The Unbreakable Bond Between Belief and Behavior

The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. – Titus 3:8-11 ESV

Paul has just reminded Titus of the core message of the gospel: Jesus Christ appeared in human form as a visible expression of God’s goodness and love. And Jesus proved the love of God by offering His own life as payment for the sins of humanity. His death made salvation possible, not based on mankind’s efforts to live righteous lives, but because of the mercy of God the Father. The death of Jesus on the cross provided a means for sinful man to be forgiven, cleansed, and restored to a right relationship with God the Father. And after His resurrection and return to His Father’s side, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell all believers. The result was their “new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 NLT). And the Holy Spirit’s presence within the life of each and every believer is a guarantee of the eternal life awaiting them.

And Paul tells Titus that this is a trustworthy saying. In Greek, the phrase is pistos logos. It means that these are words that can be relied upon and believed in. They are true and worthy of our trust because they hold the key to our present effectiveness and our future hope.

The reason Paul can place such high expectations upon the believers living on Crete is because of the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. His death has made possible a life filled with a never-before-available power to live above and beyond the norms of everyday life. A Christian is a new creation whose purpose for life has been radically changed because of his relationship with Jesus Christ. And Paul expects Titus to hold the believers on Crete to the higher standard that comes with their newfound status as God’s children. Jesus died in order that sinful men might be saved but His death also makes possible their ongoing spiritual transformation. He doesn’t just provide them with a clean slate, wiped free from the sin debt they owed, but He also makes it possible for them to live righteous lives. So, Titus was to “insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8 NLT).

The good news regarding Jesus Christ is not just about gaining entrance into heaven someday. It’s about the daily manifestation of our faith through tangible works that reveal the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Notice what Paul told the believers in Ephesus:

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:10 NLT

Paul insists that every believer is the handiwork of God. The Greek word he used is poiēma, and it refers to “the thing that is made.” Each believer is the work of God. No one saves themselves. No one becomes a Christian. The work of salvation is entirely up to God, from beginning to end, just as Jesus told the believers in Rome.

For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory. – Romans 8:29-30 NLT

Paul was consistently emphatic when declaring man’s non-existent role in salvation.

Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT

The believer owes his salvation entirely to God.

because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 ESV

But while man’s works cannot make him a Christian, they can certainly provide evidence that he is one. Which is the point of Paul’s letter to Titus. He wanted the believers on Crete to live their lives in the power of the Spirit, fulfilling the preordained plans God had in place for them. There was work to be done. There were lost individuals who needed to hear the gospel message. There was a divine strategy in place that called for all believers to live in obedience to God’s will and in total submission to His Spirit.

All that Paul has been sharing with Titus was to be considered good and beneficial. This wasn’t pie-in-the-sky-sometime rhetoric. Christianity wasn’t to be viewed as some future escape plan from eternal torment. It was to be the key to abundant life in the present, and Paul lived his life that way. This is why he could so boldly state:

I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20 NLT

Paul fully believed that his old self was crucified alongside Christ, “so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless” ªRomans 6:6 BSB). He regularly experienced the reality of his own teaching in his own life.

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. – Galatians 5:24 NLT

And if those old passions and desires have been nailed to the cross, it is essential that they be replaced with new passions and desires. The believer’s new nature in Christ should come to the fore, giving evidence of the power of God’s Spirit residing in him. So, all that Paul has instructed Titus to teach the believers on Crete is tied to the good works God has created them to accomplish. That includes submission, self-control, love, patience, temperance, kindness, sacrifice, and a host of other qualities that are in short supply in this world. Paul wanted the behavior of all believers to reflect what they said they believed.

…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! – 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT

Paul expected them to believe and behave in a way that displayed their new status as God’s adopted sons and daughters. From God’s perspective, they were new creations, so why would they continue to live according to their old natures? God had new things for them to do. He had a radically different lifestyle in mind for them that was intended to prove the reality of their new identities.

Put on your new nature, created to be like God – truly righteous and holy. – Ephesians 4:24 NLT

But the sad reality was that many of the believers on the island of Crete were struggling. There were those who were causing dissension by teaching unadulterated lies. Arguments were breaking out within their gatherings. Sides were being taken, damaging the unity of the church. And Paul makes it brutally clear what Titus was to do with those who caused divisions within the local church.

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him – Titus 3:10 ESV

Remember, the point of Paul’s letter is godly behavior. He is calling all professing Christians to live as who they are: The sons and daughters of God. As such, they were to reflect the character of Christ. They were to devote themselves to good works. Anything that distracted from the objective was to be avoided at all costs. Anyone who distorted or took away from that goal was to be rejected for being warped, sinful, and self-condemning. These people were guilty of twisting and perverting the trustworthy words of the gospel, and their actions condemned them. As a result, they were to be avoided like a plague. The spiritual well-being of the body of Christ was at risk and the believers on Crete would find it nearly impossible to accomplish the good works God had prepared for them to do as long as these individuals were allowed to remain in their midst. As Paul warned the believers in Galatia, there was no place for tolerance or complacency when it came to anything that threatened the truth of the gospel.

This false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough! I am trusting the Lord to keep you from believing false teachings. God will judge that person, whoever he is, who has been confusing you. – Galatians 5:9-10 NLT

Paul had no tolerance for false teachers and neither should they. Right living becomes virtually impossible when wrong doctrines are allowed to exist. Accomplishing good works is difficult when bad teaching is left unchallenged in the church. The church must always take the truth seriously and deal with falsehood decisively. The world may be filled with lies, driven by deception, and motivated by selfishness, but the church of Jesus Christ is to be the rock-steady foundation of God’s truth. And Paul was providing Titus with the same powerful reminder that he had given Timothy, so that both men might “know how each one must conduct himself in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 BSB).

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.

Silencing the Ungodly

10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. 12 One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. – Titus 1:10-16 ESV

Like Timothy, Titus was one of Paul’s protégés. He was a Greek Gentile whom Paul had evidently led to Christ. This young man had actually accompanied Paul on several of his missionary journeys. Over time, he earned the apostle’s trust, so that Paul was confident in sending him out on his own on numerous occasions. In fact, Paul had sent him to the island of Crete to appoint elders and establish some sense of order among the congregations there.

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you. –  Titus 1:5 NLT

As he had done with Timothy, Paul provided Titus with advice on how to deal with false teachers who had become a recurring problem within the fledgling churches on Crete.

Titus found himself ministering in a place where the reputation of the inhabitants was far from stellar. Paul even quoted Epimenides, a 6th Century BC philosopher and religious prophet who happened to be from Crete and who held a low view of his fellow Cretans.

Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. – Titus 1:12 ESV

Paul concurred with Epimenides’ assessment and went out of his way to paint a less-than-flattering picture of the people of Crete. He described them as  “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10 ESV). Evidently, the false teachers were not the only people of poor repute on Crete. So were some of the members of the local churches. That’s why Paul spends a great deal of time in his letter talking about good works. He wanted Titus to understand just how important good character and moral behavior were to be in the life of a believer.

Paul commanded Titus to deal harshly and firmly with those whose lives were marked by laziness and lying. He didn’t want his young disciple to tolerate the disorder and chaos these kinds of people were bringing into the church. He told Titus to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13 ESV). Rebuking and restoration were both to be a part of Titus’ ministry on Crete.

Paul’s objective was for these individuals to become “sound in the faith,” because they were spreading false and deceptive ideas concerning faith in Christ. Paul’s use of the term “faith” refers to eternal salvation made possible through belief in Jesus Christ as Savior. The false teachers were confusing and even contradicting what Paul, Titus, and others had taught regarding what it means to have faith in Christ, experience forgiveness of sins, and have a restored relationship with God.

Rather than teaching faith alone in Christ alone, these false teachers were proclaiming novel messages regarding salvation that were contradictory to the gospel proclaimed by Paul and the other apostles, and it was weakening the faith of the Cretan believers. They didn’t know who or what to believe anymore.

One of the qualifications for elders that Paul gave Titus was “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9 ESV). These men were to be knowledgeable of the truth so that they might refute falsehood and rebuke those who taught it. As far as Paul was concerned, sound faith was totally dependent upon sound doctrine.

But these false teachers were teaching “what they ought not to teach” and all “for shameful gain” (Titus 1:11 ESV). Paul refers to them as being from the circumcision party. This is a reference to Jews who had expressed faith in Christ, but who held to the idea that Gentiles who became believers in Christ must also keep the Law of Moses and undergo the rite of circumcision in order to be truly saved.

Paul fought this heresy with every fiber of his being. And Paul’s fear was that, based on the reputation of the Cretans, they would easily accept this false teaching, and end up “devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:14 ESV).

The Cretans were easily swayed by the “commands” or teachings of these people, readily accepting what they had to say about circumcision, abstinence from certain foods, the keeping of Jewish feasts and festivals, and adherence to the Mosaic law. But Paul warned Titus that these false teachers “claim they know God, but they deny him by the way they live. They are detestable and disobedient, worthless for doing anything good” (Titus 1:16 ESV).

Paul made it clear that the real problem with these false teachers was their hearts.

Everything is pure to those whose hearts are pure. But nothing is pure to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, because their minds and consciences are corrupted. – Titus 1:15 NLT

They were obsessed with the externals: the keeping of laws and commands and adherence to rituals and religious rules.

There was an occasion when Jesus was approached by a group of Jewish religious leaders who wanted to know why His disciples didn’t follow their man-made tradition of ceremonial hand-cleansing before they ate. Jesus responded to them:

“And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:3-9 NLT

Jesus went on to say: “It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth” (Matthew 15:11 NLT).

These self-righteous religious leaders had missed the point. They were so busy keeping external rules that they missed the real issue: The condition of their hearts. And Paul knew that the false teachers who were so negatively impacting the churches on Crete were suffering from the same problem. Their minds and consciences were defiled. Their hearts were hardened to the truth regarding faith in Christ. They were convinced that there had to be more to salvation. Faith alone in Christ alone was not enough. Works of self-righteousness were necessary. But Paul describes them as defiled and unbelieving. They were wrong and they were dangerous.

So, Paul tells Titus to rebuke them sharply. He was to deal harshly with the false teachers, and he was to rebuke the Cretans who were so easily buying into their lies. Sound doctrine and sound faith go hand in hand. The Word of God is not open to our interpretation. We are not free to add to the gospel or alter the truth of God in any way. And we are not to tolerate those who attempt to mislead by misinterpreting what God has said. Again, that is why Paul told Titus an elder must “have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong” (Titus 1:9 NLT).

Paul had also written to Timothy, telling him that the purpose of his letter was that “you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God. This is the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 NLT). The church and its leaders were to adhere to and uphold the truth of God, especially as it relates to the message and means of salvation. There is no other gospel except the one we have been given: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 ESV).

We live in the midst of an ungodly world and there is an ongoing need for godly men who will step forward and provide leadership and protection for the flock of God. The church needs men of character who are led by the Spirit of God and committed to the Word of God. Disorder and disruption are all around us. That’s why qualified men are in great need, even today.

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 Foundation of the Truth

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
    vindicated by the Spirit,
        seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
    believed on in the world,
        taken up in glory.

1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. – 1 Timothy 3:14-4:5ESV

The world in which Paul lived was mired in falsehood, much like it is today. This world is the domain of Satan, who is the father of lies (John 8:44). Everything in this world is deceptive and deceitful. As Satan has always done, he has taken what God has made and attempted to distort and twist it in such a way that it leads mankind away from God.

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul outlined the devastating consequences of Satan’s influence over this world and his impact on humanity.

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

While he is deemed the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), Satan is not obsessed with having men worship him. He is content to have them worship anything other than God, including themselves. That is why Paul went on to warn the believers in Rome about the dangers of idolatry.

They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself. – Romans 1:25 NLT

The apostle John reminds us that Jesus “came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him” (John 1:10-11 NLT). Men preferred the darkness over the Light. They rejected the truth regarding Jesus Christ and gladly accepted the lies of the enemy.

So, it’s easy to see why Paul reminded Timothy that the church, the body of Christ, was the God-ordained instrument for spreading and supporting the truth of God in this world. His whole purpose in writing Timothy was to help him understand how people are to live within the household of God, the church, which was to be “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 ESV).

The truth to which Paul referred is the truth regarding godliness. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has provided a means by which sinful men and women might achieve godliness or a state of righteousness in His eyes.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

And Paul seems to quote a few lines from what must have been a hymn of the early church.

Christ was revealed in a human body
    and vindicated by the Spirit.
He was seen by angels
    and announced to the nations.
He was believed in throughout the world
    and taken to heaven in glory. – 1 Timothy 3:16 NLT

In a few short lines, Paul addresses the truth regarding godliness. First, he defends the truth regarding Jesus’ incarnation. He was God in human flesh. And, according to the apostle Peter, Jesus was “put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18 BSB). That is what Paul means when he states that Jesus was vindicated by the Spirit. Jesus died on the cross for the sins of mankind but was raised back to life by the power of the Holy Spirit. And His resurrection was announced to the nations, resulting in the salvation of countless individuals. And while Jesus ascended back into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father, He will one day return for His followers. That is the truth of the gospel and the good news concerning godliness.

