God In Human Flesh

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. – John 1:14-18 ESV

In verse 14 John returns to the focal point of his entire gospel: The Word of God. But now, he adds another crucial element to the identity of this one who “was in the beginning with God” (John 1:2 ESV). This life-giving “light” penetrated the darkness of the sin-saturated world.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. – John 1:10 ESV

And adding an important point of specificity, John states:

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:11 ESV

But how did He He come? In what form did the Word of God appear? In verse 14, John shares the incredible truth regarding the incarnation – the miraculous moment when God took on human flesh. In this one verse, John brings together the two seemingly opposing doctrines of God’s transcendence and immanence. The holy and wholly righteous God of the universe not only made Himself known to mankind, He became one with them.

…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… – John 1:14 ESV

God had made Himself known before. He had regularly conversed with Adam and Eve in the garden. He spoke to Noah and Abraham. He appeared to Moses in the form of the burning bush. He revealed Himself to the people of Israel through the pillars of fire and smoke that led them through the wilderness. And God had repeatedly spoken to His prophets, providing them with the words to convey to His rebellious people, warning them of the judgment to come.

But what John is describing here is something different altogether. He is declaring that deity and humanity became one. The God of the universe stepped out of His heavenly palace and took up residence among us. Jesus, the Son of God, left His throne in glory and willingly assumed the nature of an ordinary human being. The apostle Paul describes this remarkable transformation this way:

…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. – Philippians 2:6-7 ESV

At the time at which John wrote his gospel, there would have been few who denied the existence of Jesus. His ministry had made Him a celebrity throughout Judea. His miracles and messages had attracted huge crowds which gained Him the attention of the religious and political leaders. Ultimately, Jesus’ growing celebrity status had threatened the powerful Jewish religious leaders, so they had Him crucified. And even that fateful event had been well-attended and well-documented. So, there would have been little debate over the humanity of Jesus.

But the deity of Jesus was a whole other matter. One of the primary reasons Jesus had been crucified was because the Jewish religious leaders had deemed Him guilty of blasphemy, for having claimed to be God. At one point, Jesus had said to a group of Pharisees, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30 ESV). And their immediate reaction had been to stone Him to death. And they had justified their action by saying, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:33 ESV).

On another occasion, Jesus had said to the religious leaders: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58 ESV), and again, they responded by picking up stones to kill Him. Why? Because with His seemingly innocuous statement, Jesus had identified Himself as God. He had purposefully used the identifier “I am,” a direct reference to God’s own self-identification spoken to Moses at the burning bush.

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 3:14 ESV

The religious leaders had picked up on Jesus’ meaning and immediately understood that He was claiming to be divine. But they refused to accept that Jesus was anything but a man. He was nothing more than a non-descript, uneducated rabbi from the backwater town of Nazareth. He may have been a nuisance and a threat, but He was anything but God.

But for John, the deity of Jesus was essential to understanding the humanity of Jesus. God had taken on human flesh and John claims to have been one of many eye-witnesses to the reality of Jesus’ divinity.

…we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14 ESV

This is most likely a reference to the transfiguration of Jesus that John, James, and Peter had been privileged to witness. Matthew describes this event in his gospel account.

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. – Matthew 17:1-3 ESV

John had been given an eye-witness glimpse of the glory of Jesus. The humanity of Jesus had been transfigured right before John’s eyes, revealing the full divinity and holiness of the one he called master and friend.

John even recalls how John the Baptist had recognized the unique nature of Jesus, describing Him as far more than just another man. When John the Baptist had stated, “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me” (John 1:15 ESV), he was declaring the divinity and eternality of Jesus.

But why is all this so important? Why is John beginning his gospel account by stressing the deity and humanity of Jesus? Because there were those who denied that Jesus had been divine. Just like today, there were many who were willing to admit that Jesus had been a good man, a wise teacher, and a worker of miracles. They would even confess that Jesus had lived a life worth emulating. But they could not bring themselves to believe that He had been God in human flesh. That was outside their capacity to comprehend and accept.

But for John, the deity of Jesus was a non-negotiable aspect of His identity. If Jesus was not God in human flesh, then He was just another man who died a martyr’s death. And that death accomplished nothing of long-lasting value.

Yet, as his gospel will reveal, because Jesus was who He says He was, His death did have value. It was efficacious. There was a reason why God sent His Son to earth to live and die as a human being. The author of Hebrews reminds us, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV). The entire Jewish sacrificial system had been ordained by God as a means for sin-stained men and women to receive atonement and cleansing for their sins. But those sacrifices had always been temporary and imperfect. The blood of the animals sacrificed on behalf of sinful men and women was incapable of providing permanent deliverance from the penalty of sin. They provided temporary cleansing from ceremonial impurity and nothing more. Again, the author of Hebrews provides us with an explanation.

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 9:13-14 NLT

Jesus, the Word of God, had to become a man so that He could become the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of man. As John will share later on in this same chapter, when John the Baptist first saw Jesus, he described Him as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). Jesus said of Himself, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 ESV). When the angel appeared to Joseph, letting him know that his fiance was pregnant, he announced, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mathew 1:21 ESV).

Jesus took on human flesh so that He could live as a man. But He was born as a Jew so that He would be required to live according to the law given by God to Moses. And because He was divine, He was able to live in perfect obedience to God’s law, making Him the sinless, unblemished, perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of man.

According to John, Jesus had been “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 ESV), and that fulness expressed itself in the form of “grace upon grace” (John 1:17 ESV). What John seems to be saying here is that Jesus provided a new measure of God’s grace that was greater than that which had been made available through the law. Rather than temporary forgiveness from sin, God was making available permanent forgiveness and the right sinful men and women to be justified before Him. And it was all made possible through the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Up until the incarnation, the law reigned supreme. It was the only means by which sinful men could receive forgiveness. But as the apostle Paul states, “no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT). He communicated the same idea to the believers in Galatia.

“…no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Galatians 3:11 NLT

John states that Moses brought the law, but that Jesus made possible grace and truth. It is only through faith in Jesus, that sinful men can receive the grace of God and be truly freed from the penalty of sin. The law could never save. But Jesus, the God-man can and does save. And He made salvation possible by taking on human flesh and making God known to man. He made the invisible God visible. He made the unapproachable God approachable. Because He was God in human flesh.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!” – John 14:6-7 NLT

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

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

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

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Building Up the Body

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 ESV

After providing the Thessalonians with some much-needed clarification and new information regarding the end times, Paul brings the focus of his letter back to the present day. The news he shared regarding the Rapture of the church and the Second Coming of Christ was intended to quell their fears and cause them to encourage and build up one another. For Paul, the unity and mutual edification of fellow believers were essential to the health and vitality of the church. He told the church in Corinth:

I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. – 1 Corinthians 1:10 NLT

He encouraged the believers in Rome to “Live in harmony with each other” (Romans 12:16 NLT). And he wrote to the believers in Philippi, charging them to conduct themselves “in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ and to stand together “with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News” (Philippians 1:27 NLT).

