From Bad to Worse

25 “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away. 27 The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. 28 The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, 29 and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you shall not prosper in your ways. And you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you. 30 You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall ravish her. You shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but you shall not enjoy its fruit. 31 Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat any of it. Your donkey shall be seized before your face, but shall not be restored to you. Your sheep shall be given to your enemies, but there shall be no one to help you. 32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all day long, but you shall be helpless. 33 A nation that you have not known shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually, 34 so that you are driven mad by the sights that your eyes see. 35 The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.” Deuteronomy 28:25-35 ESV

Let’s face it, bad things happen. Calamity comes to everyone because it is no respecter of persons. And while God had promised that obedience to His law would bring blessings, He had never said that their lives would be trouble-free, disease-resistant, peace-filled, or painless. There would still be plenty of difficulties because they lived in a fallen world. They would still be required to offer sacrifices because they would continue to sin and need atonement.

So, when Moses discusses the curses that will come upon the people of Israel for what appears to be their stubborn and ongoing disobedience to God’s law, he makes sure they understand that this will be difficulties and trials on steroids. These will not be your everyday, run-of-the-mill troubles that are a normal part of everyday life on this planet. No, they will be extreme, and like nothing they have ever experienced before. There will be no relief or escape. They will feature the worst kind of suffering one can image and then take that suffering one step further.

Look closely at how each curse is described. God was going to personally see to it that Israel lost battles against their enemies. That was nothing new for Israel because they had already been defeated at Ai. But Moses describes a demoralizing rout that has the Israelites scattering in seven different directions in an attempt to save their lives. And the failure of the Israelite army will be so catastrophic that it will leave other nations in terror. The fall of Israel at the hands of their enemy will create a sense of fear among the other nations of the region, as they anticipate their own defeat against the same foe. History records that, eventually, Israel was roundly defeated by the Assyrians and Judah fell to the Babylonians. And both of these nations left a wake of destruction in their path, as they ransacked kingdom after kingdom, sending shockwaves of terror among the nations that remained.

And Moses lets the Israelites know that their defeat will be complete, with no one escaping. Their bodies will lie scattered on the ground and become “food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28:26 ESV). No burials or memorials and no one to mourn their deaths. In fact, there will be no one left to scare off the carrion or scavenging dogs. This defeat will not only be demoralizing, but it will also be devasting and irreversible.

Next, Moses reveals that the Israelites will suffer from boils and tumors, just like the ones that God brought upon the Egyptians as part of the ten plagues. God will use the very same diseases that forced the Egyptians to release His people from captivity as a form of punishment for their disobedience. And, once again, Moses takes the suffering a step further, stating that there will be no healing from the pain and itching. These diseases will be permanent and untreatable, with no hope of relief or chance of restoration. And, perhaps as a result of the unrelenting agony caused by the boils and tumors, the people of Israel will suffer from madness, loss of sight, and confusion of mind. Their diminished mental capacity and blindness will leave them incapable of living normal lives, which will result in financial ruin. And, as before, Moses takes his message of doom to another level by warning them, “you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you” (Deuteronomy 28:29 ESV). Just when they think it can’t get any worse, it will.

Next, Moses uses a series of short scenarios to further illustrate the devastating consequences of disobedience to God’s law. He begins with a case of betrothal. A man who experiences the joy of finding a woman to whom he becomes engaged will end up watching another man sleep with her. He will never have the privilege of consummating his own marriage. This most likely describes the grim reality of war. This man will have to watch as his betrothed is raped by an enemy soldier. And as if that was not enough, he and his future wife will never know the joy of living in the house he built for them. They will never enjoy the fruit of the vineyard he planted. And the ox he used to till his fields will be slaughtered and eaten by his enemies. His donkeys and sheep will become plunder, and his children will be taken as slaves. But it will get worse. This man will be left longing for his family but will find no one to help him. His loss will be great, and there will be no relief in sight.

All of these things will come upon the Israelites at the hands of a single nation that will leave them “only oppressed and crushed continually” (Deuteronomy 28:33 ESV). God will use this nation to bring about His judgment upon His own people. But it will be their own fault. Their decision to disobey God’s commands will result in their own destruction. And the books of the prophets of God are filled with calls for the people of Israel to repent and return to Him. God will repeatedly issue His compassionate offer of restitution if His people will only repent of their ways. But they won’t, and all that Moses describes in these verses will take place.

These curses are not a form of hyperbole or exaggeration on Moses’ part. They are prophetic pronouncements concerning God’s judgment. So, when Moses says, “the Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head” (Deuteronomy 28:35 ESV), he is not issuing idol threats. He means it. And, as before, this warning of grievous boils will be far worse than they can imagine. They will cover the Israelites from head to foot, and they will not respond to any form of treatment or remedy. Repeated disobedience to God’s commands will bring devastating and debilitating consequences that will leave the people of Israel without hope and devoid of help. And Moses is just getting started.

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

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

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

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Live to Righteousness

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:21-25 ESV

In His incarnation, Jesus Christ became one of us and became one with us. As the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, He humbled Himself by taking on the very nature of a man, being born as a helpless baby and subjecting Himself to the care and protection of human parents. We know little about His childhood, but in his gospel, Luke records a scene that provides some insights into Jesus’ character, even at the age of 12. Mary and Joseph had traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem to attend the annual Feast of Passover. But when the festival was over and they had begun their long journey home, they discovered that Jesus was nowhere to be found. They had assumed he had been traveling with other family members, but soon discovered He was missing. So, they quickly made their way back to Jerusalem and for three anxiety filled days they searched for him, and “finally discovered him in the Temple, sitting among the religious teachers, listening to them and asking questions” (Luke 2:46 NLT).

And Luke records that “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47 NLT). But his parents were perplexed by his actions and expressed their concern to him: “Son,…why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere” (Luke 2:48 NLT). Yet Jesus calmly and confidently responded, “But why did you need to search? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 NLT). That last line could be translated, “Didn’t you realize that I should be involved with my Father’s affairs?” He expressed surprise that his parents had not immediately assumed He would be exactly where His Heavenly Father was to be found: In the temple. Even at the age of 12, Jesus was wired to do the will of His Father and to seek fellowship with Him. And Luke records that Jesus “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people” (Luke 2:52 NLT).

