Return to the Lord

1 Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
    for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take with you words
    and return to the Lord;
say to him,
    “Take away all iniquity;
accept what is good,
    and we will pay with bulls
    the vows of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us;
    we will not ride on horses;
and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’
    to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.”

I will heal their apostasy;
    I will love them freely,
    for my anger has turned from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
    he shall blossom like the lily;
    he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon;
his shoots shall spread out;
    his beauty shall be like the olive,
    and his fragrance like Lebanon.
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
    they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
    their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols?
    It is I who answer and look after you.
I am like an evergreen cypress;
    from me comes your fruit.

Whoever is wise, let him understand these things;
    whoever is discerning, let him know them;
for the ways of the Lord are right,
    and the upright walk in them,
    but transgressors stumble in them. – Hosea 14:1-9 ESV

Despite all the chapters dealing with Israel’s apostasy and God’s pending judgment, the book of Hosea ends on a highly positive note. In the closing chapter, Hosea makes one more impassioned plea for the rebellious people of Israel to return to the Lord. He lovingly implores them to leave their sins behind and make their way back to God. Hosea reminds them that they can only find healing and forgiveness with Yahweh. Their idols are useless and incapable of providing them with the help they need. But they will need to confess their sins and offer heart-felt sacrifices to the one true God. If they do, they will receive atonement and a restored relationship with the one who lovingly set them apart as His own chosen possession.

In an effort to encourage a positive response to his call to repentance, Hosea even provides them with the words to say.

“Forgive all our sins and graciously receive us,
    so that we may offer you our praises.
Assyria cannot save us,
    nor can our warhorses.
Never again will we say to the idols we have made,
    ‘You are our gods.’
No, in you alone
    do the orphans find mercy.” – Hosea 14:2-3 NLT

He practically wrote their confession for them, so all they had to do was speak the words.  But it would all mean nothing if their hearts were not in it. God was not interested in lip service. Pious-sounding words that were not back up by sincerity of heart were worthless to Him, and He had condemned such hypocritical behavior before.

“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 BSB

God also gave a somewhat discouraging assessment to His prophet, Ezekiel, warning him that the people would listen to his words but with no intention of doing what he said.

“Son of man, your people talk about you in their houses and whisper about you at the doors. They say to each other, ‘Come on, let’s go hear the prophet tell us what the Lord is saying!’ So my people come pretending to be sincere and sit before you. They listen to your words, but they have no intention of doing what you say. Their mouths are full of lustful words, and their hearts seek only after money. You are very entertaining to them, like someone who sings love songs with a beautiful voice or plays fine music on an instrument. They hear what you say, but they don’t act on it!” – Ezekiel 33:30-32 NLT

King David had understood that what God wanted from His sinful people was not ritualistic sacrifices offered in some kind of perfunctory fashion. He desired that His people offer Him their broken and repentant hearts, not empty sacrifices that were in keeping with the letter of the law but lacking in sincerity and truth.

“You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
    You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
    You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” – Psalm 51:16-17 NLT

Hosea wants the people of Israel to know that only meaningful repentance will result in restoration. He even quotes God’s promise to restore His repentant people.

“Then I will heal you of your faithlessness;
    my love will know no bounds,
    for my anger will be gone forever. – Hosea 14:4 NLT

Amazingly, God offers His people the undeserved gift of His forgiveness, mercy, and grace. He is still willing to show them compassion. He is still prepared to shower them with His blessings – despite all the centuries marked by rebellion, unfaithfulness, and disobedience to His holy law. All the way back when Solomon was still king over the unified kingdom of Israel, God had made him a promise. It was at the dedication of the newly constructed temple that Solomon had constructed in God’s honor. After Solomon’s prayer of dedication, God made a pledge that He would honor the new temple with His name and listen to the prayers that His people prayed toward this sacred site.

“…if My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 BSB

That promise was still valid, because God always keeps His word.

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

God is a covenant-keeping God. He does not renege or go back on His promises. And in the book of psalms, we read on His covenant commitment to David.

“I will establish your descendants as kings forever;
    they will sit on your throne from now until eternity.” – Psalm 89:4 NLT

God loved David greatly and called him a man after His own heart. And He promised to give David a long-lasting, never-ending dynasty. But at the time when Hosea was writing the book that bears his name, the prospects of this promise being fulfilled looked bleak. The kingdom that David had turned over to his son Solomon had been divided in two. And the day was quickly coming when there would no longer be a king over Israel or Judah. Both nations would be defeated by foreign powers and watch as their kings were dethroned and their kingdoms destroyed. To this day, there has been no king to rule over the people of Israel. Yet God had promised David:

“I will make him my firstborn son,
    the mightiest king on earth.
I will love him and be kind to him forever;
    my covenant with him will never end.
I will preserve an heir for him;
    his throne will be as endless as the days of heaven.” – Psalm 89:27-29 NLT

But there was a caveat that came with the promise. God had also warned what would happen in the people of Israel failed to be obedient. There would be consequences.

“But if his descendants forsake my instructions
    and fail to obey my regulations,
if they do not obey my decrees
    and fail to keep my commands,
then I will punish their sin with the rod,
    and their disobedience with beating.
But I will never stop loving him
    nor fail to keep my promise to him.
No, I will not break my covenant;
    I will not take back a single word I said.” – Psalm 89:30-34 NLT

They would suffer for their sins but God would not alter one letter of His covenant commitment to David. He would never stop loving him. He would never fail to keep the promises He made to him. And the descendants of David would stand to benefit greatly from God’s faithful commitment to keep His word.

“I will be to Israel
    like a refreshing dew from heaven.
Israel will blossom like the lily;
    it will send roots deep into the soil
    like the cedars in Lebanon.” – Hosea 14:5 NLT

Using highly poetic language, God describes a remarkable change in Israel’s future circumstances.

“My people will again live under my shade.
    They will flourish like grain and blossom like grapevines.” – Hosea 14:7 NLT

Just as they are assured the inevitability of their coming destruction, they are also promised their future restoration and revitalization by the gracious hand of God.

But in the meantime, God pleads with His people to “stay away from idols!” (Hosea 14:8 NLT). He longs to be their sole source of comfort and the only one to whom they turn for help, hope, and healing.

