Sola Scriptura

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is an expository lesson on the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  Ii is a slight variant of a lesson taught at Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Ames, Iowa on October 1, 2017.


This is a lesson on the first of the “Solas” (“Soli“) of the Protestant Reformation.  These phrases summarize 5 essential emphases of historical orthodox Christianity that were central to the Reformation: Sola Scriptura (or Scripture Alone), Sola Fide (or Faith Alone), Sola Gratia (or Grace Alone), Solus Christus (or Christ Alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (or Glory be to God Alone).

We begin with Sola Scriptura.  This has been called the “formal principle” of the Reformation.  It is the basis upon which the other Solas, the so-called “material principles” of the Reformation, are established.  At a most general level, Sola Scriptura answers a fundamental question of human thought “How do we know?”  “How do we know anything?”  And most centrally, “How do we know about life and death, righteousness and guilt, forgiveness and eternal life?”  What we can know about these central matters is that eternal life, comes through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of the triune God alone.  These latter 4 Solas together are what saves us and gives us life.  They are the material principles of the Reformation.  How we know them to be true is through the self-revelation of God, through God speaking to humanity.  And God has spoken both through His Son, and by His Spirit through the human authors of the 66 books of the Bible.   

Sola Scriptura asserts that our bedrock basis for knowing and believing is what the living God has said in the Holy Scriptures, and that there is no other equally authoritative source of knowledge.  Luther used the Latin phrase norma normans non normata to describe the Bible.  That is, Scripture is the “norming (or supreme) norm that cannot be normed.”  Other sources of godly wisdom exist, but Scripture rules.  Reason, tradition, and experience are inescapable, and when devout and subject to the Bible, are a great blessing.  But they do not rule.  Scripture alone rules.

Most specifically or narrowly, the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura was a rejection of creeping Roman assertion of primacy and authority during the middle ages, that by the time of the Reformation was explicitly claiming that her non-Scriptural/extra-Biblical traditions were a second ruling source of authority and binding on anyone who would be Christian.  Roman Catholicism further asserted that only its hierarchy was qualified to read or interpret Scripture, surely not ordinary people.  The Reformers completely rejected the validity of any such claims.

It is important to be clear about what Sola Scriptura is and is not, and perspective on the history of the Bible will help us in that.  God very directly gave His Law to Israel, His Spirit enabled the Old Testament prophets to speak for Him and write down His very words, and Hebrew history was recorded under the superintending of His Spirit.  God’s chosen people, led by the Holy Spirit, recognized those writings as God’s Word, and humanity was given the Old Testament canon.  At exactly the right time in history and consistent with the Old Testament revelation, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the second person of the Trinity, the Word of God in flesh, came and accomplished salvation for us at Calvary.  When He returned to the Father, He left us His Holy Spirit and His Apostles to preach and teach and evangelize.  He told the Apostles:

John 14:26  But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. 

For a period of roughly 30 years, those Apostles and their close associates then taught a common basic Christian Gospel, relying upon this promise of Jesus, using only the Old Testament as Scripture.  It was what they had for a written Word of God.  But as time passed, the Spirit inspired New Testament writers to write, and the collective churches led by the Spirit and having been taught by the Apostles, recognized the books of the New Testament as God-breathed and consistent with what they had been taught orally.  They acted consistent with

John 10:27  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 

and the full canon of Scripture, Old and New Testaments, was then recognized for what it is, God’s Word.

This unbroken line of God speaking and God’s people corporately recognizing the already-existing Word of God is important, since Rome’s claim became that she gave the world the Bible, and that in some ways it is her creature, subject to her authority.  This, the Reformers flatly rejected.  They insisted that the church is bound by the Scriptures, not the Scriptures by Roman interpretation and its extra-Biblical traditions.

It is vital to understand that in this, the Reformers were not innovators nor rebels nor individualists.  Their intent was to return to the view of Scriptural authority held for at least the first 300 years of church history, to roll back Roman encroachment on that understanding.  They did NOT believe in a “Solo” (personalized “just me and the Bible”) Scriptura nor in a nuda (“no creed but the Bible”) Scriptura.  They had a high view of the true church and its legitimate authority (derived from Scripture) and agreed with early church councils (like Nicaea and Chalcedon) that had worked out from Scripture important Christian doctrines and refuted heresy, identifying the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.  The Reformers simply insisted, in agreement with the early Christian church, that Scripture alone rules and is binding on the hearts and minds of all Christian believers.

So then, what are we going to do with this Reformation history concerning the central ruling place of the Bible, today 500 years later?  How can we bring honor to Christ as 2017 Protestant Christian believers in matters related to the place of the Holy Bible in life and faith?

