Category Archives: James Montgomery Boice

April 27 – Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Hell

He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.

Genesis 3:15

Since the beginning of time Satan and his cohorts have been at war with God. We see that cosmic conflict reflected many times in Scripture (e.g., Job 1; Daniel 10:13). After Satan’s apparent triumph in bringing about the Fall of mankind, God predicted his eventual destruction by the Messiah, who would triumph ultimately in spite of a seeming setback (Gen. 3:15).

As a result, Satan attempted to destroy the Messianic line by destroying God’s people. When that failed, he tried to slaughter the infant Messiah (Matt. 2:16–18). When that didn’t work, he attempted to corrupt the Messiah (Matt. 4:1–11). Failure in that attempt caused him to instigate mobs to kill Him. He even tried to make sure the Messiah couldn’t come forth from the tomb.

It’s been said that hell must have been in the midst of its carnival when Jesus arrived. They were probably celebrating the victory they had tried so hard to secure—but were abruptly disappointed.[1]


The First Messianic Prophecy

Genesis 3:15

“And I will put enmity

between you and the woman,

and between your offspring and hers;

he will crush your head,

and you will strike his heel.”

There is always something unexpected about Christmas, even when you have been expecting it for months. It is not just the presents, which you somehow anticipate anyway. It is the grace of God in sending his Son as our Savior. Grace is always unexpected. So whenever we capture even a small part of what Christmas means, the message of grace is somehow always there and surprises us.

We should not be surprised that this is the case, however, for all biblical references to the coming and birth of Jesus, including all the prophecies of his coming in the Old Testament, have this characteristic. This is particularly true of the first messianic prophecy, occurring as early in the Bible as chapter 3 of Genesis. It is unexpected because the scene in which it occurs is of judgment. Satan had tempted Eve to sin. She had believed Satan rather than God and then had sinned in eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which both she and Adam had been instructed not to eat from. Adam had also sinned in eating of the tree. Now God had come into the garden to call them to task for their sin and to mete out judgment. What fears they must have had! How terrified they must have been as they waited for a punishment perfectly suited to their crime! Do you remember that song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado in which the Lord High Executioner sings of his desire to have each punishment perfectly suit the crime? He sings:

My object all sublime

I shall achieve in time:

To make the punishment fit the crime,

the punishment fit the crime.

My favorite verse is the one about billiard players.

The billiard shark, whom anyone catches,

His doom’s extremely hard.

He’s made to dwell in a dungeon cell

In a spot that’s always barred.

And there he plays extravagant matches

In fitless finger stalls,

On a cloth untrue with a twisted cue

And elliptical billiard balls.

Well might we shudder as we think of a punishment suited to the greater crime of Adam and Eve in their unjustified and totally heinous sin against the Creator. But we find only a token judgment—pain upon the woman in childbirth, grief for the man in earning a living—and, wonder of all wonders, a promise of a deliverer to come.

This is the unexpected wonder of Christmas in its very first form: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15).

God of Conflict

At first glance this verse does not seem particularly wonderful, for it is talking about a conflict that began between the devil and Eve and continues up to the time of Christ and beyond. The verse speaks of “enmity,” which means “ill will on one side or on both; hatred; especially mutual antagonism” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). It is hard to see how this can be good. But this enmity is good, and we should be alerted to this by the fact that it is God who creates it.

A person might ask how evil can be good or how God can be the author of enmity in any form. But the context readily explains this. We remember that Satan is a fallen angel whose original sin consisted in trying to replace God as the chief being in the universe and in trying to gather the worship of the creatures about himself rather than about God. His attempt proved unsuccessful. Now he had appeared on earth to attempt to do among the new race of human beings what he failed to do earlier. Undoubtedly, his temptation of Eve and Adam had in mind, first, seducing our parents away from the worship of God and, second, winning their allegiance and worship for himself. We know sadly that he succeeded in the first objective. He did break the fellowship of the man and the woman with God. But he did not succeed in his second objective, for God announces here that he is putting enmity between Lucifer and the woman.

It is significant that these words are spoken to Satan. For the new thing was not Satan’s hatred of Eve. Satan hated Eve from the moment of her creation, even when he was pretending to be her friend and confidant in tempting her to eat of the forbidden tree. The new thing was to be Eve’s (and Adam’s and all their true offspring’s) hatred of Satan as one aspect of God’s gracious preservation of and provision for the race.

What a blessing that was! We think many times of the love, joy, and happiness that the coming of Jesus Christ brought us, and we thank God rightly for those things. But we should not forget to thank him for a corresponding hatred of sin, sorrow at sin’s ways, and increasing misery when we find ourselves ensnared in sin’s tentacles. When we sin, we often find that we like the sin but want to escape sin’s consequences. We would like to destroy ourselves in comfort, like the addict destroying himself in the dreamlike stupor of debilitating drugs or booze. We would like to go to hell happy. But it is one aspect of grace that God does not allow that to happen. God makes sin miserable and sets up an antagonism between ourselves and Satan that modifies the hold of sin and makes it possible for us to hear God’s loving voice, even in our misery.

The Two Humanities

The enmity established by God was not only to be between the woman and Satan, however—that is, an enmity merely on the personal or individual level. It was also to be an enmity between her offspring and his. This could presumably mean between human beings and the demons, but it is unlikely that it does. For one thing, Satan does not really have offspring. He is not engendering little devils. The demons were created once by God, before their fall, and they are not now increasing in number. For another thing, the passage moves in the direction of one specific descendant of the woman, Jesus Christ, who shall defeat Satan. That is, it is moving from the general to the specific. In view of these facts, the verse probably refers to the godly descendants of the man and woman, influenced by God himself, and the ungodly descendants of the man and woman, influenced by Satan. Certainly, the Book of Genesis goes on to distinguish between the two humanities (chapters 4 and 5).

If this is so, this is a message for the godly in every age. There is a divinely created animosity between the people of God and those who are not his people, and it is for our good. It is to sharpen our will to serve God. One of Isaac Watts’s great hymns (“Am I a Soldier of the Cross”) asks:

Are there no foes for me to face?

Must I not stem the flood?

Is this vile world a friend of grace,

To help me on to God?

In the context of that hymn the answer is clearly no. Watts wants us to fight against the world for Christ’s sake, which we must certainly do. But there is also a sense in which the world is a “friend of grace,” for its animosity toward us pushes us to a greater measure of dependence on God.

There is also a more specific meaning to this verse. As the Book of Genesis unfolds we see God calling out Israel as a special nation through whom he would work, and we see the animosity of Satan (who heard and well understood this prophecy) directed particularly against the Jews. Here is the birth of anti-Semitism. It begins in Genesis and stretches all through history even to the end times described in the Book of Revelation. “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne” (Rev. 12:1–5). In this passage the dragon is certainly Satan, the woman Israel, and her child the Lord Jesus Christ.

Satan’s strategy is to destroy Israel in order to destroy Christ. This is the reason for anti-Semitism, and also the reason why no Christian should ever have a part in it.

Christ Versus Satan

There is a third antagonism in these verses, more beneficial even than the others. The first two give us room for hope; they tell us that God has not abandoned us, that he has established a beneficial enmity between those who desire good and those who desire evil. This last enmity assures us, not only of hope, but also of victory. It is the antagonism between Jesus, as the specific and climactic seed of the woman, and Satan himself. It was to result in the bruising of Jesus but also in the crushing of Satan and his power.

Donald Grey Barnhouse traces the conflict like this:

When the Lord Jesus Christ was born Satan’s hatred came to white heat. We can see the hatred of Satan at every point in the earthly story of the life of our Lord. Joseph was moved to cast off Mary because he knew that she had not been his wife as yet and drew the natural conclusion that there was sin on her part. But the Lord manifested himself and Joseph accepted Mary because of this divine revelation. The child of promise, the seed of the woman, the branch of David, was born, the Eternal Word was made flesh. Satan moved Herod to kill all of the babies from two years old and under according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. But God had arranged escape in advance, and had brought gifts of gold to the family of the young child so that a flight into Egypt was made possible.

At twelve years of age he was left behind in Jerusalem among the followers of Satan and the enemies of God. The child was growing up before his Father as a tender plant and the heavenly care was about him.

As soon as our Lord was publicly manifested, Satan immediately confronted him and sought in the three temptations to turn him aside from the path laid down for him in the counsels with the Father. When he had been routed with the sword of the Word, Satan left the Lord, but returned again and again, both personally and through the religious leaders who had become veritable children of the devil, to destroy the Lord before he could come to the hour of the cross. It was Satan who stirred up the people of Nazareth to take Christ to the brow of the hill and thrust him to his death on the occasion of his first public sermon. He had announced the doctrine of salvation by grace apart from works on the basis of the sovereign will of God (Luke 4), and the heart of man rebelled against it and turned easily to the enemy who would exalt the flesh. “But he, passing through the midst of them, went his way.”

Again and again Satan played the old plot with different scenes and characters. Sometimes they picked up stones to stone him; they sent officers to arrest him; their leaders attempted to incite the people against him. Always the nerve of their action was paralyzed. Their desire was that of the carnal mind which is enmity against God. Now, for the first time in history, God was visibly before them as the object of their hatred. They were the sons of those who had killed the prophets, but they themselves would have killed their God. He described them fully in the parable of the tenants who killed the messengers and when the owner, last of all, sent his son, cried, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance” (Matt. 21:38). Always he escaped unhurt. He was master of every situation. He said, “No man taketh it [my life] from me; but I lay it down of myself” (John 10:18).

When human allies failed, Satan moved directly to kill the Son of God. On one occasion the Lord’s disciples were with him in a boat on the sea of Galilee. They were lifelong fishermen who were in their home waters. They had thought that there was not a wave that could be unfamiliar to them. But suddenly a storm of such fury broke out that even these hardened mariners were chilled with fright. They rushed to the Lord as he lay asleep in the boat and roused him with their cry of anguish, as they deemed themselves on the point of death, “Master, save us; we perish!” The gospel narrative states that the Lord arose at the call of the frightened disciples and “rebuked the wind.” Let the deniers of Scripture realize that if Satan were not behind the power of the storm, then the action of Christ must be compared with that of a child who, hurt by stumbling against a chair, begins to kick at the chair, crying out with petulance against it. But if we understand that Satan had raised that storm to kill the Lord Jesus, … we see the whole pattern of these attacks, and understand the force of the words addressed to the storm, “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:35–41). The verb in Greek means “to muzzle,” and in ancient domestic life was sometimes addressed to a dog to silence him.

Finally, the prophecies were fulfilled and Satan bruised the heel of the Lord Jesus Christ and had his own head crushed in the bruising.

Two Victories

We know how the bruising of the Lord Jesus Christ took place. It happened at the cross as Satan finally succeeded, so it seemed, at striking back at God and silencing his meddling in human affairs forever. It was bruising with a vengeance. It included the hatred of the religious leaders, the mocking of the crowds, the beatings, eventually the crucifixion with its great agony. And yet, it was only a bruising, not a defeat, for on the third day after the crucifixion Jesus rose from the tomb triumphantly.

On the other hand, although Satan achieved what he believed to be a true victory, it proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, for his power over us was broken. I do not know precisely what Satan was thinking of as he finally achieved his goal of having Christ crucified, but I am sure he had at least forgotten this prophecy or else had dismissed it as applying to other times and circumstances. He failed to see how even his moment of triumph was to be turned to defeat in accord with this prophecy. John Gerstner declares, “Satan was majestically triumphant in this … battle. He had nailed Jesus to the cross. The prime object of all his striving through all the ages was achieved. But he failed. For the prophecy which had said that he would indeed bruise the seed of the woman had also said that his head would be crushed by Christ’s heel. Thus, while Satan was celebrating his triumph in battle over the Son of God, the full weight of the Atonement accomplished by the Crucifixion (which the devil had effected) came down on him, and he realized that all this time, so far from successfully battling against the Almighty, he had actually been carrying out the purposes of the all-wise God.”

Satan’s only true power—quite unlike his pretensions to power—comes from the character of God that declares that sin must be punished. Satan’s power consists in working within the laws of that character. He reasoned that if he could get the man and woman to sin, which he did, the wrath of God against sin must inevitably come down on them. God’s good designs would be thwarted. What Satan failed to see (and what no one ever did see clearly before the death of Christ) is how God could be both just and the justifier of the ungodly (Rom. 3:26). He failed to see how Jesus would take the place of sinners, bearing their punishment, and how he, Satan, would have his power broken in the process.

But now we do see it, if we will, for Christ’s was an open triumph. Paul says, “Christ … canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:13–15).

In view of this victory (and echoing the language of Jonathan Edwards), Gerstner calls Satan “the greatest blockhead the world has ever known.” He says, “The very fact that he is probably the most intelligent being ever created makes him the greatest blockhead, for he was supremely stupid to suppose that he could outthink the All-wise or overpower the Almighty.”

Although the victory has been won for us by the Lord Jesus Christ, there is nevertheless still another to be won by those who follow Jesus. It is a victory certain of being achieved, but it is still in the process of being achieved and will be achieved only as we who profess the name of Jesus actually draw close to him and fight in his power. Paul referred to this victory when he wrote to the Romans, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). John referred to it in Revelation, saying, “They overcame him [the accuser of our brothers] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11).

Christ and Adam

Genesis 3:15

“And I will put enmity

between you and the woman,

and between your offspring and hers;

he will crush your head,

and you will strike his heel.”

In Romans 5:14 the first man, Adam, is called a “pattern” (niv) or “figure” (kjv) of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was to come. That statement encourages us to think of Adam and Christ together, both for similarities and contrasts, as Paul himself does in Romans 5 and in 1 Corinthians 15. Since Genesis 3:15 is the first text in the Bible in which Adam and Christ appear in proximity, it seems unwise to pass it without looking at this theme carefully.

The theme has figured prominently in Christian theology. Indeed, it is the basis of what is sometimes called “covenant” theology. According to this system, God established an agreement or covenant with Adam according to which he was to stand as the representative of the race of men and women who were to follow him. He was to stand before God on the basis of his obedience. If he continued in obedience, all who followed would also be established in obedience and would be blessed by God. If he fell, all who followed him would fall in his transgression, and sin and death would pass on to them because of Adam’s sin. We know what happened. Adam did fall, and we fell in Adam (cf. Rom. 5:12–21). On the other hand, God also established a covenant with the Lord Jesus Christ according to which he was to be representative of the great company of the redeemed. They would be joined to Christ, as all were once joined to Adam, and they—the redeemed—would be saved by Christ’s sacrifice.

To be sure, there are no explicit texts concerning the establishing of the covenant with Adam. There is very little written about Adam in the Bible at all. But there are many texts that speak of God’s covenant with Jesus (Isa. 53:10–12; Pss. 22:25–31; 40:6–8; cf. Heb. 10:8–10; 12:22–24; 13:20; John 6:37, etc.), and the explicit comparison of Christ and Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 clearly establishes this doctrine. In most books of theology the first covenant is called a “covenant of works” and the second a “covenant of grace (or redemption).”

What Adam Did

With this theological background, we turn to the first Adam, our ancestor, and consider his covenant with God in two parts: first, what Adam did in breaking it, and, second, what the consequences of his transgression were.

It has been suggested by various commentators that in eating of the forbidden fruit Adam cast reproach upon “God’s love, God’s truth and God’s majesty.” We have already looked at these in one form or another in considering the nature and effects of the fall, but we look at them again now in order to contrast what Adam did when he sinned and what Christ did in obedience. It is clear how Adam cast reproach on God’s love. God had created him in his own blessed image and had placed him in a garden of earthly delights. Adam had every pleasure he could desire. He had rule over the animal world. Moreover, he had valuable work to do both in ruling and in studying and cataloging the animals. He had every incentive to continue in obedience to such a loving God. Yet when Satan came with the suggestion that perhaps God was not essentially good, that he was essentially prohibitive in withholding the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that had power to make one wise, “knowing good and evil,” Adam (as well as Eve) began to doubt God’s goodness and eventually repudiated his love by eating of the forbidden fruit.

Again, Adam cast reproach on God’s truth. 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). God taught that blessing was by way of obedience. But Satan said, “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). Adam may not have been deceived, as the woman was, thinking that he could disobey God and escape the consequences of death. But he certainly felt that he could improve his condition by rebellion. In so thinking he slanderously called the God of all truth a liar.

Third, Adam cast reproach on God’s majesty by an attempt to throw off his authority. Arthur Pink writes wisely: “As the Creator, God possesses the inherent right to issue commands, and to demand from his creatures implicit obedience. It is his prerogative to act as Law-giver, Controller, Governor, and to define the limits of his subjects’ freedom. And in Eden he exercised his prerogative and expressed his will. But Adam imagined he had a better friend than God. He regarded him as austere and despotic, as One who begrudged him that which would promote his best interests. He felt that in being denied the fruit of this tree which was pleasant to the eyes and capable of making one wise God was acting arbitrarily, cruelly, so he determined to assert himself, claim his rights and throw off the restraint of the divine government. He substitutes the Devil’s word for God’s law: he puts his own desire before Jehovah’s command.”

What were the results of Adam’s disobedience? Paul spells it out in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, showing that sin and death entered the experience of all because of his transgression: “Sin entered the world through one man” (Rom. 5:12), “Many died by the trespass of the one man” (Rom. 5:15), “By the trespass of the one man, death reigned” (Rom. 5:17), “The result of one trespass was condemnation for all men” (Rom. 5:18), “Through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners” (Rom. 5:19), “In Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22). God passed judgment on all for Adam’s sin.

People have questioned why the sin of Adam should involve his posterity, even to our time. They have judged it wrong for God to hold unborn generations accountable for the sin of their first parent. But regardless of how we may choose to judge, it is evident from observation of our own lives as well as the history of those who have lived before us that this is precisely how God operated. When Adam sinned he died. He died in his relationship to God; his fellowship with God was broken, which he proved by hiding when God came looking for him in the garden. He died in respect to his own personality; he tried to shift the blame for his sin to Eve, his companion. In time, he and those who followed did things that were much worse. At last Adam died in body and returned to the dust from which he came. Each of these results of sin has passed on to us. Consequently, we see in the universal reign of death, even over infants who have not reached the point of being able to commit any personally guilty act, proof that we are all looked on by God as guilty and are judged for it.

We may recognize these things to be true and still resent them. We may consider God to be arbitrary and cruel in so acting. But before we make this judgment we must ask whether we would not choose to live in precisely the same condition in which Adam lived and fell, if the choice were offered to us (as, in fact, it may even have been offered to Adam). Would any of us have chosen to have it differently?

Charles Simeon of Cambridge, England, wrote about this more than a hundred years ago. “How deep and unsearchable are the ways of God! That ever our first parent should be constituted a federal head to his posterity, so that they should stand or fall in him, is in itself a stupendous mystery. And it may appear to have been an arbitrary appointment, injurious to the whole race of mankind. But we do not hesitate to say, that if the whole race of mankind had been created at once in precisely the same state and circumstances as Adam was, they would have been as willing to stand or fall in Adam, as to have their lot depend upon themselves; because they would have felt, that, whilst he possessed every advantage that they did, he had a strong inducement to steadfastness which they could not have felt, namely, the dependence of all his posterity upon his fidelity to God; and consequently, that their happiness would be more secure in his hands than in their own.”

Simeon then shows that if each human being were asked whether he should prefer to be judged in Adam or in himself, the thinking person would choose to be judged in Adam. For Adam faced but one temptation, and that so small as hardly to deserve the name. Besides, he was surrounded with every possible incentive to do good. We, by contrast, are beset by many temptations and certainly do not have the fullness of Adam’s incentives for obedience. None of us would fault God’s arrangements if only we could think clearly.

The Second Adam

Still, the fullness of God’s grace in dealing with Adam is not seen even in these matters. It is seen only when we turn to the person of Christ and see his victory on behalf of those who are joined to him by saving faith.

When we were studying the works of Adam, we saw how Adam terribly dishonored the love, truth, and majesty of God. How different is the case of the Lord Jesus Christ! Arthur Pink writes:

How [Jesus] vindicated the love of God! Adam harbored the wicked thought that God begrudged him that which was beneficial, and thereby questioned his goodness. But how the Lord Jesus has reversed that decision! In coming down to this earth to seek and to save that which was lost, he fully revealed the compassion of deity for humanity. In his sympathy for the afflicted, in his miracles of healing, in his tears over Jerusalem, in his unselfish and unwearied works of mercy, he has openly displayed the beneficence and benevolence of God. And what shall we say of his sufferings and death on the cross? In laying down his life for us, in dying upon the cross he unveiled the heart of the Father as nothing else could. “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In the light of Calvary we can never more doubt the goodness and grace of God.

How Christ vindicated the truth of God! When tempted by Satan to doubt God’s goodness, question his truth and repudiate his majesty, he answered each time, “It is written.” When he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day it was to read out of the Holy Oracles. When selecting the twelve apostles he designedly chose Judas in order that the Scriptures “might be fulfilled.” When censuring his critics, he declared that by their traditions they made void “the Word of God.” In his last moments upon the cross, knowing that all things had been accomplished, in order that the Scriptures might be fulfilled he said, “I thirst.” After he had risen from the dead and was journeying with the two disciples to Emmaus, he “expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” At every point, and in every detail of his life he honored and magnified God’s truth.

Finally, Christ completely vindicated the majesty of God. The creature had aspired to be equal with the Creator. Adam chafed against the governmental restraint which Jehovah had placed upon him. He despised God’s law, insulted his majesty, defied his authority. How different with our blessed Savior! Though he was the Lord of Glory and equal with God, yet he made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant. O matchless grace! He condescended to be “made under the law,” and during the whole of his stay here upon earth he refused to assert his rights, and was ever subject to the Father. “Not my will” was his holy cry. Nay, more: “He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Never was God’s law so magnified, never was God’s authority so honored, never were God’s government claims so illustriously upheld, as during the thirty-three years when his own Son tabernacled among men.

What was the result of this obedience? We have already seen the results of Adam’s disobedience. It was death for himself and all who followed him. In the case of Christ, God’s judgment is reversed. Adam brought death; Christ brings life. Adam brought condemnation; Christ brings justification. And all by the same principle—the principle of representation, the one for the many! “For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Jesus] the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).

Thus it is that, far from being an example of an arbitrary injustice on the part of God, the principle of the covenant is actually a means of grace. For it is only by considering all as condemned in the first Adam that God can also consider believers to be justified in the second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ.

God’s Grace

There is one thing more. Paul compares the effects of sin and grace and concludes that the effects of grace through the obedience of Christ are far greater than those of sin through Adam: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” (Rom. 5:15). How is this possible, particularly since not all are saved? How are the effects of Christ’s work greater than the inheritance from Adam? One writer suggests the following:

  1. The work of Christ is superior to that of Adam in respect to time. When measured by time the effect of Adam’s disobedience is temporary so far as the redeemed are concerned, while the effect of Jesus’ victory is permanent. From the perspective of earth the reign of sin seems long. But the history of earth is but a small thing in the infinitely greater expanse of eternity, and the time is coming when we who are now far too prone to sin will be freed from it and will be made like Jesus.
  2. The effect of Christ’s work is superior to Adam’s. It is true that when Adam sinned, death came to Adam and through him to all men and women. But the power of death could be broken. This Christ did. He “has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). By contrast, Christ’s work cannot be undone, for Satan has no power to reclaim those who have been redeemed by Christ. They are Christ’s forever.
  3. The work of Jesus is superior to the work of Adam in that it will ultimately affect a far greater number of people. These are described as a “great assembly” (Ps. 22:25), “a great multitude that no one could count” (Rev. 7:9).

When we look about us we may well wonder how this can be true. It seems that the majority do not believe in Christ, and we even remember the words of our Lord, who said, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt. 7:13–14). It is probably the case that we just do not see the whole story. Christ’s words are undoubtedly true of adults living in this present age. But what of children? It is possible that those dying in infancy are reckoned among the elect. And what of the future reign of Christ on earth? It is possible that those born in that age may also be among the redeemed and may even be used by God to populate the universe with innumerable, godly offspring.

  1. The victory of the Lord Jesus Christ is greater than the disobedience of Adam in respect to the territory affected. Adam’s sin affected only this earth. Even though men and women may spread the contagion of their disobedience more widely through planetary travel, it is impossible that they can spread it far. On the other hand, the victory of Christ is to be celebrated throughout the universe.
  2. Finally, the victory of Jesus exceeds the work of Adam because Christ’s is the work of God and Adam’s is the work of a mere man. As men, we have such high opinions of ourselves that we imagine we can do just about anything. But actually we can do very little when measured by the activity of God. In salvation we can do nothing. By contrast, Christ does all that needs to be done, and what he has begun to perform he will certainly bring to completion (Phil. 1:6).

Apart from the story of the fall, little is told about Adam, as we noted earlier. But it is enough. We are told that he was created by God, placed in perfect surroundings, given a charge of obedience as representative of the race. We are told that he fell and that the effects of his fall passed on to all. We may summarize by saying that Adam was the first man and the first sinner and that we have been judged for his sin. (Lest we think too harshly of Adam, we are reminded that we would have done precisely what he did had we been in his place.) It is in Adam, way back at the beginning, that we learn the principle of the one standing for the many and see the means by which God has provided salvation through the second Adam.

Every one of us is in Adam. Some, by the grace of God, are also in Christ. Can you look to the cross of Christ and know that you are in him? You become “in him” by faith, by believing in what he has done and by committing yourself to him.

Grace Abounding

Genesis 3:15

“And I will put enmity

between you and the woman,

and between your offspring and hers;

he will crush your head,

and you will strike his heel.”

