15:5 Christ Himself is the vine; believers are vine branches. It is not a question of the branch living its life for the Vine, but simply of letting the life of the Vine flow out through the branches. Sometimes we pray, “Lord, help me to live my life for You.” It would be better to pray, “Lord Jesus, live out Your life through me.” Without Christ, we can do nothing. A vine branch has one great purpose—to bear fruit. It is useless for making furniture or for building homes. It does not even make good firewood. But it is good for fruit-bearing—as long as it abides in the vine.
5. I am the vine, you are the branches. First 15:1 is repeated: Jesus is the vine. Next, the thought already clearly implied in 15:2–4, is expressly stated, namely, “You are the branches.” A word is used for branch which literally means vine-branch or vine-twig (κλῆμα).
He who abides in me, with me abiding in him (literally, “He who abides in me, and I in him,” but this is hardly good English), he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
Note: more fruit (verse 2), much fruit (verses 5 and 8). The vitality of the vine, Jesus Christ, is stressed. This vine enables those who remain in him to produce fruit not only but much fruit. For the character of this fruit see on 15:1, 2.
On the other hand, those who are out of relation to Christ can do literally nothing, nothing whatever (οὐ … οὐδέν). That holds not only for the drunkard, the thief, the murderer, the immoral person, but also for the poet, the scientist, and the philosopher who has not embraced Christ with a living faith. He can render no work that is acceptable before God. Then why is it that some—even among those who like to pass as Christians and who seek the place of leadership in the church—are ever engaged in ascribing the highest possible honors to such “outsiders,” as if one could better afford to do without Paul than without Plato?
The passage certainly teaches the inability of man to do that which is good in the sight of God. It is entirely in line with Rom. 14:23, just as the preceding clause (“He who abides in me.… he it is that bears much fruit”) is entirely in line with Phil. 4:13.—Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism of every description stands condemned here!
“I Am the True Vine”
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
There have been many guesses about what may have occasioned Christ’s parable of the vine and its branches, which extends over the first half of John 15, but it is impossible to be certain of the cause. Since the preceding chapter concludes with the words, “Come now; let us leave,” it would seem that the Lord and his disciples left the upper room at this point and began that quiet walk across the city of Jerusalem down into the Kidron Valley that brought them to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. If that is the case, they may have passed the great golden vine that decorated the door to the Holy Place of the temple or else the vines that grew close to the great walls of the city and stretched along it. This is not certain, however, for the party may have lingered in the upper room even after Christ’s statement. Some, who have felt this way for other reasons, have suggested that the vine on the temple may have been visible through a window of the room or that a real vine may have been nearby.
As I say, we do not know the occasion for this parable. We only know that vines were visible everywhere in Judea and that the image of the vine had already been widely used in reference to Israel. “I am the true vine,” Jesus said. He then went on to teach about the nature of the church and its fruitfulness, which was to be the result, not of any human achievement, but of its spiritual union with himself. “In me … in me … in me!” That is the theme of this parable and of the great “I am” saying with which it is launched.
The True Vine
The first point of this parable is the “I am” saying itself, and the obvious emphasis is upon the word “true.” “I am the true vine,” says Jesus. This does not mean that he is true as opposed to that which is false but, rather, that he is the one, perfect, essential and enduring vine before which all other vines are but shadows. The word is used in precisely this sense elsewhere where Jesus is declared to be the “true light” (1:9), the “true bread” (6:32), and the “true tabernacle” (Heb. 8:2).
But there is an even more immediate reference, which almost certainly would not have escaped the disciples. The vine is the preeminent symbol of Israel. Thus, over and over again in the Old Testament Israel is portrayed as God’s choice vine or God’s vineyard. Isaiah had written, “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. … The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress” (Isa. 5:1–2, 7). In a similar vein, Jeremiah recorded, “I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?” (Jer. 2:21). Ezekiel 15 compares Israel to a vine also, as does Ezekiel 19, “Your mother was like a vine … : it was fruitful and full of branches” (v. 10). Hosea wrote, “Israel was a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself” (10:1). One of the best-known passages is from the Psalms: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches” (Ps. 80:8–10).
The vine was well known, then, as a symbol of Israel. Indeed, a bunch of grapes from the vine is a symbol seen in Israel even today. But the truly extraordinary thing about the use of this image in the Old Testament is that it is always brought forward as a symbol of Israel’s degeneration, rather than her fruitfulness. The point of Isaiah’s reference is that the vine has run wild, producing sour grapes. “What could have been done more to my vineyard, than I have not done in it?” God asks. Yet it brought forth “wild grapes” (v. 4). Jeremiah terms Israel a “degenerate” and “strange” vine. Hosea calls her “empty,” that is, run to leaves. The eightieth psalm is set in the context of a plea for God’s renewed favor after the vine has been burned and the hedges broken down.
So here is a vine planted by God to be fruitful but which is not fruitful. And here also, by contrast, is the Lord Jesus Christ who is the true vine. He came from dry ground, but still he grew up before the Lord as “a tender plant” (Isa. 53:2). He was despised of men, but he was perfect and beloved of the Father who, indeed, declared him to be his “beloved Son” in whom he was “well pleased” (Matt. 3:17; 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). Jesus is the One who, by his very nature as the true vine, brings forth fruit unto the Father.
There are two things that the Father is said to do in his care of the vine. First, he is said to “cut off” every branch that does not bear fruit. Generally this has been understood to be a purging away of dead branches in precisely the same sense that branches are said to be “thrown into the fire” and “burned” in verse 6, but I am convinced that most translators have missed the true meaning of the term “cut off” in this instance. Undoubtedly, their translation has been made to conform to what they know or believe is coming in verse 6, but the translation is not the best or even the most general meaning of the Greek word airo which lies behind it. The word airo has four basic meanings, which are, proceeding from the most fundamental to the most figurative: (1) to lift up or pick up, (2) to lift up figuratively, as in lifting up one’s eyes or voice, (3) to lift up with the added thought of lifting up in order to carry away, and (4) to remove. In translating this word by the verb “cut off” the majority of translators have obviously chosen the fourth of these meanings, for the reason suggested above. But the verse makes better sense and the sequence of verbs is better if the first and primary meaning of the word is taken. In that case the sentence would read, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he lifts up,” that is, to keep it from trailing on the ground.
This translation makes better sense of the passage in every way, and in addition it is much better theology. First, the emphasis of this opening section of the parable is, quite rightly, upon the care of the vine by the Father. It would be strange, granting this emphasis, if the first thing mentioned is the carrying away of unproductive branches. But it is not at all strange to emphasize that the gardener first lifts the branches up so that they may be better exposed to the sun and so the fruit will develop properly.
Second, this lifting up is precisely what is first done with vines, as any one who has watched them being cared for knows. Grapes are not like squash or pumpkins that develop quite well while lying on the ground. They must hang free. Consequently, any branch that trails on the ground is unproductive. It would be a strange gardener who immediately cuts off such a branch without even giving it a chance to develop properly. But it would be wise and customary for him to stretch the vine on an arbor or use some other means of raising it to the air and sun. This is, of course, precisely what vineyards look like, for the vines are always strung from pole to pole on wires.
Third, to translate the word airo by “lifts up” gives a proper sequence to the Father’s care of the vineyard, indicated by the verb that follows. Thus, he first of all lifts the vines up. Then he cuts off the unproductive elements, carefully cleansing the vine of insects, moss, or parasites that otherwise would hinder the growth of the plant. This last item would have been the ancient equivalent of using insecticides, as is done today.
For these reasons the translation “lifts up” should be preferred. And if this is the case, then the first thing the Father is said to do is to lift the Christian closer to himself. To translate that into spiritual terms, it means that the Father first creates a sense of true devotion in the Christian.
The second thing the Father is said to do in his care of the vine is to purge it or prune it. In Greek this word is katharizo, which means to cleanse, make clean, or purify. It has given us our English word catharsis. Normally this word would indicate the act of cleansing the vine of anything harmful to it—insects, moss, and so on. But since it is being used of a vine and its branches, it is hard to escape the feeling that pruning is probably also in view. At all events, here the Father is said to be doing a work of removal, removing everything that would prove detrimental to the most fruitful harvest.
In spiritual terms this obviously refers to God’s work in removing that which is spiritually detrimental from a given Christian’s life. It means to have our bad habits stripped away. It means to have our priorities reordered, our values changed. At times it may mean the removal of friends who are hindering rather than advancing our spiritual growth.
The order of these two activities of the Father are most important, because the reverse only produces hypocrisy. What happens when we go about lopping off so-called unspiritual practices without first being drawn closer to God in true devotion is that we imagine ourselves to be quite saintly, when actually we are not. We begin to look down on others who have not made the same denials. We consider them to be worldly and ourselves spiritual. Moreover, having eliminated these elements ourselves without first having our lives filled with Christ, we discover that we have a vacuum within and that it is easy for something else not at all Christian to fill it. We are like the man in Christ’s story who threw one demon out of his house but then suffered greater loss when that demon and seven of his friends returned to repossess him.
What should happen is that we first of all draw near to God and become productive. After that, as the harmful things begin to be cut away, we hardly feel their going. It is a case of maturing, similar to a girl’s giving up dolls. No one ever asks a girl to give up playing with dolls. When she is young she plays with them. But as she grows older she becomes interested in a young man, and after this the dolls are just “kid’s stuff.” The girl does not “give up” dolls. The dolls give her up, because she has grown into a higher sphere of experience. In the same way, as we grow close to the Lord Jesus Christ the dead wood and parasites fall away.
There is one more point connected with the matter of cleansing. It concerns the means by which we are cleansed—the Word of God. Unless we see that the Word must cleanse us, our ideas of purity are man-made and not of God’s origin at all. What is more, they are ineffective. David asked the question, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” He answered, “By living according to your word” (Ps. 119:9). Similarly, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). Nothing will keep sin from us but a careful attention to and application of God’s Word. Nothing else will cleanse us.
Remain in Me
The third point in Christ’s parable of the vine and the branches is the secret of fruitfulness, which is abiding in Christ. Here Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (vv. 4–5).
The key sentence in these two verses can mean one of three things. It can be a simple declarative, with the sense, “You must remain in me, and I must remain in you.” It can be a promise: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” Or it can be a command meaning, “ Remain in me and, thus, see to it that I for my part also remain in you.” Probably, as Leon Morris points out, it is the third of these that should be preferred. “Jesus means that the disciples should live such lives that He will continue to abide in them. The two ‘abidings’ cannot be separated, and ‘abiding’ is the necessary prerequisite of fruitfulness. No branch bears fruit in isolation. It must have vital connection with the vine. So to abide in Christ is the necessary prerequisite of fruitfulness for the Christian.”
I am not a horticulturist, but I am told by those who know such things that a vine needs to be cultivated at least three years before being allowed to produce fruit at all. That is, it must be trimmed and allowed to grow, then be trimmed and allowed to grow again, and so on for a considerable length of time. Only after this does it become useful for bearing fruit. Similarly, there are times in our lives when we seem to go on for considerable periods, undergoing rather radical treatment at the hands of the Father and seeing little fruit come from it. In such times we doubt if there will ever be fruit. But that is only because we cannot see as God sees. We do not have his perspective. Do not get discouraged if that has happened to you. Instead, remember that Jesus promises fruit in due time if we truly remain in him in a close way. We can give our witness, live the Christian life, and, in a sense, refuse to be concerned about the outcome; for, ultimately, God is the One responsible for the vineyard.
You Can Do Nothing
The last sentence of this section introduces a warning, lest in our budding enthusiasm for bearing fruit for God we forget that it cannot be done without him. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” says Jesus.
This statement may be applied in two ways. On the one hand, it may be applied to Christians; and if that is done, we have the following: (1) great work to be done, (2) the possibility of attempting to do it, but without Christ, and (3) the inevitable failure that must result from such effort. Spurgeon, who preached a marvelous sermon on just these words, observed, “Without Jesus you can talk any quantity; but without him you can do nothing. The most eloquent discourse without him will be all a bottle of smoke. You shall lay your plans, and arrange your machinery, and start your schemes; but without the Lord you will do nothing. Immeasurable cloudland of proposals and not a spot of solid doing large enough for a dove’s foot to rest on—such shall be the end of all!” It is good that it is so, for if it were not so, I am afraid that we would try to do it all without him. Nothing is what shall come of our efforts, if it is not Christ working.
On the other hand, there is also encouragement in this verse when we realize that it may be applied to those who are yet Christ’s enemies. “Without Christ we can do nothing.” That is humbling. But if that is true for those who are united to Christ by faith, in whom he nevertheless dwells, how much truer it is of those who are not at all united to him. They may try to do something against the gospel. They may try to destroy Christ’s work. But all their efforts will come to nothing, for only the hand of man (and not that of God) is in them.
I am the true vine … I am the vine (1a, 5a)
Spoken just hours before His death, this is the last of the seven “I AM” statements in John’s gospel, all of which affirm Christ’s deity (6:35; 8:12; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; cf. 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5–6). As God in human flesh, Jesus rightly pointed to Himself as the source of spiritual life, vitality, growth, and productivity.
The imagery is ancient, as the Old Testament portrays Israel as God’s vine. In Psalm 80:8 the psalmist wrote, “You removed a vine from Egypt; You drove out the nations and planted it.” Through the prophet Jeremiah, God said to Israel, “I planted you a choice vine, a completely faithful seed” (Jer. 2:21). Israel was the channel through which God’s covenant blessings flowed to the world.
But Israel proved to be a fruitless, unfaithful vine. The Old Testament laments Israel’s failure to produce good fruit and warns of God’s impending judgment. In Jeremiah 2:21 God demanded of the nation, “How then have you turned yourself before Me into the degenerate shoots of a foreign vine?” In Hosea He lamented, “Israel is a luxuriant vine; he produces fruit for himself. The more his fruit, the more altars he made; the richer his land, the better he made the sacred pillars” (Hos. 10:1; cf. Isa. 27:2–6; Jer. 12:10–13; Ezek. 15:1–8; 19:10–14).
Nowhere in the Old Testament is Israel’s faithless rejection of God’s gracious, tender care more poignantly depicted than in Isaiah 5:1–7:
Let me sing now for my well-beloved a song of my beloved concerning His vineyard. My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. He dug it all around, removed its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. And He built a tower in the middle of it and also hewed out a wine vat in it; then He expected it to produce good grapes, but it produced only worthless ones. “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between Me and My vineyard. What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones? So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard: I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed; I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground. I will lay it waste; it will not be pruned or hoed, but briars and thorns will come up. I will also charge the clouds to rain no rain on it.” For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah His delightful plant. Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.
