To God Be the Glory!

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

25 Brothers, pray for us.

26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.

27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.

28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28 ESV

As Paul wraps up his letter, he provides a brief summary of its content. He has covered a lot of territory, but when all is said and done, what Paul has been trying to emphasize is their sanctification. This has been the primary point of his letter. Remember, back in chapter four Paul stated: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). According to Paul, the divine will is that the life of each and every believer reflect their status as having been set apart by God for His use. It’s an obligation and not an option they can choose to ignore. 

The apostle Peter made this non-optional aspect of God’s will quite clear when he wrote: “…but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16 ESV). The Greek word for “holy” is hagios and the Greek word for “sanctification” is hagiasmos. Followers of Jesus Christ have been set apart or consecrated by God, and their lives are to reflect their status as His possession. They are no longer free to do and think as they please. Which is why Paul told the Corinthian believers:

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 NLT

And Paul told the Thessalonians something very similar and linked it to their status as having been sanctified by God.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV

With this simple, yet profound sentence, Paul eliminates any thought the Thessalonians may have had about maintaining a semblance of their old lifestyles. Paul is emphatic when he states, “run from sexual sin!” He leaves no room for debate when he demands, “abstain from sexual immorality!”

Paul warned Timothy, “Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace” (2 Timothy 2:22 NLT). In another letter, Paul reminded Timothy that he belonged to God and he was to love like it.

But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have confessed so well before many witnesses. – 1 Timothy 6:11-12 NLT

From Paul’s perspective, the sanctified life that God willed for His children was non-optional and required constant attention and effort. But the goal of all this effort and energy is so that we will be useful to God. Which is exactly what Paul told Timothy.

So if anyone cleanses himself of what is unfit, he will be a vessel for honor: sanctified, useful to the Master, and prepared for every good work. – 2 Timothy 2:21 BSB

But when it comes to the topic of sanctification, there is a very important part we tend to leave out, and Paul brings it up as he closes out his letter. He knows that God’s call to live set apart lives is a daunting one. He also knows it will prove impossible if attempted without God’s help. The life of holiness is not something we can pull off on our own. Which is why Paul offered this short prayer on behalf of his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 ESV). Their sanctification was not only God’s will, but it was His responsibility. God didn’t provide for their salvation and then leave their sanctification up to them. God doesn’t didn’t adopt them into His family and then leave them to fend for themselves. Paul wanted all those under his leadership and care to live with the assurance “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6 ESV).

And Paul continues his prayer on behalf of the Thessalonians, stating, “may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 NLT). Notice that phrase, “be kept blameless.” Paul uses the Greek word, tēreō, which means “to keep or preserve.” It could be used metaphorically to refer to “keeping one in the state in which he is.” Paul is assuring them that God is the one who will maintain their set-apart status. But he isn’t suggesting that God is going to keep them just like they were when He saved them. Notice that Paul addresses the whole nature of man: spirit, soul, and body. And he asks that God preserve every aspect of the believer’s life as faultless. He isn’t speaking of sinless perfection, but of a life where sin no longer enslaves and controls one’s actions.

A blameless man was an individual whose life was no longer dominated by sinful habits. He lived under the control of the Spirit of God, and his life reflected the fruit of the Spirit. That is why Paul demanded that all elder candidates be blameless men – men who were above reproach. No one could point a finger at them and cast dispersions on their character. Their reputations, while not perfect, were expected to be free from sinful habit or questionable behaviors.

And, according to Paul, it is God alone who makes that kind of life possible. That is what he means when he says, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24 ESV). But again, that doesn’t leave the believer with no role to play or any responsibility to pursue Christlikeness. Paul’s point is that if sanctification is God’s will for us, it should be our will as well. We should desire what God does. If He has sanctified us – set us apart – we should pursue a life that reflects that reality. But here is an often overlooked aspect of the sanctified life. IT ISN’T ABOUT US.

In other words, if we are not careful, we will pursue holiness for our own glory. We will attempt to live godly lives so that God will be pleased with us and others will think more highly of us. But that kind of approach to sanctification is missing the point altogether. Paul would have us remember that we exist to bring God glory. And when we live set-apart lives, in the power of the Spirit, we bring Him glory. And our sanctification is to influence every area of our lives. Which is why Paul said, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV). Even in the mundane, everyday things of life, our goal should be God’s glory, not our own. And according to Peter, when using the gifts given to us by God, our focus should never be receiving glory but giving glory to God.

If anyone speaks, he should speak as one conveying the words of God. If anyone serves, he should serve with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory and the power forever and ever. – 1 Peter 4:11 BSB

Peter also reminds us that our pursuit of holy conduct and character should be less about us and more about the lost around us.

Conduct yourselves with such honor among the Gentiles that, though they slander you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.
 – 1 Peter 2:12 BSB

God wills our sanctification. He makes possible our sanctification. And He will one day complete our sanctification. All for our good and His glory. And with that assurance in mind, we should make it our highest priority to desire the good that God has willed for us. Not so we will look good in front of our believing friends. But so that God will be glorified before a lost and dying world. To God be the glory, great things He has done.

To God be the glory, great things he has done!
So loved he the world that he gave us his Son,
who yielded his life an atonement for sin,
and opened the life-gate that we may go in.

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood!
To ev’ry believer the promise of God;
the vilest offender who truly believes,
that moment from Jesus forgiveness receives. [Refrain]

Great things he has taught us, great things he has done,
and great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
but purer and higher and greater will be
our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
let the earth hear his voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father thro’ Jesus the Son,
and give him the glory, great things he has done!

lona– Fanny Crosby (1875)

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

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

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Signs In “The Times”

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

The Thessalonian believers are living in what Paul refers to as “the times.” This is what may also be referred to as the church age or the times of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24). It is the period of time between Christ’s first and second advent. The phrase, “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” used by Jesus in Luke 21:24, refers to the period leading up until His second coming. He used it in direct reference to Jerusalem, indicating that the holy city would remain predominantly under Gentile control or influence until He returned to set up His Millennial Kingdom at the end of the seven years of Tribulation.

Paul wrote of this same time period in his letter to the church in Rome, telling them, “I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way, all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26 ESV). Paul seems to indicate that there is a specific number of Gentiles who will come to faith in Christ, but it is only known to God. When the full number of Gentile converts is reached, the day of the Lord will begin, and it will commence with the Rapture of the church. 

The Thessalonian believers were excited about the possible return of Jesus, but they were also confused by what appeared to be His delay. So, Paul has reassured them that God has a plan and that they were living in “the times” leading up to the day of the Lord. But God has provided no date or length of time by which to measure its arrival. As Jesus told His disciples, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know” (Acts 1:7 NLT).

