The Promise Maker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepherding Has Its Rewards

1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 1 Peter 5:1-4 ESV

At the end of the day, Peter was a highly practical man who knew that theology alone was not enough to help his readers navigate the uncertain cultural waters in which they found themselves. They were drowning in a sea of competing ideologies that stood diametrically opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And their status as followers of Christ made them a tempting target for all those who viewed them as a threat to the prevailing status quo. So, Peter went out of his way to apply the promises contained in the Scriptures with the theological lessons found in the life and ministry of Jesus. Peter was a faithful shepherd who cared deeply about the everyday needs of his flock and was determined to help them apply the hope of their future inheritance to their present circumstances.

At this point in his letter, Peter focused his attention on the elders whom God had appointed to shepherd the local fellowships to whom Peter had addressed his letter. All throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, there were individual gatherings of believers that were being shepherded by faithful men. These men played a vital role in guiding and protecting the men and women who were being “grieved by various trials” 1 Peter 1:6 ESV). Since many of these believers were still relative infants in Christ, they were not yet spiritually mature enough to understand and endure the difficulties they were encountering. And that’s why the elders were so vital to the health and overall well-being of each local church.

This rather brief parenthetical statement was aimed at those men who shared Peter’s role as a God-appointed elder in the church of Jesus Christ. He had even opened his letter with the salutation: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 1:1 ESV). He presented himself “as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 5:1 ESV.  Along with sharing their distinctive role as an elder, he brought the added weight of having been a personal eye-witness to the suffering and death of Jesus. In a sense, he was establishing his official status as an apostle of Jesus.

He had been there the day that Jesus had been crucified and killed. But, not only that, Peter had plenty of first-hand experience when it came to the topic of suffering. Ever since the Holy Spirit had come on the day of Pentecost, Peter had faithfully preached the gospel of the kingdom and been rewarded with arrest, imprisonment, interrogation, and even disciplinary beatings. He knew what it was like to suffer for the sake of righteousness. And he was calling the local elders to step up their game and lead by example. They too would one day be partakers “in the glory that is going to be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1 ESV). Any suffering they had to endure in this life would be well worth it once Jesus appeared in all His glory at the end of the age.

So, with that hope ringing in the ears, Peter challenges his fellow elders to shepherd well.

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

Like any good shepherd, they were to do their job willingly and not out of some sense of heartless duty. Shepherding was to be viewed as a privilege and not a job. They were to care for the flock of Jesus Christ with compassion and love, not out of greed or for personal gain.

It was Jesus who used Himself as an example of the “good shepherd.” He was a caring and completely selfless shepherd who put the needs of the flock ahead of His own – even to the point of laying down His life for the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep. – John 10:11-13 NLT

And Peter wanted these local shepherds to remain at their posts, refusing to run at the first sign of trouble. Their ministry as shepherds was to be marked by a deep desire to serve God, and it was to manifest itself in a determination to stand beside the flock even in the face of life-threatening circumstances. They must be willing to lay down their lives just as Jesus had done for them. By following His example, they would become examples to their flock. And Peter reminded them that there would be a reward for their faithful service.

…when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. – 1 Peter 5:4 ESV

All of this discussion of sheep and shepherds was near and dear to Peter’s heart because he couldn’t help but view it through the lens of his own experience. Even as he wrote these words, he must have had a fateful scene from his past in mind. It was after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead when Peter had a face-to-face encounter with the one whom he had earlier denied even knowing.

After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”

“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.

Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”

“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.

 A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.” – John 21:15-17 NLT

Jesus had handed over to Peter the responsibility of caring for His sheep. And that was not something Peter took lightly or for granted. Peter had denied Jesus three separate times, but now Jesus had pressed him to confirm his love three times. And Jesus explained that the way for Peter to prove His love for Him would be by loving and caring for His sheep.  And that is exactly what Peter charged these elders to do.

Peter’s mention of the  “unfading crown of glory” seems to be for motivation. It is intended as an incentive to do their jobs well in this life because there is a reward to come in the next life. But it unlikely that Peter is referring to a literal crown. He is talking about the eschatological reward of eternal life in the Kingdom of God. It is the same reward he mentioned in the opening chapter of his letter.

an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. – 1 Peter 1:4 ESV

The greatest “crowning” achievement of these men will be their faithful carrying out of their role as God’s humble and obedient shepherds. And their reward will be the joy of living in the Kingdom of God – for eternity.

Even if their reward ends up being a literal crown, the book of Revelation reveals that, in the coming Kingdom, no one will stand before God glorying in their own achievements. Instead, they will recognize that all glory and honor goes to God alone.