In Matthew 21:33–43 Jesus told a similar parable, illustrating Israel’s rejection of God’s messengers, which would culminate in their murder of Him:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ They took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief cornerstone; this came about from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing the fruit of it.”
Israel’s apostasy made it an empty vine, and for a long time disqualified as the channel for God’s blessings. Those blessings now come only from union with Jesus Christ, the true vine. “Theologically, John’s point is that Jesus displaces Israel as the focus of God’s plan of salvation, with the implication that faith in Jesus becomes the decisive characteristic for membership among God’s people” (Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004], 448).
Alēthinos (true) refers to what is real as distinct from a type (cf. Heb. 8:2; 9:24), perfect as distinct from the imperfect, or genuine rather than what is counterfeit (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9; 1 John 5:20; Rev. 3:7, 14; 6:10; 19:11). Jesus is the true vine in the same sense that He is the true light (John 1:9), the final and complete revelation of spiritual truth, and the true bread out of heaven (John 6:32), the final and only source of spiritual sustenance.
My Father is the vinedresser. (1b)
That Jesus designates the Father as the vinedresser while assigning Himself the role of the vine is in no way a denial of His deity and full equality with the Father. During His incarnation, without diminishing His deity one iota, Jesus willingly assumed a subordinate role to the Father (see the discussion of 14:28 in chapter 12 of this volume). Moreover, the point of the analogy is not to define the relationship of the Father to the Son, but to emphasize the Father’s care for the vine and the branches.
Geōrgos (vinedresser) refers to one who tills the soil; hence a farmer (2 Tim. 2:6; James 5:7), or a vine-grower (Matt. 21:33, 34, 35, 38, 40, 41; Mark 12:1, 2, 7, 9). It is in the latter sense that Jesus used it here. Apart from planting, fertilizing, and watering the vine, the vinedresser had two primary responsibilities in caring for it. First, he removed the branches that did not bear fruit. Second, he pruned the ones that did bear fruit, thus enabling them to bear more fruit. It is with those two types of branches that the rest of Christ’s analogy is primarily concerned.
The Vine Branches
Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” (15:2–11)
As noted above, the two types of branches represent the two types of disciples outwardly professing attachment to Jesus: the genuine branches that abide in Him, and the false branches that do not.
the blessings of abiding branches
every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.… If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” (15:2b–5, 7–11)
Three distinguishing marks of the true branches stand out in this analogy. First, they bear fruit (vv. 2, 4, 5, 8). That characteristic most clearly sets them apart from the false branches (cf. vv. 2, 8). Second, they also abide (remain; continue) in Christ’s love (v. 9). Finally, they operate in full cooperation with the source of life, keeping His commandments by following the perfect example of the Lord Jesus Christ, who always obeyed the Father (v. 10). As Jesus had earlier told those who professed faith in Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31). Obedience proves that a person’s love for Christ is genuine (John 14:15, 21, 23), a point John makes clear in his first epistle: believers confess their sins (1:9), unbelievers deny them (1:8, 10); believers obey God’s commandments (2:3), unbelievers do not (2:4); believers demonstrate love for others (2:10), unbelievers do not (2:9, 11); believers live in patterns of righteous (3:6), unbelievers do not (3:9).
But that does not mean that those who love Christ will always obey perfectly; there are times when we lapse into disobedience and fail to abide fully in Christ. Paul admonished the Corinthians,
I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? (1 Cor. 3:1–3)
Jesus rebuked the Ephesian church for its diminished devotion to Him: “I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4). John, after making the absolute statement “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin,” immediately added “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2). Therefore the Lord’s exhortation to abide in Him is appropriate not only for unbelievers, but also to remind and warn believers who are not abiding in Him in the fullest sense.
Because He wants them to be spiritually productive, the Father takes every branch that bears fruit and prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. Pruning
was … an essential part of first-century viticultural practice, as it is today. The first pruning occurred in spring when vines were in flowering stage. This involved four operations: (1) the removal of the growing tips of vigorous shoots so that they would not grow too rapidly; (2) cutting off one or two feet from the end of growing shoots to prevent entire shoots being snapped off by the wind; (3) the removal of some flower or grape clusters so that those left could produce more and better-quality fruit; and (4) the removal of suckers that arose from below the ground or from the trunk and main branches so that the strength of the vine was not tapped by the suckers. (Colin Kruse, The Gospel According to John, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003], 315)
The Father prunes the true branches by removing anything that would sap their spiritual energy and hinder them from fruitful results. His pruning involves cutting away anything that limits righteousness, including the discipline that comes from trials, suffering, and persecution. The knowledge that the Father uses the pain that Christians endure for their ultimate good should eliminate all fear, self-pity, and complaining. The classic text in Hebrews reminds those undergoing God’s painful, pruning chastening,
It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Heb. 12:7–11; cf. 1 Cor. 11:32)
In the Father’s infinite wisdom and absolute, sovereign control of all of life’s circumstances, He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28; cf. 5:3–5; Gen. 50:20; Deut. 8:16; 2 Cor. 4:16–18; James 1:2–4).
But suffering is merely the handle of the Father’s knife; the blade is the Word of God. You are already clean, Jesus told the eleven true disciples, because of the word which I have spoken to you. Because they had embraced the gospel through Christ’s teaching, the eleven had been regenerated by the Holy Spirit (cf. John 3:3–8; Titus 3:4–7). That same gospel is found today in the Scriptures, the “word of Christ” (Col. 3:16). The Word is instrumental in believers’ initial cleansing at salvation (cf. Rom. 1:16), and it also continually purges, prunes, and cleanses them.
God uses His Word as the pruning knife, because it “is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), but He uses affliction to prepare His people for the Word’s pruning. The psalmist affirmed the connection between affliction and the Word’s work in his life when he wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word.… It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Ps. 119:67, 71). Psalm 94:12 also makes that connection: “Blessed is the man whom You chasten, O Lord, and whom You teach out of Your law.”
The Lord’s words emphasize two important truths regarding spiritual conduct: Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. First, since all true believers, those who abide in Christ and He in them, will bear spiritual fruit, there is no such thing as a fruitless Christian. John the Baptist challenged his hearers to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8), and warned that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 10). Contrasting true and false teachers, Jesus said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:17–20). In Luke 6:43 He added, “There is no good tree which produces bad fruit, nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit.”
Second, believers cannot bear fruit on their own, because as He plainly stated, As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing (cf. Hos. 14:8). There may be times when believers have lapses, when they fail to be faithful to their life in Christ. But true branches, through whom the life of the vine flows, cannot ultimately fail to produce fruit (cf. Pss. 1:1–3; 92:12–14; Prov. 11:30; 12:12; Jer. 17:7–8; Matt. 13:23; Rom. 7:4; Gal. 5:22–23; Eph. 5:9; Phil 1:11; Col. 1:10; James 3:17).
A popular misconception equates fruit with outward success. By that common standard, external religion, superficial righteousness, having a large church, a popular ministry, or a successful program are considered fruitful. But the Bible nowhere equates fruit with superficial, external behavior or results, which deceivers and hypocrites, as well as non-Christian cults and religions can duplicate. Instead, Scripture defines fruit in terms of spiritual qualities. “The fruit of the Spirit,” Paul reminded the Galatians, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). Those Christlike traits mark those through whom His life flows.
Praise offered to God is also fruit. The writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers, “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Heb. 13:15; cf. Isa. 57:19; Hos. 14:2).
The Bible also identifies sacrificial love in meeting the needs of others as fruit. Referring to the monetary gift he was collecting for the needy believers at Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Romans, “Therefore, when I have finished this, and have put my seal on this fruit of theirs, I will go on by way of you to Spain” (Rom. 15:28). Acknowledging the Philippians’ financial support of his ministry, Paul told them, “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account” (Phil. 4:17 nkjv). Supporting others who are in need is a tangible expression of love, which is one of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).
Fruit may also be defined as holy, righteous, God-honoring behavior in general. Such conduct is “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8); the fruit produced by the good soil (Matt. 13:23) of a transformed life; the “fruit of the Light [that] consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth” (Eph. 5:9); the “fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:11); the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:11). Paul prayed that the Colossians would be continually “bearing fruit in every good work” (Col. 1:10), because Christians were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
Finally, the Bible defines fruit as converts to the gospel—not the artificial fruit of superficial “believers,” but genuine disciples who abide in the true vine. Referring to the Samaritans who were coming out to Him from the village of Sychar, many of whom would believe savingly in Him (John 4:39, 41), Jesus said, “Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together” (v. 36). He declared of His sacrificial death, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Paul expressed his desire to the Christians in Rome to win converts in the imperial capital: “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles” (Rom. 1:13). At the close of his letter, Paul greeted “Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ” (16:5 nkjv). In 1 Corinthians 16:15 the apostle referred to “the household of Stephanas,” as “the first fruits of Achaia,” while in Colossians 1:6 he rejoiced that “in all the world also it [the gospel; v. 5] is constantly bearing fruit and increasing.” John wrote of the 144,000 evangelists, who will be redeemed during the tribulation, “These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4).
Another blessing comes in Jesus’ promise If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. That sweeping, all-encompassing promise presupposes that three conditions are met. First, the prayer Jesus promises to answer must be offered in His name; that is, consistent with His person and will, and so that He might display His glory in answering it (cf. the exposition of 14:13–14 in chapter 9 of this volume).
Second, the promise is only to those who abide in (have a permanent union with) Jesus Christ. God does not obligate Himself to answer the prayers of unbelievers, though He may choose to do so if it suits His sovereign purposes.
The final condition is that Christ’s words abide in the person making the request. Words translates the plural form of the noun rhēma, and refers to the individual utterances of Christ. The promise of answered prayer comes only to those whose lives are controlled by the specific commands of God’s Word (cf. Ps. 37:4). On the other hand, both Psalm 66:18 and James 4:3 warn that those controlled by sinful, selfish desires will not have their prayers answered.
The true branches also have the privilege of living lives that glorify God. My Father is glorified by this, Jesus told the disciples, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. The greatest theme in the universe is the glory of God, and to live a life that brings God glory is the believer’s highest privilege and duty. Only those who are in union with Christ can glorify God. Paul wrote, “I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me” (Rom. 15:18; cf. 1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:29).
Jesus further promised that those who abide in Him will experience His love. Just as the Father has loved Me, He said, I have also loved you; abide in My love. The way to do that is to keep His commandments, just as He kept His Father’s commandments and abides in His love. Righteous obedience is the key to experiencing God’s blessing.
The crowning blessing, to which all the rest contribute, is full and complete joy. The Lord promised to impart to believers His joy—the joy that He shares in intimate fellowship with the Father. These things I have spoken to you, Jesus said to the eleven, so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. The Lord promised that His own joy will permeate and control the lives of those who walk in communion with Him. Just a short time later, Jesus reiterated this promise in His High Priestly Prayer to the Father: “But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves” (John 17:13). Such joy comes only to the obedient, as David learned to his sorrow. After his terrible sin with Bathsheba, he cried out, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation” (Ps. 51:12). But the obedient receive “joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
the burning of non-abiding branches
Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; … If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. (2a, 6)
A very different fate awaits the branches that do not bear fruit. Because they are detrimental to the health of the vine, the vinedresser would cut off the dry, lifeless, withered branches. In the Lord’s analogy, the vinedresser (the Father) takes the unregenerate false branches away from their superficial attachment to the vine, and they are thrown away.
The reference here is not, as some imagine, to true Christians losing their salvation, nor are these fruitless but genuine Christians (an impossibility, as we have seen). That these branches bear no fruit marks them as unbelieving, false disciples since, as noted previously, all true Christians bear fruit. Further, Jesus promised that He will not cast out any true disciples: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).
The phrase in Me in this case cannot have the Pauline connotation of believers’ union with Christ; it merely describes those who outwardly attach themselves to Him (cf. Matt. 13:20–22; Rom. 9:6–8; 11:16–24; 1 John 2:19). Such people will always be present with the true church. The New Testament describes them as tares among the wheat (Matt. 13:25–30); bad fish that are thrown away (Matt. 13:48); goats condemned to eternal punishment (Matt. 25:33, 41); those left standing outside when the head of the house shuts the door (Luke 13:25–27); foolish virgins shut out of the wedding feast (Matt. 25:1–12); useless slaves who bury their master’s talent in the ground (Matt. 25:24–30); apostates who eventually leave the fellowship of believers (1 John 2:19), manifest an evil, unbelieving heart by abandoning the living God (Heb. 3:12), continue to sin willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth (Heb. 10:26), and fall away from the truth to everlasting destruction (Heb. 10:39). Although they imagine that they are on their way to heaven, they are actually on the broad path leading to hell (Matt. 7:13–14).
Right in their presence was the quintessential example of a false branch—Judas Iscariot. Outwardly, he was indistinguishable from the other eleven apostles—so much so that when Jesus announced earlier that night, “Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me” (John 13:21), the other “disciples began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking” (v. 22). They finally had to ask Him to point out His betrayer (vv. 23–26). But Judas had never been saved. In John 6:70–71 Jesus said to the apostles, “ ‘Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?’ Now He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him.”
The ultimate fate that awaits the false branches is to be cast … into the fire and … burned. In Matthew 13:49–50 Jesus warned that “at the end of the age the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (cf. Matt. 3:10–12; 7:19; 25:41; Mark 9:43–48; Luke 3:17). Their anguished protest, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” (Matt. 7:22) will evoke the chilling reply from the Lord, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (v. 23).
The choice that faces every person is clear. To abide in Christ as a genuine disciple will produce righteous behavior and result in eternal joy and blessing. But those whose profession of faith is false, like Judas, will be fruitless and ultimately cast into eternal torment in hell. The Lord’s sobering pronouncement concerning Judas, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24), applies to all pseudodisciples. In the words of Peter,
If, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them (2 Peter 2:20–21).
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1550). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Vol. 2, p. 300). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1159–1164). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 143–153). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
The twelve apostles included “Simon the Zealot” (Matt. 10:4).
Even people of vastly different backgrounds can minister together for Christ.