My plan here is to look at some of what the Bible says about itself and to then consider with you some implications of those Scriptures for life in our time and place.

So, hear the first 3 verses of Genesis:

Genesis 1:1  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 

2  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 

3  And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 

From the very beginning, God has been speaking.  He spoke everything into existence.  His speech has always been both creative and absolutely authoritative.  Brothers and sisters, as we consider the Word of God, we must always remind ourselves that it is the expression of the great I AM, the Alpha and Omega, the One who was, and is, and is to come.  God’s Word is authoritative exactly because it is His Word, and He is Creator and Sustainer of all that is, and its rightful King and Judge.

This great God, the One who is the center of all things, spoke graciously to our first parents, Adam and Eve:

Genesis 2:16  And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 

17  but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

But there was another voice, and humanity in great tragedy chose to doubt the good Word of God, chose to believe Satan’s slander, and chose to disobey.

Genesis 3:1  Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 

Every bit of human misery traces back to this and what followed … it traces to failure to take God at His Word, and to then go our own human way, to do our own thing, and to act as if we know best.  Brothers and sisters, we humans are suckers and rebels.  Genesis 3 ought to not only makes us grieve and mourn the dishonoring of God and the breaking of His good creation, it should make us cringe and wonder that God wasn’t done with our race right then.  But in grace He continued to speak, and made merciful promises of a Redeemer for fallen humanity.  And He began to give us a written Word.  Listen to a bit of what Deuteronomy says about the event of God’s writing of the 10 Commandments on stone tablets:

Deueronomy 4:32  “For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. 

33  Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? 

God’s initial giving of a written Word was accompanied by cataclysmic thunder and lightning on Mount Horeb.  As Al Mohler has pointed out, there are two enormous miracles referred to in Deuteronomy 4:33.  First, God spoke to unworthy humans who deserved His silence.  Second, the hearers were not consumed upon hearing God’s Word and receiving the tablets.  God’s Word is holy and sacred.  It is not something to treat lightly or as if it were just another voice in our world full of competing voices and options.  It is absolutely unique, in that it reads us and infallibly tells us the way things are.  It exposes us and our real motives in ways nothing else can.  We simply must come to it in humility and reverence.  Hebrews puts it this way:

Hebrews 4:12  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 

13  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 

The people of Israel were taught about the nature of the Word of God in their wilderness journeys.  They learned that is it life-giving.  It is real food for our souls.  A few Chapters after the Deuteronomy account of the giving of God’s law we hear this:

Deuteronomy 8:3  And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. 

The Word of God is no optional add-on to already-full lives.  It’s not a multi-vitamin taken once a day to keep the doctor away.  It tells us that it’s the difference between starvation and health.  Really.  That’s what God says.  It’s the difference between starvation and health.  God’s Word is gracious and blessed and life-giving, and has the capacity to get inside us, and by the Spirit to sustain and perfect us.  The Spirit uses it to change our minds and hearts.  And that we desperately need.  The prophet Isaiah eloquently says it this way:

Isaiah 55:8  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 

9  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

10  “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 

11  so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

Christian, there is hope and comfort here for those who love God.  God’s Word cannot fail.  This Book is infinitely more than some textbook on philosophy or morality.  God has not simply given a technical manual for living or for operation of planet earth.  The Spirit of God applies the Word of God to hearts and minds and it is living and effective and accomplishes what God intends.  There is this in 1st Corinthians:

1Corinthians 2:12  Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 

13  And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 

The Apostle Paul understood that the very words the Spirit gave through him are God’s words, exactly the right words, words that uniquely convey God’s intent and holy will.  They are the words God’s Spirit uses to give us understanding of God’s mind.  They are precisely the correct words to give us life, to save our souls, to conform us to the image of Christ.  The first letter to the Thessalonians speaks of the ongoing work of the Word of God in sanctifying Christian believers:

1Thessalonians 2:13  And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 

Ultimately and most fundamentally, the Bible, God’s written Word, reveals the person of Christ to us, and teaches us the Gospel.  Sola Scriptura serves Solus ChristusHebrews opens with this:

Hebrews 1:1  Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 

2  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 

John’s Gospel opens with this:

John 1:1  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

2  He was in the beginning with God. 

3  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 

4  In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 

Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, is made known to You and me by His Spirit through the written Word of God.  We know who Jesus is and what He has done because God has told us in the Bible.  Because the Bible is authoritative we are not left guessing or in doubt about Him, and are not free to make up an imagined Jesus to suit our personal preferences or the current whims of society.  What it tells us about Christ is binding on all people.  What the Bible says about Christ, God says about Him.[1]  Because the Bible is both necessary and sufficient, we need not, and absolutely should not, look anywhere else for new revelation about Christ.  God in His mercy and providence has told us exactly what we need to know about Christ for salvation and real eternal life that begins in the here and now.  Because Scripture is literally the Word of God, we need not and should not be in the place of Adam and Eve, susceptible to the questions “Did God really say … ?” “Is it really true?”  What the Bible says about all things, and in particular what it says about our Savior, is completely reliable, completely without error.  Because the Bible is clear, it is not beyond ordinary people to humbly open it, hear what it says, believe and repent, and inherit eternal life that Christ opened for His people on Calvary.  Because God is immutable and the Bible is His Word, we know that what it tells us about Jesus is unchanging, always and forever relevant.  Because the omnipotent God of the Bible is the very definition of truth, His Word it is invincible and final.  What it says about the future is absolutely sure.  What it says about the return of Christ and His eternal rule and reign is as good as done.  Praise be to the I AM!

Brothers and sisters, there has been a lot of water over the dam since October 31, 1517.  Since 1517 Rome has drifted even far beyond its medieval position on Scriptural authority, specifically repudiating Sola Scriptura, adopting official doctrines declaring the pope infallible (and effectively a law unto himself), and officially taking positions like the immaculate conception of Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven, on the basis of supposed tradition over and against Scripture.  Since 1517 western evangelicals of most stripes have drifted to only a vague and highly personalistic doctrine of the Bible that really doesn’t much resemble that of the Reformers and instead more reflects the enlightenment movement’s promotion of individual autonomy and a fascination with self-interested democracy.  Since 1517 theological liberals have given up any pretense of viewing the Bible as anything but a bunch of quaint ancient writings riddled with errors and lacking any authority.  And what is probably most germane this morning is the nearly complete post-modern secularization of western society since 1517, a reality that has been incredibly accelerated by the absolutely suffocating digital presence of the voice of this world, represented in those awful smart phones we’re slaves to.

SO, we must face the question of “What then?”  To borrow a phrase from Francis Schaeffer of 35 years ago, in the light of what is true about Scripture and the time and place in which we live, “How should we then live?”  We’ll frame some answers in line with three more short New Testament passages:

1Peter 1:23you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 

24  for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, 

25  but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you. 


2Timothy 3:14  But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 

15  and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 

16  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 

17  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 


Colossians 3:1  If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 

2  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 


Christian people are saved by believing in the atoning work of Christ presented in the eternal Scriptures and repenting.  Those Scriptures are “breathed out” by God.  They are exactly what He says.  Having been raised from Spiritual death in and with Christ, we are then to seek and set our minds on things above.  Brothers and sisters, the same Word that saves us enables us to obey the Colossians 3:1-2 instruction regarding what we are to seek and value.  Therefore:

In our time and place in light of what is true about the Bible, let us trust the triune God of the Bible and those through whom He has spoken.  Let us be thankful for the prophets and Apostles who lead us to Christ.  Let us know that they speak for God and speak truly and let us be grateful.

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us love it and live in it.  Let us read and study, read and study, read and study, and repeat.  Hear what 19th century English Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon said in this regard. “It is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until at last, you come to talk in scriptural language, and your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord, so your blood is Bibline and the very essence of the Bible flows from you.”

Spurgeon’s phrase “eat into the very soul of the Bible” is startling.  But it’s consistent with the understanding given by Deuteronomy 8:3 and Jesus’s quotation of it at the temptation in the wilderness.  It’s consistent with a sense of desperate need and recognition that God’s Word is the difference between life and death.  It is far from a casual or polite nibbling at the Word.

Consider a bit of math.  There are slightly fewer than 1200 chapters in the Bible.  That means that at a pace of 25 chapters a week, a person can read the Bible through once per year.  It also means that at a pace of about 40 chapters a day, a person can read the Bible through in a month, or 12 times in a year.  I do not presume to prescribe here, but offer brief descriptions of two cases I have personally known.  I know a wonderful couple who for about 30 years took church youth groups through the Bible every year, giving wonderful Bible knowledge quizzes every Wednesday evening.  I can testify that that exercise was good for many young souls.  I also know a young international woman who believed and repented the first time she heard the Gospel preached in the US.  By the time I first met her, she had been saved for about 3 years.  By then, despite having had little access to good preaching, this young woman had a comprehensive Biblical knowledge, a deep love for Christ, the heart of an evangelist, and a sound orthodox Christian theology.  How?  Well, for her entire Christian life (while a graduate student) she was reading the Bible through monthly, and in Spurgeon’s words, the very essence of the Bible was flowing from her.  That should be our desire as well.

