False Confidence

4 If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:4b-11 ESV

What does Paul mean by “confidence in the flesh?” Remember the context. He has just warned the believers in Philippi to “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2 ESV). This was a direct broadside delivered against the Judaizers, a group made up of Jewish converts to Christianity who were attempting to bring the legalism associated with the Mosaic Law into the church. They were demanding that Gentile believers first be circumcised and then agree to keep the Jewish laws, religious festivals, and sacrificial requirements. In other words, they had to become Jews before they could be considered truly saved.

So, when Paul mentions having confidence in the flesh, he is stressing the teachings of this group. They believed that their human efforts, those things done in their own strength, somehow earned them favor with God. As Jews, they put a high priority and value on the rite of circumcision. It was an outward sign of their unique relationship as God’s chosen people. And they were of the strong opinion that circumcision was necessary for any and all who would hope to enjoy the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. But for Paul, this was nothing short of another gospel. It was a false gospel. And it was to be exposed for what it was: a dangerous heresy.

The Greek word Paul used for “flesh” is sarx and, while it was often used to refer to the actual physical body, it could also be used in a metaphorical sense, to refer to human nature. The Judaizers put a lot of stock in human nature and their own human abilities, believing that they were able to keep the laws of God and live up to the holy standards of God. But Paul rejects that mindset, stating that believers were to “glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3 ESV). Salvation was based on the work of Christ, not the works of men.

But Paul decides to take their argument and use it against them. He somewhat sarcastically paints a picture of what the kind of credentials that might earn someone favor with God would look like. And he uses himself as an example. Paul boldly states:

“If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more…” – Philippians 3:4 NLT

It is as if Paul is saying, “So, you think you can earn a right standing with God based on your accomplishments and status? Well, check this out!”

What follows is a laundry list of Paul’s off-the-chart credentials.

  • He was a card-carrying member of the nation of Israel
  • He was from the tribe of Benjamin
  • He had been circumcised according to the Mosaic Law
  • He was a Hebrew of Hebrews (a hard-core traditionalist)
  • He had been a member of the Pharisees, an elite religious group
  • He had been a passionate and zealous persecutor of the church
  • He had been painstakingly dedicated to keeping the law

Look at that list and then consider who he was comparing himself with. He was placing himself in direct competition with the Judaizers. If they thought they were somehow better than everybody else because of their Jewish heritage and law-keeping ability, they had nothing on Paul. His resume made them look like third-string players trying to win a spot on the varsity squad.

But notice what Paul says next. He takes his list of accomplishments and credentials and describes them “as liabilities because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7 NLT). His relationship with Christ, based solely on faith in the work of Christ done on his behalf, made any of his so-called assets amount to nothing. They earned him no credibility with God and bought him no favor from God. Paul understood that his righteous deeds were of no value when it comes to his salvation. He firmly believed what the text in Isaiah clearly states:

We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

Paul’s lofty list of accomplishments and personal assets were worthless. Which is why he could say, “I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8 NLT). Rather than placing any stock in human nature or his ability to produce righteous-looking deeds, Paul saw those things as hindrances to his spiritual walk. They were liabilities. Because they were all tainted by sin. So, Paul had given them all up. He had decided to treat them like what they were: Liabilities, not assets. All so he could know Christ. And Paul gets a bit graphic in trying to describe his new relationship with those things he once held near and dear. They were like dung to him now, to be tossed aside and treated for what they were: worthless and detestable.

The bottom line for Paul was righteousness. A holy and righteous God demanded that His people live holy, righteous lives. But man’s sin nature made that impossible. And no amount of law-keeping, ritual-observing, or efforts at God-pleasing were going to make a difference. Paul states, “I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness” (Philippians 3:9 NLT). In other words, Paul’s righteousness was not based on self-effort, but on Christ’s faithfulness. Jesus died a sinner’s death to satisfy the just demands of a holy and righteous God. As Paul explained to the Corinthian believers:

For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV

And as Paul stated earlier in this letter, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). His faithfulness to do the will of His Father resulted in righteousness for us.

The Judaizers were not right before God because they had been circumcised. They were not right before God because they were Jews. They could not claim a right standing before God because they kept the law. In fact, Paul vaporized that idea in his letter to the Galatians.

So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Galatians 3:11 NLT

He said the same thing to the believers in Rome.

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

We have no reason to boast. We have no ground on which to stand and from which to proclaim our own self-righteousness. Our righteousness is actually Christ’s righteousness imparted to us when we place our faith in Him. When Christ died on the cross, He paid in full the debt that was owed for sins of mankind. He died in our place, bearing the penalty we deserved. And that act justified us before God. He now sees us as righteous and just, not sinful and worthy of death. We have been cleansed by the blood of Christ. And with that thought in mind, Paul refocuses the attention of his readers on that which is really important. Not effort and earning, but the pursuit of an ongoing and always growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:10-11 NLT

Paul is not talking about cognitive knowledge. He’s not suggesting a purely academic understanding of who Jesus was and is. He is describing a deep and intimate relationship that features an ever-intensifying awareness of all that Jesus Christ has done and will do for him. In the immediate context, Paul wanted to experience all the power that Christ’s resurrection had made available to him. Jesus had been raised back to life by the power of the Holy Spirit, and each and every believer has that power living within them.

But Paul knew that the resurrection power he so desired to see is most often revealed in the context of suffering. Just as Jesus had to suffer and die before He could experience the resurrection, we will find ourselves suffering so that we might experience the resurrection power of God’s Spirit in our lives. Just as Jesus experienced humiliation before His glorification, so will we. And then, Paul reminds us, it will all end in death. The ultimate form of suffering we all face is our own physical deaths. But Paul wants us to remember that there is a resurrection of the dead. Death is not the end. It is really the beginning of something greater. And Paul told the believers in Corinth what they could expect when death finally came.

For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” – I Corinthians 15:53-55 NLT

Why put confidence in the flesh? It’s of no value and will ultimately be left behind. And why put stock in our own worthiness before God? Without Christ, we have no righteousness of our own. As Paul told the Colossian believers, it all boils down to this: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27 ESV).

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

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

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

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Righteousness From God Through Faith in Christ

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. – Philippians 3:1-4a ESV

Here, Paul drives home a message that was common to virtually all of his letters – that of true righteousness. And his reason for bringing it up seems to be due to the fact that the Philippian believers were undergoing intense opposition, either from within or without, regarding the issue of circumcision. As a Roman colony, Philippi would have had a large Gentile population and, therefore, the church in Philippi was most likely made up predominately of Gentiles who had converted to Christianity from paganism. In A.D. 50, when Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy had arrived in Philippi on their missionary journey, there would have been few Jewish residents in the city. But by the time Paul wrote this letter some 10-12 years later, the Jewish population could have grown and there may have been Jewish converts to Christianity within the congregation at Philippi. The presence of Jews outside the church and Jewish converts within the church had evidently raised an issue that had become a point of contention for Paul: Circumcision.

Paul opens this section with a reminder to rejoice, even in the face of opposition. This is in keeping with his message to them earlier in the letter:

“…it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” – Philippians 1:29 ESV

And Paul had used his own life as an example of joy in the midst of suffering. After all, he was writing to them from house arrest in Rome, facing a trial before Nero and uncertainty as to his fate. But he had been able to tell them:

“Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” – Philippians 2:17-18 ESV

So, even though they were facing opposition, they had every reason to rejoice because they were privileged to suffer for the sake of the gospel.

