When Men (and Women) Play God

11 And the angel of the Lord said to her,

“Behold, you are pregnant
    and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
    because the Lord has listened to your affliction.
12 He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
    his hand against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

13 So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

15 And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram. Genesis 16:11-16 ESV

A  pregnant and homeless Hagar found herself in the middle of the wilderness having an unexpected conversation with the angel of the Lord. And much to her surprise, this divine messenger has just commanded Hagar to return home and submit herself to the Sarai, the very woman who had cast her out like unwanted trash. This disheartened and fearful woman must have reeled at the thought of risking further alienation and possible retribution from an angry and vengeful Sarai. But the angel of God provided a doubtful Hagar with a shocking revelation that was meant to elicit faith and produce obedience.

“I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” – Genesis 16:10 ESV

God was assuring Hagar that the child she carried in her womb would not only live, but he would produce an abundance of offspring. This female Egyptian slave had been made the unwitting participant in Sarai’s clever scheme to fulfill God’s promise through human means. When Sarai’s barrenness continued to stifle any hope of her bearing a son for her husband, Abram, she had turned to Hagar as a possible and practical solution. It had been her idea to have Abram impregnate her personal handmaid. And when her plan worked, and Hagar became pregnant with Abram’s child, Sarai regretted her decision and ordered the threat removed.

But, as always, God had bigger plans in store for Hagar and, more importantly,  for the baby she carried in her womb. In the middle of the inhospitable wilderness, the forlorn and forgotten Hagar was given new hope.

“You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress. – Genesis 16:11 NLT

This announcement was meant to assure Hagar that her child would live. And God would not only give her a son, but He would give that boy a name: Ishmael. This name is actually a compound word in Hebrew (yišmāʿē’l). It stems from the word for “hear” and the word for “God.” So, the boy’s God-given name would mean “God hears.” His name would reflect the reality that Yahweh had heard Hagar’s desperate cries for help and had determined to answer them. One can only imagine the fear-driven pleas of this abandoned woman as she pondered her own fate and that of her child. Was she destined to die in the wilderness, pregnant and alone? Would she live long enough to witness the birth of her child, but then be forced to watch its life slip away due to hunger and exposure to the elements? Was this some kind of divine punishment for her role in the whole affair surrogate birth mother affair?

What is interesting to consider is that, due to her identity as an Egyptian, it is highly likely that Hagar was not a follower of Yahweh. Her ten-year exposure to Abram and his family may have resulted in her conversion, but it is just as likely that she remained a worshiper of one of the many gods of Egypt. And her cries in the wilderness could have been directed at one of these false deities.

But who heard her? And who responded to her pleas for help? It was Yahweh, the very same God who had called her former master out of Haran. It had been this God’s messenger who had shown up in the wilderness and delivered the good news about her son and his future descendants. But not everything about the angel’s message would have sounded positive to Hagar. He also delivered what must have come across to her as bad news.

“This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives.” – Genesis 16:12 NLT

At first glance, this pronouncement comes across as anything but good news. But to a woman who had been faced with the possible death of her unborn son, this news was hopeful. He would grow up to be a man who lived independently. He would be powerful and resourceful. And, while he would end up alienated from his own relatives, he would father a sizeable nation of his own that would have a lasting impact on the world.

In time, the descendants of Ishmael would end up as the mortal enemies of their blood relatives, the Israelites. Islamic lore teaches that Ishmael would become the patriarch of the Muslim people. But the Bible simply states that Ishmael and his descendants would live in open hostility to the descendants of Abram through his son, Isaac. Ishmael and Isaac had the same father, but two different birth mothers. And their family trees would branch off in two distinctively different directions. But God was behind it all. In fact, Paul picks up on this story when writing to the believers living in the Roman-ruled province of Galatia. He would use the disparate relationship between these two half-brothers as an illustration of those who live as slaves to the law and those who enjoy the freedom brought about by God’s promise.

Tell me, you who want to live under the law, do you know what the law actually says? The Scriptures say that Abraham had two sons, one from his slave wife and one from his freeborn wife. The son of the slave wife was born in a human attempt to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise. But the son of the freeborn wife was born as God’s own fulfillment of his promise. These two women serve as an illustration of God’s two covenants. – Galatians 4:21-24 NLT

Paul uses this Old Testament story to drive home a very important point to his Christian readers who are struggling with the difference between law and grace. He points out that Ishmael was born to a slave woman, while Isaac was born to Sarai, a free woman. The status of the two boys would dramatically impact their positions in the family of Abram. In fact, Moses makes clear that Ishmael would end up being alienated from and at odds with the other children of Abraham.

