Category Archives: John MacArthur

May 25 – Soldiers in a Holy War

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth.

Ephesians 6:14

Our society is not conducive for people becoming like Christ. We live in what has been termed a sensate culture because most people are more concerned with pleasant emotions than with productive efforts—they’re more into comfort than accomplishment. Such a perspective has affected even the church, which suffers from an appalling apathy. We have forgotten that we are soldiers in a holy war.

As today’s verse indicates, the first thing a soldier put on before he went into battle was a belt around his waist. He would tie it as tight as he could and pull the corners of his tunic up through the belt so that he could have complete freedom of movement in hand–to–hand combat. The belt of truthfulness is not a piece of armor, for it cannot protect us directly. But it does indicate that we are to be serious about the battle and devoted to achieving victory.[1]


6:14 The first piece of armor mentioned is the belt of truth. Certainly we must be faithful in holding the truth of God’s word, but it is also necessary for the truth to hold us. We must apply it to our daily lives. As we test everything by the truth, we find strength and protection in the combat.

The second piece is the breastplate of righteousness. Every believer is clothed with the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21), but he must also manifest integrity and uprightness in his personal life. Someone has said, “When a man is clothed in practical righteousness, he is impregnable. Words are no defense against accusation, but a good life is.” If our conscience is void of offense toward God and man, the devil has nothing to shoot at. David put on the breastplate of righteousness in Psalm 7:3–5. The Lord Jesus wore it at all times (Isa. 59:17).[2]


The Girdle of Truth

Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, (6:14a)

The Roman soldier always wore a tunic, an outer garment that served as his primary clothing. It was usually made of a large, square piece of material with holes cut out for the head and arms. Ordinarily it draped loosely over most of the soldier’s body. Since the greatest part of ancient combat was hand–to–hand, a loose tunic was a potential hindrance and even a danger. Before a battle it was therefore carefully cinched up and tucked into the heavy leather belt that girded the soldier’s loins.

The ordinary citizen of the Near East had a similar problem with his robe. When he was in a hurry or had heavy work to do, he either took the robe off or tucked it around his waist. As God prepared the children of Israel to eat the Passover meal before they left Egypt, He instructed Moses to tell them, “Now you shall eat it in this manner: with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste” (Ex. 12:11). Concerning His second coming, Jesus tells us to “be dressed in readiness” (Luke 12:35), which is literally, “have your loins girded.” Peter used the same expression when he said, “Therefore, gird your minds [lit., “gird up the loins of your minds”] for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13). Girding the loins was a mark of preparedness, and the soldier who was serious about fighting was sure to secure his tunic with his belt.

The belt that girded it all securely together and demonstrates the believer’s readiness for war is truth. Alētheia (truth) basically refers to the content of that which is true. The content of God’s truth is absolutely essential for the believer in his battle against the schemes of Satan. Without knowledge of biblical teaching, he is, as the apostle has already pointed out, subject to being “carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (4:14). In his first letter to Timothy, Paul warns that “the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). The “doctrines of demons” taught by cults and false religions have their origin in the “deceitful spirits” that in Ephesians Paul calls “rulers, … powers, … world forces of this darkness, … [and] spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12). These false schemes of Satan can be successfully encountered only with the truth of the Word of God.

But alētheia (truth) can also refer to the attitude of truthfulness. It represents not only the accuracy of specific truths but the quality of truthfulness. That seems to be the primary meaning Paul has in mind here. The Christian is to gird himself in an attitude of total truthfulness. To be girded … with truth therefore shows an attitude of readiness and of genuine commitment. It is the mark of the sincere believer who forsakes hypocrisy and sham. Every encumbrance that might hinder his work for the Lord is gathered and tucked into his belt of truthfulness so that it will be out the way. Just as the serious runner takes off every unnecessary piece of clothing before the race (Heb. 12:1), the serious soldier tucks in every loose piece of clothing before the battle.

How much more important is the Christian’s preparedness as he faces the forces of Satan. “No soldier in active service,” Paul says, “entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:4). It is sad that so many Christians are content to let the “tunics” of their daily cares and concerns flap in the breeze around them—continually interfering with their faithfulness to the Lord and giving the devil every opportunity to entangle and defeat them with their own immature habits and interests.

I believe that being girded … with truth primarily has to do with the self–discipline of total commitment. It is the committed Christian, just as it is the committed soldier and the committed athlete, who is prepared. Winning in war and in sports is often said to be the direct result of desire that leads to careful preparation and maximum effort. It is the army or the team who wants most to win who is most likely to do so—even against great odds.

Some years ago I was told of a young Jewish man from the United States who decided to go to Israel and live. After working there for two years he was required either to serve in the army for a given period of time or to return home. He decided to join the army. His father was a good friend of an Israeli general, who at first was afraid the young man would use that friendship to secure an easy, safe assignment. Instead, he went to the general and said, “My present duty is too easy. I want to be in the finest, most strategic, diligent, and difficult regiment in the Israeli army.” Commenting on that spirit of dedication, the general said, “People think Israelis are so successful at war because we are a super people or that we have super intellect or super strength. But our success is not built on any of those things; it is built on commitment, unreserved and sacrificial commitment.”

If athletes so dedicate and discipline themselves in order to possibly win a race and receive “a perishable wreath” from the world, how much more should believers in Jesus Christ dedicate and discipline themselves to absolutely win in their struggle against Satan and receive an “imperishable” wreath from God (1 Cor. 9:25)?

Being girded … with truth is being renewed in the mind, in order to “prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). When the mind is renewed in commitment to God’s truth, there is empowerment for the Christian soldier to become “a living and holy sacrifice” that please God and is that believer’s “spiritual service of worship” (v. 1). In many ways it is more difficult and more demanding to be a living sacrifice than a dying one. To be burned at the stake for one’s faith would be painful, but it would soon be over. To live a lifetime of faithful obedience can also be painful at times, and its demands go on and on. It requires staying power that only continual and total commitment to the Lord can provide. It demands that love “abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that [we] may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9–11). Love, knowledge, and understanding of God all need to grow in us. And when those grow, so does our commitment to the Lord for excellence in all things—the ultimate goal of which is “the glory and praise of God.”

To be content with mediocrity, lethargy, indifference, and half–heartedness is to fail to be armored with the belt of God’s truth and to leave oneself exposed to Satan’s schemes.

John Monsell’s hymn focuses on the virtue of true commitment:

Fight the good fight with all thy might;

Christ is thy strength, and Christ thy right.

Lay hold on life, and it shall be

Thy joy and crown eternally.

Run the straight race through God’s good grace,

Lift up thine eyes, and seek His face;

Life with its way before thee lies,

Christ is the path, and Christ the prize.

Cast care aside, lean on thy Guide;

His boundless mercy will provide;

Trust, and thy trusting soul shall prove

Christ is its life, and Christ its love.[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 162). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1952). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 348–351). Chicago: Moody Press.

May 24, 2017: Verse of the day

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55:10, 11 God’s word is just as irresistible and effective as the rain and snow. All the armies in the world cannot stop them, and they accomplish their intended purpose. God’s Word never fails to achieve its aims:

So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.[1]


55:10, 11 rain … snow … My word. Moisture from heaven invariably accomplishes its intended purpose in helping meet human physical needs. The Word of God will likewise produce its intended results in fulfilling God’s spiritual purposes, especially the establishment of the Davidic kingdom on earth (vv. 1–5).[2]


55:10–11 As the rain and the snow cannot fail to nourish the earth, so God’s word of promise cannot fail to bring his people into the richness and fullness of eternal life. Human good intentions fail, but God’s promises succeed (cf. 40:6–8). The word of God not only describes a glorious future, it is God’s appointed means to create that future (cf. Ezek. 37:1–14).[3]


55:11 It shall not return to me without success Yahweh’s word cannot fail to bring about the desired results (compare 40:8). The word of God contains very real power to accomplish His will. Creation happened through divine speech in Gen 1 (compare Psa 33:6, 9), and Yahweh brought life back into lifeless bones through the prophetic words of Ezekiel (Ezek 37:1–14).[4]


55:10, 11 rain. The rain falls abundantly and of its own accord, and in a familiar but mysterious way produces plants and useful crops, evidently for the purpose of supplying people’s needs. The divine purpose in this is applied figuratively to the word of God in order to distinguish it from fallible human thoughts and plans. It also speaks of the Lord’s word as His decree by which He governs history. It never returns without accomplishing God’s sovereign purposes. Cf. 40:8.[5]

55:11 It is the divine origin (or character) of God’s word, and not some magical power, which causes it to accomplish the purpose for which it is sent (cf. Heb. 4:12).[6]

10–11 The declaration of vs 8–9 not only looks back to v 7 but on to vs 10–13, to shame us out of our small expectations. God’s thoughts are more far-reaching and more fertile, as well as higher, than ours. The comparison of his word with rain andsnow suggests a slow and silent work, transforming the face of the earth in due time. The reference is to his decree (cf. e.g. 44:26; 45:23) rather than his invitation or instruction, which can be refused (48:18–19; cf. the similar imagery to that of v 10 in Heb. 6:4–8).[7]

55:10, 11 bring forth: For a similar reference, see 2 Cor. 9:10. God’s word is similar to rainfall; it produces fruit (Ps. 147:15–20). Just as water enlivens and strengthens a withering rose, God’s word produces life in the hearts of sinners.[8]

55:10–11. Having spoken of the future time of blessing (the Millennium) and the salvation which leads to it, the Lord then assured believers that His Word … will accomplish what He says it will. His word is like rain and snow that water the earth and help give it abundant vegetation. In the Near East dry hard ground can seemingly overnight sprout with vegetation after the first rains of the rainy season. Similarly when God speaks His Word, it brings forth spiritual life, thus accomplishing His purpose.[9]


[1] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 982). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Is 55:10). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1342). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[4] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Is 55:11). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[5] Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 1228). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.

[6] Criswell, W. A., Patterson, P., Clendenen, E. R., Akin, D. L., Chamberlin, M., Patterson, D. K., & Pogue, J. (Eds.). (1991). Believer’s Study Bible (electronic ed., Is 55:11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[7] Kidner, F. D. (1994). Isaiah. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 664). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

[8] Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 865). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.

[9] Martin, J. A. (1985). Isaiah. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 1111). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

May 24 – Saluting an Unknown Soldier (James, son of Alphaeus)

The twelve apostles included “James the son of Alphaeus” (Matt. 10:3).

✧✧✧

God often uses ordinary people to accomplish great things.

Like most Christians, James the son of Alphaeus is an unknown and unsung soldier of the cross. His distinguishing characteristic is obscurity. Nothing he did or said is recorded in Scripture—only his name.

In Mark 15:40 he is called “James the Less,” which literally means “Little James.” That could refer to his stature (he might have been short), his age (he might have been younger than James the son of Zebedee), or his influence (he might have had relatively little influence among the disciples).

In Mark 2:14 Matthew (Levi) is called “the son of Alphaeus.” Alphaeus was a common name, but it’s possible that James and Matthew were brothers, since their fathers had the same first name. Also, James’s mother is mentioned in Mark 15:40 as being present at Christ’s crucifixion, along with other women. She is referred to as the wife of Clopas in John 19:25. Since Clopas was a form of Alphaeus, that further supports the possibility that James and Matthew were related.

From those references we might conclude that James was a small, young man whose personality was not particularly powerful. If he was Matthew’s brother, perhaps he was as humble as Matthew, willing to serve the Lord without any applause or notice. Whichever the case, be encouraged that God uses obscure people like James and rewards them accordingly. Someday James will sit on a throne in Christ’s millennial Kingdom, judging the twelve tribes of Israel—just like the other, more prominent disciples (Luke 22:30).

No matter how obscure or prominent you are from a human perspective, God can use you and will reward you with a glorious eternal inheritance.

✧✧✧

Suggestions for Prayer:  Thank the Lord for all those people unknown to you whom He has used to shape your life for His glory. ✧ Seek to be more like James, serving Christ faithfully without applause or glory.

For Further Study: Read Luke 9:23–25. What did Jesus say is necessary to be His disciple? ✧ Read Luke 9:57–62. What were those men unwilling to give up to follow Christ?[1]


James the Son of Alphaeus

The first-named of these unknown apostles is James, who is distinguished from the other apostle James (the son of Zebedee, v. 2) and from James the half brother of Jesus by being identified as the son of Alphaeus. In Mark 15:40 he is referred to as “the Less.” Mikros (“less”) can also mean smaller or younger. Used in the sense of smaller, the name may have been another means of distinguishing him from James the son of Zebedee, who was clearly larger in influence and position and possibly also in physical stature. In the sense of younger, it may have indicated his youthfulness in comparison to the other James.

As just mentioned, this James was considerably less than James the son of Zebedee in the realm of influence. He may have had outstanding traits such as boldness or courage, but, if so, he would likely have been called “the Bold” or something similar, rather than “the Less.” He could have been older than the other James; but if that were true, he would probably have been called “the Elder,” since that description would have been less confusing and more respectful of his age. It is also possible, of course, that he was smaller in stature. But the most probable meaning of “the Less” would seem to be that of youthfulness, coupled with that of his subordinate position in leadership.

Because Matthew’s father was also named Alphaeus (spelled Alpheus in Mark 2:14), James and Matthew may have been brothers. Or this James may have been a cousin of Jesus. Clopas was a form of Alphaeus, and if Jesus’ “mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas” (John 19:25), was James’s mother, he would have been Jesus’ first cousin. That possibility is also supported by Mark 15:40, which tells us that the mother of James the Less was named Mary. It is possible that he was both Matthew’s brother and Jesus’ cousin. In either case or both, this James’s low profile testifies to his humility, since there is no indication that he tried to take personal advantage of any such relationship.

James was not distinguished as a gifted leader, either before or after his calling and training. We can assume he faithfully fulfilled the Lord’s work during his ministry, and we know that he will one day sit on a heavenly throne and join the other twelve in judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28). But his apostleship had no relationship to outstanding ability or achievement. He was an unextraordinary man, used in unextraordinary ways to help fulfill the extraordinary task of taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

After 2,000 years, James the son of Alphaeus remains obscure. We do not know a single word he spoke or a single thing he did. The early church Fathers claimed that he preached in Persia (modern Iran) and was crucified there as a martyr for the gospel. If that is true, one can only wonder what would have happened to that country and to world history had those people responded favorably to the gospel.[2]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Drawing Near—Daily Readings for a Deeper Faith (p. 157). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 10:3). Chicago: Moody Press.

MAY 24 – UNHOLY, UNRIGHTEOUS, UNHAPPY

And so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.

Romans 5:12

All of history and the daily newspaper testify that the human race lies in ruin—spiritually, morally and physically.

The long parade of gods, both virtuous and obscene, and a thousand varieties of vain and meaningless religious practices declare our spiritual degeneration, while disease, old age and death testify sadly to the completeness of our physical decay.

By nature, men and women are unholy; and by practice we are unrighteous. That we are also unhappy is of small consequence.

But it is of overwhelming importance to us that we should seek the favor of God while it is possible to find it, and that we should bring ourselves under the plenary authority of Jesus Christ in complete and voluntary obedience.

To do this is to invite trouble from a hostile world and to incur such unhappiness as may naturally follow. Add the temptation of the devil and a lifelong struggle with the flesh, and it will be obvious that we will need to defer most of our enjoyments to a more appropriate time!

Loving Father, there is nothing more important to do while we are alive than to accept You as our Savior. I pray especially today for believers in hostile countries, that their inner joy in knowing You will override any pain that is inflicted upon them or their families.[1]


5:12 The rest of chapter 5 serves as a bridge between the first part of the letter and the next three chapters. It is linked with the first part by picking up the subjects of condemnation through Adam and justification through Christ, and by showing that the work of Christ far outweighs in blessing what the work of Adam did in misery and loss. It is linked with chapters 6–8 by moving from justification to sanctification, and from acts of sin to the sin in human nature.

Adam is portrayed in these verses as the federal head or representative of all those who are in the old creation. Christ is presented as the Federal Head of all those who are in the new creation. A federal head acts for all those who are under him. For example, when the President of a country signs a bill into law, he is acting for all the citizens of that country.

That is what happened in Adam’s case. As a result of his sin, human death entered the world. Death became the common lot of all Adam’s descendants because they had all sinned in him. It is true that they all committed individual acts of sin as well, but that is not the thought here. Paul’s point is that Adam’s sin was a representative act, and all his posterity are reckoned as having sinned in him.

Someone might object that it was Eve and not Adam who committed the first sin on earth. That is true, but since Adam was the first to be created, headship was given to him. So he is seen as acting for all his descendants.

When the Apostle Paul says here that death spread to all men, he is referring to physical death, even though Adam’s sin brought spiritual death as well. (Vv. 13 and 14 show that physical death is in view.)

