Mind Over Muscle

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. – Colossians 3:1-3 ESV

13 But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.…

19 …they think only about this life here on earth. 20 But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. 21 He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.– Philippians 3:13-14, 19-21 NLT

There is a very real sense in which the doctrine of sanctification has come to be understood as a byproduct of human effort. When we read verses that tell us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12 ESV), we can’t help but assume that Paul expects us to put some sweat equity into this thing called the Christian life. We’ve been indoctrinated with the sage wisdom contained in such homespun phrases as “there’s no free ride” and “you don’t get something for nothing.”

We have no problem believing that our salvation was a gift from God, but for some reason, we have taken full responsibility for our sanctification. After all, didn’t God command us to be holy, just like He is holy? That sounds like a call that’s going to requires some serious effort to be achieved.

Paul asks us, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?” Then he follows it up with the admonition, “So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24 ESV). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “So run to win!”

There are literally dozens of passages that call us to live out our faith, and all of them require effort on our part. The Christian life is not intended to be a spectator sport. It requires our full participation and our whole-hearted commitment. Which is why Paul told the Philippians, “you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (Philippians 1:27 NLT). He shared the very same message with the Ephesian believers, pleading with them “to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God” (Ephesians 4:1 NLT).

But the problem lies in how we perceive and apply these kinds of verses. Is Paul suggesting that our quest for living a worthy life is all up to us? Is he teaching that Christlikeness is achieved through self-effort and discipline? 

Do you see the subtle danger underlying this mindset? If we’re not careful, we can turn sanctification into a works-based doctrine, where we become responsible for achieving a higher state of righteousness and earning favor with God. But here’s the problem: If we’re the ones who put in all the work, we end up believing that we deserve all the credit. We wrongly assume that we became more holy through hard work. It was all the time we put into reading the Scriptures, going to Bible studies, attending worship, praying, giving, serving…doing.

But Paul won’t allow us to go there.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 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 2:8-10 NLT

Notice that Paul stresses the God-ordained nature of our salvation, but also of our sanctification. He says we were created anew so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago. God not only came up with the plan, but He provided the power to pull it off. We are His masterpiece. Not our own.

This does not mean we are puppets on a string, helplessly dependent upon the whims of God, the divine puppet master. We are not mindless robots, programmed by God to do His bidding, with no effort required on our part. We are new creations, individuals who have been created anew in Christ Jesus so that we can do what we were incapable of doing before: Serve God faithfully and obediently. Because of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us, we have a capacity we didn’t have before. We have access to a power that was formerly unavailable to us. Which is why Paul was able to say, “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 NLT).

So, what is our role in all of this? If we’re not puppets on a string, but we’re also not the masters of our own fate and the determiners of our own holiness, what part do we play? How hard are we to work at this thing called our sanctification?

The answer to these questions lies in the balance we maintain between muscle and mind or, to put it another way, effort and thought. You might say that the motivation behind the use of our motor skills is the key to understanding our role in our sanctification. We have to constantly ask the why behind what we do. If the goal behind all our effort and expenditure of energy increased righteousness in this life? Is all our running done in order to reach the prize of holiness here on earth? Or, as one author has put it, to achieve “your best life now”?

Paul presents us with a vital piece of advice, of which many of us are either ignorant or simply choose to ignore.

seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth – Colossians 3:1 ESV

There is a real sense in which we run the race to win the prize in this life. We live with the mistaken impression that all of God’s blessings are supposed to come in the here-and-now, not the hereafter. For some reason we have been trained to expect pain-free, joy-filled lives this side of heaven. We want happy marriages, successful careers, obedient children, and glorified bodies now, not later. We want to live forever and do everything we can to prolong our lives here, while forgetting that our citizenship is in heaven. Which is why our mindset has so much influence over how we expend our energy.

Paul said he strained forward to reach what lies ahead. He pressed on “to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:14 NLT). He was focused on the return of Christ and the resurrection of his own earthly body. Paul knew that the key to his future glorification or his ultimate arrival at sinless perfection was based on the resurrection of his body. That was the goal he ran towards. His mind was set on the finish line. And because he constantly had the end of the race in mind, it determined how he ran every step. He ran to win, but he didn’t expect to receive the prize in this life.

All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step… – 1 Corinthians 9:25-26 NLT

Paul was purposeful. He was diligent. He said, “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NLT). But what was the motivation behind all his discipline and training? The finish line. And what was that finish line? The future resurrection of his body.

…we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. – Philippians 3:20-21 NLT

That’s the goal. It is God planned from before the foundations of the world. What we experience here is temporary and fleeting. It is not meant to last. Which is why we are to focus all our efforts and energies on what is to come. God has not promised us our best life now, but He has assured us of eternal life to come. Which is why the apostle John lovingly warns us:

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

Eternal life. That’s the goal. That’s the objective. And that never-ending life will include sinless perfection made possible by glorified bodies. That is why Paul encourages us to seek the things that are above and to set our minds on the things above. In other words, we have to get our heads right, so that our hearts are right. And when we do, we’ll end up putting all the muscle we can into running the race in this life, because our minds are set on the prize of eternal life.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Fruitful Faith

14 What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? 15 Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, 16 and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?

17 So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

18 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

19 You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. 20 How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? – James 2:14-2 0NLT

Without the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the Christian life would be impossible to pull off. Not only that, without the Holy Spirit, the hope of anyone becoming a Christian would be impossible. It is only by the work of the Spirit that anyone is transformed from darkness to light, from death to life, and from condemned sinner to forgiven saint. Paul told Titus that prior to the Spirit’s divine help, “we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other. ” (Titus 3:3 NLT). But Paul followed up this less-than-flattering portrait of our pre-salvation condition with some very good news.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. – Titus 3:4-6 ESV

God saved us, out of His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit was made possible because of the sacrificial death of Jesus. His perfect obedience to the will of His Father, demonstrated by His incarnation and, ultimately, His crucifixion, is what made the Holy Spirit available to sinful men and women. And it is the Holy Spirit who gives new life to those dead in their trespasses and sins, enabling them to see for the very first time the wonderful gift of God’s grace as expressed through the sacrifice of His own Son for the sins of mankind.

Yet, the Spirit is often treated like the red-headed stepchild of the Trinity. We can easily overlook His significance and underappreciate His role in our spiritual lives. Or we can over-emphasize those aspects of the Spirit’s presence and power that are more flamboyant and fantastic. The gifts of the Spirit can suddenly become our primary focus, causing us to seek those gifts that come with greater authority, increased visibility, and that give us an air of superior spirituality. This was the problem Paul confronted among the believers in Corinth.