It is common to define grace as “God’s unmerited favor” or even “God’s provision for the undeserving.” But those definitions are almost too weak. They are weak because God’s grace is shown, not merely to those who do not deserve it, but to those who deserve precisely the opposite.

There is a sense in which everything God does is gracious, because none of us deserves anything. Adam deserved nothing even before his fall. The gift of life was gracious. So was God’s gift of the garden, of a wife, of meaningful work to do. But this is not the way the Bible usually speaks of God’s grace for the simple reason that the fullness of grace is seen only against the black backdrop of sin. In Adam’s case it is seen in God’s gentle dealing with him following the fall and in the promise of a deliverer to come. Later it is seen in God’s continuing care of the people of Israel in spite of their constant wandering from him. Above all, it is seen at the cross of Christ where, in spite of the sin of man in hounding the Lord Jesus Christ to death by crucifixion, God was nevertheless providing the basis by which all who call on the name of the Lord might be saved. Grace actually means that God has provided for us in every possible way, both physically and spiritually, in spite of the condemnation we deserve.

Then, too, there is the matter of the abundant or overflowing nature of grace, which may be stated as: believers gain more through the work of Christ than they lost in Adam. A poet wrote,

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,

Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!

Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured—

There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.

The Bible says, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:20–21).

The Life of God

Since Genesis 3:15 is the first verse in the Bible to speak about the grace of God in this sense and since it compares the great and total triumph of Christ to the lesser and ultimately ineffective blow of Satan against both Christ and Adam, it leads us to think about some of the great verses of the Bible that amplify on Genesis 3:15 by speaking of the fullness of Christ’s victory. These verses show why grace is abundant and why we have gained more in Christ, the second Adam, than we lost in the first Adam.

The first verse is Colossians 1:27, which says, “To them [that is, the saints] God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” We know from the way Paul speaks elsewhere that he is referring here to the fact that those who have believed in Christ have been made alive in him so that the life of Christ himself may be said to be within them. In Galatians he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Or again in Romans, “The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you” (Rom. 8:11).

This has two important consequences. First, the divine life within us is eternal. It will not die. Second, the divine life will always strive after righteousness, for that is its nature. It will abhor sin. It will cleave to the good. It is on this basis that the apostle John appeals to the presence of righteousness within the life of a Christian as proof that he or she has been born of God. “The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:4–6). “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). John does not mean that Christians never sin. That would be untrue, and John explicitly denies this conclusion (cf. 1 John 1:8). But he does mean that the new life of Christ within any true child of God will inevitably yearn after righteousness and lead the believer in that direction day by day throughout his or her life.

This is a great improvement over the case of Adam, for the natural life of Adam (even though without any moral flaw) did not apparently so lead. On the contrary, Adam chose rebellion and death. In granting us divine life, the grace of God in Christ has abounded.

Gift of Justification

The second text is Romans 5:16, which says, “The gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.” This verse is from that great passage in Romans (which we have looked at in the last chapter as well as this one) in which Paul is comparing the entrance of death into the world through Adam and the entry of eternal life through the work of Christ. It is making the chief comparison: sin and grace (the gift), condemnation and justification. But how is it that the grace of God in Christ to justification is greater than the working of sin in Adam to condemnation? Paul answers that the condemnation was based on just one sin. But justification is God’s answer, not only for that one, original sin, but for all the many sins committed down through the many ages since Adam by the many multitudes of God’s people.

Justification is a legal term, referring to the work of God in dealing with the most basic of all religious questions: How can a man or woman become right with God? We are not right with him in ourselves; this is what the doctrine of sin means. Sin means that we are in rebellion against God, and if we are against God we cannot be right with him. We are transgressors. Moreover, we are all transgressors, as Paul says elsewhere: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The doctrine of justification is the most important of all Christian doctrines because it tells how one who is in rebellion against God may become right with him. It says that we may be justified from all sin by the work of Christ alone received by faith, and not by our own works-righteousness.

Paul puts it like this: “All who believe … are justified freely by his [that is, God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:22–24); “a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (v. 28); “to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). These verses teach that justification is God’s work and that it flows from grace. As Paul says later on in the letter to the Romans, “It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns?” (Rom. 8:33–34).

In God’s justification of the sinner there is an entirely unique factor that does not enter into any other case of justification. That unique factor is Christ’s atonement for our sin coupled to God’s provision for our need of a divine righteousness through him. In justification God declares that he has accepted the sacrifice of Christ as the payment of our debt to the divine justice and has imputed Christ’s righteousness to us in place of the sin. Because Christ’s atonement satisfied the justice of God in regard to all our sins, God’s grace clearly abounds in justification.

There is another way in which the grace of God in our justification exceeds the sinful work of Adam. When Adam fell, he fell from a position of innocence, which is a neutral position, to that of being a sinner. But the work of Christ does not merely restore us to a state of innocence but lifts us up and beyond that to make us people who know both good and evil but who choose the good. We can understand this as a scale. Imagine a scale running from plus 100 down through zero to minus 100. We may say that Adam started at zero and fell to minus 100. That is, he lost 100 points. The work of Christ may be portrayed as double that work, for he restores his people not merely to the zero point but to the plus 100, disposing of the many sins by a superabundance of righteousness.

Joint Heirs with Christ

The third text is Romans 8:17, which tells us that the redeemed are “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” This is an improvement on Adam’s state, for at best Adam was merely God’s regent over an earthly paradise. We, by contrast, are to inherit all that is Christ’s and actually rule with him over creation (2 Tim. 2:12).

In law there is an important difference between being an heir and being a joint (or co-) heir. Suppose a certain man dies and leaves a $400,000 estate to his four children. If they are designated his heirs, the estate will be divided equally among them. Each will receive 25 percent or $100,000. But suppose the children are designated coheirs. In this case, the estate is not divided, and together they possess the $400,000. Each one can say, “I am worth $400,000.” In human affairs things are rarely done this way, because human beings have a hard time getting along, and children finding themselves in the position of those in our illustration would probably argue. But what does not work well in human affairs will work in divine affairs, because the coheirs of Christ will have the spirit of Christ and will always work together for the good of all.

What is our inheritance? It is all that is Christ’s. Donald Barnhouse writes,

Shall the King possess something and not share it with his bride? “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). Does he have riches? Then “ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Does he have love and fellowship with the Father? In showing forth this portion of our inheritance it would be possible to cite the whole of his great high priestly prayer in the garden on the Mount of Olives the night before he died… .

There are three verses in the New Testament, each wonderful in its own right, which, when taken together give us a startling picture of our association with our Savior Lord. It was on the Mount of Olives that he prayed, “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5). We know that he says that all his prayers are answered, but to Peter was given a special revelation concerning this particular prayer asking for glory. Speaking of the death and resurrection of our Lord, Peter writes, “Christ [was the] lamb without blemish and without spot, who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you, who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory” (1 Peter 1:19–21). Did you note those last words? God raised him from the dead and gave him glory—the glory that he had prayed for, particularly the night before he was crucified.

But what did he do with the glory which he received in the triumph of his resurrection? Go back to the Mount of Olives and listen to him pray, “And the glory which thou gavest me, I have given them” (John 17:22).

How incalculably wonderful! Partakers of his glory! Fellow-heirs with his resurrection triumphs! We are become “the fullness of him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23).

Moreover, ours is an inheritance that can never depreciate in value or be lost. It is, as Peter said, “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). We know that Adam lost his inheritance through sin. But we cannot lose our inheritance because it is given on a different basis. Adam’s inheritance was based on a covenant of works. If he remained in obedience, the inheritance would be his. If he rebelled, it would be forfeited. Our inheritance is based on the covenant of grace, and since grace is neither earned nor deserved—it is based purely on the will of the unchangeable God—our inheritance is secure and certain.

Romans 8:17 says this in other language, arguing, “If we are children, then we are heirs.” We become children by the grace of God, for we are born “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13). Since our inheritance is based on our being children and since we become children not by our own will but by the will of God, nothing can alter it. In this the grace of God in Christ also abounds over the sin of Adam.

Exceeding Great Joy

Our fourth text is the benediction that ends the Book of Jude: “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy” (v. 24). This teaches that our joy in God, in the future and also now, is greater than the joy Adam had in God before his fall. Although Adam’s joy was great, he had nothing to compare his state of sinlessness to and therefore undoubtedly did not value it as much as the redeemed. Nor did it run the gamut of their experience. We know what it is to be lost and to be brought from that darkness into God’s marvelous light.

We see the principle illustrated even among the redeemed, for those who have been forgiven much, love much. Take the case of John Newton. Newton had been raised in a Christian home in England in his early years, but he became orphaned when he was seven and was sent to live with a non-Christian relative. There Christianity was mocked, and he was persecuted. At last, in order to escape the conditions in the home, Newton ran away to sea and became an apprentice in the British navy. Debauched and rebellious, at last he deserted and ran away to Africa. He tells in his own words that he went there for just one purpose: “that I might sin my fill.” In Africa Newton joined forces with a Portuguese slave trader in whose home he was cruelly treated. At times the slave trader went away on expeditions, and the young man was left in the charge of the slave trader’s African wife, the head of his harem. She hated all men and took her hatred out on Newton. He tells that she exercised such power in her husband’s absence that he was compelled to eat his food off the dusty floor like a dog.

At last the young Newton fled from this treatment and made his way to the coast where he lit a signal fire and was picked up by a slave ship on its way to England. The captain was disappointed that Newton had no ivory to sell, but because the young man knew something about navigation he was made a ship’s mate. He could not keep even this position. During the voyage he broke into the ship’s supply of rum and distributed it to the crew so that the crew became drunk. In a stupor Newton fell into the sea and was saved from drowning only when one of the officers speared him with a harpoon, leaving a fist-sized scar in his thigh.

Near the end of the voyage, as they were nearing Scotland, the ship on which Newton was riding encountered heavy winds. It was blown off course and began to sink. Newton was sent down into the hold with the slaves who were being transported and told to man the pumps. He was frightened to death, feeling sure that the ship would sink and he would drown. He worked the pumps for days, and as he worked he began to cry out to God from the hold of the ship. He began to remember verses he had been taught as a child. As he remembered them he was miraculously transformed. He was born again. He went on to become a great teacher of the Word of God in England. Of this storm William Cowper, the poet, wrote:

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

Newton himself wrote many poems, among them:

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds

In a believer’s ear!

It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,

And drives away his fear.

He wrote this classic.

Amazing grace—how sweet the sound—

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come;

’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

And when this flesh and heart shall fail,

And mortal life shall cease,

I shall possess within the vale

A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun,

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Than when we’ve first begun.

Newton was a great preacher of grace, and it is no wonder, for he had been lost and was found. He had been blind, but by the abounding grace of God in Christ he had come to see.[2]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 132). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1998). Genesis: an expositional commentary (pp. 199–219). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

April 21, 2017: Verse of the day

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Salvation is of the Lord

Romans 9:16

It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.

We are in a section of the Bible in which every sentence has exceptional importance. Because of this, we have been moving very slowly. In the last study we looked at Romans 9:15. In this study we look at verse 16.

Verse 16 can be considered an inference drawn from the truth in verse 15, which is a quotation from the Old Testament. If that is the case, the thought would be: If God has mercy on whom he wills to have mercy and shows compassion to whom he wills to show compassion, then salvation is of God who shows mercy and not of man. That is true enough. But it is probably better to see verse 16 as a statement of the truth behind the quotation. If this is the case, it means that salvation is not of man but of God; therefore, God shows mercy on whom he wills to show mercy and has compassion on whom he wills to have compassion.

This is better, because the chief point of verse 16 is the exclusion of any human role in salvation. The verse says, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” Or as the King James Version has it, “So then it is not of him that willeth, not of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”

Today’s Evangelism

This text has enormous implications for the way we do evangelism. In fact, it is a rebuke of most popular evangelism in our day.

You may recall from our studies of Romans 6 that when I was writing about sanctification in that context, I said that we tend to approach it in either of two wrong ways. Either we introduce a formula: “Follow these three [or four] steps to sound spiritual growth.” Or we recommend an experience: “What you need is the baptism of the Holy Spirit [or meaningful worship or whatever].” I pointed out that neither of these is introduced by Paul. Rather, he bases his approach to sanctification on sound teaching. He tells us that we are to go on in the Christian life for the simple reason that we have become new creatures as the result of God’s work in us, and we cannot go back to what we were.

The situation is exactly the same in most of our current approaches to evangelism. We choose either a formula or a feeling.

The formula represents something we must do: “Give your heart to Jesus,” “Pray the sinner’s prayer,” “Hold up your hand and come forward,” “Fill out this card.” The feeling is something we try to work up in evangelistic services by certain kinds of music, moving stories, and emotional appeals.

Let me say that I do not doubt for a moment that God has sometimes used these methods and that he has sometimes worked through feelings, just as he has also sometimes used quite different things. The problem with these ways of doing evangelism is not that God has not occasionally been gracious enough to use them, but that they distort the truth about salvation by making it something we do or to which we can contribute and thus, to that degree, detract from the glory of God.

Besides, these approaches contradict our text, which says that salvation “does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”

These approaches are also ineffective, as we would expect them to be, for they have filled our churches with thousands of people who think they are saved because they have made a profession or come forward at a meeting, but who are not born again. In many cases, those who have done these things are not even any longer present in the churches.

The Negative Teaching

Romans 9:16 contains both negative and positive teaching, each of which is meant to be comprehensive. Negatively, we are told that salvation does not come by man’s desire or effort, that is, neither by his will nor by his personal attainments. Positively, we are told that salvation comes from God.

The words desire and effort are meant to include everything of which a human being may be capable, and they thus reduce everyone to the position of being saved by the mercy of God or not saved. The first word concerns volition. The second refers to active exertion. Specifically they deny that we are saved by “seeking God” or “wanting to be saved” or, to run with the other term, by “choosing Jesus,” “surrendering our lives to Jesus,” “taking Jesus into our hearts,” or doing anything else of which we may think ourselves to be capable. It is true that there is a faith to be exercised, a choice to be made, a life to be surrendered, and seeking to be done. But those are the result of God’s working in us according to his mercy, and not the conditions on which he does.

Robert Haldane wrote rightly, “It is true, indeed, that believers both will and run, but this is the effect, not the cause, of the grace of God being vouchsafed to them.”

I know there are objections, some of them scriptural.

“What about John 1:12?” says someone. “Doesn’t that verse say, ‘To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’?” It does, of course. But the answer to the implied objection—that we become born again as the result of our receiving Jesus—is found in the next verse, which describes those who are saved as “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (v. 13). That fixes the sequence rightly, just as Paul has expressed it in Romans 8, Ephesians 1 and 2, and elsewhere: first, election; then, rebirth; third, faith accompanied by repentance; and lastly, adoption into the family of God along with other benefits.

Together, John 1:12 and 13 actually teach that “it does not … depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16).

Another verse that some people will quote is Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Then they ask, “Doesn’t that teach that we have to give our hearts to Jesus and then confess him as Lord to be saved? Doesn’t it mean that we are the ones who ultimately determine whether or not we will be saved? If we are saved, isn’t it because we want to be saved? If we are lost, isn’t it because we choose to be?”

Well, we know the mouth speaks what is in the heart. Jesus said, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34b). So the critical question is: What kind of a heart is it that confesses, “Jesus is Lord”? Is this the new heart, which is given to us by God,—or the old, Adamic heart, which is enmity against God? It cannot be the latter, because the Bible everywhere teaches that the old heart is thoroughly corrupt. Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jer. 17:9). Ezekiel called it a “heart of stone” (Ezek. 11:19). Can a stony heart repent of its sin and come to God? Can a heart as wicked as this “choose” Jesus? Impossible! We can no more change our hearts than a leopard can change its spots.

Therefore, if we are to repent and believe the gospel, we must be given a new heart. A “heart of flesh” is Ezekiel’s term for it. This heart is given to us by the new birth. It is this heart only that believes on Jesus.

The Positive Teaching

This brings us to the positive teaching of this verse, namely, that salvation is entirely of God. God has mercy on whom he wills to have mercy, and he shows compassion on whom he wills to show compassion.

I have titled this study “Salvation Is of the Lord,” which comes, as I am sure you realize, from the Old Testament. It is from the story of Jonah, from chapter 2, and I refer to this now because Jonah is a good illustration of our text in Romans, namely, that salvation “does not … depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” The story of Jonah is a story of God’s mercy from beginning to end: mercy to the sailors, mercy to the people of Nineveh, and, above all, mercy to Jonah. Moreover, as far as man’s desire or effort is concerned, not only did Jonah not desire God’s will or strive to do it, he actually willed and tried to do the opposite. He tried to run away from God as deliberately as he could.

Jonah was a prophet, and God came to him with a command to proclaim a message of judgment on Nineveh, the capital of Assyria: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). We would have expected Jonah to be responsive to such a call at once. Instead, “Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish” (v. 3a). Scholars debate the location of this ancient city, but most believe it was on the far coast of Spain beyond the Rock of Gibraltar. This fits the story, of course, for it means that Jonah was so determined to resist God’s sovereign call that he set out in precisely the opposite direction and for a destination as far away as possible. God said, “Go east.” Jonah went west, as far west as anyone knew to go. If he went farther than that, he would presumably have fallen off the edge of the world, which is, in a sense, what happened to him.

Why did Jonah disobey God? Strangely, at the end of the story, we find him explaining that it was because he suspected that God was going to be merciful to these people (Jonah 4:2)—and he did not want that, because they were the enemies of his people. No one can successfully run away from God, however. So, although Jonah went west instead of east, God went after him and brought him back. The text says that God hurled a great storm after Jonah.

At this point the mariners come into the story, for the judgment on the disobedient prophet affected them, too, and they were soon in as much danger of drowning from the fierce gale as Jonah was. They were pagans, but they had some spiritual perception and understood that the storm was unusually fierce, supernaturally so, in fact; they reasoned that some powerful god was angry with one or more of them. When they drew straws to find out who it was, the lot fell on Jonah.

Jonah understood that God had found him out and was now exposing his disobedience. He confessed what he was doing. But he was still unrepentant. He had that “heart of stone” Ezekiel had written about. So, when the sailors asked what they should do to him to make the sea calm down for them, Jonah replied, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you” (v. 12).

I like to point out that Jonah did not know that God had prepared a great fish to swallow him and eventually return him back to land. So, if he was asking to be thrown overboard in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, it meant that he was willing to be drowned. It meant that in his heart he was still unrepentant, for he was saying, “I would rather die than submit to God’s will.”

That is what it means to have a hard heart. It is what every one of us has until God replaces it.

Was Jonah a genuine believer at this point? Good question! I used to say he was. We would expect it of a prophet. If he was, he is an example of how stubbornly disobedient some Christians are with God, at least for a time. Today, however, I am not so sure. It is clear that Jonah was not right with God, and his is more an example of an unregenerate heart than a regenerate one. At any rate, Jonah seems to have experienced what we would call a conversion inside the great fish, which is where the verse “Salvation comes from the Lord” occurs (Jonah 2:9).

What happened inside Jonah while he was inside the fish is the heart of this great story.

Prayer from the Depths

When Jonah was turning his back on God to go to Tarshish, it did not bother him at all that he was abandoning God. But suddenly, when he was thrown overboard to his death and found himself in the position of apparently being abandoned by God, and Jonah actually calls his condition hellish, saying, “From the depths of the grave [that is, from Sheol] I called for help” (Jonah 2:2). As the story shows, God had not abandoned Jonah. But Jonah thought he had, and his despair was the very first step in his conversion.
What Jonah did in that great fish was to pray. God brought him to that point. As he prayed, he discovered that God was using the very depths of his misery to show him mercy.

Jonah’s prayer has four characteristics of all true prayer, and these have bearing on the question of correct biblical evangelism, which is where we started.

1. He was honest. The first thing we notice about Jonah’s prayer is that it was honest. That is, his disobedience had gotten him into a mess, and he acknowledged it. Before we get to this point, when God is working in our lives, we tend to explain away the hard hand of God’s judgments. We tell ourselves that we are only having a temporary setback, that things will get better, that they are not as bad as they seem. But when God begins to get through to us, the first thing that happens is that we admit our misery and desperate circumstances for what they are. Moreover, we admit that God has caused them. This is what Jonah does. You hear it in his prayer.

You hurled me into the deep,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
I said, “I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.”
Jonah 2:3–4

To acknowledge that God was behind his misfortune increased his terror, for it was not the sailors or even mere circumstances he was fighting. It was God. God had summoned Jonah to trial, cast a verdict of “guilty” against his sinful prophet, and sentenced him to death. This is a terror almost beyond words! But, in another sense, the acknowledgement of God’s hand in his misery also provided comfort. For God is merciful, and it is always better to fall into the hands of God, even the angry God, than of men.
It is often in judgment that mercy may be found.

2. He repented. The second characteristic of Jonah’s prayer is a spirit of repentance. We see it in two ways. First, he acknowledged that what had happened to him, while caused by God, was nevertheless his own fault. This is the meaning of verse 8, where Jonah says, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” An idol is anything that takes the place of God. So Jonah is confessing that he had rejected God, just as surely as those who literally worship idols. Therefore, he had renounced the source of all mercy.

The second way we know Jonah was genuinely repentant is that he does not ask God for anything. If he had, we might suspect that he was repenting only to get something from God. That is, he would have been treating his repentance as a good work that somehow was supposed to put God in his debt. Salvation does not come that way. Remember: Deserving something and receiving mercy are two entirely different things. Jonah knew now that all he deserved was damnation. Therefore, he was willing to wait upon the mercy of God, if it should come, without demanding anything.

3. He was thankful. “Thankful?” we might ask. “From the belly of a fish? Only a few hours or days away from death? What could Jonah possibly be thankful about?” Well, if we continue to think of his plight in physical terms, there probably is no good answer. But it is vastly different if we think spiritually. True, Jonah had no hope of any bodily deliverance. But he had found the grace of God. His entire prayer shows he had. His word for what he had found is “salvation” (v. 9).

This is the greatest miracle of the book. Not the great fish. Not the storm. The greatest miracle is Jonah’s salvation.

4. He was willing to take his position alongside the ungodly, all of whom need salvation by the mercy of God only. The final characteristic of this prayer is likewise significant. For when Jonah prayed, as he did at the end, “But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good” (v. 9, emphasis added), he was promising to do exactly what the pagan mariners had been willing to do, and did do, in the previous chapter. When they saw the power and holiness of Jonah’s God, “They offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him” (Jonah 1:16). It was right that they should. But here, in the second chapter, Jonah is taking his place alongside of them.

Earlier he had said, “I don’t want to preach to pagans. I am a Jew. I want God to judge the pagans.” But now, after he had discovered how much he deserved God’s judgment himself, he was willing to come to God as the mariners came—as a suppliant seeking mercy.

“Jesus Saves”

I have two final points. The first is a restatement of the truth that salvation is by the mercy of God and is without conditions.

What conditions could there be? Robert Haldane asks that question and answers with a telling paragraph:

Is it faith? Faith is the gift of God. Is it repentance? Christ is exalted as a Prince and a Savior to give repentance. Is it love? God promises to circumcise the heart in order to love him. Are they good works? His people are the workmanship of God created unto good works. Is it perseverance to the end? They are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation. … “Thy people,” saith Jehovah to the Messiah, “shall be willing in the day of thy power.” Thus the believer, in running his race, and working out his salvation, is actuated by God and animated by the consideration of his all-powerful operation in the beginning of his course, of the continuation of his support during its progress, and by the assurances that it shall be effectual in enabling him to overcome all obstacles and to arrive in safety at the termination.

Second, what does this say about the proper way to do evangelism, the point with which I started?

Well, the weaknesses of our contemporary evangelism have been recognized and critiqued by many, among them Walter J. Chantry, Ernest C. Reisinger, and Gordon H. Clark, all of whom have written things that have been helpful to me. As I have read their books, I have found that there is a common bottom line. Evangelism is to teach the Word of God. Not just a certain evangelistic core, or only certain doctrines, or only truths that will move or motivate the ungodly. It is to teach the Bible and to do this as carefully, consistently, and comprehensively as possible, while looking to God (and praying to God) to give new life. Gordon Clark expressed it by saying quite succinctly, “Evangelism is the exposition of the Scripture. God will do the regenerating.”

“Just preach Jesus!” someone says.

Did I hear, “Just preach Jesus”?

Let’s do it. But remember what Jesus means. Jesus means “Salvation is of the Lord,” the very words uttered by Jonah from the belly of the fish. To preach Jesus is to preach a Calvinistic gospel.

Romans, Volume 3: God and History (Romans 9 – 11): An Expositional Commentary

April 16 – Being Considerate of Others’ Needs

“When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ ”

John 19:26

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No matter what trials we have, it is still possible to be concerned for others’ needs.

As the time for Jesus’ death grew closer, His mother’s well–being was on His heart and mind. His concern is consistent with what we have already seen in our brief study of some of Jesus’ last words on the cross—our Lord was faithful in ministry no matter what the cost.

Here the object of Jesus’ focus shifted to a small group of five friends at the foot of His cross. And out of this sympathetic band, which included the disciple John, Salome (John’s mother), Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, Christ’s attention drew especially toward His mother.

Mary, the mother of our Lord, was perhaps the neediest person of any in that cluster that stood beneath the cross. She was most likely a widow by this time; otherwise, Jesus would not have shown so much special concern for her future welfare. Mary was also seeing and feeling the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy that her soul would be pierced because of Jesus (Luke 2:34–35). Drawn to the place of her son’s execution by loving concern and sorrow, Mary stood with the others but undoubtedly felt very alone as she suffered quietly.