Secondly, Paul stresses the difference between their two births. Ishmael was the result of a purely human relationship. There was no miracle involved. Abram impregnated Hagar, she ended up pregnant, and eventually gave birth. There was nothing supernatural about it. But, in comparison, Sarai’s pregnancy was divinely ordained and ordered. She was old and barren, but God miraculously intervened and produced a child in fulfillment of His promise to Abram. Isaac was a son born to Sarai and not Hagar. That had been God’s plan all along. He is the God of the impossible, and He had never been in need of Sarai’s help or advice.

And Paul elaborates further on the distinction between these two women and their respective seed.

The first woman, Hagar, represents Mount Sinai where people received the law that enslaved them. And now Jerusalem is just like Mount Sinai in Arabia, because she and her children live in slavery to the law. But the other woman, Sarah, represents the heavenly Jerusalem. She is the free woman, and she is our mother. – Galatians 4:24-26 NLT

Paul is not suggesting that the story of Sarai and Hagar is mythical or purely metaphorical. But he does suggest that it contains an important allegorical lesson. These two women were very real, but their lives also served as power illustrations of a much deeper truth that would apply in the not-so-distant future. Much to the chagrin of any Jews in his readership, Paul uses the slave-born son of Hagar as an illustration of the Jewish people who refused to believe in Christ. They were stuck relying upon the law for their salvation. They considered themselves to be legitimate sons of Abram, but God viewed them differently. In Paul’s analogy, Isaac becomes a representative of those born under freedom from the law. This is a direct reference to Christians, those whom Jesus has set free from the burden of the law.

Hagar represents the Mosaic Covenant, with all its laws and legal requirements. But Sarai represents the New Covenant, made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is fascinating to consider that Jesus, the Savior of the world, also entered the world through the means of a miraculous, Spirit-enabled birth.

The promises of God will always be fulfilled by the divinely ordained means of God. Hagar had never been intended to be the mother of the offspring of Abram through whom God would bless all the nations. Human means never produce spiritual outcomes. And, while God would end up blessing Ishmael, and produce from him a great number of descendants. There would be no future Messiah or Savior born from his family tree. That was reserved for the son of the promise: Isaac.

In response to the message of the angel, Hagar declares that this God of Abram is a “God who sees.” He had seen her plight and responded to her plea. He had graciously given her a promise and a hope, and she believed. And the chapter ends on a somewhat anticlimactic note with the simple declaration:

So Hagar gave Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born. – Genesis 16:15-16 NLT

God was far from done because the promise had not yet been fulfilled. But it would be, according to His terms, and right on time with His preordained schedule.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Promise Maker

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15-1-6 ESV

Abram has just received a blessing from Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God.

Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
    Creator of heaven and earth. – Genesis 14:19 NLT

Sometime after his encounter with the king-priest Melchizedek, God provided his servant with a confirmation and explanation of that blessing in the form of a vision. The Most High God referred to Himself as Abram’s shield or protector. In the same way that Abram had protected and delivered his nephew Lot during his time of captivity, God would be Abram’s defender and deliverer. And while Abram had turned down the king of Sodom’s offer of all the plunder taken from Sodom, he could be certain that God would reward him with something of far greater value.

One of the questions this passage raises is why God opened up His address to Abram with the words, “Fear not.” What was it that Abram feared? Some believe that, upon receiving an unexpected vision of the Most High God, Abram was filled with fear and awe. This would have been a normal and natural reaction to such an encounter with God. When Moses was given a vision of God in the form of a burning bush, “he hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6 ESV).

But based on the context of chapter 14, it makes more sense to see Abram’s fear as horizontal in nature, rather than vertical. Due to his victory over the four Mesopotamian kings, Abram had just made himself some powerful enemies. Not only that, by displaying his military might, he had inadvertently placed a target on his back. Whether he liked it or not, he was the new sheriff in town and everyone would be gunning for him. Abram was essentially a shepherd and not a warrior, and the thought that his enemies might seek retribution on him and his household was keeping him up at night. So, God assured his fearful servant that he had nothing to worry about. Abram could rest in the knowledge that God would protect and provide for him. It is the same message that God would give to Abram’s descendants centuries later.

“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10 NLT

Abram’s response to God’s words of comfort and encouragement is less than confident.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” – Genesis 15:2 NLT

With this statement, Abram reveals that his greatest fear was that of failure. He knew that God had promised to bless him. He couldn’t stop thinking about the words God had spoken when he was still living in Haran.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV

Abram had been 75-years-old when God made that promise. And now, years later, he had only grown older and his wife’s fertility problem had not improved. All the way back in Genesis 11:30, Moses had disclosed the sad state of Sarai’s reproductive health: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.”

