Consider Yourselves…

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. – Romans 6:8-14 ESV

Salvation, is a work of God, from beginning to end. But that doesn’t mean that man plays no part. In response to the Philippian jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?”, Paul stated, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 ESV). The free gift of salvation made available by God must be accepted or received. When Jesus stated, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 ESV), He was offering an invitation that required acceptance. For anyone to receive the rest He offered, they would have to acknowledge their weariness, confess their heavy-heartedness, and come to Him.

Paul makes it clear, all throughout his writings, that faith is required for the free gift of salvation to be received. But even the act of faith is a gift from God, as His Spirit graciously opens the eyes of the spiritually blind and infuses life into the spiritually dead, allowing them to see the light of the gospel for the first time. And as a result, they are saved.

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

And in much the same way, sanctification is a gift of God, provided for by His grace, made possible by His Son, and powered by His indwelling Holy Spirit. Look closely at what Paul told the believers in Ephesus: “He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” God has sanctified a group of people who He has deemed His own, raising them from death to life, and providing them with a power to live in such a way that they bring glory to Him and reflect His personal emissaries, sharing His message of reconciliation to others.

But each and every believer must avail himself of the new life made available to Him through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, and made possible by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Like Jesus’ invitation to come and find rest, the Holy Spirit cries for believers to rest in Him and find power.

One of the last things Jesus shared with His disciple before He departed this earth was His promise of the coming Holy Spirit.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 NLT

And just as Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit came. He took possession of the disciples, providing with power like they had never experienced before. He transformed them from a small crowd of timid, crestfallen men and women into a powerful force that rocked the world. In a matter of minutes, these people were radically changed from the inside-out and equipped with gifts they had never experienced before. They spoke in languages they didn’t know. They displayed a boldness that had been non-existent just a few minutes earlier. But while we tend to focus on the miraculous nature of the flames of fire hovering over their heads and the gift of tongues emanating from their lips, the real point of the story is that, with the Spirit’s coming, these people were forever changed. Pentecost was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but each and every one of them would go on to experience the life-transformative power of the Spirit in a thousand different ways.

The spectacular and heady days immediately following the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost would not last forever. Yes, there would be many more miraculous moments in the lives of the disciples. They would perform miracles and see many people come to faith in Christ. They would witness Jews and Gentiles receiving the power of the Spirit, just as they had. And in a relatively short period of time, they would witness the birth and rapid growth of the church.

But in the book of Romans, Paul provides us with a much-needed reminder, designed to help us keep our focus as the normalcy of life settles in and the mountaintop experiences fade away. The growth of the church was immediately met with skepticism, which was followed by intense persecution. It wasn’t long before the disciples, and their followers discovered that not every day was going to be like the day of Pentecost.

After his conversion, Paul quickly discovered just how difficult and dangerous faith in Christ could be. He also learned the very real lesson that sanctification was not always easy and living in the power of the Spirit didn’t come without its conflicts. He expressed, in very transparent terms, his struggle with sanctification.

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. – Romans 7:18-21 NLT

Paul had the Spirit of God living within him, but he also had the presence of his old sin nature. And as he described to the church in Galatia, these two do constant battle in the life of the believer.

But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. – Galatians 5:16-17 NLT

But Paul was not despondent. He was not surprised. No, he understood the battle going on in his own life and wanted his fellow believers to know that Jesus was the key to their success.

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. – Romans 7:24-25 NLT

Jesus was and is the answer. And Jesus provided the Holy Spirit as the means by which the believer can experience victory over sin in his life. But the key that is often overlooked is found a bit earlier in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Beginning in verse one of chapter six, Paul reminds them that they had “died to sin,” been “baptized into his death,” were “buried…with Him,” and “raised…to walk in newness of life.”

But there’s more. They had been “united with him in a death like his” and would be “united with him in a resurrection like his.” Their “old self was crucified” and, as a result,  they were “no longer…enslaved to sin.” Because their old self had died with Christ, they had “been set free from sin.”

All of this sounds great, but is it something we experience in daily life? Or, like Paul, do we still find ourselves saying, “I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” The answer to our dilemma is not work harder or do more. It is “consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11 NLT). That word, “consider” carries a lot of weight in the original Greek. It carries the idea of giving a thought careful and reasoned consideration. And the verb is in the present imperative, conveying the idea of constantness. We are never to stop thinking about our union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Our old man has been put to death. Sin no longer rules and reigns over us. We have a Spirit-empowered capacity to say no to sin and yes to God. We can live righteous lives, not based on our own self-effort or moral wherewithal, but based on the power of the Spirit within us. Which is why Paul told the Galatian believers:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. – Galatians 5:24-25 NLT

Sanctification, like salvation, is not about self-effort. It is not the American work ethic lived out in the spiritual dimension. God is not interested in self-made men and women. He gave us new lives and made us new creations so that we would no longer live in our own strength, but in the power of His indwelling Spirit. But the temptation we all face is that of forgetfulness – forgetting that we are dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus.

And Paul provides us with a powerful reminder so we won’t forget.

…give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. – Romans 6:13 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

 

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Kept By God

24 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. – Jude 1:24-25 ESV

Technically, these two verses form the closing to Jude’s letter. But there is far more here than initially meets the eye. As Jude wraps up his heart-felt message to the church, he ends with a stirring tribute to God. In spite of the presence of false teachers and the ongoing need to stand firm in their faith, Jude wanted the believers to whom he wrote  to understand the glory and greatness of God.

The Christian life is anything but easy. Nowhere in the New Testament is it presented as a walk in the park or a trouble-free existence devoid of pain or suffering. Jesus Himself told us, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows,” but He went on to say, “take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 6:33 NLT). Paul and Barnabas preached a consistend message in all the churches to which they minisered:

They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. – Acts 14:22 NLT

And Paul warned his young protegé, Timothy:

…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. – 2 Timothy 3:12 NLT

And Peter offered up a similar warning about the reality of suffering as a non-negotiable aspect of the Christian life.

…if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you.