At that moment Jesus graciously intervened and reminded Mary that she needed to regard Him not primarily as her son but as her Savior. When Jesus called Mary “Woman,” He was using a title of respect. His intent was simply to commit Mary into John’s care.

At Calvary, Christ experienced the agony of the cross, the weight of the world’s sin, and the wrath of God the Father. Yet through all His ordeal, which is beyond our comprehension, Jesus took some moments to show compassion to others who were hurting. That’s a pattern we are to follow. We should never be so overwhelmed with our own pain and trials—and certainly not life’s routine, daily cares, and burdens—that we lose sight of others’ needs.

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Suggestions for Prayer: Thank God for Jesus’ incredible example of compassion in the midst of the most adverse circumstances.

For Further Study: Read Matthew 27:46; John 19:28; John 19:30; and Luke 23:46. What additional traits do these reveal about Jesus? ✧ Look for at least one example you can apply to your life.[1]


19:26, 27 In spite of His own suffering, the Lord had tender regard for others. Seeing His mother, and John, the disciple, He introduced John to her as the one who would hereafter take the place of son to her. In calling His mother “Woman,” the Lord did not show any lack of respect. But it is noticeable that He did not call her “Mother.” Does this have any lesson for those who might be tempted to exalt Mary to the place where she is adored? Jesus here instructed John to care for Mary as if she were his own mother. John obeyed and took Mary to his own home.[2]


26 It was there at the foot of the cross that Simeon’s prophecy to Mary was finding fulfillment: “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Lk 2:35). Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved (i.e., John; cf. 13:23), Jesus says to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son.” Some have suggested that Jesus used the term “woman” rather than “mother” in order not to deepen her sorrow. But as before, when he spoke to Mary in a similar way at the wedding in Cana (2:4), the term “woman” does not connote a brusque and distant relationship but is a form of polite address.[3]


Words from the Cross

John 19:25–27

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

There is something particularly solemn and significant about the last words of men and women. The reason is that, in the face of death, what a person is often comes clearly to the surface and is reflected in speech. For example, Napoleon Bonaparte, the famous French general and emperor, said while waiting for his death, “I die before my time, and my body will be given back to the earth. Such is the fate of him who has been called the great Napoleon. What an abyss between my deep misery and the eternal kingdom of Christ.”

Voltaire, the noted French infidel, is reported to have said to his doctor, “I am abandoned by God and man! I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six months’ life.”

Thomas Hobbes, the skeptic who corrupted the faith of some of England’s great men, exclaimed, “If I had the whole world, I would give it to live one day. I shall be glad to find a hole to creep out of the world at. I am about to take a leap into the dark.”

These statements and others by similarly well-known men reveal more about their true outlook on life and their true hope than anything they might have said in more fortuitous moments. They are often quite grim. Fortunately, one can hardly think of these sayings without thinking of the even more famous words of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of the Christian faith, who in his death spoke words not of despair but of hope and thereby revealed much about his own personal faith and that of Christianity.

The Final Analysis

I have always considered it unfortunate that the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross have been termed his “last words.” The implication is that Jesus did not rise again; but he did rise again, and he returned to his disciples to say many more things to them. In fact, these last teachings are actually more important than those from the cross, for they have much more to say about Christianity. On the other hand, the sayings from the cross (although wrongly termed the “last words”) are nevertheless significant. They are significant because they show that (1) Jesus was in clear possession of his faculties until the very last moment, when he delivered up his spirit to the Father, (2) he understood his death was intended to provide salvation for the world, and (3) he knew his death would be effectual to that end. Moreover, the words also show his habitual concern and love for other persons, even at the moment of his most acute suffering.

The words from the cross are these:

  1. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). These words are a prayer for God to forgive those who were crucifying him. They show the merciful heart of the Savior.
  2. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). These words were spoken to the believing thief and were a confident promise of salvation.
  3. “Dear woman, here is your son. … Here is your mother” (John 19:26–27). In these words Jesus commended his mother, Mary, to the care of the beloved disciple.
  4. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matt. 27:46). In this saying the true nature of the atonement is made clear and the deep anguish of the Lord is revealed to us.
  5. “I thirst” (John 19:28). This request shows the true humanity of the Lord. But even more important, it shows his desire that every fact of his death (as of his life) be in accord with Scripture.
  6. “It is finished” (John 19:30). These are the most important words of all, for they refer not merely to his life, perfect and exemplary as it was, but to his completed atonement for sin. Because of this we can be sure of salvation.
  7. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). These words show Jesus to have been in control of his life until the last and indicate that the relationship between himself and the Father, which earlier had been broken as he was made sin for us (Mark 15:34), was restored.

Two Christ Loved

Not one of the Gospels contains all seven of these statements, however. Matthew and Mark each contain one, though they allude to others. Luke and John each contain three, but their lists are different and neither one mentions the saying that Matthew and Mark contain (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). John includes the words regarding Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple, “I thirst,” and the final affirmation that the work of the atonement was finished.

It is easy to understand why John includes the words of the Savior to Mary and the corresponding words to that disciple into whose care she was committed. The reason is that John was himself that disciple. Consequently, the charge was his charge and the importance of it came home to him as to no other.

Let us think of these two whom Christ loved possibly more than any other two people upon earth. Let us think, first of all, of Mary and of the pain that was hers in this moment. One commentator wrote, “What sorrow it must have caused her when, because there was no room in the inn, she had to lay her newly-born Babe in the manger! What anguish must have been hers when she learned of Herod’s purpose to destroy her infant’s life! What trouble was given her when she was forced on his account to flee into a foreign country and sojourn for several years in the land of Egypt! What piercings of soul must have been hers when she saw her Son despised and rejected of men! What grief must have wrung her heart as she beheld him hated and persecuted by his own nation! And who can estimate what she passed through as she stood there at the cross? If Christ was the Man of Sorrows, was she not the woman of sorrows?”

An anonymous poet of the Middle Ages has expressed the sorrows of Mary in these words:

Near the cross her vigil keeping,

Stood the Mother, worn with weeping,

Where He hung, the dying Lord:

Through her soul, in anguish groaning,

Bowed in sorrow, sighing, moaning,

Passed the sharp and piercing sword.

O the weight of her affliction!

Hers, who won God’s benediction,

Hers, who bore God’s Holy One:

O that speechless, ceaseless yearning!

O Those dim eyes never turning

From her wondrous, suffering Son!

As we think about these words and about the scene they describe, we recall the saying of the aged Simeon, spoken when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple by Joseph and Mary. God had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ, and now, coming into the temple area at the very moment when Jesus was being presented, he took him up in his arms and blessed him. Then, after uttering that psalm of praise known as the Nunc Dimitis, he turned to Mary and said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34–35). What strange words those were! A piercing sorrow for one highly favored by God? How unlikely it all seemed, particularly at the time Simeon spoke! Yet it all came to pass. Here at the cross we see the fulfillment of Simeon’s words.

One lesson we learn from this scene is the certainty of the fulfillment of prophecy. God says, “My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please … what I have said, that will I bring about” (Isa. 46:10–11).

Another lesson is that sorrow, even such acute sorrow as this, may come even to those who are greatly loved by Jesus. When it comes to us, as it may, we must not think that it is because of God’s disfavor. We think of the story of the death of Lazarus and of those words to Jesus with which the account begins, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (John 11:3). Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters. Yet Lazarus grew sick and eventually died, and the grief of the sisters was great. Love and sickness are not incompatible in God’s economy. God’s favor and sorrow sometimes flow along together.

But again, this is not all we can say, for although it is true that the beloved of God often suffer for God’s sometimes hidden purposes, it is nevertheless true that we take comfort in his knowledge of our sorrows and his solace for us in the midst of them. In these words we notice that Jesus was aware of Mary (even in his own sorrow), cared for her, and acted to provide what was needful.

The Beloved Disciple

The other person involved in this episode is John, the beloved disciple. He is here at the cross. But the background for his appearance is the contrasting picture of the scattering disciples at the time of the Savior’s arrest in Gethsemane. The Lord had warned the disciples of their approaching cowardice—“This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’ ” (Matt. 26:31). They all protested. Peter said, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” The rest of the disciples agreed (v. 35). But Jesus was right, and they were wrong. They had forsaken him, John included; Jesus was left to the scorn and cruelty of his enemies.

Yet notice, the cowardice of the disciples was only temporary. Later, after his resurrection, they would seek him at the appointed place in Galilee (Matt. 28:16) and would speak boldly on his behalf. And here, even before the resurrection, there was at least one who sought him out even while he hung on Calvary. Why? It is not difficult to discern why. That which brought John to Calvary was the same thing that brought Mary there, and the other women—Mary, the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene. It was that which later brought these and others to the tomb and which brought Mary Magdalene back even after she knew that the body of Jesus was no longer in the garden. It was love, love for Jesus. Thus, although they can do nothing at all, they still want to be as near to him as possible and linger to the end. Mary loved him. Hers was a mother’s love. John loved him too; this was “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and who, quite naturally, loved him in turn.

Do you love him? I do not ask whether you have forsaken him in some moment of danger. I do not ask whether you have served him as you should have done or have failed to serve him. I do not ask whether you have denied him. I only ask, Do you love him? If you answer yes, then come to him regardless of what terrible thing you may have done in your life or regardless of what good thing you may have failed to do.

John came to him in spite of his earlier failure. What did he find? Did Jesus rebuke him? Did he look with scorn on one who could not watch with him even one short hour and then forsook him when the moment of testing came? Not at all! Jesus did not rebuke John on his return, any more than he rebuked Peter or any of the others. Instead, he gave John an unmistakable privilege. He committed his mother to his charge. If you are one who has deserted Christ, do as John did and as Arthur W. Pink admonishes in his remarks on these verses: “Cease then your wanderings and return at once to Christ, and he will greet you with a word of welcome and cheer; and who knows but what he has some honorous commission awaiting you!”

“Jesus, Therefore”

We have spoken of Mary in this study and of John too. But clearly, the central figure in this moving drama is Jesus. He is the One who knows Mary’s sorrows. He is the One who knows John’s love. Now he speaks out of his own love to provide for each one.

The one who hangs on the cross is even at this late moment still providing for others. He is stripped of everything, yet he leaves rich legacies. To his executioners, who even now stand guard over him, he bequeaths a prayer for pardon—“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). To the dying but believing thief he grants the promise of salvation—“Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). In his words to John and Mary he grants a continuing legacy of the most tender love. By this word he gives a son to his mother and a mother to his friend.

It is customary in Catholic theology to see this word as a commending of John, and through him all Christ’s disciples, to the patronage of Mary. For example, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen remarks, “When our Lord spoke of John, he did not refer to him as John for then he would have been only the son of Zebedee. Rather, in him all humanity was commended to Mary, who became the mother of men, not by metaphor, or figure of speech, but by pangs of birth.” Actually the opposite was the case. Jesus did not commend John to Mary, but Mary to John. The real meaning of this episode is that Jesus was caring for his mother and thus fulfilling the Old Testament commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exod. 20:12). So must we honor that commandment. We are under a God-given obligation to honor our parents, and that obligation does not cease even though we should come of age or move far from them.

We note too that spiritual responsibilities do not remove these obligations. What could be more of a spiritual responsibility than that which the Lord himself was fulfilling? At the very moment at which he spoke these words our Lord was dying for sinners. He was offering himself as satisfaction to the outraged justice of almighty God. Yet even at this moment, he does not fail to provide for her who was his mother.

There is one thing more. When Jesus commends Mary to John, he bypasses his own unbelieving brethren and leaves her to the care of the beloved disciple instead. Is this accidental? Is it only because John happened to be near the cross at this moment? It is hard to think so. Rather, we sense that the Lord is here bringing into existence a new family based on his atonement. As Mariano Di Gangi writes, “Our Lord brings into being the brotherhood of believers. He fashions the fellowship of the household of faith. This is the new society, which is not segregated according to race or nationality. It is not predicated upon social standing or economic power. It consists of those whose faith meets at the cross, and whose experience of forgiveness flows from the cross.”

This is our fellowship if we are truly Christ’s followers. We should conduct ourselves as those who are members of it by caring for and loving one another. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).[4]


19:26 the disciple whom He loved. This is a reference to John (see note on 13:23; cf. Introduction: Author and Date). Jesus, as first-born and breadwinner of the family before He started His ministry, did not give the responsibility to His brothers because they were not sympathetic to His ministry nor did they believe in Him (7:3–5) and they likely were not present at the time (i.e., their home was in Capernaum—see 2:12).[5]


19:26 Woman, behold your son. “Woman” is not a harsh form of address in Aramaic (2:4 note). Even in the midst of dying on the cross as the Mediator of the new covenant, Jesus fulfills His duty as the son of Mary in a splendid example of obedience to the letter and spirit of the fifth commandment, taking initiative as Mary’s firstborn by entrusting to the beloved disciple the ongoing care of His widowed mother. In a time of intense physical pain and mental anguish, the Lord is thinking of others, as is shown in the first statements from the cross (Luke 23:34, 43).[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. 1564–1565). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] 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. 635). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1513–1518). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[5] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Jn 19:26). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[6] Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 1897). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.

April 15 – Slander Equals Murder

Whoever says to his brother, “You good-for-nothing,” shall be guilty before the supreme court.—Matt. 5:22b

The word (raca) translated by the New American Standard Bible “good-for-nothing” has been variously rendered elsewhere as “brainless idiot,” “worthless fellow,” “blockhead,” and the like. It was a term of malicious abuse and slander that really has no precise modern translation. David graphically described persons who used such slander as those who “sharpen their tongues as a serpent; poison of a viper is under their lips” (Ps. 140:3). The Roman soldiers who tortured and crucified Jesus could well have used the term to mock and disrespect Him (cf. Matt. 27:29–31).

According to Jewish legend, a young rabbi had just come from a session with his famous teacher. He felt especially proud of how he had handled himself before the teacher. As he basked in those feelings of superiority, he passed an especially unattractive man who greeted him. The young rabbi responded, “You Raca! How ugly you are. Are all men of your town as ugly as you?”

“That I do not know,” the man replied, “but go and tell the Maker who created me how ugly is the creature He has made.”

To slander someone made in God’s image is to slander God Himself and is the same as murdering that person. Jesus called such harsh contempt murder of the heart. The contemptuous person was as much as “guilty before the supreme court” (the Jewish Sanhedrin, which tried the most serious cases and pronounced the ultimate penalty—death). We dare not trifle with any kind of contemptuous language toward others.

ASK YOURSELF
Remember, this is not just an injunction against speaking unkind, judgmental words, but also of thinking them in our minds. When God has led you to seasons of victory in your thought life, how has He accomplished it? What stopped evil thoughts from ever coming up?[1]

The Evil and Danger of Slander

and whoever shall say to his brother, “Raca,”shall be guilty before the supreme court. (5:22b)

Raca was an epithet commonly used in Jesus’ day that has no exact modern equivalent. Therefore in most Bible versions, as here, it is simply transliterated. A term of malicious abuse, derision, and slander, it has been variously rendered as brainless idiot, worthless fellow, silly fool, empty head, blockhead, and the like. It was a word of arrogant contempt. David spoke of persons who use such slander as those who “sharpen their tongues as a serpent; poison of a viper is under their lips” (Ps. 140:3). It was the type of word that would have been used by the soldiers who mocked Jesus as they placed the crown of thorns on His head and led Him out to be crucified (Matt. 27:29–31).

A Jewish legend tells of a young rabbi named Simon Ben Eleazar who had just come from a session with his famous teacher. The young man felt especially proud about how he handled himself before the teacher. As he basked in his feelings of erudition, wisdom, and holiness, he passed a man who was especially unattractive. When the man greeted Simon, the rabbi responded, “You Raca! How ugly you are. Are all men of your town as ugly as you?” “That I do not know,” the man answered, “but go and tell the Maker who created me how ugly is the creature He has made.”

To slander a creature made in God’s image is to slander God Himself and is equivalent to murdering that person. Contempt, says Jesus, is murder of the heart. The contemptuous person shall be guilty before the supreme court, the Sanhedrin, the council of the seventy who tried the most serious offenses and pronounced the severest penalties, including death by stoning (see Acts 6:12—7:60).[2]


5:22 The first is the case of a person who is angry with his brother without a cause. One accused of this crime would be in danger of the judgment—that is, he could be taken to court. Most people can find what they think is a valid cause for their anger, but anger is justified only when God’s honor is at stake or when someone else is being wronged. It is never right when expressed in retaliation for personal wrongs.

Even more serious is the sin of insulting a brother. In Jesus’ day, people used the word Raca (an Aramaic term meaning “empty one”) as a word of contempt and abuse. Those who used this epithet were in danger of the council—that is, they were subject to trial before the Sanhedrin, the highest court in the land.

Finally, to call someone a fool is the third form of unrighteous anger that Jesus condemns. Here the word fool means more than just a dunce. It signifies a moral fool who ought to be dead and it expresses the wish that he were. Today it is common to hear a person cursing another with the words, “God damn you!” He is calling on God to consign the victim to hell. Jesus says that the one who utters such a curse is in danger of hell fire. The bodies of executed criminals were often thrown into a burning dump outside Jerusalem known as the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. This was a figure of the fires of hell which shall never be quenched.

There is no mistaking the severity of the Savior’s words. He teaches that anger contains the seeds of murder, that abusive language contains the spirit of murder, and that cursing language implies the very desire to murder. The progressive heightening of the crimes demand three degrees of punishment: the judgment, the council, and hell fire. In the kingdom, Jesus will deal with sins according to severity.[3]


Murder: The Sixth Commandment

The way Jesus handles this material is by contrasts (“You have heard that it was said … but I tell you …”), and the point at which these contrasts begin is the sixth commandment. Ever since Sinai, the Jews had known “you shall not murder”; it was part of God’s law. But the leaders of the people had joined that commandment (found in Exod. 20:13) to Numbers 35:30, which demanded death for murderers, implying that the sixth commandment referred only to the specific act of killing.

Is that all murder is? asked Jesus. Is it nothing but killing? Suppose a man wants to kill his enemy but is stopped by some unexpected circumstance. Is he innocent just because he didn’t get a chance to follow through on his desire? Suppose he is too cowardly to kill but would like to do it. Or suppose he is just afraid of getting caught. What if he only hates his enemy? Or insults him? Is he still innocent of breaking this commandment?

No, says Jesus. In a human court the only acts that can be judged and punished are external acts, because human beings can look only on outward things. They cannot see the heart. But in God’s court “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment,” and anyone who merely says, “ ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (v. 22).

This is not earth-shatteringly new, of course. The Pharisees and other teachers of the law should have discovered this deeper meaning of the sixth commandment by themselves. William Hendriksen observed rightly,

There was no excuse for the fact that in their interpretation of the sixth commandment the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, in agreement with the men of long ago, were omitting the main lesson. Moses had emphasized love for God (Deut. 6:5) and for man (Lev. 19:18). Not only that but the very first domestic quarrel narrative, the story of Cain and Abel, had in a very impressive manner pointed up the evil of jealous anger, as being the root of murder (Gen. 4:1–16). … Accordingly Jesus, in interpreting the sixth commandment as he does, far from annulling it, is showing what it had meant from the very beginning.

There is something else in these verses. It is true that they interpret the sixth commandment definitively. We now know exactly what the words “you shall not murder” mean. But in addition to that, Jesus also tells us what to do when we do become angry or when we know we have done something wrong to someone else. (1) We must make the wrong right, being reconciled to our brother (vv. 24–25); and (2) we must make things right immediately, even before we worship God (vv. 23–24).

The reason God comes into the picture is because the sin of anger, like all sins, is ultimately against God and must be made right before him. This is why Jesus talks about being “thrown into prison” until “you have paid the last penny” (vv. 25–26). It is not just a human prison he is thinking of. It is hell, which brings the end of the section (v. 26) back to what Jesus warned his hearers of at the beginning (v. 22).[4]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 114). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 294–295). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1220). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 88–89). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

April 14, 2017: Verse of the day

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The Sublime Riches of Christ’s Love

Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. (13:1)

The Feast of the Passover was the annual Jewish festival commemorating God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt. The name derived from the angel of death’s passing over the houses of the Hebrews when he killed the firstborn of the Egyptians (Ex. 12:7, 12–13). This Passover would be the last divinely authorized one. From this point on there would be a new memorial—not one recalling the lambs’ blood on the doorposts but the blood of the Lamb of God (1:29, 36; Rev. 5:6; 6:9; 7:10, 17; 14:4, 10; 15:3; 19:9; 22:1, 3) “poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). The Last Supper celebrated by the Lord with His disciples gave Him opportunity to use the elements of the Passover meal to form a transition from the old covenant Passover to the new covenant Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–26).

An apparent discrepancy exists at this point between John’s chronology and that of the Synoptic Gospels. The latter clearly state that the Last Supper was a Passover meal (Matt. 26:17–19; Mark 14:12–16; Luke 22:7–15). John 18:28, however, records that the Jewish leaders “led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early [Friday morning; the day of the crucifixion]; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.” Further, according to John 19:14 Jesus’ trial and crucifixion took place on “the day of preparation for the Passover,” not the day after the eating of the Passover meal. Thus the Lord was crucified at the same time that the Passover lambs were being killed (cf. 19:36; Ex. 12:46; Num. 9:12). The challenge, then, is to explain how Jesus and the disciples could have eaten the Passover meal on Thursday evening if the Jewish leaders had not yet eaten it on Friday morning.

The answer lies in understanding that the Jews had two different methods of reckoning days. Ancient Jewish sources suggest that Jews from the northern part of Israel (including Galilee, where Jesus and most of the Twelve were from) counted days from sunrise to sunrise. Most of the Pharisees apparently also used that method. On the other hand, the Jews in the southern region of Israel counted days from sunset to sunset. That would include the Sadducees (who of necessity lived in the vicinity of Jerusalem because of their connection with the temple). Though no doubt confusing at times, that dual method of reckoning days would have had practical benefits at Passover, allowing the feast to be celebrated on two consecutive days. That would have eased the crowded conditions in Jerusalem, especially in the temple, where all the lambs would not have had to be killed on the same day.

Thus, there is no contradiction between John and the Synoptics. Being Galileans, Jesus and the Twelve would have viewed Passover day as running from sunrise on Thursday to sunrise on Friday. They would have eaten their Passover meal on Thursday evening. The Jewish leaders (the Sadducees), however, would have viewed it as beginning at sunset on Thursday and ending at sunset on Friday. They would have eaten their Passover meal on Friday evening. (For a further discussion of this issue, see Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977], 74–90; Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, A Harmony of the Gospels [Chicago: Moody, 1979], 321–22).

John repeated Jesus’ declaration that His hour had come (12:23); no longer was it future as in 2:4; 7:30; and 8:20 (cf. 7:6, 8). The Lord knew that the time had come for Him to depart out of this world to the Father. He was in full control of everything that was happening, and was never a victim of circumstances, or of men’s evil schemes.

Though He yearned to return to His full glory in the Father’s presence (cf. 17:5), Jesus never wavered in His focus on loving His own (cf. 10:29) who were in the world. The Lord loved them to the end. Telos (end) means “perfection,” or “completeness,” and signifies that Jesus loves His own with the fullest measure of love. There is a general sense in which God loves the world (John 3:16) of lost sinners (Matt. 5:44–45; Titus 3:4), but He loves His own with a perfect, eternal, redeeming love—a love “which surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:19). The words of the hymn writer capture the Lord’s marvelous love for believers:

Loved with everlasting love,

Led by grace that love to know;

Gracious Spirit from above,

Thou hast taught me it is so!

O, this full and perfect peace!

O, this transport all divine!

In a love which cannot cease,

I am His, and He is mine.

In Romans 8:35–39 Paul exulted,

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Even the imminent arrival of His own death could not separate His disciples from His love. That reality becomes even more wonderfully clear in His prayer in the seventeenth chapter.[1]

1 John places the events of the evening just before the Passover Feast. The question of whether the Last Supper was a Passover Feast (Mk 14:12 par.) or a meal on the previous day that had Passover characteristics is discussed at great length in more critical commentaries. Carson, 457, after working through the issue, concludes, “Jesus and his disciples did indeed eat a Passover meal on Thursday, the beginning of 15 Nisan.” Passover was a sacred festival commemorating the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage (Ex 12). It took its name from the “passing over” of the angel of death and the sparing of all the firstborn among the Israelites. At the time of the Passover, devout Jews came to Jerusalem from all over the inhabited world to join in that most sacred and holy festival.

Jerusalem was an exciting place during Passover. Religious emotions ran high. Friends from different areas would meet in the crowded streets and excitedly exchange stories of home and family. But for Jesus, his time had come, and only this one last evening remained for him to spend with his disciples. At an earlier point in his ministry, the Pharisees had tried to seize Jesus but were unable to do so because “his time had not yet come” (7:30; cf. 8:20). But now “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23; cf. 17:1). This was the hour toward which, in the eternal plan of God, all history had moved with inexorable pace. It was the hour in which the redemptive love of God would reveal itself as voluntary suffering for the unworthy. A Savior crucified by those he came to save is paradoxical only to those who have not grasped the fact that God wins his victories through suffering, not by an outward demonstration of power or might. In the great throne room scene of Revelation 4–5, the Lion of the tribe of Judah turns out to be a Lamb, who is worthy to open the seals of the scroll because he has been slain and with his blood has purchased human beings for God (Rev 5:5–6, 9).

