Category Archives: James Montgomery Boice

June 24, 2017: Verse of the day

img_1364-1

The Friends of Jesus Love Each Other

This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (15:12–13)

For the second time that evening in the upper room, Jesus gave the commandment that His followers are to love one another (cf. 13:34). Love is the fulfillment of the commandments Jesus had referred to in 15:10. Paul expressed that same principle to the Christians at Rome:

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom. 13:8–10)

Only those who abide in Him have the capacity to love divinely as Jesus loved. At the new birth, the “love of God [was] poured out within [their] hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to [them]” (Rom. 5:5; cf. Gal. 5:22). What Paul wrote concerning the Thessalonians, “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another” (1 Thess. 4:9), is true of all Christians. Love for fellow believers characterizes the redeemed, as John repeatedly emphasized in his first epistle:

The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (2:9–11)

By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. (3:10)

We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (3:14–15)

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (4:7–8)

If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. (4:20)

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. (5:1)

The daunting standard for believers’ love for each other is set forth in Jesus’ words just as I have loved you. They are to love each other as the Lord Jesus Christ loves them. That does not mean, of course, that believers can love to the limitless extent or in the perfect manner that He does. But just as Jesus loved sacrificially, so also must they. “Walk in love,” Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:2, “just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” The love believers have for each other is marked by a selfless devotion to meeting one another’s needs; it is not mere sentiment, or superficial attachment. In fact, Christians’ love for each other is the church’s most powerful apologetic to the unbelieving world (John 13:35).

The Lord’s death, at that point only a matter of hours away, was the supreme evidence of His love, as His statement Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends indicates. Jesus did not die for Himself, but so that others might live. In Romans 5:6–8 Paul wrote,

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

In a marvelously concise statement—only fifteen words in the Greek text—Paul summarized Christ’s substitutionary atonement for believers: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Peter reminded his readers that “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Echoing the Lord’s words in this passage, John wrote, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). Then the apostle expressed the practical implications of that truth: “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (vv. 17–18). The friends of Jesus Christ show their love for one another by humbly meeting each other’s needs.[1]


No Greater Love

John 15:12–14

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”

There is something charming about the word “friend” or “friendship.” It is due partly to our desire for a close friend or friends and partly, too, to our remembrance of them. We look to our past and can almost mark the major periods of our lives by friends we have had. We think of the friends who went to grade school with us and of the things we did with them. Perhaps at the point of going into high school we made different friends, and we think sometimes, not only of the friends, but of the adventures we had—sometimes adventures that the teachers or other authorities did not entirely appreciate. We have had college friends and those we have acquired later in life. We value friendship and know that we would be much impoverished if we had no friends at all.

It is this awareness that probably gives the verses to which we now come their special appeal, for in them the Lord Jesus Christ, the great incarnate God of the universe, speaks of friendship in terms of our relationships to him. He calls us friends, saying, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

Human Friendship

When Jesus says, “You are my friends,” it is evident that he is speaking to us on the human level in terms we can clearly understand. And he is doing so—we cannot fail to see it—so that we might contrast his friendship, which is great and perfect, to even the best of the other friendships we have known.

The best known of the biblical examples is the friendship between Jonathan, the son of King Saul, and David, the young hero of Israel. Jonathan was in line for the throne. But David was so evidently blessed of God that the people were saying that he should be the next king. Here was cause for great antagonism, antagonism between the apparent rights of the one and the supposed aspirations of the other. But there was no antagonism. Instead there was a great and beautiful friendship. It was a case in which each sacrificed in order to put the other’s interests ahead of his own.

Sometimes the love that exists between one friend and another leads to the ultimate sacrifice, to death. A friend of mine tells that as he was growing up he knew a man who in a sublime moment of self-sacrifice gave his life to try to save his grandson. The two were out in a boat on the Monongahela River in West Virgina, and neither of them could swim. The child, for one reason or another, fell overboard and was drowning. So the man jumped in after the child. Both drowned. But afterward when they found the bodies, the grandfather still had the young child clutched in his arms. He had been so anxious to save his grandson that he had not even opened up his arms to attempt to swim to save himself.

When we hear a story like that we tend to become silent, for we know that we stand before something sublime. It is the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of one’s life. Because of such sacrifices we understand what the Lord is saying when he declares in clear reference to his own self-sacrifice: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Friend of Sinners

On the other hand, it is not really fair to talk about Jesus’ sacrifice in merely human terms, for his death surpasses anything we can imagine. It may not happen often, but sometimes one human being will voluntarily die for another; still, this gift never equals or even parallels Jesus’ sacrifice. We see this when we reflect on Jesus’ death.

First, when we begin to reflect on Jesus’ death we recognize that his death was exceptional if only because Jesus did not have to die. That is not true of us. We are mortal. We must die. But Jesus was immortal and therefore did not have to die. Indeed, he was life itself; for he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). He could have come into this world, performed a full and varied ministry, and then have returned to heaven without ever having experienced death. On the other hand, of us it is said, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). What does this mean in terms of self-sacrifice? Merely this. If you or I were to give our lives for someone else, while that would undoubtedly be a great and heroic sacrifice, it would nevertheless at best be merely an anticipation of what must eventually come anyway. We would simply be dying a bit sooner than normally. The Lord did not need to die under any circumstances.

Second, the death of the Lord Jesus Christ is exceptional in that he knew he would die. Again, this is not usually the case when a mere man or woman gives his or her life for another. Few who die in this way do so knowing in advance that they will die. Rather, it is usually the case that although the act is a risk and death is possible, they nevertheless think they may escape death while yet saving their friend. People take calculated risks and sometimes die, but they do not often die deliberately. Jesus by his own testimony deliberately went to the cross to die for our salvation.

There is another area in which the love of the Lord Jesus Christ for his friends shines brighter than any love of which we are capable. The text says that we are Christ’s friends and that he was going to give his life for his friends. But if we think of this closely and honestly, we must recognize that, when the Lord Jesus gave his life for us, strictly speaking we were not exactly his friends. True, he calls us friends. It is also true that we become his friends. But we become friends because of his act, because of his electing grace toward us manifesting itself in the atonement and in the ministry of his Spirit by which our natural rebellion against God is overcome and our hearts are drawn to love and serve Jesus. When he died for us, or (if we may push that even farther back) when in eternity past he determined to die for us, he did so while we were yet enemies or were forseen to be enemies. It was “while we were still sinners, [that] Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

Here especially do we see the wonderful love of the Lord Jesus Christ. So long as we think of ourselves as being somewhat good in God’s sight we do not see it. But when we see ourselves as God sees us, then the surpassing worth of the love of Christ becomes evident.

It is this that leads up to the verse I have just quoted from Paul’s treatment of the human condition in Romans. The opening chapter of that book deals with man’s sin, showing how all men and women have possessed a certain knowledge of God but have turned from that knowledge in order to worship a god of their own devising. Paul says that a certain knowledge of the existence and power of God is disclosed in nature and in the consciences of all men and women. But we have rejected that knowledge. Paul says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles ” (Rom. 1:21–23).

There are certain consequences of this, as the chapter goes on to show. We have given up God. So, says Paul, in a certain sense God has given us up. He has given us up to certain consequences. Three times in this chapter we read that “God gave them over.” In every case, however, we are told what God gave them over to. This is important, for it is not as if God were holding the human race in his hand and then let go with the result that the human race simply drifted off into nowhere. If I let go of an object, the object falls. I have not given it up to nothing. I have given it up to the law of gravity, and the law of gravity draws it downward. In the same way, God gives us over to the sad consequences of our rebellion.

First of all, God has given us over to “sexual impurity” (v. 24). That is, when we turn our backs upon God, who is perfect in his purity, we inevitably become dirty spiritually.

Second, God has given us over to “shameful lusts” (v. 26). That is, the good affections we have and that we rightly cherish become warped because they are severed from their source. Love becomes lust. A proper sense of responsibility becomes the driving pride of personal ambition. Self-sacrifice becomes selfishness, and so on.

Third, God says that he has given us over to a “depraved mind” (v. 28). This means that we have developed a way of thinking that is antagonistic toward God so that we are constantly devising philosophies and actions that try to eliminate his presence from our lives.

These important verses from Romans give God’s assessment of the human race. He made us. More than this, he made us in his own image. But we have rebelled against him and defaced that image. Instead of God’s glory, we have advanced man’s depravity. Instead of his sovereignty, we have sought human autonomy. Instead of holiness, we have sin. Instead of love, hate. Yet, in spite of our depravity, Christ came to be our friend and prove his friendship by dying for us. As Paul states, “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6–8).

Spiritual Death

There is one more reason why the love of the Lord Jesus Christ for his friends, seen in his death for us, is superior to all human loves. The death of the Lord was a spiritual death, whereas ours, if we are Christians, is only physical.

If we were to give our life for someone else, the death we would endure would be only physical. We cannot die spiritually in the place of another person. But that is precisely what Jesus Christ did. Death is separation. Physical death is the separation of the soul and spirit from the body. Spiritual death is the separation of the soul and spirit from God. This is what makes hell such a terrible place; those in hell are separated from God. And because God is the source of all good—all joy, peace, love, and other blessings—hell is the opposite. It is misery, unrest, hate, and so on. This is the separation that Jesus endured for us. He died physically also; that is true. His death was particularly painful and degrading. But the truly horrible aspect of his death was his separation from the Father when he was made sin for us and bore sin’s punishment.

This is the meaning of the cry wrung from his lips in that moment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I do not know how to explain that. I do not know how it is possible for the second person of the Godhead to be separated from the first person of the Godhead, even for a brief time, as this was. But this is what happened as Jesus experienced ultimate spiritual death in order that we might never have to experience it. Love like that goes beyond our best understanding.

These truths and more are involved in Christ’s statement: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” We read that and acknowledge its truth. But then we go on to say, “Yes, and greater love has no one at all—either man, devil, or angel—than that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, should die a spiritual death for us sinners.”

Do you know him as the One who demonstrated his love and friendship for you by thus dying? Is he your friend in that sense? If not, you are not yet truly a Christian. But you can be. You can find him to be your friend, indeed, a superlative friend. As the hymn says:

There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus,

No not one! No not one!

You need only come to him, confessing your sin and acknowledging your need of him to be your Savior.

Friends of Jesus

There is one other question that arises from our text. I have asked, “Is Jesus your friend?” This is the question that emerges from verse 13 in which Jesus speaks of his love and, therefore, of his friendship for us. But in the next verse we have what might be called the other side of that question. It is, “Are you Christ’s friend?” Jesus suggests this when he declares, “you are my friends if you do what I command you” (v. 14).

I am glad the Lord put it as he did, for I suppose that if we had come to him and had asked, “Lord, you have shown yourself to be a friend to us; what must we do to be your friends?” Jesus could have answered, “You have my example of what a true friend is; do that.” But if he had said that, we would have been discouraged. How could you or I do that—love as he loves, give ourselves as he gave himself? It is impossible for us to die spiritually for someone else. If Jesus had required us to do all he did, it would be impossible to become his friend. But he did not say that. Instead, he put the requirements in our terms and on our level, saying, “You can be my friends if you will only do what I command you.” This means that we are to show our friendship to him by simple obedience.

Did I say “simple”? Yes, it is simple; but it is simple obedience, and this means that it must be active, continuous, and in all things. We see that our obedience must be active, for Jesus said, “You are my friends if ye do. …” Unfortunately some Christians talk about the Christian life as though it consisted largely in refusing to do certain things. If we fall into that way of thinking, we imagine after we have refused to drink alcohol, refused to play cards, refused to have extramarital sex, refused to cheat in business, and so on, that we have done a great deal. But we have not. We have obeyed negatively but not positively. Christ calls upon us to love one another, and that cannot be done except in very practical ways. We are also to pray. We are to worship with other Christians. Our lives are to be marked by good deeds. It would make a great difference in the lives of many Christians if, as they read their Bibles and pray each day, they would pause as part of their devotions to ask what practical things the Lord would have them do.

Second, our obedience should also be continuous. Jesus did not say, “If you do what I command and then quit” or “If you do it on Sundays” or “If you do it when you feel like it.” The verb is a present subjunctive meaning “If you are doing.” The idea is of continuous action, day after day, year after year. There is no vacation from being a disciple of the Lord.

Finally, our obedience is to be in all things, for he says, “If you do whatever I command you.” It means coming to him in love to do whatever he asks of us, not picking and choosing as some do, not exalting those aspects of the Christian faith we like and neglecting those we dislike. Rather it means coming with that yielded humility of mind and body that places us prostrate at his feet and asks from that position, “Lord, what will you have me do?” It is only when we ask that question and mean it that we find ourselves being lifted up to do the great errands of our king, and not as slave either, but rather as a friend of Jesus.

I asked earlier, “Is Jesus your friend?” Now I must ask, “Are you Christ’s friend by this definition?” God grant that you might be, to your own great joy and to the praise of his glory.[2]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 156–158). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1177–1182). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

June 22, 2017: Verse of the day

img_1361

The Preaching of the Mystery

of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; (3:7–9)

The gospel is spread by men whom God calls to proclaim it, and it is the gospel of which Paul was made a minister. “How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?” Paul asks in Romans. “And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). Although they had heard God’s truth, many Israelites did not “heed the glad tidings; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ ” (v. 16)—just as many who hear the gospel do not heed it. But it must be heard before it can be heeded, and Paul’s calling, like the calling of every preacher, was to proclaim God’s good news as a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace. In a similar line of thought in 1 Corinthians, Paul emphasizes this calling of grace: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with Me” (1 Cor. 15:10).

Minister is from diakonos, the basic meaning of which is servant, in particular a servant who waits on tables. It later came to refer to servants in general. By definition, a servant is one who acts on the commands of others, who recognizes and submits to a higher power. His primary responsibility is to do what he is told to do. Paul’s single responsibility was to faithfully be a servant, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to [him] according to the working of His power. “What then is Apollos?” Paul asked the factious Corinthians. “And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one” (1 Cor. 3:5). The Lord is the power behind the servant. To the Colossians the apostle said, “I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (Col. 1:29).

Paul emphasizes the fact that he did not make himself a minister but that he was made a minister (cf. Col. 1:23, 25). The calling, the message, the work, and the empowering were all God’s. When he was first saved on the Damascus Road, and while he was still blinded from the great light, Paul was given his commission by Jesus. “Arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness” (Acts 26:16). It was not Paul’s education, natural abilities, experience, power, personality, influence, or any other such thing that qualified him to be a minister of Jesus Christ. He was made an apostle, a preacher, and a servant by the will and power of His Lord He felt unworthy of any reward, as if he had sought sacrificially to serve in this way. The choice was not his at all, so he deserved no commendation (1 Cor. 9:16–18). He did not want accolades but prayers, because he was in serious trouble if he failed to fulfill a calling he had not even chosen!

Any person in the ministry of the church whom God has not appointed is a usurper. No matter how seemingly good his intentions, he can do nothing but harm to the work of the Lord and to the Lord’s people. Jeremiah speaks to this matter when he writes the Lord’s word: “I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied. … I did not send them or command them” (Jer. 23:21, 32). No man should enter the ministry unless he is absolutely certain of the Lord’s calling.

The key for present knowledge of a divine call is given in 1 Timothy 3, where Paul speaks of the pastor or spiritual overseer as a man who “aspires to the office” and who is verified and approved by those who know him as one who is “above reproach” (vv. 3–7). The present call, then, is bound up in a man’s strong desire and affirmation as to a godly life. God calls through desire and church verification.

Then or now, the man who is genuinely called by God is in constant danger of losing his effectiveness by coming to think of himself as more than a servant. When he loses his sense of servanthood, at that same time he loses his spiritual power and usefulness. When he exalts himself and begins to work in his own human power and according to his own plans, he competes with God and forfeits his spiritual power. To lose dependence is to lose everything, because everything that is of any value in our lives, including power for effective service, comes only from the Lord. Among the greatest dangers to the ministry, and to all faithful Christian living, are things that in the world’s eyes are of supreme value—personal ambition, prestige, recognition, honor, reputation, and success. God not only chooses weak and foolish people to save (1 Cor. 1:26–29), but weak and foolish preachers through whom to save them (2 Cor. 11:30; 12:7–10). For those not willing to pay that price, their seeking the position is illegitimate.

Unholiness is also a disqualification, prompting Paul to say, “I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27).

Paul’s calling to the ministry of the gospel, like everything else he received from the Lord, was the gift of God’s grace. To me, the very least of all the saints, he goes on to say, this grace was given. Though an apostle and a specially chosen minister of the mysteries of the gospel, Paul considered himself the very least of all the saints. The term very least is a comparative, indicating less than the least. That was not mock humility but his honest assessment of himself. Because he had such an unusually clear comprehension of God’s righteousness, he also had an unusually clear understanding of how far short he himself fell of that righteousness. Paul claimed no second work of grace by which he was perfected in holiness, love, or anything else. To the end of his life he considered himself the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) and was overwhelmed by his sense of unworthiness. That attitude does not limit a man’s service but rather is the key to his usefulness (cf. Gideon in Judges 6:15–16 and Isaiah in Isa. 6:1–9).

The unfathomable riches of Christ include all His truths and all His blessings, all that He is and has. The purpose of every preacher is to declare those riches, to tell believers how rich they are in Christ. That is why it is so important for Christians to understand the greatness of their position in the Lord. The obedient, productive, and happy Christian life cannot be lived apart from understanding that glorious position. Before we can do what the Lord wants us to do for Him, we must understand what He already has done for us. We have riches beyond measure in the One of whom it was said, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3) and in the One in whom we have “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3).

Among the unfathomable riches with which Christ has blessed us are “His kindness and forbearance and patience” (Rom. 2:4), His “wisdom and knowledge” (11:33), His mercy and great love (Eph. 2:4), “His glory” (3:16), His supplying us with “all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17), His assurance (Col. 2:2), His word (3:16), and even our being reproached for His sake (Heb. 11:26). Little wonder that Paul triumphantly reminds us that “in Him you have been made complete” (Col. 2:10).

Simply knowing about the riches of Christ is not enough, however. When we fall into sin and disobedience we forfeit the present blessing of those riches, just as did the fleshly, disobedient Corinthian believers. “You are already filled,” Paul told them sarcastically. “You have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you” (1 Cor. 4:8). Like the Laodiceans, they thought they were rich and in need of nothing, not realizing that they were really “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17).

Paul’s ministry was also to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things. Administration is from the same Greek word (oikonomia) as “stewardship” in verse 2. Paul is saying, in effect, “I am not only called in the vertical area to preach the unfathomable riches of Christ, but in the horizontal area to teach about the administration, the stewardship or dispensation, of the mystery of the church age.” The first area deals with our relationship to God and the second with our daily living and our ministry to each other as fellow believers.

Paul’s mission was to bring to light, or reveal, the full expression of the operation of this great truth of Gentile and Jews being one, a truth hidden for so long in the mind of God the Creator.[1]


The Meaning and End of History

Ephesians 3:7–13

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.

Not many people are as forthright in their evaluation of history as Henry Ford, the inventor and industrialist, but there is a feeling in many secular minds that Ford may have been right. In 1919 during his libel suit against the Chicago Tribune, Ford said, “History is bunk.” On another occasion, when he was asked about history’s meaning, Ford said, “History is the succession of one damned thing after another.”2

Secular Views of History

Many resist Henry Ford’s view, of course, because to live in a world without meaning is to live a life without meaning. One who resisted it strongly was Karl Marx. He had no room for God; he was an atheist. But he took Hegel’s historical dialectic, coupled it to Feuerbach’s materialism, and produced his own vision of a history that had purpose and was going somewhere. Feuerbach had taught, with a German pun, that “der Mench ist was er isst” (“man is what he eats”), that material factors are everything. Marx accepted this, but added that material forces would produce a class struggle, revolution, and eventually a classless society.

Until relatively recent times most people living in Western societies held a similar, though not necessarily atheistic, view. It was known as a belief in progress. I have always associated that belief with those popular cinematic newsreels produced by the Time/Life company before, during, and for a time after World War II. They were called The March of Time. There was stirring “martial” music, the voice of an assured announcer, and a sequence of scenes from around the world that sometimes left the viewer dazzled with all that seemed to be happening in this fast-paced, modern age.

What a vision! How inevitable the perfection of all things seemed! Yet it is increasingly difficult to maintain this optimism in the face of two world wars, numerous lesser wars, and epidemics of senseless death and violence that sweep over our planet with increasing frequency.

The two most distinguished modern historians, Germany’s Oswald Spengler and England’s Arnold Toynbee, both concluded that the overall pattern of history was a recurring cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death—the same pattern the Greeks discerned thousands of years earlier. Spengler and Toynbee do not analyze national and historical movements in the same way. They are not equally pessimistic. But fundamental to their approaches is the shared conviction that nothing is permanent, that all is relative, and that even the best civilizations are destined to pass away. Spengler wrote this conviction into the title of his work, calling it The Decline of the West.

The Turning Point

What is history about? Historians study kings, queens, presidents, generals, inventors, nations, wars, battles, peace treaties, and geography—as they struggle to bring meaning to a chaos of events. But in writing to the Ephesians the apostle Paul, who was himself no mean historian, turns to the church as the focal point of world history. This is the point upon which God’s purpose is focused, he says. “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10–11).

Paul’s view of the historical significance of the church could not be more in conflict with prevailing secular opinions. John Stott expresses it like this: “Secular history concentrates its attention on kings, queens, and presidents, on politicians and generals, in fact on ‘VIPs.’ The Bible concentrates rather on a group it calls ‘the saints,’ often little people, insignificant people, unimportant people, who are however at the same time God’s people—and for that reason are both ‘unknown (to the world) and yet well-known to God.’

“Secular history concentrates on wars, battles and peace-treaties, followed by yet more wars, battles and peace-treaties. The Bible concentrates rather on the war between good and evil, on the decisive victory won by Jesus Christ over the powers of darkness, on the peace-treaty ratified by his blood, and on the sovereign proclamation of an amnesty for all rebels who will repent and believe.

“Again, secular history concentrates on the changing map of the world, as one nation defeats another and annexes its territory, and on the rise and fall of empires. The Bible concentrates rather on a multi-national community called ‘the church,’ which has no territorial frontiers, which claims nothing less than the whole world for Christ, and whose empire will never come to an end.”

This is the great reality Paul holds before our gaze as he makes known “the administration of [the] mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God” but is now revealed (v. 9).

What is God Doing?

It is not only we, the members of the church, who are directed to look at this mystery. “The rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” are also said to be looking at the church as the place where God’s manifold wisdom is made known (v. 10). What is that “manifold wisdom” these heavenly authorities are to see? What is the purpose of God made known in the worldwide community of God’s people? The passage suggests three things.

  1. The bringing together of otherwise divided individuals in Christ. This point has already been made in the verses that concluded the second chapter of Ephesians and began the third, and it is undoubtedly the chief thing Paul is thinking about. He is writing to Gentiles, who before the coming of Christ and the founding of his church were cut off from Israel’s spiritual blessings and were despised by the covenant people, and he is telling them that the period of alienation is now over and that the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down. Gentiles are now one with Jews within the fellowship of Christ’s church.

But there is more in this uniting of people described in the middle portion of the chapter. Earlier Paul had focused on the historical change that took place as the result of Christ’s death, in which Jews and Gentiles were brought together. Here he is looking to the distant past and forward to the distant future and is suggesting, I believe, a far greater harmonization.

I say this because of Paul’s reference to God as the creator of all things (v. 9). The mere mention of creation makes us think back to those pristine days of earth’s history in which the originally perfect world was marred by man’s sin. Before the Fall, the harmony between the first man and first woman was analogous to the harmony within the Godhead. It was a unity of mind, purpose, goals, and will. After sin entered, that unity was broken. The man and woman hid, thereby attempting to escape God’s presence. It was a dramatization of their rupture with God. But immediately after this, when God called them forth to meet him and answer questions concerning their conduct, they began to excuse themselves and blame others, thereby disclosing their corresponding alienation on the human level. God asked Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Gen. 3:11).

Adam replied, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (v. 12). In these words Adam blamed both the woman (“she gave me some fruit”) and God (“the woman you gave me”), and thus displayed that wretched self-righteousness which is a persistent and devastating fact of human history.

In the church God is bringing these otherwise alienated and mutually accusing entities together on a basis that excludes any real cause for alienation. The church is a community of sinners redeemed by Christ and forgiven by God. If salvation were of works, as we might like and even the watching angels might have supposed it would be, the alienation would not have been removed. One person would still feel superior to another, and boasting of moral or spiritual merit would fracture the church and eventually sully heaven. But salvation is not achieved by works. God has achieved it and made it available to us by grace alone. Thus boasting is excluded, and men and women of all races and nations meet as forgiven sinners within the church’s fellowship.

This is something the angels might well look upon and marvel at. It is an achievement in which even we may see the goal of human history.

  1. The displaying of Christ by Christian people in the world. Up to now I have been talking about the church as the focus of world history, the point where its meaning can be found. But it is equally right to speak of Jesus Christ as the focal point which, of course, is precisely what Paul does. Ephesians 3:9–10 uses the word “mystery” of the church. But an earlier reference is to “the mystery of Christ” (v. 4), and the remaining references are to the “gospel” which is centered in him and has for its object the salvation of the church which is his body.

It is this idea, the idea of the church as Christ’s body, which holds the two foci of Paul’s thought together. For in Paul’s view, the church is the focal point of history only because it is the focal point of Christ’s work.

At the beginning of his influential and much discussed book Christ and Time, Oscar Cullmann of the University of Basel called attention to the fact that in the Western world we do not reckon time in a continuous forward-moving series that begins at a fixed initial point, but from a center from which time is reckoned both forward and backward. The Jewish calendar begins from what it regards as the date of the creation of the world and moves on from that point. But we begin with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth—fixed within the space of a few years—and then number in two directions: forward, in an increasing succession of years which we identify as a.d. (anno Domini “in the year of [our] Lord”), and backward, in a regression of years which we identify as b.c. (“before Christ”).

A secular historian might judge that the coming of Jesus was pivotal because of Jesus’ obvious influence on later history. But the Christian conviction, symbolized by the division of time, goes beyond this. As Cullmann says, “The modern historian may when pressed find a historically confirmed meaning in the fact that the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth is regarded as a decisive turning point of history. But the theological affirmation which lies at the basis of the Christian chronology goes far beyond the confirmation that Christianity brought with it weighty historical changes. It asserts rather that from this mid-point all history is to be understood and judged.”

Christianity affirms that apart from Christ there is no way of determining what history as a whole is all about, nor can we legitimately weigh historical events so that one may be pronounced better or more significant than another. With Christ both these essentials for a true historical outlook are provided.

Moreover, it is in the church alone that this can be seen. When we are talking about Christ we are not talking about some vague historical idea or some abstract principle for measuring the meaning of life. We are talking about a person who lives in us and can be known to others as we model him before a watching world. It is not a dead Jesus whom Christians serve, but a living one. Where can people see him except in the church, which gives, as it were, hands and feet, nerves and sinews to his life?

  1. Proof of the principle that suffering for truth and righteousness is the way to glory and the secret of true happiness. I add this point because the way of Jesus is the way of suffering—he said, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. … If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:19–20)—and because Paul quite naturally alludes to his own sufferings at the close of this section.

Is the meaning of history some promise of Jesus to make you blissfully happy and solve all your problems, to make you materially prosperous, successful, esteemed, and healthy? Hardly! Here in a nutshell is what I think the purpose of history is, as demonstrated in the lives of those who have been saved from sin by Jesus.

When Satan rebelled against God and carried the host of fallen angels, now demons, with him into eternal ruin, God could have crushed the rebellion and annihilated Satan and his hosts forever. That would have been just and reasonable. It might even have been merciful; for if God had gone on to create Adam and Eve, as he had no doubt determined to do beforehand, Satan would not have been there to tempt them, the pair would not have fallen, and sin and death would not have passed upon the race.

But this would not have shown God’s “manifold wisdom.” It would have shown his power and perhaps even his mercy. But it would not have shown that God’s way, the way of truth and righteousness, is the only really good way and the only sure path to happiness.

So instead of annihilating Satan, God took an entirely different path: “I have already determined to create a race called man, and I know in advance, because I know all things, that Satan will seduce him from my righteousness and plunge him into misery. Satan will think he has won. But while Satan is doing that—turning the human race against me and setting individual human beings against one another and even against themselves—I will begin to create a new people who will glory in doing what is right, even when it is not popular, and who will delight in pleasing me, even when they suffer for it. Satan will say, ‘Your people serve you only because you protect them, only because you provide for them materially.’ But here and there in a great variety of ways I will allow them to be greatly abused and persecuted, and I will show by their reactions that not only will they continue to praise me in their suffering, and thus bring glory to my name, but that they will even be happier in their sufferings than Satan’s people will be with their maximum share of human prestige and possessions.”

So God let history unfold like a great drama upon a cosmic stage. The angels are the audience. We are the actors. Satan is there to do everything he can to resist and thwart God’s purposes. This drama unfolds across the centuries as Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and all the other dramatis personae of Christian history, both the great persons and the minor persons, are brought on stage to play the part God has assigned them and speak words that come from hearts that love him. Adam proved that God’s way is the best way, and he repented of his sin and trusted in the coming of Jesus. So did Eve and Noah and all the others. All these endured as seeing by faith him who is invisible, and they looked beyond the distresses of this life for their reward.

Now you and I are the players in this drama. Satan is attacking, and the angels are straining forward to look on. Are they seeing the “manifold wisdom” of God in you as you go through your part and speak your lines? They must see it, for it can be seen in you alone. It is there—where you work and play and think and speak—that the meaning and end of history is found.[2]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 93–95). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1988). Ephesians: an expositional commentary (pp. 101–106). Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library.