And Paul knew that unity within the body of Christ began with the people showing respect and submitting themselves to those whom God had placed as leaders over the church. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul referred to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers as gifts from God, tasked with equipping “God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NLT).

The author of the book of Hebrews adds his own admonition regarding respect for and submission to the God-appointed leaders in the church.

Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. – Hebrews 13:17 NLT

Paul told the members of the church in Corinth to treat those who ministered among them with respect and “to submit to them and others like them who serve with such devotion” (1 Corinthians 16:16 NLT). So, when Paul tells the Thessalonians to “to respect those who labor among you” and “to esteem them very highly in love because of their work,” he is simply restating his strongly held belief in God’s authority structure for the local church.

It is important to remember that at the point Paul wrote this letter, the church of Jesus Christ was still in its infancy. Through the evangelistic efforts of Paul, Silas, Barnabas, Timothy, Peter and the other apostles, the Gospel had spread like wildfire throughout the Roman empire. And its rapid expansion had created a pressing need for leaders. The book of Acts records that, on one of their many missionary journeys, Paul and Barnabas made many disciples and “they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith” (Acts 14:22 NLT). And Luke goes on to explain how “Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders in every church. With prayer and fasting, they turned the elders over to the care of the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (Acts 14:23 NLT).

One of the primary responsibilities Paul gave to his young protégés, Titus and Timothy, was to appoint elders and leaders for the growing number of congregations springing up all over Macedonia, Asia Minor, Galatia, and Achaia. He told Titus, “I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you” (Titus 1:5 NLT). And Paul gave Timothy very specific characteristics to look for when seeking out men to lead the church.

…a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. He must not be a heavy drinkerc or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? – 1 Timothy 3:2-5 NLT

These men were not to be new converts to the faith. Their lives were to be characterized by a level of integrity that garnered the respect of those inside and outside of the church. As Paul told Titus, these individuals were God-appointed leaders who were to be held to a high standard.

A church leader is a manager of God’s household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money. – Titus 1:5 NLT

And when these men taught, led, fed, encouraged, or admonished the flock of God, they were to be treated with respect and love by those under their care.

But along with godly leadership, Paul knew there was a need for mutual accountability and compassionate care among the congregation. The church was the body of Christ. It was an organism, not an organization. And Paul wanted the Thessalonians to understand their mutual responsibility to care for and build up one another, which led him to write, “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14 NLT).

In his letters to the churches in Rome and Corinth, Paul compared the church to the human body.

Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. – Romans 12:4-5 NLT

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 12:12 NLT

And, as in the human body, the diversity of parts was part of God’s plan for maintaining unity and vitality. Each member of the body of Christ had a personal responsibility to use his or her gifts for the good of the whole. There was no place for selfishness or self-centeredness. God designed the body of Christ to operate in a spirit of solidarity, not solitariness.

So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. – 1 Corinthians 12:6-9 NLT

And Paul lets the Thessalonians know that the love God expected them to express toward one another was to consist of equal parts love, admonishment, comfort, help, and patience. They were to pursue what was best for one another, putting the needs of others ahead of their own. There was no place for disunity, dissension, lack of discipline, laziness, self-centeredness, or selfishness in the body of Christ.

In fact, as far as Paul was concerned, Christ’s church was to be characterized by continuous rejoicing, constant prayer, and contagious gratitude to God for all that He has done. And Paul makes it plain that these characteristics were in keeping with the will of God for the church. When the body of Christ operates outside those parameters, it runs the risk of extinguishing the work of the Spirit in their midst. Ungodly behavior among God’s people is unacceptable and has the same effect on the Spirit’s power as water being poured on an open flame. When members of the body of Christ fail to live in unity and refuse to minister to one another with a focus on community, the Spirit of God is grieved.

Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. – Ephesians 4:29-30 NLT

And, as if to illustrate all that he has just said, Paul warns the Thessalonians to “not treat prophecies with contempt” (1 Thessalonians 5:20 NET). This statement ties in Paul’s teaching on the end times and his admonition that the Thessalonians respect those who labor among them. Paul had provided them new teaching about the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ. And, as difficult as these new revelations might be to understand, he expected them to receive them as coming from God. He invited them to “test everything” and to “hold fast what is good,” but they were not to treat the words of God contemptuously. The Greek word Paul uses means “to make of no account.” While they were free to examine and test these new teachings, they were not to throw them out just because they were difficult to understand or hard to accept.

So much of what they were hearing was new to them. The Bible as we know it did not yet exist. Like many of the other letters Paul wrote, this one would eventually become part of the Canon of Scripture. But at this point in the history of the church, the doctrines and theology with which we are intimately familiar were still in the process of being determined and disseminated. This meant that the members of the local churches were going to have to trust leaders like Paul, whom God had placed over them. And, as Paul concludes in this section, it also meant that they were going to have to avoid “every form of evil.”

Paul expands on this thought in his letter to the church in Rome.

Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. – Romans 12:9-13 NLT

The body of Christ is to be a wonderful demonstration of unity, community, love, and mutual care, empowered by the Spirit of God and for the building up of the people of God.

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

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

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

More and More Part 2

9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ESV

It’s interesting to note how, in this passage, Paul contrasts love and lust. In verses 1-8, he points out the need for the Thessalonian believers to “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). They were to refrain from practicing sexual sin or, as the word means in Greek, “to hold one’s self off.” As believers, they had been given a new capacity to refrain from their old desires, driven by their sinful natures. Upon placing their faith in Christ, they had received the presence and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And, as a result, they were able to say no to lustful desires.