Specifically, it was the time for Jesus to “leave this world and go to the Father.” For the believer, death is not the end but the beginning. It is a departure from the realm of evil (cf. Gal 1:4) and a going home to the Father. Since Jesus is the “firstborn from among the dead” (Col 1:18), we may logically expect that as his death was a journey to the Father so also will be ours. All ideas of soul-sleep are foreign to NT teaching. Neither is the “soul” entrapped along the way in some place of physical punishment. Paul said it clearly: “Absent from the body … present with the Lord” (2 Co 5:8 KJV). What a remarkable way to complete what we call life! Death has been robbed of its terror and made the passage to our eternal home. Waiting for us is the One whose love bridged the gulf created by our sin. We are the prodigals returning home, and he is the Father who rushes out to meet us. This world has been a place of hostility and heartache. Death is the entrance into joy eternal and inexpressible.

The text says that Jesus “knew” that his time had come. This was more than mere premonition; it was a clear understanding of what must necessarily take place in the dark days that lay ahead. As the Lamb of God whose blood would be shed for the sins of the world, he knew not only what would happen but also that the critical time had arrived. Jesus was not trapped into a sequence of events that unexpectedly led to the cross. With full knowledge of what the future held, he moved steadily through his years of public ministry to a destiny ordained by the Father and known by the Son. This foreknowledge makes his sacrifice all the more remarkable.

Though his disciples had often failed to grasp the full meaning of his words and had demonstrated by their behavior an inadequate commitment to his ethical demands, he “loved his own” and would now show them “the full extent of his love.” In the prologue to his gospel John notes that the Word came to “his own creation,” (ta idia is neuter plural), but “his own people” (hoi idioi is masculine plural) did not receive him (1:11–12). Those referred to in ch. 13 as “his own” comprise a much smaller group. To belong to Jesus—to be “his own”—requires far more than to find oneself somewhat unintentionally within an ethnic or religious organization. It requires separation from the prevailing world system and allegiance to a kingdom that belongs to another world. As Paul puts it, the Christian has his citizenship “in heaven” (Php 3:20). “My kingdom,” said Jesus, “is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). Elsewhere believers are called “a people that are his very own” (Tit 2:14, drawing on Moses’ reference to the Israelites as God’s “treasured possession,” Ex 19:5). To be called God’s own is a reward given to those few who by faith have committed themselves to the reality of a universal kingdom yet undisclosed. As Jesus, misunderstood and rejected, moved among people, so also do his current followers find themselves at odds with much of contemporary wisdom and culture.

Throughout his entire ministry Jesus had loved his own. He bore with their lack of spiritual understanding and put up with their all-too-human reactions. When they failed to understand his teachings, he found other ways to communicate what he wanted them to learn. He loved his disciples. And now he was about to show them “the full extent of his love.” The expression may mean either that he loved them utterly and completely or that he loved them to the end, i.e., to his death. It is better in this case not to separate the two ideas, for because the love of Jesus was of the highest degree, it would consequently carry through to the very end. A bit later he will remind his disciples that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13 NRSV). One of the most remarkable things about Jesus from a human point of view is that there is no disparity between his words and his life. What he taught he lived.[2]


Love Letters from the Lord

John 13:1

It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.

In 2 Timothy 3:16–17 the apostle Paul writes that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” But having acknowledged that this is indeed true, that all Scripture is God’s gift to us and is of inestimable value, we nevertheless recognize that for one reason or another some sections of the Bible are particularly valuable and are therefore especially prized and loved by God’s people. We come to such a section in this volume.

To many persons the Gospel of John, as the most intense and spiritual of the Gospels, is the “holy place” of Scripture. But if this is so, then these chapters, 13 through 17, which contain the final discourses of the Lord with his disciples just before his crucifixion and which conclude with his great high-priestly prayer on their behalf, are the “holy of holies.” Nowhere in the entire Bible does the child of God feel that he is walking on more holy ground. For here, more than in many other portions of Scripture, he hears the voice of Jesus leading him into a greater understanding of his new place before the Father and consequently also of his new position in the world. These chapters contain teaching about heaven, the new commandment, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the mutual union of Christ with the disciples and the disciples with Christ, and prayer.

To what can we compare these chapters? They can only be compared to love letters, in this case love letters from the Lord. For here the One who is the great and faithful Bridegroom of the church speaks to those who are themselves the church and assures them of his special and enduring love for them.

Not for Everyone

This means that the truths contained in these chapters are not for everyone. They are for the Lord’s people only. We have one evidence for this in the fact that they were spoken only to the Twelve in the upper room and not more widely. This irritates some people, of course, for it suggests partiality on the part of God, and in their view partiality is both unjust and despicable. But such people do not recognize the nature of the partiality that is found here, nor do they recognize how much they practice partiality themselves, in some cases even with justification.

We can immediately see the justice of these chapters not being for everyone if we simply extend the idea of these being the Lord’s love letters. What would we think of a man who, for instance, is married to one woman but who writes intimate and endearing letters to many other women whom he knows? We would call that man a philanderer, a hypocrite, a liar. We recognize at once that while he may rightly have friendly contacts with many persons, including other women, nevertheless the most intimate things, those that belong in a marriage, deserve to be spoken only between husband and wife. Marriage is a private relationship. Consequently, it must be partial. In the same way Jesus has taken unto himself a special people, the church. These are his bride. It is entirely fitting and even expected that he should have special, loving, and touchingly tender words for them only.

Is this partiality? Not at all! It is grace. For it is God, of his own sovereign will, choosing those whom he thus determines to save and bless abundantly. This has nothing to do with any supposed merit in God’s people, for there is none. It is simply that when men had rejected God, choosing to go their own way, God out of infinite mercy still elected to save and bless some. If he had not done so, not one soul would have been saved. That he has done so, is tremendous.

The World

It is not surprising in view of the special nature of these chapters that the verse that begins them makes the contrast between those who are Christ’s own and those who are not, sharper than any other comparable passage in the Word of God. It is true that Paul does much the same thing in Romans 9 and 10. A similar contrast is found in Ephesians 2, and many times in the Old Testament. But nowhere is the contrast clearer and the categories involved more absolute. For here, in the first verse of John 13, we are at once introduced to those who are Christ’s own, whom he loved faithfully until the end.

The verse says, “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.”

Who are Christ’s own? The answer has already been given many times in John’s Gospel. They are those who have been given to Christ by the Father (6:37, 44). They are those for whom Christ was about to die (10:11, 15). They are those who were born, “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or of a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:13). They are those to whom Christ gives eternal life, who shall never perish, and who therefore shall never be plucked from Christ’s hand (10:28–29). What is the world? The world is the human race out of which Christ called them.

It is worth considering this term “world,” for, as we pointed out in one of the studies toward the end of John 4, this is one of the most important concepts in the fourth Gospel. There are several Greek words that are translated “world” in our Bibles, but the one we are interested in is kosmos, from which we get our word “cosmopolitan.” Kosmos means “world.” Politēs means “citizen.” So a citizen of the world is a cosmopolitan. The Greek word kosmos occurs 185 times in the New Testament. But what is extremely interesting is that of these 185 occurrences of the word kosmos, 105 are in the books traditionally ascribed to John. There are 78 occurrences of the word in the Gospel, 24 in the Epistles, and 3 in the Book of Revelation. Moreover, the importance of the word in John’s Gospel is made even more obvious when we compare its 78 occurrences to the 8 times it occurs in Matthew and the merely 3 times each it occurs in Mark and Luke.

What does kosmos mean? The answer to the question is a complex one, for the word is old and therefore in time has acquired multiple meanings. The word originally meant “an ornament,” that is, a decorative object, the unique feature of which was its fine proportions or beauty. This meaning is preserved in our English word “cosmetic,” though in this case the meaning has shifted from what is beautiful in itself to that which is used to improve features that perhaps are not. In time the word was applied to the universe or world globe, as the well-proportioned ornament of God. This meaning occurs in John 1:9 and 10, which tell us that the Light “that gives light to every man was coming into the world” and that “the world was made by him.” Even here another meaning is also present, however, for verse 10 goes on to say that “the world [that is, the people in the world] did not recognize him.”

Since kosmos was used to describe the “world globe,” it was natural that it next came to denote “the world of human beings.” In this second sense we might also translate it as “the human race.” It is said of the world in this sense that God loved it and gave his only Son for it (John 3:16), that it is the object of his saving purposes (John 3:17), that Jesus died for it (1 John 2:2), that he is its Savior (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14). It must be understood of this use of the word that it refers to the human race collectively and not necessarily to each individual, otherwise the verses cited would imply a universal salvation of all men that is clearly repudiated elsewhere.

The third and major use of the word kosmos is the one that occurs in our text and that comes to dominate the remaining chapters of John’s Gospel. This usage also signifies the world of human beings, but with the additional thought that this world stands in rebellion against God. At times we may translate this use of kosmos as “the world system,” including the world’s values, pleasures, pastimes, and aspirations. It is said of the world in this sense that the world does not know God (1 John 3:1), that it rejected Jesus (John 1:10–11), and consequently that it also does not know and therefore also hates his followers (15:18–21; 17:14). This sense of the word is involved in every instance in which Christ’s own are distinguished from the world. For example, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (15:18). Or again, “I have given them your words and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world” (17:14).

In summary we may say that, in the first sense, Christians are to receive the world and be thankful for it, for it is God’s gift. In the second sense, they are to love the world and seek to evangelize it, for God also loves the human race. In the third sense, however, believers in Christ are to reject the world and then by God’s grace also order their lives according to an entirely different set of values.

All Things for Some

The difference between God’s relationship to the world and his relationship to his own has sometimes been stated in this way. God has done some things for all men, that is, everyone in the world. He has created them, sustained them, kept them from the worst that is possible, even tolerated them and thus kept them for a time from hell. On the other hand, God has done all things for some men. These are his own. They do not lack and will never lack any good thing.

What has God done for his own? In one sense the chapters we are to study are themselves the full answer to that question. The answer will come in fullness only as we study them. But as we stand at the threshold of these chapters cannot avoid at least a partial answer by way of expectation. The answer has at least six parts.

  1. The first and greatest teaching of these chapters is that Jesus specifically loved those who are his own. This is how the section begins: “Jesus … having loved his own who were in the world … showed them the full extent of his love” (13:1). It ends with: “I have made you known to them and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (17:26). It is not necessary to say at this point that there is no love of God for the world in general. There is a sense in which the love of God extends to all people. It is only necessary to say that the love of which we are speaking here is a special, saving love as a result of which those who are Christ’s own become his own and are kept by him. For having loved them, “he showed [and continues to show] them the full extent of his love.”

While this undoubtedly gives some special privileges to those who are his own, it also gives them equally special obligations. For if they are loved, they also are to love. In this lies the basis for Christ’s new commandment. “A new command I give unto you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (13:34).

  1. The second great teaching of these chapters is that Jesus has gone to prepare a place known as heaven for his people. We are not told a great deal about heaven or what awaits us there. But we are told that in it there is a place for us who believe in him, and we are also promised that he will return one day to guarantee that we get there. “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. 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” (14:2–3). Even if heaven did not exist, the love of the Lord that we have come to experience here on earth would be wonderful in itself. But, in addition to this, there is heaven. In this promise we learn that the fact that the Lord loved his own “to the end” does not merely mean “to the end of Christ’s life” or even “to the end of our lives.” Rather, it means “to the very end,” “to the uttermost.” His love for us will never end; it is eternal.
  2. During these last discourses, the disciples were naturally troubled, for they had been told that the Lord, whom they loved, would be leaving them in order to return to the Father. In this context, Jesus’ words about heaven were a source of great comfort. But there is another source also, and in this is found the third of Jesus’ teachings. He tells the disciples, and therefore also tells us, that he is going to send a replacement for himself; that replacement, the Holy Spirit, would come and dwell within those who belong to Jesus. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him; for he dwells with you, and will be in you” (14:16–17).

It is also the work of the Holy Spirit to lead the apostles into all the truth concerning Jesus, bringing it to their remembrance (14:26; 16:13), and to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (16:8–11).

  1. The fourth teaching of the Lord concerns his commissioning of the disciples to a special work, indeed a different work in each individual case. We find it in the fifteenth chapter. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (v. 16). According to this verse, each of us has a spiritually fruitful work to perform. The promise of the Lord is that all we will accomplish in this area will remain.
  2. We are told in these chapters that the Lord intercedes or prays for us. Here the seventeenth chapter is itself one long example. It is encouraging; for in these verses the Lord prays that his own might be kept from the evil that is in the world, that they might have his joy fulfilled in them, that they might be sanctified by means of the Word of God, that they might be one, and finally that they might be with Jesus in heaven. Can God turn his back on a request made by his own dear Son? Of course not! We rightly sing,

The Father hears him pray,

His dear anointed One;

He cannot turn away

The presence of his Son.

So these requests are already fulfilled or are in the process of being fulfilled. They carry the same weight as direct promises. We shall be kept from evil. We shall have joy. We shall be one. We shall be with Jesus in heaven.

  1. Finally, just as Jesus has prayed for us, so he invites us to pray, describing this as a new and blessed privilege. “I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (16:23–24).

These are the themes that are developed fully in this important fourth section of John’s Gospel. Perhaps the best comment about them is that of Paul in the great eighth chapter of Romans: “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (vv. 31–32). God has indeed given us all things. But to whom much has been given, much shall also be required. May God use our study of John 13–17 to help us become increasingly his obedient and therefore also his exceedingly joyous children.

Having Loved, He Loved

John 13:1

It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.

In the previous study of the first verse of John 13 we saw that, while God has done some things for all men, he has, in addition to this, done all things for some. This is a tremendous truth. But, like all great truths, it almost cries out for an explanation. Fortunately the explanation is in our text also. For having distinguished between those who are of the world and those who are Christ’s own, the verse goes on to say, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he showed them the full extent of his love.” Love is the explanation. Jesus loves his own; he loves us. This is the entire explanation of why God has done all things for those who are his spiritual people.

No Explanation

When we say this, however, we must immediately recognize that love itself is unexplainable. For if we go on to ask, “But why did God love us? Why does Jesus love us?” there is just no answer to be given.

Obviously we are not loved because we are lovable, for we are not. It is true that some of us may be lovable to some others of us, but this is only when we look at the matter from a human perspective. From God’s perspective there is nothing in us to make us even remotely desirable. He is holy; we are unholy. He is just; we are unjust. He is loving; we are filled with hatred and all forms of sin. In short, we are sinful and in willful rebellion against him. Yet he loves us. In fact, this is so great a marvel that God even uses it to commend his love to us. He says, “You see, 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 demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6–8).

God has not loved us because we first loved him; he is not merely returning our love. We did not love him. On this point the apostle John writes clearly, “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Again, the Lord did not love us because of anything that we could do for him, for we had nothing to offer. He does not need praise; the angels praise him. He does not even need spiritual children; for, as Jesus said, he is able of stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even our numbers are not an asset. So why does God love us? The only answer is the one he gave Moses concerning the children of Israel. “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers” (Deut. 7:7–8). The reason God loves us is that he loves us. Beyond that, his love is unexplainable. It is without reason, at least without reason known to us.

Empirical Data

If we were to stop at this point, I suppose that in that thought alone we would have enough to keep us pondering on the love of God for eternity. But there is more. For the verse that tells us that God loves without reason also tells us that God loves without variation and without end. His love is eternal. The verse says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he showed them the full extent of his love.

We want to come back to that phrase, “the full extent.” But before we do so we need to see the reasons God gives why we should believe that his love is eternal. We cannot see into the future; therefore, rationally at least, the future lends no evidence. Why should we believe in this everlasting quality of God’s love? The answer is an empirical one. It has to do with observable data, particularly data from the past and present. First, there is the past: “Having loved.” Second, there is the present: “he showed.” This second occurrence is a past tense (an aorist); but the sense is present, for it refers to what Jesus was then doing and was about to do.

In other words, the verse calls our attention to the observable past and present love of Christ, and it is asking us to reason on that basis. Is not love his nature? Will not he who loved in the past and loves in the present also love in the future? If he loved his disciples to the end, will he not love us similarly?

Past and Present Love

What do we know about the love of God the Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ in the past? Obviously that is a big question, the answer to which can never fully be given. But we can suggest some areas in which the answer can be seen.

First, we can see the love of God in the creation of ourselves and other human beings. We refer at this point, not merely to the fact of our existence, for our existence in itself might prove nothing. We refer rather to the fact that in creating us God created us with a spiritual vacuum within that can be filled only by himself. In other words, he created us, not to a meaningless existence but to an existence that is the highest existence possible for any created object, namely, communion with the One who created it. So it is as Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The fact that we can know God and are restless until we do know him is proof of his love.

Second, God’s love is seen in the fact that he, by the Holy Spirit’s regenerating power has called us to himself. We have seen this several times in John’s Gospel. We are told, on the one hand, that no one can come to God unless God draws him. In this fatal inability we measure the extent of our depravity. But then, on the other hand, we are told that God does draw some to himself and that none of these can be lost. In this we see God’s love, for apart from the sweet drawing of that love, no one would ever come to him.

Third, we see God’s love in Jesus’ death for his people. This, if you will, completes the trinitarian formula, for in creation we see the love of the Father. In the effectual calling of God’s people we see the love of the Holy Spirit. In the act of redemption we see the love of Jesus Christ, the Son.

The love of the Lord Jesus Christ in dying for us may be illustrated by the following story as told by Harry Ironside. Many years ago, Czar Nicholas I of Russia knew a young man for whom he cared a great deal. He was the son of a good friend of his. Because of his interest in this young man, Nicholas had him assigned to a border fortress of the Russian army and caused him to be given charge of the money used for paying the soldiers. The young man started well. But he fell into bad habits, took to gambling, and eventually gambled away not only his own wealth but also a great fortune taken from government funds. He had taken just a few rubles at a time, but these had mounted up and become prodigious. One day he received notice that on the following day an official would be coming to inspect the books. The young man knew he was in trouble. So he took out the records to find out how great his debt was. He totaled the amount. Then he went to the safe, took out his own small amount of money, and counted it carefully. He subtracted the lesser from the greater. The debt was astronomical. As he sat looking at the final figure, the young officer picked up his pen and wrote in large letters, “A great debt; who can pay?” Then, because he did not see how he could face the terrible dishonor the next day held, he determined to kill himself with his revolver at the stroke of twelve.

The night was warm and drowsy. So as he waited for the midnight hour, in spite of himself the young man’s head dropped lower and lower and he fell asleep.

It happened that Nicholas, who was in the habit of sometimes putting on the uniform of a common soldier and visiting the troops to see how they were getting on, did so this night, coming around to the halls of the very fortress in which the young officer was sleeping. Most of the lights were out, as they should have been. But when Nicholas got to the door of this one room he noticed a light shining under it. He knocked. No answer! He tried the latch and opened the door. There was the young officer, whom he recognized, asleep. He saw also the books and the money. The whole thing became clear in a moment. His first thought was to awaken his young friend and place him under arrest. But as he read the young man’s note, his heart went out to him. “A great debt; who can pay?” Moved by a generous impulse, the Czar leaned over, picked up the pen that had fallen from the hand of the sleeping officer, wrote just one word, and tiptoed out.

For an hour or so the young man slept. Then he suddenly awoke and, seeing that it was long past midnight, reached for the revolver. As he did so his eye caught sight of his note—“A great debt; who can pay?”—and under it the one word that had not been there before: “Nicholas.” He was astonished. Dropping his gun, he raced to the files where the signature of the Czar was available. He pulled this out and carefully compared it with the signature on his note. It was the real signature. He said to himself, “The Czar has been here tonight and knows all my guilt; yet he has undertaken to pay my debt; I need not die.” So instead of taking his life, he rested upon the word of Nicholas and was not surprised when, early the next morning, a messenger came from the palace bearing precisely the amount of money needed to satisfy the deficit. Later, when the inspector came, everything was found to be in order.

Thus did Jesus love us and pay our great debt. We are sinners. There is no possible way for us to atone for that sin. But Jesus has paid that debt. He has signed his name to our bankrupt account. No wonder we sing:

Jesus paid it all,

All to him I owe;

Sin had left a crimson stain—

He washed it white as snow.

That is the love of the Lord Jesus Christ for us as seen in the past. It is that to which God points us and directs our eyes. Thus has he loved. Who then can doubt that he will continue to love us unto the end?

Full Extent … Unto the End

The phrase “the full extent” brings us to the second half of our text. The King James Version says “unto the end.” It raises the question: Unto the end of what? There are several answers.

First, it means “unto the end of the earthly life of Jesus Christ.” Even the context suggests this, for the verse is given to us at the start of those chapters that tell of Christ’s final ministry to his disciples prior to his crucifixion. We must admit that we are not always appreciative of this, for we take Christ’s love for granted. Yet, if we would think of the possible hindrances to love both on his part and on the part of the disciples during these days, we would be more sensitive.

On his part there were great hindrances, as the verse indicates. It says, “Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father,” thereby indicating that Jesus knew clearly that he was about to die. So if we were to read that in those moments his thoughts turned from his own to himself so that, at least for a time, he ceased to love them or think about them, who could blame him? Yet knowledge of his impending death did not deter him. There were also hindrances on the part of the disciples. They were worldly, for instance. He thought spiritually. But every time he tried to teach them spiritual things, they interpreted his words on a wordly level. Moreover, they were dull. He explained great truths to them, and they did not understand. In fact, he had been explaining that he was to leave them to go to the Father, but they could not understand even this. Not one of the disciples was a fit companion for the Lord Jesus Christ. So if he had said to himself, “I have thought about these men long enough; I have done everything for them that I know how to do; it is time I thought of myself,” who could blame him? No one! Yet he loved them, fully and unselfishly, to the end of his life.

Second, he obviously also loved them to the end of their lives. True, he was to be the first to die. He died before Peter, James, John, or any of the others. But then he rose, and as the risen Lord he returned to bestow his own Spirit upon the disciples and then guide them and preserve them until the time when each would go to be with him in glory.

Finally, the phrase also means “to the very end,” that is, “to the end of ends” or “without end,” “forever.” In Greek the word is telos, which literally means “perfection.” Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them perfectly. So we sing:

The love of God is greater far

Than tongue or pen can ever tell;

It goes beyond the highest star,

And reaches to the lowest hell.

Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!

How measureless and strong!

It shall forevermore endure—

The saints’ and angels’ song.

Such love is indeed forever. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loves them to the end.

Love Others, Love Him

How shall we apply these truths? On the one hand, we must apply them to believers, and, on the other, to those who are not yet believers. The word to those who believe on Christ is this: If this is the way in which God has loved us, then should we not love one another, and also fervently love him? We will never in this life love as he loved, but we can begin to try to love as he loved—unselfishly, without discrimination, without wavering. We should also serve him. For, as the hymn declares:

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Again, there is a word for those who have still not become true Christians. If you are not yet a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, let me ask you a question that flows from everything I have been saying. If God loves like this, how can you afford to be without such a great love? There is no love on earth like it. Your husband or wife will not love you like this. Your children and parents will not love you like this. Your neighbors and friends will not love you like this. Only Jesus Christ loves with a perfect and everlasting love! Moreover, one day you must stand before the judgment seat of his Father, whom you have offended by your ungodly conduct and by your rejection of his great grace. What will you do in that day—if you refuse the love of the Lord Jesus Christ? What will you do without having him to stand by you and say, “This is one of my own; this is one for whom I died; this is one whose debt I undertook to pay; this is one I love unto the end”? Without such love you will be lost forever. Fortunately, the day of God’s grace is still present; you may yet come to Jesus Christ as your Savior.[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 62–64). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[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, pp. 543–545). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 995–1006). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

APRIL 14 – WHY ARE WE SO STILL?

Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

—Romans 3:24

When God justifies a sinner everything in God is on the sinner’s side. All the attributes of God are on the sinner’s side. It isn’t that mercy is pleading for the sinner and justice is trying to beat him to death, as we preachers sometimes make it sound. All of God does all that God does. When God looks at a sinner and sees him there unatoned for (he won’t accept the atonement; he thinks it doesn’t apply to him), the moral situation is such that justice says he must die. And when God looks at the atoned-for sinner, who in faith knows he’s atoned for and has accepted it, justice says he must live! The unjust sinner can no more go to heaven than the justified sinner can go to hell. Oh friends, why are we so still? Why are we so quiet? We ought to rejoice and thank God with all our might! AOG071

With all my might I praise You, gracious God, that I have been justified freely by Your grace in Christ Jesus. Why are we so still, indeed! Amen. [1]


Righteousness Is Given Freely Through Grace

king justified as a gift by His grace (3:24a)

By the same token, no one is ahead of anyone else as far as salvation is concerned. Being justified refers back to the “alls” of the previous two verses-all those who have believed, of whom all were sinful. Just as there is no distinction among those who need salvation, there is no distinction among those who receive it, because they all are justified as a gift by His grace.

Dikaioō (justified) means to declare the rightness of something or someone. Justification is God’s declaration that all the demands of the law are fulfilled on behalf of the believing sinner through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Justification is a wholly forensic, or legal, transaction. It changes the judicial standing of the sinner before God. In justification, God imputes the perfect righteousness of Christ to the believer’s account, then declares the redeemed one fully righteous. Justification must be distinguished from sanctification, in which God actually imparts Christ’s righteousness to the sinner. While the two must be distinguished, justification and sanctification can never be separated. God does not justify whom He does not sanctify.

Yet God justifies believers as a gift by His grace, not because of any good thing in the one who is justified.

By definition, a gift is something given freely, unearned and unmerited by the recipient. God’s greatest of all gifts is that of salvation through His Son, given completely out of His divine grace. “If righteousness comes through the Law,” that is, through human fulfillment of God’s divine standard, Paul declares, “then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21).

The law reveals God’s righteousness and exposes man’s unrighteousness. Grace, on the other hand, not only reveals God’s righteousness but actually gives His righteousness to those who trust in His Son. That gift of grace cost God the suffering and death of His own Son on the cross, so that, for the believer, there is nothing left to pay.

