Believing and Belonging

19 Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20 And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” 21 But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” – Luke 8:19-21 ESV

One of the keys to understanding this rather abrupt and bizarre statement from Jesus regarding His family is to consider the context provided by the other gospel authors. An examination of Matthew’s gospel reveals that there was an important encounter that had taken place between Jesus and the religious leaders that Luke chose to leave out of his account. Jesus had healed a demon-possessed man who was also blind and mute. This man’s miraculous restoration by Jesus was met with amazement from those who witnessed it, except for the Pharisees. These men accused Jesus of being in league with Satan.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

According to Matthew, Jesus had some very direct and condemning words for the scribes who had been so quick to dismiss His miracles as the work of Satan. Jesus used the metaphor of a tree. If a tree is good, it will produce good fruit. If it is bad, it will produce bad fruit. So, you can know the state of the tree by examining its fruit. Then, Jesus drove home His point.

“You brood of snakes! How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For whatever is in your heart determines what you say. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you.” – Matthew 12:34-37 NLT

And Matthew adds that these very same scribes, accompanied by some Pharisees, would later approach Jesus and demand, “show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority” (Matthew 12:38 NLT). Now, they demand that He perform a sign to validate His authority. But Jesus called them out, exposing the true nature of their hearts.

“Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign…” – Matthew 12:39 NLT

There was nothing Jesus could do that would convince these men of His God-given authority. He even alluded to the fact that He would die and resurrect three days later, but they will still refuse to believe.

“…as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” – Matthew 12:40 NLT

Even His death, burial, and resurrection would not convince these men. They would never accept His claim to be the Son of God.

“…you refuse to repent.” – Matthew 12:41 NLT

“…you refuse to listen.” – Matthew 12:42 NLT

And Matthew records that Jesus wrapped up His condemnation of the religious leaders by comparing them to someone who had been freed of a demon. With the coming of Jesus, they had been exposed to the truth and offered freedom from their captivity to sin and death. But while they had heard the truth, they had refused to accept it. So, Jesus indicates that their rejection of Him will have dire consequences. Their “demon” will return, bringing his companions with him, and leaving them in a worse state than before.

“…the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before. That will be the experience of this evil generation.” – Matthew 12:45 NLT

In his gospel account, Luke includes a series of parables that Jesus told to the crowds. One was the parable of the soils, in which He explained, “The seeds that fell among the thorns represent those who hear the message, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. And so they never grow into maturity” (Luke 8 14 NLT).

And Luke adds another insightful message from Jesus.

“So pay attention to how you hear. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what they think they understand will be taken away from them.” – Luke 8:18 NLT

So, what does all this have to do with today’s passage? Everything. Because it provides context. The way Luke describes the arrival of Jesus’ family, it could leave the impression that they just showed up right after His parables concerning the soils and the lamps. But an examination of the other Gospel accounts reveals that Jesus had a few other salient messages He had delivered before their arrival. And what He had to say is crucial to understanding HIs response to the news that His mother and brothers were wanting to see Him.

John reveals that Jesus’ own family members were having a difficult time accepting that He was the Son of God. John flatly states, “…not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5 ESV). And, according to Mark, their disbelief had prompted them to conclude that Jesus had lost His mind (Mark 3:21).

None of the gospel writers tell us why Mary and her other sons showed up. According to Matthew, Jesus was given the message: “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, and they want to speak to you” (Matthew 12:47 NLT). Mark indicates that they stood outside the place where Jesus was teaching and “called him.”

Had Jesus’ brothers convinced Mary that her oldest son was crazy? Had they come to take Jesus away? Even though Mary had been given divine insight into the nature of her Son’s identity and mission, it is likely that she struggled with His strange behavior. News of His recent activities would have done little to validate the message she had been given by the angel Gabriel more than 30 years earlier.

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” – Luke 1:31-33 NLT

Since the day He had left their home in Nazareth, Jesus had been traveling throughout Judea and Galilee, preaching, teaching, and performing miracles. It seems certain that Mary had been keeping up with His whereabouts and had heard the rumors about Him healing and casting out demons. But she had also heard about the episode in Jerusalem when He had thrown out the money changers and overturned the merchants’ tables in the temple. She knew that He had become a target of the religious leaders. And it is likely that she had heard all the accusations leveled against Her son by the Pharisees, including that He was demon-possessed and a pawn of Satan. So, she had shown up with her other sons in order to talk to Jesus. As a loving and concerned mother, she wanted to see how He was doing.

But Mark records, that upon hearing that His mother and brothers were outside, Jesus responded, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mark 3:33 ESV).

At first blush, this statement comes across as surprisingly harsh and uncaring. But we have to consider the context. Jesus has been speaking about hearing and believing. He has emphasized the tendency to reject His ministry and message. Luke records that Jesus quoted from Isaiah 6:9.

“When they look, they won’t really see.
    When they hear, they won’t understand. – Luke 8:10 NLT

John reports that Jesus “came to his own people, and even they rejected him” (John 1:11 NLT).

Jesus had been teaching, preaching, and healing. He had been calling the people of Israel to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4;17 ESV). And yet, there were still those who refused to believe, including His own brothers. So, when Jesus asked, “Who are my mother and my brothers,” He was indicating that there was another kind of relationship that was far more critical than that of mother to son or brother to brother. Being born into the same family as Jesus had not helped His brothers believe. Having a sibling relationship with Jesus was not enough to secure a faith relationship with Him. Even Mary and her sons were going to have to believe in who Jesus claimed to be. That is why Jesus responded, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21 ESV).

This brings to mind a statement made by John the Baptist to the Pharisees and Sadducees who had come to the Judean wilderness to watch him baptize. When John had seen them, he had called them a “brood of snakes”  (Matthew 3:7 NLT). Then he exposed the fallacy behind their assumption that, because they were blood descendants of Abraham, they were guaranteed a right relationship with God.

“Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:9-10 NLT

Notice his emphasis on the bad tree that produces bad fruit. And don’t miss that he tells these men that being a blood-born relative of Abraham was no guarantee of acceptance by God. John demanded that they repent and turn to God.

That was the very same message Jesus preached, and it applied to all, including His mother and brothers. They too would have to hear, receive, and believe. And Jesus turned and motioned to His disciples, saying, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35 NLT).

According to John’s gospel, Jesus gave the only “work” or requirement that God has placed on mankind.

“This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.” – John 6:29 NLT

Everyone, regardless of their social status, religious affiliation, economic standing, or educational achievements, was required to believe in Him as the one sent from God. And that included His own relatives. The disciples were struggling, but continuing to express their belief in Jesus. It’s likely that Mary and her sons were wrestling over the disconnect between Jesus’ behavior and their expectations. He wasn’t acting like a king. He wasn’t behaving like a Messiah. And the religious leaders were just flatly denying that Jesus was who He claimed to be.

But Jesus made it clear. For anyone to have a relationship with Him, they would be required to believe in Him.