For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:20-21 NLT

But suffering, while inevitable for the Christian, does not have to result in stumbling. The Greek word Jude used is aptaistos and it is made up of the negative participle “a,” which means “no” or “not,” and word that can mean ”falling” or “sinning.” So, Jude is reminding his readers that, while they will experience suffering as a part of their spiritual journey, it doesn’t have to result in them falling into sin. In fact, they can stand firm and remain blameless even in the face of outside pressures and intense forms of suffering. But the best news is that this thriving in the face of suffering is not up to them. It is the work of God.

Jude is simply reinforcing a statement he made earlier in his letter.

I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Jude 1:6 NLT

God is going to keep and complete. He is going to finish what He started in their lives. Their faith journey was going to include their salvation, ongoing sanctification, and future glorification. There are no halfway Christians. There are no partial saints. Everyone who is called by God is guaranteed the right to experience the consummation of their spiritual transformation. Paul made this point explicitly clear to the believers in Rome.

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. – Romans 8:30 ESV

Paul spoke of all these things using the past tense. While their glorification had not yet happened, Paul wanted them to see it as guaranteed and as good as done. It was inevitable and unavoidable. Which is why he went on to encourage them to remember that they had been “prepared in advance for glory” (Romans 9:23 BSB). Their future glorification would be the inescapable outcome of their salvation.

And Jude echoes this remarkable truth by stating that God is determined “to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 1:24 ESV). But Jude seems to have more in mind here than the believer’s future glorification. He is reminding them that God has made it possible for them to stand before Him as blameless, right here, right now. He is not describing a state of sinless perfection, but of acceptance before God. Because of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and our acceptance of His payment for our sins, we stand before God covered by the righteousness of Christ. Which is why Paul told the believers in Rome, “there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus” (8:1 NLT).

Our sins have been paid for. Which means our sin debt has been wiped clean. And while we will suffer in this life, we can rest assured that we will survive all this life will throw at us. We can be exactly what Paul said we should be: “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37 ESV).

And the best news is that, one day, all those who have been called by God and have placed their faith in His Son, will stand before the two of them in all of their glory with great joy. And the book of Revelation records John’s vision of that coming day.

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,

“Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
    the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
    and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
    and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
    with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. – Revelation 19:6-8 ESV

And Jude seems to alluding to this very scene in the very last line of his letter. In fact, his words echo those of the saints who will be standing before God and the Lamb in the eternal state.

…to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. – Jude 1:25 ESV

But these words of praise and adoration are not reserved for some future point in time, but are to be a part of each and every believer’s life as they live on this earth. Notice that Jude include the past (before all time), the present (now), and the future (forever). God deserves our praise at all times. He is and always has been worthy of glory, majesty, dominion, and authority. Our circumstances don’t change that reality. Our suffering does not diminish His glory, limit His dominion, or call into question His power or authority. Present affliction shouldn’t cause us to doubt our future glorification. God has it all under control. He who called us will keep us. He who saved us will sanctify us. And He who redeemed us through His Son’s death will one day grant us eternal life. It is a promise of God that was reiterated by the Son of God.

“I assure you that everyone who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, will be repaid many times over in this life, and will have eternal life in the world to come.” – Luke 18:29 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.s

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

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

The Right Response to Wrong Doctrine

17 But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. 18 They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” 19 It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. 20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. – Jude 1:17-23 ESV

Throughout his letter, Jude has said some extremely harsh things regarding the false teachers who had infiltrated the local congregation to whom he was writing. HIs purpose has been to expose these people for what they were: A real danger to the faith community. But it is interesing to note that, in no part of his letter, does Jude demand that these people be removed from the flock. He doesn’t call for their banishment. In fact, he doesn’t even call them by name.

While there is little doubt that he saw these people as a serious threat to the church’s spiritual health, he does not suggest their removal as the cure. Jude seems to understand that false teachers and false teaching will always be a part of the church’s future. The truth of God’s Word will always be challenged by the lies of the enemy. Just as Satan infiltrated the perfection of the garden and sowed doubt into the hearts of the first man and woman, by subtly twisting the words of God, he continues to spread his lies wherever the faith community gathers, and the gospel is preached.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote the following words of counsel in his letter:

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. – James 4:7-8 NLT

James uses the Greek word, anthistēmi, which carries the idea of standing opposed to something, to withstand its onslaught. James is suggesting that the best strategy against the enemy is a good defense. And the apostle Paul gives similar counsel in his letter to the believers in Ephesus.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. – Ephesians 6:10-11 ESV

And Paul lets us know that the real threat to the body of Christ is much more powerful and sinister than false teachers communicating erroneous doctrine. It is Satan himself.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:12 ESV

Which is why Paul tells us to “take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13 ESV). And that is exactly what Jude is telling his readers to do. He reminds them to turn their attention to what the apostles of Jesus had taught. And Jude seems to be picking up the words of Peter, written in his second letter.

This is my second letter to you, dear friends, and in both of them I have tried to stimulate your wholesome thinking and refresh your memory. I want you to remember what the holy prophets said long ago and what our Lord and Savior commanded through your apostles. – 2 Peter 3:2 NLT

Peter was an apostle, and he was calling believers to listen to what he and the rest of the apostles had been teaching them. In a sense, Peter was placing their words on an equal plane as those of the Old Testament prophets, because they had received their teaching directly from Jesus Christ Himself. And Peter went on to tell them:

Most importantly, I want to remind you that in the last days scoffers will come, mocking the truth and following their own desires. – 2 Peter 3:3 NLT

These are the very words Jude quotes, and he uses them to let his readers know that the false teachers were guilty of mocking the truth and of following their own self-centered passions. And Jude refers to the words of Peter as if his audience was already familiar with them. He writes, “They said to you,” indicating that Peter’s letter had been intended for all believers, not just a single congregation. And it is likely that his letter had made it to their local community where it had been read at one of their gatherings.

So, Jude is simply reminding them of what Peter had told them would happen. The scoffers had shown up just as he had said they would. And they were mocking the truth of God. Jude accuses them of being divisive, worldly and devoid of the Spirit. It is impossible to know if Jude is suggesting that these people were without the indwelling presence of the Spirit and, therefore, unsaved. Or whether he is suggesting that they were believers who were guilty of quenching the Spirit and living according to their own sinful flesh. But either way, they were damaging the spiritual integrity of the body of Christ by their actions.