Righteousness Is Accomplished by Redemption

through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; (3:24b)

Apolutrōsis (redemption) is a strengthened form of lutros̄is, which carries the idea of delivering, especially by means of paying a price. It was commonly used of paying a ransom to free a prisoner from his captors or paying the price to free a slave from his master.

Because of man’s utter sinfulness and inability to bring himself up to the standard of God’s righteousness, the redemption of a sinner could come only by that which is in Christ Jesus. Only the sinless Savior could pay the price to redeem sinful men.[2]


24 At first glance, it seems that Paul is committing himself to a doctrine of universal salvation, that all who have sinned are likewise justified. This impression is certainly incorrect. The problem can be handled in one of two ways: (1) to suppose that the reader is intended to supply something along this line: “Since all have sinned, all must be justified—if they are to be saved—by God’s free grace”; or (2) to understand the last phrase in v. 22 and all of v. 23 as semiparenthetical, so that the words “to all who believe” (v. 22) are followed directly by “are justified freely by his grace” (v. 24).

In the word “justified,” we encounter perhaps the leading doctrinal contribution of Romans. How to be just in God’s sight is the age-old human problem (Job 9:2; 10:14). To get at the meaning of the doctrine, some attention must be given to terminology. In classical Greek the verb dikaioō (GK 1467) was sometimes used to mean “do right by a person, give him justice.” As a result, it could be used in the sense of “condemn.” But in its biblical setting it is used in the opposite sense, namely, “to acquit” (Ex 23:7; Dt 25:1). It is clear both from the OT and the NT that dikaioō is a forensic term—it is the language of the law court. But to settle on “acquittal” as the meaning of justification is to express only a part of the range of the word, even though an important part (Ac 13:39).

There is a positive side that is even more prominent in NT usage—“to consider, or declare to be, righteous.” The word does not mean “to make righteous,” i.e., to effect a change of character. Some consider it ethically deplorable that God should count as righteous those who have been and to some extent continue to be sinful. E. J. Goodspeed’s translation, for example, defied the linguistic evidence and rendered dikaioō as “to make upright.” Goodspeed failed to realize that the question of character and conduct belongs to a different area, namely, sanctification, and is taken up by Paul in due course, whereas justification relates to status and not to condition.

In the background is the important consideration, strongly emphasized by Paul, that the believer is “in Christ.” This key Pauline concept is a truth that will be unfolded at a later stage in Paul’s presentation and summarized by him in 8:1 (cf. 1 Co 1:30; 2 Co 5:21). Nowhere is the relation between justification and being “in Christ” better stated than in Paul’s declaration, “that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ” (Php 3:8–9). To be justified includes the truth that God sees the sinner in terms of the sinner’s relation to his Son, with whom he is well pleased.

Though justification has much in common with forgiveness, the two terms ought not to be regarded as interchangeable. Even though forgiveness of sins can be stated in comprehensive fashion (e.g., Eph 1:7; 4:32), its continuing aspect, related to the ongoing confession of sin (1 Jn 1:9), sets it somewhat apart from justification, which is a once-for-all declaration of God in behalf of the believing sinner. The surprise for Paul was that God declares a person “righteous at the beginning of the course, not at the end of it” (Bruce, 102).

Sinners are justified “as a gift” (dōrean, GK 1562; NASB; NIV, “freely”). The same word is used in John 15:25, where it bears a somewhat different but not unrelated meaning—“without reason.” God finds no reason, no basis, in sinners for declaring them righteous. He must find the cause in himself. This truth goes naturally with the observation that justification is offered “by [God’s] grace.” Perhaps the best synonym we have for it is “lovingkindness” (NASB; NIV, “love”; see, e.g., Pss 23:6; 36:5; 130). It is a matter not simply of attitude but also of action, as the present verse attests. “Grace” (charis, GK 5921) lies at the basis of joy (chara, GK 5915) for the believer and leads to thanksgiving (eucharistia, GK 2374).

If justification is a matter of “gift,” with grace as its basis, “the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” is the means a gracious God employed to achieve this great salvation. With the word “redemption” (apolytrōsis, GK 667), Paul employs the language of the slave market, namely the manumission of slaves. The benefit redemption brings in this life, according to Ephesians 1:7, is forgiveness of sins, and this is applicable in our passage. Another aspect, belonging to the future, is the redemption of the body, which will consummate our salvation (Ro 8:23; cf. Eph 4:30).[3]


3:24 Being justified freely by His grace. The gospel tells how God justifies sinners as a free gift and by an act of unmerited favor. But what do we mean when we speak of the act of justifying?

The word justify means to reckon or declare to be righteous. For example, God pronounces a sinner to be righteous when that sinner believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the way the word is most often used in the NT.

However, a man can justify God (see Luke 7:29) by believing and obeying God’s word. In other words, he declares God to be righteous in all that God says and does.

And, of course, a man can justify himself; that is, he can protest his own righteousness (see Luke 10:29). But this is nothing but a form of self-deception.

To justify does not mean to actually make a person righteous. We cannot make God righteous; He already is righteous. But we can declare Him to be righteous. God does not make the believer sinless or righteous in himself. Rather, God puts righteousness to his account. As A. T. Pierson put it, “God in justifying sinners actually calls them righteous when they are not—does not impute sin where sin actually exists, and does impute righteousness where it does not exist.”

A popular definition of justification is just as if I’d never sinned. But this does not go far enough. When God justifies the believing sinner, He not only acquits him from guilt but clothes him in His own righteousness and thus makes him absolutely fit for heaven. “Justification goes beyond acquittal to approval; beyond pardon to promotion.” Acquittal means only that a person is set free from a charge. Justification means that positive righteousness is imputed.

The reason God can declare ungodly sinners to be righteous is because the Lord Jesus Christ has fully paid the debt of their sins by His death and resurrection. When sinners accept Christ by faith, they are justified.

When James teaches that justification is by works (Jas. 2:24), he does not mean that we are saved by good works, or by faith plus good works, but rather by the kind of faith that results in good works.

It is important to realize that justification is a reckoning that takes place in the mind of God. It is not something a believer feels; he knows it has taken place because the Bible says so. C. I. Scofield expressed it this way: “Justification is that act of God whereby He declares righteous all who believe in Jesus. It is something which takes place in the mind of God, not in the nervous system or emotional nature of the believer.”

Here in Romans 3:24 the apostle teaches that we are justified freely. It is not something we can earn or purchase, but rather something that is offered as a gift.

Next we learn that we are justified … by God’s grace. This simply means that it is wholly apart from any merit in ourselves. As far as we are concerned, it is undeserved, unsought, and unbought.

In order to avoid confusion later on, we should pause here to explain that there are six different aspects of justification in the NT. We are said to be justified by grace, by faith, by blood, by power, by God, and by works; yet there is no contradiction or conflict.

We are justified by grace—that means we do not deserve it.

We are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1)—that means that we have to receive it by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ.

We are justified by blood (Rom. 5:9)—that refers to the price the Savior paid in order that we might be justified.

We are justified by power (Rom. 4:24, 25)—the same power that raised the Lord Jesus from the dead.

We are justified by God (Rom. 8:33)—He is the One who reckons us righteous.

We are justified by works (Jas. 2:24)—not meaning that good works earn justification, but that they are the evidence that we have been justified.

Returning to 3:24, we read that we are justified through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Redemption means buying back by payment of a ransom price. The Lord Jesus bought us back from the slave market of sin. His precious blood was the ransom price which was paid to satisfy the claims of a holy and righteous God. If someone asks, “To whom was the ransom paid?” he misses the point. The Scriptures nowhere suggest that a specific payment was made either to God or to Satan. The ransom was not paid to anyone but was an abstract settlement that provided a righteous basis by which God could save the ungodly.[4]


Bought with a Price

Romans 3:24

… justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

On September 17, 1915, the distinguished Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, stood in Miller Chapel to deliver an address to the newly arrived students. The subject had been announced: “ ‘Redeemer’ and ‘Redemption,’ ” and the young men were probably prepared for a difficult and weighty presentation. Instead Warfield talked about how wonderful the two words Redeemer and redemption are.

“There is no one of the titles of Christ which is more precious to Christian hearts than ‘Redeemer,’ ” the professor began. True, other titles are more often on our lips: “Lord,” “Savior,” others. But “Redeemer” is more intimate and therefore more precious. Warfield explained:

It gives expression not merely to our sense that we have received salvation from [Jesus], but also to our appreciation of what it cost him to procure this salvation for us. It is the name specifically of the Christ of the cross. Whenever we pronounce it, the cross is placarded before our eyes and our hearts are filled with loving remembrance not only that Christ has given us salvation but that he paid a mighty price for it.

How do we know this is true? In proof of his statement, Warfield appealed, not to great works of theology dealing with the cross—though there are many of them—but to the church’s hymnody. Many of the hymns in the hymnbook used that day at Princeton celebrated the Lord as Redeemer, and Warfield listed them:

Let our whole soul an offering be

To our Redeemer’s name;

While we pray for pardoning grace,

Through our Redeemer’s name;

Almighty Son, Incarnate Word,

Our Prophet, Priest, Redeemer, Lord; …

O for a thousand tongues to sing

My dear Redeemer’s praise; …

All hail, Redeemer, hail,

For thou hast died for me; …

All glory, laud and honor

To thee Redeemer, King.

Those are only six of the hymns he listed. He cited twenty-eight. But then, in case the students had missed his point, he did the same thing all over again with the words ransom and ransomed, which are near synonyms of “redeem” and “redeemed.” He found twenty-five examples.

“Redemption” and “Redeemer” are the words to which we now come in our phrase-by-phrase exposition of Romans 3:21–31—“God’s Remedy in Christ.” We have outlined the passage by citing four great doctrines found in it: (1) the righteousness of God, (2) grace, (3) redemption, and (4) faith, by which these blessings are conveyed to the individual. This is the third doctrine. It is most precious to us, because it describes what the Lord Jesus Christ did for us by dying.

A Misunderstood Doctrine

In his address Warfield spoke of the “cost” of redemption. But here a problem develops for some people. “Isn’t salvation supposed to be free?” they ask. “Haven’t you just talked about grace, the unmerited favor of God toward us? Salvation can’t be bought or sold. If you talk about God extracting a price for his favor, you make God cheap, begrudging, and mercenary. How can anyone believe that this is accurate?”

Because of such reasoning some scholars have tried to change the meaning of “Redeemer” and “redemption” from what I have suggested these words mean (and do mean) to something more like “release” or “deliverance,” that is, to the process of setting someone free without any idea of paying a price for it. They point to Luke 24:21 in which the Emmaus disciples used the word redeem in their conversation with Jesus, saying, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Obviously they were thinking of a political deliverance, not a commercial transaction. Or they point to Ephesians 1:14, “… a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.” They argue that there is no suggestion of a price in that statement. Rather, it is speaking only of our deliverance from the power of sin at the return of Christ.

Three Great Words

How should we respond to this objection? There are a number of ways. We could point out that the Emmaus disciples obviously misunderstood the nature of Christ’s redemptive work. We could emphasize that, although redemption includes the idea of deliverance and is a word sometimes used for “deliverance,” it is nevertheless a larger and more embracing concept. We might observe that, even though in the Bible a price for redemption is paid, it is never a case of our paying for redemption—we have no means of paying for it—but rather of God’s paying the price in Christ, so that salvation might be free for us.

These points are all valid. Nevertheless, in my judgment, the best way of getting to the meaning of redemption is by a careful examination of the biblical words used for it. There are three Greek words, plus two important Hebrew words or concepts.

The first Greek word is agorazō. It comes from the noun used to describe an open marketplace in Greek-speaking lands, an agora. An agora is where all sorts of things—wine, grain and oil, pottery, silver and gold ornaments, horses, slaves, clothing and household wares—were bought and sold. The verb agorazō, which is based upon the word agora, meant “to buy” something in such a marketplace. Clearly a price was involved. Not long ago I discovered that the Greek Orthodox community of Philadelphia was using the word for an annual outdoor bazaar at which those of Greek descent raise money for their church. It is advertised as “A Greek Agora.” Agorazō suggests that Christ’s saving work involves his purchasing us for himself in this world’s marketplace.

The second Greek word for “redemption” is related closely to the first. It is exagorazō. Clearly it is only the first word with the addition of the prefix ex, which means “out of.” So exagorazō means “to buy out of the marketplace,” with the idea that the object or person purchased might never have to return there again.

It is hard to illustrate this in terms of contemporary purchases. The closest we can come is redeeming an object from a pawnshop. But if we remember that in the ancient world some of the chief objects of commerce were slaves and that slaves could be purchased out of the marketplace (redeemed) by the payment of a price, this becomes a rich idea for us. According to the Bible, we are all slaves to sin. By ourselves we cannot escape from this slavery. But Jesus has freed us. He has done it by paying the price of our redemption by his blood. That is why Peter writes, “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). Here the idea of Christ’s death being the cost or price of our redemption is inescapable.

The third pertinent Greek word is actually a group of words based on the root verb yō. They carry further the idea of being purchased out of the marketplace, for the chief thought of these words is “to loose” or “to set free.” These words have an interesting development. itself meant only “to loose or loosen,” as in taking off a suit of clothes or unbuckling one’s armor. When used of persons, it signified loosening bonds so that, for example, a prisoner might be released. It was usually necessary to pay a ransom price to free a prisoner, however. So in time a second word developed from to signify this “ransom price.” It was lytroō. From it another verb developed: lytrõ which, like , meant “to loose” or “to set free” but, unlike , always meant to free by paying the redemption price. From these last two words the proper Greek term for redemption came about: lytrōsis (and the cognate word apolytrōsis). These words always had to do with freeing a slave by paying for him. In Christian vocabulary they mean that Jesus freed us from sin’s slavery by his death. Thus:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light:

My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth and followed thee.

As long as we know that the death of the Lord Jesus Christ accomplished that, we will love him for being our Redeemer.

Old Testament Background

Important as a study of these Greek words for redemption may be, it is nevertheless true that the richest words for understanding the redemptive work of Christ are in the Old Testament. I refer here to two of them.

First, kōpher, which, like lytron, means “a ransom price.” But it is richer than the Greek idea, because it refers to the redemption of a person who, apart from that redemption, would die. Let me explain. Suppose a person in Old Testament times owned an ox that had gored somebody to death. Under certain circumstances (we might describe this as manslaughter rather than homicide), the owner of the ox would be fined. But suppose there had been negligence. Suppose the ox was known to be dangerous and the owner had failed to secure the animal properly. In this case the owner of the ox could be killed. That is, he would have to forfeit his life for the one whose life had been taken. There would be little to be gained by one more death, of course. So Old Testament law provided a way by which, if the owner could come to an agreement with the relatives of the dead man, it would be possible for him to pay a ransom price, an indemnity, instead of dying. This ransom price was called the kōpher.

As I say, this term enriches our understanding of what the Lord Jesus Christ did in dying for us. For it is not only that in some way his death freed us from sin’s power. Christ did deliver us from sin’s power, but he also delivered us from death, which is the punishment God had established for transgressions (“The soul who sins … will die,” Ezek. 18:4b). Therefore, for us to be redeemed means life.

The final words I bring into this study of “redemption” are gāʾal, which means “to redeem,” and the related noun, gōʾēl, which means “kinsman-redeemer.” This latter term requires explanation.

It was a principle of Jewish law that property should remain within a family as much as possible. Therefore, if a Jewish person lost his or her share of the land through debt or by some other means, a solemn obligation evolved on a near relative (if there was one) to buy the property back again. This person, because of close relationship to the one who had lost the property, was a “kinsman,” and if willing and able to purchase the property and restore it to the family, he became a “kinsman-redeemer.” In some cases, where there was no male heir to inherit the property, the duty of the kinsman extended to marrying the widow in order to raise up heirs.

A kinsman-redeemer had to fulfill three qualifications:

  1. He had to be a close relative (a stranger would not do),
  2. He had to be willing to take on this responsibility (nobody could be compelled to do this work), and
  3. He had to be able to pay the ransom price (he had to have sufficient means at his disposal).

A Romance of Redemption

Those three conditions apply to and were fulfilled in the case of Jesus Christ. But to make them vivid, let me develop them in the context of an Old Testament story, the only story in the Bible in which we see a kinsman-redeemer in action. It is the story of Ruth and her “redeemer,” Boaz.

In the days of the Judges there was a famine in Israel, and a man from Bethlehem, whose name was Elimelech, left Judah with his wife, Naomi and two sons to live in Moab. Not long after this, Elimelech died, and shortly after that the sons married Moabite women. One was Orpah, and the other was Ruth. About ten years later the sons also died, and Naomi and the two daughters-in-law were left. Apparently the three were quite poor, so when Naomi heard that the famine in Judah had passed and that there was food there, she decided to go back to her homeland and live again in Bethlehem. Orpah took her mother-in-law’s advice and went back to her family, but Ruth insisted on staying with Naomi. Her entreaty (Ruth 1:16–17), which Naomi heeded, is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible. Ruth said:

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

Back in Bethlehem, Naomi and Ruth were still quite poor, in spite of the fact that Naomi seems to have owned a piece of land (cf. 4:3), and the only way they could survive was by Ruth’s going into the fields at harvest time to “glean” behind the reapers. Gleaning means that she was allowed to follow the workmen and pick up any small bits of grain they discarded. The law of Israel established this right for poor persons.

Ruth went to a field belonging to an affluent man named Boaz who, as it turned out, was a close relative of Naomi, a kinsman of her deceased husband Elimelech. Boaz was kind to Ruth, in spite of the fact that she was a foreigner. He encouraged her to remain in his fields and instructed the workmen to protect her and be generous to her, allowing a good supply of the grain to fall behind.

Can we say that Boaz fell in love with Ruth the Moabitess? Yes, we can, even though these are not the words in which the ancients recounted such events. (Strikingly, the word love does not occur in the entire Book of Ruth, though it is a love story.)

Naomi seems to have recognized what was happening as well as realizing that God was arranging circumstances so that Boaz could perform the office of a kinsman-redeemer for herself, in regard to her inheritance, and for Ruth, in regard to raising up an heir. So she advised Ruth how to make her claim known to Boaz. When she did, Boaz was delighted, for it meant that Ruth was interested in him also and had not, as he said, “run after the younger men, whether rich or poor” (Ruth 3:10). Unfortunately, there was a kinsman closer to Naomi and Ruth than himself. Boaz promised to raise the matter with this kinsman and to perform the office of kinsman-redeemer if the other was unable or unwilling.

As it turned out, the other relative was interested in the land but was unable to fulfill the obligation to Ruth. So Boaz willingly bought the land and married Ruth. The story ends by relating that they had a son named Obed, who became the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David.

What a beautiful story! What a beautiful redemption for Ruth! J. Vernon McGee comments:

From the very beginning there was a marvelous development in the status of Ruth. First, she was found in the land of Moab, a stranger from the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. Next she was brought by providence into the field of Boaz, under the wings of the God of Israel. Then she was sent to the threshing floor of Boaz; and there she was seen asserting her claim for a kinsman-redeemer. Finally, in this last chapter of the Book of Ruth, she is seen as a bride for the heart of Boaz and as a mother in his home. What splendid progress! What scriptural evolution! From a very lowly beginning she was lifted to the very pinnacle of blessing. All this was made possible by a goel who loved her.

In redeeming us, Jesus fulfilled a similar set of qualifications: (1) He became our kinsman by the incarnation, being born in this very town of Bethlehem; (2) he was willing to be our Redeemer, because of his great love for us; and (3) he was able to redeem us, because he alone could provide an adequate redemption price by dying. We rightly sing:

There was no other good enough

To pay the price of sin;

He only could unlock the gate

Of heaven, and let us in.

The redemption of Ruth may not have cost Boaz a great deal, at the most only money, but our redemption cost Jesus Christ his life.

The Death of Great Words

At the beginning of this study I referred to the address of the gifted theologian B. B. Warfield, given to the incoming class of students at Princeton Seminary in 1915. I return to it now because of something else it contains. Warfield had spoken of “Redeemer” and “redemption” as being among the most precious words in the Christian vocabulary. But he confessed, as he came to the end of his address, that this seemed to be changing. The precise biblical meanings of these words was being lost, and with them something precious about Christianity. Warfield said:

What we are doing today as we look out upon our current religious modes of speech, is assisting at the deathbed of a word. It is sad to witness the death of any worthy thing—even of a worthy word. And worthy words do die, like any other worthy thing—if we do not take care of them.… I hope you will determine that, God helping you, you will not let them die thus, if any care on your part can preserve them in life and vigor.

But the dying of the words is not the saddest thing which we see here. The saddest thing is the dying out of the hearts of men of the things for which the words stand.… The real thing for you to settle in your minds, therefore, is whether Christ is truly a Redeemer to you, and whether you find an actual redemption in him.… Do you realize that Christ is your Ransomer and has actually shed his blood for you as your ransom? Do you realize that your salvation has been bought, bought at a tremendous price, at the price of nothing less precious than blood, and that the blood of Christ, the Holy One of God? Or, go a step further: do you realize that this Christ who has thus shed his blood for you is himself your God?

We have fallen a great deal further away from these great concepts since Warfield’s time, and we are spiritually impoverished as a result. Yet the issue is the same. The questions are unchanged. Is Jesus truly your Redeemer? Are you trusting in him? Your answer to those questions will determine your entire life and destiny.[5]


[1] Tozer, A. W., & Eggert, R. (2015). Tozer on the almighty god: a 365-day devotional. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 208–209). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 70–71). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1688–1689). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[5] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 363–370). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

April 11 – How’s Your Spiritual Appetite?

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).

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Your appetite for righteousness should equal your appetite for food and water.

David was a man after God’s own heart. In Psalm 63:1 he writes, “O God, Thou art my God; I shall seek Thee earnestly; my soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh yearns for Thee, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” He communed with God and knew the blessings of His sufficiency: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. … He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness. … Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:1–4). He endured unjust persecution for the Lord’s sake: “Zeal for Thy house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach Thee have fallen on me” (Ps. 69:9).

David’s zeal for God illustrates what Jesus meant when He said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). The words translated “hunger” and “thirst” speak of intense desire. They are present participles, which imply continuous action. The idea is paradoxical: the believer’s continuous and intense desire for righteousness is continually satisfied by Christ.

  1. N. Darby, an early leader of the Plymouth Brethren movement, said, “To be hungry is not enough; I must be really starving to know what is in [God’s] heart towards me. When the prodigal son was hungry he went to feed upon husks, but when he was starving, he turned to his father” (quoted in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Vol. 1, p. 81). When you have that kind of desperation, only God can satisfy it.

Does your desire for righteousness drive you to Christ for satisfaction? I pray that the words of the psalmist will be yours as well: “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Ps. 17:15, kjv).

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Suggestions for Prayer:  Ask God to use today’s events to increase your hunger and thirst for righteousness. Look to Him in all things, knowing that He alone can satisfy.

For Further Study: Read Philippians 3:1–14. ✧ What does it mean to place confidence in the flesh? ✧ How did Paul define true righteousness?[1]


Happy Are the Hungry

(5:6)

16

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (5:6)

This beatitude speaks of strong desire, of driving pursuit, of a passionate force inside the soul. It has to do with ambition-ambition of the right sort-whose object is to honor, obey, and glorify God by partaking of His righteousness. This holy ambition is in great contrast to the common ambitions of men to gratify their own lusts, accomplish their own goals, and satisfy their own egos.

As no other creature, Lucifer basked in the splendor and radiance of God’s glory. The name Lucifer means “star of the morning” or, more literally, “the bright one.” But he was not satisfied with living in God’s glory, and he said in his heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly in the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:13–14). His ambition was not to reflect God’s glory but to usurp God’s sovereign power-while forsaking righteousness. Therefore when Satan declared his intention to make himself like the Most High, the Most High responded by declaring to His adversary, “You will be thrust down to Sheol, to the recesses of the pit” (v. 15).

As king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar ruled over the greatest of all world empires. One day as he walked on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, “the king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?”’ (Dan. 4:29–30). Nebuchadnezzar lusted after praise just as Lucifer lusted after power. God’s reaction was immediate: “While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes’ ” (vv. 31–32).

Jesus told a parable about a rich farmer whose crops were so abundant that he did not have enough space to store them. After planning to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones, he said, “ ‘I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16–21).

Lucifer hungered for power; Nebuchadnezzar hungered for praise; and the rich fool hungered for pleasure. Because they hungered for wrong things and rejected God’s good things, they forfeited both.

Jesus declares that the deepest desire of every person ought to be to hunger and thirst for righteousness. That is the Spirit-prompted desire that will lead a person to salvation and keep him strong and faithful once he is in the kingdom. It is also the only ambition that, when fulfilled, brings enduring happiness.

The American Declaration of Independence asserts that citizens have the right to the pursuit of happiness. The founding fathers did not presume to guarantee that all who pursue it would find it, because that is beyond the power of any government to provide. Each person is free to seek whatever kind of happiness he wants in the way he wants within the law. Sadly, most US citizens, like most people throughout all of history, have chosen to pursue the wrong kind of happiness in ways that provide no kind of happiness.

Jesus says that the way to happiness, the way to being truly blessed, is the way of spiritual hunger and thirst.

The Necessity for Spiritual Hunger

Hunger and thirst represent the necessities of physical life. Jesus’ analogy demonstrates that righteousness is required for spiritual life just as food and water are required for physical life. Righteousness is not an optional spiritual supplement but a spiritual necessity. We can no more live spiritually without righteousness than we can live physically without food and water.

