The Sower, the Seed, and the Soil

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” – Matthew 13:18-23 ESV

Things are heating up. The confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel are becoming more frequent and intense. They have officially rejected Him as their Messiah and are looking for ways to destroy Him. For them, tolerance is no longer an option. And Jesus is aware that the majority of the Jewish people are going to reject Him as their Messiah, refusing to accept His role as the suffering servant. And their rejection of Jesus was going to open the door to the Gentiles. Little did they know that the Messiah’s kingdom would be all-inclusive, embracing people of every tribe, tongue, and nation. And in this section of his gospel account, Matthew records Jesus addressing His disciples about that kingdom through the means of parables.

These somewhat simplistic-sounding stories left the disciples confused and wondering why Jesus chose to speak in such a cryptic manner. While the imagery He used was familiar to them, the meaning behind His words was lost to them. So, they had asked Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10 ESV). And Jesus had responded, To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matthew 13:11 ESV).

This answer must have left the disciples shaking their heads because, if there had been a secret made known, they had missed it. They were just as clueless as everyone else. And yet, Jesus was about to reveal to them what would remain hidden to the rest of the nation. Because of their faith in Him, Jesus was going to give them insights into His coming kingdom that were a mystery to the people of Israel. 

Jesus told these men that their unique relationship with Him would yield even more significant benefits as time passed.  

For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance…”  – Matthew 3:12 ESV

When these men had decided to follow Jesus, there was much they did not know. They were operating on scant details and stepping out in faith. But over time, Jesus had begun to reveal aspects about Himself that further clarified His role and solidified their faith in Him.  They had each left all to follow Him and, while they did not fully grasp the significance of who He was and what He had come to do, they eagerly listened to what He had to say. This is what led Jesus to say of them, “blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16 ESV).

And it was their child-like faith in Him that prompted Jesus to explain the secret of the parable to them. The story was simple, relating the efforts of a single sower who sowed one kind of seed on four different types of soil. And, as the parable reveals, the outcome of the sower’s efforts was mixed. Some of the seeds were eaten by birds, never having time to germinate. Some seed fell on rocky ground and, lacking the necessary depth of soil, they sprang up but quickly withered. Other seeds fell among thorns and, while these seeds were able to germinate and grow, they could not survive the harsh environment. Finally, a portion of the seeds actually made it into good soil where they not only survived, but thrived, producing an abundance of grain.

But what’s the point? That’s what the disciples wanted to know. They could fully understand the various scenarios described by Jesus but had no idea what it had to do with the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” So, Jesus explained the meaning behind the story.

The seed represented the message regarding the kingdom. If you recall, both John the Baptist and Jesus had proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” They had been referring to the kingdom of the Messiah, the one of whom the Old Testament Scriptures prophesied, and God had promised to send. And Jesus was the fulfillment of those prophecies and the promise. He was the long-awaited Messiah. But He had not come to set up an earthly kingdom. At least, not yet. As Messiah, He had not come to save the Jews from the tyranny and taxation of the Romans, but from slavery to sin. His arrival was not to mark their release from Roman oppression, but from the condemnation of death they all faced as a result of their rebellion against God.

But that message, while widely disseminated, would not always find receptive “soil.” What’s interesting in the story is that the sower seemed to know that his seed was falling in places where it would prove unfruitful. He doesn’t seem to worry about the outcome as much as he did about getting the seed distributed. The apostle Paul understood the significance of this thought.

After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. – 1 Corinthians 3:5-7 NLT

The sower simply sowed and left the results up to God. And the seed, or the message of the kingdom, made its way to the various soils, but with varying degrees of success. There was nothing wrong with the seed, but the receptivity of the four types of soil would play a significant part in the ultimate success of the sower’s efforts.

The seed that fell along the path was quickly devoured by birds. Jesus compares the birds with Satan, who snatches up the message of the kingdom before it can take root in the heart of those who hear it. The apostle Paul describes Satan’s efforts in stark terms:

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

Jesus’ reference to “the path” seems to indicate an uncultivated, unprepared heart that is unfit to receive the Word. The path is worn down and compacted, providing an unwelcome environment for the Gospel. And the enemy uses “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16 ESV) to distract the hearer, while his “birds” carry away the message of hope contained in the Gospel.

The seed that fell on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and respond favorably to its content, but their enthusiasm is short-lived. As soon as they encounter the first sign of persecution because of the message, they bail. The Greek word translated as “falls away” can also mean “to stumbles.” These people find it difficult to maintain their walk with Christ because they find the trials and tribulations that come with the message too difficult to bear. Jesus is not describing true believers who lose their salvation, but those who find the Gospel message appealing, but who fail to commit to Christ because His call is accompanied by trials and difficulties.

The third scenario involved seed that fell among thorns. Once again, there appears to be a brief period of receptivity. The seed takes root, but there no fruit is produced because “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word” (Matthew 13:22 ESV). These people hear the Gospel, respond to it favorably, but because of their love affair with the world, they never experience the fruitfulness the message was intended to produce. Jesus promised to give abundant life (John 10:10), but these people never experience it in their lives because they allow worldly things to choke out the message before it’s had time to produce fruit.

Finally, there are some who hear the message and allow it to take root in the soil of their lives. They are receptive to it and fully embracing of it. They hear and believe. They listen and receive. And their lives produce fruit because they allow the message to take root. The degree of their fruitfulness varies, but that is the work of God.

The primary point of the parable has to do with receptivity to the message of the kingdom. That is why Jesus told His disciples, “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance” (Matthew 13:12 ESV). Those who receive the message of the kingdom and allow it to take root in their lives will see their lives produce abundant fruit. The seed or message will end up multiplying into far more than they could have ever imagined. Their willing receptivity to the message of Jesus Christ and His kingdom will result in abundant life and a growing understanding of all that He has come to offer.

The Pharisees and scribes had refused the message. The majority of the Jews who made up the crowds that flocked to hear Jesus speak and watch Him perform miracles would also refuse the message. But there were some who, like the good soil in the parable, would respond favorably, allowing the seed of the Gospel to take root in their lives. And they would experience the joy of watching God produce His fruit in their lives.

