Category Archives: Verse of the day

June 28, 2017: Verse of the day


18–20 The concluding doxology closes Book II. The Lord is “blessed” (bārûk; NIV, “praise be to”). He is God, the Lord (Yahweh), “the God of Israel,” who has done and will continue to do “marvelous deeds” in behalf of his people (v. 18; cf. 71:14; 86:10; 136:4). Through his “deeds” he has demonstrated his “glorious name” (v. 19; cf. 1 Ch 29:13; Ne 9:5; Isa 63:14) in all the earth (cf. Isa 6:3). Such was also the testimony of Zechariah: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people” (Lk 1:68).

The congregational response to the doxology is a twofold “Amen” (cf. 106:48; Ne 8:6). They confess that these words are true. The final verse (v. 20) separates the psalms associated with David from those of Asaph (Pss 73–83).[1]

72:18, 19 The Psalm closes with a doxology. The glorious reign of the Lord Jesus is God’s achievement. It is He who brings about these wonderful conditions, as no one else could do. And so it is fitting that His glorious name be praised forever, and that His glory fill the whole earth.[2]

72:19 The filling of the earth with God’s glory will be fulfilled in the consummation (Rev. 21:22–27).[3]

72:19 blessed be his glorious name forever Yahweh’s name is representative of His power and character.[4]

72:18, 19 These magnificent words of benediction mark the conclusion of the psalm, as well as the conclusion of Book II of the Psalms. The repetition of the word blessed, the focus on the name (as in 89:16), and the double Amen all indicate that this psalm was used in the worship of God in His temple.[5]

[1] VanGemeren, W. A. (2008). Psalms. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Revised Edition) (Vol. 5, p. 555). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 660). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1026). 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 (Ps 72:19). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[5] Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 695). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.

June 27, 2017: Verse of the day


8 Micah now asks and answers the question, “What does the Lord require of you?” He does so in a verse justly regarded as one of the memorable and timeless expressions of OT ethical religion (cf. Jas 1:27). It is a heart’s response to God demonstrated in the basic elements of true religion, as shown to Israel in the social concerns reflected in the Mosaic legislation.

God has told his people what is good. The Mosaic law differentiates between good and bad and reflects God’s will in many areas of their religious and social lives. It indicates what God requires (dāraš, “seeks”) of them. They are to act justly (lit., “do justice,” mišpāṭ). The word “justly” here has the sense of “true religion,” that is, the ethical response to God that has a manifestation in social concerns as well (cf. Note on 3:8). “To love mercy” is freely and willingly to show kindness to others (cf. Notes below). The expression “to walk humbly with your God” means to live in conscious fellowship with God by exercising a spirit of humility before him. These great words recall similar words of our Lord in Matthew 23:23.

The prophet is not suggesting that sacrifice is completely ineffectual and that simply a proper attitude of heart toward God will suffice. In the preceding verse he painted a caricature—a purposefully exaggerated picture—of the sacrificial system to indicate that God has no interest in the multiplication of empty religious acts. Jeremiah 7:22–23 is often appealed to as evidence that the prophets rejected the Levitical system; yet Jeremiah promised that the offerings would be acceptable if the people were obedient (Jer 17:24–26). A similar attitude toward sacrifice is expressed in Psalm 51:16–17, but the succeeding verses show the author to be indicating that the Levitical sacrifices are acceptable to God only when accompanied by a proper attitude of heart toward him (51:18–19).

The ethical requirements of v. 8 do not comprise the way of salvation. Forgiveness of sin was received through the sacrifices. The standards of this verse are for those who are members of the covenantal community and delineate the areas of ethical response that God wants to see in those who share the covenantal obligations.[1]

6:6–8 What does the Most High seek in return for this? Not extravagant animal sacrifices! Certainly not human sacrifices! But justice, and mercy, and humility. Verse 8 describes what God requires; to obey this a person must have divine life. An unconverted person is totally incapable of producing this kind of righteousness.[2]

6:8 Micah’s terse response (v. 8) indicated they should have known the answer to the rhetorical question. Spiritual blindness had led them to offer everything except the one thing He wanted—a spiritual commitment of the heart from which right behavior would ensue (cf. Dt 10:12–19; Mt 22:37–39). This theme is often represented[3]

6:8 The Lord desires the primary forms of love—justice (do justice), mercy (love kindness), and faithfulness (walk humbly)—as the expressed response of his people to his redemptive acts (Matt. 23:23; cf. Deut. 10:12–13; 1 Sam. 15:22; Isa. 1:11–17; Hos. 6:6). On the meaning of “justice,” see notes on Isa. 42:1; Jer. 22:3; Amos 5:7. your God. The complement to “my people” (Mic. 6:3, 5).

6:8 Sacrifices cannot replace the need for justice and kindness. The focus on real righteousness anticipates Jesus’ teaching (Matt. 5:23–24; 9:13; 15:10–20) and is fulfilled in Jesus’ own righteousness (Acts 3:14; Rom. 8:1–4).[4]

6:8 does Yahweh ask from you This verse gives the answer to the question the prophet asked in Micah 6:6–7. What God requires is heartfelt love and obedience.

to do justice A proper relationship with God also involves a proper relationship with one’s neighbor. See 3:1; Isa 5:7 and note.

kindness The Hebrew word here often occurs in reference to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel (see Deut 7:9, 12; 1 Kgs 8:23; Neh 1:5).

humbly This Hebrew word occurs only here in the ot. It traditionally has been understood as referring to humility, but it also can indicate carefulness or thoughtfulness.[5]

[1] McComiskey, T. E., & Longman, T. I. (2008). Micah. In D. E. Garland (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, p. 540). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1135). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Mic 6:8). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1705). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[5] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Mic 6:8). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

June 26, 2017: Verse of the day


The Representation of True Unity

even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, … The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity (17:21b–23a)

The unity of nature Christ prayed for reflects that of the Father and the Son, which is expressed in Christ’s words You, Father, are in Me and I in You. Because of His unity with the Father, Jesus claimed in John 5:16ff. to have the same authority, purpose, power, honor, will, and nature as the Father. That startling claim to full deity and equality with God so outraged His Jewish opponents that they sought to kill Him (5:18; cf. 8:58–59; 10:31–33; 19:7).

The unique intra-Trinitarian relationship of Jesus and the Father forms the pattern for the unity of believers in the church. This prayer reveals five features of that unity the church imitates.

First, the Father and the Son are united in motive; they are equally committed to the glory of God. Jesus began His prayer by saying, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You” (v. 1), as He had done throughout His ministry (v. 4). In verse 5 He added, “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” Finally, in verse 24 Jesus expressed to the Father His desire that believers would one day “be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me.” In John 7:18 Jesus declared that He was constantly “seeking the glory of the One who sent Him.” He did not need to seek His own glory (8:50), because the Father glorified Him (8:54). Both Jesus and the Father were glorified in the raising of Lazarus (11:4). In John 12:28 Jesus prayed, “ ‘Father, glorify Your name.’ Then a voice came out of heaven: ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ ” Shortly before His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus had said to the disciples, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately” (13:31–32). Jesus promised to answer the prayers of His people “so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (14:13).

The church is also united in a common commitment to the glory of God. “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do,” Paul wrote, “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Second, the Father and the Son are united in mission. They share the common goal of redeeming lost sinners and granting them eternal life, as Christ made clear earlier in this prayer:

Even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.… I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. (vv. 2–4, 6)

God chose in eternity past to give believers to Christ as a gift of His love, and Christ came to earth to die as a sacrifice for their sins and redeem them. That the church lives to pursue the one goal of evangelizing the lost is clear from Jesus’ words in verse 18: “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world” (cf. Matt. 28:19–20).

Third, the Father and the Son are united in truth. “The words which You gave Me,” Jesus said, “I have given to them” (v. 8), while in verse 14 He added, “I have given them Your word.” Earlier that evening Jesus had told the disciples, “The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works” (14:10; cf. 3:32–34; 7:16; 8:28, 38, 40; 12:49).

The church is also unified in its commitment to proclaiming the singular truth of God’s Word. In Romans 15:5–6 Paul prayed, “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (cf. Acts 2:42, 46; Phil. 1:27). Far from dividing the church, a commitment to proclaiming sound doctrine is what defines it.

Fourth, the Father and the Son are united in holiness. In verse 11 Jesus addressed the Father as “Holy Father,” and in verse 25 as “righteous Father.” The utter holiness of God is expressed throughout the Old and New Testaments. God’s holiness is His absolute separation from sin. In Habakkuk 1:13 the prophet declared, “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You can not look on wickedness with favor.” In Isaiah’s vision of God the angelic beings cried out, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3; cf. Rev. 4:8). The writer of Hebrews described Jesus as “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners” (Heb. 7:26). In Revelation 4:8 the heavenly chorus unceasingly cries out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.”

When they see believers united in the pursuit of holiness, unbelievers will be drawn to Christ. In Hebrews 12:14 the writer of Hebrews exhorted his readers, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” If a church tolerates sin, it not only obscures the glory of Christ it is called to radiate, but also faces the discipline of the Lord of the church (Rev. 2:14–16, 20–23).

Finally, the Father and the Son are united in love. In verse 24 Jesus affirmed that the Father had “loved [Him] before the foundation of the world.” In John 5:20 Jesus said, “For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing” (cf. 3:35). Both at His baptism (Matt. 3:17) and at the transfiguration (Matt. 17:5), the Father declared Jesus to be His beloved Son. Similarly, love is the glue that binds believers together in unity (Col. 3:14; cf. 2:2), and it is that love for one another that is the church’s ultimate apologetic to the lost world (John 13:34–35).

Though not to the same infinite divine extent, the spiritual life and power that belongs to the Trinity belongs also in some way to believers and is the basis for the church’s unity. This is what the Lord meant when He said, The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as we are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity. That stunning truth describes believers as those to whom the Son has given glory—that is, aspects of the very divine life that belongs to God. The church’s task is to so live as to not obstruct that glory (Matt. 5:16).[1]

The Fifth Mark of the Church: Unity

John 17:20–23

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Considering all the divisions that have plagued Christendom for two thousand years, it is amazing that God has continued to use the church to extend his kingdom.”

This statement by John White, an InterVarsity Chrisitian Fellowship worker and writer, introduces us to the subject of Christian unity in two important ways: first, by portraying the unfortunate lack of unity that has plagued the church throughout its history and, second, by suggesting why Jesus asked that the church might be marked by unity at this particular point in his high priestly petition. The divisions that exist today are too obvious to need comment. They lie both on the surface and within. Battles rage. Highly praised church mergers not only fail to heal these divisions but also usually lead to further breakups involving those who do not like the new union. So far as Christ’s reasons for praying for unity go, it is simply that he foresaw these differences and so asked for that great unity that should exist among his own in spite of them.