June 20, 2017: Verse of the day

img_1358

Their Position

But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (6:17–18)

First the apostle gives thanks … to God that his believing readers were no longer subject to the slavery that leads to death. He does not thank or praise them for their own wisdom or intelligence or moral and spiritual determination, because none of those things had a part in their salvation. “No one can come to Me,” Jesus said, “unless the Father who sent Me draws him, … [and] unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:44, 65). Our thanks for salvation should always be to God alone, because it is God alone “who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57).

Believers are saved solely by the grace and power of God. And by His grace, habitual disobedience to Him is in the past tense. Formerly, Paul says, you were slaves of sin, but no more. Were translates an imperfect Greek tense, signifying an ongoing reality In other words, the unregenerate person is under the continual, unbroken slavery of sin. That is the universal position of the natural man, with no exceptions. No matter how outwardly moral, upright, or benevolent an unsaved person’s life may be, all that he thinks, says, and does emanates from a proud, sinful, ungodly heart. Quoting from Psalm 14, Paul had already made that truth clear. “As it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one’ ” (Rom. 3:10–12).

That Paul is not speaking about merely outward righteousness is made clear from his declaration that you became obedient from the heart. God works His salvation in a persons innermost being. Through the grace provided by His Son, God changes men’s very natures when they trust in Him. A person whose heart has not been changed has not been saved. Righteous living that issues from an obedient … heart is habitual. And just as God’s grace operates only through a trusting heart, His righteousness operates only through an obedient heart.

Faith and obedience are inescapably related. There is no saving faith in God apart from obedience to God, and there can be no godly obedience without godly faith. As the beautiful and popular hymn admonishes, “Trust and obey, there’s no other way.” Our Lord “gave Himself for us,” Paul says, not only to save us from hell and take us to heaven but to “redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14).

Salvation comes “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit,” Peter wrote to persecuted believers throughout the Roman world, in order that those who believe may “obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood” (a symbol referring to a covenant of obedience, see Ex. 24:1–8). Later in the epistle he admonished: “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:2, 22–23; emphasis added). Obedience to Jesus Christ and obedience to His truth are totally synonymous, and His truth is “the living and abiding word of God.”

Obedience neither produces nor maintains salvation, but it is an inevitable characteristic of those who are saved. Belief itself is an act of obedience, made possible and prompted by God’s sovereign grace, yet always involving the uncoerced will of the believer. A person is not transported passively from slavery in Satan’s kingdom of darkness to slavery in God’s kingdom of light. Salvation does not occur apart from an act of commitment on the believer’s part. The life-changing work of salvation is by God’s power alone, but it does not work apart from man’s will. God has no unwilling children in His family, no unwilling citizens in His kingdom.

Genuine faith not only is in God’s Son but in God’s truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6). Paul had confidence in the salvation of his readers in the church at Rome because they obeyed to that form of teaching to which [they] were committed. No believer, of course, comprehends all of God’s truth. Even the most mature and faithful Christian only begins to fathom the riches of God’s Word in this present life. But the desire to know and obey God’s truth is one of the surest marks of genuine salvation. From its inception, the early church was characterized by its devotion “to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). And Jesus made it clear that those who obeyed His word were the true believers (see John 8:31; 14:21, 23, 24; 15:10; etc.).

Form translates tupos, which was used of the molds into which molten metal for castings was poured. Committed translates the aorist passive of paradidōmi, which carries the basic meaning of deliver over to. And because eis (to) can also be translated into, it seems that a more precise rendering of this phrase is “that form of teaching into which you were delivered.” It is true, of course, that, through its reading and preaching, God’s Word is delivered to believers. But Paul’s point here seems to be that the true believer is also delivered into God’s Word, His divine teaching. The idea is that when God makes a new spiritual creation of a believer, He casts him into the mold of divine truth. The J. B. Phillips rendering of Romans 12:1 uses the same figure: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within.” In other words, “Do not let Satan’s forces try to fit you back into the old sinful mold from which God delivered you. Let God continue to fashion you into the perfect image of His Son.”

Throughout his epistles, Paul emphasizes the crucial relationship of God’s truth to faithful Christian living. In his second letter to Timothy, he advised his young protégé in ministry to “retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13). He later warned him that “the time will come when [men] will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (4:3). The apostle maintained that an overseer, or elder, in the church should hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). Later in the same letter he admonished Titus to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (2:1). The Christian who faithfully obeys God’s Word becomes conformed to the truth of that Word, a living model of the gospel. The divine teaching to which a believer submits himself in Jesus Christ stamps him with the authentic image of his Savior and Lord.

A person does not become a Christian by claiming the name of Christ and then believing and doing whatever he himself wants. You cannot become a Christian by merely saying or doing certain things, even the godly things extolled in Scripture. But after genuine salvation a person will have the innate, Spirit-led desire to know and to obey God’s truth.

After a businessmen’s luncheon at which I spoke, a man said to me, “I’ve been in this group for a long time, and I’ll tell you how I think you can get to God. You see, there is this long stairway, and at the top there is a door and behind it is this guy Jesus. What you really want to do is try to make it up the stairs and get through the door and then hope Jesus lets you in. As you’re on your way up the stairs, you’ve got all these preachers and movements cheering you on, but you just continue going up the stairs your own way. I call it the stairway of hope. That’s what I think the gospel is.” With a heavy heart I replied, “Sir, you cannot be a Christian. What you just said has nothing to do with the gospel, and your stairway to heaven is hopeless. You need to depend on Jesus Christ alone for your salvation. You have no idea of what it means to be saved, and you cannot be on your way to heaven.”

A person cannot invent his own way to God, no matter how sincere his efforts might be. God has established the only way to come to Him, and that is the way of faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. And saving faith in Jesus Christ is built on God’s revelation about Him, not on men’s ideas about Him. There is divinely-revealed content to the gospel, and the person who rejects or circumvents that content gives unmistakable evidence that he is not truly seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness.

Witness Lee, founder of the Local Church movement, wrote a book entitled Christ Versus Doctrine, the main thesis of which is that it is a personal relationship to Christ that matters and that doctrine actually interferes with that relationship. The book not only is unbiblical but, as one might guess from the title, is also self-contradictory. Doctrine is simply another word for teaching, and the purpose of Lee’s book, of course, was to teach his own doctrine.[1]


Whose Slave are You?

Romans 6:15–18

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

The point of this next study is difficult for most people to accept, so I want to state it simply at the beginning and allow the rest of the chapter to expound and defend it. The point is this: There is no such thing as absolute freedom for anyone. No human is free to do everything he or she may want to do. There is one being in the universe who is totally free, of course. That is God. But all others are limited by or enslaved by someone or something. As a result, the only meaningful question in this area is: Who or what are you serving?

Ray C. Stedman, pastor of the Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California, tells of walking down the street in Los Angeles one day and seeing a man coming toward him with a sign hung over his shoulders. The sign read: “I am a slave for Christ.” After the man had passed him, Stedman turned around to look after this rather eccentric individual and saw that on his back there was another sign that said: “Whose slave are you?”

That is exactly the point of this passage. Since you and I are human beings and not God, we can never be autonomous. We must either be slaves to sin or slaves of Jesus Christ.

But here is the wonderful and very striking thing: To be a slave of Jesus Christ is true freedom.

The Chapter’s Second Half

All this flows from our study of Romans 6, but we need to back up a bit to find our place in Paul’s argument.

The verses we are considering here are verses 15–18, the start of a longer section that extends to the end of the chapter. A glance at this section shows that it is parallel to the first half of the chapter, that is, to verses 1–14. Each section deals with a nearly identical question. The first verse of section one asks, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” The first verse of section two raises the same issue: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (v. 15).

These questions are followed by identical responses: “By no means!” (vv. 2, 15). From this point on, the two sections follow parallel tracks as Paul explains why it is impossible for the believer in Christ to continue in sin and why, by contrast, Christians must yield the parts of their bodies to God as instruments of righteousness. These arguments are so close to one another that it is possible to lift terms from one section and transfer them to the other without any real change in meaning.

Yet the two halves of Romans 6 are not identical. They have the same objective—to show that the believer in Christ cannot go on sinning. But they make this important point in different, though complementary, ways.

The first section comes out of the discussion in chapter 5, in which Paul argued that the Christian is not under law but is under grace and that grace will triumph. He shows that grace does not lead to sin, the reason being that we have been joined to Christ. If we have been joined to Christ, the past is behind and there is no place for us to go in life but forward in righteous conduct. The second section comes out of the discussion in Romans 6:1–14, particularly verse 14, in which Paul rejects law as a vehicle of righteousness. He argues that freedom from law does not lead to sin either. The reason he gives is that we have been freed from law, not to become autonomous creatures (which we cannot be on any account), but to be slaves of God. We must be slaves to righteousness.

Two Errors

Paul was answering objections to the doctrine of salvation by grace that were coming from two sides, just as they come to us today.

On one side were Jewish traditionalists with a commitment to the law of Moses. They argued that if law is rejected as a way of salvation, which Paul obviously was doing, immorality and all other vices inevitably follow. Paul shows that it does not work that way. In fact, he shows the opposite. He shows:

  1. The law does not lead to righteousness, for the simple reason that it is unable to produce righteousness in anyone. The law can only condemn.
  2. Paradoxically, it is only by being delivered from the law and its condemnation, through union with Jesus Christ, that we are empowered to do what the law requires.

The other objection came not from Jewish legalists, but from people we call Antinomians, those who reject the law not only as a way of salvation but even as an expression of proper conduct. Antinomianism says, “Since we are free from law, we can do anything we please. We are free to go on sinning. In fact, we can wallow in it.”

Paul answers both of these errors in this chapter of Romans.

Five Sound Reasons

“Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” The answer, as we already know by now, is: “By no means!”

“Why not?” we ask.

In this section Paul gives five sound reasons.

  1. Sin is slavery. The first reason Christians must not sin, even though they are not under law but under grace, is that sin is actually slavery, and it would be folly to be delivered from slavery only to return to it again. The difficulty here is that sin is rarely seen by us in this way, that is, in its true colors. Instead of being presented as slavery, it is usually described as the very essence of freedom. This was what the devil told Eve in the Garden of Eden when he argued, “Don’t be bound by God’s word. Be free. Eat of the tree and become as God, knowing good and evil.”

Years ago, before the current thaw in Sino-American relations, some Christians in Hong Kong had an interview with an eighty-two-year-old woman who had come out of China just a short while before. She was a believer in Christ, but her vocabulary was filled with the terminology of communism, which was all she had been hearing for decades. One of her favorite expressions was “the liberation.”

The interviewers asked her, “When you were back in China, were you free to gather together with other Christians to worship?”

“Oh, no,” she answered. “Since the liberation, no one is permitted to gather together for Christian services.”

“But surely you were able to get together in small groups to discuss the Christian faith,” they continued.

“No,” she said. “We were not. Since the liberation, all such meetings are forbidden.”

“Were you free to read your Bible?”

“Since the liberation, no one is free to read the Bible.”

The conversation shows that “freedom” is not in the word but in the reality. Remember that, the next time someone suggests that you have to sin to be free. Merely attaching the word freedom to sin does not make sin a way of liberation. The truth is that sin is bondage. It enslaves us so that we are unable to escape its grasp later, even if we want to. If you give way to sensual passions, you will become a slave to those passions. If you give way to greed, you will become a slave to greed. So also for every other vice and wrongdoing.

  1. Sin leads to death. The second reason we must not sin, even though we are not under law but under grace, is that sin leads to death. Paul says this several times in these verses: “sin, which leads to death” (v. 16), “Those things result in death!” (v. 21), and “For the wages of sin is death” (v. 23).

Again, this is not what we are usually told. It is not what the devil told Eve either. God had said, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). The devil countered, “You will not surely die. … For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4–5).

Here was a true crisis for the woman. God said, “You will die.” The devil said, “You will not surely die.” Who was right? Who was she to believe?

The woman decided to resolve the dilemma for herself. She examined the tree and saw that it was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen. 3:6). She concluded, “How can it be wrong when it feels so right?” So she took some of the fruit, ate it, and then gave some to Adam, who also ate of it.

What happened? They died! They died in their spirits instantly, for the fellowship they had enjoyed with God up to this point was broken, which they showed by hiding from God when he came to them later in the garden. Their personalities began to decay, for they started to lie and shift the blame to one another. At last their bodies also died, as God said: “… dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19).

The only bright spot was that God also graciously promised a Redeemer who would save them from their sin.

Do not listen to those who tell you that sin is harmless. Above all, do not trust your own judgment in these matters. You are not able to judge in such situations. You must trust God, who tells you that to sin is to die. In fact, being a sinner, you are already dying. Your moral life is decaying. Your body is inclining to the grave. One day you will experience the second death, which is to be separated from God in hell forever—unless God saves you first. The only sensible reaction to sin is to turn from it and seek salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.

  1. Christians have been delivered from sin’s slavery. The third reason Christians are not to continue in sin, even though they are not under law but under grace, is that they have been delivered by Jesus from sin’s tyranny if they truly are Christians. This is so wonderful that Paul actually breaks into a doxology or “praise to God” at this point, saying, “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin … you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (vv. 17–18).

This is the meaning of what former Princeton Seminary professor B. B. Warfield called the most “precious” terms in the Christian’s vocabulary: “Redeemer” and “redemption.” Redemption means to buy out of slavery to sin. This was accomplished for us by Jesus, who is our Redeemer. We were slaves to sin, that cruel taskmaster. But Jesus paid the price of our redemption by his death. He purchased us with his blood: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18–19).

This is the very purpose of the atonement. How, then, can those who have been redeemed return to sinful living? To do so would be to repudiate Christ, to turn from everything he stands for. It would be apostasy. No true Christian can do it.

  1. The same work that has delivered Christians from sin’s slavery has also made them slaves of God, which is true freedom. The fourth of Paul’s arguments for why Christians cannot continue in sin, even though they are not under law but under grace, is that the same act of Christ that has delivered us from sin has also made us “slaves of God” (v. 22). By his act of redemption, Jesus has purchased men and women for himself, that is, to serve him.

“Ah,” says someone. “What gain is that? What advantage is it to be freed from one master if all it means is that we become slaves of another?”

Well, it would be a significant gain even if we were slaves in a physical sense and were set free from a cruel master to become a slave to one who was kind and had our best interests at heart. That would be a welcome change, and it is part of the picture, for God is as good, kind, and loving a master as sin is cruel and harmful. But there is more to it than that. The Bible teaches that this “slavery” actually brings freedom.

What is this freedom? It is not autonomy, a license to do absolutely anything at all. True freedom is “the ability to fulfill one’s destiny, to function in terms of one’s ultimate goal.”

Real freedom means doing what is right.

Do you remember the conversation the Lord Jesus Christ had with the Jewish religious leaders of his day, as recorded in John’s Gospel? Jesus had been speaking about the source of his teachings, and some of the Jews had believed on him in a rudimentary way. So he encouraged them to remain with him and continue to learn from him, saying, “If you hold to my teaching [that is, continue in it], you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).

This infuriated some of his listeners, presumably those who were not true believers, because they did not like the suggestion that they were not free—just as many resent any similar suggestion today. They replied, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” (v. 33). This was a ridiculous answer, of course. The Jews had been slaves to the Egyptians for many years prior to the exodus. During the period of the judges there were at least seven occasions when the nation came under the rule of foreigners. There was also the seventy-year-long Babylonian captivity. In fact, even while they were talking to Jesus they were being watched over by occupying Roman soldiers, and they were carrying coins in their pockets that testified to Rome’s domination of their economy. It was this latter fact that probably made them so sensitive to the suggestion that they were not truly free.

But instead of reminding them of these obvious facts, Jesus answered on a spiritual level, saying, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. … So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (vv. 34, 36).

What kind of freedom was Jesus talking about? True freedom, of course, the only real freedom there is. It is not liberty to do just anything at all. If we choose sin, the result is bondage. True freedom comes through knowing the gospel and being committed to the Lord Jesus Christ in his service.

Can I put this sharply? The only real freedom you are ever going to know, either in this life or in the live to come, is the freedom of serving Jesus Christ. And this means a life of righteousness. Anything else is really slavery, regardless of what the world may promise you through its lies and false teaching.

  1. The end of this second, desirable slavery is righteousness. This leads to Paul’s last point, the fifth reason why Christians must not continue in sin, even though they have been freed from law and are under grace. It is that the end of this second, desirable slavery to God and Jesus Christ is righteousness. True Christianity can never lead to license, the accusation refuted by Paul in this passage. Since it is liberation from sin in order to become a servant of God and of Jesus Christ, Christianity must inevitably lead to what God desires, which is righteousness.

The Obedience of Faith

I close this study by asking you to look at one more word: obedience. It occurs in verse 16 in the phrase “slaves … to obedience,” and it is amplified by the verb obey, which occurs three times more in these verses (once in verse 16, and twice in verse 17). This is an important idea.

It is puzzling, too, at least at first glance.

Why? Because in verse 16 it occurs as the opposite of sin (“slaves to sin … or to obedience”), which does not seem exactly right to us. Instead of “obedience” we would expect the word righteousness. Then, in verse 17, it occurs where we would normally expect the idea of “faith” (“you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted”). We would more naturally say, “You wholeheartedly believed the gospel.”

One reason why Paul uses the word obedience is that it carries through the image he has been developing, namely that of being a slave either to sin or of Jesus Christ. It is the function of a slave to obey his or her master. But the use of the term goes beyond this, since obedience is an essential requirement of all who would follow Christ. And not just afterward, as if we are called first to believe and then to obey. Obedience is the very essence of believing. It is what belief is all about.

When I am teaching about faith I usually say that faith has three elements: (1) an intellectual element (we must believe in something; this is the gospel); (2) an emotional element (the content of that gospel must touch us personally); and (3) commitment (we must give ourselves to Jesus in personal and often costly discipleship). It is in this last area that obedience is so critical. For, if obedience is not present, we have not committed ourselves to Christ, even though we may believe in him in some sense. And without that commitment we are not saved; we are not true Christians.

Have you ever considered how important obedience is in the Bible’s treatment of its chief characters? I will cite two examples.

The first is Joshua. Obedience was the chief characteristic of this very great man’s life, for at the beginning of his story he was challenged to obey God in all things—“Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go” (Josh. 1:7b)—and this is precisely what he did, to the very end. His whole life was marked by obedience.

The other example is Abraham, who was such a giant of faith that he is praised for his faith four times in Hebrews 11. His faith was so great that when God promised him a son in his old age, though he was past the age of engendering a child and his wife Sarah was past the age of conceiving one, Abraham “did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:20–21).

But even this was not the highest achievement of Abraham’s faith. It is not the act for which he is chiefly praised in Hebrews.

The high point of Abraham’s long life of faith was reached when God told him to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. Abraham showed an incredible faith here, believing that if God told him to sacrifice his son and if his son had not yet had the children God had promised he would have, then God would have to raise Isaac from the dead in order to fulfill his promise (cf. Heb. 11:19). But, in Genesis, where the story is told, the quality for which Abraham is praised by God is not faith but obedience: “Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (Gen. 22:15–18, emphasis added).

There is no escaping it! Either we obey sin, which leads to death, and are enslaved by it, or we have been freed from sin to serve God. If we have been freed from sin, we will serve God. There is just no other option.[2]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 346–349). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The Reign of Grace (Vol. 2, pp. 689–696). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

June 15, 2017: Verse of the day

img_1356

Focusing on Expectations

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. (3:20–21)

The underlying motivation for pursuing Christlikeness is the hope of the return of Jesus Christ. Since Christ is in heaven, those who love Him must be preoccupied with heaven, longing for Christ to return and take them to be with Him (1 Thess. 4:17).

Paul had little interest in the comforts and pleasures of this world, as the following passages indicate:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. (2 Cor. 4:8–10)

In everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things. (2 Cor. 6:4–10)

Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? (2 Cor. 11:23–29)

This view led him to the conviction that made him write, “I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (1:23).

It is consistent for believers to have a heavenly focus, because our citizenship is in heaven. Politeuma (citizenship) appears only here in the New Testament, though Paul used the related verb in 1:27. It refers to the place where one has official status, the commonwealth where one’s name is recorded on the register of citizens. Though believers live in this world, they are citizens of heaven. They are members of Christ’s kingdom, which is not of this world (John 18:36). Their names are recorded in heaven (Luke 10:20; cf. Phil. 4:3; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 13:8; 21:27); their Savior is there (Acts 1:11; 1 Thess. 4:16); their fellow saints are there (Heb. 12:23); their inheritance is there (1 Peter 1:4); their reward is there (Matt. 5:12); and their treasure is there (Matt. 6:20).

Though they do not yet live in heaven, believers live in the heavenly realm (Eph. 2:6); they experience to some degree the heavenly life here on earth. They have the life of God within them, are under the rule of heaven’s King, and live for heaven’s cause.

Paul’s reference to citizenship may have been especially meaningful to the Philippians, since Philippi was a Roman colony. The Philippians were Roman citizens, though obviously living outside of Rome, just as believers are citizens of heaven living on earth.

It is from heaven that we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. To the disciples who watched as Christ ascended into heaven the angels said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). In John 14:2–3 Jesus Himself promised, “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” Because of those promises, believers are to be “awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7), and “to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). Until He returns, believers “groan within [themselves], waiting eagerly for [their] adoption as sons, the redemption of [the] body” (Rom. 8:23).

The hope of Christ’s return provides believers with motivation, accountability, and security. In this promise there is positive motivation to be found faithful when He returns to reward believers; to be accountable to God for living lives that produce gold, silver, and precious stones instead of wood, hay, and straw (1 Cor. 3:12). There is a corresponding negative reality, as John wrote: “Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward” (2 John 8). Finally, the promise of Christ’s return provides security, since Jesus promised, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:39–40).

Believers are not to wait for Christ’s return with attitudes of passive resignation or bored disinterest. Instead, they are to eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Believers are not waiting for an event but a Person. Apekdechomai (eagerly wait) is often used to speak of waiting for Christ’s second coming (e.g., Rom. 8:19, 23, 25; 1 Cor. 1:7; Gal. 5:5; Heb. 9:28). It describes not only eagerness, but also patience.

As noted above, Christ’s return marks the end of believers’ struggling pursuit of the elusive prize of holy perfection, for it is then that He will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory. It is then that the eagerly awaited redemption of the body will take place (Rom. 8:23). It is “when He appears [that] we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Until then, the new creature (2 Cor. 5:17) is incarcerated in the unredeemed humanness (“the body of this death”; Rom. 7:24) from which it longs to be liberated.

For believers who die before Christ’s return, death means the temporary separation of the spirit from the body. The body goes into the grave, while the spirit goes immediately into the presence of God (1:21, 23; 2 Cor. 5:6, 8). Heaven is currently occupied by “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). Those believers who live from Pentecost to the Rapture will have their spirits joined to their resurrection bodies at the Rapture (1 Thess. 4:15–17). The Old Testament believers and those saved during the Tribulation will receive their resurrection bodies at Christ’s second coming (Dan. 12:2; Rev. 20:4).

Christ will totally transform the bodies of all believers, each group at its appointed time (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22–23), to make them fit for heaven. Believers’ bodies will have a new schematic; they will be refashioned and redesigned. Christ will change the present body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory. Like Christ’s resurrection body, believers’ resurrected bodies will be recognizable. They will be able to eat, talk, and walk, but will not have the physical restrictions of our present bodies. After His resurrection Christ appeared and disappeared at will, even entering a room whose doors were locked (John 20:19). Paul gives the most detailed description of believers’ resurrection bodies in 1 Corinthians 15:35–49:

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own. All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish. There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So also it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living soul.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.

The combination of a redeemed spirit and a glorified body will enable all believers to perfectly manifest the glory of God. Sin, weakness, sorrow, disappointment, pain, suffering, doubt, fear, temptation, hate, and failure will give way to perfect joy (Matt. 25:21), pleasure (Ps. 16:11), knowledge (1 Cor. 13:12), comfort (Luke 16:25), and love (1 Cor. 13:13).

Salvation involves far more than mere deliverance from hell. God’s ultimate goal in redeeming believers is to transform their bodies into conformity with the body of His glory. They will “become conformed [summorphos; the same word translated conformity in v. 21] to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29; cf. 1 John 3:2). “Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Cor. 15:49).

Their transformed bodies will permit believers finally to be the perfect creation God intends for them to be for the joy of perfect fellowship with Him forever. Describing heaven, John wrote, “I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them’ ” (Rev. 21:3; cf. John 14:1–3; 1 Thess. 4:17). Those bodies will also allow believers to see God. In the Beatitudes Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8), while John wrote that in heaven “there will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3–4). Believers’ resurrection bodies will also be perfectly suited for the eternal service they will render to God (cf. Rev. 7:15).

Lest any doubt Christ’s power to transform believers’ bodies, Paul notes that He will accomplish it by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. Hupotassō (subject) means “to arrange in order of rank” or “to manage.” Christ will have the power to rule the millennial kingdom (Rev. 12:5, 19:15; cf. Isa. 9:6; 32:1; Zech. 14:9). By His power Christ will also transform the earth’s topography (Zech. 14:4–8) and the natural kingdom (Isa. 11:6–9). Paul’s point is that if Christ can subject the entire universe to His sovereign control (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24–27), He has the power to transform believers’ bodies into His image.

As they run the spiritual race (Heb. 12:1), believers must look to godly examples for inspiration and instruction. They must also look out for those enemies of the truth who would lead them astray. Finally, they must focus on the glorious hope that is theirs at the return of Christ—the transformation of their bodies into conformity with His. Then, regenerated fully in soul and body, they will be suited to eternal, holy glory and joy.[1]


Our Blessed Hope

Philippians 3:20

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the early days of the Christian church the doctrine of the last things had three great points of focus: the return of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the final judgment. Of the three the most significant was Jesus Christ’s return. This was the blessed hope of Christians; it was for this they prayed. With this thought they comforted one another in the face of sorrow, persecutions, death, and martyrdom. We can imagine that as they lay in prison, suffering and tormented, often near death, they looked for his coming and thought that perhaps in an instant and without warning Jesus would appear and call them home. As they entered the arena to face the lions or looked up to face their executioner, many would have thought with joy in their hearts, “Perhaps this is the moment in which Jesus will return; and even now, before the beasts can spring or the ax can fall, I shall be caught up to meet him.”

Unfortunately, in our day belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ has faded into a remote and sometimes irrelevant doctrine in many large segments of the Christian church. It is entirely possible that our present lack of courage and lack of joy flow from this attitude.

A Biblical Doctrine

We are told today by many, some of them within the church, that belief in the return of Jesus Christ is a preposterous doctrine or at best a “pie-in-the-sky” philosophy. But it is hard to see how any professing Christian can dismiss it.

The return of Jesus Christ is mentioned in every one of the New Testament books except Galatians and the very short books such as 2 and 3 John and Philemon. Jesus quite often spoke of his return. Mark records him as saying, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). Again, “At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens” (Mark 13:26–27). John tells us that Christ’s last words to his disciples included the promise: “I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2–3).

Paul’s letters are also full of the doctrine. To the Christians at Thessalonica he wrote, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess. 4:16–17). Peter called the return of Jesus Christ our “living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). Paul called it our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). John wrote, “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7).

It is the same in the verse that is our text in Philippians. “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (3:20–21). In these verses and in many others the early Christians expressed their belief in a personal return of Jesus that was to be closely associated with the resurrection and transformation of their own bodies and a final judgment of individuals and nations. They acknowledged that their lives should be lived on a higher plane because of it.

Changed Conduct

The personal return of Jesus Christ should have a profound bearing on our own life and conduct. Lord Shaftesbury, the great English social reformer, said near the end of his life, “I do not think that in the last 40 years I have lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return.” This conviction was one of the strongest motives behind his social programs.

If you are expecting the Lord’s return, then this conviction ought to alter your concern for social issues as well as other things. At the height of the racial crisis in the United States in the early 1960s, two signs hung on the wall of a restaurant in Decatur, Georgia. The first sign read, “Jesus is coming again!” The second sign directly below it said, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anybody!” The juxtaposition of the two signs was unintentionally humorous for at least two reasons. First, because they implied that the owner, who apparently was looking for the return of Jesus Christ, might refuse him service. Second, because the racial discrimination that was involved was incongruous in the light of Christ’s imminent return.

Are you looking for Jesus’ return? If you are motivated by prejudice against other Christians or others in general, whether they are black or white, rich or poor, cultured or culturally naive, whatever they may be—then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If you are contemplating some sin, perhaps a dishonest act in business, perhaps trifling with sex outside of marriage, perhaps cheating on your income tax return—then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If your life is marked by a contentious, divisive spirit in which you seek to tear down the work of another person instead of building it up—then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If you first protect your own interests and neglect to give food, water, or clothing to the needy as we are instructed to do in Christ’s name—then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you.

John wrote, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3). The greatest consequence of belief in the return of the Lord Jesus Christ should be a purification of our conduct.

Hope in Suffering

Another consequence of a firm belief in the return of Jesus Christ should be a transformed understanding of suffering. For suffering strengthens our hope and makes our present fellowship with Jesus more wonderful. This is why Paul writes of the believer’s hope in Romans saying, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3–4). In Paul’s experience hope had transformed suffering, and suffering had intensified his hope.

The word “suffering,” which occurs in this verse, means any tribulation, persecution, or hardship—like that which Paul lists of himself in 2 Corinthians 11: beatings, imprisonments, stoning, shipwrecks, perils, weariness, thirst, and hunger. It includes the cruelest oppressions. The Greek word Paul used and its Latin translation carried the most vivid of images in Paul’s day. The Greek word was thlipsis, which means the kind of oppression that a conquered people would receive from a cruel conqueror. The Latin translation was based on the noun tribulum, which meant a threshing sled, and implied severe torture. A tribulum was generally several feet wide and five or six feet long and was studded with sharp spikes on the bottom; it was pulled over the grain on a threshing floor by an animal. The Latin word tribulare compared oppression to experiencing such threshing.