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

Hearing Is Not Believing

1 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” Luke 8:1-15 ESV

Luke records that Jesus continued His Galilean ministry, visiting many of the towns and villages of the region, where He continued to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God was close at hand. The Messiah had come and the King’s arrival was a visual sign that the kingdom would not be far behind. A new day had dawned in Israel. Things would never be the same again, but what Jesus came to bring would be far different than what the people of Israel had expected. Yes, He was the King for whom they had longed for, but He was offering them a kingdom far different than they had imagined. As Jesus would later tell the Roman governor, Pilate, at his trial: ““My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NLT).

And later on in his gospel, Luke records an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees. They asked Him, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” (Luke 17:20 NLT), and Jesus responded, “the Kingdom of God is already among you” (Luke 17:21 NLT).

With His incarnation, Jesus came to earth as the fulfillment of the promise that God made to David. He was the Son who would re-establish the Davidic dynasty and rule over an everlasting kingdom from the city of Jerusalem.

“I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.… And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. – 2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16 ESV

As Jesus made His way through the cities of Galilee, He was accompanied by His 12 disciples. These men had ring-side seats to the greatest show on earth. They were privileged to watch the Messiah as He validated His ministry and mission through miracles and signs. They were able to hear Him teach but also enjoyed up-close and personal access to the Son of God. And Luke adds that there were others who made up this inner circle of Jesus’ followers. He provides the names of a number of women who had decided to join the retinue of Jesus’ disciples because they “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities” (Luke 8:2 ESV).

Luke provides us with the names of three of the women who were part of the growing number of Jesus’ female followers. There was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. Each of these women had been delivered from disease or demons by the hand of Jesus. Their lives had been radically transformed by their encounter with this Rabbi from Nazareth and they decided to follow Him wherever He went, believing Him to be who He claimed to be: The Messiah of Israel.

And we know that these women were not fairweather friends. They remained committed to Jesus throughout His earthly ministry and Luke reports that they were even present at Golgotha when Jesus was crucified.

And all those who knew Jesus stood at a distance, and the women who had followed him from Galilee saw these things. – Luke 23:39 NLT

That these women dedicated their lives to following Jesus is especially telling when one considers the status of women in the culture of that day. It would have been unthinkable within Hebrew culture for a woman to abandon her domestic responsibilities to travel around the countryside with a group of men. At best, this kind of behavior would have been seen as irresponsible and unacceptable. At worst, it could have been construed as immoral, eliciting all kinds of rumors and inuendos concerning the nature of her character.

But these women were willing to take that risk because they were convinced that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah. And it seems that Jesus gave them His permission, treating them with dignity and respect, and not as second-class citizens. Luke even indicates that there were other women who accompanied Jesus and they were far from freeloaders. These women used their financial resources to support Jesus and His disciples. But it’s important to recognize that Jesus treated these women with honor, viewing them as far more than sources of financial backing. They were respected members of His growing family and given the same respect and honor as the twelve. Jesus’ treatment of women stood in stark contrast to the surrounding culture in which they were often regarded as little more than property and afforded few rights. In Jesus’ kingdom, there would be no distinction between the sexes. In fact, the apostle Paul makes it clear that all earthly divisions are removed in the Kindom of God.

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:26-28 NLT

Beginning in verse 4, Luke gives his version of Jesus’ parable of the sower. Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke does not provide the setting for Jesus’ teaching. He simply states that a great crowd had gathered from all the surrounding towns and villages. According to the other two gospel authors, this scene took place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, just outside the town of Capernaum.

Luke’s version of this occasion is much shorter and does not include all of the parables that Jesus taught to the crowds that day. He focuses on the parable of the soil and the parable of the lamp, both of which illustrate the role of faith. As was common with Jesus’ teaching, He used parables to convey spiritual truths through the means of simple stories. But as will be apparent in this situation, Jesus was always focusing His attention on His disciples. The meaning of the parables would be lost on many within the crowd, and Jesus would have to explain to His disciples the hidden truth contained behind the story.

In this case, Jesus used a familiar agricultural metaphor to illustrate a much deeper and significant lesson. Everyone in the crowd would have understood the image of a farmer sowing seed. But Jesus’ main focus was on the receptivity or condition of the various soils on which the seed fell. Some seed fell on the path and was quickly eaten by birds. Other seeds fell among the rocks and eventually sprouted but died away for lack of moisture. The seeds that landed among the thorns were quickly choked out because they were unable to establish roots. But a portion of the seed fell on good soil that had been prepared beforehand. The seed was readily accepted, took root, and yielded “a hundred times as much as had been planted” (Luke 8:8 NLT).

Even as simplistic as this parable appears to be, its meaning escaped Jesus’ disciples. This led them to ask Him for an explanation. And Jesus informed them that they were being given a special privilege to understand things that were hidden from the rest of the crowd. They were being given access to the secrets of the kingdom of God. Jesus was going to explain to them truths regarding His kingdom that even the prophets of old had not understood. The kingdom for which they had long been waiting was going to be different than what they had expected. And entrance into that kingdom would require more than just citizenship in the nation of Israel.

In the parable, all the soils were in the same vicinity. The sower was sowing the same kind of seed in the same general area and expecting the same results: Fruitfulness. But not all the soils were the same. They each received the seed but their ability to produce fruit was hampered by their particular condition. And Jesus informs His disciples that the various soils were intended to represent the hearts of men. Each hears the words, but their ability to respond and believe what they hear is affected by the attacks of the enemy, earthly temptations, and the cares, riches, and pleasures of life. But some “hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest” (Luke 8:15 NLT).

Jesus is letting His disciples know that the good news of the kingdom of God will not be good news to everyone who hears it. Not all will received what He has to say with open arms. They will hear it but refuse to believe it. The enemy will deceive and delude them. The temptations of this world will distract them. The temporal pleasures of this life will overwhelm them. And the message of the kingdom will produce no fruit in their lives. Jesus was preparing His disciples for the inevitable reality that the message of the kingdom would soon be theirs to share and they would discover that not all would receive what they had to say. The gospel of the Kingdom of God would be heard by many but only received by a few. Faith would be the sole requirement for membership in the kingdom. Hearing alone would not be enough. Believing would be necessary.

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 Benefit of Believing

24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. 26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is he of whom it is written,

“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’

28 I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 29 (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)

31 “To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’

33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”Luke 7:24-35 ESV

John the Baptist had his doubts, but that did not mean he had begun to disbelieve. His imprisonment by Herod had left him confused and conflicted because it was not what he had expected. He had been preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and he most likely believed that even Herod would repent of his adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife. John truly believed that the Messiah had come and things were about to take a dramatic turn for the better. Righteousness would rule and reign in the land. But it would be accompanied by God’s judgment of all those who refused to live in submission to the new King, and whose lives did not exhibit true repentance. So, when a group of Pharisees and Sadduccees showed up asking John to baptize them, he had responded:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” – Matthew 3:7 ESV

In John’s mind, there were only two outcomes to the Messiah’s arrival: Repentance and forgiveness or judgment and wrath. But now, he was in prison while the unrepentant Herod walked free.

The people who overheard this exchange between Jesus and John’s disciples must have begun to murmur among themselves. Evidently, John’s apparent crisis of faith left them confused. Was he right? Could it be true that Jesus was not the Messiah? Should they be expecting someone else? Sensing their uncertainty, Jesus spoke directly to them.