When we come to this passage of Scripture, certain questions inevitably arise. Is it fair that Adam’s posterity should be constituted sinners just because he sinned? Does God condemn men for being born sinners; or only for those sins which they have actually committed? If men are born with a sinful nature, and if they therefore sin because they are born sinners, how can God hold them responsible for what they do?

Bible scholars have wrestled with these and a host of similar problems and have come up with a surprising variety of conclusions. However, there are certain facts that we can be sure of.

First, the Bible does teach that all men are sinners, both by nature and by practice. Everyone born of human parents inherits Adam’s sin, and also sins by his own deliberate choice.

Second, we know that the wages of sin is death—both physical death and eternal separation from God.

But no one has to pay the penalty of sin unless he wants to. This is the important point. At enormous cost, God sent His Son to die as a Substitute for sinners. Salvation from sin and its wages is offered as a free gift through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Man is condemned on three grounds: He has a sinful nature, Adam’s sin is imputed to him, and he is a sinner by practice. But his crowning guilt is his rejection of the provision which God has made for his salvation (John 3:18, 19, 36).

But someone will ask, “What about those who have never heard the gospel?” This question is answered in part, at least, in chapter 1. Beyond that we can rest in the assurance that the Judge of all the earth will do right (Gen. 18:25). He will never act unjustly or unfairly. All His decisions are based on equity and righteousness. Although certain situations pose problems to our dim sight, they are not problems to Him. When the last case has been heard and the doors of the courtroom swing shut, no one will have a legitimate basis for appealing the verdict.[2]


  1. Wherefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind, since all sinned, and then, instead of completing this statement, he first of all enlarges on one of its elements, namely the universality of sin. Not until he reaches verse 18 does he return to the sentence he started to write. He reproduces its thought in a modified form: “Consequently, as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all,” and then he finally, in substance, completes the sentence as follows, “… so also one act of righteousness resulted for all men in justification issuing in life.”

Now it should be admitted that such a break in grammatical structure is in line with Paul’s style and personality. See N.T.C. on Luke, p. 6. Yet it is not today, nor has it been in the past, an unusual style phenomenon.

For example, a minister, making an announcement to his congregation, regarding a picnic, might start out as follows:

“Since tomorrow we’ll all be attending the church picnic.…”

He wishes to continue with, “We urge all to come early and to bring along food enough for your own family and, if possible, even something extra for poor people who may wish to join us.”

But before he can even say this he notices that his words about a church picnic tomorrow are being greeted with skepticism. So, instead, he continues as follows:

“I notice that some of you are shaking your heads, thinking that there can be no picnic tomorrow. Let me therefore assure you that the early morning prediction about a storm heading our way has been canceled. A new forecast was conveyed to me just minutes before I ascended the pulpit. According to it, the storm has changed its course and beautiful weather is expected for tomorrow. So we urge all to come early, etc.”

With all this in mind, the various elements of verse 12, and also the verse viewed as a unit, may be interpreted as follows:

Wherefore,” that is, in view of the fact that, through his sacrificial death and resurrection life, Jesus Christ has brought righteousness, reconciliation (peace), and life, etc. See 5:1–11.

“just as through one man sin entered the world …”

The one man is obviously Adam. See verse 14. Cf. Gen. 2:16, 17; 3:1–6. In what sense is it to be understood that through Adam’s fall sin entered the world? Only in this sense that gradually, over the course of the years and centuries, those who were born inherited their sinful nature from Adam, and therefore committed sins? Without denying that this indeed happened, we must nevertheless affirm that there was a far more direct way in which “through one man sin entered the world.” On this same third missionary journey, not very long before Paul composed Romans, he wrote letters to the Corinthians. In one of them (1 Cor. 15:22) he says, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” In Rom. 5:15 he writes, “By reason of the trespass of the one the many died.” He obviously means that the entire human race was included in Adam, so that when Adam sinned, all sinned; when the process of death began to ruin him, it immediately affected the entire race.

Scripture, in other words, in speaking about these matters, does not view people atomistically, as if each person were comparable to a grain of sand on the seashore. Especially in this present day and age, with its emphasis on the individual, it is well to be reminded of the truth expressed in the words which, in a former generation, were impressed even upon the minds of children:

In Adam’s Fall

We Sinned All

Moreover, when we bear in mind that this very chapter (5) teaches not only the inclusion of all those who belong to Adam—that is, of the entire human race—in Adam’s guilt, but also the inclusion of all who belong to Christ, in the salvation purchased by his blood (verses 18, 19; cf. 2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 1:3–7; Phil. 3:9; Col. 3:1, 3), and that this salvation is God’s free gift to all who by faith are willing to accept it, we shall have nothing to complain about.

  1. “and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind …”

Solidarity in guilt implies solidarity in death, here, as in 1 Cor. 15:22, with emphasis on physical death. Sin and death cannot be separated, as is clear from Gen. 2:17; 3:17–19; Rom. 1:32; 1 Cor. 15:22. In Adam all sinned; in Adam all died. The process of dying, and this not only for Adam but for the race, began the moment Adam sinned.

“since all sinned.”

In all probability this refers to sins all people have themselves committed after they were born. Such personal sinning has been going on throughout the centuries. Paul is, as it were, saying, “I know that one man, and in him all men, sinned, for if this were not true how can we account for all the sinning that has been going on afterward?”

This interpretation gives to the word sinned the meaning it has everywhere else in Paul’s epistles. Why should “all sinned” mean one thing (actual, personal sins) in Rom. 3:23, but something else in 5:12? Besides if here in 5:12 we explain the words all sinned to refer to the fact that all sinned in Adam, would we not be making the apostle guilty of needless repetition, for the sinning of all “in Adam” is already implied in this same verse; note “through one man sin entered the world.”

To these two reasons for believing that this interpretation of the words “since all sinned” is the right one, a third can be added: it now becomes clear why Paul did not, at this point, complete the sentence beginning with “Wherefore,” but went off on a tangent. The statement “since all sinned” could easily arouse disbelief, especially in the minds of those who attached great importance to the proclamation of the law at Sinai. The question might be asked, “If to sin means to transgress the law, how can Paul say that since the time of Adam all sinned? Until the giving of the law at Sinai there was no law, and therefore no transgression of the law, no sin.” The apostle considers this possible objection to be of sufficient importance to justify the break in grammatical structure to which reference was made in the beginning of the explanation of verse 12 (see p. 176).[3]


Sin Entered The World Through One Man

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, (5:12a)

Therefore connects what follows with what has just been declared, namely, that as believers we have been reconciled to God by the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ (vv. 8–11). Now Paul begins the analogy of Christ with Adam, the common principle being that, in each case, a far-reaching effect on countless others was generated through one man.

In the case of Adam, it was through one man that sin entered into the world. It is important to note that Paul does not say that sin originated with Adam but only that sin in the world, that is, in the human realm, began with Adam. Sin originated with Satan, who “has sinned from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). John does not specify when that beginning was, but it obviously was before the creation of Adam and Eve, because they were tempted by Satan.

After He placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, “the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die’ ” (Gen. 2:15–17). Adam was given but one, simple prohibition by God, yet the consequence for disobedience of that prohibition was severe.

After Eve was created from Adam and joined him in the garden as his wife and helper, Satan tempted her to doubt and to disobey the command of God. She, in turn, induced her husband to disobey, and they sinned together. But although Eve disobeyed first, the primary responsibility for the sin was Adam’s, first of all because it was to him that God had directly given the command, and second because he had headship over Eve and should have insisted on their mutual obedience to God rather than allow her to lead him into disobedience.

The one command was the only point of submission to God required of Adam. Except for that single restriction, Adam had been given authority to subjugate and rule the entire earth (Gen. 1:26–30). But when Adam disobeyed God, sin entered into his life and generated a constitutional change in his nature, from innocence to sinfulness, an innate sinfulness that would be transmitted to every one of his descendants.

Paul’s argument begins with the assertion that, through Adam, sin entered into the world. He does not speak of sins, plural, but of

sin, singular. In this sense, sin does not represent a particular unrighteous act but rather the inherent propensity to unrighteousness. It was not the many other sinful acts that Adam eventually committed, but the indwelling sin nature that he came to possess because of his first disobedience, that he passed on to his posterity. Just as Adam bequeathed his physical nature to his posterity, he also bequeathed to them his spiritual nature, which henceforth was characterized and dominated by sin.

God made men a procreative race, and when they procreate they pass on to their children, and to their children’s children, their own nature-physical, psychological, and spiritual.

John Donne wrote these well-known lines in his Meditation XVII,

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It toils for thee.

Mankind is a single entity, constituting a divinely ordered solidarity. Adam represents the entire human race that is descended from him, no matter how many subgroups there may be. Therefore when Adam sinned, all mankind sinned, and because his first sin transformed his inner nature, that now depraved nature was also transmitted to his posterity. Because he became spiritually polluted, all his descendants would be polluted in the same way. That pollution has, in fact, accumulated and intensified throughout the ages of human history. Instead of evolving, as humanists insist, man has devolved, degenerating into greater and greater sinfulness.

Ancient Jews understood well the idea of corporate identity. They never thought of themselves as isolated personalities or as a mass of separate individuals who happened to have the same bloodline as their families and fellow Jews. They looked at all other races in the same way. A given Canaanite or Edomite or Egyptian was inextricably connected to all others of his race. What one of them did affected all the others, and what the others did affected him-in a way that is difficult for modern, individual-oriented man to comprehend.

It was on that basis that God frequently punished or blessed an entire tribe, city, or nation because of what a few, or even just one, of its members did. It was in light of that principle that Abraham asked the Lord to spare Sodom if only a few righteous people could be found there (Gen. 18:22–33). It was also on the basis of that principle that God held all Israel accountable and eventually destroyed Achan’s family along with him because of that one man’s disobedience in keeping for himself some of the booty from Jericho (see Josh. 7:1–26).

The writer of Hebrews knew that his Jewish readers would understand his statement about the tithes that Levi paid to Melchizedek. “Without any dispute,” he declared, “the lesser is blessed by the greater. And in this case mortal men receive tithes, but in that case one receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives on. And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him” (Heb. 7:7–10; cf. vv. 1–3; Gen. 14:18–20). In other words, although Melchizedek lived many years before Levi, the father of the priestly tribe, was born, along with all other descendants of Abraham, Levi, by being in the seed in Abraham’s loins, shared in the tithe paid to the ancient king.

In the same way, although with enormously greater consequences, the sin of Adam was passed on to all of his descendants. When he sinned in the Garden of Eden, he sinned not only as a man but as man. When he and his wife, who were one flesh (Gen. 2:24), sinned against God, all of their descendants-that is, the entire human race in their loins-would share in that sin and the alienation from God and subjection to death that were its consequence. “In Adam all die,” Paul explained to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:22). As far as guilt is concerned, every human being was present in the garden with Adam and shares in the sin he committed there.

The fact that Adam and Eve not only were actual historical figures but were the original human beings from whom all others have descended is absolutely critical to Paul’s argument here and is critical to the efficacy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If a historical Adam did not represent all mankind in sinfulness, a historical Christ could not represent all mankind in righteousness. If all men did not fall with the first Adam, all men could not be saved by Christ, the second and last Adam (see 1 Cor. 15:20–22, 45).

Death Entered the World Through Sin

and death through sin (5:12b)

The second element of Paul’s argument is that, because sin entered the world through one man, so also death, the consequence of sin, entered the world through that one man’s sin.

God did not create Adam as a mortal being, that is, as subject to death. But He explicitly warned Adam that disobedience by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil would make him subject to death (Gen. 2:17). And, contrary to Satan’s lie (3:4), that was indeed the fate that Adam suffered for his disobedience. Even before human sin existed, God had ordained that its wages would be death (Rom. 6:23; cf. Ezek. 18:4). Death is the unfailing fruit of the poison that entered Adam’s heart and the heart of every one of his descendants.

Even tiny babies can die, not because they have committed sins but because they have a sin nature, the ultimate consequence of which is death. A person does not become a sinner by committing sins but rather commits sins because he is by nature a sinner. A person does not become a liar when he tells a lie; he tells a lie because his heart is already deceitful. A person does not become a murderer when he kills someone; he kills because his heart is already murderous. “For out of the heart,” Jesus said, “come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matt. 15:19).

Sin brings several kinds of death to men. Death is separation, and Adam’s first death was spiritual separation from God, which Adam experienced immediately after his disobedience.

“You were dead in your trespasses and sins,” Paul reminded the Ephesian believers, “in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1–2). The unsaved are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:18). The unregenerate are very much alive to the world, but they are dead to God and to the things of God.

A second, and obvious, kind of death that sin brings is physical, separation from fellow human beings. Although Adam did not immediately lose his physical life, he became subject to physical death the moment he sinned.

A third kind of death that sin brings is eternal, an immeasurably worse extension of the first. Referred to in Scripture as the second death (Rev. 21:8), this death not only brings eternal separation from God but also eternal torment in hell.

The unbeliever has reason to fear all three deaths. Spiritual death prevents his earthly happiness; physical death will bring an end to opportunity for salvation; and eternal death will bring everlasting punishment. But no kind of death should be feared by believers. They are saved permanently by Christ from spiritual and eternal death, and their physical death (or rapture) will usher them into His divine presence. For believers Christ has removed the fear of death (Heb. 2:14, 15).

Death Spread to All Men Because All Sinned

and so death spread to all men, because all sinned- (5:12c)

A third element of Paul’s argument is that death was transmitted to all men, without exception. No human being has ever escaped death. Enoch and Elijah, who escaped physical and eternal death, nevertheless were spiritually dead before they trusted in the Lord. Even Jesus died, not because of His own sin but because of the world’s sin that He vicariously took upon Himself. And when He took sin upon Himself, He also took upon Himself sin’s penalty.

Sinned translates a Greek aorist tense, indicating that at one point in time all men sinned. That, of course, was the time that Adam first sinned. His sin became mankind’s sin, because all mankind were in his loins.

Men have learned to identify certain physical and mental characteristics in human genes, but we will never discover a way to identify the spiritual depravity that has been transmitted from generation to generation throughout man’s history. We know of that legacy only through the revelation of God’s Word.

Paul does not attempt to make his explanation wholly understandable to his readers, and he himself did not claim to have full comprehension of the significance of what the Lord revealed to and through him. He simply declared that Adam’s sin was transmitted to all his posterity because that truth was revealed to him by God.

Natural human depravity is not the result but the cause of man’s sinful acts. An infant does not have to be taught to disobey or be selfish. It is born that way. A young child does not have to be taught to lie or steal. Those are natural to his fallen nature, and he will express them as a matter of course unless prevented.

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,” David confessed, “and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). That condition was not unique to David, and in another psalm he testified that “the wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth” (Ps. 58:3). Jeremiah declared that “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Eliphaz asked Job rhetorically: “What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” (Job 15:14).

Every person who is not spiritually reborn through Christ (John 3:3) is a child of Satan. Jesus told the unbelieving Jewish leaders: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

As already noted, although Eve disobeyed God’s command first, Adam was more accountable for his disobedience, because “it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression” (1 Tim. 2:14). Adam had no excuse at all. Without being deceived, and fully aware of what he was doing, he deliberately disobeyed God.

Some object to the idea that they sinned in Adam, arguing that they not only were not there but did not even exist when he sinned. But by the same token, we were not physically at the crucifixion when Christ died, but as believers we willingly accept the truth that, by faith, we died with Him. We did not literally enter the grave with Christ and were not literally resurrected with Him, but by faith we are accounted to have been buried and raised with Him. If the principle were not true that all sinned in Adam, it would be impossible to make the point that all can be made righteous in Christ. That is the truth Paul makes explicit later in this letter (5:15–19) and in his first letter to Corinth: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).

Others argue that it is not fair to be born guilty of Adam’s sin. “We did not asked to be born,” they argue, “nor did our parents or their parents or grandparents before them.” But neither was it “fair” that the sinless Son of God suffered the penalty of sin on behalf of all mankind. If God were only fair, Adam and Eve would have been destroyed immediately for their disobedience, and that would have been the end of the human race. It is only because God is gracious and forgiving, and not merely just, that men can be saved. The magnitude of Paul’s analogy is mind-boggling, and its significance cannot be fully comprehended but only accepted by faith.

Habakkuk had great difficulty understanding the Lord. At first he could not understand why God did not bring revival to His chosen people Israel. He cried out, “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and Thou wilt not hear? I cry out to Thee, ‘Violence!’ Yet Thou dost not save” (Hab. 1:2). Even less could he understand why God would punish His own people through the hands of the Chaldeans, who were pagans and immeasurably more wicked than the Israelites. “Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil,” the prophet reminded the Lord, “and Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor. Why dost Thou look with favor on those who deal treacherously? Why art Thou silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?” (1:13).

Finally realizing that the Lord’s ways are beyond human comprehension, Habakkuk testifies, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail, and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold, and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength” (3:17–19).

Habakkuk learned that when we cannot understand the Lord’s ways, we must avoid the quicksand of human reason and stand in faith on the rock of God’s righteous character.