As we’ve already discussed, the humanity of Jesus allowed Him to relate to us on an intimate level, exposing Himself to the circumstances and experiences common to the human condition. As a boy and as a man, Jesus knew what it was like to experience pain, to grow hungry and tired, to work, endure temptation, face rejection, laugh, cry, celebrate, age, witness the effects of disease and death, and watch the endless examples of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man.

For 30-plus years, Jesus lived on this planet; eating, drinking, working, relating, loving, caring, and growing in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and all the people. Then, one day, led by the Holy Spirit, Jesus made His way to the River Jordan, where He would begin His earthly ministry by being baptized by John the Baptist. But John was reticent, and Matthew records in his gospel:

John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:14-17 ESV

Look closely to what Jesus said to John. “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was telling John that this was in keeping with the will of God and by obeying that will they would fulfill the moral requirements of God. This is not the same kind of righteousness that Paul speaks of in his letters. Jesus did not need to be made right with God. His baptism was not a form of sanctification, making Him fit for duty. It was a step of obedience, a sign of His willingness to do all that God had set out for Him to do. His baptism was not one of repentance, but of obedience. By allowing Himself to be baptized by John, Jesus aligned Himself with all those who had followed John’s call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). Jesus validated John’s ministry, and visibly gave His approval to what John was calling the people to do.

Matthew tells us that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:5-6 ESV). Even the Pharisees and Sadducees showed up, seeking to be baptized by John, but he responded to their efforts with scorn.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:7-10 ESV

John saw these men as what they were: Self-righteous religious charlatans who had no intention of changing the way they lived. Unlike the common people who were confessing their sins, these pride-filled religious leaders saw themselves as already righteous because of their strict adherence to the Mosaic law and their status as sons of Abraham.

But John let them know that their self-righteousness was going to be inadequate and their legal status as Jews would prove insufficient. Jesus had come to usher in a new and better way for men to be made right with God. And John differentiated between his ministry and that of Jesus by saying, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11 ESV).

Some years later, after Jesus had completed His earthly ministry by sacrificing His life on the cross, rising again from the dead, and returning to His Father’s side in heaven, Peter wrote his first letter to a group of Jesus’ followers. And he challenged them to “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:16-17 ESV). These people, as followers of Jesus, were to live as He lived. They were to emulate His life. As Paul told the Colossian church, “you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead” (Colossians 2:12 NLT). They had a new power available to them, made possible through the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. They were new creations who were filled with the fruit of righteousness (Philippians 1:11) and fully capable of living new lives in keeping with the will of God, even if that will included suffering.

Which is why Peter tells his audience, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21 ESV). And Jesus had warned His disciples that things would not be easy for them. Following Christ is not for the faint of heart, but it comes with a personal assurance from the Savior Himself: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV). But how did Jesus overcome the world? Peter explains that Jesus conquered the world, the evil domain under the rule of Satan, by sacrificing His life on the cross. Jesus “committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22-23 ESV). Jesus spent His life being about His Father’s business, doing what He had been called to do. He trusted His Father’s will for Him. He knew that God’s ways were just and right, and was willing to subject Himself to trials, tribulations, and troubles of all kinds because He had confidence in God.

Peter summarizes the actions of Jesus with the simple, yet profound statement: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24 ESV). From His baptism by John to His death at the hands of the Romans, all that Jesus did was done so that we might live to righteousness. From His incarnation to His resurrection, the obedience of Jesus was displayed in full, providing a means by which sinful men and women might be made right with God. His fully righteous actions, from start to finish, made Him the perfect, unblemished sacrifice for the sins of man. He suffered and died, bearing our sins on His body so that we might be made righteous in the eyes of God. And not only are we considered or reckoned righteous by God, but we are also capable of living righteously, bearing the fruit of righteousness.

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

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

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

 

Devoted to Good Works

12 When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. 13 Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing. 14 And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.

15 All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith.

Grace be with you all. – Titus 3:12-15 ESV

The early community of Christ was a close-knit one. Despite the fact that Paul was traveling from one end of the known world to the other, and planting churches in ethnically and geologically diverse regions, they shared a certain bond of unity. Wherever they were located, these fledgling communities of faith were in the minority and found themselves facing extreme opposition. To many Gentiles, Christians were nothing more than a sect of the Jewish religion. After all, the converts to Christianity followed the teachings of an itinerant Jewish rabbi. But to the Jews, Christians were a dangerous heresy that taught against the Mosaic Law and the rite of circumcision. So, wherever Paul and his companions took the gospel and saw its message of faith in Christ take root, they also witnessed intense antagonism.

These new congregations of believers were often ostracized and isolated from their former communities, and lacking in mature spiritual leadership, so Paul felt a strong sense of responsibility to provide them with instruction and encouragement. He wanted them to know that they were part of a much larger community of faith that was spreading around the world. Paul’s letters formed a kind of literary highway system linking these distant and disparate congregations together. His growing network of spiritual disciples included man like Timothy, Titus, Artemas, Tychicus, Zenas, and Apollos, who each played a vital role in ministering the far-flung Christian community. These men provided much-needed spiritual training to the faithful, but also served as the eyes and ears of Paul, giving him insight into what was happening within the body of Christ around the world.

Paul was constantly traveling from one place to another, fulfilling his commission to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the nations. But he tended to lave a part of his heart in every city, town, and village where the gospel found converts. In many cases, his first visit to a city was his last. His travels didn’t always allow him to circle back and check in on the churches he had helped to found. And, in time, his lengthy imprisonment in Rome would completely curtail his efforts to minister those whom he loved like his own children. But Paul never left them without adequate spiritual nourishment or oversight. And he wanted them to know that they were all in this together. They were all part of a much-larger family of faith that God was planting all around the world. And, for Paul, it was essential that each of these churches understand their role within the bigger picture. Rather than focus all their attention on their particular circumstances, they were to see themselves as members of the growing body of Christ.

Paul firmly believed that when an individual came to faith in Christ, they were to align themselves with a local faith community. They were not to act as a free agent, operating Lone-Ranger-style, independent and isolated from other Christians in their community. This corporate mentality was essential to the spiritual well-being of the individual and the community. And for Paul, it went well beyond geographic confines. He often used the metaphor of the human body as a way of illustrating the interconnected, interdependent nature of the body of Christ.