Another way of pointing to Christ’s interests is to note that all the marks of the church concern the Christian’s relationship to some thing or some person and that unity is to be the mark of the church in the relationships that exist between its members. Joy is the mark of the Christian in relationship to himself. Holiness is the mark in relationship to God. Truth is the mark in his relationship to the Bible. Mission is the mark in his relationship to the world. In this mark, unity, and the last, love, which in some sense summarizes them all, we deal with the Christian’s relationship to all who are likewise God’s children.

What Kind of Unity?

But what kind of unity is this to be? This is an important preliminary question, for if the unity is to be an organizational unity, then our efforts to achieve and express it will be in one direction while, if it is to be a more subjective unity, our efforts will be expended differently.

One thing for sure—the church is not to be is a great organizational unity; for whatever advantages or disadvantages may be involved in massive organizational unity, this in itself obviously does not produce the results Christ prayed for, nor does it solve the church’s other great problems. Moreover, it has been tried and found wanting. In the early days of the church there was much vitality and growth but little organizational unity. Later, as the church came to favor under Constantine and his successors, the church increasingly centralized until during the Middle Ages there was literally one united ecclesiastical body covering all Europe. But was this a great age? Was there a deep unity of faith? Did men and women find themselves increasingly drawn to this faith and come to confess Jesus Christ to be their Savior and Lord (for that is what Christ promised, namely, that if the church were one, men and women would believe on him)? Not at all! On the contrary, the world believed the opposite. Spurgeon once wrote, “The world was persuaded that God had nothing to do with that great crushing, tyrannous, superstitious, ignorant thing which called itself Christianity; and thinking men became infidels, and it was the hardest possible thing to find a genuine intelligent believer north, south, east, or west.”

Certainly there is something to be said for some form of outward, visible unity (at least in most situations). But it is equally certain that this type of unity is not what we most need, nor is it that for which the Lord prayed.

Another type of unity that we do not need is conformity, that is, an approach to the church that would make everyone alike. Here we probably come closest to the error of the evangelical church, for if the liberal church for the most part strives for an organizational unity—through the various councils of churches, the Consultation on Church Union, denominational mergers, and so forth—the evangelical church for its part seems to strive for an identical pattern of looks and behavior among its members. This is not what Jesus is looking for in this prayer. On the contrary, there should be the greatest diversity among Christians, diversity of personality, interests, lifestyle, and even methods of Christian work and evangelism. This should make the church interesting, not dull. Uniformity is dull, like rows upon rows of Wheaties boxes. Variety is exciting! It is the variety of nature and the character and actions of our God.

But if the unity for which Jesus prayed is not an organizational unity or a unity achieved by conformity, what kind of unity is it? The answer is that it is a unity parallel to the unity that exists within the Godhead; for Jesus speaks of it in these terms—“that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you … I in them, and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity” (vv. 21, 23). This means that the church is to have a spiritual unity involving the basic orientation, desires, and will of those participating. Paul points to this true unity in writing to the Corinthians, saying, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men” (1 Cor. 12:4–6).

This is not to say that all believers actually enter into this unity as they should. Otherwise, why would Christ pray for it? The actual case is that, like the other marks of the church already considered, unity is something given to the church but also something for which the body of true believers should strive. There is a sense in which we already are one in Christ. But there is also a sense in which we must achieve that unity.

Brothers and Sisters

Here we are helped by the various images used of the church throughout the New Testament, one of the most valuable being that of the family. Christians belong to the family of God, and therefore they are rightly brothers and sisters of one another.

The unique characteristic of this image is that it speaks of relationships and therefore of the commitments that the individuals must have to one another. The relationships are based upon what God has done. Salvation is described in the verses that use this image as God begetting spiritual children, who are therefore made members of his spiritual family through his choice and not through their own. John even says this explicitly in the preface to his Gospel, when he writes of our having become children of God “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:13). There is a tendency in the world to talk about all men and women as brothers and sisters, but while this is true in a certain humanitarian sense it is nevertheless not what the Bible is talking about when it speaks of Christian brotherhood. This is something that God has intervened to establish among his own regenerated children.

This fact has two important consequences. First, if the family to which we belong has been established by God, then we have no choice as to who will be in it or whether or not we will be his or her sister or brother. On the contrary, the relationship simply exists, and we must be brotherly to the other Christian, whether we want to be or not.

The second consequence is related to this, simply that we must be committed to each other in tangible ways. We must be committed to helping each other, for example, for we all need help at times, and this is one clear way in which the special bond among believers can be shown to the watching world. A number of years ago I walked into the bathroom in our home and found one of my children sitting on the floor with a large pile of unrolled toilet paper beside her. She had been spinning the roll and watching it pile up in intricate patterned layers as it settled. I took one look at her and said, with a note of astonishment in my voice, “What in the world are you doing?”

“I’m unrolling the toilet paper,” she answered. There was no questioning the truthfulness of that.

“Why are you being naughty?” I countered.

She said, “Nobody helps me to be good.” I suspect that her answer was a carefully worded excuse (and also not nearly so truthful as her first statement.) But whatever her reasons, the statement did at least point to a true need. We do need help as Christians, and we need it from Christians. Moreover, we must be ready to give help, just as we would to a needy member of our own human family.

A Fellowship

The second important image used to portray the unity of the church of Christ is a fellowship, which the New Testament normally indicates by the Greek word koinonia. Unfortunately, neither the word “fellowship” nor the word koinonia is very helpful in conveying what we mean. This is because the English word commonly means only a loose collection of friends, and the Greek word has become something of a theological cliché. Actually, the word has to do with sharing something or having something in common. The common Greek of the New Testament period is called Koine Greek. Partners, as those who hold property in common or share in a business, are koinonoi. In spiritual terms koinonia, or fellowship, is had by those who share a common Christian experience of the gospel. In this respect the New Testament speaks often of our fellowship with the Father (1 John 1:3), with the Son (1 Cor. 1:9), which is sometimes described as a fellowship in the blood and body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16), and with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14). This obviously involves the totality of our experience of God’s grace.

But fellowship is not only defined in terms of what we share in together. It also involves what we share out together. And this means that it must involve a community in which Christians actually share their thoughts and lives with one another.

How is this to be done practically? It will probably be done in different ways in different congregations depending upon local situations and needs. Some churches are small and therefore will have an easier time establishing times of sharing. Here church suppers, work projects, and other such efforts will help. Larger churches will have to break their numbers down into smaller groups in various ways. At Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, which I serve as pastor, we have tried to do this in three ways simultaneously. First, we have tried to divide the congregation according to age levels. Thus we have a fully graded Sunday school, and on the upper levels we have tried to establish groups for college students, postcollege students, young couples, other adult classes, and meetings for senior citizens. Part of this is an adult elective program. Second, we have tried to divide the congregation geographically. Tenth Church members come from a large and scattered metropolitan area. Some of them drive twenty, thirty, or more miles to get there. Midweek meetings at the church are impractical for most. Therefore we have established area Bible studies, where people can meet weekly with those in their area. They meet to study the Bible, share concerns, and pray together. These area groups are probably the least structured but also the most profitable of all the church activities. Finally, we have also begun to divide the church according to professional interests. In this area there are regular meetings by groups of artists, musicians (we have a chamber orchestra), medical students and nurses, and ministerial candidates and young pastors.

My own experience in this area conforms to that of John R. W. Stott, who experimented with similar groups in his own London parish. He has written on the grounds of his experience, “The value of the small group is that it can become a community of related persons; and in it the benefit of personal relatedness cannot be missed, nor its challenge evaded. … I do not think it is an exaggeration to say, therefore, that small groups, Christian family or fellowship groups, are indispensable for our growth into spiritual maturity.”

Once again, this is an area in which Christian unity can become a visible and practical thing, and its unique and desirable qualities can be made known to the world.

The Body

The third important image used to stress the unity of the church is the body. Clearly, this image has many important connotations. It speaks of the nature of the Christian union—one part of the body simply cannot survive if it is separated from the whole. It speaks of interdependence. It even suggests a kind of subordination involving a diversity of function; for the hand is not the foot, nor the foot the eye, and over all is the head which is Christ. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians saying, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many” (12:12–14).

However, the one function of the body that is unique to this image is service, for just as the family emphasizes relationships, and fellowships emphasizes sharing, so does the body emphasize work. The body exists to do something and, since we are talking about unity, we must stress that it exists to enable us to do this work together.

In the book from which I quoted earlier, Stott speaks of this service flowing out of the small groups that his church emphasizes. “It must be admitted that several have been unsuccessful—through lack of time or of enterprise,” he writes. “Others, however, have offered their practical services as a group. … Certainly without some such common concern and service, the fellowship of any Christian group is maimed.”

Your Part

The question we end with is simply: What is to be your part in this area? What will you do? Obviously you cannot change the whole church, but, as one writer puts it, “You can begin in your own life to be an answer to the high priestly prayer of Christ. You can become a small focus of change.” First, you can become aware of that great family, fellowship, and body to which you already belong, and you can thank God for it. Second, you can join a small group, where the reality of Christian unity is most readily seen and experienced. Third, you can work with that group to show forth Christian love and give service. If you are willing to do that, you will find God to be with you, and you will be overwhelmed at the power with which he works both in you and in others whom he will be drawing to faith.

But perhaps you are not a part of that family, the family of God, in the first place. You may be a Baptist, a Presbyterian, a Roman Catholic, a Pentecostal. But you have never been born into God’s family. If so, do not let pride of denomination (or of anything else) keep you from the reality of Christianity. Run to Jesus and enter in through him, the only true door.[2]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 290–292). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1327–1332). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

June 25, 2017: Verse of the day


Second Day, Second Group, Second Emphasis

The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.” John testified saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (1:29–34)

The phrase the next day introduces a sequence of days, which continues in verses 35, 43, and 2:1. Apparently, the events from John’s interview with the delegation from Jerusalem (vv. 19–28) to the miracle at Cana (2:1–11) spanned one week. On the day after he spoke to the delegation, John saw Jesus coming to him. Faithful to his duty as a herald, and defining a momentous redemptive moment, John immediately called the crowd’s attention to Him, exclaiming “Behold, the Lamb of God.” That title, used only in John’s writings (cf. v. 36; Rev. 5:6; 6:9; 7:10, 17; 14:4, 10; 15:3; 17:14; 19:9; 21:22–23; 22:1, 3), is the first in a string of titles given to Jesus in the remaining verses of this chapter; the rest include Rabbi (vv. 38, 49), Messiah (v. 41), Son of God (vv. 34, 49), King of Israel (v. 49), Son of Man (v. 51), and “Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (v. 45). That was not a guess on John’s part, but was revelation from God that was absolutely true, as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus proved.