So, what were the people to do? How were they to respond to this cancer in their midst?  Jude uses two Greek words to convey their next steps: epoikodomeō and proseuchomai. The first one is translated, “building yourselves up,” but it can mean “to build upon” or “augment.” Rather than allow the teaching of the people to rock their spiritual world, they were to increase their faith in the truth of the gospel. And the primary message of the gospel is our future glorification and eternal life. Jude tells them to build up their faith while “waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 1:21 ESV). The lies of the enemy will always attack the truth of God’s promises. Satan asked Eve, “Did God actually say…” (Genesis 3:1 ESV). Then he followed that question regarding the integrity of God’s word with a direct rebuttal of God’s command: “You will not surely die…” (Genesis 3:4 ESV).

Believers must constantly build up their faith in the Word of God, reminding one another that what He has said is true and what He has promised will happen. And the best way to augment or bolster our faith is to pray in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul would have us remember that “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (Romans 8:26 NLT). When Jude refers to praying in the Holy Spirit, he is conveying the idea of dependence and reliance upon the Spirit. It is a form of submission to the Spirit, which is why Paul encourages us to “let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves” (Galatians 5:16 NLT).

Jude adds an interesting and somewhat confusing bit of counsel. He writes, “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 1:21 ESV). At first glance, it might appear that he is suggesting that we have to earn God’s love through self-effort. But that advice would be in direct contradiction to Scripture. Paul told the believers in Rome, “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). So, when Jude tells them to keep themselves in God’s love, it is a reminder to focus their attention of the highest expression of that love: The gracious gift of His Son as payment for their sins and a guarantee of their eternal life.  And Paul went on to expand on the unwavering nature of God’s love.

…nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT

Finally, after reminding his audience to remain fully confident in the love of God, building one another up in their belief in the gospel message, and relying upon the assistance of the indwelling Spirit, Jude turns their attention to the weak among them. He demands that they show mercy on anyone struggling with doubt. Don’t attack or ostracize them. Come alongside them and build them up in their faith. And for those who seem ready to be consumed by the fire of falsehood, Jude encourages rescue. Don’t give up on them. But he also warns that all of this must be done with extreme caution and an awareness of the danger.

“…do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives.” – Jude 1:23 NLT

This is the spiritual battle that Paul referred to so frequently. We are in a war, and it is not against flesh and blood. It is an epic and unseen conflict that has been going on since the fall, and that involves spiritual forces far beyond our comprehension, and well beyond our capacity to withstand. False teaching is not to be treated lightly. It is dangerous and deadly and a sign of the enemy’s presence in our midst. But the best way to fight lies is with the truth. The most effective weapon against doubt is faith. And the greatest power we have in our battle with the enemy is the gospel itself.

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.s

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

Guilty As Charged.

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. 16 And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. 17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. 19 Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 And he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” – Matthew 27:11-23 ESV

Munkacsy_-_christ_before_pilateJudas had hung himself. The rest of the disciples were in hiding. Peter, in particular, was in a state if deep sorrow, having denied Jesus three separate times, just as predicted.

But Jesus was still in the custody of the high priest’s guards and on His way to Pilate, the Roman governor. The Jewish religious leaders were no fans of the Roman government, but they knew they needed Rome’s authority and legal jurisdiction in order to put Jesus to death.

In his gospel account, John indicates that it was early in the morning when Jesus arrived at the governor’s residence. And Matthew records that the first thing the governor asked Jesus was, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11 ESV). This seems like an odd way to start his interrogation of Jesus, but it may be that Pilate had heard rumors concerning Jesus. He had most likely heard all the details concerning Jesus’ somewhat spectacular entry into Jerusalem a few days before and had been told about the shouts of the people who welcomed Him along the way..

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” – Matthew 21:9 ESV

It would also seem apparent that the high priest and the members of the Sanhedrin had accused Jesus of claiming to be the king of the Jews. They knew their charge of blasphemy against Jesus would be of no interest to Pilate. But the threat of a possible insurrection against Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Israel, would have gotten Pilate’s attention. The Jews wanted Jesus dead because He had claimed to be the Son of God. But they knew the best way to get the Romans to sanction His death would be to portray Jesus as a dangerous radical and revolutionary.

John records that, when the Jews showed up at Pilate’s house with Jesus in tow, he had asked them what accusations they were bringing against Jesus. And they had replied, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you” (John 18:30 ESV). They wanted to paint Jesus as dangerous. And both Matthew and Mark make it clear that the Sanhedrin leveled many charges against Jesus. They were doing their best to destroy the reputation of Jesus and to give Pilate no other recourse than to sentence Him to death. And through it all, Jesus remained silent. He said nothing. He was not interested in self-defense, but obedience to the will of His Father.

Pilate, a seasoned and savvy political leader, saw through the motives of the Sanhedrin. Matthew records that, “he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up” (Matthew 27:18 ESV). It was the Jewish religious leaders who saw Jesus as a threat, not Rome. During His three years of ministry, Jesus had done nothing to warrant the least bit of fear or paranoia on the part of Rome. He was not a rabble-rouser or trouble-maker. He had not promoted the overthrow of the Roman government. He had not encouraged dissent or preached revolutionary rhetoric aimed at overthrowing Herod or eliminating Rome. 

So, Pilate, in an attempt to placate the anger of the religious leaders and release the obviously innocent Jesus, offered them what he thought would be a no-brainer of a choice. It seems that Pilate had created an annual act of good will that took place during the Jewish celebration of Passover. He would release to them a Jew, held in captivity by the Roman government. On this occasion, he offered them a choice between Jesus or a notorious criminal named, Barabas. According to Mark, this man was a murderer and an insurrectionist. And it seems apparent that Pilate believed the people would prefer to have Jesus released over this well-known criminal. But he was wrong. Due to the influence of the Sanhedrim, the crowd that had gathered outside Pilate’s home made their choice perfectly clear. They wanted Barabas released, not Jesus.

