changed all that. He replaced their idleness with productive activity. They could not create work for themselves. They owned no vineyard of their own. They were at the mercy of the one who owned the vineyard.

When the workday came to an end, the landowner called all the men together in order to compensate them for their labor. This is where the main point behind the parable appears. The landowner paid every man a denarius, regardless of how long they had worked. If you look closely at the parable, the landowner had only told the original group of workers how much he would pay them for their efforts. The others were simply told, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you” (Matthew 20:4 ESV). They had no expectations concerning their compensation.

And Jesus makes it a point to reveal that the last group hired was the first to receive the wages for their work. That means that the first group had to stand back and watch as each group of workers received the same level of pay, regardless of the amount of work they had done. In their minds, they assumed that the level of pay would increase based on the number of hours worked. When the first group got a denarius, they automatically assumed that their reward would be greater because they had labored longer and harder. But they were incensed to find out that their pay was no greater, and shared their disappointment with the landowner.

“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” – Matthew 20:12 ESV

Don’t miss what they said: “You have made them equal to us.” This statement provides an essential clue to the primary point of the parable. You have to go all the way back to the scene that began this whole exchange. The disciples had been arguing over which of them was the greatest in the kingdom. And now, we have Jesus telling them a story that shows what appears to be a case of extreme inequality and unfairness. The laborers, like the disciples, were hung up on the idea of earned reward. The men who labored the longest were convinced that their efforts deserved greater compensation. They deserved more because they had done more.

But the landowner, unmoved by their complaint, told them to take what they had been offered because it was the amount to which they had agreed. They had no right to question his generosity or how he chose to distribute his resources. He was free to pay each man whatever he chose to pay them. He even asked the disgruntled laborers a rhetorical question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:15 ESV).

It’s important to recall Peter’s earlier response to Jesus.

Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” – Matthew 19:27 ESV

He was asking Jesus what he could expect to receive in the way of reward based on what he believed to be the greater degree of sacrifice. In essence, he was saying that he and his fellow disciples had earned more because they had done more.

Like the disciples, we hear this story and think in terms of labor and reward. We can’t help but see the actions of the landowner as somehow unfair or unjust. But Jesus is emphasizing the grace of the landowner, not the efforts of the laborers. None of the men had earned their reward. They had not even earned the right to labor. They had been graciously hired by the landowner and given the privilege of working in his vineyard. And he was free to pay them whatever he determined to be just and fair. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for a common laborer. So, even those who men who had labored all day had received fair compensation.

Like the landowner in Jesus’ parable, it is God who calls laborers to work in His vineyard. He finds those who are “standing idle in the marketplace” and invites them to labor on His behalf. He has a predetermined reward prepared for them. And that reward is not based on the length or intensity of their labor. It is determined by His grace and mercy.

The disciples had been the first to be called by Jesus. But that did not make them more worthy of reward. Their position as His disciples was not an indication of their value or a determiner of their right to greater spiritual compensation. Jesus wanted them to understand that their status as His followers was based solely on His invitation to follow Him. He had found them “standing idle in the marketplace” and had called them to labor alongside Him in the kingdom. And Jesus was going to be calling others along the way. And long after Jesus had returned to heaven, the disciples would see others responding to the call of Jesus and joining them in the work of the harvest. And, one day, each will receive the same reward, not based on the length of their labor or the number of their accomplishments, but based solely on the grace of God.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

From the disciples’ perspective, the rich young man who had walked away from Jesus dejectedly, had obviously been blessed by God. His great wealth was a reflection of God’s favor. So, when Jesus inferred that this man’s great wealth would make it difficult for him to enter the kingdom of heaven, the disciples were confused. And when they heard Jesus’ parable about the laborers, they would have sided with the disgruntled group who felt slighted by the landowner’s obvious inequities. They were hung up on the false idea of reward for work done. The society in which they lived was based on the concept that you don’t get something for nothing. Hard work shouldn’t go unrewarded. A workman is worthy of his hire (Luke 10:7).