It may, however, help to understand something of God’s purpose for offering salvation to fallen mankind by considering the angels. Unlike man, they were not created in God’s image or as procreative beings (Matt. 22:30), and when they fell with Lucifer (Rev. 12:7–9), they fell individually and were immediately damned to hell forever, with no opportunity for redemption.

God created the angels to serve Him and give Him glory. Because they were created holy, they fully understood such things as God’s holiness, righteousness, and majesty. But they had no comprehension of His grace, mercy, compassion, or forgiveness, because those characteristics have meaning only where there is the guilt feeling of sin. It is perhaps for that reason that the holy angels long to look into the gospel of salvation (1 Pet. 1:12). It is impossible even for the holy angels to fully praise God, because they cannot fully comprehend His greatness.

For His own divine reasons, however, God created man to be procreative. And when Adam fell, and thereby brought his own condemnation and the condemnation of all his descendants, God in mercy provided a way of salvation in order that those who would experience His grace would then have cause to praise Him for it. Paul declares that it is through redeemed saints, saved human beings, “that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places,” that is, to His heavenly angels (Eph. 3:10).

Because the purpose of creation is to glorify God, it is fitting that God would fill heaven with creatures who have received His grace and His mercy, and have been restored to His divine likeness to give Him eternal praise.[4]


Union with Jesus Christ

Romans 5:12

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—

The last ten verses of Romans 5 are a new section of the letter. They deal with mankind’s union with Adam on the one hand, a union which has led to death and condemnation, and with the believer’s union with the Lord Jesus Christ on the other. This latter union leads to life and righteousness. This is a difficult section of the letter, possibly the most difficult in all the Bible. But it is also very important.

Union with Christ! The Scottish pastor and theologian James S. Stewart called union with Christ “the heart of Paul’s religion,” adding that “this, more than any other conception—more than justification, more than sanctification, more even than reconciliation—is the key which unlocks the secrets of his soul.” John Murray went even further, saying, “Union with Christ is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”2 Yet, strangely, this is a widely neglected theme even in many otherwise helpful expositions of theology. Arthur W. Pink states the situation fairly:

The subject of spiritual union is the most important, the most profound, and yet the most blessed of any that is set forth in the sacred Scriptures; and yet, sad to say, there is hardly any which is now more generally neglected. The very expression “spiritual union” is unknown in most professing Christian circles, and even where it is employed it is given such a protracted meaning as to take in only a fragment of this precious truth. Probably its very profundity is the reason why it is so largely ignored. …

Many preachers avoid such subjects, thinking it better to avoid matters that most of their hearers may be unable or unwilling to understand. But it is not wise to neglect anything God has seen fit to reveal to us, particularly something as important as this. And, in any case, union with Christ cannot be neglected in any faithful exposition of Romans.

The Theme in Context

Where are we in our exposition of this letter? How does Romans 5:12–21 fit into its context?

At this point it may be worth thinking back to what I said at the beginning of this volume when I introduced the very first words of chapter 5. I rejected the view that Romans 5 introduces an entirely new section of the letter in the sense that in chapters 1–4 Paul has been speaking about justification and that now, in chapters 5–8, he speaks about sanctification. He does speak about sanctification, of course, but not as a radically new theme. On the contrary, as I pointed out (the word therefore in Rom. 5:1 is a clue to this), Paul is carrying forward the argument begun earlier, showing that the work of justification, about which he has been speaking, is a sure thing and will inevitably carry through to the believer’s full glorification in heaven at the end of life.

Thus far, Paul’s arguments have had to do with the nature of our justification:

  1. We can be assured of salvation because God has made peace with us through the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
  2. We can be assured of salvation because, through that same work of Christ, we have been brought into a new relationship with God in which we continue to stand.
  3. We can be assured of salvation because of the sure and certain hope that we shall see God.
  4. We can be assured of salvation because of the way we are able to endure sufferings in this life.
  5. We can be assured of salvation because God sent Jesus Christ to die for us, not when we were saved people but when we were enemies.
  6. We can be assured of our salvation because, if God has justified us, which is a greater thing and demands more of God than glorification, he will surely do the lesser.

But now we have something new, as I said at the beginning of this study—and yet not new, because the apostle’s objective remains the same: to enhance our assurance. We have seen that Romans 5:1–11 argues the certainty and finality of salvation from the nature of justification by faith. Now Paul also argues that when God saved us through the work of Christ, justifying us by faith, justification was not the only thing involved. Justification is immensely important, of course. But in addition to justification, and in conjunction with it, we were also united to Christ in what theologians have come to call “the mystical union.” This union with Christ has been revealed to us, although we do not fully understand it.

In my opinion, Paul has anticipated this theme in the verses we have already studied, although I did not point it out at the time and the point is hidden in most of our translations. I am referring to verse 10, which says, “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

In the Greek text the last three words are not “through his life,” as we have them in the New International Version (or “by his life,” as in most others), but literally “in his life.” Is this important? Yes, in my opinion. For, when we say “through” or “by” his life, the words seem to mean either or both of two things to us: (1) that we are saved through Christ, that is, by his work on the cross, and/or (2) that we are saved through faith in that atonement. But this is not the idea here. The first part of verse 10 does say this, but the second part goes beyond it, making a contrast. The argument is: If God has saved us through the death of Christ (through faith in his atonement), he will certainly save us by our being “in his life.” At this point of the letter we may not fully understand what that means. That is why verses 12–21 explain it. But I am making the point that union with Christ, which Paul develops in verses 12–21, is suggested earlier.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “The word ‘in’ means ‘in the sphere of,’ or ‘in the realm of,’ or ‘in connection with’ his life.”

This union with Jesus makes possible the sequence of deliverances from sin, death, and the law, and the resulting spiritual victories that Paul will unfold in the next three chapters of Romans.

Probing the Mystery

Union with Christ is difficult to understand, however, and the treatment of it in Romans 5:12–21 is particularly mind-stretching. So I want to probe this doctrine a bit before we actually get into the verses. There are two important points to keep in mind.

First, the union of the believer with Christ is one of three great unions in Scripture. The first is the union of the persons of the Godhead in the Trinity. Christians, as well as Jews, speak of one God. Yet, on the basis of the revelation of God in Scripture, we who are Christians say we also believe that this one God exists in three persons as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We cannot explain how these three persons of the Godhead are at the same time only one God, but the Bible teaches this and we believe it.

The second mystical union is that of the two natures of Christ in one person. The Lord Jesus Christ is one person. He is not a “multiple personality.” Nevertheless, he is also both God and man, possessing two natures. The theological formulation of this truth at the Council of Chalcedon (a.d. 451) said that Jesus is “to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into persons, but one and the same Son.” If you understand that completely, you are a better theologian than I am. But though I do not fully understand it, I believe it since it seems to be what the Bible teaches.

We have a similar situation in the case of the union of believers with Christ. Probably we are never going to be able to understand this union fully either. But it is important. Therefore we should hold to it and try to gain understanding.

The second important point to keep in mind as we study this doctrine is that the union of the believer with Christ is not a concept that was invented by Paul; rather, it was first taught by Jesus and then built upon by the apostle. True, Jesus did not use the term “mystical union.” But he taught it in other words and through analogies, which are frequent in Scripture, particularly in the later portions of the New Testament. Let me list a few examples.

  1. The vine and the branches. The most important passage on this theme is the teaching in John 15. It occurs in one of Jesus’ final discourses prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus said, “I am the true vine. … Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1, 4–5).

The emphasis in this passage is upon the power of Christ nourishing and working itself out through his disciples. Paul touches on this image in Romans 11:17–21, where he speaks of Jewish “branches” being broken off an olive tree so that Gentile “branches” might for a time be grafted in. He is thinking along similar lines in Galatians when he speaks of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22–23).

  1. The Lord’s Supper. On the same evening that Jesus spoke about himself as the vine and his disciples as the branches, he gave instructions for observing the Lord’s Supper in which he said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:26, 28). The sacrament clearly symbolizes our participation in the life of Christ. In the same way, Jesus discoursed on the bread of life (“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” [John 6:35]) and challenged the woman of Samaria (“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to everlasting life” [John 4:13–14]).

The emphasis in this image is on empowering (as in the analogy of the vine) and permanence. By faith, Jesus becomes a permanent part of us, just as surely as what we eat.

  1. A foundation and the structure built upon it. Jesus initiated this image when he spoke of himself as a solid foundation for building a successful life: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matt. 7:24–25).

Paul made ample use of this image. He told the Corinthians, “You are … God’s building. … For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:9b, 11). He told the Ephesians, “… you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19–20). In the next verse the building becomes a temple: “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). Notice the words “in him.” It is only because we are “in Christ” that this is possible.

This image also shows that being joined to Christ means that we are at the same time joined to one another. We are part of the church.

  1. The head and members of the body. This was one of Paul’s favorite ways of speaking. “And God placed all things under [Christ’s] feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:22–23). “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. … Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:11–12, 14–16).

In these verses (and others like them) the emphasis is upon two things: (1) growth and (2) the proper functioning of the church under Christ’s sure direction. In 1 Corinthians Paul uses this image to show that each Christian is needed if the church is to function properly (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12–27).

  1. Marriage. By far the greatest of all illustrations of the union of the believer with Christ and of Christ with the believer is marriage, in which a man and a woman are joined to form one flesh and one family. This image is in the Old Testament—Hosea, for example. There God compares himself to the faithful husband who is deserted by Israel, the unfaithful wife (Hosea 1–3). Jesus picked up on this theme when speaking of a marriage supper to which all who have faith are invited (Matt. 22:1–14). However, it is chiefly Paul who develops the theme in what is probably the best-known passage from Ephesians, mixing it with the image of the church as Christ’s body.

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. … This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:22–28, 32

The emphasis in this image is upon a love-bonding. This is indeed the one true “marriage made in heaven.” It is a marriage not only for this life but for eternity.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

In the studies that follow we are going to be looking at the doctrine of our union with Christ in detail, comparing it initially with our corresponding but contrasting union with Adam. But I close here by trying to put our union with Christ in its widest possible setting, remembering that it is included at this point of the letter to assure us of our security. This is what we find as we look both backward and forward at this union.

Here I quote from the best statement of these themes I know: a chapter on “Union with Christ” in Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray:

  1. Election. “The fountain of salvation itself in the eternal election of the Father is ‘in Christ.’ Paul says: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world’ (Eph. 1:3, 4). The father elected from all eternity, but he elected in Christ. We are not able to understand all that is involved, but the fact is plain enough that there was no election of the Father in eternity apart from Christ. And that means that those who will be saved were not even contemplated by the Father in the ultimate counsel of his predestinating love apart from union with Christ—they were chosen in Christ. As far back as we can go in tracing salvation to its fountain we find ‘union with Christ’; it is not something tacked on; it is there from the outset.”
  2. Redemption. “It is also because the people of God were in Christ when he gave his life a ransom and redeemed them by his blood that salvation has been secured for them; they are represented as united to Christ in his death, resurrection, and exaltation to heaven (Rom. 6:2–11; Eph. 2:4–6; Col. 3:3, 4). … Hence we may never think of the work of redemption wrought once for all by Christ apart from the union with his people which was effected in the election of the Father before the foundation of the world. … This is but another way of saying that the church is the body of Christ and ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself for it’ (Eph. 5:25).”
  3. Regeneration. “It is in Christ that the people of God are created anew. ‘We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works’ (Eph. 2:10). … It should not surprise us that the beginning of salvation in actual possession should be in union with Christ because we have found already that it is in Christ that salvation had its origin in the eternal election of the Father and that it is in Christ salvation was once for all secured by Jesus’ ransom blood. We could not think of such union with Christ as suspended when the people of God become the actual partakers of redemption—they are created anew in Christ.”
  4. Glorification. “Finally, it is in Christ that the people of God will be resurrected and glorified. It is in Christ that they will be made alive when the last trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible (1 Cor. 15:22).”

This great scope of salvation from the electing counsels of God in eternity past to the glorification of the sons of God in eternity future is based on the union of the believer with Christ, and it is for this that the doctrine is so important for us. Assurance of salvation! Security in Christ! This is what we are dealing with in this doctrine, as also in the great middle chapters of Romans. While there are many things meant to encourage us in that security, the greatest of all is that we are “in Christ.”

The question you must ask yourself is: “Am I really in him? Am I a Christian?”

How can you know? You cannot look into eternity past to pry into God’s hidden counsels. You cannot look into eternity future to see yourself as one who has been glorified. All you have is the present. But if you probe the present, you can know. Do you remember the marriage illustration? Ask yourself: “Am I married to Jesus?” You are—if you have taken the vow, promising to “take Jesus to be your loving and faithful Savior, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, for this life and for eternity,” and if you are living for him. God has pronounced the marriage. And what God has joined together no one will ever put asunder.[5]


12 The one man through whom sin entered the world is not immediately named (reserved until v. 14). The same procedure is followed with the other man to be considered: he too is called a man before he is named (v. 15). Except for two non-theological references (Lk 3:38; Jude 14), every mention of Adam in the NT comes from the pen of Paul. In 1 Timothy 2:14, he makes the point that Adam, unlike Eve, was not deceived but sinned deliberately. In 1 Corinthians 15, as in the Romans passage, he institutes a comparison between the first and the last Adam but confines the treatment to the issue of death and resurrection, even though sin is dealt with somewhat incidentally (vv. 17, 56), whereas in Romans 5, both sin and death are named immediately and are woven into the texture of the argument throughout. In the earlier letter, Paul makes the significant statement, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Co 15:22), in line with Romans 5:12. Paul has already referred to the inevitable connection between sin and death in the only previous mention of death in Romans (1:32), except for reference to the death of Christ (5:10). But here in v. 12 he pictures sin and death as entering the world through one man, with the result that death permeated the whole of humankind. It was the opening in the dike that led to the inundation, the poison that entered at one point and penetrated every area of humanity’s corporate life.

If Paul had stopped with the observation that death came to all humanity because all sinned, we would be left with the impression that all sinned and deserved death because they followed the example of Adam. But subsequent statements in the passage make it abundantly clear that the connection between Adam’s sin and death and what has befallen the race is far closer than that. Paul says that the many died because of “the trespass of the one” (v. 15; cf. vv. 18–19). Clearly the gist of his teaching is that just as humankind has become involved in sin and death through Adam, it has the remedy of righteousness and life only in Christ.

What, then, is the precise relation of Adam in his fall to those who come after him? Paul does not say, unless he provides the information in the last clause of the verse. The NIV uses the word “because,” which is certainly the meaning of eph’ hō in 2 Corinthians 5:4 and probably also in Philippians 3:12. The Vulgate rendering of the Greek is in quo, which could be understood as meaning “in which” (i.e., death) or “in whom” (i.e., Adam). The former does not make sense and the latter is so far removed from the antecedent (“man”) as to be dubious, though this was Augustine’s conclusion (see Notes).

Now if the correct translation is “because all sinned,” why did not Paul go on to say specifically that all sinned in the first man? That he could have done so seems clear from v. 19: “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Was it the sudden breaking off to follow another line of thought (vv. 13–14) that prevented the full statement? Or was it Paul’s reluctance to gloss over human responsibility, which he had already established in terms of universal sin and guilt (3:23)? Experience demonstrates that despite the inheritance of a sinful nature from Adam, people are convicted of guilt for the sins resulting from it, i.e., for the sins they themselves commit. Conscience is a factor in human life and the Holy Spirit does convict of sin (cf. Jn 16:8). Perhaps, then, as some hold, while the emphasis on original sin is primary in the light of the passage as a whole, there is a hint that personal choice and personal sin are not entirely excluded (cf. “many trespasses” in v. 16).

That we could have sinned in Adam may seem strange and unnatural to the Western mind. Nevertheless, it is congenial to biblical teaching on the solidarity of the human race. (For a famous example of corporate solidarity in the OT, see the story recorded in Jos 7:16–26.) When Adam sinned, the race sinned because the race was in him. Similar views are found in Jewish writings perhaps a half century after Paul: in 2 Esdras 7:118, “O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants” (cf. 2 Esd 3:7, 21), and 2 Baruch 54:15, “Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time” (cf. 2 Bar 17:3; 23:4). To put it boldly, Adam was the race. What he did, his descendants, who were still in him, did also. This principle is utilized in Hebrews 7:9–10: “One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.”

The doctrine of original sin and the punishment of Adam’s progeny for Adam’s sin would be an intolerable doctrine if any of his progeny had actually lived a life without sin. In fact, however, as Paul has made abundantly clear in 1:1–3:21, every human being is guilty of sin. The author of 2 Baruch, quoted above, also puts emphasis on our own responsibility: “each of us has become our own Adam” (2 Bar 54:19); all human beings consistently repeat for themselves the sin of their forefather. Sin is part of the natural makeup of the children of Adam, and they cannot escape living out their Adamic nature.