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 NLT

The concept of a global church made up of people from all walks of life, every conceivable economic background, and diverse ethnic makeups was revolutionary. And this new admixture of individuals into a mutually beneficial community of faith was making a radical impact on the world. The church was growing and people were noticing. And Paul was obsessed with getting his expanding family of faith to understand their need for one another. He encouraged an attitude of generosity and selflessness, and praised the churches in Macedonia for their gracious giving toward the needs of the church in Jerusalem.

For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped, for their first action was to give themselves to the Lord and to us, just as God wanted them to do. – 2 Corinthians 8:3-5 NLT

Paul went on to encourage the believers in Corinth to follow the example of the Macedonian churches.

Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. – 2 Corinthians 8:11 NLT

And Paul wanted the believers on Crete to have the same attitude, telling Titus , “let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14 ESV).

The church is a living organism, not an organization. It is an interactive, interdependent blend of individuals into a worldwide community that is to reflect the unity of the Godhead. And the letter that Paul wrote to Titus is as applicable today as it was in the 1st-Century in which he wrote it. His call to Christ-likeness, humility, submission, service, and an unwavering commitment to the truth is vital today as it ever was. The words Paul used to open his letter still apply.

I have been sent to proclaim faith to those God has chosen and to teach them to know the truth that shows them how to live godly lives. – Titus 1:1 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

Kept By God

24 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. – Jude 1:24-25 ESV

Technically, these two verses form the closing to Jude’s letter. But there is far more here than initially meets the eye. As Jude wraps up his heart-felt message to the church, he ends with a stirring tribute to God. In spite of the presence of false teachers and the ongoing need to stand firm in their faith, Jude wanted the believers to whom he wrote  to understand the glory and greatness of God.

The Christian life is anything but easy. Nowhere in the New Testament is it presented as a walk in the park or a trouble-free existence devoid of pain or suffering. Jesus Himself told us, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows,” but He went on to say, “take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 6:33 NLT). Paul and Barnabas preached a consistend message in all the churches to which they minisered:

They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. – Acts 14:22 NLT

And Paul warned his young protegé, Timothy:

…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. – 2 Timothy 3:12 NLT

And Peter offered up a similar warning about the reality of suffering as a non-negotiable aspect of the Christian life.

…if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you.

For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:20-21 NLT

But suffering, while inevitable for the Christian, does not have to result in stumbling. The Greek word Jude used is aptaistos and it is made up of the negative participle “a,” which means “no” or “not,” and word that can mean ”falling” or “sinning.” So, Jude is reminding his readers that, while they will experience suffering as a part of their spiritual journey, it doesn’t have to result in them falling into sin. In fact, they can stand firm and remain blameless even in the face of outside pressures and intense forms of suffering. But the best news is that this thriving in the face of suffering is not up to them. It is the work of God.

Jude is simply reinforcing a statement he made earlier in his letter.

I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Jude 1:6 NLT

God is going to keep and complete. He is going to finish what He started in their lives. Their faith journey was going to include their salvation, ongoing sanctification, and future glorification. There are no halfway Christians. There are no partial saints. Everyone who is called by God is guaranteed the right to experience the consummation of their spiritual transformation. Paul made this point explicitly clear to the believers in Rome.

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. – Romans 8:30 ESV

Paul spoke of all these things using the past tense. While their glorification had not yet happened, Paul wanted them to see it as guaranteed and as good as done. It was inevitable and unavoidable. Which is why he went on to encourage them to remember that they had been “prepared in advance for glory” (Romans 9:23 BSB). Their future glorification would be the inescapable outcome of their salvation.

And Jude echoes this remarkable truth by stating that God is determined “to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 1:24 ESV). But Jude seems to have more in mind here than the believer’s future glorification. He is reminding them that God has made it possible for them to stand before Him as blameless, right here, right now. He is not describing a state of sinless perfection, but of acceptance before God. Because of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and our acceptance of His payment for our sins, we stand before God covered by the righteousness of Christ. Which is why Paul told the believers in Rome, “there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus” (8:1 NLT).

Our sins have been paid for. Which means our sin debt has been wiped clean. And while we will suffer in this life, we can rest assured that we will survive all this life will throw at us. We can be exactly what Paul said we should be: “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37 ESV).

And the best news is that, one day, all those who have been called by God and have placed their faith in His Son, will stand before the two of them in all of their glory with great joy. And the book of Revelation records John’s vision of that coming day.

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,

“Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
    the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
    and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
    and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
    with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. – Revelation 19:6-8 ESV

And Jude seems to alluding to this very scene in the very last line of his letter. In fact, his words echo those of the saints who will be standing before God and the Lamb in the eternal state.

…to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. – Jude 1:25 ESV

But these words of praise and adoration are not reserved for some future point in time, but are to be a part of each and every believer’s life as they live on this earth. Notice that Jude include the past (before all time), the present (now), and the future (forever). God deserves our praise at all times. He is and always has been worthy of glory, majesty, dominion, and authority. Our circumstances don’t change that reality. Our suffering does not diminish His glory, limit His dominion, or call into question His power or authority. Present affliction shouldn’t cause us to doubt our future glorification. God has it all under control. He who called us will keep us. He who saved us will sanctify us. And He who redeemed us through His Son’s death will one day grant us eternal life. It is a promise of God that was reiterated by the Son of God.

“I assure you that everyone who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, will be repaid many times over in this life, and will have eternal life in the world to come.” – Luke 18:29 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.s

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

Contentment in Christ

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:10-13 ESV

Verse 10 presents what appears to be, at first glance, a somewhat awkward and misplaced transition. It seems as if Paul is jumping to a whole new topic: His recent receipt of some sort of gift from the Philippian congregation. But, while that is the topic, Paul seems to be bringing it up at this point because it has everything to do with what he has been discussing in this section. He is using their gift to make an important point about what it means to “think on these things.”