And when Pilate asked the crowd “what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?,” they responded, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22 ESV).  Shocked at their response, Pilate asked, “Why? What evil has he done?” (Matthew 27:23 ESV). And again, the people shouted, “Let him be crucified!” Mob rule overruled common sense and reason. Jesus was innocent of all charges brought against Him, but they did not care. They sensed the blood in the water and the feeding frenzy had begun. 

Pilate had asked Jesus if He was the king of the Jews, and Jesus had simply stated, “You have said so” (Matthew 27:11 ESV). The words had come from the lips of the Roman governor, and Jesus simply confirmed them. He was the king of the Jews. But not in a sense that Pilate could have understood or in a way that the Jews could have anticipated. He was a king over a different kind of kingdom. And He ruled with far more power and authority than Pilate could have ever dreamed imaginable. Jesus would tell Pilate:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” – John 18:36 ESV

In these closing hours of Jesus’ life on earth, the topic of His kingship will come up repeatedly. He will even be mocked by the guards and given a purple robe and a crown of thorns to wear, as they bow down before Him, sarcastically shouting, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:18 ESV). When He is nailed to the cross, Pilate will have placed above His head, a placard that reads, “King of the Jews.”

Jesus was and is the King of the Jews. And as the book of Revelation makes clear, He is the King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:16). Pilate was standing before the rightful king of Israel and the right ruler over all of creation. And it’s amazing to think that Pilate was more willing to wrestle with the reality of Jesus’ sovereignty than the Jewish religious leaders were. Pilate wanted to release Jesus. But the high priest and the Sanhedrin wanted Him dead. Even though Jesus had committed no crime. He was guilty of nothing – except the charge of being King of the Jews. For that, He was guilty as charged.

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

Dead Man Walking.

12 When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. 13 There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. 14 They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food till we have killed Paul. 15 Now therefore you, along with the council, give notice to the tribune to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case more exactly. And we are ready to kill him before he comes near.”

16 Now the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17 Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him and brought him to the tribune and said, “Paul the prisoner called me and asked me to bring this young man to you, as he has something to say to you.” 19 The tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” 20 And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more closely about him. 21 But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him, who have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for your consent.” 22 So the tribune dismissed the young man, charging him, “Tell no one that you have informed me of these things.”

23 Then he called two of the centurions and said, “Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night. 24 Also provide mounts for Paul to ride and bring him safely to Felix the governor.” Acts 23:12-24 ESV

The_Antonia_Fortress

Paul was in protective custody. The Roman tribune in charge of his care was at a loss as to what to do with Paul. He was still searching for a reason to keep Paul in custody because there appeared to be no valid charge against him or cause to keep him. But the Jews were still in an uproar and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, had ended up in a violent debate over Paul and his guilt or innocence. Paul was most likely being kept somewhere within the Fortress of Antonio, just outside the walls of the temple compound.

Back in chapter 21, Luke recorded the arrival of Paul in the city of Caesarea, where he stayed in the home of Philip the Evangelist. While there, Paul received a visit from a man from Judea named Agabus, who had the gift of prophecy. This man had received a message from the Holy Spirit and delivered it to Paul.

11 He came over, took Paul’s belt, and bound his own feet and hands with it. Then he said, “The Holy Spirit declares, ‘So shall the owner of this belt be bound by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and turned over to the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the local believers all begged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. – Acts 21:11-12 NLT

This man’s prophecy had come true. Paul had been bound by the Jewish leaders and now he was being kept under lock and key by the Roman authorities. Yet, all of this was part of God’s divine plan for Paul’s life, and he knew it. In fact, when those in Philip’s house had tried to convince Paul not to go to Jerusalem, he had replied: “Why all this weeping? You are breaking my heart! I am ready not only to be jailed at Jerusalem but even to die for the sake of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13 NLT). And Paul, while sincere in his statement, had no idea just how prophetic his words had been.

While Paul was in the custody of the Romans, the Jewish leadership had been approached by a group of forty Jewish zealots who had developed a plan to take Paul’s life. They were so serious that they had made a pact with one another, sealed by an oath and a mutual commitment to fast from food or drink until Paul was dead. But their plot would require the assistance of the high priest and the Sanhedrin. With Paul safely sequestered within the walls of the Fortress of Antonio, where he was surrounded by Roman guards, the only hope these men had was to somehow force the Romans to bring him out in the open. So, they appealed to the Sanhedrin, saying, “ask the commander to bring Paul back to the council again. Pretend you want to examine his case more fully. We will kill him on the way” (Acts 23:15 NLT). 

Now, the text does not say whether the Jewish religious leaders agreed to this request. But Luke seems to take it quite seriously, because he records the fact that Paul’s nephew somehow got wind of what these men were planning and delivered the news to Paul. And Paul immediately sent his nephew to inform the Roman tribune. Which raises an interesting side note. Notice how Paul reacted to the information his nephew delivered to him. He didn’t smile and say, “Thanks for the warning, but I’m going to trust God.” He didn’t send his nephew away with a pat on the head and an assurance that God had this all under control. No, Paul seems to have viewed this news as having come from God and he took it seriously. Paul was not afraid to die, but he was in no rush to have his life taken by men who were driven by nothing more than hatred and motivated by Satan himself. Paul knew that there was a spiritual battle going on. He lived with a constant awareness that dark forces were gathered against the Kingdom of God and stood opposed to all that he was doing. Which is why he wrote to the believers in Ephesus:

For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:12 NLT

Paul felt a strong compulsion to go to Rome. Earlier, as Paul was making his way to Jerusalem, Luke records: “Paul felt compelled by the Spirit to go over to Macedonia and Achaia before going to Jerusalem. ‘And after that,’ he said, ‘I must go on to Rome!’” (Acts 19:21 NLT). He somehow knew that a visit to Rome was in his future. He had even written to the believers in Rome, expressing his strong desire to be with them.