But the disciples were going to learn that life in the kingdom of heaven is based on grace, not merit. Their efforts on behalf of God would not earn them favor with God. He would not reward them based on the level of their accomplishments or length of their service. God will reward each according to His grace and mercy. And His reward will be just, righteous, and fair.

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

Giving to Get

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.– Matthew 6:1-4 ESV

Jesus has just dropped a bombshell on His listeners: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 ESV). And as disconcerting and discomfiting as His words may have been, He was simply trying to explain to them about the true nature of godly righteousness – that alien, outside-of-yourself kind of righteousness that comes from God and can’t be manufactured, only faked.

But how easily we trade in God’s view of perfection for that of man’s. How quickly we forget about what God expects of us and lower our standards. That is exactly what Jesus is confronting among the Jews in His audience. They had long ago traded internal holiness for external piety. They had learned to settle for the praise of men rather than the praise of God. They were stuck on a horizontal plane, viewing righteousness from a purely human standpoint, measuring themselves by comparing themselves with others. So, Jesus starts off this section of His message with a warning. He uses the word “Beware.” In the Greek, it is prosoche, and it means “to beware, take heed, be attentive to.” Jesus used this word a lot.

Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.” – Matthew 7:15 ESV

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues.” – Matthew 10:17 NLT

“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” – Matthew 16:6 NLT

Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets.” – Luke 20:46 NLT

In essence, Jesus is telling His listeners to be perfect and to be careful. His use of the word “beware” is designed to get their attention and to warn them to listen carefully to what He is about to say. Jesus is trying to open the eyes of those sitting on the hillside, using stern words of warning to make His point.

If you recall, the word “blessed” that Jesus repeatedly used in His opening remarks, really refers to the approval of God. So, those beatitudes or blessings could read like this:

Approved by God are the poor in spirit

Approved by God are those who mourn

Approved by God are the meek

Approved by God are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

Approved by God are the merciful

Approved by God are the pure in heart

Approved by God are the peacemakers

Approved by God are the persecuted, reviled and slandered

We are to seek the approval of God, not men. We are to seek the reward of God, not men. And when we come to faith in Jesus, we receive the full approval of God. We are counted as righteous and adopted into His family as sons and daughters. And those who enjoy God’s approval become part of His Kingdom, receive comfort, inherit the earth, experience satisfaction, receive mercy, see God, and enjoy the promise of a great reward in heaven.

Jesus is speaking of the vast difference between man-made and spirit-induced righteousness. Jesus tells His audience that they are to beware of practicing their righteousness before other people. In other words, their motivation should not be recognition. Those who seek to do good things so that they will be deemed to be good people by those who see them will have all the reward they are going to get. They’ll receive the praise of men, but not the approval of God. That kind of man-pleasing, praise-seeking righteousness will get you no reward from God. Why? Because it is not the kind of righteousness He requires.

To make His point, Jesus provides three examples from real life. The first has to do with alms-giving, which was the act of providing for the needs of the poor and destitute as an act of mercy. The Greek word is eleēmosynē, and it refers to “a donation to the poor” and was sometimes called “compassionateness.”

Jesus is accusing His audience of giving to get merit, but not out of mercy. Their giving to the poor was motivated by a desire for recognition. That was the reward after which they sought. And Jesus tells them that they will have the reward they seek: The praise and approval of men. But they will not receive the one reward they so desperately need: The approval and blessing of God.

The kind of man-made righteousness that Jesus is describing is driven by one thing: The desire for the praise of others. It is done in order to be seen by others and to garner recognition and reward. But Jesus says that, when you give, you are not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. In other words, your giving is to remain private. So private, that it will be like one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing. Even your closest friends or family members won’t know what you have done.

What a different mindset. Instead of seeking recognition, you are to pursue anonymity.  You are to keep your actions hidden. Do what you do in secret, concealed, private, and hidden from the view of others. But know this, God will see what you are doing, and reward you, in His way and according to His own timing.

