The Guilt of Innocent Blood

1 “If in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities. And the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke. And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the Lord, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled. And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. Accept atonement, O Lord, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’ So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord.– Deuteronomy 21:1-9 ESV

The opening of this chapter sounds like the beginning of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. A traveler, walking across open land, inadvertently discovers the body of an unidentified dead man. The only evidence we’re given is that the man has been murdered. There are no other clues provided as to the identity of the deceased or his killer. Cue Hercule Peroit or Miss Marple.

But unlike one of Miss Christie’s novels, this story seems less focused on discovering the identity of the murderer than expunging the guilt of his actions. While everything in us screams for the guilty party to be exposed and justice to be served, God seems much more concerned about the corporate character of His people. An innocent life had been taken, and God was going to hold the entire community responsible. Yes, one man had sinned, but all would be culpable for his actions.

This idea of corporate culpability was one of the differentiating characteristics of God’s people. He viewed the Israelites communally and not just individually. They were His chosen people collectively and not independently.  They jointly shared His unique designation of them as His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). And all it took was one bad apple to spoil the bunch. A single man’s sin could contaminate the entire nation, replacing the blessings of God with His just and righteous judgment.

We will see this played out in the early days of Israel’s conquest of the land. In just their second battle, the Israelites will discover just how seriously God was about corporate culpability. After their miraculous defeat of Jericho, God had commanded the Israelites to destroy everything within the city’s walls, taking nothing as plunder.

“Do not take any of the things set apart for destruction, or you yourselves will be completely destroyed, and you will bring trouble on the camp of Israel. Everything made from silver, gold, bronze, or iron is sacred to the Lord and must be brought into his treasury.” – Joshua 6:18-19 NLT

And it seems that the people did as the Lord had commanded.

Then the Israelites burned the town and everything in it. Only the things made from silver, gold, bronze, or iron were kept for the treasury of the Lord’s house. – Joshua 6:24 NLT

But then we come to chapter seven.

But Israel violated the instructions about the things set apart for the Lord. A man named Achan had stolen some of these dedicated things, so the Lord was very angry with the Israelites. – Joshua 7:1 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of this verse. One man, Achan, violated God’s command, and, yet, the entire nation would be held responsible. Achan’s sin was unknown to Joshua and the rest of the camp. So, they planned their next conquest, setting their sights on the small town of Ai, assuming it would be a quick and easy victory. But to Israel’s shock and dismay, the much smaller army of Ai routed them.

The men of Ai chased the Israelites from the town gate as far as the quarries, and they killed about thirty-six who were retreating down the slope. The Israelites were paralyzed with fear at this turn of events, and their courage melted away. – Joshua 7:4-5 NLT

Joshua and the rest of the people were at a loss as to why any of this had happened. They could not understand how they had gone so quickly from victory to defeat. But God would not leave them in the dark for long.

“Israel has sinned and broken my covenant! They have stolen some of the things that I commanded must be set apart for me. And they have not only stolen them but have lied about it and hidden the things among their own belongings. That is why the Israelites are running from their enemies in defeat. For now Israel itself has been set apart for destruction.” – Joshua 7:11-12 NLT

And God revealed to Joshua the nature of their problem. “Hidden among you, O Israel, are things set apart for the Lord. You will never defeat your enemies until you remove these things from among you” (Joshua 7:13 NLT). Achan was eventually exposed and punished for his sin. But his individual actions had impacted the entire community. The whole nation had suffered because of his decision to disobey God.

So now,  when we read in Deuteronomy 21 of God holding an entire city responsible for the bloodguilt of an innocent man’s death, we can see what is going on. Discovering the identity of the murderer was less important than atoning for the sin committed. The victim’s death had left a stain on the entire nation.

God did not institute a plan for discovering the identity of the murderer. He did not form a posse or assemble a militia to seek out the guilty party. He provided a plan of atonement – a means by which the nation could receive forgiveness for the sin committed in its midst. Once it was determined which city was nearest the location where the dead man’s body was found, the elders and priests of that city were given explicit instructions to follow. They were to take a young cow that had never been used for plowing and take it into a nearby valley where its neck was to be broken. This young heifer was to serve as a substitute for the one guilty of the murder. Its life was given in exchange for the life of the one who had shed innocent blood. And the elders of that city were to wash their hands over the body of the heifer, pronouncing the innocence of the people and crying for God to accept their gift as atonement for the sin committed.