All of these factors weighed heavily on Abram’s mind. Based on the circumstances, he could see no way that God’s promise could ever come to fruition. Abram had resigned himself to the fact that one of his household servants would end up as his heir. He informed God about the desperate nature of his situation and even blamed Him for it.

You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.” – Genesis 15:3 NLT

It appears that Abram was growing impatient. During his time in the land of Canaan, he had seen his financial prospects improve. He had grown rich and his herds had grown in number. And here was God promising to shower him with further rewards. But what difference would it make if he had no one to whom he could leave his great wealth?

It’s not difficult to ascertain how Abram had assessed his situation and come up with a possible solution. He had given up on Sarai ever giving birth to a son, and had assumed that they would end up adopting one of their household servants as their son and making him the rightful heir to their estate. There had probably been a time when Abram had believed Lot, his nephew, would be the logical choice. But there had been a fallout between the two of them. So, at this point, Abram had determined that his heir would end up being Eliezer of Damascus.

What is ironic about Abram’s conclusion is that Eliezer’s name means “God is help.” Yet, it would appear that Abram was the one who was attempting to help God. He was offering God a logical solution to the whole fruitlessness problem. Abram was willing to settle for less. He was willing to accept a foreign-born “member” of his house as his heir rather than wait on God to do the impossible. But God had other plans. He was not going to compromise. And Sarai’s barrenness was not going to be a problem. So, God gently but firmly broke the news to Abram.

“No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.” – Genesis 15:4 NLT

In essence, God said, “Thanks for the tip, but no!” The Creator-God didn’t need Abram’s help or advice. If anything, Eliezer’s presence in Abram’s house was meant to be a constant reminder that “God is help.” Eliezer wasn’t intended to be the solution. No, every time Abram said Eliezer’s name, it should have reminded him that God was the solution. And to stress the miraculous nature of His promise, God took Abram outside and told him to “look up into the sky and count the stars if you can” (Genesis 15:5 NLT). Then, as Abram stood staring up into the night sky, overwhelmed by the sheer number of stars, God boldly proclaimed, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” (Genesis 15:5 NLT).

This was not the first time Abram had heard such an outlandish prediction from God. Earlier, when Abram had separated from Lot, God had assured him that all the land of Canaan would be his and that land would be filled with his descendants.

I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! – Genesis 13:16 NLT

This blessing would not come through Eliezer or any other substitute. God had promised to give Abram a son, and He was well aware of Sarai’s barrenness. In fact, as the sovereign God of the universe, her barrenness had been part of His plan all along. The improbability and impossibility of it all had been baked into the cake. God wanted Abram to understand that everything about this promise would be miraculous and supernatural.

And then Moses adds a somewhat surprising conclusion. Despite all of Abram’s former doubts and fears, he “believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith” (Genesis 15:6 NLT). Suddenly, Abram’s mental state went from doubt to assurance. He went from trying to help God out to having hope in God’s promise. His confidence in God grew deeper and richer.

It’s interesting to note that Abram had always believed that God would give him an heir. His doubts had been focused on the means by which God would fulfill that promise. He had been hung up on Sarai’s barrenness. That’s why he had come up with what he believed to be an acceptable and logical alternative solution. But now, his belief focused in on the power of God to accomplish the impossible. He went from believing in the promise to believing in the God who made the promise. And there is a huge difference.

In the great “Hall of Faith” found in chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, the author states, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV). Abram was learning that his faith in God was the key to the promise of God. That does not mean that faith is what determines our reward, but that faith or belief in God is the means by which we appropriate the promises of God. We have to believe, trust in, and place our confidence in the God behind the promise.

The author of Hebrews goes on to explain how Abram displayed faith in God. And he describes how Abram’s faith developed and deepened over time until it influenced even his wife, Sarai.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. – Hebrews 11:8-12 ESV

Moses declares that God counted or credited Abram’s faith as righteousness. Abram was justified or made right with God because he chose to believe and trust, not only in the promises of God but in the God behind the promises. Abram had transferred his hope in the promise to the divine promise maker. And the author of Hebrews goes on to point out that faith in the God of the promise is what sets His people apart. Whether a child of God ever sees the promise fulfilled in their lifetime, they will continue to trust in the word and reliability of the promise maker.

All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. – Hebrews 11:39 NLT

Abram would eventually see a son born to his barren wife. But he would never own any land in Canaan. He would never live to see the day when his descendants, as numerous as the stars in the sky, would occupy that land. But he would continue to believe that His God was good and could be trusted to do what He promised, whether Abram lived to see it or not. That is the essence of faith.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1 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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Hidden Hope of Salvation

21 To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born. 22 The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. 23 The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash. 24 Arpachshad fathered Shelah; and Shelah fathered Eber. 25 To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan. 26 Joktan fathered Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, 27 Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, 28 Obal, Abimael, Sheba, 29 Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab; all these were the sons of Joktan. 30 The territory in which they lived extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east. 31 These are the sons of Shem, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations.