The concept of a sacrificial Lamb was a familiar one to the Jewish people. All through Israel’s history God had revealed clearly that sin and separation from Him could be removed only by blood sacrifices (cf. Lev. 17:11). No forgiveness of sin could be granted by God apart from an acceptable substitute dying as a sacrifice. They knew of Abraham’s confidence that God would provide a lamb to offer in place of Isaac (Gen. 22:7–8). A lamb was sacrificed at Passover (Ex. 12:1–36; Mark 14:12), in the daily sacrifices in the tabernacle and later in the temple (Ex. 29:38–42), and as a sin offering by individuals (Lev. 5:5–7). God also made it clear that none of those sacrifices were sufficient to take away sin (cf. Isa. 1:11). They were also aware that Isaiah’s prophecy likened Messiah to “a lamb that is led to slaughter” (Isa. 53:7; cf. Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19). Though Israel sought a Messiah who would be a prophet, king, and conqueror, God had to send them a Lamb. And He did.

The title Lamb of God foreshadows Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross for the sin of the world. With this brief statement, the prophet John made it clear that the Messiah had come to deal with sin. The Old Testament is filled with the reality that the problem is sin and it is at the very heart of every person (Jer. 17:9). All men, even those who received the revelation of God in Scripture (the Jews), were sinful and incapable of changing the future or the present, or of repaying God for the sins of the past. Paul’s familiar indictment of human sinfulness in Romans 3:11–12 is based on Old Testament revelation. As noted in the discussion of 1:9–11 in chapter 2 of this volume, kosmos (world) has a variety of meanings in the New Testament. Here it refers to humanity in general, to all people without distinction, transcending all national, racial, and ethnic boundaries. The use of the singular term sin with the collective noun world reveals that as sin is worldwide, so Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient for all people without distinction (cf. 1 John 2:2). But though His sacrificial death is sufficient for the sins of everyone (cf. 3:16; 4:42; 6:51; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 2:9; 1 John 4:14), it is efficacious only for those who savingly believe in Him (3:15–16, 18, 36; 5:24; 6:40; 11:25–26; 20:31; Luke 8:12; Acts 10:43; 13:39; 16:31; Rom. 1:16; 3:21–24; 4:3–5; 10:9–10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:6–9, 22; Eph. 1:13; 1 John 5:1; 10–13). This verse does not teach universalism, the false doctrine that everyone will be saved. That such is not the case is obvious, since the Bible teaches that most people will suffer eternal punishment in hell (Matt. 25:41, 46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 14:9–11; 20:11–15; cf. Ezek. 18:4, 20; Matt. 7:13–14; Luke 13:23–24; John 8:24), and only a few will be saved (Matt. 7:13–14).

John for the third time (cf. vv. 15, 27) stressed his subordinate role to Jesus, the eternal Word who had become a Man, acknowledging, “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ ” John was created. Jesus’ higher rank was infinite. He was the One who created everything (1:1–3), including John. Though John was actually born before Jesus, Jesus existed before him. And though John was a relative of Jesus’ (probably His cousin), since their mothers were related (Luke 1:36), he still did not recognize Him as the Messiah until he baptized Him, so that He might be manifested to Israel. For that most significant of all John’s baptisms, he declared, “I came baptizing in water,” though he was reluctant to baptize Jesus (Matt. 3:14). It was at Jesus’ baptism that God, who sent John to baptize in water, fully revealed Jesus as the Messiah through a prearranged sign. John testified saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him” (cf. Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22). That sign was supernatural proof of Jesus’ messiahship, because God had told John, “He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” Like Peter (Matt. 16:17), John understood who Jesus truly was only through divine revelation. That Jesus is far greater than John is reinforced in that He baptizes in the Holy Spirit.

For the sixth time in his gospel (cf. 1:7, 8, 15, 19, 32), John the apostle refers to the Baptist’s witness to Christ, recording his affirmation, “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” As noted in chapter 1 of this volume, witness, or testifying, is thematic in this gospel. John’s testimony in verse 34 is a fitting conclusion to this section, as the narrative makes the transition from him to Jesus. Although believers are in a limited sense children of God (Matt. 5:9; Rom. 8:14, 19; Gal. 3:26; cf. John 1:12; 11:52; Rom. 8:16, 21; 9:8; Phil. 2:15; 1 John 3:1–2, 10), Jesus is uniquely the Son of God in that He alone shares the same nature as the Father (1:1; 5:16–30; 10:30–33; 14:9; 17:11; 1 John 5:20).

To his first emphasis—Messiah is here—John added an equally compelling exhortation: Recognize Him for who He is—the Son of God, the Messiah, the ultimate sacrificial Lamb for the sin of the world.[1]

Witnessing to Jesus Christ

John 1:29–34

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”

How can a believer witness to Jesus Christ? It is an important question, not only because each of us is called upon to witness (as we have already seen) but also because the expansion of the gospel in our time (as in all ages of the Christian church) depends in no small measure upon whether or not we will do it and, if we do, how well.

We have already looked at the first great principle for being a witness: the witness must recognize that he has no independent importance in himself. The evangelist expresses this in the case of John the Baptist, whose witness has been the basis of our story, by reminding us that he was not the Light. This teaches us, among other things, that a Christian will never be an effective witness if he is placing either himself or his own needs first in his thinking. Our own needs possess a certain degree of importance, of course. But we will never be able to focus on the needs of others if our own needs dominate us. For one thing, there is a sense in which our own needs are already met, whether we recognize it or not, for Paul wrote to the Philippians, saying, “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). Our needs are met in Christ, and we have little to testify of if we do not see that clearly. Besides, we cannot really show love to the other person, which is the essence of witnessing, if we are not placing his needs before our own.

All that is true. Yet, we must go on from this point to see that our recognizing that we are not the Light is not in itself witnessing. That is only the first and preliminary principle.

A Verbal Witness

The second great principle for witnessing is that we must bear witness to the Light, and this means that we must witness verbally. Our witness must move out of the area of life and into the area of words. If it does not, we will be like the young man who went from a Christian home to a secular college. His parents were concerned how he would make out. So when he arrived home at Christmas they asked him anxiously, “How did you get along?” He answered, “Oh, I got along great. No one even knows that I’m a Christian.” I am not denying the importance of the Christian life, of course. There must be the kind of upright character and true commitment to Christ that will back up the witness by words. We will see more about this in our next study. But, important as it is, the living of the Christian life by itself is not enough for a complete witness; there must also be a verbal witness.

We can easily see why this must be so. For one thing, a nonverbal witness is at best merely puzzling to the non-Christian, and it can be totally misunderstood. Some time ago, after I had mentioned witnessing in the context of a message I was giving in a church other than my own, a woman came up to me to tell how she was bearing a witness in her place of employment. She apparently worked in a large office. Just that morning, so she said, as she was going out to lunch, one of the other workers handed her fifty cents and asked her to pick up a packet of cigarettes for him. What did she do? She returned the money, saying that she did not believe in smoking. She said to me that she believed God had helped her to bear a witness for Christ in that situation.

I do not want to be too hard on this woman. She had a right, if she wished, to disapprove of smoking. In view of the warnings being given in our day about smoking, probably more non-Christians than ever before are taking this position. Still, the point that I want to make here is that in this case the “witness” to Christ that the woman thought she was giving was really no witness at all. For had I been the man who had asked the favor and been refused, I would probably have considered her rude and never even have thought of her views in terms of Christianity.

The second reason why a nonverbal witness is inadequate is that, if it is effective at all, it should lead to a verbal witness. That is, if you are attempting to honor Christ by the way you are living, the things you are doing should lead to conversation about Jesus Christ and what he has meant in your experience.

Someone will say, “Oh, but isn’t it true that many persons have been led to Jesus Christ by means of the conduct of some Christian?” That is quite true; many have! The conduct of Christians has been an important step, even an essential step, in the salvation of many thousands of persons. But I am convinced that the matter has never stopped on that level and that these thousands would never have come to Christ unless the witness through the lives of Christians had not moved beyond actions at some point to a consideration of the person and claims of Jesus Christ as these truths were presented to them verbally.

People who have greatly moved the world for Christ have been ready to speak at any opportunity. In his book Henceforth, Hugh E. Hopkins tells of Douglas Thornton, an English believer who was being seen off at a railway station in Egypt. With some difficulty his friend found him an empty compartment on the train: “An empty compartment!” Thornton exclaimed. “Why, man, I want to fish.” He moved into a crowded compartment. It is also recorded that, when exploring the Great Pyramid on the outskirts of Cairo, Thornton redeemed the time by evangelizing the guide who was then crawling up a narrow passage on his hands and knees behind him.

We find another example in the conversion experience of John Wesley, the father of the Methodist church. Wesley had been a preacher for years before he was genuinely born again, and during this time (as might be expected) his ministry was a failure. After a particularly discouraging experience in the United States, as he was returning from Georgia to England by ship, he came into contact with a body of Moravian Christians. He was very much impressed with the calm they maintained in the midst of a storm at sea. It was not on the ship, however, but later at a meeting in the little chapel at Aldersgate in London, while someone was reading from Luther’s exposition of the letter to the Galatians, that Wesley “felt his heart strangely warmed” and was converted. After that he became one of the greatest evangelists in church history.

A verbal witness is a true witness. Thus, throughout the Gospel of John, the stories of those who are reached by Jesus Christ almost without exception end with a spoken profession of their belief. The man born blind is last seen in an attitude of worship, voicing the confession: “Lord, I believe” (John 9:38). The woman of Samaria grows in her understanding of Jesus. At the beginning of the narrative she regards him merely as a Jew (John 4:9). In verse 12 she raises the possibility that he may be greater than the patriarch Jacob. In verse 19 she calls him a prophet. The conclusion comes in her testimony to her neighbors when she argues that he is the Messiah (v. 29). In the same way John the Baptist testifies to the One who takes away the sin of the world.

The Message

Now, if we are to bear a witness to Jesus Christ, clearly we must know something about him. And this means that we must have a message. What is our message? The major parts of the answer to this question are suggested in our story. They are: 1) a witness to who Jesus Christ is; 2) a witness to what he has done; and 3) a witness to how a man or woman can come to know him personally.

First, we witness to who Jesus Christ is. John did this when he testified, “This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me’ ” (v. 30). Again, “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God” (v. 34). This is where we begin in our witness, because most of the points of Christian doctrine gain their significance from the fact that Jesus Christ is God. If Christ were only a man, then his death on the cross might have been inspiring as an example or a means by which we are excited to good works. We might say, “I never want such a tragedy to happen again” and become a great social worker. But if this is all that Christ is, then his death was in no sense an atonement; he did not die for our sin, and we are still under the condemnation of God and are still the children of wrath. In the same way, if he is not God, then we have no living God to worship, for we cannot know God apart from Jesus Christ.