“Our hands have not spilled this blood, nor have we witnessed the crime. Do not blame your people Israel whom you redeemed, O Lord, and do not hold them accountable for the bloodshed of an innocent person.” – Deuteronomy 21:7-8 NLT

And Moses clearly states, “Then atonement will be made for the bloodshed. In this manner, you will purge out the guilt of innocent blood from among you, for you must do what is right before the Lord” (Deuteronomy 21:8-9 NLT).

It should be noted that God’s instructions concerning the atoning sacrifice are quite specific. The location for the sacrifice was to be “a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown” (Deuteronomy 21:5 ESV). The sacrifice was to take place outside the walls of the city at a location where there was running water nearby, necessary for ceremonial cleansing once the animal was killed and its blood shed. The requirement that the ground be unplowed seems to an assurance that the shed blood is never stirred up or becomes capable of contaminating a future food source.

God’s primary concern was the restoration of Israel’s relationship with Him. As long as the innocent victim’s life was unatoned for, the entire nation stood guilty and condemned before God. The name of the one who committed the murder was unknown, but the guilt of his actions was more than familiar. The sin of the one contaminated the whole, and God expected them to purge the guilt from their midst.

The sin of Achan brought judgment upon the people of Israel. His selfish and self-centered disregard for God’s command had far-reaching implications and serious ramifications. God would not allow the people of Israel to turn a blind eye to the sin in their midst. It was to be taken seriously because its influence was deadly.

There is a powerful and sobering lesson for us to learn from all of this. God puts a high priority on community. As followers of Christ, we have been placed in God’s family. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and share a common identity as God’s children. And while each of us must take responsibility for our individual actions, we share a communal connection that should make the sins of the one a concern for us all.

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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An Abomination to the Lord

1 “You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever, for that is an abomination to the Lord your God.

“If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones. On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. – Deuteronomy 17:1-7 ESV

One of the reasons God instructed the people of Israel to elect judges and officials in each of their communities was to protect against idolatry. As time passed and each of the tribes began the process of possessing the land allotted to them, it would become increasingly more difficult to police the activities of the people, especially their natural tendency to worship false gods. So, Moses expected these appointed officials to judge the actions of those who violated God’s laws concerning idols and idol worship. Moses had clearly communicated God’s restrictions, which were nothing more than an elaboration on the first commandment.

“You must never set up a wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build for the Lord your God. And never set up sacred pillars for worship, for the Lord your God hates them. – Deuteronomy 16:21-22 NLT

This section is all about proper worship – the kind of worship that is acceptable by God. He has not left it up to mankind to decide how, when, or who to worship. The form of Israel’s worship is just as important to God as the focus of their worship. Not only were they prohibited from worshiping false gods, they were denied the freedom of worshiping the right God in the wrong way.

“You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever, for that is an abomination to the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 17:1 ESV

They were not allowed to borrow and incorporate elements from the pagan religions around them in the worship of God. Asherah poles were off limits. These wooden totems were dedicated to the worship of Asherah, a Canaanite fertility god who was considered the wife or sister of another one of their deities. God has strictly forbadding the Israelites from incorporating these kinds of pagan rituals and forms in their worship of Him.

But God would also not allow the Israelies to use proper forms of worship in the wrong way. They couldn’t bring their sick or blemished animals and offer them as sacrifices to God. That was unacceptable worship. He described these kinds of sacrifices as “abominations.” The Hebrew word is tow`ebah and it refers to “a disgusting thing (morally).”

Someone who offered a blemished lamb as an offering to God was technically obeying the command of God. But he would be violating the intent behind the command. The sacrifice was meant to cost the one offering it. By sacrificing an unblemished, perfect lamb, the worshiper was giving the best of what he owned. He was dedicating to God the animal that would have made the best breeding stock. In doing so, he would be placing his faith in God to provide for his needs.

But that unblemished animal was also intended to represent the idea that God’s forgiveness and atonement from sin required a sacrifice that would be acceptable to Him. It had to satisfy His demand for holiness or imperfection. The lamb was acting as a substitute for the sinful human being was offering it. It stood in the place of the sinner, acting as his proxy or replacement.