But it doesn’t take long for Paul’s tone to turn much more serious and sarcastic. He warns them to “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2 ESV). Now, while this statement is clearly intended to paint the opposition in an unflattering light, there is more going on here than meets our modern, western eyes. 

Paul, writing in Greek, uses a play on words in describing those who were of the pro-circumcision camp. He refers to them as “those who mutilate the flesh.” But that is a translation of a single Greek word, katatomē, which means to cut up or mutilate. In Leviticus 21:5, the priests of God were forbidden to “make any cuts on their body.” In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures, the word katatomē was used to describe this forbidden practice.

Here is where Paul’s cleverness and open hostility can be seen. The Greek word normally used when speaking of the Jewish practice of circumcision was peritomē and Paul uses it in verse 3.  You can see what Paul is doing here: katatomē vs peritomē. He is comparing the Jewish ritual of circumcision with the forbidden act of self-mutilation. But it’s important to remember the context. Paul is addressing a predominately Gentile congregation. These would have been pagans who had placed their faith in Christ, but now there were being told that their faith was incomplete and insufficient. There were those who were telling them that they must be circumcised and keep all the Jewish laws and religious rituals in order to be truly saved. This message was common in the 1st Century and was propagated by a group that came to be known as the Judaizers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what Paul thought about these people. He calls them dogs and evildoers. And his intense anger for them was due to the fact that they were adding to the gospel message he preached. His feelings about this matter are made perfectly clear in his letter to the believers in Galatia.

You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed. – Galatians 1:6-9 NLT

And Paul had strong words for the church in Corinth because they were being led away from the simple message of the gospel and buying into a false narrative that essentially claimed true righteousness was based the false formula of Jesus + something = salvation.

As far as Paul was concerned, the Judaizers were the enemy. Although they claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ, they were demanding that everyone become as they were. Their demand was that all the male members of the church in Philippi be circumcised and, essentially, convert to Judsaism before they .could be considered truly saved. And this left Paul in a state of rage, especially because he was unable to do anything about it while under house arrest in Rome. Which explains the strong nature of his rhetoric.

And he completely invalidates the message of the Judaizers, instead offering the Gentile converts to Christianity as the true circumcision.

“For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort…” – Philippians 3:3 NLT

This verse summarizes Paul’s view on the matter. To him, circumcision was nothing more than a work, an outward act that left the one circumcised with a false sense of spiritual well-being. For the Jews, it had become a symbol of their unique status as God’s chosen people. But in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul exposed the flaw behind the Jewish thinking regarding circucision.

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. – Romans 2:25 NLT

In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it. – Romans 2:27 NLT

The problem lies in the dangerous misperception being perpetrated by the Judaizers. In their way of thinking the rite of circumcision was the non-negotiable doorway all must enter on their way to justification before God. But this teaching stood in direct opposition to the gospel message of salvation made possible by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There was no other step needed. To add circumcision to the gospel message was to distort the good news and to make it another gospel altogether. Rather than basing salvation on the grace-gift of God’s Son, the Judaizers were introducing a form of works-based salvation. They were making justification a matter of rule-keeping and self-effort. But Paul reminds the Philippian believers, “We put no confidence in human effort.”

And then he goes on to expose the absurdity of the Judaizers’ argument. If they were going to make it all about human effort and rule-keeping, Paul could have been the poster-boy for self-justification. And he will go on to describe his relative merit as a good Jew who had all the criteria to make him a candidate for justification before God through works. But for Paul, this way of thinking was ridiculous and dangerous. It stood in direct opposition to the message of the gospel. And in a direct attack against the pride-filled Judaizers, Paul sarcastically states: “I could have confidence in my own effort if anyone could. Indeed, if others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more!” (Philippians 3:4a NLT). And he will go on to describe his so-called credentials for justification before God. But he knew that his curriculum vitae had nothing to do with his right standing before God. His salvation was not based on anything he had done or any worth he brought to the table. It was all the result of the finished work of Christ on the cross. And Paul drove home that point in his letter to the Galatians.

“…we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.” – Galatians 2:16 NLT

For Paul, the formula was quite simple and concise. Righteousness was made available by God through man’s faith in the finished work of Christ. No more. No less. Circumcision becomes nothing more than self-mutilation when used to earn favor with God. Law-keeping becomes disobedience to God when used as an attempt to justify oneself before God. For as Paul stated, no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.

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

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

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

A King Will Reign in Righteousness

1 Behold, a king will reign in righteousness,
    and princes will rule in justice.
Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,
    a shelter from the storm,
like streams of water in a dry place,
    like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.
Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed,
    and the ears of those who hear will give attention.
The heart of the hasty will understand and know,
    and the tongue of the stammerers will hasten to speak distinctly.
The fool will no more be called noble,
    nor the scoundrel said to be honorable.
For the fool speaks folly,
    and his heart is busy with iniquity,
to practice ungodliness,
    to utter error concerning the Lord,
to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied,
    and to deprive the thirsty of drink.
As for the scoundrel—his devices are evil;
    he plans wicked schemes
to ruin the poor with lying words,
    even when the plea of the needy is right.
But he who is noble plans noble things,
    and on noble things he stands. – Isaiah 32:1-8 ESV

In the future time period, predicted by Isaiah in the preceding chapter, there will be a time of great victory over the enemies of God’s people, foreshadowed by the soon-to-take-place defeat of the Assyrians. The miraculous nature of their fall, with an angel God destroying 185,000 of their soldiers in the middle of the night, is meant to be a precursor to an even greater victory in the end times: The Battle of Armageddon.

When Christ returns at the end of the seven years of the Tribulation, He will win a decisive victory over the combined armies of the world, which will be led by the Antichrist. The apostle John describes this epic battle in the book of Revelation. With the pouring out of the sixth bowl judgment, John saw:

…demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. – Revelation 16:14-16 ESV

The word “Armageddon” is derived from the Hebrew word Har-Magedone, which means “Mount Megiddo.” The Hebrew word Har can also refer to a “hill,” and since there is no mountain known as Mount Megiddo, it is thought that this is likely a reference to the hill country that surrounds the plain of Meggido, some sixty miles north of Jerusalem Megiddo. It is in this massive plain that the armies of the world will assemble to wage war against the people of God, which will include the Jewish people and all those who will have come to faith in Christ during the days of the Tribulation. But John was given a further glimpse of this epic battle. He saw a vision of Jesus, arrayed in a white robe dipped in blood and riding a white horse. He was leading “the armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress” (Revelation 19:14-15 NLT).

And John goes on to describe how Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, totally destroys the combined armies of the world, bringing an end to the rule of the Antichrist and terminating the seven years of the Tribulation.

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army. And the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the beast—miracles that deceived all who had accepted the mark of the beast and who worshiped his statue. Both the beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse. And the vultures all gorged themselves on the dead bodies. – Revelation 19:19-21 NLT

And when Isaiah describes a king who will reign in righteousness and princes who will rule alongside him justice, he is speaking prophetically of this future period in history. The book of Revelation provides us with further insight into this end-times event. As a result of their defeat at the battle of Armageddon, Antichrist and his associate, the false prophet, will be cast into hell. This will be followed by the binding of Satan. John describes him as being captured by an angel of God and thrown “into the bottomless pit, which he then shut and locked so Satan could not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years were finished. Afterward, he must be released for a little while” (Revelation 20:3 NLT). With Satan imprisoned and His influence removed from the earth, the Millennial Kingdom of Christ will begin, free from Satanic opposition. And John was given a vision of what happens next.

Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given the authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years. – Revelation 20:4 NLT

This literal one-thousand-year period of time will be like nothing mankind has ever seen of experience. And Isaiah attempts to give us some insight into its uniqueness. For the first time in a long time, those with eyes will actually see the truth of God. Those with hears will hear it. The imagery Isaiah uses is meant to provide a picture of spiritual transformation taking place in the hearts and minds of the people on earth at the time. The truth of God, so often marred by the stammering tongues and deceitful half-truths of men will be clearly understood. People will no longer listen to the words of fools and elevate these kinds of people to places of honor. The days of godless leaders misguiding the people will be over. In a world where injustice and unrighteousness have become the norm, God will usher in a one-thousand-year period of peace, righteousness and spiritual prosperity, made possible by the reign on His Son on the throne of David.

The prophet, Daniel, was also given a vision of this future scene.

As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence. He was given authority, honor, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal—it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed. – Daniel 7:13-14 NLT

The end of the age culminates with the righteous rule of Christ on earth. And Isaiah, later on in his book, provides us with further details concerning how the Tribulation will come to an end and the millennial kingdom of Christ will begin.

He put on righteousness as his body armor
    and placed the helmet of salvation on his head.
He clothed himself with a robe of vengeance
    and wrapped himself in a cloak of divine passion.
He will repay his enemies for their evil deeds.
    His fury will fall on his foes.
    He will pay them back even to the ends of the earth.
In the west, people will respect the name of the Lord;
    in the east, they will glorify him.
For he will come like a raging flood tide
    driven by the breath of the Lord.

“The Redeemer will come to Jerusalem
    to buy back those in Israel
who have turned from their sins,”
    says the Lord. – Isaiah 59:17-20 NLT

And Isaiah clearly indicates that the actions of Jesus will be to fulfill the covenant God had made with the people of Israel generations earlier.

“And this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit will not leave them, and neither will these words I have given you. They will be on your lips and on the lips of your children and your children’s children forever. I, the Lord, have spoken! – Isaiah 59:21 NLT

What we have here is a remarkable reminder of God’s faithfulness. He keeps His commitments and fulfills His promises. It may not always appear as if God is holding up His end of the bargain, but there has never been a case where God has failed to come through on what He has said He will do.

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?
 – Numbers 23:19 NLT

As Paul reminded Timothy:

If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is. – 2 Timothy 2:13 NLT

In spite of all that the people of Judah had done to offend Him, God will remain faithful to them. He will accomplish each and every promise He has made to them. When God told the people of Judah that a day was coming when “a king will reign in righteousness,” He meant it. And while the time waiting for the fulfillment of this promise has been long, the delay doesn’t in any way negate the reality of its future fulfillment. He has promised, and He will fulfill that promise, down to the very last detail.

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 One True God.

10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
    will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
    and the moon will not shed its light.
11 I will punish the world for its evil,
    and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
    and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.
12 I will make people more rare than fine gold,
    and mankind than the gold of Ophir.
13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble,
    and the earth will be shaken out of its place,
at the wrath of the Lord of hosts
    in the day of his fierce anger.
14 And like a hunted gazelle,
    or like sheep with none to gather them,
each will turn to his own people,
    and each will flee to his own land.
15 Whoever is found will be thrust through,
    and whoever is caught will fall by the sword.
16 Their infants will be dashed in pieces
    before their eyes;
their houses will be plundered
    and their wives ravished.” – Isaiah 13:10-16 ESV

In this, the first of ten oracles Isaiah received from God, detailed and devastating descriptions are given regarding a day of coming judgment. Babylon, the veritable poster boy of pride and arrogance, is used by God as a symbol for the pagan nations of the earth, who reject Him and persecute His people, Israel.

But the judgments described in these verses are universal in nature and global in scope. They are not merely God’s plans for the destruction of Babylon. They encompass the entire world and all those who are living on it at the time the judgments fall. And verse nine makes that point white clear.

Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
    cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
    and to destroy its sinners from it. – Isaiah 13:9 ESV

And verse 11 elaborates on God’s future plans for pouring out His righteous wrath on sinful mankind.

I will punish the world for its evil,
    and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
    and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. – Isaiah 13:11 ESV

In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul clarifies the basis for God’s coming day of judgment on the nations”

…he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. – Romans 2:8 NLT

They are self-absorbed and self-reliant. They are stubbornly disobedient to the truth of God. And the result is that they live lives of wickedness, violating the expressed will of God. According to Paul, their actions and attitudes are a willful snub against God, who has made Himself known to them through His creation.

But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:18-20 NLT

Mankind’s rejection of God has been an ongoing affair, since the day Adam and Eve disregarded His command and decided to satisfy their own desires apart from and outside of His will. And that is what the world has been doing ever since.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT

Rather than worship the Creator-God, they worshiped the creation itself. They fabricated their own gods – lifeless, powerless stand-ins for the one true God – a product of their own imaginations and their own hands. And Paul says that God gave mankind over to follow their own self-absorbed standard of living.

So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. – Romans 1:24-25 NLT

And mankind’s rejection of God has continued for generations. And over that time, we have seen the human capacity for sin increase exponentially – to the point where sin is not longer viewed as sin. Right is wrong and wrong is right. What God condemns, man now glorifies. What He denies and deems off-limits, we defend and demand as our right. And Paul painted a prophetic picture of the day and age in which we live.

That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved. – Romans 1:26-27 NLT

But the sinful act is not the issue here. It is the rebellious hearts that ultimately lead to the shameful desires and the sinful actions. The rejection of God always result in rebellion against the will of God. And Paul provides a graphic description of what this way of life, lived without God, looks like.

Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. – Romans 1:29-32 NLT

But Isaiah reminds us that God will not put up with mankind’s rebellion against Him forever. There is a day coming – that day – when He will judge sinful mankind, not for the individual sins they have committed, but for their refusal to accept Him as God. Their sinful behavior is nothing more than a byproduct and evidence of their lack of a relationship with God. The Scriptures make it clear that ALL humanity has sinned against God. They all stand as guilty before Him. But those who have placed their faith in the offer of salvation made possible through His Son, have received forgiveness for their sins. They have been made right with God. And, as Paul puts it, they live free from the threat of future condemnation.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. – Romans 8:1-2 NLT

But for all those who refuse God’s gracious offer of salvation through faith in His Son, condemnation and judgment remain inevitable and unavoidable. Which is exactly what Isaiah is warning. He speaks of God’s wrath and fierce anger. He describes that day as one that will feature cosmic disturbances in the sky and incredible violence on the earth. And he is not the only prophet who wrote in starkly graphic terms concerning this coming day.