During the time between the Old and New Testaments, a fiery revolutionary named Judas Maccabaeus led the Jewish people in a revolt against Greek influences on their nation and religion. The spirit of that movement was captured in this statement from the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees: “Be ye zealous for the law and give your lives for the covenant” (1 Maccabees 2:50). That group of politically-oriented, self-appointed guardians of Judaism later became known as the Zealots.
During the New Testament period, Zealots conducted terrorist activities against Rome to free Israel from Roman oppression, prompting Rome to destroy Jerusalem in a.d. 70 and to slaughter people in 985 Galilean towns.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, the few remaining Zealots banded together under the leadership of a man named Eleazar. Their headquarters was at a retreat called Masada. When the Romans laid siege to Masada and the Zealots knew defeat was imminent, they chose to kill their own families and to commit suicide themselves rather than face death at the hands of the Romans. It was a tragedy of monumental proportions, but such was the depth of their fiery zeal for Judaism and their hatred for their political enemies.
Before coming to Christ, Simon was a Zealot. Even as a believer, he must have retained much of his zeal, redirecting it in a godly direction. We can only imagine the passion with which he approached the ministry, having finally found a leader and cause transcending Judaism and political activism.
It’s amazing to realize that Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax-gatherer ministered together. Under normal circumstances Simon would have killed a traitor like Matthew. But Christ broke through their differences, taught them to love each other, and used them for His glory.
Perhaps you know believers who come from totally different backgrounds than yours. Do you have trouble getting along with any of them? If so, why? How can you begin to mend your differences? Be encouraged by the transformation Christ worked in Simon and Matthew, and follow their example.
Suggestions for Prayer: Pray for a spirit of unity in your church.
For Further Study: According to Romans 12:9–21, what attitudes should you have toward others?
Simon the Zealot
The third name in the third group is Simon the Zealot. The King James version’s “Simon the Canaanite” is based on an unfortunate transliteration of kananaios, which was derived from the Hebrew qanna, meaning “jealous” or “zealous.” It is the equivalent of the Greek zēlōtēs (“zealot”), a description Luke uses of this Simon (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).
Zealot may have signified his membership in the radical party of Zealots whose members were determined to throw off the yoke of Rome by force. The Zealots developed during the Maccabean period, when the Jews, under Judas Maccabaeus, revolted against their Greek conquerors. During the time of Christ, another Judas (a common Jewish name of that period) was the outstanding Zealot leader.
The Zealots were one of four dominant religious parties in Judah (along with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes) but were for the most part motivated more by politics than religion. They were primarily guerrilla fighters who made surprise attacks on Roman posts and patrols and then escaped to the hills or mountains. Sometimes they resorted to terrorism, and the Jewish historian Josephus called them sicarii (Latin, “daggermen”) because of their frequent assassinations. The heroic defenders of the great Herodian fortress at Masada were Jewish Zealots led by Eleazar. When that brave group fell to Flavius Silva in a.d. 72 after a seven-month siege, the Zealots disappeared from history.
If Simon was that sort of Zealot, he was a man of intense dedication and perhaps violent passion. His always being listed next to Judas Iscariot may suggest that those men were somewhat two of a kind, whose primary concern about the Messiah was earthly and material rather than spiritual. But whatever motivations they may originally have had in common soon vanished, as Judas became more confirmed in his rejection of Jesus and Simon more confirmed in his devotion to Him.
Apparently throughout their ministries, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot remained unknown even to most of the church. But they joined the ranks of the unnamed Old Testament saints who “experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these … gained approval through their faith” (Heb. 11:36–39).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Drawing Near—Daily Readings for a Deeper Faith (p. 160). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 10:3). Chicago: Moody Press.
Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both LORD and Christ.
When you give yourself to prayerful study of the opening chapters of the book of Acts, you will discover a truth that is often overlooked—the thought that wherever Jesus is glorified, the Holy Spirit comes!
Contrary to what most people unintentionally assume, the important thing was that Jesus had been exalted. The emphasis upon the coming of the Spirit was possible because Christ’s work was accomplished and He was glorified at the Father’s right hand.
Jesus Himself had said on that last great day of the feast in Jerusalem, recorded in John 7: “He that believeth on me, as the scriptures hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because Jesus was not yet glorified.)”
It is plain that the glorification of Jesus brought the Holy Spirit, and we ought to be able to get hold of that thought instantly. So, we repeat: Where Jesus is glorified, the Holy Spirit comes. He does not have to be begged. When Christ the Saviour is truly honored and exalted, the Spirit comes!
On the day of Pentecost, when the scoffers and scorners said “These men are full of new wine,” Peter stood and exalted Jesus of Nazareth and reminded Israel “that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye crucified, both Lord and Christ.” When Christ is truly honored, the Spirit comes!
2:36 Now, once again, the announcement comes crashing down upon the Jewish people. GOD HAS MADE BOTH LORD AND CHRIST—THIS JESUS WHOM YOU CRUCIFIED (Gk. word order). As Bengel said, “The sting of the speech is put at the end”—THIS JESUS, whom you crucified. They had crucified God’s Anointed One, and the coming of the Holy Spirit was evidence that Jesus had been exalted in heaven (see John 7:39).
36. “Therefore let all the house of Israel assuredly know that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
Here is the conclusion of Peter’s sermon. Peter utters an admonition that he directs to every member who belongs to the house of Israel and tells him that Jesus is both Lord and Christ.
Observe these points:
- All Israel. In this conclusion, Peter appeals to all the people who claim to be Israelites. He does so because the nation Israel considered itself the people of God. Repeatedly God had told the descendants of Abraham, “I will be [your] God, and [you] will be my people” (Jer. 31:33). Also, when Jesus sent the disciples on their first missionary journey, he instructed them not to go to the Gentiles: “Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6). Christ addresses his gospel first to the Jews, then to the Samaritans (Acts 8:4–25), and last to the Gentiles (Acts 10:24–48). On the day of Pentecost the Jewish audience must have full assurance of the truth of the gospel.
- God. What is the content of this truth? Peter says, “God made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Throughout his sermon, Peter makes God the principal speaker and doer (vv. 17, 22–24, 30, 32, 36). At the conclusion, he shifts attention to the deity of Jesus Christ, whom he places on the same level as God. He does this with full awareness of the monotheistic creed of the Jewish people: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4, NIV). Peter teaches the deity of Jesus Christ and thus places Jesus next to God. He notes that although the Jewish people crucified Jesus (v. 23), God has made Jesus Lord and Christ. When Peter states that God made Jesus Lord and Christ, he does not convey the interpretation that God exalted Jesus after his death on the cross. To the contrary, the New Testament alludes to Jesus’ exaltation even before he suffered on Calvary’s cross. Of course, the titles Lord and Christ are used after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, when the apostles become conscious of the meaning of these redemptive events.
- Lord and Christ. Here is the point. During his earthly ministry, Jesus never referred to himself as the Christ. Only at his trial did Jesus affirmatively answer the high priest’s question concerning his messiahship (Mark 14:61–62). Yet in the first recorded sermon of one of Jesus’ apostles, Peter calls Jesus Lord and Christ. Whereas in the Old Testament Scriptures the term Lord denotes God, in the New Testament writings Jesus’ followers call Jesus both Lord and Christ. Did the early Christian community originate these terms and ascribe them to Jesus? Hardly. Notice that the angel who proclaims Jesus’ birth tells the shepherds in Bethlehem’s field that “[Jesus] is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The words of Peter clearly state that God, not the Christian church, made Jesus both Lord and Christ. That is, in consequence of Jesus’ death and resurrection, God declares that Jesus is indeed the Christ, who is the sovereign Lord (compare Rom. 1:4).
Doctrinal Considerations in 2:36
In this verse, the two titles Lord and Christ are significant. The verse indicates that God himself gave these titles to Jesus. The title Lord, then, belongs to Jesus instead of God the Father, for the writers of the New Testament declare that every knee must bow before him and every tongue confess that he is King of kings and Lord of lords (see Phil. 2:9–11; Rev. 17:14; 19:16). Also, before ascending to heaven, Jesus revealed his royal status when he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18).
In his sermon, Peter speaks about Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Jews had crucified. He mentions historical events that are well known to his audience and thus he links the names Jesus and Christ (v. 31). Peter writes emphatically “this Jesus” (vv. 32, 36), who is exalted to the position of highest honor. Jesus is seated next to God the Father (v. 33), for he is the Christ, the Son of God.
36 With the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, Peter reaches the climax and conclusion of his sermon. His initial “therefore” highlights the fact that God’s resurrection and exaltation of Jesus accredits him as humanity’s Lord and Israel’s Messiah. So Peter calls on “all Israel” (lit., “all the house [oikos, GK 3875] of Israel”) to know with certainty that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
In certain quarters it has become commonplace to assert that the church did not proclaim Jesus as Lord and Christ until after the resurrection—or, as many prefer to express it, until after the rise within the church of “the Easter faith.” The implication is that only later were such names as “Lord” and “Christ” attached to Jesus’ memory, but Jesus himself did not think along these lines. And this verse is often cited in support of such a view. But it is more in line with the evidence to say that Jesus was acknowledged and proclaimed Lord and Christ not just after his resurrection but also because of his resurrection.
In Jewish thought, no one had the right to the title Messiah until he accomplished the work of the Messiah—in fact, in all of life, accomplishment must precede acclamation. During his earthly ministry, as portrayed in all the Gospels, Jesus was distinctly reluctant to accept such titular acclaim. This was probably because (1) his understanding of messiahship had to do with suffering, and (2) his concept of lordship had to do with vindication and exaltation by God. But now that Jesus had accomplished his messianic mission, was raised by God, and has been exalted “at his right hand,” the titles Lord and Christ are legitimately his. And these themes of function and accomplishment as being the basis for any titular acclaim are recurring features in the christological statements found elsewhere in the NT (cf. Ro 1:4; Php 2:9–11; Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 5:6).
The verb epoiēsen (GK 4472, “he made”) has sometimes been taken as implying an adoptionist Christology, as though Jesus became ontologically what he was not before. But in functional contexts epoiēsen has the sense of “appointed” (cf. 1 Sa 12:6 [LXX]; 1 Ki 12:31 [LXX]; Mk 3:14; Heb 3:2), and it is in just such a context that it is used here. Peter is not proclaiming an adoptionist Christology. Rather, he is proclaiming a functional Christology with ontological overtones. It is a functional Christology that emphasizes two vitally important points: (1) that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is God’s open declaration that the messianic work has been accomplished and that Jesus now has the full right to assume the messianic title, and (2) that the exaltation of Jesus is the proclamation of his lordship, which God calls all to acknowledge.
In the twelve instances in Acts where “Christ” appears singly (2:31, 36; 3:18; 4:26; 8:5; 9:22; 17:3a; 26:23; also 3:20; 5:42; 18:5, 28, where “Christ” is in apposition to “Jesus” but still appears singly), it is used as a title (usually articular in form, except here and at 3:20) but not as a name. And in every instance where it appears as a title, it is in an address to a Jewish audience. (Only 8:5 and 26:23 are possible exceptions, though both the Samaritans and Agrippa II possessed something of a Jewish background and understanding.) Even where the combination “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus” appears, the original appellative idea is still reflected in the usage. Apparently, therefore, the messiahship of Jesus was the distinctive feature of the church’s witness within Jewish circles, since Jesus’ messiahship signifies his fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and his culmination of God’s redemptive purposes.
The title “Lord” was also proclaimed christologically in Jewish circles, with evident intent to apply to Jesus all that was said of God in the OT (cf. the christological use of Isa 45:23 in Php 2:10). But “Lord” came to have particular relevance to the church’s witness to Gentiles, just as “Messiah” was more relevant to the Jewish world. So Luke in Acts reports the proclamation of Jesus “the Christ” to Jewish audiences, both in Palestine and among the Diaspora, whereas Paul in his letters to Gentile churches generally uses “Christ” as a proper name and proclaims Christ Jesus “the Lord.”
 Tozer, A. W., & Smith, G. B. (2015). Evenings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1586). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 17, pp. 101–103). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Longenecker, R. N. (2007). Acts. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, pp. 746–747). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility.
1 Peter 5:5
I have met two classes of Christians: the proud who imagine they are humble, and the humble who are afraid they are proud!
There should be another class: the self-forgetful men and women who leave the whole thing in the hands of Christ and refuse to waste any time trying to make themselves good. They will reach the goal far ahead of the rest.
The truly humble person does not expect to find virtue in himself, and when he finds none he is not disappointed. He knows that any good deed he may do is the result of God’s working within him.
When this belief becomes so much a part of any man or woman that it operates as a kind of unconscious reflex, he or she is released from the burden of trying to live up to the opinion they hold of themselves. They can relax and count upon the Holy Spirit to fulfill the moral law within them.
Let us never forget that the promises of God are made to the humble: The proud man by his pride forfeits every blessing promised to the lowly heart, and from the hand of God he need expect only justice!
Lord, it is very difficult to “put on humility” in a culture that idolizes self-promotion and individuality. I invite You to do a work in me, Lord, molding my life to be a useful instrument in Your hands.
5:5 Those who are younger, whether in years or in the faith, should be submissive to the elders. Why? Because these overseers have wisdom that comes from years of experience in the things of God. They have a deep, experiential knowledge of the word of God. And they are the ones to whom God has given responsibility for the care of His sheep.
All believers should be clothed with humility; it is a great virtue. Moffatt says, “Put on the apron of humility.” Very appropriate—since the apron is the badge of a servant. A missionary to India once said, “If I were to pick out two phrases necessary for spiritual growth, I would pick out these: ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I am sorry.’ And both phrases are the evidences of deep humility.” Imagine a congregation where all the member have this humble spirit; where they esteem others better than themselves; where they outdo each other in performing the menial tasks. Such a church need not be imaginary; it could and should be an actuality.
If there were no other reason for being humble, this would be enough: God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (Peter is quoting from the Greek version of Prov. 3:34.) Think of it—the mighty God opposed to our pride and determined to break it, contrasted with the mighty God powerless to resist a broken and contrite heart!
Once again Peter issues a set of instructions and exhortations (compare 2:13, 18; 3:1, 7, 8). In verse 1 he addresses the elders, in verse 5 the younger men, and in verses 6–9 all the readers. In concluding his epistle, the apostle first instructs the elders and then the next generation.
- Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.”