And Paul would have Timothy remember that the church is the keeper of that truth. It is the main distribution method for conveying the message of godliness to a lost and dying world. And I think Paul was specifically thinking about the local church context, which is the testing ground of our faith. It is where the truth must be applied with love and grace. If God’s life-transforming power, made possible through Jesus’ death on the cross, doesn’t work within a local body of believers, the gospel is ineffective. But Paul believed it could and should make a difference.

First and foremost, he viewed the church as a household, a family. It was not an institution or organization, but a collection of different individuals who have all shared in God’s undeserved, unmerited favor by placing their faith in Jesus Christ. They have been adopted into God’s family and been declared His heirs, all due to the sacrificial, sin-canceling death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Paul describes this as the great mystery of our faith.

This is the truth of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. It is this truth that the church is to support and uphold. There is no other version of the truth. It is this truth that leads to godliness. It is this truth that makes the church a living organism, not an organization. It is this truth that provides power through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. It is this truth that gives us hope for the present as well as the future.

The church, the body of Christ, is where the message of new life in Christ gets lived out, and where the Light of the world illuminates the darkness of sin. And Paul knew the necessity of these things because he had seen firsthand the impact of falsehood and heresy within the local church. The enemy was alive and well in his day, attacking the fledgling churches with half-truths, convincing lies, and distorted views of reality. Where there is truth, there will always be falsehood.

The good news regarding Jesus Christ would always be accompanied by counterfeits and knockoffs. One of the things Paul was constantly fighting was the tendency for people to buy into the formula of Jesus + something. Anything that added to Christ’s all-sufficient work on the cross was to be rejected as false – a lie from the enemy.

The real and ever-present danger to the church is to compromise. If the enemy can get us to compromise our convictions with ever-so-slight revisions to the truth of God, he can destroy our effectiveness. It is exactly what he did with Adam and Eve in the garden. He got them to question the word of God by cleverly twisting it – leading them to doubt its veracity and reliability.

But the church must be the pillar that supports the truth in the midst of all the falsehood and lies. And the lies Paul warns Timothy about are subtle and deceptive. Whether it was asceticism, the belief that abstinence from certain physical things leads to spiritual maturity, or legalism, the belief that adherence to certain rules and rituals was essential to salvation – these things were to be rejected as lies. They had no place in the household of God. They were dangerous and highly destructive.

The key to the church’s survival in the hostile environment in which it is called to exist is the truth. We are called to be “faithful people who know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3 NLT). It is the truth of God, found in the Word of God, that gives the people of God the capacity to see the lies of the enemy and reject them. Knowledge of the truth brings health and vitality to the body of Christ. Living according to the truth makes the people of God a powerful force for change in the world, causing us to shine brightly in the darkness that surrounds us. But compromise is like a blanket thrown over the church, diminishing its capacity to shine.

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 Priority of the Gospel

1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. – 1 Timothy 2:1-15 ESV

This chapter is chock-full of verses around which men have built entire doctrines or teachings regarding the church. And in many cases, they have ignored the context while focusing on a single concept or idea. But we have to remember that Paul is giving Timothy, his young disciple, instructions regarding his ministry among the people in Ephesus. The focus of this entire chapter is on the gospel and the environment in which it thrives and spreads best. There are things that can hurt or hinder the spread of the gospel. There are activities or circumstances that can cause the message of the good news of Jesus Christ to be difficult to understand. There are also things that believers can do that can end up discrediting their role as messengers of the gospel. Paul’s primary emphasis in this chapter is the salvation of others. Everything else he deals with becomes the context in which the salvation of others functions best.

He begins with an admonition to pray. Paul did not view prayer as a magic formula or secret weapon given to believers but as intimate communication with God. Every child of God is provided with the privilege of being able to speak with their Heavenly Father, at any time and from any place.

As the church, we are the people of God and, as such, we should always have a God-ward focus in our thinking. Paul tells Timothy to pray for all people. But pray for what?

Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. – 1 Timothy 2:1 NLT

In the original Greek, Paul actually lists four different aspects of prayer: requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving. Each word was carefully chosen and designed to illustrate the rich depth that should mark our communication with God.

“Requests” is the Greek word deeseis and it carries a sense of determination and earnestness based on an awareness of the other person’s needs. As believers, we understand the needs of all men, whether we know them or not. They need Jesus.

The word “prayers” is the Greek word proseuchas, and it is a more general description that covers prayers of all kinds. Its focus is on God, not the one for whom we are praying. We are to lift up all men before God, placing them in His hands and under His care, trusting that He knows what they need.

“Intercession” (enteuxeis) seems to cover the specific requests we bring to God on behalf of others. When we become aware of a specific need or circumstance in someone else’s life, we boldly bring it before the throne of God.

Finally, “thanksgiving” (eucharistias) reminds us that our prayers are to be filled with expressions of gratitude to God. But in this context, Paul is suggesting that our prayers of thanksgiving concern those for whom we are praying – and that includes all men and not just some. Again, the focus is on God. To be able to thank God for someone whom we would normally feel unthankful is to express trust in the sovereignty of God. It is to confess that He is in charge and has a purpose for that person’s presence in our life.

Prayer is not meant to be formulaic or ritualistic. It is to be marked by a variety and intensity of style and content, with the focus always on God.

Paul goes on to instruct Timothy to include kings and all authority figures in his prayers. These people are sometimes the most difficult individuals for whom to pray. But Paul instructs Timothy to pray that God would use these people to help create an atmosphere in which believers might “live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2 NLT) and that the gospel might prosper and spread.

But why? Because God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. His desire is that all men hear the good news that “there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus. He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone” (1 Timothy 2:5-6 NLT). So, we are to pray that God would use political leaders to foster an atmosphere conducive to spreading the gospel message.

But there are certain things that can hinder our prayers and destroy our witness as believers. Paul mentions anger and controversy. Jesus warned us that “if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 NLT).

Disunity can derail our prayer lives but so can our actions. And our behavior among those for whom we are praying can have a powerful impact on whether they eventually embrace the salvation we know they need. Our outward actions can derail our efforts to share the gospel by contradicting the very message of the gospel’s life-transforming power.

Paul addresses an issue that continues to be a problem in the church today: The immodesty of dress among Christian women. He writes, “I want women to be modest in their appearance” (1 Timothy 2:9 NLT). This wasn’t just Paul’s personal preference but reflects his instructions as an apostle of and spokesman for God. The women in the church at Ephesus were sending mixed messages. On the one hand, they were spreading the gospel. But some of them were so interested in how they looked and focused on drawing attention to themselves, that they were actually doing more harm than good. Good looks had replaced good behavior as the point of emphasis in their lives. They had become focused on the externals, rather than the condition of their own hearts.