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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The Gospel of God in the Midst of Much Conflict

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

Paul had one purpose in life: To share the gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as he possibly could. It was the commission given to him by Jesus that fateful day on the road to Damascus. He had a personal encounter with the resurrected Christ and his life would be dramatically and unalterably changed from that day forward. Jesus told Ananias that Paul was “a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15 ESV). And Ananias would later tell Paul, “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:14-15 ESV).

And ever since that day, Paul had faithfully fulfilled His commission, in the face of intense opposition and even increasing threats on his own life. He fully understood the nature of his calling and the inherent risk associated with his ministry. He told the believers in Colossae:

I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known. – Colossians 1:25 ESV

Now, he was writing to the saints in Thessalonica, reminding them that his arrival in their city and his preaching of the gospel among them had not been without difficulty. In fact, prior to entering their city, he had been forced to flee from Philippi, where he had faced unwarranted attacks from the Jewish community. And his reception in Thessalonica had not been much better. After being accused of fomenting political insurrection, he and Silas had been forced to escape during the dead of night.

But Paul reminds his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica that he had not shirked from his God-given responsibility to share the gospel.

…we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. – Thessalonica 2:2 ESV

Paul wasn’t bragging. He was simply reinforcing the need for believers to practice their faith with resilience and confident assurance, even in the face of opposition. Paul’s life was proof that the Christian life was anything but easy. His calling by Christ had not resulted in a life of ease and comfort. Christ had even predicted that’s Paul ministry would be marked by suffering. He had informed Ananias concerning Paul: “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16 ESV). And Jesus had kept His word. Paul had suffered. But he had also served faithfully. And he expected the Thessalonian believers to do the same. 

And Paul insists that his ministry to them was not based on anything immoral, unethical, or incorrect. He had preached the truth concerning Jesus Christ, nothing more and nothing less. He was not an insurrectionist. He was not a political activist. He was a God-ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ – “approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel” (1 Thessalonians 2:4 ESV). And Paul took his divine commission seriously. He did what he did, not out of greed or in an attempt to flatter and win the approval of men. He wasn’t out to win friends and influence enemies. He was obsessed with sharing the life-changing message of faith in Christ. And if it led to false accusations, undeserved persecution, and even death, Paul was perfectly okay with those outcomes.

Paul told his brothers and sisters that he did what he did out of love. He cared for them deeply and was willing to sacrifice everything for their spiritual well-being, telling them, “we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8 ESV). So, when Paul told the Roman believers, “give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable” (Romans 12:1 NLT) – he meant it. And he modeled it.

He told the believers in Philippi that the sacrifice of his life on their behalf was well worth it. “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Philippians 2:17 ESV). Later on in his life, he wrote to his your friend, Timothy, encouraging him with the example of his own life.

Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you.

As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. – 2 Timothy 4:5-7 NLT

Paul could have had a much easier life. He could have taken the path of least resistance, preaching what people wanted to hear and promoting a non-controversial message that brought him popularity, not persecution. But that wasn’t Paul’s style. His commitment to the cause of Christ would not allow him to dilute the message or avoid the inevitable controversy it caused.

Paul was well aware of the fact that the gospel message was controversial. He had seen the kinds of reactions it garnered.

Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.

But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:21-24 NLT

The gospel was powerful and the preaching of it elicited strong reactions among those who heard it. Some received it gladly, while others responded in disbelief and even violent resistance. Paul had experienced the joy of watching many embrace the good news of the faith in Christ with open arms. But he had also felt the searing pain that came from being flogged and even stoned, all for sharing the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But for Paul, it was all worth it. Which is why he reminds his readers, “our coming to you was not in vain” (1 Thessalonians 2:1 ESV). His efforts had produced the intended results. The church in Thessalonica was growing and thriving. Yes, the believers were facing difficulty and experiencing opposition, but Paul wanted them to know that these things were to be expected. It all came with the territory. The enemy hated what Paul was doing, but he couldn’t stop it. Satan could attempt to muster all the forces of darkness against Paul, but he would not succeed in his efforts to thwart the spread of the gospel. As Jesus promised Peter, “I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matthew 16:18 NLT).

Jesus had made it clear that the powers of hell would come against the church. But He also assured Peter that those powers would fail and His church would prevail. And Paul assured the Thessalonian church that he declared “the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict,” fully confident that it would take root and grow – unabated and undiminished in its impact on the world. But the conflict is real nonetheless. The opposition is not a figment of our imagination. The gates of hell stand diametrically opposed to the gospel message. The forces of the enemy are intent on destroying all that Jesus Christ died to make possible. He wants to rob believers of their joy, their effectiveness, and their confidence in Christ. But Jesus assures us, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV). We have the gospel of God in the midst of conflict. The gospel doesn’t make the conflict go away. It produces it. But it also provides us with the means of achieving victory over it.

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

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

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

Misplaced Trust

1 In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. And the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. And there came out to him Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder.

And the Rabshakeh said to them, “Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this trust of yours? Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him. But if you say to me, “We trust in the Lord our God,” is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, “You shall worship before this altar”? Come now, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master’s servants, when you trust in Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? 10 Moreover, is it without the Lord that I have come up against this land to destroy it? The Lord said to me, “Go up against this land and destroy it.”’”

11 Then Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah said to the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it. Do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.” 12 But the Rabshakeh said, “Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and drink their own urine?”

13 Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14 Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. 15 Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the Lord by saying, “The Lord will surely deliver us. This city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” 16 Do not listen to Hezekiah. For thus says the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, 17 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards. 18 Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 19 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 20 Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’”

21 But they were silent and answered him not a word, for the king’s command was, “Do not answer him.” 22 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn, and told him the words of the Rabshakeh. – Isaiah 36:1-21 ESV

The fateful day has arrived. The Assyrians are literally knocking at the door of Jerusalem, preparing to add this city to a long list of others they had conquered in the region. Isaiah provides us with a date, the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign, which would have been 701 BC. By this date, the Assyrians had conquered 46 cities in Judah, including Lachish, which Sennacherib used as a staging area for further military actions.

