Their Heart Wasn’t In It

22 “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. 23 And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. 24 And you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’

28 “And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. 29 Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever! 30 Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.” 31 But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.’ 32 You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” – Deuteronomy 5:22-33 ESV

What a spectacular sight that must have been. As the people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, they had seen the peak covered in what appeared to be fire and smoke, and out of the darkness of the cloud had come bolts of lightning and peals of thunder. But they had also heard the unmistakable voice of God Almighty. The book of Exodus tells us that God had told Moses to prepare the people for this amazing encounter. Their invisible God was going to make Himself known.

“Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” – Exodus 19:9 ESV

God was going to allow the people of Israel to overhear His conversation with Moses. And, while they would not actually see God, they would hear His voice and witness the amazing display of His glory. But the people were not to take this one-of-a-kind opportunity lightly. Moses was commanded by God to have the people prepared because they would be encountering the holiness of God. This was not to be treated like some kind of Fourth of July fireworks spectacular.

“Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.”  – Exodus 19:10-13 ESV

The people did as Moses instructed them. They came, they saw, and they heard.

All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. – Exodus 19:18 NLT

And this remarkable display of God’s glory had its intended effect. The people were blown away by all that they had seen and heard and expressed their amazement to Moses.

“Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice from the heart of the fire. Today we have seen that God can speak to us humans, and yet we live!” – Deuteronomy 5:24 NLT

They were amazed and petrified at the same time. Their exposure to the might and majesty of God created within them a fear that bordered on paranoia. They wanted nothing more to do with Him and preferred that Moses do the dirty and obviously dangerous work of receiving any further instructions from God. But they committed themselves to obey whatever it was that God told them to do.

“But now, why should we risk death again? If the Lord our God speaks to us again, we will certainly die and be consumed by this awesome fire. Can any living thing hear the voice of the living God from the heart of the fire as we did and yet survive?  Go yourself and listen to what the Lord our God says. Then come and tell us everything he tells you, and we will listen and obey.” – Deuteronomy 5:25-27 NLT

Once again, the book of Exodus provides us with additional details regarding this historical event. After Moses had returned from the mountaintop, having received all of God’s commands, he had shared them with the people. And this time, the law had expanded beyond the initial Ten Commandments and included a wider range of rules and regulations, covering everything from the proper construction of altars to the treatment of slaves. There were laws concerning restitution and the practice of social justice. God even included commands regarding the feasts and festivals they were to celebrate and rules concerning their keeping of the Sabbath. And when the people heard all that God had commanded, they responded affirmatively.

Then Moses went down to the people and repeated all the instructions and regulations the Lord had given him. All the people answered with one voice, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” – Exodus 24:3 NLT

But their enthusiastic commitment to keep God’s commands was driven more by fear than by a heartfelt desire to live in obedience to Him. They had committed to keeping His law because they feared His judgment. But fear alone would prove to be an insufficient motivation to foster long-term obedience. And God saw through their exuberant verbal affirmation.

“I have heard what the people said to you, and they are right. Oh, that they would always have hearts like this, that they might fear me and obey all my commands! If they did, they and their descendants would prosper forever.” – Deuteronomy 5:28-29 NLT

He knew what was going to happen. Eventually, the fire on the mountain would go out, and the smoke would dissipate. The thunder and lightning would fade away like a distant memory, and the fear the people felt would evaporate along with them. God knew that their commitment to obey His commands would be shortlived. And yet, He longed to bless and prosper them.

God had tied His blessing of them directly to their obedience to Him. Later on, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses would articulate the vital link between blessing and obedience.

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NLT

But failure to obey had its consequences. Disobedience would result in curses.

But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you – Deuteronomy 28:15 NLT

God longed to bless His people. But His covenant with them was conditional. He had given them His law and required that it be obeyed. If they wanted to live long and prosper, they had to live in obedience to His commands. This wasn’t just a case of blind obedience to an arbitrary set of rules. Every single command given by God had inherent benefits associated with it because it came from a holy and just God. The laws provided by God were meant to protect and prosper the people of Israel. If obeyed, they would set the people of Israel apart and bestow on them blessings beyond belief. Walking submissively and obediently within the will of God always brings the blessings of God. Living according to His standards and submitting to His will always results in a guarantee of His blessings. Which is why Moses pleaded with the people of Israel to do all that God had commanded them to do.

“You must be careful to obey all the commands of the Lord your God, following his instructions in every detail. Stay on the path that the Lord your God has commanded you to follow. Then you will live long and prosperous lives in the land you are about to enter and occupy. – Deuteronomy 5:32-33 NLT

But God desires obedience from the heart, not a robotic, going-through-the-motions adherence to a set of rules. The law was never intended to be a set of live-sucking regulations that require mindless obedience. God desires obedience that flows from the heart and is motivated by love, not fear.

“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22 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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I Am – Part 2

13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” – Exodus 3:13-14 ESV

58 “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” – John 8:58 ESV

This is the second half of our discussion regarding Jesus and His self-identification as the great “I AM.” Over the last few posts, we have been dwelling on the central role that identity played in the life of our Savior. It began with a look at the words of Paul found in Philippians 2. In his letter to the small community of believers in Philippi, a congregation he had helped to start several years earlier, Paul emphasized their need for community and gave them the following challenge: “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And for Paul, the evidence or proof that they were living worthy of the gospel would be clear when he received the news that they were “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27 ESV).

In chapter two, Paul encouraged them to make this outcome their goal; for their own good, God’s glory, and so that his own joy regarding them might be complete.

…complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:2-4 ESV

But the key to any of this taking place would not be found in their ability to “do what Jesus did.” In other words, personal effort, self-determination, and sheer will power were not going to be enough. All Paul’s talk about by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and having one mind was not a call to behavior modification. Yes, he had called them to humbly consider others more important than themselves. He had challenged them not to be selfish or to try to impress others. But Paul knew that the secret to their success would be a change in their way of thinking, not just their behavior.

let this mind be in you that is also in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 2:5 YLT

For the fourth time in a span of ten verses, Paul uses the Greek word phroneō, which can be translated as “think” or “be of the same mind.” Another important meaning of the term is “to have an opinion of one’s self, think of one’s self” (Outline of Biblical Usage). Within the context of the passage, Paul has been emphasizing the need for the Philippian believers to live in unity while facing increasing opposition. And their ability to pull that off would be based on their willingness to share the mindset of Jesus. Paul wanted them to have a proper opinion of themselves, that begins with a healthy awareness of their true identity. And Paul pointed to Jesus as someone whose own sense of self-awareness allowed Him to suffer willingly, serve selflessly, humble Himself gladly, and obey His Father’s will completely – even to the point of death.