“What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people who wear beautiful clothes and live in luxury are found in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? – Luke 7:24-26 NLT

In a sense, Jesus was asking them what they had expected to find when they had wandered into the Judean wilderness where John was preaching and baptizing. They had not been looking for a timid, meek, or weak-willed man. They were not expecting to find a sophisticated intellectual dressed in fine robes and living in splendor. They had been looking for a prophet and they had not been disappointed. John had fit the bill. He had a similar ministry to that of Elijah the prophet. They even dressed in a similar fashion (2 Kings 1:8; Matthew 3:4).

And Jesus affirms that John was exactly what they expected him to be: A prophet of God. And yet, Jesus declares that John was more than a prophet. He was the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

This is exactly what the angel had told John’s father, Zechariah, when he had come to announce that Elizabeth would bear a son.

“And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:16-17 ESV

And Jesus also quoted from Malachi when He told the crowd, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you’” (Luke 7:27 ESV).

John was the God-ordained forerunner of the Messiah. He had shown up at just the right time, according to the sovereign will of God, and had proclaimed the arrival of the King and His Kingdom. And Jesus called John the greatest of all the prophets who had ever lived. He had been given the distinct privilege and responsibility of heralding the arrival of the Messiah. While the prophets had predicted His coming, John had been there to see it happen. Not only that, he had fulfilled the will of God by baptizing the Son of God. He had even been witness to the Spirit’s anointing of Jesus and had heard the voice of God declare, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22 ESV).

But as great as John was, Jesus declares that “even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!” (Luke 7:28 NLT). With this statement, Jesus refocuses the peoples’ attention on the whole point behind John’s earthly ministry. His role had been to declare the coming of the Kingdom of God.

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” – Matthew 3:1-2 BSB

And when Jesus had begun His earthly ministry, He had preached that very same message.

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
 – Matthew 4:17 BSB

But preaching that message was meaningless unless those who heard it believed in it. And Luke points out that the crowd that day was comprised of two types of people: Believers and doubters. There were those who heard the words of Jesus and took heart because they had heard John’s call to repentance and been baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.

When they heard this, all the people—even the tax collectors—agreed that God’s way was right, for they had been baptized by John. – Luke 7:29 NLT

But there was another group within the crowd who had refused the call to repentance and whom John had denied baptism.

But the Pharisees and experts in religious law rejected God’s plan for them, for they had refused John’s baptism. – Luke 7:30 NLT

These men represented the “brood of vipers” John had warned would experience the wrath to come. And Jesus points out these unbelieving, unrepentant individuals by comparing them with petulant children. These pompous and self-righteous men were like spoiled children, used to getting their way, and demanding that their peers dance to their tune. These religious leaders had grown used to controlling everyone around them, using the law and their burdensome list of man-made rules and regulations to dictate the behavior of the people. And when the people failed to live up to their standards, they criticized and condemned them as unrighteous and unacceptable to God.

These men had rejected the messenger of God. When John had shown up living the ascetic lifestyle of a Nazarite, they had accused him of having a demon. When Jesus showed up, choosing to eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners, they had declared Him to be a glutton and a drunkard. Their problem was that neither man would live according to their rules. They could not control John or Jesus and that infuriated them. And both men had attracted large crowds of followers, which threatened to diminish the Pharisees’ and Sadduccees’ control over the people.

Jesus ends this teaching by declaring, “wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it” (Luke 7:35 NLT). Essentially, He is telling the people that the wisdom of God had been revealed. It has been made evident in the ministry and message of John. But it has also been manifested in His own words and works. And all those who will believe that He is the long-awaited Messiah will end up vindicating the wisdom of God. They will become living proof that what John had declared had been true and that Jesus really was who He had claimed to be. The Son of God and the Savior of the world.

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

A New Standard

37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

39 He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” Luke 6:37-42 ESV

Today’s passage contains some of the most misunderstood and misapplied verses in the Bible. And our failure to interpret them properly has produced damaging results. The first eight words found in verse 37 form one of the most well-known and oft-quoted verses in all of Scripture: “Judge not, and you will not be judged.”

And this verse is most commonly quoted by someone who has had some flaw or moral failure in their life pointed out by a friend or acquaintance. These words from Jesus get used as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card that allows the accused party to save face. Rather than acknowledge their fault, the accused simply points their finger back at their accuser and uses the words of Jesus against them. In a sense, they are saying, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Or, in other words, “Who are you to judge?”

But as always, context is key to understanding and interpreting Scripture. This statement from Jesus is part of His sermon on the mount. It is contained within a much larger section of teaching that was aimed at Jesus’ newly appointed disciples. He is sharing with them some never-before-heard insights into life in the Kingdom of God. And much of what Jesus states in this message from the mount runs completely counter to their preconceived concepts of the Kingdom and life in general. Jesus has told them that they must love their enemies. He has declared that the poor, the hungry, and those who weep are the truly blessed ones – those who have found favor with God. And, not only that, those who have a relationship with Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, will be blessed because they will be hated and despised. To the 12 disciples and everyone in the audience that day, these words from Jesus had to have sounded like complete madness. When the Messiah showed up and established His Kingdom on earth, it was supposed to be a time of great joy and abundance. The long-anticipated Son of David would rule and reign in power from His throne in Jerusalem, having conquered the Roman oppressors and ushered in the glorious Kingdom of God on earth.

So, all of Jesus’ talk of poverty, hunger, hatred, and love for enemies made no sense. It seemed out of place and illogical. But Jesus was speaking of a different kind of revolution that was going to come about. He had come to renovate hearts and lives, not to realign the chess pieces on the political playing board. Jesus’ mission was to conquer sin and death, not the Roman Empire. And His message was meant to convey what life would look like in the spiritual Kingdom He was going to establish on earth. As He would later tell the Roman governor, Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 ESV). Jesus was not interested in setting up an earthly Kingdom that consisted of vast tracts of land, opulent palaces, a well-equipped army, and a population of happy and fully satisfied citizens. He was out to redeem those who were spiritually enslaved and condemned to a life of eternal separation from His Heavenly Father.

With Jesus’ arrival, the Kingdom of God had come to earth in the form of its King. But the physical Kingdom itself would not come until later. With His first advent, Jesus had come to recruit citizens for His future earthly Kingdom. But in order to live in that Kingdom, these people would have to be radically changed. Their old sinful natures would have to be eradicated and replaced. There would have to be a complete transformation in their character in order for them to live in the Kingdom to come. As Paul told the believers in Corinth:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 ESV

So, as Jesus was teaching His disciples, He was attempting to get them to understand the new criteria for holiness and righteousness that would determine inclusion in His Kingdom. And it was radically different than what they had always understood. When Jesus told them, “Judge not, and you will not be judged,” He was not suggesting that they refrain from all forms of judgment. He was warning that they must use the right standard when judging one another. That’s why He went on to say, “Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven. Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back” (Luke 6:37-38 NLT). 