Because demanded that His people worship Him in a way that reflected His holy and righteous character. They had to honor Him for who He was and all that He had done. And beyond worshiping Him in the wrong way, the most egregious sin they could commit would be failing to worship Him at all. Which is why Moses provides these future judges of Israel with instructions about dealing with idolators. He describes idolatry as doing “evil in the sight of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 17:2 NLT). It was considered a violation of the covenant the Israelites had made with God. And just so they knew what kinds of actions constituted idolatry, Moses spelled it out: “they might serve other gods or worship the sun, the moon, or any of the stars—the forces of heaven—which I have strictly forbidden” (Deuteronomy 17:3 NLT).

Moses commands these future judges to investigate thoroughly any reports of this kind of behavior among the people. If they found the reports to be true, the violator was to be dealt with quickly and severely.

“…the man or woman who has committed such an evil act must be taken to the gates of the town and stoned to death.” – Deuteronomy 17:5 NLT

Once again, Moses refers to this kind of behavior as tow`ebah – an abomination. God sees idolatry as disgusting and unacceptable. And those who practice idolatry, because they are guilty of failing to remain set apart unto God, are to be set apart from the community by taking them outside the gates of the town, and then executed.

While this sounds like harsh and unusual punishment to our modern ears, we must understand that it was intended to act as a purifying and preserving agent among the Israelites. Sin of any kind, in left unchecked, would act as a cancer among the people, eventually infecting the entire community and resulting in the judgment of God. The death of one, while difficult for us to understand, was to be preferred to the ultimate judgment of God against the entire community.

The death of Jesus incorporates both illustrations used in these verses. First of all, He became sinless Lamb of God who offered His life as the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. He became the unblemished substitute who gave His life so that others could live. The apostle Paul points out the vivid contrast between Adam, the first man, and Jesus, the God-man.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT

In other words, Adam’s sin spread to all mankind. His disobedience brought the curse of sin and death onto all humanity. But Paul goes on to explain that Jesus offered a permanent solution to the sin problem created by Adam.

Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. – Romans 5:14-15 NLT

God would not allow the sin of Adam to permanently destroy His creation, so He sent His Son as the sinless sacrifice to atone for the sins of man.

Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. – Romans 5:16-17 NLT

God takes sin seriously. Because He is holy, God must punish those who commit sin, and the Bible clearly states that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But God graciously offered His Son as the payment for man’s sin debt. He offered His life as a substitute for sinful man. And while the death of the sinner stoned outside the gates of the city had no atoning value, it would prevent further infection of the community.

The judges of Israel were to treat sin with a seriousness and soberness that reflected God’s hatred for it. But they were to be careful to ensure that any accusations concerning idolatry were fully investigated and thoroughly proven so that no one was punished unjustly. And just to make sure that no one would be tempted to use a false accusation of idolatry in order to enact vengeance against another, Moses commanded, “never put a person to death on the testimony of only one witness. There must always be two or three witnesses. The witnesses must throw the first stones” (Deuteronomy 17:6-7 NLT).

One man could not falsely accuse another. There had to be corroborating witnesses. And it was these men who had to cast the first stone to take the life of the guilty party. This added feature was intended to place the heavy burden of taking the life of the accused on the heads of those who brought the charges. If they had lied, they would be responsible before God for the death of an innocent man.

God considers the worship of false gods to be disgusting and unacceptable. But even the worship of the right God in the wrong way is equally repugnant to Him. Man’s worship is the greatest gift he has to offer. God doesn’t need our gifts. He doesn’t require our sacrifices. What God is looking for is true worship. As the prophet Micah so aptly put it:

What can we bring to the LORD? Should we bring him burnt offerings? Should we bow before God Most High with offerings of yearling calves?

Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins?

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

 

 

 

Something Worth Celebrating

“You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. 10 Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. 11 And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there. 12 You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.

13 “You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. 14 You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns. 15 For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.

16 “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. 17 Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you. – Deuteronomy 16:9-17 ESV

Moses has been reminding the people of their obligation to offer the appropriate sacrifices at the appropriate time and place. Now, he is going to elaborate on the particular feasts and festivals at which these various offerings were to be made.