13 I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented until now. I want to work among you and see spiritual fruit, just as I have seen among other Gentiles. 14 For I have a great sense of obligation to people in both the civilized world and the rest of the world, to the educated and uneducated alike. 15 So I am eager to come to you in Rome, too, to preach the Good News. – Romans 1:13-15 NLT

So, it would appear that Paul knew the plot against his life was not part of God’s will for his life. He was not to die in Jerusalem at the hands of religious zealots. God had other plans for Paul and he knew it. As a result, Paul sent his nephew to inform the Roman tribune about the plot on his life. As we have seen all throughout the Book of Acts, this whole scene has God’s sovereign hands all over it. Nothing escapes the divine will of God. He knew all about the plot and the names of every one of the forty men who had conspired to carry it out. And God had arranged for Paul’s nephew to discover their plans so he could inform Paul. This whole sequence of events was actually God working behind the scenes to bring about His will that Paul arrive in Rome. In the eyes of the Jewish leadership, Paul was a dead man. It was only a matter of time before his life would be snuffed out, just like Jesus’ had been. But Paul was going to walk out of that Roman barracks, under armed Roman guards, and with his entire trip to Rome paid for by the Roman government. And, as we will see in tomorrow’s blog, Paul was going to be given opportunities to appear before powerful men and share the good news of the gospel, just as Jesus had told Ananias.

“Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings…” – Acts 9:15 NLT

It is always amazing to see how God accomplishes His will. The sad thing is that we don’t always recognize or appreciate it when it is happening. We tend to look at the circumstances of life and see nothing but the apparent negatives that stare us in the face. Take this story as an example. Paul had been mobbed by a crowd, falsely accused and nearly beaten to death. He had been arrested by the Romans and barely escaped a violent flogging. Then, when he had appeared before the Sanhedrin, instead of getting an opportunity to defend himself, he had gotten his face slapped, and ended back in Roman custody. Now, he was facing a conspiracy to take his life. Oh, and Luke describes Paul having to depart Jerusalem in the middle of the night, surrounded by 200 Roman soldiers, 200 spearmen and 70 mounted troops. Could it get any worse? 

But if we look at this same scene from a God-focused perspective, we see this seemingly insignificant Jewish evangelist, getting an all-expenses paid trip to Rome, complete with an armed escort made up of nearly 500 Roman soldiers. Paul was on his way to Caesarea where he would get a one-on-one, divinely ordained appointment with the Roman governor, Felix. In his wildest dreams, Paul could have never imagined something like this happening to him. And he would view it all as positive, not negative. He knew that God was in control and he was willing to rest in the knowledge that God was all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. He was living out the very words he wrote to the believers in Philippi.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7 NLT

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Visions.

1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa..

The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. Acts 10:1-16 ESV

Peter is in Joppa, the guest of Simon, the tanner. He is continuing his ministry among the believers there and sharing the gospel with the Hellenistic Jews who lived there. But his world was about to get rocked. While Peter had apparently become open to the idea of Samaritans and Hellenistic Jews coming to faith in Christ, he was about to learn that God had much broader, bigger plans for the gospel. Up until this point, it appears that Peter and the other apostles were somewhat reluctant to take the gospel to the Gentiles. It seems that their self-imposed requirement was that the gospel only be shared with those who had a pre-existing relationship with Judaism. Thus, they had been willing to approve of Philip’s work among the Samaritans, because of those individuals were technically part-Jewish and worshiped Yahweh. And it seems that those who came to faith in Lydda and Joppa had been Greek-speaking or Hellenistic Jews. Even Simon, the tanner, with whom Peter was lodging in Joppa, was most likely a Hellenistic Jew who had come to faith in Christ. So, it appears that some formal link to Judaism had become a necessary requirement before anyone could hear the gospel message. But all that was about to change.

 First, Luke introduces us to Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman cohort who lived in Caesarea, a city located up the Mediterranean coast, about 30-miles north of Joppa. This man was a Gentile, but Luke describes him as “a devout man who feared God with all his household” (Acts 10:2 ESV). As an officer in the Roman army, it is doubtful that Cornelius had taken steps to become a full proselyte of the Jewish religion. That would have required circumcision and would been an extremely dangerous thing for a man in his position to do. After all, he was part of the Roman army that occupied Palestine and whose responsibility it was to enforce Roman law. But Luke makes it clear that this man worshiped the God of the Hebrews and was favorably disposed to the Jewish people. He regularly gave financial gifts to the poor and needy and even prayed to Yahweh. And it was during the ninth-hour, the Jewish hour of prayer, that Cornelius received a vision from God.

It is significant to note that God appeared to Cornelius long before any human representative did. In essence, God was giving His divine approval of not only Cornelius, but of all those who, like him, were outside the Jewish faith, but predisposed to having a relationship with God. This man had been drawn to God. He worshiped and prayed to God. Now, he was actually having an encounter with God. And the word he received from God, through the mouth of an angel, was quite clear:

4 “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” – Acts 10:4-6 ESV

Cornelius received instructions to send for Peter. God was very specific. He wanted Peter to be the one who to play a part in this man’s conversion. And so, Cornelius, petrified by what he had seen and heard, obeyed and sent two men to Joppa to find and bring back Peter.

Meanwhile, 30 miles away in Joppa, Peter was given his own vision from God. And his was dramatically different, and no less disturbing. Peter had gone up the roof of Simon’s house in order to pray and, while praying, he fell into a trance. It’s important to note that Luke describes Peter as having been hungry when he started his prayer time. His physical condition of hunger is going to play an important part in the overall context of the vision he was given by God. While waiting for his lunch to be prepared, Peter fell into a trance and had a dream about food. Not exactly an abnormal or unlikely scenario, but it is the nature of the food in Peter’s dream that make it significant. In his dream, he saw a giant sheet being let down from heaven, and in that sheet “were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air” (Acts 10:12 ESV). And we know from Peter’s reaction, that these creatures were all considered uncommon and unclean to Jews. They were all from the list found in Leviticus 11.