Jesus was the Son of God. Paul makes that point quite clear. He describes Him as “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:5-6 ESV). Paul opens up chapter two by using the Messianic title of Christ when referring to Jesus. Then in verse five, he calls Him “Christ Jesus.” But in verse 11, Paul switches to the designation, “Jesus Christ.” The word “Christ” is not a name, but a title, and is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word for Messiah. “Jesus” was the human name given to the Son of God. So, Paul’s use of the title “Christ” before the name “Jesus” appears to support His emphasis on the incarnation – God becoming a man. Of first importance in this 11-verse section of Paul’s letter is the title or identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God sent to be the Savior of the world.

Jesus, though a man, was on an equal level with God because He was the Chosen One, the long-awaited Messiah, and the second person of the Trinity. And He was fully aware of who He was and what He had been sent to do. Paul stresses that Jesus willingly “emptied himself” or gave up His divine privileges and prerogatives to do the will of His Father, which included His death on the cross. He knew His identity, and He was clear on His job description. There was never a doubt in Jesus’ mind about His position and purpose. And that seems to be Paul’s point. Which is why he calls the Philippian believers to share that same mindset or outlook. But how?

It all ties back to the willingness of Jesus to humble Himself completely, serve others selflessly, and give His life sacrificially – even though He was the Son of God. Jesus suffered no diminishment in His value or worth by doing these things. His decision to become a slave did not make Him any less the Son of God. His choice to become human did not impact His holiness. While His earthly existence could be viewed as a form of demotion, Jesus never saw Himself as any less than who He was: The Son of God who enjoyed unbroken community and unity with His Heavenly Father.

While Jesus lived on this earth, His actions were never intended to make Him feel better about who He was. He did not do the things He did in an attempt to impress others or win their approval. He didn’t suffer from low self-esteem or struggle with self-worth. He had no doubts about His value and felt no pressure to maintain an air of superiority. So, loving, serving, giving, sacrificing, and even dying came easy for Him.

And they should for us as well, if we share His outlook regarding identity. And this is where the primary message in Paul’s letter comes home. Jesus knew who He was and was fully aware of His purpose in life. But are we? Do we have a strong awareness of our identity and a clear understanding of our God-given purpose in life? If not, we will find it difficult to live out our faith consistently and joyfully.

So, in the remaining time we have, I want to provide you with a list of clear and compelling identity markers found in the pages of Scripture. I doubt you will see anything new. But it is my prayer that, as you read through this list, you will begin to see yourself from a new perspective: The way God sees you. As we begin to grasp the significance of our true identity, we will be better able to recognize the lies of the enemy, who is constantly whispering in our ears, “If you are the son of God…”

He wants to convince us that we are not enough, that we don’t measure up, that our God doesn’t love us, our pain is a form of divine punishment, and that we deserve better and more. He is constantly tempting us to see ourselves as something other than who we are in Christ. He wants to hear us say,

“I am…important”

“I am…a success”

“I am…happy”

“I am…satisfied”

“I am…significant”

“I am…deserving”

But Paul would have us view ourselves quite differently, and he offers us the mindset of Jesus as the means by which we can live as Jesus did. We too can reject the temptations of the enemy to seek false identities and to pursue any other purpose for lives other than the one given to us by God.

When Jesus answered the charges of those who attempted to question His identity, He simply stated, “I am.” With those two simple words, Jesus conveyed His confident awareness of who He was and what He had come to do. Nothing could dissuade Jesus from knowing His true identity and from accomplishing His God-given mission. And the same can be true for us. So, the next time Satan whispers in your ear, “Do you know who you are?” you can confidently respond:

I am…forgiven (Ephesians 1:7)

I am…redeemed (Ephesians 1:7)

I am…God’s child (Ephesians 1:3-8)

I am…a co-heir with Christ (Romans 8:17)

I am…a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20)

I am…God’s masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10)

I am…a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)

I am…justified by Christ’s blood (Romans 5:9)

I am…the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21)

I am…set free from sin (Romans 6:18)

I am…free from condemnation (Romans 8:1)

I am…adopted into God’s family (Romans 8:15)

I am…more than a conqueror (Romans 8:37)

I am…a member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27)

I am…of great value to God (Matthew 5:26)

I am…the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19)

I am…an ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20)

I am…a saint (Ephesians 1:1)

I am…wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14)

I am…complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10)

I am…part of a chosen race (1 Peter 2:9)

I am…washed clean (Isaiah 1:18)

I am…holy and without blame (Ephesians 1:4)

I am…reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18)

I am…one with Christ (John 17:21-23)

That’s quite a list, and it doesn’t even begin to cover the many promises found in Scripture regarding our identity in Christ. We are blessed beyond belief, and yet, the enemy still manages to distract our minds from these great truths and cause us to seek our identity and purpose elsewhere. Unwilling to focus on who we are in Christ, we begin to look for other forms of identity in a vain attempt to feel better about who we are. But the identities the world offers us are inaccurate at best and unholy at worst. They bring out the worst in us. They are based on pride and self-exaltation. They tend to focus on what we do, who we know, or what we possess, rather than who God made us to be. Possessions, positions, prominence, power, pleasure and the perceptions of others become the measuring rods by which we assess our value and determine our purpose. But Paul would encourage us to…let this mind be in you that is also in Christ Jesus. Think of who you are by viewing yourself through the lens of your God-given identity. And when you do, you will be able to say, because I am, I can.

Our security regarding our identity is what allows us to serve selflessly, love sacrificially, obey willingly, give graciously, live in community, and avoid the pitfalls of selfish ambition, pride, and conceit. Because I am…I can.

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

 

Live to Righteousness

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:21-25 ESV

In His incarnation, Jesus Christ became one of us and became one with us. As the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, He humbled Himself by taking on the very nature of a man, being born as a helpless baby and subjecting Himself to the care and protection of human parents. We know little about His childhood, but in his gospel, Luke records a scene that provides some insights into Jesus’ character, even at the age of 12. Mary and Joseph had traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem to attend the annual Feast of Passover. But when the festival was over and they had begun their long journey home, they discovered that Jesus was nowhere to be found. They had assumed he had been traveling with other family members, but soon discovered He was missing. So, they quickly made their way back to Jerusalem and for three anxiety filled days they searched for him, and “finally discovered him in the Temple, sitting among the religious teachers, listening to them and asking questions” (Luke 2:46 NLT).