I am the one who answers your prayers and cares for you.
I am like a tree that is always green;
    all your fruit comes from me.” – Hosea 14:8 NLT

Their false gods will fail them. But not Yahweh. Lifeless idols cannot hear or answer their prayers. But God can and will – if they will only call out to Him in humility and brokenness. And Hosea wraps up his book with one final plea for the people to act wisely and respond to the Lord with discernment. They must choose.

The paths of the Lord are true and right,
    and righteous people live by walking in them.
    But in those paths sinners stumble and fall. – Hosea 14:9 NLT

This was essentially the same message that the prophet, Jeremiah, pronounced. He too recorded God’s call for His people to make the right choice and to walk the right path. But sadly, they refused to listen.

This is what the Lord says:
“Stop at the crossroads and look around.
    Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it.
Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.
    But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’
I posted watchmen over you who said,
    ‘Listen for the sound of the alarm.’
But you replied,
    ‘No! We won’t pay attention!’” – Jeremiah 6:16-17 NLT

Choose the right path. Heed the warnings of God. Display a heart of contrition. Repent and return to the Lord. And He will graciously offer you forgiveness, atonement, and the joy of a restored relationship with Himself.

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









Let [God’s] Justice Roll

18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
    Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
19     as if a man fled from a lion,
    and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
    and a serpent bit him.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
    and gloom with no brightness in it?

21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
    I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

25 “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, 27 and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts. Amos 5:18-27 ESV

Let justice roll down.

When considered alongside our current cultural milieu, those four simple words carry more weight than they usually might. But before we put them on a banner or add them as a tagline to our next social media post, we need to understand their context. With all the current emphasis on social justice and equality, it would be easy to use this section of Amos as a proof text for promoting radical reform – especially among the people of God. And there is little doubt that God had serious problems with the injustice being practiced by the Israelites. He accused them of turning “justice to wormwood” (Amos 5:7 ESV). The laws that God had given them were meant to improve their relationships with one another, but their refusal to obey those laws had resulted in bitterness, not joy.

God pulled no punches when He addressed their unrighteous and unjust behavior toward one another. But He made it clear that it all began with their lack of love for His ways.

“How you hate honest judges!
    How you despise people who tell the truth!
You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.” – Amos 5:10-11 NLT

They had long ago stopped hearing from God. They refused to listen to His prophets and rejected His calls to repentance. Their horizontal behavior was a byproduct of their vertical relationship with Him. Without a proper love and reverence for God, they were ill-equipped to show love to one another. And that is the real point of this passage.

The reason they regularly turned aside the needy in the gate (Amos 5:12) was because they had turned away from the worship of Yahweh. And the answer to their problem was not that they do a better job of justice-keeping. It was that they begin to make the worship of God a high priority in their lives. That’s why He told them to “Seek the Lord and live…” (Amos 5:6 ESV).

It all began with a return to Him. Their ability to do what was just and right was directly tied to a faithful relationship with Him. That is why God repeatedly states, “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4 ESV), and then adds, “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live” (Amos 5:14 ESV). They couldn’t do one without the other. It all had to begin with a sincere seeking of God. Attempting to do good without a healthy and vibrant relationship with God would prove ineffective and non-productive.

God’s command that they “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15 ESV), would be impossible if they failed to seek and serve Him alone.  The only way they could know the difference between good and evil was through a knowledge of God’s holy law. They weren’t free to establish their own definition of righteousness or to determine what they believed to be just and right behavior. God had already done that through the giving of the law.

When God had given the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, He had laid out in black and white terms exactly what He expected of His people. The law was meant to define and regulate every area of their behavior. It provided non-negotiable requirements for their conduct, not suggested guidelines that could be accepted or ignored.

And, according to Jesus, the entire Mosaic law could be summed up in two very specific and interrelated laws:

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40 NLT

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that a love for God and a love for others went hand in hand. They were inseparable. In fact, the apostle John would expand on this thought when he wrote, “We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19 NLT). And John didn’t stop there. He went on to add a further clarification that reveals that God’s love for us was never intended to dead-end on us. It was meant to shared.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:19-21 NLT

So, let’s go back to our verses for today. Amos warns the people of Israel about the danger of longing for “the day of the Lord”  (Amos 5:18 ESV). That phrase was a popular one among the people of God because it was thought to refer to a future period of time when God’s blessings would fall on Israel. It was believed to be a time when God would mete out His well-deserved judgment upon the nations of the earth, while fulfilling every promise of blessing upon His chosen people: the nation of Israel. And they had plenty of Old Testament passages to support their view.

For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
    your deeds shall return on your own head. – Obadiah 15 ESV

Then the Lord will pity his people
    and jealously guard the honor of his land.
The Lord will reply,
“Look! I am sending you grain and new wine and olive oil,
    enough to satisfy your needs.
You will no longer be an object of mockery
    among the surrounding nations.” – Joel 2:18-19 NLT

The truth is, the people of Israel tended to hear what they wanted to hear. As a result, their view of the coming day of the Lord was a bit skewed. It was going to be all good news for them and bad news for their enemies. Yet, Amos reveals that there mighty be cause for them to rethink their rather rosy perspective.

What sorrow awaits you who say,
    “If only the day of the Lord were here!”
You have no idea what you are wishing for.
    That day will bring darkness, not light. – Amos 5:18 NLT

When that day finally arrived, it was going to deliver an outcome that was dramatically different than the one they were expecting.

Yes, the day of the Lord will be dark and hopeless,
    without a ray of joy or hope. – Amost 5:20 NLT

While they were expecting deliverance, they would end up experiencing nothing but  disaster and harsh discipline from the hand of God. And just so they understood why the day of the Lord would fail to deliver what they were expecting, God explained the root cause of His dissatisfaction with them.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. – Amos 5:21 NLT

Everything they did was a sham, a highly orchestrated religious show meant to impress their friends and neighbors. It was nothing more than fake piety and religious play-acting. But God had not been fooled. And not only that, He was sick of the whole thing and no longer willing to put up with their little charade. And He told them so.

“I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.” – Amos 5:22-23 NLT

God was going to put an end to their hypocrisy. He would no longer allow them to go through the motions, pretending to be something they were not. Which brings us back to the topic of justice. God was looking for proof that they really did love Him and knew what He expected from them. And just to make sure they understood what kind of proof He was looking for, He told them.