All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock.You shall eat it, you and your household, before the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose. – Deuteronomy 15:19-20 NLT

There were seven annual feasts as prescribed by God. In the Spring of each year, the Israelites were to celebrate the feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, and Weeks. An additional four feasts were to be held in the Fall. These included the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. These annual events were, in part, commemorations or memorial celebrations, intended to help the Israelites retain the memory of God’s miraculous intervention in their lives. But they were also to be annual occasions when the Israelites could offer thanks to God for all that He had done in providing for their needs over the preceding year.

These feasts or festivals were closely tied to the annual spring and fall harvests and were timed to remind the Israelites of God’s faithful protection and provision. But, there is something even more significant about these annual celebrations that is often overlooked. They were intended to serve as prefigurement or foreshadowing of something or someone to come. The Messiah. Each of these annual feasts present a glimpse into the redemptive work of Jesus. And while the Israelites would not have recognized these signs, those of us on this side of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are able to look back and see how the saving work of Jesus was foretold in this seven festivals.

One of the first things we should notice is the inclusive nature of these events. They were non-discriminatory and intended for everyone in the camp.

Celebrate with your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites from your towns, and the foreigners, orphans, and widows who live among you.…” – Deuteronomy 16:11 NLT

“This festival will be a happy time of celebrating with your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows from your towns.” – Deuteronomy 16:14 NLT

No one was to be left out. The invitation to participate in the joy of the celebration was extended to all. It reminds me of the invitation offered by Jesus:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light. – Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

Notice how Jesus incorporated agricultural terms in his invitation. Just as the feasts were tied to the annual harvest and provided the people a much-needed respite from their work of providing for their basic needs, Jesus offered mankind rest from the back-braking work of trying to earn righteousness through self-effort. And this invitation was offered to every individual with no strings attached or restrictions based on ethnicity, gender, or social status.

And for all who accepted the gracious invitation of Jesus Christ, they became part of an all-inclusive family comprised of people from all walks of life. The apostle Paul describes them this way:

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. – Galatians 3:28-29 NLT

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. – Romans 10:12 ESV

The imagery associated with these annual events is closely tied to Jesus. From the unblemished Passover lamb to unleavened bread, these Old Testament types foreshadow the Messiah, the sinless Son of God. Leaven was a symbol of sin and the Israelites were to spend seven days purging any leaven from their homes. But Jesus came as the sinless Lamb of God who made possible foregiveness for sin – once and for all.

At the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, the Israelites were instructed to build temporary shelters in which they were to live during the days of the festival. These structures were intended to remind them of their nomadic existence during the days of the exodus. But they are also a foreshadowing of something greater to come. With His arrival on earth, Jesus became Immanuel, literally “God with us.” He came to tabernacle among His people and to provide a means by which they could enjoy a permanent and eternal existence with God the Father. No more temporary shelters. No more wandering in the wilderness of sin. God has a permanent place of shelter and refuge planned for all those who place their faith in His Son.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. – Revelations 21:3 NLT

“I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” – Ezekiel 37:27 NLT

These feasts were temporary occassions and the Israelites were required to observe them on an annual basis. But the sacrifice of Jesus was once-for-all, providing a permanent means of salvation for all who who accept His gracious invitation. No more feasts and festivals were necessary. No more sacrifices were required. There was no more need to remove the leaven of sin or to find the spotless lamb to offer as atonement for that sin. Jesus became the sole source of redemption. And the celebration of these annual feasts was one day replaced by a much more simple, yet highly significant event that would commemorate His death on man’s behalf.

At the Feast of Passover, Jesus would gather with His disciples in the upper room and share the Passover meal with them. But during their celebration of that annual event, Jesus would institute another, much more important, celebration which would take its place: The Lord’s Supper.

…the Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NLT

Moses said of the Feast of Tabernacles, “This festival will be a time of great joy for all” (Deuteronomy 16:15 NLT). But it is the sinless sacrifice of Jesus that provides true cause for joy and celebration. His death made man’s restoration with God possible. His sacrifice provides all who accept it with complete forgiveness from sin and the replacement of their guilty verdict with the announcement of their justification before God. And that is truly cause for celebration.

