A Sacrifice Worth Making

18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For 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.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 28 And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” Luke 18:18-30 ESV

It’s amazing to consider the sovereign nature of all of Jesus’ encounters. Nothing that ever happened to Him was ever a case of luck or blind chance. It was all providentially orchestrated by His Heavenly Father. Every lame person who ever came to Jesus for healing did so of their own free will, but under the sovereign direction of God. Even those individuals whose lives were under the oppressive control of a demonic spirit somehow scored a face-to-face encounter with the Son of God. Even the demon within them could not stop the inevitable and irresistible will of God.

God’s timing was always impeccable, and the Son’s adherence to His Father’s will was always irreproachable. So, as Jesus walked in lock-step with His Father’s plan, it was inevitable that He would encounter those whom God had providentially preordained Him to meet. And that is exactly what happens when the rich, young ruler comes to Jesus with an important question. This was not just a case of good timing. It was an example of God’s carefully orchestrated oversight of every phase of His Son’s life and ministry. This particular man showed up at this particular time and with this particular question on his mind.

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” – Luke 18:18 ESV

Keep in mind that Jesus had just made a startling admission regarding entrance into the kingdom that left His disciples dazed and confused.

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” – Luke 18:17 ESV

And prior to dropping that bombshell on His disciples, Jesus had made another unexpected disclosure regarding justification before God.

“…everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:14 ESV

So, this man’s appearance could not have come at a better time. And his question could not have been more appropriate and applicable to the circumstances.

Luke tells us that this man was a ruler, which infers that he was both powerful and influential. The other synoptic gospels add that he was also rich and young. In other words, he had a lot going for him. We are not told what kind of ruler this man was. He could have served in some kind of governmental capacity. Perhaps he was a leader in the local synagogue. Or he could have been a member of the Sanhedrin. But regardless the nature of his leadership capacity, he seeks out Jesus. And notice how Jesus responds to the him.

“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. – Luke 18:19 ESV

Jesus seemingly ignores the man’s question and focuses on a single word contained within it. The man referred to Jesus as a “good” teacher, but uses this polite but overused description to make an important point. According to psalmist, only God alone is good.

God looks down from heaven
    on the children of man
to see if there are any who understand,
    who seek after God.

They have all fallen away;
    together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
    not even one. – Psalm 53:2-3 ESV

So, why was the young ruler using this word to describe Jesus? The truth is, the man meant nothing by it. But whether the man or anyone else in the crowd understood it, Jesus was subtly inferring His own deity. Jesus really was a “good” teacher. In fact, He was the God-teacher, the God-man.

But Jesus doesn’t belabor the point. Instead, He points out five of the Ten Commandments.

“Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.” – Luke 18:20 ESV

Matthew adds that the man’s request was focused on what “good deed” he must do to inherit eternal life. From the conversation that followed, it seems clear that the man believed he had already done enough. He was young and rich, and from the perspective of most Jews, he was already blessed by God because of his wealth. He was also a religious man because when Jesus listed the five commandments and told the man to keep them, he proudly announced, “All these I have kept from my youth.” (Luke 18:21 ESV).

This man was looking for confirmation, not a list of things to do. As a faithful Jew, he believed he was a child of Abraham and, therefore, a rightful heir to eternal life. As a descendant of Abraham, he was guaranteed a place in God’s eternal Kingdom. Now, he was asking Jesus to place His Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on his life.

The wording of the man’s question is very specific. He uses the word klēronomeō, which means “to obtain by inheritance.” This reveals that he believed eternal life was already rightfully his, but he wants to know how to he can get his hands on it now. He was not willing to wait. His attitude is similar to that of the young man in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. In that story, Jesus described another young man from a wealthy family who was destined to inherit his father’s vast riches. But unwilling to wait for his father to die, he demanded that he be given his inheritance right way.

“I want my share of your estate now before you die.” So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. – Luke 15:12 NLT

Finding himself suddenly wealthy beyond belief, that young man ended up spending everything he had on a life of excess and immorality. He had gotten what he wanted but had misused and abused it.

And, in a similar way, the rich young man kneeling before Jesus was demanding that he be given what was rightfully his: His guaranteed inheritance of eternal life. This man had it all but he wanted more. He coveted the one thing that was missing from his portfolio: Assurance of eternal life.

Because of his wealth, social standing, and success at religious rule-keeping, this young man believed himself to be blessed by God. He viewed himself as a good man who deserved everything that was due to him. And if Jesus could guarantee him that he had done enough to earn eternal life, he could live the rest of his life in ease and comfort. But when Jesus emphasized that “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19 ESV), He was letting this man know that there was only one “good man” participating in this conversation. And it wasn’t the rich, young ruler.

And while this man could brag about having kept the commandments, Jesus knew the truth about his heart. It’s interesting that Jesus only listed five of the commandments and they all had to do with the horizontal relationships between individuals.

These five commandments bring to mind Jesus’ sermon on the mount. In that message, Jesus stated, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19 ESV).