Remember, Paul has just stressed that they were to fix their thoughts on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable. They were to fill their minds with thoughts of those actions and attitudes that reflect those kind of characteristics. Then, almost as if out of nowhere, Paul brings up their recent gift to him. But notice that is it not the gift itself that Paul turns his attention to. It is what the gift represented to him. He tells them that he “rejoiced in the Lord greatly,” not because of the nature of what they gave, but because of the heart behind the gift – “you have revived your concern for me” (Philippians 4:10 ESV). 

The gift was a tangible expression of their love and concern for him. And, Paul lets them know that he always knew they cared for him, but was aware that they had been hindered in expressing their love in either word or deed because of distance and his own unique circumstance in Rome. For Paul, the gift was not the point. He doesn’t even mention what the gift was. It was simply a timely reminder of their love for him and, as he thought about that, he couldn’t help but rejoice. Their thoughtfulness to send him the gift was an example of whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable.

Too often, we allow conditions and circumstances to determine the degree of our joy. When things go well for us, we react with happiness. When they don’t, we can find ourselves struggling with disappointment and disillusionment, wondering what we did to make God mad at us. But circumstances were never meant to be metrics for measuring our joy or contentment. And neither were material things. But the truth is, far too many of us place excessive importance on stuff and things, seeking from them a sense of worth and using them as our primary source for finding satisfaction and significance in life.

The Philippians saw Paul as someone in need. He was under house arrest in Rome, so his circumstances were less than ideal. He had no source of income, so his financial situation was challenging. They may have heard that his housing was inadequate and his food supply was insufficient. From their perspective, it must have appeared that Paul was in dire straights, as he awaited trial before Caesar.  So, they sent him a gift. And it was only natural that they would do so. They wanted to do something to help alleviate any suffering he may be experiencing as a result of his conditions.

But Paul, while grateful for their graciousness and love, used this as another teaching moment, letting them know that, in spite of what he was going through, he really had no need. It wasn’t about the condition of his circumstances or the abundance or lack of material things. And Paul makes that point quite clear in what has become one of the most well-known and oft-quoted verses from the Bible.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. – Philippians 4:11 ESV

Think about what Paul is saying. His mention of the delay in receiving their gift was not intended to convey that he had lacked in anything. He had not been sitting around waiting for someone to do something about his circumstances. He had not been longing for a gift of some kind that would lighten his load or improve his living conditions. No, he said that he was perfectly content. He was at peace. He appreciated their gift, as an expression of their love, but he didn’t need it. Whatever it was that they sent was not going to make him any more happy or satisfied than he already was.

Over the years, Paul had learned a valuable lesson, that he was not attempting to pass on to them.

I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. – Philippians 4:12 NLT

Paul refers to what he has learned as being a secret or mystery. The Greek word he used is myeō, and it means “to initiate into the mysteries.” He had been taught something that few people ever get to know on their own. And the lesson he learned was taught to him by Jesus Christ Himself. Remember what Paul stated earlier in this same letter: “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (Philippians 2:5 NLT).  He was humble, obedient, selfless, sacrificial and obedient to God the Father, even to the point of death.

Paul was probably familiar with the story when the disciples had brought Jesus food and had encouraged Him to eat. But He had responded, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about” (John 4:32 NLT). While they debated among themselves how Jesus had gotten this food, Jesus told them, “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34 NLT). And it is likely that Paul was aware of the encounter Jesus had with a would-be disciple, to whom Jesus declared, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58 NLT).

For Paul, contentment had nothing to do with content. It wasn’t about things. Clothes, food, and living arrangements were not what brought Paul joy. The size of his personal portfolio was not a determiner of Paul’s contentment. The condition of his circumstances was not how Paul measured his sense of satisfaction. The ebbs and flows of material prosperity had no little or no impact on Paul. He didn’t allow the ups and downs of life circumstances to dictate his overall sense of contentment. And the key to this rather radical view on life was his relationship with Jesus. According to Paul, it was Jesus who gave him the strength to live as he did.

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13 NLT

Paul could survive house arrest, because of Jesus. He could put up with less-than-satisfactory living conditions, because of Jesus. He could do without comfortable clothes or good food, because of Jesus. But Jesus didn’t just give Paul strength to survive want and neglect. Paul could survive all the temptations that come with material wealth, because of Jesus. He had remained undistracted by the allure of fame and notoriety, because of Jesus. He was not prone to envy other, more popular, ministers, all because of Jesus.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul reminded them that when he had arrived in their city, he wasn’t out to impress or to gain approval.

I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 NT

His emphasis had been of Jesus. His strength had come from Jesus. He came to them, filled with fear and trepidation, but he found the power to do what he had been called to do – in Christ. And, in a second letter to the same congregation, Paul emphasized that the strength he received from Christ allowed him to endure anything and everything so that the gospel might be spread and the church of Jesus Christ might be strengthened.

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 NLT

For Paul, suffering and troubles came with the territory. They were just part of the job description of being a follower of Christ. And he was perfectly content to endure all that came with being a faithful servant of Christ. Life isn’t about ideal circumstances or the presence of material comforts. It is about contentment in 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

Unity in Diversity

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.Philippians 1:18-2:4 ESV

Paul has expressed his desire to return to Philippi one day, and he has let them know that, while he would prefer to die and be with the Lord, he was of the impression that he would eventually be released from his house arrest in Rome. And that would be a good thing. It would allow him to continue his ministry of the gospel and to continue to encourage all the churches he had played a role in starting.

But, at the moment, Paul’s greatest concern was the spiritual well-being of his brothers and sisters in Philippi. And while he knew they would rejoice over the thought of him returning to see them one day, he had more pressing matters in mind.  It would seem from the content of this next section of Paul’s letter, that there was some serious disunity taking place in the congregation in Philippi. Paul is going to stress the idea of oneness. Three times in eight verses, Paul will use the word, “one.” He longs to hear that they are “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27 ESV).

Like any of the other churches of that day, the Philippian congregation was relatively new and trying to hold its own in the midst of a pagan and sometimes hostile culture.  They were constantly facing outside opposition. As a Roman colony, Philippi was filled with a plethora of false gods. One of the keys to Rome’s successful domination of the world was its willingness to accommodate and tolerate the gods of the nations they conquered. They allowed their subjects to continue the worship of their own particular deity(s). While this policy of tolerance made the management of Rome’s far-flung empire with its ethnically and religiously diverse populations much easier, it could also create an atmosphere of polarization and antagonism. In the atmosphere of forced pluralism, each group would go out of its way to maintain the distinctives of its religious traditions, resulting in a culture of conflict and competition.