It is easy to see how the Christians thus conceived of their suffering. They knew themselves to be often pressed as wheat while the tribulums of the world passed over them. They knew the feel of the spikes and the lash of the flail. But they endured such suffering. They had learned that it was the way God separated the wheat in their lives from the chaff and made them more useful and more obedient servants.

All of God’s children learn this sooner or later. Certainly it was known by the persecuted prophet Jeremiah. What had persecutions done for Jeremiah? In Jeremiah 17 he intimates that they had actually drawn him closer to the Lord and strengthened him for his work. He is contrasting two types of people. The first is the person who trusts in human beings and thereby departs from the Lord. Jeremiah says this person “will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives” (v. 6). The other type of person is the one who trusts God and whose hope is in him. What is he like? Jeremiah says, “He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit” (v. 8). In other words, Jeremiah had found that suffering had strengthened his roots and had actually drawn him closer to the Lord.

All Christians should experience that. Tribulations will come. Job spoke truthfully when he said, “Yet man is born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). But the Christian can have a hope in the midst of tribulation that transforms suffering and is strengthened by it.

Day of Judgment

Everything written up to this point has been encouraging. It has been intended for Christians. But there is a somber side for those who do not know Christ and who therefore do not expect him. Christ is coming; it will be a joy for Christians. But it will also mean the beginning of Christ’s judgments. These will be terrible for those who do not know him.

Christians acknowledge this every time they recite the Apostles’ Creed, for they say that Jesus shall come again from heaven “to judge the living and the dead.” Paul told the Athenians that God has “set a day when he will judge the world with justice” (Acts 17:31). In that day Jesus Christ will return to judge the nations, the false church, and individuals. Everyone will have to answer to him. Will you meet him as one judged righteous on the basis of our Lord’s death for sin and his gift of righteousness? Or will you meet him as one who trusts in your own human goodness and is therefore cut off from God’s presence forever?

It is my experience that people react in one of two ways to Christ’s judgment. Some simply disbelieve it, for they think that judgment is incompatible with the character of God. I mentioned something about the judgment of God on The Bible Study Hour once and received a letter from a woman who seemed greatly offended at the thought that a loving God could ever pronounce a judgment on anything. I wrote back asking her what she would think of a God who would let a murderer go on murdering throughout eternity, a thief go on stealing throughout eternity, a sexual pervert continue to violate other men and women throughout eternity, and other sinners to go on sinning. Certainly it is in the character of a loving and righteous God to stop such things. It may help some persons to think of the final judgment in this light and begin to find out what the Scriptures say concerning it.

The second reaction to the fact of God’s judgment comes from the unbeliever who has heard the offer of salvation by grace through the gospel but who prefers to deal with God’s justice. Pity the man who wants nothing from God but God’s justice! Justice will condemn a person to hell. The only hope for anyone lies in God’s mercy.

The result of seeking nothing but justice from God is seen in a story from the life of Abraham from the Old Testament. God told Abraham that he was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their great wickedness, and Abraham had immediately begun to think about his nephew Lot and his family who lived there. He knew that they would also be destroyed in God’s judgment, so he began to reason with God. He said, “Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous in the city; will you also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are in it? Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” God said, “If there are fifty righteous persons in the city, I will spare it.” Abraham became worried at this point because he only knew of four righteous persons himself. They were Lot, Lot’s wife, and Lot’s two daughters. He began to doubt that there were fifty. So he said, “Suppose there are only forty-five? Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” God replied, “I will spare the city for the sake of forty-five.” Abraham bargained with God until God had agreed to spare the city for the sake of ten righteous people. But even then Abraham had not reduced the figure far enough. So after God had removed Lot and his family from Sodom, his judgment fell upon the cities.

That is what happens when the Judge of all the earth does right! Humans are condemned by God’s justice. If you seek nothing from God but justice, you will be condemned at Jesus Christ’s return. Fortunately there is no need to meet him as Judge. For the One who is coming in judgment is also the One who once came as the Savior, to die for your sin, to bear your judgment, and to meet you thereafter as your Lord, your friend, and your bridegroom. You must decide how you will meet him. The decisions of this life affect the issues of eternity.[2]


20 The recurrence of rare words in 3:20; 4:1; and 4:3 (appearing first in 1:27) marks 1:27–4:3 as a unit. The verbs in 1:27, politeuomai (“conduct yourselves [as citizens],” GK 4488; 1:27), stēkō (“stand firm,” GK 5112), and synathleō (“contending as one,” GK 5254), reappear in the same order: politeuma (nominal form, “citizenship,” GK 4487; 3:20), stēkō (“stand firm”; 4:1), and synathleō (“contended at my side”; 4:3). Paul also weaves the vocabulary from 2:6–11 into these verses and draws on that passage’s elevated style (Lincoln, 88–89), which suggests that he reaches the climax of his argument in this entire section (1:27–4:3).

Since we “eagerly await a Savior from [heaven]” (cf. 1 Th 1:10; 4:16; 5:23), that must be where the Christian’s Lord is now, and the Lord’s presence there is the reason why the Christian’s commonwealth is in heaven. By using the metaphor of a civic body, Paul reminds the Philippians that they are an outpost on earth of God’s kingdom in heaven. The metaphor evokes at least four points of comparison:

(1) Since Philippi was an outpost of Caesar’s empire, he leaves them to draw the contrasts. Caesar is not the savior, as imperial propaganda would want people to believe, but Jesus is. Paul may deliberately allude to popular names of Nero—“Lord” and “Savior”—to make the point that Caesar is not Lord.

(2) The metaphor evokes the rights and privileges of citizenship. Philippian Christians who may have been granted the honor of Roman citizenship will need to recognize that their heavenly citizenship is infinitely greater and to evaluate their status in the same way that Paul evaluated his status as a Jew. The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than any in the kingdom of Rome. If they are dual citizens, their allegiance to the Lord of heaven is to outweigh all other commitments. If they are not legal citizens of any earthly city, then they should know that they are full citizens of a heavenly commonwealth, with all its perquisite rights and privileges. In this body of citizens, all members share full and equal rights.

(3) In Greek thought, a citizen should submerge his own interests and profit to that of the city. Paul’s metaphor reminds Christians that as citizens of heaven they should subordinate their self-interest to the welfare of the community to the point of self-sacrifice.

(4) Roman colonies were set up as “miniatures” of Rome (Gellius, Attic Nights 16.13.9) to foster the majesty of Roman culture, religion, and values. The Christian commonwealth has a different constitution and different laws, and Christians are to exemplify the values of the heavenly realm. Christ’s resurrection establishes a new city (polis) and an alternative political jurisdiction that challenges the values and the methods of the empire. The empire tyrannizes, enslaves, and crucifies its subjects. Christians are not to imitate the crucifiers but the crucified one. They are to accept suffering rather than to inflict it. If one is conformed to the kings of this world, one is conformed to a way of death; if one is conformed to Christ, one is conformed to a way that brings life.

In a world of conflicting powers, Christians await the Savior’s return to rescue them from death-dealing powers. They are not to place their trust in Caesar to protect them from enemy hordes and death through his military power but in God’s power to raise the dead and destroy death. Christ was obedient to death but now reigns with all power (2:6–11) and will come to effect the rescue and vindication of those who belong to him, as God effected the same for him (Lincoln, 107). Christians must wait patiently and faithfully for his return.[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 259–263). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2000). Philippians: an expositional commentary (pp. 214–219). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[3] Garland, D. E. (2006). Philippians. In T. Longman III (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 248). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

JUNE 11 – THE WICKEDNESS OF UNBELIEF: MAKING GOD A LIAR

…He that believeth not God hath made Him a liar, because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son.

1 JOHN 5:10

True faith must always rest upon what God is, so it is of utmost importance that, to the limit of our comprehension, we know what He is.

The psalmist said: “They that know thy name will put their trust in Thee,” the name of God being the verbal expression of His character, and confidence always rises or falls with known character.

What the psalmist said was simply that they who know God to be the kind of God He is will put their confidence in Him! This is not a special virtue, but the normal direction any mind takes when confronted with the fact. We are so made that we trust good character and distrust its opposite, and that is why unbelief is so intensely wicked!

The character of God, then, is the Christian’s final ground of assurance and the solution of many, if not most, of his practical religious problems.

Though God dwells in the center of eternal mystery, there need be no uncertainty about how He will act in any situation covered by His promises. These promises are infallible predictions. God will always do what He has promised to do when His conditions are met. And His warnings are no less predictive: “The ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” (Ps. 1:5).

We cultivate our knowledge of God and at the same time cultivate our faith. Yet while so doing we look not at our faith but at Christ, its author and finisher![1]


5:10 When a man does accept His testimony concerning His Son, God seals the truth by giving the man the witness of the Spirit in himself. On the other hand, if a man disbelieves God, he makes Him a liar; because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. People think they can accept or reject God’s testimony concerning Christ, but John would have them know that to reject it is to accuse God of dishonesty.[2]


10. Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.

Throughout the epistle John uses contrast and this text is no exception. First he states the positive and then the negative.

  • Positive

In verse 10, belief in the Son of God is central; it is part of the message John teaches in verses 1–12, namely, faith in Jesus as the Son of God. Believing, says John, is a continuous act. That is, faith is a lasting and active power that resides in the heart of the believer. Faith is the constant bond between the Son of God and the believer.

Note that John states specifically that faith is believing in the Son of God. The preposition in means that the believer puts full trust and confidence in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The believer has accepted the testimony (see John 3:33; Rom. 8:16) which God, through the Spirit, has given about his Son. And this testimony which comes to him through external witnesses is now lodged in his heart and has become an integral part of his spiritual life.

  • Negative

The second part of verse 10 is not a parallel of the first part. Instead of writing, “Anyone who does not believe in the Son of God,” John says, “Anyone who does not believe God.” He places the emphasis on God, who has given man testimony about his Son. Man, however, cannot accept this testimony merely for information. He does not have the freedom to take or leave it without obligation, for God gives him this testimony with royal authority. When man rejects God’s testimony, he has made and continues to make God a liar (compare 1:10). And this is a serious offense, because rejection of God’s Word constitutes deliberate unbelief.

John addressed the false teachers of his day, who said that they believed in God but rejected the birth and the death of his Son. John, however, addresses his word to anyone who rejects God’s testimony. That is, the unbeliever takes full responsibility for his choice. “Unbelief is not a misfortune to be pitied; it is a sin to be deplored.” The unbeliever’s sin lies first in his intentional refusal to believe God’s testimony about his Son and second, in his arrogant denial that the Father and the Son are one. Man cannot say that he has faith in God and at the same time reject God’s testimony about Jesus Christ.[3]


Divine and Human Testimony (vv. 9–10)

John has outlined the nature of the testimony of God the Father to Jesus and is about to go on to summarize that testimony in order to provide a proper ending to the letter. But before he goes on, he pauses to show why the divine testimony should be believed. There are two reasons: First, it is greater than human testimony, which all people accept, at least at times; and second, willful unbelief is sin.

Verse 8 has introduced one important legal maxim into John’s argument: the principle that a point of fact is to be established by the agreeing testimony of two or three witnesses. Here he introduces another: the principle of character in a witness. This is obviously an important principle in any system of law, but it was particularly important in Judaism where it took the form of a listing of those who were by reason of their professions or questionable actions unqualified to bear testimony. In this list are found thieves, shepherds (because they seem to have let their sheep graze on other people’s land), violent persons, and everyone suspected of financial dishonesty including tax collectors and customs officials. The talmudic tractate Pesachim 49b contains a passage indicating that the people of the land, the ʿam hāʾāreṣ or common folk, were also excluded.

This principle is illustrated in John 8:14, in which Jesus says, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going.” Earlier, on the basis of the principle requiring two or three witnesses, Jesus had said that if he should bear witness to himself, his witness would not be acceptable (John 5:31). But here in John 8 he argues on the basis of the principle of character to say that if the witness of mere men is accepted, if corroborated by others, why should not his testimony be accepted for itself alone in that he is much more than a man? The rabbis rejected the testimony of unreliable men. They accepted the testimony of an upright man when substantiated by that of other upright men. Clearly they should accept the testimony of Jesus, who knows both his origins and his destiny, judges according to the truth and not after the flesh, as his opponents do, and works in perfect unity with God the Father.

This same approach is applied in 1 John 5, as John argues from our willingness to accept human testimony (which we all know is fallible) to our obligation to accept the testimony of God. Men and women accept the witness of other human beings every day of their lives. Otherwise they would not be able to sign a contract, write a check, pay a bill, buy a ticket, ride a bus, or do any of the other thousands of things that constitute daily living. Well, then, says John, why should they not believe God, whose word alone is absolutely trustworthy?

If a person does believe God, he has an internal assurance that what he has believed is trustworthy. This is the work of God’s Spirit, the testimonium internum Spiritus Sancti, as the Reformers termed it. It is in addition to the assurance provided on other grounds. On the other hand, if a person does not believe God, he makes him out to be a liar; for in this way he eloquently testifies to his belief that God cannot be trusted. Here the heinous nature of unbelief is evident, for, as Stott writes, “Unbelief is not a misfortune to be pitied; it is a sin to be deplored. Its sinfulness lies in the fact that it contradicts the word of the one true God and thus attributes falsehood to him.”[4]


10 This verse summarizes John’s remarks on water and blood in a test that demonstrates whether one has the true witness that proceeds from God. If anyone believes in the Son of God, then that person “has the witness within herself” (NIV, “has this testimony in his heart”). Negatively, one may also conclude that if someone does not believe God (i.e., does not accept God’s witness about the Son), then that person “has made [God] out to be a liar.” The similarity of the latter conclusion to 2:4 suggests that those who do not accept the Spirit’s witness about Jesus show that they are members of the world, just like those who deny that they have sinned. Since the Spirit, water, and blood represent a unified testimony, God’s testimony about Jesus is not distinct from John’s testimony, especially since the Spirit is the source of John’s testimony (4:6). To “believe in the Son of God,” then, means to accept John’s word that the human Jesus was God incarnate.

What does it mean for the believer to “have this testimony in his heart”? Many commentators conclude that John is speaking of an inner experience that comes from the Spirit. Those who take this position understand the “testimony” to be “an inward work of the Spirit in the believer which confirms outward kinds of experience. If a person believes in the Son of God, he experiences or develops an inner conviction that what he believes is verified in practice” (Grayston, 140). Barker, 352, believes that the “testimony” is “faith itself” and a subsequent “forgiveness of sins and inward establishment of the love of God,” both of which are gifts given by the Spirit in the move from “believing” to “receiving” (cf. Stott, 82). While this view is reasonable, it seems to suggest that John’s witness about Jesus requires a special work of God to become credible—the very point John has attempted to refute in vv. 7–9 by stressing the harmony of the Spirit, the water, and the blood. Other commentators have sought to explain v. 10 in more natural terms. Marshall, 241, argues that this verse simply indicates that “to believe in the Son of God is to accept and keep God’s testimony,” while rejecting the Son means rejecting God as a liar. “It is inconsistent to profess belief in God, as John’s opponents did, and yet to disbelieve what God has said.” This reading limits God’s “testimony” to the inspired, prophetic preaching of the church, which preserved and propagated the true witness about Jesus.

As a third possibility, v. 10 may have both the natural and supernatural dimensions of faith in mind. Perhaps John does not distinguish these aspects of faith to the degree that they are distinguished in modern Christian theology. The most immediate parallel to the thought of v. 10 appears in 2:20–21, 27. The “testimony of God” here seems equivalent to the “anointing” mentioned in that passage, and both terms probably refer primarily to the orthodox belief in Jesus’ literal, sacrificial death (see comment at 2:20–21). At the same time, John’s dualism complicates the process by which this testimony may be accepted. Dodd, 131–33, points out that 1 John 5:6–12 closely parallels John 5:19–47, both in its language and in its appeal to the same dualistic framework. In John 5 Jesus discusses the value of different types of “testimony” about himself, including John the Baptist’s witness, the Scriptures, and the power God has given him to do signs. The Jews cannot accept this overwhelming evidence, however, because God’s word does not “dwell in you” (5:38). It would therefore be against their nature to believe in Jesus, no matter how strong the testimony. Similarly, although John’s Christology is supported both by God’s actions in the life of Jesus and by the Spirit’s continuing testimony in the church’s prophecy, the Antichrists cannot believe because God’s word is not in them. They therefore must belong to the same category as the Jews and the world. Those who do accept John’s witness, on the other hand, automatically demonstrate that they have God’s testimony in themselves, i.e., that they are in the same category as God (see Jn 6:44; 10:3–4). This would suggest that the initial act of faith, crossing over from the sphere of darkness to the sphere of light, is based on obvious public facts but also has a supernatural dimension. Unfortunately, John does not describe the mechanisms of this transformation as carefully as modern theologians might wish.[5]


[1] Tozer, A. W., & Smith, G. B. (2015). Evenings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2324). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 356–357). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] Boice, J. M. (2004). The Epistles of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 134–135). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[5] Thatcher, T. (2006). 1 John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 495–496). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

June 9 – A Renewed Mind

Be renewed in the spirit of your mind.

Ephesians 4:23

When you become a Christian, God gives you a new mind—but you must fill it with new thoughts. A baby is born with a fresh, new mind, and then impressions are made in the baby’s mind that determine the course of his or her life. The same thing is true of a Christian. When you enter into God’s kingdom, you’re given a fresh, new mind. You then need to build the right thoughts into your new mind. That’s why Philippians 4:8 says, “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” We have a renewed mind, not a reprobate mind.

Instead of having a reprobate, vile, lascivious, greedy, unclean mind, we have a mind filled with righteousness and holiness. And that should naturally characterize the way we live.[1]


4:23 A second lesson the Ephesians learned at the feet of Jesus was that they were being renewed in the spirit of their mind. This points to a complete about-face in their thinking, a change from mental impurity to holiness. The Spirit of God influences the thought processes to reason from God’s standpoint, not from that of unsaved men.[2]


22–24. (having been taught) that with respect to your former manner of life you must put off the old man, which is being corrupted through deceitful lusts, and must be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new man, created after (the likeness of) God in true righteousness and holiness.

What the Ephesians had been taught “in Christ” was this, that nothing less than a radical change in their mental outlook and manner of life was necessary, a complete turnabout. Their former manner of life (2:2, 3; 4:17–19; 5:8, 14; cf. Col. 1:21; 2:13; 3:7) must cease. The directive which, from the moment of their vital contact with Christ, was meant to control their entire being in all its manifestations, and to confront them every day and every hour, was curt and crisp: “Put off the old man,” that is, “the old nature, whatever you are apart from grace” (Col. 3:9; cf. Rom. 6:6), and “Put on the new man,” that is, “the new nature, whatever you have become, must be, and can become because of grace” (Col. 3:10; cf. Gal. 3:27). It was a summary formulation of a tremendously large order. In a sense, they had already put off the old man and put on the new man, namely, when they had given their hearts to Christ, and had professed him openly at the time of their baptism. But basic conversion must be followed by daily conversion. Even though in principle the believer has become a new creature (or “creation”), he remains a sinner until he dies. The old nature, with which the Ephesians had been on such intimate terms for so many years, is not easy to shed. Getting rid of it is difficult and painful. It amounts, in fact, to a crucifixion (Rom. 6:6). This is true all the more because it is always promising so much. It is being “continually corrupted” through lusts’ illusions, those deceptive evil desires with their mighty promises and minimal performances. This corrupting deceptiveness is present, moreover, wherever the old nature is represented, whether in the unbeliever or in the believer. Cain’s murder of his brother, a deed which had appeared so attractive when planned, brought nothing but a curse. Absalom’s prospective crown, so dazzling at first, resulted in his gruesome death. The vineyard, so luscious and so conveniently located that Ahab, in order to obtain this coveted prize, had not hesitated to sacrifice Naboth’s life, brought ruin to the king’s household and posterity. The thirty pieces of silver which had shimmered so brightly in Judas’ scheming, once in his possession had burned his hands, tortured his soul, and sent the traitor himself scurrying on his way to hanging and to hell. And, not to omit one of God’s chosen ones, David, in a moment of weakness, filled with passionate delight in the thought of pleasant days ahead with the object of his lustful yearning, was forced to listen to the words of the Lord which like thunder-bolts fell from the lips of the prophet: “You are the man. The sword will not depart from your house.” Truly, the old nature flaunts a golden cup, but upon inspection it is found to contain nothing but filth and abomination (cf. Rev. 17:4). Hence, the Ephesians had been warned most solemnly to put off the old man, to fight him with unrelenting and undiminished vigor in order to divest themselves completely of him.

But while “the old man” is wholly evil, “the new man” is wholly good. He is “created after (the likeness of) God.” Cf. Col. 3:10. Other explanatory passages are Eph. 2:10; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; and Titus 3:5. Day by day this new creation is advancing “in true righteousness and holiness.” The Colossian parallel (3:10) adds “full knowledge.” Grace restores what sin has ruinously impaired. God not only imputes but also imparts righteousness to the sinner whom he pleases to save. Thus, the believer begins to perform his duties toward his fellow-men. But righteousness never walks alone. It is always accompanied by holiness, so that the regenerated and converted person performs his duties with reference to God also. Cf. Luke 1:75; 1 Thess. 2:10; Titus 1:8. Moreover, the righteousness and holiness which God bestows are true, not deceptive, as are the lusts spawned by the old nature. They bring life to its true, predestined fulfilment. They satisfy.

As to the figure underlying “putting off” and “putting on,” it refers, of course, to what one does with a garment. Frequently such a robe indicates a person’s nature or character: either good (Job 29:14; Ps. 132:9; Isa. 11:5; 61:10) or evil (Ps. 73:6; cf. Ps. 35:26; 109:29). How it clings to him! The figure is by no means confined to Scripture. It has become part of general literature. It also occurs in the prayers of God’s children: “Disrobe us of ourselves and clothe us with thyself, O Lord.”

Both the putting off of the old man and the putting on of the new man are necessary. Some people constantly stress the negative. Their religion is one of don’t. Others turn their backs upon every don’t, and take peculiar pride in overstressing the positive. Scripture avoids both of these extremes. Ephesians contains many a do and many a don’t. Here in this life both are needed. They are inseparable and point to simultaneous activities. That is what Paul means when he states that the Ephesians had been taught to “put off” the old man and to “put on” the new man. A person can do very little with one scissorblade. Twin blades, operating in unison, compose the scissors that will work. He who says “Yes” to Christ is saying “No” to Satan. But though both are necessary, Paul’s emphasis throughout is on the positive: “Overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21; cf. 13:14). So it is also here in Eph. 4:22–24, for we are taught that the only way in which one can progressively succeed in putting off the old man and putting on the new man is by being renewed in the spirit of one’s mind. This renewel is basically an act of God’s Spirit powerfully influencing man’s spirit, here, as also in 1 Cor. 4:21; Gal. 6:1; and 1 Peter 3:4, mental attitude, state of mind, disposition, with respect to God and spiritual realities.[3]


Become the New Self

and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. (4:23–24)

In contrast to the depraved, reprobate mind of the unregenerate person (vv. 17–18), the Christian is renewed continually in the spirit of [his] mind (cf. Col. 3:10). Ananeoē (to be renewed) appears only here in the New Testament. The best rendering of this present passive infinitive is as a modifier of the main verb put on, so that it would read “and being renewed in the spirit of your mind, put on the new self.” This makes clear that such renewal is the consequence of “laying aside the old self” and is the context in which one may put on the new self. Salvation relates to the mind, which is the center of thought, understanding, and belief, as well as of motive and action. The spirit of your mind is explained by one commentator as intending to show that it is not in the sphere of human thinking or human reason, but in the moral sphere, that this renewal occurs. John Eadie says:

The change is not in the mind psychologically, either in its essence or in its operation; and neither is it in the mind as if it were a superficial change of opinion on points of doctrine or practice; but it is in the spirit of the mind; in that which gives mind both its bent and its material of thought. It is not simply in the spirit as if it lay there in dim and mystic quietude; but it is in the spirit of the mind; in the power which, when changed itself, radically alters the entire sphere and business of the inner mechanism.

When a person becomes a Christian, God initially renews his mind, giving it a completely new spiritual and moral capability—a capability that the most brilliant and educated mind apart from Christ can never achieve (cf. 1 Cor. 2:9–16). This renewal continues through the believer’s life as he is obedient to the Word and will of God (cf. Rom. 12:1–2). The process is not a one–time accomplishment but the continual work of the Spirit in the child of God (Titus 3:5). Our resources are God’s Word and prayer. It is through these means that we gain the mind of Christ (cf. Phil. 2:5; Col. 3:16; 2 Tim. 1:7), and it is through that mind that we live the life of Christ.

The renewed spirit of the believer’s mind is a corollary to putting on the new self, which is the new creation made in the very likeness of God and has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. That which was once darkened, ignorant, hardened, callused, sensual, impure, and greedy is now enlightened, learned in the truth, sensitive to sin, pure, and generous. Whereas it was once characterized by wickedness and sin, it is now characterized by righteousness and holiness. In Colossians 3:12, Paul calls believers “the chosen of God, holy and beloved.”

It is essential to expand the concept of the new self so that it may be understood more fully. The word new (kainos) does not mean renovated but entirely new—new in species or character. The new self is new because it has been created in the likeness of God. The Greek is literally, “according to what God is”—a staggering statement expressing the wondrous reality of salvation. Those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord are made like God! Peter says we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

In Galatians 2:20, Paul declares, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” The image of God, lost in Adam, is more gloriously restored in the second Adam, the One who is the image of the invisible God (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4–6), where Paul describes Christ as the image of God, the treasure that dwell-s in us.

If believers have received the divine nature—the life of Christ, the likeness of God in this new self by an act of divine creation (cf. Col. 3:10)—it obviously must have been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. In the Greek, the word truth is placed last to contrast with deceit (v. 22), and the best rendering is that of the niv : “true righteousness and holiness.” God could create no less (see Luke 1:75).

Righteousness relates to our fellow men and reflects the second table of the law (Ex. 20:12–17). Holiness (hosiotēs, sacred observance of all duties to God) relates to God and reflects the first table (Ex. 20:3–11). The believer, then, possesses a new nature, a new self, a holy and righteous inner person fit for the presence of God. This is the believer’s truest self.

So righteous and holy is this new self that Paul refuses to admit that any sin comes from that new creation in God’s image. Thus his language in Romans 6–7 is explicit in placing the reality of sin other than in the new sell He says, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (6:12) and, “Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin” (6:13, emphasis added).

In those passages Paul places sin in the believer’s life in the body. In chapter 7 he sees it in the flesh. He says, “No longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwell-s me” (v. 17), “Nothing good dwell-s in me, that is, in my flesh” (v. 18), “I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwell-s in me” (v. 20), and “… the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23).

In those texts Paul acknowledges that being a new self in the image of God does not eliminate sin. It is still present in the flesh, the body, the unredeemed humanness that includes the whole human person’s thinking and behavior. But he will not allow that new inner man to be given responsibility for sin. The new “I” loves and longs for the holiness and righteousness for which it was created.

Paul summarizes the dichotomy with these words: “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind [synonymous here with the new self] am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh [synonymous here with unredeemed humanness contained in our sinful bodies] the law of sin” (Rom. 7:25). It is this struggle that prompts the anticipation for “the redemption of the body” described in Romans 8:23 (cf. Phil. 3:20–21).

We are new, but not yet all new. We are righteous and holy, but not yet perfectly righteous and holy. But understanding the genuine reality of our transforming salvation is essential if we are to know how to live as Christians in the Body of Christ to which we belong.

The remaining portions of the epistle contain exhortations to the believer to bring his body into obedience to the will of God.

Many rescue missions have a delousing room, where derelicts who have not had a bath in months discard all their old clothes and are thoroughly bathed and disinfected. The unsalvageable old clothes are burned and new clothes are issued. The clean man is provided clean clothes.

That is a picture of salvation, except that in salvation the new believer is not simply given a bath but a completely new nature. The continuing need of the Christian life is to keep discarding and burning the remnants of the old sinful clothing. “Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness,” Paul pleads; “but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom. 6:13).

The many therefores and wherefores in the New Testament usually introduce appeals for believers to live like the new creatures they are in Christ. Because of our new life, our new Lord, our new nature, and our new power, we are therefore called to live a correspondingly new life–style.[4]


Jesus, the Great Divide

Ephesians 4:20–24

You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Have you ever thought how significant it is that in the Western world we do not reckon time from some fixed point in the past to which we add on year by year but from a midpoint from which we figure both forward and back? The Jewish calendar begins from what it regards as the date of creation and moves on from that point. So does the Chinese calendar. But not the Christian calendar! We begin with an approximation of the year of the birth of Jesus Christ and then number in two directions—backward in a receding series of years, which we call b.c. (“before Christ”), and forward in an increasing accumulation of years, which we call a.d. (anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”). By this strange reckoning we testify that Jesus of Nazareth is the dividing line of history.

Jesus is the great divide in more than a historical sense. He is also a personal dividing point for everyone who has been saved by him. This is what Paul has in mind as he moves in his treatment of practical Christian conduct from the gentile world, as it was (and is) apart from Christ, to the new standards of Christianity. Having described the world in its darkness, alienation, and futility, Paul now exclaims, “You, however, did not come to know Christ that way” (Eph. 4:20).

This is Paul’s introduction to what is going to be an extensive description of the Christian life. So it is important to notice that it begins with a reference to Christ himself and not to anything that might be supposed to come out of the depraved hearts or futile efforts of mere human beings. Some people think that a new life or a new beginning in life can emerge from self-discovery. The human potential movement, visible in such organizations as EST, Mind Dynamics, Lifespring, and Scientology, teaches this. Some think that a change can be found through personal enlightenment. They seek it through mysticism and the newly resurgent religions of the East. Still others retain belief in the nineteenth-century notion of inevitable progress.