And Jesus had gone on to explain what it looked like to “relax” one of God’s laws. He put hatred on the same par as murder (Matthew 5:22). He compared lust to adultery.

“…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28 ESV

Lust, like adultery, is essentially taking what does not belong to you. It is a form of stealing. And Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29 ESV).

All throughout His sermon on the mount, Jesus painted a radically different picture of what it means to keep God’s law. It wasn’t just about rule-keeping. It was about a change of the heart. Those who hoped to inherit God’s kingdom would have to live sacrificially and selflessly. Their adherence to God’s laws would have to manifest itself in their relationships with others. That’s why Jesus said, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42 ESV).

Which brings us back to the rich young man. Jesus turned to him and said, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22 ESV). This proved to be the deal-breaker. This one “good deed” was more than the man could handle. He was unwilling to part with his wealth. All his law-keeping had cost him nothing. But now Jesus was demanding that he do one thing that would cost him everything.

The man was focused on what Jesus was asking him to give up. But the real tragedy of this story is what the young man eventually turned his back on. He was willing to walk away from eternal life so that he could keep living the “good life.” Mark sadly reports that the man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22 ESV).

He was possessed by his possessions. He was held captive by the things of this world. His love of material goods and temporal pleasures proved too great. And years later, the apostle John would probably recall this sad scene when he wrote the following words.

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

This man had been young and full of life. He was wealthy and blessed by every imaginable earthly pleasure. He was a ruler who wielded tremendous power and responsibility. In other words, He was great. He was all that the disciples hoped to become. When they looked at the rich young ruler, they saw the image of what they aspired to be. And as the disciples stood in stunned silence watching the young man walk away, Jesus further exploded their misconception of greatness.

“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” – Mark 10:23 ESV

This led some in the crowd to exclaim, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26 ESV). If the wealthy, who were obviously blessed by God, were going to find it difficult to enter the kingdom, what hope did they have?  But Jesus assured them, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27 ESV).

At this point, the ever-impulsive Peter stepped into the conversation and reminded Jesus how he and his companions had sacrificed all to follow Him. They weren’t rich like the young ruler, but they had given up everything to be His disciples. Peter was hoping that Jesus would confirm that they had eternal life locked in. According to the criteria Jesus had given the young ruler, Peter figured they had done enough.

But Jesus surprises them by stating: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30 ESV). What Peter did not yet understand was that, with Jesus’ coming death on the cross, he and the other disciples would eventually inherit the Holy Spirit. Not only that, they would end up becoming part of the much larger family of God. But the greatest blessing they would receive would come at the end of the age: Eternal life. But all of it would be based on the work of Christ, not their own human effort. Eternal life was a gift, not a reward for work well done.

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

Unworthy, Yet Rewarded Servants

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” – Luke 17:7-10 ESV

These verses, if taken out of their context, will leave the reader scratching their head in confusion. Yet, it almost appears as if they have no context. Even when read as part of the overall narrative of chapters 14-17, they can still come across as shocking in tone and perplexing in terms of their meaning. The disciples have just asked Jesus to increase their faith. But He informed them that their problem was not the size of their faith, but the source of their power. They were thinking that it all revolved around them. With more faith, they believed they could accomplish more good works for God. And this mindset was not far from the attitude of the Pharisees, who believed their right standing with God was based on all that they had done for Him. They viewed themselves as faithful sons of God who diligently observed all of His laws and, therefore, deserved His blessings.

Throughout these four chapters, Luke has been faithfully chronicling Jesus’ ongoing lessons regarding the self-righteous and self-promoting mindset of the religious leaders of Israel. They were glory-seeking grand-standers who loved to parade their superior spirituality in front of the common people. They lived for the praise of men and were obsessed with social status and material gain. Luke described these icons of moral virtue as “lovers of money” (16:14 ESV). And Jesus accused them of caring more about the approval of men than the righteous appraisal of God.

“You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts. What this world honors is detestable in the sight of God. – Luke 16:15 NLT

They lived with their eyes focused solely on the rewards of this life. And those rewards took the form of praise, respectability, power, and prominence. Their lives were a living example of Jesus’ words in His sermon on the mount.

“Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1 NLT

Jesus went on to say that those who “toot their own horns,“ calling attention to their acts of charity, will receive the reward of human praise, but will end up forfeiting their eternal reward. Jesus made it clear that His followers were to give without seeking a pat on the back or any other kind of earthly recognition.

“Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:4 NLT

And Jesus continued to reiterate this seemingly aberrant admonition.

“…when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:6 NLT

“…when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:17-18 NLT

The Pharisees lived for earthly, temporal rewards. Their focus was on the here-and-now, and they expected to receive divine compensation for all their tithing, praying, and obeying. And Jesus knew that even His disciples had a difficult time accepting the idea of delayed gratification. They had each made the decision to follow Jesus, hoping that He might be the long-awaited Messiah. And they were eagerly anticipating the day when He would set up His kingdom on earth and reward them with places of prominence and power in His royal administration. They continued to maintain that hope right up to the literal end. In fact, after His resurrection, Jesus gathered His disciples together on a hillside to give them one last set of instructions before He returned to His Father’s side in heaven. But even at that momentous occasion, they couldn’t stop thinking about the one thing they desired more than anything else.