“I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
    an endless river of righteous living.” – Amos 5:24 NLT

Now, here’s what we need to understand about this passage. God knew full well that His people would never deliver that for which He was looking. In other words, they would never produce a mighty flood of justice. They would never create an endless river of righteous living. But He would. God Almighty was going to make sure that His brand of justice was meted out, regardless of whether the recipient was a member of the chosen people of God or an idol-worshiping pagan. God would deliver His brand of justice to any and all. And through the gift of His Son, He would make possible “an endless river of righteous living” for all those who place their faith in Him.

And the apostle Paul would later tell the Gentile believers living in Ephesus some great news:

Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. – Ephesians 2:11-13 NLT

The people of Israel were without excuse. They had been chosen by God. They had been given the holy and righteous law of God to guide their lives. He had graciously and miraculously delivered them from their captivity in Egypt. And they had repaid the favor by worship false gods, even as He led them to the land of Promise.

So, God delivers some very bad but well-deserved news.

“So I will send you into exile, to a land east of Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of Heaven’s Armies. – Amos 5:27 NLT

God would deliver justice. But, as a result of His decision to mete out divine judgment upon His chosen people, the long-term consequences would produce an endless river of righteous living. God would punish His people for their sin and rebellion. But the day would come when He would rescue them and restore them to the land of Canaan. And centuries later, He would send His Son into the world, the seed of Abraham, the son of David, and the Savior of the world.

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

Our Great Provider

38 And Elisha came again to Gilgal when there was a famine in the land. And as the sons of the prophets were sitting before him, he said to his servant, “Set on the large pot, and boil stew for the sons of the prophets.” 39 One of them went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine and gathered from it his lap full of wild gourds, and came and cut them up into the pot of stew, not knowing what they were. 40 And they poured out some for the men to eat. But while they were eating of the stew, they cried out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” And they could not eat it. 41 He said, “Then bring flour.” And he threw it into the pot and said, “Pour some out for the men, that they may eat.” And there was no harm in the pot.

42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And Elisha said, “Give to the men, that they may eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred men?” So he repeated, “Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” 44 So he set it before them. And they ate and had some left, according to the word of the Lord. 2 Kings 4:38-44 ESV

Once again, the author provides his readers with two stories that are intended to communicate a message about the spiritual state of apostate Israel and her faithful, all-powerful God. God’s prophet, Elisha, becomes the primary means by which God reveals His power and authority among the people. In this case, Elisha will have to deal with the effects of yet another famine in the land. During the days of Elijah, God had brought a devastating famine on the land of Israel because of the sins of Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah had been forced to deliver God’s message of judgment against the apostate king and his pagan, idol-worshiping wife.

“As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” – 1 Kings 17:1 ESV

And that first famine remained on the land until God determined to lift it. But its end came only after Elijah had defeated the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Through His prophet, God delivered a devastating and decisive blow to the false god of Ahab and Jezebel. And only after a demonstrative display of His power and authority did God relent and restore fruitfulness to the land of Israel

And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. – 1 Kings 18:45 ESV

Yet, despite God’s gracious act of undeserved kindness, the people remained just as committed to their false gods. Ahab had died, but his two sons had carried on his legacy of unfaithfulness, continuing to lead the people of Israel in apostasy and idolatry. As a result, God had brought another famine on the land. In doing so, He was purposefully transforming a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3) into a wasteland. Because the people of Israel had decided to forsake God and worship the false gods of Canaan, He would withhold the rain and allow their physical conditions to mirror the state of their hearts. Fruitfulness would be replaced with drought.

It would appear that the blessing of rain brought upon the land during the days of Elijah had made little impact on the people. They continued to reject Yahweh as the one true God. So, at some point, God brought yet another famine on the land. And, this time, it was Elisha who had to deal with the effects of this divine judgment.

The scene described in these verses involves the prophets of God who have gathered at a place called Gilgal. The identity of the characters and the location are essential to understanding the story. Elijah had gathered together with other men who served as the spiritual spokesmen for God among the people of Israel. This was a conclave of committed God-followers and they were meeting in a sacred site. Gilgal is significant because it was there that Joshua had erected a stone memorial to commemorate the Israelite’s crossing of the Jordan River.

The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” – Joshua 4:19-24 ESV

We have no way of knowing whether the stones were still standing by the days of Elisha, but these prophets of God would have all known the significance of their surroundings. They were standing on sacred ground.

Elisha ordered his servant, Gehazi, to prepare a stew for the prophets. Keep in mind that there was a famine in the land and food would have been scarce. Even these men of God would have been experiencing the impact of God’s judgment on the land. But Elisha, as the primary representative for Yahweh, took it upon himself to care for his fellow prophets. But one of the men made an innocent, yet potentially deadly mistake. In an effort to assist Gehazi, this unidentified prophet gathered some wild gourds and added them to the stew. But the gourds he picked proved to be poisonous. This young man had tried to help but had made things worse. His ignorance proved to be potentially deadly. The prophet’s inability to recognize a poisonous gourd could have ended in a tragedy. But fortunately, his mistake had been caught, preventing any of his fellow prophets from dying as a result of his error.

The lesson here is clear. As prophets of God, these men were to know the difference between the true and the false. They were God’s spokesmen, commissioned by Him to deliver His message of repentance to the people of Israel. They were to point the people back to God. But if they failed to recognize and revere Yahweh as the one true God, they would run the risk of bringing judgment upon the nation. In a sense, the wild gourd is meant to represent the worship of false gods. The young prophet had been fooled by the apparent similarities between a good gourd and one that contained deadly poison. He had not been equipped to spot the differences and his mistake had almost cost his friends their lives. The false gods the people of Israel were worshiping were particularly deceptive because they tended to look like the real thing. They were promoted as powerful deities who shared traits similar to those of Yahweh. These gods had altars and temples. They were said to have supernatural powers and worshipers would coerce the gods to use those power on their behalf through sacrifices and offerings. But the whole point of the story is that false gods are ultimately deadly. They can’t nourish or feed the people. They are a poison that brings nothing but death and destruction.

But the rest of the prophets of God recognized the presence of the poison, warning one another of the invisible danger before any lives were lost. Then Elisha stepped in and remedied the problem. He took flour and mixed it into the poisoned stew. Just as the wild gourd represents that deadly influence of idolatry, the flour seems to stand for the purifying influence of God’s Word. The truth concerning Yahweh and His commands to worship Him as the one true God were the answer to the deadly influence of Baalism. This entire scene was intended to be a powerful reminder to the prophets of God of their indispensable role as God’s messengers. If they didn’t speak the truth, the people were doomed. If they failed to recognize the deceptive and deadly nature of idolatry, the nation had no hope of survival.