So, rather than worry about things God has chosen to keep a mystery, Paul points his readers back to God’s clearly revealed will.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification – 1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV

While it was proper for them to eagerly long for the Lord’s return, they were not to allow their anticipation to turn into preoccupation or lull them into a sense of spiritual complacency. While they waited, they were to walk in a manner worthy of their calling (Ephesians 4:1) and to work hard to show the results of their salvation (Philippians 2:12). They had work to do. And if God delayed the return of His Son, that was up to Him. In the meantime, they were to stay actively engaged in the pursuit of holiness. Which is why Paul told them, “So be on your guard, not asleep like the others. Stay alert and be clearheaded” (1 Thessalonians 5:6 NLT).

Paul was all about practical holiness. It wasn’t meant to be some kind of pie-in-the-sky in the sweet by and by mentality that leaves you heavenly minded but of no earthly good. That’s why he challenges them to show respect to those who minister among them. This would have included Timothy, their elders, and any other God-ordained leadership in their local congregations. Notice that Paul doesn’t tell them to respect their leaders if they deem them worthy of it, but because of their work. This had less to do with the leader than with God’s calling on that leader. As Paul reminded the believers in Ephesus, spiritual leaders within the body of Christ are to be seen as gifts provided by Christ Himself.

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. – Ephesians 4:11-12 NLT

These individual have been given authority by God to lead and, sometimes, admonish. They were shepherds who had the responsibility to lead, feed, protect, and, if necessary, discipline the flock of Jesus Christ. And they were to be treated with honor and respect.

But Paul doesn’t stop there. He calls them to live in harmony with one another. They were to pursue peace at all costs. There was no place for disunity within the body of Christ. Paul shared this same advice with the believers in Rome.

Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. – Romans 12:18 NLT

The author of the book of Hebrews gave similar counsel.

Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life. – Hebrews 12:14 NLT

But the presence of peace is not an absence of conflict. It is impossible to live in close proximity with other people and not experience some degree of disagreement. So, Paul provides them with steps to deal with the inevitable threat of disunity. He tells them to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14 ESV). These four admonitions run the gamut, covering everything from reproving the lazy and strengthening the timid to caring for the weak and showing patience to all. That about covers every possible relationship scenario in the local church.

Paul wanted them to know that their survival was dependent upon their mutual care and concern for one another. There was no place for backbiting and payback. Instead, they were to seek the good of one another. That requires selflessness. It demands that each individual put the needs of others ahead of his own. And Paul knew that kind of lifestyle was only possible if they remained prayerful, joyful, and thankful.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV

As soon as they lost the ability to rejoice in the unbelievable reality of their salvation, they would become myopic and self-focused again. And if they failed to pray, they would tend to live according to their own wills, rather than God’s. If they became ungrateful to God for all He had done for them, they would become envious and jealous of others. And that would lead to quarreling, conflict, and disunity.

Failure to rejoice, refusal to pray and a reluctance to give thanks will only stifle the work of the Spirit of God among the people of God. When believers begin to live selfishly, ungratefully, and prayerlessly, the Spirit’s power is diminished in their midst, like water poured on a flame. Paul referred to this as living according to the flesh, and he described it in these terms to the Galatian believers:

…the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other. – Galatians 5:17 ESV

A believer’s decision to give in to their fleshly desires will end up stifling the transformative power of the Spirit in his or her life. And it will do damage to the body of Christ.

Paul also provided the Thessalonians with what appears to be a very specific word regarding prophecy. It appears that there were some in the local congregations who were rejecting the idea of someone having a direct word from God. In the 1st-Century church, there were those who were given the gift of prophetic utterance, the ability to hear from God and to share that word with the local congregation. This was before the finalization of the Scriptures. Evidently, in their worship services, it was not uncommon for someone to stand up and share a word from God. And it appears that the Thessalonians were reluctant to accept that these individuals were speaking on behalf of God. But Paul warns them to test the words of these people, not to reject them. If these people actually spoke for God, it would be proven true in time. God would validate their words. And whatever God validated, they were to hang on to it as having come directly from Him.

And Paul wraps up this section with the simple, yet profound, phrase: “Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22 ESV). They were to avoid sinful behavior like the plague. But not only that, they were to have nothing to do with anything remotely associated with evil. Paul provided the Ephesians believers with a similar word of admonition.

Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. – Ephesians 5:10-14 NLT

The Christian life is comprised of acts of commission and omission. There are things we are to do and other things we are to refuse to do. There are activities we are to pursue, and there are those we are to avoid like a plague. This is part of what it means to be in the world but not of it. In His High Priestly Prayer, recorded in John 17, Jesus addressed the awkward reality of the believer’s presence in this fallen world.

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. – John 17:15-19 ESV

Living in “the times” was not going to be easy for the Thessalonians, but it was also not impossible. They had all they needed to live as lights in the darkness. And Paul was convinced that they could and would.

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

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

The Word At Work In You

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.

13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last! – 1 Thessalonians 2:9-16 ESV

In these verses Paul seems to emphasize the theme of work. He reminds the Thessalonians that he and his fellow missionaries had originally come to them for the purpose of sharing the gospel. And he describes their efforts among them as “labor and toil” and points out that “we worked night and day” (1 Thessalonians 2:9 ESV). But the kind of work to which Paul is referring includes far more than just the preaching of the gospel. That was their primary objective, but we know that Paul and his companions made a habit of operating a self-sustaining ministry “that we might not be a burden to any of you” (1 Thessalonians 2:9 ESV). Luke records that Paul used his talents as a tent maker in order to underwrite his ministry in Corinth.

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. – Acts 18:1-4 ESV

Paul was reluctant to place any kind of financial burden on the new churches he helped to found, choosing instead to pay his own way, utilizing his skills as a tentmaker to underwrite his ministry. The result was that Paul put in long days, dividing his time between manual labor and his labor of love: The sharing of the gospel.

And Paul wanted the Thessalonians to recall that his hard work among them truly was a labor of love and a demonstration of selfless and blameless behavior. No one could point a finger at Paul, accusing him of dishonest or ungodly actions. Paul states that the Thessalonians had experienced firsthand how “we were devout and honest and faultless toward all of you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:10 ESV). And if they refused to give witness to the truth of Paul’s integrity, God would.

And all of Paul’s hard work among them was directed toward one overarching objective: That the Thessalonians might “walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:12 ESV) – that their lives would reflect their newfound calling in Christ. When Paul speaks of “walking,” he uses the Greek word peripateō. It is a robust word that includes far more than mere movement from one place to another. It is an all-inclusive word that covers all of life. To “walk” meant to conduct your life – every area of your life – in a manner that brought glory to God. So, Paul is talking about the entirety of life, including home, leisure, recreation, and work. No area of life was to be left out. And this was a message Paul shared with virtually every church to which he ministered. He told the Colossian believers:

…walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. – Colossians 1:10 ESV

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith… – Colossians 2:6 ESV

He told the believers in Philippi:

…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. – Philippians 2:12-15 ESV

What makes this new way of living possible? The word of God. And Paul insists that it is at work among them. Not only was the gospel capable of saving them, it was the power behind their ongoing sanctification. The word of God saves and transforms. It redeems and recreates. It makes the believer right with God and makes right living possible. But that kind of living was not going to be easy. It requires effort on the part of the believer, but it’s not about self-effort. In fact, Paul makes it clear to the Philippian believers that “God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT).