Observe these points:
- Subjection. Peter turns to the young men and writes the phrase in the same way. In Peter’s epistle this phrase may indicate nothing more than that the writer makes a transition in his discussion (see 3:1 with its explanation). The phrase, then, is more or less equivalent to the connective adverb also.
Accordingly, Peter first instructs the elders to demonstrate willingness to serve and to be examples to the believers. Next, he tells the young men to be submissive to those who are older. Is Peter discussing first the office of elder and then an office filled specifically by younger men? Although Scripture introduces the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9), it mentions no office for younger men. True, in the early church the younger men performed duties in burial services (Acts 5:6, 10); and Paul instructs Timothy to “treat younger men as brothers” (1 Tim. 5:1) and Titus to encourage them to be self-controlled (Titus 2:6). But the New Testament provides no evidence that these young men were serving in any official capacity. Therefore, in view of this lack of evidence we cannot prove that Peter thinks of these young men as deacons.
When we consider this verse, we see the clear lines of subordination. The cultural background is evident. The first-century Jewish writer Philo observes that the sect called the Essenes separated the older men from the younger. On the sabbath in their synagogues, “arranged in rows according to their ages, the younger below the elder, they sit decorously as befits the occasion.…”
Does the Greek word for “elders” (“those who are older” [v. 5]) refer to function (see v. 1) or to age? Because Peter mentions no specific office for the younger men in verse 5, we infer that he thinks of age and function. The one interpretation does not rule out the other. A word can convey two meanings when a writer provides indications to that effect. For example, Paul confirms such a shift in meaning for the word presbyteros in 1 Timothy 5:1 (“older man”) and in 1 Timothy 5:17 (“elders”).
Peter teaches that in the church the elders are called to positions of leadership; he exhorts the junior men to be submissive to them. And he urges these young men to show respect and deference to those who are more advanced in age. By implication, they learn obedience and humility from their elders and at the same time are trained to assume leadership roles in church and community.
- Humility. For both the older and the younger generation, humility ought to be the hallmark of Christian living. Peter writes, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” Is the word all restrictive or comprehensive? In the restrictive sense it applies to the younger men, so that verse 5a and 5b form one unit. But this combination leaves the rest of the sentence grammatically unrelated to the preceding. Most translators, therefore, have opted for the comprehensive meaning of all. They have combined verse 5b and 5c, so that 5a forms a separate sentence.
“Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” The Greek gives an interesting description of the act of putting on humility. The word clothe means to tie a piece of clothing to oneself. For example, slaves used to knot a white scarf or apron over their clothing to distinguish themselves from freemen. The suggestion is that Christians ought to tie humility to their conduct so that everyone is able to recognize them. Peter exhorts the readers to fasten humility to themselves once for all. In other words, it stays with them for the rest of their lives.
What is humility? Jesus invites his followers to learn humility from him. He invites all those who are weary and burdened to come to him and learn. For, he says, “I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:29). Humility comes to expression when we consider others better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). Humility is one of the Christian virtues, next to compassion, kindness, gentleness, and patience (Col. 3:12). Scripture also warns against false humility, which has the appearance of wisdom and demonstrates its worthlessness in a show of “self-imposed worship” (Col. 2:18, 23). And last, Peter instructs his readers how to live as Christians by telling them, among other things, to “be compassionate and humble” (3:8).
- Authority. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Peter supports his exhortation with an appeal to Scripture. He quotes Proverbs 3:34, which in the Hebrew differs slightly from the Greek in wording but not in meaning: “[God] mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble.” Perhaps this passage circulated in synagogue and church as a proverbial saying, because James also quotes this verse (4:6).
The believer ought to know that God has provided for him everything he needs. “He possesses nothing he has not received, is nothing but for the grace of God, and, apart from Christ can do nothing.” Should he attribute anything to himself, he would not only rob God but also meet him as his adversary. Hence, the Christian lives humbly with his God (Mic. 6:8).
You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; (5:5a)
As he did earlier in the letter (3:1, 7), Peter uses homoiōs (likewise) as a transition word. In the prior verses, the nasb renders the word “in the same way.” In all three usages, the word marks a change of focus from one group to another. In 5:1–4 Peter addressed church leaders; now he turned to the congregation. As shepherds submit to the Chief Shepherd, so the flock submits to their shepherds.
The foundational attitude in the life of the saint must be submission, a relatively familiar theme already in this epistle. In 2:13–20 and 3:1–7 Peter commanded believers to be submissive to employers, civil authorities, and within marriage. No less is required of those under the leadership of the divinely instituted office of pastor in the most important entity on earth—Christ’s own church.
Although no one is exempt from Peter’s exhortation that everyone is to be submissive to their elders, he targets specifically the younger men. Though it is not stated in the context why he singled them out, probably he did so because it is so obvious that they generally tend to be the most aggressive and headstrong members of any group. There is no reason to view them as some recognized faction or fixed association in the church. The matter of submission would not likely have been as much of an issue for the women or older people in the church; they were more experienced and more spiritually mature (cf. Ps. 119:100; Prov. 16:31; 20:29).
In calling the young to be subject to those over them in the Lord, Peter again used the military term hupotassō, “to line up under.” He calls everyone in the church to put aside self-promoting pride and willingly and respectfully place themselves under the leadership of their shepherds (cf. 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7). Clearly, given the previous context (vv. 1–4), elders refers to the spiritual leaders, the shepherds and pastors, not merely to older saints. That the entire church has the obligation to submit to those God has placed in authority over it, is a theme in Paul’s letters:
Now I urge you, brethren (you know the household of Stephanas, that they were the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints), that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors. (1 Cor. 16:15–16)
But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. (1 Thess. 5:12–13)
As seen in the broader context, Christians are to be submissive to all in authority, but especially in the church. The process of spiritual growth flourishes among those who have an attitude of submission. An unsubmissive flock, on the other hand, makes the shepherds’ ministry difficult and forfeits a critical feature in sanctification: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17).
and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, (5:5b–6)
Inseparably linked to and underlying a submissive attitude is a mind given to humility (cf. Ps. 25:9; Dan 10:12; Mic. 6:8; Matt. 5:3–5; Eph. 4:1–2; James 4:10). Because always the truly humble—and only the humble—submit, both of Peter’s commands encompass all believers.
Clothe (egkomboomai) literally means “to tie something on oneself,” such as a work apron worn by servants. Here it describes figuratively covering oneself with an attitude of humility as one submits to authorities over him. The word for humility here is tapeinophrosunēn, “lowliness of mind,” or “self-abasement.” It describes the attitude of one who willingly serves, even in the lowliest of tasks (cf. 1 Cor. 4:1–5; 2 Cor. 4:7; Phil. 2:5–7). Perhaps even more so than today, humility was not an admired trait in the first-century pagan world. People saw it as a characteristic of weakness and cowardice, to be tolerated only in the involuntary submission of slaves.
As Peter wrote this verse, he likely recalled Jesus’ tying a towel on Himself and washing the disciples’ feet, including his own, as recorded in John 13:3–11 and applied by Jesus in verses 12–17, as follows:
So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (cf. Ps. 131:1–2; Matt. 25:37–40; Luke 22:24–27; Rom. 12:3, 10, 16; Phil. 2:3–11)
To reinforce his exhortation for humility, Peter quoted from Proverbs 3:34, God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble (cf. James 4:6). Peter’s quote differs slightly from the Septuagint by substituting God for the Septuagint’s “Lord,” but the names are obviously synonymous. Without question, that the Lord is opposed to the proud (cf. Prov. 6:16–17a; 8:13) is the greatest motivation for saints to adopt the attitude of humility. Pride sets one against God and vice versa. On the other hand, God blesses and gives grace to the humble (cf. Job 22:29; Ps. 37:11; Prov. 22:4; 29:23; Matt. 11:29; Luke 10:21; 18:13–14; 1 Cor. 1:28–29; 2 Cor. 4:7–18). The prophet Isaiah stated the principle well, “For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isa. 57:15; cf. 66:2).
The apostle Paul knew the grace that comes to the humble:
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7–10)
Based on the above verse from Proverbs that Peter mentioned, this command comes forcefully: therefore humble yourselves in submission, not only to avoid divine opposition and to receive divine grace, but because the authority over all believers in the church is none other than the mighty hand of God. Or as James stated it, “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord” (4:10a).
The mighty hand of God is descriptive of God’s sovereign power at work in and through the elders of the church, as well as in the life experience of His people (cf. Isa. 48:13; Ezek. 20:33–34; Zeph. 1:4; 2:13; Luke 1:49–51). Whether for deliverance (Ex. 3:19–20; 13:3–16), for testing (Job 30:20–21), or for chastening (Ezek. 20:33–38), God’s might is always accomplishing His eternal purposes on behalf of His own (cf. Pss. 57:2; 138:8; Isa. 14:24–27; 46:10; 55:11; Jer. 51:12; Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:28; 9:11, 17; Eph. 3:11; Phil. 2:13). In their time of persecution, suffering, and testing, that assurance would encourage Peter’s audience to persevere (cf. Ps. 37:24; Prov. 4:18; Matt. 10:22; 24:13; Rom. 8:30–39; Heb. 12:2–3; James 1:4, 12; Rev. 3:5), knowing that all their suffering is only so that He may exalt them at the proper time (cf. 5:10). Even as Jesus Christ was born at the appropriate time (Gal. 4:4; Titus 1:3) and died a substitutionary death at the exact time God designed (1 Tim. 2:6), God will exalt (hupsoō, “to raise or lift up”) believers out of their trials, tribulations, and sufferings at His wisely determined time. Some have suggested that this exaltation could be a reference to the final eschatological glory that comes to believers at the Second Coming, the “last time” Peter referred to in 1:5 (cf. 2:12); but the Greek phrase en kairō is literally “in time” (cf. Acts 19:23; Rom. 9:9) and is not an eschatological term. It is better to see this as the appointed time when the Lord lifts the humble and submissive believer up out of difficulty.
If the foundational attitude for spiritual growth is submission, humility is, then, the footing to which the foundation is anchored. To become proudly rebellious, fight against the Lord’s purposes, or judge His providence as unkind or unfair is to forfeit the sweet grace of His exaltation when the trial has fulfilled its purpose (cf. James 1:2–4). It is the Lord Jesus Himself who promised, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
Challenge to the Young Men (5:5a)
5a Peter then turns away from “elders” and addresses “young men” (neōteroi). This designation in the Greek text is somewhat ambiguous. Who precisely are these young men? Are they potential leaders or simply the younger people in the community? Peter admonishes these individuals to “be submissive” to older people “in the same way.” But in what way? Given the earlier pattern in the household code, which calls for submission at several levels (cf. the admonition to wives, “in the same way be submissive” [3:1]), a natural interpretation of 5:5a is that younger people in the community must order themselves after the older out of respect for them. Mounce, 85, captures the spirit of this admonition: “The point is that submission to those who are older (and presumably wiser) is socially appropriate for young men.”
- Challenge to All (5:5b–9)
5b Following the words of instruction to elders and young men, a call to humility is presented to everyone in the community. As has been his custom throughout the epistle, Peter supports this exhortation with a citation from the OT; here he borrows from Proverbs 3:34: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” One is justified in calling humility the “law of the community,” as Barclay, 258, does. The admonition to “clothe yourselves with humility” is vivid, for it calls to mind the servant putting on an apron, such as Jesus, in fact, did as an example to the disciples (Jn 13:4–5, 14–15).
 Tozer, A. W. (2015). Mornings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 2280–2281). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Epistles of Peter and the Epistle of Jude (Vol. 16, pp. 195–197). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2004). 1 Peter (pp. 276–279). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 Charles, D. J. (2006). 1 Peter. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 353–354). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
And forgive us our debts.—Matt. 6:12a
Sin dominates the hearts and minds of lost men and women, separates them from God, and is therefore their greatest enemy and problem. It is the common denominator for every crime, immorality, pain, and sorrow—and there is no natural cure: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23). The natural individual does not even want his or her sin cured (John 3:19).
If sin is our greatest problem, our greatest need is the forgiveness God provides. Though forgiven from sin’s ultimate penalty (cf. Rom. 8:1), believers need God’s constant forgiveness for sins they still commit. The apostle John cautions us, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).
Jesus’ act of washing the apostles’ feet (John 13:5–11) is more than a picture of humility; it also portrays God’s repeated, cleansing forgiveness to His disciples. The forgiveness that secures our saving position in Christ at regeneration does not need repeating; but we need God’s practical forgiveness every day to cleanse us from sin’s contamination as we live in this world. Out of God’s vast heart of forgiveness He is ever willing to continually pardon His children (cf. Neh. 9:17; Rom. 5:20).
|There are probably a small number of things in your life that are clearly in violation of what you know to be right—things that are top-of-mind as you consider again the depths of our sin and our need for God’s forgiveness. Deal with these in prayer today as you repent before the Father and receive His promised mercy.|
6:12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. This does not refer to judicial forgiveness from the penalty of sin (that forgiveness is obtained by faith in the Son of God). Rather this refers to the parental forgiveness that is necessary if fellowship with our Father is to be maintained. If believers are unwilling to forgive those who wrong them, how can they expect to be in fellowship with their Father who has freely forgiven them for their wrongdoings?
12. And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. In connection with this petition, which sounds so simple, a few questions are in order:
- What is the difference between “debts” (verse 12) and “trespasses” (verses 14, 15)?
Answer: see on verse 14.
- Why should we pray for forgiveness, since we no longer sin?
Answer: We do, indeed, sin daily. See p. 317.
- Granted that we sin, why must we still daily pray for forgiveness, since through Christ’s atonement we are already cleansed (justified) from every sin?
Answer: It is true that the basis of our daily forgiveness has been established once for all by means of Christ’s atonement. Nothing need be and nothing can be added to that. But this total, objective cleansing needs daily application for the simple reason that we sin every day. A father may have bequeathed a large inheritance to his son. It now very definitely belongs to the son. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the latter is immediately allowed to withdraw the entire huge amount from the bank and spend it all within one week. Very wisely the father included a stipulation limiting the withdrawal privilege to a certain generous amount each month. So also when a person receives the grace of regeneration, this does not mean that all of that which Christ merited for him is immediately experienced by him. If it were, would it not overwhelm and crush his capacities? Rather, “He [God] giveth and giveth and giveth again.” See also John 13:10.
The prayer for forgiveness implies that the supplicant recognizes that there is no other method by which his debt can be wiped out. It is, therefore, a plea for grace.