The Assyrian king sent an emissary, accompanied by a massive army, to discuss surrender terms with King Hezekiah of Judah. This display of might was meant to persuade the king to surrender Jerusalem without a fight. King Hezekiah sent three of his top administrative personnel to meet with the Assyrians and, as they stood just outside the conduit of the upper pool, the people of Judah squeezed onto the walls to see what was going to happen.

It is interesting to note that, 23 years earlier, on this very same spot, Isaiah had been sent by God to confront another king of Judah facing a similar problem.

And the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah.’” – Isaiah 7:3-4 ESV

Nearly a quarter-century earlier, Judah was facing the combined forces of Syria and Israel, two nations who had formed an alliance in order to capture Jerusalem and destroy Judah. But God had other plans. He warned King Ahaz to stay strong and not lose heart. As bad as things may have appeared, the outcome would be different than expected. He told them:

“It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.” – Isaiah 7:7 ESV

But he also warned them:

“If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” – Isaiah 7:9 ESV

The Syrians and Israelites never conquered Jerusalem. Their plans were easily thwarted by God. And He used the Assyrians to accomplish His will. Now, 23 years later, the Assyrians were gathered en masse outside the walls of Jerusalem. And the words that Isaiah had spoken to King Ahaz all those years earlier still applied. The people of Judah had no reason to fear if they would only trust in God. And trust is the main theme of King Sennacherib’s ultimatum delivered by his emissary.

“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident?” – Isaiah 36:4 NLT

Remember, the king of Judah had paid a large sum to the Egyptians to secure their assistance in the event that the Assyrians came against them. Their confidence, if any, was in that very expensive alliance. They had placed their hopes in the military might of the Egyptian army. But they were nowhere to be found. And King Sennacherib knew it.

“Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me? On Egypt? If you lean on Egypt, it will be like a reed that splinters beneath your weight and pierces your hand. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is completely unreliable!” – Isaiah 36:5-6 NLT

Sennacherib knew that Egypt would prove to be an unreliable and even dangerous source of security. They could not be depended upon. But the Assyrian king’s strongest words of warning concerning Judah’s misplaced trust were aimed at Yahweh.

“But perhaps you will say to me, ‘We are trusting in the Lord our God!’ But isn’t he the one who was insulted by Hezekiah? Didn’t Hezekiah tear down his shrines and altars and make everyone in Judah and Jerusalem worship only at the altar here in Jerusalem? – Isaiah 36:7 NLT

Actually, Sennacherib has his facts wrong. When Hezekiah had begun his reign as king over Judah, he was only 25-years old. But he proved to be a different kind of king, ruling much more in line with his ancestor, King David.

He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight, just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the pagan shrines, smashed the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke up the bronze serpent that Moses had made, because the people of Israel had been offering sacrifices to it. The bronze serpent was called Nehushtan.

Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before or after his time. – 2 Kings 1:3-5 NLT

King Sennacherib saw Hezekiah’s removal of the pagan shrines as an affront to Judah’s god. Being a polytheist, he didn’t understand the concept of a single deity who demanded the undivided worship of His people. But it may be likely that Sennacherib was addressing the unspoken fears of the people of Judah, who were wondering if Hezekiah’s reforms had actually angered the false gods they used to worship. Had his radical efforts to rid the realm of all gods but Yahweh been the cause of all their problems? The Assyrian king seems to stir the embers of this smoldering spirit of unrest among the people. And the three royal representatives of King Hezekiah, sensing that Sennacherib’s words were having their planned impact, asked that the rest of the negotiations be conducted in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, so the people on the walls might not understand what was being said. But the Assyrian emissary refused, choosing instead to address the citizens of Judah directly.

Then the chief of staff stood and shouted in Hebrew to the people on the wall, “Listen to this message from the great king of Assyria! This is what the king says: Don’t let Hezekiah deceive you. He will never be able to rescue you. Don’t let him fool you into trusting in the Lord by saying, ‘The Lord will surely rescue us. This city will never fall into the hands of the Assyrian king!’” – Isaiah 36:13-15 NLT

Again, the primary emphasis of his message was focused on trust. He warned them not to trust Hezekiah, the Egyptians, or their own God. They couldn’t rely on their king, their allies, or their deity. Sennacherib was removing every single source of support and security. In the place of their unreliable resources, King Sennacherib offered peace and security.

“Make peace with me—open the gates and come out. Then each of you can continue eating from your own grapevine and fig tree and drinking from your own well.” – Isaiah 36:16 NLT

“I will arrange to take you to another land like this one—a land of grain and new wine, bread and vineyards.” – Isaiah 36:17 NLT

Notice what he is doing. He is offering the people of Judah what God had promised to give them. In a sense, he was setting himself up as their god, their source of peace, prosperity, sustenance, and security. And that is what the enemy always does. He appeals to our innate need for divine help, but he sets himself up as the solution to all our needs. It should not escape our notice that Sennacherib and the Assyrians were a threat to the security of Judah. They had proven themselves to be the enemy of the people of God, having already destroyed 46 other cities of Judah. And now they were camped outside the walls of Jerusalem, a massive army prepared to add this city to their long list of conquests, and determined to make its citizens its slaves.

The offers of Sennacherib were well-disguised lies. He told the people of Judah what they wanted to hear, offering them escape through surrender, and rescue through compromise. If they would only trust him, they would live. But God would have the people of Judah trust Him alone. No matter how bad things may have appeared, no matter how attractive the enemy’s lies may have sounded, only God could deliver the salvation for which they longed. Listening to the lies of the enemy would result in slavery, not salvation. Trusting in the promises of Satan always brings death, not life. So God calls out to us to remain faithful to Him, to place our trust in Him alone.

“If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” – Isaiah 7:9 ESV

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

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

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

 

Joshua’s Secret Weapon.