The next issue Paul addressed with Timothy remains a hot-button topic even today. It dealt with the role of women in the assembly of the church, and it had to do with order and headship. But as with every other topic in this chapter, it had to do with the spread of the gospel. Anything we do that hinders or hurts the gospel message is to be avoided at all costs. In this case, the female members of the Ephesian church had discovered a new-found freedom in Christ but it had led to license and was creating disorder within the local body of Christ. Paul insisted that there must be order and decorum in the church. There was a God-given structure to the body of Christ, with Christ himself serving as the head. God had given to men the responsibility of serving in a place of authority and responsibility, both within the local church and the home.

This had nothing to do with value or worth but with divine order and human responsibility. The real issue here seems to be a woman taking on inappropriate authority not given to her by God. Ultimately, Paul’s concern was the spread of the gospel. Again, disunity and anger seem to be at the core of Paul’s message. If those outside the church were to look inside and see a lack of unity and the presence of disharmony, their interest in the gospel might be negatively impacted. Yet, Paul insisted that God had provided an order and authority structure to the body of Christ. In God’s grand scheme, men were to lead the church. They were responsible to God for teaching the Scriptures. This in no way implies that women are incapable or unqualified to teach God’s Word. It has to do with authority and responsibility, not capability.

God had placed men in the role of teachers and leaders within the local church. When this order was ignored or violated, it caused disunity and discord. Paul seems to be saying that order within the church and the spread of the Gospel should take precedence over the need to look good or to be seen as a person of power and influence. It was important that men be able to “pray with holy hands lifted up” – free from controversy and anger. The goal is always to be the spread of the gospel. Whether male or female, our greatest concern should be that others come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Our need to be noticed, in charge, seen as attractive, powerful, influential, and even as spiritual – has to take a backseat to God’s non-negotiable command to make disciples. That should be the focus of our prayers and the emphasis of our lives.

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.

Suit Up, Stand Up, Speak Up!

18 To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. Ephesians 6:18b-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, the body of Christ. 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 and is the mysterious or previously hidden idea that God would miraculously join 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 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 later 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 God has 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 he wears it in a futile attempt to act 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 as well. We should desire that each and every believer on the planet lives 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.

Not surprisingly, Paul asks his flock in Ephesus to pray for him. He is writing his letter while under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial before the emperor. But Paul doesn’t request that they pray for his timely release. While there’s little doubt that Paul longed to be set free so that he could continue his ministry, he also saw his confinement as a God-ordained opportunity to share the message of Jesus Christ with a “captive” audience. In his letter to the Philippians, he mentioned those he had been able to lead to faith in the household of Caesar.

The brothers who are with me send you their greetings. And all the rest of God’s people send you greetings, too, especially those in Caesar’s household. – Philippians 4:22 NLT

Paul had been busy while under house arrest in Rome. He had been bemoaning his circumstances or complaining about his sorry lot in life. No, he had been spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to anyone and everyone.

I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear. – Philippians 4:12-14 NLT

Paul was an equal-opportunity evangelist. He was ready, willing, and able to share the gospel with Jews, Gentiles, Romans, freemen, slaves, guards, and even emperors if given the chance. No one was “safe” when Paul was around. So, instead of asking that his friends in Ephesus pray for his release, he asks them to pray that he will “keep on speaking boldly for him” (Ephesians 6:20 NLT). He desires strength, endurance, and a fearlessness to boldly proclaim Christ even in the face of possible rejection and ridicule.

Paul knew that he would need just the right words to speak in each situation. He was totally dependent upon God to provide him with just the right message at just the right time. Paul didn’t preach a one-size-fits-all kind of gospel. He allowed the Holy Spirit to custom-fit the message for each individual. That is why he asks that the Ephesians pray that God would give him “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 didn’t ask for release from confinement, but instead, he asked for Spirit-empowered communications skills. He wanted to make the most of his time while under house arrest. He viewed his situation as part of the sovereign will of God, and not as some kind of difficulty from which to escape. He was in God’s hands and what he desired most was the Ephesians’ prayers so that he might have God’s help in proclaiming the news of God’s Son.

Paul‘s prayer request reminds me of the words of an old hymn that echoes the same sentiment. Oh, that we would have the same perspective as Paul and share his desire to be used by God no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Open my eyes, that I may see
Glimpses of truth thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free
Silently now I wait for thee
Ready, my God, thy will to see
Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!
Open my ears, that I may hear
Voices of truth thou sendest clear;
And while the wavenotes fall on my ear
Everything false will disappear
Silently now I wait for thee
Ready, my God, thy will to see
Open my ears, illumine me, Spirit divine!
Open my mouth, and let me bear
Gladly the warm truth everywhere;
Open my heart and let me prepare
Love with thy children thus to share
Silently now I wait for thee
Ready, my God, thy will to see
Open my heart, illumine me, Spirit divine!

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

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

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

 

A Prisoner of Christ

Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here.

10 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him), 11 and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. 12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. 13 For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. 14 Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas. 15 Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 16 And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. 17 And say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.”

18 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Colossians 4:7-18 ESV

As Paul prepares to wrap up his letter to the Colossian church, he mentions the names of eight different men. Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Jesus (Justus), Epaphras, Luke, Demas, and Archippus. Each of them had played a vital role in Paul’s life and ministry. Two of them, Tychicus and Onesimus, had been chosen by Paul to deliver the letter once he had completed it. The first mention of Tychicus in the Scriptures is found in Acts 20, where Luke records his name, as well as that of Aristarchus, among those who accompanied Paul as he left Greece and made his way to Syria.

…he [Paul] decided to return through Macedonia. Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus. These went on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas, but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days. – Acts 20:3-6 ESV

Tychicus, like the rest of these men, had become a disciple of Paul and had aided him in his ministry. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul refers to Tychicus as his “beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:21 ESV). Paul had instructed Tychicus to deliver his letter to the Ephesian believers and bring them up to speed on his current situation (Ephesians 6:22). And Paul had entrusted Tychicus with the same responsibility when it came to the congregation in Colossae.

Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here. – Colossians 4:7-9 ESV

He was accompanied by Onesimus, another disciple of Paul who, at one time, had been a runaway slave. Paul had befriended Onesimus in Rome, where Paul was imprisoned and the young man was hiding from his former master, a man named Philemon. while it is unclear how Paul and Onesimus met, we do know that Paul had the privilege of leading Onesimus to Christ. And after discipling his young friend for a period of time, he determined to send Onesimus back to his master. What makes this situation rather strange is that Paul knew Onesimus’ master well. He was a man named Philemon and the church in Colossae met in his home. Paul wrote a letter to Philemon, asking him to receive Onesimus back, not as a runaway slave, but as a brother in Christ.