32 These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.  Genesis 10:21-32 ESV

Compared to his younger brother’s genealogy, Shem’s lineage is far more pedestrian in nature. It contains no names that might raise eyebrows or elicit a sense of shock. And yet, within this list of obscure and difficult to pronounce names Moses provided a subtle, yet powerful, reminder of God’s sovereign authority over the affairs of mankind.

For most modern readers, this list of names seems rather superfluous. The individuals listed are unknown to us and, therefore, carry little weight. Yet, for the Jewish audience to whom Moses penned the book of Genesis, these names would have had a great deal of significance. At the mention of Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber, and Peleg, Moses would have had his reader’s undistracted attention, because these men were part of the family tree of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation. In fact, Moses will provide a more detailed and complete genealogy of Abraham in the very next chapter. He will go on to trace the lineage of Shem through the line of Peleg, all the way to the man who would become the patriarch of the Jewish people.

But in chapter nine, Moses chose to ignore the line of Peleg and traced the lineage of his brother, Joktan instead. Moses provides a rather strange aside when describing these two brothers.

To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan. – Genesis 10:25 ESV

There has been much debate regarding the meaning of the phrase, “the earth was divided.” The Hebrew word is פָּלַג (pālaḡ), and it means “to split, cleave, or divide.” Based on the context of chapter 11, the most logical explanation is that Moses is referring to God’s dividing of the nations by the creation of languages. It seems that the events recorded in Genesis 11:1-9 occurred during the lifetime of Peleg. It was in Peleg’s lifetime that God decided to “divide or split” the earth by confusing the languages of the people. And Moses provides a detailed description of God’s momentous decision.

“Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” – Genesis 11:6-7 ESV

And Moses goes on to describe how God “dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:8 ESV). God literally “divided” or “split” the earth by creating new people groups with different languages. Their inability to communicate with one another caused an immediate parting of the ways, indirectly fulfilling God’s command that mankind “fill the earth.” In “dispersing” them, God was breaking humanity in pieces and scattering them abroad. That is the literal meaning of the Hebrew word, פּוּץ (pûṣ).

It would appear that Moses split the genealogy found in chapter 10 at the juncture of Peleg and Joktan because he was going to provide further details about Peleg’s lineage in the following chapter. During the lives of these two brothers, something significant and earth-shattering took place. And Moses will provide further insights into that momentous occasion. But it seems safe to conclude that when Moses states “in his days the earth was divided,” he is referring to the events surrounding the tower of Babel, as described in the opening verses of chapter 11. Another reason for reaching this conclusion is found in a psalm written by David. In it, he uses the very same word, (pālaḡ), to describe the dividing and confusion of languages.

Destroy, O Lord, divide (pālaḡ) their tongues;
    for I see violence and strife in the city. – Psalm 55:9 ESV

So, hidden within this somewhat meaningless and uninteresting genealogy is a subtle reminder of God’s sovereign will. As the sons of Noah procreate and populate the planet, God is operating behind the scene, sovereignly orchestrating His divine will. With the birth of each new son, another branch in the human family tree begins. Peleg and Joktan, while brothers, would produce two distinctively different progeny.  From Joktan would come the various Arabic tribes, the Yemenites, Assyrians, Lydians, and Aramaens. These “clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:32 ESV).

God was orchestrating the creation of all those nations that were destined to play vital roles in His future plans for the world. By sovereignly forming such diverse groups as the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Canaanites, God was putting in place all the pieces to His divine plan for mankind’s redemption. There was a method to the seeming madness. God had a reason for creating each of these distinct people groups. And Moses wanted his readers to understand that the existence of each of these nations had been decreed by God’s will. They didn’t just happen. They were planned by God Almighty. And while each of them would eventually become an enemy of Israel, God had a divinely ordained role for them to play.

There is no cosmic karma in the universe. Nothing happens by chance. Nations rise and fall by the sovereign will of God. The existence of languages was part of God’s plan. The birth of great nation-states was His idea. Each of the men listed in the genealogy of chapter 10 would go on to father a multitude of descendants. And these people would eventually form various nations, representing a diverse mix of ethnicities with each speaking their own unique language and displaying their own cultural distinctiveness. And it would be into this diverse and divisive milieu that God would sovereignly raise up a single man who would become the next “Adam” in the story of mankind’s eventual redemption from the fall.