Jesus is not suggesting that there is anything wrong with alms-giving or charity. But anyone who thinks they are righteous because they give has missed the point and misunderstood the true nature of godly righteousness. In fact, giving in order to get recognition isn’t righteousness at all. At least, not according to God’s definition. And throughout this portion of His message, Jesus will emphasize that our greatest concern should be what God thinks and how He views our actions. In fact, Jesus will repeatedly emphasize that, when we give motivated by mercy, rather than the need for merit,  “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

While no one around us may know what we have done, God will and, more importantly, He will know why we have done it. He will know the motivation of our hearts. And that is still the key behind what Jesus is trying to teach here. This is all about the heart. Giving to get noticed is about the head. It’s about ego, pride, self-esteem and measuring our worth by what others think of us.

But alms-giving was intended to be an act of mercy. It was giving to those in need, not so you could get something out of it. To give to those who do not have, just so you can have what you desire, is a twisted and warped way of life. It is ungodly and unrighteous. It reveals a love of self, but not a love of others. And Jesus warns, “Beware!” Don’t do it. That kind of giving is hypocritical, mere play-acting, intended to give the impression of mercy but motivated out of the insatiable need for merit and men’s praise. And, Jesus says, practicing that kind of righteousness will get you exactly what you desire, but not what you so desperately need: God’s approval and blessing.

In his letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul wrote:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT

We did nothing to earn our salvation. And we can do nothing to earn a right standing before God now. Our acts of righteousness do not earn us God’s favor. We perform acts of righteousness because we have already earned His favor and have His Spirit living within us. It is the righteousness of Christ, credited to us by God the Father, that allows us to do “the good things he planned for us long ago.” We have been made new so that we might live new lives, motivated not by merit and men’s praise, but out of willing obedience to God.

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

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

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

The Sovereign Hand of God

12 Of Benjamin he said,

“The beloved of the Lord dwells in safety.
The High God surrounds him all day long,
    and dwells between his shoulders.”

13 And of Joseph he said,

“Blessed by the Lord be his land,
    with the choicest gifts of heaven above,
    and of the deep that crouches beneath,
14 with the choicest fruits of the sun
    and the rich yield of the months,
15 with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
    and the abundance of the everlasting hills,
16 with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
    and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.
May these rest on the head of Joseph,
    on the pate of him who is prince among his brothers.
17 A firstborn bull—he has majesty,
    and his horns are the horns of a wild ox;
with them he shall gore the peoples,
    all of them, to the ends of the earth;
they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
    and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” Deuteronomy 33:12-17 ESV

A quick comparison between the blessings given by Jacob to his 12 sons and those given by Moses to the 12 tribes of Israel reveal some interesting differences. For instance, Jacob referred to his youngest son, Benajamin, as a ravenous wolf who plunders his enemies at night.

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
    devouring his enemies in the morning
    and dividing his plunder in the evening.” – Genesis 49:27 NLT

Yet, Moses seems to refer to the tribe of Benjamin as “the beloved of the Lord.” But the words of Moses can and have been translated in two different ways. The New English Translation renders verse 12 as follows:

“Of Benjamin he said:
The beloved of the Lord will live safely by him;
he protects him all the time,
and the Lord places him on his chest.” – Deuteronomy 33:12 NET

The New American Standard Version takes a similar approach.

“May the beloved of the Lord dwell in security by Him,
Who shields him all the day,
And he dwells between His shoulders.”

In these translations, the “beloved of the Lord” is clearly not a reference to Benjamin, but to somone or something else. It could be speaking of the tribe of Judah, the tribe from which the Messiah would come. Recall the words of Jacob’s blessing to his son, Judah.

“The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.” – Genesis 49:10 NLT

The term, “the beloved of the Lord” could also be a reference to Jesus Himself. But it is seems more likely that the tribe of Judah is the focus of Moses’ words. These two tribes, Benjamin and Judah would enjoy close ties, even sharing a common border in the land of Canaan.

The first allotment of land went to the clans of the tribe of Benjamin. It lay between the territory assigned to the tribes of Judah and Joseph. – Joshua 18:11 NLT

Years later, when God split the kingdom of Israel in half, the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin would form the new southern kingdom of Judah. And the larger, more powerful tribe of Judah would provide protection for its smaller neighbor and ally. The territory alloted to Benjamin also contained the city of Jerusalem, which would become the capital of Judah, later known as the city of David, and the place where Solomon built the temple of God.