I appeal to you to show kindness to my child, Onesimus. I became his father in the faith while here in prison. Onesimus hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is very useful to both of us. I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart.

I wanted to keep him here with me while I am in these chains for preaching the Good News, and he would have helped me on your behalf. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent. I wanted you to help because you were willing, not because you were forced. It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:10-16 NLT

According to Colossian 4:9, Onesimus accompanied Tychicus back to Colossae. Tychicus was to deliver Onesimus and the letter from Paul to Philemon. We are not told how this reunion turned out, but it seems likely that Philemon heeded Paul’s advice and treated Onesimus as a “beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16).

Paul also mentions Aristarchus, a Greek who hailed from the city of Thessalonica (Acts 20:4). Paul refers to Aristarchus as his “fellow prisoner” (Colossians 4:10), but it seems unlikely that Paul was inferring that Aristarchus was also under house arrest in Rome.  Paul used the term “fellow prisoner” when referring to several of his co-workers in the ministry.

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. – Romans 16:7 ESV

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. – Philemon 1:23-24 ESV

It appears that Paul used this term to refer to their shared captivity to the will of God. Paul opened up his letter to Philemon by describing himself as “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (Philemon 1:1 ESV). He used the same phrase when writing to the church in Ephesus, another Gentile community.

I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you… – Ephesians 3:1-2 ESV

Jesus didn’t consider himself a prisoner of the Roman government, but of Jesus Christ. He was where he was because he had been faithfully fulfilling the will of Christ. And he viewed these other men as fellow captives, who shared his commitment to carrying the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

In a sense, Paul was name-dropping, providing his readers with a list of individuals whom they knew well and whose reputations would further enhance and support the content of Paul’s letter. The believers in Colossae had never met Paul. They were probably familiar with his name and had likely heard about his miraculous salvation story and prolific ministry. But he was a stranger to them. Paul used the names of these men to assure the Colossians that his words could be trusted. Over time, the various churches had heard about the travels of Paul and the assistance he had received from various individuals, including John Mark and his cousin, Barnabas. That is why Paul mentions their names. John Mark had accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey. And Barnabas had been a part of the church since its earliest days in Jerusalem. Luke mentions his name in Acts 4.

Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. – Acts 4:36-37 ESV

Jesus Justus was one of several Jewish Christians (“men of the circumcision”) who made up Paul’s ethnically diverse ministerial team. Paul wanted the Colossians to know that when he wrote, “In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free” (Colossians 3:11 NLT), he meant it. Paul practiced what he preached.

Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. – Colossians 3:11 NLT

Epaphras, a citizen of Colossae, had played a major role in the founding of the church there (Colossians 1:7). But he had left his hometown in order to minister alongside Paul. It seems that Paul had a small contingent of co-workers who had accompanied him to Rome and remained by his side while he was under house arrest and awaiting trial. This included Luke, the author of the gospel that bears his name as well as the book of Acts. Luke was Paul’s “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14 ESV) and remained by the apostle’s side throughout his confinement in Rome. Demas was also at Paul’s side in Rome, but the day would come when he would allow his love for the world to replace his commitment to Paul and the gospel ministry.

Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. – 2 Timothy 4:10 ESV

Paul closes out his letter by asking that it be shared with the church in Laodicea. And evidently, there was a letter he had written to the Laocidean congregation that he wished to be read by the Colossians as well. All of these congregations were in close proximity to one another and the letters Paul wrote to them were intended to be shared among them. The messages they contained were universal in nature and applicable in every one of the communities where local congregations were attempting to live out their faith in hostile surroundings.  Remaining faithful in the midst of a fallen and often antagonistic world was not easy. And nobody knew that better than Paul. That is why he closes out his letter by calling on his children in the faith to “Remember my chains” (Colossians 4:18 ESV). He wanted them to know that he had been imprisoned because of the gospel. He was not oblivious to their situation but was well acquainted with the suffering that accompanied the Christian life. And he rejoiced in the fact that God had deemed him worthy of the privilege of suffering as Christ had suffered – on behalf of His body, the 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

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

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

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

 

Thy Will Be Done

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. Colossians 4:2-6 ESV

Paul has emphasized the believers’ relationship with one another. He encouraged them to “make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you” (Colossians 3:13 NLT). They were to patiently and lovingly respond to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, forgiving as they had been forgiven, and seeking to promote an atmosphere of Christlike peace and harmony.

Now, Paul calls on the Colossian believers to make prayer a priority in their lives. And Paul practiced what he preached. He opened his letter with several statements concerning the ongoing prayers that he and Timothy prayed on behalf of the Colossian church.

We always pray for you, and we give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Colossians 1:3 NLT

…we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. – Colossians 1:9 NLT

We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. – Colossians 1:11 NLT

Prayer was a vital part of Paul’s ministry. With responsibility for the spiritual well-being of so many congregations spread over such a large geographic area, Paul was limited in his ability to make personal appearances. So, he utilized prayer as the means by which he called on the power of God to protect and provide for his far-flung flocks. Paul understood the power and necessity of prayer. He considered it the most vital relationship a Christian could cultivate in their lives. The author of Hebrews, whom many believe to have been Paul, wrote, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16 BSB). Paul wrote something similar in his letter to the church in Ephesus.

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. – Ephesians 3:12 NLT

Paul was committed to cultivating the interpersonal relationships of the Colossians believers. He wanted them to live out their Spirit-transformed lives by displaying Christlike behavior toward one another. But he also desired that the Colossians maintain a healthy and ongoing dialogue with their heavenly Father. For Paul, prayer was the primary way for a believer to express their dependence upon God. He viewed it as far more than a means of getting what we want from God. Prayer was a way for the believer to align their will with that of the Father. It was to be an ongoing form of two-way communication between the Heavenly Father and His child. Through prayer, petitions could be shared and directions could be received. For Paul, prayer was an expression of faith. It displayed the believer’s dependence upon and trust in God. It was a privilege provided by a gracious God that allowed His children to call upon Him at any time. It was to be a delight, not a duty.

Paul was familiar with the proverbs that promoted the efficacy of prayer.

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him. – Proverbs 15:8 ESV

The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous. – Proverbs 15:29 ESV

He would have known what King David had written concerning God and the prayers of His people.