Real change comes in none of these ways. The only truly transforming power that has ever come into the world is that of the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, and the only true and lasting changes that ever take place in an individual life take place through believing in and learning from him.

Jesus is the great divide, not only historically but also in the lives of countless people.

The School of Christ

As Paul begins to explain this he uses three verbs, all having to do with education, and he follows them with a reference to “the truth that is in Jesus.” Together they create an image of what we might call the school of Jesus Christ. The way these verbs are used is interesting. Marcus Barth calls them “baffling” in his excellent treatment of them and considers them examples of “an extraordinary use of language.”

The first verb is emathete. The phrase in which it occurs should be rendered literally “you learned Christ” (niv, “came to know”). The reason this is “extraordinary” is that the idea of learning a person, rather than a mere fact or doctrine, is found nowhere else in the Greek Bible. Nor has it been found in any other pre-biblical document. What does it mean? Well, it probably means more than merely learning about the historical Jesus or becoming acquainted with his doctrines. It is probably to be taken along the lines of Jesus’ words when he said in his great prayer to the Father, recorded in John 17, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (v. 3). It means that Christians are Christians because they have entered into a personal relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ. It is a learning of him that changes them at the deepest possible level.

The second verb is ēkousate and occurs in the phrase “you heard him.” The New International Version says, “you heard of him,” but “of” is not in the text and at this point the niv is probably in error. The point is not that we have heard of Christ but rather that we have heard him speak. How so? How have we heard Jesus? The answer—though this is perhaps also a bit baffling—is that we have heard him in Scripture, particularly as it has been expounded to us by preachers of the gospel. I emphasize preaching because this is the way the Ephesians, to whom Paul is actually writing, must have heard Christ. As Paul preached Jesus, they heard Jesus himself through Paul’s exposition.

This is hard for the world to understand. The minds of this world’s people are clouded and their eyes blinded, as we saw in the story about William Pitt the Younger and Wilberforce. Yet Christians know exactly what this means. You read the Bible or hear the Word of God preached and, suddenly, sometimes quite unexpectedly, you are aware that Jesus is talking to you personally. This is not mere subjectivity; it is supernatural. For Jesus does speak. He speaks to change the life and thinking of his people.

The third verb is edidachthēte. It is a heightened form of the common Greek word for instruction and occurs in the phrase “you … were taught in him.” The puzzling thing about this expression is the words “in him.” Normally we would expect the sentence to say “taught by him,” or “taught about him,” But it actually says “in him,” and it probably means that Jesus is the atmosphere within which the teaching takes place. We might say that Jesus is the school, as well as the teacher and the subject of instruction.

Some years ago Marshall McLuhan popularized the phrase “the medium is the message.” He used it in reference to forms of communication such as television. In Christ’s school we have a case where the Medium really is the Message—and the environment too. Christ is everything. John Stott says in his comments on this passage, “When Jesus Christ is at once the subject, the object, and the environment of the moral instruction being given, we may have confidence that it is truly Christian. For truth is in Jesus. The change from his title ‘Christ’ to his human name ‘Jesus’ seems to be deliberate. The historical Jesus is himself the embodiment of truth, as he claimed.”

Notice that although Paul is speaking of the knowledge of Christ and his ways in the deepest, most personal, and most profound sense, it is nevertheless in terms of knowing or learning of Christ that he speaks. Why is this? It is because in the previous verse he has described the condition of the secular or gentile world as due chiefly to ignorance. He was pointing out that the depravity of the gentile world was due to its willful ignorance of God. The world has hardened its heart against God and so is alienated from him intellectually and in every other way. It follows, then, that when Paul speaks of the difference Jesus makes he does so in exactly parallel terms. The world is ignorant of God, but Christians have come to know him. The secular mind is hostile to Christ’s teaching, but the believer joyfully enrolls in and continually makes progress in Christ’s school.

What is the Difference?

We come to specifics now and ask in concrete terms precisely what difference the coming of Christ and his revelation mean to us. How shall we describe the geography to the right and to the left of this great historical divide? I suggest the following five alternatives.

  1. God and atheism. I am aware, of course, that there are many religions in the world other than Christianity, and I would even argue that they exist because of the God of Christianity. Not knowing the true God has left a vacuum at the center of the human personality which people everywhere try to fill with religion. But religion itself is empty—“vain” is Paul’s word—and it leads to frustration, the kind of thing Edward Gibbon meant when he described the religions of the ancient world either as “equally true” (in the minds of the common people), “equally false” (in the minds of the philosophers), or “equally useful” (in the minds of the magistrates). Mere human debate on this issue leads at best to skepticism and at worst to outright disbelief or atheism. Christ shows that there is a God and that the true God is the God of the Bible.

I am impressed with the fact that in his early apologetic writing this is the place where Francis Schaeffer starts. He starts with the existence of God, and his classic statement of this foundational point is that “God is there, and he is not silent.” It is evident why we must start at this point. If God exists and we can know he exists, then everything else follows from that premise. The Bible begins this way: “In the beginning God. …” Everything else follows that. If God does not exist or if we cannot know he exists, then nothing follows except chaos.

Jesus shows us that God exists and that this God, the true God, is the God of the Bible. This is the God he himself believed in and about whom he taught. He taught that God is all-powerful, and he declared that after he had died, this God, the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, would raise him from the dead. This was a stupendous claim, a seemingly impossible claim. But the God of Jesus stood the test. He did raise Jesus from the dead, and thus both by his teaching and by his resurrection we know that there is a God and that the God proclaimed by Jesus is that God.

  1. Plan or accident. Is life part of an important, divine plan, or is it just an accident? That is the second issue that hinges on the person of Christ. The proponents of atheistic evolution, of whom there are many in our day, argue that everything that exists, including ourselves, has come about entirely by chance. There has been no guiding Mind or plan. It just happened. One day, for no real reason, certain inorganic compounds (like hydrogen, water, ammonia, and carbon dioxide, which were existing for no real reason) united to form bio-organic compounds (like amino acids and sugars). These bio-organics united to form bio-polymers, which are large molecules such as proteins, and these in turn became the first living cells, like algae. From this point life just progressed upward.

This is an utter absurdity, of course. “Chance” is no thing. It can “form” nothing. So if the choice is between a plan and an accident (or chance), there is really no choice. There must be a plan, and in order for there to be a plan there must be a Planner, who makes it.

The world does not see the absurdity of tracing everything to chance, and therefore in this area as in others Jesus is the point of division.

If there is no plan and everything is the product of mere chance (whatever that may be), then nothing at all has meaning. The world itself is meaningless. History is meaningless. You have no meaning, and neither do I. Everything is just an accident, and whether we live or die, achieve or fail to achieve in this life, is irrelevant. Moreover, since the universe does not care, there is no reason why we should care either. People do not want to acknowledge this, of course. After all, regardless of their world-and-life view (or even the absence of one), they are all nevertheless made in the image of God and therefore sense that they have meaning anyway.

But my point is that it is only in Jesus Christ that we know this. Otherwise we might as well say, as the ancients did, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” This is precisely the manner in which many of our contemporaries are living—and they have empty lives to show for it.

  1. Truth or ignorance. When I mentioned Francis Schaeffer’s statement, “God is there, and he is not silent,” it was for the sake of the statement’s first part: God is there. Now I return to it for the second part, which tells us not merely that God exists but that we can know he exists and that we can know many other things besides. We can know because of God’s authoritative speaking or revelation.

Without the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ the world cannot know anything with real certainty. This must have seemed particularly strange to the Greeks of Paul’s day. The Greeks had produced nearly all the great philosophers, and the ancient world prided itself on their wisdom. Still, the best philosophers knew (at least in part) how ignorant they were. Plato said somewhat wistfully, on one occasion, “Perhaps one day there will come forth a Word out of God who will reveal all things and make everything plain.” But the Greeks did not know where that Word was—until the early preachers of the gospel told them. They remained ignorant. And our world, which has heard the Word proclaimed but has rejected him, has moved in the direction, not of increasing certainty about absolutes, but of uncertainty.

I have frequently said that in our day people no longer even believe in truth, strictly speaking. They speak of truth, but they mean only what is true for me (but not necessarily for you) or what is true now (but not necessarily tomorrow). This means that in the final analysis there is no truth. A philosophy like this is the opposite of revelation, and the ignorance that results is so deep that it does not even know it is ignorance.

  1. Life or oblivion. What is in store after death: eternal life or personal oblivion? Here too Jesus Christ’s coming into the world has made a difference.

What is the one great fear of men and women apart from Jesus Christ? It is death. People fear death for two reasons.

First, they do not know what stands on the far side of that dark portal, if anything. They are ignorant. Francis Bacon was thinking of this when he said, “Men fear death as children fear the dark.”

Second, in spite of their willful ignorance of God, they sense deep in their beings that he is there, that they have offended him, and that beyond the door of death they must give an accounting to him. I think this is what bothered Samuel Johnson when he described his horror at the death of a friend: “At the sign of this last conflict I felt a sensation never known to me before: a confusion of passions, an awful stillness of sorrow, a gloomy terror without a name” (The Rambler, no. 54).

But let me say: Of all the fears people have in the face of death the least to be feared is oblivion—to die and be no more. The reality of facing God is far worse. To face God apart from Christ is to face judgment. Only in Christ can we pass over the dividing line between the kingdom of wrath and condemnation to that of life and light.

  1. Blessing or cursing in this life. I have been speaking of the difference Jesus makes for eternity, but I end by saying that Jesus makes all the difference in this life too. Do you remember that great scene in the book of Joshua in which, in obedience to the remembered command of Moses, Joshua gathered the people of Israel at Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim? The area between the mountains was a natural amphitheater, and the people were to stand on the opposing mountains while the law of God, containing blessings and cursings, was read to them. Mount Ebal was to be the mountain of cursing, and as the curses of God upon all who break his law were read, the people were to say, “Amen.” Mount Gerizim was the mountain of blessing. From this mountain the Levites read the blessings of God which were to be upon all who loved him and kept his commandments.

How were the people to keep them? They had no strength to do it. What were they to do if they did break the commandments? How were they to escape the curses of God which hung over them? In the bottom of that amphitheater, between the two mountains, there was an altar which pointed to the atonement to be made one day by Jesus Christ. That is what would deliver them from the curse and keep them in blessing. Christ alone could do it. Christ alone can bring blessing.

I do not fully understand how he does it, but he does. What was our life b.c. (before Christ)? Wrath and disaster. What is it a.d.? It is the way of mercy and blessing. What a Savior![5]


23 In contrast to the destruction of the old way of life to be put off, Christians were also taught to “be renewed” (ananeoomai; NIV, “made new”). The present tense of the infinitive suggests the ongoing nature of this action: they must continually allow God to renew them (passive voice). The apparent location or focus (the dative probably has a locative, not an instrumental, sense) of this renewal is, literally, the “spirit of your mind.” Thus, “spirit” (pneuma, GK 4460) refers not to the Holy Spirit as the means of transformation, but to the human spirit (NIV, “attitude”; a more precise understanding points to a person’s “spiritual state, state of mind, disposition” [BDAG, 833]). To “spirit” Paul attaches “mind” in the genitive case (also suggesting Paul refers to human spirit, not the divine Spirit), so that the whole phrase denotes the disposition one’s mind has or possesses (NIV, “attitude of your minds”). In effect, for renewal to transpire, believers must allow God to transform their ways of thinking in the innermost recesses of who they are (cf. Ro 12:2: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind”).[6]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 178). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1938). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Ephesians (Vol. 7, pp. 213–215). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 177–179). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Boice, J. M. (1988). Ephesians: an expositional commentary (pp. 159–164). Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library.

[6] Klein, W. W. (2006). Ephesians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 126). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

June 8 – Integrity Passes the Test

“So [the king’s overseer] listened to [Daniel and his friends in this matter and tested them for ten days. And at the end of ten days their appearance seemed better and they were fatter than all the youths who had been eating the king’s choice food. So the overseer continued to withhold their choice food and the wine they were to drink, and kept giving them vegetables.”

Daniel 1:14–16

✧✧✧

All spiritual commitment will be tested.

When God wants to prove the quality of one’s commitment, He tests it. The test may come directly from Him, as with Abraham when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:1–2), or it may come through difficult circumstances, as with the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings (Deut. 8:16), or it may even come from Satan himself, as God permitted with Job (Job 1:12; 2:6). Regardless of its source, every test is designed by God to produce greater spiritual fruit in His children (1 Peter 1:6–7).

Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed–nego’s tests came at the hands of their Babylonian captors. Separation from family, friends, and homeland must have been an extremely difficult test for them, but through it all their commitment to the Lord remained unshakable. Now they faced a test to determine whether or not they could remain undefiled. For ten days they would eat only vegetables and drink only water, while their fellow captives ate the king’s special diet.

Normally such a brief period of time would make no noticeable change in one’s physiology, but God must have intervened because at the conclusion of just ten days, these four young men were clearly healthier and more vigorous than their peers. The results were so convincing that their overseer allowed them to remain on a vegetarian diet throughout their entire three–year training period. God honored their uncompromising spirit.

When you are tested, remember that God is working on your spiritual maturity and that He will never test you beyond what you are able to endure and will always provide a means of victory (1 Cor. 10:13).

✧✧✧

Suggestions for Prayer: Pray for wisdom and strength to meet each test in your life with courage and victory.

For Further Study: Read Psalm 26:1–3. What did King David request of God? ✧ How does he describe a person of integrity?[1]


8–17 The plotline of a story unfolds in the arrangement of events recorded in the narrative. The basic ingredient of a good story plot is conflict moving toward resolution. The opening scene of Daniel reports such conflict. The conflict for Daniel and his three friends is an ideological or moral conflict dilemma. This type of conflict usually occurs within the protagonist(s) of the story and generally focuses on issues of worldview and ultimately “good” versus “evil.” Specifically, the issue here is the royal food and wine that Daniel and his friends were required to eat and drink (v. 8). The rejection of the royal food by Daniel and his friends foreshadows further episodes of conflict as the story of the Hebrew captives progresses, conflicts with other characters (e.g., the Babylonian wise men; 3:8–12; 6:1–5), and physical danger in the form of execution by fire (3:11) and exposure to wild beasts (6:7).

The expression Daniel “resolved” (v. 8) is an idiom expressing a deliberate act of the will motivated by a deep-seated personal conviction (Heb. śîm + lēb, “to set the heart”; cf. NASB’s “Daniel made up his mind”). The word “defile” (Heb. gāʾal) occurs fewer than a dozen times in the OT and may refer to moral or ceremonial impurity (e.g., Isa 59:3; Mal 1:7, 12). Wallace, 42–43, observes that Daniel believed “faith in God and the forgiveness of God had made him clean”—clean from the idolatry and moral pollution of the surrounding world. To eat the king’s food would compromise God’s forgiveness and draw him back into the very same “world” from which he had been cleansed.

The royal food rations posed a problem for Daniel and his friends for several possible reasons. First, the law of Moses prohibited the obedient Hebrews from eating certain types of food, and there was no assurance that such fare would be left off the menu (cf. Lev 11; Dt 12:23–25; 14). Yet the Mosaic dietary restrictions do not include wine, also rejected by Daniel and his friends.

Second, the royal food rations would have probably been associated with idol worship in some way (either by the food’s having been offered to idols or blessed by idolatrous priests). Yet Daniel and his friends do not refuse all the royal food rations (as though only meat and drink but not “vegetables” were dedicated to the Babylonian gods). On both counts the royal food would have been regarded as ritually unclean on theological grounds, and hence the eating of such food would constitute an act of disobedience against Yahweh and his commands.

Beyond this, it is possible that Daniel simply interpreted the eating of the royal food rations as a formal demonstration of allegiance to the Babylonian king. Baldwin, 83, and Felwell, 40, suggest that Daniel’s motivation for rejecting the king’s menu was political in the sense that eating the royal provisions was tantamount to accepting the lordship of the Babylonian king, whereas Daniel and his friends owed loyalty to Yahweh alone as their “king” (cf. 3:17–18; on the issue of cultural assimilation see BBCOT, 731). But again, Daniel and his friends do agree to certain provisions of royal food, thus weakening the argument of political allegiance to King Nebuchadnezzar by virtue of the “meal custom” of the biblical world. Longman, 53, suggests that the food-rations test was essentially a means by which Daniel and his friends might demonstrate that their healthy physical appearance (and hence their intellectual gifts) was the miraculous work of their God—not King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace food or the Babylonian pantheon. As J. H. Sims (“Daniel,” in A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. L. Ryken and T. Longman [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993], 333–34) points out, whatever the motivation for rejecting the royal food rations, the greater issue theologically is that of divine nurture versus human nurture—on whom or what will the Hebrews rely for sustenance in their captivity?

The question of conformity to the surrounding culture was of paramount concern for the Diaspora Hebrews. To what degree, if any, should the displaced Israelites make accommodation to the surrounding dominant culture? What place was there for the Hebrew distinctives of religious monotheism and ethical absolutism based on the law of Moses in the religious pluralism and moral relativism of the Gentile superpowers? Rather than react in open defiance of the king’s decree, Daniel and his friends arranged a compromise with Ashpenaz and his appointed guardian (vv. 10–14). The alternative to eating the king’s food was a “rations test,” with the Hebrew captives to be fed a diet of vegetables and water (v. 12), against the control group of those young men eating the royal provisions (v. 13). Goldingay, 20, interprets the “ten-day” testing period pragmatically as a standard round number of days that would not arouse the suspicion of Ashpenaz’s superiors and yet be long enough for the effects of the test to be observed.

The example of nonconformity by Daniel and his friends became a model for the Israelite response to Gentile culture in later Judaism. For example, the characters of both Judith and Tobit are portrayed as pious Jews who observe strict adherence to the Mosaic law in the books of the apocryphal OT literature that bear their names. Separation from Gentile culture was an important component in an emerging “Diaspora theology” for the Hebrews during the intertestamental period. By the time of the NT, the Jewish worldview was tainted with attitudes of particularism, exclusivism, and superiority in reaction to the influences of Hellenism.

This “Judaism against Gentile culture” paradigm made Jesus’ apparent laxity toward the Mosaic law and his accommodation to Gentile culture difficult to interpret and accept. The church, as the counter-culture agent of God’s kingdom in the world, has no less difficulty in discerning and practicing what Jesus meant when he instructed his followers that though they were in the world, they were not to be of the world (Jn 17:14–18; see the discussion of the Christian’s interface with culture employing Niebuhr’s classic Christ and culture paradigms in Longman, 62–69).

In the process we learn that God’s providential rule of history is not restricted to nations and kings, as God caused Ashpenaz, the chief official, “to show favor and sympathy to Daniel” (v. 9). The passage is reminiscent of Joseph, who “found favor” in Potiphar’s eyes (Ge 39:4), and Esther, who “pleased [Hegai] and won his favor” during her preparations for the royal beauty contest (Est 2:9). The repetition of the verb “gave” (Heb. nātan; GK 5989) echoes God’s deliverance of King Jehoiakim to the Babylonians (v. 2). The NIV’s “God had caused” (v. 9) fails to convey the full theological freight of the original (cf. NASB, “Now God granted Daniel favor and compassion …”). Literally, “God gave Daniel for favor and mercies before the chief official.” Even as God gave Jehoiakim to the Babylonians for judgment, God gave Daniel to Ashpenaz for grace.

This language of divine intervention is in keeping with the theme of Daniel established in the opening verses, namely God’s sovereignty. As Seow, 27, notes, “the sovereignty of God is thus affirmed; the theological paradox of judgment and grace is maintained … God is the narrator’s ‘lord’ … God is at work and ever providing.” In fact, God’s testing and providing are key themes of the OT and justify his name as “Yahweh Yirʾeh” or “Jehovah Jireh” (“The Lord Will Provide,” Ge 22:14).

The four Hebrews passed the rations test, actually emerging “healthier and better nourished” than their counterparts, whose diet consisted of the royal food (v. 15). For the third time in the chapter we read that God “gave” (Heb. nātan; v. 17). In this instance, as a result of their resolve not to defile themselves with the royal food, God granted Daniel and his friends “knowledge and understanding” (v. 17a). The term “knowledge” (Heb. maddāʿ) implies academic learning (cf. v. 4, “quick to understand”), and the word “understanding” (Heb. haśkēl) suggests both “aptitude for learning” (cf. v. 4) and insight with respect to prudence or sound judgment.

In other words, the food rations episode offers practical commentary of sorts on Proverbs 1:7a: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (cf. Ps 111:10). Baldwin, 84, has summarized that even small acts of faith and self-discipline, when undertaken out of loyalty to godly principle, set “God’s servants in the line of his approval and blessing. In this way actions attest faith, and character is strengthened to face more difficult situations.” (But see Goldingay, 20, who denies the cause-and-effect relationship between faithfulness and reward.) The added statement in v. 17b that Daniel received a special divine endowment to understand or interpret visions and dreams foreshadows those “more difficult situations” he will face in the key role he plays as interpreter of dreams and seer of visions in the rest of the book.[2]


A Young Man Decides

Daniel 1:3–21

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility—young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.

Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.

But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the two greatest reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, each issued commentaries on Daniel. Luther produced two studies, published in 1524 and 1544. Calvin produced one, published in 1561. It is a striking fact that in spite of Luther’s great popularity, which continues to this day, Luther’s books on Daniel have never been translated into English, while Calvin’s massive work, running to a thousand pages in the original Latin, was available in English within ten years.

Why has the text of Calvin’s commentary proved so popular? There may be many reasons, but most people feel that it is because of the passionate and moving way in which the great expositor linked the times of the exiled Daniel to his own.

Calvin lived in an age of ecclesiastical and political warfare in which many thousands suffered greatly for their faith. In Germany in 1546, Charles V began a war to stamp out Lutheranism. In France, between 1540 and 1544, Francis I attempted the same thing, massacring the Waldensians as part of his misconceived program. In 1545 he burned twenty-two villages and killed three thousand men and women. Others were sent to the galleys. In 1562, the year after Calvin’s commentary appeared, the eight Wars of Religion began, the destruction of which was so great that Europe did not recover for two centuries. Thousands became exiles during this period. Many fled to Switzerland where Calvin, who was himself an exile, lived.

Calvin’s commentary breathes with compassion for these people, and as a result it has always appealed to those who consider themselves exiles in a strange land. Indeed, it appears even more broadly than this. For Daniel was a man of God in worldly Babylon, and Christians are always God’s people in the midst of those who do not honor and in fact oppose their divine King.

Calvin dedicated his book to the “pious Protestants of France” and urged Daniel upon them as a great encouragement.

I have the very best occasion of showing you, beloved brethren, in this mirror, how God proves the faith of his people in these days by various trials; and how with wonderful wisdom he has taken care to strengthen their minds by ancient examples, that they should never be weakened by the concussion of the severest storms and tempests; or at least, if they should totter at all, that they should never finally fall away. For although the servants of God are required to run in a course impeded by many obstacles, yet whoever diligently reads this book will find in it whatever is needed by a voluntary and active runner to guide him from the starting point to the goal; while good and strenuous wrestlers will experimentally acknowledge that they have been sufficiently prepared for the contest.… Here then, we observe, as in a living picture, that when God spares and even indulges the wicked for a time, he proves his servants like gold and silver; so that we ought not to consider it a grievance to be thrown into the furnace of trial, while profane men enjoy the calmness of repose.

A Secular Environment

In order to understand Daniel we must realize that the Babylon to which Daniel and his three friends were taken was a secular, worldly place, as I attempted to show in the last study, and that their initial experiences there were intended to blot out of their minds the remembrance of the true God and their homeland. We see this in several ways. For one thing, Nebuchadnezzar ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to choose young men who would be easily molded by their new environment. Again, he attempted to lure them with the delicacies of food the great city of Babylon could provide.

Chiefly we notice Nebuchadnezzar’s intentions in the altering of the young men’s names. The Hebrew names of these young men were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They were changed to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It should be immediately evident to anyone with even a limited knowledge of Hebrew that the Jewish names of these men each contains a name of God and has a spiritual meaning. Daniel and Mishael both contain the syllable el, which means “God” and is the basis of the frequently appearing (plural) name Elohim. Daniel means “God is my Judge.” Mishael means “Who is like God?” The other two names, Hananiah and Azariah, both contain a shortened form of the name Jehovah. Hananiah means “Jehovah is gracious.” Azariah means “Jehovah is my helper.” The very names of these men were reminders of their heritage and a challenge to them to remain faithful to the Lord. But now, deported into a strange, pagan land, their names are changed. And the names they are given all contain a reference to one of the false gods of the ancient Babylonians, Aku and Nego. It was a way of saying that these who had been servants of the Jewish God were now servants and worshipers of the gods of the pagan pantheon.

Yet the change accomplished nothing. Nebuchadnezzar changed the men’s names, but he could not change their hearts. They remained faithful to the true God of Israel, as the story shows.

I apply that to our own age. One thing the world seems always to try to do—it has happened in the past, and it is happening in our own time—is to take Christian words and rework them to convey the world’s ideas. I suppose it is one of the devil’s subtlest tricks. It happens in liberal theology. “Sin” used to mean rebellion against God and his righteous law or, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (A. 14). But today it means ignorance or merely the kind of oppression that is supposed to reside in social structures. “Jesus” is no longer the incarnate God who died for our salvation, but rather our example or what might even be termed an evolutionary peak of the human race. “Faith” is awareness of oppression and beginning to do something about it, and so on. Of course, in the secular world the readjustment of words is even more ridiculous and extreme, as the recent use of the term “born again” in advertising slogans shows.

This is a great danger, I admit. But although it is a danger, if the truth of what is behind these words remains strong in the minds and hearts of those who really know the truth, then the vitality of the faith will remain regardless of the world’s corruptions. Christians will persevere because God will strengthen them to stand against the culture.

Daniel’s Decision

The most important verse in the first chapter of Daniel is verse 8, which says, “But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.”

What is your reaction to that? Remember that Daniel was a young man at this time. We know from the later development of the story that he lived for a very long time beyond this—through the rule of four emperors. He was probably in his nineties when he died. So at this point he was probably between fifteen and seventeen. It was at this young age that he was taken away from his own country and culture, plunged into the strange but exciting life of the great world capital, and lured to loyalty by the best of all possible educations and by provision of the very food served to Nebuchadnezzar. Yet Daniel refused to partake of this food. As I say, what is your reaction to that? Do you find it a very little thing? Do you see Daniel’s decision as the immaturity and foolishness of youth? Would you have acted as Daniel and his friends did in these circumstances, or would you have gone along with your great benefactor’s desires? Would you have said, “After all, why should we live by Jewish dietary laws while in Babylon? Let’s eat and drink. It’s just a small thing”?

Well, it was a small thing. Yet that is just the point. For it is in the small matters that great victories are won. This is where decisions to live a holy life are made—not in the big things (though they come if the little things are neglected), but in the details of life. If Daniel had said, “I want to live for God in big ways, but I am not going to make a fool of myself in this trivial matter of eating and drinking the king’s food,” he never would have amounted to anything. But because he started out for God in small things, God used him greatly.

I have titled this chapter “A Young Man Decides” because it is particularly in youth that the most significant and life-forming decisions are made. Are you a young person? Then you should pay particularly close attention to this point. Most young people want their lives to count, and most Christian young people want their lives to count for God. Youth dreams big. That is right. You should dream big. But youth is also often impatient and undisciplined, and young people are tempted to let the little things slide. You must not do that if you are God’s young man or God’s young woman. God will make your life count, but this will not happen unless you determine to live for him in the little things now. You know what Jesus said: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). Being wholly given over to God now is the essential and best possible preparation for future service.

Why We Must Be Holy

In the last chapter I pointed out that Daniel is a story of the struggle of the world’s people and culture against God’s people and God’s culture, and it is. But it is also a story of men who lived for God by choosing the path of personal discipleship and holiness. This is no contradiction, because it is only such persons who actually embody the spiritual standards of “the city of God.” It is only these who make any lasting difference in the world.

A great evangelical bishop of England, John Charles Ryle, wrote a classic study of holiness in which he urged holiness upon all who call themselves Christians. After some opening passages in which he describes holiness as separation to God, devotion to God, service to God, being of one mind with God and wanting God’s will—Ryle went on to show why holiness, the kind of holiness exercised by Daniel, is so necessary. He listed eight reasons.

  1. “We must be holy, because the voice of God in Scripture plainly commands it.” Peter wrote, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ ” (1 Peter 1:14–16). This is not optional. God did not say, “I would like you to live a holy life; but if you are not too excited about that particular lifestyle, don’t worry about it. We’ll work on something else.” God said, “Be holy, because I am holy.” We must be holy because the holy God commands it.
  2. “We must be holy, because this is the one grand end and purpose for which Christ came into the world.” You say, “But I thought Jesus came to save us from our sins.” Yes, he did come for that. But the Bible also says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25–27). Many Christians think they would like the benefits of salvation without the obligation to live for Christ, but they cannot have them because Christ came to make them holy just as much as he came to save them from the penalty of their sins. If you are fighting against holiness, you are fighting against nothing less than the purpose of God in the Atonement.
  3. “We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we have a saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” How is that so? Well, James in his letter speaks of two kinds of faith: a living, saving faith and a dead faith that saves no one. The devils have a dead faith; that is, they believe there is a God and that Jesus is his Son, sent to save his people. But they do not trust him personally. They do not live for him. A living faith does live for him and therefore shows itself in good works. That is why James says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26).

Ryle used this point to comment on so-called “death-bed” conversions, judging that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred these “conversions” are illusory. He said, “With rare exceptions, men die just as they have lived. The only safe evidence that we are one with Christ, and Christ is in us, is a holy life.”