However, a totally different difficulty arises in connection with “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This certainly cannot mean that our forgiving disposition earns God’s pardon. The forgiveness of our debts is based not on our merits—how could we have any?—but on Christ’s, applied to us. Consequently, from our point of view, forgiveness is based on God’s unmerited (not merited by us) favor, that is, on divine grace (Eph. 1:7), compassion (Matt. 18:27), and mercy (Luke 18:13). Nevertheless, our own forgiving disposition is very important. In fact, without it we ourselves cannot be forgiven. For us it is the indispensable condition of receiving the forgiveness of sins. That fact is stated clearly in verses 14 and 15, which, together with 18:21–35, is the best and simplest explanation of 6:12 one could ask for. It is with this as it is with salvation in general. We are not saved on the basis of our faith, as if faith had earning power. We are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8). Yet faith must be present if we are to be saved (hence, “by grace through faith”). Faith and one of its manifestations, namely, the disposition to forgive, are conditions that must be met and exercised if salvation and its component, pardon, are to be received. We must believe, we must forgive. God does not do these things for us. Nevertheless, it is God who plants in our hearts the seed of faith and of the forgiving disposition. Moreover, the power to believe and the power to forgive are from God. At every step—beginning, middle, and end, all along the way—God is both present and active. “With fear and trembling continue to work out your own salvation; for it is God who is working in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12, 13). See also N.T.C. on Eph. 2:8 and on Phil. 2:12, 13. It is exactly as Greijdanus observes, in commenting on the parallel passage, Luke 11:4 (“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive every one indebted to us”). He writes, “In spite of for, this clause does not indicate the ground upon which God bestows forgiveness, but that which must be complied with for us to enjoy God’s forgiveness of our own sins.”
To be genuine, this forgiveness that we ourselves bestow upon our fellow men must be given gladly, generously, and with finality; not in the spirit of, “I’ll forgive, but I’m telling you that I’ll never forget.” Lord’s Day 51 of the Heidelberg Catechism gives a correct, succinct, and beautiful explanation of the fifth petition: “Be pleased, for the sake of Christ’s blood, not to impute to us, miserable sinners, any of our transgressions, nor the evil which always cleaves to us; as we also find this witness of thy grace in us that it is our full purpose heartily to forgive our neighbor.”
A possible objection to the explanation given must be briefly answered: “Does not this mean, then, that our act of kindness toward the one who has injured us precedes Christ’s act of kindness toward us?”
Answer. In the circle of salvation the beginning is always with God, never with us. See 1 John 4:19; cf. John 13:15; Eph. 4:32; and 1 Peter 2:21. Nevertheless, the forgiving love of Christ not only precedes but also accompanies and even follows the love with which we love him and the neighbor.
Our sincere purpose to forgive those who have injured us, and thus also our experience of the pardoning love and grace of God in Christ, can be enhanced by the following considerations:
Extend forgiveness to others, for
- God so commands. Vengeance belongs to him, not to us (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19).
- We should follow the example Christ himself has given us (Luke 23:34; John 13:12–15; Eph. 4:32; 5:1, 2; Col. 3:13).
- We cannot be forgiven unless we forgive, as has been shown.
- The man who injured us needs our sympathy and love. We owe him this love (Rom. 13:8).
- Harboring a grudge and planning revenge is not only wicked but also foolish, for it deprives us of the strength we need to do effective work. We should have the forward look (Phil. 2:13).
- Forgiving others will impart peace of heart and mind to us, the peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7, 9).
- Thus, thus alone, will God be glorified, which should be our aim in all we do (1 Cor. 10:31).
The fourth petition is linked to the fifth, and the fifth to the sixth, by the conjunction and. All three represent human needs, and are closely connected. The connection between the fourth and fifth has already been indicated. Very close is also the relation between the fifth and the sixth, and this in at least the following respect: we are in need not only of forgiveness of past sins, but also of God’s protecting care so that in the future we may not fall into the clutches of Satan.
Between “And lead us not into temptation” and “deliver us from the evil one” there is no conjunction and. On the contrary, the conjunction but shows that the petition simply continues, the negative request being balanced by the positive in one petition. These two are, as it were, the two sides of the same coin. Accordingly, I am in agreement with all those who accept six, not seven, petitions.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (6:12)
Opheilēma (debts) is one of five New Testament Greek terms for sin. Hamartia is the most common and carries the root idea of missing the mark. Sin misses the mark of God’s standard of righteousness. Paraptōma, often rendered “trespass,” is the sin of slipping or falling, and results more from carelessness than from intentional disobedience. Parabasis refers to stepping across the line, going beyond the limits prescribed by God, and is often translated “transgression.” This sin is more conscious and intentional than hamartia and paraptoma. Anomia means lawlessness, and is a still more intentional and flagrant sin. It is direct and open rebellion against God and His ways.
The noun opheilēma is used only a few times in the New Testament, but its verb form is found often. Of the some thirty times it is used in its verb form, twenty-five times it refers to moral or spiritual debts. Sin is a moral and spiritual debt to God that must be paid. In his account of this prayer, Luke uses hamartia (“sins”; Luke 11:4), clearly indicating that the reference is to sin, not to a financial debt. Matthew probably used debts because it corresponded to the most common Aramaic term (ḥôbā˒) for sin used by Jews of that day, which also represented moral or spiritual debt to God.
Sin is that which separates man from God, and is therefore man’s greatest enemy and greatest problem. Sin dominates the mind and heart of man. It has contaminated every human being and is the degenerative power that makes man susceptible to disease, illness, and every conceivable form of evil and unhappiness, temporal and eternal. The ultimate effects of sin are death and damnation, and the present effects are misery, dissatisfaction, and guilt. Sin is the common denominator of every crime, every theft, lie, murder, immorality, sickness, pain, and sorrow of mankind. It is also the moral and spiritual disease for which man has no cure. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jer. 13:23). The natural man does not want his sin cured, because he loves darkness rather than light (John 3:19).
Those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ have received God’s pardon for sin and are saved from eternal hell. And since, as we have seen, this prayer is given to believers, the debts referred to here are those incurred by Christians when they sin. Immeasurably more important than our need for daily bread is our need for continual forgiveness of sin.
Arthur Pink writes in An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974), pp. 163–64:
As it is contrary to the holiness of God, sin is a defilement, a dishonor, and a reproach to us as it is a violation of His law. It is a crime, and as to the guilt which we contact thereby, it is a debt. As creatures we owe a debt of obedience unto our maker and governor, and through failure to render the same on account of our rank disobedience, we have incurred a debt of punishment; and it is for this that we implore a divine pardon.
Because man’s greatest problem is sin, his greatest need is forgiveness-and that is what God provides. Though we have been forgiven the ultimate penalty of sin, as Christians we need God’s constant forgiveness for the sins we continue to commit. We are to pray, therefore, forgive us. Forgiveness is the central theme of this entire passage (vv. 9–15), being mentioned six times in eight verses. Everything leads to or issues from forgiveness.
Believers have experienced once-for-all God’s judicial forgiveness, which they received the moment Christ was trusted as Savior. We are no longer condemned, no longer under judgment, no longer destined for hell (Rom. 8:1). The eternal Judge has declared us pardoned, justified, righteous. No one, human or satanic, can condemn or bring any “charge against God’s elect” (Rom. 8:33–34).
But because we still fall into sin, we frequently require God’s gracious forgiveness, His forgiveness not now as Judge but as Father. “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” John warns believers. But, he goes on to assure us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).
During the Last Supper, Jesus began washing the disciples’ feet as a demonstration of the humble, serving spirit they should have as His followers. At first Peter refused, but when Jesus said, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me,” Peter went to the other extreme, wanting to be bathed all over. Jesus replied, “ ‘He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.’ For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, ‘Not all of you are clean’ ” (John 13:5–11).
Jesus’ act of footwashing was therefore more than an example of humility; it was also a picture of the forgiveness God gives in His repeated cleansing of those who are already saved. Dirt on the feet symbolizes the daily surface contamination from sin that we experience as we walk through life. It does not, and cannot, make us entirely dirty, because we have been permanently cleansed from that. The positional purging of salvation that occurs at regeneration needs no repetition, but the practical purging is needed every day, because every day we fall short of God’s perfect holiness.
As Judge, God is eager to forgive sinners, and as Father He is even more eager to keep on forgiving His children. Hundreds of years before Christ, Nehemiah wrote, “Thou art a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness” (Neh. 9:17). As vast and pervasive as the sin of man is, God forgiveness is more vast and greater. Where sin abounds, God’s grace abounds even more (Rom. 5:20).
Asking forgiveness implies confession. Feet that are not presented to Christ cannot be washed by Him. Sin that is not confessed cannot be forgiven. That is the condition John makes plain in the text just quoted above: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). To confess means basically to agree with, and when we confess our sins we agree with God about them that they are wicked, evil, defiling, and have no part in those who belong to Him.
It is difficult to confess sins, and both Satan and our prideful nature fight against it. But it is the only way to the free and joyful life. “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion” (Prov. 28:13). John Stott says, “One of the surest antidotes to the process of moral hardening is the disciplined practice of uncovering our sins of thought and outlook, as well as of word and of deed, and the repentant forsaking of them” (Confess Your Sins [Waco, Tex.: Word, 1974], p. 19).
The true Christian does not see God’s promise of forgiveness as a license to sin, a way to abuse His love and presume on His grace. Rather he sees God’s gracious forgiveness as the means of spiritual growth and sanctification and continually gives thanks to God for His great love and willingness to forgive and forgive and forgive. It is also important to realize that confessing sin gives God the glory when He chastens the disobedient Christian because it removes any complaint that God is unfair when He disciplines.
A Puritan saint of many generations ago prayed, “Grant me never to lose sight of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, the exceeding righteousness of salvation, the exceeding glory of Christ, the exceeding beauty of holiness, and the exceeding wonder of grace.” At another time he prayed, “I am guilty but pardoned. I am lost but saved. I am wandering but found. I am sinning but cleansed. Give me perpetual broken-heartedness. Keep me always clinging to Thy cross” (Arthur Bennett, ed., The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975], pp. 76, 83).
Jesus gives the prerequisite for receiving forgiveness in the words, as we also have forgiven our debtors. The principle is simple but sobering: if we have forgiven, we will be forgiven; if we have not forgiven, we will not be forgiven.
We are to forgive because it is the character of righteousness, and therefore of the faithful Christian life, to forgive. Citizens of God’s kingdom are blessed and receive mercy because they themselves are merciful (Matt. 5:7). They love even their enemies because they have the nature of the loving heavenly Father within them (5:44–45, 48). Forgiveness is the mark of a truly regenerate heart. Still we fail to be consistent with that mark and need constant exhortation because of the strength of sinful flesh (Rom. 7:14–25).
We are also to be motivated to forgive because of Christp’s example. “Be kind to one another,” Paul says, “tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). John tells us, “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
Because it reflects God’s own gracious forgiveness, the forgiving of another person’s sin expresses the highest virtue of man. “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression” (Prov. 19:11).
Forgiving others also frees the conscience of guilt. Unforgiveness not only stands as a barrier to God’s forgiveness but also interferes with peace of mind, happiness, satisfaction, and even the proper functioning of the body.
Forgiving others is of great benefit to the whole congregation of believers. Probably few things have so short-circuited the power of the church as unresolved conflicts among its members. “If I regard wickedness in my heart,” the psalmist warns himself and every believer, “the Lord will not hear” (Ps. 66:18). The Holy Spirit cannot work freely among those who carry grudges and harbor resentment (see Matt. 5:23–24; 1 Cor. 1:10–13; 3:1–9).
Forgiving others also delivers us from God’s discipline. Where there is an unforgiving spirit, there is sin; and where there is sin, there will be chastening (Heb. 12:5–13). Unrepented sins in the church at Corinth caused many believers to be weak, sick, and even to die (1 Cor. 11:30).
But the most important reason for being forgiving is that it brings God’s forgiveness to the believer. That truth is so important that Jesus reinforces it after the close of the prayer (vv. 14–15). Nothing in the Christian life is more important than forgiveness-our forgiveness of others and God’s forgiveness of us.
In the matter of forgiveness, God deals with us as we deal with others. We are to forgive others as freely and graciously as God forgives us. The Puritan writer Thomas Manton said, “There is none so tender to others as they which have received mercy themselves, for they know how gently God hath dealt with them.”
12 The first three petitions stand independently from one another. The last three, however, are linked in Greek by “ands,” almost as if to say that life sustained by food is not enough. We also need forgiveness of sin and deliverance from temptation.
In Matthew, what we ask to be forgiven for is ta opheilēmata hēmōn (“our debts,” GK 4052); in Luke, it is our “sins.” Hill notes that the crucial word to opheilēma (“debt”) “means a literal ‘debt’ in the LXX and NT, except at this point.” And on this basis, S. T. Lachs (“On Matthew 6.12,” NovT 17 : 6–8) argues that in Matthew this petition of the Lord’s Prayer is not really dealing with sins but with loans in the sixth year, one year before the Jubilee. But the linguistic evidence can be read differently. The word opheilēma is rather rare in biblical Greek. It occurs only four times in the LXX (Dt 24:10 [2x]; 1 Esd 3:20; 1 Macc 15:8); and in Deuteronomy 24:10, where it occurs twice, it renders two different Hebrew words. In the NT, it appears only here and in Romans 4:4. On this basis it would be as accurate to say the word always means “sin” in the NT except at Romans 4:4 as to say it always means “debt” except at Matthew 6:12.
More important, the Aramaic word ḥôbā (“debt”) is often used (e.g., in the Targums) to mean “sin” or “transgression.” Deissmann (Bible Studies, 225) notes an instance of the cognate verb hamartian opheilō (lit., “I owe sin”). Probably Matthew has provided a literal rendering of the Aramaic Jesus most commonly used in preaching; and even Luke (Lk 11:4) uses the cognate participle in the second line, panti opheilonti hēmin (“everyone who sins against us”). There is therefore no reason to take “debts” to mean anything other than “sins,” here conceived as something owed God (whether sins of commission or omission).
Some have taken the second clause to mean that our forgiveness is the real cause of God’s forgiveness, i.e., that God’s forgiveness must be earned by our own. The problem is often judged more serious in Matthew than Luke, because the latter has the present “we forgive,” the former the aorist (not perfect, as many commentators assume) aphēkamen (“we have forgiven”; GK 918). Many follow the suggestion of Jeremias (Prayers of Jesus, 92–93), who says that Matthew has awkwardly rendered an Aramaic perfectum praesens (a “present perfect”): he renders the clause “as we also herewith forgive our debtors.”