If one is still troubled by the seeming injustice of being born with a sinful nature because of what the father of the race did and being held accountable for the sins that result from that disability, one should weigh carefully the significance of reconciliation as stated by Paul: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Co 5:19, emphasis added). The sins committed, which owe their original impetus to the sin of the first man, are not reckoned against those who have committed them, provided they put their trust in Christ crucified and risen. God takes their sins and gives them his righteousness.[6]


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

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1697–1698). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 12–13, pp. 176–179). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 292–298). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The Reign of Grace (Vol. 2, pp. 552–560). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[6] 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. 95–97). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

May 24 – Three Aspects of the Divine Will

Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.—Matt. 6:10b

God’s Word reveals three aspects of His will. First is His will of purpose—His sovereign, ultimate plan for the universe. “Surely, just as I [God] have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand” (Isa. 14:24; cf. Eph. 1:9–11). It has been within God’s purpose to allow sin to affect the world for a time. But that situation will end precisely according to His plan and foreknowledge.

Within God’s will of purpose is His will of desire. This will is more specific but not always fulfilled in the present age. For example, Jesus desired His people, the Jews, to be saved. However, only a relative few believed in His message. Jesus prayed, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together … and you would not have it!” (Luke 13:34). Like the Jews, most Gentiles are also unwilling to come to Christ for salvation (John 5:40; cf. 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).

Third is God’s will of command, which is His desire that believers obey Him fully, as only they of all people can, with the help of the Spirit (see Rom. 6:16–18). Pride is the great enemy set against all of God’s will. But for us to obey His will, we must forsake self-will and “prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2; see also v. 1).

ASK YOURSELF
Understanding the many-layered aspects of God’s will is not nearly as important as being obedient to every aspect you do know. Don’t you long for His purpose, desire, and command to be met with full acceptance in your own life? Submit to Him in some new way today. Conform to His will.[1]

The Third Petition

10b. Thy will be done, as in heaven so on earth. The will of God to which reference is made is clearly his “revealed” will, expressed in his law. It is that will which is done in heaven, but not yet to any great extent on earth. On the other hand, the will of God’s “decree” or “plan from eternity” is always being realized both in heaven and on earth (Dan. 4:35; Eph. 1:11), and cannot be the subject of prayer. (Incidentally, the statement that God’s revealed will is being perfectly obeyed in heaven—hence not only by heaven’s angels but also by the hosts of the redeemed—implies that the very moment a soul is translated from this sinful earth to heaven it has been freed from every vestige of sin.) It is the ardent desire of the person who sincerely breathes the Lord’s Prayer that the Father’s will shall be obeyed as completely, heartily, and immediately on earth as this is constantly being done by all the inhabitants of heaven.

As to “completely,” the story of King Saul shows that incomplete obedience, in which man sets his own will over against the divine, does not receive God’s approval and may have serious consequences (1 Sam. 15:1–3, 7–9, and note especially verses 22 and 23). As to “heartily,” note the words of Deut. 26:16 and Matt. 22:37. And as to “immediately,” the cherubim in Ezekiel’s vision of the throne-chariot, each cherub being equipped with four faces, and the chariot itself with wheels within wheels, so that its “drivers” were always ready to take it wherever the Lord wanted it to go, furnish a vivid illustration of the kind of obedience in which heaven delights (Ezek. 1; 10). Examples of human obedience: Noah (Gen. 6:22), Abraham (Gen. 11:28–32, cf. Acts 7:3; Gen. 12:1, cf. Heb. 11:8; Gen. 22:2 ff., cf. James 2:23); Joshua (Josh. 5:13–15); Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1–10); Simon (Peter) and Andrew (Matt. 4:19, 20); Simon (Peter) once more (Luke 5:5); James and John (Matt. 4:21, 22); Peter and the apostles (Acts 5:29); Mary of Bethany (John 11:28, 29); Paul (Acts 16:6–10; 26:19); and the Philippians (Phil. 2:12). The greatest example of all is Jesus Christ himself (Luke 2:51, 52; John 15:10; 17:4; Phil. 2:5–8; and Heb. 5:8). It was he who in the garden said, “Not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). As to the manner in which obedience is rewarded, from a host of passages that could be listed the following few should suffice: Josh. 1:8; Matt. 7:7, 8; John 7:17; 8:29; 14:21, 23; 15:10; Phil. 2:9, 10; Heb. 12:1, 2; and Rev. 3:20.

The petitions for the fulfilment of human needs follow. Although it is true that between the first three petitions, pertaining to God, and the last three, pertaining to man, there is a rather sharp division, the two are not to be regarded as wholly separate. If the believer is to take an active part in the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of his kingdom, and the doing of his will—such an active part being certainly implied in the first three petitions—he must have bread (Luke 10:7, cf. 1 Tim. 5:18; Gal. 6:6; Eph. 4:28; Phil. 4:15, 16). Jesus, accordingly, is not forgetful of the physical needs of his disciples (see Matt. 6:25–34; 25:34–40; Mark 10:29, 30; cf. Acts 24:17; 2 Cor. 8:8 f.; James 2:15, 16), both in order that they may live and be happy, and that they may be able vigorously to support kingdom causes. This introduces[2]


God’s Plan

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (10:b)

Many people wonder how God’s sovereignty can be related to praying for His will to be done. If He is sovereign, is not His will inevitably done? Does our will override His will when we pray earnestly and sincerely? That is one of the great paradoxes of Scripture, a paradox about which Calvinists and Arminians have debated for centuries. It should be evident that this paradox, like those of God’s being three in one and Jesus’ being wholly God and wholly man, must be left to the infinite mind of God, because it is far beyond the finite human mind to comprehend. But what seems a hopeless contradiction to us is no dilemma to God. We hold both truths, seemingly paradoxical, in perfect tension with faith in the infinite mind of God, who resolves all things in perfect, noncontradictory truth (Deut. 29:29).

It is absolutely clear from Scripture that God is sovereign and yet not only allows but commands that man exercise his own volition in certain areas. If man were not able to make his own choices, God’s commands would be futile and meaningless and His punishments cruel and unjust. If God did not act in response to prayer, Jesus’ teaching about prayer would also be futile and meaningless. Our responsibility is not to solve the dilemma but to believe and act on God’s truths, whether some of them seem to conflict or not. To compromise one of God’s truths in an effort to defend another is the stuff of which heresy is made. We are to accept every part of every truth in God’s Word, leaving the resolution of any seeming conflicts to Him. Attempting on a human level to resolve all apparent paradoxes in Scripture is an act of arrogance and an attack on the truth and intent of God’s revelation.

When we pray Thy will be done, we are praying first of all that God’s will become our own will. Second, we are praying that His will prevail all over the earth as it [does] in heaven.

Wrong Understanding of God’s Will

Many people, including many believers, wrongly understand this part of the Disciples’ Prayer. Seeing God’s sovereignty simply as the absolute imposition of a dictator’s will, some believers are resentful. When, or if, they pray for His will to be done, they pray out of a feeling of compulsion. God’s will has to be done, and He is too strong to resist; so what would be the point of praying otherwise? The logical conclusion of most people who look at God in that way is that there is no point to prayer-certainly not to petitions. Why ask for the inevitable?

Other people are more charitable in their feelings about God. But because they, too, believe His will is inevitable, they pray out of passive resignation. They pray for God’s will to be done simply because that is what the Lord tells them to do. They are resignedly obedient. They do not pray so much out of faith as out of capitulation. They do not try to put their wills into accord with the divine will, but rather shift their own wills into neutral, letting God’s will run its course.

It is easy for Christians to fall into praying that way. Even in the very early days of the church, when faith generally was strong and vital, prayer could be passive and unexpectant. A group of concerned disciples was praying in the house of Mary, John Mark’s mother, for the release of Peter from prison. While they were praying, Peter was freed by an angel and came to the house and knocked on the door. When a servant girl named Rhoda came to the door and recognized Peter’s voice, she rushed back inside to tell the others, forgetting to let Peter in. But the praying group did not believe her, and thought she had heard an angel. When Peter was finally admitted, “they saw him and were amazed” (Acts 12:16). They apparently had been praying for what they did not really believe would happen.

Our own prayer lives often are weak because we do not pray in faith; we do not expect prayer to change anything. We pray out of a sense of duty and obligation, subconsciously thinking that God is going to do just as He wants to do anyway. Jesus gave the parable of the importunate widow-who refused to accept the status quo and persisted in begging, despite receiving no response-for the very purpose of protecting us against that sort of passive and unspiritual resignation. “Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

The very fact that Jesus tells us to pray Thy will be done on earth indicates that God’s will is not always done on earth. It is not inevitable. In fact, lack of faithful prayer inhibits His will being done. In God’s wise and gracious plan, prayer is essential to the proper working of His divine will on earth.

God is sovereign, but He is not independently deterministic. Looking at God’s sovereignty in a fatalistic way, thinking “What will be will be,” absolutely destroys faithful prayer and faithful obedience of every sort. That is not a “high” view of God’s sovereignty, but a destructive and unbiblical view of it. That is not the divine sovereignty the Bible teaches. It is not God’s will that people die, or why would Christ have come to destroy death? It is not God’s will that people go to hell, or why would His only Son have taken the penalty of sin upon Himself so that men might escape hell? “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). That sin exists on earth and causes such horrible consequences is not evidence of God’s will but of His patience in allowing more opportunity for men to turn to Him for salvation.

Other people, overemphasizing the importance of man’s will, look at prayer as a means of bending God’s will to their own. They think of God’s providence as a sort of cosmic vending machine, which they can operate simply by inserting the required claim on one of His promises. As Elton Trueblood observes, “In some congregations the Gospel has been diminished to the mere art of self-fulfillment. Some current religious authors, far from emphasizing what it means to believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, write chiefly of themselves. Egocentricity is all that is left when the objective truth about the revelation of Christ is lost or even obscured.”

But Jesus undercuts that notion throughout His model prayer. True prayer focuses on Thy name, Thy kingdom, Thy will. Amy Carmichael wrote, “And shall I pray to change Thy will, my Father, until it accord to mine? But no, Lord, no; that shall never be. Rather I pray Thee blend my human will with Thine.”

There is a tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s will, between God’s grace and man’s faith, but we dare not try to resolve it by modifying God’s truth about either His sovereignty or our will, His grace or our faith. God is sovereign, but He gives us choices. God is sovereign, but He tells us to pray Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And James reminds us that “the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (5:16).

Right Understanding of God’s Will

David sang of the angels who did God’s will. “Bless the Lord, you His angels, mighty in strength, who perform His word, obeying the voice of His word!” (Ps. 103:20). That is the way God’s will is done in heaven, and that is the way believers are to pray for God’s will to be done on earth-unwaveringly, completely, sincerely, willingly, fervently, readily, swiftly, and constantly. Our prayer should be that every person and thing on earth be brought into conformity with God’s perfect will.

A part of the right understanding of and attitude toward God’s will is what might be called a sense of righteous rebellion. To be dedicated to God’s will is, by definition, to be opposed to Satan’s. To pray Thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven is to rebel against the worldly idea that sin is normal and inevitable and should therefore be acquiesced to or at least tolerated. It is to rebel against the world system of ungodliness, the dishonoring and rejecting of Christ, and also the disobedience of believers. Impotence in prayer leads us, however unwillingly, to strike a truce with wrong. To accept what is, is to abandon a Christian view of God and His plan for redemptive history.

Jesus knew the end from the beginning, but He did not accept the situation as inevitable or irresistible. He preached against sin and He acted against sin. When His Father’s house was profaned, “He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the moneychangers, and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, ‘Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a house of merchandise’ ” (John 2:14–16; cf. Matt. 21:12–13).

To pray for God’s will to be done on earth is to rebel against the idea, heard today even among evangelicals, that virtually every wicked, corrupt thing that we do or that is done to us is somehow God’s holy will and should be accepted from His hand with thanksgiving. Nothing wicked or sinful comes from the hand of God, but only from the hand of Satan. To pray for righteousness is to pray against wickedness. To pray for God’s will to be done is to pray for Satan’s will to be undone.

To pray for God’s will to be done is to cry with David, “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee before Him” (Ps. 68:1) and with the saints under God’s altar, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10).

To pray rightly is to pray in faith, believing that God will hear and answer our prayers. I think the greatest hindrance to prayer is not lack of technique, lack of biblical knowledge, or even lack of enthusiasm for the Lord’s work, but lack of faith. We simply do not pray with the expectation that our prayers will make a difference in our lives, in other people’s lives, in the church, or in the world.

There are three distinct aspects of God’s will as He reveals it to us in His Word. First, is what may be called His will of purpose-the vast, comprehensive, and tolerating will of God expressed in the unfolding of His sovereign plan that embodies all of the universe, including heaven, hell, and the earth. This is God’s ultimate will, of which Isaiah wrote, “The Lord of hosts has sworn saying ‘Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand’ ” (Isa. 14:24; cf. Jer. 51:29; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:9–11; etc.). This is the will of God that allows sin to run its course and Satan to have his way for a season. But in God’s appointed time sin’s course and Satan’s way will end exactly according to God’s plan and foreknowledge.

Second, is what may be called God’s will of desire. This is within His will of purpose and completely consistent with it. But it is more specific and focused. Unlike God’s will of purpose, His will of desire is not always fulfilled; in fact, it is very unfulfilled in comparison to Satan’s will in this present age.

Jesus greatly desired that Jerusalem be saved, and He prayed, preached, healed, and ministered among its people to that end. But few believed in Him; most rejected Him, and some even crucified Him. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” He prayed. “I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!” (Luke 13:34). That was the repeated experience of God’s Son, who came to earth that men might have life, and have it more abundantly. Like the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem, most people were not willing to come to Jesus for that abundant life (John 5:40; cf. 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).

Third, is what may be called God’s will of command. This will is entirely for His children, because only they have the capacity to obey. The will of command is the ardent desire of the heart of God that we who are His children obey Him completely and immediately with a willing heart. “Do you not know,” Paul says, “that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:16–18).

God’s will of purpose embraces the ultimate end of this world, Christ’s second coming and the setting up of His eternal kingdom. His will of desire embraces conversion; and His will of command embraces the commitment and obedience of His children.

The great enemy of God’s will is pride. Pride caused Satan to rebel against God, and pride causes unbelievers to reject God and believers to disobey Him. For God’s will to be accepted and to be prayed for in sincerity and with faith, self-will must be forsaken in the power of the Holy Spirit. “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1–2).

When we pray in faith and in conformity to God’s will, our prayer is a sanctifying grace that changes our lives dramatically. Prayer is a means of progressive sanctification. John Hannah said, “The end of prayer is not so much tangible answers as a deepening life of dependency. … The call to prayer is a call to love, submission, and obedience, … the avenue of sweet, intimate, and intense fellowship of the soul with the infinite Creator.”

The believer’s call is to bring heaven to earth by hallowing the Lord’s name, letting His kingdom come, and seeking to do His will.

In verses 11–13a Jesus gives three petitions. The first relates to our physical life and the present (daily bread), the second to our mental and emotional life and the past (debts), and the third to our spiritual life and the future (temptation and evil).[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 153). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 331–332). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 381–386). Chicago: Moody Press.

May 24 – Stephen: Godliness in Suffering

“But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

Acts 7:55

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Because Stephen was so consistently Spirit–filled, it was natural for him to react in a godly way to persecution and death.

The cliché “Garbage in, garbage out” provides a good clue to the essence of the Spirit–filled Christian life. Just as computers respond according to their programming, we respond to what fills our minds. If we allow the Holy Spirit to program our thought patterns, we’ll be controlled and renewed by Him and live godly lives. And that’s exactly how Stephen consistently and daily lived his life.

The expression “being full” is from a Greek verb (pleroo) that literally means “being kept full.” Stephen was continuously filled with the Holy Spirit during his entire Christian life. This previewed Paul’s directive in Ephesians 5:18, “but be filled with the Spirit.” These words don’t mean believers are to have some strange mystical experience, but simply that their lives ought to be fully controlled by God’s Spirit.

Stephen gave evidence of his Spirit–filled godliness as He was about to die from stoning. Acts 7:55–56 says he looked to Jesus and let his adversaries and any witnesses know that he saw Christ standing at the right hand of God. Stephen did not focus on his difficult situation but fixed his heart on the Lord, which is what all believers must do: “Keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1–2).

Stephen’s spiritual sight was incredible and enabled him to see the risen Christ and be certain of his welcome into Heaven the moment he died. We won’t have that kind of vision while we’re still on earth, but if we are constantly Spirit–filled like Stephen, we will always see Jesus by faith and realize His complete presence during the most trying times (John 14:26–27; Heb. 13:5–6).

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Suggestions for Prayer: Pray that God would direct your mind away from mundane distractions and toward Him throughout this day.