And Luke records that “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47 NLT). But his parents were perplexed by his actions and expressed their concern to him: “Son,…why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere” (Luke 2:48 NLT). Yet Jesus calmly and confidently responded, “But why did you need to search? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 NLT). That last line could be translated, “Didn’t you realize that I should be involved with my Father’s affairs?” He expressed surprise that his parents had not immediately assumed He would be exactly where His Heavenly Father was to be found: In the temple. Even at the age of 12, Jesus was wired to do the will of His Father and to seek fellowship with Him. And Luke records that Jesus “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people” (Luke 2:52 NLT).

As we’ve already discussed, the humanity of Jesus allowed Him to relate to us on an intimate level, exposing Himself to the circumstances and experiences common to the human condition. As a boy and as a man, Jesus knew what it was like to experience pain, to grow hungry and tired, to work, endure temptation, face rejection, laugh, cry, celebrate, age, witness the effects of disease and death, and watch the endless examples of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man.

For 30-plus years, Jesus lived on this planet; eating, drinking, working, relating, loving, caring, and growing in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and all the people. Then, one day, led by the Holy Spirit, Jesus made His way to the River Jordan, where He would begin His earthly ministry by being baptized by John the Baptist. But John was reticent, and Matthew records in his gospel:

John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:14-17 ESV

Look closely to what Jesus said to John. “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was telling John that this was in keeping with the will of God and by obeying that will they would fulfill the moral requirements of God. This is not the same kind of righteousness that Paul speaks of in his letters. Jesus did not need to be made right with God. His baptism was not a form of sanctification, making Him fit for duty. It was a step of obedience, a sign of His willingness to do all that God had set out for Him to do. His baptism was not one of repentance, but of obedience. By allowing Himself to be baptized by John, Jesus aligned Himself with all those who had followed John’s call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). Jesus validated John’s ministry, and visibly gave His approval to what John was calling the people to do.

Matthew tells us that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:5-6 ESV). Even the Pharisees and Sadducees showed up, seeking to be baptized by John, but he responded to their efforts with scorn.

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

John saw these men as what they were: Self-righteous religious charlatans who had no intention of changing the way they lived. Unlike the common people who were confessing their sins, these pride-filled religious leaders saw themselves as already righteous because of their strict adherence to the Mosaic law and their status as sons of Abraham.

But John let them know that their self-righteousness was going to be inadequate and their legal status as Jews would prove insufficient. Jesus had come to usher in a new and better way for men to be made right with God. And John differentiated between his ministry and that of Jesus by saying, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11 ESV).

Some years later, after Jesus had completed His earthly ministry by sacrificing His life on the cross, rising again from the dead, and returning to His Father’s side in heaven, Peter wrote his first letter to a group of Jesus’ followers. And he challenged them to “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:16-17 ESV). These people, as followers of Jesus, were to live as He lived. They were to emulate His life. As Paul told the Colossian church, “you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead” (Colossians 2:12 NLT). They had a new power available to them, made possible through the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. They were new creations who were filled with the fruit of righteousness (Philippians 1:11) and fully capable of living new lives in keeping with the will of God, even if that will included suffering.

Which is why Peter tells his audience, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21 ESV). And Jesus had warned His disciples that things would not be easy for them. Following Christ is not for the faint of heart, but it comes with a personal assurance from the Savior Himself: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV). But how did Jesus overcome the world? Peter explains that Jesus conquered the world, the evil domain under the rule of Satan, by sacrificing His life on the cross. Jesus “committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22-23 ESV). Jesus spent His life being about His Father’s business, doing what He had been called to do. He trusted His Father’s will for Him. He knew that God’s ways were just and right, and was willing to subject Himself to trials, tribulations, and troubles of all kinds because He had confidence in God.

Peter summarizes the actions of Jesus with the simple, yet profound statement: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24 ESV). From His baptism by John to His death at the hands of the Romans, all that Jesus did was done so that we might live to righteousness. From His incarnation to His resurrection, the obedience of Jesus was displayed in full, providing a means by which sinful men and women might be made right with God. His fully righteous actions, from start to finish, made Him the perfect, unblemished sacrifice for the sins of man. He suffered and died, bearing our sins on His body so that we might be made righteous in the eyes of God. And not only are we considered or reckoned righteous by God, but we are also capable of living righteously, bearing the fruit of 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

 

How Righteous Do You Have To Be?

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:10-13 ESV

When it comes to our salvation, most of us have no trouble acknowledging our sin. After all, as Jesus infers above in his statement to the Pharisees, He came to save sinners, not saints. In fact, Paul reminds us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and His death was proof of God’s love for us (Romans 5:8 ESV).  God didn’t require us to get our spiritual act together or our moral house in order. No, He sent His Son to die for us because we were sinners. And Jesus made the point behind His earthly mission quite clear: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10 ESV).

Obviously, by definition, sinners do not measure up to God’s righteous standard. And Paul stated that fact quite plainly when he wrote: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT). It was our lack of righteousness that made Christ’s righteousness necessary. All attempts by the Jews, God’s chosen people, to keep the righteous standard of God, as revealed in the Mosaic law, had fallen far short. Which is why God could look down on mankind and pronounce, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10 ESV). And it was into this abysmal state of affairs that God sent His Son so that He would become the source of righteousness that sinful men so desperately need. The apostle Paul explains the details behind God’s plan for man’s sin problem.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:21-26 ESV

God’s righteousness was made manifest or known by the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. The kind of righteousness God required became physically and visibly apparent in the life of Jesus, the Son of God. But the righteousness of God was also revealed in that He did not overlook or ignore man’s sin problem, He dealt with it by delivering a death sentence against it. But He did so by sacrificing His own Son on behalf of and in place of sinful men. In keeping with the Old Testament sacrificial system, God provided a substitute or stand-in; an unblemished, flawless Lamb who gave His life in the place of unrighteous sinners. The author of Hebrews the full import behind Jesus’  death on the cross.

With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever.

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. – Hebrews 9:12-14 NLT

It was His righteousness that satisfied the just demands of a holy God. In His human state, Jesus lived a completely sin-free life, keeping each and every command God had given. He was perfectly obedient and fully submitted to the will of God, in spite of being “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are” and “yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV). And because of His perfect obedience and sinless life, Jesus became “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

The apostle Paul would have us remember that it is our faith in Christ that makes us right with God. It is only as sinful men stop relying upon their own self-righteousness and turn to the righteousness made possible through Christ that they are restored to a right relationship with God the Father. It is when they recognize that their sin debt has been paid for by Jesus and accept His gracious gift of salvation, that sinners become righteous. But look closely at what Paul says:

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. – 1 Corinthians 1:30 NASB

He has made us right with God. In other words, we are righteous in God’s eyes. Not only that, we are seen by God as pure and holy or sanctified. And we have been set from sin. Yet, we know from experience that sin remains alive and active in our lives. We commit sins regularly and have to constantly fight the temptation to live unrighteous lives in spite of our righteous standing.