The real solution is best expounded by C. F. D. Moule (“ ‘… As we forgive …’: a Note on the Distinction between Deserts and Capacity in the Understanding of Forgiveness,” in Donum Gentilicium [ed. E. Bammel et al.; Oxford: Clarendon 1978], 68–77), who, in addition to detailing the most important relevant Jewish literature, rightly insists on distinguishing “between, on the one hand, earning or meriting forgiveness, and, on the other hand, adopting an attitude which makes forgiveness possible—the distinction, that is, between deserts and capacity.… Real repentance, as contrasted with a merely self-regarding remorse, is certainly a sine qua non of receiving forgiveness—an indispensable condition” (pp. 71–72). “Once our eyes have been opened to see the enormity of our offense against God, the injuries which others have done to us appear by comparison extremely trifling. If, on the other hand, we have an exaggerated view of the offenses of others, it proves that we have minimized our own” (Stott, Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 149–50; see comments at 5:5, 7; 18:23–35).
 MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 156). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1224). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 334–336). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 391–395). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 206–207). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.
To announce that you’re going to speak on the immutability of God is almost like putting up a sign saying, “There’ll be no service here tonight!” Nobody wants to hear anybody talk about it, I suppose. But when it’s explained, you’ll find you’ve struck gold and diamonds, milk and honey.
Now the word immutable, of course, is the negative of mutable. And mutable is from the Latin, meaning “subject to change.” Mutation is a word we often use to mean “a change in form, nature or substance.” Immutability, then, means “not subject to change.”…
Now there is in God no mutation possible. As it says in James, “with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (1:17)—there is no variation due to change. And there is also that verse in Malachi: “I am the LORD [Jehovah], I change not” (3:6)….
Incidently, He’s the only One in the universe that can say that. And He did say it! He simply says that He never changes, that there is no change possible in God. God never differs from Himself. If you get ahold of this, it can be to you an anchor in the storm, a hiding place in danger. There is no possibility of changing in God. And God never differs from Himself. AOGII089-091
Thank You, Father, that despite my ever-changing world You are ever constant, my anchor in the storm. Amen. 
3:6 The fact that the Lord is the unchanging One accounts for the preservation of the sons of Jacob from destruction.
6 The second issue of communal disobedience raised by Malachi lies in the area of stewardship. God has blessed them, but they have failed to reciprocate by returning to him what the law requires. The Lord rebukes them with more than a little hint of impatience, but it is impatience generously leavened by grace (v. 6). Without that grace he would long since have destroyed them for their lack of compliance.
3:6 I the Lord do not change implies that God’s character and eternal purposes do not change, which gives a solid foundation for his people’s faith and hope. However, unchangeableness in character does not mean that the Lord is unchanging in his actions, for the very next verse, “Return to me and I will return to you” (v. 7), shows that God acts differently in response to different situations. Therefore implies that God’s purpose to bring blessing to the world through Abraham’s descendants and through a Davidic Messiah will not be defeated, and thus the children of Jacob are not consumed: their existence as the restored community is evidence of God’s faithfulness.
3:6 I, Yahweh, have not changed The primary reason Israel has not been destroyed is because of Yahweh’s faithfulness to His covenants with the nation. Yahweh will not change His mind concerning Israel.
3:6 I … do not change. The immutability, or unchangeable character, of God is seen in His purpose to bless His elect people. Thus, in spite of their numerous sins, they are not destroyed (Ex. 34:6, 7; Jer. 30:11). This verse closes the previous section and begins the next one.
 Tozer, A. W., & Eggert, R. (2015). Tozer on the almighty god: a 365-day devotional. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1176). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Merrill, E. H. (2008). Malachi. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, p. 858). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1778). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
 Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Mal 3:6). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
 Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 1654). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
We can count on Scripture to give us confidence in the face of death.
A few years ago my radio ministry heard from a listener who was exhibiting exactly the right attitude in the face of a terminal illness. A teenager from the Midwest sent a prayer request concerning her recently diagnosed Lou Gehrig’s disease. That Christian young woman, who by now is probably with the Lord, accepted her condition with grace and optimism. Here is part of what she wrote to us: “I love the Lord very much and feel the Lord is using my condition to work in different peoples’ lives. Please pray with me that He would continue to use me no matter what the outcome.”
Her sentiments were right in step with Philippians 1:21, in which the apostle Paul proclaims his joy and confidence at the possibility of death. What enabled him to rejoice was his complete confidence in the Word of God.
Earlier Paul had articulated his trust in God’s promises when he wrote these familiar words in Romans 8:28, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Now he shared verbatim with the Philippians from Job 13:16, “For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance” (Phil. 1:19). That too was a trustworthy promise from the Word, and it made Paul confident that his current trials would have a positive outcome.
Whether suffering was of long or short duration, Paul knew that the righteous would be delivered from their temporal trials. That was certainly borne out when God restored Job from his difficult, lengthy ordeal of testing.
Knowing all this, and realizing that all of God’s written Word is available to us, we can certainly have Paul’s type of confidence as we consider the inevitability of death. And we can “keep on rejoicing” (1 Peter 4:13), even if it’s the Lord’s will that we experience an early departure from this life.
Suggestions for Prayer: Thank God for the provision of His Word, which is such an infallible guide as you deal with the uncertainties of death. ✧ Pray for someone you know at your church or in your neighborhood who may be facing death right now.
For Further Study: Read Psalm 34:17, 19; 37:39–40; 91:3; 97:10. What theme runs through these verses that would help you deal as you ought with trials and sufferings?
1:21 Here, in a nutshell, is Paul’s philosophy of life. He did not live for money, fame, or pleasure. The object of his life was to love, worship, and serve the Lord Jesus. He wanted his life to be like the life of Christ. He wanted the Savior to live out His life through him.
And to die is gain. To die is to be with Christ and to be like Him forever. It is to serve Him with unsinning heart and with feet that will never stray. We do not ordinarily think of death as one of our gains. Sad to say, the outlook today seems to be that “to live is earthly gain, and to die would be the end of gain.” But, says Jowett: “To the Apostle Paul, death was not a darksome passageway, where all our treasures rot away in a swift corruption; it was a place of gracious transition, ‘a covered way that leadeth into light.’ ”
- There is no sharp division between verses 20 and 21. They should stand together. Paul says that he knows that in his person Christ will be magnified, For to me to live (is) Christ, and to die (is) gain. Were this not true, Christ would not be magnified in him.
What Paul means by saying, “For to me to live is Christ,” may be learned from the familiar lines of the well-known hymn by Will L. Thompson:
“Jesus is all the world to me,
My life, my joy, my all;
He is my strength from day to day,
Without him I would fall.
When I am sad to him I go,
No other one can cheer me so;
When I am sad he makes me glad,
He’s my friend.”
And the stanzas which follow.
When the apostle says so emphatically “to me” placing this word at the very beginning of the sentence, he is giving a personal testimony and is at the same time drawing a contrast between himself and those to whom he has just been referring and who, no doubt, are still very much in his mind; namely, preachers “who proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition,” Paul, then, in contrast with them, is not self-centered but Christ-centered. He is concerned with the honor and glory of his wonderful Redeemer.
To determine even more exactly just what the apostle has in mind when he says. “to live (is) Christ,” parallel Pauline passages must be consulted. It means: to derive one’s strength from Christ (Phil. 4:13), to have the mind, the humble disposition of Christ (Phil. 2:5–11), to know Christ with the knowledge of Christian experience (Phil. 3:8), to be covered by Christ’s righteousness (Phil. 3:9), to rejoice in Christ (Phil. 3:1; 4:4), to live for Christ, that is, for his glory (2 Cor. 5:15), to rest one’s faith on Christ and to love him in return for his love (Gal. 2:20)
“And to die (is) gain.” Dying physically means gain for Paul. It will mean that he will actually be with Christ (see verse 23), “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). But gain for Paul can never be dissociated from gain for the cause of Christ, for the one objective in which Paul rejoices most is that in his person Christ may be magnified. Death will be a distinct gain because it will be the gateway to clearer knowledge, more wholehearted service, more exuberant joy, more rapturous adoration, all of these brought to a focus in Christ. Surely, if even now Christ is magnified in Paul’s person, he will be thus magnified even more on the other side of death. Cf. 1 Cor. 13:12. Death is gain because it brings more of Christ to Paul, and more of Paul to Christ.
confidence in the plan of god
whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (1:20b–21)
Paul was not certain what God’s plan was for him, whether he would continue to serve and exalt Him through his life and ministry or through the final exaltation of death. Either way, the Lord’s will would be done; His plan would be fully accomplished.
To the elders from Ephesus, who met him on the beach near Miletus, Paul declared unequivocally, “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). A short while later he said to the believers in Caesarea who were distressed by Agabus’s prophecy of Paul’s impending arrest: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). He reminded the believers in Rome that “not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Rom. 14:7–9). Whether he lived or died, the apostle could say now as he would to Timothy a few years later: “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6–7). Either way, he would be victorious and Christ would be exalted.
The Greek phrase rendered to live is Christ and to die is gain contains no verb. It literally reads “to live Christ, to die gain.” Paul knew that living is Christ, because he would continue to serve Him while he lived. He also knew that dying would be gain because then he would be in God’s presence, able to worship and serve Him in holy perfection (cf. v. 23). Paul fully understood that wealth, power, influence, possessions, prestige, social standing, good health, business or professional success, and all other such things are transitory. Many acknowledge that truth, but not many live as if it is true. Few can say with Paul’s utter sincerity to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
The apostle’s very being was wrapped up in his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He trusted, loved, served, witnessed for, and in every way was devoted to and dependent on Him. His only hope, his only purpose, his only reason to live was Christ. He traveled for Christ, preached for Christ, and was persecuted and imprisoned for Christ. Ultimately, he would die for Christ. But even death, by God’s marvelous grace, was ultimately for Paul’s eternal gain.
What is Christianity?
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21 is a text that cuts like a surgeon’s scalpel to the heart of Christianity. What is Christianity? This question is a puzzle to non-Christian historians, sociologists, psychologists, and others. It also puzzles the person on the street, the homemaker, the college student.
What is Christianity? The answer to that question is not unknown to the believing child of God. Christianity is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. All that is rightly associated with Christianity finds its center of gravity in him. John R. W. Stott has written correctly, “The person and work of Christ are the foundation rock upon which the Christian religion is built. … Take Christ from Christianity, and you disembowel it; there is practically nothing left. Christ is the centre of Christianity; all else is circumference.”
Many people do not realize this. They see only the paraphernalia of Christianity. Consequently, they form false conclusions about its essence and reject it on these grounds. In October of 1967, the Soviet Union launched a space probe designed to crash upon the surface of Venus and send back vital statistics about its surface temperature and atmospheric pressure. The space probe ceased transmitting 3,774 miles from the center of the planet, presumably because it had struck the surface. The information the probe gathered about the temperature and atmospheric pressure seemed unquestionable, and it suggested there could be life on Venus. Now, however, scientists have determined that the radius of Venus is only 3,759 miles, meaning that the Russian space probe ceased transmitting when it was still fifteen miles above the planet’s surface. Consequently, all of its figures were misleading. It gave the temperature fifteen miles above the planet’s surface, but it did not provide the information that the scientists most wanted to know.
In the same way thousands of well-meaning people stop receiving data when they are miles from the heart of Christianity. For many people a knowledge of Christianity stops at contact with those who claim to be Christians. They identify Christianity with so-called Christian character, and since many believers are far from what God intends them to be, this data gives a false impression. Other people actually get into the atmosphere, perhaps as far as the organization, and then conclude that Christianity is the visible church. This is like identifying life with a test tube full of chemicals, and this impression is misleading also. Other people get as far as the ceremonies of the church and often pass for Christians because they participate properly. The fact that so many congregations are filled with people who have gone no farther than this is one reason for the weakness of the Christian church today. Some people actually come as close as the creeds. They can recite them. Unfortunately, this too is less than Christianity, important as the creeds may be.
Christianity is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing about Christianity will be rightly understood until there is faith in Christ and a personal relationship with him.
Christ and Paul
This truth was well known to the apostle Paul, and our text is a great expression of it. Paul writes: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (v. 21). This verse should be taken together with Galatians 2:20, which is Paul’s definitive commentary on it: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” These two verses, one from the early days of Paul’s ministry and the other from the end, summarize the living essence of Paul’s faith. Put the two together, and you have a great expression of what was undoubtedly the heartthrob of Paul’s life and Christian ministry.
One Christmas when I was a child I was given a kaleidoscope. I shall never forget how amazed I was to pick it up for the first time and to see the brilliant arrangement of colors as the bits of tinted glass were refracted many times by mirrors. I was even more amazed to find that the beauty increased infinitely as the kaleidoscope was turned. Our text from Philippians is like that. It is beautiful in itself, but it is even more beautiful as it is turned about and seen from new perspectives. What does it mean to say that Christianity is Christ or that the Christian life is Christ? As we turn the text about we can see that Christianity is faith in Christ; it is fellowship with Christ; and it is following after Christ. These are various aspects of the heart of Christianity.
Faith in Christ
When you say Christianity is Christ, you say, in the first place, that Christianity is faith in Christ. It is the acknowledgment that you can do nothing to save yourself, that you deserve hell from God rather than heaven, and that Christ has provided salvation for you by dying in your place. Moreover, it is a receiving of Jesus Christ as your Savior and as the Lord of your life. This is the message of the Book of Galatians and the central thrust of Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20.
To understand this verse properly, we must look at the historical background of the letter to the Galatians. The churches of Galatia were among the first Paul had founded, and they were particularly close to his heart. As Paul traveled through the Roman province of Galatia in what is now central Turkey, he endured real hardships as a result of preaching the gospel. We read in Galatians 4:13 that Paul had first preached “because of an illness,” and we are told in Acts that he had been stoned at Lystra. Such labors were hard, but they bore fruit, and everywhere Paul went he established congregations of believers. How Paul loved these people. He visited them on his second missionary journey and again on the third. He had put forth much energy on their behalf. He had lived with them and prayed with them. They were grounded in the gospel and trusted Christ and Christ alone for their salvation.