For Further Study: Stephen established a magnificent pattern during his short ministry in Acts 6. Read that chapter, and jot down several positive things you see about how he did things.[1]


  1. But Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and looked intently into heaven. He saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56. He said, “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”

Observe these points:

  • Faith. Amid the storm lashing the hall of the Sanhedrin, Stephen appears to be an island of serenity. Once again Luke reports that Stephen is full of the Holy Spirit (see 6:5, 10), who now causes him to look heaven-ward. Incidentally, Luke employs the same words for the phrase to look intently into heaven as he used to describe the apostles looking toward the sky at the time Jesus ascended (1:10).

Stephen is permitted to see God’s glory, not in a vision, but in reality. At the beginning of the trial Stephen’s face had a heavenly glow like the face of an angel (6:15). At the conclusion of the trial he sees God’s glory. Although Scripture asserts that no one is able to see God and live, God’s glory has often been revealed to man (compare Ps. 63:2; Isa. 6:1; John 12:41).

In addition to observing God’s glory, Stephen sees Jesus standing, not sitting, at the right hand of God. We do not need to make much of the possible difference between standing and sitting. The standing position possibly denotes that Jesus is welcoming Stephen to heaven (see 1 Kings 2:19). The expression “at the right hand of God” refers to the highest honor given to Jesus at the time of his ascension.

Stephen’s trial resembles that of Jesus. When Jesus stood trial before the Sanhedrin, the high priest asked him whether he was the Son of God. Jesus answered in the affirmative and added that his audience would see “the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64; see also Heb. 1:3, 13).

  • Fulfillment. “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” Stephen is inviting his audience to look up to heaven and see Jesus in person at his place of honor. He calls Jesus “the Son of man,” which is the title Jesus used exclusively for himself to reveal that he fulfilled the messianic prophecy that speaks about the rule of the Son of man (Dan. 7:13–14). According to the Gospel accounts, people never refer to or address Jesus by that name. Stephen’s remark is the exception to that practice. Why does he use this title? Because Stephen fully recognizes that Jesus as the Son of man has fulfilled the messianic prophecy (Dan. 7:13–14) and has been given all authority, power, and dominion in both heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18)
  • Effect. The effect of Stephen’s invitation to look into heaven is not one of wonder and reverential fear on the part of the Sanhedrists but one of anger and hate. The Jews regard Stephen’s words as blasphemy. Just as the high priest at Jesus’ trial tore his priestly garments and cried out, “He has blasphemed” (Matt. 26:65), so the members of the Sanhedrin deem Stephen to have blasphemed the name of God. In view of their Hebrew creed, “Hear, O Israel! the Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (Deut. 6:4), Stephen no longer teaches monotheism. When Stephen says that he sees Jesus standing next to God, they bear him say that Jesus is God. Therefore, Stephen is a blasphemer.

In conformity with the law of Moses, anyone who blasphemes the name of God must be put to death; the members of the assembly must throw stones at him so that he dies (Lev. 24:16). In short, the members of Israel’s supreme court say that the charges of blasphemy, which the Hellenistic Jews have brought against Stephen, are proven to be true now that Stephen claims that Jesus is God.

  • Heaven. Where is heaven? If we visualize Stephen standing in the hall of the Sanhedrin, he would not have been able to look up into the sky. The text gives no indication that the meeting had moved outdoors at this point. How do we explain the appearance of Jesus to Stephen? God opened Stephen’s eyes so that he could see heaven and gave him the ability to view heaven as if it were in proximity to Stephen. Somewhat of a parallel is Paul’s conversion experience on the way to Damascus. Paul heard Jesus’ voice but his companions heard only sound (9:7; also compare 2 Kings 6:17). Heaven, then, is up and around us in a dimension that we are unable to see. When God opens the eyes of believers, as some Christians experience on their deathbed, he permits them to look into heaven.[2]

A Spirit-filled believer keeps “seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). In the midst of his circumstances, Stephen gazed intently into heaven. He was looking for Jesus (cf. 1:10, 11), and he did not look in vain. He saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Stephen was one of the few in Scripture blessed with a glimpse into heaven, along with Isaiah (Isa. 6:1–3), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:26–28), Paul (2 Cor. 12:2–4), and John (Rev. 4:1ff.). God opened Stephen’s eyes to see the blazing Shekinah glory that revealed the presence of God the Father, with Jesus standing at His right hand. To him was granted the privilege of being the first to see Jesus (Before Paul and John) in His glorified state after His ascension.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus is described as being seated at the right hand of God (Matt. 22:44; 24:64; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:11–12; 12:2). He is seated in terms of His redemptive work, which is forever completed (Heb. 10:12). Stephen sees Jesus standing to show His concern for him. He also stands to welcome Stephen into heaven.

So enthralled was Stephen with his beatific vision that he burst out, Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. For the Sanhedrin, such a statement was the last straw, their tolerance for this blasphemer was exhausted. Stephen’s use of the phrase Son of Man may have been the sharpest dagger, because it took them back to the trial of another prisoner. Like Stephen, Jesus was accused of blasphemy by false witnesses, yet He kept silent. Finally, in frustration, the high priest demanded that He speak: “ ‘I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven’ ” (Matt. 26:63–64). For that so-called blasphemy of claiming to be the Son of God and Son of Man who would sit on God’s right hand, they had executed Jesus. Stephen’s vision and words describing who he saw throws that claim Jesus made right back in their faces. Jesus claimed He would be at the right hand of God; Stephen now asserts that He is there! They must either execute Stephen too or admit they were wrong when they had Jesus murdered.[3]


55–56 While the content and tone of his address infuriated the council, Stephen’s solemn pronouncement as he was dying raised again the specter of blasphemy and brought his hearers to a frenzied pitch: “Look,” he announced, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (v. 56). Only a few years before, Jesus had stood before this same tribunal and was condemned for answering affirmatively the high priest’s question about his being Israel’s Messiah and for saying of himself, “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mk 14:62). Now Stephen was saying, in effect, that his vision confirmed Jesus’ claim and condemned the council for having rejected him. Unless the council members were prepared to repent and admit their awful error, they had no option but to find Stephen also guilty of blasphemy. Had he been judged only an impertinent apostate (cf. 5:40), the thirty-nine lashes of Jewish punishment would have been appropriate (cf. m. Mak. 3:10–15a). To be openly blasphemous before the council, however, was a matter that demanded his death.

Luke’s description of Stephen as “full of the Holy Spirit” (v. 55) is in line with his characterizations of him in ch. 6 (vv. 3, 5, 8, 15). The identification of Jesus as “the Son of Man” is used outside the Gospels only here and at Revelation 1:13; 14:14 (cf. Heb 2:6, though probably not as a christological title but as a locution for “man” in line with Ps 8:4). In the canonical gospels Jesus alone is portrayed as having used “Son of Man” with reference to himself (the apparent exceptions in Lk 24:7 and Jn 12:34 are, in actuality, only echoes of Jesus’ usage). Jesus used the expression both as a locution for the pronoun “I” and as a titular image reflecting the usage in Daniel 7:13–28 (esp. vv. 13–14). As a title it carries the ideas of (1) identification with mankind and suffering and (2) vindication by God and glory. The title was generally not attributed to Jesus by the church between the time when his sufferings were completed and when he would assume his full glory. Here, however, an anticipation of Jesus’ full glory is set within a martyr context (as also at Rev 1:13; 14:14); and so the use of “Son of Man” as a title for Jesus is fully appropriate.

The juxtaposition of “the glory of God” and the name of Jesus in Stephen’s vision, together with his saying that he sees “heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” are christologically significant. Unlike the Greek understanding of doxa (“glory”) as akin to “opinion,” the Hebrew OT and Greek LXX viewed “the glory of God” (Heb. kebôd YHWH; Gr. doxa theou) as “the manifestation or revelation of the divine nature” and even as “the divine mode of being” itself (cf. TDNT 2.233–47). The bringing together of “the glory of God” and the name of Jesus, therefore, suggests something about Jesus’ person as the manifestation of the divine nature and the divine mode of being. Likewise, inasmuch as God dwells in the highest heaven, the open heaven with Jesus at God’s right hand suggests something about his work as providing access into the very presence of God.

Stephen’s reference to Jesus “standing” at the right hand of God, which differs from the “sitting” of Psalm 110:1 (the passage alluded to here), has been variously understood. Dalman (Words of Jesus, 311) argued that it is merely “a verbal change,” for both the perfect infinitive estanai (“to stand,” GK 2705) and the present infinitive kathēsthai (“to sit,” GK 2767) connote the idea “to be situated” (Heb. ʿamād), without any necessary implication for the configuration of posture. The majority of commentators, however, have interpreted “standing” to suggest Jesus’ welcome of his martyred follower, who like the repentant criminal of Luke 23:43 was received into heaven the moment he died. Dispensational commentators have taken Stephen’s reference to Jesus’ “standing” as supporting their view that the distinctive redemptive message for this age was not proclaimed until the Pauline gospel (either at its inauguration, its close, or somewhere in between), and so in the transitional period between Israel and the church Jesus is represented as not yet having taken his seat at God’s right hand. Others speak of Jesus as “standing” in order to enter his messianic office on earth or as “standing” in the presence of God, in line with the common representation of angels in God’s presence.

More likely, however, the concept of “witness” is what is primarily highlighted in the portrayal of Jesus as “standing” at Stephen’s martyrdom. F. F. Bruce, 168, has aptly noted that “Stephen has been confessing Christ before men, and now he sees Christ confessing His servant before God. The proper posture for a witness is the standing posture. Stephen, condemned by an earthly court, appeals for vindication to a heavenly court, and his vindicator in that supreme court is Jesus, who stands at God’s right hand as Stephen’s advocate, his ‘paraclete.’ ” Yet in accepting such an interpretation, one does well to keep Bruce’s further comment, 168–69, in mind:

When we are faced with words so wealthy in association as these words of Stephen, it is unwise to suppose that any single interpretation exhausts their significance. All the meaning that had attached to Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13f. is present here, including especially the meaning that springs from their combination on the lips of Jesus when He appeared before the Sanhedrin; but the replacement of “sitting” by “standing” probably makes its own contribution to the total meaning of the words in this context—a contribution distinctively appropriate to Stephen’s present role as martyr-witness.[4]


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

[2] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 17, pp. 278–279). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts (pp. 221–222). Chicago: Moody Press.

[4] Longenecker, R. N. (2007). Acts. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, pp. 829–831). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

May 24 – Enemies of the Cross

Many walk, of who I have told you often, and now tell you weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ.

Philippians 3:18

The most dangerous enemies to the cause of Christ are not those who openly oppose the gospel, but those who pretend to be friends of Christ, claim to identify with Him, and in some cases, reach positions of spiritual leadership.

Being on guard against hidden enemies is a constant theme in the New Testament. Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). He also predicted that in the last days “many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (Matt. 24:11).

The apostle Paul was constantly dealing with the influence of false teachers. He warned the Ephesian elders: “Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.” (Acts 20:31). Do you want to know how to acquire the ability to discern enemies of the cross? Know the Word. If you don’t know the Word, you are open to being misled.[1]


3:18 Just as verse 17 describes those whom believers should follow, this passage tells of those we should not follow. The apostle does not identify these men specifically. Whether they were the Judaizing false teachers mentioned in verse 2, or professed Christian teachers who turned liberty into license, and used grace as a pretext for sin, he does not say.

Paul had warned the saints about these men previously, and he does so again with weeping. But why the tears in the midst of such a stern denunciation? Because of the harm these men did among the churches of God. Because of the lives they ruined. Because of the reproach they brought on the name of Christ. Because they were obscuring the true meaning of the cross. Yes, but also because true love weeps even when denouncing the enemies of the cross of Christ, just as the Lord Jesus wept over the murderous city of Jerusalem.[2]


18, 19. The apostle supports his urgent appeal by continuing, deeply moved, For many are pursuing a walk of life, of whom I told you often and now tell you even weeping (that they are) the enemies of the cross of Christ. The wicked life of these persons who wished to be regarded as Christians belied the confession of their lips. They deceived themselves, exerted a most sinister influence upon those who listened to them, kept unbelievers from becoming truly converted, and dishonored God. They may have been traveling “missionaries.” They were numerous—note the word many—, from which, however, it does not follow that they constituted a considerable proportion of the membership of the Philippian church. If that had been the case, the apostle could not have praised this church in such glowing terms (see Phil. 4:1). Nevertheless, they were a real menace. Paul, while present among the Philippians, had often warned against this class of deceivers. He considers them not just enemies but the (note the definite article here) enemies of the cross of Christ. If the friends of the cross are those who show in their lives that they have caught the spirit of the cross, namely, that of self-denial (Matt. 20:28; Luke 9:23; Rom. 15:3; Phil. 2:5–8), then surely the enemies of the cross are those who manifest the very opposite attitude, namely, that of self-indulgence. The friends of the cross do not love the world. In fact, the world is crucified to them, and they to the world, and this because they glory in the cross (Gal. 6:14; cf. 5:24). The enemies of the cross love the world and the things that are in the world (1 John 2:15). They set their minds on earthly things (Phil. 3:19).

Because of his great love for the Philippians the apostle actually weeps when he reflects on the fact that these enemies of the cross are trying to seduce the members of the first church established in Europe. He weeps as did Mary of Bethany because of her brother’s death (John 11:31, 33; see N.T.C. on John 11:35), and as did Mary Magdalene on the morning of Christ’s resurrection (John 20:11). One of the secrets of Paul’s success as a missionary was his genuine, personal interest in those whom the Lord had committed to his spiritual care. Because his love for them was so real and tender, his heart was stirred to its very depths when danger threatened them. Besides, the apostle was not only a man of penetrating insight and rugged determination but also of profound, surging emotion.

Paul’s Deeply Emotional Nature

Various phases of the apostle’s intensely emotional personality are exhibited in the book of Acts and in the epistles. Here was a truly great soul! What he did he did with all his might, never in a merely detached manner. Having formerly persecuted the followers of Jesus, after his conversion Sorrow, hearty and profound, walked with him (1 Cor. 15:9; 1 Tim. 1:15). That to such a bitter persecutor Christ had revealed himself as a loving Savior baffled him. He just could not get over it (Eph. 3:8; 1 Tim. 1:16). It caused his heart to overflow with lasting, humble gratitude! For this and for other reasons his epistles are full of magnificent doxologies (Rom. 9:5; 11:36; 16:27; Eph. 1:3; 3:20; Phil. 4:20; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15; 2 Tim. 4:18) which are the spontaneous utterances of the man who wrote, “For the love of Christ constrains us” (2 Cor. 5:14). Having been “laid hold on” by Christ, the apostle in turn was eager to burn himself out for the salvation of others (1 Cor. 9:22; 10:33; 2 Cor. 12:15). His heart ached intensely because so many of his own people (Israelites) were not saved (Rom. 9:1–3; 10:1). Anxiety for all his churches pressed upon him daily (2 Cor. 11:28). How fervent and touching were his prayers for them (Eph. 3:14–19; 1 Thess. 3:9–13). How he loved them, so that he could write, “We were gentle in the midst of you as a nurse cherishes her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we gladly shared with you not only the gospel of God but also our own souls … For now we really live if you stand fast in the Lord” (1 Thess. 2:7, 8; 3:8). How earnest were his pleadings (2 Cor. 5:20; Gal. 4:19, 20; Eph. 4:1), and how tactful! Though for their own good he was able to rebuke the wayward very sharply (Gal. 1:6–9; 3:1–4), even this was a manifestation of the love of his great, throbbing heart. Is it any wonder that, when occasion demanded it, out of the eyes of a man with such an ebullient spirit and loving heart there welled forth fountains of tears (Acts 20:19, 31), so that not only here in Phil. 3:18 but also in 2 Cor. 2:4 these are mentioned? And is it at all surprising that, on the other hand, on one occasion the tears of his friends, because of his imminent departure and the afflictions in store for him, well-nigh broke his heart (Acts 21:13)? Truly Paul’s weeping when he writes about the enemies of the cross of Christ is as glorious as is the joy, joy, joy that sings its way through this marvelous epistle!