So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” – Acts 1:6 NLT

They were still waiting for Jesus to set up His kingdom on earth. This question expresses their collective hope that Jesus was finally going to do what they had been longing for Him to do all along: Re-establish Israel as a major force in that region of the world. They were longing to see Israel regain its former glory and power. And Jesus assured them that they would receive power, but not in the form they were expecting.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 6:8 NLT

They would receive a power far greater than anything they could have ever imagined or conceived, and it would be the key to their future success as the apostles of Jesus.

So, as we come to verses 7-10 of Luke 17, it is important that we keep all of this in mind, because Jesus is dealing with the expectation of rewards. Look closely at the question He poses:

“When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, ‘Come in and eat with me’? – Luke 17:7 NLT

This question was meant to be rhetorical. The answer is obvious. No servant or slave would ever expect to be rewarded with a seat at his master’s table just for doing his job. The very idea posed by this question was meant to be preposterous. No servant in his right mind would ever dream of being offered a place at his master’s table. Even if extended the invitation, he would likely refuse it, solely out of humility and an understanding of his own unworthiness.

Jesus answers His own question by describing what everyone knew would be the right and expected response of the master: “Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later” (Luke 17:8 NLT). The servant’s work was far from done. He may have completed his tasks in the field and among the flocks, but that did not mean he deserved a reward. And no servant would have expected one. His job was to serve his master. His needs came second. His reward, if any, would not come until his work was completed to the master’s satisfaction.

Then Jesus asks another rhetorical question: “And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do?” (Luke 17:9 NLT). Once again, no servant would have expected a thank you, let alone a word of praise or commendation. That would have been ridiculous. And Jesus affirms this when He answers His own question: “Of course not” (Luke 17:9 NLT).

But, just so His disciples don’t miss the point, Jesus clarifies it for them.

“In the same way, when you obey me you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.’” – Luke 17:10 NLT

Unlike the Pharisees, the disciples of Jesus were to obey, not for the sake of reward, but out of respect for their Master.  During His earthly ministry, Jesus repeatedly expressed His own willingness to fulfill His God-ordained role as the servant of God the Father.

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” – John 4:34 ESV

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” – John 8:38-39 ESV

“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” – Matthew 20:28 ESV

Jesus was asking nothing of His disciples that He was not willing to do Himself. And the apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus fulfilled His servant role all the way to the end.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:6-11 NLT

The religious leaders of Israel wrongly viewed themselves as somehow deserving of God’s rewards. They would have never considered themselves to be “unworthy servants.”  But that is exactly how Jesus expects His disciples to see themselves. And the apostle Paul would reinforce this humble mindset when he wrote to the arrogant and puffed-up believers in Corinth.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NLT

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

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

I Once Was Lost…

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” – Luke 15:8-10 ESV

Jesus continues to reveal the true nature of the Pharisees, scribes, and their fellow religious leaders. This entire scene had been instigated by their verbal complaint that Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners. In response, Jesus launched into a parabolic monologue designed to expose these men as frauds and fakes. While they took great pride in their religious zeal and wholehearted commitment to the Mosaic Law, they showed no signs of compassion for the materially and spiritually less fortunate. These self-righteous men looked down their noses at the common people, deeming them to be uneducated illiterates whose lives were marked by constant disobedience to God’s commands. And the religious leaders of Israel held a special contempt for all those who were outside the household of Abraham. In other words, they despised any and all Gentiles, especially the Romans who served as their taskmasters and overlords.

So, in this series of parables, Jesus uses a variety of analogies that are designed to expose these men as uncaring legalists who have placed their religion and their lengthy list of man-made rules ahead of the spiritual needs of the people. Matthew records a particularly harsh indictment that Jesus leveled against these men for their missionary-like, but misguided zeal for making converts.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” – Matthew 23:15 ESV

They were adept at propagating their particular style of religious ritualism, marked by rule-keeping and motivated by pride and self-reliance. But all the while, they remained blind to the true spiritual need in their midst. They rejected Jesus’ call to repentance because they didn’t believe it applied to them. And they showed no concern for the “sinners” in their midst because they believed these people were only getting what they deserved for their failure to keep the law. They were poor because they lacked piety. Those who suffered from blindness were being punished for their unrighteousness. The lame, infirmed, and diseased were reaping the consequences of their immoral lifestyles. So, rather than dine with these kinds of people, the Pharisees avoided them like the plague. But not Jesus. And that is the point of these parables.