It seems that the congregation in Corinth was using the gifts of the Spirit as a litmus test for measuring spirituality. There were those who were guilty of viewing their particular gift as a badge of honor, rather than seeing it as an undeserved byproduct of the Spirit’s presence within them. And those who had the more pretentious and visible gifts, such as tongues or prophecy, were wrongly assuming that their more ostentatious gifts were proof of their superior spirituality. But Paul corrected this misperception.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. – 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 NLT

Each and every gift present within the church in Corinth had been given by the Spirit, based on His divine determination alone. It had nothing to do with the spirituality of the one receiving the gift. And just as with the fruit of the Spirit, the spiritual gift given by the Spirit was not intended for the blessing of the recipient. As Paul makes clear…

A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. – 1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT

And every gift was necessary. There was no particular gift that carried greater weight or worth. The gifts, made possible by the Holy Spirit and meted out at His discretion, were intended to bless the body of Christ, not the individuals who possessed the gifts.

To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. – 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 NLT

Don’t miss what Paul is saying here. Notice how many times he writes, “the Spirit gives.” There is no indication that any of the gifts are given based on merit. No, Paul states that it is the Spirit who distributes all these gifts and He alone decides which gift each person should have. It’s not based on personality, spirituality, or inherent capability. It is a gift, and it is intended for the well-being of the body of Christ.

So, what does this any of this have to do with the words of James concerning faith and works? Paul is talking about gifts given by the Spirit, and James seems to be talking about practical expressions of faith. Paul mentions such things as tongues, prophecy, healing, wisdom, and discernment, but James focuses on what appear to be more mundane and practical expressions of faith like sharing food or clothing with a brother or sister in need.

But there is a common thread between these two passages, and it has to do with our outward behavior. Both men are dealing with the outer expressions of an inner faith. Paul is discussing spiritual gifts, and James is dealing with practical manifestations of faith. And both men would strongly assert that any hope we have of doing either is based on God, not us. As Paul told the church in Philippi: “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT).

And James told the believers to whom he wrote, “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you” (James 1:5 NLT). James wanted them to know that God was the source of all their needs. Which is why he reminded them, “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father” (James 1:17 NLT).

Both of these men are dealing with the reality of the Spirit’s presence within us flowing out of us in practical ways that end up blessing all those around us. For James, a declaration of faith in Christ that wasn’t accompanied by Christ-like behavior was worthless. It wasn’t true, saving faith. Because saving faith results in the Spirit’s presence and power. And that power is practical, producing spiritual fruit that blesses all those around us and gifts that minister to the body of Christ. And not only that, the power of the Spirit is evidenced by the simple, yet practical ways in which we love and care for those around us.

James will not allow us to over-spiritualize our faith. He will not let us become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Which is why he uses a very practical, real-life illustration to keep us grounded.

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? – James 2:15-16 NLT

In Corinth, the believers were bickering over who had the most important spiritual gift. They were jockeying for position within the church based on what they believed to be the perceived importance of the various gifts. And, in doing so, they were missing the point entirely.

James was dealing with people who were putting way too much emphasize on their displays of religiosity. They were consumed with impressing one another and intent of giving the appearance of spirituality. But James wouldn’t let them get away with it.

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. – James 1:26 NLT

They were guilty of showing partiality by showing preference for the haves over the have-nots. In doing so, they were violating the royal law: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8 NLT).

The practice of partiality, the desire for prominence, the jockeying for spiritual stature, and the fruitlessness of faith are all constant dangers we face as believers. And Paul and James would both have us understand that any hope we have of avoiding these pitfalls begins with an awareness of our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s presence and power. He has given us gifts, and they are meant to bless others. He will produce fruit that is meant for the good of others. And His power will result in good deeds being done by us – giving ample evidence that our faith is real.

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

 

No Condemnation

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 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, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:1-11 ESV

No condemnation. Let those two words sink in.

Don’t allow yourself to blow past them by treating them with that brand of apathy that so often accompanies over-familiarity. Many of us have read this passage so many times that it no longer carries any meaning for us. But if you keep in mind all that Paul has said in the first seven chapters of his letter to the Romans, the words, “no condemnation” should carry much greater significance for us.

Paul opened his letter with the sobering words: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18 ESV). The truth they suppressed was God’s revelation of Himself through creation. People had no excuse for refusing to acknowledge God because He had made Himself visible and knowable through all that He had made. But mankind chose to ignore God. And Paul states that “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28 ESV). And Paul provides a less-than-flattering list of the things they did that “ought not to be done.” It includes every kind of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, slander, insolence, pride, disobedience, foolishness, faithlessness, and gossiping. And in chapter two, Paul drops the bombshell that “the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:2 ESV). And just so there’s no question as to what Paul means by judgment, he states, “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil” (Romans 2:9 ESV).

So, who does evil? According to Paul, everyone. There is no one who will escape God’s judgment because all stand before God as guilty.

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12 ESV

No one will escape God’s judgment, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). And just so we understand what that judgment entails, Paul tells us: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV).

Now, look at those two words again: No condemnation.

Those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer under God’s righteous and just condemnation. Which means that His judgment of guilt, which brings with it a mandatory penalty of death, has been lifted. We stand before God, the judge of the universe, as those who are no longer condemned because of our sin. But why? Is it because we got our proverbial act together? Has God removed our guilty sentence because we have somehow reversed our behavior and made ourselves more acceptable in His sight? Of course not.

Paul’s whole point is that we stand uncondemned because we are in Christ. At one point, we stood before God as His enemies, but “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ESV). We were made right with God, not because of anything we did to earn or deserve it, but because of what Jesus did on our behalf.

We now enjoy “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1 ESV). His death paid the penalty for our sin. He gave His life in our place, presenting Himself as the sacrificial substitute who took away the sins of the world. And His death was necessary because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

His death on our behalf has provided release from condemnation, complete forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, and the promise of eternal life instead of eternal judgment.

But what does this have to do with sanctification? Everything. Notice how Paul links our release from condemnation to our freedom from the law of sin and death. That word “freedom” is vitally important to understanding what it means to stand as uncondemned before God. Our release from condemnation was not temporary or limited to a point in time. We weren’t released for a moment and then left to live under the threat of future condemnation. And yet, that is how many of us view the Christian life. We live under the constant fear of falling back under God’s condemnation based on what we do or don’t do. In other words, we see our behavior as the determiner of our status before God. And in doing so, we display a flawed understanding of what it means to stand uncondemned before God.

But look closely at what Paul says:

By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 ESV

Back in chapter three, Paul told us the sobering news that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20 ESV). No one can be made right with God through adherence to the law. Why? Because the law was designed to make man aware of God’s holy requirements. It told us what God expected, but had no power to assist us in living up to those expectations. Like a speed limit sign on the side of the road, the law displayed God’s expectations and condemned our violation of them. It couldn’t make us obey, but it could expose us when we failed to do so.