Speaking about these enemies of the cross of Christ Paul continues, whose end is destruction. This is their appointed destiny, for God has ordained that “their end shall be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:15). This end is the fruit of their wicked lives (Rom. 6:21). It is the wages earned by their sin (Rom. 6:23). Destruction, however, is by no means the same as annihilation. It does not mean that they will cease to exist. On the contrary, it means everlasting punishment (Matt. 25:46), for this destruction is an everlasting destruction (2 Thess. 1:9). This destruction begins even in the present life, but is climaxed after death. Paul continues, whose god is their belly (cf. Rom. 16:18). Instead of striving to keep their physical appetites under control (Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 9:27), realizing that our bodies are the Holy Spirit’s temple, in which God should be glorified (1 Cor. 6:19, 20), these people surrendered themselves to gluttony and licentiousness. They worshipped their sensual nature. In this they were prompted, no doubt, by causes such as the following: immoral background (cf. 1 Peter 1:18), wicked pagan surroundings, licentious incipient gnosticism (see N.T.C. on 1 Tim. 4:3), perversion of the doctrine of grace (Rom. 3:8; 6:1), and, last but not least, evil lusts within the heart (James 1:14). The apostle further characterizes them as those whose glory is in their shame: Their pride was in that of which they should have been ashamed. Not only did they carry out their wicked designs, but they even boasted about them. They were the persons who set their minds on earthly things. Being carnal, “after the flesh,” they pondered the things of the flesh (Rom. 8:5). Now the mind of the flesh is “enmity against God” (Rom. 8:7), and these people were “the enemies of the cross of Christ.” In a parallel passage the apostle shows us what these earthly things were on which these people set their minds, namely, immorality, indecency, lust, evil desire, greed, evil temper, furious rage, malice, cursing, filthy talk (Col. 3:2, 5, 8).[3]


Fleeing from Enemies

For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. (3:18–19)

The apostle warned that in pursuing the spiritual prize of Christlikeness it must be recognized that there are many examples to be avoided. The enemies of which Paul warned do not appear to have been openly hostile to the Christian faith. Like their evil master, Satan, they were deceptive, disguising themselves as messengers of Christ, angels of light, and servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:13–15). They became part of the church, possibly even in leadership roles. Their subtlety made them exceptionally dangerous.

The New Testament constantly warns of the danger posed by false teachers. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). In the Olivet Discourse He added, “See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many” (Matt. 24:4–5). Acts records the false teachers Simon Magus (Acts 8:9–24) and Elymas (Acts 13:8–11), while Paul dealt with Hymenaeus and Alexander at Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:20). The apostle warned both Timothy (1 Tim. 1:4) and Titus (Titus 3:9) to avoid false teachers who dabbled in myths and genealogies. Both Peter (2 Peter) and Jude wrote of the danger of false teachers. John also warned his readers to beware of false teachers:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:1–3)

In his second epistle he added, “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7).

Sadly, because of apathy toward the truth and shallow biblical knowledge, the church today lacks discernment. It is astonishing and disturbing to see the things Christians believe and the people they follow. A lack of consistent and long-term precise biblical exposition from the pulpit has led to a lack of precise biblical thinking and discernment. The tragic result is the widespread victimization of the church by enemies of the Cross of Christ. (For a further discussion of the lack of discernment in the church, see John MacArthur, Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994].)

Unlike the godly examples of verse 17, the walk (daily conduct) of the false teachers is not to be imitated. Some see the phrase of whom I often told you as a reference to 1:28. More likely, however, it refers to warnings Paul gave the Philippian church when he was with them in person. He gave a similar warning to the elders from the Ephesian church:

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. (Acts 20:28–31)

Paul warned the Philippians that false teachers are enemies of the cross of Christ. But he did so not with gladness, but with weeping. This is the only place in the New Testament that Paul speaks of himself as crying in the present tense. He was a sensitive, passionate man, and the plight of lost sinners or the threat to his beloved congregations often brought him to tears (cf. Acts 20:19, 31; Rom. 9:2; 2 Cor. 2:4). Paul was heartbroken as he recognized the havoc the false teachers could cause in the Philippian church. He no doubt also wept over the false teachers’ fate (cf. Rom. 9:2). The damnation of the enemies of the Cross, their destructive impact on the church, and the reproach they brought on the cause of Christ caused Paul grief.

Paul described the false teachers as enemies of the cross of Christ. The term cross is not limited to the actual wooden instrument of death (1 Cor. 1:17–18, 23; 2:2; Gal. 3:1; 6:14; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20; 2:14; 1 Peter 2:24), but signifies Christ’s atoning death in all its aspects. The false teachers were against salvation!

Paul did not label the specific enemies of the cross of Christ who were troubling the Philippians. There are, however, only two options: they were either Jews or Gentiles, or both. The Jewish false teachers who identified with the church were known as the Judaizers (cf. Acts 15). They argued that the gospel alone was insufficient to save; circumcision and keeping the Law were also necessary. Paul forcefully denounced them in 3:2 as “dogs, … evil workers,” and “the false circumcision.” Though they thought of themselves as the sheep of God’s pasture, the Judaizers were actually mangy, scroungy mongrels. Their spiritual descendants—those who add works to salvation—plague the church to this day.

Since Paul did not specifically identify these enemies of the cross as Judaizers, they may have been Gentiles. Some Gentile false teachers held to the dualistic philosophy prevalent in contemporary Greek thought. Those heretics, forerunners of the dangerous second-century heresy known as Gnosticism, taught that spirit was good and matter was evil. Since the body is made of matter, it is intrinsically evil. Salvation ultimately involves not the redemption of the body, but deliverance from it. Thus, since the body is incurably evil, it does not matter what one does with it. Its desires can be satiated; a person can be a glutton, a drunkard, a homosexual, or an adulterer. All those things, the heretics taught, were inconsequential, since they affected only the body, not the spirit. The Judaizers added to the gospel; the Gentile false teachers subtracted from it.

That same spirit of antinomian libertinism lives on today. There are those in the contemporary church who teach that saving faith need not result in a life of holiness. Since Jesus’ death paid for believers’ sins, they argue, it does not matter how they live. Some even teach that all who profess faith in Christ are saved—even if they later become atheists.

Paul gave four marks of the enemies of the cross in verse 19.

the doom they face

whose end is destruction, (3:19a)

Having rejected the one and only truth of salvation—the cross of Christ—all false teachers face the same fate. Their end (the Greek word telos refers here to their ultimate destiny) will be eternal destruction (torment, punishment) in hell (Matt. 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:9). The Judaizers deserved this fate because they added human works to the cross of Christ. To believe the truth about Him but also to believe that human works are necessary for salvation is to be damned forever. The Gentile heretics deserved their fate because they stripped the cross of Christ of its power to transform lives. The result is a dead faith, unable to save (James 2:14–26).

the deity they serve

whose god is their appetite, (3:19b)

Appetite translates koilia, which refers anatomically to the abdomen, particularly the stomach. Here it is used metaphorically to refer to all unrestrained sensual, fleshly, bodily desires (cf. 1 Cor. 6:13). The false teachers were condemned because they did not worship God but bowed down to their sensual impulses. It could be a reference to the Judaizers’ emphasis on keeping the Jewish dietary laws. Or if the false teachers in view were Gentiles, it could refer to their unrestrained pursuit of sensual pleasures. Jude described such people as “ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).

the disgrace they bear

whose glory is in their shame, (3:19c)

Shockingly, the false teachers boasted in the very things that brought them shame. This is the most extreme form of wickedness—when the sinner’s most wretched conduct before God is his highest point of self-exaltation. The Judaizers boasted in their “rubbish” (3:8)—as Paul himself had done before he learned to count all that “as loss for the sake of Christ” (3:7). The Gentile libertines also boasted—of their supposed freedom to pursue sensual desires. They were most proud of their worst perversions (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1–2).

the disposition they display

who set their minds on earthly things. (3:19d)

Their earthly focus offers evidence that the false teachers were not saved. James asked, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). The Judaizers focused on ceremonies, festivals, feasts, sacrifices, new moons—“things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17). The libertines focused on the passing sensual pleasures of the world.

The enemies of the Cross, whether they add to the gospel or take away from it, are to be avoided, never imitated.[4]


Walking with the Living Christ

Philippians 3:16–19

Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.

Have you ever noticed that the way a person walks quite often reveals his character? A proud person will walk erect, his head held high. A coward will often slink away or perhaps walk along with a smug, blustery air. Sometimes novelists make use of this fact to describe their characters. Heroes walk with confidence; villains slouch, sneak, creep, or swagger. The need to describe such forms of walking has enriched language. Roget’s Thesaurus lists dozens of English synonyms for walking. The Zulu language, according to Eugene A. Nida of the American Bible Society, contains at least 120 distinct words for similar ideas—to walk pompously, to walk with a swagger, to walk crouched down as when hunting, and so on. These truths are an acknowledgment that the way people walk reveals something of their ambition, state of mind, and values.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that Christians are called to an exemplary walk in the Bible. They are told to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1). They are to walk “wisely” (Eph. 5:15), “with respect” (1 Thess. 4:12), and “in the light” (1 John 1:7).

In Philippians Paul writes in the same vein, “Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things” (Phil. 3:16–19). In these verses Paul speaks twice of the Christian’s walk and once of the unbeliever’s walk, teaching that the walk of the believer in Jesus Christ is to reveal the true nature of his calling.

Our Former Walk

The first thing that we must understand about the walk of the Christian is that it is to be different from the walk he had before becoming Christ’s follower. In other words, the standards you had before you became a Christian are to be replaced by new standards now. Why is it that Paul speaks here of those who are enemies of the cross of Christ? It is not simply because he knew such people and thought of them just at this moment in the writing of the letter. It is because he knew that this is the way we all were before we became followers of Jesus Christ, and he wished to stress it. He wanted his readers to know that their new calling was to be entirely different.

Paul says that the non-Christian is first an enemy of the cross of Christ. That means that he is an opponent of the Christian gospel. He resists it and wants others to resist it also. Second, his end is destruction. This means that his path does not lead to peace, happiness, success, or self-satisfaction—in spite of what unbelievers think—but to misery, discontent, unrest, and eventually to a permanent separation from God. Third, his God is his stomach. The old King James and the Revised Standard versions say “belly.” The New Scofield Bible says “appetite.” But the meaning is identical. The phrase points to one who is possessed by his own selfish appetite and who sees no need for God as a higher principle beyond it. Fourth, the non-Christian takes pride in things that should be his shame. This means that his values are reversed, and he finds himself declaring good what God calls evil and calling evil that which God calls good (cf. Isa. 5:20).

Moreover, these words are intensely practical. For this reversal of values matches our own contemporary standards. In our day America is preoccupied with sex and the self; it is committed to a materialism designed to satisfy the individual’s selfish desires. Our values are becoming so reversed that honesty is increasingly novel, chastity is despised and mocked, and a word in behalf of law, justice, or personal integrity is often ignored or laughed down. This is the way things are, but it should not be surprising. The Bible says that this is the natural walk of human beings apart from Christ—although Christian values or other high ethical standards sometimes temper it—and it is away from this natural walk and to Christ that God calls the Christian.

This is the true meaning of conversion. Some people speak of conversion as if it were synonymous with justification or being born again. Actually it means to turn around. It implies not only regeneration but discipleship as well. Before you believed, you were going down a path that led away from God. It led to destruction, as Paul says. Then God saved you. He reached down and in grace turned you around, reversing your values to his values, and setting you on a path of his choosing. Because of this reorientation “the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17). If you are to walk as a Christian, you must begin with this primary reversal of your standards.

Walking with Others

A second important thought about the proper walk of a Christian occurs in Philippians 3:17. Paul writes, “Join with others in following my example.” Here the apostle to the Gentiles says as clearly as he can that the walk of the believer must always be a walk with, and therefore in harmony with, other Christians.

The same truth is taught in verse 16, although it is somewhat hidden by the English translation. Paul’s charge to the Philippians to “walk by the same rule” (kjv) is conveyed in a phrase based on the colorful Greek word stoichein, which means “to walk in a row.” The masculine noun of this word means a “row,” as a row of houses, a rank of soldiers, a wall of trees, and so on. The feminine noun stoicheia was the word used for the alphabet since it is composed of an orderly row of letters. In all these instances the words imply an ordered and harmonious arrangement. Hence, when Paul speaks in this way to Christians he is implying that their life together should also be harmonious. The successful walk of the Christian depends not only on his own goals or on his own doctrine; it also depends upon the success of his walk with other Christians.

One of the illustrations of C. S. Lewis makes this transparently clear. Lewis imagines the church of Jesus Christ to be something like a fleet of ships sailing in formation. To sail well they need a common goal, a common destination. Spiritually this means that the goal must first be set for the Christian by the Lord Jesus Christ and that the Christian must always be conscious of it. Then, too, each individual ship must be in order. This corresponds to the Christian’s personal morality, and it is also essential. Third, each ship must be managed in such a way that it does not collide with the others or get in their way. This last point is the one made in this part of Philippians. The ships must sail together, or, as Paul would say, they are to sail by the same rule, minding the same thing.

None of this means that the Christian ceases to be an individual before God, of course. But it does mean that he must be conscious of the other individuals. He must be concerned for them and cooperate with them in common Christian objectives.

The Lord’s Company

Then we must also walk with the Lord, for we take our orders from him and not from one another. The ship sailing in formation does not take its directions from the ship beside it but from the admiral on the deck of the flagship. Similarly, Christians must take their orders from the Lord Jesus Christ.

This will not come through a mystical experience. It will come only through a knowledge of God’s Word. The psalmist had learned this and said, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:1–2).

Think of the blessings that are promised to an individual as the result of a personal and prayerful study of God’s Word. First we become Christians by exposure to the truths in the Bible. Peter said that we are “born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). He is using the facts of sex as an image, saying that the Word of God operates on our heart as the male sperm does on the ova in the uterus of a woman. The uterus is our heart; the ova is faith. The sperm of God’s Word penetrates our hearts to bring forth the life of eternity.

Has God’s Word done that in you? Nothing else will do it, not the word of a person, however wise, not philosophy, not history, not science. In John 3:6 God’s Word says, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” If you are to experience the divine life, you must experience it in the only way it can come—through the Bible as the Holy Spirit penetrates your heart through Scripture. This is the first great blessing of Bible study.

The second is our sanctification, for it is by a study of the Bible and fellowship with God that we are made increasingly as he would have us to be. John 17:17 says, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” The verb “to sanctify” means “to make holy”; so when Jesus asked God to sanctify his followers through God’s truth, he was praying that they might become holy through a study of God’s Word. Unfortunately, Christians often seek holiness anywhere but by God’s Word. They seek it through reading other literature, by attending religious services, by special emotional experiences, even at times through mysticism. Sometimes these things are helpful—some of them more than others. But they are not the straight path to an upright and holy life. God’s methods of sanctification are all wrapped up in Scripture.

Third, the Word of God is the primary means by which God reveals his will to us. God’s Word contains unshakable facts and great principles, and through these God teaches us that certain things are his will for us and other things are not.

I have often been struck personally by how relevant Scripture can be to a particular problem. Take St. Augustine as an example. In his youth Augustine’s greatest problem was immorality, and although he wanted deliverance from his sins he knew that he did not want it until he had satisfied his sexual appetite completely. In his Confessions he tells that he prayed, “Lord, make me chaste,” while he knew that he was actually adding under his breath, “but not quite yet.” He wrestled with this hindrance to his belief for years. At last, while Augustine was near Milan in Italy, God brought him to the end of his resistance and spoke to him through two verses that were uniquely directed to his need. They were Romans 13:13–14. He came upon them quite suddenly by what the world would call chance. “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” God used these words to speak directly to the heart of St. Augustine.

Do you want to know how relevant the Bible can be to your life and how God can use it to reveal his will to you? Then you must spend time reading it daily. If you are a Christian, God has a path marked out for you. You will find it only as you discover his will for you through Scripture.

A final function of God’s Word, as we fellowship with him in it, is to keep us from the counterfeits of truth. Whenever the truth of the gospel is preached, the devil will immediately set about to erect a counterfeit beside it, an idol that looks like the real thing but that is dead because it omits the life-giving heart of the gospel.

The author of the Book of Hebrews faced a similar problem as he wrote to the people of his day. He was writing to people who had some knowledge of true Christianity but who were still clinging to a form of Judaism that taught that a person is made pleasing to God by good works. They knew some of the Bible, but they did not know it well. Hence, they were not only fooled by the counterfeits; they were also unable to receive the deeper teaching that the author of Hebrews wished to share with them. At length he says, “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:11–14).

We are almost all in the first of those categories. There is much we need to know, but we do have the Bible. Shall we neglect it or not? Christian friends, let us fill up our souls with the Bible. For only then shall we continue to walk as we ought to walk with God. Only then shall we see clearly the way we should go.[5]


18 Paul now switches back to a negative example presented by those whose lives do not conform to the cross. Who they might be is irrelevant to Paul’s argument. They are believers who simply serve as a foil. The enemies are not those on the outside but those on the inside—those who bear the name of Christian but who live no differently from unredeemed pagans. Since Christ’s path to the cross was characterized by humility and obedience, the enemies of the cross are those who stubbornly refuse to humble themselves and accept low status, to live out the foolish wisdom of the cross and suffer for Christ. Their earthly orientation puts their belly, their own concerns (see 2:1–4, 19–21), above all others. The Philippians are not to become like them. If they do, Paul’s joy over them will turn to bitter tears.

19 Those whose lifestyles are just the opposite of the selfless life of Christ are destined for “destruction” (apōleia, GK 724)—the fate of outsiders (1:28)—and not resurrection glory, which is the destiny of believers. They are the antithesis of Paul’s description of Christians in 3:3. Instead of serving God in Spirit, they serve their belly as god. Instead of boasting in Christ Jesus, they glory in their shame. Instead of renouncing their confidence in the flesh, they set their mind on earthly things.