I will veil the heavens and darken the stars.
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
    and the moon will not give you its light. – Ezekiel 32:7 NLT

The Lord is at the head of the column.
    He leads them with a shout.
This is his mighty army,
    and they follow his orders.
The day of the Lord is an awesome, terrible thing.
    Who can possibly survive? – Joel 2:11 NLT

And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. – Daniel 12:1 NLT

The world has experienced its fair share of dark days. There have been countless wars and periods of civil unrest. We have invented new and ever-more-deadly means of wreaking havoc on one another. Our capacity and propensity for sin has increased, not decreased. And yet, God is not blind. He is oblivious to what is happening on the life-sustaining planet He created. He is well aware of the sorry state of things on earth, and one day He is going to deal with it. All that Isaiah predicts in these verses will take place. And the book of Revelation reveals the details concerning the coming day of God’s judgment on sinful mankind.

In his vision, given to Him by God, John sees a time when God’s wrath will take the form of famine, widespread disease, civil unrest, earthquakes, and bizarre cosmic disturbances. Ane while we may see signs of those things already happening, their quantity and intensity will be like nothing we have ever experienced before. Not only that, there will be strange, inexplicable phenomena taking place that will clearly reveal that God is the cause behind all that is happening. The seas will be turned to blood. The drinking water will become bitter and poisonous. The primary crops for making bread will be destroyed. Starvation will be widespread. Civil unrest will be worldwide, not localized.

And as if all that is not enough, God will unleash demonic activity on the earth like nothing anyone has ever seen or experienced before. People will suffer and die at the hands of demons. But before we express sorrow and regret over this sad state of affairs, look at what John records.

But the people who did not die in these plagues still refused to repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. They continued to worship demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood—idols that can neither see nor hear nor walk! And they did not repent of their murders or their witchcraft or their sexual immorality or their thefts.  – Revelation 9:20-21 NLT

No repentance. No remorse. In spite of all that God brings upon them in terms of His divine judgment, they remain stubbornly unrepentant. They will cling to their false gods and continue to snub their noses at the one true God.

And the bleak picture that Isaiah paints is a prophetic glimpse into this future time of God’s judgment. It has not yet arrived, but it will. And while the vivid descriptions of its outcome may leave us confused and confounded, the psalmist would have us rejoice. Because God’s coming judgment is a sign of His sovereignty over the earth. He will one day make all things right. He will restore His creation to its former glory. He will rid the world of sin once and for all.

Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
    Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!
    Let the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord, for he is coming!
    He is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with justice,
    and the nations with his truth. – Psalm 96:11-13 NLT

Justice will prevail, because God is a just and holy God. He will step into His creation and reclaim His rightful place as God. And all the world will one day acknowledge Him for who He is: The one true God.

Let all the world look to me for salvation!
    For I am God; there is no other.
I have sworn by my own name;
    I have spoken the truth,
    and I will never go back on my word:
Every knee will bend to me,
    and every tongue will declare allegiance to me. – Isaiah 45:22-23 NLT

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

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

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

A Full End.

20 In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. 21 A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. 22 For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. 23 For the Lord God of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in the midst of all the earth.

24 Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts: “O my people, who dwell in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrians when they strike with the rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. 25 For in a very little while my fury will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction. 26 And the Lord of hosts will wield against them a whip, as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb. And his staff will be over the sea, and he will lift it as he did in Egypt. 27 And in that day his burden will depart from your shoulder, and his yoke from your neck; and the yoke will be broken because of the fat.”

28 He has come to Aiath;
he has passed through Migron;
    at Michmash he stores his baggage;
29 they have crossed over the pass;
    at Geba they lodge for the night;
Ramah trembles;
    Gibeah of Saul has fled.
30 Cry aloud, O daughter of Gallim!
    Give attention, O Laishah!
    O poor Anathoth!
31 Madmenah is in flight;
    the inhabitants of Gebim flee for safety.
32 This very day he will halt at Nob;
    he will shake his fist
    at the mount of the daughter of Zion,
    the hill of Jerusalem.

33 Behold, the Lord God of hosts
    will lop the boughs with terrifying power;
the great in height will be hewn down,
    and the lofty will be brought low.
34 He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe,
    and Lebanon will fall by the Majestic One.Isaiah 10:20-34 ESV

God has made it clear that King Sennacherib and the Assyrians are nothing more than tools in His hands. Like an ax to a woodsman or a saw to a carpenter, the Assyrians would be used by God to accomplish His divine will concerning Israel and Judah. But they could no more than He decreed and allowed. The prideful and arrogant Assyrians would do what they did, not as if they were being forced to or against their own wishes, but according to their desire to “remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures” (Isaiah 10:13 ESV). Like an ax is designed to chop wood, the Assyrians were built for conquest, and their heart’s desire was to rule over all the nations.

And in 701 BC, the Assyrians came against Jerusalem, besieging the city in an attempt to destroy it as they had done the capital of the northern capital of Israel. But God had other plans.

“Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”  – Isaiah 37:33-35 ESV

God’s work for Sennacherib and his forces was complete. They could do no more to harm the people of Judah, because Isaiah tells us that, in the middle of the night, “the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians” (Isaiah 37:36 ESV). The next morning, Sennacherib and his army broke their siege, returning to Ninevah, where he was later assassinated by his own sons.

But, beginning in verse 20 of chapter 10, the content of Isaiah’s prophecy shifts from Assyria to Judah. He begins this section, “In the day.” This is a reference to some future time period when God will restore His people. Isaiah describes it as a day when “the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 10:20 ESV). Any time you see a statement like this in Scripture, you must ask yourself whether this has been fulfilled? Has it already taken place? Is there a time in the national history of either Israel or Judah where we see the promise of this prophecy having been fulfilled?

In verses 21 and 22, Isaiah speaks of a remnant returning. We do know that after Judah eventually fell to the Babylonians and ended up in exile for 70 years, God allowed a remnant of the people to return to the land. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, they were able to rebuild the walls of the city of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Babylonians. They restored the demolished walls and gates of the city and, eventually, reconstructed the temple and reinstituted the sacrificial system.

But Isaiah’s prophecy is very specific. He mentions both Israel and Jacob. The northern kingdom of Israel lost their capital of city of Samaria to the Assyrians in 722 BC. Three years later, after having failed to pay their annual tribute to the king of Assyria, Samaria was captured, and the people were taken captive and deported to Assyria. And there is no indication that any of the Israelites ever returned to the land. Yet, they are included in Isaiah’s prophecy. So, the day to which Isaiah referred must lie in the future, as yet unfulfilled. And while a remnant of Judah did eventually return to the land, they did not “lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.” Over the subsequent centuries, they would prove unfaithful to Yahweh. And, the apostle John lets us know that, by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, they were living in spiritual darkness.

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

Isaiah stresses that only a remnant will return to the land. Even though God had kept His word to Abraham, and had made his descendants as numerous as the sand of the sea, their disobedience had brought God’s judgment, overflowing with His righteousness. He had punished them for their rebellion but had spared them from complete destruction, because of His covenant promise to Abraham.

Through His prophet, Isaiah, God comforts the people of Judah, telling them not to fear the Assyrians. He will protect them and prevent their complete destruction. In fact, He promises, “For in a very little while my fury will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction” (Isaiah 10:25 ESV). And as we saw, God fulfilled that promise.

And Isaiah, referring yet again to “that day,” states that “his burden will depart from your shoulder, and his yoke from your neck; and the yoke will be broken” (Isaiah 10:27 ESV). There was a day coming when God would remove His judgment completely. While the Assyrians would eventually march their way through the land, systematically passing through Aiath, Migron, Michmash, Giba, Ramah, and Anathoth, on their way to Jerusalem, they would fail in their quest to conquer Judah. God would do to them what He had done to the Midianites and Egyptians.