But Paul says there is a new law at work in our lives. He describes it as “the law of the Spirit of life.” When we hear the word, “law,” we tend to think in terms of restrictions and binding requirements that keep us from doing what we want to do. But the Greek word Paul uses is nómos, and it has a much broader and more pleasant meaning behind it. According to Strong’s Concordance, it is derived from the Greek word “νέμω némō (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals). The law was intended to be prescriptive, not restrictive. The Mosaic law had benefits. It gave directions for life and provided God’s prescribed way for living in unbroken fellowship with Him. In the 23rd Psalm, David describes this prescriptive nature of God’s law. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1-3 ESV). Through the law, God guided, directed, and protected His people. But the law was weakened by man’s flesh or sin nature. Man couldn’t follow willingly or obediently.

So when Paul speaks of “the law of the Spirit of life,” he is telling us that God has provided us with a new way to live in fellowship with Him. “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, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4 ESV). The key is the last phrase in these verses. We are to walk according to the Spirit, not the flesh. We are to live our lives in obedience to and dependence upon the Spirit of God. He is the nómos or prescribed way to live in fellowship with and obedience to God. And Paul provides us with a vivid contrast of the choice that lies before us each and every day as God’s children. “Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God” (Romans 8:5-8 NLT). 

Our sinful nature is alive and active. But we are no longer slaves to it. We have been set free from its control. We now have the Spirit of God also living within us, providing us with direction for living a God-honoring life and the power to accomplish it. But we must choose to live under His control and not our own. We must submit to His leadership. We must desire what He desires and long for those things that He has determined as best for us. But in his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul reminds us of the constant battle going on within us. “The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other…” (Galatians 5:17 NLT). If we try to please God through our flesh, we will fail. But if we live our lives in dependence upon the Spirit of God, His prescribed means of living a godly life, we will experience life, peace, joy, contentment, and the transformation of our lives into the likeness of Christ. And no threat of condemnation.

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

 

False Confidence

4 If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:4b-11 ESV

What does Paul mean by “confidence in the flesh?” Remember the context. He has just warned the believers in Philippi to “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2 ESV). This was a direct broadside delivered against the Judaizers, a group made up of Jewish converts to Christianity who were attempting to bring the legalism associated with the Mosaic Law into the church. They were demanding that Gentile believers first be circumcised and then agree to keep the Jewish laws, religious festivals, and sacrificial requirements. In other words, they had to become Jews before they could be considered truly saved.

So, when Paul mentions having confidence in the flesh, he is stressing the teachings of this group. They believed that their human efforts, those things done in their own strength, somehow earned them favor with God. As Jews, they put a high priority and value on the rite of circumcision. It was an outward sign of their unique relationship as God’s chosen people. And they were of the strong opinion that circumcision was necessary for any and all who would hope to enjoy the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. But for Paul, this was nothing short of another gospel. It was a false gospel. And it was to be exposed for what it was: a dangerous heresy.

The Greek word Paul used for “flesh” is sarx and, while it was often used to refer to the actual physical body, it could also be used in a metaphorical sense, to refer to human nature. The Judaizers put a lot of stock in human nature and their own human abilities, believing that they were able to keep the laws of God and live up to the holy standards of God. But Paul rejects that mindset, stating that believers were to “glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3 ESV). Salvation was based on the work of Christ, not the works of men.

But Paul decides to take their argument and use it against them. He somewhat sarcastically paints a picture of what the kind of credentials that might earn someone favor with God would look like. And he uses himself as an example. Paul boldly states:

“If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more…” – Philippians 3:4 NLT

It is as if Paul is saying, “So, you think you can earn a right standing with God based on your accomplishments and status? Well, check this out!”

What follows is a laundry list of Paul’s off-the-chart credentials.

  • He was a card-carrying member of the nation of Israel
  • He was from the tribe of Benjamin
  • He had been circumcised according to the Mosaic Law
  • He was a Hebrew of Hebrews (a hard-core traditionalist)
  • He had been a member of the Pharisees, an elite religious group
  • He had been a passionate and zealous persecutor of the church
  • He had been painstakingly dedicated to keeping the law

Look at that list and then consider who he was comparing himself with. He was placing himself in direct competition with the Judaizers. If they thought they were somehow better than everybody else because of their Jewish heritage and law-keeping ability, they had nothing on Paul. His resume made them look like third-string players trying to win a spot on the varsity squad.

But notice what Paul says next. He takes his list of accomplishments and credentials and describes them “as liabilities because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7 NLT). His relationship with Christ, based solely on faith in the work of Christ done on his behalf, made any of his so-called assets amount to nothing. They earned him no credibility with God and bought him no favor from God. Paul understood that his righteous deeds were of no value when it comes to his salvation. He firmly believed what the text in Isaiah clearly states:

We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

Paul’s lofty list of accomplishments and personal assets were worthless. Which is why he could say, “I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8 NLT). Rather than placing any stock in human nature or his ability to produce righteous-looking deeds, Paul saw those things as hindrances to his spiritual walk. They were liabilities. Because they were all tainted by sin. So, Paul had given them all up. He had decided to treat them like what they were: Liabilities, not assets. All so he could know Christ. And Paul gets a bit graphic in trying to describe his new relationship with those things he once held near and dear. They were like dung to him now, to be tossed aside and treated for what they were: worthless and detestable.

The bottom line for Paul was righteousness. A holy and righteous God demanded that His people live holy, righteous lives. But man’s sin nature made that impossible. And no amount of law-keeping, ritual-observing, or efforts at God-pleasing were going to make a difference. Paul states, “I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness” (Philippians 3:9 NLT). In other words, Paul’s righteousness was not based on self-effort, but on Christ’s faithfulness. Jesus died a sinner’s death to satisfy the just demands of a holy and righteous God. As Paul explained to the Corinthian believers:

For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV

And as Paul stated earlier in this letter, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). His faithfulness to do the will of His Father resulted in righteousness for us.

The Judaizers were not right before God because they had been circumcised. They were not right before God because they were Jews. They could not claim a right standing before God because they kept the law. In fact, Paul vaporized that idea in his letter to the Galatians.

So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Galatians 3:11 NLT

He said the same thing to the believers in Rome.