And this is where the confusion regarding sanctification comes in. We begin to believe that we have an obligation to improve our righteous standing before God. When we sin, we conclude that we have taken a step backward and regressed in our relationship with God, leaving us with no other choice but to regain the righteousness we lost. We have fallen out of favor with Him, and it is up to us to gain our way back into His good graces. But is this biblical? Is it true?

The danger behind this kind of thinking is that it diminishes the finished work of Jesus. It belittles and minimizes what He accomplished on the cross, by teaching a need for additional righteousness. By focusing on our need to replace our unrighteousness actions with righteous ones, we negate the righteousness of Christ. It is His righteousness alone that can satisfy a holy God. It is His blood alone that can make the impure clean and the defile holy. And that transaction happened the moment we placed our faith in Him as our sin substitute. There is no additional righteousness needed.

It’s interesting to note that Paul said, “For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live” (Romans 1:1 NET).  He didn’t say from righteousness to righteousness or from sanctification to sanctification. All the righteousness we need is revealed through faith in Jesus Christ. And faith never stops being the means by which we avail ourselves of that righteousness. We don’t need to produce more. We need to believe that we have more than enough in Christ. The danger we face as believers living in a fallen world and wrestling with our old sinful natures is that we can become convinced that we don’t measure up. And the enemy constantly accuses us of falling short of God’s standard by using our sins as proof of our inadequacy. So, we start trying to earn our way back into God’s good graces. We fall back into the faulty mindset that we can somehow produce a righteousness of our own.

But notice what Paul told the believers in Philippi.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. – Philippians 3:8-9 ESV

Paul depended upon a righteousness that came from outside of himself. It was an alien righteousness, produced by Christ and imputed to Paul. And Paul kept placing His faith in that righteousness, not in any kind of self-produced righteousness he might attempt to manufacture.

So then, why should we attempt to do righteous deeds? Why should we bother to live worthy of our calling? If we are already as righteous as we will ever need to be, what’s the point of attempting to live holy lives? These are important questions, and we will address them in our next post.

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

 

Living Proof

19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.

25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me. – Philippians 2:19-30 ESV

Suddenly and somewhat surprisingly, Paul goes from talking directly to the congregation in Philippi to mentioning two individuals who, at first glance, seem to have no relationship whatsoever with the church there. On closer examination it becomes clear that both Timothy and Epaphroditus were well-known to the believers in Philippi. Epaphroditus was actually a resident of the city and member of the local congregation. He had been sent by the church to Rome, where he ended up ministering to Paul during his time under house arrest. Paul refers to him as “your messenger and minister to my need” (Philippians 2:25 ESV). Later on, in chapter 4, Paul refers to the gifts that Epaphroditus had brought with him on behalf of the church in Philippi. And, evidently, Epaphroditus had been the one to deliver Paul’s letter, having been sent back to Philippi after his recovery from a life-threatening illness.

And as far as Timothy is concerned, he had been with Paul and Silas when they first arrived in Philippi on their missionary journey. The book of Acts reveals that Paul had met Timothy when visiting the cities of Lystra and Derby.

Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. – Acts 16:1-3 ESV

Paul wanted the church in Philippi to know that he intended to send Timothy to them as his personal representative and so that Timothy might deliver back to Paul a report concerning the conditions within their local fellowship.

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. Philippians 2:19 ESV

But why does Paul bring up these two young men at this point in his letter? What was his reasoning for switching from a very personal call to the body of Christ in Philippi to live in unity and humility in a city filled with intense darkness and twisted moral standards?

I believe there are two things at work here. First, Paul wants his brothers and sisters to know that he is thinking about them and that, even in his absence, he is sending others to assist them in their faith journey. He is not abandoning them.

But there is another and somewhat more subtle point being made here. Paul is using these two young men as examples to the flock in Philippi. Paul has been talking about the task of the church working out its salvation with fear and trembling. He has been calling them to live lives marked by blamelessness and innocence. And now he brings up these two men he has come to know and love.

In these verses, Paul gives a glimpse into the lives of two men who meant a great deal to him. They were his brothers in Christ and his fellow workers in the mission to which God had called him. Timothy and Epaphroditus, while not household names to most of us, were icons of spiritual virtue in Paul’s mind. He couldn’t have done what he did without them. And he commends both of them to the believers in Philippi as men whom they could not only trust but emulate. Both were likely younger men than Paul, but that didn’t stop him from praising their value and virtues as men of God.

Paul described Timothy as a one-of-a-kind individual who showed genuine care for the people in Philippi. He didn’t view his efforts on their behalf as work but legitimately cared for their spiritual, emotional and physical well-being. Paul then describes what appears to be a consistent problem among leadership within the early church at that time. “All the others care only for themselves and not for what matters to Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:21 NLT). I don’t think Paul was intimating that there was no one else who cared in Philippi, but that there was a prevailing presence of self-centeredness among many within the church, especially among the leadership. Sadly, It was a rare thing to find a believer who put the interests of Christ before his own. Timothy was such a man. Timothy had served Paul well and had become like a son to him. Paul even referred to Timothy as “my true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2 NLT). He was a faithful, loving, reliable, and godly young man who modeled Christ-likeness and ministered faithfully alongside Paul even in his darkest moments. He was a real man.

Paul describes Epaphroditus as “a true brother, co-worker, and fellow soldier” (Philippians 2:25 NLT). And by sending Epaphroditus back to them, Paul was making a personal sacrifice, because he knew Epaphroditus was anxious to see his friends and fellow believers back home. This kind and generous young man wanted to put to rest any concerns over his physical well-being, by making a personal appearance and proving to his fellow church members that he had fully recovered. Upon Paul encourages the believers in Philippi to “welcome him with Christian love and with great joy, and give him the honor that people like him deserve” (Philippians 2:29 NLT). Obviously, Paul thought highly of Epaphroditus. He had risked his life for the cause of Christ, having been close to death, all to serve Paul while he was imprisoned in Rome.

Paul appreciated and valued men like Timothy and Epaphroditus. He knew that he could not accomplish the ministry without them. He was under house arrest, unable to travel, and restricted from ministering to the various churches he had helped plant around the world. He had to depend on faithful men like Timothy and Epaphroditus to be his hands, feet, eyes, and voice; delivering his messages and expressing his love for the body of Christ.

The church today needs men and women of character like Timothy and Epaphroditus. There is a shortage of reliable, faithful, loving and selfless individuals who put the needs of the body of Christ ahead of their own. Paul knew that men like Timothy were going to be constantly tempted to compromise their character, and the same thing is true in our day. So Paul warned this young man, “But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have confessed so well before many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:11-12 NLT).