And, as we saw in Isaiah 37, God fulfilled this promise, sending Sennacharib packing with his army having lost 185,000 of its soldiers.

But there is an aspect of this prophecy that remains unfulfilled. The full implications of “that day” have not yet been experienced by Judah or Israel. God is not yet done. His plans for His people have not expired or been exhausted. In his letter to the Romans, Paul stresses that there is a day coming when God will completely fulfill His promise to restore His people.

I want you to understand this mystery, dear brothers and sisters, so that you will not feel proud about yourselves. Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. And so all Israel will be saved. As the Scriptures say,

“The one who rescues will come from Jerusalem, and he will turn Israel away from ungodliness. And this is my covenant with them, that I will take away their sins.” – Romans 11:25-27 NLT

And the prophet, Ezekiel, prophesied about this very same day.

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

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

“And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:22-28 NLT

Isaiah had said, “Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness.” God would bring judgment against His people, but He would also shower them with His righteousness, doing for them what they could not do for themselves. The day is coming when God will restore His people. He will return them to the land. But, more importantly, He will restore their hearts to Him.

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

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

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

The Wildfire of Wickedness.

18 For wickedness burns like a fire;
    it consumes briers and thorns;
it kindles the thickets of the forest,
    and they roll upward in a column of smoke.
19 Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts
    the land is scorched,
and the people are like fuel for the fire;
    no one spares another.
20 They slice meat on the right, but are still hungry,
    and they devour on the left, but are not satisfied;
each devours the flesh of his own arm,
21 Manasseh devours Ephraim, and Ephraim devours Manasseh;
    together they are against Judah.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
    and his hand is stretched out still.

1 Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,
    and the writers who keep writing oppression,
to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
    and that they may make the fatherless their prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the ruin that will come from afar?
To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth?
Nothing remains but to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
    and his hand is stretched out still. Isaiah 9:18-10:4 ESV

Mankind has a natural proclivity to rationalize the presence of sin. We either deny it exists or downplay its impact. And in doing so, we ignore the inherent danger of its existence. Sin is nothing short of rebellion against God’s will concerning man’s relationship with Him, but also with one another. When God gave His commandments, they had a vertical and horizontal aspect to them. They were intended to regulate man’s relationship with God, but also with the rest of creation, especially other men who had been made in God’s image.

God was not just interested in men showing Him honor and extending to Him the glory He deserved. He wanted them to treat one another with justice. And He wanted us to keep all His commandments, not just those that covered our relationship with Him.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. – 1 John 2:3-4 ESV

And John went on to clarify that keeping the commandments of God included all those commands that had to do with our relationships with our fellow men.

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. – 1 John 2:9-11 ESV

And Isaiah warned the people of Judah and Israel that their failure to keep the commands of God were going to bring the judgment of God. Their refusal to treat God as holy and to treat their brothers and sisters with dignity, was going to result in devastation.

The land will be blackened
    by the fury of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
The people will be fuel for the fire,
    and no one will spare even his own brother. – Isaiah 9:19 NLT

The people were going to find themselves turning on one another in a vain attempt to survive the judgment God would unleash on them. But this would simply be a more intense manifestation of their normal treatment of one another. Because of their disregard for God and their disrespect for one another, God would allow them to literally devour one another.

They will attack their neighbor on the right
    but will still be hungry.
They will devour their neighbor on the left
    but will not be satisfied.
In the end they will even eat their own children. – Isaiah 9:20 NLT

When the Assyrians attacked, it would become every man for himself.

Manasseh will feed on Ephraim,
    Ephraim will feed on Manasseh,
    and both will devour Judah. – Isaiah 9:21 NLT

Tribes would turn against their fellow tribes. Brothers would abuse brothers. All because they had failed to love God and love one another. The people of Judah and Israel had a track record of abuse, and Isaiah leveled some stinging indictments against them:

What sorrow awaits the unjust judges
    and those who issue unfair laws.
They deprive the poor of justice
    and deny the rights of the needy among my people.
They prey on widows
    and take advantage of orphans. – Isaiah 10:1-2 NLT

From the top-down, they were all guilty of practicing injustices of all kinds. They took advantage of the weak and defenseless. They failed to care for the helpless and hopeless. And in doing so, they were violating the expressed will of God.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. – Proverbs 21:3 ESV

Righteousness, justice, kindness, mercy. These things were missing among the people of God. Because they had forsaken God, they no longer had a heart for God and their own hearts failed to reflect the character of God. They had turned way from Him and were now turning on one another. And their unjust and unrighteous behavior was going to bring down on them God’s righteous wrath in the form of the Assyrian army.

What will you do when I punish you,
    when I send disaster upon you from a distant land?
To whom will you turn for help?
    Where will your treasures be safe? – Isaiah 10:3 NLT

Israel had determined to put all their hope in their alliance with the Syrians. But they would prove to be no help when the Assyrians showed up. The nation of Judah had placed their faith in their alliance with the Assyrians. But they would soon discover that the fall of their northern neighbor at the hands of their ally would be far from good news. They would also suffer because of their failure to trust God. They too would endure the judgment of God because of their refusal to live in obedience to God.

But as bad as it would get, the end of God’s righteous wrath would not yet be exhausted.

You will stumble along as prisoners
    or lie among the dead.
But even then the Lord’s anger will not be satisfied.
    His fist is still poised to strike. – Isaiah 10:4 NLT

This should give us some idea of just how much God hates sin. He doesn’t overlook it or excuse it. He doesn’t make light of it. In fact, Isaiah describes the devastating nature of sin in very stark terms.

This wickedness is like a brushfire.
    It burns not only briers and thorns
but also sets the forests ablaze.
    Its burning sends up clouds of smoke. – Isaiah 9:18 NLT

Sin is deadly. It may start small, but it spreads quickly and leaves a path of devastation in its wake. Like an out-of-control wildfire, it destroys everyone and everything in its path. Which is why God is obligated to deal with it in such a powerful manner. We may excuse it, rationalize it, minimize or deny it, but God cannot and will not.

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

Here I Am. Send Me!

1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”– Isaiah 6:1-8 ESV

This chapter seems a bit out of place. It provides details concerning Isaiah’s divine call, but appears after the first five chapters, which contain a summary of Judah’s sin and God’s coming judgment. It would appear that Isaiah wanted to begin his book with a clear description of the state of affairs in Judah so that the people would understand the nature of his message to them. Now, in chapter six, he reveals that he is a messenger sent from God. He has received a commission from Yahweh Himself, and has been tasked with the responsibility to warn the people of Judah of what God has ordained, unless they repent and return to Him.

Isaiah prefaces this chapter by providing the date of his calling. It was in the year King Uzziah died. That would have been around 740 B.C. It’s interesting to note that King Uzziah was one of the few godly kings to reign in Judah since the split of the kingdom after Solomon’s reign. He reigned over Judah for 52 years, but like so many of the other kings of Judah, Uzziah failed to remain faithful to God. He enjoyed the blessings of God, but allowed them to go to his head.