And here was this fledgling congregation of relatively new believers trying to hold its own in an atmosphere that favored religious pluralism but actually fostered intolerance and open hostility. Christians were the new kids on the block. They were usually unwelcome and misunderstood. Some viewed them as a sect of Judaism, while others tried to portray them as a dangerous cult. And, each and every one of the members of the Philippian congregation would have been a convert to Christianity from some other and much older faith system. In accepting Christ as Savior, they had turned their backs on their former religion and, in doing so, alienated friends and family members who still held firmly to that ideology.

For Christians living in the 1st-Century, coming to faith in Christ was about much more than a decision to accept Jesus as their Savior. It could be an extremely risky and potentially deadly choice that had long-term and life-altering implications. And no one understood this better than Paul. His relationship with Christ had cost him dearly. And in his second letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul outlined all that he had suffered as a result of his faith.

Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not.[c] I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. – 2 Corinthians 11:24-27 NLT

Being a follower of Christ was not easy. And Paul knew that the key to the Philippian church’s survival was going to be their unity. They had to see themselves as a family. They were in this together. And they needed to see themselves as distinct and different from the culture around them. Which is why he pleads with them to “live as citizens of heaven” and to conduct themselves “in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (Philippians 1:27 NLT). This was a corporate call, addressing the entire congregation, not individual believers. They were to do this together, not alone. Their display of unity in the face of adversity and hostility would strengthen their faith and spread the news of the life-transformative nature of the gospel. That this diverse group of people from all walks of life and a variety of religious backgrounds could live together with one mind and one spirit would be a testimony to the power of the gospel.

And Paul commends them for “standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News” (Philippians 1:27 NLT). He has heard of their unity, but he knows that the enemy is always seeking to divide and conquer. They must not allow that to happen. Paul flatly states, “Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies” (Philippians 1:28 NLT). There were outside forces pressing in on this young congregation and Paul wanted them to remain unified in their love for one another and their commitment to the cause of Christ. This unwavering display of oneness in the face of opposition would be proof of the ultimate victory Christ-followers will enjoy. As Jesus told promised Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 ESV).

Suffering was going to be a normal part of their faith experience. In fact, Paul tells them that they should see their suffering as a privilege, on equal footing with the privilege of trusting in Christ. For Paul, suffering was a necessary part of salvation. It came with the territory. And a bit further on in his letter, Paul will boldly declare, “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death” (Philippians 3:10 NLT). This was not an isolated statement by Paul. He held this view throughout his life and shared it frequently. To the believers in Rome he wrote: “if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering” (Romans 8:17 NLT). He told the Colossian church, “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church” (Colossians 1:24 NLT). And the apostle Peter shared Paul’s sentiments regarding suffering.

…be very glad – for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world.  – 1 Peter 4:13 NLT

Paul viewed the Christian life as a struggle. It was not meant to be easy. We are aliens living in a strange land. We are emissaries for the King and have been sent to declare the message of His Kingdom to a world that stands opposed to Him. We have the good news regarding Jesus Christ, but the majority of those with whom we share it will find it repulsive and simply reject it. And they will reject the messengers as well.

So, in order to survive in this hostile environment, we will need to remain unified and share a single-minded commitment to our mutual mission as the body of Christ. With all that the believers in Philippi were facing, Paul wanted them to understand that their shared faith in Christ had real value. Which is why he states, “if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy” (Philippians 2:1 ESV). Paul is not raising doubts concerning the efficacy of faith in Christ, he is doing just the opposite. There IS encouragement in Christ. There IS comfort that comes from Christ-like love. There IS real value in living together in the power of the Holy Spirit. There IS true affection and sympathy to be found in this thing called the body of Christ.

But all of this is available only when believers choose to accept the non-negotiable reality of their role as members of that body. Which is why Paul encourages the Philippian believers to be, “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2 ESV). There was no place for selfishness or self-centeredness in the body of Christ. Pride was out of bounds and of no value. Conceit and ego were to be seen as deadly to unity.

In order to survive and thrive, the believers in Philippi were going to have to have a different kind of attitude about life. It was going to require a counter-cultural take on what it means to succeed in life. And, just so they don’t miss what he means, Paul spells it out for them.

Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. – Philippians 2:4 NLT

And in the very next verse, Paul will provide them with the key to pulling all this off. It will not be accomplished in their own strength or according to their own standards of humility and unity. Christ is to be our model for living in Christ-likeness. He sets the standard for what it means to “live as citizens of heaven.”

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

Keep On Keeping On

18 Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. Philippians 1:18-26 ESV

Paul opens this section by reconfirming his determination to rejoice in his circumstances. While news of his imprisonment had been disconcerting to the believers in Philippi, For Paul it was just another God-ordained opportunity to spread the gospel. And if others were attempting to take advantage of his situation by filling the role of messenger is his absence, so be it. As long as Christ was being lifted up, he was perfectly okay with it all, even if some of these people were motivated by envy and not a sincere love for the lost.

Paul knew that any success he had enjoyed in his ministry had not been because of his powers of persuasion, but it had been due to the power of the gospel. In writing to the believers in Thessalonica, Paul reminded them of the treatment he and Silas had suffered in Philippi because of their preaching of the gospel. Not long after their arrival in Philippi, they had cast a demon out of a young slave girl. With the exorcism of the demon, she lost her ability to act as a fortune teller for her masters and they lost a much-needed source of revenue. In an act of revenge, they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the magistrates of the city, where the two men were severely beaten and thrown in jail. And Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that all of this had taken place just prior to his arrival in their town.

You yourselves know, dear brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure. You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition. So you can see we were not preaching with any deceit or impure motives or trickery.

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

In spite of all that had happened in Philippi, Paul and his companions declared the Good News boldly in Thessalonica, even in the face of opposition. And they did so, not for money or the praise of men, but to please God as His faithful messengers. So, Paul was not concerned with the motives of others. As long as they were preaching salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, he was satisfied and could rejoice. Paul had never been in the ministry for what he could get out of it. For him, it was a calling, not a job. And He never saw himself as this gifted spokesman for God using his talents to further the Kingdom of God. He even describes himself as nothing more than a fragile clay jar containing the great treasure of the gospel message (2 Corinthians 4:7). And he wrote to the Corinthian believers, reminding them that their conversions were due to the power of the Spirit, not his own eloquence.