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

We have no reason to boast. We have no ground on which to stand and from which to proclaim our own self-righteousness. Our righteousness is actually Christ’s righteousness imparted to us when we place our faith in Him. When Christ died on the cross, He paid in full the debt that was owed for sins of mankind. He died in our place, bearing the penalty we deserved. And that act justified us before God. He now sees us as righteous and just, not sinful and worthy of death. We have been cleansed by the blood of Christ. And with that thought in mind, Paul refocuses the attention of his readers on that which is really important. Not effort and earning, but the pursuit of an ongoing and always growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:10-11 NLT

Paul is not talking about cognitive knowledge. He’s not suggesting a purely academic understanding of who Jesus was and is. He is describing a deep and intimate relationship that features an ever-intensifying awareness of all that Jesus Christ has done and will do for him. In the immediate context, Paul wanted to experience all the power that Christ’s resurrection had made available to him. Jesus had been raised back to life by the power of the Holy Spirit, and each and every believer has that power living within them.

But Paul knew that the resurrection power he so desired to see is most often revealed in the context of suffering. Just as Jesus had to suffer and die before He could experience the resurrection, we will find ourselves suffering so that we might experience the resurrection power of God’s Spirit in our lives. Just as Jesus experienced humiliation before His glorification, so will we. And then, Paul reminds us, it will all end in death. The ultimate form of suffering we all face is our own physical deaths. But Paul wants us to remember that there is a resurrection of the dead. Death is not the end. It is really the beginning of something greater. And Paul told the believers in Corinth what they could expect when death finally came.

For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” – I Corinthians 15:53-55 NLT

Why put confidence in the flesh? It’s of no value and will ultimately be left behind. And why put stock in our own worthiness before God? Without Christ, we have no righteousness of our own. As Paul told the Colossian believers, it all boils down to this: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27 ESV).

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

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

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

To the Least of These.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-46 ESV

Matthew’s entire gospel has been centered around the kingdom of heaven and Jesus’ right to rule as the heir of David. And Jesus has spent a great deal of time trying to correct His disciples’ errant views of that kingdom. When the Messiah finally showed up, they fully expected Him to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem and restore Israel to its former place of power and prominence. But Jesus had been out to change their perceptions regarding the kingdom. First of all, rather than sit on throne in David’s former palace wearing a golden crown on his head, He was going to hang on a cross, wearing a crown of thorns. His first coming was going to require His sacrificial death on behalf of sinful mankind. He had come to redeem, not reign. He had come to conquer sin and death, not Israel’s earthly enemies. He had come to restore men to a right relationship with God, not return Israel to its pre-exilic condition.

As His two parables inferred, Jesus was going to go away. He would die, be raised back to life, and then return to His Father’s side. But He would return one day. First, He would come for His bride, the church.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 ESV

This event will usher in the period known as the Tribulation. With the removal of the church at the Rapture, the Holy Spirit, who indwells each and every believer, will be removed. The apostle Paul refers to this reality in his second letter to the Thessalonians.

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed… – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8 ESV

Jesus made it clear that only one thing kept the “man of lawlessness” from showing up. The Holy Spirit who indwells His church. When the church is removed at the Rapture, the restraining influence of God’s Spirit, in the form of God’s people, will allow the Antichrist to rise to power. The period of the Tribulation which will follow the Rapture of the church will be a time of unprecedented suffering, marked by unrestrained sin and unsurpassed rebellion against God. Jesus described this seven-year period in stark terms:

“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV

And at the end of the seven years of Tribulation, when Jesus returns to earth the second time, He will come as a conquering king. John describes His arrival in Revelation.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 ESV

And He will judge al those who live on the earth at that time. The book of Revelation makes it clear that many will come to faith during the period of the Tribulation. In spite of the absence of the church, God will continue to show grace and mercy to the world, bringing both Jews and Gentiles to faith. Many of them will suffer martyrdom at the hands of the Antichrist. All of them will be persecuted and have to endure the plagues, famines, wars, and cosmic upheavals God brings on the earth during those days.

But when Jesus finally conquers those in rebellion against Him, including Satan, the Antichrist, and the false prophet, He will judge all those on the earth. And that is what this passage is all about. Jesus told His disciples, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matthew 25:31 ESV). Notice the conditional nature of this statement. Jesus stated that His reign would begin with His second coming. It will be then that He sits on His glorious throne, not now. And one of His first acts as King will be to judge the nations.

He will gather all the nations, including Jews and Gentiles, and separate the sheep from the goats, the believers from the unbelievers. And “he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left” (Matthew 25:33 ESV). Then, Jesus will reveal how He made the determination between these two groups of individuals. He will make known the criteria for His judgment. To the group on His right, the sheep, He will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34 ESV). And He will tell them why they are going to inherit the kingdom. The word “for” could be translated “because,” and Jesus will explain that their judgment is based on their expressions of love for Him. He was hungry and they fed Him. He was thirsty and they provided Him with water. They had welcomed as a stranger. They had provided Him with clothes and visited Him while He was in prison.

But these people will wonder how they accomplished any of these things since Jesus was not even among them during the days of the Tribulation. And Jesus will explain that their treatment of others was an expression of their love for Him. So, Jesus was not teaching a form of salvation by works, but works that are a tangible proof of salvation. It is exactly what James discussed in his letter.

“How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” – James 218 NLT

During the incredibly difficult days of the Tribulation, these people will show incredible faith by loving the unlovely, meeting the needs of the helpless and hopeless, protecting the innocent, and caring for “the least of these.” All at great risk to their lives. Their love for Christ will show up in their love for others. And Jesus makes it clear that their selfless, sacrificial actions were an expression of their faith and love for Him.

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” – Matthew 25:40 ESV

But what about the rest? How does Jesus address all those on His left? He flatly states: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41 ESV). Then He tells them why.

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” – Matthew 25:42-43 ESV

They showed no love to anyone. They sacrificed nothing on behalf of others. They ignored the needs of all those around them. And in doing so, they revealed their lack of love for Christ. Their actions gave proof of their sinful state. Their failure to love was evidence of their lack of faith in Christ. And Jesus makes the fate of both groups perfectly clear

“…these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:46 ESV

As James wrote, “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26 ESV). That truth applies today and it will apply during the Tribulation. Faith in Christ brings life change. It is tangible and transferable. Our love for Him should show up in our love for others. His sacrifice for us should instill in us a desire to sacrifice our own lives for the sake of others. And our lives of love will be the greatest evidience of our saving faith.

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.

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

Unearned and Undeserved.

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” –  Matthew 20:1-16 ESV

Jesus ended this section the same He did the last one – with the words, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30 ESV). Jesus was still attempting to provide His disciples with further insight into His encounter with the rich young man. While Jesus was trying to clarify their misconceptions, they were still struggling with the content of the exchange between Jesus and the young man. While they believed the young man’s wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, Jesus had said it was difficult, if not impossible, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. When the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?”, Jesus had dropped the bombshell, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).