As you begin to witness, let me suggest that you begin here. Begin with Christ’s claims about himself. You might refer to John 5:18, which tells us that Jesus “was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” He said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). He told the disciples: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Most non-Christians have never actually faced these claims, and many have never even heard them.

Second, we witness to what Jesus Christ has done. In one sense, of course, this is an overwhelming topic. For if Jesus is God, then all that God has done, and does, Christ does. He has been active in the creation of the world, in guiding the history of redemption, in giving us the Old and New Testaments, in helping us today in temptation, and in other things. Yet there is a sense in which the work of Christ focuses on something much more limited and therefore much easier to share. The focus of Christ’s work is to be found in his death on the cross. Hence, we want to share the meaning of his death when we try to tell others about him.

In his day, John the Baptist did this by reference to the Jewish sacrifices. He said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (v. 29). Have you ever given thought to what must have been involved in that statement—for John and for his hearers? For centuries Israel had known all about the sacrificial lamb. They had learned about it first from the story of Abraham, who was the father of their nation. At God’s command Abraham had been going up the mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac when Isaac had turned to him and asked, “Father, … Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb?” Abraham had answered, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” And God did! Israel had also known about the lamb as a result of the institution of the Passover. On that occasion the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of the house was the sign for the angel of death to pass by. Moreover, they knew that daily in the services of the temple lambs and goats were sacrificed. They knew that in every instance the sacrifices meant the death of an innocent substitute in place of the one who had sinned.

On this basis John the Baptist came along and exclaimed, “Look, the Lamb of God.” He recognized that the sacrifices were to be fulfilled in Jesus and that he would bear our sin as Isaiah had said. “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. … he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:4–5).

I like to think, as many other commentators have suggested, that as John identified Jesus as the sin-bearing Lamb, there may have been passing by the flocks of lambs that were driven up to the walls of Jerusalem each year to serve as sacrificial lambs for the Passover. The Passover feast was not far off (John 2:12–13). Perhaps John was led to refer to Jesus in this fashion because it showed vividly that he was able to deliver from death those who believed on him.

Do you believe that? Jesus is able to deliver us from death today. There is that final death, the second death, which is the separation of the soul of the individual from God. He delivers from that. But there are also the little deaths that we experience daily because of our natural alienation from God. Jesus is the answer to those deaths also. If you are a Christian, it is your privilege to tell others of the means by which sin is removed—through faith in the person and death of Jesus Christ—and that the one who believes in him is given new life, peace, joy, and freedom of access to God.

Finally, we also witness to the way in which a person can come to know and trust Jesus for himself. John did it by pointing to the fact that Jesus is the giver of the Spirit. He said, “I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’ ” (v. 33). What does that mean? It means that Jesus Christ was the One who would give of his Spirit to those who should follow him. Or, to put it another way, it means that Jesus would come to live within the lives of his followers. Thus, when we bear witness to Jesus today, we talk not only of who Jesus is and of what he has done but also of how a person can come to have him enter his life and fill it.

Opening the Door

Someone will ask, “You say that Christ must enter our lives, but you have not told us how that can happen. How does that happen?” The answer is that it happens by faith as we “receive” him or “open” the doors of our lives to his knocking. One statement of that principle occurs in this same chapter in the verse that says: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (v. 12). Another verse is Revelation 3:20: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” According to these verses there are two steps to the process. There is the step in which we first “hear” his voice or “believe” in him. Then there is the step in which we “receive him” or “open” to his call.

We do this by praying. We say, “Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am a sinner and in need of the salvation that you bring to men. I believe that you died for me, so that my sin is atoned for and borne away forever. I now open the door and invite you into my life and ask that you will cleanse me and rule my life forever. Amen.” It is as simple as that, but it must be a definite commitment. The act itself is indispensable.

Have you done that? If you have not, you are not a real Christian. It is not enough merely to know about Christ; you must belong to him. On the other hand, if you have done that, then let me ask whether you have ever invited another person to make the same commitment. I can tell you on the basis of my own experience—and that of many others—that there are few joys equal to that which is ours when the invitation is given to believe in Jesus and the person to whom we are witnessing responds and comes to him.[2]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 55–57). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 109–114). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

June 24, 2017: Verse of the day


The Friends of Jesus Love Each Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Greater Love

John 15:12–14

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

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

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

Human Friendship

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

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

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

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

Friend of Sinners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Death

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

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

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

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

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

There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus,

No not one! No not one!

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

Friends of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 23, 2017: Verse of the day


The True Audience: God

But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (6:6)

The basic definition of prayer is “communion with God,” and if He is not involved there is only the pretense of prayer. Not only must He be involved, but centrally involved. Prayer is God’s provision; it is God’s idea, not man’s. There could be no prayer if God did not condescend to speak with us, and we could not know how to pray had He not chosen to instruct us.

Jesus’ teaching here is simple, in contrast to the complicated and difficult traditions. The phrase when you pray implies great latitude. No prescribed time or occasion is given by the Lord. The tameion (inner room) could be any sort of small room or chamber, even a storage closet. Such rooms were often secret and used to store valued possessions for protection. The idea is that of going to the most private place available.

As already mentioned, Jesus does not forbid or condemn public prayer as such (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1–4). His purpose here seems to have been to make as great a contrast as possible to the practices of the scribes, Pharisees, and other hypocritical religionists. The primary point Jesus makes does not have to do with location but with attitude. If necessary, Jesus says, go to the most secluded, private place you can find so you will not be tempted to show off. Go there and shut the door. Shut out everything else so that you can concentrate on God and pray to your Father. Do whatever you have to do to get your attention away from yourself and others and on Him and Him alone.

Much of our prayer life should be literally in secret. Jesus regularly went away from His disciples to pray entirely alone. Our family members or friends may know that we are praying, but what we say is not meant for them to hear. Chrysostom commented that in his day (the fourth century a.d.) many Christians prayed so loud in their rooms that everyone down the hall heard what they said. If people sometimes happen to overhear our private prayers, it should not be by our intention. (Cf. John A. Broadus, Matthew [Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson, 1886], p. 140.)

But the Father being in secret does not mean He is not present when we pray in public, or with our families or other small groups of believers. He is very much present whenever and wherever His children call on Him. Jesus’ point has to do with the singleness of intention. True prayer is always intimate. Even prayer in public, if the heart is right and concentrated on God, will in a real and profound way shut one up alone in the presence of God.

In the pattern of prayer Jesus taught His disciples, He begins with “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9), indicating that other believers may be present and that the prayer is corporate. But even when prayer represents the feelings and needs of others who are present, the supreme attention is to be on God. In that sense, even the most public prayer is in secret. Even if the whole world hears what we say, there is an intimacy and focus on God in that communion that is unaffected.

God also sees in secret in the sense that He never betrays a confidence. Many things we share with God in our private prayers are for Him alone to know. Confidences we share even with our dearest loved ones or closest friends may sometimes be betrayed. But we can be sure our secrets with God will forever be just that, and that one believer praying in secret with a pure heart has the full attention of the Father.

Furthermore, when our prayer is as it should be, our Father who sees in secret will repayus. The most important secret He sees is not the words we say in the privacy of our room, but the thoughts we have in the privacy of our heart. Those are the secrets about which He is supremely concerned, and about which only He can know with certainty (cf. 1 Cor. 4:3–5). Those secrets sometimes are hidden even from ourselves, because it is so easy to be deceived about our own motives.

When God is genuinely the audience of our prayer, we will have the reward only He can give. Jesus gives no idea in this passage as to what God’s reward, or repayment, will be. The important truth is that God will faithfully and unfailingly bless those who come to Him in sincerity. Without question, the Lord will repay. Those who pray insincerely and hypocritically will receive the world’s reward, and those who pray sincerely and humbly will receive God’s.

MacArthur New Testament Commentary

June 22, 2017: Verse of the day


The Preaching of the Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Meaning and End of History

Ephesians 3:7–13

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

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

Secular Views of History

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

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

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

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

The Turning Point

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

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

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

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

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

What is God Doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 21, 2017: Verse of the day


The Urgency of Rest

Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. (4:11–13)

The need for God’s rest is urgent. A person should diligently, with intense purpose and concern, secure it. It is not that he can work his way to salvation, but that he should diligently seek to enter God’s rest by faith—lest he, like the Israelites in the wilderness, lose the opportunity.

God cannot be trifled with. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, … and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. In the immediate context this verse means that the readers who are hesitating in trusting Christ, who are even considering falling back into Judaism, had better be urgent and diligent in seeking to enter God’s rest, because the Word of God is alive. It is not static, but active—constantly active. It can pierce right down into the innermost part of the heart to see if belief is real or not.

So the Word of God is not only saving and comforting and nourishing and healing, it is also a tool of judgment and execution. In the day of the great judgment His Word is going to penetrate and lay bare all hearts who have not trusted in Him. The sham and hypocrisy will be revealed and no profession of faith, no matter how orthodox, and no list of good works, no matter how sacrificial, will count for anything before Him. Only the thoughts and intentions of the heart will count. God’s Word is the perfect discerner, the perfect kritikos (from which we get “critic”). It not only analyzes all the facts perfectly, but all motives, and intentions, and beliefs as well, which even the wisest of human judges or critics cannot do. The sword of His Word will make no mistakes in judgment or execution. All disguises will be ripped off and only the real person will be seen.

The word translated open had two distinct uses in ancient times. It was used of a wrestler taking his opponent by the throat. In this position the two men were unavoidably face to face. The other use was in regard to a criminal trial. A sharp dagger would be bound to the neck of the accused, with the point just below his chin, so that he could not bow his head, but had to face the court. Both uses had to do with grave face-to-face situations. When an unbeliever comes under the scrutiny of God’s Word, he will be unavoidably face-to-face with the perfect truth about God and about himself.

In light of such certain and perfect judgment and of such beautiful and wonderful rest, why will any person harden his heart to God?[1]

12 The exposition of Psalm 95:7–11 is complete, but before moving on with his argument the author pauses to reflect in vv. 12–13 on the power of “the word of God,” and the “for” shows this reflection is not a self-contained comment but a colorful and rhetorically powerful underlining of what has just been taught from the psalm. The psalm has focused on God’s speaking, both in the “voice” that the people are exhorted to heed (95:7) and in the declaration on oath that sealed the fate of those who refused to listen (vv. 10–11). This could be all that our author refers to when he speaks of “the word of God,” but he has also made it clear that he regards the whole message of the psalm as coming from the Holy Spirit (3:7) and from God (4:7), not just from David, so that vv. 12–13 are more likely to be understood in that wider sense. The whole text he has just been expounding is “the word of God” and as such cannot lightly be dismissed. To go further and find in these two verses a description of the whole of the OT goes beyond what the context requires but would be consonant with the authority our author clearly attributes to a wide variety of OT passages. Quite likely he also has in mind the “word of God” as it now comes through Christian preachers, of whom surely he himself was one (cf. 13:7, where the same phrase is used).