The church still needs men and women who have that same attitude and focus. The body of Christ needs to raise up and recognize those kinds of leaders, both men, and women, who are willing to risk their reputations, careers, comfort, and even their lives, for the cause of Christ. While men like Paul were vital to the church in those early days, the spread of the Gospel was dependent upon individuals like Timothy and Epaphroditus for its long-term survival and success. They were the faithful foot soldiers in the battle for the gospel, and we need more like them today.

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

Growing Together

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. – Philippians 2:12-18 ESV

Paul has just provided the Philippian believers with a vivid portrait of Christ, intended as an illustration of what he means to think like Christ thinks. Paul wants them to have the same attitude or outlook on life that Christ did. For Paul, Christ was the consummate example of humility and selflessness – even though He was God. When faced with the divine plan that required His incarnation and, ultimately His crucifixion, Jesus didn’t cling to His divine status or deem Himself as beneath His royal status as the Son of God. He understood that it was His holiness and worthiness that, when joined with human flesh, would make Him the acceptable sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Jesus humbled Himself, willingly and completely, obeying the will of His Father – all the way to the point of an excruciating and humiliating death on the cross. And He did it all out of love for sinful mankind.

And it was that selfless, sacrificial love that Paul wanted the Philippian believers to emulate. It was what he wanted for each and every congregation he had helped to start. He told the Ephesians:

Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:2 NLT

And he expanded on this idea when writing to the Colossian believers:

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. – Colossians 3:12-14 NLT

Notice that Paul is describing an emulation of Christ that shows up in tangible, visible expressions. When Paul speaks of having the mind of Christ, he is not describing some cognitive, intellectual exercise. It is an internal attitude that should result in external actions. Which is why Paul tells the Philippians to “work out your own salvation.” That phrase, “work out” is a single word in the Greek which means, “to do that from which something results.” Paul is not teaching salvation by self-effort. But he is clearly expecting the believers to whom he is writing to put energy and effort into living out the salvation freely provided to them by Christ. The New Living Translation puts it this way: “Work hard to show the results of your salvation.” 

The salvation provided by Christ’s selfless sacrifice of His life was intended to be truly transformational. It didn’t just provide a change in legal status, from guilty and condemned to justified and forgiven. It was meant to result in our ongoing sanctification or transformation into the very character of Christ. Our salvation, provided free of charge by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone, is meant to produce in us a righteousness that mirrors that of Christ. Remember what Paul told the believers in Philippi in the opening chapter of this letter.

May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation – the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ – for this will bring much glory and praise to God. – Philippians 1:11 NLT

That was Paul’s ongoing prayer for them because it was God’s ongoing will for them. Their coming to faith in Christ should result in them becoming increasingly more like Christ. And Paul tells them that their efforts to produce the fruit of their salvation should be accompanied by fear and trembling. And Paul explains what he means by this when he follows it up with the word, “for.” It can be read as “because” and is followed with that which should motivate our fear and trembling: “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT). It is the work of God. So, if it is a high priority to Him, it should be to us. And the knowledge that God is personally working in and among us should produce in us a reverence and awe that drives us to cooperate with His efforts on our behalf. Otherwise, we will find ourselves working against the will of God for our lives.

And that brings up an important point. This is a corporate message from Paul that is addressed to the entire Philippian congregation. While there are certainly personal applications we can glean from Paul’s words, he intended them for the body of Christ in Philippi, not individual believers. So, when Paul says, “God is working in you,” he is speaking of the church as a whole. God is attempting to create in them the same sense of unity that He and the Son share. In fact, this was the very thing Jesus prayed for in the garden just hours before His arrest and trials.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” – John 17:21-23 ESV

Remember, Paul has been addressing the need for unity in the church. He has expressed his desire that they be of “the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2 ESV). And now, he is calling on them to allow their salvation to produce the very character of Christ among them.

But what does that look like in real life? Well, Paul chooses to describe what it doesn’t look like. It won’t be marked by grumbling or disputing. There will be no bickering or backstabbing. In other words, it will be free from disunity. Getting along will be a high priority because the body of Christ is to reflect the very character of Christ. Which brings us back to the model of Christ’s own life: Humility, obedience, selflessness, and sacrifice.

And Paul provides a few positive examples of what Christlikeness should look like in the church: Blamelessness and innocence. Paul is not suggesting perfection or sinlessness. But he is calling for the body of Christ to live with its sins confessed so no one can point a finger of blame. And he is encouraging them to exhibit an innocence or moral purity that gives the outside world no cause to cast dispersions on their witness or the name of Christ. And the impact the church has on the unbelieving world is clearly Paul’s concern here. Notice that he calls on the Philippian congregation to be “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15 ESV). The blemish to which he refers is a potential stain on their corporate witness due to disunity and internal conflict. It was King David who wrote: “How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!” (Psalm 133:1 NLT). And it was Jesus who said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35 NLT).

Paul makes a personal appeal to the Philippians, asking them to hear what he is saying and to do it for his sake, out of love for him. Like a proud father, he wants to be able to look back on his work among them and know that it was not in vain. He longs to see the fruit of righteousness in their lives. What would devastate Paul would be a church that started strong and ended poorly. To see the church in Philippi devolve into a community dominated by selfish and self-centered individuals would bring shame to Paul as a missionary of the gospel. But it would also denigrate the redemptive work of Christ.

That is why Paul pleads with them to “Hold firmly to the word of life” (Philippians 2:16 NLT). He wants them to cling to the message of the gospel, which includes not only their salvation, but their ongoing sanctification, and their future glorification. They were not to forget that God was working in their midst, transforming them into a bright, shining light that was intended to shine the glory of God into the darkness of Philippi.

Paul was willing to die, to see his life poured out as a drink offering to God. But he wanted his life to have made a difference. He deeply desired to know that the church in Philippi would embrace the mind of Christ and pursue the character of Christ – together. And if their pursuit of Christlikeness brought suffering and sacrifice, Paul wanted them to rejoice with him in the privilege of serving God through obedience to His will – following the example of Christ 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

Self-Denial vs Self-Sacrifice

1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet they seek me daily
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
    and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
    they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
    from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
    or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:1-14 ESV

Something is wrong with this picture. In this chapter God is going to paint a somewhat confusing image of His people. On the one hand, He describes them as transgressors of His ways. They are disobedient and rebellious, failing to live up to the standards He had provided through His law. And he pulls no punches in pointing out their guilt.

“Tell my people Israel of their sins!
   Yet they act so pious!” – Isaiah 58:1-2 BNLT

There is a palpable dissonance in the outward behavior of the people of God. At times, they appear to be enthusiastic seekers of God. From all outward appearances they seem to be genuinly excited about growing in their knowledge of God. They even display a certain allegiance to God, in the hopes of winning His favor.