You may not, however, eat the following animals that have split hooves or that chew the cud, but not both. The camel chews the cud but does not have split hooves, so it is ceremonially unclean for you. The hyrax chews the cud but does not have split hooves, so it is unclean. The hare chews the cud but does not have split hooves, so it is unclean. The pig has evenly split hooves but does not chew the cud, so it is unclean. You may not eat the meat of these animals or even touch their carcasses. They are ceremonially unclean for you. – Leviticus 11:4-8 NLT

10 But you must never eat animals from the sea or from rivers that do not have both fins and scales. They are detestable to you. – Leviticus 11:10 NLT

13 “These are the birds that are detestable to you. You must never eat them: the griffon vulture, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, 14 the kite, falcons of all kinds, 15 ravens of all kinds, 16 the eagle owl, the short-eared owl, the seagull, hawks of all kinds, 17 the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, 18 the barn owl, the desert owl, the Egyptian vulture, 19 the stork, herons of all kinds, the hoopoe, and the bat. – Leviticus 11:13-19 NLT

Added to this list were various winged insects. Any and all of these creatures were forbidden and declared unclean by God. The Jews were not allowed to eat or touch them. To do so would make them ceremonially unclean. And yet, when the sheet descended from heaven, it was filled with nothing but these kinds of creatures. To make matters worse, a voice from heaven commanded, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.” The sheet had come from heaven. The voice had come from heaven. But the creatures were unclean. They were unacceptable and unholy. Why in the world was God commanding Peter to satisfy his hunger by consuming what was forbidden? Peter, shocked and outraged by the mere thought of doing such a thing, vehemently told God, “No!” and proudly stated, “I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean” (Acts 10:14 NLT). This little exchange between Peter and God reminds me of another awkward moment that took place some time earlier between he and Jesus.

Jesus had just finished telling Peter and the other disciples that He was headed to Jerusalem, where He was going to be arrested, tried and executed. But He had also informed them that He would be raised from the dead. But Peter wasn’t listening. Instead, he took Jesus aside and rebuked Him.

But Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. “Heaven forbid, Lord,” he said. “This will never happen to you!” – Matthew 16:22 NLT

Later, on the very night Jesus was betrayed, He told the disciples that each of them would end up denying Him. But Peter had responded, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you” (Matthew 26:33 NLT). But Jesus broke the news to Peter that he would actually deny Him three times. To which Peter responded, “No! Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!” (Matthew 26:35 NLT).

Peter had developed a habit of arguing with Jesus and now, he was doing the same thing with God the Father. Three separate times, God told Peter, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15 ESV). And I don’t think Luke’s mention of these three repetitive declarations by God is unimportant. If you recall, Peter had ended up denying Jesus three separate times on the night that He was betrayed. And, when Peter had encountered the resurrected Jesus, they had had an exchange, where Jesus asked Peter three separate times, “Do you love me?” And each time, Peter had responded, “Yes!” But with each of Peter’s statements of affirmation, Jesus had repeatedly commanded him to “Feed my sheep!” In fact, His exact words were:

“Then feed my lambs.” – John 21:15 NLT

“Then take care of my sheep.” – John 21:16 NLT

“Then feed my sheep.– John 21:17 NLT

Peter had been commanded by Jesus to care for His sheep. And now, Peter was going to learn that his definition of what it meant to be one of Jesus’ sheep was quite different than that of Jesus Himself. In fact, Jesus had clearly spoken concerning His sheep:

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, 15 just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd. – John 10:14-16 NLT

There were sheep, “that are not in this sheepfold”, for whom Jesus had died. And Cornelius was one of them. Much to Peter’s chagrin, the gospel message was not reserved for the Jews. It was not restricted to those who had some kind of ethnic alliance with the Hebrew people. It was for any and all. Peter was about to learn what Paul would later write: “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes–the Jew first and also the Gentile” (Romans 1:16 NLT).

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

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

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

Free To Obey.

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. – Galatians 3:19-22 ESV

There’s that word, “offspring” again. Paul continues to unpack the true meaning behind Genesis 22:18 where God made His promise to Abraham: “and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” According to Paul, the “offspring” to whom God referred in His promise was Jesus. It would be through Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ, that all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And the law was given by God after He had made the promise to Abraham. Why? In order to expose the extent of mankind’s sinfulness. God gave His chosen people the law “because of transgressions.” The law clearly articulated God’s holy and righteous expectations of men. There could be no debate. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 7:7 ESV). Prior to the giving of the law, man could have rationalized away his sin or simply claimed ignorance. But the law made it perfectly clear what God expected and demanded of mankind, especially His chosen people. In Romans, Paul indicates that the very presence of the law acted as an impetus to sin, not causing man to sin, but provoking man’s sin nature to rebel against it. When the law said, “Do not…”, man’s sin nature automatically and reflexively responded, “But I will…”. Paul went on to say, “sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness” (Romans 7:8 ESV). Indwelling sin, which opposes God, stands opposed to His holy law. It rejects the law and entices man’s fleshly, sinful nature to disobey it. Like a parent telling their child not to touch a hot stove, the prohibition creates in the child an even deeper desire and curiosity to do that which has been denied.

In verse 19, Paul says the law “was put in place through angels by an intermediary.” Moses provides us with some insight into the meaning behind Paul’s statement. Just prior to his death, Moses gave a blessing to the people of Israel, saying, “The Lord came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand” (Deuteronomy 33:2 ESV). Angels played a mediatory role, while Moses played an intermediatory role. The law was given and it placed responsibilities on God and upon man. God was obligated and committed to bless when men obeyed His law.

And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV

But He was also required to curse or punish when man disobeyed.

But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV

In contrast, when it came to the Abrahamic covenant, the promise God made to Him regarding his “offspring”, the sole responsibility of the covenant fell upon God. There was no intermediary. It was a unilateral covenant. The promise was made by God and would be fulfilled by Him. Moses could add nothing to the equation. He was simply required to believe God, and Paul writes in Romans, “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:20-22 ESV).

The law did not stand opposed to or somehow replace the promise of God. It was not intended to be a substitute for the promise. And it was never designed to produce in man a righteousness that could restore him to a right relationship with God. What it did was show men just how sinful and helpless they really were. Whether motivated by genuine love for or fear of God, men were incapable of keeping His righteous decrees. The law simply confirmed that they were law breakers.