The young man had walked away, rather than do as Jesus had commanded. He had been unwilling to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. His love affair with materialism had kept him from following Jesus. The cost was too high. The sacrifice, too great.

Recognizing the angst and anxiety on the faces of His disciples, Jesus told them a parable. It was clearly designed to explain what He meant by the first will be last, and the last first. He used an easy-to-comprehend scenario from everyday life, intended to illustrate and explain a deeper, more mysterious spiritual reality. The whole purpose behind this parable was to explain life in the kingdom of heaven, and the disciples were going to discover, yet again, that it would not harmonize with their preconceived notions.

It’s essential that we notice that this parable involves the work or efforts of the laborers and the reward of the landowner. Remember, the rich young man had come to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life. He was thinking in terms of labor or effort in order to gain entrance into God’s kingdom. And when Jesus told him to sell all that he owned and give it to the poor, Jesus was not suggesting that obedience to that one command would provide the man eternal life. He was revealing the true focus of the man’s faith, hope and security. It was in his wealth.

In Jesus’ story, the landowner went out early in the morning and hired laborers to work in his vineyard, offering each of them a denarius for their wage. And they had all agreed to the conditions of the contract. But throughout the rest of the day, at 9:00 am, Noon, and 5:00 pm, the landowner continued to hire additional workers. In each case, the landowner found men “standing idle in the marketplace” (Matthew 20:3, 6 ESV). And when he asked them why there were not working, the men answered, “Because no one has hired us” (Matthew 20:7 ESV). They had no place to work. They were laborers with nothing to do. But the landowner changed all that. He replaced their idleness with productive activity. They could not create work for themselves. They owned no vineyard of their own. They were at the mercy of the one who owned the vineyard.

When the workday had come to an end, the landowner called all the men together in order to pay them for their labor. And this is where the main point behind the parable appears. The landowner paid every man a denarius, regardless of how long they had worked. The only group he had agreed to pay a denarius had been the first one. And Jesus made it a point to reveal that the last group hired had been the first to receive the wages for their work. That means that the first group had to stand back and watch as each group of workers received the same level of pay, regardless of the amount of work they had done. In their minds, they assumed that the level of pay would increase based on the number of hours worked. When the first group got a denarius, they automatically assumed that their reward would be greater because they had labored longer and harder. But they were incensed to find out that their pay was no greater, and shared their disappointment with the landowner.

“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” – Matthew 20:12 ESV

Don’t miss what they said: “You have made them equal to us.” This statement provides an essential clue to the primary point of the parable. You have to go all the way back to the scene that began this whole exchange. The disciples had been arguing over which of them was the greatest in the kingdom. And now we have Jesus telling them a story that shows what appears to be a case of extreme inequality and unfairness. The laborers, like the disciples, were hung up on the idea of earned reward. The men who labored the longest were convinced that their efforts deserved greater compensation. They had earned more because they had done more.

But the landowner, unmoved by their complaint, told them to take what they had been offered. It was exactly what they had agreed to in the beginning. They had no right to question the generosity of the landowner. He was free to pay each man whatever he chose to pay them. And he asked the disgruntled laborers a rhetorical question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:15 ESV).

It’s important to recall Peter’s earlier response to Jesus.

Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” – Matthew 19:27 ESV

He was asking Jesus would he could expect to receive in the way of reward based on what he believed to be the greater degree of sacrifice. In essence, he was saying that he and his fellow disciples had earned more because they had done more.

Like the disciples, we hear this story and think in term of labor and reward. He can’t help but see the actions of the landowner as somehow unfair or unjust. But Jesus is emphasizing the grace of the landowner, not the efforts of the laborers. None of the men had earned their reward. They had no even earned the right to labor. They had been graciously hired by the landowner and given the privilege of working in his vineyard. And he was free to pay them whatever he determined to be just and fair. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for a common laborer. So, even those who men who had labored all day had received fair compensation.

Like the landowner in Jesus’ parable, it is God who calls laborers to work in His vineyard. He finds those who are “standing idle in the marketplace” and invites them to labor on His behalf. He has a predetermined reward prepared for them. And that reward is not based on the length or intensity of their labor. It is based on His grace and mercy.

The disciples had been the first to be called by Jesus. But that did not make them more worthy of reward. Their position as His disciples was not an indication of their value or a determiner of their right to greater spiritual compensation. Jesus wanted them to understand that their status as His followers was based solely on His invitation to follow Him. He had found them “standing idle in the marketplace” and had called them to labor alongside Him in the kingdom. And Jesus was going to be calling others along the way. And long after Jesus had returned to heaven, the disciples would see others responding to the call of Jesus and joining them in the work of the harvest. And, one day, each of us will receive the same reward, not based on how long we have labored or the work we have done, but based solely on the grace of God.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

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

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

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

All Things Are Possible With God.

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter saMy Sitesid in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” –  Matthew 19:23-30 ESV

It’s essential that we not separate the content of these verses from the encounter that Jesus had with the rich young man. Verse 22 ended wih the sobering statement: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

He was wealthy and, when Jesus told him to sell all he possessed, give it to the poor and follow him, the man simply walked away. The cost was too high. In his mind, the price for eternal life was too steep to pay.

But we must not miss two important statements made by Jesus that will help give clarity to what Jesus told HIs disciples after the man’s departure. Two different times in His exchange with the young man, Jesus addressed the man’s desire to know what he had to do to gain eternal life.

If you would enter life… – vs 17

If you would be perfect… – vs 21

And in both cbases, Jesus had followed up those statements with action steps:

…keep the commandments. – vs 17

go, sell what you possess and give to the poor. – vs 21

But Jesus knew something the disciples didn’t know. It was not a case of whether the man would or wouldn’t keep Jesus’ instructions. It was that he couldn’t. It was impossible. While the young man claimed to have kept the five commandments Jesus outlined, there was no way he had done so perfectly. And it is painfully clear that the young man loved his wealth and possessions more than he loved God. In other words, he had broken the very first commandment, because he had made a god out of material things. And he was willing to sacrifice the hope of eternal life with God in order to hold on to his false god of materialism.

So, as the disciples watched the man walk way, Jesus had used the moment as a teaching opportunity. He made a statement that caught them by surprise.

“Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:23-24 ESV

For the disciples, this statement made no sense. As Jews, they had always understood that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. They had been taught to believe that one of the primary ways in which God bestowed His favor on men was through material possessions. When they looked at the lives of the patriarchs, like Abraham, Joseph, and David, they saw men who had been greatly blessed by God with great wealth. And they aspired to be blessed in the same way.

So, the words of Jesus caught them off guard. They were inconsistent with their understanding of how life worked. Which explains their astonishment and their question to Jesus: “Who then can be saved?”