But when he had become powerful, he also became proud, which led to his downfall. He sinned against the Lord his God by entering the sanctuary of the Lord’s Temple and personally burning incense on the incense altar. Azariah the high priest went in after him with eighty other priests of the Lord, all brave men. They confronted King Uzziah and said, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is the work of the priests alone, the descendants of Aaron who are set apart for this work. Get out of the sanctuary, for you have sinned. The Lord God will not honor you for this!” 2 Chronicles 26:16-18 NLT

Don’t miss the details concerning Uzziah’s sin. He had entered the sanctuary of the temple and burned incense on the altar of incense. In other words, he had taken on the role of the priest and, in doing so, had violated the law of God. He had committed the very same crime that had resulted in King Saul’s removal and replacement by David (1 Samuel 13:9).

When confronted by the high priest, Uzziah had reacted with rage, screaming at Azariah and the other priests. As a result of his actions, God struck him with leprosy. And the text tells us that he remained a leper until his death.

So King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in isolation in a separate house, for he was excluded from the Temple of the Lord. His son Jotham was put in charge of the royal palace, and he governed the people of the land. – 2 Chronicles 26:21 NLT

His God-ordained disease banned left him unclean and banned from ever entering the temple again. He spent the remaining years of his life in quarantine, secluded in a separate house and unable to govern the people of God.

And in the year of his death, Isaiah was given a vision by God. It is not coincidence that Isaiah saw God in His holy temple, the actual temple in heaven. He was given a glimpse into the actual Holy of Holies where God sits on the mercy seat. The author of Hebrews wrote of the existence of the true temple in heaven where God dwells.

That is why the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals.

For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf. – Hebrews 9:23-24 NLT

The earthly temple was modeled after the heavenly one. And while Uzziah, in his pride, had entered into the earthly temple and offered unlawful sacrifices to God, Isaiah was allowed to see into the heavenly temple where God’s presence dwells. And he describes it in great detail.

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. – Isaiah 6:1 ESV

Isaiah, like John in the book of Revelation, was given the privilege of seeing God Almighty in all His glory. And Isaiah describes God as sitting on his throne, the mercy seat located in the Holy of Holies. We know this is the location of God’s throne because of Isaiah’s description of his immediate surroundings.

Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. – Isaiah 6:2 ESV

Over in the book of 1 Kings, we have a very similar description of the Holy of Holies in the temple Solomon constructed.

He made two cherubim of wild olive wood, each 15 feet tall, and placed them in the inner sanctuary. The wingspan of each of the cherubim was 15 feet, each wing being 7 1⁄2 feet long. The two cherubim were identical in shape and size; each was 15 feet tall. He placed them side by side in the inner sanctuary of the Temple. Their outspread wings reached from wall to wall, while their inner wings touched at the center of the room. He overlaid the two cherubim with gold. – 1 Kings 6:23-28 NLT

These two cherubim are not to be confused with the two that were located on the top of the ark of the covenant. Notice their size. They were 15-feet tall and on permanent display in the Holy of Holies. It was inbetween these two massive statues that the ark of the covenant was to be placed.

Then the priests carried the Ark of the LORD’s Covenant into the inner sanctuary of the Temple–the Most Holy Place–and placed it beneath the wings of the cherubim. – 1 Kings 8:6 NLT

But, while the cherubim in Solomon’s temple were lifeless statues, the two that Isaiah saw standing above the throne of God in heaven were living creatures. And they cried out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3 ESV). This is very similar to the scene John saw in his vision of the heavenly throne room.

And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!” – Revelation 4:8 ESV

In both visions, the emphasis is on the holiness of God. The whole earth is full of His glory. He is all-pervasive. Yes, He sits on His throne in the Holy of Holies, but He is not restricted in any way. God’s glory fills the entirety of His creation. And it is that fact that makes the sins of Judah so much more egregious. The reaction of Isaiah reveals that he fully understood the dramatic contrast between the holiness of his God and the sinfulness of his own people.

“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  – Isaiah 6:5 ESV

He even saw himself as unworthy to stand before a perfectly holy and righteous God. Even his lips were contaminated by his sinfulness, making him unworthy to sing the praises of his God. And he was not alone. The entire population of Judah was marred by sin. Like Uzziah, who found himself covered with leprosy and banished from the temple, the people of Judah were covered by the guilt of sin and unwelcome in God’s presence. It was their sin that separated them from God. Their unrighteousness kept them from approaching the righteous King, the Lord of hosts.

But with Isaiah’s confession of guilt came cleansing and forgiveness. One of the cherubim touched his lips with a hot coal from the altar of incense and pronounced:

“Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” – Isaiah 6:7 ESV

The apostle John reminds us that this incredible opportunity is available to any and all who will simply confess their sins to God.

But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. – 1 John 1:9 NLT

Isaiah required cleansing before he could act as God’s spokesperson. He needed to have his own sins forgiven before he could deliver God’s message to the people of Judah. We see this lived out in the life of Aaron, the original high priest, who, each year on the day of atonement had to offer sacrifices on his own behalf before he could intercede for the people of God.

Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. – Leviticus 16:11-13 ESV

Once cleansed from his own sins, Aaron could then offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. And, after having received cleansing for his sins, Isaiah was ready to serve as God’s messenger to His people.

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” – Isaiah 6:8 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

What Will God Find?

1 Let me sing for my beloved
    my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
    and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
    but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
    and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard,
    that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
    why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
    and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
    and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
    it shall not be pruned or hoed,
    and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
    that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
    but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
    but behold, an outcry! – Isaiah 5:1-7 ESV

With the opening of chapter five, Isaiah takes a slightly unusual tact. He describes God as his lover. This song, as it would have appeared to Isaiah’s original audience, starts off innocently enough. It simply appears as if Isaiah is describing God in affectionate terms, like a bride describing her groom or a wife, her husband. Isaiah portrays God as having planted a vineyard. This required great effort on His part, including the preparation of the soil by removing any and all rocks, as well as the tilling of the ground to make it ready for the planting of the vines. The hill on which God planted His vineyard was fertile ground, perfect for bearing choice grapes.

And God, fully expecting an abundant harvest, built a watchtower to protect His crops and a winepress in which to process the grapes. But then, the song takes an unexpected twist. Instead of yielding grapes suitable for making fine wine, the vineyard produced wild, sour-tasting grapes. The fruit was not what God had planned or expected. Something had gone terribly wrong.

Suddenly, the voice of the speaker switches from Isaiah to God Himself. He personally addresses the people of Jerusalem and Judah, asking them to make a judgment on the scenario Isaiah had just described. What else could God have done? He had taken all the appropriate steps and done all the right things to ensure a positive outcome. But rather than good grapes, the vineyard had delivered worthless sour grapes. It had produced fruit, but the wrong kind of fruit. And God asks the people of Judah. “Why?”

But before they can answer, God tells them what He is going to do to His precious vineyard.

“I will tear down its hedges
    and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
    and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
    where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
    a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
    to drop no rain on it.” – Isaiah 5:5-6 NLT

God will personally punish His vineyard, destroying the protective walls He had erected. Wild animals, once kept at bay by God, will have full access to the vineyard, trampling it down and treating it with disdain. Once a cultivated garden, it will become a wild and uninviting place, full of wild vines producing even more sour grapes, surrounded by briers and thorns, and devoid of the rainwater that grapes require.