Paul tells us the law was designed to be temporary in nature. It was to be in effect until the promise was fulfilled and “the offspring” came. With the coming of Jesus and His death on the cross, the law’s binding hold on man was released. Jesus became the fulfillment of the law, having obediently kept every single requirement. He did what no other man had ever done. And His sinless perfection made Him the perfect, blameless sacrifice that God required to atone for the sins of mankind. Jesus paid it all. His sinless, unselfish sacrifice of His own life satisfied the just demands of a holy God.

In Romans, Paul writes of the unbelievable impact of Jesus’ death on our behalf:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. – Romans 5:6-9 ESV

Law-keeping is not the answer to man’s sin problem. The law was never intended to provide salvation. It was designed to show man His sin and place him under God’s holy, just condemnation. The law was not even capable of driving men to God. As Paul indicated, it actually inflamed man’s sin nature and drove him further from God. Law-breakers hate the law. They look for ways to disobey it and get around it. They see the law as oppressive and unnecessary. But Jesus came to free men from the law. He came to provide a means by which they could be made right with God apart from the law. And Paul makes it very clear that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners. We didn’t see our need for a Savior and run to Him. We were dead in our trespasses and sins. We were blinded by our own sin natures and by Satan himself. And yet God, in His grace, opened our eyes to see the glory of the offer of the gift of His Son’s death. The scales fell off our eyes and His Spirit gave us the supernatural ability to say yes to that which we, if left to ourselves, we would have always said no.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. – Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV

Even our faith is a gift from God, otherwise it would be a work. It is not our doing, but a gift from God.  Our salvation is the sovereign work of God, from beginning to end. As when Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, shouting, “Lazarus, come forth!”, God calls us out of the death and darkness of sin, providing us with not only life but the capacity to obey. That is truly amazing grace.

Glory To God.

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. – Romans 16:25-27 ESV

Paul wraps up his letter with a doxology – a statement of praise to God. This entire letter has been a treatise on the praiseworthiness of God for His power, grace, mercy, patience, power, sovereignty, love and the greatest expression of that love: the sacrifice of His Son as the payment for mankind’s sins. Paul wanted his readers to know that the very same God who made salvation possible and who, in His mercy, chose them to receive redemption, was fully capable of strengthening them and keeping them “according to his gospel.” Notice that Paul personalizes the gospel, calling it his own. In the early stages of his letter he referred to it as the gospel of God (Romans 1:1) and the gospel of His Son (Romans 1:9). In chapter 15 he called it the gospel of Christ (Romans 15:19). But here he makes it his own. It is the gospel of God because He is the one who made it possible. It is the gospel of Christ, the Son, because He is the one whose sinless sacrifice fulfilled the demands of the Father. But it was Paul’s gospel because he had been commissioned by Christ Himself to share the good news of salvation for the Gentiles. This is the mystery Paul refers to: “according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all the nations” (Romans 16:25-26 ESV). Paul referred to this mystery in his letter to the Colossian believers.

Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. – Colossians 1:24-27 NLT

The gospel was at one time a mystery, hidden from the eyes of men. It was clearly revealed in the Old Testament, as Paul has so strongly proven, but the Old Testament saints were not able to see all the aspects concerning God’s plan of salvation for all the nations. Even the disciples of Jesus saw Him as a Messiah for the Jewish people. They had no concept of Gentiles being included in Christ’s Kingdom. They were shocked when they found Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well. They were more than likely confused by the conversation had with the Gentile woman concerning her sick daughter.

Then Jesus left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Gentilee woman who lived there came to him, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely.”

But Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word. Then his disciples urged him to send her away. “Tell her to go away,” they said. “She is bothering us with all her begging.”

Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.”

But she came and worshiped him, pleading again, “Lord, help me!”

Jesus responded, “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”

She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.”

“Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed. – Matthew 16:21-28 NLT

When Jesus said to the woman, “It isn’t right to take food away from the children and throw it to the dogs,” He was simply expressing what the disciples were thinking. Jews would not mix with Gentiles. They were considered inferior. But Jesus came to change all that. His death would not be just for the Jews, but for all mankind, and Paul’s God-ordained commission was to make the mystery known to any and all who would listen, in order “to bring about the obedience of faith.”

The gospel, this incredible mystery, is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV). The gospel was made possible by the love, mercy and grace of God. It was made possible by the gracious gift of His Son. It was made possible by His Son’s death, and confirmed by His resurrection, accomplished by the power of the Spirit of God. Everything about the gospel was God’s doing. Even Paul’s miraculous conversion and divine commissioning. So to Him alone belongs “glory forevemore through Jesus Christ” (Romans 16:27 ESV). The words of the great old hymn, To God Be The Glory, by Fanny Crosby, sum it up perfectly.

To God be the glory, great things He has done;
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,
And opened the life gate that all may go in.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,
And give Him the glory, great things He has done.

Wise and Innocent.

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen. I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you. – Romans 16:17-23 ESV

As long as we live in this world, we will face opposition, from within and from without. Paul had a lot of experience dealing with both. But the one he seemed to warn against the most was the inside job, those who posed as brothers and sisters of Christ, but who ended up causing division and disunity. In his other letters, Paul referred to them as false apostles, describing them as “those who are looking for an opportunity to boast that their work is just like ours. These people are false apostles. They are deceitful workers who disguise themselves as apostles of Christ. But I am not surprised! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15 NLT). In 2 Corinthians 11:26, he refers to dangers he had faced from “false brothers.” In his letter to the Galatians he described “so-called Christians there—false ones, really—who were secretly brought in. They sneaked in to spy on us and take away the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. They wanted to enslave us and force us to follow their Jewish regulations” (Galatians 2:4 NLT). Paul warned his young protege, Timothy, “Teach these things, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. Some people may contradict our teaching, but these are the wholesome teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. These teachings promote a godly life. Anyone who teaches something different is arrogant and lacks understanding. Such a person has an unhealthy desire to quibble over the meaning of words. This stirs up arguments ending in jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions. These people always cause trouble. Their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth. To them, a show of godliness is just a way to become wealthy” (1 Timothy 6:2-5 NLT).