In the second parable, Jesus describes a woman who finds that one of her silver coins is missing. Jesus’ Jewish audience would have understood this coin to be a Greek drachma, which was equivalent to a Roman denarius. And they would have immediately recognized the extreme nature of this woman’s loss because that one silver coin was worth a day’s wage. So, they would not have been surprised to hear that the woman in the story began a feverish search to find the object of great worth.

And, as in the first parable, Jesus presents his story in the form of a rhetorical question.

Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? – Luke 15:8 NLT

It’s not hard to visualize the people in the crowd shaking their heads in affirmation. That’s exactly what they would do if they were in the woman’s place because they each understood the extent of her loss and the degree of her determination to find the missing coin.

This parable is very similar to an actual event that occurred at a later date while Jesus was making His way to Jerusalem. Luke records that Jesus was “passing along between Samaria and Galilee” (Luke 17:11 ESV). The context is important because it reveals that Jesus has ventured back to the north. Luke provides no reason for Jesus making this rather lengthy detour, but it provides the backdrop for what takes place.

As Jesus entered a village, He was accosted by the shouts of ten men who suffered from the devastating disease of leprosy. When they saw Jesus, they cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13 NLT). Luke indicates that these men, while desperate to receive healing from Jesus, remained at a distance, in keeping with the requirements of the Mosaic Law. Their condition rendered them unclean and severely restricted their movements. As long as they suffered from leprosy, they were unwelcome in the local synagogue and were denied access to the temple in Jerusalem. Everywhere these men went they were persona non grata.

What Jesus did next is significant. Rather than reaching out and healing the men, He gave them a command.

“Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Luke 17:14 ESV

Usually, this process would have come after healing had taken place. It was the priest’s duty to affirm that someone had recovered from the disease before they could be accepted back into the open arms of the community. But Jesus sent these men to the priest while they were still suffering from leprosy. And as they made their way, they were miraculously healed.

And as they went they were cleansed. – Luke 17:14 ESV

For each of these men, the journey to see the priest required tremendous faith. They had no way of knowing what was going to happen when they arrived but it is safe to assume that they expected the priest to reject them as unclean, just like always. But as they walked, they were healed. And when they arrived, they were pronounced clean by the priest. The disease was gone. Their days of isolation and loneliness were over. The curse of a slow and painful death from leprosy had been replaced with new hope and new life.

But Luke reports that only one of the men returned to thank Jesus for what He had done, and he just happened to be a Samaritan. So, not only had he suffered the indignity of having a dreaded disease that made him a social pariah, he had endured the added pressure of being a lowly and despised Samaritan. The Jews viewed Samaritans as half-breeds, the descendants of the remnant who had been left in the land of Canaan after the Babylonian exile. These people had committed the unpardonable sin of intermarrying with Gentiles. On top of that, they had created their own syncretistic religion that combined the worship of Yahweh with pagan idols. They had even established their own priesthood and holy site. They were considered by the Jews to be little more than dogs, unwanted, unclean, and unworthy of any sympathy or association.

Yet Luke records that it was this man who took the time to return and thank Jesus for what He had done.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. – Luke 17:15-16 NLT

What happens next is significant and provides an important link to the parable of the woman and the ten coins. Notice what Jesus said when the Samaritan had returned and expressed his deep appreciation.

Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” And Jesus said to the man, “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you. – Luke 17:17-19 NLT

Ten coins. Ten men. One coin was missing and found. One man was healed and returned. It’s almost as if the second event had been preordained and intended to bring the parable to life. Everything Jesus said and did had a purpose behind it. He was always teaching, instructing, revealing, and preparing His disciples. No moment was wasted.

It seems clear that in both cases, Jesus’ intention was to subtly expose the Pharisees. In the parable, they were the nine coins that remained un-lost. They required no search to be found because they had never strayed away. They were the “faithful” ones. But Jesus emphasized that the woman went out of her way to find the one coin that had gone missing. And it’s important to note that each coin had the same value in the eyes of the woman. No one drachma was of greater worth than the other. Regardless of which coin was lost, she would have searched just a diligently and relentlessly.

And the ten lepers all suffered from the same abysmal fate. They had not caused it and could do nothing to alleviate it. They were helpless and hopeless, which is why they cried out to Jesus for help. And what is important to realize about this scene is that nine of the men were Jews, while only one was a Samaritan or “foreigner.” But their national identity had done nothing to prevent them from succumbing to the ravages of this deadly disease. They were all equally infected and facing the same unavoidable fate.

And when Jesus commanded that they go and present themselves to the priest, they all obeyed. In a sense, this portrays the law-keeping tendencies of the Pharisees. They were all about “doing” and took great pride in their ability to keep the commands of God. So, the nine Jews did exactly what they were told to do. They went to the priest and on the way, they received healing. But what was their response to this life-changing moment? They went on their way. They joyfully returned to their former way of life, free from leprosy and no longer considered unclean and unwelcome by their community. Luke makes no commentary about the nine, leaving the reader to assess the nature of their reaction. The best way to understand what was going on in their hearts is to look at the response of the Samaritan. He praised God and “fell to the ground at Jesus’ feet, thanking him for what he had done” (Luke 17:16 NLT).