This all takes us back to the protoevangelium (first gospel) found in Genesis 3:15. In pronouncing His curse against the serpent, God provided the promise of an offspring or seed, that would come from the woman.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.” – Genesis 3:15 ESV

There is far more to this statement than the prediction of mutual hatred between mankind and snakes. This was a divinely decreed promise of payback for Satan’s role in Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God. There would one day come a descendant of Eve who would restore fallen mankind to a right relationship with God. Jesus Christ, as outlined in the gospel of Luke, would be born a descendant of Adam (Luke 3:23-38). But as Matthew records in his gospel account, Jesus would also be the descendant of Abraham, who would be born from the line of Peleg.

…Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. – Matthew 1:1 ESV

Hidden within these somewhat obscure genealogical lists is the message of God’s sovereign plan to restore what Satan had attempted to destroy. When God sent the flood as a form of judgment against the wickedness of humanity, He could have destroyed Noah and his sons, and been completely just and right in doing so. While Noah found favor with God, he was not sinless. While Moses describes him as righteous and blameless “in his generation” (Genesis 6:9 ESV), this was intended as a statement of comparison, not commendation. In other words, Noah had not earned his salvation from God. God did not spare Noah because he was righteous. No, according to the book of Hebrews, God spared Noah because he believed and obeyed. He took God at His word and heeded the warning that judgment was coming.

By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. – Hebrews 11:7 ESV

Noah’s faith was in the salvation of God. Despite the fact that none of God’s commands made much sense or the likelihood of a worldwide flood seemed remote at best, Noah believed and obeyed. He put his faith in God’s promise of deliverance. But in stepping on the ark he had helped to construct, Noah was foreshadowing a greater deliverance to come. And the author of Hebrews ends chapter 11, his great “Hall of Faith,” with the following words of encouragement and insight.

All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us. – Hebrews 11:39-40 NLT

Out of all the offspring born to Adam and Noah, there would eventually come one “seed” that would provide a means of restoring broken humanity to a right relationship with its Creator.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

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 Kingdom Clarified

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:

“I will open my mouth in parables;
    I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” – Matthew 13:24-43 ESV

Continuing to speaking in parables, Jesus let the crowd know that He was expounding on the kingdom of heaven – God’s divinely ordained kingdom. But because He was using parables, they were unable to discern the meaning behind His words. To them, these stories came across more like riddles, leaving them wondering what it was Jesus was trying to say. Even His own disciples said to Him, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field” (Matthew 13:36 ESV).

Jesus had told His disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11 ESV). In other words, they were being given the unique privilege of hearing about previously hidden mysteries concerning the kingdom of God. The truths Jesus was about to share with them were not new. In fact, they had been in existence from before the foundation of the world. But they had been hidden from the eyes and understandings of men. 

While the Jewish people thought they were fully informed about the kingdom of God, they were actually operating on partial information and had reached some false conclusions. That was why they were having a difficult time accepting Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. He didn’t fit the bill. He had shown up in the form they had been expecting. Jesus did not look like a king. He had no army. There was no royal retinue or regal robes that would have marked Him as a king.

So, Jesus began to divulge some essential information regarding the kingdom that was going to conflict with all their preconceived assumptions. But He would do so through parables.  And much of what He had to say is, as He put it, was a mystery or secret, previously undisclosed and unknown. Jesus was having to deal with many centuries-worth of false conceptions among the people of Israel regarding the coming kingdom. Their longings for a Messiah were accompanied by dreams of liberation from Roman rule and restoration of their status as a world power. The kingdom they were hoping and longing for was an earthly one. The king for whom they were waiting was to be a warrior-king just like David had been.

But with these parables, Jesus provides an as-yet-undisclosed aspect of the kingdom that was in direct conflict with their expectations. Remember, the parable of the sower or the soils was about the receptivity of the people to the message about the coming kingdom. Many would hear the good news of the Messiah’s arrival but refuse to believe it. Others would get excited upon hearing the news, but then discover that His kingdom was associated with persecution, trials, and difficulties. Their expectations of the kingdom having been unmet, they would fall away.

Jesus has made it clear that there will be many who hear the message of the kingdom, but who refuse to accept it. And yet, in these parables, He discloses that the message will take root among “the sons of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:38 ESV). And while the initial number of those who hear the message and believe it will be small, it will grow exponentially.

Like a tiny mustard seed that eventually grows into a massive tree, the kingdom of heaven will start small, but greatly expand over time. Its influence will be like that of leaven on a lump of dough which, in time, eventually permeates its way through the entire batch. In these parables, Jesus is revealing an aspect of His kingdom that is far-distant in its focus. He is speaking of the millennial kingdom which will come at the end of the period of the Great Tribulation. It will be at His second coming that Jesus establishes His kingdom on earth and its influence will be all-pervasive. He will rule from David’s throne in Jerusalem and it will be a period marked by perfect righteousness and justice.