  1. “We must be holy, because this is the only proof that we love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.” Jesus was quite plain on this point. He said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15); “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (v. 21); “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching” (v. 23); “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). How could the point be more clearly spoken? If you love Jesus, you will obey him; you will be holy. If you do not obey him, you do not love him—whatever your profession. Do you love Jesus? We have a chorus in which we sing, “Oh, how I love Jesus,” but you do not love him if you do not do what he says.
  2. “We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we are true children of God.” Do you remember how Jesus made this point when he was talking with the Pharisees? They claimed to be children of Abraham and therefore in right standing before God. But Jesus said, “If you were Abraham’s children, then you would do the things Abraham did” (John 8:39–40). Paul said the same thing in Romans, noting that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14). The Spirit of God does not lead you to sin. The Spirit of God does not lead to disobedience. If you are led by God’s Spirit, you will lead a holy life, and the evidence of that holy life will be sound evidence that you are God’s son or daughter.
  3. “We must be holy, because this is the most likely way to do good to others.” Many people today have some desire to do good to others, and many of our social and benevolence programs are an expression of that praiseworthy desire. But I ask, “Do you help others by advancing a low moral standard—one that is easy for them to live up to? Do you help others by whittling down the righteous standards of the Old Testament law or the New Testament precepts? Not at all! You help others by upholding the highest possible standards and above all by living according to those standards yourself. There are several places in the New Testament in which the godly conduct of a believer is said to be the best hope of doing good to someone else. For instance, Peter writes, “Wives, … be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Peter 3:1–2). No doubt many besides husbands have been won to Christ by the consistent, holy behavior of some Christian.
  4. “We must be holy, because our present comfort depends much upon it.” Not all suffering is directly related to a suffering person’s sin. Christ’s words about the man born blind (John 9:3) should disabuse us of attempts to make that an easy, one-to-one relationship. But although all suffering does not come directly from one’s sin, the reverse is true: All sin produces suffering.

We do not think this way naturally. In fact, we think just the opposite. We come up against one of God’s commandments, think that we would like to do something else, and immediately reason that if only we could do what we really want to do we would be happy. We think that we would be absolutely miserable obeying God. That was the devil’s argument in his temptation of Eve, but it is as diabolical now as it was then. To heed it is to forget whence our good comes. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). If we turn from this good, we do not turn to happiness but away from it.

  1. “Lastly, we must be holy, because without holiness on earth we shall never be prepared to enjoy heaven.” The author of Hebrews wrote, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Revelation speaks of heaven, saying, “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21:27).

Can I Be Holy?

The objection I am likely to get is that these points are all very well and good but that it is just not possible for you to live a holy life in your circumstances. “If I did the right thing in my job, I’d lose it,” you say. Or, “None of my friends would speak to me.” Or, “I’d never get ahead.” Or, “I just can’t be holy; I’ve tried it and I fail.”

If you are thinking this way, let me turn back to Daniel, who was not only resolved not to defile himself with the king’s food and wine but was also willing to put the matter to the test and prove God able in his circumstances. Daniel said to the guard who had been appointed over him, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see” (Dan. 1:12–13).

The guard agreed to this test, and at the end of the ten days the young men looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. Moreover, it was not only in their appearance that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah excelled. They also excelled in knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. The text concludes by noting that at the end of the three years of training, when the king brought his young protégés in for testing, Nebuchadnezzar “found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (v. 20).

Do not say, “If I live for God, I’ll lose out.” You may lose out on some of the things the world offers, which are not good for you anyway, but you will experience a richness of God’s bounty. The Bible says, “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).[3]


1:8–16 Daniel and His Friends Remain Undefiled. Daniel and his three friends resisted the attempted assimilation. They retained their original names (see v. 11) and resolved not to defile themselves with the king’s food and drink (v. 8). Many have thought that the four men’s resolve came from their intent to eat only ceremonially clean food, not any “unclean” food as specified in Lev. 11:1–47 and Deut. 14:3–20—much as a group of Jewish priests later did in Rome, eating only figs and nuts (see Josephus, Life of Josephus 14; cf. Rom. 14:2). That may be part of the explanation, for the Babylonians would have eaten such things as pork, which was unclean for Jews. But wine (Dan. 1:8) would not have been prohibited by any law in Jewish Scripture, so that cannot be the entire explanation (unless the young men feared that somehow the wine had been polluted through failure to grow the grapes according to the rule of Lev. 19:25–28; cf. Deut. 20:6). Another view is that they feared the meat and wine would have been first offered to Babylonian idols. Again, this may have provided part of the reason for their reluctance to partake of the Babylonian food, but the vegetables and grains would probably also have been offered to idols, so that does not seem to be the most persuasive explanation. A third view, that they were following a vegetarian diet for health reasons, is unhelpful, because no OT laws would have taught them that (modern) idea. A fourth view combines elements of the first two, and seems the best explanation: Daniel and his friends avoided the luxurious diet of the king’s table as a way of protecting themselves from being ensnared by the temptations of the Babylonian culture. They used their distinctive diet as a way of retaining their distinctive identity as Jewish exiles and avoiding complete assimilation into Babylonian culture (which was the king’s goal with these conquered subjects). With this restricted diet they continually reminded themselves, in this time of testing, that they were the people of God in a foreign land and that they were dependent for their food, indeed for their very lives, upon God, their Creator, not King Nebuchadnezzar. (It is possible that Daniel later came to accept some of the Babylonian food; see Dan. 10:3.) The Lord gave Daniel favor (1:9) with his captors, an answer to Solomon’s prayer for the exiles (1 Kings 8:50), and the steward honored their request for a special diet. At the end of a trial period, Daniel and his friends looked fitter (fatter in flesh; Dan. 1:15) than those who had consumed a high-calorie diet. This confirmed that God’s favor was upon them.[4]


1:14–16 Better and fatter indicates that Daniel and his friends were healthier than the young men who ate … of the king’s delicacies.[5] Daniel and His Friends Refuse Unclean Food (1:8–16). Daniel regarded the food offered by the Babylonians to be defiling. The Mosaic law forbade God’s people to eat unclean animals or flesh that had not been drained of blood. Portions of the wine and meat presented by Ashpenaz may have been offered to idols.

Daniel convinced the Babylonians to allow him and his three friends to follow a different diet, consisting only of vegetables and water. After a ten-day trial period they looked even healthier than those who were following the diet prescribed by the king. Consequently they were not forced to eat the king’s food or drink his wine.[6]


[1] MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] Hill, A. E. (2008). Daniel. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, pp. 52–54). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Boice, J. M. (2003). Daniel: an expositional commentary (pp. 19–25). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[4] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (pp. 1586–1587). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[5] Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1009). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.

[6] Chisholm, R. B. (1998). The Major Prophets. In D. S. Dockery (Ed.), Holman concise Bible commentary (p. 333). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

June 8 – A Christ–Centered Life

You have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him.

Ephesians 4:20–21

As Christians, we are no longer controlled by a self–centered mind; we learn from Christ. Christ thinks for us, acts through us, loves through us, feels through us, and serves through us. The lives we live are not ours but are Christ living in us (Gal. 2:20). Philippians 2:5 says, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” An unsaved person walks in the vanity of his own mind, but a saved person walks according to the mind of Christ.

God has a plan for the universe, and as long as Christ is working in us, He’s working out a part of that plan through us. Paul noted that He “is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us” (Eph. 3:20). Every day should be a fantastic adventure for us because we’re in the middle of God’s unfolding plan for the ages.[1]


4:20 How different all this was from the Christ whom the Ephesians had come to know and love! He was the personification of purity and chastity. He knew no sin, He did no sin, there was no sin in Him.

4:21 The if in if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him is not meant to cast doubt on the conversion of the Ephesians. It simply emphasizes that all those who had heard Christ and had been taught by Him had come to know Him as the essence of holiness and godliness. To have heard Christ means to have heard Him with the hearing of faith—to have accepted Him as Lord and Savior. The expression, taught by Him, refers to the instruction the Ephesians received as they walked in fellowship with Him subsequent to their conversion. Blaikie remarks: “All truth acquires a different hue and a different character when there is a personal relation to Jesus. Truth apart from the Person of Christ has little power.” As the truth is in Jesus. He not only teaches the truth; He is truth incarnate (John 14:6). The name Jesus takes us back to His life on earth, since that is His name in Incarnation. In that spotless life which He lived as a Man in this world, we see the very antithesis of the walk of the Gentiles which Paul has just described.[2]


20. In principle, however, the people whom Paul addresses belong to a different category. This had been the case ever since Christ entered into their hearts and lives. Hence, Paul continues: You, however, did not so learn Christ. In the original the sentence begins with the word you, on which, accordingly, great emphasis is placed, as if to say, “You did not learn Christ so as to continue to live as the Gentiles are doing.” To learn Christ is more than to learn about Christ. Not only had the Ephesians received a body of teaching, namely, about Christ, and not only had they observed in the lives of those who brought it what this doctrine was able to achieve, but in addition, they themselves by an act of Spirit-wrought faith had welcomed this Christ into their hearts. Joyfully they had received the sacrament of holy baptism. And by constant and systematic attendance upon the means of grace, by prayer and answers to prayer, by daily living in accordance with the principles of the truth of the gospel, they had learned Christ, yes, Christ himself in very person.

Paul here presents the appropriation of Christ and of salvation in him as the result of a learning process, a learning with heart and mind. Believers, in other words, are not saved at one stroke. They do not become completely transformed all at once. They learn. There was the basic change wrought by the power of God. This was followed by a constant progress in sanctification, constant but not necessarily uniform. In one person it had been more clearly evident than in another. At one time the progress had been by leaps, but at another time at snail’s pace. At times, in all likelihood, there had been reverses, retrogressions. The point which the apostle emphasizes, however, is that whatever had been their degree of advance in learning, they had definitely not learned Christ as an advocate of sin and selfishness, of lewdness and licentiousness. No longer were their minds futile, no longer was their understanding dark. Continued: 21.… for surely you heard of him and were taught in him. Justification for this translation—“for surely,” where A.V. and A.R.V. have “if so be”—was offered in the explanation of 3:2 where a similar “for surely” occurs. Many of the Ephesians had been taught by Paul himself during his lengthy ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19; 20:17–35). The apostle had been able to reach not only those who were actually living within the city of Ephesus but also people from the surrounding territory. Many had flocked to the city to attend feasts, for business, or for other purposes. Some, no doubt, had gone there for the very purpose of seeing and hearing Paul. But in addition there had been other multitudes, in surrounding cities and villages, who heard the gospel from the lips of those who had received it from Paul (Acts 20:17). It should be borne in mind constantly that this epistle is, in all probability, a letter addressed to a vast multitude of people, many of whom did not live in Ephesus. It was probably a circular letter. See Introduction, pp. 58–61. The addressed, then, had heard of Christ and had been taught not only about but “in” him; that is, the entire atmosphere had been Christian. Christ, speaking through his ambassadors, was the teacher. He was also the theme. Continued: just as it is in Jesus that truth resides. The truth with reference to man’s fall into sin, his desperate condition by nature, the salvation procured by Christ, the necessity of faith working through love, principles of Christian conduct, etc.: all these doctrines had Christ as their very center. In Christ’s suffering and death by crucifixion the addressed had been able to read how deeply fallen they were, necessitating the death of God’s only-begotten Son, a death both painful and shameful. In his triumphant resurrection, ascension, and coronation they had received proof positive that salvation had been achieved. In Christ’s constant emphasis upon the fact that men must come to him and rely on him completely, they had been given a lesson in the necessity of faith as appropriating organ of salvation. The Master’s marvelous example in humility, self-sacrifice, love, etc. had been given for their instruction. Moreover, had not Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life”? (John 14:6). Was not he the very embodiment of the truth, the truth in person? Were not “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” hidden in him, hidden in order to be revealed? (Col. 2:3). Was not he the active and living truth, the truth that sets men free (John 8:32; 17:17), the very answer to Pilate’s question (John 18:38)?[3]


Christ–centered

But you did not learn Christ in this way, (4:20)

After reviewing the evils of the pagan world and the self–centered, purposeless, standardless wickedness that both comes from and leads to spiritual darkness and ignorance, Paul declared to believers who had fallen back into such degradation, But you did not learn Christ in this way. That is not the way of Christ or of His kingdom or family. “You are not to have any part of such things,” He insisted, “whether by participation or association.”

You did not learn Christ is a direct reference to salvation. To learn Christ is to be saved. While it is true that the verb manthanō can be used in reference to the process of learning truth (see Rom. 16:17; Phil. 4:9), it can also mean “to come to know” (Walter Bauer, A Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament. Translated and edited by W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich. 5th ed. [Chicago; U. of Chicago, 1958], p. 490), as a one–time act, particularly when the verb is aorist active indicative, as in this case. The aorist is also used in John 6:45, where Jesus spoke to those who had “learned from the Father”—indicating a reference to the saving act of faith under the Old Covenant which would lead them now to Him.

In Matthew 11:29, Jesus offered one of the loveliest of all salvation invitations: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me” (KJV). This use of manthanō is also in the aorist tense, indicating a single unrepeated act.

Both the context and the use of the aorist tense of the verb “to learn” in these passages lead to the conclusion that this learning refers to the moment of saving faith.

“Friendship with the world is hostility toward God” (James 4:4), and the person who makes a profession of Christ but makes no effort to break with his worldly and sinful habits has reason to doubt his salvation. “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him,” and “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:4, 15).

The ways of God and the ways of the world are not compatible. The idea, promoted by some who claim to be evangelicals, that a Christian does not have to give up anything or change anything when he becomes a Christian is nothing less than diabolical. That notion, under the pretense of elevating God’s grace and of protecting the gospel from works righteousness, will do nothing but send many people confidently down the broad way that Jesus said leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13).

From the human side, salvation begins with repentance, a change of mind and action regarding sin, self, and God. John the Baptist (Matt. 3:2), Jesus (Matt. 4:17), and the apostles (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 20:21; 26:20) began their ministries with the preaching of repentance. The very purpose of receiving Christ is to “be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40), and no one is saved who does not repent and forsake sin. Repentance does not save us, but God cannot save us from sin of which we are unwilling to let go. To hold on to sin is to refuse God, to scorn His grace, and to nullify faith. No Christian is totally free from the presence of sin in this life, but in Christ he is willingly freed from his orientation to sin. He slips and falls many times, but the determined direction of his life is away from sin.

One of the first things a Christian should learn is that he cannot trust his own thinking or rely on his own way. “They who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Cor. 5:15). The Christian has the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), and Christ’s is the only mind on which he can rely. The obedient, faithful Christian is the one for whom Christ thinks, acts, loves, feels, serves, and lives in every way. He says with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Because we have the mind of Christ, we are to “have this attitude in [ourselves] which was also in Christ Jesus,” who “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5, 8). Although Christ was one with His Father, while on earth He did absolutely nothing but His Father’s will (Matt. 26:39, 42; John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; etc.). If the incarnate Lord sought the mind of His heavenly Father in everything He did, how much more should we? The mark of the Christian life is to think like Christ, act like Christ, love like Christ, and in every possible way to be like Christ—in order that “whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him” (1 Thess. 5:10).

God has a plan of destiny for the universe, and as long as Christ is working in us He is working out a part of that plan through us. The Christ–centered life is the most purposeful and meaningful life conceivable—it is part of the divine plan and work of God!

Knows God’s Truth

if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, (4:21)

Instead of being ignorant of God’s truth, the Christian has heard Christ and is taught in Him. Both verbs are in the aorist tense, again pointing to a one–time past act, and in this context referring to the time when the readers were taught and came to believe the gospel—here called the truth … in Jesus. These terms describe the moment of salvation–conversion. When a person receives Christ as Savior and Lord, he comes into God’s truth.

If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him (cf. Matt. 17:5) could not possibly refer to hearing Jesus’ physical voice on earth, because there is no way that could have been true of all the believers in Asia Minor to whom Paul was writing. It must refer to the hearing of His spiritual call to salvation (cf. John 8:47; 10:27; Acts 3:22–23; Heb. 3:7–8). Many New Testament references speak of this hearing and being taught as the call of God (see, e.g., Acts 2:39). En autoi (in Him) means in union with Christ and further emphasizes the fact that at conversion we received the truth embodied in Christ, because we came to be in Him.

Life without God leads to cynicism about truth. The ungodly person may ask rhetorically with Pilate, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), but he expects no satisfactory answer. The Christian, however, can say, “The truth of Christ is in me” (2 Cor. 11:10) and “We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 5:20).

The truth that is in Jesus, then, is first of all the truth about salvation. This idea is parallel to 1:13, where Paul says hearing the truth and being in Him are synonymous with conversion: “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.” The truth … is in Jesus and it leads to the fullness of truth about God, man, creation, history, sin, righteousness, grace, faith, salvation, life, death, purpose, meaning, relationships, heaven, hell, judgment, eternity, and everything else of ultimate consequence.

John summed up this relationship with truth when he wrote: “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).[4]


Jesus, the Great Divide

Ephesians 4:20–24

You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Have you ever thought how significant it is that in the Western world we do not reckon time from some fixed point in the past to which we add on year by year but from a midpoint from which we figure both forward and back? The Jewish calendar begins from what it regards as the date of creation and moves on from that point. So does the Chinese calendar. But not the Christian calendar! We begin with an approximation of the year of the birth of Jesus Christ and then number in two directions—backward in a receding series of years, which we call b.c. (“before Christ”), and forward in an increasing accumulation of years, which we call a.d. (anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”). By this strange reckoning we testify that Jesus of Nazareth is the dividing line of history.

Jesus is the great divide in more than a historical sense. He is also a personal dividing point for everyone who has been saved by him. This is what Paul has in mind as he moves in his treatment of practical Christian conduct from the gentile world, as it was (and is) apart from Christ, to the new standards of Christianity. Having described the world in its darkness, alienation, and futility, Paul now exclaims, “You, however, did not come to know Christ that way” (Eph. 4:20).

This is Paul’s introduction to what is going to be an extensive description of the Christian life. So it is important to notice that it begins with a reference to Christ himself and not to anything that might be supposed to come out of the depraved hearts or futile efforts of mere human beings. Some people think that a new life or a new beginning in life can emerge from self-discovery. The human potential movement, visible in such organizations as EST, Mind Dynamics, Lifespring, and Scientology, teaches this. Some think that a change can be found through personal enlightenment. They seek it through mysticism and the newly resurgent religions of the East. Still others retain belief in the nineteenth-century notion of inevitable progress.

Real change comes in none of these ways. The only truly transforming power that has ever come into the world is that of the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, and the only true and lasting changes that ever take place in an individual life take place through believing in and learning from him.

Jesus is the great divide, not only historically but also in the lives of countless people.

The School of Christ

As Paul begins to explain this he uses three verbs, all having to do with education, and he follows them with a reference to “the truth that is in Jesus.” Together they create an image of what we might call the school of Jesus Christ. The way these verbs are used is interesting. Marcus Barth calls them “baffling” in his excellent treatment of them and considers them examples of “an extraordinary use of language.”

The first verb is emathete. The phrase in which it occurs should be rendered literally “you learned Christ” (niv, “came to know”). The reason this is “extraordinary” is that the idea of learning a person, rather than a mere fact or doctrine, is found nowhere else in the Greek Bible. Nor has it been found in any other pre-biblical document. What does it mean? Well, it probably means more than merely learning about the historical Jesus or becoming acquainted with his doctrines. It is probably to be taken along the lines of Jesus’ words when he said in his great prayer to the Father, recorded in John 17, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (v. 3). It means that Christians are Christians because they have entered into a personal relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ. It is a learning of him that changes them at the deepest possible level.

The second verb is ēkousate and occurs in the phrase “you heard him.” The New International Version says, “you heard of him,” but “of” is not in the text and at this point the niv is probably in error. The point is not that we have heard of Christ but rather that we have heard him speak. How so? How have we heard Jesus? The answer—though this is perhaps also a bit baffling—is that we have heard him in Scripture, particularly as it has been expounded to us by preachers of the gospel. I emphasize preaching because this is the way the Ephesians, to whom Paul is actually writing, must have heard Christ. As Paul preached Jesus, they heard Jesus himself through Paul’s exposition.

This is hard for the world to understand. The minds of this world’s people are clouded and their eyes blinded, as we saw in the story about William Pitt the Younger and Wilberforce. Yet Christians know exactly what this means. You read the Bible or hear the Word of God preached and, suddenly, sometimes quite unexpectedly, you are aware that Jesus is talking to you personally. This is not mere subjectivity; it is supernatural. For Jesus does speak. He speaks to change the life and thinking of his people.

The third verb is edidachthēte. It is a heightened form of the common Greek word for instruction and occurs in the phrase “you … were taught in him.” The puzzling thing about this expression is the words “in him.” Normally we would expect the sentence to say “taught by him,” or “taught about him,” But it actually says “in him,” and it probably means that Jesus is the atmosphere within which the teaching takes place. We might say that Jesus is the school, as well as the teacher and the subject of instruction.

Some years ago Marshall McLuhan popularized the phrase “the medium is the message.” He used it in reference to forms of communication such as television. In Christ’s school we have a case where the Medium really is the Message—and the environment too. Christ is everything. John Stott says in his comments on this passage, “When Jesus Christ is at once the subject, the object, and the environment of the moral instruction being given, we may have confidence that it is truly Christian. For truth is in Jesus. The change from his title ‘Christ’ to his human name ‘Jesus’ seems to be deliberate. The historical Jesus is himself the embodiment of truth, as he claimed.”

Notice that although Paul is speaking of the knowledge of Christ and his ways in the deepest, most personal, and most profound sense, it is nevertheless in terms of knowing or learning of Christ that he speaks. Why is this? It is because in the previous verse he has described the condition of the secular or gentile world as due chiefly to ignorance. He was pointing out that the depravity of the gentile world was due to its willful ignorance of God. The world has hardened its heart against God and so is alienated from him intellectually and in every other way. It follows, then, that when Paul speaks of the difference Jesus makes he does so in exactly parallel terms. The world is ignorant of God, but Christians have come to know him. The secular mind is hostile to Christ’s teaching, but the believer joyfully enrolls in and continually makes progress in Christ’s school.

What is the Difference?

We come to specifics now and ask in concrete terms precisely what difference the coming of Christ and his revelation mean to us. How shall we describe the geography to the right and to the left of this great historical divide? I suggest the following five alternatives.

  1. God and atheism. I am aware, of course, that there are many religions in the world other than Christianity, and I would even argue that they exist because of the God of Christianity. Not knowing the true God has left a vacuum at the center of the human personality which people everywhere try to fill with religion. But religion itself is empty—“vain” is Paul’s word—and it leads to frustration, the kind of thing Edward Gibbon meant when he described the religions of the ancient world either as “equally true” (in the minds of the common people), “equally false” (in the minds of the philosophers), or “equally useful” (in the minds of the magistrates). Mere human debate on this issue leads at best to skepticism and at worst to outright disbelief or atheism. Christ shows that there is a God and that the true God is the God of the Bible.

I am impressed with the fact that in his early apologetic writing this is the place where Francis Schaeffer starts. He starts with the existence of God, and his classic statement of this foundational point is that “God is there, and he is not silent.” It is evident why we must start at this point. If God exists and we can know he exists, then everything else follows from that premise. The Bible begins this way: “In the beginning God. …” Everything else follows that. If God does not exist or if we cannot know he exists, then nothing follows except chaos.

Jesus shows us that God exists and that this God, the true God, is the God of the Bible. This is the God he himself believed in and about whom he taught. He taught that God is all-powerful, and he declared that after he had died, this God, the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, would raise him from the dead. This was a stupendous claim, a seemingly impossible claim. But the God of Jesus stood the test. He did raise Jesus from the dead, and thus both by his teaching and by his resurrection we know that there is a God and that the God proclaimed by Jesus is that God.

  1. Plan or accident. Is life part of an important, divine plan, or is it just an accident? That is the second issue that hinges on the person of Christ. The proponents of atheistic evolution, of whom there are many in our day, argue that everything that exists, including ourselves, has come about entirely by chance. There has been no guiding Mind or plan. It just happened. One day, for no real reason, certain inorganic compounds (like hydrogen, water, ammonia, and carbon dioxide, which were existing for no real reason) united to form bio-organic compounds (like amino acids and sugars). These bio-organics united to form bio-polymers, which are large molecules such as proteins, and these in turn became the first living cells, like algae. From this point life just progressed upward.

This is an utter absurdity, of course. “Chance” is no thing. It can “form” nothing. So if the choice is between a plan and an accident (or chance), there is really no choice. There must be a plan, and in order for there to be a plan there must be a Planner, who makes it.

The world does not see the absurdity of tracing everything to chance, and therefore in this area as in others Jesus is the point of division.

If there is no plan and everything is the product of mere chance (whatever that may be), then nothing at all has meaning. The world itself is meaningless. History is meaningless. You have no meaning, and neither do I. Everything is just an accident, and whether we live or die, achieve or fail to achieve in this life, is irrelevant. Moreover, since the universe does not care, there is no reason why we should care either. People do not want to acknowledge this, of course. After all, regardless of their world-and-life view (or even the absence of one), they are all nevertheless made in the image of God and therefore sense that they have meaning anyway.

But my point is that it is only in Jesus Christ that we know this. Otherwise we might as well say, as the ancients did, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” This is precisely the manner in which many of our contemporaries are living—and they have empty lives to show for it.

  1. Truth or ignorance. When I mentioned Francis Schaeffer’s statement, “God is there, and he is not silent,” it was for the sake of the statement’s first part: God is there. Now I return to it for the second part, which tells us not merely that God exists but that we can know he exists and that we can know many other things besides. We can know because of God’s authoritative speaking or revelation.

Without the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ the world cannot know anything with real certainty. This must have seemed particularly strange to the Greeks of Paul’s day. The Greeks had produced nearly all the great philosophers, and the ancient world prided itself on their wisdom. Still, the best philosophers knew (at least in part) how ignorant they were. Plato said somewhat wistfully, on one occasion, “Perhaps one day there will come forth a Word out of God who will reveal all things and make everything plain.” But the Greeks did not know where that Word was—until the early preachers of the gospel told them. They remained ignorant. And our world, which has heard the Word proclaimed but has rejected him, has moved in the direction, not of increasing certainty about absolutes, but of uncertainty.

I have frequently said that in our day people no longer even believe in truth, strictly speaking. They speak of truth, but they mean only what is true for me (but not necessarily for you) or what is true now (but not necessarily tomorrow). This means that in the final analysis there is no truth. A philosophy like this is the opposite of revelation, and the ignorance that results is so deep that it does not even know it is ignorance.

  1. Life or oblivion. What is in store after death: eternal life or personal oblivion? Here too Jesus Christ’s coming into the world has made a difference.

What is the one great fear of men and women apart from Jesus Christ? It is death. People fear death for two reasons.

First, they do not know what stands on the far side of that dark portal, if anything. They are ignorant. Francis Bacon was thinking of this when he said, “Men fear death as children fear the dark.”

Second, in spite of their willful ignorance of God, they sense deep in their beings that he is there, that they have offended him, and that beyond the door of death they must give an accounting to him. I think this is what bothered Samuel Johnson when he described his horror at the death of a friend: “At the sign of this last conflict I felt a sensation never known to me before: a confusion of passions, an awful stillness of sorrow, a gloomy terror without a name” (The Rambler, no. 54).

But let me say: Of all the fears people have in the face of death the least to be feared is oblivion—to die and be no more. The reality of facing God is far worse. To face God apart from Christ is to face judgment. Only in Christ can we pass over the dividing line between the kingdom of wrath and condemnation to that of life and light.

  1. Blessing or cursing in this life. I have been speaking of the difference Jesus makes for eternity, but I end by saying that Jesus makes all the difference in this life too. Do you remember that great scene in the book of Joshua in which, in obedience to the remembered command of Moses, Joshua gathered the people of Israel at Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim? The area between the mountains was a natural amphitheater, and the people were to stand on the opposing mountains while the law of God, containing blessings and cursings, was read to them. Mount Ebal was to be the mountain of cursing, and as the curses of God upon all who break his law were read, the people were to say, “Amen.” Mount Gerizim was the mountain of blessing. From this mountain the Levites read the blessings of God which were to be upon all who loved him and kept his commandments.

How were the people to keep them? They had no strength to do it. What were they to do if they did break the commandments? How were they to escape the curses of God which hung over them? In the bottom of that amphitheater, between the two mountains, there was an altar which pointed to the atonement to be made one day by Jesus Christ. That is what would deliver them from the curse and keep them in blessing. Christ alone could do it. Christ alone can bring blessing.

I do not fully understand how he does it, but he does. What was our life b.c. (before Christ)? Wrath and disaster. What is it a.d.? It is the way of mercy and blessing. What a Savior![5]


20 With this verse, we begin a new paragraph with the adversative conjunction “but” (de; NIV, “however”). Such behavior does not characterize you (emphatic hymeis) who have come to “know Christ.” The kind of expression Paul uses here, literally “to learn a person [namely, Christ],” is unparalleled in Greek literature, though its import is clear enough. Paul points his readers back to their initial entry (perhaps the inceptive use of the aorist tense of “learn”) into the way of Christ and thus what it means to be a Christian. Paul implies that they learned that becoming “Christ’s ones” involved a complete break with their former lifestyle. Christians no longer act as they did when they were Gentiles.