The Samaritan recognized that his healing had been the work of God. And He realized that Jesus had been the means by which God had brought about this life-changing miracle. To a certain degree, this man’s return was an act of repentance. He came back to the source – to the one who had given him back his life. He knew he had nothing to do with his healing. It had all been the work of God.

But what about the nine Jews who went on their way? Why did they not respond with the same degree of gratitude and humble praise? It is likely that they took some responsibility for their own healing. After all, they had been the ones to cry out for mercy. And when Jesus had commanded them to go to the priest, they had been quick to do so. The fact that they were healed as they faithfully obeyed Jesus’ command was proof that they had somehow earned their miraculous transformation. This mindset was prevalent among the Jews, especially among the religious leaders. We see it in another encounter Jesus had with one of them.

Once a religious leader asked Jesus this question: “Good Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” – Luke 18:18 NLT

And Jesus responded by reciting five of the Ten Commandments.

“‘You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother.’” – Luke 18:20 NLT

To which the man proudly replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young” (Luke 18:21 NLT). He viewed himself as a faithful adherent to the Mosaic Law. But Jesus exposed a flaw in his self-righteous assessment when He added one thing that the man had overlooked.

“There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” – Luke 18:22 NLT

Jesus had subtly revealed the man’s real problem: His love affair with materialism. He was wealthy and the thought of selling all he had and following Jesus was more than he was willing to sacrifice. He had come hoping that Jesus would validate his works ethic by affirming that he had done enough to earn eternal life. But no one can earn salvation. And on one articulated this essential doctrine of the faith more readily and succinctly than the apostle Paul.

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

A coin that was lost, then found. A man that was leprous, then healed. Both are evidence of the value that God has placed on all those He has made. And He sent His Son “to seek and save those who are lost” (Luke 19:10 NLT). The coin couldn’t find itself. The leper couldn’t heal himself. But their hopeless and helpless state was not insurmountable. It simply required the loving, compassionate care of a gracious and merciful God. Salvation is impossible, but as Jesus later said, “with God everything is possible” (Matthew 19:26 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

Do Not Marvel At This

25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. – John 5:25-29 ESV

The Jewish leaders have deemed Jesus as worthy of death. His claim of equality with God has left them no other choice. According to the law, He has blasphemed and the prescribed penalty for that crime was death. But Jesus, fully aware of their plans for Him, has decided to address their concern by further emphasizing His claim to be the Son of God. Even when facing the threat of death, He refuses to deny His identity. In fact, Jesus only escalates the tension between He and His adversaries by establishing Himself as the judge of all mankind.

For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son…” – John 4:22 ESV

To the Pharisees and Sadducees, this bold claim would have sounded not only blasphemous but highly offensive. Who was this uneducated Rabbi from Nazareth to think that He could stand in judgment over them? They represented the religious elite of Israel and considered themselves to be the epitome of righteousness and holiness. Yet, here was Jesus telling them that He, not God, would be their ultimate judge and the determiner of their eternal fate.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” – John 5:24 ESV

It seems quite apparent that the Pharisees and Sadducees failed to understand the nature of Jesus’ claim. And all His talk about future judgment and eternal life would have caused a major rift within their ranks. These two religious sects, while united in their hatred of Jesus, were divided over several key doctrines, and one of them was the idea of the bodily resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees rejected this doctrine along with the concept of any kind of afterlife. They preferred to believe that, upon death, the soul simply perished. But the Pharisees fully embraced the idea of an afterlife that would be preceded by a physical resurrection of the body and include a judgment by God that would be followed by either reward or punishment according to the deeds done in this life.

So, you can imagine how the words of Jesus must have created an uncomfortable tension between these two disparate factions within His audience. For the Sadducees, just the mention of eternal life would have left them shaking their heads in disbelief and disgust. But the Pharisees, while fully on board with the idea of an afterlife and a future judgment, would have been appalled by Jesus’ claim that He would be their judge.

And Jesus refuses to let up. He continues to expand on this controversial topic, throwing additional fuel on the fire of their anger.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” – John 5:25 ESV

With this statement, Jesus brings the timeline back into the present. With the minds of the Pharisees and Sadducees firmly fixed on the idea of the resurrection and the future judgment, Jesus adroitly shifts the focus to the here-and-now. He is letting them know that the key to securing a reward in the future judgment is to be found in the present. While the Pharisees were convinced that their acts of righteousness were enough to secure their eternal state in God’s kingdom, Jesus is debunking that myth.

He had come to bring new life to the spiritually dead. All who stood in His presence that day were dead in their trespasses and sins, including the Pharisees and Sadducees (Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13). They were totally incapable of earning their way into God’s good graces because, according to the prophet Isaiah, all their works were no better than filthy rags in the eyes of God (Isaiah 64:6 ESV).