God’s word, like its author (3:12), is “living” (TNIV, “alive”). It is also “at work” (energēs, “active, effective, powerful,” GK 1921); the thought is close to that of Isaiah 55:11, where God’s word goes out from his mouth and accomplishes the purpose for which he sent it (cf. Ps 147:15, 18). Jeremiah conveyed this dynamic idea of God’s word by describing it as like a fire and like a hammer smashing the rock (Jer 23:29). Our author goes for a different metaphor, that of a double-edged sword (one designed for stabbing rather than slashing like a cutlass), which conveys not so much its sheer power as its ability to cut through our human resistance. This dynamic understanding of the word of God is vividly symbolized in the picture of a “sharp, two-edged sword” coming out of the mouth of the risen Lord in Revelation 1:16 (cf. 19:15). In the context of his discussion of Psalm 95, our author may be thinking of Numbers 14:43, where even after God’s oath some Israelites nonetheless tried to enter Canaan directly, only to be cut down by the sword of the Amalekites and Canaanites; God’s word is sharper even than that.

The metaphor continues in the following description of the sword (literally) “going right through to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow.” The latter pair, “joints and marrow,” refers to the literal body of flesh and bones, though it is not easy to see how joints can be “divided” from marrow; we may feel the effect of the metaphor without needing to inquire too closely how it might be envisaged physically. But with the former pair, “soul and spirit,” we seem already to be moving beyond the literal picture of what a sword can do. Words such as “soul” (psychē [GK 6034], sometimes better translated “life”) and “spirit” (pneuma [GK 4460], used for angels [1:7] and for the Holy Spirit as well as for people alive after death [12:23]) are notoriously slippery, and our author’s use of the two words elsewhere does not suggest he thought of them as two separate “parts” of a person. As with joints and marrow, we probably do better to feel the force of the metaphor than to press pedantically for a literal explanation. Both terms denote our “real, innermost selves,” and at that level, too, we are still open to the penetrative power of God’s word.

The final description of the word of God as “judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” has left the metaphor of the sword behind. The unusual adjective kritikos, “judging” or “discerning” (GK 3217), denotes its ability to break through pretense and confusion to expose the reality of our inmost being.[2]

4:12. This vivid expression of the power of God’s message provides the explanation for the strong warning of verse 11. Because God’s message is alive, active, sharp, and discerning, those who listen to God’s message can enter his rest. Two questions are important in this verse. First, what is the word of God? Second, what does this passage say about it?

Although the Bible sometimes refers to Christ as God’s Word (John 1:14), the reference here is not speaking of Jesus Christ. Here we have a general reference to God’s message to human beings. In the past God had spoken to human beings through dreams, angelic appearances, and miracles. He still can use those methods today, but our primary contact with God is through his written Word, the Bible. God’s Word will include any method God uses to communicate with human beings.

This verse contains four statements about God’s Word. First, it is living. God is a living God (Heb. 3:12). His message is dynamic and productive. It causes things to happen. It drives home warnings to the disobedient and promises to the believer. Second, God’s Word is active, an emphasis virtually identical in meaning with the term living. God’s Word is not something you passively hear and then ignore. It actively works in our lives, changes us, and sends us into action for God.

Third, God’s Word penetrates the soul and spirit. To the Hebrew people, the body was a unity. We should not think of dividing the soul from the spirit. God’s message is capable of penetrating the impenetrable. It can divide what is indivisible. Fourth, God’s message is discerning. It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. It passes judgment on our feelings and our thoughts. What we regard as secret and hidden, God brought out for inspection by the discerning power of his Word.

In 1995, Johnny Oates was managing the Texas Rangers baseball team when God spoke to him through the illness of his wife Gloria. Oates had become a Christian in 1983; but until the crisis in 1995, he had always lived as if baseball were his god. His wife was traveling to the spring training camp for the Rangers when she became ill in Savannah, Georgia. His daughter summoned him to Georgia with a phone call. Oates arrived to find his wife in a motel, despairing and defeated.

Oates said, “God got my attention and said, ‘Johnny, it’s not going to work this way.’ ” In the grief of the moment, Oates told God that he was ready to listen to anything he wanted to say. The next day Oates checked his wife out of the motel and headed for their home in Virginia. There he and his wife both participated in a Christian counseling program and learned how to communicate with one another. He learned that what he had worshiped was not God or his family, but the game of baseball. Both Oates and his wife moved closer, and Oates said, “As we get closer to God, … we get closer to each other.”

God got his attention. Fortunately Oates listened. God’s message to this baseball manager was life changing. It was also marriage saving.[3]

12a. The word of God is living and active.

The writer reminds the reader that God’s Word cannot be taken lightly; for if the reader does not wish to listen, he faces no one less than God himself (see Heb. 10:31; 12:29). The Bible is not a collection of religious writings from the ancient past, but a book that speaks to all people everywhere in nearly all the languages of the world. The Bible demands a response, because God does not tolerate indifference and disobedience.

In their interpretation of verse 12a, some scholars assert that the phrase Word of God is a reference to Jesus. This view is difficult to maintain, even though such a reference exists in Revelation 19:13 (where the rider on the white horse is called the Word of God). The phrase Word of God occurs at least thirty-nine times in the New Testament and almost exclusively is the designation for the spoken or written Word of God rather than the Son of God. In the introductory verses of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the writer clearly states that God spoke to the forefathers in the past, and in the present he spoke to us in his Son (Heb. 1:1–2). In Hebrews Jesus is called the Son of God, but never the Word of God.

In the original Greek, the participle living stands first in the sentence and therefore receives all the emphasis. This participle describes the first characteristic of God’s spoken and written Word: that Word is alive! For example, Stephen, reciting Israel’s history in the desert, says that Moses at Mount Sinai “received living words” (Acts 7:38), and Peter tells the recipients of his first epistle that they “have been born again … through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).

A second characteristic is that the Word of God is active. That is, it is effective and powerful. (The original Greek uses a word from which we have derived the term energy.) God’s Word, then, is energizing in its effect. No one can escape that living and active Word. Just as God’s spoken Word brought forth his beautiful creation, so his Word recreates man dead in transgressions and sins (Eph. 2:1–5). As in the wilderness some Israelites refused to listen to God’s Word while others showed obedience, so today we see that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

The Bible is not a dead letter, comparable to a law that is no longer enforced. Those people who choose to ignore the message of Scripture will experience not merely the power of God’s Word but its keen edge as well.

12b. Sharper than any double-edged sword.

In the ancient world, the double-edged sword was the sharpest weapon available in any arsenal. And in verse 12b, the author of Hebrews likens the Word of God to this weapon. (In a similar passage [Rev. 1:16] we read about the “sharp double-edged sword” coming out of the mouth of Jesus as John saw him on the island of Patmos. Whether this means that the tongue resembles a dagger is an open question.) The symbolism conveys the message that God’s judgment is stern, righteous, and awful. God has the ultimate power over his creatures; those who refuse to listen to his Word face judgment and death, while those who obey enter God’s rest and have life eternal. Let no one take the spoken and written Word for granted; let no one ignore it; let no one willfully oppose it. That Word cuts and divides, much as the scalpel of a surgeon uncovers the most delicate nerves of the human body.

However, the Word of God also provides protection. Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians equates the Word with the sword of the Spirit—that is, part of the Christian’s spiritual armor (6:17).

12c. It penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

I do not think that the writer of Hebrews is teaching the doctrine that man consists of body, soul, and spirit (1 Thess. 5:23). Of course, we can make a distinction between soul and spirit by saying that the soul relates to man’s physical existence; and the spirit, to God. But the author does not make distinctions in this verse. He speaks in terms of that which is not done and in a sense cannot be done.

Who is able to divide soul and spirit or joints and marrow? And what judge can know the thoughts and attitudes of the heart? The author uses symbolism to say that what man ordinarily does not divide, God’s Word separates thoroughly. Nothing remains untouched by Scripture, for it addresses every aspect of man’s life. The Word continues to divide the spiritual existence of man and even his physical being. All the recesses of body and soul—including the thoughts and attitudes—face the sharp edge of God’s dividing sword. Whereas man’s thoughts remain hidden from his neighbor’s probing eye, God’s Word uncovers them.

God’s Word is called a discerner of man’s thoughts and intentions. In the Psalter David says:

O Lord, you have searched me

and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways. [Ps. 139:1–3]

And Jesus utters these words:

As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. [John 12:47–48]

The Lord with his Word exposes the motives hidden in a man’s heart. In his epistle the author stresses the act of God’s speaking to man. For instance, the introductory verses (Heb. 1:1–2) illustrate this fact clearly. And repeatedly, when quoting the Old Testament Scriptures, the writer uses this formula: God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit says (consult the many quotations, for example, in the first four chapters). The Word is not a written document of past centuries. It is alive and current; it is powerful and effective; and it is undivided and unchanged. Written in times and cultures from which we are far removed, the Word of God nevertheless touches man today. God addresses man in the totality of his existence, and man is unable to escape the impact of God’s Word.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1983). Hebrews (pp. 104–105). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] France, R. T. (2006). Hebrews. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 67–68). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Lea, T. D. (1999). Hebrews, James (Vol. 10, pp. 71–72). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[4] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of Hebrews (Vol. 15, pp. 115–118). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

June 20, 2017: Verse of the day


Their Position

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whose Slave are You?

Romans 6:15–18

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

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

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

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

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

The Chapter’s Second Half

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

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

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

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

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

Two Errors

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

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

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

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

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

Five Sound Reasons

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

“Why not?” we ask.

In this section Paul gives five sound reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Were you free to read your Bible?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real freedom means doing what is right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Obedience of Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 19, 2017: Verse of the day


Jesus reigns supreme over the visible world, the unseen world, and the church. Paul sums up his argument in verse 19: For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him. Plērōma (fulness) was a term used by the later Gnostics to refer to the divine powers and attributes, which they believed were divided among the various emanations. That is likely the sense in which the Colossian errorists used the term. Paul counters that false teaching by stating that all the fulness of deity is not spread out in small doses to a group of spirits, but fully dwell-s in Christ alone (cf. 2:9). The commentator J. B. Lightfoot wrote about Paul’s use of plērōma,

On the one hand, in relation to Deity, He is the visible image of the invisible God. He is not only the chief manifestation of the Divine nature: He exhausts the godhead manifested. In Him resides the totality of the Divine powers and attributes. For this totality Gnostic teachers had a technical term, the pleroma or plenitude.… In contrast to their doc-trine, [Paul] asserts and repeats the assertion, that the pleroma abides absolutely and wholly in Christ as the Word of God. The entire light is concentrated in Him. (St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon [1879; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959], p. 102)

Paul tells the Colossians they do not need angels to help them get saved. Rather in Christ, and Him alone, they are complete (2:10). Christians share in His fulness: “For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace” (John 1:16). All the fulness of Christ becomes available to believers.