21 Expanding what it means to learn Christ, Paul uses a Greek first-class condition—one that assumes the reality of its premise, though it may imply a teasing irony. In other words, if it is true, and surely it is, that they have heard and been taught the truth in Jesus, then they need to acknowledge and live out the instructions they received about living as Christians. At the very least, Paul’s words should lead to a crucial introspection: if they have embraced the way of Christ, are they living it? Why does Paul use the phrase “the truth that is in Jesus”? He said earlier that truth is embodied in “the gospel of your salvation” (1:13; cf. Gal 2:5, 14; 5:7). He assures them that what they learned is the truth and that it resides “in Jesus,” the one who is Truth. As Paul envisions the down-to-earth behavior for those in Christ here, he employs the human name “Jesus” (its only occurrence by itself in the letter), perhaps suggesting the lifestyle of the earthly, historical Jesus as the example to follow. They must no longer live in the ignorant state of “the Gentiles.” Now they must live as Jesus did and as the gospel of Jesus teaches they should.[6]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 177). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1938). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Ephesians (Vol. 7, pp. 211–213). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 173–175). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Boice, J. M. (1988). Ephesians: an expositional commentary (pp. 159–164). Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library.

[6] Klein, W. W. (2006). Ephesians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 125–126). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

June 7, 2017: Verse of the day

img_1349

“Behold the Man!”

John 19:1–5

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they struck him in the face.

Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

The eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of John’s Gospel deal with the trials of Jesus of Nazareth beginning with his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and culminating in his crucifixion, as recorded in John 19:16–30. But strictly speaking, what we have in the first part of chapter 19 is not a trial. In fact, we have not been dealing with a trial in any strict sense since Pilate’s initial verdict of acquittal recorded in verse 38 of the preceding chapter. Jesus is still in the hands of the Roman procurator; the words that were to deliver him over to be crucified have not been uttered. But the trial actually ended earlier when Pilate said, “I find no basis for any charge against him.”

What occurs in the interval between the formal verdict of acquittal (John 18:38) and the execution of Jesus (John 19:16–30) is a series of attempts by Pilate to escape the people’s wishes. He knew Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against him; but since the rulers wanted Jesus crucified, Pilate (1) sent Jesus to Herod hoping that Herod would solve his dilemma, (2) attempted to release Jesus instead of Barabbas in honor of Jewish custom, and (3) caused Jesus to be beaten, hoping by this means to evoke pity from the leaders and mob. None of these stratagems worked. But each, as we have already begun to see, shows much about the nature of the human heart and its sin as well as about God’s plan for the redemption of the race through Jesus’ crucifixion.

Each event is pregnant with meaning, for never in the entire history of the world has so much, done in so short a time, been so significant.

What Man is This?

It was asked on an earlier occasion when Jesus had stilled the wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee, “What manner of man is this?” We may well ask the same question as we see him brought forth by Pilate after the merciless scourging by the soldiers of Rome. Here was One who, though he had been beaten unjustly, nevertheless bore himself with such dignity that the invitation of Pilate to “behold the man” is to see that which clearly overwhelms us. We hear the invitation: “Ecce homo (Behold the man!)” We look, and we conclude, “Never in all the history of the world has there been one like Jesus!”

Let me challenge you to behold him. Behold him first before Pilate, and ask, “Who is this one who stands before Pilate, beaten to the point of death, wearing a purple robe, crowned with thorns, ridiculed as the carnival King of the Jews?”

First of all, he is an innocent man. No crime has been proven against him. And not only has he already been pronounced innocent by Pilate, he is to be pronounced innocent several times more. It was the verdict of all who had dealings with him in these hours. First, Judas declared, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matt. 27:4). Second, Pilate’s wife sent to the Roman procurator, saying, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matt. 27:19). Third, Pilate himself declared Christ innocent: “I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 18:38). Fourth, Herod found Christ blameless, for Pilate reported of Herod’s verdict, “Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death” (Luke 23:15). Fifth, the dying thief expostulated, “We are punished justly; for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). Sixth, the centurion in charge of the crucifixion said, “Surely this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47). Lastly, the crowds at the cross, seeing the earthquake and the other supernatural signs accompanying his death, exclaimed, “Surely this was the Son of God” (Matt. 27:54).

This is the verdict of all who have looked at Jesus of Nazareth closely. It is the verdict of God and man, friend and foe, ancient and modern—as pointed out in a previous study.

As we look at Jesus before Pilate we also notice that he is a brave man. He had been beaten mercilessly, yet there is nothing cringing or compromising about his bearing. We have never seen a scourging, so it is hard to imagine the suffering involved in it. We should remember that the victim was stripped of clothing and tied to a post in a way that fully exposed the back. Being struck with a long leather thong (into which sharp pieces of lead, bone, and rock had been inserted) literally tore the person’s back into strips. Besides, the beating was so prolonged that few remained conscious throughout the ordeal and some died. Jesus bore this. Yet it was after his suffering that Pilate led him forth and called the people to “Behold the man!”

Was there wonder, even admiration in Pilate’s voice as he said this? There is room to think so. I suspect that William Barclay is on the right track when he writes: “It must have been Pilate’s first intention to awaken the pity of the Jews. ‘Look!’ he said. ‘Look at this poor, bruised, bleeding creature! Look at this wretchedness! Can you possibly wish to hound a creature like this to an utterly unnecessary death?’ But even as he said it, we can almost hear the tone of Pilate’s voice change and see the wonder dawn in his eyes. And instead of saying it half-contemptuously, to awaken pity, he says it with a dawning wonder and an admiration that will not be repressed.” In wartime soldiers will frequently admire the bravery of a defeated enemy, wondering how they themselves might bear up under similar suffering were the roles reversed. Did Pilate, an old soldier, perhaps inwardly respect Christ’s fortitude?

But it is not only bravery that we see in the man before Pilate. There is also majesty, and such majesty as befits the Son of God. Behold the man? Yes. But behold the King, too! And here we do not mean merely the mock king of the soldiers’ devising. We mean the true King, the King of kings, whose dignity and grace shone through even in the moment of his greatest physical humiliation. This was a great man. But this was also God, as the resurrection was soon to indicate (Rom. 1:4).

Before the Crowds

Jesus appeared that day not only before Pilate. He also appeared before the crowds. Indeed, this seems to be the reason for the scourging; for with the stage presence and sense of audience psychology characteristic of a great trial lawyer, Pilate first seemed to pronounce him innocent and then suddenly produced him to have the crowd see him in his beaten and humiliated state. We know what Pilate expected—an upsurge of pity from the fickle mob. But Pilate miscalculated, for there broke forth a new round of hatred and hostility against Jesus.

Why was this? Why did the presence of Jesus incite such violent hatred? Some writers have suggested that it was an easily understood pattern of psychological reaction: the people saw mirrored in the beaten and disfigured Jesus that moral deformity that they saw, or feared to discover, in themselves. It would be similar to that distaste that so many show for the poor, the deformed, or the dead. There is fear that they will be like them. But this is not the real explanation of the crowd’s increasing opposition to and hatred of Jesus. The thing that bothered them about Jesus on this occasion was what had bothered them all along. It was his sinlessness, the awareness of which was heightened by the entirely unwarranted scourging of Jesus and their culpability in that injustice. None care to admit it, but there is in the unsaved person’s heart that which leads people to oppose true righteousness.

In his commentary on John, Harry Ironside tells of a meeting of the Synod of the Free Church of Scotland many years ago. One minister was invited to preach the sermon on a particular Sunday morning, and he gave a marvelous oration on the beauty of virtue. He concluded, “Oh, my friends, if virtue incarnate could only appear on earth, men would be so ravished with her beauty that they would fall down and worship her.” Many went out saying, “What a magnificent oration that was!”

The same evening another man preached. He did not preach about virtue and beauty. He preached Christ and him crucified. As he closed his sermon he said, “My friends, Virtue Incarnate has appeared on earth, and men instead of being ravished with his beauty and falling down and worshipping him, cried out, ‘Away with him! Crucify him! We will not have this man to rule over us!’ ” The second man was right. We do not like to hear it. We resent those who tell us. But the truth is that the natural man hates God’s holiness and will do anything rather than allow the light of Christ to penetrate his own deep darkness.

The Masses Today

Third, I want you to “behold the man” as he appears before the masses today. It is the same man, the same Jesus of Nazareth. But while it is true that some do hate him and openly seek to destroy his influence and even his good name, most in our day simply ignore him and thus add insult to injury, suggesting by their neglect that he is hardly worthy of attention.

Those who work on the campuses of our country think this is the case. I received an appeal letter from the head of a large Christian college organization. It said in part, “Some of these institutions and their faculty are openly hostile to the Christian faith. Their students ridicule the Bible and those who believe it. At other schools, God is simply ignored.” I would like to have asked this leader how he would balance the percentages. Are most hostile? Or are most unconcerned? I believe that most are unconcerned, or at least try to be. And if this is true on the campuses, it is even more true of the nation at large. Most people will talk about anything but Christianity. And if we were to judge matters by the secular press and other media, we would be hard pressed to know that Jesus even existed, let alone discover anything accurate or significant about him.

To these we wish to say, “Behold the master! Do not look away. Do not be too busy. It would be tragic were you to gain the whole world and lose your soul.” Yet this is precisely what many will do. They will be lost and not even know they are lost until the reality of the final judgment comes grimly upon them.

Jesus spoke of this shortly before his crucifixion. In the sermon given on the Mount of Olives in the middle of his last week in Jerusalem, Jesus used three gripping parables to teach what the final judgment would be like for such people. One parable was about ten virgins who had been invited to a wedding banquet. Five were wise and five were foolish. The five wise virgins prepared for the banquet by buying oil for their lamps. The five foolish virgins did not. As they waited in the long evening hours all the attendants fell asleep. Suddenly a cry went forth, “Behold the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him.” They rose, but the five foolish virgins had no oil for their lamps. On the advice of the wise they set out to buy some. But while they were getting their oil the bridegroom came and the wedding party followed him into the house and the door was shut. Later the five foolish virgins returned and called at the door, “Lord, Lord, open to us.”

But he answered, “Truly, I do not know you.”

Jesus concluded, “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matt. 25:13).

The second parable was about three servants. Their master was to go on a journey. So he called the servants to him and gave each money: to the first, five talents; to the second, two talents; and to the third, one talent—each according to his ability. Then he went away, and the servants who had received five talents and two talents respectively invested the money while the third servant hid his talent in the ground. After a long time the master returned and asked for an accounting. The man who had received five talents produced those talents plus five more. The servant who had received two talents produced two talents plus two more. But the one who had been given only one talent returned only that one to the Lord, saying, “Master, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you” (Matt. 25:24–25). The master condemned that servant, taking away his talent and casting him forth “into the darkness” (v. 30).

Finally, the Lord told the parable of the separation of the sheep from the goats. The goats are the lost, and they are condemned because they neglected to feed the Lord when he was hungry, give him drink when he was thirsty, welcome him when he was a stranger, clothe him when he was naked, visit him when he was sick, and comfort him when he was cast in prison. They say, “But when did we see you hungry or thirsty or lonely or naked or sick?”

He replies, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these [my brothers], you did not do for me” (v. 45). On the other hand, he welcomes those who did these things for his brethren.

Each of these parables, though quite different from the others in detail, is nevertheless one with them in its essential features. In each case, there is a sudden return of the Lord which demands an accounting. In each case, there are some who are prepared for his coming and others who are not. In each case, there are rewards and judgments. Most remarkable of all, in each case those who are lost are totally amazed at the outcome. The foolish virgins are astounded that the bridegroom will not open the door to them. The wicked and lazy servant clearly expected the master to be pleased with his zero-growth performance. The goats cannot believe that they have actually rejected Jesus. They say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (Matt. 25:44). They are overwhelmed as he sends them away unto “eternal punishment” (v. 46).

Thus it will be with our generation. We have more opportunities to learn about Christ in our day than ever before in human history. Books and magazines and radio programs and movies and television have all told about him. The call has gone forth, “Behold the man! Look to this one for salvation. He loves you, he died for you. He rose again. Turn from your sin and place your trust in him as your Savior!” But many go blithely on and will be overwhelmed in the day of God’s reckoning.

Behold the King

Today is the day of God’s grace. And the wisdom of the just in this day consists, as Paul expressed it, in knowing nothing among men save “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Now we see him offered to us for salvation. His death is our life. But the day is coming when this period of grace will end, and the One who was judged by the tribunals of this world will be Judge.

One author writes, “How long may it be before we hear the sound of another ‘Ecce homo!’? But if we then lift up our eyes, a different form will present itself to our view than that which we saw on Gabbatha. The King of Glory will then have exchanged the robe of mockery for the starry mantle of divine Majesty, the wreath of thorns for a crown of glory, and the reed for the scepter of universal dominion.” What will it be in that day? Will it be judgment? Or will the rod be extended as a symbol of his gracious favor as he declares, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). The answer depends on how you behold him now and whether you will surrender to him as your Lord.[1]


5 Jesus emerges into the bright light of the morning “wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.” Though it is probably more conjecture than exegesis to discuss the precise nuance of Pilate’s declaration, a good case can be made from the context that what he said was something like, “Here he is, poor fellow! Isn’t it ridiculous to consider this hapless creature as holding any pretensions to kingship?” While Pilate may have spoken with feigned contempt, John and others across the centuries have understood “the man” quite differently. Morris, 793, writes that “John intends ‘the man’ to evoke memories of Jesus’ favorite self-designation.” Tasker, 208, says that as Christians reread these famous words, they see in them “humanity at its best, the suffering Servant in whom God delights.” Others discern an allusion to Zechariah 6:12 (“Here is the man whose name is the Branch”). In the Latin Bible the phrase is translated Ecce homo, which has provided the name for the famous arch that marks the starting place of the Via Dolorosa.[2]


[1] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1465–1470). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[2] Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 627). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

 

June 7 – Integrity Conquers Fear

“The commander of the officials said to Daniel, ‘I am afraid of my lord the king, who has appointed your food and your drink; for why should he see your faces looking more haggard than the youths who are your own age? Then you would make me forfeit my head to the king.’ But Daniel said to the overseer whom the commander of the officials had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, ‘Please test your servants for ten days, and let us be given some vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance be observed in your presence, and the appearance of the youths who are eating the king’s choice food; and deal with your servants according to what you see.’ So he listened to them in this matter and tested them for ten days.”

Daniel 1:10–14

✧✧✧

People of biblical integrity tend also to be people with unashamed boldness.

I love to read the biographies of great missionaries and other godly people whose lives reflect an uncommon commitment to Christ and whose boldness in the face of difficulties sets them apart from their peers. Daniel was such a man. From his youth he delighted in doing God’s will and proclaiming God’s Word with boldness. He shared David’s perspective in Psalm 40:8–9, “I delight to do Thy will, O my God; Thy Law is within my heart. I have proclaimed glad tidings of righteousness in the great congregation; behold, I will not restrain my lips, O Lord.”

In stark contrast to Daniel’s boldness was Ashpenaz’s fear. Although he thought kindly of Daniel, Ashpenaz feared for his life if Daniel and his friends were to appear pale and malnourished after he granted them exemption from the king’s special diet. So with characteristic wisdom and boldness, Daniel suggested a simple test designed to relieve Ashpenaz’s fears and prove God’s faithfulness. Tomorrow we will see the results of that test (v. 15). But for today I pray that you will have the boldness of Daniel as you take every opportunity to proclaim God’s Word.

✧✧✧

Suggestions for Prayer: Like Daniel you may be facing a situation that requires a special measure of boldness. If so, ask the Lord to strengthen you as you set your heart on doing His will.

For Further Study: Read Ephesians 6:19–20; Philippians 1:19–20. What was the source of Paul’s boldness?[1]


The Plot (1:8–17)

Commentary

8–17 The plotline of a story unfolds in the arrangement of events recorded in the narrative. The basic ingredient of a good story plot is conflict moving toward resolution. The opening scene of Daniel reports such conflict. The conflict for Daniel and his three friends is an ideological or moral conflict dilemma. This type of conflict usually occurs within the protagonist(s) of the story and generally focuses on issues of worldview and ultimately “good” versus “evil.” Specifically, the issue here is the royal food and wine that Daniel and his friends were required to eat and drink (v. 8). The rejection of the royal food by Daniel and his friends foreshadows further episodes of conflict as the story of the Hebrew captives progresses, conflicts with other characters (e.g., the Babylonian wise men; 3:8–12; 6:1–5), and physical danger in the form of execution by fire (3:11) and exposure to wild beasts (6:7).

The expression Daniel “resolved” (v. 8) is an idiom expressing a deliberate act of the will motivated by a deep-seated personal conviction (Heb. śîm + lēb, “to set the heart”; cf. NASB’s “Daniel made up his mind”). The word “defile” (Heb. gāʾal) occurs fewer than a dozen times in the OT and may refer to moral or ceremonial impurity (e.g., Isa 59:3; Mal 1:7, 12). Wallace, 42–43, observes that Daniel believed “faith in God and the forgiveness of God had made him clean”—clean from the idolatry and moral pollution of the surrounding world. To eat the king’s food would compromise God’s forgiveness and draw him back into the very same “world” from which he had been cleansed.

The royal food rations posed a problem for Daniel and his friends for several possible reasons. First, the law of Moses prohibited the obedient Hebrews from eating certain types of food, and there was no assurance that such fare would be left off the menu (cf. Lev 11; Dt 12:23–25; 14). Yet the Mosaic dietary restrictions do not include wine, also rejected by Daniel and his friends.

Second, the royal food rations would have probably been associated with idol worship in some way (either by the food’s having been offered to idols or blessed by idolatrous priests). Yet Daniel and his friends do not refuse all the royal food rations (as though only meat and drink but not “vegetables” were dedicated to the Babylonian gods). On both counts the royal food would have been regarded as ritually unclean on theological grounds, and hence the eating of such food would constitute an act of disobedience against Yahweh and his commands.

Beyond this, it is possible that Daniel simply interpreted the eating of the royal food rations as a formal demonstration of allegiance to the Babylonian king. Baldwin, 83, and Felwell, 40, suggest that Daniel’s motivation for rejecting the king’s menu was political in the sense that eating the royal provisions was tantamount to accepting the lordship of the Babylonian king, whereas Daniel and his friends owed loyalty to Yahweh alone as their “king” (cf. 3:17–18; on the issue of cultural assimilation see BBCOT, 731). But again, Daniel and his friends do agree to certain provisions of royal food, thus weakening the argument of political allegiance to King Nebuchadnezzar by virtue of the “meal custom” of the biblical world. Longman, 53, suggests that the food-rations test was essentially a means by which Daniel and his friends might demonstrate that their healthy physical appearance (and hence their intellectual gifts) was the miraculous work of their God—not King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace food or the Babylonian pantheon. As J. H. Sims (“Daniel,” in A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. L. Ryken and T. Longman [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993], 333–34) points out, whatever the motivation for rejecting the royal food rations, the greater issue theologically is that of divine nurture versus human nurture—on whom or what will the Hebrews rely for sustenance in their captivity?

The question of conformity to the surrounding culture was of paramount concern for the Diaspora Hebrews. To what degree, if any, should the displaced Israelites make accommodation to the surrounding dominant culture? What place was there for the Hebrew distinctives of religious monotheism and ethical absolutism based on the law of Moses in the religious pluralism and moral relativism of the Gentile superpowers? Rather than react in open defiance of the king’s decree, Daniel and his friends arranged a compromise with Ashpenaz and his appointed guardian (vv. 10–14). The alternative to eating the king’s food was a “rations test,” with the Hebrew captives to be fed a diet of vegetables and water (v. 12), against the control group of those young men eating the royal provisions (v. 13). Goldingay, 20, interprets the “ten-day” testing period pragmatically as a standard round number of days that would not arouse the suspicion of Ashpenaz’s superiors and yet be long enough for the effects of the test to be observed.

The example of nonconformity by Daniel and his friends became a model for the Israelite response to Gentile culture in later Judaism. For example, the characters of both Judith and Tobit are portrayed as pious Jews who observe strict adherence to the Mosaic law in the books of the apocryphal OT literature that bear their names. Separation from Gentile culture was an important component in an emerging “Diaspora theology” for the Hebrews during the intertestamental period. By the time of the NT, the Jewish worldview was tainted with attitudes of particularism, exclusivism, and superiority in reaction to the influences of Hellenism.

This “Judaism against Gentile culture” paradigm made Jesus’ apparent laxity toward the Mosaic law and his accommodation to Gentile culture difficult to interpret and accept. The church, as the counter-culture agent of God’s kingdom in the world, has no less difficulty in discerning and practicing what Jesus meant when he instructed his followers that though they were in the world, they were not to be of the world (Jn 17:14–18; see the discussion of the Christian’s interface with culture employing Niebuhr’s classic Christ and culture paradigms in Longman, 62–69).

In the process we learn that God’s providential rule of history is not restricted to nations and kings, as God caused Ashpenaz, the chief official, “to show favor and sympathy to Daniel” (v. 9). The passage is reminiscent of Joseph, who “found favor” in Potiphar’s eyes (Ge 39:4), and Esther, who “pleased [Hegai] and won his favor” during her preparations for the royal beauty contest (Est 2:9). The repetition of the verb “gave” (Heb. nātan; GK 5989) echoes God’s deliverance of King Jehoiakim to the Babylonians (v. 2). The NIV’s “God had caused” (v. 9) fails to convey the full theological freight of the original (cf. NASB, “Now God granted Daniel favor and compassion …”). Literally, “God gave Daniel for favor and mercies before the chief official.” Even as God gave Jehoiakim to the Babylonians for judgment, God gave Daniel to Ashpenaz for grace.

This language of divine intervention is in keeping with the theme of Daniel established in the opening verses, namely God’s sovereignty. As Seow, 27, notes, “the sovereignty of God is thus affirmed; the theological paradox of judgment and grace is maintained … God is the narrator’s ‘lord’ … God is at work and ever providing.” In fact, God’s testing and providing are key themes of the OT and justify his name as “Yahweh Yirʾeh” or “Jehovah Jireh” (“The Lord Will Provide,” Ge 22:14).

The four Hebrews passed the rations test, actually emerging “healthier and better nourished” than their counterparts, whose diet consisted of the royal food (v. 15). For the third time in the chapter we read that God “gave” (Heb. nātan; v. 17). In this instance, as a result of their resolve not to defile themselves with the royal food, God granted Daniel and his friends “knowledge and understanding” (v. 17a). The term “knowledge” (Heb. maddāʿ) implies academic learning (cf. v. 4, “quick to understand”), and the word “understanding” (Heb. haśkēl) suggests both “aptitude for learning” (cf. v. 4) and insight with respect to prudence or sound judgment.

In other words, the food rations episode offers practical commentary of sorts on Proverbs 1:7a: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (cf. Ps 111:10). Baldwin, 84, has summarized that even small acts of faith and self-discipline, when undertaken out of loyalty to godly principle, set “God’s servants in the line of his approval and blessing. In this way actions attest faith, and character is strengthened to face more difficult situations.” (But see Goldingay, 20, who denies the cause-and-effect relationship between faithfulness and reward.) The added statement in v. 17b that Daniel received a special divine endowment to understand or interpret visions and dreams foreshadows those “more difficult situations” he will face in the key role he plays as interpreter of dreams and seer of visions in the rest of the book.[2]


A Young Man Decides

Daniel 1:3–21

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility—young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.

Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.

But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the two greatest reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, each issued commentaries on Daniel. Luther produced two studies, published in 1524 and 1544. Calvin produced one, published in 1561. It is a striking fact that in spite of Luther’s great popularity, which continues to this day, Luther’s books on Daniel have never been translated into English, while Calvin’s massive work, running to a thousand pages in the original Latin, was available in English within ten years.

Why has the text of Calvin’s commentary proved so popular? There may be many reasons, but most people feel that it is because of the passionate and moving way in which the great expositor linked the times of the exiled Daniel to his own.

Calvin lived in an age of ecclesiastical and political warfare in which many thousands suffered greatly for their faith. In Germany in 1546, Charles V began a war to stamp out Lutheranism. In France, between 1540 and 1544, Francis I attempted the same thing, massacring the Waldensians as part of his misconceived program. In 1545 he burned twenty-two villages and killed three thousand men and women. Others were sent to the galleys. In 1562, the year after Calvin’s commentary appeared, the eight Wars of Religion began, the destruction of which was so great that Europe did not recover for two centuries. Thousands became exiles during this period. Many fled to Switzerland where Calvin, who was himself an exile, lived.

Calvin’s commentary breathes with compassion for these people, and as a result it has always appealed to those who consider themselves exiles in a strange land. Indeed, it appears even more broadly than this. For Daniel was a man of God in worldly Babylon, and Christians are always God’s people in the midst of those who do not honor and in fact oppose their divine King.

Calvin dedicated his book to the “pious Protestants of France” and urged Daniel upon them as a great encouragement.

I have the very best occasion of showing you, beloved brethren, in this mirror, how God proves the faith of his people in these days by various trials; and how with wonderful wisdom he has taken care to strengthen their minds by ancient examples, that they should never be weakened by the concussion of the severest storms and tempests; or at least, if they should totter at all, that they should never finally fall away. For although the servants of God are required to run in a course impeded by many obstacles, yet whoever diligently reads this book will find in it whatever is needed by a voluntary and active runner to guide him from the starting point to the goal; while good and strenuous wrestlers will experimentally acknowledge that they have been sufficiently prepared for the contest.… Here then, we observe, as in a living picture, that when God spares and even indulges the wicked for a time, he proves his servants like gold and silver; so that we ought not to consider it a grievance to be thrown into the furnace of trial, while profane men enjoy the calmness of repose.

A Secular Environment

In order to understand Daniel we must realize that the Babylon to which Daniel and his three friends were taken was a secular, worldly place, as I attempted to show in the last study, and that their initial experiences there were intended to blot out of their minds the remembrance of the true God and their homeland. We see this in several ways. For one thing, Nebuchadnezzar ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to choose young men who would be easily molded by their new environment. Again, he attempted to lure them with the delicacies of food the great city of Babylon could provide.

Chiefly we notice Nebuchadnezzar’s intentions in the altering of the young men’s names. The Hebrew names of these young men were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They were changed to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It should be immediately evident to anyone with even a limited knowledge of Hebrew that the Jewish names of these men each contains a name of God and has a spiritual meaning. Daniel and Mishael both contain the syllable el, which means “God” and is the basis of the frequently appearing (plural) name Elohim. Daniel means “God is my Judge.” Mishael means “Who is like God?” The other two names, Hananiah and Azariah, both contain a shortened form of the name Jehovah. Hananiah means “Jehovah is gracious.” Azariah means “Jehovah is my helper.” The very names of these men were reminders of their heritage and a challenge to them to remain faithful to the Lord. But now, deported into a strange, pagan land, their names are changed. And the names they are given all contain a reference to one of the false gods of the ancient Babylonians, Aku and Nego. It was a way of saying that these who had been servants of the Jewish God were now servants and worshipers of the gods of the pagan pantheon.

Yet the change accomplished nothing. Nebuchadnezzar changed the men’s names, but he could not change their hearts. They remained faithful to the true God of Israel, as the story shows.

I apply that to our own age. One thing the world seems always to try to do—it has happened in the past, and it is happening in our own time—is to take Christian words and rework them to convey the world’s ideas. I suppose it is one of the devil’s subtlest tricks. It happens in liberal theology. “Sin” used to mean rebellion against God and his righteous law or, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (A. 14). But today it means ignorance or merely the kind of oppression that is supposed to reside in social structures. “Jesus” is no longer the incarnate God who died for our salvation, but rather our example or what might even be termed an evolutionary peak of the human race. “Faith” is awareness of oppression and beginning to do something about it, and so on. Of course, in the secular world the readjustment of words is even more ridiculous and extreme, as the recent use of the term “born again” in advertising slogans shows.

This is a great danger, I admit. But although it is a danger, if the truth of what is behind these words remains strong in the minds and hearts of those who really know the truth, then the vitality of the faith will remain regardless of the world’s corruptions. Christians will persevere because God will strengthen them to stand against the culture.

Daniel’s Decision

The most important verse in the first chapter of Daniel is verse 8, which says, “But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.”

What is your reaction to that? Remember that Daniel was a young man at this time. We know from the later development of the story that he lived for a very long time beyond this—through the rule of four emperors. He was probably in his nineties when he died. So at this point he was probably between fifteen and seventeen. It was at this young age that he was taken away from his own country and culture, plunged into the strange but exciting life of the great world capital, and lured to loyalty by the best of all possible educations and by provision of the very food served to Nebuchadnezzar. Yet Daniel refused to partake of this food. As I say, what is your reaction to that? Do you find it a very little thing? Do you see Daniel’s decision as the immaturity and foolishness of youth? Would you have acted as Daniel and his friends did in these circumstances, or would you have gone along with your great benefactor’s desires? Would you have said, “After all, why should we live by Jewish dietary laws while in Babylon? Let’s eat and drink. It’s just a small thing”?

Well, it was a small thing. Yet that is just the point. For it is in the small matters that great victories are won. This is where decisions to live a holy life are made—not in the big things (though they come if the little things are neglected), but in the details of life. If Daniel had said, “I want to live for God in big ways, but I am not going to make a fool of myself in this trivial matter of eating and drinking the king’s food,” he never would have amounted to anything. But because he started out for God in small things, God used him greatly.

I have titled this chapter “A Young Man Decides” because it is particularly in youth that the most significant and life-forming decisions are made. Are you a young person? Then you should pay particularly close attention to this point. Most young people want their lives to count, and most Christian young people want their lives to count for God. Youth dreams big. That is right. You should dream big. But youth is also often impatient and undisciplined, and young people are tempted to let the little things slide. You must not do that if you are God’s young man or God’s young woman. God will make your life count, but this will not happen unless you determine to live for him in the little things now. You know what Jesus said: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). Being wholly given over to God now is the essential and best possible preparation for future service.

Why We Must Be Holy

In the last chapter I pointed out that Daniel is a story of the struggle of the world’s people and culture against God’s people and God’s culture, and it is. But it is also a story of men who lived for God by choosing the path of personal discipleship and holiness. This is no contradiction, because it is only such persons who actually embody the spiritual standards of “the city of God.” It is only these who make any lasting difference in the world.