When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NLT

But as Paul writes to the Philippian believers from his house arrest in Rome, he shares with them the tremendous internal conflict he was having. It had nothing to do with a fear of death. He knew that was a possible outcome of his pending trial before Nero and he was perfectly at peace with that. In fact, he flatly stated, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23 ESV). He saw death as a reward, not a punishment. But he also struggled with the desire to continue his ministry among them. As much as he longed to be with the Lord, he felt that his work on Christ’s behalf was far from over. In fact, he told the Philippians, “I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith” (Philippians 1:25 NLT).

One thing motivated Paul’s actions and attitudes – bringing glory to the name of Christ. If he could do that through deliverance from prison and a continuation of his ministry, so be it. But if his trial resulted in a death sentence, he saw that as a gracious deliverance by God from this sin-marred world. When all was said and done, Paul simply wanted to honor Christ in all that he did, which is why he stated, “I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die” (Philippians 1:20 NLT).

Paul was not making much of himself. He was not bragging about his superior spirituality or attempting to set himself up as some icon of righteousness and religious virtue. He was attempting to encourage the believers in Philippi to share the same perspective on life that he had. He didn’t view his arrest and imprisonment as a setback or a sign of God’s disfavor with him. He sincerely believed that it was all a part of God’s will for his life. By maintaining his focus on Christ and trusting in the will of God for his life, Paul had “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11 NLT). So, he was able to say, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12 NLT).

He knew that the Philippian believers were facing their own set of difficulties. They were going to have struggles in their faith journey, just as Paul had. And Paul wanted them to stay strong, to remain committed to the cause of Christ, and to see the sovereign hand of God in all that happened in and around their lives.

Paul was convinced that he was going to be released and that he would one day see them again. But in the meantime, he wanted to encourage them to keep on keeping on. Later on in this letter, Paul writes these powerful words of testimony and encouragement.

I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us… – Philippians 3:14 NLT

Then he follows up this statement of personal conviction and commitment with a call for them to follow his lead.

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

And in the following verses, Paul will provide the Philippians with specific details concerning the conduct of all those who claim heavenly citizenship as God’s children.

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

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

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

We Will Sing.

In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:

“We have a strong city;
    he sets up salvation
    as walls and bulwarks.
Open the gates,
    that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.
You keep him in perfect peace
    whose mind is stayed on you,
    because he trusts in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
    for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.
For he has humbled
    the inhabitants of the height,
    the lofty city.
He lays it low, lays it low to the ground,
    casts it to the dust.
The foot tramples it,
    the feet of the poor,
    the steps of the needy.”

The path of the righteous is level;
    you make level the way of the righteous.
In the path of your judgments,
    O Lord, we wait for you;
your name and remembrance
    are the desire of our soul.
My soul yearns for you in the night;
    my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.
For when your judgments are in the earth,
    the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness. – Isaiah 26:1-9 ESV

The prophet, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, continues to reveal a future day when a remnant of Israel will be restored to the land and Jerusalem will once more be the city of God. While some aspects of this prophecy have been fulfilled, in part, through past events, the majority of what Isaiah reveals in these verses speaks of “that day” – a reference to the end times. By the descriptions given in this passage, it would appear that Isaiah is speaking of the Millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, spoken of in Revelation 20. In God’s great redemptive plan, there is a day coming when His Son will return and set up His Kingdom on earth, ruling from the throne of David in Jerusalem.

And Isaiah is given a glimpse of what that great day will mean to the Jews who survive the seven years of the Tribulation, and are alive when Jesus returns. They will sing a song of joy, praise and thanksgiving.

“Our city is strong!
    We are surrounded by the walls of God’s salvation.” – Isaiah 26:1 NLT

Unlike their ancient ancestors, the Israelites will recognize God as the source of their strength and salvation. It will be readily apparent to them that the walls of Jerusalem were not what had kept them safe and secure. During the second half of the Tribulation, a period known as the Great Tribulation, the Antichrist will turn his hatred against the people of God, even desecrating their temple by erecting an idol to himself in the Holy of Holies. He will put an end to all sacrifice and begin a pogrom of extermination aimed at all those who follow God, having refused to take the mark of the Antichrist and worship him as a false god.

So, when Christ returns and defeats the kings of the earth and Satan, the prince of this world, the Jews will rejoice. And they will call all the righteous to join them in the city of Jerusalem where the Messiah has set up His throne. It will be a time when all who have remained true to God will be able to rejoice over the faithfulness of God.

“You will keep in perfect peace
    all who trust in you,
    all whose thoughts are fixed on you!” – Isaiah 26:3 NLT

This verse, which has been quoted by so many of God’s people over the centuries, would have been meant to provide encouragement to the people in Isaiah’s day. It was intended to be a reminder that they remain faithful and true to God, no matter what was happening around them. They were in the midst of their trials and tribulations, but God was with them. All He asked in return was that they trust in Him and keep their thoughts fixed on Him. The song of the saints who come out of the future tribulation makes this point perfectly clear.

“Trust in the Lord always,
    for the Lord God is the eternal Rock.” – Isaiah 26:4 NLT

The whole purpose behind Isaiah’s vision of Jerusalem’s future restoration and Messiah’s ascension to the throne of David was to challenge the people of Judah to remain true to God. He wanted them to trust God, rather than put their hope in an alliance with another nation. Their circumstances were intended to turn them back to God, not to false forms of hope and pseudo-salvation. And these prophetic visions of future salvation were meant to remind God’s people that He was, is and always will be faithful.

He humbles the proud and arrogant. He destroys the powerful cities of the enemies. But He cares for the downtrodden and poor. He avenges the oppressed and restores the fortunes of the faithful.