1 When Jabin, king of Hazor, heard of this, he sent to Jobab king of Madon, and to the king of Shimron, and to the king of Achshaph, and to the kings who were in the northern hill country, and in the Arabah south of Chinneroth, and in the lowland, and in Naphoth-dor on the west, to the Canaanites in the east and the west, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites in the hill country, and the Hivites under Hermon in the land of Mizpah. And they came out with all their troops, a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots. And all these kings joined their forces and came and encamped together at the waters of Merom to fight against Israel.

And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will give over all of them, slain, to Israel. You shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire.” So Joshua and all his warriors came suddenly against them by the waters of Merom and fell upon them. And the Lord gave them into the hand of Israel, who struck them and chased them as far as Great Sidon and Misrephoth-maim, and eastward as far as the Valley of Mizpeh. And they struck them until he left none remaining. And Joshua did to them just as the Lord said to him: he hamstrung their horses and burned their chariots with fire. Joshua 11:1-9 ESV

Battle at MemorChapter 10 ends with the summary statement: “And Joshua captured all these kings and their land at one time, because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel. Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal.” God had given Joshua and the people of Israel a series of lopsided victories over the five-nation confederation from southern Canaan that had aligned themselves against the Gibeonites. Because of an alliance Joshua and the elders had made with the people of Gibeon, Israel was forced to come to their rescue. And because the Israelites had sealed their treaty with the Gibeonites with an oath made in God’s name, God protected the honor of His name by providing Joshua and the Israelite forces with success. They routed the combined forces of the enemy, executed the five kings, and then completed a campaign that captured and destroyed their cities. But this kind of massive military action didn’t go unnoticed, even in the days before mass media. Word got out and before long, the kings of northern Canaan began to fear the presence and power of the Israelites. Jabin, king of Hazor, located in far northern Canaan, decided to prepare for the worst, and called on his fellow kings of the north to form an alliance against the Israelites. This would prove to be a multinational effort, with troops representing the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Hivites coming together in a massive show of force. The text describes them as “a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore” (Joshua 11:4 ESV). According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, this multinational force was made up of 300,000 armed footmen, 10,000 horsemen, and 20,000 chariots (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews).

Before Joshua and the people of Israel could enjoy a well-earned rest from the victory over the kings of the south, they found themselves facing an even greater threat from the north. The longer Israel remained in the land and the further they ventured into the interior, the more difficult the obstacles seemed to become. Each successive victory, while enjoyable for the moment, was followed by even greater resistance on the part of the remaining inhabitants of the land. No one was surrendering. The various people groups who occupied the land of Canaan were not giving up without a fight. And this time, the Israelites found themselves facing their most difficult test to date. These troops were well-trained and armed with chariots. The Israelites were outnumbered and out-gunned. They had no chariots or sophisticated, state-of-the-art weaponry. But they had God, and He had promised to go before them and fight their battles for them. He had already shown Himself true to His word, bringing down the walls of Jericho in a miraculous display of His power. He had also sent hail to destroy a large portion of the southern Canaanite forces. God was on their side and it didn’t really matter who or how many lined up on the other side. On paper, the northern alliance was the odds-on favorite to win this battle. They had everything going for them, except that they didn’t have God on their side. You might say that the Israelites had a secret weapon. They had a power at their disposal that no nation on earth could match. And, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, God provided Joshua with the assurance, “Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will give over all of them, slain, to Israel. You shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire” (Joshua 11:6 ESV).

But it’s one thing to hear the words of God and another thing to believe them. What God told Joshua didn’t make the enemy go away. They were still camped at the waters of Merom, and they were still intent on doing battle with the Israelites. Their numbers had not diminished and their chariots had not gone anywhere. God didn’t eliminate the threat, He simply guaranteed the victory. And Joshua had to take God at His word and lead his forces into a battle that, by all accounts, looked like a recipe for disaster. But Joshua did as the Lord commanded and led his inferior force into battle, taking the enemy by surprise. And the text tells us, “the Lord gave them into the hand of Israel, who struck them and chased them as far as Great Sidon and Misrephoth-maim, and eastward as far as the Valley of Mizpeh. And they struck them until he left none remaining” (Joshua 11:8 ESV).

Long before the Israelites arrived in the land of Canaan, God had promised to give them victory over their enemies, and He had told them that it would be accomplished in surprising fashion.

You shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand, and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. – Leviticus 26:7-8 NLT

God doesn’t require superior forces to accomplish His will. He simply needs obedient servants who will trust His word and who will rely upon His strength instead of their own. Joshua knew he was out-manned. He was well aware that the odds were against him. But he also knew that God was for him. He was slowly learning to trust God and to step out in faith, knowing that the circumstances he faced were a lousy predictor of the outcome God intended.

If Josephus was right, the Israelites completely destroyed 300,000 armed footmen and 10,000 horsemen, and they set fire to 20,000 chariots. Any way you look at it, that is a remarkable accomplishment. It’s an act of God. The odds were against them, but God was for them. The enemy was superior in number, but God was superior in strength. Israelite lacked chariots and horses, but they had God on their side.

It was the future king of Israel, David, who would later write of secret weapon that is God Almighty.

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They collapse and fall,
    but we rise and stand upright. – Psalm 20:7-8 ESV

And Moses had told the people of Israel to keep their eyes focused on the strength of their God, not the size of their enemy.

“When you go out to fight your enemies and you face horses and chariots and an army greater than your own, do not be afraid. The LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, is with you!” – Deuteronomy 20:1 NLT

Joshua was learning to trust God. The enemies were not going away, they were actually increasing in number and growing in strength. But the power of God is best displayed against a backdrop of impossibility. It is when all looks lost and the odds are completely stacked against us that we find the power of God not only necessary, but most vividly displayed. The psalmist knew what it was like to be surrounded, outnumbered, and out-manned, but victorious in spite of the odds.