Jacob predicted that his son, Benjamin, would produce a people who were warlike and reknowned for their success in battle. But the book of Judges reveals that the Benjamites would eventually use their propensity for battle in a civil war against the other 11 tribes of Israel. It would end in their defeat at the hands of their brothers.

And the Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel, and the people of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day. All these were men who drew the sword. So the people of Benjamin saw that they were defeated. – Judges 20:35-36 ESV

These were dark days for the tribe of Benjamin and for the people of God, with the 21st chapter of the book of Judges closing with the sobering words:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. – Judges 21:25 ESV

But the first king of Israel came from the tribe of Benjamin, a man named Saul, who would prove to be a great warrior, but a lousy king. And God would eventually reject him as king, replacing him with a man after His own heart, a man named David. And David, from the tribe of Judah, and Jonathan, the son of Saul from the tribe of Benjamin, would become the closest of friends. So, we see this bound between these two tribes lived out over time. And eventually, the apostle Paul would come from the tribe of Benjamin.

“I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” – Romans 11:1 ESV

This small tribe would play a significant role in the history of Israel, for both good and bad. But God would use them to accomplish His divine will for His people and for the world. From this somewhat irrelevant tribe would come Saul, the first king of Israel. But hundreds of years later, there would come another Saul, the one known as the apostle Paul, whom God would use to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. And all because Paul would have his life transformed by an encounter with Jesus, the Son of God and a member of the tribe of Judah.

Next, Moses turns his attention to the tribe of Joseph. He was the son Jacob thought had been killed by wild animals, but later discovered had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. Jacob and Joseph were reunited in Egypt, where Joseph had become a powerful ruler in the kingdom of Pharaoh. And Joseph was able to use his authority to provide protection and provision for his family when the were forced to flee from the famine taking place in Canaan. So, Jacob held a special place in his heart for Joseph, as revealed in the words of the blessing he pronounced over him.

“Joseph is a fruitful bough,
    a fruitful bough by a spring;
    his branches run over the wall.
The archers bitterly attacked him,
    shot at him, and harassed him severely,
yet his bow remained unmoved;
    his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob
    (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),
by the God of your father who will help you,
    by the Almighty who will bless you
    with blessings of heaven above,
blessings of the deep that crouches beneath,
    blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
The blessings of your father
    are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents,
    up to the bounties of the everlasting hills.
May they be on the head of Joseph,
    and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” – Genesis 49:22-26 ESV

Moses picks up on Jacob’s high honor of Joseph, referring to him as “him who is prince among his brothers” (Deuteronomy 33:16 ESV). And when Moses speaks of Joseph, he clarifies that he is really addressing the tribes of the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh. Eventually, the name Ephraim would become closely associated with the ten tribes that comprised the northern kingdom of Israel. Just as Joseph was “set apart from his brothers” (Deuteronomy 49:26 ESV), Ephraim, Manasseh, and the other eight tribes would be set apart from Judah and Benjamin, dividing the once unified nation in two.

Moses pronounces a blessing on Joseph and his descendants, calling on God to provide them with “the choicest gifts of heaven above” (Deuteronomy 33:13 ESV) and:

“the choicest fruits of the sun
    and the rich yield of the months,
with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
    and the abundance of the everlasting hills,
with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
    and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.” – Deuteronomy 33:14-16 ESV

God would continue to bless Joseph’s descendants, providing them with good land and and an abundance of blessings. But they would prove to be rebellious and spiritual unfaithful to God. They would turn their backs on God by worshiping false gods of their own making. And yet, they would enjoy great success and grow in number.

“…they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
    and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” – Genesis 49:17 ESV

God would bless them, in spite of them. But the day would come when God would punish them for their sins, bringing judgment upon them in the form of the Assyrian army and allowing them to be defeated and deported as slaves. God would reward the descendants of Joseph for their forefather’s faithfulness while living in Egypt. But, eventually, He would punish them for their own unfaithfulness while living in the land of promise.

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