Whenever the living beings give glory and honor and thanks to the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever), the twenty-four elders fall down and worship the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever). And they lay their crowns before the throne and say,

“You are worthy, O Lord our God,
    to receive glory and honor and power.
For you created all things,
    and they exist because you created what you pleased.” – Revelation 4:9-11 NLT

The greatest reward any of us can receive is to live in the presence of God forever. Anything else will pale in comparison.

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

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

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

 

An Alien and Undeserved Righteousness

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 ESV

With His telling of the parable of the unrighteous judge, it appears that Jesus was taking a bit of a diversion from discussing the shortcomings of the Pharisees. But in many ways, the parable was just another in a long line of stinging indictments of these self-righteous men who had made a god out of their religion. While Jesus has begun to focus His attention on His disciples in an attempt to prepare them for what lies ahead, He has not stopped exposing the arrogant and uncaring nature of the Pharisees and their fellow religious leaders.

In His previous parable, Jesus told the story of “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man” (Luke 18:2 ESV). This man, by virtue of his role, was meant to be an unbiased arbiter, settling disputes between two parties. But how could he do so if he “neither feared God nor respected man?” And this man’s presence in the story was meant to reflect the attitude of the Jewish religious leaders. According to Jesus, they were guilty of the same thing. And by using the term “judge,” Jesus was not offering them a compliment. The Outline of Biblical Usage describes a judge as “one who passes or arrogates to himself, judgment on anything.”

The Pharisees were quick to judge, condemning others for their lack of religious zeal and their failure to keep all the man-made rules and regulations they had appended to the Mosaic Law. At one point Jesus had delivered a strong word of warning against these men.

“…what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Luke 11:46 NLT

They had become self-appointed judges of the people who feared no repercussions from God. In fact, they actually thought they were doing God a favor by holding the people to such high moral and ethical standards. But like the widow in the parable, the poor and disenfranchised of Israel were longing for justice. They were seeking a judge who would act righteously and deliver justice on their behalf.

Consider closely verse 9 of this chapter. Luke records that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 ESV). It seems obvious that Jesus was focusing His attention of the Pharisees who were still lingering on the edges of the crowd that followed Him. Despite all He had said against them, they had not gone anywhere. But Jesus was not just addressing the Pharisees. Their longstanding attitude of spiritual superiority and self-righteousness had infected others.  They had gone out of their way to teach their flawed philosophy of religion to others, something for which Jesus held them accountable.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:15 NLT

As far as Jesus was concerned, self-righteousness was a dangerous and deadly heresy that led people to rely on their own efforts and merits to earn favor with God. It was a dead-end street that eventually terminated with eternal separation from God. As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). The apostle Paul would later quote from the psalms in order to convey the same universal and inescapable reality:

“No one is righteous—
    not even one.
No one is truly wise;
    no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
    all have become useless.
No one does good,
    not a single one.” – Romans 3:10-12 NLT

Self-righteousness is the greatest form of blasphemy because the one who practices it sets himself up as God. He elevates himself to the place of the Almighty, determining his eternal state based on his own biased judgment, rather than that of God. Anyone who believes he has earned a right standing before God has diminished the deadly nature of sin and devalued the righteous standards of God.

There is no way to get around the fact that in order for anyone to consider themselves to be righteous based on their own efforts, they must lower God’s standard for holiness. Which is really diminishing the holiness of God Himself, because He is the ultimate standard by which we are judged. So, rather than using God as the gold standard for holiness, men begin to compare themselves with one another. According to the apostle Paul, this horizontal matrix for measuring holiness is not only flawed but foolish.

…we wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant! – 2 Corinthians 10:12 NLT

So, in His parable, Jesus relates the story of two men who have gone to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. One was a Pharisee, an icon of religious rectitude. The other was a tax collector, who represented the spiritual dregs of society. Yet, Jesus places both men in the temple courtyard where they are praying to God. But that is where the similarities end. Jesus portrays the Pharisee as a self-consumed man with an over-inflated sense of self-worth. He stands in the temple courtyard and boldly prays:

“‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

His words are the epitome of arrogance and pride. In a blatant display of self-righteous self-congratulation, he declares his moral superiority to the God of the universe. And he does so by comparing himself to the tax collector who is standing nearby. To the Pharisee, the differences between the two men could not be more obvious. Based on his religious zeal and faithful adherence to the smallest requirement of the law, he holds the moral high ground. He has earned the right to be heard by God.

Yet, Jesus quickly moves the focus from the fictional Pharisee to the tax collector, who “stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow…” (Luke 18:13 NLT). In starks contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector epitomizes humility and a high degree of self-awareness. He knows exactly what he is and what he justly deserves.