Paul had worked among the Thessalonians. And God had worked through Paul. Now, Paul was encouraging them to work out their faith in daily life. He was calling them to godliness, in every area of their lives, even in the face of difficulty. And he makes it clear that the persecution they faced was not unique to them.

For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews. – 1 Thessalonians 2:14 ESV

Their efforts at living their lives in a manner worthy of God were going to be met with opposition. Their “walk” of faith was not going to be easy. Working out their salvation wasn’t going to be a cake walk. And Paul had firsthand experience with just how difficult following Christ could be. The word of God, which had transformed the lives of the Thessalonians, was not going to be met with open arms by their fellow citizens. Jesus, the living Word, was put to death by His own people. He suffered and died while accomplishing the work assigned to Him by His Father. And Paul had run into road blocks in his attempt to take the gospel to the Gentiles. He had faced opposition from Jews and Gentiles alike. But he kept working. He kept sharing. And he kept believing that God was far from done. His work among the Thessalonians was not yet finished.

And, as for those who worked hard at trying to derail the efforts of Paul and to discourage the faith of the Thessalonian believers, Paul knew God had judgment in store for them. They were standing in opposition to the gospel of God, and He would eventually judge them for their sin of resisting His work.

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 Goal of Godly Living

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. – Titus 2:11-15 ESV

Older, younger, male, female, Jew, Gentile, free, slave. Paul has addressed them all because the corporate body of Christ included them all. And it was essential that each of them understood their role as citizens of the Kingdom of God, responsible for living out their faith and accurately reflecting their status as His children.

Paul reminds Titus that “the grace of God has appeared” – a direct reference to the incarnation of Jesus. According to the gospel of John, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made Him known” (John 1:18 BSB). And Paul told the Colossians, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NLT). Jesus was the tangible, visible expression of God’s grace or unmerited favor, showered on humanity in spite of our sinful, rebellious state.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners… God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 6:6, 8 NLT

God’s grace entered space and time when the Son of God “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8 NLT). And the appearance of Jesus made the gracious gift of salvation available to any and all who would accept it.

And now He has revealed this grace through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the gospel… – 2 Timothy 1:10 BSB

The grace of God is non-discriminatory and, as Paul puts it, brings salvation to all people, regardless of their age, race, gender, or cultural status. And when anyone places their faith in Jesus Christ, their relationship with God is changed forever, as they move from being God’s enemy to enjoying the privilege of being called His child. They become forgiven saints rather than condemned sinners. But Paul wants Titus to remember that the gift of salvation does far more than change one’s moral status before God. It provides a means for dramatically altering the believer’s behavior and character. And that has been the whole point of Paul’s letter up to this point.

The grace of God makes new life possible, not just in eternity, but right here and now. Paul emphasizes that the salvation provided by God through faith in Christ empowers the believer “to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures” (Titus 2:12 NLT). God not only declares us to be righteous, but He also provides us the means to live that way. And Paul wanted Titus to take his role as an instructor of God’s people seriously. He had a responsibility to teach those under his care what God expected of them. Their newfound status in Christ was not to be abused or misused. They were not free to live however they wanted to or to follow false teachings that contradicted the will of God.

Paul tasked Titus with the role of teaching the Cretans “to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12 ESV). There’s that word, “self-controlled” again. Paul will not let it go. He will not allow the believers on Crete to bring shame to the gospel by living lives that contradict the transformative nature of its message. Paul was all about practicality and Monday-morning relevance. He told the believers in Ephesus:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to reckless indiscretion. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. – Ephesians 5:18 BSB

For Paul, belief and behavior were inseparable. And while behavior and actions play no role in salvation, they should be the non-negotiable byproduct of our sanctification. It was James who wrote, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds” (James 2:18 NLT). Our lives, declared righteous by God, should bear the fruit of righteousness.

But in order to live a godly life, one must “renounce ungodliness.” To put it plainly, a believer must deny himself anything that anti-godly. Paul told the believers in Philippi:

Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. – Philippians 4:8 NLT

And he warned the believers in Ephesus:

Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. – Ephesians 5:10-12 NLT

But along with teaching believers to renounce ungodliness, Titus was to instruct them to renounce worldly passions. It would seem that worldly passions are the fruit that grows from the root of ungodliness. When we embrace anything that stands opposed to God, our lives will produce fruit that is unrighteous and reflects our love of the world. Which is why the apostle John warned:

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

The believer’s life is to be marked by godliness, not godlessness. His behavior is to reflect the fruit of righteousness, not the works of the flesh. And one of the things that keep us focused on living Christ-like lives is to live with our eyes fixed on His return. The promise of eternity should provide us with a daily reminder that, as John says, this world is fading away. Falling in love with this world makes no sense when we have our hearts and minds fixed on the hope of future glory.

Paul reminds Titus that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14 ESV). He didn’t sacrifice His life so that we might continue to live as we did before. His death was meant to provide us with abundant life right here, right now. And the day is coming when He will return and fulfill His promise of eternal life. So, we are to live with the end in mind.

Godliness is not some future state reserved for us in heaven. It is available to all who are in Christ even as we live in this fallen world. Godliness is not only attainable, it is non-negotiable. It is to be the life-long goal of each and every child of God. And Paul consistently challenged his young sons in the faith to make present godliness their highest priority as they waited for the return of Christ.

But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you… – 1 Timothy 6:11-12 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

Free to Live As Slaves

Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. – Titus 2:9-10 ESV

In our modern-day, 21st-Century context, reading two verses addressed by an apostle of Jesus Christ to slaves within the body of Christ is always a bit disconcerting. They appear out of place and, rather than condemning the practice of slavery, actually, appear to condone it. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago in our own historical context when verses like these were used to justify slavery as acceptable and biblical. But Paul’s mention of slaves in his letter should in no way be taken as his seal of approval on the institution itself. Slavery was a normal part of 1st-Century life. It was stitched into the corporate fabric of daily existence. And while Paul’s failure to condemn it as unjust and untenable has been interpreted by some as tacet approval, this is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

Like Jesus, Paul had a much more expansive and consequential mission in mind than the transformation of society through political and cultural innovations. Like his fellow apostles, Paul was following the lead of their teacher, the Messiah, and promoting a revolutionary new way of life that was focused on life change that emanated from the inside out. The gospel of Jesus Christ was about the renovation of the sinful heart of man and the restoration of the relationship between the Creator God and His creation.

Jesus Christ had come into a world where every human being was a slave – a slave to sin. Their status in society had no bearing on the state of their enslavement. From the rich young ruler and the Samaritan woman at the well to Nicodemus the Pharisee and Zacchaeus, the tax collector, they were all held captive by sin. And the only means of finding escape from their captivity was the gospel of Jesus Christ. Which is why Jesus told His fellow Jews, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 6:34-36 NLT).

Paul had a commission from Jesus Christ Himself to take to the Gentile world the good news regarding release from the captivity of sin. Like his Messiah, Paul was not out to foment cultural revolution or to eradicate social injustices. He was out to restore sinful humanity to a right relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ the Son.