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us use the inspired categories and words of the Bible.  They are exactly the right ones.  The categories of post-modern society do not rule.  Scripture rules.  Good is what God says is good and evil is what He calls evil.  Bible words are the ones God uses to tell us the truth.  They ought to increasingly be on our lips.  As Spurgeon said, we should “come to talk in Biblical language.”

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us subject every thought and attitude to Christ as revealed in the Scriptures.  We ought to continually ask ourselves “Where did that thought come from?”  “Is that Biblical?”  “Can I imagine the Apostle Paul saying that?”  “Is that the Spirit of Christ?”  Reformer John Calvin wrote: “We ought surely seek from Scripture a rule for thinking and speaking.  To this yardstick all thoughts of the mind and words of the mouth must be conformed.”  Our environment is one where society says every person is the judge of all and that all is relative, nothing is “true” except “for me.”  The great evil in our time is to suggest that there is any absolute that rules outside my whims. Those are the thoughts of the world, not of Christianity.  Christian thoughts are ones that Spurgeon described as “flavored with the words of the Lord.”

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us be genuinely humble as we approach the Scriptures and orthodox Christian doctrine derived from them.  The Scriptures are not obscure and individuals have the right to interpret them.  But we do not have the right to misinterpret them.  In this, the church present and through ages past is our check against our own arrogant foolishness.  R. C. Sproul put it this way: “Although tradition does not rule our interpretation, it does guide it. If upon reading a particular passage you have come up with an interpretation that has escaped the notice of every other Christian for two-thousand years, or has been championed by universally recognized heretics, chances are pretty good that you had better abandon your interpretation.”

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us allow Scripture to dictate our priorities and concerns.  This is the basic philosophical question of “value.”  The Scripture tells us what matters, what deserves our attention.  The world says otherwise, but let us love the LORD our God with all our hearts souls minds and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves, and use our Master’s resources, including our time and mental and physical energy, accordingly.

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us measure the world we live in by Scripture and not vice versa.  Christ called us His people to be salt and light, a city set on a hill, not to blend into the cultural landscape by giving Biblical truth a facelift or accommodating the spirit of the time.

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us glory in the Gospel message preserved for us in the Bible and love and obey the Savior it shows us.  We have been given a wonderful true reliable message of redemption.  We have been given real food for the soul.  Let us constantly rejoice in that.  Thanks be to the one true God who speaks.

Let me pray for us in closing.

Father, we give You thanks for Your Word.  We agree with the Psalmist that Your law is perfect, reviving the soul; Your testimony is sure making wise the simple; Your precepts are right, rejoicing the heart; Your commandment is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of You is clean, enduring forever; Your rules are true and righteous altogether.  May we walk before You carefully and gratefully in the light of these.

In Christ we pray, Amen.


[1] B.B. Warfield is often quoted as saying “The Bible is the Word of God in such a way — that when the Bible speaks, God speaks.”  St. Augustine long before him said much the same thing.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.


Some Suggested Reading and Listening (in no particular order)

Barrett, Mathew.  God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016.

Sproul, R. C.  Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2005.

Mathison, Keith.  The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2001.

Kistler, Don, ed.  Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible.  Sanford, Florida: Reformation Trust Publishing, 1995.

Grudem, Wayne.  Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.  (See Chapters 2-8)

The Cambridge Declaration (on the website of The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals)

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (on the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals)

Paul Washer 2017 G3 Conference Sermon

Al Mohler Sermon/Conference Talk

Another Al Mohler Sermon/Conference Talk

R. C. Sproul Lecture

Steven Lawson Lecture

A Bible Lesson on Romans 1

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

October 31, 1517 is traditionally celebrated as the date of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg.  In some sense, this October might thus be thought of as the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  Luther’s study of the letter to the Romans was instrumental in him coming to understand the doctrine of justification by faith.  It thus seems appropriate to begin a series of lessons on the book of Romans.

Paul wrote Romans to a church that he didn’t know personally and had no part in founding.  Who took the Gospel to Rome we don’t know.  The best guess is that it was the Jewish pilgrims mentioned in Acts 2:15 on the Day of Pentecost.  The letter was probably written in about 55-57 AD, likely from Corinth at the end of Paul’s 3rd missionary journey, as he wants the Gentile churches of Asia to prepare an offering to be taken to the impoverished Jewish brethren in Jerusalem.  At the time of writing, the church is thought to be mixed Gentile/ Jewish with probably more Gentiles than Jews.