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 Firstborn

19 “All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock. 20 You shall eat it, you and your household, before the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose. 21 But if it has any blemish, if it is lame or blind or has any serious blemish whatever, you shall not sacrifice it to the Lord your God. 22 You shall eat it within your towns. The unclean and the clean alike may eat it, as though it were a gazelle or a deer. 23 Only you shall not eat its blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. – Deuteronomy 15:19-23 ESV

Moses returns to a subject that he had brought up earlier: The offering of the firstborn.

“There you will bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, your offerings to fulfill a vow, your voluntary offerings, and your offerings of the firstborn animals of your herds and flocks.” – Deuteronomy 12:6 NLT

“But you may not eat your offerings in your hometown—neither the tithe of your grain and new wine and olive oil, nor the firstborn of your flocks and herds, nor any offering to fulfill a vow, nor your voluntary offerings, nor your sacred offerings.” – Deuteronomy 12:17 NLT

“Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. Doing this will teach you always to fear the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 14:23 NLT

But what is the offering of the firstborn and why was it so important? To understand its significance we have to look back to the book of Exodus and the final plague that God brought upon the people of Egypt.

And that night at midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sat on his throne, to the firstborn son of the prisoner in the dungeon. Even the firstborn of their livestock were killed. Pharaoh and all his officials and all the people of Egypt woke up during the night, and loud wailing was heard throughout the land of Egypt. There was not a single house where someone had not died. – Exodus 12:29-30 NLT

This devastating event took place in conjunction with the establishment of the Passover. God had warned the people of Israel that He was bringing judgment upon the land of Egypt and He had mercifully provided the people of Israel with a means of avoiding His wrath. When His judgment came, it would be non-discriminatory, bringing death to the firstborn of every family living in the land of Egypt, whether Egyptian or Jew. Even the animals belonging to the Egyptians and Jews would suffer under God’s judgment…unless.

The truth was that all deserved God’s judgment. Even the Israelites had long ago abandoned their worship of Yahweh for the false gods of Egypt, and they stood fully condemned before God. But He provided them with a means of escaping His judgment – if they would trust His word and obey His command.

“Announce to the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each family must choose a lamb or a young goat for a sacrifice, one animal for each household. If a family is too small to eat a whole animal, let them share with another family in the neighborhood. Divide the animal according to the size of each family and how much they can eat. The animal you select must be a one-year-old male, either a sheep or a goat, with no defects.

 “Take special care of this chosen animal until the evening of the fourteenth day of this first month. Then the whole assembly of the community of Israel must slaughter their lamb or young goat at twilight. They are to take some of the blood and smear it on the sides and top of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the animal. That same night they must roast the meat over a fire and eat it along with bitter salad greens and bread made without yeast. Do not eat any of the meat raw or boiled in water. The whole animal—including the head, legs, and internal organs—must be roasted over a fire. Do not leave any of it until the next morning. Burn whatever is not eaten before morning.” – Exodus 12:3-10 NLT

As long as the Israelites did exactly as God had commanded them to do, the firstborn of their families and flocks would be spared. The blood of the lamb, sprinkled on the doorframes of their homes, would cause the Death Angel to “pass over” them. They would be spared the judgment of God.

And the Israelites, having followed God’s instructions, were preserved by God, while the Egyptians suffered tremendous loss of life. And devastated by the loss of his own son, Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Israelites to leave. And God commanded the people of Israel:

“Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.”  – Exodus 13:2 NLT

God had spared from death the firstborn among the Israelites and, therefore, considered them as belonging to Him. But later on, God would set apart the tribe of Levi as the surrogates or stand-ins for the rest of the firstborn of Israel.

“Look, I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me, for all the firstborn males are mine. On the day I struck down all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel, both of people and of animals. They are mine; I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:12-13 NLT

The tribe of Levi would serve in the place of all the firstborn of Israel, and from within the Levites would come the priests who served in God’s tabernacle. They would dedicate their lives to the service of the people of God.

But the firstborn of the animals would always belong to God and He required that the people of Israel dedicate them to Him through sacrifice. It was to be an act of obedience and gratitude to God for His having spared them during that fateful night when the Death Angel passed over all the homes in Egypt. As long as the firstborn lamb or bull was alive, they were to be preserved for God. The Israelites were not allowed to shear their wool for clothing. They could not use a firstborn bull to pull a plow. These animals were to be seen as the permanent possessions of God.