But through the actions of Elisha, God purified the pot of stew, making the poisonous contents not only edible but beneficial. And we shouldn’t miss the similarities between this miracle and one that Elisha performed earlier. Back in chapter two, we have the story of Elisha transforming the brackish waters outside the city of Jericho. He had been told by residents of the city that …the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful” (2 Kings 2:19 ESV). The city had a water source, but it was non-potable. As a result, the land was unfruitful. But Elisha quickly solved the problem, providing yet another decisive demonstration of God’s power and holiness.

“Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have healed this water; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been healed to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke. – 2 Kings 2:20-22 ESV

Through Elisha, God had made the water drinkable. And He had also made the poisoned stew safe for consumption. God’s presence and power were meant to be tangible and beneficial. He wanted to bless the lives of His people. He alone could bring sustenance and salvation. He was the great provider who could meet all their needs, if only they would turn to Him.

And God gave His prophets one further demonstration of His incomparable power to provide for all their needs. An unidentified man showed up who hailed from the town of Baal-shalishah. The name of the town is significant because it means “thrice great lord.” It was a town named after the false god, Baal, yet a resident of the city was bringing an offering dedicated to Yahweh. He brought 20 loaves of bread as a sacrifice of the first-fruits of his harvest and he gave them to Elisha. The people of Israel had no access to the temple in Jerusalem, so the man had no other way to present his offering to God. When Elisha received the gift, he ordered that it be distributed among his fellow prophets. But Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, informed him that the bread was insufficient to feed the 100 prophets.

Once again, God used Elisha to demonstrate His power to provide. Elisha ordered Gehazi to distribute the bread, telling him “Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left’” (2 Kings 4:43 ESV). And when Gehazi followed his master’s instructions, a miracle took place. All 100 prophets had more than enough bread to eat and there were even leftovers. This story foreshadows another miracle that would take place centuries later when Jesus fed the 5000 with nothing but three loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus, the final and consummate prophet of God would also demonstrate Yahweh’s power through a miracle of multiplication. And Matthew records that when Jesus had broken the loaves and the fishes, “they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over” ( Matthew 14:20 ESV). 

In the midst of a famine, God miraculously fed His prophets with stew that He had purified and bread that He had multiplied. And hundreds of years later, when the nation of Israel found itself in a time of spiritual famine, God would send His Son as the Bread of Life, to feed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

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

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

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

Wisdom to Spare

16 Then two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 The one woman said, “Oh, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house, and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. 18 Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. And we were alone. There was no one else with us in the house; only we two were in the house. 19 And this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 And she arose at midnight and took my son from beside me, while your servant slept, and laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21 When I rose in the morning to nurse my child, behold, he was dead. But when I looked at him closely in the morning, behold, he was not the child that I had borne.” 22 But the other woman said, “No, the living child is mine, and the dead child is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead child is yours, and the living child is mine.” Thus they spoke before the king.

23 Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; and the other says, ‘No; but your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” 24 And the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought before the king. 25 And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 26 Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.” 27 Then the king answered and said, “Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means put him to death; she is his mother.” 28 And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice. 1 Kings 3:16-28 ESV

In Solomon’s vision, he had requested that God would give him “an understanding mind” so that he might be able to “discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9 ESV). And God had agreed to Solomon’s request, bestowing upon him the ability “to discern what is right” (1 Kings 3:11 ESV). All of this occurred while Solomon slept, and when he awoke there was probably little evidence that anything had changed. It is doubtful that he felt any different of could sense that he was wiser and more discerning. But, in time, he was given tangible proof that God had kept His word.

As the king, he was expected to act as the preeminent judge over his people. One of his duties was to ensure that the citizens of his kingdom were governed with order and justice. He was to see that there was a fair and equitable system for hearing and settling all civil disputes. And this responsibility was not to be taken lightly. When David was king, it seems that he failed to make this aspect of his kingly duties a high priority, and his son, Absalom, used this oversight to his advantage.

He got up early every morning and went out to the gate of the city. When people brought a case to the king for judgment, Absalom would ask where in Israel they were from, and they would tell him their tribe. Then Absalom would say, “You’ve really got a strong case here! It’s too bad the king doesn’t have anyone to hear it. I wish I were the judge. Then everyone could bring their cases to me for judgment, and I would give them justice!” – 2 Samuel 15:2-4 NLT

Absalom knew that the people wanted a king who showed care and concern for them. His daily appearances at the gate were intended to win them over the convince them that he was a more reliable advocate for them than David. And his actions paid off.

Absalom did this with everyone who came to the king for judgment, and so he stole the hearts of all the people of Israel. – 2 Samuel 15:6 NLT

But unlike his father, Solomon didn’t shirk his kingly responsibilities. He was willing to do the dirty work that came with his new role, which included presiding over disputes between the citizens of his kingdom. And, as this passage makes clear, Solomon didn’t practice a form of judicial snobbery. He could have limited his cases to those of the wealthy and influential and relegated the disputes among the common people to a subordinate on his administration. But here we find the king presiding over a case involving two prostitutes. These women would have been considered the scum of the earth. The Hebrew word used to describe them carries a strong pejorative meaning, most often being translated as “whores.” They were guilty of adultery and sexual immorality, and their reputations were well known within the community. Yet, Solomon graciously admitted them into his royal court and took the time to hear their dispute.

It’s interesting to note that Jesus Himself was accused of being “a friend of tax collectors and other sinners” (Matthew 11:19 NLT). He had a reputation for associating with the despised and disreputable of society. But, when faced with these accusations, Jesus didn’t deny them, he simply stated, “wisdom is shown to be right by its results” (Matthew 11:19 NLT). Jesus was emphasizing that, in time, His choice of friends would prove to be right and just. After all, Jesus had come into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). When Jesus was condemned by the Jewish religious leaders for eating with tax collectors and sinners, He had responded, ““Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do” (Matthew 9:12 NLT). And then He added, “For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” ( Matthew 9:13 NLT).

Solomon understood that he was the God-appointed king over all the people. He didn’t have the right to pick and choose whom he governed. And these two women, while clearly sinners, were still citizens of his kingdom and no less deserving of his time.