They fast. They pray. The offer sacrifices. In other words, the display all the right evidence of being faithful followers of God. But then, God reveals the disconnect between their actions and His judgment against them. Even they can’t understand why God seems so upset with them. From their perspective, the were doing all the right things to win God’s favor and earn His assistance in time of need. They even ask God:

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” – Isaiah 58:3 ESV

They are at a loss as to why God would ignore such obviously righteous behavior. So, God explains His evident inattention and inaction.

“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers. – Isaiah 58:3 NLT

It was all about themselves. Their fasting was nothing more than an outward display of righteous-looking behavior that was intended to win brownie points with God and impress other men. And Jesus addressed this kind of hypocritical fasting.

“When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward” – Matthew 6:16 NLT

They were fasting to get noticed. And all the while they fasted, they were taking unjust advantage of the people who worked for them. Their outward display of morality had a certain inconsistency about it that God found unacceptable. Everything they did was intended to impress. But God was having none of it. He could see into their hearts and knew full well that they were simply going through the motions. They were expecting God to reward their actions, but Jesus made it clear that the only reward these kinds of people were going to get for their efforts was the praise of men.

Fasting was intended to reflect a repentant and remorseful heart. It should have been an outward display of their inner desire to turn from all other things in life and seek God only. But their brand of fasting was meant to satisfy their own selfish desires. Their fasting wasn’t a reflection of a changed heart. It was simply meant to change how others thought about them.

And just so they don’t miss His point, God points out the difference between their kind of fasting and His.

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
    lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
    and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
    and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
    and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” – Isaiah 58:6-7 NLT

God expected a change in behavior. He demanded that their outward displays of self-denial be true reflections of a heart that was selfless rather than selfish. They were fasting to get God’s attention and to garner His help. But God had no intention of responding to their hypocritical charade. Going through the motions and feigning a false commitment to God was not going to cut it. Seeking His assistance while remaining unwilling to follow His commands was not going to cut it.

But if their fasting became sincere, and their display of humility were to reflect a truly repentant heart, they could count on God’s assistance.

“Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
    and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
    and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
    ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.” – Isaiah 58:8-9 NLT

He would show up in a big way. And their fasting would bring about significant change in their own lives. Fasting that is accompanied by true self-denial that puts the will of God and the needs of others first, brings about true godliness. It also brings the favor and glory of God. He steps in and answers us when we call. He delivers the salvation we desperately need.

At the end of the day, God is far more interested in self-sacrifice than self-denial. Giving up food for a season is nothing when compared to sharing your food with the needy. Fasting from buying new clothes means little if you are unwilling to clothe those who have nothing to wear. Giving up something you enjoy for a predetermined period of time bears little merit when compared to giving what you have to care for those who have nothing.

Near the end of His earthly life, Jesus taught a timeliness lesson to His disciples. It had to do with the end times, during a period known as the Great Tribulation. There will be those on earth who find themselves persecuted for their relationship with God Almighty. And yet, there will be those who step in and provide these individuals with food and shelter. And Jesus announces that these gracious individuals will be blessed by God for their generosity. He claims that their actions to help the helpless were just like they had been extending the same courtesies to Him. But they will ask Him:

“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’” – Matthew 37-39 NLT

And He will answer them:

“‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’” – Matthew 25:40 NLT

And God tells the people of Judah that, if they will practice true fasting, sacrificing themselves for the well-being of others, He will reward them.

your light will shine out from the darkness – vs 10

The Lord will guide you continually… – vs 11

You will be like a well-watered garden – vs 11

you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities – vs 12

“the Lord will be your delight…” – vs 14

I will give you great honor and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob – vs 14

Physical fasting accomplishes little, if the heart is not sincere. But selfless sacrifice is always in keeping with the will of God and always brings with it the rewards of God. Going through the motions may impress others, but it will never impress God. Jesus provided His disciples with the key to receiving the reward of God.

“When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:18 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

The Sacrificer Becomes the Sacrifice.

1 Ah, Ariel, Ariel,
    the city where David encamped!
Add year to year;
    let the feasts run their round.
Yet I will distress Ariel,
    and there shall be moaning and lamentation,
    and she shall be to me like an Ariel.
And I will encamp against you all around,
    and will besiege you with towers
    and I will raise siegeworks against you.
And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak,
    and from the dust your speech will be bowed down;
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
    and from the dust your speech shall whisper.

But the multitude of your foreign foes shall be like small dust,
    and the multitude of the ruthless like passing chaff.
And in an instant, suddenly,
    you will be visited by the Lord of hosts
with thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
    with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire.
And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel,
    all that fight against her and her stronghold and distress her,
    shall be like a dream, a vision of the night.
As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating,
    and awakes with his hunger not satisfied,
or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking,
    and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched,
so shall the multitude of all the nations be
    that fight against Mount Zion. – Isaiah 29:1-8 ESV

In this chapter, Isaiah delivers yet another woe against Jerusalem, addressing the city of David as “Ariel.” There is some debate as to the exact meaning of this word and why it was used as a reference to Jerusalem. There are two possible meanings. The first is from the Hebrew word, ‘ariy’el, which means “lion of God.” The second is very similar in spelling but carries a much different meaning and connotation. It is ‘ari’eyl and it means “altar hearth.” While either meaning would be an appropriate description of the city of Jerusalem, it would seem, based on the context of the surrounding verses, that the second makes the most sense.

Isaiah warns them that their destruction is eminent, but sarcastically tells them, “Keep observing your annual rituals, celebrate your festivals on schedule” (Isaiah 29:1 NLT). In other words, keep doing what you’re doing. Continue to practice your religious feasts and festivals as if nothing is going to happen. In a sense, Isaiah is mocking their stubborn belief that they will be protected by God if they simply continue to go through the motions of keeping all the rites associated with the sacrificial system. In verse 13 of this chapter, Isaiah shares God’s opinion of their efforts:

“…this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 ESV

The New Living Translation puts it in even starker terms:

“These people say they are mine.
They honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
And their worship of me
    is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.

Jerusalem should have been the altar of God, the very place where the people came to worship Him and to seek forgiveness from Him. It is interesting to note that, in the book of Ezekiel, the prophet received a vision from God that revealed a future temple. He was taken to the east gate of the temple compound, where he saw the glory of God enter.

“As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple.” – Ezekiel 43:4-5 ESV

And the next thing Ezekiel heard was the voice of God speaking to him from inside the Holy of Holies.

“Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place where I will rest my feet. I will live here forever among the people of Israel. They and their kings will not defile my holy name any longer by their adulterous worship of other gods or by honoring the relics of their kings who have died. They put their idol altars right next to mine with only a wall between them and me. They defiled my holy name by such detestable sin, so I consumed them in my anger. Now let them stop worshiping other gods and honoring the relics of their kings, and I will live among them forever.” – Ezekiel 43:7-9 NLT

Jerusalem was to have been the place where God dwelt among His people. And the temple was the house that Solomon had built for God. And yet, God indicted His people for their desecration of His temple and their defilement of His holy name. So, the day was coming when God would provide a new temple to replace the first one that would be destroyed by the Babylonians and the second one destroyed by the Romans. In preparation for this new temple, the Lord commanded Ezekiel to provide the people with a lesson on the exact meaning of each and every part of the temple.

“Son of man, describe to the people of Israel the Temple I have shown you, so they will be ashamed of all their sins. Let them study its plan, and they will be ashamed of what they have done.” – Ezekiel 43:10-11 NLT

Ezekiel-43-Altar-of-SacrificeAnd here is where it gets interesting. In describing the brazen altar, where all the blood sacrifices were made, God uses the word, ‘ari’eyl, when speaking of the very top section of the altar.

“…and the altar hearth, four cubits; and from the altar hearth projecting upward, four horns. The altar hearth shall be square, twelve cubits long by twelve broad.” – Ezekiel 43:15-16 ESV

This is the same word used by Isaiah to refer to Jerusalem. They were to have been the altar hearth, the very pinnacle of the altar of sacrifice. And yet, they had failed to live in covenant faithfulness to God. So, God has Isaiah deliver the stark warning:

“Yet I will bring disaster upon you,
    and there will be much weeping and sorrow.
For Jerusalem will become what her name Ariel means—
    an altar covered with blood.” – Isaiah 29:2 NLT

And God lets them know that, when the Babylonians finally arrive and erect their siege walls around the city, they will be acting on God’s behalf.

“I will be your enemy,
    surrounding Jerusalem and attacking its walls.
I will build siege towers
    and destroy it.” – Isaiah 43:3 NLT

He wanted them to understand that, when the destruction came, it was not just a case of bad luck or fate. It would be the hand of God Almighty giving them exactly what they deserved for the desecration of His temple and their defilement of His holy name. God was letting them know that if they treated the sacrificial system lightly that He had provided for the forgiveness of their sins, they would become the sacrifice themselves. Their blood would be spilled. He would remove the temple and the altar hearth so that no more sacrifices could be offered for the remission of sin. They would be on their own.

God describes their coming destruction as being like a bad dream. It will come suddenly, and the number of their enemies will be too great to count. And the enemy’s appetite for destruction will be insatiable. They will be like a man who dreams he is eating, only to awake and discover he is still hungry. They will lay siege to the city for a long period of time, with each day increasing their desire to breach the walls and destroy everyone and everything inside.

The sacrificers were about to become the sacrifice. Rather than animals on the altar hearth, it would be the people of God. Their sins would be atoned for, but not by substitutes. They would pay with their own lives.

God had provided a way for His people to receive forgiveness for their sins. He had given them an entire system, including the temple itself, by which they could have their sins atoned for and their relationship with God secured. In Ezekiel’s vision, God told to remind the people:

“On the eighth day, and on each day afterward, the priests will sacrifice on the altar the burnt offerings and peace offerings of the people. Then I will accept you. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!” – Ezekiel 43:27 NLT

But the people of Judah had rejected God. Therefore, He was going to reject them. He was going to punish them for their sins and bring on them the curses He had warned them about generations earlier. They had chosen to treat God Almighty with disdain. But their sins still had to be atoned for. The sin debt must be paid, because “under the law, almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

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

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

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

There Is More To Come.

55 There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ 64 Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. – Matthew 27:55-66 ESV

Jean_Jouvenet_Descent_From_The_Cross

Man’s sin debt had been paid, but the cost had been high. Jesus, the Son of God, had given His life so that others might experience eternal life. He died so that others might live. But, as the apostle Peter reminds us, “God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And the ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God” (1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT). But as the Roman soldiers removed the lifeless body of Jesus from the cross, He was anything but spotless. He body had been beaten and bruised. His face had been slapped repeatedly leaving it bruised and practically unrecognizable. And hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had described just how badly Jesus would be disfigured by this tragic event.

But many were amazed when they saw him. His face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human, and from his appearance, one would scarcely know he was a man. – Isaiah 52:14 NLT

He was covered in the blood that had flowed from the wounds left by the large nails pounded into his hands and feet. He had a gaping wound in His side from the point of the spear that had been meant to ensure His death. The crown of thorns that had been mockingly pressed onto His head had caused blood to flow down His face and into His eyes. The sinless, spotless Lamb of God had been slain.

In the Book of Revelation, John is given a glimpse of Jesus in His resurrected and glorifed state, standing in the throne room of God Almighty. And John’s description of Jesus is quite interesting.

…between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain. – Revelation 5:6 ESV

He doesn’t see Jesus as a man, but as a Lamb. But he adds the telling descriptor: “as thought it had been slain.” The Greek word translated as “slain” is sphazō and it was used to refer to the slaughter of an animal for sacrifice. It can also be translated as “butchered.” Jesus had been the sacrificial Lamb, offered for the sins of many. And the ordeal had left its marks on Him.

It’s interesting to note that Matthew describes the followers of Christ who had remained to the bitter end, looking on from a distance. He only mentions women. None of the disciples are named. And among the women is “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 27:56 ESV). One has to wonder what had been going through her mind as she watched Jesus being crucified between the two thieves. She is the one who had come to Jesus and begged Him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21 ESV). And Jesus had told her, “You do not know what you are asking” (Matthew 20:22 ESV). It’s likely that, as she watched Jesus die, she imagined her own two sons, James and John, hanging on the crosses to His right and left. Little had she shown that Jesus’ crowning as king was going to involve thorns, not gold. His entrance into His Kingdom was going to demand crucifixion, not a coronation. His exaltation would be proceeded by humiliation and death. And rather than taking up residence in a palace, Jesus would be placed in a borrowed tomb.

Joseph of Arimathea, a follower of Jesus, offered up his own tomb so that Jesus could have a proper burial. And once again, the prophet Isaiah spoke of this long before it ever happened.

But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. – Isaiah 53:9 NLT

As Joseph had the stone rolled across the opening to his own tomb, the entire scene has a sense of finality to it. Jesus was dead. The crowds had dispersed. The supernatural darkness had passed and the light had returned. And everyone in Jerusalem had gone back to their lives as usual. Only a handful of women stood by, watching as Jesus was buried. This sad and sobering scene was also foretold by Isaiah.