But until that day arrives, the Son of Man will continue to sow the good seed within the world. And, as Jesus explained, the good seed represents the sons of the kingdom, those whom He has redeemed as His own.

The period in which we live is called “the church age” – a time when Christ-followers find themselves co-mingled with unbelievers. The sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one are forced to co-exist until the harvest, which Jesus said will take place at the end of the age. Until that time, Jesus will continue to sow His seeds (His sons and daughters) in the world, and their influence will spread. But they will find themselves surrounded by the sons of Satan, those who have rejected the message of the Gospel or the kingdom of heaven. But rather than despair, the sons of the kingdom are to recognize that God’s redemptive plan is not yet done. He is going to send His Son a second time, when He will bring a permanent end to the forces of wickedness and the one who stands behind it all – Satan.

But in the meantime, we must realize that this phase of God’s plan will allow the kingdom to remain relatively hidden, but far from inactive. Like yeast, it will continue to spread. Like the tiny mustard seed, it will slowly transform into something unexpectedly large and significant. And while the weeds will continue to sprout up all around the sons of the kingdom, the day will come when God will call for the harvest. That event will include the separating of the wheat from the weeds. And while the weeds will undergo judgment, the sons of the kingdom “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43 ESV).

At present, the righteous and the unrighteous live side by side on this planet. And, at times, it appears as if the kingdom of heaven is being overrun by the weeds of the enemy. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds. But Jesus wanted His disciples to know that this was to be expected during this phase of His kingdom plan. The period in which they lived was to be for the purpose of sowing. They were to sow the seed of the Gospel and allow God to reap the harvest when the time was right. All they needed to know was that, in spite of the presence of the enemy, the kingdom would continue to grow and spread. The day will come when God sends His Son back to gather all those whom He has sown in the world. It will be at that point that the King sets up His kingdom on earth.

None of this was what the Jews expected. Even Jesus’ disciples would have found this news to be surprising and somewhat disappointing. Like every other Jew, they were expecting the Messiah to rule and reign from the start. They still had expectations that Jesus was going to set up His kingdom in their lifetime. That’s why James and John would later make the bold request of Jesus: “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Mark 10:37 NLT).

But Jesus had come to establish the kingdom of heaven, not earth. He had come to sow sons of the kingdom all throughout a world permeated by the presence of the enemy. And that hidden kingdom would be made up of men and women who would live as aliens and strangers on this earth. While their actual citizenship would be in heaven, their numbers would continue to grow and spread. Their presence would slowly permeate the fallen world, impacting the lives of others through their message and their ministry of reconciliation.

And while they wait for the return of their King, they are to place their hope and faith in His promises, living in the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit. As the apostle Paul reminds us: “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior” (Philippians 3:20 NLT).

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

Mystery Made Known

1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” – Matthew 13:1-17 ESV

Matthew has not been trying to provide us with a hard-and-fast chronological timeline of Jesus’ ministry. Instead, he has arranged many of the stories related to Jesus’ ministry into a topical outline so that they better support his attempt to prove the Messiahship of Jesus. But in this case, he makes it clear that this particular event happened “that same day.” And what day would that have been? The very day on which Jesus had healed the demon-possessed man and been accused by the religious leaders of having done so by the power of Satan.

Chapter 12 provided an important transition point in Jesus’ relationship with the people of Israel. The tension between He and the religious leaders was intensifying. Not only had they chosen to reject His claim to be the Messiah, they were accusing Him of being in league with Satan. And the people of Israel, while attracted to the miracles of Jesus, were not convinced that He was their Messiah and King. Which had led Jesus to refer to them as an “evil and adulterous generation.”

And Jesus had made it clear that belief in Him was the missing factor in the relationship the people of Israel had with Him. They were intrigued by Him, but were not willing to place their faith in Him. But, in spite of Jesus’ reference to them as an evil generation, the crowds did not diminish. They continued to show up in great numbers, attracted by His miracles and intrigued by His message.

And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. – Matthew 13:2 ESV

So, that same day, with the crowds gathered on the sea shore, Jesus entered a boat and began to teach them. And Matthew adds the important detail: “And he told them many things in parables.” This will not be the first time Jesus used parables to teach, but it does signal an overall shift in His strategy. A parable was a common teaching tool, that utilized comparison in order to drive hom an important lesson. They were stories that contained imagery familiar to the audience, but with the intent of teaching a deeper spiritual truth.

In this case, Jesus used the imagery of sowing seeds, something His audience would have readily understood. But as this chapter unfolds, it will become clear that the message behind His parable escaped those in His audience, including His disciples. They will end up asking Jesus, “Why do you speak to them in parables? (Matthew 13:10 ESV). In a sense, they were asking Jesus why He didn’t just say what He wanted to say. They were curious as to why He chose to utilize parables as His primary means of communication. And Jesus explained to them the purpose behind His chosen teaching style.