So, Solomon patiently listened to their story, and it proved to be a convoluted and complicated tale. These two women not only shared a common occupation, but they also lived in the same house. And as a result of their chosen form of livelihood, both women eventually became pregnant. Within a few days of each other, both gave birth to healthy baby boys. But one of the infants died in his sleep, accidentally smothered by his own mother as he slept by her side in the bed. During the night, the woman woke to find her son dead, so driven by grief and jealousy, she took the body of her deceased baby and switched it with the living child. There is little doubt that this ploy would fail, but she was driven by grief, not logic.

And when the other woman awoke and discovered the lifeless baby by her side, she quickly discerned that it was not her child. The babies had been switched in the night. But the other mother vehemently denied any wrongdoing and vociferously declared that the living baby was her own. Unable to settle their dispute, the women brought the matter to the king. And now, it was up to Solomon to deliver a wise and discerning resolution to their conflict.

After hearing these two emotionally charged mothers state their cases, Solomon simply stated, “Bring me a sword” (1 Kings 3:24 ESV). His words must have come as a shock to the women. Why was he asking for a sword? What was he intending to do? Was he going to enact judgment and personally execute one of them on the spot? What they didn’t realize was that Solomon was utilizing the wisdom and discernment promised to him by God. Without even knowing it, Solomon was putting into practice his newfound ability to discern what was right. Having heard the details of the case and the conflicting claims of the women, Solomon somehow knew exactly what to do. 

Sword in hand, Solomon declared his shocking “solution” to the problem.

“Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other!” – 1 Kings 3:25 NLT

In essence, Solomon was declaring that since there was no way of knowing which woman was telling the truth, the only alternative was to kill the remaining child, so that neither had an advantage. This judgment sounds preposterous and totally unfair. One of the women was clearly lying, and this solution would have produced an inequitable and unrighteous outcome. But Solomon was operating under the divine influence of God Almighty. He had no intention of killing the baby. His “judgment” was a carefully crafted ploy, designed to expose which woman was the liar. And the disparate responses of the two women quickly revealed the identity of the real mother. She was the one who begged for the life of the child to be spared. She was willing to lose custody of the child in exchange for his life. Yet, the other woman was more than willing to see the living child killed so that the other mother might be deprived of joy.

This entire episode is intended as a demonstration or proof that God had kept His promise to Solomon. The vision given to Solomon had been far more than just a dream. It had been a prophetic word from God and now Solomon knew that he had received the very gift he had requested: An understanding mind that could discern between good and evil. Even Solomon must have been surprised by his own actions. But as Jesus had said, “wisdom is shown to be right by its results.” The positive outcome of this dispute revealed that the wisdom of God had been at work. It had not been the result of human intelligence or Solomon’s inherent cleverness. He had been given the ability “to discern what is right” (1 Kings 3:11 ESV), and he had put it to good use. The result was the joyful reunion of the mother and her child. There is no indication that Solomon condemned the other woman for her lies and subterfuge. She had already suffered the loss of her child and that was punishment enough.

And, in time, news of Solomon’s novel approach to justice began to spread throughout the kingdom, and the people recognized it for what it was: The wisdom of God.

When all Israel heard the king’s decision, the people were in awe of the king, for they saw the wisdom God had given him for rendering justice. – 1 Kings 3:28 NLT

They found comfort in knowing that their king was governed by the wisdom of God. They could expect to receive justice because their king operated according to divine wisdom.

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

Impressed by the Wrong Things

41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” 

1 And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Mark 12:41-13:2 ESV

Jesus and His disciples remain in the temple courtyard, where He underwent a series of confrontations with the religious leaders who had been attempting to entrap Him. In a bold affront to their arrogant sense of superiority, Jesus had labeled their displays of self-righteousness as nothing more than hypocrisy.

“…they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets.” – Mark 12:38-39 NLT

These men were addicted to fine clothes and flattery. They craved recognition and demanded the respect of all those whom they considered their inferiors. And almost as if to provide a glaring contrast to their style of behavior, Jesus directs the attention of His disciples to a poor widow. He has positioned Himself opposite the temple treasury where He is silently observing the various people bringing their offerings and placing them in one of the 13 trumpet-shaped receptacles arranged around the perimeter of the Courtyard of the Women.

As Jesus looks on, a variety of people drop their freewill offerings into the boxes, many of whom are wealthy and can be seen donating large sums of money. Mark’s inference seems to be that their actions were intended to attract attention. The size of their contributions was intended to be noticed. Since all currency was in the form of coins, their gift would have made a great deal of noise as it clanged on the metal trumpet that topped the offering box. All heads would have turned to see who was giving such a generous amount.

But Jesus takes note of a poor widow, who “came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny” (Mark 12:42 ESV). This woman’s small gift would have garnered little attention from the people who crowded the temple courtyard, but she caught the eye of Jesus. She was exactly the kind of person He had mentioned in His diatribe against the scribes.

“Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public.” – Mark 12:40 NLT

This widow was someone the scribes and other religious leaders would have taken advantage of in order to line their own pockets. Yet, to Jesus, she represented the truly righteous. Her two small coins would have made little noise as they descended into the offering box, but to Jesus, her actions spoke volumes. So, He pointed her out to His disciples and said, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box” (Mark 12:43 ESV).

It was not the size of her gift that mattered, but it was the state of her heart. She had not given to be noticed. Her gift had not been meant to impress. But Jesus knew that her gift had been a great sacrifice because she had “given everything she had to live on” (Mark 12:44 NLT). This entire scene is a visual demonstration of Jesus’ lesson from His sermon on the mount.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get.” – Matthew 6:1-2 NLT

This woman, though poor, had sacrificed everything in order to give her freewill offering to God. But the others had given “out of their abundance” (Mark 12;44 ESV). It had cost them nothing. Their gifts, while impressive in size, had required no sacrifice on their part. They had actually profited from their efforts, having garnered the praise and admiration of others for their obviously generous contributions.

By pointing out this widow to His disciples, Jesus had been trying to continue His lesson on greatness in the Kingdom of God. But it seems that His disciples remained stubbornly oblivious to all that He was trying to teach them. In fact, as they made their way out of the temple courtyard, none of the disciples mention the widow and her sacrificial gift. But one of them takes note of the grandeur and opulence of the temple.

“Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” – Mark 13:1 ESV

The temple was a magnificent complex that made an impressive sight from its prominent location atop Mount Zion. The Jews took great pride in this grand structure and the disciples were rightfully proud of and impressed by its sheer size and beauty. After all, it was the dwelling place of God.

The image of the poor widow had faded from their collective memories. Now, as they made their way out of the temple and back to the Mount of Olives, their attention was fixated on the structure that Herod the Great had helped expand and improve. The original temple, built by King Solomon, had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. Seventy years later, God had allowed a remnant of the people who had been exiled to Babylon to return and rebuild the temple. But, when completed, the new temple was just a shadow of its former glory. Herod the Great, in an attempt to win over the people, had decreed a massive rebuilding program that resulted in the grand structure that now dominated the landscape and captivated the attention of the disciples.

But Jesus, always ready to turn every moment into a teaching opportunity, told His disciples, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2 ESV). As we will see, this news shocked the disciples. They could not believe what they were hearing. How could God allow His beautiful house to be destroyed? But as hard as it was to fathom, everything Jesus said eventually came true. In A.D. 70, the Roman army, under the leadership of Titus, besieged Jerusalem in an effort to put an end to a long-standing Jewish revolt against Roman rule. After a three-month standoff, the Romans invaded the city, destroying and eventually burning the temple to the ground. They left no stone upon another.

The disciples had been unimpressed with the generous widow, but they couldn’t help but notice the grandeur of the temple. But Jesus ended up commending the woman and condemning the temple. She was elevated as an icon of righteousness and virtue, while the temple was declared to be the symbol of all that was wrong with Israel. As Jesus had declared earlier, the temple of God had become a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17 ESV). The dwelling place of God had been desecrated by the very ones who were responsible for its care and protection.

Jesus was reminding His disciples of the words of God, spoken centuries earlier through Isaiah the prophet and directed at the rebellious people of Israel.

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

Nothing had changed. Just as the original temple had been destroyed by God, so would this remarkable structure come under His judgment. Because the people of God failed to live in obedience to the will of God.

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

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

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

God of the Impossible

24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Mark 10:24-31 ESV

By this time, the disciples must have begun to regret that they had ever argued over which of them was the greatest. Ever since Jesus had overheard their childish squabble, He had been giving them a non-stop lesson about what it means to be great in the Kingdom of God. And the latest iteration of that lesson had come in the form of a rich young man who had come seeking his rightful inheritance. He wanted to know what was keeping him from enjoying the riches and rewards of eternal life right here, right now. He viewed himself as a good and righteous man who had kept God’s commands, and he believed his wealth was proof of God’s blessings on his life. But he wanted more. He was looking for the ultimate reward of eternal life.

And Jesus confirmed that the man “lacked one thing” (Mark 10:21 ESV). So, He told him to “go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21 ESV). In essence, Jesus told the man that he would have to let go of all that he treasured in this life if he wanted to receive the reward of eternal life. And this statement from Jesus should have sounded vaguely familiar to His disciples. They had heard Him say similar in His sermon on the mount more than 3 years earlier.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Matthew 6:19-21 ESV

The young man, unwilling to wait for the treasures of heaven, chose to walk away from Jesus. He ignored the call of Jesus to follow Him and, instead, returned to his life of wealth and earthly greatness. And in doing so, he became an illustration of what Jesus had said in His sermon on the mount.

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. – Matthew 6:24 ESV

Upon the man’s departure, Jesus turned to His disciples and said, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23 ESV). And this statement shocked them. It went against all their preconceived notions regarding righteousness and rewards. They had been raised to believe that was wealth was a sign of God’s blessings. After all, even Abraham, the great patriarch of the Hebrew people had been blessed by God with abundant livestock and great wealth. God had even blessed Joseph, the son of Jacob who had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. He ended up becoming the second-most-powerful man in Egypt. He enjoyed great power and prominence and used both to help protect the Israelites when a famine came to the land of Canaan.

But Jesus was not saying that riches are never a sign of God’s blessing. He was trying to help the disciples to understand that the material and physical blessings God bestows can actually become roadblocks that prevent men from seeking God Himself. The gifts begin to take precedence over the Giver. How easy it is to begin to worship the things of this earth, rather than the God of heaven, who is the giver of all good gifts.

Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father… – James 1:17 NLT

Any earthly blessings we receive in this life should be received with open arms but they are to be held loosely in our hands. We should have the same attitude that Lot had. He had been greatly blessed by God but had everything, including his family, his wealth, and his health. And yet, his response was: “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The LORD gave me what I had, and the LORD has taken it away. Praise the name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21 NLT).

But Jesus knew that His disciples were having a difficult time accepting what He was saying. So, He repeated His words but in a slightly different and even more controversial way.

“Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!” – Mark 10:24 ESV

He addressed the 12 as teknon, the Greek term for a male child. Jesus considered these men as His children. He cared for them deeply and wanted them to understand these deep truths concerning the Kingdom of God. He knew they were struggling and having a difficult time accepting all that He was saying. There was so much they needed to unlearn. Their concept of the Kingdom of God and how to enter it was weighed down by so many misconceptions.

Wealth was not an advantage when it came to gaining entrance into the Kingdom. Not even a good track record of law-keeping could earn someone a spot in God’s Kingdom. Gaining access into the presence of God was difficult and the rich young ruler had failed the test. Which left the disciples feeling a bit concerned for their own prospects for success. And what Jesus told them next didn’t restore their confidence.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Mark 10:25 ESV

This little parable did nothing to ease their concerns. In fact, Mark describes them as being “exceedingly astonished” at this news. And it led them to ask, “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26 ESV). You can sense their anxiety. Jesus had begun by describing entrance into the Kingdom of God as difficult. But now, He was declaring it to be impossible. It didn’t take a genius to understand that a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle. And if it was impossible for a rich man to enter eternity, what hope did they have? The disciples had no visible manifestations of God’s blessings. They weren’t rich, influential, or powerful. In their minds, they had nothing going for them. But they failed to recognize that they were teknon – the children or sons of Jesus. They belonged to Him. They shared an intimate and personal relationship with the Son of God.

But their minds were stuck on the rather ludicrous image of a camel trying to pass through the eye of a sewing needle. It was impossible. And so was their salvation. But Jesus attempted to calm their anxiety by stating, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27 ESV). What Jesus wanted His “sons” to know was that salvation was a work of God, and not based on the efforts of men. Entrance into the Kingdom of God was impossible. There was absolutely nothing man could do to earn his way into God’s favor and guarantee himself a place in the eternal Kingdom to come. And the apostle Paul would make this point repeatedly.