What should the response be to the glorious truths about Christ in this passage? The Puritan John Owen astutely wrote,

The revelation made of Christ in the blessed gospel is far more excellent, more glorious, more filled with rays of divine wisdom and goodness than the whole creation, and the just comprehension of it, if attainable, can contain or afford. Without this knowledge, the mind of man, however priding itself in other inventions and discoveries, is wrapped up in darkness and confusion.

This therefore deserves the severest of our thoughts, the best of our meditations, and our utmost diligence in them. For if our future blessedness shall consist in living where He is, and beholding of His glory, what better preparation can there be for it than a constant previous contemplation of that glory as revealed in the gospel, that by a view of it we may be gradually transformed into the same glory? (John Owen, The Glory of Christ [reprint, Chicago: Moody, 1949], pp. 25–26)

Reconciled to God

and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister. (1:20–23)

The word reconcile is one of the most significant and descriptive terms in all of Scripture. It is one of five key words used in the New Testament to describe the richness of salvation in Christ, along with justification, redemption, forgiveness, and adoption.

In justification, the sinner stands before God guilty and condemned, but is declared righteous (Rom. 8:33). In redemption, the sinner stands before God as a slave, but is granted his freedom (Rom. 6:18–22). In forgiveness, the sinner stands before God as a debtor, but  the debt is paid and forgotten (Eph. 1:7). In reconciliation, the sinner stands before God as an enemy, but becomes His friend (2 Cor. 5:18–20). In adoption, the sinner stands before God as a stranger, but is made a son (Eph. 1:5). A complete understanding of the doctrine of salvation would involve a detailed study of each of those terms. In Colossians 1:20–23, Paul gives a concise look at reconciliation.

The verb katallassō (to reconcile) means “to change” or “exchange.” Its New Testament usage speaks of a change in a relationship. In 1 Corinthians 7:11 it refers to a woman being reconciled to her husband. In its other two New Testament usages, Romans 5:10, and 2 Corinthians 5:18–20, it speaks of God and man being reconciled. When people change from being at enmity with each other to being at peace, they are said to be reconciled. When the Bible speaks of reconciliation, then, it refers to the restoration of a right relationship between God and man.

There is another term for reconcile that is used in Colossians 1:20, 22—apokatallassō. It is a compound word, made up of the basic word for reconcile, katallassō, with a preposition added to intensify the meaning. It means thoroughly, completely, or totally reconciled. Paul no doubt used this stronger term in Colossians as a counterattack against the false teachers. Because they held that Christ was merely another spirit being emanating from God, they also denied the possibility of man’s being reconciled to God by Christ alone. In refuting that denial, Paul emphasizes that there is total, complete, and full reconciliation through the Lord Jesus. Inasmuch as He possesses all the fullness of deity (1:19; 2:9), Jesus is able to fully reconcile sinful men and women to God (1:20).

Paul defends Christ’s sufficiency to reconcile men to God by discussing four aspects of reconciliation: the plan of reconciliation, the means of reconciliation, the aim of reconciliation, and the evidence of reconciliation.

The Plan of Reconciliation

and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, (1:20–21)

God’s ultimate plan for the universe is to reconcile all things to Himself through Jesus Christ. When His work of creation was finished, “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good”  (Gen. 1:31). God’s good creation, however, was soon marred by man’s sin. The Fall resulted not only in fatal and damning tragedy for the human race, but also affected the entire creation. Sin destroyed the perfect harmony between creatures, and between all creation and the Creator. The creation was “subjected to futility” (Rom. 8:20) and “groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Rom. 8:22). One evidence of that is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which indicates that the universe is losing its usable energy. If God did not intervene, the universe would eventually suffer a heat death—all available energy would be used up, and the universe would become uniformly cold and dark.

We live on a cursed earth in a cursed universe. Both are under the baleful influence of Satan, who is both “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). The devastating effects of the curse and satanic influence will reach a terrifying climax in the events of the Tribulation. Some of the various bowl, trumpet, and seal judgments are demonic, others represent natural phenomena gone wild as God lets loose His wrath. At the culmination of that time of destruction and chaos, Christ returns and sets up His kingdom. During His millennial reign, the effects of the curse will begin to be reversed. The Bible gives us a glimpse of what the restored creation will be like.

There will be dramatic changes in the animal world. In Isaiah we learn that

The wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze; their young will lie down together; and the lion will eat straw like the ox. And the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain. (Isa. 11:6–9)

“The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain,” says the Lord. (Isa. 65:25)

The changes in the animal world will be paralleled by changes in the earth and the solar system:

Then the moon will be abashed and the sun ashamed, for the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and His glory will be before His elders. (Isa. 24:23)

The light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven days, on the day the Lord binds up the fracture of His people and heals the bruise He has inflicted. (Isa. 30:26)

No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory. Your sun will set no more, neither will your moon wane; for you will have the Lord for an everlasting light. (Isa. 60:19–20)

Tremendous, dramatic changes will mark the reconciliation of the world to God. Paul writes, “The creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption” (Rom. 8:21). God and the creation will be reconciled; the curse of Genesis 3 will be removed. We might say that God will make friends with the universe again. The universe will be restored to a proper relationship with its Creator. Finally, after the millennial kingdom, there will indeed be a new heaven and a new earth, as both Peter and John indicate:

According to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwell-s. (2 Pet. 3:13)

I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away. (Rev. 21:1)

The Lord will make everything new.

Paul again takes direct aim at the false philosophical dualism of the Colossian heretics. They taught that all matter was evil and spirit was good. In their scheme, God did not create the physical universe, and He certainly would not wish to be reconciled to it. Paul declares that God will indeed reconcile the material world to Himself, and further, that He will do it through His Son, Jesus Christ. Far from being a spirit emanation unconcerned with evil matter, Jesus is the agent through which God will accomplish the reconciliation of the universe. The German theologian Erich Sauer comments,

The offering on Golgotha extends its influence into universal history. The salvation of mankind is only one part of the world-embracing counsels of God.… The “heavenly things” also will be cleansed through Christ’s sacrifice of Himself (Heb. 9:23). A “cleansing” of the heavenly places is required if on no other ground than that they have been the dwelling of fallen spirits (Eph. 6:12; 2:2), and because Satan,  their chief, has for ages had access to the highest regions of the heavenly world… the other side becomes this side; eternity transfigures time and this earth, the chief scene of the redemption, becomes the Residence of the universal kingdom of God (The Triumph of the Crucified [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960], pp. 179, 180 [italics in original]).

Some have imagined all things to include fallen men and fallen angels, and on that basis have argued for universalism, the ultimate salvation of everyone. By so doing they overlook a fundamental rule of interpretation, the analogia Scriptura. That principle teaches that no passage of Scripture, properly interpreted, will contradict any other passage. When we let Scripture interpret Scripture, it is clear that by all things Paul means all things for whom reconciliation is possible. That fallen angels and unregenerate men will spend eternity in hell is the emphatic teaching of Scripture. Our Lord will one day say to unbelievers, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels,” and they “will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:41, 46). In Revelation 20:10–15, the apostle John writes,

The devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

On the other hand, there is a sense in which even fallen angels and unredeemed men will be reconciled to God for judgment—but only in the sense of submitting to Him for final sentencing. Their relationship to Him will change from that of enemies to that of the judged. They will be sentenced to hell, unable any longer to pollute God’s creation. They will be stripped of their power and forced to bow in submission to God. Paul writes in Colossians 2:15 that after Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities [fallen angels], He made a public display of them, having  triumphed over them.” Because of Christ’s victory, “the God of peace will-soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). And “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10). God has elevated Christ to a position above all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that God “raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet” (Eph. 1:21–22).

Though in the sacrifice of Christ, God made provision for the world (cf. John 3:16; 1 John 2:2), all persons will not be reconciled to God in the saving sense of being redeemed. The benefits of Christ’s atonement are applied only to the elect, who alone come to saving faith in Him.

From God’s general plan to reconcile all things to Himself, Paul turns to the specific reconciliation of believers like the Colossians. That they had been reconciled was evidence enough that Christ was sufficient to reconcile men and women to God. Their reconciliation foreshadowed the ultimate reconciliation of the universe.

To impress on them Christ’s power to reconcile men to God, Paul reminds the Colossians of what they were like before their reconciliation. They were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds. Apallotrioō (alienated) means “estranged,” “cut off,” or “separated.” Before their reconciliation, the Colossians were completely estranged from God. In a similar passage, Paul writes, “You were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12–13). NonChristians are detached from God because of sin; there is no such thing as an “innocent heathen.” All unbelievers suffer separation from God unless they receive the reconciliation provided in Jesus Christ.

The Colossians had also been hostile in mind. Echthros (hostile) could also be translated “hateful.” Unbelievers are not only alienated from God by condition, but also hateful of God by attitude. They hate Him and resent His holy standards and commands because they are engaged in evil deeds. Scripture teaches that unbelievers “loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:19–20). Their problem is not ignorance, but willful love of sin.

Even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. (Rom. 1:21–24)

Although “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom. 1:19), they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). As Isaiah wrote to wayward Israel, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear” (Isa. 59:2). Sin is the root cause of man’s alienation from God. Because God cannot fellowship with sin (cf. Hab. 1:13; 1 John 1:6), it is sin that needs to be dealt with before God and man can be reconciled.

The question arises as to whether man is reconciled to God, or God to man. There is a sense in which both occur. Since “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God” (Rom. 8:7), and “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8), reconciliation cannot take place until man is transformed. “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17–18).

There is also God’s side to reconciliation. From His holy perspective, His just wrath against sin must be appeased. Far from being the harmless, tolerant grandfather that many today imagine Him to be, God “takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies” (Nah. 1:2). “At His wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure His indignation” (Jer. 10:10). The one who refuses to obey the Son will find that “the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). Because of their sin, “the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6). Man and God could never be reconciled unless God’s wrath was appeased. The provision for that took place through Christ’s sacrifice. “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Rom. 5:9). It is “Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). He bore the full fury of God’s wrath against our sins (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24). After all, “God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9).

Christ’s death on the cross reconciled us to God (Eph. 2:16), something we could never have done on our own. In Romans 5:6–10, Paul gives four reasons for that. First, lack of strength: “we were still  helpless” (v. 6). Second, lack of merit: we were “the ungodly” (v. 6). Third, lack of righteousness: “we were yet sinners” (v. 8). Finally, lack of peace with God: “we were enemies” (v. 10). It is only through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ that anyone can receive reconciliation (v. 11).