The Lord is near to all who call on him,
    to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;
    he also hears their cry and saves them. – Psalm 145:18-19 NLT

And he would have concurred with the words of James.

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail. – James 5:16 BSB

So, Paul begins to close out his letter to the Colossians with an emphasis on prayer. He urges them to devote themselves to the practice of prayer. And he warns them to be “watchful” (grēgoreō), a word that carries the idea of being alert and ready to see how God will answer their prayers. And when God does answer, they are to express their gratitude for His gracious intercession. Prayer requires faith but not blind faith. It has God as its object and, therefore, answers to prayer should come as no surprise. Prayer and thanksgiving should go hand in hand because God is a faithful God who longs to fulfill the desires of His people.

That’s why Paul asks the Colossians to pray for him. He understood the power of prayer and was not ashamed to request their prayers on his behalf. But Paul was specific in terms of his prayer request. He wanted them to pray that God would open up additional opportunities for him and Timothy to share the good news concerning Christ. At first glance, this seems like an unnecessary prayer. The spread of the gospel was God’s will. He didn’t need to be coerced or cajoled into opening up new opportunities for unbelievers to hear the news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. According to Paul’s letter to Timothy, God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4 ESV). So, why was it important that the Colossians pray this prayer on Paul’s behalf?

It seems that Paul wanted them to pray in keeping with the will of God. It was clearly God’s will that many would be saved and the Colossians had the opportunity to align themselves with God praying for His will to be accomplished. In doing so, they would be setting their minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2). They would be praying in keeping with God’s revealed will.

What makes Paul’s prayer request even more fascinating is that he shared it while under house arrest in Rome. He didn’t ask them to pray for his release. He didn’t covet their prayers for protection or provision. They would have known about his predicament. And by focusing their attention on the spread of the gospel, Paul was helping them to understand that God’s will trumped his own. If God deemed it necessary for Paul to be released in order for the gospel to be spread, He would make it happen. But Paul’s prayer request was selfless in nature. He wanted the good news to go out and for God to get the glory.

Paul also wrote a letter to the believers in Philippi while imprisoned in Rome. And rather than requesting that they pray for his release, he declared God’s sovereign will concerning his imprisonment.

I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear. – Philippians 1:12-14 NLT

And Paul went on to express the tension he felt regarding his ongoing imprisonment and possible death and the thought of release and continued ministry.

For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. – Philippians 1:20-24 NLT

Paul longed to be with Jesus but he was also committed to the work to which he had been commissioned by Jesus. So, for Paul, it boiled down to the will of God. The gospel must go out and if God wanted Paul to be an ongoing participant in that mission, God would orchestrate Paul’s release. And if God should set Paul free, he asked that the Colossians pray for him to have clarity when proclaiming the message of the gospel.

And he reminds them that they too must live out their faith, constantly mindful of its impact on “those who are not believers” (Colossians 4:5 NLT). As they prayed for God’s will to be done, they must also live their lives in accordance with God’s will for them. They must be salt and light. They must live wisely and circumspectly, always recognizing their role as Christ’s ambassadors on earth. That is why Paul encourages them, “Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone” (Colossians 4:6 NLT). Their words were just as important as their works. Their daily interactions with the unsaved would be vital to the continued spread of the gospel. And their patient and loving treatment of one another would go a long way in demonstrating the life-changing nature of the good news.

In a sense, Paul is encouraging his flock in Colossae to practice the model prayer that Jesus gave His disciples.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:10 ESV

Their petitions and their actions were to be in keeping with the will of God. They were to pray and behave in ways that aligned with God’s revealed will for the world. So, that the gospel could continue to spread and the lost be restored to a right relationship with God.

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

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

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

 

The Sufficiency of the Gospel

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. Colossians 2:8-15 ESV

Paul now warms to his primary task: Warning the Colossian believers about the dangers of the doctrinal heresy that was threatening their congregation. He has established the preeminence of Christ and emphasized the foundational nature of His divinity and humanity. Now Paul presents a stinging indictment of the false teachers, labeling their rhetoric concerning Jesus as nothing more than captivating a purely human-based philosophy based on tradition and filled with empty deceit. Paul’s use of the term “philosophy” was not meant to refer to an academic or scientific study of thought, but the teaching of “certain Jewish Christian ascetics, which busied itself with refined and speculative inquiries into the nature and classes of angels, into the ritual of the Mosaic law and the regulations of Jewish tradition respecting practical life” (The Online Bible: Outline of Biblical Usage).

Paul was emphasizing that the teaching that had infiltrated the Colossian church was purely speculative in nature and not based on divine revelation. It was not according to or in keeping with the prophetic pronouncement concerning Christ found in the Old Testament. And it was not in line with Christ’s teachings concerning Himself. No, these men were propagating false doctrines based on “the elemental spirits of the world” (Colossians 2:8 ESV). The word translated as “spirits” is στοιχεῖον (stoicheion), which might be better translated as “principles.” Paul seems to be juxtaposing teaching that is Christ-centered focus with that which is worldly and man-centered. According to Paul, the elemental or fundamental theories of a non-Christian, fallen world were insufficient to explain or guide the Christian life. The false teachers were attempting to use human reasoning to explain spiritual truths.

Paul explained to the believers in Corinth that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV). He followed up this statement by quoting Isaiah 29:14.

For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Then Paul excoriated the false teachers and religious traditionalists of his day.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. – 1 Corinthians 1:20-25 ESV

There were those who found the apostles’ teaching concerning Christ to be illogical and unacceptable. For some of them, the idea that Jesus was fully God and fully man was untenable and indefensible. For others, the idea of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection was little more than wishful thinking or a fairy tale. But Paul refers to his teaching concerning Christ as the power and wisdom of God.

Paul considered the false teachers’ denial of Christ’s divinity as a particularly egregious sin. That’s he unapologetically stated, “in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body” (Colossians 2:9 ESV). This was a foundational truth concerning the doctrine of salvation and, without it, the validity of Christ’s substitutionary death was rendered impotent. The sinlessness of Christ was based on His divinity. He was the unblemished God-man who was “tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV).

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

To deny Jesus’ deity was to invalidate His entire ministry. He was the sinless and fully righteous Son of God who took on human flesh so that He might do what no man had ever done: Fully obey every one of the commands of God found in the Mosaic Law.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh… – Romans 8:3 ESV

The deity and humanity of Christ were both non-negotiable aspects of His character. Jesus was fully divine and fully human. He was not a phantom or a god masquerading as a man. There were those who taught that Jesus only appeared to be human. And this erroneous teaching led to a distorted understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross. If He wasn’t truly human, then His death was a sham or little more than a show. And that would mean the substitutionary nature of His death was invalid. Not only that, if Jesus didn’t die, then there was no resurrection. And if there was no resurrection, then mankind has no hope.

if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. – 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 NLT

Paul assures the Colossians believers that the resurrection of Jesus was real and that its implications for their lives were substantial.