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

Yet 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

Well, if the rich were denied access into the Kingdom and law-keeping was not the key that opened the door, what were the disciples to do? They were at a loss as to what it was going to take to secure a place in God’s eternal realm. And it led Peter to blurt out, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28 ESV). He had taken to heart what Jesus had said to the rich young man:

“…go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven…” – Mark 10:21 ESV

This had led Peter to believe that the key to eternal life must be a life of sacrifice. If the young man had done what Jesus had said, he would have received exactly what he desired. But Peter had missed the point. He had wrongly concluded that Jesus was saying that salvation was reserved for those who were willing to sell out and follow Him. And just like the rich young ruler, Peter wanted Jesus to confirm his suspicions. He was hoping Jesus would declare him to have earned his place in the Kingdom.

And Jesus let Peter know that he was partially right. Salvation did require self-sacrifice. Jesus had already made that reality clear to them.

“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.  If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” – Matthew 16:24-26 NLT

Following Jesus was going to be costly. Becoming one of His disciples was going to require letting go of the earthly and temporal in order to gain the eternal. And Jesus assured Peter that whatever he had given up in this life would be well worth it. He would be repaid in full and in ways he could never have imagined.

“I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life.” – Mark 10:29-30 NLT

Yes, Peter and his companions had walked away from their careers and families. But Jesus assured them that their sacrifice would come with great blessings. They. would become part of a larger extended family and enjoy careers that would prove far more fulfilling and impactful than the ones they had given up. And the best part would be that any sacrifices they made in this life would be rewarded with eternal life. By making Jesus first and themselves last, they would enjoy eternal life in the Kingdom of God.

And then Jesus added one last lesson on greatness.

“But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” – Mark 10:31 ESV

The scribes and Pharisees, the rich and influential, the powerful and the outwardly righteous were not guaranteed a spot in God’s Kingdom. It was reserved for those who recognized their own inadequacy and their need for a Savior. The healthy don’t think they need a doctor, but the sick do. And while it was impossible for men to enter the Kingdom, with God all things are possible.

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 Hour of Decision

36 When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,

40 “He has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
    and understand with their heart, and turn,
    and I would heal them.”

41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 42 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. John 12:36-43 ESV

Jesus has just informed the crowd that the hour has come. The time of His death was drawing closer. And when He was “lifted up” on the cross to die for the sins of mankind, it would accomplish a God-glorifying victory in the supernatural realm.

“Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” – John 12:31 ESV

When His death eventually took place, the Jewish leadership would take it as victory. They had judged Jesus to be a blasphemer and He had gotten what He deserved. But they would not be alone in their rejoicing. Their father, the devil (John 8:44) would also celebrate the death of the Messiah. But only because he was ignorant of what Jesus death really meant. From a spiritual perspective, it would appear that Satan had won the day.

Yet Jesus informs His disciples and all those within His hearing that Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out. Jesus projects onto Satan his ultimate defeat which will take place at the end times. But He also suggests that His death will destroy Satan’s power once and for all. The enemy’s vice-like grip on mankind will be broken by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. The payment for mankind’s sin debt will be made in full. God’s just and righteous requirement of a blood sacrifice will have been satisfied by the offering of His own Son’s sinless life.

But Jesus informs His audience that His death will bring judgment upon the world. At first glance, this seems to contradict an earlier statement made by Jesus. In his nighttime encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus told assured him that “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17 NLT). Now He is declaring that His death will be accompanied by judgment. To better understand what Jesus means, we have to consider all that He said to Nicodemus on the matter.

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

“There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.” – John 3:16-19 NLT

Jesus was letting Nicodemus know that God had sent Him into the world to bring salvation to mankind. In a sense, the judgment of mankind has already taken place. All humanity stands before God as guilty and condemned, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10 ESV). And because of their guilty state, all men face the same fate because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV). 

But the good news Jesus tried to convey to Nicodemus was that He had come to offer an alternative. His death was going to provide a way for condemned sinners to escape the inevitable and unavoidable judgment of God. Paul explains it this way:

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. – Romans 3:23-25 ESV

The only way to escape judgment will be through faith or belief in Jesus Christ. That is what Jesus meant when He told Nicodemus, “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him” (John 3:18 NLT). Through belief in Jesus, the sinner moves from condemnation to justification. He or she is made right with God because they have placed their faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus. As John wrote in one of his later letters, “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7 ESV).

The death of Jesus would bring judgment upon the world because it would force sinful men and women to make a decision The only way they could escape judgment would be through faith or belief in Jesus. But John reveals that “despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him” (John 12:37 NLT). Even after witnessing Jesus raise a dead man back to life, some would still refuse to believe He was the Messiah. And John, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sees this failure to believe as a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:1.

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? – Isaiah 53:1 ESV

As John wrote in the opening chapter of his gospel, Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). Jesus had come, speaking His Father’s words and displaying His Father’s power. But they refused to believe. The light had appeared in their midst, but they refused to acknowledge Him. It was just as Jesus had told Nicodemus.

“…the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. – John 3:19-20 NLT

Again, John reaches back into the writings of the prophet Isaiah to show that the rejection of Jesus by the people of Israel was inevitable. It was part of the will of God. Paraphrasing the words of Isaiah, John announces that the stubborn refusal of the people of Israel was the handiwork of God.

“He has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
    and understand with their heart, and turn,
    and I would heal them.” – John 12:40 ESV

Their disbelief, pre-ordained by God, was essential to His redemptive plan. It was essential that Jesus be rejected and, ultimately, crucified. His death was absolutely necessary if mankind was to have any hope of escaping future judgment.

But many of the Jews continued to stubbornly cling to their own way of doing things. They could not bring themselves to believe that Jesus was offering them a means of being made right with God that did not require their strict adherence to the law. And the apostle Paul would later describe that their continued belief in law-keeping as the means for achieving a right-standing with God was preventing them from believing in Jesus.

Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved. I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God. – Romans 10:1-4 NLT

Belief and disbelief. That is the crux of the matter. Belief brings salvation and a right standing with God. Disbelief brings the judgment of God because it rejects the gracious gift of the Son of God.