Jesus was letting His disciples know that if they chose to judge and condemn others by their own set of standards, God would turn around and use those same standards to judge them. If they chose to withhold forgiveness from others, they would find themselves unforgiven by God. And if they failed to be generous to others, God would withhold his blessings from them. That’s why Jesus said, “the amount you give will determine the amount you get back.”

This was all going to require heart change. The natural man is inherently judgmental. He is condemning and unforgiving. His character is marked by selfishness and self-centeredness. And the standard he uses to determine his relationship with others is usually weighted in his own favor. But Jesus is calling His disciples to a completely different way of life that is governed by a different set of standards.

And to ensure that His disciples understood His meaning, Jesus gave them a series of illustrations in the form of a parable. He presented the comical image of a blind man leading another blind man. Because both men lack sight, they will end up in the same place: the ditch. One of the men must have his eyes opened in order to properly guide the other. Then Jesus applies this image to His disciples, encouraging them to take advantage of their relationship with Him as their teacher. Jesus could see things they couldn’t see. He had insights to which they were blind. They were going to have to have their eyes opened to the truth if they were going to be able to lead others in the future.

And Jesus wanted these men to understand that they were going to have to grasp and apply these truths before they could teach them to others. Their criteria for judgment were going to have to change. That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” (Luke 6:41 NLT). Jesus was going to expose and extract the logs in His disciples’ eyes. They had all kinds of spiritual baggage they were carrying around with them. Their understanding regarding the Kingdom, God, righteousness, forgiveness, holiness, and redemption was going to have to change. At this point, their eyes were effectively blind and their spiritual sight was obscured by the logs of legalism and self-righteousness.

Jesus lets them know that they are going to have to do some serious soul-searching and spiritual surgery before they are ready to lead others.

“First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” – Luke 6:42 NLT

But even that would prove impossible if they attempted to do it on their own. The disciples were just beginning their 3-year journey with Jesus that was going to expose their lack of faith, their misunderstandings regarding the Kingdom, their selfishness, and their desperate need for “power from on high” (Luke 24:4). They had so much to learn and just as much to unlearn. But they were on the verge of a life-transformative mission that none of them could have foreseen.

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

Defying Expectations

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:15-21 ESV

As will become increasingly more clear as Luke’s gospel unfolds, John the Baptist certain expectations regarding the coming Messiah. Like all Jews, he was anticipating a kingly Messiah who would rule and reign in Jerusalem just as David had. John was aware of the many prophetic passages that pronounced the arrival of the long-awaited Savior of Israel. And, as John has already revealed, he believed that when the Messiah finally appeared, He would bring salvation but also judgment. That’s why John warned the people, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7 ESV).

John was the divinely appointed messenger sent to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. But that does not mean he fully grasped what the nature of the Messiah’s role would be when He appeared. The apostle John records that John the Baptist described Jesus as the Lamb of God and understood that He would offer atonement for the sins of the world.

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” – John 1:29-31 ESV

As John began his public ministry, preaching and baptizing in the wilderness of Judea, he drew large crowds. And his ministry and message began to have an impact on all those who came to hear him. Luke reports that “the people were in expectation” (Luke 3:15 ESV). They sensed that something significant was about to happen. When they heard John proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV), their excitement began to peak. Was the one for whom they had been waiting so long about to show up? Would He deliver them from the oppression of the Romans? Was He going to restore Israel’s power and prominence?

They even began to question whether John was the Messiah. But He cleared up those rumors by declaring, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16 ESV). While John was speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, there is no reason to believe that he understood the full import of his own words. It seems clear that John understood that when the Messiah appeared, He would come as both Savior and judge. John’s reference to fire conveys his expectation that one of the primary roles the Messiah would play would be that of meting out judgment upon the nations.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Luke 3:17 ESV

John believed that one for whom he was preparing the way would usher in the end times. His arrival would fulfill all the prophetic promises concerning the renewal and restoration of Israel as well as the judgment of all of Israel’s enemies. John was expecting the final form of the Kingdom. Like many Jews of his day, John had conflated all the prophetic passages concerning the Messiah into one event. He had no concept of a first and second advent. From his perspective, when the Messiah showed up, it would be to set up His earthly Kingdom on earth – once and for all time.

But Jesus would later debunk the idea that He had come to judge the world.

“I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark. I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it. But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken.” – John 12:46-48 NLT

the purpose for His first advent was to offer salvation to a lost and dying world. He would do so by offering His life as a sacrifice for their sins. He would pay the debt they owed by laying down His life in their place. Jesus had come to suffer and die, not rule and reign. His appearance, while significant, was far from spectacular. He had not been born to a wealthy family and raised in an environment of privilege and power. He had not shown up on the scene with an army or a contingent of “mighty men” like David had. No, Jesus had been born in obscurity and relative anonymity. And even after John baptized Jesus and stood back and watched as He began His earthly ministry, the faithful messenger would begin to have serious doubts about Jesus’ identity.

At the baptism of Jesus, John had witnessed the dove descending upon Jesus’ head and had heard a voice from heaven declare, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22 ESV). And yet, as Jesus began His earthy ministry, John would begin to have questions about what He saw Jesus doing. It seems clear that John expected a radical transformation to take place in Israel. He had been calling the people to repentance and demanding that their behavior reflect their willingness to change. He had even confronted Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea, demanding that he repent of the adulterous affair he was having with his brother, Philip’s wife. Matthew records that John the Baptist fully expected everyone in Israel to get their spiritual act together, including the tetrarch of Judea. John had repeatedly confronted Herod and told him, “It is not lawful for you to have her” (Matthew 14:4 ESV). This bold accusation angered Herodias, Philip’s wife, and ended up getting John imprisoned. It was while in prison that John would begin to have second thoughts about Jesus.

Later on in his gospel, Luke records that, while in prison, John was receiving regular updates from his disciples about all that Jesus was doing. And what he heard left him scratching his head in confusion. Surely, they told him about all the miracles Jesus had performed. They must have shared the amazing miracle of Jesus raising a dead boy back to life (Luke 7:11-14). Yet John felt compelled to send two of his disciples to Jesus with a surprisingly blunt question: “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Luke 7:19 ESV).

And Luke seems to highlight the absurdity of John’s question by adding, “At that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he restored sight to many who were blind” (Luke 7:21 ESV). In other words, Jesus had been performing many incredible and inexplicable miracles. Yet, John was unconvinced. He seems to have been expecting something completely different.

But rather than rebuke John for his doubt, Jesus sent back the two disciples with a message: “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor…God blesses those who do not fall away because of me” (Luke 7:22-23 ESV).

John had expected the Messiah to bring deliverance to the people of Israel. And yet, here he was in prison. He had been declaring God’s message of repentance and calling the people to prepare themselves for the coming Kingdom. But he was behind bars and having to wonder how any of this was part of God’s plan of redemption and restoration. It’s clear that John knew his role was subordinate to that of Jesus. He had no aspirations of greatness or desire for glory. But he had not expected to be in jail. The apostle John reports that John the Baptist had one desire: To see the Messiah accomplish His God-appointed assignment.