Then Paul went on to found churches elsewhere, and in his wake, like crows following behind a farmer as he plows a field, nonbelievers came trying to profit from Paul’s ministry. They came with a great show of authority and much human wisdom, teaching that salvation depended, at least in part, on human goodness. They reminded the Galatian Christians of the Jewish traditions and claimed a special relationship to the Jerusalem apostles. They even cast doubt on the validity of Paul’s apostleship. It is not enough, they said, to have faith in Christ to have salvation. It is necessary to become a Jew first. There must be circumcision, a keeping of the Jewish holy days, and many other things. To these legalizers salvation was not by faith alone.
The news reached Paul, and he was filled with righteous anger. These men were threatening to undo everything that he had accomplished among the Galatian people. Paul wrote back, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:6–9). For Paul, salvation was by faith in Christ alone, and he expressed this conviction vividly.
Are you trusting in Christ for your salvation? Earlier I mentioned those who reject true Christianity by stopping short at human character, the creeds, or Christian ceremonies. Unfortunately, many of these persons also trust these things to save them. Do you have faith in relics, in proper phrases, in the sacraments of your church, or in things you can do to improve your human character? These things will not save you and have no value in reconciling you to God. You must let God strip them away like worn out clothing. Christianity is faith in Christ, and in Christ alone.
Fellowship with Christ
Another aspect of the truth that Christianity is Christ is that Christianity is fellowship with Christ. This fact is a necessary complement to the truth that Christianity is faith in Christ, for Christians often tend to think of faith impersonally. Christianity is belief in Christ, but it is also communion or fellowship with him, and fellowship must be cultivated. The great evangelist and Bible teacher, A. W. Tozer, has written, “The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of His world; we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of his Word. We have almost forgotten that God is a Person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can.”
The fact that Christianity is a life to be cultivated is quite apparent in the early verses of 1 John. The writer of these verses is interested in the facts concerning the life of Jesus Christ. But his testimony does not stop with facts, nor is it given only to lead his readers to have orthodox opinions. John writes, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Doctrine must lead to fellowship and fellowship to the riches of the Christian life. The next verse adds, “We write this to make our joy complete” (v. 4).
How unfortunate it is that many Christians go through life with somber faces! They know the facts of Christian faith and they trust Christ for their salvation, but there is no joy. There is nothing that gives evidence of God’s presence in the midst of life or in its tribulations. This should not be so. The presence of our Lord brings joy. And if there is no joy (or peace, or longsuffering, or patience, or any other Christian virtue for that matter), the cause may well be a lack of fellowship with Jesus.
If you lack Christian joy, it may be that things are keeping you from him. If so, you need to set them aside a while and spend time in Christ’s presence.
It may be that activities are keeping you from him. In that case it is far better that these be set aside. Mary and Martha were both friends of Jesus, and both were quite orthodox. In fact, it was Martha who ran to meet Jesus when he returned to Bethany following the death of Lazarus. It was she who expressed faith in the final resurrection (John 11:24) and revealed her personal faith in Jesus: “Lord, … if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). But when Jesus was in the home of Mary and Martha, it was Mary who sat at his feet while Martha served. And Jesus said, “Martha, Martha … you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42). One thing is needed! How often we reverse the two. We think our service is needed and fellowship dispensable. We need to learn that nothing can be a substitute for the cultivation of the presence of God.
Following After Christ
To these truths we must also add that Christianity means following Christ. The Christ in whom we believe is a Christ on the move, and the fellowship we enjoy is not so much the fellowship of the living room as it is the fellowship of the soldier marching under the eye of his commander. In its simplest form Christ’s call was always the call, “Follow me.” It was the call to Matthew. It was the call to the rich young ruler. It was the call to the multitudes who came to hear him. Jesus always invited others to follow him and to unite their efforts with his cause. He invites you to follow him today.
You cannot follow Christ unless you have forsaken all that keeps you from him. Peter and Andrew left their nets. James and John left Zebedee. Matthew left his money tables. You must leave your sin, your personal sinful aspirations, your own conception of yourself. Moreover, you must continue to do so throughout your Christian life.
For this to be possible Paul says that there must be a crucifixion. It is true that he says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:20). He says again, “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). This is victory in the Christian life. But before he can say any of these things, Paul must be able to say that he is crucified with Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (v. 20). There must be the tearing of the flesh, the breaking of the bones, the shedding of blood before the spirit of the disciple is set free. Christianity is no easy thing. It is the walk of the disciple who must bear his own cross.
In Judea in the first Christian century there were certain customs that surrounded the relationship between a rabbi and those whom he chose to be disciples. One of these customs was that when the master moved from place to place the disciples literally followed behind him. We must imagine this being true many times of Christ and his disciples. He led them literally, as well as figuratively, and they followed where he led. During the days of Christ’s ministry there were hours spent in pleasant places—at a wedding or by the Sea of Galilee. At other times there were steps through angry crowds and steps before the faces of Christ’s enemies. All the time they followed. At last the steps of Christ led up the steep ascent to Jerusalem and stopped at the foot of the cross. The disciples were stunned. The work of three years appeared to have been undertaken in vain. But instead the work was finished; atonement was made; the veil was rent in two. Christ had provided access for all believers into God’s presence.
In the same way our following of Christ must lead to crucifixion and beyond the cross to glory. Neither you nor I must linger in the pleasant places. We must cast these behind and follow Jesus. Have you followed him through hostile crowds and dangers and yielded yourself to crucifixion?
In one of our hymns we sing:
Jesus, keep me near the cross;
There a precious fountain,
Free to all—a healing stream—
Flows from Calvary’s mountain.
The hymn embodies a great truth, but the truth we have been studying should be taken with it. We could also sing:
Jesus, keep me on the cross;
Let me wander never;
Then a twice-born child of God,
I’ll rise and live forever.
No one can crucify himself or herself. But God will crucify the Christian. He will place you on the cross, knowing that through death to self lies resurrection power and the removing of the veil.
21 The statement “to live is Christ” is not some pious cliché. Since Paul always carries in his body “the death of Jesus” and is always being “given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Co 4:10–11), living entails continuing to participate in Christ’s sufferings (Php 3:10; see Col 1:24). It means obeying God, humbling himself, and giving his life for others as Christ obeyed, humbled himself, and gave his life for others.
“To die is gain” is a figure of speech whose meaning changed over the course of time (M. E. Boring, K. Berger, and C. Colpe, eds., Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995], 479). It could mean that death is an escape hatch from troubles in this life. It becomes a gain because it means one is free from all care: “It is better to die once than to suffer every day” (Aeschylus, Prom. 747–51; Sophocles, Ant. 463–64). Plato (Apol. 40) understands death to be a “dreamless sleep” in which “time seems no longer than one night.” Tobit (3:6 NRSV), who became blind and impoverished while in exile in Nineveh after courageously burying an executed fellow Jew, laments to God:
So now deal with me as you will;
command my spirit to be taken from me,
so that I may be released from the face of the earth and become dust.
For it is better for me to die than to live,
because I have had to listen to undeserved insults,
and great is the sorrow within me.
Command, O Lord, that I be released from this distress;
release me to go to the eternal home,
and do not, O Lord, turn your face away from me.
For it is better for me to die
than to see so much distress in my life
and to listen to insults.
By contrast, Paul uses the verb kerdainein (GK 3045; “gain”) in 3:8 to refer to gaining Christ, which involves having righteousness from God, knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection, sharing his sufferings, being conformed to his death, and attaining the resurrection of the dead. The gain of death would put to rest what he most feared—being disqualified (Craddock, 29).
Paul does not have a “death wish” and does not regard earthly life to be insignificant in comparison to the heavenly realm. Life on earth presents the opportunity for “fruitful labor.” His dilemma is created by the extraordinary value he places on his service to Christ and the church (Lincoln, 103–4). Life in the flesh (“living in the body”), with all of its weaknesses and temptations, is not a lamentable condition for Paul but presents a continued opportunity for him to labor fruitfully in the cause of Christ (Ro 1:13).
 MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1963). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, pp. 75–76). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 76–77). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2000). Philippians: an expositional commentary (pp. 74–79). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Garland, D. E. (2006). Philippians. In T. Longman III (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 204). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.
Leaving this earth and going to heaven is not a popular thought in the contemporary church. The increasing emphasis on success, prosperity, and personal problem–solving reflects our earthbound perspective.
It’s also hard for us to comprehend a future heavenly reward. In this materialistic age, we rarely experience delayed gratification. Almost anything we want, we can have immediately. We don’t even need money—we can use a credit card. We don’t have to build anything—we can buy it. And we don’t have to go very far to get it.
The lack of interest in heaven is the other side of the preoccupation with this world. Heaven is virtually ignored by modern evangelicals. There is little preaching or teaching on the subject, but there are mammoth amounts of material available on prospering in this life. To pursue Christ with the same passion as Paul, we must focus on the world to come.
6:19, 20 In verses 19–21 Jesus contravenes all human advice to provide for a financially secure future. When He says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth,” He is indicating that there is no security in material things. Any type of material treasure on earth can be either destroyed by elements of nature (moth or rust) or stolen by thieves. Jesus says that the only investments not subject to loss are treasures in heaven.
19, 20. Do not gather for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves dig through and steal. But gather for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves do not dig through and steal. First the negative command is issued, then the positive (cf. verses 5, 6; 7–9; 16, 17; 19, 20; 25, 26, 28; 31, 33; and 7:1, 5). How absurd (see d above), Jesus is saying, to “treasure up” for oneself perishable earthly “treasures,” and while doing this to lose the imperishable heavenly riches! Earthly treasures are vulnerable because of deterioration and defalcation.
As to the first, deterioration, the moth consumes them. Moths, skippers, and butterflies belong to the large order of insects called Lepidoptera, that is, insects with scale-covered wings. In distinction from butterflies, moths a. constitute the largest division of this order, b. are largely nocturnal, and c. have antennae that are not club-shaped. The reference here in 6:19–21 is to the tiny insect that deposits its eggs in woolens. It is in the larval stage that it feeds on the cloth until the garment, etc., becomes moth-eaten and is destroyed (Isa. 51:8; Luke 12:33; James 5:2). Rust probably indicates the corrosion of metals, their being gradually gnawed into by the action of chemicals.
In all probability, however, the terms “moth” and “rust” represent all those agencies and processes that cause earthly treasures to diminish in value and finally to cease completely to serve their purpose. Thus, bread becomes moldy (Josh. 9:5), garments wear out (Ps. 102:26), fields (particularly neglected ones) become weed-infested (Prov. 24:30), walls and fences break down (Prov. 24:31), roofs cave in so that houses begin to leak (Eccl. 10:18), and gold and silver become tarnished and perish (1 Peter 1:7, 18). Add the havoc brought about by termites, hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, earthquakes, plant diseases, soil erosion, etc. The list is almost endless.
As to the second, defalcation, thieves break through and steal. Through the clay wall of the houses of which Jesus was thinking the thief rather easily digs an entrance and steals the ill-guarded treasures. Inflation, oppressive taxation which may amount to confiscation, bank failures, stock market slumps and crashes, expenses in connection with prolonged illnesses, these and many similar woes have the same effect. Besides, man’s body, including that of the strongest, gradually wears away (Ps. 32:3; 39:4–7; 90:10; 103:15, 16; Eccl. 12:1–8). When he dies, all the earthly treasures on which he had pinned his hopes vanish with him.
Completely different are “the treasures in heaven” (cf. 19:21), that is, those blessings that are reserved for us in heaven (1 Peter 1:4), that are heavenly in character, but of which we experience a foretaste even now. Beginning, as is proper, with the enumeration of some of these as Jesus himself describes them, one thinks of our standing with God as being fully pardoned (Matt. 6:14), answered prayer (7:7), the enrolment of our names in heaven (Luke 10:20), the Father’s love (John 16:27), a welcome not only to the “mansions” of heaven but to the Savior’s own heart (John 14:2, 3), a full share in Christ’s own peace (John 14:27), his own joy (John 15:11), and his own victory (John 16:33), and the Holy Spirit’s permanent indwelling (John 14:16, 26; 15:26). See also all the spiritual blessings mentioned in the beatitudes (Matt. 5:1–12). Paul is thinking of these same treasures, and describes them sometimes in the same, sometimes in his own terms: our “being justified by faith” (Rom. 5:1), “answered prayer” (2 Cor. 12:8, 9), “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts” (Rom. 5:5), “the crown of righteousness” with which the Savior will welcome us (2 Tim. 4:8), “the peace of God that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7), “rejoicing in God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:11), “the victory” (1 Cor. 15:57), and “his Spirit in the inner man” (Eph. 3:16; cf. Rom. 8:14, 16, 26, 27). The enumerations are merely illustrative, not exhaustive.
There is a degree of difference with which spiritual (as over against material) blessings are emphasized in the New Testament as compared with the Old. With the coming of Christ heaven as it were touches the earth. See N.T.C. on Ephesians, p. 73.
That the heavenly treasures are moth-proof, rust-proof, and burglar-proof (verse 20), in other words, that they endure forever in all their sparkling luster, as the irremovable possession of the children of the heavenly Father, is the teaching of Scripture throughout, for it tells us about:
a faithfulness that will never be removed (Ps. 89:33; 138:8),
a life that will never end (John 3:16),
a spring of water that will never cease to bubble up within the one who drinks of it (John 4:14),
a gift that will never be lost (John 6:37, 39),
a hand out of which the Good Shepherd’s sheep will never be snatched (John 10:28),
a chain that will never be broken (Rom. 8:29, 30),
a love from which we shall never be separated (Rom. 8:39),
a calling that will never be revoked (Rom. 11:29),
a foundation that will never be destroyed (2 Tim. 2:19),
and an inheritance that will never fade out (1 Peter 1:4, 5).
The following questions may well be asked, however, “But if it is wrong to gather treasures on earth, does this mean, then, that making provision for future physical needs is always and absolutely wrong?” “Must all trade, commerce, and industry, carried on for the purpose, at least in part, of making a profit, be condemned?” “Are all rich people to be considered reprobates?” To all three questions the answer is, “No.” God did not condemn Joseph for advising Pharaoh to store up grain for future use (Gen. 41:33–36). Nor were Solomon and Agur wrong in pointing to the ant as an example of the common sense revealed in providing during the summer for the needs of the winter (Prov. 6:6; 30:25). Nor did Paul make a mistake when he wrote 2 Cor. 12:14b and 1 Tim. 5:8. Business and banking are encouraged, by implication, in Christ’s parables (Matt. 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–23). The rich man Abraham (Gen. 13:2) was a friend of God (Isa. 41:8; 2 Chron. 20:7; James 2:23). Rich Zachaeus (Luke 19:2) was accounted worthy to be called “a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9); and wealthy Joseph of Arimathea was a follower of the Lord (Matt. 27:57).