As suddenly as before, the voice of the speaker switches back to Isaiah. Just in case his audience has missed the point of his song, he lets them know that they are the vineyard of God. They were to have been “his pleasant planting” but had turned out to be nothing but sour grapes, totally worthless for producing wine.

The fruit they had produced, while plentiful, was ineffectual. It had no redeeming value and was good for nothing. The prophet Ezekiel painted a bleak picture of a vine that failed to produce proper fruit.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, of all the woody branches among the trees of the forest, what happens to the wood of the vine? Can wood be taken from it to make anything useful? Or can anyone make a peg from it to hang things on? No! It is thrown in the fire for fuel; when the fire has burned up both ends of it and it is charred in the middle, will it be useful for anything? Indeed! If it was not made into anything useful when it was whole, how much less can it be made into anything when the fire has burned it up and it is charred?” – Ezekiel 15:1-5 NLT

The wood of a vine has only one purpose and value: To produce grapes. Beyond that, it has no worth. It doesn’t even make a good fire, because it burns too quickly to do any good. And this was God’s assessment of Judah. He had done everything He could do to make them fruitful and useful. He had done all the work and all they had to do was yield the right kind of fruit. But instead, they had produced sour grapes.

Asaph penned a psalm that reflects God’s treatment of His vineyard.

You uprooted a vine from Egypt;
you drove out nations and transplanted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took root,
and filled the land.
The mountains were covered by its shadow,
the highest cedars by its branches.
Its branches reached the Mediterranean Sea,
and its shoots the Euphrates River.
Why did you break down its walls,
so that all who pass by pluck its fruit? – Psalm 80:8-12 NLT

God had done great things for the people of Israel. He had chosen them and made of them a great nation. He had rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and transplanted them to the fertile land of promise. He had provided them with judges, prophets, and kings. He had given them His law to let them know what righteous living looked like and the sacrificial system to provide atonement when they failed to live up to that law. He had made them prolific and powerful. He had showered them with His favor and had extended to them His mercy – time and time again. But they had proven unfaithful and unsuccessful at producing the kind of fruit He expected.

While they should have produced lives marked by justice, they were better known for their oppressive and unjust treatment of one another. And, as Isaiah has already made clear to them, God will hold the leaders of Judah responsible.

The Lord will enter into judgment
    with the elders and princes of his people:
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
    the spoil of the poor is in your houses.” – Isiah 3:14 ESV

God demanded justice and righteousness of His people and it began with the leadership. Justice has to do with meting out the right sentence in a judicial case. It is assuring that the right judgment is made. Later on, in this same chapter, Isaiah will point out what injustice looks like:

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. – Isaiah 5:20 NLT

Righteousness has to do with behavior. It is about doing the right thing – that which God demands. Isaiah will later describe a righteous person as:

The one who lives uprightly
and speaks honestly;
the one who refuses to profit from oppressive measures
and rejects a bribe;
the one who does not plot violent crimes
and does not seek to harm others… – Isaiah 33:15 NLT

Right judgments and right behavior. That was the kind of fruit God expected, but instead He had found His people producing nothing more than sour grapes. Their judgments were bitter and more like wild grapes than the cultivated fruit of God. Their lives were marked by ungodly behavior rather than the sweet-tasting, life-producing wine that results from God’s careful craftsmanship.

We all produce fruit. But the question is whether the fruit we produce is the byproduct of God’s gracious cultivation or the wild grapes of a flesh-controlled life.

For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. – Galatians 5:17-23 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)

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

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

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

God’s True Feelings About False Religion.

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. – Matthew 23:13-36 ESV

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Woe_unto_You,_Scribes_and_Pharisees_(Malheur_à_vous,_scribes_et_pharisiens)_-_James_Tissot

At this point, Jesus makes His message much more direct by turning His attention directly to the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. This is the part where He pronounces His seven woes or warnings against them. It is important to recognize that this is all about two distinctly different ways to approach God. What Jesus has to say is less about their behavior than the focus of their ministry.

Woe #1: They had a false view of the Kingdom of Heaven and how to enter it. Not only was their errant view making entrance into God’s Kingdom impossible for them, it was  slamming the door in the face of every person under their influence. They had made the attainment of righteousness all about human effort. In their minds, entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven was reserved for law-keepers, and they viewed themselves as the quitessential keepers of the law.

Woe #2: Their false view of the Kingdom of Heaven was having deadly consequences, because their refusal to accept Jesus as Messiah was condemning themselves and others to hell. They were eager to convert others to their way of thinking and to their view of the Kingdom, but the result was that these individuals ended up as lost as they were. By following the teaching of these men, the people of Israel were being deceived into believing a lie. They were placing their faith in the faulty confidence professed by these false teachers.

Woe #3: In spite of all their knowledge of the Mosaic Law, they were blind to that which the law and the prophets pointed. Jesus had already told these men that He was the primary focal point of the Hebrew Scriptures.

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” – John 5:39 NLT

But in their arrogance and prideful knowledge, they had missed the  whole point. They had misunderstood what really was of value in the Kingdom of Heaven. It was the Temple, that God had set apart as His own, that was holy, not the gold used to cover it. It was the altar, the place God had set aside for sacrifice, that was holy, and made anything placed on it holy. Ultimately, it is God who makes heaven holy and gives it its value. They focused their attention on the wrong things. They were materially minded, not spiritually focused. Their whole practice of making and keeping oaths was little more than a series of man-made loopholes and escape clauses designed to give them an easy out from having to do what they swore to do. They could appear holy and righteous, without having to accept any of the cost or consequences. And Jesus pointed out that they were really minimizing and trivializing the holiness of God.

Woe #4:They misunderstood the true nature of the Kingdom because they tended to major on the minors. Since they believed that entrance into the Kingdom was based on keeping of the law, they ended up nitpicking the law to death. Jesus accused them of being meticulously observant of laws concerning tithing of fruit, grain and other produce – to the point of absurdity. But in doing so, they conveniently overlooked the more important commandments: Justice, mercy and faith.

Jesus borrowed from their own Scriptures to remind them of God’s own words concerning this matter.

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
    and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
    and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 NLT

In all their zeal to tithe unscrupulously, they were failing to keep the two greatest commandments To love God and love others.

Woe #5: They had a false understanding of what constitutes righteousness in the Kingdom. God was interested in the INSIDE, not the OUTSIDE. Yet their focus was solely on the externals. They made behavior modification their goal, rather than heart transformation. But Jesus had taught just the opposite. “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person” (Matthew 15:18-20 NLT).

These men were all about appearances. They lived to impress and were addicted to the praise of men. As long as they looked good, they believed that they were good. External appearances and outward behavior were the criteria by which they judged a man’s righteousness, but God looks at the condition of the heart.

Woe #6: This one supports the previous one. It reveals their false concept of what it took to become clean or righteous. Again, they had replaced heart transformation with behavior modification. They spent all their time obsessing about outward appearances, while ignoring the internal state of their souls. Rather than heart-felt repentance, they focused on outward reformation. Rather than acknowledge their sin, they simply attempted to cover it up with good deeds and religious effort.

Jesus described them as painted tombs. Not exactly a compliment. Their outward display of righteous behavior was like putting makeup on a pig. It didn’t change reality. A well-manicured grave, covered with flowers and its tombstone meticulously clean, can’t change the fact that beneath the surface lies death and decay.