11 He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. 12 To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. 13 That is why I use these parables…” – Matthew 13:11-13 NLT

His parables contained the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus was revealing truth that had been hidden. He was providing enlightenment about God’s Kingdom that the people of Israel had missed. In fact, He told His disciples that “many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:17 ESV). While the Old Testament Scriptures were full of promises concerning the Messiah, the people of Israel had failed to fully understand who He would be and what He would do when He came. Their understanding of the Messiah’s reign was that of an earthly kingdom, like that of David and Solomon. They had been looking for a King who would set up His kingdom in Jerusalem and restore the power and prominence of Israel’s glorious past.

But Jesus was letting His disciples know that the expectations of the people were not wrong, but only premature. There is a day coming when Jesus will establish His Kingdom in Jerusalem and rule from the throne of David, all in keeping with the promises of God made to David. But first, the people would reject Him as their Messiah. And it would be their rejection of Him that would lead to His crucixion by them. Their refusal to accept their Messiah and King would result in the Gospel being taken to the Gentiles. And Jesus pointed out that their refusal of Him was in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

14 “This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says,

‘When you hear what I say,
    you will not understand.
When you see what I do,
    you will not comprehend.
15 For the hearts of these people are hardened,
    and their ears cannot hear,
and they have closed their eyes—
    so their eyes cannot see,
and their ears cannot hear,
    and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
    and let me heal them.’” – Matthew 13:14-15 NLT

But Jesus would explain the meaning of His parables to His disciples. Because of their belief in Him, He would reveal the truth contained in His messages.

“For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance.” – Matthew 13:12 ESV

These men had been called by Jesus and given the chance to sit under His teaching. Each of them had answered His call and left behind their former lives in a display of faith. They did not yet fully understand who He was. They were still wrestling with their own expectations and the seeming incongruities of Jesus‘ actions. But they were willingly walking with Him, even in the face of growing opposition. And Jesus promised that, because of their faith, they would be given even more insight into the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The key was their faith. Yes, it was small at times. They regularly wrestled with unbelief and doubt. But they remained by His side, eagerly listening and learning, watching and waiting to see what their Messiah was going to do. And over time, Jesus would continue to provide them with enlightenment and insight into the true nature of His Kingdom. And Jesus will reveal to them the hidden message contained in the parable of the soils. He won’t leave them hanging or left wondering about His meaning. And, over time, they will grow to understand more fully who He is and what He has come to do.

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

Seed Scattered.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.

But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. – Acts 8:4-13 ESV

Immediately following the stoning of Stephen, an intense persecution of the church in Jerusalem had begun. It was as if Stephen’s execution was the first step by the Sanhedrin in a much more  robust and radical plan for dealing with this troublesome new sect they had labeled “the way”.  From the moment Stephen was buried and eulogized by devout and faithful friends, the danger facing the church increased rapidly and took on the tone of an official effort on the part of the Jewish leadership to eliminate this heretical group once and for all. Luke reintroduces Saul, the young man who had held the coats of those who had stoned Stephen. But this time, he is presented as an active force in the extermination program instituted by the high priest and the Jewish council. Later on in this same book, Luke records Saul’s own words concerning his work on behalf of the Sanhedrin.

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.” – Acts 22:3-5 ESV

Saul, who happened to be a Pharisee, thought he had been doing God a favor by arresting and imprisoning Christians. They had fully approved of, and probably sanctioned, his efforts in Jerusalem, and had even given him letters of recommendation to take with him to Damascus so he could catch up with the rapidly spreading influence of “the way”. Saul would make it to Damascus, but as a changed man, an event Luke will soon recount. And when Saul arrived in Damascus, the followers of Christ there, reluctant to believe that any change had taken place in Saul’s life, said, “Isn’t this the same man who caused such devastation among Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem? And didn’t he come here to arrest them and take them in chains to the leading priests?” (Acts 9:21 NLT).

Yet, with all this intense animosity aimed at the church of Jesus Christ, there were those who had faithfully picked up the mantel of Stephen and had chosen to follow the rapidly dispersing church, taking the gospel with them. And Luke makes it clear that when the church began to scatter, the original apostles of Jesus had chosen to remain in Jerusalem. So, God raised up others. And one of them was Philip, who happened to be one of the seven Hellenistic Jews, along with Stephen, who had been appointed by the apostles to care for the widows in the church in Jerusalem. Like Stephen, Philip was a man “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3 ESV). And like Stephen, Philip saw that his job as a follower of Christ was going to encompass far more than dispersing food to needy widows within the congregation. It’s not that this was unimportant, but that there was an even greater need to continue the spread of the gospel. And Philip, as a Greek-speaking Jew, had a natural predisposition and inclination to share the gospel with those who were non-Jews. So, while the apostles remained in Jerusalem, Philip headed for Samaria, where he proclaimed Christ to them. With his arrival in Samaria, the call of Jesus for His disciples to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”, was beginning to be fulfilled.