He was despised and rejected—
    a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
    He was despised, and we did not care. – Isaiah 53:3 NLT

But the religious leaders, still wary of the influence Jesus had over the people, took steps to ensure that nothing would happen that might resurrect the memory of Jesus. They knew that, while Jesus was alive, He had said that He would rise again. So, in order to prevent His disciples from stealing the body of Jesus and spreading rumors that He was alive, they stationed guards at the tomb with orders to remain there until the three days had passed. Evidently, they had attempted to get Pilate to provide Roman guards, but he refused. “So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard” (Matthew 27:55 ESV).

And they waited.

This chapter ends in sadness. Its tragic conclusion provides the reader with little in the way of hope. Jesus is dead. The disciples have scattered to the four winds. The mother of Jesus and the women who loved and followed Him are in deep sorrow, having not been given the opportunity to anoint His body for burial. Which makes the anointing of Jesus in Bethany so important. Matthew records that “a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table” (Matthew 26:7 ESV), and Jesus had clearly pronounced, “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial” (Matthew 26:12 ESV).

As dark as this moment may appear, there is the invisible, yet sovereign hand of God evident in all that is going on. This is all taking place according to His divine plan – down to the last detail.

…he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins… – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

…He was beaten so we could be whole. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

…He was whipped so we could be healed. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

…He was oppressed and treated harshly. – Isaiah 53:7 NLT

…He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. – Isaiah 53:7 NLT

…Unjustly condemned, he was led away. – Isaiah 53:8 NLT

his life was cut short in midstream… – Isaiah 53:8 NLT

…he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. – Isaiah 53:8 NLT

he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. – Isaiah 53:9 NLT

All of this had been the pre-ordained will of God. And Jesus had willingly played His role in the whole affair – out of obedience to His heavenly Father and love for mankind. And while the closing verses of chapter 27 present a dismal scene, we know that the story is far from over. There is more to come. God’s plan is not yet complete. And Isaiah provides us with yet one more premonition of what lies ahead.

And because of his experience,
    my righteous servant will make it possible
for many to be counted righteous,
    for he will bear all their sins. – Isaiah 53:11 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

Power Over Death.

45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.

51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” – Matthew 27:45-54 ESV

Jesus on cross

Jesus hung on the cross, a battered and bruised man, struggling desperately and agonizingly for His next breath. His body was racked with pain. His eyes were filled with blood and the salt from His own sweat. And surrounding Him was a crowd of people who relentlessly mocked Him. Even the chief priest and his fellow members of the religious high council cast insults at Jesus, shouting, “He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matthew 27:42 ESV). They found great delight in disparaging the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God, saying, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (Matthew 27:43 ESV). Even one of the criminals being crucified alongside Jesus got into the act, demanding of jesus, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39 ESV). 

But at Noon, the shouting stopped. The sky grew dark. Luke described it this way: “the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:45 ESV). And that darkness would pervade the whole land for three full hours. It is reminiscent of the darkness that God brought on the land of Egypt by the hand of Moses during the days before the Exodus. 

“Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days. – Exodus 10:21-23 ESV

This darkness was palpable and supernatural. It was out of the ordinary and inexplicable. And no one could ignore or avoid it. The light was gone.

One can’t help but think of the words of John, found in his gospel, and written long after the death of Jesus.

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

At that moment, on the hill outside the walls of Jerusalem, it would have appeared as if the darkness had overcome the Light. Certainly, the disciples and all those who had followed Jesus and placed their hope in His claim to be the Messiah, would have seen the darkness as a sign of defeat. The end had come. But John went on to record what was really taking place.

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

Jesus was being rejected by His own. And the darkness was like a physical manifestation of that rejection, revealing the true spiritual condition of the nation of Israel.

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. – John 3:19-20 ESV

After three hours of stifling darkness had passed, Jesus broke the silence by shouting, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 ESV). Jesus was taking on the sins of mankind, bearing the full brunt of God’s righteous indignation and just judgment. And in doing so, He found Himself separated from His heavenly Father for the first time in all eternity. Jesus bore the weight of the sins of the world. As Paul so eloquently put it: “For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV).

At that moment, as He hung on the cross, Jesus was alone. He felt forsaken and abandoned by all, even by His heavenly Father. God was pouring out on His own Son the righteous wrath He was obligated by His holiness to dispense. The wages of sin is death. And God was offering His own Son as payment for the sins of men.

Jesus made one final statement from the cross, as He cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46 ESV). Then, He took one final breath and died.

At that moment, when all appeared lost and it looked like the forces of the enemy had won the day, some incredible things took place. Jesus had died, but the action was far from over. Matthew records:

And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. – Matthew 27:51-53 ESV

The death of Jesus was accompanied by incredible, inexplicable phenomena. There was an earthquake. The thick curtain in the temple that barred entrance into the Holy of Holies, was split in two, from top to bottom. And, by far the most bizarre of all events, was the opening of the tombs and the resurrection of the dead saints. As can be imagined, there is much debate and speculation about this particular event. But it is interesting that Matthew provides us with little or no detail. It would seem that the earthquake was responsible for the opening up of the tombs. But the text seems to indicate that the bodies contained within those tombs did not resurrected until Jesus did three days later. And, just as Jesus appeared to His disciples in His resurrected form, so did these people. We are not told who they were or whether they remained alive. Was their resurrection temporary or permanent? Matthew doesn’t tell us. But it seems likely that these people, like Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, were merely resuscitated or brought back to life. They did not have resurrected, glorified bodies like Jesus had. Like Lazarus, they would die a second time.

But you can imagine the shock and surprise on all those who ran into these once dead saints in the streets of Jerusalem. The death of Jesus, while marking the end of His earthly life, was far from the end of His ministry. Even in death, He displayed His power over death. And the apostle Paul reminds us:

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. – Colossians 2:13-15 NLT

The people mocked. The soldiers cast their insults. The religious leaders sneered and gloated over their defeat of Jesus. But even in death, Jesus had the last laugh. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. And Matthew records that one solitary Roman centurion saw all that had happened and exclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54 ESV). Even in death, Jesus made an impression. This hardened Roman soldier was moved by what He saw and expressed a recognition in the deity of Jesus. His statement is not necessarily an expression of faith or belief in Jesus as his Savior. But it is interesting that the very first person to clearly articulate the deity of Jesus after His death was a Gentile and a Roman. The religious leaders were probably long gone. We hear no words spoken from Jesus’ disciples. But whether he realized the import of his words, this Roman centurion was the first to declare Jesus to be exactly who He always claimed to be: The Son of God.

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

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

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