And all of this foreshadows another firstborn who would also be dedicated to God and destined for sacrifice. Jesus Christ is described by the apostle Paul as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15 ESV).

Elsewhere Paul writes that “Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live” (Galatians 1:4 NLT). Jesus was the sinless lamb of God, who offered His life as a substitute for sinful mankind. He stood in our place. He took the punishment we deserved. And when we place our faith in Him, the wrath of God passes over us. His blood, sprinkled on the doorframes of our hearts, serves as a payment for our sin debt, satisfying the just and righteous wrath of God and allowing us to enjoy new life, rather than death.

And as a result of our faith in Christ, we become the firstborn, dedicated to God for His service. Paul makes this point perfectly clear in his letter to the Romans.

For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. – Romans 8:29 NLT

We belong to Him. We are His holy possession and our lives are to be dedicated to His use.

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

The Levites became the firstborn of God, serving in the place of all the other Israelites whom God had deemed as His own. They sacrificed their lives in service to God on behalf of all the people of God. And the firstborn bulls, sheep, and goats were dedicated to God, reserved for His use and destined to give their lives in worship of Him.

But today, those of us who are in Christ, enjoy a relationship with God due to the substitutionary death of the firstborn, the sinless Lamb of God. And now, we find ourselves living as the Levites did, set apart by God for His glory. And Peter would have us remember that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV). We belong to Him. Our lives are to be set apart unto Him. We are not our own, but we belong to God, having been bought by Him at a very high price: The death of His own sinless Son.

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Life is in the Blood

15 “However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, as much as you desire, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you. The unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and as of the deer. 16 Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out on the earth like water. 17 You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, or any of your vow offerings that you vow, or your freewill offerings or the contribution that you present, 18 but you shall eat them before the Lord your God in the place that the Lord your God will choose, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your towns. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God in all that you undertake. 19 Take care that you do not neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land.

20 “When the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he has promised you, and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because you crave meat, you may eat meat whenever you desire. 21 If the place that the Lord your God will choose to put his name there is too far from you, then you may kill any of your herd or your flock, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you may eat within your towns whenever you desire. 22 Just as the gazelle or the deer is eaten, so you may eat of it. The unclean and the clean alike may eat of it. 23 Only be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh. 24 You shall not eat it; you shall pour it out on the earth like water. 25 You shall not eat it, that all may go well with you and with your children after you, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord. 26 But the holy things that are due from you, and your vow offerings, you shall take, and you shall go to the place that the Lord will choose, 27 and offer your burnt offerings, the flesh and the blood, on the altar of the Lord your God. The blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the Lord your God, but the flesh you may eat. 28 Be careful to obey all these words that I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 12:15-28 ESV

The Israelites were about to enter the promised land where they would begin a new chapter in the story of their relationship with God. During their years in the wilderness, God had provided them with the tabernacle as their worship center and the place where they offered sacrifices to Him. And He had given them strict rules that accompanied their use of the tabernacle.

“If any native Israelite sacrifices a bull or a lamb or a goat anywhere inside or outside the camp instead of bringing it to the entrance of the Tabernacle to present it as an offering to the Lord, that person will be as guilty as a murderer. Such a person has shed blood and will be cut off from the community. The purpose of this rule is to stop the Israelites from sacrificing animals in the open fields. It will ensure that they bring their sacrifices to the priest at the entrance of the Tabernacle, so he can present them to the Lord as peace offerings.” – Leviticus 17:3-5 NLT

The tabernacle had been designed by God to be kind of a pack-and-go temple – a temporary structure that the Israelites carried with them all during their days in the wilderness. They were instructed to follow the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of could by day, both representing God’s guiding presence. Whenever the presence of God stopped, so did they, and they immediately erected the tabernacle, around which the tribes of Israel assembled their camps.

It was only at the tabernacle that the Israelites could slaughter animals and offer them as sacrifices to God. They were prohibited from shedding blood anywhere else within or without the camp. Anyone who violated this command and shed the blood of an animal anywhere else but at the tabernacle was to be cut off from the community. They were exiled.

But their entrance into the land was going to bring about a series of dramatic changes. First of all, God had told them that He would select a location within the borders of the land as the place where He would “make his name dwell” (Deuteronomy 12:11 ESV).