The Means of Reconciliation

having made peace through the blood of His cross… He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death (1:20b, 1:22a)

Those two phrases sum up the specific means whereby Christ effected our reconciliation with God. Paul says first that Christ made peace between God and man through the blood of His cross. Blood speaks metaphorically of His atonement. It connects Christ’s death with the Old Testament sacrificial system (cf. 1 Pet. 1:18–19). It is also a term that graphically notes violent death, such as that suffered by the sacrificial animals. The countless thousands of animals sacrificed under the Old Covenant pointed ahead to the violent, blood-shedding death the final sacrificial Lamb would suffer. The writer of Hebrews informs us that “the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate (Heb. 13:11–12).

The reference to Christ’s blood again stresses the link between His violent death and the violent deaths of the animals sacrificed under the Old Covenant. Unlike many of them, however, Jesus did not bleed to death (cf. John 19:34). No man took His life. He was not a helpless victim, but willingly offered up His life to God.

For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father. (John 10:17–18)

Jesus chose the moment of His death: “When Jesus therefore had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished!’ And He bowed His head, and gave up His spirit” (John 19:30).

There is nothing mystical, however, about the blood of Christ. It saves us only in the sense that His death was the sacrificial death of the final Lamb. It was that death that reconciled us to God (Rom. 5:10).

Proper biblical teaching on the blood of Christ simply is that His physical blood has no magical or mystical saving power. It is not some supernaturally preserved form of the actual blood of Christ that literally washes believers of their sin. The blood of Christ is applied to the believer in a symbolic sense, by faith, in the same way that we “see” Christ by faith, and we are seated with Him in the heavenlies—not in a physical sense.

How could the red and white corpuscles be literally applied to believers in salvation? To our physical bodies? Could it be otherwise with literal blood? Where is that literal, tangible blood kept? How much of it is applied, and why is it not used up? To one degree or another, we must acknowledge that there is symbolism in what Scripture says about the blood. Otherwise we will wind up with an obviously unbiblical doctrine like transubstantiation to explain how literal blood can be applied to all believers for salvation. (I have recently heard that some believe the blood of Jesus is kept in a bottle in heaven to be literally used in some way to apply to the soul!)

A strictly physical interpretation of what Scripture says about the blood of Christ cannot adequately deal with such passages as John 6:53–54: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

It would be equally hard to explain how physical blood is meant in Matthew 23:30–35 (“We would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets”); 27:24–25 (“His blood be on us, and on our children”); Acts 5:28 (“[you] intend to bring this man’s blood upon us”); 18:6 (“Your blood be upon your own heads”); 20:26, 28 (“I am pure from the blood of all men”); and 1 Corinthians 10:16 (“The cup of blessing… is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?”).

The literal blood of Christ ran into the dirt and dust, and nothing in Scripture hints that it now exists in any tangible or visible form. Communion wine does not change into blood. There is no way the actual blood of Christ could be applied to all of us. We must acknowledge at some point that the sprinkling with blood under the New Covenant is symbolic.

“Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). I affirm that truth and have never denied it. But the “shedding of blood” in Scripture is an expression that means much more than just bleeding. It refers to violent sacrificial death. If just bleeding could buy salvation, why did not Jesus simply bleed without dying? Of course, He had to die to be the perfect sacrifice, and without His death our redemption could not have been purchased by His blood.

The meaning of Scripture in this matter is not all that difficult to understand. Romans 5:9–10 clarifies the point; those two verses side by side show that to be “justified by His blood” (v. 9) is the same as being “reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (v. 10). The critical element in salvation is the sacrificial death of Christ on our behalf. The shedding of His blood was the visible manifestation of His life being poured out in sacrifice, and Scripture consistently uses the term “shedding of blood” as a metonym for atoning death. (A metonym is a figure of speech in which the part is used to represent or designate the whole.)

Bloodshed was God’s design for all Old Testament sacrifices. They were bled to death rather than clubbed or burnt. God designed that sacrificial death was to occur with blood loss as a vivid manifestation of life being poured out (“the life of the flesh is in the blood”). Nevertheless, those who were too poor to bring animals for sacrifices were allowed to bring one-tenth of an ephah (About two quarts) of fine flour instead (Lev. 5:11). Their sins were covered just as surely as the sins of those who could afford to offer a lamb, goat, turtledove, or pigeon (Lev. 5:6–7). Christ’s blood was precious—but as precious as it was, only when it was poured out in death could the penalty of sin be paid.

Thus, if Christ had bled without dying, salvation would not have been purchased. In that sense, it is not His blood but His death that saves us. And when Scripture talks about the shedding of blood, the point is not mere bleeding, but dying by violence as a sacrifice. That is not heresy, and nothing in Protestant church history would support the notion that it is. The only major group to insist that the application of the blood is literal is the Roman Catholic Church.

Christ died not only as a sacrifice, but also as our substitute. He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death. In Romans 8:3, Paul tells us that God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.” He took the place of sinners, dying a substitutionary death that paid the full penalty for the sin of all who believe. This death satisfied God’s wrath. Once again Paul hammers away at the false teaching of the Colossian heretics that Christ was a mere spirit being. On the contrary, Paul insists, He died as a man for men. Were that not true, there could be no reconciliation for any person.[1]

19 Were one to ask on what grounds the resurrected Christ should reign supreme, an answer would be forthcoming in vv. 19–20. First of all, he should have first place in all things because it pleased God “to have all the fullness dwell in him.” One might ask, however, the fullness of what or whom? If one may appeal to 2:9 (and there is no convincing reason not to), then the answer is clear enough—the fullness of deity, i.e., of God himself (note NIV’s, “his fullness”). “Fullness” (plērōma, GK 4445) functions here as a “circumlocution for God” (Garland, 93). It was God’s pleasure to dwell fully and completely in Christ. Although articulating it differently, John 1:14 expresses a similar idea: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us …, full of grace and truth.” In Christ a wedding between deity and humanity occurs. He is the incarnate image of God (cf. again v. 15). If the Philippians “hymn” highlights Jesus’ humanity (see esp. Php 2:6–8; cf. 2 Co 8:9), this “poem” emphasizes his divinity.

20 Lest a person be tempted to forget, however, this verse reminds that “the Lord of glory” (1 Co 2:8) was subjected to tremendous agony on the cross (2 Co 13:4). Christ’s ministry of reconciliation was costly indeed. Why should God’s Son have first place in all things (v. 18)? It is not only because of his resurrection (v. 18) or incarnation (v. 19), but it is also because of his crucifixion (v. 20). It would be difficult to exaggerate the centrality of the cross in Paul’s theology (cf. Ro 3:23–25; 5:8–9; 14:7–9; 1 Co 1:18–25; 2:1–2; 15:3–4; 2 Co 5:14–15, 21; Gal 2:20–21; 5:11; 6:12; Eph 2:13–16; Php 2:6–8; 1 Th 4:14; 5:9–10). The cross will feature again in this letter in 1:22 and 2:11–15. For Paul, the cross graphically and persuasively demonstrates the depth of God’s love; the humble, radical obedience of Christ to the Father on behalf of humanity; and the seriousness of sin and the fallen human condition.

It pleased God, the “hymn” contends, to reconcile (i.e., to restore or restitute) all things to himself through Christ (cf. 1:22; Eph 2:16). That there existed a need for restitution between the Creator and the created presupposes a schism and a resulting chasm between the two. Paul believed that this division was due (in large part) to human rebellion against God and the good (see esp. 2:13–14, as well as 1:13, 21; 3:7; cf. Ro 3:23; 6:23; Eph 2:1, 5). The divine solution to the human predicament, Paul propounded, was to turn an instrument of execution (i.e., a Roman cross) into an implement of peace. Jesus, the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6; Eph 2:14), has effected peace between God and humanity through his bloody (i.e., sacrificial) death on the cross. As 1 Timothy 2:5–6 puts it, Christ Jesus, the One who “gave himself as a ransom for all people” (cf. Mk 10:45), is the “mediator between God and human beings” (TNIV). Where spiritual disconnect and disquiet exist, he comes to bring peace and reign in peace (3:15; cf. Ro 5:1; Eph 2:13–17).

Despite claims to the contrary, the scope of God’s reconciling work in Christ is universal. Be that as it may, reconciliation with God through Christ is not a foregone conclusion. The proclamation and reception of the gospel are the means through which people are reunited with God (cf. 1:5, 23). Those who embrace God’s grace through Christ in the word of the gospel are reconciled to God; those who choose not to do so remain estranged from God and stand outside the realm of his salvific rule (see 1:13, 21; 4:5).[2]

1:19–20. Jesus has supremacy over all things because all of God’s fullness resides in Jesus: He is the full embodiment of God’s attributes and saving grace. Through Jesus, God is able to reconcile to himself all things. Reconciliation is the removal of hostility and the restoring of friendly relations to parties who have been at war. Paul also calls reconciliation making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. What God has done is to move toward us to restore harmony, patch things up, cease hostilities, bury the hatchet, smoke the peace pipe, and heal the breach.[3]

19. Note, however, the words, “that he might have.” These words show that this high honor possessed by the Son was a matter of design, the Father’s good pleasure. Hence, the text continues, For in him he [God] was pleased to have all the fulness dwell.

This delight of the Father in the Son was evident even during the old dispensation, yes, even before the world was founded (Ps. 2:7, 8; John 17:5; Eph. 1:9). During the period of Christ’s sojourn on earth it manifested itself again and again (Matt. 3:17; 17:5; John 12:28). It was indeed God’s good pleasure that in his Son all the fulness should dwell. The powers and attributes of Deity were not to be distributed among a multitude of angels. The divine supremacy or sovereignty, either as a whole or in part, was not to be surrendered to them. On the contrary, in accordance with God’s good pleasure, from all eternity the plenitude of the Godhead, the fulness of God’s essence and glory, which fulness is the source of grace and glory for believers, resides in the Son of his love, in him alone, not in him and the angels. It dwells in him whom we now serve as our exalted Mediator, and it manifests itself both in Creation and Redemption.

Explanatory passages are:

John 1:16, “For out of his fulness we have received grace upon grace.”

Col. 2:3, “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are stored up.”

Col. 2:9, “For in him all the fulness of the godhead dwells bodily.”