But Jesus is announcing that the spiritually dead can receive new life in this life, if they will only “hear the voice of the Son of God.” He promises that all who hear and believe will live. This claim would have been radical and heretical to the Pharisees. That Jesus would dare to hold the key to eternal life was one thing, but for Him to seemingly negate the need for doing works of righteousness to earn that reward was unthinkable and unacceptable.

But as difficult as it was for them to accept Jesus’ claim, He assures them that this was all part of the Father’s plan. God had granted His Son the divine authority to bestow the gift of eternal life.

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” – John 5:26 ESV

Later on in his gospel, John records the words of Jesus, when He claims to be the door through which all must go if they want to find access to the Father and enjoy the promise of abundant life.

“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” – John 10:9-10 ESV

The key to eternal life is to be found in this life, but only through belief in the giver of life. John opened up his gospel with the bold claim concerning Jesus:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. – John 1:4 ESV

And John went on to declare that “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 ESV).

According to Jesus, the Father has not only given Him the authority to bestow eternal life but to also execute future judgment.

“And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” – John 5:27 ESV

Jesus has the right to execute judgment, not just because He is the Son of God, but because He is the Son of Man. Jesus was God incarnate, deity in the form of humanity. The Son of God had humbled Himself by becoming one of us and choosing to dwell among us. And He would live His earthly life in complete obedience to His Heavenly Father, without sin and in full compliance with every command given by God to Moses. And it would be His sinless perfection that made Him the acceptable sacrifice to pay for the sins of men. That is why John the Baptist had referred to Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

Jesus would eventually “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). He would pour out His blood “as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many” (Matthew 26:28 NLT). And because He would willingly give His life as payment for the sins of man, He would become the ultimate judge of all mankind. And the future judgment that all mankind must face will be based on belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is the point Jesus had tried to make with Nicodemus.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:16-18 ESV

The key to eternal life is to believe in Jesus as the giver of life. It is to believe that His sacrificial death satisfied the just demands of a holy God and paid in full the debt owed by the sinner. But that belief must take place in this life. The guarantee of eternal life comes when we place our faith in Jesus in this life. And Jesus assures the confused and consternated religious leaders standing before Him that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a future judgment.

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” – John 5:28-29 ESV

But the key to earning entrance into the Kingdom of God will be based on belief in the Son of God. This final statement from Jesus could easily leave the impression that He is tying eternal life to good works. After all, He seems to state that eternal life is reserved for “those who have done good.” But Jesus will later clarify the only “work” that will earn anyone entrance into God’s Kingdom.

This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:29 ESV

Belief. It’s as simple as that. But for the Pharisees and Sadducees, the content of this message from Jesus was anything but simple and it would prove far from acceptable. And Jesus, aware of their stubborn refusal to believe in who He is and what He is claiming to offer, will go on to expose them for their disbelief and inform them of their future fate.

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

What Must I DO?

13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.

16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. –  Matthew 19:13-22 ESV

The disciples weren’t always the brightest bulbs in the box. Their inability to grasp the teachings of Jesus was always on display, which simply underscores their humanity. These men were dealing with all kinds of baggage, in the form of personal prejudices, cultural mores, religious doctrines, and man-made traditions. In many ways, they had to un-learn as much they were needing to learn. Their heads were filled with all kinds of preconceived notions and faulty concepts about life, religion, God, and the Kingdom the Messiah was supposed to set up when He came.

If you recall, both John the Baptist and Jesus had appeared on the scene preaching a message of repentance. A big part of the idea behind repentance is a change of mind. And whether they realized it or not, the disciples were being forced by Jesus to rethink everything – their concepts of faith, salvation, God, the kingdom, merit, and the Messiah. But they struggled to let go of their faulty, yet all-too-familiar ideas concerning these things.

So, when we read verses 13-15, the reaction of the disciples should not surprise us. This scene simply reveals how difficult it was for the disciples to embrace the teachings of Jesus. Back in chapter 18, Matthew records Jesus’ response when He heard the disciples bickering over which of them was greatest. Using a small boy as a visual lesson, Jesus told them, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). Then, He had proceeded to give them a lesson on the need for humility and child-like faith.

Now, just a short time later, we see the disciples displaying their somewhat pig-headed and hard-hearted natures. Matthew records that people were bringing their small children to Jesus so that He might bless them. This was a common occurrence in Jewish culture, as people frequently brought their young children to rabbis in order to have them pronounce a blessing on them. But for whatever reason, the disciples took exception to what the people were doing and rebuked them. The gospel writers don’t provide us with a reason for the disciples’ somewhat surprising response, but they each indicate that the reaction of these men was strong and unapologetic.

But Jesus quickly intervened, countering their rebuke with a statement of compassion.