What is interesting to note is that Paul addressed slaves at all. And he did so quite frequently. The very fact that Paul saw slaves as deserving of his attention and clearly believed them to be worthy recipients of the gospel speaks volumes. Paul did not view them as second-class citizens, but as fellow citizens in the Kindom of Heaven. It is clear from his letters that slaves were part of the early church. They were coming to faith and becoming a part of the local congregations springing up around the world. And, in some cases, slaves and their masters found themselves as members of the same local fellowships. Paul wrote an entire letter to a man named Philemon, regarding a runaway slave named Onesimus. It seems that Onesimus had come to faith in Christ and had become a companion to the apostle, ministering to his needs while he was in prison. But Paul, knowing that Onesimus was a fugitive, encouraged him to return home and make things right between him and his master. And Paul sent a letter to Philemon encouraging him to see Onesimus in a new light.

It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:15-16 NLT

Legally, Onesimus was still a slave. According to the culture of his day, he remained the property of his master. But Paul saw their relationship as permanently altered because of their mutual relationship with Jesus Christ.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul addressed them regarding their newfound status as followers of Christ. It seems that some were thinking that the freedom they had found in Christ was an opportunity to escape their current conditions. Women who came to faith were wondering if they should leave their unbelieving husbands. Jewish males who accepted Christ were questioning whether their circumcision somehow invalidated their status as Christians. Gentile males were confused as to whether they should be circumcised like their Jewish brothers. And Paul’s counsel to them all was the same: “Each of you should remain as you were when God called you” (1 Corinthians 7:20 NLT). And he had a specific word of advice for slaves.

Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ. God paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world. – 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 NLT

So, in Titus 2, verses 9-10, Paul turns his attention to the men and women within the local congregations on Crete who were slaves. These individuals were just as important to Paul as the wealthy and influential. Their status as slaves in no way influenced Paul’s attitude towards them. He singled them out because they were slaves, knowing that their particular circumstance was unlike anyone else’s in the church. And he doesn’t encourage them to escape the injustice of their slavery. He doesn’t demand that their masters set them free.  No, he calls on them to live godly lives amid their unjust and unpleasant circumstances.

While many have tried to soften the edges of these verses by making them a call for employees to serve their employers well, we can’t escape the fact that this is the apostle Paul addressing a group of believers who were living as unwilling slaves, not paid employees who had the right to quit at any moment. Notice that he calls on them to obey their masters and to do what pleases them. As slaves, they really had no other choice. Refusal to obey meant punishment. Failure to please could bring down their master’s wrath. But Paul is providing them with new motivation for their behavior.

No longer were they to be driven and controlled by fear. And they were not to allow their old sinful natures to drive them to retaliation or rebellion. The sin-fueled desire to lie, steal, and disobey was to be replaced with a Spirit-empowered desire to live lives that exhibited “all good faith.” In other words, their faith in Christ was to show up in their status as slaves, “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.” 

The way they responded to their life circumstances would enhance the gospel message. Their response to injustice and ill-treatment would be a living testimony to the life-transformative power of the gospel. And what a lesson these individuals would be to the rest of the church as they practiced their faith in far-from-ideal conditions. Peter gave similar advice to believing slaves in the church to which he wrote.

You who are slaves must accept the authority of your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel. For God is pleased with you when you do what you know is right and patiently endure unfair treatment. Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you.

For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:18-21 NLT

If Paul could have waved a magic wand and set free every individual suffering from physical slavery, he would have probably done so. But his job was to set free all those who were enslaved by sin and death. Paul knew that, had Onesimus run away from Philemon but had never found faith in Christ, he would have been nothing more than a former slave enslaved by sin. As far as Paul was concerned, every individual within the body of Christ had an obligation to let their faith in Christ manifest itself in whatever circumstance they found themselves. Old or young, male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free – it didn’t matter. What mattered was that each and every one of them had been set free from slavery to sin by Jesus Christ. And Paul drove home that point on a regular basis.

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.Galatians 3:28 NLT

In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. – Colossians 3:11 NLT

Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:13 NLT

We tend to believe that a change in our circumstances is the key to joy, fulfillment, and contentment. But Paul would have us understand that it is the change in our relationship with God, made possible through faith in Christ, that brings us true contentment. And he knew first-hand the power of contentment that comes from faith in Christ.

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. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 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

Eye On the Prize

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. – Philippians 3:12-21 ESV

Paul has just expressed the motivating factor behind his life: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection…” (Philippians 3:11 ESV). For Paul, this knowledge of Christ was to include a personal and tangible experience of the divine power that raised Jesus from the dead. This remarkable resource came in the form of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. As Paul told the believers in Rome, “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you” (Romans 8:11 NLT). The power made available by the Spirit of God within him was producing spiritual fruit in Paul’s life: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). These qualities were the direct result of the Spirit’s presence and power, not Paul’s own self-effort.

But Paul knew that the resurrection power made available by the Holy Spirit had an even more significant aspect to it that he longed to experience: His own physical resurrection from the dead. Paul had a long-term or eternal perspective. He knew that there was much more to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ than what we experience in this earthly life. Yes, Paul was fully aware that the resurrection power he longed to experience would have short-term, in-this-lifetime ramifications. It would produce spiritual fruit and provide the power we need to live new lives in Christ.

For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. – Romans 6:4 NLT

But Paul also knew that there was more. And he longed to experience the full scope of that resurrection power in his life.

Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. – Romans 6:5 NLT

And in his letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul explained what it will mean to be raised to life as Jesus was.

Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. – 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 NLT

And the apostle John explains that, while we cannot fully comprehend the nature of our final resurrected state, it is something for which we should eagerly long.

…we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

So, Paul was striving to live in the power of the Spirit in this life, but longing to experience the transformative power of the Spirit that comes in death. He maintained a delicate balance between his thoughts on the here-and-now and the hereafter.

And now, Paul confesses to the Philippian believers that he is far from perfect. In other words, he had not yet attained all that he longed for. He was a work in process. But he had an unflinching desire to pursue and experience all that Christ had died to make available to him.

But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. – Philippians 3:12 NLT

He uses the Greek word, diōkō, which has a range of meanings. It carries the idea of physical exertion and effort. It is not a passive word. It could mean “to run swiftly in order to catch a person or thing.” It would also refer to someone running in a race who used all their available energy to reach the finish line. Paul wasn’t sitting back and waiting for heaven. But he also wasn’t waiting for the Holy Spirit to do all the work. He knew he had a part to play in the process of his spiritual transformation.

Paul had a singular focus in life: To become like Christ. He wanted to “possess that perfection” that Christ had in mind for him. He wanted to experience all that his new life in Christ had to offer.  Which is why he says, “I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:14 NLT). Notice where his attention is fixed: On the prize, the finish line. Paul is not insinuating that our glorification is somehow tied to our self-effort in this life. He is not teaching that we have to somehow earn our way into heaven. He is simply emphasizing that he wanted what God wanted. He understood that God had an eternal reward in store for him, and he would not be satisfied with anything less. He would not allow himself to be distracted by the things of this earth.