“You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” – John 3:28-30 NLT

Little did John know the prophetic nature of his own words. He would become less. In fact, he would never leave the prison alive. Herodias would arrange to have John beheaded (Matthew 14:1-12). And Jesus would honor John with a profound statement concerning his contribution to the Kingdom.

“I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John.” –  Luke 7:28a ESV

John had been given the privilege and responsibility for preparing the way for the Savior of the world. And he had done his job faithfully. Yet, Jesus reveals that John’s greatness or significance will be exceeded by all those who become citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!” – Luke 7:28 ESV

John had faithfully declared the message he had been given. But he did not have a full grasp on the nature of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He had fully expected Jesus to come with power, but not the kind of power that healed the sick and raised the dead. He had been hoping for the kind of power that would raise a nation back to prominence. He had been expecting a King who would rule in righteousness. But he had not anticipated a suffering Savior who would provide a way for sinful men and women to be declared righteous by God.

It’s interesting to note how Luke records that John “preached good news to the people” (Luke 3:18 NLT). Yet, his message comes across as anything but good news.

His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Luke 3:17 ESV

The beauty of the Gospel message is that it will eventually fulfill all the Biblical prophecies concerning the Messiah. But what John failed to understand was that the final fulfillment of the Messiah’s earthly kingdom would come at a much later date. With His first advent, Jesus came to offer salvation, not to celebrate His inauguration. He came to be crucified, not to be glorified. He came to serve, not to be served.

“I have come to save the world and not to judge it.” – John 12:47 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 Fruit of Repentance

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Luke 3:1-14 ESV

Once again, Luke establishes a firm timeline in order to prove the historical veracity of Jesus’ life and ministry. The last chapter ended with the statement: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52 ESV). Luke’s last biographical entry concerning Jesus portrayed Him as a 12-year-old boy. But now, Luke has fast-forwarded nearly two decades and he establishes the timeline by providing a list of key historical figures with whom his readers would have been familiar.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas – Luke 3:1-2 NLT

Luke doesn’t provide the specific year in which John the Baptist began his ministry, but by listing these seven historical figures, he narrows down the possibilities. The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar would have been somewhere around A.D.29. The last year of Pontius Pilate’s governorship of Judea was A.D. 37. Herod Antipas was deposed as the tetrarch of Galilee in A.D. 39. His brother Philip, who was tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, died in A.D. 34. Annas and Caiaphas, his son-in-law, shared the tile of high priest until the spring of A.D. 37. The only name on the list for which there is little historical record is that of Lysanias, the tetrarch of Abilene.

So, it would seem that somewhere between the A.D. 26 and the spring of A.D. 37, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2 ESV). After a long delay, John received his official marching orders from God. Luke doesn’t reveal how this information was conveyed to John, but he does clarify the nature of John’s assignment.

He went into all the region around the Jordan River, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. – Luke 3:3 NLT

John’s ministry and message had been given to him by God and it was in direct fulfillment of the words of Isaiah, written centuries earlier.

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” – Luke 3:4-6 ESV

Luke appears to be quoting from Isaiah 40:3-5, using the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). By utilizing this prophetic passage, Luke is establishing that John was the divine fulfillment of this promise. He had come to prepare the way for the salvation of God. And to do so, he was given the task of “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3 ESV). As a prophet himself, John had been commissioned by God to call the people of Israel to repentance. The word “repentance” (metanoia) carries the idea of changing one’s mind. While we tend to think of repentance as an alteration in behavior or conduct, the New Testament concept of repentance conveys, first and foremost, a change in perspective or outlook. 

With the fulfillment of the Isaiah 40 passage, something new was about to happen in Israel. The old way of doing things was going away. Something new had come. And John’s job was to call the people to embrace a new way of thinking about everything, from the nature of the kingdom of God to the character of the Messiah, and even the means for achieving a right standing before God. Nothing was going to remain the same. With the launch of John’s ministry and the imminent arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, God was preparing to bring a radically new form of salvation – like nothing they had ever seen before.

John’s call to repentance and his offer of baptism was eagerly embraced by the crowds who flocked to see him in the wilderness. But it seems that John had suspicions concerning the sincerity of those who were verbally declaring their readiness to repent. He sensed that they were simply going through the motions, declaring with their lips that they were willing to change but with no intent to do so. In a sense, they were hedging their bets, desiring to receive forgiveness for their sins, but with no plans to change the way they lived their lives. So, John blasts them for their hypocrisy.

“You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Luke 3:7-9 NLT

Whether John realized it or not, he was demanding that these people do something that was utterly impossible. He was calling them to “produce fruit that proves your repentance.” In other words, he was requiring that they change their behavior. And for centuries, that had been the call of every prophet of God.

“Yet even now,” the Lord says,
“return to me with all your heart—
with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Tear your hearts,
not just your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate,
slow to anger and boundless in loyal love—often relenting from calamitous punishment. – Joel 2:12-13 NLT

But no generation of Israelites had ever been effective in fulfilling this command. Even the prophet Isaiah would record God’s words of condemnation concerning the Israelites less-than-sincere attempts at behavior modification.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Their hearts weren’t in it. And by demanding that the crowds show genuine fruit that proves their repentance, John was asking them to do the impossible. In reality, the Jews who came to hear John preach were of the opinion that they were God’s chosen people. As descendants of Abraham, they believed themselves to be honorary citizens of God’s kingdom. But John reveals that their prideful dependence upon their status as Abraham’s seed was not going to save them. What they failed to recognize was that God had made them out of nothing. He had formed the nation of Israel from a single man and his barren wife. And John drops the not-so-flattering bombshell: “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8 ESV).

Something new was about to happen, and John was trying to prepare the people for what God had in store for them. It would no longer be business as usual. Their half-hearted attempts at giving up their old ways were no longer going to cut it. God was done waiting for His rebellious people to return to Him in true repentance and contrition. He was no longer willing to allow those who bore His name to drag His reputation in the dirt by their ungodly behavior. God knew that the only hope of changing their behavior would come with a change in their hearts.

The prophet Ezekiel had recorded the words of God pronouncing His divine plan to one day do for the Israelites what they could never have accomplished on their own.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign LORD: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign LORD, then the nations will know that I am the LORD. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:22-27 NLT

But at this point in the inaugural days of John’s ministry, he is calling the people to display the fruit of true repentance. And when they ask him for examples of what that might look like, he gets very specific.

“The person who has two tunics must share with the person who has none, and the person who has food must do likewise.” – Luke 3:11 NLT

To the tax collectors who came seeking to be baptized, John said, “Collect no more than you are required to” (Luke 3:13 NLT). Soldiers were told, “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14 NLT). Everyone, regardless of their status in life, was expected to change the way they lived. But this would prove to be a pointless endeavor. They didn’t have what it takes to produce true and lasting heart change. In fact, their hearts remained as stony and stubborn as ever. 