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 19:14 ESV

This was a not-so-subtle reminder to the disciples of His earlier teaching. It was intended to help them recall all that He had taught them concerning humility and child-like faith. The disciples were still struggling with pride and prejudice. They saw themselves, and Jesus, as too busy to deal with all these parents and their children. From their perspective, Jesus had better things to do than bless children. But Jesus wanted them to know that He was never too busy to reach out to those who came to Him in humility. As Jesus would later teach them, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). Each of the disciples was dominated by a self-serving attitude. They were in it for themselves. They had chosen to follow Jesus because they expected to get something out of it. And blessing children was not high on their list of personal priorities. But Jesus was teaching them that life in His kingdom was going to be different. Leaders would be servants. The first would be last. The meek would inherit the earth. The humble would be recognized. The hopeless would find hope.

And Matthew records that immediately after this encounter with the children, a young man approached Jesus, asking Him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:15 ESV). Matthew opens this scene with the word, “behold.” In essence, he is telling the reader to look carefully at what is about to happen. These two scenarios are closely linked together for a reason.

Notice the wording of the young man’s question. He asks, “What good deed must I do…?” The emphasis is on himself and his own self-effort. He exhibits the antithesis of childlike, humble faith. His goal was eternal life, but he was wanting to know what steps he needed to take to earn it. He was looking for a to-do list to follow, a set of rules to keep.

Rather than providing the man with a task to be performed, Jesus focuses on his use of the word “good.”  He asks him, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” This man, like every other Jew, knew the revealed will of God. He would have been more than familiar with God’s law and the non-negotiable requirement concerning obedience to it. But he was looking for the magic ticket – the one thing he could do that would guarantee eternal life. 

But Jesus turned the young man’s attention to the source of all that is good: God Himself. He reminded the young man, “There is only one who is good” (Matthew 19:17 ESV). And that good God had given His good, holy, and righteous law. If the young man wanted to have eternal life, he would need to keep each and every one of the commandments. God had already given His standard for righteousness or good-ness.

But the young man, looking for specifics, asked, “Which ones?” This man’s question reflects a common notion held by many in that day, including the religious leaders. There was constant debate among them over which of the commandments of God was the most important and, therefore, more binding. The Pharisees would later come to Jesus and ask Him,  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36 ESV).

For the young man, it was a matter of priority. He wanted to know which commandment he needed to focus on in order to receive the reward for which he sought. And, accommodating the young man’s request, Jesus provided him with a shortlist of commandments. Notice that the list Jesus provided is made up of laws concerning human relationships. They are horizontal in nature, dealing with how we are to relate to those around us. Jesus lists the prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness. But He also lists the laws requiring the honoring of parents and love for others. And without batting an eye, the young man boldly and pridefully declared that he had kept them all. So, he wanted to know what was missing. What other law did he need to keep in order to guarantee himself eternal life?

Then, Jesus dropped a bombshell. He simply stated, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21 ESV).

The Greek word translated, “perfect” is teleios, and it refers to completeness or wholeness. The man was asking Jesus what it was that he lacked. He felt incomplete. He knew that something was missing from his life and wrestled with a fear of not measuring up. He had no assurance that his efforts were going to earn him the eternal reward for which he longed. And Jesus informed him that he would need to give up all that he owned in this life and follow Him. Jesus was not telling this man that his salvation could be earned through some kind of philanthropic acts of selfless sacrifice. He was revealing that this man’s heart was focused on the things of this world. As Matthew reveals, the young man was very wealthy. The idea of selling all that he had and giving it away led him to walk away. That was a sacrifice he was unwilling to make.

The act of selling all his possessions and following Jesus would have required great faith. It would have demanded humility and would have been a blow to this young man’s pride. He was what he owned. His reputation was tied up in his possessions. He was respected because of his great wealth. He enjoyed the comfort and conveniences that money can buy. And the thought of leaving all that behind was more than he could bear. The thought of sacrificing present comfort for future reward was too much for him.

What a marked difference between this self-made man and the little children whom Jesus had just blessed. Helpless and unable to care for themselves, they were brought to Jesus by their parents. They brought nothing to the equation other than their innocence. They could not brag about their good deeds. They had kept no laws. They had not honored their parents because they were too young to do so. And yet, Jesus had blessed them.

This whole exchange was not about what we need to do to earn eternal life. It was about the one to whom we need to come. The children were brought to Jesus and were blessed. And Jesus told the young man that in order to have eternal life, he would need to follow Him. It wasn’t about doing, it was about faith in Jesus.

This is all reminiscent of another exchange that Jesus had with a crowd that had followed him after He had miraculously fed them. They were looking for another free meal. So, He told them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27 ESV). And they responded, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (John 6:28 ESV). Then, look closely at what Jesus said to them.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:29 ESV

Faith in Jesus. That was the point. Jesus was calling this man to release his grip on his earthly possessions and position and place his hope in Him. Faith in Jesus requires that we place our full dependence upon Him and what He alone can do. Like the rich young man, we are incapable of doing anything good that might earn us favor with God. But if we will simply follow Jesus in childlike, humble faith, we will receive 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

The Family of God

46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” – Matthew 12:46-50 ESV

Like so many other statements made by Jesus, these words concerning His mother and brothers sound a bit surprising and confusing. They have a harsh and uncaring tone about them. But it is important that we keep His words within their context. He has been facing opposition from the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They have accused Him of performing miracles by the power of Satan. And Jesus has labeled them as part of an evil generation who, by rejecting Him as their Messiah, is denying the revealed will of God. These men put high stock in their heritage as Jews. They viewed themselves as God’s chosen people and, because of what they believed to be their strict adherence to the law, they believed they were highly favored by God.