The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. – Galatians 5:17 NLT

The sinful nature lusts or desires the wrong things. And Paul pointed out to the Galatian believers that those who allowed their lives to be driven by the desires of their old nature, rather than the Spirit, would produce ungodly fruit in their lives. And the first three he mentions are tied to sexual sin.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

And Paul has warned the Thessalonian church: “each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5 ESV). John Piper defines lust as “a sexual desire that dishonors its object and disregards God” (John Piper, Battling the Unbelief of Lust, http://www.desiringgod.org). And he expands on that definition by adding:

“Sexual desire in itself is good. God made it in the beginning. It has its proper place. But it was made to be governed or regulated or guided by two concerns: honor toward the other person and holiness toward God. Lust is what that sexual desire becomes when that honor and that holiness are missing from it.” – John Piper, Battling the Unbelief of Lust, http://www.desiringgod.org

Paul wanted the Thessalonians to understand that they had a new obligation to live their lives in such a way that everything they did brought glory and honor to God. With the Spirit’s help, they were to learn to control their bodies, not allowing their natural, God-given desires to become perverted or distorted by sin. Sexual desire is not a sin, but it is actually a gift from God. But like everything else in life since the fall, this godly gift can be stained by the presence of sin. Rather than being an expression of self-sacrificing love for another, it turns in on itself, demanding that someone satisfy our selfish desires for sexual pleasure. God gets left out of the picture. And love gets replaced by lust. That is why Paul points out that their lives were to be marked by holiness, not impurity.

For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 ESV

And this was not a message Paul reserved for the Thessalonians. He shared the same warning to the believers in Rome.

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. – Romans 6:12-13 NLT

Lust versus love. One dishonors the other person by using them for purely selfish reasons. And, in the end, this disobeys and dishonors God. But when we truly love as God has called us to love, sacrificially and selflessly, the other person is treated with value, dignity, and honor. And God receives glory.

A Christian marriage is to be a proving ground of the Spirit’s life-transforming power, where the selfless, sacrificial love of Christ is modeled in everyday life. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul wrote: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NLT). Then he provided them with specific application of what that mutual submission would look life in the marriage context.

For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.

For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. – Ephesians 5:22-26 NLT

While we find it easy to get hung up on Paul’s call for the wives to submit, it is essential to understand that he is calling both the husband and the wife to practice selfless submission – out of reverence to Christ. And earlier in the same chapter, Paul provided a call for the Ephesians to imitate God and to follow the example of Christ.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 NLT

And then he added a what-not-to-do element to his instructions.

Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people. – Ephesians 5:3 NLT

Love, not lust. That is the call placed on the believer by God Himself, and the kind of love God had in mind was modeled by Christ. And this selfless love was not just reserved for marriage. It was to be displayed in all their relationships. God has called His children to love others in the same way He has shown love to them.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

And He expects them to follow the example of Christ.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. – 1 John 3:16 NLT

And Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they don’t require any more instructions regarding the kind of love God has in mind “for God himself has taught you to love one another” (1 Thessalonians 4:9 NLT). And the apostle John lets us know just how God had taught them.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. – 1 John 4:9-11 NLT

Paul compliments the Thessalonian church for having displayed the very kind of love he was writing about. They had already given evidence of their selflessness and willingness to sacrifice on behalf of others. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul bragged on the tangible expressions of love displayed by the Macedonian churches, including the fellowship in Thessalonica.

Now I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, what God in his kindness has done through the churches in Macedonia. They are being tested by many troubles, and they are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity.

For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped, for their first action was to give themselves to the Lord and to us, just as God wanted them to do. – 2 Corinthians 8:1-5 NLT

But Paul didn’t want them to rest on their laurels. In fact, he begged them “to do this more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:10 ESV). They were to keep loving. They were to stop lusting. And then Paul adds three characteristics or marks of a life lived in love.

  1. Their lives would exhibit peace and calm, rather than strife and turmoil. Paul told the Romans, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18 NLT). Peaceful lives create an atmosphere in which others feel safe and secure. And that is an expression of love.
  2. They were to tend to their own affairs, refusing to meddle in the concerns of others. This is not a call to disregard the needs or life circumstances of others, but it is simply an extension of Jesus’ admonition to “get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye” (Matthew 7:5 NLT).
  3. They were to be diligent workers, using whatever skills they had to provide for themselves, and refusing to become a burden to others. There was no place for laziness or a spirit of entitlement in their lives.

And Paul had a purpose behind his call for selfless, sacrificial living.

Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others. – 1 Thessalonians 4:12 NLT

At the end of the day, Paul was interested in seeing the Thessalonian believers live out their faith in tangible ways that exhibited the power of the Spirit and gave proof of their status as God’s children.

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

One Motive In Mind

For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. 11 For you know how, like a father with his children, 12 we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. 1 Thessalonians 2:9-12 ESV

Paul has already compared his ministry among the Thessalonians to that of “a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:8 ESV). He seemed to have no problem with mixing metaphors if it helped him drive home a point. In verse 7, Paul describes the manner of his and Silas’ ministry to that of children.

we were like children among you. – 1 Thessalonians 2:7 NLT

Some translations read, “we were gentle among you.” This is because there are two different variants of this sentence found in the earliest manuscripts. One has the word, ēpioi, which means “gentle or mild.” The other has a very similar word, nēpioi, which can be translated as “little children.” It would seem that the second alternative is the one most likely intended because it fits with the flow of Paul’s logic. In the context of these verses, he transitions from comparing the spirit of his ministry to that of a little child, then to a nursing mother’s compassionate and sacrificial love, and ends with the paternal instincts of a father.

you know that we treated each of you as a father treats his own children. – 1 Thessalonians 2:11 NLT

By referring to themselves as “little children,” Paul was attempting to emphasize the innocence behind their motivation. They had been guileless and without deceit in preaching the gospel among the Thessalonians. Paul has already emphasized the integrity of their ministry by declaring “our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thessalonians 2:3 ESV).

It’s interesting to note how Jesus described one of His disciples, Nathanael, upon meeting him for the first time.

“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” – John 1:47 ESV

The Greek word translated as “deceit” is dolos and it refers to “cunning and craftiness.” It was used to refer to a pattern of hypocrisy or dishonesty in one’s thoughts or actions. Paul is emphasizing their guilelessness, the complete absence of any manipulative efforts meant to distort the truth or deceive the Thessalonians. And Paul reminds them that he and Silas had gone out of their way to be a blessing and not a burden.

Don’t you remember, dear brothers and sisters, how hard we worked among you? Night and day we toiled to earn a living so that we would not be a burden to any of you as we preached God’s Good News to you. – 1 Thessalonians 2:9 NLT

As apostles of Christ, they could have expected and demanded remuneration for their efforts. When Jesus had sent out the 72 on their first missionary journey, He had instructed them, “remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7 ESV). Paul had shared this same idea with Timothy.

Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!” – 1 Timothy 5:17-18 NLT

And both Jesus and Paul had taken a Mosaic law and applied it to the ministry of elders, preachers, teachers, and apostles.