Romans is the most theological of Paul’s letters.  It was perhaps written to introduce Paul and his ministry to the Romans.  Paul says in the letter that he intends to visit (and perhaps use Rome as a jumping off place to carry the Gospel into Spain).  Some speculate that it is a kind of “last will and testament” of the Apostle’s theology.  To some degree it may have been addressed to a mixed Jewish/Gentile congregation to help them sort out how the Jewish law fits with the Christian Gospel and how the 2 groups are to get along in the church.  The discussion of the “strong and weak” in the letter may indicate frictions between the two groups.

The first 7 verses of the book follow the standard form of a salutation for letters of the time.  There are 1) the author, 2) the addressee, and 3) a greeting.  Paul makes this into a single 7-verse sentence, loaded with his characteristic digressions and asides.

Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 

Paul calls himself a bond-servant or slave completely at his master’s disposal.  Jesus is Lord/owner/the one who calls the shots for Paul.  In some ways this is a low position, but most truly it is the highest honor to be a servant of God.  This is what the Old Testament prophets called themselves.

Paul was “called.”  This whole thing wasn’t Paul’s choosing or idea.  It wasn’t something that he applied for or chose, it’s what God assigned to him.  That, in truth, is the way it is for all of us.  We may not be called as apostles, but it’s God who ordains us to be what He makes us to be.

Paul was “an apostle.”  The Jewish idea of an apostle was one legally authorized to act the representative with the full authority of the one who commissioned him.

Paul was “set apart.”  That’s interesting word choice.  The word “Pharisee” meant to be “set apart” from Gentiles and their evil ways.  By God’s doing, Paul, former Pharisee, is now set apart to work for the salvation of those self-same Gentiles.

Paul was set apart “for the Gospel ‘of God’.”  The origin of the Gospel is God Himself.

 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 

 God “promised beforehand.”  This is not “plan B” or some afterthought on God’s part.  This is God’s plan from eternity past.  This is in continuity with the entirety of the Biblical record.  The Old Testament Scriptures attest to the Gospel of Christ.

3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh

This is the good news concerning God’s Son.  The substance of the Gospel is Jesus, who had a human lineage from King David.

4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 

This is in no sense a statement that before the resurrection Jesus was less than the Son of God.  Rather, it’s a statement that His identity was made public and evident to all through the resurrection.  Jesus, who was meek and lowly during His earthly ministry, was given God’s powerful affirmation in the resurrection.  Jesus Christ/Messiah/Anointed One is “our Lord.”

5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 

“through Him” and “for the sake of His name” Paul received grace and was commissioned as an Apostle.  Paul’s consistent focus is Jesus and His honor and His will.  The focus is not Paul’s honor or desires, or even what we would call Paul’s “needs.”  The goal of the Gospel is the honor of Christ.

Paul received “grace.”  Often this word has the meaning “God’s undeserved favor given to sinful men.”  It is also a synonym for power/ability from God.  Here it is power from God to carry out the commission from God to be an Apostle, to call people from among the Gentiles to Faith in Jesus.

The apostleship Paul has is to bring about “the obedience of faith.”  For Paul, true faith always produces obedience to God and His rule.  There is no separation in Paul’s mind between faith and obedience.

This obedience is “among all the nations.”  The scope of the Gospel is all nations.  It’s not just for Jews, but Gentiles as well.

6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

This “all nations” is “including you” (Romans) “who are called.”  Paul’s emphasis here is upon God’s sovereignty and initiative in salvation.  Stott sums up the first 6 verses by saying the good news is “the Gospel of God, about Christ, according to Scripture, for the nations, unto the obedience of faith, and for the sake of the Name.”

7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Romans are “called to be saints.”  “saint” comes from Hebrew and Greek roots meaning to be set apart or Holy.  A saint is a saint not because of personal merit but because of God’s love and call.  Paul is applying this Old Testament term to the mixed Gentile/Jewish congregation, and in the process emphasizing that a world-wide church has been ordained to have the kind of place in God’s workings that  was formerly only Israel’s.  God’s amazing kindness to us is that rebellious fallen people are called by God to be in relationship with Him.”

Paul wishes them “grace and peace.”  grace/”charis” is New Testament/Christian language/thought.  It summarizes the Gospel in a word.  peace/”shalom” is Old Testament/Hebrew language/thought.  It’s wholeness and well-being.  Both grace and peace come only from God through Jesus.

Verses 8-15 now provide Paul’s readers some more background on himself and his occasion for writing. They describe his attitude towards this church that he’s never visited, and speak of his longing to visit.

8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 

This faith of the Roman Christians is reported over the all the world.  It must therefore be something that is tangible, with concrete visible consequences.