And Paul urged the Philippians to follow his example.

Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. – Philippians 3:17 NLT

Paul wasn’t bragging. He wasn’t holding himself up as some icon of spiritual virtue. He was simply encouraging them to live with the same focus on the finish line that he had. And he warns them that there were plenty of other examples they could follow that would only leave them disappointed and defeated in their spiritual lives.

…there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. They are headed for destruction. – Philippians 3:18-19 NLT

Notice his emphasis on conduct. As followers of Christ, we cannot attempt to separate our behavior from our belief. The two go hand in hand. They are to be inseparable. And yet, Paul warns that there are those within the Philippian church whose conduct, if followed will end up in destruction. The Greek word Paul uses is apōleia, and while it can refer to damnation or eternal destruction, it can also be translated as “waste” or “ruin.” Keep in mind the metaphor of running a race that Paul has utilized. These are individuals who fail to finish the race well. They find themselves distracted along the way and, rather than victory, they experience defeat. Is this a reference to a loss of their salvation?  Highly unlikely, since Paul believed that salvation was the work of Jesus Christ. As he told the believers in Ephesus: “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). And Jesus Himself promised, “And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39 NLT).

What Paul seems to be referring to are those within the Philippian church who were living lives of licentiousness. They were what became known as antinomians, which simply means anti-law. They held a view that was diametrically opposed to the Judaizers. One group were legalists, putting far too much weight on keeping the law. The other side simply said the law no longer mattered and taught that we could live however we wanted to live. This mindset had serious ramifications and Paul points the danger behind this anything-goes mentality.

Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT

Jude had some strong words for this group as well.

But these people scoff at things they do not understand. Like unthinking animals, they do whatever their instincts tell them, and so they bring about their own destruction. – Jude 1:10 NLT

Paul pulls no punches when he states that their “conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18 NLT). Their conduct did not match their confession. Their behavior didn’t line up with their expressed belief. They lived for the here-and-now, failing to focus their energies and attentions on the long-term goal God had in mind.

And Paul leaves his audience with little doubt as to his point in all of this. He wants them to live with purpose. He wants them to conduct their lives according to their newfound status as citizens of heaven. That is their home. That is their destiny.

…we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. – Philippians 3:20 NLT

Paul is not suggesting that they be so heavenly minded that they end up being of no earthly good. He is not calling them to live with the heads in the sky. But he is calling them to live with their eyes firmly fixed on the finish line. They are running a race that will require that they maintain their focus. They will have to strain and strive in this life. They will have to fight off exhaustion and ignore the pain and suffering that comes along the way. And Paul brings it all full-circle, reminding his brothers and sisters in Christ that the point of it all is the day when we will all experience the power of the resurrection.

He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. – Philippians 3:21 NLT

That’s the goal. That’s the prize. And that should be the very thing that keeps us running the race to win.

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

False Confidence

4 If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:4b-11 ESV

What does Paul mean by “confidence in the flesh?” Remember the context. He has just warned the believers in Philippi to “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2 ESV). This was a direct broadside delivered against the Judaizers, a group made up of Jewish converts to Christianity who were attempting to bring the legalism associated with the Mosaic Law into the church. They were demanding that Gentile believers first be circumcised and then agree to keep the Jewish laws, religious festivals, and sacrificial requirements. In other words, they had to become Jews before they could be considered truly saved.

So, when Paul mentions having confidence in the flesh, he is stressing the teachings of this group. They believed that their human efforts, those things done in their own strength, somehow earned them favor with God. As Jews, they put a high priority and value on the rite of circumcision. It was an outward sign of their unique relationship as God’s chosen people. And they were of the strong opinion that circumcision was necessary for any and all who would hope to enjoy the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. But for Paul, this was nothing short of another gospel. It was a false gospel. And it was to be exposed for what it was: a dangerous heresy.

The Greek word Paul used for “flesh” is sarx and, while it was often used to refer to the actual physical body, it could also be used in a metaphorical sense, to refer to human nature. The Judaizers put a lot of stock in human nature and their own human abilities, believing that they were able to keep the laws of God and live up to the holy standards of God. But Paul rejects that mindset, stating that believers were to “glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3 ESV). Salvation was based on the work of Christ, not the works of men.

But Paul decides to take their argument and use it against them. He somewhat sarcastically paints a picture of what the kind of credentials that might earn someone favor with God would look like. And he uses himself as an example. Paul boldly states:

“If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more…” – Philippians 3:4 NLT

It is as if Paul is saying, “So, you think you can earn a right standing with God based on your accomplishments and status? Well, check this out!”

What follows is a laundry list of Paul’s off-the-chart credentials.

  • He was a card-carrying member of the nation of Israel
  • He was from the tribe of Benjamin
  • He had been circumcised according to the Mosaic Law
  • He was a Hebrew of Hebrews (a hard-core traditionalist)
  • He had been a member of the Pharisees, an elite religious group
  • He had been a passionate and zealous persecutor of the church
  • He had been painstakingly dedicated to keeping the law

Look at that list and then consider who he was comparing himself with. He was placing himself in direct competition with the Judaizers. If they thought they were somehow better than everybody else because of their Jewish heritage and law-keeping ability, they had nothing on Paul. His resume made them look like third-string players trying to win a spot on the varsity squad.

But notice what Paul says next. He takes his list of accomplishments and credentials and describes them “as liabilities because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7 NLT). His relationship with Christ, based solely on faith in the work of Christ done on his behalf, made any of his so-called assets amount to nothing. They earned him no credibility with God and bought him no favor from God. Paul understood that his righteous deeds were of no value when it comes to his salvation. He firmly believed what the text in Isaiah clearly states:

We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

Paul’s lofty list of accomplishments and personal assets were worthless. Which is why he could say, “I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8 NLT). Rather than placing any stock in human nature or his ability to produce righteous-looking deeds, Paul saw those things as hindrances to his spiritual walk. They were liabilities. Because they were all tainted by sin. So, Paul had given them all up. He had decided to treat them like what they were: Liabilities, not assets. All so he could know Christ. And Paul gets a bit graphic in trying to describe his new relationship with those things he once held near and dear. They were like dung to him now, to be tossed aside and treated for what they were: worthless and detestable.

The bottom line for Paul was righteousness. A holy and righteous God demanded that His people live holy, righteous lives. But man’s sin nature made that impossible. And no amount of law-keeping, ritual-observing, or efforts at God-pleasing were going to make a difference. Paul states, “I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness” (Philippians 3:9 NLT). In other words, Paul’s righteousness was not based on self-effort, but on Christ’s faithfulness. Jesus died a sinner’s death to satisfy the just demands of a holy and righteous God. As Paul explained to the Corinthian believers:

For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV

And as Paul stated earlier in this letter, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). His faithfulness to do the will of His Father resulted in righteousness for us.