“You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain. – Deuteronomy 25:4 ESV

They could have demanded payment for services rendered, but instead, they had chosen to pay their own way. They took nothing from the Thessalonians in return for their sharing of the gospel. Paul flatly denied any semblance of greed or avarice behind their efforts.

God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! – 1 Thessalonians 2:5 NLT

No, they had ministered out of a spirit of fatherly love, displaying a heartfelt concern for those under their care.

We pleaded with you, encouraged you, and urged you to live your lives in a way that God would consider worthy. – 1 Thessalonians 2:12 NLT

This parental point of view is something Paul talked about frequently. He told the believers in Corinth, “I am not writing these things to shame you, but to warn you as my beloved children” (1 Corinthians 4:14 NLT). He addressed the believers in Galatia with the same sense of parental care and concern.

Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. – Galatians 4:19 NLT

Paul was not interested in fame or fortune. His ministry was not a job or a means to earn a living. It was a divine calling and Paul took it seriously. Like a loving parent, Paul sacrificed constantly, giving up his rights in order to minister to the needs of those under his care. He had gone without sleep. He had endured trials and tribulations. In fact, Paul provided the believers in Corinth with a well-documented list of his “accomplishments” as an apostle of Jesus Christ and a father to the faithful.

I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. 26I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.

Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. – 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 NLT

Paul wasn’t bragging. He was simply driving home the reality of his daily existence. It would be ludicrous for anyone to question Paul’s commitment to his calling or to accuse him of being in it only for what he could get out of it. Paul truly believed it when he said, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21 NLT). And he was not afraid to give his life for the cause of the Kingdom and for the sake of the flock of Jesus Christ. He was happy to be able to serve God, sacrifice on behalf of Jesus, and share the good news of salvation to anyone who would hear.

But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. – Philippians 2:17 NLT

And Paul was content with his lot in life. He needed nothing. He didn’t crave the favor of men. He didn’t desire an easier life. Fame and fortune had no appeal to him. He wasn’t in it for the money. He didn’t preach in order to become popular. Paul simply did what he was called to do – willingly, gladly, and contentedly.

Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. – Philippians 4:11-12 NLT

For Paul, the objective was clear. He was to preach the gospel. And when anyone heard and accepted God’s gracious offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone, he was to come alongside them and lovingly guide them in their spiritual journey. And Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his efforts to do just that in their lives.

…we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. – 1 Thessalonians 2:12 ESV

As important as salvation was, Paul understood that sanctification was equally as vital in the life of a believer. Salvation should result in transformation. Belief should impact behavior. An expression of faith in Christ should express itself in a life of dedication to Him, resulting in a radical change in both inward character and outward conduct.

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

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

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

Not In It For What They Could Get Out Of It

1 For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 ESV

Paul was under constant pressure to defend his apostleship. While not one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus, Paul had received his commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles directly from Jesus Christ Himself. But his opponents, of which there were many, questioned the validity of his claim to be an emissary of Christ. And so, they would attempt to undermine his ministry by raising doubts concerning his authority to speak and the veracity of his message. He was just a man, they claimed. His message was not from God, but nothing more than the self-delusional rants of a self-appointed apostle.

So, Paul was forced to validate his ministry and message. In the opening line of his letter to the Galatian church, Paul wrote: “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Galatians 1:1 ESV). Just a few verses later, Paul told them:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. – Galatians 1:11-12 ESV

And Paul went on to explain to them how that revelation came about.

For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles… – Galatians 1:13-16 ESV

Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, confirms Paul’s description of that event and provides us with further details.

Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains. – Acts 9:1-2 ESV

But while on his way to Damascus, fully intending to continue his persecution of the followers of Jesus, Paul had a life-changing encounter.

As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”

“Who are you, lord?” Saul asked.

And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” – Acts 9:3-6 ESV

Saul (his Hebrew name), blinded by the light and bewildered by this unexpected change in his itinerary, made his way to Damascus. In the meantime, God appeared in a vision to Ananias, a Christ-follower living in the city, informing him to lay hands on Paul to restore his sight. Ananias expressed his reluctance because of Paul’s reputation for animosity against Christians, but God insisted that this was all part of His divine plan for Paul.

“Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” – Acts 9:15-16 ESV

And years later, Paul would stand before King Agrippa and recount the story of his conversion on the road to Damascus. And he would add the words of the message he received when Christ confronted him.

“But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” – Acts 26:16-18 ESV

But what does all this have to do with chapter 2 of the book of 1 Thessalonians? Everything. Because in this chapter, Paul is reminding the believers in Thessalonica of the day when he and Silas first appeared in their city more than a year earlier. In the interim, enemies of Paul had been spreading rumors and suggesting that he was not what he claimed to be. They had been casting dispersion on both his message and his motives.

Yet Paul reminds them that he and Silas had arrived in their city after having been beaten and imprisoned in Philippi. The city officials in Philippi had forced them to vacate the premises because their presence had resulted in a riot. And Paul reminds the Thessanlonians:

But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. – 1 Thessalonians 2:2 ESV

If Paul was claiming to be an apostle in order to get rich or famous, he was less than successful in his efforts. He wanted the believers in Thessalonica to know that his only motivation was to declare to them the gospel of God – even in the midst of conflict.

And Paul had the same message for the believers in Galatia. If he was simply out to gain the favor of men, he was failing miserably. In fact, if Paul had wanted to win a popularity contest, the last thing he would do is present himself as an apostle of Christ with a controversial message of sin, judgment, and salvation. That’s why Paul told the Galatians:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. – Galatians 1:10 ESV

And Paul assured the Thessalonians believers that, despite what others were saying, he and Silas had been anything but deceptive or dishonest in their motivation.

For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive… – 1 Thessalonians 2:3 ESV

They had not been out to please men, seek glory, or get rich. But they had been approved by God and entrusted with the gospel message. That’s why, when they had suffered in Philippi, they hadn’t abandoned their mission, but continued their efforts to spread the gospel – even in the face of extreme opposition and personal pain. If Paul and Silas had been in it for what they could get out of it, they would have thrown in the towel a long time ago. But as Paul makes clear, their motivation had been and continued to be pure.

Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else. – 1 Thessalonians 2:4-6 NLT

Paul was anything but a people-pleaser. And his message was far from politically correct. He was an in-your-face, no-holds-barred kind of guy who delivered the message of the gospel unapologetically and with no attempt to water it down to make it more palatable and acceptable.