Since the great famine in Egypt during the time of Joseph, and probably long before then, the world has been periodically plagued by famines. Rome experienced a famine in 436 b.c., which was so severe that thousands of people threw themselves into the Tiber River to drown rather than starve to death. Famine struck England in a.d. 1005, and all of Europe suffered great famines in 879, 1016, and 1162. In our own century, despite the advances in agriculture, many parts of the world still experience periodic famines. In recent years Africa has seen some of the most devastating famines in the world’s history. In the last 100 years tens of millions throughout the world have died from starvation or from the many diseases that accompany severe malnutrition.

A starving person has a single, all-consuming passion for food and water. Nothing else has the slightest attraction or appeal; nothing else can even get his attention.

Those who are without God’s righteousness are starved for spiritual life. But tragically they do not have the natural desire for spiritual life that they do for physical. The tendency of fallen mankind is to turn to itself and to the world for meaning and life, just as “ ‘a dog returns to its own vomit,’ and ‘a sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire’ ” (2 Pet. 2:22; cf. Prov. 26:11).

The heart of every person in the world was created with a sense of inner emptiness and need. Yet apart from God’s revelation men do not recognize what the need is or know what will satisfy it. Like the prodigal son, they will eat pigs’ food, because they have nothing else. “Why,” God asks, “do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?” (Isa. 55:2). The reason is that men have forsaken God, “the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). Though God has created men with a need for Himself, they try to satisfy that need through lifeless gods of their own making.

Again like the prodigal son, men are prone to take good things God has given-such as possessions, health, freedom, opportunities, and knowledge-and spend them on pleasure, power, popularity, fame, and every other form of self-satisfaction. But unlike the prodigal, they are often content to stay in the far country, away from God and away from His blessings.

People are warned not to “love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15–17).

Seeking satisfaction only in God and in His provision is a mark of those who come into His kingdom. Those who belong to the King hunger and thirst for the King’s righteousness. They desire sin to be replaced with virtue and disobedience to be replaced by obedience. They are eager to serve the Word and will of God.

Jesus’ call to spiritual hunger and thirst also follows logically in the progression of the Beatitudes. The first three are essentially negative, commands to forsake evil things that are barriers to the kingdom. In poverty of spirit we turn away from self-seeking; in mourning we turn away from self-satisfaction; and in meekness we turn away from self-serving.

The first three beatitudes are also costly and painful. Becoming poor in spirit involves death to self. Mourning over sin involves facing up to our sinfulness. Becoming meek involves surrendering our power to God’s control.

The fourth beatitude is more positive and is a consequence of the other three. When we put aside self, sins, and power and turn to the Lord, we are given a great desire for righteousness. The more we put aside what we have, the more we long for what God has.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “This Beatitude again follows logically from the previous ones; it is a statement to which all the others lead. It is the logical conclusion to which they come, and it is something for which we should all be profoundly thankful and grateful to God. I do not know of a better test that anyone can apply to himself or herself in this whole matter of the Christian profession than a verse like this. If this verse is to you one of the most blessed statements of the whole of Scripture, you can be quite certain you are a Christian. If it is not, then you had better examine the foundations again” (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971], 1:73–74).

The person who has no hunger and thirst for righteousness has no part in God’s kingdom. To have God’s life within us through the new birth in Jesus Christ is to desire more of His likeness within us by growing in righteousness. This is readily clear from David’s confession in Psalm 119:97, “O how I love Thy law.” Paul echoes David’s passion for righteousness in Romans 7:22, where he testifies, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.” The true believer desires to obey, even though he struggles with unredeemed flesh (cf. Rom. 8:23).

The Meaning of Spiritual Hunger

Most of us have never faced life-threatening hunger and thirst. We think of hunger as missing a meal or two in a row, and of thirst as having to wait an hour on a hot day to get a cold drink. But the hunger and thirst of which Jesus speaks here is of a much more intense sort.

During the liberation of Palestine in World War I, a combined force of British, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers was closely pursuing the Turks as they retreated from the desert. As the allied troops moved northward past Beersheba they began to outdistance their water-carrying camel train. When the water ran out, their mouths got dry, their heads ached, and they became dizzy and faint. Eyes became bloodshot, lips swelled and turned purple, and mirages became common. They knew that if they did not make the wells of Sheriah by nightfall, thousands of them would die-as hundreds already had done. Literally fighting for their lives, they managed to drive the Turks from Sheriah.

As water was distributed from the great stone cisterns, the more able-bodied were required to stand at attention and wait for the wounded and those who would take guard duty to drink first It was four hours before the last man had his drink. During that time the men stood no more than twenty feet from thousands of gallons of water, to drink of which had been their consuming passion for many agonizing days. It is said that one of the officers who was present reported, “I believe that we all learned our first real Bible lesson on the march from Beersheba to Sheriah Wells. If such were our thirst for God, for righteousness and for His will in our lives, a consuming, all-embracing, preoccupying desire, how rich in the fruit of the Spirit would we be?” (E.M. Blaiklock, “Water,” Eternity (August 1966), p. 27).

That is the kind of hunger and thirst of which Jesus speaks in this beatitude. The strongest and deepest impulses in the natural realm are used to represent the depth of desire the called of God and redeemed have for righteousness. The present participle is used in each case and signifies continuous longing, continuous seeking. Those who truly come to Jesus Christ come hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and those who are in Him continue to know that deep longing for holiness.

The parallel passage in Luke says, “Blessed are you who hunger now” (6:21). Desire for righteousness is to characterize our life now and in the rest of our earthly existence.

When Moses was in the wilderness, God appeared to him in a burning bush. When he went back to Egypt to deliver his people, he saw God’s might and power in the miracles and the ten plagues. He saw God part the Dead Sea and swallow up their Egyptian pursuers. He saw God’s glory in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire which led Israel in the wilderness. He built a Tabernacle for God and saw the Lord’s glory shining over the Holy of Holies. Over and over Moses had sought and had seen God’s glory. “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). But Moses was never satisfied and always wanted to see more. He continued to plead, “I pray Thee, show Thy glory” (v. 18).

Moses never had enough of the Lord. Yet from that dissatisfaction came satisfaction. Because of his continual longing for God, Moses found favor in His sight (v. 17), and God promised him, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you” (v. 19).

David declared, “O God, Thou art my God,” but continued, “I shall seek Thee earnestly; my soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh yearns for Thee, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1).

Paul had great visions of God and great revelations from God, yet he was not satisfied. He had given up his own righteousness “derived from the law” and was growing in “the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” But still he longed to “know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:9–10). Peter expressed his own great desire and hunger when he counseled those to whom he wrote to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).

John Darby wrote, “To be hungry is not enough; I must be really starving to know what is in God’s heart toward me. When the prodigal son was hungry, he went to feed on the husks, but when he was starving, he turned to his father.” That is the hunger of which the fourth beatitude speaks, the hunger for righteousness that only the Father can satisfy.

Several years ago someone told me of a friend who had begun coming to a Bible study but soon gave it up, explaining that she wanted to be religious but did not want to make the commitment that Scripture demands. She had little hunger for the things of God. She wanted to pick and choose, to nibble at whatever suited her fancy-because basically she was satisfied with the way she was. In her own eyes she had enough, and thereby became one of the self-adjudged rich whom the Lord sends away empty-handed. It is only the hungry that He fills with good things (Luke 1:53).

The Object of Spiritual Hunger

As with the other beatitudes, the goal of hungering and thirsting for righteousness is twofold. For the unbeliever the goal is salvation; for the believer it is sanctification.

For Salvation

When a person initially hungers and thirsts for righteousness he seeks salvation, the righteousness that comes when one turns from sin to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ. In poverty of spirit he sees his sin; in mourning he laments and turns from his sin; in meekness he submits his own sinful way and power to God; and in hunger and thirst he seeks God’s righteousness in Christ to replace his sin.

In many Old Testament passages righteousness is used as a synonym for salvation. “My righteousness is near, My salvation has gone forth,” the Lord said through Isaiah (51:5). Daniel wrote of the time when “those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:3).

When a person abandons all hope of saving himself, all confidence in self-righteousness, and begins to hunger for the salvation that brings God’s righteousness and the obedience that God requires, he will be blessed, be made divinely happy.

The Jews’ greatest obstacle to receiving the gospel was their self-righteousness, their confidence in their own purity and holiness, which they imagined was created by good works. Because they were God’s chosen race, and as keepers of the law-or, more often, keepers of men’s interpretations of the law-they felt heaven was assured.

The Messiah told them, however, that the only way to salvation was by hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness to replace their own self-righteousness, which was really unrighteousness.

For Sanctification

For believers, the object of hungering and thirsting is to grow in the righteousness received from trusting in Christ. That growth is sanctification, which more than anything else is the mark of a Christian.

No believer “arrives” in his spiritual life until he reaches heaven, and to claim perfection of any sort before then is the ultimate presumption. Children of the kingdom never stop needing or hungering for more of God’s righteousness and holiness to be manifest in them through their obedience. Paul prayed for believers in Philippi that their love might “abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9–10).

In the Greek language, verbs such as hunger and thirst normally have objects that are in the partitive genitive, a case that indicates incompleteness, or partialness. A literal English rendering would be: “I hunger for of food” or “I thirst for of water.” The idea is that a person only hungers for some food and some water, not for all the food and water in the world.

But Jesus does not here use the partitive genitive but the accusative, and righteousness is therefore the unqualified and unlimited object of hunger and thirst. The Lord identifies those who desire all the righteousness there is (cf. Matt. 5:48; 1 Pet. 1:15–16).

Jesus also uses the definite article (tēn), indicating that He is not speaking of just any righteousness, but the righteousness, the only true righteousness-that which comes from God and, in fact, is God’s very own righteousness which He has in Himself.

It becomes obvious, then, that we cannot possibly have our longing for godliness satisfied in this life, so we are left to continually hunger and thirst until the day we are clothed entirely in Christ’s righteousness.

The Result of Spiritual Hunger

The result of hungering and thirsting for righteousness is being satisfied. Chortazō was frequently used of the feeding of animals until they wanted nothing more. They were allowed to eat until they were completely satisfied.

Jesus’ divine pronouncement is that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be given total satisfaction. The giving of satisfaction is God’s work, as the future passive tense indicates: they shall be satisfied. Our part is to seek; His part is to satisfy.

Again there is a marvelous paradox, because though saints continually seek God’s righteousness, always wanting more and never getting all, they nevertheless will be satisfied. We may eat steak or our favorite pie until we can eat no more, yet our taste for those things continues and even increases. It is the very satisfaction that makes us want more. We want to eat more of those things because they are so satisfying. The person who genuinely hungers and thirsts for God’s righteousness finds it so satisfying that he wants more and more.

God’s satisfying those who seek and love Him is a repeated theme in the Psalms. “For He has satisfied the thirsty soul, and the hungry soul He has filled with what is good” (Ps. 107:9). “The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; but they who seek the Lord shall not be in want of any good thing” (34:10). The best-loved of all psalms begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” and later declares, “Thou dost prepare a table before me … my cup overflows” (23:1, 5).

Predicting the great blessings of Christ’s millennial kingdom, Jeremiah assured Israel that in that day, “ ‘My people shall be satisfied with My goodness,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:14). Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar that “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). To the crowds near Capernaum, many of whom had been among the five thousand He fed with the five barley loaves and the two fish, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).

The Testing Of Spiritual Hunger

There are several marks of genuine hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness. First is dissatisfaction with self. The person who is pleased with his own righteousness will see no need for God’s. The great Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “He has most need of righteousness that least wants it,” No matter how rich his spiritual experience or how advanced his spiritual maturity, the hungering Christian will always say, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24).

Second is freedom from dependence on external things for satisfaction. A hungry man cannot be satisfied by an arrangement of lovely flowers, or beautiful music, or pleasant conversation. All of those things are good, but they have no ability to satisfy hunger. Neither can anything but God’s own righteousness satisfy the person who has true spiritual hunger and thirst.

Third is craving for the Word of God, the basic spiritual food lie provides His children. A hungry man does not have to be begged to eat. Jeremiah rejoiced, “Thy words were found and I ate them, and Thy words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer. 15:16). The more we seek God’s righteousness, the more we will want to devour Scripture. Feeding on God’s Word increases our appetite for it.

Fourth is the pleasantness of the things of God. “To a famished man any bitter thing is sweet” (Prov. 27:7). The believer who seeks God’s righteousness above all other things will find fulfillment and satisfaction even in those things that humanly are disastrous. Thomas Watson comments that “the one who hungers and thirsts after righteousness can feed on the myrrh of the gospel as well as the honey.” Even the Lord’s reproofs and discipline bring satisfaction, because they are signs of our Father’s love. “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:6).

A final mark of true spiritual hunger is unconditionality. When our spiritual hunger and thirst are genuine they will make no conditions; they will seek and accept God’s righteousness in whatever way He chooses to provide it and will obey His commands no matter how demanding they may be. The least of God’s righteousness is more valuable than the greatest of anything we possess in ourselves or that the world can offer. The rich young ruler wanted only the part of God’s kingdom that fit his own plans and desires, and he was therefore unfit for the kingdom. He thirsted more for other things than for the things of God. His conditions for God’s blessings barred him from them.

The spiritually hungry do not ask for Christ and economic success, Christ and personal satisfaction, Christ and popularity, or Christ and anything else. They want only Christ and what God in His wisdom and love sovereignly provides through Christ-whatever that may or may not be.

The spiritually hungry cry, “My soul is crushed with longing after Thine ordinances at all times” (Ps. 119:20), and they confess, “At night my soul longs for Thee, indeed, my spirit within me seeks Thee diligently” (Isa. 26:9).[2]


6 “Hunger and thirst” vividly express desire. The sons of Korah cried, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps 42:2; cf. 63:1). The deepest spiritual famine is hunger for the word of God (Am 8:11–14).

The precise nature of the righteousness for which the blessed hunger and thirst is disputed. Some argue that it is the imputed righteousness of God—eschatological salvation or, more narrowly, justification: the blessed hunger for it and receive it (e.g., Grundmann; McNeile; Zahn; Barth [“Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” 123–24]; Bultmann [Theology of the New Testament, 1:273]; Schrenk [TDNT, 2:198]). This is certainly plausible, since the immediate context does arouse hopes for God’s eschatological action, and hungering suggests that the righteousness that satisfies will be given as a gift.

The chief objection is that dikaiosynē (“righteousness,” GK 1466) in Matthew does not have that sense anywhere else (cf. Przybylski, Righteousness in Matthew, 96–98). So it is better to take this righteousness as simultaneously personal righteousness (cf. Hill, Greek Words, 127–28.; Strecker, Weg der Gerechtigkeit, 156–58) and justice in the broadest sense (cf. Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, 190–91; Turner). These people hunger and thirst, not only that they may be righteous (i.e., that they may wholly do God’s will from the heart), but that justice may be done everywhere. All unrighteousness grieves them and makes them homesick for the new heaven and new earth—the home of righteousness (2 Pe 3:13). Satisfied with neither personal righteousness alone nor social justice alone, they cry for both. In short, they long for the advent of the messianic kingdom. What they taste now whets their appetites for more. Ultimately they will be satisfied (same verb as in 14:20; Php 4:12; Rev 19:21) without qualification only when the kingdom is consummated (see discussion in Gundry).[3]


5:6 Next, a blessing is pronounced on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: they are promised satisfaction. These people have a passion for righteousness in their own lives; they long to see honesty, integrity, and justice in society; they look for practical holiness in the church. Like the people of whom Gamaliel Bradford wrote, they have “a thirst no earthly stream can satisfy, a hunger that must feed on Christ or die.” These people will be abundantly satisfied in Christ’s coming kingdom: they shall be filled, for righteousness will reign and corruption will give way to the highest moral standards.[4]


“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (v. 6). At this point it is natural to think of righteousness as the divine, imputed righteousness that those who have humbled themselves before God and mourn for sin desire. But this is probably not what Jesus is saying. The problem with this view is that righteousness is not used this way in Matthew; the idea of imputed righteousness is Pauline. In Matthew’s Gospel, righteousness refers to actual righteousness, expressing itself in right deeds (see Matt. 6:1, for instance). The people described in this verse are those who want to be righteous, to do what is right, and also long to see upright actions by other people and in other places. Jesus says they will experience this upright way of life through himself and the power of his gospel.[5]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Drawing Near—Daily Readings for a Deeper Faith (p. 114). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 177–185). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 164). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1216). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[5] Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (p. 75). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

April 11 – Beware of Redefined, Self-centered Righteousness

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.—Matt. 5:20

Many people today—and sadly, more and more within the church—have redefined biblical concepts to fit their own human perspectives. Like the scribes and Pharisees, religionists know they can’t match God’s righteousness, so they simply change the definition of holiness. A prime example from Old Testament times is how the Jews reinterpreted God’s command, “Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). They turned this from a call for inner holiness into a requirement to perform certain rituals.

The godly person will never rely on self-centered, redefined righteousness. Instead, he will focus on the kind of holiness Jesus taught. He will be broken about sin and mourn over the evil propensity of his heart. Such people long only for the righteousness God can give through His Spirit. They will never rely on their own strength or wisdom for what they can do spiritually.

God has always been focused on inner righteousness. When Samuel was ready to anoint David’s oldest brother, Eliab, to succeed King Saul, God told him, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). And that inner righteousness must be perfect: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). To be truly qualified for entrance into Christ’s kingdom we must be as holy as God Himself.

ASK YOURSELF
Being broken over sin is certainly a crucial part of dealing with its incessant appeal and presence in our lives. But be sure you’re not choosing to remain in perpetual inactivity and introspection. How well is your grieving over sin being translated into renewed obedience?[1]


Christ and the Law—Part 4: The Purpose of Scripture

(5:20)

25

For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. (5:20)

It is the false teaching of salvation by self-effort that Jesus confronts head-on in this verse and which all of Scripture, from beginning to end, contradicts. As Paul makes clear in the Book of Romans, even Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was saved by his faith, not by his works (Rom. 4:3; cf. Gen. 15:6). In Galatians the apostle explains that “the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22). Outside of sin itself, the Bible opposes nothing more vehemently than the religion of human achievement.

Jesus told a “parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). In that well-known story a Pharisee and a tax-gatherer went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee prayed self-righteously, “ ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other,” Jesus said, “for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (vv. 10–14).

The least-esteemed and most-hated man in Jewish society was the tax-gatherer, a fellow Jew who had sold out to Rome for the purpose of collecting taxes from his brethren. He extorted all he could get from the people, keeping for himself everything he purloined above what Rome required. He had forsaken both national, social, family, and religious loyalty for the sake of money. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was the model Jew, highly religious, moral, and respectable. Yet Jesus said that, despite the tax-gatherer’s treachery and sin, he would be justified by God because of his penitent faith, whereas the Pharisee, despite his high morals and religiousness, would be condemned, because he trusted in his own righteousness and good works.

In the present passage Jesus teaches that the sort of righteousness exemplified by the Pharisees was not sufficient to gain entrance into His kingdom. To Jesus’ legalistic, works-oriented hearers, this was doubtlessly the most radical thing He had yet taught. If the meticulously religious and moral Pharisees could not get into heaven, who could?

After showing the preeminence (v. 17), permanence (v. 18), and pertinence (v. 19) of Scripture, Jesus now shows its purpose. From the context of those preceding three verses it is clear that He is still speaking of “the Law and the Prophets,” the Old Testament Scriptures. In saying that true righteousness exceeds the kind displayed by the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said that, whatever they did with man-made tradition, they did not live up to the standards of Scripture.

The implied truth of Matthew 5:20 is this: The purpose of God’s law was to show that, to please God and to be worthy of citizenship in His kingdom, more righteousness is required than anyone can possibly have or accomplish in himself. The purpose of the law was not to show what to do in order to make oneself acceptable, much less to show how good one already is, but to show how utterly sinful and helpless all men are in themselves. (That is one of Paul’s themes in Romans and Galatians.) As the Lord pointed out to the Jews in the first beatitude, the initial step toward kingdom citizenship is poverty of spirit, recognizing one’s total wretchedness and inadequacy before God.

The Identity of the Scribes and Pharisees

Like Ezra (Ezra 7:12), the earliest gramraateōn (scribes) were found only among the priests and Levites. They recorded, studied, interpreted, and often taught Jewish law. Although there were scribes among the Sadducees, most were associated with the Pharisees.

Israel had two kinds of scribes, civil and ecclesiastical. The civil scribes functioned somewhat like notaries, and were involved in various governmental duties. Shimshai (Ezra 4:8) was such a scribe. The ecclesiastical scribes devoted their time to study of the Scriptures, and came to be its primary interpreters and articulators.

Yet, as Jesus repeatedly made plain, they failed to understand what they studied and taught. With all their exposure to God’s Word, being superficially immersed in it continually, they missed its profound spiritual intent.

The influential, rigid Pharisees were particularly confident in their system of righteousness. The Jews had a saying, “If only two people go to heaven, one will be a scribe and the other a Pharisee.” Those men were completely convinced that God was obligated to honor their devoted and demanding works. In comparing themselves with the standards they had established-and especially in comparing themselves with the average Jew, not to mention Gentile-they could not imagine God was not favorably impressed with their goodness.

Yet, like many serious and capable scholars throughout the history of the church, the Pharisees of Judaism were also blind to the meaning of the words they diligently studied and discussed.

The Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees

The standard of righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees taught and practiced differed from God’s righteousness in several important ways. It was external, partial, redefined, and self-centered.

External

First of all the scribes and Pharisees concerned themselves entirely with external observance of the law and tradition. They took little consideration of motives or attitudes. No matter how much they may have hated a person, if they did not kill him they were not guilty of breaking the commandment. No matter how much they may have lusted, they did not consider themselves guilty of adultery or fornication as long as they did not commit the physical act.

In Matthew 23 our Lord gives a graphic picture of the external character of that religion. “You clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (v. 25). The Lord prefaced those words with, “Woe to you, … hypocrites,” labeling those leaders with their sin. They saw nothing wrong with having evil thoughts as long as they did not carry out those thoughts externally. They did not think God would judge them for what they thought but only for what they did.

Yet that is precisely the sort of righteousness Jesus declared to be the worst sort. He condemned such externalism because those who practiced it were really thieves, self-indulgent, unclean, lawless, murderous, and enemies of God’s true spokesmen (Matt. 23:25–31). Jesus’ next teachings in the Sermon on the Mount show that God’s first concern is with the heart-with such things as anger, hatred, and lust-not just with their outward manifestations in murder or adultery (Matt. 5:22, 27–28). Hypocrisy cannot substitute for holiness.

God’s concern about religious ceremony is the same. Jesus is soon to teach that if, for example, our giving, our prayer, and our fasting are not done out of a humble, loving spirit, they count for nothing with Him (6:5–18). Ritual cannot substitute for righteousness.

The scribes and Pharisees were proud that they had “seated themselves in the chair of Moses” (Matt. 23:2), that is, that they were the custodians and teachers of the law God gave to Moses. “All that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them” (v. 3). By their ungodly system of works righteousness, Jesus told them, “You shut off the kingdom of heaven from men; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (v. 13). On another occasion He told the Pharisees, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).

Partial

The righteousness practiced by the scribes and Pharisees also fell short of God’s righteousness because it was partial, woefully incomplete. Again Matthew 23 gives an example: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weigh tier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (v. 23). Those religious leaders were meticulous in tithing the smallest plants and seeds from their gardens, though that was not specifically commanded in the law. Yet they had total disregard for showing justice and mercy to other people and for being faithful in their hearts to God. They were much concerned about making long, pretentious prayers in public, but had no compunction about taking a widow’s house away from her (v. 14).

To some extent this second evil was caused by the first. They disregarded such things as justice, mercy, and faithfulness because those things are essentially the reflections of a transformed heart. It is impossible to be merciful, just, and faithful without a divinely wrought change. No external formality can produce that.

Quoting God’s scathing words to their forefathers, Jesus told them, “In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:7–8). Yet they considered themselves to be Israel’s religious elite and the objects of God’s special affection.

Redefined

In many ways the scribes and Pharisees were like neoorthodox and liberal theologians of our own day. They took biblical terms and redefined them to suit their own human perspectives and philosophy. They reworked biblical teachings, commands, and standards to produce variations in keeping with their own desires and capabilities.

Even such commands as “Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44) they interpreted not as a call to pure attitude of heart but as a requirement to perform certain rituals. They knew they could not be holy in the same way God is holy-and had no desire to be-so they simply changed the meaning of holiness.

Self-Centered

Not only was the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees external, partial, and redefined, but it was also completely self-centered. It was produced by self for the purposes of self-glory. Above all else, those leaders sought to be self-satisfied, and their system of religion was designed to enhance that self-satisfaction by providing ways to accomplish external, showy things about which they could boast and be proud. Their satisfaction came when they received approval and commendation from men.

In stark contrast, the godly person is broken about his sin and mourns over the wicked condition of his inner life, the unrighteousness he sees in his heart and mind. He has absolutely no confidence in what he is or in what he can do, but longs for the righteousness only God can give out of His mercy and grace.

But the person who is righteous in his own eyes sees no need for any other righteousness, no need for salvation, mercy, forgiveness, or grace. Just as their self-righteous forefathers had not wanted the grace God offered in the Old Testament, the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day did not want the grace the Messiah now offered. They wanted to rule their own lives and determine their own destinies and were not ready to submit to a King who wanted to rule their inner as well as their outward lives. “Not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3).