10 Though hostile nations surrounded me,
    I destroyed them all with the authority of the Lord.
11 Yes, they surrounded and attacked me,
    but I destroyed them all with the authority of the Lord.
12 They swarmed around me like bees;
    they blazed against me like a crackling fire.
    But I destroyed them all with the authority of the Lord.
13 My enemies did their best to kill me,
    but the Lord rescued me.
14 The Lord is my strength and my song;
    he has given me victory. – Psalm 118:10-14 NLT

Nothing is too difficult for God. No enemy is too powerful or circumstance too impossible for Him. In God, we have a secret weapon that no force in heaven or on earth can stand against.

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 Blessing and the Battle.

Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. – Genesis 39:1-6 ESV

The story of Joseph is picked back up in chapter 39 after a brief, but sordid look into the domestic difficulties of his brother, Judah. The last thing we were told about Joseph in chapter 37 was that, upon arrival in Egypt, he had been sold to an Egyptian military officer, a captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Chapter 38 reveals that life was going on “as usual” for Joseph’s brothers. They acted as if nothing had ever happened, knowing full well that their younger brother was now most likely a slave in Egypt. But Judah is provided as an example of just what was going on in the lives of Joseph’s brothers while he was suffering the painful outcome of their intense hatred for him. While they had rid themselves of Joseph, their lives were going to be far from easy. And their decision-making capabilities would continue to be far from stellar. Judah ended up marrying a Canaanite woman, with whom he had three sons. Er, the firstborn, would be put to death by God for his wickedness. Onan, Er’s brother, refused to provide his widow with an heir, choosing to “spill his seed on the ground” rather than impregnate her. So God killed him as well. Judah promised Tamar, the widow, that he would give her to his youngest son when he was of age. But Judah never kept his promise. So Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and tricked Judah into having sex with her. The result was a pregnancy and, ultimately, the birth of two twin sons, Perez and Zerah. Judah’s life had been far from a fairy tale after the dreamer was gone. It had turned into a nightmare.

But meanwhile, Joseph had gone from favored son to the life of a slave living in a foreign country, far from home. Yet four times in this chapter, Moses uses the phrase, “The Lord was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:2 ESV). Even though he was many miles from home and had been rejected by his own brothers, Joseph was far from alone. The very One who had given him the dreams was with him and was going to see that those dreams became reality. It is interesting to note that chapter 38 provides a glimpse of Judah, choosing to live outside the will of God by selling his brother into slavery and then marrying a Canaanite, a pagan who did not worship Yahweh. He would suffer greatly for his choices. Yet Joseph, who had been treated unfairly by his brothers and sold into slavery, was well within the will of God and would enjoy His divine favor – even hundreds of miles away from his family and home. Living obediently within the will of God is always the safest place for His children to be. Joseph was going to discover the joy of discovering that God’s presence and blessings are not limited by time or space. Distance is not a difficulty for God. Joseph may have been miles from home, but His God was right beside him.

And God’s presence in Joseph’s life was far more than a warm, fuzzy feeling. It manifested itself in tangible, practical ways. Moses tells us, “the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had” (Genesis 39:3-4 ESV). God’s favor on Joseph showed up in the form of blessings on his life and those blessings flowed out, impacting the lives of all those around Joseph. Potiphar ended up getting far more than he had bargained for when he had purchased Joseph at the slave market. He had bought a slave, but little did he know that what he really got was a servant of God. 

The blessing of God on Joseph’s life is an ongoing theme in this story. And it goes all the way back to the original promise that God had made to Abraham when He had called him out of Ur. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And 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 12:1-3 ESV). While we know that this promise was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, a descendant of Abraham, it was also partially fulfilled in Joseph. In a real way, Joseph had been cursed by his own brothers. He was a descendant of Abraham and yet had been treated as nothing more than property, sold into slavery for 20 shekels of silver. He had been betrayed by his own, just as Jesus would be centuries later. Judas would be paid 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus to the Jewish religious leaders. And yet, Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers would result in blessings on him and on all those around him. And as we will see as the story unfolds, God was going to utilize the forsaken and forgotten Joseph to fulfill His promise to make of the descendants of Abraham a great nation.

God extended favor to Joseph and Potiphar was a beneficiary of those divine blessings. As a result, he made Joseph the overseer of his entire household. “From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field” (Genesis 39:5 ESV). But where God blesses, the enemy wants to bring destruction. Jesus said of Satan, “The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10a NLT). Satan is always out to destroy the servants of God. He wants to turn God’s blessings into curses. And Satan will use everything and everyone he can to counter God’s good intentions in the lives of His children. While we live on this earth, we will always find God’s good favor directly opposed by the enemy’s evil intentions. God gave Joseph dreams. Satan gave Joseph’s brothers visions of revenge and retribution. God showed Joseph favor. Satan will use Potiphar’s wife to show Joseph unwanted attention. The hand of God on the life of one of His children will always bring the hatred of the enemy. The favor of God will always solicit the full brunt of Satan’s fury and his spiritual forces. “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty power” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT).

No Solitary Soldiers.

To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. – Ephesians 18b-20 ESV

Paul ended his description of the armor of God with a call to prayer, strongly advising his readers to “Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion” (Ephesians 6:18a NLT). Constant communication with the Father is essential for our spiritual survival. Prayer is not simply a tool we use to get what we need from God. As Paul will show, it is not to be used for our own selfish desires either. Throughout this letter, Paul has been addressing the great doctrine of the church. In chapter one, Paul addressed Christ’s headship over the church, having earned that role through His sacrificial death and resurrection. “And he [God] put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22 ESV). And all believers are members of that body because they share a common faith in Christ, and that faith was a gift provided to them by God, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). The church was the mysterious or previously hidden idea of God, miraculously joining Jews and Gentiles into one body, “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14 ESV). 