The word that is translated as “scattered” in verse 4 is the Greek word, diaspeirō, and it comes from another Greek word, speirō, which refers to sowing seed. With the persecution of the church, the seed of the good news of Jesus Christ was being scattered or spread throughout Judea, Samaria and ultimately, as we will soon see, to the ends of the earth. But Philip headed for Samaria. Samaria was a region located north of Jerusalem, and Luke tells us that Philip went to “the city of Samaria”, most likely referring to a prominent city within the region, because there is no record of a city bearing that name. It could be that Philip went to Sychar, the very same Samaritan city Jesus had visited with His disciples, and where He had had His encounter with the woman at the well. He had told her, “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14 ESV). John goes on to record the rest of the conversation Jesus had with this woman.

25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” – John 4:25-26 ESV

She revealed an understanding and awareness of the Messiah, because the Samaritans were considered half-Jews. They were the result of Jews who had intermarried with Gentiles sent to live in the land after the Assyrians had defeated the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. The rest of the Jews considered them as half-breeds religiously and ethnically. While the Samaritans continued to worship Yahweh, they did so from there own temple, located on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. There was no love affair between the Jews and the Samaritans. In fact, in his gospel, Luke records another encounter Jesus had with Samaritans. This time, Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem and had sent his disciples ahead to a Samaritan city to tell them to prepare for His arrival. But the residents of the city refused to welcome Jesus because they understood His final destination was Jerusalem. So, James and John, being good Jews and faithful disciples of Jesus, had offered to take care of this ungrateful and disrespectful village of Samaritan half-breeds, asking, “Lord, should we call down fire from heaven to burn them up?” (Luke 9:54 NLT). But Luke records that Jesus, rather than taking His disciples up on their offer, rebuked them.

Whether Philip went to Sychar or some other city in Samaria, we don’t know. But we do know that there was an openness to the gospel on the part of the people of Samaria, because John tells us that Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well had significant ramifications.

39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” – John 4:39-42 ESV

Luke records that when Philip arrived in Samaria, he preached Christ, the Messiah. He performed signs, including casting out unclean spirits and healing the paralyzed and lame. And “there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8 ESV). God, in His sovereign will, was using this Hellenistic, Greek-speaking Jew, to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to despised and rejected Samaritans. And without realizing it, the Sanhedrin, who would have had nothing but disdain for Samaritans, had actually played a part in their salvation by instigating the persecution of the church and the scattering of the seed of the gospel. God works in mysterious ways.

And Luke records another individual whose life was changed as a result of Philip’s efforts. He was a magician or, better yet, a sorcerer named Simon. This man was not a magician like we would think of. He did not practice slight-of-hand or perform card tricks. He was a practitioner of the occult, performing miraculous signs, but with the help of demons, not God. And he had established a cult-following there in Samaria, with the people saying of him, “This man is the power of God that is called Great” (Acts 8:10 ESV). He had convinced the people of Samaria that His power was of God and it could be that some believed him to be the Messiah. But with Philip’s arrival in town, Simon suddenly found himself with competition. But he noticed that there was something very different about Philip and his efforts among the people. Philip wasn’t trying to amass a following or establish a name for himself. Luke records, “when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12 ESV). Lives were being changed. This wasn’t about impressing people with inexplicable displays of power. It was about life-change. It was about eternal life and redemption. Simon was amazed at what he saw. And Luke records that he too believed and was baptized. But as we will see, it will become clear that Simon was in search of more than salvation. He was after power. He saw what Philip offered as a means to an end. And when he realizes that the Holy Spirit seems to be the key to Philip’s amazing powers and abilities, he will try to purchase this power for himself.

But we’ll hold off on that discussion until tomorrow. The real point in these verses is that the enemy was attempting to defeat the cause of Christ, but was actually causing it to spread and grow. The dispersion of the church was one of the best things that could have happened. And if you think about it, it all began with a disagreement that had arisen in the church regarding widows whose needs were being overlooked. It was because of this need that seven men were chosen. One of them was Stephen. He would end up preaching a powerful message that would result in his own martyrdom. His martyrdom would lead to intensified persecution against the church by the Jewish leadership. That persecution would cause the church to scatter. That scattering of the church would cause the gospel seed to be sown in places it had never been before. And lives would be changed – forever.

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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