“But for those who are righteous,
    the way is not steep and rough.
You are a God who does what is right,
    and you smooth out the path ahead of them.” – Isaiah 26:7 NLT

The difficulty every child of God faces is the seeming disconnect between the promises of God and the nature of our circumstances. Because, too often, the road we walk seems extremely steep and rough. And it does not always appear as if God is doing what is right. We question Him constantly, doubting His goodness and love because we have a difficult time seeing Him in the midst of all our trials. Rather than a smooth path, we see a rocky road, filled with faith-jarring potholes and seemingly pointless twists and turns that serve no purpose.

But Isaiah would have us remember that God is there, and He has a plan. That plan, much to our chagrin, goes far beyond our immediate need for relief from suffering. God has far more planned for us than simply our immediate happiness. A big part of what Isaiah was trying to get across to the people of Judah was their need to be obedient to God. Their suffering was due to their disobedience. They had allowed their love for and obedience to God to wain. Love of the world and love of self had replaced their love for God.

But the saints who weather the storm of the Tribulation will sing of their obedience to God and their desire to glorify His name, even in the midst of the worst suffering this world will ever know.

“Lord, we show our trust in you by obeying your laws;
    our heart’s desire is to glorify your name.
In the night I search for you;
    in the morning I earnestly seek you.
For only when you come to judge the earth
    will people learn what is right.” – Isaiah 26:8-9 NLT

Notice that last line. It says it all. We will never fully understand the ways of God until He completes His grand plan for this world and all who live on it. One of the reasons the Bible is filled with prophetic visions of the future is so that we will keep our eyes focused on the entirety of God’s redemptive plan. As human beings, we have a severely limited perspective on life. It tends to focus on our immediate context and produces in us a myopic sense of self-importance. It ends up being all about us. Our problems. Our suffering. Our pain. Our loss. Our desire for happiness and our demand that all our troubles be eliminated right here, right now.

But the apostle Paul, like Isaiah, would remind us to look up and look forward.

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 NLT

As he told the believers in Rome:

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.
 – Romans 8:18 NLT

And Peter adds his words to the mix, encouraging us to see our present suffering as a natural part of our life as followers of Christ. But there is a day coming when God will make all things right.

…be strong in your faith. Remember that your Christian brothers and sisters all over the world are going through the same kind of suffering you are. In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation. – 1 Peter 5:8-10 NLT

And, once again, Paul reminds us to keep our eyes focused on the larger plan of God. This world is not all there is. What we see now does not represent the full scope of God’s redemptive plan.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. – Colossian 3:1-4 NLT

And like the saints in the Millennial Kingdom, we will sing and rejoice as we share in all His glory.

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

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

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

Remain Faithful.

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ Revelation 2:8-11 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapThe city of Smyrna was only about 35-miles north of Ephesus. Like Ephesus, it was a wealthy and prosperous city, but also had a reputation for its wickedness and strong resistance to the gospel at the time John would have written this letter. The name Smyrna actually means “bitter.” It is translated from the Hebrew mor or myrrh, which was a fragrant perfume used in the embalming of dead bodies. The fragrance of myrrh is released when it is crushed, and this will prove to be an accurate metaphor for the little congregation of believers trying to exist within the confines of this immoral city. Jesus introduces Himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8 ESV). This designation is intended to provide the members of the church in Smyrna with encouragement, relating to them the eternal nature of the one whom they worshiped. Jesus had died, but He was alive. He had risen from the dead and was seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. He had returned to His rightful place, where He has existed for all eternity. These people were experiencing tribulation and poverty as a result of their faith, and Jesus lets them know that He is fully aware. He reminds them that they are actually rich, having received the gift of God’s grace in the form of His Son’s sacrificial death. The apostle Paul had a lot to say about the richness that comes from our restored relationship with God the Father made possible through the death of Jesus, His Son. He described he and his fellow ministers as, “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10 ESV). He also told the Corinthians that Jesus had graciously taken on human flesh and offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of men, “so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV). And James, the half-brother of Jesus, reminded his readers that God had chosen “those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5 ESV).

The believers in Smyrna were poor according to every measurable standard of their day. But Jesus wanted to remind them of the value of their relationship with Him. They had something money could not buy: a right relationship with God the Father, purchased by the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Along with their poverty, these Christians were having to endure slander from Jews living in the city. But Jesus describes these people as not being Jews at all, but instead, labels them as “a synagogue of Satan.” The apostle Paul provides us with additional insight into what Jesus is saying about these people.

28 For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. 29 No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

The local Jewish population was attacking the fledgling church, slandering its members in the community. In his commentary on Revelation, Charles C. Ryrie notes that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred in A.D. 155, and “these Jews eagerly assisted by gathering on the Sabbath wood and fagots for the fire in which he was burned” (Charles C. Ryrie, Revelation). The animosity against Christians was intense in the sophisticated society of Smyrna. Even other religious minorities like the Jews treated the believers there with contempt.

But Jesus warns them that it is going to get worse before it gets better.

Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. – Revelation 2:10 ESV

And yet, He tells them not to fear. He encourages them to remain faithful even to the point of death. In essence, Jesus is giving the church in Smyrna more bad news. They were already suffering persecution, poverty and slander. Now, He was letting them know that Satan himself was about to unleash his full fury on them, resulting in some of them ending up in prison. And Jesus lets them know that it will all be a test. This is an indication that the entire ordeal will pass through the sovereign hands of God Almighty. Satan has no power to persecute them without God’s divine permission. Satan’s intentions would be to test their faithfulness to God, using ever-more intense persecution in an  attempt to get them to abandon their hope and trust in God. But Jesus wants them to remain faithful. God will use this same test to prove their allegiance to Him. Again, the apostle Paul, who was well-acquainted with suffering and persecution, wrote:

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. – Romans 5:3-5 ESV

Jesus lets them know that their tribulation will be short in duration. It will last only ten days. There is no way to know if this is to be taken literally or figuratively. But it would seem that Jesus is attempting to juxtapose the short-term nature of their suffering with the long-term benefits of the eternal glory awaiting them.

Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. – Revelation 2:10 ESV

Even if their persecution should result in death, Jesus reminds them that death is followed by eternal life. The crown of life is not an additional reward reserved for those who go through martyrdom for their faith. It is a reference to eternal life itself. That’s why Jesus encourages them to be faithful even to the point of death. For the believer, death is not something we are to fear. As Paul put it:

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow–not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.
 – Romans 8:38 NLT

Our suffering in this life is temporary in nature. Even if that suffering should result in death, it is not the end. And our death will only result in our immediate transfer into God’s presence. Which is what led Paul to state, “we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NLT).