For generations, the people of Israel had attempted to please God by keeping His laws, and when they failed to live up to His holy standards, they took advantage of His sacrificial system so that they could receive atonement and forgiveness. But this cycle of sin and sacrifice had produced no lasting change in their behavior. But all that was about to change. God was preparing to introduce a new means of atonement that would produce lasting heart change and the ability to display the fruit of righteousness.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Light Was Dawning

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
    and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74     that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel. Luke 1:67-80 ESV

Zechariah, no longer hampered by his temporary bout of deafness and muteness, reacts to the miraculous birth of his son by composing a song of praise to God. But this is far more than a song of gratitude for God’s gracious act of replacing Elizabeth’s barrenness with fruitfulness. Whether he realized it or not, Zechariah was revealing Spirit-inspired truths regarding the coming Messiah.

Filled with and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, Zechariah was given special insight into the plan of redemption God was about to unveil to His chosen people. With the Spirit’s assistance, Zechariah was able to clearly see God’s hand behind all that was happening, and he pronounces a blessing on God for His covenant faithfulness.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has visited and redeemed his people…” – Luke 1:68 ESV

The Messiah had not yet been born but Zechariah knew that His arrival was imminent. God’s promise to raise up “a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69 ESV) was as good as done. The days of darkness that surrounded the people of Israel were about to be permeated by the light of God in the form of the Messiah, the promised and long-awaited descendant of King David.

As a priest, Zechariah would have been intimately familiar with all the prophetic passages regarding the coming of the servant of God. And with the Spirit’s assistance, he was able to see that God was preparing to fulfill each of those prophecies in his own lifetime. For more than 400 years, the people of Israel had endured a deafening silence, as God had chosen to cut off all communication with His people. He had sent no more prophets. There had been no divine calls to repentance. And while a remnant of the people had returned from exile in the land of Babylon, rebuilt the temple, refurbished the walls of Jerusalem, and repopulated the city, the land was marked by a lingering spiritual darkness.

Ever since the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, the nation of Israel had been without a king and had suffered a series of degrading occupations by foreign military powers. Even as Zechariah composed his song of praise, the land of Judah was filled with Roman legionnaires, and the people of Israel were having to endure the oppressive and humiliating presence of the Roman emperor’s powerful representatives. With no army to defend them and no king to lead them, the Israelites were powerless to do anything about their demoralizing situation.

But Zechariah knew that God had promised to one day save His people. The prophets had declared “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:71 ESV), and now it was all about to happen. God had sworn an oath to Abraham “that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, may serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.” (Luke 1:74-75 NLT). For Zechariah, this was all like a dream come true. The days of waiting were over. The long delay was about to end. The Messiah was finally coming, and He would bring deliverance and redemption for the people of God.

And Zechariah was blown away that his newborn son would play a role in this divine redemptive plan for the nation. He even addresses his infant son, disclosing the vital part God had preordained for him.

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…” – Luke 1:76 ESV

Once again, Zechariah has the words of the prophets in mind. It is likely that he was thinking of the prophecy of Malachi, written some four centuries earlier.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

You can sense Zechariah’s excitement as he considers the prospects that lie ahead. He probably considered the words of the prophet Isaiah, and inherently knew that the time for rejoicing had come.

“Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
“Speak kindly to Jerusalem and tell her
that her time of warfare is over,
that her punishment is completed.
For the Lord has made her pay double for all her sins.”
A voice cries out,
“In the wilderness clear a way for the Lord;
build a level road through the rift valley for our God.” – Isaiah 40:1-3 NLT

Like any father, Zechariah was proud and pleased that his son had been hand-picked by God for this essential assignment. And, as a priest, he was blown away by God’s loving and gracious decision to redeem His people. Despite centuries of rebellion and rejection by His people, God was still willing to keep His covenant commitments. Motivated by His tender mercy, God was still offering them salvation and forgiveness of sins. He was sending His Son as the ultimate means of redemption and restoration. And Zechariah’s son would prepare the way for this darkness-shattering, life-transforming Servant of God.

And Zechariah wraps up his song with a poetic description of the Light of the world.

“…the dawn will break upon us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:78-79 NLT

And the apostle John would use similar words to open his gospel account.

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

And the apostle would go on to describe and differentiate the unique role that Zechariah’s son would play.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. – John  1:6-8 ESV

When Zechariah’s son had grown to full manhood, he would begin his earthly, yet heavenly sanctioned ministry. He would declare the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. He would let the people know that heaven had invaded earth in the form of the life-giving light of God.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… – John 1:9-12 ESV

Zechariah was excited about the birth of his son, but he was even more energized about the fact that his son would be used by God to fulfill His long-standing covenant promises. The words of the prophets were about to come true, in Zechariah’s lifetime and, in part, through Zechariah’s seed.

The gloom will be dispelled for those who were anxious….

In earlier times he humiliated
the land of Zebulun,
and the land of Naphtali;
but now he brings honor
to the way of the sea,
the region beyond the Jordan,
and Galilee of the nations.
The people walking in darkness
see a bright light;
light shines
on those who live in a land of deep darkness. – Isaiah 9:1-2 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Barrenness to Bounty

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” – Luke 1:18-25 ESV

Having recovered from the initial shock of his divine encounter with the angelic visitor, Zechariah gathered his wits about him and assessed the content of the message. He immediately saw a problem and shared his concern with the angel.

“How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is old as well.” – Luke 1:18 NLT

He desperately wanted to believe the news that his barren wife would have a son, but he needed proof. After all, the odds were stacked against them. Even if God could arrange for Elizabeth to get pregnant, there was another pressing problem: She was well beyond child-bearing age. So, as wonderful as this news sounded, Zechariah was having a difficult time accepting it as true.

You would have thought the appearance of an angel would have been more than enough for Zechariah. As a priest of God, he would have known about Israel’s history and the other divine encounters his forefathers had experienced, including Abraham the great patriarch of the Hebrew people. As we saw yesterday, there are glaring similarities between the story of Abraham and Sarah and Zechariah and Elizabeth. Both couples were advanced in years and the two women were suffering from an inability to bear children. Yet, centuries earlier, God had appeared to Abraham in a vision and declared His intention to bless this elderly couple and make of them a great nation.

“Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.” – Genesis 15:1 NLT

But Abraham, like Zechariah, had found the good news to be a bit too good to be true.

“O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? Since you’ve given me no children, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth. You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.” – Genesis 15:2-3 NLT

Abraham saw a glaring flaw in God’s plan and couldn’t help but share it. Yet God was nonplused, responding to Abraham’s doubt with further assurances of His intentions to make of Abraham a great nation.

“No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.” Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” – Genesis 15:4-5 NLT

What happens next is significant and often overlooked. We are told that Abraham believed God and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith” (Genesis 15:6 NLT). Abraham is recognized for his faith and declared to be righteous accordingly. Yet, moments later, after God reiterates His promise to give Abraham the entire land of Canaan as his possession, Abraham responds in doubt.

But Abram replied, “O Sovereign Lord, how can I be sure that I will actually possess it?” – Genesis 15:8 NLT

Within minutes, Abraham went from believing God to having serious concerns about God’s ability to pull off what He was promising. So, he asked the Lord for a sign and received one. It may be that Zechariah had this story in mind when he said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this?” Abraham had asked for and received a sign, so why shouldn’t he? But what Zechariah got was a stern answer from the angel.