Matthew 5:14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

When Paul says “your faith is proclaimed” he’s probably saying “the Christian Faith as you hold it.”  Their zeal for Christ and love for each other was evident to all.

Romans 1:9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 

10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 

Paul says, “God is my witness.”  This is almost an oath.  No kidding, Paul prays constantly for the Romans.  Remember that he doesn’t have a history with this particular group, but his concern for the church of Jesus Christ extends beyond the people that he can think of as “his” converts.

Paul’s description his devotion to God is to “serve with my spirit/serve with my whole heart.”  There is nothing either selfish or tentative in Paul’s Christianity.  21st century Christians almost always talk about Christianity from human perspectives, in terms of human desires, as if humans were the focus.  Paul never talks that way.  His perspective is God’s and not his situation or circumstances.

Paul hopes to “at last succeed in coming to you.”  It seems as if the Romans might have been aware that Paul had intended to visit Rome before this.  Notice how humble is Paul’s asking even to be allowed to visit Rome on behalf of the Gospel.  He’s not presuming to tell God how things should be, or even to say that he knows for certainty the will of God in the specific matter.

11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—

12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 

There is real humility in Paul’s attitude toward other believers.  He IS indeed the Apostle, the missionary, God’s appointed servant and one of the most brilliant men of all history.  But he recognizes that a visit will benefit both the Romans and himself.  No Christian, not even Paul, stands above or outside the church.

13 I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 

14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 

The Apostle is “under obligation.”  He is in debt in the sense that Christ has given him something most precious and commissioned him to pass it to others.  He is in debt to others until he passes to them what Christ has put in his trust.  His preaching is not something optional, but rather a sacred duty.  Barclay’s rendering is, “… because of all it is my duty to give to them, I am under obligation to all sorts of men.” … “Greeks and barbarians” are both the cultured and the non-cultured.  Stott: “Good news is for sharing.  We are under obligation to make it known to others.”

15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

With verse 15 the introduction is over.  Paul comes to the statement of his theme or main thesis that is going to be developed in subsequent pages.  Verses 16 and 17 contain the heart of Paul’s understanding of the Gospel.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 

“I am not ashamed.”  Humanly speaking, Paul has plenty of pressure to cop out.  He’s in a pagan world, writing to people in the power center of the known world about an apparently obscure Jewish carpenter/rabbi that people think is dead and gone.  He’s insisting that this Jesus is not only resurrected and alive, but is the only means of salvation, the only way to God.  But Paul is not ashamed.  May we be like him!

The Gospel is “the power of God.”  The word “dynamite” has the same root as the word rendered “power” here.  But God’s power is not of earthly origin or like earthly power.  In fact, it is in opposition to earthly power.

The Gospel is the power of God “for salvation.”  This is for salvation from the wrath and judgment of God, for salvation from sin and death, for salvation to and for the glory for which the entire created universe is longing.  It is power of God for eternal life.

This is “to everyone.”  This is not a matter that is for some and against others.  The offer is a universal offer.

It is to everyone who “believes.”  The Greek tense here means that this is an ongoing thing.  This is “believes/has faith.”  Biblical faith is absolute trust/belief /commitment/total acceptance.  It means being utterly sure of the truth and staking all in time and eternity on that truth.  It is trusting in/relying upon/abandoning oneself to God in response to the concrete acts of kindness of God.  It’s the radical choice to entrust one’s destiny to God.

This is “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”  In what sense is “first” to be understood?  The Jews were given the first opportunity/priority but weren’t given jurisdiction.  They don’t own it.  They were chosen first in time, but it’s not limited to them.  Apparently the Greek has an untranslatable participle in this construction that implies a fundamental equality between Jews and Gentiles.

17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

“the righteousness of God” is “right standing with God.”  This carries the sense of acquitting or conferring a righteous status on someone.  It is being “in the right” with God, being properly related to God in spite of our moral imperfection.  God treats a sinner as if he or she had not been a sinner at all.  Instead of treating us as criminals to be obliterated, He treats us as children to be loved.

This is “of God.”  It’s from God.  It’s not on the basis of what man does, but on the basis of what God has done.

This “is revealed,” it “is (being) reveled.”  The righteousness from God is being revealed in the Gospel.  It has a dynamic impact.

It is “from faith.”  That is, what produces the right standing is (from the human side) reliance upon God.

It is “from faith for faith.”  It is thoroughly about faith, from first to last.  There is no other possible basis for right standing with God.

“The righteous shall live by faith” is a quote from the prophet Habakkuk.

Habakkuk 2:4 Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.