The Righteousness God Requires

The righteousness God requires of His kingdom citizens far surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. The term surpasses is used of a river overflowing its banks, emphasizing that which is far in excess of the normal. The Lord requires genuine righteousness, real holiness that far exceeds anything human and that exists only in the redeemed heart. The psalmist wrote, “The King’s daughter is all glorious within; her clothing is interwoven with gold” (Ps. 45:13). When the inside is beautiful, outward beauty is appropriate; but without inner beauty, outward adornment is pretense and sham.

God has always been concerned first of all with inner righteousness. When Samuel was ready to anoint Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, to be Saul’s successor, the Lord said, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).

God not only requires inner righteousness but perfect righteousness.

“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). To be qualified for God’s kingdom we must be as holy as the King Himself. That standard is so infinitely high that even the most self-righteous person would not dare claim to possess it or be able to attain it.

The Righteousness God Gives

That impossibility leads the sincere person to wonder how such a holy heart is obtained, to ask the question Jesus’ disciples one day asked Him, “Then who can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25). And the only answer is the one Jesus gave on that occasion: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (v. 26).

The One who demands perfect righteousness gives perfect righteousness. The One who tells us of the way into the kingdom is Himself that way. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6), Jesus said. The King not only sets the standard of perfect righteousness, but will Himself bring anyone up to that standard who is willing to enter the kingdom on the King’s terms.

“A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, … since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16). To be justified is to be made righteous, and to be made righteous by Christ is the only way to become righteous.

“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Rom. 3:21–22). Faith had always been God’s way to righteousness, a truth that the scribes and Pharisees, the experts on the Old Testament, should have known above all other people. As Paul reminded his Jewish readers in Rome, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ ” (Rom. 4:3). He quoted from the Book of Genesis (15:6), the earliest book of the Old Testament. The first patriarch, the first Jew, was saved by faith, not by works (Rom. 4:2) or the act of circumcision (v. 10). Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them” (v. 11).

The uncircumcised includes those before as well as after Abraham. He was the father of the faithful, but he was not the first of the faithful. “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous” and “by faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God” (Heb. 11:4–5). It was also only by faith that Noah found salvation (v. 7).

“For if by the transgression of the one [that is, Adam], death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).

“As sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 21).

The righteousness God requires, God also gives. It cannot be deserved, earned, or accomplished, but only accepted. By offering Himself for sin, Christ “condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4–5). God gave the impossible standard and then Himself provided its fulfillment.

The writer of Romans had considerably more claim to man-made righteousness than most of the scribes and Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke. “If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more,” wrote Paul; “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Phil. 3:4–6).

But when the apostle was confronted by Christ’s righteousness, he was also confronted by his own sinfulness. When he saw what God had done for him, he saw that what he had done for God was worthless. “Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (vv. 7–9).

For those who trust in Him, Christ has become “to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). When God looks at imperfect, sinful believers, He sees His perfect, sinless Son. We have become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) and possess in ourselves the very righteous life of the holy, eternal God. Admittedly, until our flesh is also redeemed (Rom. 8:23) that new righteous self is in a battle with sin. Even so, we are righteous in our standing before God in Christ, and have the new capacity to act righteously.

If even God’s own law alone cannot make a person righteous, how much less can man-made traditions do so? Those who insist on coming to God in their own way and in their own power will never reach Him; they shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. No church, no ritual, no works, no philosophy, no system can bring a person to God. Those who, through a church, through a cult, or simply through their own personal standards, try to work their way into God’s grace know nothing of what His grace is about.

It is tragic that many people today, like the scribes and Pharisees, will try any way to God but His way. They will pay any price, but will not accept the price He paid. They will do any work for Him, but they will not accept the finished work of His Son for them. They will accept any gift from God except the gift of His free salvation. Such people are religious but not regenerated, and they shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“I am not setting God’s law aside,” Jesus said. “I will uphold God’s law, and I will strip it of all the barnacles of man-made tradition with which it has been encrusted. I will reestablish its preeminence, its permanence, and its pertinence. I will reaffirm the purpose God had for it from the beginning: to show that every person is a sinner and is incapable of fulfilling the law. The one who lowers the standards to a level he can fulfill will be judged by God’s law and excluded from God’s grace.”[2]


20 And that teaching, far from being more lenient, is nothing less than perfection (see comments at v. 48). The Pharisees and teachers of the law (see comments at 2:4; 3:7; Introduction, section 11.f) were among the most punctilious in the land. Jesus’ criticism is “not that they were not good, but that they were not good enough” (Hill). While their multiplicity of regulations could engender a “good” society, it domesticated the law and lost the radical demand for absolute holiness demanded by the Scriptures.

What Jesus demanded is the righteousness to which the law truly points, exemplified in the antitheses that follow (vv. 21–48). The law, for instance, forbids adultery. Someone might truthfully say that he has kept that law. But if that law points forward to such righteousness as prohibits adultery in one’s heart, the stakes are higher than can be met by even the most law-abiding Pharisee. Contrary to Helmut Flender (Die Botschaft Jesu, 45f.), v. 3 (poverty of spirit) and v. 20 (demand for radical righteousness) do not stand opposite each other in flat contradiction. Verse 20 does not establish how the righteousness is to be gained, developed, or empowered; it simply lays out the demand. Messiah will develop a people who will be called “oaks of righteousness … for the display of [Yahweh’s] splendor” (Isa 61:3). The verb “surpasses” suggests that the new righteousness outstrips the old both qualitatively and quantitatively (Bonnard; see comments at 25:31–46). Anything less does not enter the kingdom.[3]


5:20 To gain entrance into the kingdom, our righteousness must surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (who were content with religious ceremonies which gave them an outward, ritual cleansing, but which never changed their hearts). Jesus uses hyperbole (exaggeration) to drive home the truth that external righteousness without internal reality will not gain entrance into the kingdom. The only righteousness that God will accept is the perfection that He imputes to those who accept His Son as Savior (2 Cor. 5:21). Of course, where there is true faith in Christ, there will also be the practical righteousness that Jesus describes in the remainder of the Sermon.[4]


Faith, Justification, and Good Works

Verse 19 is mostly negative, addressing the failure to practice and teach what is right. In the last verse of this section, we come to what is positive. But strikingly, the positive is no more encouraging than the negative. It is stunning, sobering, even frightening in its rigor. “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20). More even than the Pharisees and teachers of the law? Aren’t they the most upright and moral of all people? Aren’t they known everywhere for their good works?

Jesus’ statement is especially sobering in contrast to what he has just said. In the preceding verse he said that failing to practice the law or teaching others to break it would result in a dishonorable place in God’s kingdom. But here he says that without a righteousness surpassing even that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the alleged disciple will have no place in God’s kingdom at all.

Here I have to correct the way I wrote about this verse a quarter of a century ago. When I handled this verse for the first time in a series of messages that eventually appeared in my book The Sermon on the Mount: An Exposition, I taught that the righteousness referred to in verse 20 is the divine righteousness that comes to us by God imputing it to us on the basis of Jesus’ death. Nothing I said about the need for imputed righteousness was wrong in itself. We do need that righteousness. Without it we are lost. But as I have indicated several times earlier in this series, this is not the way “righteousness” is used in Matthew’s Gospel.

In Matthew, “righteousness” means an actual conformity to God’s demands in Scripture, both externally and also internally, as the next verses in the Sermon on the Mount will show. But how are we to match that to what we have heard about justification through Christ’s work on our behalf?

The answer is that although justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ is the core of the gospel and utterly essential—Luther called it “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls”—it is not the whole of the gospel, and it is not what Jesus is talking about here. It is true that God justifies the ungodly on the basis of Christ’s work, but that is not all God does. God also regenerates the one who is being justified. Thus, there is no justification without regeneration, just as there is no regeneration without justification. The important point is that the re-created person will actually live a moral life superior to that of the Pharisees.

Regeneration is what Jesus was talking about when he told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). It is what Paul was writing about when he told the Ephesians, “God … made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Eph. 2:4–5). On the basis of this distinction, Paul then speaks of two kinds of works, those we are capable of by ourselves (like the righteousness of the Pharisees) and those that are produced in us by the new life of Christ within. Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8–10). As D. A. Carson rightly observes, “Verse 20 does not establish how the righteousness is to be gained, developed or empowered; it simply lays out the demand.”

How then is this superior, practical righteousness to be gained, developed, and empowered? It is by coming to Christ, finding both justification and new life in him, and then by obeying and serving God by God’s own power. We are not capable of obeying and serving God by our own strength. We will be able to do it only because “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).

The wonderful thing about this is that when we find ourselves doing good works, we will not take credit for ourselves (which is what the Pharisees did, judging themselves to be persons who were morally superior to other people). Instead, we will give all the glory to God by whom this righteousness is attained and by whose power alone these good works can be done. Moreover, we will marvel at the wisdom of God, which made such a great salvation possible, and we will say, as Paul did in Romans, “To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:36).[5]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 110). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 274–282). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 179). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1219). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[5] Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 84–85). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

APRIL 11 – IF MY ACCOUNT WERE CLOSED TOMORROW

Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

—Psalm 103:1-2

Increasing knowledge of God’s ways and works, especially His wise and tender treatment of His redeemed children, fills me with ever-mounting degrees of admiration and praise. It is becoming every day easier to understand experientially the hosannas and hallelujahs which make up such a large portion of the sacred Scriptures. They are the normal response of the heart to the manifold goodness of God, and it would, in fact, be hard to understand their omission if they were not found there.

While I have no doubt that the grace which has followed me since my boyhood will continue with me while I live on earth and for an eternity after, I have enjoyed already enough of God’s benefits to supply me with matter for constant praise for at least a thousand years to come. If God were to close my account tomorrow and refuse any longer to honor me with His favors, the circumstances of His grace to me so far would require that I should still thank Him unceasingly with tears of honest gratitude. TET071-072

Lord, don’t ever let me take for granted the many blessings You send my way. Give me a thankful heart today and be pleased with my offering of praise. Amen. [1]


1–2 Praise of God begins with the self. As the psalmist exhorts himself to praise the Lord with his “soul” (nepeš, GK 5883; vv. 1–2) and “inmost being,” he has nothing else in mind than a full commitment to the act of giving thanks. There is no thought of a separation between “soul” and “inmost being” (lit., “my inner parts”) or between “soul” and “body,” because in Hebraic thought the worshiper praises the Lord with his or her entire being.

The praise of God is focused on “his holy name.” The “name” of the Lord calls to remembrance all of his perfections and acts of deliverance (“all his benefits,” v. 2; see Reflections, p. 271, The Perfections of Yahweh; p. 603, The Mighty Acts of Yahweh). The Lord had revealed to Israel his name, “Yahweh” (Ex 6:6–8; cf. 3:18), so that they might witness his benefits in the redemption from Egypt, the giving of the land, and the fulfillment of his promises. The psalmist recites many of the Lord’s blessings to the covenantal community (vv. 3–22). Praise is the response of awe for God while reflecting on what the Lord has done for the people of God throughout the history of redemption, for creation at large, for the community, and for oneself.

Praise also has an eschatological dimension, as the psalmist reflects on the ultimate righteousness that the Lord will establish (vv. 6, 15–19; cf. 2 Pe 3:13). In and through the divine acts in history the Lord reveals his holiness on earth (v. 1). Far from separating himself from the evil in this world, God’s acts of redemption are significant steps in reclaiming the world by and for “his holy name” and in fulfilling the ultimate plan of dwelling in the midst of his holy people (cf. Eze 48:35; Rev 22:3). The opposite of “praise” is “forgetfulness.” To “forget” (v. 2) the “benefits” (gemûl; cf. v. 10) of the Lord is to disregard his covenantal lordship (cf. Dt 4:9, 23; 6:12; 8:11; 32:18).[2]


103:1 One of the reasons we love the Psalms so much is that they verbalize so beautifully what we often feel but cannot find words to express. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of the 103rd. In its majestic cadences of thanksgiving, we read sentiments that mirror our own deepest emotions of gratitude. Here we call on our soul to bless the Lord—and by our soul we mean not just the non-material part of our nature but the entire person. Spirit, soul, and body are cued in to bless the holy name of Jehovah.

103:2 The call to worship rings out a second time, with the significant added reminder that we should forget not all His benefits. It is a needed reminder because all too often we do forget. We forget to thank Him for soundness of body, soundness of mind, sight, hearing, speech, appetite, and a host of other mercies. We take them too much for granted.[3]


How Should a Person Praise God?

I want to address a number of questions to this psalm, arranging them in such a way that the successive verses of the psalm give the answers. First, How should a person praise God? The answer of this psalm is in verses 1–2. It is with “all my inmost being” or with all my soul.

Praise the Lord, O my soul;

all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Praise the Lord, O my soul,

and forget not all his benefits.

In these verses David is rousing himself to remember God’s benefits, and he does not want to do it superficially. He wants to do it with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his strength (cf. Deut. 6:5). This is the place to begin noticing the “alls” in this psalm: “all my inmost being” (v. 1) and for “all his benefits” (v. 2), which include forgiveness for “all your sins” and the healing of “all your diseases” (v. 3). Later David will call on “all [God’s] heavenly hosts” and “all his works” to join him in his praise (vv. 21–22).

What a rebuke to much of what passes for praise in our assemblies. We come to church, but we leave our minds at home. We hear of God’s grace, but our hearts have been hardened by a critical and carping spirit. Jonathan Edwards believed that there is no true worship that does not touch the “affections.” We often are strangely unaffected, honoring God “with our lips” while our hearts are “far from him” (cf. Matt. 15:8; Isa. 29:13).[4]


103:1 Bless the Lord. Cf. 103:2, 22; 104:1, 35

103:2 forget none of His benefits. These earthly gifts from God included: 1) forgiveness of sin (v. 3), 2) recovery from sickness (v. 3), 3) deliverance from death (v. 4), 4) abundant lovingkindness and mercy (v. 4), and 5) food to sustain life (v. 5).[5]


103:1–2 Bless the Lord, O My Soul, and Do Not Forget His Benefits. Each member of the worshiping congregation urges himself to bless the Lord, i.e., to speak well of him for his abundant generosity. Thus forget not all his benefits is a crucial step in blessing the Lord, and the body of the psalm lists these benefits in order to bring each singer to an admiring gratitude.[6]


103:1 Bless Yahweh The psalmist repeats this command six times (vv. 1, 2, 20, 21, 22). The Hebrew word used here, barakh (which may be literally rendered as “to bless”), describes bestowing someone with special power or declaring Yahweh to be the source of special power. In that regard, it means praising Yahweh for who He is. Compare 106:48 and note.

bless his holy name This refers primarily to the essential character and nature of Yahweh. See 94:14 and note.[7]


103:1–2. David told himself (O my soul) to praise the Lord with all his being, that is, to put his whole heart in his praise of God’s holy name (cf. 33:21). This was certainly warranted in view of the Lord’s many benefits.[8]


[1] Tozer, A. W., & Eggert, R. (2015). Tozer on the almighty god: a 365-day devotional. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] VanGemeren, W. A. (2008). Psalms. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Revised Edition) (Vol. 5, p. 756). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 703). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 42–106: An Expositional Commentary (pp. 832–833). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[5] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Ps 103:1–2). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[6] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1067). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[7] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Ps 103:1). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[8] Ross, A. P. (1985). Psalms. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 867). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

April 10 – Warning against Partial Righteousness

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.—Matt. 5:20

The righteousness practiced by the religious leaders further displeased God because it was partial, falling way short of His perfect standard. Again in Matthew 23, Jesus illustrates this phony righteousness: “You tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (v. 23).

The Jewish leaders were conscientious about making nonessential tithes of the smallest plants and seeds, yet they totally neglected showing justice and mercy to others or having heartfelt faithfulness to God.

To a large degree this sin of partial righteousness flows directly from externalism. Unregenerate people disregard justice, mercy, and faithfulness because those traits basically reflect a divinely transformed heart. Without a new heart no one can accomplish “the weightier provisions of the law.”

In a separate encounter, the Lord quoted Isaiah and further warned the Pharisees of their empty and misdirected religion: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mark 7:6–7). Like the religious leaders and many of the people of Jesus’ day, professing believers today can be constantly exposed to Scripture but only superficially responsive to it. Their watered-down, partial obedience to God’s commands demonstrates their failure to grasp the profound spiritual intent of God’s law and their probable unsaved condition.

ASK YOURSELF
Realize afresh today that the only obedience which interests God is total obedience—the kind that can only be accomplished through Christ’s righteousness, imputed to His redeemed children. What instances of partial obedience need to be converted to full obedience in your life?[1]


Christ and the Law—Part 4: The Purpose of Scripture

(5:20)

25

For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. (5:20)

It is the false teaching of salvation by self-effort that Jesus confronts head-on in this verse and which all of Scripture, from beginning to end, contradicts. As Paul makes clear in the Book of Romans, even Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was saved by his faith, not by his works (Rom. 4:3; cf. Gen. 15:6). In Galatians the apostle explains that “the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22). Outside of sin itself, the Bible opposes nothing more vehemently than the religion of human achievement.

Jesus told a “parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). In that well-known story a Pharisee and a tax-gatherer went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee prayed self-righteously, “ ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other,” Jesus said, “for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (vv. 10–14).

The least-esteemed and most-hated man in Jewish society was the tax-gatherer, a fellow Jew who had sold out to Rome for the purpose of collecting taxes from his brethren. He extorted all he could get from the people, keeping for himself everything he purloined above what Rome required. He had forsaken both national, social, family, and religious loyalty for the sake of money. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was the model Jew, highly religious, moral, and respectable. Yet Jesus said that, despite the tax-gatherer’s treachery and sin, he would be justified by God because of his penitent faith, whereas the Pharisee, despite his high morals and religiousness, would be condemned, because he trusted in his own righteousness and good works.

In the present passage Jesus teaches that the sort of righteousness exemplified by the Pharisees was not sufficient to gain entrance into His kingdom. To Jesus’ legalistic, works-oriented hearers, this was doubtlessly the most radical thing He had yet taught. If the meticulously religious and moral Pharisees could not get into heaven, who could?

After showing the preeminence (v. 17), permanence (v. 18), and pertinence (v. 19) of Scripture, Jesus now shows its purpose. From the context of those preceding three verses it is clear that He is still speaking of “the Law and the Prophets,” the Old Testament Scriptures. In saying that true righteousness exceeds the kind displayed by the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said that, whatever they did with man-made tradition, they did not live up to the standards of Scripture.

The implied truth of Matthew 5:20 is this: The purpose of God’s law was to show that, to please God and to be worthy of citizenship in His kingdom, more righteousness is required than anyone can possibly have or accomplish in himself. The purpose of the law was not to show what to do in order to make oneself acceptable, much less to show how good one already is, but to show how utterly sinful and helpless all men are in themselves. (That is one of Paul’s themes in Romans and Galatians.) As the Lord pointed out to the Jews in the first beatitude, the initial step toward kingdom citizenship is poverty of spirit, recognizing one’s total wretchedness and inadequacy before God.

The Identity of the Scribes and Pharisees

Like Ezra (Ezra 7:12), the earliest gramraateōn (scribes) were found only among the priests and Levites. They recorded, studied, interpreted, and often taught Jewish law. Although there were scribes among the Sadducees, most were associated with the Pharisees.

Israel had two kinds of scribes, civil and ecclesiastical. The civil scribes functioned somewhat like notaries, and were involved in various governmental duties. Shimshai (Ezra 4:8) was such a scribe. The ecclesiastical scribes devoted their time to study of the Scriptures, and came to be its primary interpreters and articulators.

Yet, as Jesus repeatedly made plain, they failed to understand what they studied and taught. With all their exposure to God’s Word, being superficially immersed in it continually, they missed its profound spiritual intent.

The influential, rigid Pharisees were particularly confident in their system of righteousness. The Jews had a saying, “If only two people go to heaven, one will be a scribe and the other a Pharisee.” Those men were completely convinced that God was obligated to honor their devoted and demanding works. In comparing themselves with the standards they had established-and especially in comparing themselves with the average Jew, not to mention Gentile-they could not imagine God was not favorably impressed with their goodness.

Yet, like many serious and capable scholars throughout the history of the church, the Pharisees of Judaism were also blind to the meaning of the words they diligently studied and discussed.

The Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees

The standard of righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees taught and practiced differed from God’s righteousness in several important ways. It was external, partial, redefined, and self-centered.

External

First of all the scribes and Pharisees concerned themselves entirely with external observance of the law and tradition. They took little consideration of motives or attitudes. No matter how much they may have hated a person, if they did not kill him they were not guilty of breaking the commandment. No matter how much they may have lusted, they did not consider themselves guilty of adultery or fornication as long as they did not commit the physical act.

In Matthew 23 our Lord gives a graphic picture of the external character of that religion. “You clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (v. 25). The Lord prefaced those words with, “Woe to you, … hypocrites,” labeling those leaders with their sin. They saw nothing wrong with having evil thoughts as long as they did not carry out those thoughts externally. They did not think God would judge them for what they thought but only for what they did.

Yet that is precisely the sort of righteousness Jesus declared to be the worst sort. He condemned such externalism because those who practiced it were really thieves, self-indulgent, unclean, lawless, murderous, and enemies of God’s true spokesmen (Matt. 23:25–31). Jesus’ next teachings in the Sermon on the Mount show that God’s first concern is with the heart-with such things as anger, hatred, and lust-not just with their outward manifestations in murder or adultery (Matt. 5:22, 27–28). Hypocrisy cannot substitute for holiness.

God’s concern about religious ceremony is the same. Jesus is soon to teach that if, for example, our giving, our prayer, and our fasting are not done out of a humble, loving spirit, they count for nothing with Him (6:5–18). Ritual cannot substitute for righteousness.

The scribes and Pharisees were proud that they had “seated themselves in the chair of Moses” (Matt. 23:2), that is, that they were the custodians and teachers of the law God gave to Moses. “All that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them” (v. 3). By their ungodly system of works righteousness, Jesus told them, “You shut off the kingdom of heaven from men; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (v. 13). On another occasion He told the Pharisees, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).

Partial

The righteousness practiced by the scribes and Pharisees also fell short of God’s righteousness because it was partial, woefully incomplete. Again Matthew 23 gives an example: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weigh tier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (v. 23). Those religious leaders were meticulous in tithing the smallest plants and seeds from their gardens, though that was not specifically commanded in the law. Yet they had total disregard for showing justice and mercy to other people and for being faithful in their hearts to God. They were much concerned about making long, pretentious prayers in public, but had no compunction about taking a widow’s house away from her (v. 14).

To some extent this second evil was caused by the first. They disregarded such things as justice, mercy, and faithfulness because those things are essentially the reflections of a transformed heart. It is impossible to be merciful, just, and faithful without a divinely wrought change. No external formality can produce that.

Quoting God’s scathing words to their forefathers, Jesus told them, “In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:7–8). Yet they considered themselves to be Israel’s religious elite and the objects of God’s special affection.

Redefined

In many ways the scribes and Pharisees were like neoorthodox and liberal theologians of our own day. They took biblical terms and redefined them to suit their own human perspectives and philosophy. They reworked biblical teachings, commands, and standards to produce variations in keeping with their own desires and capabilities.

Even such commands as “Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44) they interpreted not as a call to pure attitude of heart but as a requirement to perform certain rituals. They knew they could not be holy in the same way God is holy-and had no desire to be-so they simply changed the meaning of holiness.

Self-Centered

Not only was the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees external, partial, and redefined, but it was also completely self-centered. It was produced by self for the purposes of self-glory. Above all else, those leaders sought to be self-satisfied, and their system of religion was designed to enhance that self-satisfaction by providing ways to accomplish external, showy things about which they could boast and be proud. Their satisfaction came when they received approval and commendation from men.

In stark contrast, the godly person is broken about his sin and mourns over the wicked condition of his inner life, the unrighteousness he sees in his heart and mind. He has absolutely no confidence in what he is or in what he can do, but longs for the righteousness only God can give out of His mercy and grace.

But the person who is righteous in his own eyes sees no need for any other righteousness, no need for salvation, mercy, forgiveness, or grace. Just as their self-righteous forefathers had not wanted the grace God offered in the Old Testament, the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day did not want the grace the Messiah now offered. They wanted to rule their own lives and determine their own destinies and were not ready to submit to a King who wanted to rule their inner as well as their outward lives. “Not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3).

The Righteousness God Requires

The righteousness God requires of His kingdom citizens far surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. The term surpasses is used of a river overflowing its banks, emphasizing that which is far in excess of the normal. The Lord requires genuine righteousness, real holiness that far exceeds anything human and that exists only in the redeemed heart. The psalmist wrote, “The King’s daughter is all glorious within; her clothing is interwoven with gold” (Ps. 45:13). When the inside is beautiful, outward beauty is appropriate; but without inner beauty, outward adornment is pretense and sham.

God has always been concerned first of all with inner righteousness. When Samuel was ready to anoint Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, to be Saul’s successor, the Lord said, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).

God not only requires inner righteousness but perfect righteousness.

“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). To be qualified for God’s kingdom we must be as holy as the King Himself. That standard is so infinitely high that even the most self-righteous person would not dare claim to possess it or be able to attain it.

The Righteousness God Gives

That impossibility leads the sincere person to wonder how such a holy heart is obtained, to ask the question Jesus’ disciples one day asked Him, “Then who can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25). And the only answer is the one Jesus gave on that occasion: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (v. 26).

The One who demands perfect righteousness gives perfect righteousness. The One who tells us of the way into the kingdom is Himself that way. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6), Jesus said. The King not only sets the standard of perfect righteousness, but will Himself bring anyone up to that standard who is willing to enter the kingdom on the King’s terms.

“A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, … since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16). To be justified is to be made righteous, and to be made righteous by Christ is the only way to become righteous.