But John indicates that there were those among the Jews who believed in Jesus. But he adds that they kept their belief to themselves, out of fear.

Many people did believe in him, however, including some of the Jewish leaders. But they wouldn’t admit it for fear that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue. For they loved human praise more than the praise of God. – John 12:42-43 NLT

Belief and disbelief. Light and darkness. The closer Jesus gets to the cross, the more intense the contrasts become. The day of reckoning is quickly approaching. When the time comes for Jesus to hang on the cross, it will be a watershed moment in history. Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32 ESV). All eyes will be fixed on Him. And, from that moment forward, His death will force every man and woman to make a decision, a choice to believe or disbelieve. To embrace the light or to continue to dwell in the darkness of sin, to face judgment or accept the free gift of a right standing with God through faith in His Son.

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

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

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

How Can You Believe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Not Marvel At This

25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. – John 5:25-29 ESV

The Jewish leaders have deemed Jesus as worthy of death. His claim of equality with God has left them no other choice. According to the law, He has blasphemed and the prescribed penalty for that crime was death. But Jesus, fully aware of their plans for Him, has decided to address their concern by further emphasizing His claim to be the Son of God. Even when facing the threat of death, He refuses to deny His identity. In fact, Jesus only escalates the tension between He and His adversaries by establishing Himself as the judge of all mankind.

For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son…” – John 4:22 ESV

To the Pharisees and Sadducees, this bold claim would have sounded not only blasphemous but highly offensive. Who was this uneducated Rabbi from Nazareth to think that He could stand in judgment over them? They represented the religious elite of Israel and considered themselves to be the epitome of righteousness and holiness. Yet, here was Jesus telling them that He, not God, would be their ultimate judge and the determiner of their eternal fate.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” – John 5:24 ESV

It seems quite apparent that the Pharisees and Sadducees failed to understand the nature of Jesus’ claim. And all His talk about future judgment and eternal life would have caused a major rift within their ranks. These two religious sects, while united in their hatred of Jesus, were divided over several key doctrines, and one of them was the idea of the bodily resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees rejected this doctrine along with the concept of any kind of afterlife. They preferred to believe that, upon death, the soul simply perished. But the Pharisees fully embraced the idea of an afterlife that would be preceded by a physical resurrection of the body and include a judgment by God that would be followed by either reward or punishment according to the deeds done in this life.

So, you can imagine how the words of Jesus must have created an uncomfortable tension between these two disparate factions within His audience. For the Sadducees, just the mention of eternal life would have left them shaking their heads in disbelief and disgust. But the Pharisees, while fully on board with the idea of an afterlife and a future judgment, would have been appalled by Jesus’ claim that He would be their judge.

And Jesus refuses to let up. He continues to expand on this controversial topic, throwing additional fuel on the fire of their anger.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” – John 5:25 ESV

With this statement, Jesus brings the timeline back into the present. With the minds of the Pharisees and Sadducees firmly fixed on the idea of the resurrection and the future judgment, Jesus adroitly shifts the focus to the here-and-now. He is letting them know that the key to securing a reward in the future judgment is to be found in the present. While the Pharisees were convinced that their acts of righteousness were enough to secure their eternal state in God’s kingdom, Jesus is debunking that myth.

He had come to bring new life to the spiritually dead. All who stood in His presence that day were dead in their trespasses and sins, including the Pharisees and Sadducees (Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13). They were totally incapable of earning their way into God’s good graces because, according to the prophet Isaiah, all their works were no better than filthy rags in the eyes of God (Isaiah 64:6 ESV).

But Jesus is announcing that the spiritually dead can receive new life in this life, if they will only “hear the voice of the Son of God.” He promises that all who hear and believe will live. This claim would have been radical and heretical to the Pharisees. That Jesus would dare to hold the key to eternal life was one thing, but for Him to seemingly negate the need for doing works of righteousness to earn that reward was unthinkable and unacceptable.

But as difficult as it was for them to accept Jesus’ claim, He assures them that this was all part of the Father’s plan. God had granted His Son the divine authority to bestow the gift of eternal life.

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” – John 5:26 ESV

Later on in his gospel, John records the words of Jesus, when He claims to be the door through which all must go if they want to find access to the Father and enjoy the promise of abundant life.

“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” – John 10:9-10 ESV

The key to eternal life is to be found in this life, but only through belief in the giver of life. John opened up his gospel with the bold claim concerning Jesus:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. – John 1:4 ESV

And John went on to declare that “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 ESV).

According to Jesus, the Father has not only given Him the authority to bestow eternal life but to also execute future judgment.

“And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” – John 5:27 ESV

Jesus has the right to execute judgment, not just because He is the Son of God, but because He is the Son of Man. Jesus was God incarnate, deity in the form of humanity. The Son of God had humbled Himself by becoming one of us and choosing to dwell among us. And He would live His earthly life in complete obedience to His Heavenly Father, without sin and in full compliance with every command given by God to Moses. And it would be His sinless perfection that made Him the acceptable sacrifice to pay for the sins of men. That is why John the Baptist had referred to Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

Jesus would eventually “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). He would pour out His blood “as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many” (Matthew 26:28 NLT). And because He would willingly give His life as payment for the sins of man, He would become the ultimate judge of all mankind. And the future judgment that all mankind must face will be based on belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is the point Jesus had tried to make with Nicodemus.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:16-18 ESV

The key to eternal life is to believe in Jesus as the giver of life. It is to believe that His sacrificial death satisfied the just demands of a holy God and paid in full the debt owed by the sinner. But that belief must take place in this life. The guarantee of eternal life comes when we place our faith in Jesus in this life. And Jesus assures the confused and consternated religious leaders standing before Him that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a future judgment.

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” – John 5:28-29 ESV

But the key to earning entrance into the Kingdom of God will be based on belief in the Son of God. This final statement from Jesus could easily leave the impression that He is tying eternal life to good works. After all, He seems to state that eternal life is reserved for “those who have done good.” But Jesus will later clarify the only “work” that will earn anyone entrance into God’s Kingdom.

This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:29 ESV

Belief. It’s as simple as that. But for the Pharisees and Sadducees, the content of this message from Jesus was anything but simple and it would prove far from acceptable. And Jesus, aware of their stubborn refusal to believe in who He is and what He is claiming to offer, will go on to expose them for their disbelief and inform them of their future fate.

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

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

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

Not What He Expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 25-28 NLT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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