The Judaizers were not right before God because they had been circumcised. They were not right before God because they were Jews. They could not claim a right standing before God because they kept the law. In fact, Paul vaporized that idea in his letter to the Galatians.

So it is clear that 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

He said the same thing to the believers in Rome.

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT

We have no reason to boast. We have no ground on which to stand and from which to proclaim our own self-righteousness. Our righteousness is actually Christ’s righteousness imparted to us when we place our faith in Him. When Christ died on the cross, He paid in full the debt that was owed for sins of mankind. He died in our place, bearing the penalty we deserved. And that act justified us before God. He now sees us as righteous and just, not sinful and worthy of death. We have been cleansed by the blood of Christ. And with that thought in mind, Paul refocuses the attention of his readers on that which is really important. Not effort and earning, but the pursuit of an ongoing and always growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:10-11 NLT

Paul is not talking about cognitive knowledge. He’s not suggesting a purely academic understanding of who Jesus was and is. He is describing a deep and intimate relationship that features an ever-intensifying awareness of all that Jesus Christ has done and will do for him. In the immediate context, Paul wanted to experience all the power that Christ’s resurrection had made available to him. Jesus had been raised back to life by the power of the Holy Spirit, and each and every believer has that power living within them.

But Paul knew that the resurrection power he so desired to see is most often revealed in the context of suffering. Just as Jesus had to suffer and die before He could experience the resurrection, we will find ourselves suffering so that we might experience the resurrection power of God’s Spirit in our lives. Just as Jesus experienced humiliation before His glorification, so will we. And then, Paul reminds us, it will all end in death. The ultimate form of suffering we all face is our own physical deaths. But Paul wants us to remember that there is a resurrection of the dead. Death is not the end. It is really the beginning of something greater. And Paul told the believers in Corinth what they could expect when death finally came.

For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” – I Corinthians 15:53-55 NLT

Why put confidence in the flesh? It’s of no value and will ultimately be left behind. And why put stock in our own worthiness before God? Without Christ, we have no righteousness of our own. As Paul told the Colossian believers, it all boils down to this: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27 ESV).

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

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

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

The Fellowship of Faith

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:3-11 ESV

When reading the letters of Paul it is essential to remember that, in most cases, he was writing to a community of believers, not a single individual. There are those cases where he wrote personal letters addressed to individuals, such as Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. But the majority of his correspondence was addressed to a corporate body of believers located in a specific city or community. This letters are usually referred to as his pastoral epistles. In them, we get a glimpse of Paul’s strong sense of calling as a shepherd over the flock of Jesus Christ.

At one point in his ministry, Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus:

“I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with many tears. I have endured the trials that came to me from the plots of the Jews. I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes. I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus.” – Acts 20:19-21 NLT

He wasn’t boasting, but simply reminding these men that he had made their spiritual well-being his highest priority. Without an ounce of pride or arrogance, Paul was able to say to them:

“I declare today that I have been faithful. If anyone suffers eternal death, it’s not my fault, for I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know.” – Acts 20:26-27 NLT

And then he challenged to follow his example.

“So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders.” – Acts 20:28 NLT

Paul had a deep and abiding sense of love for the church, the body of Christ. Yes, he cared for each individual Christian, but he knew that the strength of the church lie in the overall health of its constituency. While the body of Christ was made up of individual believers, God had chosen to place them within a single unit where their spiritual gifts, talents, and mutual love for one another could have the greatest impact. Paul made this point clear when writing to the church in Corinth:

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” – 1 Corinthians 12:14 NLT

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” – I Corinthians 12:27 NLT

His emphasis was always on unity and community.

“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” – 1 Corinthians 12:24-26 NLT

So, as we read the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we must keep in mind that he is writing to a group of people. Even their reading of his letter would have taken place in a group context. But typically, we tend to read Paul’s letters as part of our personal devotionals. And, in doing so, we make the mistake of reading the letters as if they are addressed to us as individuals. We take every personal pronoun personally. When we see the word “you,”  we assume Paul is somehow speaking to us as an individual. So, when we read, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” we apply it to ourselves. When Paul states, “I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding,” we read it as if he is addressing us individually, and by name.

But each of these personal pronouns used by Paul are plural in nature. He is addressing the body, not the individual. You could almost read them as, “you all.” So, as you make your way through this letter, imagine it is being read to you as you sit alongside your brothers and sisters in Christ from your local fellowship. Yes, his admonitions most certainly apply on an individual basis, but we miss the point of his letter if we fail to see them as messages to the corporate body of believers.

With all that in mind, look at how Paul opens his letter to the church in Philippi. He expresses his thanks to God for their very existence. He is grateful that God has allowed him to play a part in the establishment of this local fellowship. Remember, it all began with the conversion of a woman named Lydia, who came to faith in Christ after hearing the gospel from Paul and Silas. This wealthy and influential Gentile woman became a key leader in the new faith community there in Philippi, even hosting the fledgling church in her home.

Paul is grateful to God, because he realizes that the ministry he played a part in establishing was continuing without him. Paul was under house arrest in Rome and unable to visit the many churches he had helped to plant. But he was encouraged to know that the believers in Philippi were his partners in the gospel. In his absence, the message of the good news of Jesus Christ was being spread throughout the city. The Greek word that is translated as “partnership” is koinōnia, and it can also be translated as “fellowship.” Even though they were separated by many miles, Paul shared a sense of unity and mutual commitment to spreading the gospel throughout Philippi.

But while Paul was concerned about the good news of Jesus Christ be taken to every corner of Philippi, he knew that the success of that enterprise hinged on the spiritual health of the faith community to whom he wrote. Paul always maintained a balance between his desire for salvation and sanctification. He greatly desired to see people come to faith in Christ, but was equally concerned that they grow in their knowledge of and likeness to Christ. That is why he told the believers in Philippi that he was confident that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” God would finish what He started – in the church there at Philippi, but also in the lives of each individual believer.

Yet, it is essential that we see Paul’s emphasis on spiritual growth within its corporate context. Any increase in Christ-likeness we may experience is not for our own benefit. The gifts of the Spirit we have been given are not meant for us, but are intended to benefit and bless the body of Christ. Our salvation is not meant to be myopic and self-centered, but other-oriented and selfless in its focus.

When Paul states that his prayer is that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” he is speaking to the entire body of believers there in Philippi. He desires that their love for one another grow exponentially. He longs that their knowledge and discernment increase steadily. But knowledge and discernment of what? The will of God. What is excellent or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “what really matters.” And, later on in this same letter, Paul will summarize exactly what he means.

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” – Philippians 4:8-9 NLT

And as their love, knowledge and discernment grows, they will become “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:1-11 ESV).

The fruit of righteousness. That’s an interesting phrase that can be easily overlooked. Paul is letting his audience know that their corporate increase in righteousness will have benefits. It will produce fruit. And if you think about it, a tree that produces fruit does so, not for its own benefit, but for the benefit of others. And when Paul discusses the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, the list of attributes he provides are all outwardly-focused: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

None of these things are meant to benefit the individual. Love is meant to share, not hoard. Joy is something we give away, not greedily pursue for own satisfaction. Peace is something we enjoy with others, not in isolation. Patience is impossible without the presence of others in our lives who put it to the test. All of these things are meant to be mutually shared and enjoyed as a faith community. As Paul told the believers in Corinth: “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT).