“I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. – Luke 1:19 NLT

This was not just any angel, but the well-known and revered Gabriel. Zechariah would have recognized the name because the prophet, Daniel, had recorded about his two encounters with the very same angel.

As I, Daniel, was trying to understand the meaning of this vision, someone who looked like a man stood in front of me. And I heard a human voice calling out from the Ulai River, “Gabriel, tell this man the meaning of his vision.”

As Gabriel approached the place where I was standing, I became so terrified that I fell with my face to the ground. – Daniel 8:16-17 NLT

Daniel would have a second and equally memorable visit from Gabriel.

As I was praying, Gabriel, whom I had seen in the earlier vision, came swiftly to me at the time of the evening sacrifice. He explained to me, “Daniel, I have come here to give you insight and understanding. The moment you began praying, a command was given. And now I am here to tell you what it was, for you are very precious to God. Listen carefully so that you can understand the meaning of your vision.” – Daniel 9:21-23 NLT

This was the very same angelic being who was appearing to Zechariah, having been sent from the very throne room of God with a personal message for this elderly priest and his barren wife. But because Zechariah had chosen to doubt the veracity of the message, Gabriel delivered a stern word of rebuke along with a promise to give Zechariah the sign he had requested.

“…because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will be silent, unable to speak, until the day these things take place.” – Luke 1:20 NLT

Zechariah was immediately struck dumb. He lost his ability to speak. He had asked for a sign and received one. And it is interesting to note that, with the sign, Zechariah had the proof he needed to believe the message of Gabriel. The good news was true. But now, because of his lack of faith, he had lost the ability to share that news with anyone. On leaving the temple, he was immediately confronted by those in the courtyard who had begun to worry about his long delay. They peppered him with questions, but unable to speak, Zechariah was forced to use his hands to try and explain what had happened inside the temple. But despite Zechariah’s hampered communications capacity, the onlookers could tell that something significant had taken place.

They realized that he had seen a vision in the Holy Place. – Luke 1:22 NLT

When he had completed his priestly duties for the day, Zechariah returned home. He couldn’t wait to share the good news with his wife but would find it virtually impossible to convey the content of Gabriel’s message without the ability to speak.

Somehow, Zechariah was able to let his wife know the exciting news. At some point, he probably took a stylus and a sheet of parchment and inscribed the details of his encounter with Gabriel. And it seems likely that Elizabeth would have been just as incredulous at discovering the content of the angel’s message. But as the months passed, she soon received irrefutable proof that all Gabriel had said was true. She was pregnant. Despite her old age and barren state, she had a child forming in her womb. And she immediately recognized her condition as a gracious gift from the hand of God.

“This is what the Lord has done for me at the time when he has been gracious to me, to take away my disgrace among people.” – Luke 1:25 NLT

Her words echo those of Rachel, another barren woman who was given a child by the gracious hand of God.

She became pregnant and gave birth to a son. “God has removed my disgrace,” she said. – Genesis 30:23 NLT

Elizabeth shared the same boundless gratitude to God that Hannah expressed when her years of barrenness ended with the birth of Samuel. She proclaimed her joy and thanks to God in the form of a son.

“My heart rejoices in the Lord!
    The Lord has made me strong.
Now I have an answer for my enemies;
    I rejoice because you rescued me.” – 1 Samuel

Whether these women realized it or not, they were speaking on behalf of the entire nation of Israel. Each of them had suffered through years of childlessness, bearing the shame and indignation that accompanied their inability to provide their husbands with offspring. In their culture, that was a fate worse than death. They were fruitless and powerless to do anything about it. Yet, each of them had called out to God and He had heard their cries and answered.

Elizabeth had longed for God to remove her reproach. She was tired of being the focus of everyone’s cruel gossip. She knew that other women were talking among themselves, spreading the vicious rumors that she had done something to anger God. These women would have assumed that Elizabeth was being punished for some hidden sin or moral indiscretion. Her inability to bear children must have been a curse from God Almighty. But they were wrong. Her barrenness, like that of Hannah, Sarah, and Rachel, was meant to be a sign that God could reverse the fortunes of the fruitless and hopeless. He could turn a barren womb into a place of sanctuary and nurture for the next generation of Israelites. He could use a woman’s reproach to bring about the world’s redemption. Elizabeth would have a son who would grow to be a man. And this man would herald the coming of another baby, born from the womb of a young Jewish girl named Mary.

In reality, the spiritually barren people of Israel were going to give birth to the Savior of the world. God had promised to give Abraham as many descendants as there are stars in the sky and to make his offspring a blessing to the nations. And that promise was about to be fulfilled but in a way that no one expected. The apostle Paul would later explain that all the promises that God made to Abraham were ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

God was about to do something spectacular, and it would begin with the birth of a son to an elderly priest and his barren wife. The spiritual desert that Israel had become was about to burst forth with fruitfulness and abundance in the form of a prophetic messenger and his news of the coming Kingdom of God.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Orderly Account

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. – Luke 1:1-4 ESV

We are about to embark on a study of the longest book in the New Testament. It bears the name of the man who is believed to have been its author. Luke was either a Gentile or a Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jew. In his letter to the churches in Colossae, The apostle Paul informs his readers that Luke was a physician by trade (Colossians 4:14). And while Luke was not an apostle of Jesus, he had close relationships with some of those who were, including Paul. He used his access to these men to conduct interviews and gather information so that he could compile an “an accurate account ” (Luke 1:3 NLT) of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Luke was not the first to attempt such an ambitious and daunting undertaking. He readily admits that “Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1 NLT). Of course, we know that Matthew and Mark both produced records of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and together with Luke’s account, they comprise what are known as the Synoptic Gospels. The word “synoptic” simply means “together sight” and refers to the many similarities found in these three books. They each record the life of Jesus, including many of the same stories and following a common timeline. Each author provided his own particular writing style and had a specific audience in mind when compiling his book.

Luke makes it clear that he had penned his gospel account with one person in mind, a man named Theophilus. And this would not be the only book Luke wrote to his friend and fellow believer. The book of Acts, also written by Luke, was addressed to this same individual.

In my first book I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit. During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God. – Acts 1:1-3 NLT

In this passage, Luke clarifies that his purpose for writing his gospel account was to record everything that Jesus began to do and teach while He was on this earth. He begins with the incarnation of Jesus and ends with His ascension. And Luke painstakingly researches and records the many events that transpired between those two paradigm-shifting moments in human history.

Evidently, Theophilus was of Greek origin and his name meant “friend of God.” It would appear that he was a rather recent convert to Christianity and had come out of a pagan religious background. Much of what Paul records in his gospel is intended to provide his young friend with proof of Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection. This young Greek convert to Christianity would have had little knowledge of Jewish history or the many references to the coming Messiah found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In a sense, Theophilus would have represented a highly educated and secularized Gentile audience who were lacking any understanding of Jesus’ identity as the Jewish Messiah and all that title entailed. Since coming to faith in Christ, Theophilus had been given instructions regarding Jesus’ identity and earthly ministry.  But Luke wanted to make sure that his friend’s faith was based on solid evidence and not on some fictional, fairy tale story that mirrored the myths about the Greek gods.