…you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. – Colossians 2:12 NLT

He wanted them to understand that they needed nothing more than Christ. Despite the claims of the false teachers, the believers in Colossae were lacking nothing in their spiritual experience. They had been filled with the fulness of Christ. The Spirit of Christ indwelled them, making the nature of Christ available to them. The righteousness of Christ had been imputed to them. And, unlike the Judaizers, who were teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be fully saved, Paul emphasized a  circumcision of the heart.

When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. – Colossians 2:11 NLT

This was the same thought Paul had shared with the believers in Rome.

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. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

Paul reminded the Colossians that, prior to encountering Christ, they had been spiritually dead because their “sinful nature was not yet cut away” (Colossians 2:13 NLT). But that problem had been taken care of by God.

God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 2:13-14 NLT

And in doing so, God “disarmed the rulers and authorities” (Colossians 2:15 ESV). This is most likely a reference to “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). Paul describes them as “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). In conquering sin and death on the cross, God has effectively silenced Satan and his minions, voiding the accusations of guilt and shame they level against God’s people. In Revelation 12:10, Satan is described as the accuser of the brethren, “who accuses them day and night before our God.” But, because of the atoning nature of the cross, Satan’s accusations carry no weight. His weapons lack any power against the children of God. But, as Paul warned the believers in Ephesus, the Colossians were to “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11 ESV).

The false teachers were attempting to undermine the effectiveness of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection by questioning its validity. These godless men were acting as pawns of the enemy by sowing doubts among the believers in Colossae. But Paul exposed their so-called truths as nothing more than cleverly disguised lies meant to deceive and destroy the faith of God’s people.

For Paul, the gospel was enough. There was no new teaching required. And the power of the cross required no additional enhancement or improvement. As Paul told the believers in Corinth, the message of the gospel required no help from human reasoning and cleverly-crafted rhetoric.

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.

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 2:1-2, 4-5 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.

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

 

He Has No Equal

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. – Colossians 1:15-20 ESV

As far as Paul was concerned, one of the most non-negotiable aspects of God’s will that the Colossians needed to understand concerned the preeminence of Christ. Evidently, Epaphras had informed Paul that the doctrine of Christ was under direct assault by men claiming to have apostolic authority. These unnamed individuals were teaching false doctrines concerning Christ that had left the Colossian congregation confused and dangerously close to diminishing the fruitfulness for which Paul had so graciously complimented them.

In order to redirect the focus of his letter to Christ, Paul adeptly and somewhat abruptly shifts the emphasis from God the Father to Jesus Christ the son.

For he [God] has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins. – Colossians 1:13-14 NLT

Following this reminder of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross and its eternal implications for their redemption and justification, Paul states, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NLT). In coming to earth and taking on human flesh, Jesus, the Son of God and second person of the Trinity made God both visible and knowable. He became the visible image of the invisible God on earth.

In his gospel account, the apostle John elaborates on this unique aspect of Christ’s earthly ministry.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14 ESV

And John boldly proclaims that Jesus was more than just another messenger from God. He was God Himself.

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made Him known. – John 1:18 BSB

The author of Hebrews expands on the God-reflecting nature of Jesus and further solidifies the doctrine of His divinity.

The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. This shows that the Son is far greater than the angels, just as the name God gave him is greater than their names. – Hebrews 1:3-4 NLT

For Paul and these other authors of the New Testament, the divinity of Jesus was an essential doctrine that must be defended at all costs because it was the hinge upon which the door of salvation swung. If Jesus was not divine, then His death on the cross would prove to be ineffective. His sinlessness was the key to His death’s effectiveness.

…we have an advocate before the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins… – 1 John 2:1-2 BSB

But you know that Christ appeared to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin. – 1 John 3:5 BSB

And what makes this atoning work of Jesus even more significant is the fact that, as God, He was the Creator laying down His life for those whom He created. Paul further enhances Christ’s divine credentials by stressing His eternality and the essential role He played in the creation story.

…by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. – Colossians 1:16 ESV

And, once again, the apostle John provides ample support for Paul’s claim.

He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made. – John 1:2-3 BSB

Paul would present this same message concerning Christ’s role in the creation account when writing to the believers in Corinth.

…there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we exist. – 1 Corinthians 8:6 BSB

As the Creator-God, Jesus was responsible for all that existed, including the believers in Colossae. He was not just a Messiah who came to save them, but He was the God who had created them. He was responsible for their very existence as well as their salvation. He had formed them and forgiven them. He had breathed in them the breath of life and had become for them the means for experiencing new life.  And by His divine power, Jesus would hold them safe and secure to the end.

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:17 ESV

Paul is going out of his way to stress the unique nature of Christ. He was adamant that the believers in Colossae grasped and appreciated the significance of Jesus’ life-giving and life-transforming role as the Son of God. Jesus had been so much more than a teacher, Rabbi, healer, and miracle worker. He was supreme in all things. He had no equal and there was no one who could replicate His accomplishments or diminish His one-of-a-kind status as the sovereign Savior of the world. That is why Paul stresses the headship of Christ over the church, and promotes His well-deserved position as the preeminent one.

And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. – Colossians 1:18 ESV

Paul’s point seems to be that the church would not exist without Christ. Had He not died and risen again, there would be no church because there would be no Christ-followers. He was not a martyred teacher who had managed to cultivate a faithful host of committed followers who continued to propagate His teachings. He was the “firstborn from the dead” who, through His death and resurrection, made possible the spiritual transformation of countless men and women.

There were those who were teaching that the resurrection of Jesus was a fable or myth, and downplaying its importance to the Christian faith. Paul addressed the misguided musings of these dangerous “false teachers”sovereign in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. – 1 Corinthians 15:12-14 ESV

Christ’s resurrection made possible the redemption of condemned humanity and guarantees the future resurrection and glorification of all those who accept His free gift of salvation. Again, Christ was more than a gifted teacher with a message of life transformation based on behavior modification. He had not just modeled a new way of living, but He had died so that sinful men and women might receive new lives and new natures that emulated His.

Paul emphatically states that Jesus is preeminent and one-of-a-kind. He has no equal. Jesus was the sole means by which God chose to redeem fallen humanity. That’s why Paul claims, “God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ” (Colossians 1:19 NLT), and no one else. And it was only through Christ that “God reconciled everything to himself” (Colossians 1:20 NLT). No one else could take credit for the role that Jesus had played in God’s grand redemptive plan. God used Jesus to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself. And anyone who diminished Jesus’ role as Savior or presented another means of salvation was to be avoided at all costs.