Barclay said, “It is the man who is in right relationship with God as a result of his faith who will live.”  Edwards wrote, “It is the one who is justified by faith who will live.”  The idea is that God grants life to those who are first made right through faith.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

As it is, humanity is “in the wrong” with God, morally bankrupt and under the righteous judgment of God, deserving His wrath, desperately needing His mercy and pardon.  If the universe is going to be a moral universe and a sane place, evil must be dealt with.  That inevitable, upright, appropriate, just dealing with evil is God’s wrath.  This wrath, says Paul, is not something that is exclusively reserved for the end of time, but is daily revealed in our world.  Sin has its awful consequences, and we see them all around us.  And those consequences come to humans not by accident.  We choose them.  We choose God’s wrath against sin.  We’re not ignorant, because light is unavailable.  We’re ignorant because we actively dodge the light.  Human ignorance of the ways and law of God is a deliberate ignorance.  We stifle the truth about God because we don’t want to submit to it.  We don’t like its implications about His claims to our obedience.

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.

Paul does not intend that we hear him say that exhaustive knowledge about God (or even knowledge adequate for salvation) is available in nature without His revelation of Himself.  But there is enough that is plain in creation to set an honest heart on the right track, seeking to know Him and His will.  And that is not the path humans typically take.

20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

There is enough light evident in the creation to keep anyone who is honestly seeking God from worshiping anything in creation.  And so if we dodge the light, fail to embrace the truth about Him that is available to us, we are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

The right response of a heart that sees God is humility and thankfulness for life and breath.  The right response is worship.  Where there is none of that, there is increasing darkness.  That’s true in the large.  That’s true individually.  We are personally either moving toward the light or into darkness.  Human societies are either moving toward the light or further into darkness.  A person or society that purposely suppresses knowledge of God will experience increasing confusion, futility, chaos, and darkness.

22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,

“they became fools” in the Biblical sense.  They were not unintelligent, but morally obtuse and unable to tell what is genuinely good from that which is genuinely bad.

23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Humans who are “too clever” to worship their Creator will, in the end, worship themselves or something (e.g. as silly as the environment or political ideology or social “progress”) of their own imagination.  Humans will replace the true and living God that they cannot control and who deserves their worship and obedience with something less demanding that they can control.  Moderns pretend to laugh at ancient idols, and then turn and make their own.

What follows here are six of the most painful-to-read verses in all of Scripture.  They describe the horrible downward spiral from man’s special place as created in God’s image for fellowship with Him to degradation to the lowest possible state.  This is what inevitably follows from failure to worship God.

24  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 

“God gave them up …”  These are bone-chilling horrifying words.  God let them have what they wanted.  We sometimes think of God’s judgment on sin as only coming in the form of fire and brimstone falling on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah or the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.  But the worst of it is that He draws back and lets humanity wallow in its self-chosen misery.  Individual lives come unglued, societies crack and devolve into awful places to live, as fallen depraved human nature is given free reign.

Humans assert their independence from their Creator and declare that they have the right to use their bodies as they please.  They dishonor and misuse them and deface the image of God in them.

25  because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 

God’s giving humans over to their corrupt desires is “because” of their exchange of reality for the old lie of Satan, that they can themselves be at the center of things, that they can serve their own wishes and desires.  How could it be otherwise?  What’s to be done?  Like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, God lets humanity go down the path to misery that it chooses.

26  For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 

27  and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 

As Creator, God has the right to declare what is and is not proper behavior and proper use of our bodies.  He has the right to tell and has told us that some passions are “dishonorable” and some acts “shameless.”  He has the right to call some relations “natural” and some “contrary to nature.”  In our time, we have twisted the meaning of the word “natural” to be something like “what I choose to believe about myself.”  Paul isn’t at all intending such a meaning.  He is instead speaking of being consistent with obvious function.  And he plainly says that belligerent willful improper use of our bodies according to wrong passions is evidence of a refusal to worship God as Creator, and that it brings His judgment and “giving over” to corruption.

28  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 

Bad thinking about God, failure to acknowledge His lordship, dodging the light of the common grace of general revelation about His person and nature leads to a debased mind, and all manner of awful behavior.  Some has been mentioned in verses 26 and 27.  In verses 29 through 31 Paul names 21 other kinds of awful conduct that follows.