Nevertheless, the accumulation of wealth is fraught with spiritual danger (Matt. 19:24; Luke 12:16–21; 1 Tim. 6:10). To be sure, money can be a great blessing, if it is not an end in itself but a means to an end, namely, a. to prevent one’s own family from becoming a burden to others (1 Tim. 5:8), b. to help those who are in need (Prov. 14:21; 19:17; Acts 4:36, 37; 11:27–30; 24:17; Rom. 15:25; 2 Cor. 8:4, 9; Gal. 2:10; 6:10; Eph. 4:28), and c. to encourage the work of the gospel both at home and abroad (Mark 15:41; Luke 8:2, 3; Acts 16:15, 40; 1 Cor. 9:9; Phil. 4:15–17; 1 Tim. 5:17, 18), all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). However, money can also be a snare (Mark 14:11; Luke 22:5; Acts 8:18, 20).
Naturally, if a person’s real treasure, his ultimate aim in all his striving, is something pertaining to this earth—the acquisition of money, fame, popularity, prestige, power—, then his heart, the very center of his life (Prov. 4:23), will be completely absorbed in that mundane object. All of his activities, including even the so-called religious, will be subservient to this one goal. On the other hand, if, out of sincere and humble gratitude to God, he has made God’s kingdom, that is, the joyful recognition of God’s sovereignty in his own life and in every sphere, his treasure, then there is also where his heart will be. Money, in that case, will be a help, not a hindrance.
A Single Treasure
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (6:19–21)
Lay up (thēsaurizō) and treasures (thēsauros) come from the same basic Greek term, which is also the source of our English thesaurus, a treasury of words. A literal translation of this phrase would therefore be, “do not treasure up treasures for yourselves.”
The Greek also carries the connotation of stacking or laying out horizontally, as one stacks coins. In the context of this passage the idea is that of stockpiling or hoarding, and therefore pictures wealth that is not being used. The money or other wealth is simply stored for safekeeping; it is kept for the keeping’s sake to make a show of wealth or to create an environment of lazy overindulgence (cf. Luke 12:16–21).
It is clear from this passage, as well as from many others in Scripture, that Jesus is not advocating poverty as a means to spirituality. In all of His many different instructions, He only once told a person to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21). In that particular case, the young man’s wealth was his idol, and therefore a special barrier between him and the lordship of Jesus Christ. It provided an excellent opportunity to test whether or not that man was fully committed to turning over the control of his life to Christ. His response proved that he was not. The problem was not in the wealth itself, but the man’s unwillingness to part with it. The Lord did not specifically require His disciples to give up all their money and other possessions to follow Him, although it may be that some of them voluntarily did so. He did require obedience to His commands no matter what that cost. The price was too high for the wealthy young ruler, to whom possessions were the first priority.
Both testaments recognize the right to material possessions, including money, land, animals, houses, clothing, and every other thing that is honestly acquired. God has made many promises of material blessing to those who belong to and are faithful to Him. The foundational truth that underlies the commandments not to steal or covet is the right of personal property. Stealing and coveting are wrong because what is stolen or coveted rightfully belongs to someone else. Ananias and Sapphira did not forfeit their lives because they kept back some of the proceeds from the sale of their property, but because they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3). Holding back some of the money was selfish, especially if they had other assets on which to live, but they had a right to keep it, as Peter makes plain: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control?” (v. 4).
God expects, in fact commands, His people to be generous. But He also expects, and even commands, them not only to be thankful for but to enjoy the blessings He gives-including the material blessings. The Lord “richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). That verse is specifically directed to “those who are rich in this present world,” and yet it does not command, or even suggest, that they divest themselves of their wealth, but rather warns them not to be conceited about it or to trust in it.
Abraham was extremely rich for his day, a person who vied in wealth, influence, and military power with many of the kings in Canaan. When we first meet Job he is vastly wealthy, and when we leave him-after the testing that cost him everything he possessed outside of his own life-God has made him wealthier still, in flocks and herds, in sons and daughters, and in a healthy long life. “And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning” (Job 42:12–17).
The Bible gives considerable counsel for working hard and following good business practices (cf. Matt. 25:27). The ant is shown as a model of the good worker, who“prepares her food in the summer, and gathers her provision in the harvest” (Prov. 6:6–8). We are told that “in all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (14:23) and “by wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches” (24:3–4). “He who tills his land will have plenty of food, but he who follows empty pursuits will have poverty in plenty” (28:19).
Paul tells us that parents are responsible for saving up for their children (2 Cor. 12:14), that “if anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thess. 3:10), and that “if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
During his exceptionally long ministry, which spanned most of the eighteenth century, John Wesley earned a considerable amount of money from his published sermons and other works. Yet he left only 28 pounds when he died, because he continually gave what he earned to the Lord’s work.
It is fight to provide for our families, to make reasonable plans for the future, to make wise investments, and to have money to carry on a business, give to the poor, and support the Lord’s work. It is being dishonest, greedy, covetous, stingy, and miserly about possessions that is wrong. To honestly earn, save, and give is wise and good; to hoard and spend only on ourselves not only is unwise but sinful.
Some years ago, I happened to have contact with two quite wealthy men during the same week. One was a former professor at a major university who, through a long series of good investments in real estate, had accumulated a fortune of possibly a hundred million dollars. But in the process he lost his family, his happiness, his peace of mind, and had aged far beyond his years. The other man, a pastor, also acquired his wealth through investments, but they were investments to which he paid little attention. Because of his financial independence, he gave to his church over the years considerably more than he was paid for being its pastor. He is one of the godliest, happiest, most fruitful, and contented persons I have ever met.
The key to Jesus’ warning here is yourselves. When we accumulate possessions simply for our own sakes-whether to hoard or to spend selfishly and extravagantly-those possessions become idols.
It is possible that both our treasures upon earth and our treasures in heaven can involve money and other material things. Possessions that are wisely, lovingly, willingly, and generously used for kingdom purposes can be a means of accumulating heavenly possessions. When they are hoarded and stored, however, they not only become a spiritual hindrance but are subject to loss through moth, rust, and thieves.
In ancient times, wealth was frequently measured in part by clothing. Compared to our day of mass-produced clothes, garments represented a considerable investment. Rich people sometimes had golden threads woven into their clothing, both to display and to store their wealth. But the best clothes were made of wool, which the moth loves to eat; and even the richest persons had difficulty protecting their clothes from the insects.
Wealth was also often held in grain, as we see from the parable of the rich farmer who said, “I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods” (Luke 12:18). Brōsis (rust) literally means “an eating,” and is translated with that meaning everywhere in the New Testament but here (see Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 8:4, “eating”; 2 Cor. 9:10, “food”; and Heb. 12:16, “meal”). It seems best to take the same meaning here, in reference to grain that is eaten by rats, mice, worms, and insects.
Almost any kind of wealth, of course, is subject to thieves, which is why many people buried their nonperishable valuables in the ground away from the house, often in a field (see Matt. 13:44). Break in is literally “dig through;” and could refer to digging through the mud walls of a house or digging up the dirt in a field.
Nothing we own is completely safe from destruction or theft. And even if we keep our possessions perfectly secure during our entire lives, we are certainly separated from them at death. Many millionaires will be heavenly paupers, and many paupers will be heavenly millionaires.
But when our time, energy, and possessions are used to serve others and to further the Lord’s work, they build up heavenly resources that are completely free from destruction or theft. There neither moth nor rust destroys, and … thieves do not break in or steal. Heavenly security is the only absolute security.
Jesus goes on to point out that a person’ished possessions and his deepest motives and desires are inseparable, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. They will either both be earthly or both be heavenly. It is impossible to have one on earth and the other in heaven (cf. James 4:4),
As always, the heart must be right first. In fact, if the heart is right, everything else in life falls into its proper place. The person who is right with the Lord will be generous and happy in his giving to the Lord’s work. By the same token, a person who is covetous, self-indulgent, and stingy has good reason to question his relationship with the Lord.
Jesus is not saying that if we put our treasure in the right place our heart will then be in the right place, but that the location of our treasure indicates where our heart already is. Spiritual problems are always heart problems. Sinful acts come from a sinful heart, just as righteous acts come from a righteous heart.
When the exiles who came back to Jerusalem from Babylon began turning to God’s Word, a revival also began. “Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people” and various leaders took turns reading “from the law of God” (Neh. 8:5–8). Through hearing God’s Word the people became convicted of their sin, began to praise God, and determined to begin obeying Him and to faithfully support the work of the Temple (chs. 9–10).
Revival that does not affect the use of money and possessions is a questionable revival. As the Tabernacle was being built, “everyone whose heart stirred him and everyone whose spirit moved him came and brought the Lord’s contribution for the work of the tent of meeting and for all its service and for the holy garments” (Ex. 35:21). As plans were being made to build the Temple, David himself gave generously to the work, and “the rulers of the fathers’ households, and the princes of the tribes of Israel, and the commanders of thousands and of hundreds, with the overseers over the king’s work, offered willingly … Then the people rejoiced because they had offered so willingly, for they made their offering to the Lord with a whole heart, and King David also rejoiced greatly” (1 Chron. 29:2–6, 9).
G. Campbell Morgan wrote:
You are to remember with the passion burning within you that you are not the child of to-day. You are not of the earth, you are more than dust; you are the child of tomorrow, you are of the eternities, you are the offspring of Deity. The measurements of your lives cannot be circumscribed by the point where blue sky kisses green earth. All the fact of your life cannot be encompassed in the one small sphere upon which you live. You belong to the infinite. If you make your fortune on the earth-poor, sorry, silly soul-you have made a fortune, and stored it in a place where you cannot hold it. Make your fortune, but store it where it will greet you in the dawning of the new morning. (The Gospel According to Matthew [New York: Revell, 1929], pp. 64–65)
When thousands of people, mostly Jews, were won to Christ during and soon after Pentecost, the Jerusalem church was flooded with many converts who had come from distant lands and who decided to stay on in the city. Many of them no doubt were poor, and many others probably left most of their wealth and possessions in their homelands. To meet the great financial burden suddenly placed on the church, local believers “began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need” (Acts 2:45).
Many years later, during one of the many Roman persecutions, soldiers broke into a certain church to confiscate its presumed treasures. An elder is said to have pointed to a group of widows and orphans who were being fed and said, “There are the treasures of the church.”
God’s principle for His people has always been, “Honor the Lord from your wealth, and from the first of all your produce; so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine” (Prov. 3:9–10). Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return” (Luke 6:38). Paul assures us that “he who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly; and he who sows bountifully shall also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:6). That is God’s formula for earning dividends that are both guaranteed and permanent.
At the end of His parable about the dishonest but shrewd steward, Jesus said, “I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). Our material possessions are “unrighteous” in the sense of not having any spiritual value in themselves. But if we invest them in the welfare of human souls, the people who are saved or otherwise blessed because of them will someday greet us in heaven with thanksgiving.
19 The present tense prohibition mē thēsaurizete (GK 2564) conceives of the “storing up” as a process, a practice that must be stopped (similarly at v. 25).
The love of wealth is a great evil (1 Ti 6:10), calling forth frequent warnings. For heirs of the kingdom to hoard riches in the last days (Jas 5:2–3) is particularly shortsighted. Yet, as with many of Jesus’ prohibitions in this sermon, it would be foolhardy so to absolutize this one that wealth itself becomes an evil (see Lk 14:12; Jn 4:21; 1 Pe 3:3–4 for other statements that cannot properly be absolutized). Elsewhere the Scriptures require a man to provide for his relatives (1 Ti 5:8), commend work and provision for the future (Pr 6:6–8), and encourage us to enjoy the good things the Creator has given us (1 Ti 4:3–4; 6:17). Jesus is concerned about selfishness in misplaced values. His disciples must not lay up treasure for themselves; they must honestly ask where their heart is (vv. 20–21).
This verse does not prohibit “being provident (making sensible provision for the future) but being covetous (like misers who hoard and materialists who always want more)” (Stott, Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 155). But it is folly to put oneself in the former category while acting and thinking in the latter (cf. France, “God and Mammon”).
The “treasures on earth” might be clothing that could be attacked by moths. Fashions changed little, and garments could be passed on. They could also deteriorate. “Rust” (brōsis, GK 1111) refers not only to the corrosion of metals but to the destruction effected by rats, mildew, and the like. Older commentaries often picture a farm being devoured by mice and other vermin. Less corruptible treasures could be stolen. Thieves could “break in [dioryssousin, “dig through,” referring to the mud brick walls of most first-century Palestinian homes] and steal.”
20–21 By contrast, the treasures in heaven are forever exempt from decay and theft (cf. Lk 12:33). The words “treasures in heaven” go back to Jewish literature (m. Peʾah 1:1; T. Levi 13:5; Pss. Sol. 9:9). Here it refers to whatever is of good and eternal significance that comes out of what is done on earth. Doing righteous deeds, suffering for Christ’s sake, forgiving one another—all these have the promise of “reward” (see comments at 5:12; cf. 5:30, 46; 6:6, 15; 2 Co 4:17). Other deeds of kindness also store up treasure in heaven (10:42; 25:40), including willingness to share (1 Ti 6:13–19).
In the best MSS, the final aphorism (v. 21) reverts to second person singular (cf. vv. 2, 6, 17; see comments at 5:23). The point is that the things most highly treasured occupy the “heart,” the center of the personality, embracing mind, emotions, and will (cf. NIDNTT, 2:180–84), and thus the most cherished treasure subtly but infallibly controls the whole person’s direction and values. “If honor is rated the highest good, then ambition must take complete charge of a man; if money, then forthwith greed takes over the kingdom; if pleasure, then men will certainly degenerate into sheer self-indulgence” (Calvin). Conversely, those who set their minds on things above (Col 3:1–2), determining to live under kingdom norms, discover at last that their deeds follow them (Rev 14:13).
 MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 164). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1225). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 343–346). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 409–413). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 211–212). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.