Jesus was not the figment of someone’s fertile imagination. And He was far more than just a man who lived a moral life and left behind a good example to follow. He was the Son of God and, ultimately, the Savior of the world. Yes, He was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but He was also the light to the nations. The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming servant of God, who would one day restore rebellious Israel to a right relationship with God. But this same servant would shed the light of God’s glory and grace to the ends of the earth.

And now the Lord speaks—
    the one who formed me in my mother’s womb to be his servant,
    who commissioned me to bring Israel back to him.
The Lord has honored me,
    and my God has given me strength.
He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
    I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
    and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:5-6 NLT

If you recall, this is exactly what Jesus commissioned His disciples to do before He ascended back into heaven. Luke recorded these fateful words of Jesus in the opening chapter of the book of Acts.

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

These men had listened to the words of their resurrected Lord and taken the good news to the ends of the earth. As a result, men and women like Theophilus had come to faith and begun the lifelong process of sanctification that followed their salvation. While Luke had not been a disciple of Jesus, he had taken His words to heart, following His instructions to go and make disciples of all the nations.

“I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20 NLT

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke provided Theophilus with further instructions regarding the faith, while at the same time addressing the needs of a growing number of Gentile converts who were in need of solid teaching and reliable evidence about their Lord and Savior.

Little did Luke know that this letter, penned to his young friend, would become a part of the canon of Scripture. By God’s divine providence and through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, these carefully researched and well-crafted words have been preserved so that generations of Gentile converts to Christianity might grow up in their salvation. We owe this man a debt of gratitude for his willingness to research and write this powerful biography of the most seminal characters in all of human history: The Lord Jesus Christ.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Compassionate, Merciful God

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
    How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my burning anger;
    I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
    the Holy One in your midst,
    and I will not come in wrath.

10 They shall go after the Lord;
    he will roar like a lion;
when he roars,
    his children shall come trembling from the west;
11 they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
    and like doves from the land of Assyria,
    and I will return them to their homes, declares the Lord. – Hosea 11:8-11 ESV

One of the problems we face as fallen human beings is trying to comprehend the ways of a holy and fully righteous God. The prophet Isaiah provides us with God’s explanation for why finite men will never grasp His infinite and inexplicable actions.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

But while we might agree with God’s assessment of the problem, we too often miss the circumstances surrounding our lack of understanding. Take a look at the verses that precede the Lord’s declaration regarding His unfathomable ways. What we have difficulty comprehending is His divine willingness to show compassion on those who least deserve it.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” – Isaiah 55:6-7 NLT

God specifically addresses “the wicked” and “the unrighteous.” He calls on sinners to seek Him while they still have the opportunity. He doesn’t require that they clean up their proverbial act and start living righteous lives before they seek Him. But He does ask them to turn from their wicked lifestyles and their unrighteous ways of thinking, and to seek Him instead. All so that He might shower them with His compassion and bless them with His undeserved pardon.

As sinful human beings, we find this kind of offer incomprehensible and inexplicable. It makes no sense. Because to our way of thinking, love is always conditional. Rewards must be earned. We have been raised on a steady diet of moral rhetoric that has convinced us that you don’t get something for nothing. Yet, the apostle Paul would remind us that it was for our sinfulness that Jesus came to earth and offered up His life.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:6-8 NLT

Even Jesus declared that His incarnation, call to repentance, and offer of redemption was aimed at the spiritually sick and hopeless.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:31-32 ESV

On another occasion, Jesus reiterated this same sentiment, declaring His intention to show compassion on those who least deserved it.

“For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” – Matthew 9:13 NLT

So, when we read a book like Hosea, we can become confused by what appears to be apparent contradictions in the character of God. One minute we find Him castigating and condemning the Israelites for their immorality and idolatry. He declares His dissatisfaction with them and delivers warnings of His pending judgment. Then, almost out of nowhere, God declares His intention to show them mercy.

Take a look a verses 8-9. They stand in stark contrast to verse 7, where God just declared His intention to ignore Israel’s pleas for help. They will cry out, but “he shall not raise them up at all.”

Yet, in the very next verse, God reveals what appears to be a dramatic change of heart.

“How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
    How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my burning anger;
    I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
    the Holy One in your midst,
    and I will not come in wrath.”
– Hosea 11:8-9 NLT

While God is determined to bring judgment against His wicked and unrighteous people, He cannot bear the thought of destroying them completely. He mentions the cities of Admah and Zeboiim, which, at one time, had enjoyed a close physical and moral relationship with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to Deuteronomy 29:23, God destroyed these two cities when He brought His judgment to bear on Sodom and Gomorrah.

And the thought of bringing that level of destruction on His chosen people caused God’s heart to soften. His compassion overwhelmed Him. He declares that “My heart recoils within me” (Hosea 11:8 ESV). That word “recoils” has a very interesting meaning in Hebrew. It is the word, hāp̄aḵ, and it can mean “to turn” or “overturn.” It also has a negative connotation, referring to the overthrow of someone or something. Hans Walter Wolfe provides a helpful explanation regarding what seems to be going on in the heart of God.

“Israel will not be completely ‘overturned’ as the cities mentioned here; rather, there will be an ‘overturning,’ that is, a change, in Yahweh’s heart.” – Wolff, Hans Walter. Hosea. Translated by Gary Stansell. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974

God is holy and must punish sin. But God also desires to extend mercy and compassion to sinners. The apostle Peter describes God as incredibly patient, and reminds us that “He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9 NLT). The same was true regarding His relationship with the people of Israel.

Israel would face God’s judgment, but would not have to undergo the full weight of His divine wrath.

“No, I will not unleash my fierce anger.
    I will not completely destroy Israel,
for I am God and not a mere mortal.
    I am the Holy One living among you,
    and I will not come to destroy.” – Hosea 11:9 NLT

Unlike fallen mankind, God is not motivated by sinful desires. Even in His anger, He always acts righteously and justly. He is never capricious or vindictive. According to the psalmist, “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” (Psalm 145:17 ESV).

This is not a picture of God relenting, repenting, or even changing His mind. He is simply stating that He is a God who is balanced and just in all that He does. He is going to punish Israel, but He is also going to keep every covenant promise He has made to them. His destruction will come, but it will not be complete and comprehensive. He will severely discipline them, but refrain from annihilating them. Why? Because He has promised to use them to bring a blessing to the nations, and He will accomplish that promise through His Son, Jesus Christ.

God’s ways are not our ways. His plans do not always make sense to us. But His grand plan for the redemption of mankind included His Son being born into the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Judah, as a descendant of Abraham, and the rightful heir to David’s throne. And one day, God will restore His people to power and prominence when His Son sets up His earthly Kingdom in the city of Jerusalem at the end of the age. Which is exactly what God promised to the rebellious people of Israel through His prophet, Hosea.

“For someday the people will follow me.
    I, the Lord, will roar like a lion.
And when I roar,
    my people will return trembling from the west.
Like a flock of birds, they will come from Egypt.
    Trembling like doves, they will return from Assyria.
And I will bring them home again,”
    says the Lord. – Hosea 11:11-12 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