So, Paul begins his letter to the believers in Philippi by reminding them that they are in partnership with him and with one another for the cause of Christ. They were in this together. Christianity is a team sport, not an individual event. Our salvation is meant to be lived out in community, not isolation. Our sanctification is intended to be a group activity, not an individual pursuit done in secrecy and seclusion.

The fellowship of faith is powerful. The community of faith is transformational. The greatest impact any believer will have will be in proportion to his or her connection to and reliance upon the faith community into which God has placed them.

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

Here I Am!

1 I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;
    I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
    to a nation that was not called by my name.
I spread out my hands all the day
    to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
    following their own devices;
a people who provoke me
    to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
    and making offerings on bricks;
who sit in tombs,
    and spend the night in secret places;
who eat pig’s flesh,
    and broth of tainted meat is in their vessels;
who say, “Keep to yourself,
    do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
    a fire that burns all the day.
Behold, it is written before me:
    “I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their lap
    both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together,
says the Lord;
because they made offerings on the mountains
    and insulted me on the hills,
I will measure into their lap
    payment for their former deeds.”
Isaiah 65:1-7 ESV

Isaiah has prayed. Now, God responds. And the first thing God does is leave the people of Judah without excuse. Ever since the creation of the world, God has made Himself known to all mankind, not just the people of Israel.  The apostle Paul drives home this point in his letter to the Romans.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. – Romans 1:19-20 ESV

And Paul goes on to conclude, “So they are without excuse.” God revealed His invisible attributes to mankind, but they chose to worship the creation rather than its Creator. So, God would later reveal Himself to Abraham, calling him out of Ur and directing him to the land of Canaan. Abraham was given a greater revelation of God, beyond that which the rest of the world had enjoyed. And God even made a covenant with Abraham, promising to create from him a great nation, the people of whom would occupy the land of Canaan for generations. And God fulfilled that promise, and by the time Isaiah wrote the book that bears his name, the descendants of Abraham had been living in the land for centuries. But as we have seen, although God had continued to give His chosen people further revelations of Himself through His law and the sacrificial system, their behavior made it appear that they didn’t know Him at all.

And in the opening verse of this chapter, God indicates that He had a purpose behind His decision to make the nation of Israel His precious possession. When He had given them the law, God had told them that if they obeyed it, “you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6 NLT). Notice that they were to have been his own special treasure from among all the peoples of the earth.  They were to have been His priests, representing Him before all the peoples of the earth. They were to have been His holy, set-apart nation among all the people of the earth. In other words, they were to have been witnesses to the nations of what it looks like to have a right relationship with the Creator-God of the universe.

But they had proven to be lousy priests and poor witnesses. Rather than bringing God glory by living holy lives, they had profaned His name among the nations, leaving God the job of reclaiming the glory His name deserves.

“I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them.” Ezekiel 36:23 ESV

And in verse one, God indicates that He has been calling out to the nations, “Here I am, here I am.” He has been extending an invitation to all the nations “not called by my name,” and the people of Israel had been His chosen means of communicating that message. The apostle Paul used this very passage to let the Gentile believers in Rome understand that God had always intended to use the people of Israel as His means of sharing His grace and mercy with the world. Paul will repeatedly quote from the book of Isaiah to build his case that God’s plan in choosing Israel had far greater implications than just their personal enjoyment of His blessings. God had something much grander in mind.

But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. But I ask, have the people of Israel actually heard the message? Yes, they have:

“The message has gone throughout the earth,
    and the words to all the world.”

But I ask, did the people of Israel really understand? Yes, they did, for even in the time of Moses, God said,

“I will rouse your jealousy through people who are not even a nation.
    I will provoke your anger through the foolish Gentiles.”

And later Isaiah spoke boldly for God, saying,

“I was found by people who were not looking for me.
    I showed myself to those who were not asking for me.”

But regarding Israel, God said,

“All day long I opened my arms to them,
    but they were disobedient and rebellious.” – Romans 10:16-21 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of what Paul is saying here. The very people whom God had chosen to be His means of reaching a lost world had to be constantly invited by God to come back to Him. Rather than doing what He had called them to do, they had proven to be disobedient and rebellious. And God describes their rebellion as anything but subtle. They flaunted it in His face, worshiping false gods right in front of Him. They had disregarded His laws concerning sacrifice, offering inappropriate and unclean gifts in unacceptable ways. They practiced necromancy, a form of divination through attempted communication with the dead. They were guilty of involvement in the occult and witchcraft. Their unholy actions had left them an unholy people, no longer set apart for God and no longer able to be His witnesses to a lost world.

All their religious activity will leave them feeling puffed and prideful. And while they will brag about their holiness, God describes them in less-than-flattering terms.

These people are a stench in my nostrils,
    an acrid smell that never goes away. – Isaiah 65:5 NLT

God finds all their religiosity repulsive. While He had been calling out to them with open arms, they had been embracing false gods and pursuing other loves. And the apostle Paul tells us what happens to all those who replace a personal relationship with God with religion.

They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. – 2 Timothy 3:5 NLT

They were religious but lacked the one thing God was looking for: godliness. Their actions failed to reflect their status as His chosen people. So, God was obligated to punish them for their rebellion. He could not and would not allow them to continue to drag His name through the mud. Their disobedience demanded His divine discipline. And when God says, “Behold, it is written before me,” He is referring to the covenant He had made with them. There was a legally binding agreement between God and His people that spelled out their obligations and His. It clearly articulated what God expected of them and what He would do if they kept or broke their part of the covenant. And while they had failed to do what they said they would do, God would prove faithful to His covenant promise. He vows to bring upon them all the curses He had warned them about.

“I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their lap
   both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together.” – Isaiah 65:6-7 ESV

It is important to remember that God had warned them what would happen if they failed to be His priests and His holy nation. He had let them know well in advance what the ramifications would be if they failed to be His witness to the nations. They would end up scattered among the nations, worshiping gods they never knew before.

For the Lord will scatter you among all the nations from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship foreign gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods made of wood and stone! There among those nations, you will find no peace or place to rest. And the Lord will cause your heart to tremble, your eyesight to fail, and your soul to despair. Your life will constantly hang in the balance. You will live night and day in fear, unsure if you will survive. – Deuteronomy 28:64-64 NLT

They would lose their witness. Their role as a light to the nations would fade because they had failed to remain faithful to the call of God. But as we have seen all along in the book of Isaiah, God would remain faithful to them because He had plans to bring salvation to the world through them. Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, would be born as a Jew and would become the Priest who lived a perfectly holy life and offered a perfectly holy sacrifice on behalf of the sins of all mankind.