In essence, what they were thinking was, if those that are blessed by God are going to have a difficult time entering eternal life, then what hope did they have. The disciples were far from wealthy. They had little in the way of possessions. And nobody looked up to them or aspired to be like them. But their whole concept of God’s blessings was warped. They had not yet understood what Jesus had said in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…”

“Blessed are the merciful…”

“Blessed are the pure in heart…”

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…”

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…” – Matthew 5:3-11 ESV

When the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” they were not using the term in the same sense we would. They were not tying salvation to the gospel, but to man’s entrance into eternal life. And their understanding was much like that of the rich young man. They believed that eternal life was a reward for the good things done in this life.

But Jesus shocked them when He said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV). The word “this” ties back the idea of salvation or the earning of eternal life. It is impossible for any man to earn his way into God’s kingdom. And not only that, it was going to be particularly difficult for a rich man. Why? Because, like the young man who had just walked away, they would find their wealth to be a barrier to saving faith. Materialism has a way of masking our need. It keeps us from recognizing our true spiritual poverty. Money can buy us a false sense of peace and security. It can make us feel invincible and invulnerable. 

And if you believe that your wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, you will have little impetus to see yourself as someone in need of God’s forgiveness.

This whole exchange began with Jesus describing the need for childlike faith. The disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest. They falsely viewed prominence and position as a sign of favor with God. But Jesus had told them, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). Now, He was expanding on this thought by saying it was impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because a rich man lacked the humble, innocent, completely dependent faith that displayed his need for God.

And Jesus stressed the sheer impossibility of it all by using an extremely ludicrous illustration. A rich man could no more earn his way into God’s kingdom than a camel could squeeze through the eye of a needle.

Then, the always-ready-to-speak-up Peter asked, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” It’s obvious that Peter was thinking of the words Jesus had spoken to the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21 ESV). In Peter’s mind, he had done what Jesus had asked. He had sacrificed greatly in order to follow Jesus so, he wanted to know what was in it for him. What would be his reward? Remember what Jesus told the young man. If he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor, he would “have treasure in heaven.” So, Peter wanted to know what he was going to get for all of his sacrifice.

Jesus answered Peter’s question, but not in the way that he had hoped.

“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:28-29 ESV

Jesus assured Peter that he would have a reward, but it would be far different than what he was expecting. Jesus revealed that there was a day coming when He would establish His kingdom on earth. He would sit on the throne of David and rule from Jerusalem. But that day was in the far-distant future. He was speaking of His millennial kingdom, which would take place after His second coming. And in that kingdom, the 12 disciples would receive their reward. They would rule over the 12 tribes of Israel. They would have positions of power and prominence. They would rule alongside the Messiah in His millennial kingdom. But in the meantime, they would be called to sacrifice. They would be required to give up far more than could imagine. Most of these men would end up sacrificing their lives on behalf of the kingdom of God. They would face persecution and difficulty. And Jesus had already warned them of the reality of their future fate.

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  – Matthew 10:17-20 NLT

Their reward would be in the future. And it would be tied to eternal life in the kingdom of God. So, rather than seeking their reward in the here-and-now, they were to focus their attention on the hereafter. In this life, they would be required to sacrifice. They would have to die to self and serve God, not material things. Their faith was to be based on the future reward promised to them by God through Christ. They needed to stop viewing the kingdom from a worldly perspective. Wealth, power, and prominence in this life were no guarantee of eternal life. Salvation is a work of God. And nothing is impossible for Him. While we can never earn eternal life, God has made it possible for all who place childlike faith in His Son to receive the unmerited reward of life everlasting.

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

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

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

The Lost Sheep.

1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. – Matthew 10:1-15 ESV

Jesus has just finished speaking of the abundance of the harvest and the need for laborers. Now, in chapter 10, Matthew chooses to place Jesus’ calling and sending of the 12 disciples at his important juncture. They were to be far more than followers of Jesus. They were to be His apostles. The Greek word Matthew uses is apostolos and it derives from the verb apostello meaning “to send.” The men whom Jesus had chosen were about to find themselves thrust into a new role as messengers and ministers of the Kingdom of God. Made up of fishermen, a tax collector and a collection of other less-than-impressive individuals, the 12 disciples made up an unlikely and highly underqualified ministry vanguard. They were commoners and relatively uneducated men who lacked the religious credentials and credibility of the Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees.

But these men had been hand-chosen by Jesus, and He had not selected them based on their qualificiations, capabilities, or merit. They were little more than common laborers whom Jesus was about to transform into emmissaries of His Kingdom, equipped with power and authority beyond their wildest imaginations. Their message would be a simple one: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matther 10:7 ESV). And their audience would be a particular one: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6 ESV). They were to concentrate their efforts among their own people – the Jews. This would have been the easy part of their assignment because, as Jews, they had no love affair for the Samaritans or Gentiles. And because they believed Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah, they assumed He had come to reestablish the kingdom of Israel and return her to power and prominence. Ignoring the Samaritans, whom they despised, and the Gentiles, whom they considered uncircumcised and unclean, would have come easy to the disciples.

Jesus demanded that they focus their attention on the lost sheep of Israel. This was a common Old Testament theme, referring to the sheperdless and wayward people of Israel. God had often referred to His people in those terms.

“My people have been lost sheep;
    their shepherds have led them astray
    and caused them to roam on the mountains.
They wandered over mountain and hill
    and forgot their own resting place. – Jeremiah 50:6 ESV

God had spoken through the prophet Ezekiel, indicting the priests and other religious leaders of Israel for their role in the spiritual demise of His people.

You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. – Ezekiel 34:4-6 ESV

Now, the Messiah had arrived and was bringing His message of the Kingdom to His people. And here, He was delegating the deliverance of that message to His 12 apostles. They were to go and tell the rest of their fellow Jews that the Messiah had come and the Kingdom was at hand. And to validate their message, Jesus embued these men with power. Suddenly, they would find themselves able to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. This would have been heady news for this rag-tag group of former fishermen and social bottom dwellers. The miracles they had seen Jesus perform would be delegated to them, all in order to validate their message and verify that they spoke for the Messiah. In sending out the 12, Jesus was expanding His ministry scope and spreading the message farther and wider than He could manage alone. 

And He provides His disciples with some interesting last-minute marching orders, demanding that they “Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff” (Matthew 10:9-10 ESV). And upon entering a town, they were to focus their attention on “those who were worthy.” That phrase simply refers to their acceptance of the disciples and their message. If someone was willing to hear what the disciples had to say about the Messiah and His Kingdom, they were to be considered worthy and were to receive the blessing of the presence of Jesus’ emmissary.  Those who refused to accept the disciples and their message were to be ignored. They would not receive the benefit and blessing of having God’s representative in their home and, as a result, they would fail to experience the power of God made available through these men.