You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ. Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. – Galatians 1:6-8 NLT

You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed. – 2 Corinthians 11:4 NLT

It seems quite obvious that Paul held strong views concerning this topic. He was obsessed with defending the doctrine of Christ at all costs. He would not tolerate anyone who attempted to diminish Christ’s divinity or who tried to devalue His role as the God-man who, through His life, death, and resurrection made it possible for sinful men to be made right with a holy God.

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

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

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

 

Not What He Expected

19 “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”– John 3:19-21 ESV

Nicodemus’ head must have been ready to explode. In just a few short minutes, Jesus has delivered some of the most shocking and paradigm-shifting news this Pharisee has ever heard. Nicodemus’ entire belief system has been shaken to its core. For starters, Jesus has informed him that unless he is born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That was news to Nicodemus. As a Jew and a well-respected member of the Pharisees, he believed himself to already have full rights and privileges to a place in God’s coming kingdom. When the Messiah finally came and restored the Jews to power and prominence, Nicodemus believed he would be among those who enjoyed the joys and delights of a reinvigorated kingdom.

But Jesus had put a strange and unexpected condition on anyone who hoped to be a part of the coming kingdom of God: “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). Then Jesus upped the ante by adding a further requirement: “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5 ESV).

Nicodemus was having a difficult time understanding what Jesus was saying. He was mind was focused on earthly, temporal concepts of the kingdom, while Jesus was speaking of spiritual matters. His concept of the coming Messiah was centered around a human deliverer who would lead Israel in an overthrow of the Roman occupying forces and reestablish the Davidic dynasty and Israel’s dominance in the region. But all that Jesus has shared with this highly esteemed religious leader has been spiritual in nature. It is not that Jesus is eliminating the idea of an actual physical kingdom of God, but He is letting Nicodemus know that something new is happening. The kingdom was coming, but not in the form Nicodemus expected. And entrance into that kingdom was going to require far more than Nicodemus could ever imagine.

While Nicodemus was secretly longing that Jesus was the Messiah and had come to set up the kingdom of God on earth, Jesus let him know that the real reason for His coming was to offer eternal life.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16 ESV

In all his study of the Hebrew scriptures, what Nicodemus had failed to understand was that when the Messiah came, His mission would be to suffer and die, not rule and reign. He would come to wear a crown of thorns, not a crown of gold. He would be lifted up and nailed to a Roman cross rather than placed on a royal throne in David’s palace.

Jesus, the Son of God, had come to earth in order to provide sinful mankind with a means to escape the coming condemnation of God. He was going to become “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). He would sacrifice His life in the place of humanity, taking on the sins of the world in order to satisfy the just and righteous judgment of God. The apostle Peter would later describe the full impact of Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf.

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 NLT

And Peter was presenting the atoning death of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Isaiah had penned centuries earlier.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 ESV

But Jesus reveals a sad truth to his mystified and mind-muddled guest.

“…the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV

Jesus’ reference to Himself as the light ties directly back to the opening lines of John’s gospel.

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

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV

Now we can see where John got the idea of Jesus being the light of men and the true light that shines in the darkness. He had heard it directly from the lips of Jesus Himself. And Jesus reveals that his entrance into the darkness of this world would be met with disbelief and indifference. His life, death, and resurrection would fail to convince many that He truly was the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

Everyone, including Nicodemus, recognized that there was something remarkable about this itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth. His message and miracles were like nothing they had ever heard or seen before. Some were impressed. Others were intrigued. A few were even convinced. But the majority continued to reject the light because they preferred to continue living in the darkness of sin.

But Jesus had come to illuminate the darkness of sin and to eliminate the penalty that accompanied it. And throughout the years of His earthly ministry, He continued to declare His divine mission to bring light to a sin-darkened world and life to a spiritually dead people.

Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12 ESV

“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” – John 9:5 ESV

“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. – John 12:46 ESV

And Jesus makes it clear that the peoples’ refusal to believe in Him would be based on their love affair with sin.

“…people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV

No one likes having their sins exposed. So, they try to keep them concealed. They attempt to hide them from others. Darkness serves as a metaphor for the secrecy that accompanies a life of sinfulness. But that darkness takes a variety of forms. Too often, we can try to veil our sinfulness with acts of self-righteousness. That is exactly what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 25-28 NLT

So, we can attempt to cover our sins with a thin veneer of righteous-looking deeds or we can simply commit our sins in secrecy, hidden away from the sight of others. As long as no one sees what we are doing, our reputations remain intact. The apostle Paul warns that even believers can find themselves attempting to harbor secret sins, hidden away from the eyes of others. But light has a way of exposing what is hidden.

Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. – Ephesians 5:11-14 NLT

Jesus made it painfully clear that “everyone who does wicked things hates the light” (John 3:20 ESV). Their sinful natures crave hiddenness and despise exposure. Like a roach that scatters when a light is turned on, a sinner will tend to run from the illuminating light of the gospel “lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20 ESV).

One of the most indicting statements Jesus ever made was directed at the sect to which Nicodemus was a member. Luke records a scene in which Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees for having eaten with tax collectors and sinners. They were appalled by His actions and arrogantly asked, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?” (Luke 5:30 NLT). And Jesus simply responded:

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” – Luke 5:31-32 NLT

The Pharisees were living in darkness, convinced that their outward displays of righteousness were enough to cover up their inward need for repentance and restoration. They were diseased, dying, and in need of a doctor, but refused to admit it. Because they loved the darkness rather than the light. 

Even Nicodemus would refuse to have his deeds exposed by the light. He had come under the cover of darkness, attempting to find out if Jesus was the Messiah. But he would walk away, still in the dark, both physically and spiritually. He had come into the presence of the light but would walk away just as he had come.

Jesus leaves Nicodemus with a final word that re-emphasizes the spiritual nature of all that He has said.

“…whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” – John 3:21 ESV

Salvation is a work of God. And this would have been a foreign concept to Nicodemus. He had been raised to believe that human effort was the essential ingredient for finding acceptance with God. Good works were the criteria by which men were judged by God and deemed worthy of His love. But Jesus was letting Nicodemus know that no man could earn a right standing with God through self-effort. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, put it this way:

Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT

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

For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

This would have been shocking news to Nicodemus. And he would walk away that night with his head spinning from all that he had heard. Jesus had just enlightened him as to the true means by which sinful men can be made right with a holy God. Now, Nicodemus had a decision to make.

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