The reference to “belly” (NIV, “stomach”) is not a sardonic reference to Jewish opponents overly preoccupied with food laws. It refers, “by metonymy, to a greedy and dissipated lifestyle” (Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 931; cf. Ro 16:17–18). The satiation of one’s appetites becomes a measure of happiness. Athenaeus (Deipn. 97c) uses the term “glutton”: “you glutton, whose God is your belly, and with no whit for anything else”; Seneca (Ben. 7.26) derisively refers to persons who are “slaves of their bellies” (cf. Xenophon, Mem. 1.6.8; 2.1.2). In Paul’s words to the Philippians “belly” becomes a picturesque reference to “the flesh,” to a self-centered, self-indulgent existence controlled by illicit desires. Their own glory holds them spellbound, betrays the gospel, and destroys Christian community. Unable to discern the differing things (1:9–11), they choose what is shameful and what fails to bring glory to God. Rather than setting their sights on the prize and on the upward call of God, “they have their eyes fixed on their own navel; their god is themselves” (Collange, 138).[6]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 161). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1976). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, pp. 180–182). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 255–259). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Boice, J. M. (2000). Philippians: an expositional commentary (pp. 209–213). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[6] Garland, D. E. (2006). Philippians. In T. Longman III (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 247). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

May 23, 2017: Verse of the day

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104:24–26 The variety of God’s works is staggering. “What wisdom has designed them all” (Knox). The earth is full of His creatures, and He cares for each one with amazing attention to detail. The sea swarms with life both small and great, ranging all the way from the minute plankton to the whales.

The mention of ships in verse 26 seems somewhat out of place in a discussion of living creatures. Some understand it to mean sea monsters (Gen. 1:21), but ships is the correct reading. Leviathan (in the same verse) may refer to the whales or porpoises which find the sea an ideal playground for their sporting antics. (But see comments and endnotes on Job 41.)[1]


The Glory of the Animal Creation (104:24–26)

Commentary

24–26 The world of creation reveals the power, wisdom, and creative diversity of the Lord. In vv. 5–9 the psalmist was in awe of God’s majestic power. Verses 10–18 reflect on the variety of his creatures and on his wisdom in sustaining all of them. Verses 19–23 evoke a response of gratitude, because the Lord is in control over the seasons and the alternation of day and night. In verses 24–26 the psalmist calls on the reader to worship with him the Lord’s wisdom and creative diversity. He has multiple “works” (v. 24; cf. v. 13) all over his world. All life belongs to him (“your creatures,” lit., “your possession”), whether on “the earth” (v. 24) or in “the sea” (v. 25).

The emphasis on sea creatures magnificently complements the mention in vv. 10–18 of wild and domesticated animals, birds, and humans. The Lord provides for the great number of sea creatures that in equal variety inhabit the seas (v. 25). Wherever ships have plied the seas (v. 26), reports have come back on the interesting variety of animal life in the sea, among which is the “leviathan.” The “leviathan”—a creature feared by the Canaanites because of its power, represented by seven heads (cf. ANET, 137–38; see Notes, 74:13)—is here only a large sea animal, a creature of God (“which you formed”), the Lord’s pet (v. 26). For an extensive study of this motif, see Day, God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea.[2]


104:24–26 This portion corresponds to the fifth day of creation in Ge 1:20–23.[3]


104:25–26 The Lord Delights in the Sea Creatures, Too. After celebrating God’s care for the land animals, the song moves on to the open sea … which teems with creatures innumerable (corresponding to the fifth creation day, Gen. 1:20–23). (The ships that men sail for merchant activities do not defile the creation order.) Leviathan (see note on Ps. 74:14) here is probably a poetic name for a whale, and is therefore one of the “great sea creatures” (Gen. 1:21). Although the word can be used for an enemy of God, this psalm joins the creation account in portraying the various creatures as subject to the Lord, not opposing him. The admiration continues, as the song says that God formed Leviathan to play in the sea (or, if the alternate rendering in the ESV footnote is followed, he formed it to be his partner in play); throughout this psalm, delight takes the singing congregation far beyond mere utility![4]


104:25 sea … creatures innumerable. The fifth day of creation (Gen. 1:20–23).

104:26 ships … Leviathan. The psalmist’s imagination is caught up with God’s mysterious sea. On its surface ships glide to and fro from distant ports, while underneath lurks the monster Leviathan, here a poetic symbol of God’s creative power (Job 41).[5]


[1] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 708). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[2] VanGemeren, W. A. (2008). Psalms. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Revised Edition) (Vol. 5, pp. 768–769). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Ps 104:24–26). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1071). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[5] Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 953). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.

May 23 – Marveling at God’s Forgiveness (Matthew)

The twelve apostles included “Matthew the tax-gatherer” (Matt. 10:3).

✧✧✧

Never lose your sense of awe over Christ’s forgiveness.

Matthew describes himself as “Matthew the tax-gatherer” (Matt. 10:3). He is the only apostle whose name is associated here with an occupation. Apparently Matthew never forgot what he had been saved from and never lost his sense of awe and unworthiness over Christ’s forgiveness.

Matthew 9:1–8, where he sets the scene of his own conversion, tells us Jesus forgave the sins of a paralytic man and then healed him of his paralysis. When the Jewish scribes accused Him of blasphemy for claiming to have the authority to forgive sins, He said to them, “Why are you thinking evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, and walk’?” He wanted them to know that His miracles testified to His deity. As God, He could as easily forgive sins as He could heal diseases.

Immediately after that account, Matthew gave the account of his own call. It’s as if he wanted his own salvation to serve as an illustration of Christ’s ability to forgive even the vilest of sinners. Matthew 9:9 says, “As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man, called Matthew, sitting in the tax office; and He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’ And he rose, and followed Him.”

When the Pharisees questioned Jesus’ practice of associating with tax-gatherers, He said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are ill. … I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (vv. 12–13). The Pharisees were sick with sin but thought they were healthy. Matthew and his associates knew they were sinners who needed a Savior.

Do you share Matthew’s humility and sense of awe at receiving Christ’s precious gift of forgiveness? I pray that you do and that you are continually praising Him for it.

✧✧✧

Suggestions for Prayer:  Thank God for the wonder of forgiveness. ✧ If you have lost your sense of awe over God’s forgiveness, perhaps you’re taking His grace for granted. Confess your apathy, and ask Him to give you a deep appreciation for the enormous price He paid for your salvation.

For Further Study: As a reminder of what Christ endured for you, read Matthew 26:17–27:56, which chronicles the events of His betrayal and crucifixion.[1]


Matthew

Because he wrote the first gospel, Matthew is one of the best known apostles. But the New Testament reveals very few details of his life or ministry.

Before his conversion and call to discipleship, Matthew collected taxes for Rome (Matt. 9:9). It was not an occupation to be proud of, and one would think he would have wanted to dissociate himself from the stigma as much as possible. Yet when he wrote the gospel some thirty years later, he still referred to himself as the tax-gatherer.

As discussed previously in more detail (see chap. 6), tax-gatherers were considered traitors, the most hated members of Jewish society. They were often more despised than the occupying rulers and soldiers, because they betrayed and financially oppressed their own people. They were legal extortioners who extracted as much money as they could from both citizen and foreigner with the full authority and protection of Rome.

They were so despicable and vile that the Jewish Talmud said, “It is righteous to lie and deceive a tax collector.” Tax collectors were not permitted to testify in Jewish courts, because they were notorious liars and accepted bribes as a normal part of life. They were cut off from the rest of Jewish life and were forbidden to worship in the Temple or even in a synagogue. In Jesus’ parable, the tax collector who came to the Temple to pray stood “some distance away” (Luke 18:13) not only because he felt unworthy but because he was not allowed to enter.

Matthew was hardly proud of what he had been, but he seems to have cherished the description as a reminder of his own great unworthiness and of Christ’s great grace He saw himself as the vilest sinner, saved only by the incomparable mercy of his Lord.

Even from the little information given about him, it is evident Matthew was a man of faith. When he got up from his tax table and began to follow Jesus, he burned his bridges behind him. Tax collecting was a lucrative occupation, and many opportunists were doubtlessly eager to take Matthew’s place. And once he forsook his privileged position, the Roman officials would not have granted it to him again. The disciples who were fishermen could always return to fishing, as many of them did after the crucifixion; but there could be no returning to tax collecting for Matthew.

In the eyes of the scribes and Pharisees, Matthew’s leaving his tax office to follow Jesus did little to elevate his standing. Casting his lot with Jesus did not increase Matthew’s popularity, but it greatly increased his danger. There is little doubt that Matthew faced something of the true cost of discipleship before any of the other apostles.

Matthew was not only faithful but humble. In his own gospel (and even in the other three) he is faceless and absolutely voiceless during his time of training under Jesus. He asks no questions and makes no comments. He appears directly in no narrative. Only from Mark (2:15) and Luke (5:29) do we learn that the banquet Jesus ate with “tax-gatherers and sinners” was in Matthew’s house. In his own account, the fact that he was responsible for it is only implied (Matt. 9:10). He was eager and overjoyed for his friends and former associates to meet Jesus, but he calls no attention to his own role in the banquet.

It may be that his humility was born out of his overwhelming sense of sinfulness. He saw God’s grace as so superabundant that he felt unworthy to say a word. He was the silent disciple, until the Holy Spirit led him to pick up his pen and write the opening book of the New Testament-twenty-eight powerful chapters on the majesty, might, and glory of the King of kings.

The fact that Matthew is also referred to as Levi indicates his Jewish heritage. We have no idea what his biblical training may have been, but Matthew quotes the Old Testament more often than the other three gospel writers combined-and quotes from all three parts of it (the law, the prophets, and the writings, or Hagiographa). Since it is highly unlikely he studied Scripture while he was a tax collector, he gained his biblical knowledge either in his youth or after he became an apostle.

Matthew had a loving heart for the lost. As soon as he was saved his first concern was to tell others of that great news and invite them to share in it. He was ashamed of his own previous life of sin; but he was not ashamed to be seen eating with his former associates who were despised by society and living under God’s judgment, because they needed the Savior just as he had.

He sensed personal sinfulness as perhaps none of his fellow disciples did, because he had been greedily and unashamedly involved in extortion, deception, graft, and probably blasphemy and every form of immorality. But now, like the woman taken in adultery, because he was forgiven much, he loved much (see Luke 7:42–43, 47). The genuineness of his love for the Lord is proved in his concern for the salvation of his friends.

God took that outcast sinner and transformed him into a man of great faith, humility, and compassion. He turned him from a man who extorted to one who gave, from one who destroyed lives to one who brought the way of eternal life.[2]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Drawing Near—Daily Readings for a Deeper Faith (p. 156). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 10:3). Chicago: Moody Press.

MAY 23 – GOD STANDS READY TO CONFIRM OUR FAITH IN HIM

This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we are all witnesses.

ACTS 2:32

The difference between faith as it is found in the New Testament and faith as it is found now, is that the faith in the New Testament actually produced something—there was a confirmation of it!

On the day of Pentecost, Peter stood up and then he lifted up his voice. I would remind you that Peter here stands for the whole Church of God. Peter was the first man to get on his feet after the Holy Spirit had come. Peter had believed the Lord’s word and he had received confirmation in his own heart.

In our day faith is pretty much a beginning and an end. We have faith in faith—but nothing happens. There is no confirmation. Peter placed his faith in a risen Christ and something did happen. That’s the difference!

As in Peter’s case, it should be the business of the church to stand up and lift up. Peter became a witness on earth, as the church should be, to things in heaven. The church must be a witness to powers beyond the earthly and the human, and because I know this, it is a source of great grief to me that the church is trying to run on its human powers.

Peter testified to something beyond the earthly which he had experienced. He wanted to influence, urge and exhort those who had not yet experienced it to enter in, for the power from above turns out to be none other than the Spirit of God Himself![1]


2:32, 33 Now Peter repeats an announcement that must have shocked his Jewish audience. The Messiah of whom David prophesied was Jesus of Nazareth. God had raised Him from among the dead, as the apostles could all testify because they were eyewitnesses to His resurrection. Following His resurrection, the Lord Jesus was exalted to the right hand of God, and now the Holy Spirit had been sent as promised by the Father. This was the explanation of what had happened in Jerusalem earlier in the day.[2]


32. “This Jesus God raised up, and all of us are witnesses of it. 33. Therefore, having been exalted to God’s right hand, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out what you now both see and hear.”

In these two verses Peter notes the redemptive facts of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension in conjunction with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In fact, he refers to the three Persons of the Trinity: the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Three times in his Pentecost sermon he emphatically points to Jesus as this Jesus (see vv. 23, 32, 36) to recall for his audience their knowledge of and acquaintance with Jesus of Nazareth (v. 22). Once again Peter stresses the theme of the early Christian church: the resurrection from the dead (v. 24; and see 13:30, 33–34, 37; 17:31).

In verses 32 and 33, Peter makes a distinction between the apostolic witnesses (“all of us are witnesses”) who have seen the resurrected Jesus and the multitude who observe the phenomena of Pentecost (“what you now both see and hear”). In another context, Peter states that Jesus appeared only to those witnesses “who were appointed beforehand by God” (10:41). Conversely, the multitude at Pentecost did not see the resurrected Christ; they saw and heard the visible and audible tokens of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Because Peter’s audience had not seen Jesus in the forty-day period between his resurrection and ascension, they needed proof that what the eyewitnesses proclaimed was true. Therefore, they wanted to know the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. To meet the questions of his audience, Peter alludes to Jesus’ ascension and mentions Christ’s place at the right hand of God (compare 5:31). Christians eventually formulated these truths in the Apostles’ Creed and confessed that Jesus Christ

ascended to heaven,

and sits at the right hand

of God the Father almighty.

From his exalted position, Jesus has fulfilled the promise that the Father would send the Holy Spirit (refer to John 7:39; 14:26; 15:26). On the day of Pentecost Jesus’ words concerning the coming of the Spirit are being fulfilled. Consequently, everyone present at the temple area in Jerusalem is able to see the evidence of the outpouring of the Spirit. The listeners must know, therefore, that Jesus, seated at the right hand of God, has the authority to commission the Spirit to come and live in the hearts of the believers.[3]


Not only did Jesus rise from the dead, but he also was exalted to the place of honor, glory, and power (cf. Phil. 2:9–11) at the right hand of God (cf. Mark 16:19; Luke 22:69; Acts 5:31; 7:55–56; Rom. 8:34; Col. 3:1; Heb. 10:12; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22). From that exalted position, Peter says, Jesus, having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, has poured forth this which you both see and hear. Peter now brings his listeners full circle back to the phenomena of Pentecost. He tells them that what they had just seen resulted from God’s promise to send the Spirit to inaugurate the messianic age (Joel 2:28–29). Now that Christ was risen and glorified, God fulfilled that promise (cf. John 7:39).[4]


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

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1586). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 17, pp. 100–101). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts (p. 65). Chicago: Moody Press.

MAY 23 – BLAME SOMEONE ELSE

And the man said, The woman…gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

Genesis 3:12

In the earliest day of failure and tragedy in the garden of Eden, Adam came out of hiding, knowing full well his own guilt and shame.

Adam confessed: “We ate from the fruit of the tree that was forbidden—but it was the woman who enticed me!” (see Genesis 3:12).

When God said to Eve, “What did you do?” she said: “It was the serpent that beguiled me!” (see 3:13).

In that brief time our first parents had learned the art of laying the blame on someone else. That is one of the great, betraying evidences of sin—and we have learned it straight from our first parents. We do not accept the guilt of our sin and iniquity. We blame someone else.

If you are not the man you ought to be, you are likely to blame your wife or your ancestors. If you are not the young person you ought to be, you can always blame your parents. If you are not the wife you ought to be, you may blame your husband or perhaps the children.

Sin being what it is, we would rather lay the blame on others. We blame, blame, blame! That is why we are where we are.

Lord, help me to quickly acknowledge my sins and not try to hide them from You—which is actually impossible to do. I want to receive Your forgiveness and move on in my deepening relationship with You.[1]


3:12 The woman whom You gave. Adam pitifully put the responsibility on God for giving him Eve. That only magnified the tragedy in that Adam had knowingly transgressed God’s prohibition, but still would not be open and confess his sin, taking full responsibility for his action, which was not made under deception (1Ti 2:14).[2]


3:12 woman whom you gave Adam tries to pass responsibility to his wife—and perhaps even to God.[3]


3:12 A guilty man’s first line of defense is blame. Adam blamed the woman, and then he blamed God for having given her to him (for David’s contrasting response to Nathan, read 2 Sam. 12:13).[4]


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

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Ge 3:12). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Ge 3:12). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[4] Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 12). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.