But Jesus has made it clear that they will be held accountable for their rejection of Him. Their status as Jews was not going to keep them from experiencing the coming judgment of God. Unless they are willing to confess Him as Lord and Savior, their Hebrew heritage will be of no benefit to them. And their obsession with the law of Moses was not going to be enough to save them. The apostle Paul, while speaking to the Jews in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, told them regarding Jesus, “Everyone who believes in him is declared right with God–something the law of Moses could never do” (Acts 13:39 NLT). But the Pharisees and scribes refused to believe that Jesus was who He claimed to be.

And Jesus had warned the Pharisees “on the day of judgment …by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37 ESV). The apostle Paul would later explain how anyone, including the Pharisees, could avoid condemnation.

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. – Romans 10:9 ESV

But what does all this have to do with the mother and brothers of Jesus? Why did He seem to dismiss them as irrelevant? As Jesus was so often prone to do, He took advantage of the moment to make a point. He was not diminishing the importance of family or denigrating His mother, Mary. He was stressing the importance of the spiritual over the physical. Mary had given birth to Jesus, but that physical relationship would not be enough to provide her with forgiveness of her sins and salvation from death. She would be required to believe in Jesus as her Savior just like everyone else. In fact, that seems to be the whole point behind what Jesus said.

Jesus had come to do the will of His Father. And John records exactly what Jesus believed that will to include.

“For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will. And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day. For it is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. I will raise them up at the last day. – John 6:38-40 NLT

God’s will for Jesus included His eventual death on the cross and His resurrection. But it also required belief on the part of those whom He had given to His Son. They would see and believe. And Luke adds some extremely important words of clarification in his Gospel account.

“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” – Luke 8:19-21 ESV

Earlier in his gospel, Matthew recorded another statement of Jesus regarding family.

“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. – Matthew 10:37 ESV

Again, these words strike us as radical and unexpectedly harsh. But Jesus is attempting to drive home the cost of true discipleship. Belief in Him was going to require people to make difficult decisions. They would be forced to choose faith in Jesus over the familiar and comfortable surroundings of family. And, once again, it is essential that we view His words within their context.

“Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.

‘I have come to set a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
   Your enemies will be right in your own household!’

“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” – Matthew 10:34-39 NLT

Following Jesus was going to be costly. It would demand that His disciples leave behind all that had once provided their self-identity and sense of significance. Even Jesus knew what it was like to be rejected by His own family. John records an interesting and insightful exchange between Jesus and His brothers.

…and Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, where your followers can see your miracles! You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” For even his brothers didn’t believe in him. – John 7:3-5 NLT

They certainly didn’t seem to have a problem with Jesus becoming famous. After all, they had a celebrity for a brother. But they weren’t quite ready to accept Him as their Messiah and Savior. John makes it clear that they didn’t believe in Him. And, therefore, they were failing to do the will of God. At that point, the 12 disciples were actually much closer to Jesus than His own half-brothers. They had left all to follow Him. They had embraced His claim to be the Son of God and were slowly coming to grips with their mistaken expectations concerning His role as the Messiah. Things weren’t going quite as they had expected, but they had not abandoned Jesus. And while they were unaware of all that was going to happen in the days and months ahead, they continued to follow Him faithfully.

In John’s gospel, he records a fascinating exchange between Jesus and a group of Jews who had been part of a huge crowd He had miraculously fed with fives loaves of bread and two fish. The day after this incredible event, these people showed up looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:25-29 ESV

They wanted to know what they were going to have to do to earn eternal life. Like good Jews, their minds were stuck on performance. They were thinking in terms of works. What kind of good deeds would they have to perform in order to merit eternal life? But Jesus clarified His words by stating that the only acceptable “work” would be to believe in Him. That was God’s will. And anyone and everyone who placed their faith in Jesus would be saved and inherit eternal life – including not only those who shared Jesus’ Hebrew heritage but Gentiles as well.

Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
    I will now call my people.
And I will love those
    whom I did not love before.”

And,

“Then, at the place where they were told,
    ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
    ‘children of the living God.’” – Romans 9:25-26 NLT

 Jesus came to establish a new family – the family of God – made up of people from all walks of life and every nationality. Their belief in Jesus as their Savior would be their common bond. And just as Jesus would do the will of His Father, sacrificing His life on behalf of all those the Father had given Him, those who eventually placed their faith in Him would be fulfilling the will of God as well. They would be doing the one work required to inherit eternal life: Belief in Jesus as Savior.

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

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

 

 

 

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