The land of Canaan was their final destination. There would be no more wandering necessary because they had arrived in the place God had promised to give to them as their inheritance. Not long after their initial victories over the cities of Jericho and Ai, the Israelites erected the tabernacle at a place called Gilgal. It would remain there for most of the years it took the Israelites to conquer the land. Eventually, it was moved to Shiloh, and then years later, to Gibeon. But, for the most part, the tabernacle remained in a fixed location during the years of the conquest of the land of Canaan. And God intended to provide Israel with a permanent place within the borders of the land where His glory would dwell and where they would offer sacrifices to Him.

“When he gives you rest from all your enemies and you’re living safely in the land, you must bring everything I command you—your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, and your offerings to fulfill a vow—to the designated place of worship, the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored.” – Deuteronomy 12:10-11 NLT

But until the time in which God designated that place, the Israelites were given a divine dispensation, allowing them to slaughter animals for meat anywhere within the land of promise. In a sense, all the land was considered holy by God because He had set it apart as His own. He had sanctified or consecrated as His possession, which He was giving to the descendants of Abraham. So, they were free to kill and butcher animals anywhere within the boundaries of the land. They were no longer required to bring the animals to the tabernacle. But there is a bit of confusion in God’s command. At first glance, it would appear that He is also allowing them to eat unclean animals, something He had explicitly prohibited in the Mosaic law. Leviticus 11 outlines the various animals that God had deemed as unclean and, therefore, off-limits to the Israelites. Yet, in this passage, it appears that God is changing His mind because He mentions the clean and the unclean. But this is a reference to the status of the people of Israel, not the animals. The New Living Translation helps clarify God’s point.

“All of you, whether ceremonially clean or unclean, may eat that meat, just as you now eat gazelle and deer.” – Deuteronomy 12:15 NLT

This special dispensation was due to the fact that the Israelites were going to be settling all across the land of Canaan, while the tabernacle would be permanently erected in a fixed location. Distance would make it nearly impossible for people to bring their animals to the tabernacle. Which meant that those offering the sacrifice could not receive personal purification, and their animals could not be slaughtered on site. So, Moses let them know that God was amending His laws concerning the sacrifice and consumption of meat.

It might happen that the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—is a long way from your home. If so, you may butcher any of the cattle, sheep, or goats the Lord has given you, and you may freely eat the meat in your hometown, as I have commanded you. Anyone, whether ceremonially clean or unclean, may eat that meat, just as you do now with gazelle and deer. ” – Deuteronomy 12:21-22

But one thing remained unchanged. They were not allowed to consume the blood of the animal. Moses made this point quite clear.

“But never consume the blood, for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the lifeblood with the meat. Instead, pour out the blood on the ground like water. Do not consume the blood, so that all may go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what pleases the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 12:23-25 NLT

While they were free to kill and butcher meat anywhere within the borders of the land, they were not free to consume the blood of the animal. Why? Because the blood is the life. It was the blood of the animal that was used for purification during the sacrificial ceremonies. The blood represented the life of the animal and was sprinkled on the altar in order to purify it. The animal’s life, represented by its blood, had been given in place of the guilty individual who had offered the sacrifice. And the blood provided purification by offering forgiveness from sin.

“…according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” – Hebrews 9:22 NLT

The blood was not to be treated lightly because it represented the life of the creature. And hundreds of years later, Jesus Christ would offer His blood as a sacrifice for many. The author of Hebrews describes the ultimate sacrifice where the blood of the sinless Lamb of God provided atonement for the sins of mankind.

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

There is life in the blood. And because Jesus gave His life by shedding His blood on our behalf, we have the guarantee of new life now and eternal life to come. So, even for the Israelites, the blood was to remain sacred. It represented life and was meant to serve as a purifying and cleansing agent in God’s sacrificial system. It was to be shed, not consumed. It was to be treated with reverence and awe. But the day would come when God would amend His commands yet again, making another special dispensation for His people. Fast-forward to the upper room on the night Jesus was betrayed and listen carefully to the words He spoke to His disciples.

And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many. Mark my words—I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” – Matthew 26:27-29 NLT

The life is in the blood. But while the blood of bulls and goats could only be sprinkled and provide temporary forgiveness of sins, the blood of Jesus is to be symbolically consumed, providing permanent forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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