In taking the gospel to the Gentiles, Paul had faced opposition from the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, who still questioned the validity of uncircumcised Gentiles having access to salvation. If nothing else, they believed these Gentiles had to convert to Judaism first. But Paul had stood his ground, demanding that the gospel message put no such requirements on Gentile converts. Salvation was based on God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Nothing more. Nothing less.

And Paul had also faced opposition from the Gentiles, who resisted his efforts to convert their people to this new religion or cult, called The Way. Paul’s message of the gospel was resulting in conversions among the Gentiles, leading these new believers to walk away from their false gods and their old ways of life in order to serve the one true God. Because the gospel brought about life change, these conversions were having an influence on the local communities and their economies. And, according to Luke, that’s exactly what happened in the city of Ephesus.

Many who became believers confessed their sinful practices. A number of them who had been practicing sorcery brought their incantation books and burned them at a public bonfire. The value of the books was several million dollars. – Acts 19:18-19 NLT

The gospel was powerfully transformative. It changed lives. And that was why Paul was committed to carrying out his God-ordained mission to share the gospel. He was motivated by love and compassion, not greed and fame. And he reminded the Thessalonians that he and Silas had come to them like innocent children, free from guile and with no ulterior motives. They had displayed the same kind of love as a mother who feeds and cares for her children. She does so sacrificially and willingly, and not for what she can get out of it.

And Paul assured them that “We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too” (1 Thessalonians 2:8 NLT). They had given their lives away. They had sacrificed. Rather than demand payment for their services, they had willingly shared all that they had. And they had risked all for the sake of the gospel and the salvation of the handful of Thessalonians who had heard and received it.

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 Cost of Giving Advice

17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. – Philemon 1:17-20 ESV

It’s quite easy to give advice to others. In fact, it comes naturally to most of us. Sharing our opinions and providing free counsel to our friends and family members just seem like good things to do. We can even back up our good intentions from the “Good Book.”

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. – Proverbs 11:14 ESV

But even the best counsel, motivated by the best intentions, doesn’t always produce the best outcomes. Telling someone what they ought to do, without providing them any hint as to how to do it, can be demoralizing and even damaging.

Paul was asking Philemon to accept his runaway slave back with open arms. Not only that, but he was also advising Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother and not as a slave. And everything Paul wrote to Philemon was biblically sound and spiritually appropriate. It was wise counsel coming from a godly and well-meaning friend. And yet, from Philemon’s perspective, it was all “easier said than done.” Paul, under house arrest in Rome and with plenty of time on his hands, could write Philemon a hundred letters full of godly advice on a wide range of topics, but at the end of the day, it was Philemon who would have to turn Paul’s rhetoric into reality. And that was not going to be easy.

And Paul was quite clear in expressing how he expected Philemon to treat Onesimus.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. – Philemon 1:17 NLT

Philemon was to show Onesimus the same courtesy and respect he would extend to Paul if he were to walk in the door. That was a tall order. Paul was asking Philemon to respond in a manner that was antithetical to logic and social protocol. For him to treat any slave with that kind of respect and honor would have been unheard of in civil society. And yet, Paul was asking him to extend this kind of courtesy to a runaway. Remember, Paul told Philemon that Onesimus was “no longer like a slave to you” (Philemon 1:16 NLT). That was easy for Paul to say. But in Philemon’s social circle, everyone would have known that Onesimus was his slave. And when he returned, they would have expected Philemon to deal with him according to Roman law. To not do so would have set a dangerous precedent. If Philemon failed to punish Onesimus for running away, it might encourage other slaves to follow his example. Other slave owners in the community, and possibly in the church, would have viewed his kind and gracious treatment of Onesimus as unacceptable behavior.

And Paul was fully aware of the gravity of his request of Philemon. He knew his request would not be easy to follow, and it could also prove costly. Paul was cognizant of the fact that Onesimus represented a financial investment for Philemon. In the economic system of Rome, Onesimus had a monetary value that was greater than his human worth. He was a commodity whose appraisal was based on his production capacity or resale value. So, when Paul asked Philemon to set Onesimus free, he was asking his friend to take a substantial hit to his bottom line.

But look closely at what Paul wrote next: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Philemon 1:18 ESV). You might say that Paul was putting his money where his mouth was. He was backing up his wise words with the promise of action. Paul was personally investing himself in the process of reconciliation between these two men.

When Paul told Philemon, “charge that to my account,” he was essentially saying “impute the debt of Onesimus to me.” It was like saying, “put it on my tab.” Paul was committing himself to make up any financial liability Philemon might face as a result of following his advice. Paul was willingly putting skin in the game. And Paul’s model for this kind of selfless and sacrificial commitment was Jesus.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

Jesus had come to earth so that He might reconcile sinful men to God. And in order to do so, He took on their debt. He bore their sins on the cross and died the death they deserved to die. And because those who place their faith in Christ enjoy a renewed relationship with God the Father, they have the capacity to view things from a totally new perspective. Consider Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth.

So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. – 2 Corinthians 5:16-19 NLT

Philemon and Onesimus had both been reconciled to God through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. But Paul deeply desired to see Philemon and Onesimus reconciled to one another. They had both been set free from slavery to sin and death, and now they could live in newness of life together. And Paul was willing to invest himself in the process of reconciling their differences – even to the point of underwriting the financial debts of Onesimus.

And Paul made his commitment clear, telling Philemon, “I will repay it” (Philemon 1:19 ESV). And Philemon knew he could trust Paul to keep his word. And Paul added a little extra incentive for Philemon that basically stated, “You owe me.” This should not be viewed as a threat but as a gentle reminder that Philemon owed his new life in Christ to the ministry of Paul. He had sacrificed his life in order to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to Philemon’s community and, as a result, Philemon had been reconciled to God. By placing his faith in Jesus, Philemon’s debt had been paid in full.

Nothing would make Paul happier than to hear that Philemon and Onesimus had been reconciled. And he let Philemon know his decision to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ would be all the payment he needed.

Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. – Philemon 1:20 ESV

Telling others what they ought to do is easy. But how willing are you to commit yourself to help them follow your advice? What cost are you willing to pay to see that your wise words are followed? Paul was willing to put his money where his mouth was. Are you? Are you committed to walking alongside the ones with whom you freely share your counsel and dedicate your time and resources to see that they have what they need to succeed?

This all reminds me of the story of the chicken and the pig. In debating the degree of their commitment to a typical breakfast of bacon and eggs, the chicken bragged about how some brave chicken willingly made provision for the eggs. But the pig responded by pointing out that while the breakfast required the chicken’s participation, it demanded a pig’s total commitment. Paul wasn’t content to simply wise counsel. He was totally committed to seeing that it was followed, regardless of the personal cost.