Woe #7: In failing to recognize their own sinful condition, they had become just like their ancestors – rebellious, stubborn and resistant to God. The Israelites had built tombs and monuments to honor the prophets of God, but had failed to listen to them. In fact, they had killed many of them. And Jesus made it clear that the religious leaders of Israel had done the same thing in His day, rejecting the most recent prophet of God: John the Baptist. And in just a matter of days, they would arrange to have the very Son of God put to death, just as Jesus had predicted. After Jesus was out of the way, they would end up persecuting and killing the disciples as well.

“Therefore, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers of religious law. But you will kill some by crucifixion, and you will flog others with whips in your synagogues, chasing them from city to city.” – Matthew 23:34 NLT

Misplaced passion

Why was Jesus so upset with these men? What drove Him to treat them so harshly? They were passionate. They were zealous. They were religious. BUT THEY WERE DANGEROUS! They had become obstacles to the Kingdom of Heaven. Their misplaced zeal had led to them to become stumbling blocks.

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.’” – Luke 17:1-2 NET

These men DID NOT represent the way to the Kingdom of Heaven. They didn’t even know the directions. But where do we see this today? In the myriad of false and pseudo-Christian religions. We see it in anyone who denies that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone. We need to learn to look for these characteristics.

  1. Posing as spokesmen for God, but denying people access to the Kingdom of God
  2. Giving people false hope by offering them a false gospel
  3. Providing easy work-arounds to true holiness and commitment to God
  4. Judging righteousness based on their own standards, rather than God’s
  5. Refusing to acknowledge sin, while emphasizing self-righteousness
  6. Putting undue emphasis on the praise of men, rather than that of God
  7. Failing to see their status as enemies of God

The spirit of the Pharisees is alive and well today. It’s evident in every religion that refuses to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only way. It’s prevalent in many main-stream denominations that preach a gospel of works, not grace. It can be found anytime legalism and rule-keeping replaces love of God and others. It shows up whenever our religion becomes more important than our relationship with Christ. It takes the form of hypocrisy. When what we say we believe fails to impact the way we behave. When we love the praise of man more than pleasing 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.

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

Heart Disease.

 33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” – Matthew 12:33-37 ESV

At first glance, these verses appear to contain some confusing and contradictory messages from the lips of Jesus. In His continuing confrontation with the Pharisees, His rhetoric intensified and some of His statements seem contrary to the Gospel as we know it. As usual, we must take into account the context and the individuals to whom His words are directed. The Pharisees were considered part of the religious elite and Israel. They were revered for their piety and their strict adherence to the law of Moses. But they had just accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. In other words, they had judged His works as being evil. So, Jesus determined to address the issue of works or fruit.

He began with what appears to be a command that, from a Christian perspective, sounds a bit strange coming from the lips of Jesus.

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.” – Matthew 12:33 ESV

Can a tree make itself good or can a tree make itself bad? The real issue here has to do with fruit. The nature of the fruit is in direct relationship to the condition of the tree. A good tree bears good fruit. A bad or unhealthy tree bears bad fruit. The fruit merely proves the condition of the tree from which it came.

This was not the first time Jesus utilized this metaphor of trees and fruit. He had previously used it in His sermon on the mount.

16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. – Matthew 7:16-20 ESV

The Pharisees had accused Jesus of casting out demons in the name and power of Satan. But by restoring the sight and speech of the possessed man, Jesus had done a good thing. His actions had released a man from the control of a demon and restored him to health. The “fruit” was self-evident and should have been recognized for what it was: A work of the Spirit of God. But instead, the Pharisees had attributed it to Satan.

So, Jesus addressed the Pharisees on terms they could understand. They were self-righteous men who truly believed that their actions were the determiner of the justification before God. They were confident in their own righteousness, believing themselves to be law-abiding and God-pleasing. But Jesus knew their hearts and called them out for their hypocrisy. He used what would become a favorite term of His when referring to these men: “You brood of vipers!”

This was the same term John the Baptist had used when the Pharisees and Sadducees had showed up in the wilderness seeking to be baptized by him.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:7-10 ESV

These men, who by all appearances were godly and righteous, were actually deadly and dangerous. They were the offspring of Satan himself, and the fruit of their lives was proof. They could no more change the nature of their fruit than an apple tree could decide to bear oranges. Notice what John the Baptist said to them: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, the only way they were going to change the fruit of their lives was by repenting of the way they lived their lives. They were going to have to change their whole outlook on what it means to be righteous before God. Their belief that good works and obedience to the law earned a man a right standing before God was going to have to be replaced by faith in Jesus. First, they would have to agree with the assessment of the prophet Isaiah.

We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

They would need to accept the less-than-flattering conclusion of Solomon:

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV

Or as the apostle Paul would later put it:

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. – Romans 3:23 NLT

Jesus pulled no punches, but harshly assessed the true state of the spiritual condition.

“How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” – Matthew 12:34 ESV

He leaves little doubt as to His opinion of these men. They were evil and the very words that came from their lips were proof. They were suffering from a serious heart problem. And the Old Testament was full of warnings regarding the heart.

Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life. – Proverbs 4:23 ESV

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes,
    but the Lord weighs the heart. – Proverbs 21:2 ESV

“How sick is your heart, declares the Lord God, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute…” – Ezekiel 16:30 ESV

Jesus made His view of them crystal clear.

A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. – Matthew 12:35 NLT

They were suffering from an internal disorder over which they had no control. They couldn’t change the fruit they bore because they were incapable of altering their sin natures. The true condition of their hearts would eventually manifest itself. There was no hiding it. And Jesus dropped a bombshell on them that had to have left them reeling in disbelief and anger.

“…on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” – Matthew 12:36 ESV

The day is coming when God will judge all men. And Jesus seems to be saying that He wil judge them according to their words. But it is important to consider all that Jesus has said. His emphasis has been on the condition of the heart. He told them, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” The word translated as “abundance” has to do with surplus or that which fills and overflows the heart. Whatever fills the heart will overflow through the mouth. So, at the judgment, men will give an account for the words they have spoken, because those words will give evidence of the content of their hearts.

Then Jesus summarizes His comments with a statement that seems in direct violation of the Gospel.

“…for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” – Matthew 12:37 ESV

Is Jesus insinuating that our speech will save us? Do we have the capacity to talk our way into the Kingdom of God?

Obviously Jesus did not mean that if a person was able to say all the right words he or she could deceive God and win salvation by clever speech. The basis of justification and condemnation is character, but words reveal character and so become the instruments by which God judges. – Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Matthew

Once again, the point Jesus was making had to do with the condition of the heart. As the prophet Jeremiah so boldly put it: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). Our words and our conduct are merely expressions of the condition of our heart. And we can do nothing to change our words or actions because we can do nothing to change our hearts. That is the work of God. And God had long ago promised to give the people of Israel new hearts, doing for them what they could have never done on their own.

“I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:26-27 NLT

The Pharisees were convinced of their own righteousness. They viewed themselves as justified before God because of their outward adherence to the law of Moses. But Jesus knew their real problem was a heart condition for which their was only one cure: Faith in Him. Their words would end up condemning them because the wicked hearts within them. Had they been willing to pray the same prayer that King David prayed, they would have found Jesus ready, willing and able to answer.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. – Psalm 51:10 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