“O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” – Luke 18:13 NLT

Fully aware that his sin separates him from a holy God, this man pleads for mercy. He confesses his sinful state and, in a sense, places himself at the mercy of the court. He is more than willing to let the Judge decide his fate but he longs for justice coupled with mercy and forgiveness.

And then, Jesus dropped the bombshell:

I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God.” – Luke 18:14 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of Jesus’ statement. He is declaring that the tax collector, a self-admitted sinner, is declared to be righteous by God. This is a judicial act by which God, in His sovereign authority, deems the unrighteous to be righteous in His eyes. The apostle Paul would expand on this marvelous thought in his letter to the believers in Rome.

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. – Romans 3:21-25 NLT

Jesus was hinting at a reality to come. He was going to go to the cross and offer Himself as the sinless substitute for sinful mankind. And all those who were willing to recognize and confess their sins and place their faith in Him would be imputed His righteousness as a gift from God. Jesus would take on their sin and, in exchange, they would receive His righteousness. But this “great exchange” begins with the sinner’s willingness to confess his desperate need for a Savior. Like the widow who needed a judge to settle her case, sinners are dependent upon the Judge of the universe to rule in their favor. Not based on their own merit, but according to His mercy and grace.

The apostle Paul, who in his former life was a dedicated and zealous Pharisee, offered his radically altered understanding of how one is made right with God.

I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. – Philippians 3:9 NLT

At one time, Paul would have been that self-righteous Pharisee standing in the courtyard singing his own praises. But, mercifully, Jesus had appeared to him on the road to Damascus, blinding his eyes, but helping him see for the first time the sin that separated him from a holy God. He went from being a self-righteous Pharisee facing an eternity separated from God to a self-confessing sinner who received the righteousness of Christ and the assurance of eternal life.

So, Jesus wrapped up His little parable with the sobering statement:

“…those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:14 NLT

The apostle Peter would reiterate the words of Jesus in his first letter:

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

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. – 1 Peter 5:5-6 NLT

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

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

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

Justice Worth Waiting For

1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” – Luke 18:1-8 ESV

The topic at hand is the Second Coming of Christ. Jesus has just answered a rather tongue-in-cheek question posed by the Pharisees requesting a date for His coming kingdom. But Jesus saw through their little charade and knew that they were really demanding a supernatural sign that would prove His claims to be the Messiah. So, He responded by telling them, “the Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you” (Luke 17:19-20 NLT).

They were looking for a physical kingdom brought about by a physical revolution. but Jesus had come to restore the rule and reign of God to earth through the Spirit-transformed lives of sinful men and women. He was bringing about a spiritual revolution, not a military one. But even the disciples were having a difficult time grasping that concept. They too longed for Jesus to march into Jerusalem and bring about a dramatic change in the status quo. They wanted the Romans eliminated and the nation of Israel elevated back to its former glory. In a sense, they were hoping for a transformation of the social and political status of their nation. But while Jesus cared deeply for the Jewish people, He had come to redeem the world and not just a single people group. God was not abandoning the Jewish race, but instead, He was using them to accomplish His grand redemptive plan for the entire world. Through Jesus, He would fulfill His original mandate that the descendants of Abraham would be a blessing and a light to the nations.

Jesus continued to help His disciples understand the nature of God’s plan. He told them that there would be a second advent when He would come to earth and conquer all the enemies of God. What they were hoping for would actually happen, but not in their lifetimes. So, what were they to do in the meantime? If His first advent was not going to result in an earthly kingdom, how were they supposed to survive while the Romans continued to keep their entire nation under its iron fist? Luke answers these questions with his opening line of chapter 18:

“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” – Luke 18:1 ESV

Jesus patiently and lovingly enlightened His confused disciples by sharing additional details regarding His current mission and further insights into God’s future plans for the world. Jesus has already warned the disciples that the day was coming when He would leave them. He was to suffer and die at the hands of the Romans but would rise from the dead and return to His Father’s side in heaven. And even after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the disciples would find themselves living in difficult days and longing for His return.

“The time is coming when you will long to see the day when the Son of Man returns, but you won’t see it. People will tell you, ‘Look, there is the Son of Man,’ or ‘Here he is,’ but don’t go out and follow them.” – Luke 17:22-23 NLT

Jesus wanted them to know that, after He left them, life would go on as it always has. He compared it to the days before the flood.