Paul could have easily said to Philemon what he wrote to the believers in Philippi.

But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. – Philippians 2:17 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

Our Righteously Wrathful God – Part II

For the Lord holds a cup in his hand
    that is full of foaming wine mixed with spices.
He pours out the wine in judgment,
    and all the wicked must drink it,
    draining it to the dregs.
 
– Psalm 75:8 NLT

28 “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”Matthew 10:28 NLT

5 “But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear.” – Luke 12:5 NLT

So you see, the Lord knows how to rescue godly people from their trials, even while keeping the wicked under punishment until the day of final judgment. – 2 Peter 2:9 NLT

Discussing the wrath of God can come across as if we are dealing with a flaw in the divine character. It seems out of step with His love, grace, and mercy. But the wrath of God is never displayed in an arbitrary manner. He need never apologize for it or be embarrassed because of it. And His never unleashes His wrath undeservedly or unjustly. Unlike us, God never loses His temper. He never flies off the handle or suffers from a lack of self-control. He is always purposeful when displaying His wrath against sinful mankind. When doing so, He is displaying who He is, displaying His divine nature and bringing glory to Himself. In fact, God’s wrath is inseparably linked with His glory. When He exercises His wrath, He is revealing the fulness of His glory.

The book of Exodus records the encounter that Moses had with God on Mount Sinai. Moses, the deliverer God had chosen to lead His people out of slavery in Egypt, made a bold request of God. He asked the Almighty, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18 ESV). God agreed to do so, but with one condition.

“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord…But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” – Exodus 33:19, 20 ESV

God warned Moses that viewing His face would prove deadly. Why? Because of Moses’ sinfulness. No man can behold the full, unveiled glory of God while in his sinful state. Moses wanted to see God’s glory, but to do so without God’s protection would result in Moses’ destruction. Because the wrath of God goes hand-in-hand with the glory of God.

God kept His word, but in a display of His goodness and mercy, He prevented Moses from seeing Him in all His glory.

“I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” – Exodus 33:22-23 ESV

Moses, as a fallen human being, deserved to come under the wrath of God but, instead, he experienced God’s grace and mercy. Remember what God had said to Moses immediately after making his request:

“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV

God, because of His righteousness and holiness, is obligated to punish sin. He cannot overlook or ignore it. But He can make provision for it. And, in this case, that is what He did.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” – Exodus 34:6-7 ESV

As God passed, with His hand placed protectively over His servant, He proclaimed His mercy and grace, His patience and steadfast love, His faithfulness, and forgiveness. In other words, He declared His divine attributes. But don’t miss this part. While God declared that He is willing to forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin, He will NOT clear the guilty. The Hebrew word translated as “clear” is naqah and it means to “acquit” or ”to leave unpunished.” The guilty must be held to account. They must pay for their sins. God cannot simply whitewash over them.

Just before Moses had been given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the glory of God, he had been given the law of God – the Ten Commandments – on tablets of stone. And Moses had returned from the mountaintop, tablets in hand, only to find the people worshiping false gods down in the valley. In his shock and anger, Moses had destroyed the tablets containing God’s law. And God, in His wrath, brought a plague on the people, punishing them for their rejection of Him and their rebellion against Him.

…the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.”

Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made. – Exodus 32:33-35 ESV

God punished the guilty. He could not and would not allow them to get away with their sin. The entire law, as prescribed by God on Mount Sinai, was based on the premise “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). There were those who would die by the plague that God had sent. Their deaths would assuage or propitiate God’s wrath. He had to punish the guilty. He could not simply clear or acquit them.

God gave Moses a second set of tablets, containing His code of conduct for the people of Israel. His laws were intended to set them apart as His chosen people. In them were contained all they needed to know about living life as His children. He left nothing up to their imaginations. They would not be free to live on their own terms or to follow the examples of the other nations around them. But Moses, knowing the hearts of his people, made yet another request of God.

“If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” – Exodus 34:9 ESV

Moses knew that, without God’s grace and mercy, the people of Israel would find themselves the fully deserving recipients of God’s wrath, once again. So, God renewed His covenant commitment with the people of Israel, but He warned them:

“…for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” – Exodus 34:14 ESV

God will not tolerate unfaithfulness. He will not put up with His creation turning their backs on Him by worshiping something or someone other than Him. But it is not because He is overly sensitive or wears His feelings on His sleeve. It is because He is God and worthy of all glory, honor, and praise.

In the book of Revelation, John records his vision of the throne room of God in heaven. He describes the four living creatures, standing around the throne of God:

Day after day and night after night they keep on saying,

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty—
    the one who always was, who is, and who is still to come.” – Revelation 4:8 NLT

And they are joined by the 24 elders, who lay their crowns before God’s throne and say:

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

God is worthy of our praise. He deserves our worship. He created us. We exist for His glory. And when we refuse to give Him the glory He deserves, we sin against Him. Sin is not so much the action we commit, as it is the heart behind the action. What we do is an outward display of the state of our hearts. Jesus said that “from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:19 NLT). Then He added, “These are what defile you” (Matthew 15:20 NLT). The Greek word for “defile” is koinoō and it means “to make common or unclean.”

Our actions, which stem from our hearts, end up making us unacceptable to God. They display our love for something other than Him. When we sin, we are giving evidence that our hearts do not belong to God. We love something other than God. Such as pleasure, sensuality, self, success, power, position, prominence, or happiness. Those things become idols or substitutes for God. And our sin is an expression of our love affair with these false gods.

But God’s holiness demands justice. And His justice requires that He display His wrath “against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18 NLT). Yet, in His mercy and grace, God came up with a way to satisfy His wrath and display His goodness at the same time. Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission or forgiveness of sin. And since all men have sinned, all men deserve to fall under the wrath of God. But Paul reminds us of the amazing grace of God as displayed through the gift of His Son.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. – Romans 3:23-26 NLT

God satisfied His own wrath by sending His own Son as the payment for mankind’s sin debt. He gave His sinless Son as the atonement for sinful men.

God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God. – Romans 4:25 NLT

But to escape the wrath of God, sinful men and women must accept the free gift of God’s sacrifice on their behalf. They must acknowledge their sin and their need for a Savior. The payment has been made. The gift has been offered. But it must be accepted. Paul goes on to state: “We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22 NLT). And a few chapters later, he adds: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NLT).