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

Then They Remembered…

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
    the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lord has granted us,
    and the great goodness to the house of Israel
that he has granted them according to his compassion,
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
    children who will not deal falsely.”
    And he became their Savior.
In all their affliction he was afflicted,
    and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

10 But they rebelled
    and grieved his Holy Spirit;
therefore he turned to be their enemy,
    and himself fought against them.
11 Then he remembered the days of old,
    of Moses and his people.
Where is he who brought them up out of the sea
    with the shepherds of his flock?
Where is he who put in the midst of them
    his Holy Spirit,
12 who caused his glorious arm
    to go at the right hand of Moses,
who divided the waters before them
    to make for himself an everlasting name,
13     who led them through the depths?
Like a horse in the desert,
    they did not stumble.
14 Like livestock that go down into the valley,
    the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest.
So you led your people,
    to make for yourself a glorious name.

15 Look down from heaven and see,
    from your holy and beautiful habitation.
Where are your zeal and your might?
    The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion
    are held back from me.
16 For you are our Father,
    though Abraham does not know us,
    and Israel does not acknowledge us;
you, O Lord, are our Father,
    our Redeemer from of old is your name.
17 O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways
    and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
    the tribes of your heritage.
18 Your holy people held possession for a little while;
    our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.
19 We have become like those over whom you have never ruled,
    like those who are not called by your name. Isaiah 63:7-19 ESV

After hearing God’s grand plan for the future redemption of His people, Isaiah responds with a somewhat nostalgic recollection of all of God’s great and gracious redemptive activities on behalf of the people of Israel. And he does so in the form of a prayer.

He starts by recalling the myriad examples of God’s merciful kindness or favor. Throughout this prayer, Isaiah will focus on the undeserved nature of God’s love for the people of Israel. They have been the undeserving recipients of God’s unmerited favor. Every single incident involving God’s love toward Israel “he has granted according to his mercy and love” (Isaiah 63:7 NLT). The Hebrew word for mercy is racham, and it can be used to refer to a mother’s womb. From Isaiah’s perspective, the children of Israel have been cared for and protected by God like a baby in its mother’s womb. An unborn baby does nothing to earn its place of safety and security, but enjoys nourishment and protection because of the gracious actions of its mother. And Isaiah did not come up with this comparison on his own. He had heard it from the lips of God Himself.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
    all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
    carried from the womb (racham).” – Isaiah 46:3 ESV

Of His own accord, God had made the people of Israel His children and He had every right to expect them to live up to their position as His sons and daughters. God had agreed to be their Savior, providing them with protection and rescue when necessary. In return, He asked that they not deal falsely with Him. He expected them to remain faithful to Him.

Isaiah recounts the history of his people, recalling the many times in which God stepped into their circumstances and rescued them. He describes God as suffering along with them. When the found themselves experiencing difficulty, God was empathetic, but also immediate in His response.

he personally rescued them.
In his love and mercy he redeemed them.
    He lifted them up and carried them
    through all the years. – Isaiah 63:9 NLT

But how had they responded to God’s gracious acts of redemption? By rebelling against Him and, by doing so, grieving His Holy Spirit. As a result, they would find their relationship to Him becoming antagonistic rather than affectionate. From their vantage point, God would appear more like their enemy than their gracious, loving Father. But God was not the one who had reneged on the relationship. The fault was all theirs.

Their unfaithfulness to God would result in His loving discipline of them. They would discover the painful consequences of their willful decision to violate their covenant with God. Their failure to remain faithful to Him would cost them. Their choice to worship false gods would cause them great pain and suffering. And Isaiah recounts the many times the people of God had called out to the very one they had abandoned, in the hopes that He would rescue them yet again.

“Then they remembered…” (Isaiah 63:11 NLT). It took the very real presence of trials to get them to recall the true identity of their Savior. It had been God who had rescued them from their captivity in Egypt. It had been God who had brought the plagues upon the people of Egypt. And it had been God who had provided them with a path across the Red Sea, allowing them to escape the armies of Egypt. They remembered and they cried out.

Now, Isaiah cries out. He turns His recollections of God’s past mercies into a call for His immediate intervention into their current state of affairs.

Lord, look down from heaven;
    look from your holy, glorious home, and see us.
Where is the passion and the might
    you used to show on our behalf?
    Where are your mercy and compassion now? – Isaiah 63:15 NLT

Isaiah begs God to do as He has done so many times before. He knows that they don’t deserve God’s favor, but he pleads with Him to extend His mercy and compassion yet again. Like Moses and the Israelites standing on the shore of the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his army bearing down on them, the people of Judah found themselves in a similar situation. They were in trouble. The enemy was bearing down on them and they had no way of escape. The only hope they had was God.

And Isaiah addresses God as their loving Father, appealing to His sense of responsibility for His children.

Surely you are still our Father!
    Even if Abraham and Jacob would disown us,
Lord, you would still be our Father.
    You are our Redeemer from ages past. – Isaiah 63:16 NLT

Isaiah knows that God is faithful. He is not questioning God’s commitment to His covenant promises or raising doubts about God’s everlasting love. He is simply appealing to God’s unchanging nature. He is the very same God who has rescued the people of Israel time and time again, in spite of their unfaithfulness to Him. So, Isaiah is simply asking God to respond to their current situation with the same sense of mercy and grace.

Isaiah had a healthy understanding of the sovereign will of God. He knew that nothing happens in this life apart from the will of God, including the rebellion of the people of God. When Isaiah asks the question, “why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?,” he is not blaming God for the sins of the people of Judah. He is simply acknowledging that God could have prevented their unfaithfulness, but chose not to. To put it another way, God gave them free rein to practice free will. He allowed them to live according to the desires of their hearts. The apostle Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of what it looks like when God “abandons” men and women to live according to their own desires, and it is not a pretty picture.

…instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. – Romans 1:23-24 NLT

Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. – Romans 1:28 NLT

God does not cause us to sin. James makes that point perfectly clear.

And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:13-15 NLT

God was not responsible for the sins of the people of Judah. But Isaiah knew that the only way they could have remained faithful would have been through the intervention of God. And the only way they were going to return to God was if He acted on their behalf. They didn’t have it in them to do so on their own accord. Which is what led Isaiah to plead: “Return and help us, for we are your servants, the tribes that are your special possession” (Isaiah 63:17 NLT).

Isaiah knew their only hope of salvation was God. They had no other options. If He did not intervene on their behalf, they were doomed. Isaiah knew the his own people well and realized that if repentance, as evidenced by changed hearts, was the only way God would rescue them, it would never happen. They were far too stubborn for that to happen. And Isaiah includes a sad expression of his outlook on their current state of affairs.

Sometimes it seems as though we never belonged to you,
    as though we had never been known as your people. – Isaiah 63:17 NLT

This was his honest opinion. As he looked at the circumstances surrounding the people of Judah, it was as if they had never been chosen by God. Things had deteriorated so badly, that they were unrecognizable as God’s chosen people. They looked no different than any other nation on the planet. Their distinctiveness had long ago dissipated. Rather than living as set apart by God, it appeared as if they had been set aside. But Isaiah was not willing to give up, as the rest of his prayer will reveal.

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