Jesus knew that the 12 would experience far more rejection than acceptance. He was well aware that the message of the Kingdom would be rejected by the people of Israel. John prefaced His Gospel with the sad and sobering words: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). But Jesus, as the Messiah of Israel, was still willing to take His message to His own, letting them know that the Savior for whom they long waited, was here. But He warned the disciples to expect rejection, and He painted a bleak and foreboding outcome for all those who would refuse to accept the news of His arrival.

…it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. – Matthew 10:15 ESV

These two cities had been destroyed by God for their rampant wickedness and immorality, along with all their inhabitants. But Jesus warns that the Jews who would hear the message of the disciples and fail to accept the news of the arrival of the Messiah, would be held more accountable and receive greater condemnation than the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. They would ultimately face the just judgment of God.

The 12 disciples had a mission to accomplish. They were to tell the message regarding the coming of the Messiah. They were to verify their message through miraculous acts of healing just as Jesus had done. And they were to prepare themselves to face rejection. Jesus will go on to describe the less-than-encouraging reception they were to anticipate. It would not be easy. They would not be popular. Their message would not be well-received. In fact, while their would be plenty of interest in their miracles, their mesage would tend to fall on deaf ears.

The lost sheep were going to hear from their Shepherd, but they would refuse to listen. They would reject His messengers and their message of the Messiah’s arrival. And again, John records Jesus clearly indicating that there would be many Jews who would reject His claim to be the long-awaited Messiah.

24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. – John 10:24-28 ESV

There would be many lost sheep of the house of Israel who would hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and refuse to return to the fold. Even the miracles of Jesus would prove insufficient to turn their hearts back to God. And the miracles of the disciples would prove just as inadequate. But for all those who proved themselves worthy by hearing and accepting the news of the Kingdom of God and the arrival of the King of that Kingdom, Jesus had a blessing in store for them that would be a everlasting value: Eternal life.

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

Sheperdless Sheep.

35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – Matthew 9:35-37 ESV

Jesus was a man on a mission. He knew that His days on this earth were limited and that He had much to accomplish before He would be required to lay down His life on behalf of sinful mankind. And a big part of Jesus’ earthly ministry was to prepare His disciples for His eventual departure and their assumption of that ministry. As Matthew prepares to transition to Jesus’ sending out the 12 disciples, as recorded in chapter 10, he provides us with a glimpse into Jesus’ daily ministry agenda and the heart behind His ministry. He was a busy man and anything but lazy. But His activity was motivated by compassion and a desire to touch the lives of those with whom He came in contact and for whom He would be giving His life. Jesus traveled extensively and relentlessly, proclaiming the good news to any and all who would listen. He validated His claim to be the Son of God by continuing to perform miracles. When Matthew indicates that Jesus healed “every disease and every affliction,” he is not saying that Jesus healed each and every disease, but every kind of disease presented to Him. In other words, Jesus didn’t heal every single person who suffered from an afflication, but His power was manifested over every imaginable human condition or ailment. There was no disease too great or difficult for Him to handle. It is a statement regarding His power and authority.

But more telling than Matthew’s statement regarding Jesus’ power over disease is his description of Jesus’ heart for those who flocked to hear Him speak and to watch Him perform His miracles. There were so many hurting people, and they were marked by a sadness and helplessness. In fact, Matthew describes tham as “harassed and helpless.” The two Greek words Matthew used are eklyō and rhiptō, and they refer to weakness as the result of exhaustion and a lack of care. To better explain their dire condition, Matthew described the people as “sheep without a shepherd.” They were like defenseless sheep, who shepherd had abandoned them, leaving them to feed and fend for themselves.

In the agrarian culture in which the disciples lived, this comparison would have made all the sense in the world. Sheep were herd animals that were essentially defenseless. They required the care of a shepherd in order to stay alive. They had plenty of natural enemies and virtually no built-in self-defense mechanism. So, they were, in essence, helpless and hopeless without the care of a shepherd. And this is the way Jesus viewed the people to whom He ministered. His perspective was reflective of God’s view of Israel. In fact, even Moses had seen Israel in the same light, asking God to provide them with a new shepherd when he was gone.

16 “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation 17 who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” – Numbers 27:16-17 ESV

And God had some very strong words for the those men to whom He had given the responsibility of caring for the His people. He indicted the shepherds of the flock of Israel for their lack of care for and protection of the sheep under their care. He describe the situation in not-so-flattering terms:

So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. – Ezekiel 34:5-6 ESV

But God also indicated that He would do what the shepherds had failed to do.

11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. – Ezekiel 34:11-12 ESV

And Jesus was simply doing the will of His Father, acting as His earthly representative and extending to the people of Israel the same compassion and care His Father had for those He called His own. But Jesus was not going to be a one-man show for long. His God-ordained destiny would require that He suffer and die on behalf of the sheep. As Jesus would later tell His disciples, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 ESV). Jesus was aware that His calling by God included the sacrifice of His life. He would be required to die on behalf of sinful mankind.

With His eventual departure, He would pass on His earthly ministry to His disciples. So, He began to prepare them for the role they would play. And He did so by exposing them to the incredible opportunity facing them, but also the tremendous need.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few – Matthew 9:37 ESV

There were more than enough helpless, hopeless sheep out there in need of shepherding, but there was a lack of qualified shepherds to care for them. And that is where they would come in. Jesus wanted the disciples to share His heart for the sheep. He was the Good Shepherd and would one day die for the sheep, and they were to emulate His example. They were not to treat their role as that of an employee, but as the owner of the sheep, with a investment in the well-being of their flock.

12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. – John 10:12-13 ESV

Jesus looked at the crowds and saw the tremendous hurt and heartache among the people. The sickness, disease and demonic possessions were simply the external symptoms of the much darker condition facing the people to whom Jesus spoke and among whom He ministered. They were living in darkness and wandering like lost sheep with no one to guide or protect them. Healing from disease was not going to solve their problem. Restored eyesight was not going to cure their spiritual blindness. Exorcism would not end their captivity to sin and death. And Jesus was beginning the slow, but steady process of preparing His disciples for the role they would play after His departure. And He told them, “therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38 ESV).

It is not clear whether the disciples understood the import of Jesus’ words. They were probably left shaking their heads in confusion over what He had to say. And there is no indication they understood what Jesus had meant by the either the harvest or laborers. But in time, they would. The need was great, but so was the opportunity. There were more than enough lost sheep to find and care for, and that meant there was the tremendous need for more shepherds. So, they were to pray. They were to remember that the work to which Jesus was about to assign them was ultimately God’s work. These were His people, His sheep. He would need to raise up additional shepherds to care for those for whom His Son would die.