The wrath of God is real. But so is His grace and mercy. God is a just God who must punish sin. But He is also a gracious God who has provided a way that He might justify the ungodly. All for our good and His glory.

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

Down, But Not Out

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

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

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

Jean_Jouvenet_Descent_From_The_Cross

Man’s sin debt had been paid, but the cost had been high. Jesus, the Son of God, had given His life so that those condemned to death might experience eternal life. He died so that others might live. But, as the apostle Peter reminds us, “God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And the ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God” (1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT).

But as the Roman soldiers removed the lifeless body of Jesus from the cross, He was anything but spotless. His body had been beaten and bruised. His face had been slapped repeatedly leaving it swollen and practically unrecognizable. And hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had described just how badly Jesus would be disfigured by this tragic event.

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

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

In the book of Revelation, John records a vision he received of Jesus in His resurrected and glorified state, standing in the throne room of God Almighty. And John’s description of Jesus is quite interesting.

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

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

It’s interesting to note how Matthew describes those followers of Christ who had remained at Golgotha to the bitter end. He says they were looking on from a distance. Yet, he only mentions the names of women. Not a single one of the disciples is named. And among the women was “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 27:56 ESV).

One has to wonder what had been going through her mind as she watched Jesus being crucified between the two thieves. She is the one who had come to Jesus and begged Him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21 ESV). And Jesus had told her, “You do not know what you are asking” (Matthew 20:22 ESV). It’s likely that, as she watched Jesus die, she imagined her own two sons, James and John, hanging on the crosses to His right and left. Little had she shown that Jesus’ crowning as King was going to involve thorns, not gold. His entrance into His Kingdom was going to demand crucifixion, not a coronation. His exaltation would be proceeded by humiliation and death. And rather than taking up residence in a palace, Jesus would be placed in a borrowed tomb.

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

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

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

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

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

And they waited.

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

As dark as this moment may appear, the invisible, yet sovereign hand of God is evident throughout the narrative. Everything is taking place according to His divine plan – down to the last detail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Parenthesis

32 As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. 36 Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 37 And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 38 Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. 39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. – Matthew 27:32-44 ESV

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 9.10.59 AMThe crucifixion is a well-known and highly venerated part of Jesus’ earthly life. It is the fulcrum upon which the message of the Gospel balances. His sacrificial death on behalf of sinful mankind is what makes the Gospel good news. Had He not died, there would be no remission for sin. God’s righteous indignation for the rebellion of mankind against His sovereign rule would remain unsatisfied. The debt owed by sinful men to a holy and righteous God would remain unpaid. The penalty of death and subsequent separation from God for eternity would still loom large over the lives of every single human being, with no hope of a solution to their dilemma.

But Jesus died. And that scene, described by the gospel writers, has been illustrated in countless ways by a vast array of painters, sculptures, and artisans. And while most are familiar with the details surrounding this well-documented scene, there is one aspect that begs further examination and concentration. Matthew records, “two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left” (Matthew 27:38 ESV). John puts it this way: “they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them” (John 19:18 ESV).

It is fascinating to consider what these two statements reveal. While we’re familiar with the idea of Jesus being crucified alongside two common criminals, we probably haven’t given this dimension of His death much thought. After all, there is so much going on in the story that appears to be of greater importance. The deaths of these two unknown criminals appear to have no significance. Other than the conflicting statements each of them makes to Jesus while they are being crucified, these men seem to be little more than side notes in this grand drama.

And yet the gospel writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, make it a point to include these two men in their descriptions of Jesus’ death. And John makes it clear that they were crucified on either side of Jesus. In a sense, their crosses bracketed that of Jesus. And, as has been depicted in so many artistic renderings of the scene, John describes Jesus as hanging on the middle cross. Don’t overlook the scene as it is presented by the gospel writers. On either side of Jesus was a criminal, an unknown and unnamed individual whose guilt had warranted his execution. Each of them deserved to die. In fact, one of these men would freely admit their guilt and the appropriate nature of their executions.

“We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” – Luke 23:41 ESV

Why is this important? It is because this scene depicts the sinless Son of God surrounded by two sinful men. He is innocent, while they are guilty. They are receiving the just punishment for their sins, while He is dying as a substitute for their sins and the sins of all mankind. In a sense, these two men form a kind of human parenthesis, with Jesus, the focal point of all human history, located between them.

One of the men, unrepentant and angry at his fate, shouts at Jesus, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39 ESV). While the other man, just as sinful and just as deserving of his death, cries out, “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 ESV). Two sinners, but two distinctly different responses to the Savior in their midst.

All three men were being executed for the crimes of which they had been accused. But one man, the one in the middle, was guiltless. The Jewish religious leaders had accused Him of blasphemy – of claiming to be the Son of God. Jesus had displayed the audacity and arrogance to declare Himself as divine. And they found His boasts unthinkable and unacceptable. 

But Jesus was the Son of God. He had been speaking truth, not blasphemy. He was innocent. Even the words inscribed on the sign attached to the cross of Jesus were intended to describe His crime: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

John records that the words on this placard had been placed there by the command of Pilate. And the charge it carried had been written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. The Jewish religious leaders had been incensed at the words inscribed on the sign and had demanded that Pilate have them altered. They wanted the statement amended to say, “This man said, I am King of the Jews” (John 19:21 ESV).

But Pilate had refused to change a thing. The sign remained, and the charge stuck. And of this particular charge, Jesus was guilty. He was the King of the Jews. He was guilty of being exactly who He had claimed to be all along. He was the Messiah of Israel, but His own people had rejected Him. He was the sovereign King of the nation of Israel, but they had refused to acknowledge Him as such. Just as the ancient Israelites had rejected God as their King and had demanded that He give them a king like all the other nations, the Jews of Jesus day had rejected the King of kings.

Three men, all accused of crimes. Two of them were guilty as charged, having broken the laws of the land. Their crimes were deserving of death, and they were simply receiving what the law required. But the man in the middle, Jesus of Nazareth, was only guilty of being who He claimed to be: The King of the Jews. He was dying because He was the Savior of the world. He was dying in order to save the world. He was sinless, and yet He would die a sinner’s death. He was completely blameless, and yet He would willingly take on the sins of mankind in order that the penalty for our sins could be marked “paid in full” by God.