“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Rom. 3:21–22). Faith had always been God’s way to righteousness, a truth that the scribes and Pharisees, the experts on the Old Testament, should have known above all other people. As Paul reminded his Jewish readers in Rome, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ ” (Rom. 4:3). He quoted from the Book of Genesis (15:6), the earliest book of the Old Testament. The first patriarch, the first Jew, was saved by faith, not by works (Rom. 4:2) or the act of circumcision (v. 10). Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them” (v. 11).

The uncircumcised includes those before as well as after Abraham. He was the father of the faithful, but he was not the first of the faithful. “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous” and “by faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God” (Heb. 11:4–5). It was also only by faith that Noah found salvation (v. 7).

“For if by the transgression of the one [that is, Adam], death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).

“As sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 21).

The righteousness God requires, God also gives. It cannot be deserved, earned, or accomplished, but only accepted. By offering Himself for sin, Christ “condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4–5). God gave the impossible standard and then Himself provided its fulfillment.

The writer of Romans had considerably more claim to man-made righteousness than most of the scribes and Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke. “If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more,” wrote Paul; “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Phil. 3:4–6).

But when the apostle was confronted by Christ’s righteousness, he was also confronted by his own sinfulness. When he saw what God had done for him, he saw that what he had done for God was worthless. “Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (vv. 7–9).

For those who trust in Him, Christ has become “to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). When God looks at imperfect, sinful believers, He sees His perfect, sinless Son. We have become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) and possess in ourselves the very righteous life of the holy, eternal God. Admittedly, until our flesh is also redeemed (Rom. 8:23) that new righteous self is in a battle with sin. Even so, we are righteous in our standing before God in Christ, and have the new capacity to act righteously.

If even God’s own law alone cannot make a person righteous, how much less can man-made traditions do so? Those who insist on coming to God in their own way and in their own power will never reach Him; they shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. No church, no ritual, no works, no philosophy, no system can bring a person to God. Those who, through a church, through a cult, or simply through their own personal standards, try to work their way into God’s grace know nothing of what His grace is about.

It is tragic that many people today, like the scribes and Pharisees, will try any way to God but His way. They will pay any price, but will not accept the price He paid. They will do any work for Him, but they will not accept the finished work of His Son for them. They will accept any gift from God except the gift of His free salvation. Such people are religious but not regenerated, and they shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“I am not setting God’s law aside,” Jesus said. “I will uphold God’s law, and I will strip it of all the barnacles of man-made tradition with which it has been encrusted. I will reestablish its preeminence, its permanence, and its pertinence. I will reaffirm the purpose God had for it from the beginning: to show that every person is a sinner and is incapable of fulfilling the law. The one who lowers the standards to a level he can fulfill will be judged by God’s law and excluded from God’s grace.”[2]


Faith, Justification, and Good Works

Verse 19 is mostly negative, addressing the failure to practice and teach what is right. In the last verse of this section, we come to what is positive. But strikingly, the positive is no more encouraging than the negative. It is stunning, sobering, even frightening in its rigor. “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20). More even than the Pharisees and teachers of the law? Aren’t they the most upright and moral of all people? Aren’t they known everywhere for their good works?

Jesus’ statement is especially sobering in contrast to what he has just said. In the preceding verse he said that failing to practice the law or teaching others to break it would result in a dishonorable place in God’s kingdom. But here he says that without a righteousness surpassing even that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the alleged disciple will have no place in God’s kingdom at all.

Here I have to correct the way I wrote about this verse a quarter of a century ago. When I handled this verse for the first time in a series of messages that eventually appeared in my book The Sermon on the Mount: An Exposition, I taught that the righteousness referred to in verse 20 is the divine righteousness that comes to us by God imputing it to us on the basis of Jesus’ death. Nothing I said about the need for imputed righteousness was wrong in itself. We do need that righteousness. Without it we are lost. But as I have indicated several times earlier in this series, this is not the way “righteousness” is used in Matthew’s Gospel.

In Matthew, “righteousness” means an actual conformity to God’s demands in Scripture, both externally and also internally, as the next verses in the Sermon on the Mount will show. But how are we to match that to what we have heard about justification through Christ’s work on our behalf?

The answer is that although justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ is the core of the gospel and utterly essential—Luther called it “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls”—it is not the whole of the gospel, and it is not what Jesus is talking about here. It is true that God justifies the ungodly on the basis of Christ’s work, but that is not all God does. God also regenerates the one who is being justified. Thus, there is no justification without regeneration, just as there is no regeneration without justification. The important point is that the re-created person will actually live a moral life superior to that of the Pharisees.

Regeneration is what Jesus was talking about when he told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). It is what Paul was writing about when he told the Ephesians, “God … made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Eph. 2:4–5). On the basis of this distinction, Paul then speaks of two kinds of works, those we are capable of by ourselves (like the righteousness of the Pharisees) and those that are produced in us by the new life of Christ within. Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8–10). As D. A. Carson rightly observes, “Verse 20 does not establish how the righteousness is to be gained, developed or empowered; it simply lays out the demand.”

How then is this superior, practical righteousness to be gained, developed, and empowered? It is by coming to Christ, finding both justification and new life in him, and then by obeying and serving God by God’s own power. We are not capable of obeying and serving God by our own strength. We will be able to do it only because “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).

The wonderful thing about this is that when we find ourselves doing good works, we will not take credit for ourselves (which is what the Pharisees did, judging themselves to be persons who were morally superior to other people). Instead, we will give all the glory to God by whom this righteousness is attained and by whose power alone these good works can be done. Moreover, we will marvel at the wisdom of God, which made such a great salvation possible, and we will say, as Paul did in Romans, “To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:36).[3]


20 And that teaching, far from being more lenient, is nothing less than perfection (see comments at v. 48). The Pharisees and teachers of the law (see comments at 2:4; 3:7; Introduction, section 11.f) were among the most punctilious in the land. Jesus’ criticism is “not that they were not good, but that they were not good enough” (Hill). While their multiplicity of regulations could engender a “good” society, it domesticated the law and lost the radical demand for absolute holiness demanded by the Scriptures.

What Jesus demanded is the righteousness to which the law truly points, exemplified in the antitheses that follow (vv. 21–48). The law, for instance, forbids adultery. Someone might truthfully say that he has kept that law. But if that law points forward to such righteousness as prohibits adultery in one’s heart, the stakes are higher than can be met by even the most law-abiding Pharisee. Contrary to Helmut Flender (Die Botschaft Jesu, 45f.), v. 3 (poverty of spirit) and v. 20 (demand for radical righteousness) do not stand opposite each other in flat contradiction. Verse 20 does not establish how the righteousness is to be gained, developed, or empowered; it simply lays out the demand. Messiah will develop a people who will be called “oaks of righteousness … for the display of [Yahweh’s] splendor” (Isa 61:3). The verb “surpasses” suggests that the new righteousness outstrips the old both qualitatively and quantitatively (Bonnard; see comments at 25:31–46). Anything less does not enter the kingdom.[4]


5:20 To gain entrance into the kingdom, our righteousness must surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (who were content with religious ceremonies which gave them an outward, ritual cleansing, but which never changed their hearts). Jesus uses hyperbole (exaggeration) to drive home the truth that external righteousness without internal reality will not gain entrance into the kingdom. The only righteousness that God will accept is the perfection that He imputes to those who accept His Son as Savior (2 Cor. 5:21). Of course, where there is true faith in Christ, there will also be the practical righteousness that Jesus describes in the remainder of the Sermon.[5]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 109). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 274–282). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 84–85). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 179). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1219). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

April 10 – Disappointing the Lord

“Then all the disciples left Him and fled.”

Matthew 26:56

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In defecting from Christ in an hour of crisis, the eleven disciples displayed certain marks of faithlessness.

Sometimes no amount of truth and logic will ever persuade someone to change their mind. We all know that is true from times we have debated another person on a particular topic. Nothing we say will convince them that their plans may be wrong or their opinions unsound. Jesus knew that far better than us as he continued to face the hostile crowd in Gethsemane.

As the Son of God, Jesus could confidently tell the crowd that “All this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:56). The Son knew that, completely apart from the armed mob’s evil motives and intentions, the Father was sovereignly using the situation to accomplish His righteous and gracious purposes.

But Jesus’ words to the crowd obviously gave little comfort or reassurance to His own disciples. They finally realized Christ was going to be seized. Fear and panic gripped them when they further realized they might have to risk suffering and death with Him. Therefore, each of the eleven “left Him and fled.”

The disciples’ faithless desertion reveals several common characteristics of weak commitment. First, any believer who neglects God’s Word and prayer will be unprepared and unfaithful when testing comes. Second, a weak disciple is likely to be impulsive, like Peter, and respond to a crisis with faulty human discernment. Third, a defective disciple tends to be impatient, like Jesus’ men, refusing to listen to His promises and unwilling to wait for His deliverance.

It’s easy to criticize Jesus’ disciples for their faithless lack of resolve in letting Him down and running away when things became difficult. But if you are an honest follower of Christ, you know that you have sometimes compromised or run away when your faith was tested. As a result, you need to confess your failings and lean more than ever on God’s Word, prayer, and the strength of the Holy Spirit to help you stay the course (Eph. 5:15–21).

✧✧✧

Suggestions for Prayer: Commit yourself today to be faithful to Christ, no matter what circumstance confronts you, and pray for strength.

For Further Study: John 14 comes from a section of the Gospels called the Upper Room Discourse. Read this chapter, and identify the verses in which Jesus promises peace. ✧ What additional Helper does He promise to send believers? ✧ What is the key to obedience (vv. 23–24)?[1]


The Defection of the Disciples

At that time Jesus said to the multitudes, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me as against a robber? Every day I used to sit in the temple teaching and you did not seize Me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left Him and fled. (26:55–56)

With an overtone of sarcasm Jesus pointed up the subterfuge and cowardice of the multitudes who now confronted Him in the garden. “Am I so dangerous,” He said to them, “that you had to come out in such great numbers and with swords and clubs to arrest Me as against a robber? Am I so elusive that you had to capture me by stealth in the dead of night? You know very well that every day I used to sit in the temple teaching. Why did you not seize Me then?”

Jesus knew that no amount of truth or logic would dissuade His enemies from executing their plot against Him. They knew their charges were spurious and unjust and that they had had countless opportunities to arrest Him publicly. But when evil men are determined to have their way, they will not be deterred by such considerations as truth, justice, legality, or righteousness.

Jesus then told the crowd what He had just reminded Peter of: All this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled. “Whatever your personal reasons and motivations may be,” He was saying, “you are unwittingly accomplishing what your own Scriptures have said through the prophets that you would do to your Messiah. Completely apart from your own evil intentions, God is sovereignly using you to accomplish His righteous and gracious purposes. And in doing so, He will demonstrate that His infallible Word through the prophets will be fulfilled.”

Those words obviously gave little comfort or courage to the disciples. At last it dawned on them that their Lord was finally a captive of His enemies and that He would neither do anything Himself nor allow them to do anything to interfere. Although the leaders of the multitude had said they sought only Jesus (John 18:5), the disciples were fearful they would be arrested as accomplices, and therefore all the disciples left Him and fled.

The “little faith” disciples did not trust Jesus to save them and were afraid to risk suffering and perhaps even dying with Him. Just as He had predicted earlier that evening, when the Shepherd was struck the sheep scattered (Matt. 26:31).

It is easy to criticize the disciples for their faithlesshess and cowardice. But every honest believer knows that at times he has run from possible embarrassment, ridicule, or mockery because of his association with Christ. We have to confess that we, too, have left our Lord and fled when the cost of discipleship has seemed too high.

Just as there are common marks of false disciples there are common characteristics of defective disciples, as the eleven proved to be on this occasion. First of all, they were unprepared. All of them, including the three Jesus chose to accompany Him into the garden, had fallen asleep at this time of Jesus’ great struggle. Because they confused good intentions with spiritual strength, they were powerless when testing came. They were overconfident and felt no need of prayer. Had they taken to heart the Lord’s marvelous promises in the Upper Room discourse (John 13–17), they would have had the divinely provided wisdom and strength to meet the crisis.

But because they had paid little attention to Jesus’ teaching and had neglected prayer, the disciples discovered they were unprepared and inadequate. It is an absolute spiritual law that a believer who neglects the study of God’s Word and neglects fellowship with Him in prayer will be unprepared. (cf. Matt. 26:41). When testing comes he will be weak, afraid, unfaithful, and ineffective.

A second mark of a defective disciple is impulsiveness. The eleven disciples, and Peter in particular, reacted on the basis of emotion rather than revelation. They did not look at the situation from the perfect perspective of God’s truth but from the imperfect and distorted perspective of their own understanding. Therefore, instead of acting on the basis of God’s Word and in the promised power of His Spirit, they reacted on the basis of their emotions and in the weakness of their own resources.

The believer who fails to saturate himself in God’s Word and to have fellowship in God’s presence becomes a captive of circumstances. His thinking is based on the emotions of the moment, and his actions are based on the impulses of the moment.

A third mark of a defective disciple is impatience. Because the disciples refused to take Jesus’ truth and promises to heart, they became anxious and impatient when things did not go as they thought they should. They could not wait for the Lord’s deliverance and so devised their own.

Many Christians take the easy route of fleeing from trouble rather than trusting God to see them through it. Instead of trusting the Savior to deliver them, and in so doing to demonstrate His grace and power, they try to avoid trouble at any cost and thereby bring reproach upon Him.

A fourth mark of a defective disciple is carnality. The disciples, typified by Peter, depended wholly on their own fleshly power to protect them. Because he refused to trust His Lord’s way and power, Peter had nothing to rely on but his sword, which was pathetically inadequate even from a human perspective.

When believers lose their fleshly weapons or discover those weapons are ineffective, they sometimes simply flee in desperation.

The major participant in this garden scene was Jesus Himself, and in Matthew’s account we see His triumph even while His enemies were taking Him captive. Through their evil plot to put Him to death He would accomplish the divine plan for giving men eternal life.

All of His disciples deserted Him, and one betrayed Him, yet the divine work of redemption continued to be fulfilled on schedule, precisely according to God’s sovereign and prophesied plan. As the disciples’ faithfulness decreased, Jesus’ demonstration of power and glory increased. As the plans of His enemies seemed to prosper, the plan of God prospered still more in spite of them.

It is not clear exactly when it happened, but perhaps right after Judas’s kiss, Jesus took the initiative and confronted the multitude. To assure His enemies that He was not trying to hide or escape, and perhaps to strip Judas of any credit for identifying Him, He said, “Whom do you seek?” When they replied, “Jesus the Nazarene,” He said, “I am He,” and at that those words “they drew back, and fell to the ground” (John 18:4–6). “I am He” translates egō eimi, which literally means “I am,” the covenant name of God (see Ex. 3:14).

The exact reason for the multitude’s temporary immobility is not revealed, but doubtless it was caused by the overwhelming power of Christ. Although the Jews in the group would have associated Jesus’ words with the name of God, on a previous occasion when He claimed that name for Himself they were enraged rather than fearful and tried to stone Him to death (John 8:58–59). And that name would have had no significance at all to the 600 Roman soldiers. In addition, it seems almost certain that many of the men in that huge crowd could not hear what Jesus was saying. Therefore their instantly and involuntarily falling to the ground as one man was not caused so much by fear as by a direct, miraculous burst of the power of God. It was as if the Father were declaring in action what He had previously declared in words: “This is My beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17; 17:5). The multitude was able to rise only when God’s restraining hand was lifted.

Perhaps while they were still lying dazed and perplexed on the ground, Jesus again “asked them, ‘Whom do you seek?’ ” and they again replied, “Jesus the Nazarene” (John 18:7). He then said, “I told you that I am He; if therefore you seek Me, let these go their way” (v. 8), referring to the disciples.

The multitude that night reacted to being cast to the ground much as the homosexuals of Sodom reacted to being struck blind. Those wicked men were so consumed by their sexual perversion that even in blindness they persisted to the point of exhaustion, futilely trying to satisfy their lust (Gen. 19:11). In a similar way the men who came to arrest Jesus were so bent on their ungodly mission that they crawled up out of the dirt as if nothing had happened, determined at all costs to carry out their wicked scheme. Though not to the degree of being indwelt by Satan as was Judas, the entire multitude was subservient to the prince of this world.

Jesus had already unmasked the duplicity and cowardice of the leaders of the multitude when He asked why they had not arrested Him earlier in the week. He not only had been in Jerusalem every day but had been the locus of public attention on several occasions, most notably when He entered the city triumphantly and when He cleansed the Temple of the money changers and sacrifice merchants.

In His confrontation with Judas, the Lord also demonstrated His majesty and His sovereignty. He not only had predicted Judas’s betrayal but had declared that even that vile act would fulfill God’s prophecy (Matt. 26:21, 24). When the moment of arrest came, He faced it without resistance, anger, or anxiety. He was as perfectly confident of following His Father’s plan and of being under His Father’s care at that moment as when He performed His greatest miracles or was transfigured on the mountaintop.

In His confrontation with Peter and the other disciples, Jesus demonstrated His perfect faithfulness in face of their utter faithlessness. While they demonstrated their absence of trust in the Son, the Son demonstrated His absolute trust in His Father.[2]


Alone, He Bore It All Alone

The last sentence of this account is a sad one. Despite their protests about standing by him to the end, the disciples fled into the darkness of the garden. The text says, “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled” (v. 56). Jesus had said that the writings of the prophets had to be fulfilled, but here, even before he had fulfilled the most important prophecies by dying, the disciples fulfilled at least one of them by fleeing. Jesus had referred to it on the way to the garden: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (Matt. 26:31, quoting Zech. 13:7).

Moments before, they had been sleeping rather than praying. Now they were fleeing rather than standing by their Lord. Do you want to know what you are made of, what kind of courage you have? Look at these men in that moment. That is what you are. Like them you are weak and fearful, more concerned for your own well-being than for Jesus. But look at them again a few weeks later, after the resurrection. Look at Peter, who struck with his sword, fled into the darkness, and then told a servant girl he did not even know the Lord. See him at Pentecost as he stands before some of these very people, saying, “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Look at Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, the same judicial body that condemned Jesus to death. They cry, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

What a difference the presence and power of Jesus Christ makes. He is able to turn cowards into heroes, foolish persons into those who are wise, and sinners into saints. He will do it for you if you will turn from your foolish self-confidence, embrace the gospel, and lean on him for your daily strength and courage.[3]


After questioning the display of force by those who arrested him, Jesus said, “This has all taken place [see comments at 1:22; 21:4] that the writings [or ‘Scriptures’] of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Mark (14:49) simply has “But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” Matthew gives us more, doubtless because he is more interested in the prophetic nature of the Scriptures (see Introduction, section 11.b). “The writings of the prophets,” therefore, probably does not exclude the Law and the Writings, for elsewhere Moses and David are also considered “prophets.” The reference is to the Scriptures (as in v. 54), their human authors being considered primarily as prophets, not lawgivers, wise men, or psalmists.

All the disciples then fulfill one specific prophecy (see comments at v. 31) and flee. Mark 14:51–52 adds the account of the young man who flees naked. Probably at this time Jesus is bound (Jn 18:12).[4]


26:56 Yet the Savior realized that man’s wickedness was succeeding only in accomplishing the definite plan of God. “All this was done that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Realizing there would be no deliverance for their Master, all the disciples forsook Him and fled in panic. If their cowardice was inexcusable, ours is more so. They had not yet been indwelt by the Holy Spirit; we have.[5]


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

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 26:54–55). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (p. 579). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 614). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1304). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

APRIL 9 – “I WILL NOT FORSAKE YOU!”

And, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

Matthew 28:20

 

Men without God suffer alone and die alone in times of war and in other circumstances of life. All alone!

But it can never be said that any true soldier of the cross of Jesus Christ, no man or woman as missionary or messenger of the Truth has ever gone out to a ministry alone!

There have been many Christian martyrs—but not one of them was on that mission field all alone. Jesus Christ keeps His promise of taking them by the hand and leading them triumphantly through to the world beyond.

We can sum it up by noting that Jesus Christ asks us only to surrender to His lordship and obey His commands. When the Spirit of God deals with our young people about their own missionary responsibility, Christ assures them of His presence and power as they prepare to go: “All power is given unto Me! I am no longer in the grave. I will protect you. I will support you. I will go ahead of you. I will give you effectiveness for your witness and ministry. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations—I will never leave you nor forsake you!”

 

Thank You, Lord, that You are very near to me and my loved ones at all times.[1]


Power

“and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (28:20b)

As crucial as are the first four elements for effective fulfillment of the church’s mission, they would be useless without the last, namely, the power that the Lord Jesus Christ offers through His continuing presence with those who belong to Him. Neither the attitudes of availability, worship, and submission, nor faithful obedience to God’s Word would be possible apart from Christ’s own power working in and through us.

Idou (lo) is an interjection frequently used in the New Testament to call attention to something of special importance. Egō eimi (I am) is an emphatic form that might be rendered, “I Myself am,” calling special attention to the fact of Christ’s own presence. Jesus was saying, in effect, “Now pay special attention to what I am about to say, because it is the most important of all. I Myself, your divine, resurrected, living, eternal Lord, am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

A helpful way to keep one’s spiritual life and work in the right perspective and to continually rely on the Lord’s power rather than one’s own is to pray in ways such as these: “Lord, You care more about this matter I am facing than I do, so do what You know is best. Lord, You love this person more than I do and only You can reach into his heart and save him, so help me to witness only as You lead and empower. Lord, You are more concerned about the truth and integrity of Your holy Word than I am, so please energize my heart and mind to be true to the text I am teaching.”

Always literally means “all the days.” For the individual believer that means all the days of his life. But in its fullest meaning for the church at large it means even to the end of the age, that is, until the Lord returns bodily to judge the world and to rule His earthly kingdom. (See Matt. 13:37–50, where Christ uses the phrase “end of the age” three times to designate His second coming.)

Jesus will not visibly return to earth and display Himself before the whole world in His majestic glory and power until the end of the age. But until that time, throughout this present age, He will always be with those who belong to Him, leading them and empowering them to fulfill His Great Commission.

Some years ago, a missionary went to a primitive, pagan society. She became especially burdened for a young wife and eventually was used to win the woman to Christ. Almost as soon as she was saved the woman told the missionary with great sorrow, “I wish you could have come sooner, so my little boy could have been saved.”ll When the missionary asked why it was too late, the mother replied, “Because just a few weeks before you came to us, I offered him as a sacrifice to the gods of our tribe.”[2]


“I Will Be with You Always”

The final universal of Matthew 28:18–20 is “al[l]-ways” or, as the Greek text literally says, “all the days, even to the consummation of the age.” This is a great, empowering promise, and it is wonderfully true.

In the first chapter of Matthew, Jesus was introduced as “Immanuel”—which, we are told, means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Here, in the last verse, that very same promise is repeated. John Stott adds:

This was not the first time Christ had promised them his risen presence. Earlier in this Gospel … he had undertaken to be in their midst when only two or three disciples were gathered in his name. Now, as he repeats the promise of his presence, he attached it rather to their witness than to their worship. It is not only when we meet in his name, but when we go in his name, that he promises to be with us. The emphatic “I,” who pledges his presence, is the one who has universal authority and who sends forth his people.

So ends the first and longest of the Gospels: Jesus will be with us as we go. We have been given a very great task, but we do not need to attempt it in our own strength. We have the Lord’s power at work within us as well as his promise to be with us to the very end as we obey the Great Commission.[3]


But the gospel ends, not with command, but with the promise of Jesus’ comforting presence, which, if not made explicitly conditional on the disciples’ obedience to the Great Commission, is at least closely tied to it. “Surely” captures the force of idou here (see comments at 1:20). He who is introduced to us in the prologue as Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23; cf. 18:20), is still God with us, “to the very end of the age.” The English adverb “always” renders an expression found in the NT only here—namely, pasas tēs hēmeras, strictly “the whole of every day” (Moule, Idiom Book, 34). Not just the horizon is in view, but each day as we live it. This continues to the end of the age (for this expression, see comments at 13:39–40, 49; 24:3; cf. Heb 9:26)—the end of history as we know it, when the kingdom will be consummated. Perhaps there is a small hint of judgment. The church dare not drift, because it, too, rushes to the consummation. The period between the commission and the consummation is of indefinite length; but whatever its duration, it is the time of the church’s mission and of preliminary enjoyment of her Lord’s presence.[4]


Then the Savior added a promise of His presence with His disciples until the consummation of the age. They would not go forth alone or unaided. In all their service and travel, they would know the companionship of the Son of God.[5]


I am with you always. Jesus was named Immanuel (“God with us”) at His birth (1:23), and now He promises to be with His disciples to the end of the age, as the Lord had promised His presence to OT figures such as Jacob (Gen. 28:15) and Joshua (Josh. 1:5–9) and to Israel as a whole (Is. 43:5). He is with them specifically in the responsibility of teaching His will to the world.

to the end of the age. As the promise of Christ’s presence extends beyond the apostles’ life spans, so the disciple-making commission first spoken to the Eleven is now entrusted to the church, which is founded on the apostles’ confession (16:16–18).[6]


The final words of the Lord recorded by Matthew were a promise that He would be with them always until the very end of the Age. Though the Lord did not remain physically with the Eleven, His spiritual presence was with them until their tasks on earth were finished. These final words of the Lord were carried out by the apostles as they went everywhere, proclaiming the story of their Messiah, Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews.[7]


[1] Tozer, A. W. (2015). Mornings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 28:19–20). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 651–652). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 669–670). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1313). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[6] Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 1726). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.

[7] Barbieri, L. A., Jr. (1985). Matthew. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 94). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.