A great evangelical bishop of England, John Charles Ryle, wrote a classic study of holiness in which he urged holiness upon all who call themselves Christians. After some opening passages in which he describes holiness as separation to God, devotion to God, service to God, being of one mind with God and wanting God’s will—Ryle went on to show why holiness, the kind of holiness exercised by Daniel, is so necessary. He listed eight reasons.

  1. “We must be holy, because the voice of God in Scripture plainly commands it.” Peter wrote, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ ” (1 Peter 1:14–16). This is not optional. God did not say, “I would like you to live a holy life; but if you are not too excited about that particular lifestyle, don’t worry about it. We’ll work on something else.” God said, “Be holy, because I am holy.” We must be holy because the holy God commands it.
  2. “We must be holy, because this is the one grand end and purpose for which Christ came into the world.” You say, “But I thought Jesus came to save us from our sins.” Yes, he did come for that. But the Bible also says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25–27). Many Christians think they would like the benefits of salvation without the obligation to live for Christ, but they cannot have them because Christ came to make them holy just as much as he came to save them from the penalty of their sins. If you are fighting against holiness, you are fighting against nothing less than the purpose of God in the Atonement.
  3. “We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we have a saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” How is that so? Well, James in his letter speaks of two kinds of faith: a living, saving faith and a dead faith that saves no one. The devils have a dead faith; that is, they believe there is a God and that Jesus is his Son, sent to save his people. But they do not trust him personally. They do not live for him. A living faith does live for him and therefore shows itself in good works. That is why James says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26).

Ryle used this point to comment on so-called “death-bed” conversions, judging that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred these “conversions” are illusory. He said, “With rare exceptions, men die just as they have lived. The only safe evidence that we are one with Christ, and Christ is in us, is a holy life.”

  1. “We must be holy, because this is the only proof that we love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.” Jesus was quite plain on this point. He said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15); “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (v. 21); “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching” (v. 23); “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). How could the point be more clearly spoken? If you love Jesus, you will obey him; you will be holy. If you do not obey him, you do not love him—whatever your profession. Do you love Jesus? We have a chorus in which we sing, “Oh, how I love Jesus,” but you do not love him if you do not do what he says.
  2. “We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we are true children of God.” Do you remember how Jesus made this point when he was talking with the Pharisees? They claimed to be children of Abraham and therefore in right standing before God. But Jesus said, “If you were Abraham’s children, then you would do the things Abraham did” (John 8:39–40). Paul said the same thing in Romans, noting that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14). The Spirit of God does not lead you to sin. The Spirit of God does not lead to disobedience. If you are led by God’s Spirit, you will lead a holy life, and the evidence of that holy life will be sound evidence that you are God’s son or daughter.
  3. “We must be holy, because this is the most likely way to do good to others.” Many people today have some desire to do good to others, and many of our social and benevolence programs are an expression of that praiseworthy desire. But I ask, “Do you help others by advancing a low moral standard—one that is easy for them to live up to? Do you help others by whittling down the righteous standards of the Old Testament law or the New Testament precepts? Not at all! You help others by upholding the highest possible standards and above all by living according to those standards yourself. There are several places in the New Testament in which the godly conduct of a believer is said to be the best hope of doing good to someone else. For instance, Peter writes, “Wives, … be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Peter 3:1–2). No doubt many besides husbands have been won to Christ by the consistent, holy behavior of some Christian.
  4. “We must be holy, because our present comfort depends much upon it.” Not all suffering is directly related to a suffering person’s sin. Christ’s words about the man born blind (John 9:3) should disabuse us of attempts to make that an easy, one-to-one relationship. But although all suffering does not come directly from one’s sin, the reverse is true: All sin produces suffering.

We do not think this way naturally. In fact, we think just the opposite. We come up against one of God’s commandments, think that we would like to do something else, and immediately reason that if only we could do what we really want to do we would be happy. We think that we would be absolutely miserable obeying God. That was the devil’s argument in his temptation of Eve, but it is as diabolical now as it was then. To heed it is to forget whence our good comes. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). If we turn from this good, we do not turn to happiness but away from it.

  1. “Lastly, we must be holy, because without holiness on earth we shall never be prepared to enjoy heaven.” The author of Hebrews wrote, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Revelation speaks of heaven, saying, “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21:27).

Can I Be Holy?

The objection I am likely to get is that these points are all very well and good but that it is just not possible for you to live a holy life in your circumstances. “If I did the right thing in my job, I’d lose it,” you say. Or, “None of my friends would speak to me.” Or, “I’d never get ahead.” Or, “I just can’t be holy; I’ve tried it and I fail.”

If you are thinking this way, let me turn back to Daniel, who was not only resolved not to defile himself with the king’s food and wine but was also willing to put the matter to the test and prove God able in his circumstances. Daniel said to the guard who had been appointed over him, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see” (Dan. 1:12–13).

The guard agreed to this test, and at the end of the ten days the young men looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. Moreover, it was not only in their appearance that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah excelled. They also excelled in knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. The text concludes by noting that at the end of the three years of training, when the king brought his young protégés in for testing, Nebuchadnezzar “found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (v. 20).

Do not say, “If I live for God, I’ll lose out.” You may lose out on some of the things the world offers, which are not good for you anyway, but you will experience a richness of God’s bounty. The Bible says, “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] Hill, A. E. (2008). Daniel. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, pp. 51–54). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Boice, J. M. (2003). Daniel: an expositional commentary (pp. 19–25). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

June 5, 2017: Verse of the day

img_0258

Peter’s Text at Pentecost

Joel 2:28–32

“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the survivors whom the Lord calls.”

It is hard to handle prophecy. This is because the prophecies often seem obscure to us; and even if their meaning is clear, we cannot always be sure to what period of history the words apply. To confuse matters further, the Bible itself sometimes takes the prophecies in more than one way. They can be applied to a current event in Israel, for example; but they can also be referred to a future Day of the Lord.

While recognizing this, we know nevertheless that many Old Testament prophecies are interpreted to us by the New Testament, so that, whatever our problems may be with other passages, these at least are certain. Of these clear passages, none is more certain than Joel 2:28–32, a passage interpreted by the apostle Peter as applying to the events at Pentecost. After the ascension of Jesus the apostles waited in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus had told them to do (Acts 1:4–5). On Pentecost, the second of the three chief Jewish festivals, these were gathered together in one place, when suddenly, as Acts says, “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting” and “they saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:2–4).

When the people of Jerusalem heard the sound, they came together, and Peter preached the first sermon of the Christian era. Briefly, he denied that the disciples were intoxicated, which is what some were saying, and instead interpreted the event as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. … And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ ” (Acts 2:17, 21).

Quite clearly, we cannot interpret Joel 2:28–32 apart from Peter’s interpretation. We need to see: (1) the need for this particular outpouring of God’s Spirit, (2) Joel’s promise of it, (3) the fulfillment of the promise in Acts, and (4) the result of that fulfillment.

A Wistful Longing

The roots of the promise are in Numbers 11:29, in the midst of a story about Moses. It was a bad time for Moses. The people had been complaining of their wilderness diet of manna, and Moses, perhaps in sheer physical weariness, was overcome with the burden of leading the people and dealing with their complaints. God sympathized with him and told him to select seventy of the elders of Israel and bring them with him to the Tent of Meeting. God promised, “I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone” (Num. 11:17). That is what happened. These men received the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy. It was a sign to the people that they had received this gift and were therefore chosen by God to minister alongside Moses.

Two of these elders were not with the others at the Tent of Meeting, but the Spirit of God came on them as well, and they also prophesied. This bothered some who were closest to Moses. One young man ran up to him saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

Joshua, who had been Moses’ close aide since youth, said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!”

Moses’ reply was the roots of the promise found in Joel. He answered wistfully, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (vv. 27–29).

The incident shows that in this early period God’s Spirit was not given to all his people in the way he is now. God was with his people, but his Spirit did not come on them or dwell in them. Instead, he came on certain individuals for specific purposes. Sometimes he left them, as happened in the case of Saul (1 Sam. 16:14). The first reference in the Bible to any individual’s possession of the Holy Spirit is in Genesis 41:38, where Pharaoh asks concerning Joseph, “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?” This was because of Joseph’s ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. The craftsmen who helped build the tabernacle are said to have been “filled … with the Spirit of God” (Exod. 31:3). Joshua is described as a man “in whom is the spirit” (Num. 27:18). The judges Othniel (Judg. 3:10), Gideon (Judg. 6:34), Jephthah (Judg. 11:29), and Samson (Judg. 13:5; 14:6, 19; 15:14) were also in this category. So probably was Deborah, who served as a judge and functioned in the name of the Lord, though it is not specifically said of her that she was filled with the Spirit (cf. Judg. 4:4–7). The Holy Spirit indwelt both Saul and David (1 Sam. 10:9–10; 16:13) and presumably all the prophets, though (like Deborah) this is not said specifically in every case.

In the Old Testament period the Holy Spirit was not the common gift of God to all his people. So when Moses intoned, “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them,” he was expressing a very real need and longing. It was not until God had spoken to the people through Joel that there was even a promise of such universal blessing.

A Glorious Promise

God’s promise through Joel is striking because it is the book’s first mention of spiritual rather than mere physical blessing. It is understandable that material things are emphasized—material prosperity (v. 19), national security (v. 20), the restoration of lost years (v. 25)—because the locust plague was a material disaster and it formed the focal point and occasion of the prophecy. Still, we are glad to find spiritual blessings too, for we know, as our Lord taught, that it is folly for a man “to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul” (Mark 8:36).

Joel’s emphasis is on the universal nature of this gift, for he shows that it is for “all people” as opposed to being for some only as it had been previously. Lest we miss this, the point is spelled out in detail. It will be for the young (“your sons and daughters”) and the old (“your old men”), the strength of the nation (“your young men”) and servants (“even on my servants, both men and women”).

This is truly a momentous thing, for it is a way of saying that in the church age, which the coming of the Holy Spirit would inaugurate, all would be ministers of God, not merely a special corps of workers. Of course, there will be different tasks to do and different gifts given to enable God’s people to do them. Some will prophesy. Some will dream dreams. Still others will see visions. Men and women, young and old, slaves and free men will not necessarily do the same work. But all will have work to do and will be indwelt by God’s Spirit so that the work can be done effectively.

In the Reformation era this was termed the “priesthood of all believers,” and it was seen to establish a proper relationship between clergy and laity. John R. W. Stott points out in One People that there had developed within the church (as today) a division between “clergy” and “laity” in which the clergy were supposed to lead and do the work of Christian ministry while the people (which is what the word “laity” means) were to follow docily—and, of course, give money to support the clergy’s work. This is not what the church is to be, and where this view prevails the church and its ministry suffer. They suffer by the loss of the exercise of those gifts given to the laity. The Spirit is to help each serve others. The laity serve the church and the world. The clergy serve the laity, particularly in helping them to develop and use their gifts (Eph. 4:11–13).

Stott points out that three false answers have been given to the question of the relationship of clergy to other Christians. The first is clericalism. It is the view already referred to, namely, that the work of the church is to be done by those paid to do it and that the role of the layman is at best to support these works financially. How did this false picture arise? Historically it resulted from the development of the priesthood in the early Roman church. In those days the professional ministry was patterned after the Old Testament priestly system with the mass taking the place of the blood sacrifices. Only “priests” were authorized to perform the mass, and this meant that a false and debilitating distinction between clergy and laity was drawn. Those who favor this view say that it goes back to the days of the apostles. But this is demonstrably false. As reflected in the New Testament, the early church often used the word “minister” or “ministry” to refer to what all Christians are and must do and never used the word hiereus (“priest”) of the clergy. Elton Trueblood points out that “the conventional modern distinction between the clergy and laity simply does not occur in the New Testament at all.”

There are historical reasons for the development of clericalism then. But these in themselves are not the whole or even the most significant things. The real causes of clericalism lie in human failures. Sometimes the clergy want to run the show, to dominate those who attend church. This often leads to outright abuse or tyranny. If we need an example, we can find one in the New Testament in the person of Diotrephes “who loves to be first,” according to the apostle John who wrote about him (3 John 9). A warning against this pattern is found in 1 Peter in a passage conveying instruction to church elders: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (5:2–3). The chief biblical example is the Lord Jesus Christ who, though Lord of creation, nevertheless put on a servant’s garment and performed a servant’s job in washing his disciples’ feet.

Again, there is the willingness of laymen to “sit back” and “let the pastor do it.” Stott quotes a remark of Sir John Lawrence to this effect: “What does the layman really want? He wants a building which looks like a church; a clergy dressed in the way he approves; services of the kind he’s been used to, and to be left alone.” This is not what Joel 2:28–32 envisions.

The second false answer to the relationship of clergy to laypersons is anti-clericalism. Since the clergy sometimes despise the laity or think them dispensable, it is no surprise that the laity sometimes return the compliment by rejecting the clergy.

This is not always bad. We can imagine situations in which the church has become so dominated by a corrupt or priestly clergy that a general housecleaning is called for. Again we can think of areas of the church’s work that are best done by laymen, for which the clergy is not at all necessary. But these are not grounds for anticlericalism as the normal stance of Christian people. On the contrary, where the church wishes to be biblical it must recognize not only that gifts of teaching and leadership are given to some for the church’s well-being but also that there is ample biblical teaching about the need for such leadership. Judging from Acts and the various Pauline epistles, it was the apostle Paul’s regular practice to appoint elders in every church and entrust to them the training of the flock for ministry (Acts 14:23; 20:17). In the pastoral epistles the appointment of such leaders is specifically commanded (Titus 1:5), and the qualifications are given (1 Tim. 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9).

Some who have captured the idea of ministry as belonging to the whole church have begun to wonder on this basis whether there is room for clergy. But their insight, good as it is, does not lead to this conclusion. As Trueblood says, “The earliest Christians were far too realistic to fall into this trap, because they saw that, if the ideal of universal ministry is to be approximated at all, there must be some people who are working at the job of bringing this highly desirable result to pass.”

The final false model of the relationship between the professional clergy and laymen is what Stott calls dualism. Dualism says that clergy and laymen are each to be given their sphere, and neither is to trespass on the territory of the other. This describes the traditional Roman Catholic system in which a “lay status” and a “clerical status” are very carefully delineated. It is also true of certain forms of Protestantism. In such a system the sense of all being part of one body and serving together in one work evaporates and rivalry enters in instead.

What is the true pattern? Ephesians 4:11–13 describes it well, for in pointing out that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are to equip the saints for the work of ministry, it is saying that the proper relationship of clergy to laypersons is service. The clergy are to equip the saints, that is, assist them and train them to be what they should be and do the work they should do, which is the proclamation of the gospel to the world. In this pattern of service we have no lesser example than that of Jesus who, as noted above, “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Fulfillment

Joel’s prophecy was fulfilled at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came on all believers. All began to speak and witness to others. A new era was inaugurated. It is said of the church at this period that “all the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:44–47).

In each of nine cases in which it is said that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, the consequence of that filling was a witness to Jesus Christ. The first of these cases is Pentecost. We are told that “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” and that they at once began to witness (Acts 2:4–13). Peter did so officially and most effectively. The second case is Peter’s being “filled with the Holy Spirit” just before he addressed the Sanhedrin on the occasion of his first arrest (Acts 4:8). He preached Jesus. The third case is the description of a prayer meeting in which the believers “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31). Acts 6:3, the fourth reference, says that deacons were chosen on the basis of their being “full of the Spirit.” At first glance this seems to be an exception, for nothing tells us that they then witnessed to Christ. But it is important to note that the verse does not describe them as being filled with the Spirit but only says that they gave evidence of having been filled with the Spirit (past tense). How was this known? The passage does not say how specifically, but it may well have been because they were already active as witnesses. Besides, the account of the choice of these deacons is immediately followed by the story of the death of the deacon Stephen, which certainly contains an effective witness to the grace of God in Christ’s ministry.

The fifth example of a person being filled with the Spirit is Stephen who, “full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” and testified of this fact: “Look, … I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55–56). Paul is twice said specifically to have been “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17; 13:9). The first time was at his conversion when Ananias came and placed his hands on him. Paul recovered his sight, was baptized, and “at once … began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). The second time was when Paul confronted Elymas, the sorcerer, and pronounced a judgment on him in the name of Jesus. Barnabas is said to have been “full of the Holy Spirit.” He was a preacher. The ninth example is the company of disciples at Antioch who were “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” and who doubtless revealed this by continuing to spread the gospel even after Paul and Barnabas had been expelled from their region (Acts 13:52).

This is the clear and distinguishing mark of a person being filled with the Holy Spirit, and it is the sense in which the words in Joel—“Your sons and daughters will prophesy”—must be taken. There may be prophecy in the sense of foretelling things to come. Paul, Peter, John, and some others did that. But in the sense that all will prophesy, what is involved is proclamation of God’s truth concerning the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior.

Jesus said that this was to be the Spirit’s work. “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (John 16:12–15).

A Blessed Result

The result of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the consequent testimony to Jesus by those who were so filled was repentance. We are told that after Peter preached, “about three thousand” repented of their sin, were baptized, and were added to the number of the early Christians (Acts 2:37–41). Later we read, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

Repentance brings us back to Joel and the purpose of Joel’s prophecy. Joel had been calling on the people to repent of specific sin, the sin of worshiping other gods and of failing to give the true God the worship and obedience he deserves. God had promised blessing if the people would repent. Would they? Could they? The answer to that question is perhaps unknown in the context of the prophecy itself. But it is important to note that at the same time that God calls for repentance he promises a day in which he will pour out his Spirit on all people, and when that happens, as it does at Pentecost, repentance is the first evidence in the lives of people generally. Thousands are convicted of sin, repent of it, and turn to Jesus.

It is the same today. Repentance is always the first visible evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence and activity. Where he is at work, repentance and a resulting belief in Jesus as Savior follow. We should pray for repentance first in our own hearts and then in those of our contemporaries.[1]


28–32 [3:1–5] The introductory formula with which this section begins clearly places the events that follow it after those detailed in 2:1–27. Since the previous section dealt with the near future, it may be safely presumed that the events prophesied here lie still further ahead. Indeed, these chapters disclose the Lord’s eschatological intentions (3, 4, MT). Two primary thoughts are included: the Lord’s promise of personal provision in the lives of his own (2:28–32) and the prediction of his final triumph on behalf of his own at the culmination of the history of humankind (ch. 3).

The Lord first promises that he will pour out his Spirit in full abundance and complete refreshment. Hosea prophesied that the Lord must pour out his fury on an idolatrous Israel (5:10). Joel sees beyond this chastisement to a time in the distant future (cf. Eze 36:16–38) when, in a measure far more abundant than the promised rain (cf. 2:22–26), God will pour out his Holy Spirit in power. In those days (cf. Jer 33:15) that power will rest on all (i.e., human) flesh (cf. Isa 40:5–6; 66:23; Zec 2:12–13).

God’s covenantal people are primarily in view. Joel goes on to point out that what the Lord intends is that his Holy Spirit will be poured out, not on selected individuals for a particular task but on all believers, young and old, male and female alike, regardless of their status. It will be a time of renewed spiritual activity: of prophesying, of dreams, and of visions (cf. Nu 12:6).

Accompanying the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in those days and as visible signs of his supernatural and overseeing intervention in human history, God will cause extraordinary phenomena to be seen in nature. Thus the totality of everyone’s experience will be affected. Although the heavens are mentioned first, the order that follows is one of ascending emphasis, beginning with events on earth (blood, fire, and smoke) and moving to signs in the sky (the sun and moon).

Joel’s depiction of the phenomenal events concerned with the day of the Lord is indebted to stock phraseology available since Israel’s redemption out of Egypt at the time of the exodus event. Miraculous occurrences in the heavens (Ex 10:21–23; 14:19–20; cf. Ps 105:28) and on earth (Ex 19:16, 18; cf. Jdg 5:4–5; Ps 114:3–5; Hab 3:6) during the movement from Egypt to the Promised Land were seen as part of God’s arsenal of weapons of judgment that will ultimately lead to the full blessing of his people.

Such occurrences were not only repeated in the course of Israel’s subsequent history (Jos 10:9–15; Jdg 5:20–21) but also became standard imagery for the prophetic oracles of judgment (e.g., Isa 13:10, 13; Eze 32:7–8; Am 5:18–20). From there they passed on naturally into the graphically intense and more universalistic outlook of the emerging apocalyptic prophecies dealing with the end times (e.g., Isa 24:1–3, 19–20; 60:19–20; Zep 1:14–18; Zec 14:3–7). These in turn developed into the full-blown apocalyptic literature of the intertestamental and NT eras (e.g., Apocalypse of Zephaniah 12:1–8; Rev 6:8–9; 11:15–19; 14:19–20). Similar conclusions can be reached concerning Joel’s use of blood, fire, and smoke—all well-known symbols of warfare and its attendant evils (e.g., Nu 21:28; Jdg 20:38–40; Isa 10:16; 28:11; Zec 11:1).

As I pointed out in the discussion at 1:15, the term “day of the Lord” deals with judgment. This is particularly true in the case of the enemies of Israel, whether Babylon (Isa 13:6, 9), Egypt (Jer 46:10; Eze 30:2–4), Edom (Ob 15), or all nations (Joel 3:14–15; Ob 15; Zep 1:14–18; Zec 14:3–15; Mal 4:5–6; cf. 1 Th 5:2; 2 Th 2:2; 2 Pe 3:10). It can also be true for Israel-Judah (Isa 2:12–22; Eze 13:5; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11; Am 5:18–20; Zep 1:7; Zec 14:1–2).

As to the time of judgment, it can be present (Joel 1:15), lie in the near future (Isa 2:12–22; 13:6, 9; Jer 46:10; Eze 13:5; Joel 2:1, 11; Am 5:18–20), be future-eschatological (Eze 30:2–3; Zep 1:7, 14–18; Mal 4:1–6), or be purely eschatological (Joel 3:14–15; Zec 14:1–21; 1 Th 5:1–11; 2 Th 2:2; 2 Pe 3:10–13). So teachings concerning the judgment associated with that day can apply anywhere along the continuum that culminates in the final day of the Lord. With such an understanding believers are assured of God’s sovereign control of the flow of history and his ultimate good intentions for them. Such knowledge should bring a continuing realization of the necessity of trust and godly living.

Theologically, the scope of these passages makes it clear that the eschatological day of the Lord is the culmination of God’s judging and restoring process. It involves the time of great affliction for God’s people (Da 12:1; Mt 24:15–28) and of earth’s judgment (Isa 26:20–21; Rev 6; 8–11; 14:14–16:21), and it closes with the return of the Lord in glory (Rev 19:11–16) and the battle of Armageddon (Rev 16:16; 19:17–21; cf. Eze 38–39). Joel’s use of the term, then, is in harmony with the totality of Scripture. By “the day of the Lord” is meant that time when God, for his glory and humanity’s good, actively intervenes in human affairs in judgment against sinners and on behalf of his own people.

The day of the Lord also deals with deliverance for God’s people and the hope of a final blessed state (Joel 2:31–32; 3:16–21; Zep 3:9–20; Zec 14:3; Mal 4:5–6). The eschatological prophecies dealing with these two themes are characteristic of OT kingdom oracles.

Thus in v. 32 the second of the twin themes associated with kingdom oracles comes into full view. Along with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, there will be the outworking of salvation for those who truly trust God as their Redeemer. To “call on the name of the Lord” is to invoke his name in approaching him (cf. Ge 4:26; 12:8), but especially to call on him in believing faith (Pss 99:6; 145:18; Ro 10:13). For such a one there will be not only physical deliverance but also spiritual transformation and the blessedness of peace and prosperity. While salvation-deliverance will be the experience of the one who truly “calls on the name of the Lord” (cf. 2:26) in that day, it is God himself who will summon that remnant.

Before leaving this chapter, we must briefly examine the issue of the citation of these words by Peter in his famous address at Pentecost (Ac 2:17–21). While several theories have been advanced as to the relation between these two passages of Scripture, the position taken here attempts to strike a balance between the extreme views of a total fulfillment at Pentecost and the complete lack of any relationship.

Although the full context of Acts 2 does not exhaust the larger context of Joel 2:28–3:21, we can scarcely doubt that Peter viewed Joel’s prophecy as applicable to Pentecost, for he plainly said that such was the case (Ac 2:16). Moreover, both his sermon and subsequent remarks are intimately intertwined with Joel’s message (e.g., cf. Joel 2:30–31 with Ac 2:22–24; Joel 2:32 with Ac 2:38–40).

The precise applicability of Joel’s prophecy to Pentecost can be gleaned from some of the Petrine interpretive changes and additions to Joel’s text. Thus, under divine inspiration Peter added to Joel’s words relative to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit kai prohēteusousin (“and they will prophesy”; cf. Joel 2:29 with Ac 2:18). The intent of Joel’s prophecy was not only the restoration of prophecy but that such a gift was open to all classes of people. The Spirit-empowered words of the apostles on Pentecost were, therefore, evidence of the accuracy of Joel’s prediction. (They were also a direct fulfillment of Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit [see Lk 24:49; Jn 14:16–18; 15:26–27; 16:7–15; Ac 1:4–5, 8; 2:33].)

Again, Peter affirmed that Joel’s more general term ʾaḥarê-kēn (“afterward”) is to be understood as en tais eschatais hēmerais (“in the last days”; cf. Joel 2:28 with Ac 2:17). The NT writers made it clear that both Israel’s future age and the church age are designated by the same terms: “the last [latter] days [times]” (1 Ti 4:1; 2 Ti 3:1–8; Heb 1:1–2; Jas 5:3; 1 Pe 1:5, 20; 4:7; 2 Pe 3:1–9; 1 Jn 2:18; Jude 18). Accordingly, the point of Peter’s remark in Acts 2:16 must be that Pentecost, as the initial day of that period known as “the last [latter] days,” which will culminate in those events surrounding the return of Jesus the Messiah, partakes of the character of those final events and so is a herald and earnest of what surely must come. Pentecost, then, forms a corroborative pledge in the series of fulfillments that will culminate in the ultimate fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in the eschatological complex.

It must also be noted that the outpouring of the Spirit is an accompanying feature of that underlying basic divine promise given to Abraham and the patriarchs, ratified through David, reaffirmed in the terms of the new covenant, and guaranteed in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah (cf. Ge 12:1–3; 15; 17; 2 Sa 7:11–29; Ps 89:3–4, 27–29; Jer 31:31–34; Ac 2:29–36; 26:6–7; Gal 3:5–14; Eph 1:10–14; Heb 6:13–20; 9:15).

Christ’s prophetic promise was directly fulfilled; Joel’s prophecy was fulfilled but not consummated. It awaits its ultimate fulfillment but was provisionally applicable to Pentecost and the age of the Spirit as the initial step in those last days that will culminate in the prophesied the day of the Lord.[2]


[1] Boice, J. M. (2002). The Minor Prophets: an expositional commentary (pp. 143–149). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[2] Patterson, R. D. (2008). Joel. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, pp. 336–338). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

June 5 – Integrity Stands on Principle

“And the king appointed for them a daily ration from the king’s choice food and from the wine which he drank, and appointed that they should be educated three years, at the end of which they were to enter the king’s personal service…. But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank; so he sought permission from the commander of the officials that he might not defile himself.”

Daniel 1:5, 8

✧✧✧

Godly integrity is built upon the foundation of biblical authority.

From the world’s perspective, King Nebuchadnezzar had much to offer his Hebrew captives: the best food, the best education, and high positions in his kingdom. But Daniel’s perspective was quite different. He did not object to receiving a pagan education because God had given no direct prohibition against that, and a Babylonian education had much to offer in the areas of architecture and science. But as with anyone receiving a secular education, Daniel would have to exercise discernment in sorting out the true from the false and the good from the bad.

It was when Daniel was asked to violate a direct command from God that he drew the line and took his stand on biblical principle. That’s the character of godly integrity. It bases decisions on the principles from God’s Word, not on mere preference, intimidation, or peer pressure. Seemingly Daniel had every reason to compromise: he was young, away from home, and facing severe consequences if he defied the king’s order. Yet he was unwavering in his obedience to God.

Although Daniel couldn’t obey the king’s order, he handled the situation in a wise and respectful manner by seeking permission to abstain from eating what God had forbidden. From his example we learn that standing on principle will sometimes put us at odds with those in authority over us, but even then we can love and respect them.

✧✧✧

Suggestions for Prayer: Pray for those in authority over you who may want you to do things that would displease the Lord. ✧ Pray for wisdom and grace to maintain a loving attitude toward them while still standing on biblical principles.

For Further Study: Read Acts 5:17–29. How did the apostles respond to the authorities who commanded them to stop preaching the gospel?[1]


THE STEADFAST FIDELITY OF DANIEL AND HIS COMPANIONS (Chap. 1)

1:1–7 The scene is the court of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon following his attack on Jerusalem in the third year of Jehoiakim’s reign. Nebuchadnezzar ordered several Jewish young men to be prepared to serve him as men of wisdom and knowledge. Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Their Chaldean names were Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. As part of their preparation, they were to eat of the king’s delicacies and drink of his wine. These foods probably included meats that were unclean, according to the OT law, or perhaps they were connected with idol worship.

There is a seeming discrepancy between verse 1 and Jeremiah 25:1. Here Nebuchadnezzar is said to have besieged Jerusalem in the third year of Jehoiakim’s reign. The Jeremiah passage says that the fourth year of Jehoiakim was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar. This may be explained by the difference between Jewish and Babylonian reckoning.

1:8–12 Daniel nobly refused to eat them. He asked if he and his friends could eat vegetables and drink … water instead. Ashpenaz, the chief of the eunuchs (not understanding Jewish customs nor their God), was horrified at this idea, noting that his own head would be endangered if the plan didn’t work! After all, he was responsible for them.