“In those days, the people enjoyed banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat and the flood came and destroyed them all.” – Luke 17:27 NLT

It would be like in the days of Lot, when the people of Sodom “went about their daily business—eating and drinking, buying and selling, farming and building” (Luke 17:28 NLT). And Jesus clarifies that “it will be ‘business as usual’ right up to the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:30 NLT).

Mankind was going to continue down the very same path it had taken right after the fall. Nothing was going to change. Yet, the world would be radically different because it would contain millions of men and women whose lives had been transformed by the Gospel. By placing their faith in Jesus Christ, these people would become citizens of the kingdom of God, living as exiles and strangers on earth while they wait for their King’s second coming. This community of like-minded individuals would bring the rule and reign of God to earth through their very lives. Through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, they would live in obedience to the Father’s will and function as the King’s ambassadors on earth. Like Adam and Eve, they would be tasked with serving as His vice-regents, bearing His image, and serving on His behalf until He returns.

That is why Jesus told His disciples that persistent prayer would need to be a part of their survival strategy as they awaited His return. He told a parable about a poor widow who was in an ongoing dispute with another party. It seems likely that because of her status as a widow, this woman was being taken advantage of by this other individual. Unable to remedy the problem, the widow was forced to make an appeal to the court. But Jesus describes this judge as a man “who neither feared God nor cared about people” (Luke 18:2 NLT). In other words, he was godless and unrighteous.

But the woman, desperate for someone to come to her aid, repeatedly brought her case before the court. At first, the judge simply ignored her pleas. But the woman was persistent and insistent. She demanded that the judge rule in her favor. And Jesus reveals that the woman’s stubborn refusal to give up finally got through to the judge.

“…finally he said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God or care about people, but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!’” – Luke 18:4-5 NLT

She wore him down. Driven by her pressing need for justice, the woman would not give up until she received it. And her persistence paid off. But what is interesting is that Jesus makes the judge the point of the story.

Learn a lesson from this unjust judge. – Luke 18:6 NLT

Jesus does not focus the disciples’ attention on the persistent pleas of the woman, but instead, He tells them to learn a lesson from the godless and unjust judge.

“Even he rendered a just decision in the end. So don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly! – Luke 18:7-8 NLT

The judge finally gave in and did the right thing. Not because he wanted to do the right thing, but because he was tired of being badgered by the unrelenting demands of the widow. This fictional story was intended to encourage the disciples to keep their eyes focused on their just and righteous God. They were going to face difficulties in the days ahead. There would be many who would take advantage of them. The very religious leaders who would eventually put Jesus to death would come after them once He was gone. That is why He wanted them to know that they could appeal to God. But, like the widow, they would need to be persistent in their pleas.

With this parable, Jesus is not promising His disciples that God will remediate all their trials and conflicts immediately. When Jesus says, “he will grant justice to them quickly,” He is not suggesting that God will solve all their problems on the spot. He is simply stating that they can always know that they will receive justice from God. He will never ignore them. History tells us that most, if not all, of the disciples, died martyr’s deaths. During their lifetimes, they suffered greatly. Many were arrested, tried, imprisoned, and beaten. But God never turned His back on them. Just a few chapters later, Luke records another discussion Jesus had with His disciples, where He warned them about the dark days ahead.

“But before all this occurs, there will be a time of great persecution. You will be dragged into synagogues and prisons, and you will stand trial before kings and governors because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell them about me.” – Luke 21:12-13 NLT

We see this same scenario played out in the book of Revelation. The apostle John is given a glimpse into heaven during the time of the Great Tribulation. There he sees the throne room of God where a large gathering of individuals is calling out to God for justice. They are those who have been martyred by the Antichrist during the days of the Tribulation.

When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” Then a white robe was given to each of them. And they were told to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters—their fellow servants of Jesus who were to be martyred—had joined them. – Revelation 6:9-11 NLT

They plead with God to do something. But He responds by encouraging them to “rest a little longer.” There are more who must be martyred before the end comes. But the end will come and when it does, it will come in the form of the Son of God returning to earth to bring judgment and mete out justice.

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

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:15-16 NLT

But while God will not fail to answer every plea for justice, it may not come at the time or in the form we expect. We must wait for the end, trusting that God will accomplish His divine plan by sending His Son back to earth a second time. But Jesus takes this parable and uses it to encourage His disciples to not lose faith.

“But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?” – Luke 18:8 NLT

In a sense, Jesus is reminding His disciples that God will be faithful, but asking if they will remain so? Will they stop pleading and praying? Will they stop believing the promise of the Son’s eventual return? God will vindicate. God will mete out judgment and justice. But it will not take place until the end. How long are we willing to wait and how faithful will we remain as we do so? That is the question.

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

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