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

God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. – Romans 3:24-25 NLT

It is no coincidence that as Jesus hung on the cross, He was bracketed by two guilty sinners who were experiencing the just punishment for their crimes. In-between them hung the Savior of the world. They both had access to Him. They could both see Him and hear the words He spoke. But one chose to curse and insult Him, while the other begged to be remembered by Him. In the midst of his pain and suffering, caused by his own sinful choices, this man called out to Jesus, and he received a response.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Luke 27:43 ESV

And that’s the way it has always been. The life of Jesus has always been bracketed by two parenthetical marks, in the form of two diametrically opposed responses made by equally guilty sinners. One sees Jesus as nothing more than a man, equally hopeless and helpless to do anything about the sinful condition of mankind. But the other sees the suffering, yet sinless Savior who has a kingdom and the power to restore life to all those who submit to His Lordship. Jesus came to the world, a place filled with darkness and mired in sin. He inserted Himself into the hopeless state that plagued mankind and provided a solution to man’s condition. And John puts it in terms that describe why Jesus’ death between two sinners forms the great parenthesis.

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. – John 1:10-13 NLT

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

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

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

Your Will Be Done

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” – Matthew 26:36-46 ESV

agony-in-the-garden-1-1024x768.jpgHaving completed the Passover meal, Jesus and His disciples made their way through the city of Jerusalem, out the eastern gate, and onto the Mount of Olives. They stopped at a place called Gethsemane, which means “an olive press.” Here, Jesus took three of His disciples, Peter, James and John, and found a secluded place where He could pray. These are the same three men who had accompanied Him and been eyewitnesses to His transfiguration. But on this occasion, rather than seeing Jesus in His glorified state, they would watch as He agonized over His coming trials.

Jesus described to them His state of mind: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38 ESV). His emotional state was one of deep and overwhelming sadness over what was about to happen. His sorrow alone was enough to kill Him. But what was it that caused such a drastic state of deep melancholy in Jesus? Was He afraid to die? Did He regret His decision to sacrifice Himself on behalf of sinful mankind? Was He having second thoughts? The text, along with the words and actions of Jesus, provide us with the answers.

Matthew relates that Jesus went off by Himself and immediately fell on His face before His Father in a state of prayer. He pleaded, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39 ESV).

One of the things this passage reveals is the human side of Jesus’ nature. He was 100 percent God, but also 100 percent human – a state often referred to as the hypostatic union. At His incarnation, Jesus, the eternal, second person of the Trinity, became the God-man. His assumption of a human nature was essential to the role He would play as the Savior of mankind. The author of Hebrews explains:

Because God’s children are human beings – made of flesh and blood – the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. – Hebrews 2:14 NLT

The apostle Paul would put it this way:

[God] sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. – Romans 8:3 NLT

Jesus never relinquished any of His divine attributes, but, in becoming a man, He combined His human and divine natures into one person. And as a man, Jesus felt pain, experienced hunger, grew tired, and, as we will see, became susceptible to death.

In His humanity, Jesus knew that what He was about to endure would be excruciatingly painful. He would be scourged mercilessly with a flagellum, a whip featuring multiple leather strands, each weighted with lead balls or pieces of bone. He would be beaten, spit upon, slapped, and degraded. And eventually, He would be nailed to a wooden cross and left to die by exposure and suffocation. Jesus’ human nature was repulsed by the prospect of facing such a painful and gruesome death. He longed for another way, a plan B.

But, in His divinity, He knew that this was all part of His Father’s sovereign will. This is why He stated, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39 ESV).

But there is a second explanation behind Jesus’ intense sorrow and His cry for an alternative plan. He was fully aware that, upon the cross, He would be taking on the sin debt of the entire world. He who never committed a single sin would bear the full brunt of God’s wrath against all the sins of men for all time.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

Sin separates mankind from God. And Jesus knew that when He took on the sin debt of mankind, He would become separated from His Father for the first time in all of eternity. Their fellowship would be broken. And, in His divine nature, that prospect was unfathomable and unthinkable to Jesus. Yet again, He knew it was all part of God’s plan and, therefore, necessary.

Jesus longed for this “cup of wrath” to pass. If you recall, back in chapter 20, Matthew recorded an encounter between Jesus and the mother of James and John, the two brothers who were with Him in Gethsemane that night. She had asked Jesus to allow her two sons to sit on His right and on His left when He established His kingdom on earth. But Jesus had responded to her two sons, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22 NLT).

Only He was worthy to suffer for the sins of mankind. He alone could meet God’s demanding criteria for an acceptable sacrifice – an unblemished, sinless Lamb.

And it’s interesting to note that when Jesus stopped to check on Peter, James, and John, He had found them asleep. While He had been agonizing over His coming death, these three were obviously unconcerned with and unsympathetic to His pain. They slept while Jesus wept. And Jesus made an interesting observation, stating, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41 ESV). This was most likely aimed at Peter, who had been the one who had vehemently denied Jesus prediction that they would all bail on Him in His time of greatest need.

“Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” – Matthew 26:33 ESV).

And yet, here was Peter finding it difficult even to stay awake while His master suffered under the weight of His pending death.

Three separate times Jesus expressed His feelings to His heavenly Father, and three times He communicated His willingness to do His Father’s will. He was committed. Every ounce of His humanity longed to escape what was to come, but His divinity provided the strength He needed to do what He had been called to do.

In his commentary on the book of Matthew, D.A. Carson writes:

“In the first garden ‘Not your will but mine’ changed Paradise to desert and brought man from Eden to Gethsemane. Now ‘Not my will but yours’ brings anguish to the man who prays it but transforms the desert into the kingdom and brings man from Gethsemane to the gates of glory.” – D.A. Carson, Matthew, p. 545.

Jesus was willing to face the fate God had planned for Him because He trusted His heavenly Father. He knew there was no other way. Salvation was only possible through His obedient submission to the sovereign will of God the Father. And the hour had come for Him to begin His journey from Gethsemane to Golgotha. Having finished His prayer time with the Father, Jesus turned to His disciples and said, “the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Matthew 26:45 ESV).

Judas was on his way, bringing with him the guards of the high priest. The darkness of that night was about to deepen as the forces of evil began their ill-fated attempt to snuff out the Light of the world. But as John would later write:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. – John 1:5 NLT

God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants. – John 3:19-21 NLT

Jesus would end up buried in the darkness of a borrowed tomb. His life would be forcefully taken from Him, but as He had predicted, it would be on His terms.

“No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.” – John 10:18 NLT

Jesus lived to do the will of His Father. And He died in obedience to the will of His Father. When Jesus had stated, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30 ESV), He had meant it. Their wills were united, and their love for sinful mankind was unified around the sole solution to man’s problem: The sacrificial death of the sinless Son of God.

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

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

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