It was God who has made us “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19 ESV). And it is through the church that “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10 ESV). It was Paul’s prayer that the Ephesian believers would “know the love of Christ” and be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19 ESV). Paul knew that God had a divine plan for the church. He also knew that the future success of the church, including all those who would become a part of it through faith in Christ, was totally dependent upon the work of God and for the glory of God. That is why he ended his prayer in chapter three with the words:

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. – Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV

The body of Christ, the church, is a powerful force, but only as long as it remains dependent upon God. It is a God-ordained agent of change in the world, but only when it stays committed to the will of God and connected to the power of God made available through His Spirit. When we lose sight of the fact that God saved us and placed us within the context of the body of Christ, and begin to see our salvation as something individualistic and isolated, we miss the whole point. A self-centered, what’s-in-it-for-me attitude has no place within the body of Christ. Even the armor of God, is of little use to the Christian, if worn in isolation and utilized as a one-man army. As Christians, we must come to grips with the fact that we are in this battle together. Even the best equipped, most highly trained army, without unity, will fall to its enemy. And without constant communication with and obedience to its commander, even the mightiest army will fail. So Paul calls Christians to prayer. “Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere” (Ephesians 18 NLT). There is a sense of camaraderie and unity in his words. We are to pray not only for ourselves, but for one another. We should desire that each and every believer on the planet is living in the power of the Spirit and according to the will of God. The body of Christ requires members who are healthy, whole and committed to the cause of Christ. That is why Paul even asks for prayer on his behalf. “And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike” (Ephesians 6:19 NLT). Paul knew that he needed the prayers of the saints in order to stay committed to the call given to him by God. He coveted their prayers. And he longed that they would pray for one another.

What more selfless, loving thing can we do than pray for God to protect, guide, strengthen, and embolden our fellow believers. We must realize that our strength, while provided by God, is found in our unity with fellow believers. It is together that we form the powerful force that can dramatically alter the landscape of the world in which we live. Solitary soldiers, even though well-armored, will have little impact “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). So we must pray. We must seek God’s face, determining to know His will, lifting up our fellow soldiers, and resting in His divine strategy for ultimate victory.

Stand!

Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. – Ephesians 6:14-18a ESV

Two times Paul told his readers to put on “the whole armor of God.” He was not providing them with a menu of optional items from which to choose. They were not to decide for themselves which piece of God’s divine equipment they were interested in wearing or utilizing. But the sad truth is, that is exactly the way many of us as Christians approach this passage. Whether we intend to or not, we jeopardize our spiritual well-being by self-selecting the armor of God we want to put on. But Paul would have us understand that when it comes to the armor of God, it’s all or nothing. He tells us to “put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm” (Ephesians 6:13 NLT).

Paul uses two Greek words, ἀνθίστημι (anthistēmi) and ἵστημι (histēmi). The first means “to stand against” and the other means “to stand” (“G436 – anthistēmi, G2476 – histēmi – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). To withstand in the evil day carries the idea of being able to stand your ground in the midst of battle. You are under attack. The enemy has you surrounded, but you refuse to surrender your position. You resist. It is a defensive posture, not an offensive one. The enemy is bringing the battle to you. Jesus told Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18 NET). Satan is out to destroy God’s people and has His church under constant assault both from without and within. But Paul calls us to stand our ground, to resist. James uses the same Greek word, ἀνθίστημι (anthistēmi), when he writes, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7 ESV).

And Paul calls us to stand. It means to stand firm, immovable, ready and prepared for action. But how are we to pull that off? What is the secret to our standing firm? Paul makes it quite clear. It is the whole armor of God. The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes for your feet comprised of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. This six items are to be the indispensable equipment for every soldier of God. You can’t survive without them. It isn’t a question of whether the enemy will attack and you will see battle. His is bringing the war to your doorstep each and every day. And God has given us all that we need to withstand and stand firm in the heat of the battle. The belt of truth is the first and most essential piece of equipment. It most likely refers to the truth as revealed in God’s Word. Truth is key to standing up to the lies of the enemy. Remember, the goal is to “stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11 ESV). That word, “schemes” means “deceit or trickery.” Satan is a liar. He is cunning and clever and he uses falsehood as his primary weapon of choice. So truth is going to be one of our greatest assets as believers.

The breastplate of righteousness is probably referring the righteousness of Christ. Like the armor of a Roman soldier, this breastplate would provide protection from the neck to the thighs, covering all the vital organs. As believers, we are covered by the righteousness of Christ. It is His righteousness that has made us right with God. When the enemy attacks and hurls darts of accusations against our self-righteousness, we are protected or covered by the righteousness imputed to us by Christ at His death. Satan can accuse us, but he cannot harm us. We must daily take up Christ’s righteousness and understand that it is what He has given us that protects us from the assault of the enemy.

No soldier would go into battle without shoes. How can you stand firm without proper footwear? And Paul describes these shoes that are “the readiness given by the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15 ESV). The gospel of peace, the Good News is what provides us with the ability to stand firm, without slipping or sliding in uncertainty or losing our spiritual footing. Because of what Christ accomplished on the cross, we have peace with God. We are His and He is ours. That is why so confidently claimed, “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. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39 ESV).

The shield of faith is not something you wear, but something you hold. Like all of the other pieces of armor, it is given to you by God. It is His armor. Our faith is not self-manufactured, but it is a gift of the Spirit, provided for us by a gracious and loving God. As long as we stand behind our faith, we are safe. It is when we set aside our faith that we become vulnerable to the darts of the enemy. Our faith is our trust in God and in His promises regarding us. He will not leave us or forsake us. He has prepared a permanent place for us. He will fight our battles for us. He has placed His all-powerful Spirit within us. I must trust in these truths at all time. A weak shield is of little use in the heat of battle. Strong faith in a strong and faithful God will provide protection each and every time, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

The helmet of salvation protects our mind. It is the awareness and recognition of God’s ongoing saving work in our lives. It not only refers to our coming to faith in Christ, but to our ongoing sanctification and the daily saving work of God in our lives. Through His Son’s death, he saved us from sin and death, but He is also saving us from the flesh, the world and the enemy. We must keep our minds focused on the saving work of God in our lives. We must constantly remind ourselves that He is faithful and strong, and that the battle is already won.