20. Now both in Col. 2:9, 10 and here in 1:19, 20 the fulness which dwells in Christ is mentioned with a practical purpose. It is a source of blessing. Thus here in Col. 1:19, 20 we are told that it was the good pleasure or delight of God the Father that in the Son of his love all the fulness should dwell and through him to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens. Not only were all things created “through him,” that is, through the Son of God’s love (verse 16), but all things are also (in a sense to be explained) reconciled “through him” (verse 20). In both cases all things has the same meaning: all creatures without any exception whatever:

“There rustles a Name O so dear ’long the clouds,

That Name heaven and earth in grand harmony shrouds.”

This is the nearly literal translation of the first lines of a Dutch hymn:

“Daar ruist langs de wolken een lieflijke naam,

Die hemel en aarde verenigt te zaam.”

Some have objected to the lines for theological reasons.

Personally, I see no reason for rejecting the idea expressed in this poem. One might as well reject Col. 1:20! It is all a matter of interpretation. Thus, it is true, indeed that heaven and earth are not now united, and are not going to be united, in the sense that all rational beings in the entire universe are now with gladness of heart submitting themselves, or will at some future date joyfully submit themselves, to the rule of God in Christ. This universalistic interpretation of Col. 1:20 is contrary to Scripture (Ps. 1; Dan. 12:2; Matt. 7:13, 14; 25:46; John 5:28, 29; Phil. 3:18–21; 2 Thess. 1:3–10; and a host of other passages). It was Origen who was probably the first Christian universalist. In his youthful work De Principiis he suggested this thought of universal, final restoration for all. In his later writings he seems to imply it here and there, but obscures it somewhat by the suggestion of a constant succession of fall and restoration. He has, however, had many followers, and among them some have expressed themselves far more bluntly. Some time ago a minister told his audience, “In the end everybody is going to be saved. I have hope even for the devil.”

The real meaning of Col. 1:20 is probably as follows: Sin ruined the universe. It destroyed the harmony between one creature and the other, also between all creatures and their God. Through the blood of the cross (cf. Eph. 2:11–18), however, sin, in principle, has been conquered. The demand of the law has been satisfied, its curse born (Rom. 3:25; Gal. 3:13). Harmony, accordingly, has been restored. Peace was made. Through Christ and his cross the universe is brought back or restored to its proper relationship to God in the sense that as a just reward for his obedience Christ was exalted to the Father’s right hand, from which position of authority and power he rules the entire universe in the interest of the church and to the glory of God. This interpretation brings the present passage in harmony with the related ones written during this same imprisonment. Note the expression “the things on the earth or the things in the heavens” (or something very similar) not only here in Col. 1:20 but also in Eph. 1:10 and Phil. 2:10.

There is, of course, a difference in the manner in which various creatures submit to Christ’s rule and are “reconciled to God.” Those who are and remain evil, whether men or angels, submit ruefully, unwillingly. In their case peace, harmony, is imposed, not welcomed. But not only are their evil designs constantly being over-ruled for good, but these evil beings themselves have been, in principle, stripped of their power (Col. 2:15). They are brought into subjection (1 Cor. 15:24–28; cf. Eph. 1:21, 22), and “the God of peace (!) will bruise Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 16:20). The good angels, on the other hand, submit joyfully, eagerly. So do also the redeemed among men. This group includes the members of the Colossian church as far as they are true believers, a thought to which Paul gives expression in the following verses.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1992). Colossians (pp. 48–63). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Still, T. D. (2006). Colossians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 293–294). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Anders, M. (1999). Galatians-Colossians (Vol. 8, p. 284). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[4] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Colossians and Philemon (Vol. 6, pp. 78–82). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

June 18, 2017: Verse of the day


11 Isaiah (Isa 66:15–16) utilizes the figure of fire and chariots like a whirlwind to depict God’s coming in judicial anger against sinful humanity. Much of that imagery was probably drawn from texts portraying God as present in intense thunderstorms (e.g., Pss 18:9–15; 29:3–9).[1]

2:10–12a Elijah said that it was not in his power to grant the request, then added a condition that was also beyond his control: If Elisha would see him depart, then his request would be granted. As they walked on and talked, they were separated by a chariot of fire … with horses of fire. Then a whirlwind caught Elijah … up … into heaven in full view of Elisha. Elisha … cried out, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!” This may indicate that Elijah was the strongest weapon of God’s power and the best defense of Israel.[2]

2:11 chariot of fire and horses of fire. The horse-drawn chariot was the fastest means of transport and the mightiest means of warfare in that day. Thus, the chariot and horses symbolized God’s powerful protection, which was the true safety of Israel (v. 12). As earthly kingdoms are dependent for their defense on such military force as represented by horses and chariots, one single prophet had done more by God’s power to preserve his nation than all their military preparations.[3]

2:11 Elijah’s ascent prefigures the triumph of Christ over death and his ascension (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9).[4]

2:11 a fiery chariot with horses of fire Fire in the ot is associated with God’s presence (compare 2 Kgs 1:10, 12). The chariots and horses belong to Yahweh (Hab 3:8).[5]

2:11 chariots of fire and horses of fire. God’s heavenly attendants escort Elijah to heaven “by a whirlwind.” Fire appears several times in Elijah’s ministry as a sign of God’s all-consuming power (1:10, 12, 14; 1 Kin. 18:38; cf. 1 Kin. 19:12).[6]

[1] Patterson, R. D., & Austel, H. J. (2009). 1, 2 Kings. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 Samuel–2 Kings (Revised Edition) (Vol. 3, p. 814). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 392). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (2 Ki 2:11). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 648). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[5] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (2 Ki 2:11). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[6] Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (p. 516). Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries.

June 17, 2017: Verse of the day


Desperate Plea (9:20–24)

The boy’s father was about to get what he so desperately wanted, while the demon would get what he desperately did not want. In response to the Lord’s command, they brought the boy to Him. While he was still approaching Jesus (Luke 9:42), when he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a final, violent convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth.

While this dangerous display of vile demonic power was going on, Jesus calmly asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” The Lord was not asking, of course, for information that He did not already possess, since He is omniscient. He wanted to bear the father’s pain; to have the man tell Him the heartbreaking story of his son’s demonic oppression. The father was not coming to an impersonal force but to a person. The healing miracles Christ performed reveal the compassion of God and that He cares about human pain and suffering. Jesus allowed this suffering man to unfold his heart to the sympathetic and merciful Lord.

His reply, “From childhood,” indicates that his son had been in this terrible state all his life. It was not due to any sin on the part of either the father or the son but for the glory of God (cf. John 9:1–3). And though the demon had repeatedly tried to kill the boy by throwing him both into the fire (commonly used for heating and cooking) and into the water (such as wells and pools) to destroy him, God preserved him for this moment to bring His Son glory. The father’s desperate struggle to keep the demon from killing his son was about to be ended permanently.

Encouraged by the Lord’s sympathetic concern for his beleaguered, battered son, the man asked Him pleadingly, “If You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” Boētheō (help) literally means, “to run to the aid of one who cries for help.” His faith was weak and incomplete; he correctly perceived that Jesus was willing to deliver his son, but he was not sure that He had the power to help him. But he was desperate.

Jesus’ reply, “If You can?” was not a question but an exclamation of surprise. In light of His widespread ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons, how could His ability to cast this one out be in question? His further declaration, “All things are possible to him who believes,” is the lesson Jesus intended to teach. This was not the first time He had spoken of the importance of faith (cf. Mark 5:34–36; 6:5–6), nor would it be the last (cf. Mark 10:27; 11:22–24). The lesson that faith is essential to access the power of God applied to all the unbelieving crowd, the father, who was struggling to believe, as well as to the disciples, whose faith was weak and wavering. The disciples especially needed to learn this lesson, since after Christ’s death, they would need to access divine power through believing prayer (Matt. 7:7–8; 21:22; Luke 11:9–10; John 14:13–14; 15:7; 16:24; 1 John 3:22; 5:14–15).

Overcome with emotion, immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” He was honest enough to admit that though he believed in Jesus’ power, he struggled with doubt. Just as he pleaded in desperation for Jesus to deliver his son from the demon, so also did he plead for Jesus to help him be delivered from his unbelief. The Lord is not limited by imperfect faith; even the strongest faith is always mixed with a measure of doubt.[1]

23–24 Jesus immediately fixes on the first part of the father’s statement by repeating his words, “If you can?” Some interpreters take these words as elliptical, meaning something like, “As to your ‘if you can’ …” (so Cranfield, 302). But they are better read either as a question with the sense, “What do you mean ‘if I can’?” (so NLT), or as an exclamation, “ ‘If you can’ indeed!” (so France, 367). In both renderings, Jesus is pointing out that it is not a question of whether he has the power to heal the boy—he certainly does!—but whether the father has faith to believe that Jesus can. “Everything is possible for one who believes” (TNIV). Anything—even moving mountains (Mt 17:20)—is possible when faith is placed in an all-powerful God. This is because what is impossible for human beings is possible for God (Mk 10:27).

Jesus’ statement, which is really a promise, elicited faith from the father. “I do believe,” he exclaimed; but he recognized that his faith was far from perfect (v. 24). It was still mixed with unbelief. So in a beautiful display of honesty, he asked Jesus to help him overcome his unbelief. Calvin, 2:325, comments, “He declares that he believes and yet acknowledges himself to have unbelief. These two statements may appear to contradict each other but there is none of us that does not experience both of them in himself” (emphasis his).[2]

9:23–24. Jesus declared that he had the power to heal his son if the man had the faith. If you can?… Everything is possible for him who believes, he declared. Jesus did not mean that miracles depend on the strength of a person’s faith. We must pray always with God’s will in mind. The father confessed his belief immediately. It sprang from his heart. But he was aware that he was an imperfect human being; his recent lack of faith proved it. Therefore, he asked Jesus to heal him—the father—first. “Whatever is in me, Lord, that does not believe or want to believe, heal that first.” Like removing the log from our own eye, this request was not only appropriate but life-giving.[3]

24. Immediately the boy’s father cried out, I do believe, help my unbelief. Very striking is this answer in which the tempest-tossed father pours out his very heart. He was certain of two things: a. that he did indeed have the kind of faith Jesus demanded; and b. that this faith was imperfect, beset by fears and doubts. Only five words (in the original), but these five comprised a. a sincere profession of faith: “I do believe,” and b. an earnest, moving petition, “Help my unbelief,” meaning, “Continue moment by moment and day by day to come to my aid, so that I may overcome my unbelief.”[4]

9:24 The father expressed the paradox of faith and unbelief experienced by God’s people in all ages. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” We want to believe, yet find ourselves filled with doubt. We hate this inward, unreasonable contradiction, yet seem to fight it in vain.[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2015). Mark 9–16 (pp. 27–28). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] Wessel, W. W., & Strauss, M. L. (2010). Mark. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 845). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Cooper, R. L. (2000). Mark (Vol. 2, p. 149). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[4] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark (Vol. 10, p. 349). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[5] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1343). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.