When the Good Shepherd eventually laid down His life for the sheep, He would need undershederds to gather in all those for whom He died. They would need to be gathered in to the fold. And that would be a role the disciples would eventually inherit from their Master.

14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. – John 10:14-16 ESV

And there are still lost sheep, wandering helplesslly and hopelessly, in need of a shepherd. Jesus laid down His life for them, but they need to be found and restored to the safety and security of the sheepfold. And like the 12 disciples, we have a responsibility to serve the Good Shepherd by acting as His faithful undershepherds. The words Jesus spoke to Peter apply to us.

“Do you love me? … Feed my sheep.” – John 21:17 ESV

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

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

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

Blind and Mute.

27 And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” 28 When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” 29 Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” 30 And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it.” 31 But they went away and spread his fame through all that district.

32 As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him. 33 And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.” 34 But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” – Matthew 9:27-34 ESV

This particular story opens up much like one in chapter eight. On the earlier occasion, Jesus found Himself confronted by another two men, but they happened to be demon-possessed, not blind. But like the blind men, they cried out to Jesus.

And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” – Matthew 8:29 ESV

Notice the difference? These two men were crying out, but it was the voices of the demons or spirits inside them that were doing the talking. Yet, they acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, a clear reference to His deity. They knew He was God, and we know from the story, that they were, in essence, asking Jesus for mercy because they begged Him to cast them into a herd of swine rather than face an early and inevitable judgment at His hands. Now, take note of the words of the two blind me in this story. They too cried out for mercy from Jesus, but in their own voices. And they also addressed Jesus with a title, but the one they used was “Son of David.” This is a Messianic title and it reveals that this two men believed Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah and that He had the power to heal them. It’s significant that they did not call Him Son of David, because it indicates that they, like most Jews, did not view the coming Messiah as a part of the Godhead. He would be a God-appointed king, like David. So, these two men are not worshiping Jesus as God, but simply indicating their belief in Him as Messiah. But it ironic that these two blind me were able to “see” who Jesus was in spite of their lack of physical sight. Their desperate need gave them a spiritual vision that others with full use of their physical sight lacked.

When Jesus asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?,” they replied, “Yes, Lord.” Then, Jesus, touching their eyes, said, “According to your faith be it done to you” (Matthew 9:29 ESV). And Matthew records that they were immediately healed. Their sight was restored. They had not asked for the restoration of their sight, but Jesus had clearly understood what they meant when they had asked for mercy.

But what did Jesus mean when He told them “According to your faith be it done to you?” Was He saying that they had been healed in proportion to their faith? Was it the degree of their faith that resulted in their healing? A more accurate translation of Jesus’ response might be, “since you believed.” It was not the strength of their faith that healed them, but the very fact that they had placed their faith in Jesus’ ability to bring their healing about. They had come to Him with their need and believed that He could do something about it. The point of the story is not the amount of faith they displayed, but the one on whom their faith was focused.

And as with the leper he had healed earlier, Jesus commanded these two men to tell no one what He had done. Unlike some of Jesus’ other healings, this one was done indoors, in relative privacy. But why would Jesus command these men to keep their healing a secret? I think a big reason for Jesus’ stern warning was His concern that, should the people recognise Him as the Messiah, they would attempt to force Him to abandon His primary mission from God and fulfill their false expectations of the Messiah. They were waiting for a savior, but one who would deliver them from the oppression of the Romans and restore the Jews to power and prominence once again. But that is not why Jesus had come. His God-given assignment was to suffer and die at the hands of men, giving His life as a ransom for man (Matthew 20:28). There will be a day when He establishes His Kingdom in Israel and rules from the throne of David, but that will not be until His second coming. Jesus will repeatedly warn those He has healed to keep His designation as the Messiah a secret because He was determined to complete the task assigned to Him by His Father in heaven.

Matthew follows up this story with yet another healing of a demon-possessed man. But there are some interesting contrasts in this particular scenario. First of all, the man is described by Matthew as mute. He is not only demon-possessed but stricken with a physical disability. And if you recall, when Jesus had been approached previously by the two other demon-possessed men, they had cried out to him. But the demons had used the voice boxes of the two men they were possessing. In this case, the demon was unable to address Jesus. It could not cause the man to speak. And it was not until Jesus had cast the demon out, that the man’s voice was restored. Jesus performed two miracles at one. He cast out a demon and restored the man’s ability to speak. But what is significant is that the demon lacked the power to produce sound from the man’s damaged vocal chords. The demon, while powerful, was incapable of replicating the works of Jesus.

And upon seeing what Jesus had done, the crowds responded with amazement, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33 ESV). This is an interesting reaction, because it is clear from Matthew’s account, that Jesus had performed many other miracles of equal, in not greater, significance.

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. – Matthew 8:16 ESV

But their reaction indicates the growing degree of amazement among the people as they watched Jesus perform His miracles. They were witnesss to something never before seen in Israel. And yet, Jesus was simply fulfilling the very role the prophets had attributed to the coming Messiah.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert… – Isaiah 35:5-6 ESV

But the Pharisees, reflecting their growing jealousy of Jesus and the spiritual hardness of their own hearts, retort that Jesus “casts out demons by the prince of demons” (Matthew 9:34 ESV). They didn’t deny that the miracle had happened, but declared that its source was demonic and not of God. They accused Jesus of being in league with Satan. And this will not be the last time they make such an accusation. Matthew will later record another encounter between Jesus and a demon-possessed man. And when Jesus heals him, the people will ask, “Can this be the Son of David?” (Matthew 11:23 ESV). But the Pharisees will once again respond, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matthew 11:24 ESV). They cannot bring themselves to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. These men, with full use of their physical sight, were blind to the reality of who Jesus was.

John records a rather heated exchange between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. In it, Jesus reveals that these men, while heavily steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures, were ignorant of who He was. They studied the Word of God, but failed to recognize the Son of God when He was standing right in front of them.

36 But I have a greater witness than John—my teachings and my miracles. The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that he sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, 38 and you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you.

39 “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! 40 Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.

41 “Your approval means nothing to me, 42 because I know you don’t have God’s love within you. 43 For I have come to you in my Father’s name, and you have rejected me.” – John 5:36-43 NLT

They rejected Jesus. They were spiritually blind and incapable of seeing Him for who He really was. And while they could speak, they used their voices to falsely accuse Jesus of operating in the power of Satan. They could see. They could speak. But they missed the one who could have given them spiritual insight and the ability to verbally praise God for His mercy and grace.

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