The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. It is designed for hand-to-hand combat. The Scriptures are what we are to use when the enemy gets up close and personal. God’s Word provides us with the truth we need to deflect the lies thrown at us by Satan. It is both a defensive and offensive weapon, allowing us to protect ourselves, but also to bring harm to the enemy. Referring to the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “when he come he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment” (John 16:8 NLT). The Spirit of God in conjunction with the Word of God are essential in our fight against the forces of this world.

Finally, Paul tells us to keep “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18a ESV). Prayer is nothing more than communication with God. Like a soldier out on the field of battle, timely communication from headquarters is key to victory. We must listen to our heavenly commander, the Lord of Hosts. He is the captain of the armies of heaven and He has a battle plan in place. We are not to act as freelance mercenaries, operating based on our own agenda and implementing our own battle plan. It is through prayer and the reading of God’s Word that we receive instructions. It also provides us with a means of sharing our own needs and news from the battlefield. Staying in touch with God is essential to our survival.

The battle is real. The enemy is powerful. But our God is great and our armor is time-tested and proven reliable in the heat of battle. It has been made by God. It has been given to us by God. And our victory is assured because of God. “But you belong to God, my dear children. You have already won a victory over those people, because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world” (1 John 4:4 NLT).

An Unstoppable Force.

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. – Ephesians 3:7-14 ESV

Paul saw his role as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ as a gift of grace. He had no right to be the bearer of the good news to the Gentiles. In fact, Paul saw himself as the very least of all the saints. He was morally unqualified to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, but God had mercifully showered him with His grace, transforming him into a worthy messenger of the glorious gospel. And Paul took his role seriously, willingly enduring rejection, ridicule and even physical abuse in order to fulfill his God-given mission. Even as he wrote this letter, he was under house arrest in Rome. Even imprisonment would not stop Paul from preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ. Until Paul had begun taking the message of salvation through faith in Christ to the Gentiles, it had remained hidden from them. They were incapable of understanding or accessing the incredible grace of God offered to them through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. But Paul spent his life making sure they heard the good news and were given the chance to know the joy of being made right with God through faith in Jesus as their Savior.

One of Paul’s greatest joys was unveiling the mystery of the church, God’s amazing plan to make the Gentiles “fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6 ESV). When we read the New Testament, it is tempting to view the world as divided into two groups: Jews and Gentiles. And it is easy to mistake the word “Gentile” as referring to a particular people group. But that word was an all-encompassing label for anyone outside the people of Israel. It included Greeks, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Phrygians, Egyptians and Romans. Paul was an equal-opportunity evangelist who shared the gospel with anyone and everyone he met. And as those individuals placed their faith in Christ, they became part of “the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9 ESV) – the church. And Paul said that it would be through the church that “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10 ESV). That word, “manifold” is the Greek word, πολυποίκιλος (polypoikilos), which literally means “much variegated, marked with a great variety of colours” (“G4182 – polypoikilos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). The multi-racial makeup of the church reveals the wisdom of God. The church was not something men would have come up with. It made no sense. The blending together of people from different racial backgrounds and social standings into one homogeneous group was unheard of. The degree of equality and equanimity made possible in this mysterious thing called the church was an anomaly.  Even angels and demons are amazed at what they see in the church. The unifying nature of God’s redemptive work through Christ is like nothing else in the world. No other organization, effort, or man-made institution has the capacity to draw people together in love like the church. And that is why Satan spends so much time trying to destroy the unity within the church. He wants to divide and conquer from within. So he brings in false teaching and harmful doctrines that create schisms and divide congregations. He promotes pride, while God calls us to live in humility and selflessness. The enemy wants us to recognize our differences, while God desires for us to celebrate our oneness in Christ. Satan wants us to dwell on our individuality, while God calls us to live in unity.

“The church as a multi-racial, multi-cultural community is like a beautiful tapestry. Its members come from a wide range of colourful backgrounds. No other human community resembles it. Its diversity and harmony are unique” – John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians

“. . . the church is to be an audio-visual display of God’s reconciling work. In this primary way she testifies to God’s grace and wisdom. So Paul encouraged living life in Christ in such a way that reconciliation is the dominant feature of church life.” – Darrell L. Bock, A Theology of Paul’s Prison Epistles

The church is an amazing, God-ordained and Spirit-empowered entity that reveals to the world His incredible wisdom and the life-transforming power of the gospel. King David wrote, “How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!” (Psalm 133:1 NLT). And that is true of the church. A common faith in Jesus Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit give believers in the body of Christ a bond that is unlike anything the world has ever seen. This was God’s “eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11 NLT). The church should be an unstoppable force in the world today, illustrating the power and wisdom of God. We should model the love of God. We should exude the grace and mercy of God. We should demonstrate the unity of God as we live together in harmony, sacrificing our individual needs for the sake of one another. When Peter told Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 NLT), Jesus responded, “upon this rock [his confession] I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matthew 16:18 NLT). As men and women from all walks of life and every nation on earth confess Jesus as Lord, God builds them into the most powerful force in the universe: His church. And no one or nothing will ever defeat it.

 

Like One Unclean.

Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. – Isaiah 64:5b-7 ESV

Isaiah 64

Isaiah was brutally honest in his assessment of the condition of God’s people. It was not a pretty picture. He had just finished saying, “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways” (Isaiah 64:5a ESV), but then he had to sadly acknowledge that no one in Judah fit that description. God was going to meet them, but it would not be a joyful occasion, because of their sins. God was angry with them, and rightfully so. They just couldn’t seem to stop sinning, and Isaiah couldn’t think of a reason why God would ever want to save them. Their sins had left them unclean, like a leper banned from access to the temple of God. They were impure, unholy, and unable to come into the presence of God. But Isaiah uses even more graphic language to describe the nature of their sin. All their activities, even their so-called righteous ones, were like soiled menstrual rags – unclean, unacceptable, and repulsive to the sight of God. Like a leaf fallen from a tree, they were lifeless and easily carried away by the winds of sin. 