1:13–21 Daniel’s request was nonetheless granted. At the end of the probationary period of ten days, they stood before … the king and proved to be ten times better than all the wise men of Babylon. They were therefore accepted by the king. God graciously gifted them with knowledge and skill in all literature and wisdom, and to Daniel he granted understanding in all visions and dreams.[2]


A Young Man Decides

Daniel 1:3–21

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility—young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.

Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.

But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the two greatest reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, each issued commentaries on Daniel. Luther produced two studies, published in 1524 and 1544. Calvin produced one, published in 1561. It is a striking fact that in spite of Luther’s great popularity, which continues to this day, Luther’s books on Daniel have never been translated into English, while Calvin’s massive work, running to a thousand pages in the original Latin, was available in English within ten years.

Why has the text of Calvin’s commentary proved so popular? There may be many reasons, but most people feel that it is because of the passionate and moving way in which the great expositor linked the times of the exiled Daniel to his own.

Calvin lived in an age of ecclesiastical and political warfare in which many thousands suffered greatly for their faith. In Germany in 1546, Charles V began a war to stamp out Lutheranism. In France, between 1540 and 1544, Francis I attempted the same thing, massacring the Waldensians as part of his misconceived program. In 1545 he burned twenty-two villages and killed three thousand men and women. Others were sent to the galleys. In 1562, the year after Calvin’s commentary appeared, the eight Wars of Religion began, the destruction of which was so great that Europe did not recover for two centuries. Thousands became exiles during this period. Many fled to Switzerland where Calvin, who was himself an exile, lived.

Calvin’s commentary breathes with compassion for these people, and as a result it has always appealed to those who consider themselves exiles in a strange land. Indeed, it appears even more broadly than this. For Daniel was a man of God in worldly Babylon, and Christians are always God’s people in the midst of those who do not honor and in fact oppose their divine King.

Calvin dedicated his book to the “pious Protestants of France” and urged Daniel upon them as a great encouragement.

I have the very best occasion of showing you, beloved brethren, in this mirror, how God proves the faith of his people in these days by various trials; and how with wonderful wisdom he has taken care to strengthen their minds by ancient examples, that they should never be weakened by the concussion of the severest storms and tempests; or at least, if they should totter at all, that they should never finally fall away. For although the servants of God are required to run in a course impeded by many obstacles, yet whoever diligently reads this book will find in it whatever is needed by a voluntary and active runner to guide him from the starting point to the goal; while good and strenuous wrestlers will experimentally acknowledge that they have been sufficiently prepared for the contest.… Here then, we observe, as in a living picture, that when God spares and even indulges the wicked for a time, he proves his servants like gold and silver; so that we ought not to consider it a grievance to be thrown into the furnace of trial, while profane men enjoy the calmness of repose.

A Secular Environment

In order to understand Daniel we must realize that the Babylon to which Daniel and his three friends were taken was a secular, worldly place, as I attempted to show in the last study, and that their initial experiences there were intended to blot out of their minds the remembrance of the true God and their homeland. We see this in several ways. For one thing, Nebuchadnezzar ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to choose young men who would be easily molded by their new environment. Again, he attempted to lure them with the delicacies of food the great city of Babylon could provide.

Chiefly we notice Nebuchadnezzar’s intentions in the altering of the young men’s names. The Hebrew names of these young men were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They were changed to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It should be immediately evident to anyone with even a limited knowledge of Hebrew that the Jewish names of these men each contains a name of God and has a spiritual meaning. Daniel and Mishael both contain the syllable el, which means “God” and is the basis of the frequently appearing (plural) name Elohim. Daniel means “God is my Judge.” Mishael means “Who is like God?” The other two names, Hananiah and Azariah, both contain a shortened form of the name Jehovah. Hananiah means “Jehovah is gracious.” Azariah means “Jehovah is my helper.” The very names of these men were reminders of their heritage and a challenge to them to remain faithful to the Lord. But now, deported into a strange, pagan land, their names are changed. And the names they are given all contain a reference to one of the false gods of the ancient Babylonians, Aku and Nego. It was a way of saying that these who had been servants of the Jewish God were now servants and worshipers of the gods of the pagan pantheon.

Yet the change accomplished nothing. Nebuchadnezzar changed the men’s names, but he could not change their hearts. They remained faithful to the true God of Israel, as the story shows.

I apply that to our own age. One thing the world seems always to try to do—it has happened in the past, and it is happening in our own time—is to take Christian words and rework them to convey the world’s ideas. I suppose it is one of the devil’s subtlest tricks. It happens in liberal theology. “Sin” used to mean rebellion against God and his righteous law or, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (A. 14). But today it means ignorance or merely the kind of oppression that is supposed to reside in social structures. “Jesus” is no longer the incarnate God who died for our salvation, but rather our example or what might even be termed an evolutionary peak of the human race. “Faith” is awareness of oppression and beginning to do something about it, and so on. Of course, in the secular world the readjustment of words is even more ridiculous and extreme, as the recent use of the term “born again” in advertising slogans shows.

This is a great danger, I admit. But although it is a danger, if the truth of what is behind these words remains strong in the minds and hearts of those who really know the truth, then the vitality of the faith will remain regardless of the world’s corruptions. Christians will persevere because God will strengthen them to stand against the culture.

Daniel’s Decision

The most important verse in the first chapter of Daniel is verse 8, which says, “But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.”

What is your reaction to that? Remember that Daniel was a young man at this time. We know from the later development of the story that he lived for a very long time beyond this—through the rule of four emperors. He was probably in his nineties when he died. So at this point he was probably between fifteen and seventeen. It was at this young age that he was taken away from his own country and culture, plunged into the strange but exciting life of the great world capital, and lured to loyalty by the best of all possible educations and by provision of the very food served to Nebuchadnezzar. Yet Daniel refused to partake of this food. As I say, what is your reaction to that? Do you find it a very little thing? Do you see Daniel’s decision as the immaturity and foolishness of youth? Would you have acted as Daniel and his friends did in these circumstances, or would you have gone along with your great benefactor’s desires? Would you have said, “After all, why should we live by Jewish dietary laws while in Babylon? Let’s eat and drink. It’s just a small thing”?

Well, it was a small thing. Yet that is just the point. For it is in the small matters that great victories are won. This is where decisions to live a holy life are made—not in the big things (though they come if the little things are neglected), but in the details of life. If Daniel had said, “I want to live for God in big ways, but I am not going to make a fool of myself in this trivial matter of eating and drinking the king’s food,” he never would have amounted to anything. But because he started out for God in small things, God used him greatly.

I have titled this chapter “A Young Man Decides” because it is particularly in youth that the most significant and life-forming decisions are made. Are you a young person? Then you should pay particularly close attention to this point. Most young people want their lives to count, and most Christian young people want their lives to count for God. Youth dreams big. That is right. You should dream big. But youth is also often impatient and undisciplined, and young people are tempted to let the little things slide. You must not do that if you are God’s young man or God’s young woman. God will make your life count, but this will not happen unless you determine to live for him in the little things now. You know what Jesus said: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). Being wholly given over to God now is the essential and best possible preparation for future service.

Why We Must Be Holy

In the last chapter I pointed out that Daniel is a story of the struggle of the world’s people and culture against God’s people and God’s culture, and it is. But it is also a story of men who lived for God by choosing the path of personal discipleship and holiness. This is no contradiction, because it is only such persons who actually embody the spiritual standards of “the city of God.” It is only these who make any lasting difference in the world.

A great evangelical bishop of England, John Charles Ryle, wrote a classic study of holiness in which he urged holiness upon all who call themselves Christians. After some opening passages in which he describes holiness as separation to God, devotion to God, service to God, being of one mind with God and wanting God’s will—Ryle went on to show why holiness, the kind of holiness exercised by Daniel, is so necessary. He listed eight reasons.

  1. “We must be holy, because the voice of God in Scripture plainly commands it.” Peter wrote, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ ” (1 Peter 1:14–16). This is not optional. God did not say, “I would like you to live a holy life; but if you are not too excited about that particular lifestyle, don’t worry about it. We’ll work on something else.” God said, “Be holy, because I am holy.” We must be holy because the holy God commands it.
  2. “We must be holy, because this is the one grand end and purpose for which Christ came into the world.” You say, “But I thought Jesus came to save us from our sins.” Yes, he did come for that. But the Bible also says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25–27). Many Christians think they would like the benefits of salvation without the obligation to live for Christ, but they cannot have them because Christ came to make them holy just as much as he came to save them from the penalty of their sins. If you are fighting against holiness, you are fighting against nothing less than the purpose of God in the Atonement.
  3. “We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we have a saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” How is that so? Well, James in his letter speaks of two kinds of faith: a living, saving faith and a dead faith that saves no one. The devils have a dead faith; that is, they believe there is a God and that Jesus is his Son, sent to save his people. But they do not trust him personally. They do not live for him. A living faith does live for him and therefore shows itself in good works. That is why James says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26).

Ryle used this point to comment on so-called “death-bed” conversions, judging that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred these “conversions” are illusory. He said, “With rare exceptions, men die just as they have lived. The only safe evidence that we are one with Christ, and Christ is in us, is a holy life.”

  1. “We must be holy, because this is the only proof that we love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.” Jesus was quite plain on this point. He said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15); “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (v. 21); “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching” (v. 23); “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). How could the point be more clearly spoken? If you love Jesus, you will obey him; you will be holy. If you do not obey him, you do not love him—whatever your profession. Do you love Jesus? We have a chorus in which we sing, “Oh, how I love Jesus,” but you do not love him if you do not do what he says.
  2. “We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we are true children of God.” Do you remember how Jesus made this point when he was talking with the Pharisees? They claimed to be children of Abraham and therefore in right standing before God. But Jesus said, “If you were Abraham’s children, then you would do the things Abraham did” (John 8:39–40). Paul said the same thing in Romans, noting that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14). The Spirit of God does not lead you to sin. The Spirit of God does not lead to disobedience. If you are led by God’s Spirit, you will lead a holy life, and the evidence of that holy life will be sound evidence that you are God’s son or daughter.
  3. “We must be holy, because this is the most likely way to do good to others.” Many people today have some desire to do good to others, and many of our social and benevolence programs are an expression of that praiseworthy desire. But I ask, “Do you help others by advancing a low moral standard—one that is easy for them to live up to? Do you help others by whittling down the righteous standards of the Old Testament law or the New Testament precepts? Not at all! You help others by upholding the highest possible standards and above all by living according to those standards yourself. There are several places in the New Testament in which the godly conduct of a believer is said to be the best hope of doing good to someone else. For instance, Peter writes, “Wives, … be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Peter 3:1–2). No doubt many besides husbands have been won to Christ by the consistent, holy behavior of some Christian.
  4. “We must be holy, because our present comfort depends much upon it.” Not all suffering is directly related to a suffering person’s sin. Christ’s words about the man born blind (John 9:3) should disabuse us of attempts to make that an easy, one-to-one relationship. But although all suffering does not come directly from one’s sin, the reverse is true: All sin produces suffering.

We do not think this way naturally. In fact, we think just the opposite. We come up against one of God’s commandments, think that we would like to do something else, and immediately reason that if only we could do what we really want to do we would be happy. We think that we would be absolutely miserable obeying God. That was the devil’s argument in his temptation of Eve, but it is as diabolical now as it was then. To heed it is to forget whence our good comes. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). If we turn from this good, we do not turn to happiness but away from it.

  1. “Lastly, we must be holy, because without holiness on earth we shall never be prepared to enjoy heaven.” The author of Hebrews wrote, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Revelation speaks of heaven, saying, “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21:27).

Can I Be Holy?

The objection I am likely to get is that these points are all very well and good but that it is just not possible for you to live a holy life in your circumstances. “If I did the right thing in my job, I’d lose it,” you say. Or, “None of my friends would speak to me.” Or, “I’d never get ahead.” Or, “I just can’t be holy; I’ve tried it and I fail.”

If you are thinking this way, let me turn back to Daniel, who was not only resolved not to defile himself with the king’s food and wine but was also willing to put the matter to the test and prove God able in his circumstances. Daniel said to the guard who had been appointed over him, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see” (Dan. 1:12–13).

The guard agreed to this test, and at the end of the ten days the young men looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. Moreover, it was not only in their appearance that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah excelled. They also excelled in knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. The text concludes by noting that at the end of the three years of training, when the king brought his young protégés in for testing, Nebuchadnezzar “found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (v. 20).

Do not say, “If I live for God, I’ll lose out.” You may lose out on some of the things the world offers, which are not good for you anyway, but you will experience a richness of God’s bounty. The Bible says, “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).[3]


The Main Characters (1:3–7)

Commentary

3–7 This unit introduces the protagonists of the story line of the book of Daniel. Four young men taken captive from Judah are identified by name as among those Israelites belonging to the royal family and Hebrew nobility deported to Babylonia (v. 3). All four bore theophoric names (v. 6) associating them with the God of the Israelites: “Daniel” (“God is my judge”), “Hananiah” (“Yah[weh] has been gracious”), “Mishael” (“Who is/what is God?”), and “Azariah” (“Yah[weh] has helped”).

The name “Ashpenaz” (v. 3) is an attested proper name in Aramaic known from an incantation bowl dating to ca. 600 BC (cf. Collins, Daniel, 134). The name is associated with “lodging” in some manner and may mean “innkeeper.” His title, “chief of [the] court officials,” indicates a position of oversight vested with some degree of royal authority (since he was in a position to make a decision concerning Daniel’s request concerning food rations without appealing to a superior; v. 8). Ashpenaz probably served both as a type of chamberlain overseeing the accommodations (i.e., “room and board”) for the captives and headmaster in terms of supervising the education of the captive foreign youth and approving them for “graduation” into the civil service corps upon completion of their prescribed period of training.

The policy of incorporating capable foreign captives in the civil service corps as officials of the king was widespread in the ancient world (cf. BBCOT, 730). Such practice had the benefit of depleting the leadership ranks in subjugated territories as well as harnessing that administrative potential in civil service to the ruling nation. Wiseman (Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon, 81) has suggested that in Babylonian practice such “diplomatic hostages” were sometimes educated for eventual return to their homeland as loyal supporters of the Babylonian regime. This training or education was essentially a programmatic indoctrination of the captives in the worldview of a conquering nation (see Lucas, 53). The reprogramming included studies in the language and literature of the host nation (v. 4), a special diet, and training in royal protocol (v. 5). The goal or desired outcome was reorientation of the exiled individual in the thoughts, beliefs, and practices of the suzerain nation.

Typically, this reorientation included a change of name symbolic of the loyalty of the subject to a new king, his nation, and his gods. Accordingly, Daniel and his three friends became (v. 7): “Belteshazzar” (“Bel [i.e., Marduk, the supreme god of the Babylonian pantheon] protects his life”), “Shadrach” (perhaps “command of Aku” [i.e., the Sumerian moon-god] or “I am fearful of Aku”), “Meshach” (perhaps “Who is what [the god] Aku is?”), and “Abednego” (“servant of the shining one” or “servant of Neg[b]o” [i.e., Nabu, son of Marduk and patron deity of the scribal guild]; cf. Goldingay, 18, on naming and renaming in the OT).

Two things stand out in the passage: the exceptional qualifications of the young men chosen for the civil service training and the extensive nature and duration of that diplomatic training. Concerning the former, it is likely that Daniel and his friends were teenagers when they were taken captive from Judah and exiled to Babylonia, the presumption on the part of the Babylonians being that young boys generally would be more teachable and would be in a position to give more years of fruitful service to the state. Natural good looks and physical prowess were commonly associated with leadership in the biblical world (cf. 1 Sa 9:2; 16:18). The three expressions referring to intellectual capabilities (v. 4, “aptitude for … learning, well informed, quick to understand”) should probably be regarded as synonyms for “gifted learners” rather than signifying distinctive aspects of the human intelligence (cf. Miller, 61). The cumulative effect of the triad simply stresses the emphasis King Nebuchadnezzar placed on inherent intellectual ability.

According to Wiseman (Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon, 86), Babylon prided itself on being the “city of wisdom,” a title that earlier belonged to Assur as the capital of Assyria. The schools of King Nebuchadnezzar’s day would have continued to copy “sign lists … word lists, paradigms and extracts of legal terminology … religious documents of all kinds … fables, and omens of various categories including those about devils and evil spirits … as well as texts of possible historical interest.” The language of the Babylonians (v. 4) would have been the Akkadian dialect known as Neo-Babylonian. Beyond this, Daniel and his friends would have known several other languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, and probably Persian.

Akkadian was a cuneiform writing system made up of wedge-shaped characters, commonly etched on clay tablets. The language was cumbersome and required learning hundreds of symbols, many with multiple syllabic values. Collins (Daniel, 140) has observed that length of Babylonian education varied depending on the specialization of the student (in some cases from ten to eighteen years). He further comments that the three-year instructional program for Daniel and his friends seems “unrealistically short for anyone who had no previous training in Akkadian letters.” Those who have studied the Akkadian language might be inclined to agree!

Mastery of Akkadian was accomplished by copying simple exercises set forth by an instructor, then advancing to the copying of important literary texts, and finally to the composition of original documents of various sorts. As Baldwin, 80, notes, to study Babylonian literature was “to enter a completely alien thought-world.” This Mesopotamian worldview was polytheistic in nature, superstitious in character, and pluralistic in practice. Lucas (Daniel, 53) summarizes that “the learning process intended for these Judean exiles was thus one of induction into the thought-world and culture of Babylonia.” This makes all the more remarkable the fact that Daniel and his friends were able to devote themselves to the study of Babylonian language and literature without compromising their faith in Yahweh and their Hebrew worldview. Baldwin, 80, aptly reflects, “evidently the work of Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Habakkuk had not been in vain.” Likewise, the Christian church needs individuals of faith who are “students” of the “language and literature” of modern culture both for the sake of effective gospel outreach (cf. Ac 17:22–28) and for discerning the spirits in terms of maintaining sound doctrine (cf. 1 Jn 4:1).[4]


The Plot (1:8–17)

Commentary

8–17 The plotline of a story unfolds in the arrangement of events recorded in the narrative. The basic ingredient of a good story plot is conflict moving toward resolution. The opening scene of Daniel reports such conflict. The conflict for Daniel and his three friends is an ideological or moral conflict dilemma. This type of conflict usually occurs within the protagonist(s) of the story and generally focuses on issues of worldview and ultimately “good” versus “evil.” Specifically, the issue here is the royal food and wine that Daniel and his friends were required to eat and drink (v. 8). The rejection of the royal food by Daniel and his friends foreshadows further episodes of conflict as the story of the Hebrew captives progresses, conflicts with other characters (e.g., the Babylonian wise men; 3:8–12; 6:1–5), and physical danger in the form of execution by fire (3:11) and exposure to wild beasts (6:7).

The expression Daniel “resolved” (v. 8) is an idiom expressing a deliberate act of the will motivated by a deep-seated personal conviction (Heb. śîm + lēb, “to set the heart”; cf. NASB’s “Daniel made up his mind”). The word “defile” (Heb. gāʾal) occurs fewer than a dozen times in the OT and may refer to moral or ceremonial impurity (e.g., Isa 59:3; Mal 1:7, 12). Wallace, 42–43, observes that Daniel believed “faith in God and the forgiveness of God had made him clean”—clean from the idolatry and moral pollution of the surrounding world. To eat the king’s food would compromise God’s forgiveness and draw him back into the very same “world” from which he had been cleansed.

The royal food rations posed a problem for Daniel and his friends for several possible reasons. First, the law of Moses prohibited the obedient Hebrews from eating certain types of food, and there was no assurance that such fare would be left off the menu (cf. Lev 11; Dt 12:23–25; 14). Yet the Mosaic dietary restrictions do not include wine, also rejected by Daniel and his friends.

Second, the royal food rations would have probably been associated with idol worship in some way (either by the food’s having been offered to idols or blessed by idolatrous priests). Yet Daniel and his friends do not refuse all the royal food rations (as though only meat and drink but not “vegetables” were dedicated to the Babylonian gods). On both counts the royal food would have been regarded as ritually unclean on theological grounds, and hence the eating of such food would constitute an act of disobedience against Yahweh and his commands.

Beyond this, it is possible that Daniel simply interpreted the eating of the royal food rations as a formal demonstration of allegiance to the Babylonian king. Baldwin, 83, and Felwell, 40, suggest that Daniel’s motivation for rejecting the king’s menu was political in the sense that eating the royal provisions was tantamount to accepting the lordship of the Babylonian king, whereas Daniel and his friends owed loyalty to Yahweh alone as their “king” (cf. 3:17–18; on the issue of cultural assimilation see BBCOT, 731). But again, Daniel and his friends do agree to certain provisions of royal food, thus weakening the argument of political allegiance to King Nebuchadnezzar by virtue of the “meal custom” of the biblical world. Longman, 53, suggests that the food-rations test was essentially a means by which Daniel and his friends might demonstrate that their healthy physical appearance (and hence their intellectual gifts) was the miraculous work of their God—not King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace food or the Babylonian pantheon. As J. H. Sims (“Daniel,” in A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. L. Ryken and T. Longman [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993], 333–34) points out, whatever the motivation for rejecting the royal food rations, the greater issue theologically is that of divine nurture versus human nurture—on whom or what will the Hebrews rely for sustenance in their captivity?

The question of conformity to the surrounding culture was of paramount concern for the Diaspora Hebrews. To what degree, if any, should the displaced Israelites make accommodation to the surrounding dominant culture? What place was there for the Hebrew distinctives of religious monotheism and ethical absolutism based on the law of Moses in the religious pluralism and moral relativism of the Gentile superpowers? Rather than react in open defiance of the king’s decree, Daniel and his friends arranged a compromise with Ashpenaz and his appointed guardian (vv. 10–14). The alternative to eating the king’s food was a “rations test,” with the Hebrew captives to be fed a diet of vegetables and water (v. 12), against the control group of those young men eating the royal provisions (v. 13). Goldingay, 20, interprets the “ten-day” testing period pragmatically as a standard round number of days that would not arouse the suspicion of Ashpenaz’s superiors and yet be long enough for the effects of the test to be observed.

The example of nonconformity by Daniel and his friends became a model for the Israelite response to Gentile culture in later Judaism. For example, the characters of both Judith and Tobit are portrayed as pious Jews who observe strict adherence to the Mosaic law in the books of the apocryphal OT literature that bear their names. Separation from Gentile culture was an important component in an emerging “Diaspora theology” for the Hebrews during the intertestamental period. By the time of the NT, the Jewish worldview was tainted with attitudes of particularism, exclusivism, and superiority in reaction to the influences of Hellenism.

This “Judaism against Gentile culture” paradigm made Jesus’ apparent laxity toward the Mosaic law and his accommodation to Gentile culture difficult to interpret and accept. The church, as the counter-culture agent of God’s kingdom in the world, has no less difficulty in discerning and practicing what Jesus meant when he instructed his followers that though they were in the world, they were not to be of the world (Jn 17:14–18; see the discussion of the Christian’s interface with culture employing Niebuhr’s classic Christ and culture paradigms in Longman, 62–69).

In the process we learn that God’s providential rule of history is not restricted to nations and kings, as God caused Ashpenaz, the chief official, “to show favor and sympathy to Daniel” (v. 9). The passage is reminiscent of Joseph, who “found favor” in Potiphar’s eyes (Ge 39:4), and Esther, who “pleased [Hegai] and won his favor” during her preparations for the royal beauty contest (Est 2:9). The repetition of the verb “gave” (Heb. nātan; GK 5989) echoes God’s deliverance of King Jehoiakim to the Babylonians (v. 2). The NIV’s “God had caused” (v. 9) fails to convey the full theological freight of the original (cf. NASB, “Now God granted Daniel favor and compassion …”). Literally, “God gave Daniel for favor and mercies before the chief official.” Even as God gave Jehoiakim to the Babylonians for judgment, God gave Daniel to Ashpenaz for grace.

This language of divine intervention is in keeping with the theme of Daniel established in the opening verses, namely God’s sovereignty. As Seow, 27, notes, “the sovereignty of God is thus affirmed; the theological paradox of judgment and grace is maintained … God is the narrator’s ‘lord’ … God is at work and ever providing.” In fact, God’s testing and providing are key themes of the OT and justify his name as “Yahweh Yirʾeh” or “Jehovah Jireh” (“The Lord Will Provide,” Ge 22:14).

The four Hebrews passed the rations test, actually emerging “healthier and better nourished” than their counterparts, whose diet consisted of the royal food (v. 15). For the third time in the chapter we read that God “gave” (Heb. nātan; v. 17). In this instance, as a result of their resolve not to defile themselves with the royal food, God granted Daniel and his friends “knowledge and understanding” (v. 17a). The term “knowledge” (Heb. maddāʿ) implies academic learning (cf. v. 4, “quick to understand”), and the word “understanding” (Heb. haśkēl) suggests both “aptitude for learning” (cf. v. 4) and insight with respect to prudence or sound judgment.

In other words, the food rations episode offers practical commentary of sorts on Proverbs 1:7a: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (cf. Ps 111:10). Baldwin, 84, has summarized that even small acts of faith and self-discipline, when undertaken out of loyalty to godly principle, set “God’s servants in the line of his approval and blessing. In this way actions attest faith, and character is strengthened to face more difficult situations.” (But see Goldingay, 20, who denies the cause-and-effect relationship between faithfulness and reward.) The added statement in v. 17b that Daniel received a special divine endowment to understand or interpret visions and dreams foreshadows those “more difficult situations” he will face in the key role he plays as interpreter of dreams and seer of visions in the rest of the book.[5]


Foreshadow of the Outcome (1:18–21)

Commentary

18–21 The conclusion of the first court story is a fortuitous one for Daniel and his three friends. After their three-year program of study in the “arts and sciences” of Babylonia, the Hebrews appear before King Nebuchadnezzar for an interview and subsequent appointment to posts of civil service (v. 18). All four pass their oral examination with “honors” and are deemed by the king to be superior to all the other wise men of the kingdom in “wisdom and understanding” (v. 20). The expression “ten times better” is a common idiom in the OT for expressing hyperbole in dialogue (e.g., Ge 31:41; Nu 14:22; Ne 4:12).

Induction into the civil-service corps of the king meant candidates had to be “qualified to serve in the king’s palace” (v. 4). Once the qualifications of the four Hebrews were certified, they “entered the king’s service” or received administrative appointments as civil servants (v. 19). The same word (lit., “stand,” ʿāmad) is used in both statements to express the idea of entering the king’s service. To “stand” before the king is an idiom for serving the king (cf. 1 Ki 10:8; 12:8) and connotes both loyalty to the crown and adherence to royal protocol and etiquette (cf. Miller, 61).

The purpose of the final section of the first court story is twofold. First, we learn that there is a difference between learning as an “acquired skill” and wisdom as a divine gift (v. 20; cf. v. 17). Daniel and his friends learned the secret lore of the Babylonian magicians and priests, but they clearly understood the God of Israel to be the source of all knowledge and wisdom (cf. 2:20). The rest of the court stories of Daniel give testimony to the four Hebrew captives’ reliance on God as the fountainhead of knowledge and wisdom, unlike their Babylonian counterparts, who relied on occultic arts and all the gods and demons associated with Babylonian religion (e.g., 2:20–23, 28; 4:18, 24; 5:12). Much like Joseph, who served Pharaoh in Egypt, Daniel and his friends recognized that it is God in heaven who reveals mysteries to his faithful servants (2:28; cf. Ge 40:8; 41:16).

Russell, 32, sums up the outcome of the king’s examination of the Hebrew apprentices by noting that “even in this highly skilled field [i.e., Babylonian ‘arts and sciences’] Daniel and his friends were so obviously better than them all! By the goodness of God they could beat the Babylonian experts at their own game. The secrets of Babylon were no secrets to Yahweh who made them known to whomsoever he willed.” The experience of Daniel and his friends anticipates the instruction of the apostle Paul about the “only wise God” (Ro 16:27) and his son Jesus the Messiah, who is the “wisdom from God” for the Christian (1 Co 1:30).

Second, the chronological notice in v. 21—attached as an addendum to the opening court story explaining how Daniel and his friends came to be royal officials in Babylonia under King Nebuchadnezzar—attests to the “staying power” of Daniel (cf. Wallace, 47–48). The first year of King Cyrus of Persia is dated to 539 or 538 BC, depending on the source consulted. This means Daniel held an administrative post in the royal court of Babylon for more than sixty years, and his time spent in Babylonian captivity was nearly seventy years (given his deportation in 605 BC; cf. 1:1). Earlier the prophet Jeremiah had predicted that the Hebrew captivity would cover seven decades (Jer 25:11–12; 29:10). The reference to the accession year of Cyrus to the throne of Babylon probably marked the end of this enforced exile of the Hebrews by the Babylonians (so Goldingay, 27; Lucas, 56).

In reality, Daniel’s longevity testified both to God’s sovereignty over the nations and his faithfulness to his people Israel. Even as Daniel outlasted the kings of the Babylonian Empire, so God’s people were sustained in captivity and eventually permitted to return to their homeland of covenantal promise (2 Ch 36:22–23; Ezr 1:1–4). Likewise, the presence of the Israelite named Daniel in the royal court of seven Babylonian monarchs and the first king of Persia was a tangible reminder that God is the one who sets up kings and deposes them (Da 2:21).[6]


[1] MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1078–1079). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Boice, J. M. (2003). Daniel: an expositional commentary (pp. 19–25). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[4] Hill, A. E. (2008). Daniel. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, pp. 48–50). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Hill, A. E. (2008). Daniel. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, pp. 51–54). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6] Hill, A. E. (2008). Daniel. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, pp. 54–56). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.