And Jesus closes His message to the church in Smyrna with a reminder to every church in every age:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. – Revelation 2:11 ESV

The “second death” is a reference to the great white throne judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15.

11 And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. 12 I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. 14 Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. 15 And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Jesus assures the believers in Smyrna and every other believer who has ever lived, that we will not have to worry about this judgment. We won’t be there. It is reserved for those who have refused to accept the free gift of salvation offered through faith in Jesus Christ. Those who suffer and die as a result of their faith in this life, don’t have to worry about suffering eternal death in the next life. Our eternity is secure. Jesus wanted these believers to remain strong, even in the face of persecution. He wanted them stay faithful, even if it resulted in their deaths. Jesus was not making light of their troubles, but was attempting to remind them of the magnitude of their eternal reward.

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 NLT

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

The God of Eternity.

1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun. Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 ESV

There seems to be little doubt that Solomon believed in the sovereignty of God. He sincerely believed that the lives of all men were in the hands of God, whether they were righteous or wicked, good or bad. His view was that God acted as the divine arbiter over the fate of all, including their lives and inevitable deaths, leaving man no option but to make the most out of the days he had allotted to him by God. But this view of God’s sovereignty has a feel of resignation and resentment to it. He clearly states that “the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God”, but he doesn’t come across as all that pleased about it. In fact, he views this sovereignty as some kind of divine whim, where God metes out love and hate as He sees fit. Solomon almost paints it as some kind of arbitrary decision on God’s part, lacking any kind of reasoned explanation. He puts it this way:  “Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him” (Ecclesiastes 9:1 ESV). In other words, from man’s earth-bound perspective, he can never know if God is going to show him favor or disfavor. If good things happen, it is the will of God. If bad things happen, it is the will of God. That appears to be his somewhat pessimistic conclusion regarding God’s sovereignty.

As far as Solomon can tell, all people share the same fate. They all die. And even while they remain alive, they all experience their fair share of ups and downs, blessings and curses, successes and failures. And he points out that it really doesn’t seem to matter how you live your life. He compares the righteous with the wicked, the good with those who commit evil, the ceremonially clean with the ceremonially impure, and finally, the one who offers sacrifices to God with the one who does not. The individuals represented by these polarized comparisons all face death at the end of their lives, and the sole factor determining the day of their death is God. And Solomon expresses his opinion about the matter, concluding, “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all” (Ecclesiastes 9:3 ESV). Solomon saw death as some kind of divine exclamation point at the end of man’s life sentence, ending any hope of experiencing joy and fulfillment. And it was that belief that led him to write: “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 ESV). From his perspective, it was better to remain alive, even if you had to struggle with the apparent injustices of life. Solomon clearly saw life as preferable to death.

Solomon has made it clear that this life can be difficult and meaningless. Here, he states, “the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Ecclesiastes 9:3 ESV). Men do evil things. They commit acts of violence against one another. They oppress and abuse one another. And yet, Solomon would prefer to put up with all that than face the final day of death. Because, as far as he can see, that day has a finality to it. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5 ESV). Do you see how he views death? He sees it as an end, almost as a form of divine penalty doled out by God on all who have ever lived. It’s as if he’s saying that life is this hit or miss, futility filled existence, completely dictated by God, and then it suddenly comes to a screeching, abrupt end – all based on God’s divine determination. It’s no wonder he preferred life over death. For him, whatever existed beyond the grave was unattractive and undesirable. As far as he could tell, the destiny that awaits us on the other side of death was unknowable and, therefore, unwelcome. Concerning those who die: “Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:6 ESV).

Those are the words of a man who sees this life as the only source of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. In fact, Solomon seemed to believe that the only way God could bless human beings was through the physical pleasures associated with life on this planet. He saw man’s identity completely tied to his earthly existence. All rewards were relegated to this life and this plane of existence. There was nothing beyond the grave. And it is that world view that dictates the decision-making of just about every person who occupies this planet – unless they have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, there are other religions that teach an afterlife where there are rewards. But Christianity is particularly future-oriented, placing the real emphasis of mankind’s existence not on this world, but on the one to come. Our reward awaits us in eternity, not on this earth. That does not mean God withholds blessings from His children while they remain alive, but that His greatest reward is yet to come. The words of Jesus, spoken in His sermon on the mount, confirm this.

19 “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Matthew 6:19-21 NLT

The apostle Paul had a future-oriented mindset. He had his eyes set on his future reward, his glorification that was tied to the return of Christ.

13 …but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:13-14 NLT

The author of Hebrews also provides us with powerful words of encouragement, using Jesus as an example of the way in which we should live while we exist on this earth.

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. – Hebrews 12:1-2 NLT

Jesus suffered. He knew what it was like to endure rejection and ridicule, injustice and oppression. He even endured the pain of the cross, knowing that it was all part of God’s divine will for His life. It was a necessary part of the redemptive plan God had put in place before the foundation of the world. Jesus ran His life’s race with endurance, keeping His eyes focused on the will of God and the future reward of God. And now He sits in the place of honor beside God’s throne.

And the apostle Paul would have us remember that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we face a similar reward.

1 For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 NLT

Regardless of what Solomon believed, there is something beyond the grave. Not only does an afterlife exist, it holds blessings beyond anything we can imagine. The pain, suffering, oppression, and injustice in this life that Solomon has so eloquently described, will not exist in the next one. For those who place their faith in Jesus Christ, eternity awaits and a life free from pain, suffering, sin, sorrow, and the looming threat of death. John writes of this wonderful reality in his letter to the seven churches.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” – Revelation 21:3-4 NLT

Solomon was a wise man, but he reveals his inability to comprehend the ways of God. Over the years, he had developed an earth-based, temporal perspective that limited the sovereignty of God to the here and now. He saw life as an end all, which explains his obsession with experiencing all that life had to offer. And when he couldn’t find what he was looking for in this life, he deemed it all meaningless, like chasing the wind. But he failed to see that God had much more in store. The best was yet to come.

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