Isaiah paints a bleak, yet honest, picture. He knew all too well just how bad things had gotten in Judah. He had been trying to get their attention. He had been warning them of God’s pending judgment. But no one had listened. They had even stopped calling out to God. They couldn’t even seem to rouse themselves from their sinful stupor long enough to lift a hand in God’s direction. From the human perspective, it was as if God had hidden Himself from them. But it was their sin that had created a barrier between them and God. He was still there. He was ready to respond as soon as they were willing to repent. But their constant state of sin had left them in a sorry condition. They were separated from God and unable to do anything to remedy their problem. In fact, God had given them over to their sin. He had allowed them to reap the consequences of their choices. They were experiencing the consequences of their sin.

The apostle Paul describes a similar situation in his letter to the Romans. “Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:21-23 NLT). Rather than worship God, they created their own gods. They came up with gods who would approve of their sin and validate their selfish desires. As a result, God let them have exactly what they wanted. “So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired” (Romans 1:24 NLT). That verse should send shudders down the spine of every believer. The very thought of God abandoning us to do what our hearts desire should scare us. Our natural man, left to its own devices, will always choose the wrong path. Our old nature, motivated by pride, lust, greed, and selfishness, will always gravitate toward rebellion against God. Even as redeemed children of God, we must never lose sight of the fact that our capacity to sin remains within us. It is only our dependence upon God and our reliance upon His indwelling Spirit that gives us the ability to live righteously instead of sinfully. Paul reminds us, “So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves” (Galatians 5:16 NLT).

Sin is a constant threat to the child of God. We have our old sinful nature to deal with. We live in a hostile world that is opposed to us and intent on destroying us. We have an enemy who can’t stand us and who is out to steal, kill and destroy. While our sins can never separate us from the love of God or cause us to lose our salvation, they can destroy our joy, rob us of peace, damage our witness, harden our hearts, limit our effectiveness, and harm the reputation of God. There is nothing more sad than a child of God whose life doesn’t reflect his position. We have been redeemed by God through the blood of Jesus Christ and are intended to live lives that reflect our new-found status as sons and daughters of God. We have the Spirit of God living within us and the Word of God to guide us. We have been placed within the body of Christ and been given spiritual gifts designed to minister to one another so that we might grow in Christ-likeness. But sin can and will wreak havoc on our spiritual lives if we allow it to. If we give in to our sinful nature, we will reap the consequences. That’s why our constant dependence upon God is so important. Paul put it this way: “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:2 NLT). I can choose to live as one unclean or as one who has been cleansed by the blood of Christ. I can give in to my old sinful nature or I can live in constant reliance upon the will of God with the help of the Spirit of God.

Fire In My Bones.

If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side! “Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” say all my close friends, watching for my fall. “Perhaps he will be deceived; then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him.” – Jeremiah 20:9-10 ESV

Jeremiah 20:7-18

Jeremiah had given his nemesis, Pashtur, an interesting, if not too flattering, nickname. “The next day, when Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks, Jeremiah said to him, ‘The Lord does not call your name Pashhur, but Terror on Every Side’” (Jeremiah 20:3 ESV). But in reality, Jeremiah had become known for having a one-track mind that always seemed to be thinking about nothing but doom and gloom. It had gotten so bad that Jeremiah had contemplated giving up his job as a prophet of God. But every time he tried, he found himself unable to contain the message God had given him. He described it as “a burning fire shut up in my bones”. Even his close friends had threatened to denounce him because of his incessant calls to repentance and warning about pending judgment. They were even anxious to see him proven wrong. Their collective hope was that Jeremiah, while a prophet of God, could just be deceived and his message not be from God at all. After all, there were other prophets claiming to speak for God who were offering up a message that was radically different than that of Jeremiah. But God would have harsh words for those individuals. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, “It shall be well with you”; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, “No disaster shall come upon you”’” (Jeremiah 23:16-17 ESV).

It doesn’t take a genius to understand whose message was more readily received. The false prophets were telling the people exactly what they wanted to hear: All is well. There is nothing to worry about. Everything is going to be fine. God is not angry. Destruction is not coming. Jeremiah is wrong. But God felt otherwise. “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds” (Jeremiah 23:21-22 ESV). These men didn’t speak for God. They were simply telling the people what they wanted to hear. As a result, they were popular. Their messages were well received. Centuries later, Paul would warn Timothy about a similar situation in his own day. “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3 NLT). The fact is, the truth is hard to handle. Sometimes we just don’t want to hear it. Sometimes we don’t want to tell it. And like Jeremiah, we live in a time when the truth of God is not politically correct or popular. Sin is becoming increasingly acceptable and, in many ways, celebrated. Courts made up of men now determine what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable. Behavior that was once classified as sin is now deemed normal and natural. The Word of God, which speaks clearly and truthfully about such matters, is simply reinterpreted, redefined or simply ignored in order to justify behaviors that God classifies as sin.

And in the midst of all the pressure to conform and compromise, it would be tempting to give in. It would be easy to soften our message in order to find acceptance. After all, nobody likes rejection – even Jeremiah. But he discovered that he had a fire in his bones, a burning in his heart that would not allow him to shut up or give up. Despite the opposition, he had to keep speaking the truth of God to the people of God. God had given him a message and he was obligated to share it, whether anyone wanted to hear it or not. He was also called to live differently than those around him. He couldn’t afford to compromise his convictions or cut corners when it came to his commitment to God. And the writer of Hebrews had a similar message to his readers. “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:1-6 ESV).

The truth of God is not always easy to hear. It isn’t always easy to share either. But it is the truth of God that sets men free. The lies of the enemy deceive and delude. The world wants to contradict the Word of God. Even many of our fellow believers would rather listen to the promises of so-called prophets who offer us false hope and faulty messages that contradict the will of God. Hearing what we want to hear may be comforting for a season, but it will always prove dangerous and deadly. The truth of God is what we need to hear. And our prayer should be that God would give us a fire in our bones to speak the truth in love, against all odds and in the face of any and all opposition. Because the Lord is our helper. We have nothing to fear. What can men do to us?