May 23 – A Right Understanding of God’s Will

Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.—Matt. 6:10b

To understand God’s will rightly, we need an attitude of righteous rebellion. If we would pray that God accomplishes His will, we must reject the notion that sin is normal and therefore we must accept it. Instead we must righteously rebel against the world’s ungodliness, its unbelief of Jesus Christ, and believers’ disobedience. Not to do this is to abandon key biblical teachings and accept powerlessness in prayer.

Jesus was not resigned to the spiritual status quo—He preached and acted against sin. When Jewish leaders profaned God’s house, “He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, ‘Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business’ ” (John 2:15–16).

We further must rebel against the idea that wickedness and corruption is somehow God’s will that we must passively accept. Nothing evil comes from God’s hand, but only from Satan’s. To ask that righteousness and God’s will be done oftentimes means we have to pray for Satan’s will to be undone (cf. Ps. 68:1; Rev. 6:10).

To pray with a right understanding of God’s will is to pray believing that He hears and answers our prayers. Lack of such faith is one of our greatest hindrances to effective praying.

ASK YOURSELF
Yes, to pray for God’s will to be done on earth, we must first make sure it is being done in us. What are some aspects of God’s will that are going unheeded in your own heart, even though they are far from mysterious, very clearly laid out in Scripture? Make this your prayer today—that His will would be done in you.[1]

The Third Petition

10b. Thy will be done, as in heaven so on earth. The will of God to which reference is made is clearly his “revealed” will, expressed in his law. It is that will which is done in heaven, but not yet to any great extent on earth. On the other hand, the will of God’s “decree” or “plan from eternity” is always being realized both in heaven and on earth (Dan. 4:35; Eph. 1:11), and cannot be the subject of prayer. (Incidentally, the statement that God’s revealed will is being perfectly obeyed in heaven—hence not only by heaven’s angels but also by the hosts of the redeemed—implies that the very moment a soul is translated from this sinful earth to heaven it has been freed from every vestige of sin.) It is the ardent desire of the person who sincerely breathes the Lord’s Prayer that the Father’s will shall be obeyed as completely, heartily, and immediately on earth as this is constantly being done by all the inhabitants of heaven.

As to “completely,” the story of King Saul shows that incomplete obedience, in which man sets his own will over against the divine, does not receive God’s approval and may have serious consequences (1 Sam. 15:1–3, 7–9, and note especially verses 22 and 23). As to “heartily,” note the words of Deut. 26:16 and Matt. 22:37. And as to “immediately,” the cherubim in Ezekiel’s vision of the throne-chariot, each cherub being equipped with four faces, and the chariot itself with wheels within wheels, so that its “drivers” were always ready to take it wherever the Lord wanted it to go, furnish a vivid illustration of the kind of obedience in which heaven delights (Ezek. 1; 10). Examples of human obedience: Noah (Gen. 6:22), Abraham (Gen. 11:28–32, cf. Acts 7:3; Gen. 12:1, cf. Heb. 11:8; Gen. 22:2 ff., cf. James 2:23); Joshua (Josh. 5:13–15); Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1–10); Simon (Peter) and Andrew (Matt. 4:19, 20); Simon (Peter) once more (Luke 5:5); James and John (Matt. 4:21, 22); Peter and the apostles (Acts 5:29); Mary of Bethany (John 11:28, 29); Paul (Acts 16:6–10; 26:19); and the Philippians (Phil. 2:12). The greatest example of all is Jesus Christ himself (Luke 2:51, 52; John 15:10; 17:4; Phil. 2:5–8; and Heb. 5:8). It was he who in the garden said, “Not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). As to the manner in which obedience is rewarded, from a host of passages that could be listed the following few should suffice: Josh. 1:8; Matt. 7:7, 8; John 7:17; 8:29; 14:21, 23; 15:10; Phil. 2:9, 10; Heb. 12:1, 2; and Rev. 3:20.

The petitions for the fulfilment of human needs follow. Although it is true that between the first three petitions, pertaining to God, and the last three, pertaining to man, there is a rather sharp division, the two are not to be regarded as wholly separate. If the believer is to take an active part in the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of his kingdom, and the doing of his will—such an active part being certainly implied in the first three petitions—he must have bread (Luke 10:7, cf. 1 Tim. 5:18; Gal. 6:6; Eph. 4:28; Phil. 4:15, 16). Jesus, accordingly, is not forgetful of the physical needs of his disciples (see Matt. 6:25–34; 25:34–40; Mark 10:29, 30; cf. Acts 24:17; 2 Cor. 8:8 f.; James 2:15, 16), both in order that they may live and be happy, and that they may be able vigorously to support kingdom causes. This introduces[2]


God’s Plan

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (10:b)

Many people wonder how God’s sovereignty can be related to praying for His will to be done. If He is sovereign, is not His will inevitably done? Does our will override His will when we pray earnestly and sincerely? That is one of the great paradoxes of Scripture, a paradox about which Calvinists and Arminians have debated for centuries. It should be evident that this paradox, like those of God’s being three in one and Jesus’ being wholly God and wholly man, must be left to the infinite mind of God, because it is far beyond the finite human mind to comprehend. But what seems a hopeless contradiction to us is no dilemma to God. We hold both truths, seemingly paradoxical, in perfect tension with faith in the infinite mind of God, who resolves all things in perfect, noncontradictory truth (Deut. 29:29).

It is absolutely clear from Scripture that God is sovereign and yet not only allows but commands that man exercise his own volition in certain areas. If man were not able to make his own choices, God’s commands would be futile and meaningless and His punishments cruel and unjust. If God did not act in response to prayer, Jesus’ teaching about prayer would also be futile and meaningless. Our responsibility is not to solve the dilemma but to believe and act on God’s truths, whether some of them seem to conflict or not. To compromise one of God’s truths in an effort to defend another is the stuff of which heresy is made. We are to accept every part of every truth in God’s Word, leaving the resolution of any seeming conflicts to Him. Attempting on a human level to resolve all apparent paradoxes in Scripture is an act of arrogance and an attack on the truth and intent of God’s revelation.

When we pray Thy will be done, we are praying first of all that God’s will become our own will. Second, we are praying that His will prevail all over the earth as it [does] in heaven.

Wrong Understanding of God’s Will

Many people, including many believers, wrongly understand this part of the Disciples’ Prayer. Seeing God’s sovereignty simply as the absolute imposition of a dictator’s will, some believers are resentful. When, or if, they pray for His will to be done, they pray out of a feeling of compulsion. God’s will has to be done, and He is too strong to resist; so what would be the point of praying otherwise? The logical conclusion of most people who look at God in that way is that there is no point to prayer-certainly not to petitions. Why ask for the inevitable?

Other people are more charitable in their feelings about God. But because they, too, believe His will is inevitable, they pray out of passive resignation. They pray for God’s will to be done simply because that is what the Lord tells them to do. They are resignedly obedient. They do not pray so much out of faith as out of capitulation. They do not try to put their wills into accord with the divine will, but rather shift their own wills into neutral, letting God’s will run its course.

It is easy for Christians to fall into praying that way. Even in the very early days of the church, when faith generally was strong and vital, prayer could be passive and unexpectant. A group of concerned disciples was praying in the house of Mary, John Mark’s mother, for the release of Peter from prison. While they were praying, Peter was freed by an angel and came to the house and knocked on the door. When a servant girl named Rhoda came to the door and recognized Peter’s voice, she rushed back inside to tell the others, forgetting to let Peter in. But the praying group did not believe her, and thought she had heard an angel. When Peter was finally admitted, “they saw him and were amazed” (Acts 12:16). They apparently had been praying for what they did not really believe would happen.

Our own prayer lives often are weak because we do not pray in faith; we do not expect prayer to change anything. We pray out of a sense of duty and obligation, subconsciously thinking that God is going to do just as He wants to do anyway. Jesus gave the parable of the importunate widow-who refused to accept the status quo and persisted in begging, despite receiving no response-for the very purpose of protecting us against that sort of passive and unspiritual resignation. “Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

The very fact that Jesus tells us to pray Thy will be done on earth indicates that God’s will is not always done on earth. It is not inevitable. In fact, lack of faithful prayer inhibits His will being done. In God’s wise and gracious plan, prayer is essential to the proper working of His divine will on earth.

God is sovereign, but He is not independently deterministic. Looking at God’s sovereignty in a fatalistic way, thinking “What will be will be,” absolutely destroys faithful prayer and faithful obedience of every sort. That is not a “high” view of God’s sovereignty, but a destructive and unbiblical view of it. That is not the divine sovereignty the Bible teaches. It is not God’s will that people die, or why would Christ have come to destroy death? It is not God’s will that people go to hell, or why would His only Son have taken the penalty of sin upon Himself so that men might escape hell? “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). That sin exists on earth and causes such horrible consequences is not evidence of God’s will but of His patience in allowing more opportunity for men to turn to Him for salvation.

Other people, overemphasizing the importance of man’s will, look at prayer as a means of bending God’s will to their own. They think of God’s providence as a sort of cosmic vending machine, which they can operate simply by inserting the required claim on one of His promises. As Elton Trueblood observes, “In some congregations the Gospel has been diminished to the mere art of self-fulfillment. Some current religious authors, far from emphasizing what it means to believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, write chiefly of themselves. Egocentricity is all that is left when the objective truth about the revelation of Christ is lost or even obscured.”

But Jesus undercuts that notion throughout His model prayer. True prayer focuses on Thy name, Thy kingdom, Thy will. Amy Carmichael wrote, “And shall I pray to change Thy will, my Father, until it accord to mine? But no, Lord, no; that shall never be. Rather I pray Thee blend my human will with Thine.”

There is a tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s will, between God’s grace and man’s faith, but we dare not try to resolve it by modifying God’s truth about either His sovereignty or our will, His grace or our faith. God is sovereign, but He gives us choices. God is sovereign, but He tells us to pray Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And James reminds us that “the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (5:16).

Right Understanding of God’s Will

David sang of the angels who did God’s will. “Bless the Lord, you His angels, mighty in strength, who perform His word, obeying the voice of His word!” (Ps. 103:20). That is the way God’s will is done in heaven, and that is the way believers are to pray for God’s will to be done on earth-unwaveringly, completely, sincerely, willingly, fervently, readily, swiftly, and constantly. Our prayer should be that every person and thing on earth be brought into conformity with God’s perfect will.

A part of the right understanding of and attitude toward God’s will is what might be called a sense of righteous rebellion. To be dedicated to God’s will is, by definition, to be opposed to Satan’s. To pray Thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven is to rebel against the worldly idea that sin is normal and inevitable and should therefore be acquiesced to or at least tolerated. It is to rebel against the world system of ungodliness, the dishonoring and rejecting of Christ, and also the disobedience of believers. Impotence in prayer leads us, however unwillingly, to strike a truce with wrong. To accept what is, is to abandon a Christian view of God and His plan for redemptive history.

Jesus knew the end from the beginning, but He did not accept the situation as inevitable or irresistible. He preached against sin and He acted against sin. When His Father’s house was profaned, “He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the moneychangers, and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, ‘Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a house of merchandise’ ” (John 2:14–16; cf. Matt. 21:12–13).

To pray for God’s will to be done on earth is to rebel against the idea, heard today even among evangelicals, that virtually every wicked, corrupt thing that we do or that is done to us is somehow God’s holy will and should be accepted from His hand with thanksgiving. Nothing wicked or sinful comes from the hand of God, but only from the hand of Satan. To pray for righteousness is to pray against wickedness. To pray for God’s will to be done is to pray for Satan’s will to be undone.

To pray for God’s will to be done is to cry with David, “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee before Him” (Ps. 68:1) and with the saints under God’s altar, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10).

To pray rightly is to pray in faith, believing that God will hear and answer our prayers. I think the greatest hindrance to prayer is not lack of technique, lack of biblical knowledge, or even lack of enthusiasm for the Lord’s work, but lack of faith. We simply do not pray with the expectation that our prayers will make a difference in our lives, in other people’s lives, in the church, or in the world.

There are three distinct aspects of God’s will as He reveals it to us in His Word. First, is what may be called His will of purpose-the vast, comprehensive, and tolerating will of God expressed in the unfolding of His sovereign plan that embodies all of the universe, including heaven, hell, and the earth. This is God’s ultimate will, of which Isaiah wrote, “The Lord of hosts has sworn saying ‘Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand’ ” (Isa. 14:24; cf. Jer. 51:29; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:9–11; etc.). This is the will of God that allows sin to run its course and Satan to have his way for a season. But in God’s appointed time sin’s course and Satan’s way will end exactly according to God’s plan and foreknowledge.

Second, is what may be called God’s will of desire. This is within His will of purpose and completely consistent with it. But it is more specific and focused. Unlike God’s will of purpose, His will of desire is not always fulfilled; in fact, it is very unfulfilled in comparison to Satan’s will in this present age.

Jesus greatly desired that Jerusalem be saved, and He prayed, preached, healed, and ministered among its people to that end. But few believed in Him; most rejected Him, and some even crucified Him. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” He prayed. “I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!” (Luke 13:34). That was the repeated experience of God’s Son, who came to earth that men might have life, and have it more abundantly. Like the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem, most people were not willing to come to Jesus for that abundant life (John 5:40; cf. 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).

Third, is what may be called God’s will of command. This will is entirely for His children, because only they have the capacity to obey. The will of command is the ardent desire of the heart of God that we who are His children obey Him completely and immediately with a willing heart. “Do you not know,” Paul says, “that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:16–18).

God’s will of purpose embraces the ultimate end of this world, Christ’s second coming and the setting up of His eternal kingdom. His will of desire embraces conversion; and His will of command embraces the commitment and obedience of His children.

The great enemy of God’s will is pride. Pride caused Satan to rebel against God, and pride causes unbelievers to reject God and believers to disobey Him. For God’s will to be accepted and to be prayed for in sincerity and with faith, self-will must be forsaken in the power of the Holy Spirit. “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1–2).

When we pray in faith and in conformity to God’s will, our prayer is a sanctifying grace that changes our lives dramatically. Prayer is a means of progressive sanctification. John Hannah said, “The end of prayer is not so much tangible answers as a deepening life of dependency. … The call to prayer is a call to love, submission, and obedience, … the avenue of sweet, intimate, and intense fellowship of the soul with the infinite Creator.”

The believer’s call is to bring heaven to earth by hallowing the Lord’s name, letting His kingdom come, and seeking to do His will.[3]


10 As God is eternally holy, so he eternally reigns in absolute sovereignty. Yet it is appropriate to pray not only “hallowed be your name” but also “your kingdom come.” God’s “kingdom” or “reign” (see comments at 3:2; 4:17, 23) can refer to that aspect of God’s sovereignty under which there is life—eternal life. That kingdom is breaking in under Christ’s ministry, but it is not consummated until the end of the age (28:20). To pray “your kingdom come” is therefore simultaneously to ask that God’s saving, royal rule be extended now as people bow in submission to him and already taste the eschatological blessing of salvation and to cry for the consummation of the kingdom (cf. 1 Co 16:22; Rev 11:17; 22:20). Godly Jews were waiting for the kingdom (Mk 15:43), “the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25). They recited “Kaddish” (“Sanctification”), an ancient Aramaic prayer, at the close of each synagogue service. In its oldest extant form, it runs, “Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will. May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon. And to this, say, Amen” (Jeremias, Prayers of Jesus, 98, emphasis his). But the Jew looked forward to the kingdom, whereas the reader of Matthew’s gospel, while looking forward to its consummation, perceives that the kingdom has already broken in and prays for its extension as well as its unqualified manifestation.

To pray that God’s will, which is “good, pleasing and perfect” (Ro 12:2), be done on earth as in heaven is to use language broad enough to embrace three requests.

  1. The first request is that God’s will be done now on earth as it is now accomplished in heaven. The word thelēma (“will,” GK 2525) includes both God’s righteous demands (7:21; 12:50; cf. Ps 40:8) and his determination to bring about certain events in salvation history (18:14; 26:42; cf. Ac 21:14). So for that will to be “done” includes both moral obedience and the bringing to pass of certain events, such as the cross. This prayer corresponds to asking for the present extension of the messianic kingdom.
  2. The second request is that God’s will may ultimately be as fully accomplished on earth as it is now accomplished in heaven. “Will” has the same range of meanings as before, and this prayer corresponds to asking for the consummation of the messianic kingdom.
  3. The third request is that God’s will may ultimately be done on the earth in the same way as it is now accomplished in heaven. In the consummated kingdom, it will not be necessary to discuss superior righteousness (5:20–48) as antithetical to lust, hate, retaliatory face slapping, divorce, and the like; for then God’s will, construed now as his demands for righteousness, will be done as it is now done in heaven: freely, openly, spontaneously, and without the need to set it over against evil (Carson, Sermon on the Mount, 66–67).

These first three petitions, though they focus on God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will, are nevertheless prayers that he may act in such a way that his people will hallow his name, submit to his reign, and do his will. It is therefore impossible to pray this prayer in sincerity without humbly committing oneself to such a course.[4]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 152). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 331–332). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 381–386). Chicago: Moody Press.

[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. 204–205). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.