The fact is, there have been and always will be false teachers and false believers in the church. They can be recognized by the character of their teaching. If it does not line up with the teaching of Christ and the writings of the apostles as found in the New Testament, then they are to be avoided like the plague. The difficulty is that, much of the time, their false teaching seems to have a ring of truth to it. And that is intentional. Warren Wiersbe warns, “Satan is the counterfeiter. . . . He has a false gospel (Galatians 1:6-9), preached by false ministers (2 Corinthians 11:13-12), producing false Christians (2 Corinthians 11:26). . . . Satan plants his counterfeits wherever God plants true believers (Matthew 13:38).”

Paul, out of his love for the body of Christ, takes time to warn his readers about those “who cause divisions and create obstacles to the doctrine that you have been taught.”  He is talking about the fundamentals of the faith, particularly when it comes to salvation. Anyone who attempts to add anything to the gospel is to be avoided at all costs. If their teaching is Jesus plus anything, they are wrong. Jesus plus works. Jesus plus circumcision. Jesus plus a second blessing. Jesus plus signs and wonders. Jesus plus anything adds up to nothing. It is NOT the gospel as taught by Jesus and His disciples. Paul says these people “serve their own appetites.” They’re in it for selfish reasons, including anything from power and prestige to personal profit. They use smooth talk and flattery. They use clever-sounding words and convincing arguments. But in the end, what they teach is contrary to sound, healthy doctrine and it is divisive. They tear down rather than build up. They create schisms and attempt to splinter healthy congregations. They are not interested in dialogue or debate, but demand their way be the only way.

So Paul says, “I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.” He echoes the words of Jesus when He was sending out His disciples on their first ministry trip without Him. He said, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV). We need to be wary of those who show up teaching “new truths.” After more than 2,000 years of Christian history and scholarship, there is little that is new under the sun. In fact, much of what shows up in our day as new insights into Jesus, the gospel, the nature of the Church, and so much more, is far from new. They are simply rehashed teachings from centuries past. We live in an age where anything new and innovative is attractive. But Paul would have us be careful and stick with the sound doctrine taught by he and his fellow apostles. We should always be suspect of anything that shows up in the church as “new and improved.” A new view on Jesus is probably a false view. A new gospel, if it veers from the gospel as found in the New Testament, is no gospel at all.

At the end of the day, we must trust in the grace of God to protect us and to keep the gospel message pure. Ultimately, Paul reminds us, He will “crush Satan” under our feet. The truth concerning Jesus and the gospel of God will win out. And in the meantime, we must keep our focus on the matchless, priceless grace of God that saved us and sustains us. We must keep trusting in His way, His Word and His perfect plan for the redemption of the world.

Diversity. Unity. Fidelity.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. – Romans 16:1-16 ESV

Phoebe, Prisca, Aquila, Epaenetus, Mary, Andronicus, Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, Apelles, Aristobulus, Herodian, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Rufus, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, Phililogus, Julia, Nereus, and Olympas. That’s quite a list. Twenty four hard-to-pronounce names of people to whom Paul wished to express his personal greetings. Having never been to Rome before, we are not quite sure how he knew some of these individuals. In a few of the cases, Paul had met them before.Phoebe, the woman by whom he was sending his letter, was an active member of the church in Cenchreae, a port city of Corinth. She was most likely a Gentile and had been a patron to many in the church. She was evidently from the wealthier upper class, but had used her resources to assist others in the church in Corinth. Paul had also enjoy a prior relationship with the husband and wife team of Prisca and Aquila. They had worked alongside him in his missionary journeys. We read about them in the Book of Acts.

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. – Acts 18:1-3 ESV

This couple, who had been forced to leave Italy because of an edict of the emperor Claudius, had risked their lives for Paul and had made a tremendous impact on the Gentile churches. They were now back in Rome and were continuing their efforts to grow believers in the church and spread the gospel throughout the city.

The amazing thing about Paul’s list is that we know little to nothing about most of the individuals listed. But they provide us a glimpse into the makeup of the local churches in Rome. It is interesting to note that verse 1 of Romans 16 is the first time in his letter that Paul uses the word, “church.” The Greek word is ekklēsia and it means “gathering, congregation, assembly.” It literally means “called out” and was used by the Greeks to refer to any group that had been called out for the purpose of a meeting for deliberation. It was the perfect designation for the people of God, those who had placed their faith in Jesus Christ. They had been called out by God. They were to remain in the world, but not be of the world. In His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus said to His Father, “They do not belong to this world any more than I do” (John 17:16 NLT). “And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 16:14 NLT). Paul’s list contains the names of those who had been called out by God to be a part of His universal church. They were people of all walks of life. There were Romans and Greeks, freedmen and slaves, the wealthy and the poor, the influential and the insignificant. There were men and women, young and old, the educated and the illiterate. All had been placed into local congregations by the grace of God and because of their faith in Jesus Christ His Son.

As Paul has so painstakingly explained in his letter, there was no reason for anyone in the body of Christ to boast. All had been equally guilty and worthy of God’s condemnation at one time. None had earned favor with God because of their own self-manufactured righteousness. There was no one whose wealth or social influence had gained them any brownie points with God. Every single one of them had received their justification before God the same way, by placing their faith in the righteousness of Christ. None had been more righteous than another. Their sinfulness was equally condemning in God’s holy eyes. But God had extended grace and mercy. Paul made this point quite clear earlier in his letter.

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 freely and graciously declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. – Romans 3:22-24 NLT

Each of the individuals Paul lists were dear to him. They each had their own unique name and personality. Each had come to faith in Christ in their own personal way. They brought different talents and spiritual gifts to the body of Christ. They had their own individual roles to play within their local congregations. But at the end of the day, they were one. They shared a common faith in a common Savior and shared a common bond with every other believer around the world at that time. Paul sent greetings to them for all the churches of Christ. He wanted them to know that they were not alone. They were part of a much larger family made up of other individuals who bore other names, but who shared their belief in the risen Christ. We are the called out ones. We live in the midst of a world that hates us because we share a common love for Christ. We don’t belong here. We are aliens and strangers. This is no longer our home. But we are brothers and sisters in Christ, compatriots who share a love for the cause of Christ and the Kingdom of God. We are in this together because God has placed us together into the body of Christ. May we learn to look past our diversity and embrace our unity through a growing desire for mutual love and fidelity.