29  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 

“Unrighteousness” is wickedness or unjustness and is opposed to God’s law.  “Evil” is a general term for pervasive badness.  “Covetousness” is greed or passion for more, particularly that which is another’s and a desire to promote oneself at the expense of another.  “Malice” is depravity or deliberate wickedness.  “Envy” is jealousy over the fact that others have something.  “Murder is the outward act of taking a life that springs from inner hatred for or despising of another.  “Strife” is contention, quarreling or wrangling. “Deceit” is treachery by words that tricks another for one’s own gain.  “Maliciousness” is to be habitually set against others for their harm.  A “gossip” is one who “whispers” to harm the reputation of others.

30  slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 

A “slanderer” does what a gossip does, but in the open.  He or she defames others in public.  If one will slander other humans, he or she is not far from slandering the God who made those humans, despising/”hating” his or her Maker.  The Greek word behind “insolent” here is hubris and intends a kind of pride that flaunts itself against God.  “Haughtiness”/arrogance is an attitude of personal superiority that puts oneself above others.  “Boasting” is the attempt to gain the admiration of others based on claims to have what one doesn’t actually possess.  “Inventors of evil” is a horrible description of ones whose creativity in doing wrong far exceeds the acts of those around them.  They do evil things that others don’t even think of.  In this list of awful sins is “disobedience to parents,” something that in our time is largely ignored if not glorified.

31  foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 

“Foolishness” is moral foolishness, not lack of intelligence and it is a moral wrong as much as it is a state, as it has its origin in turning from the light one is given about the universe and the will of God.  “Faithlessness” here concerns “breaking faith,” i.e. in failing to follow through with one’s commitments.  God is completely faithful, never breaking His promises.  This evil is to be nothing like Him.  To be “heartless” is to be without natural affection.  “Ruthlessness” is to be without mercy.

All of this is simply horrid, and the Apostle lays out with crystal clarity that it has its origin in a refusal to honor God and give Him thanks.

32  Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

The final step in this awful spiral into chaos and degradation is not even the practicing of all manner of evil, but coming to depraved assertion that evil is good.  It is the substitution of a corrupt morality for God’s morality.  This is final assault on the very character of God.  God’s will and law are consistent with His person.  To declare what is wrong is right is to declare His person to be wrong.  It’s ultimate and complete rebellion.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on Psalm 46

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This lesson is a slight variant of one taught February 25, 2017 at Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Ames, Iowa.

This morning we pause from our Colossians study and consider a glorious Old Testament text, Psalm 46.  We mediated last Sunday on Colossians 1:5 and the wonderful “hope laid up laid up for you in heaven” belonging to Christian people in the Gospel of Christ.  This Psalm provides a look at a different facet of that same core reality.  It teaches us about the guarantee of our hope.

Psalm 46 was the inspiration for Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress.”  Its occasion is not stated or known, but the tone makes clear that it was written in a time of trouble.  As such, it stands as a grand and substantial statement of faith in God, and as encouragement to us as things around us seem to be coming unglued.  Luther said “We sing this psalm to the praise of God, because God is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves His church and His word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all assaults of the world, the flesh, and sin.”  Thank God for Psalm 46.

What we will do this morning is this.  I’m going to start by admitting together with you our context as we come to this Psalm.  Then, in response and contrast I’ll read the text aloud and offer a brief prayer.  Then we’ll meditate on Psalm 46 a phrase at a time.

So, where are our heads as you and I as we come to this text?  Well, Christian people are the most realistic people in the world.  So … we know that the world is broken and there is no hope of humans fixing it.  We know that we and ones we care about are going to experience pain and potentially know real disaster.  We know there is the possibility of withering debilitating illness, and some of us and those we love are living with it right now.  We know that there is no certainty in our national economy.  We know that our national politics are full of acrimony and profound selfishness and coarseness.  We know that the Christian heritage of western nations is fading and awful practices like the killing of unborn children are widely sanctioned.  We know that believing people around the world are suffering horrible persecution for faith in Christ.  And we know (or will know in a few years) that our bodies are decaying, and that life on earth is short and full of trouble.  All this is true, but not at all the main point.  This is the temporal bad news.

Please stand and I’ll read the eternal good news that IS the main point, and pray, and then we’ll work on the text.  Christians, hear Psalm 46.

Psalm 46:1  To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

2  Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

3  though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.   Selah

4  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

5  God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.

6  The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.

7  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.   Selah

8  Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth.

9  He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;  he burns the chariots with fire.

10  “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”

11  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Father, we thank You for Your holy Word.  We thank You for telling us what is true about You, and Your world, and us.  We ask to have hearing ears and hearts to rejoice.  We pray that You will be honored as we meditate on Your Word.  Help me, I ask, as I speak to do so with humility and grace, that Your people would be encouraged, I pray in Jesus.  Amen.

It has been a great pleasure to prepare to teach Psalm 46.  It has done my soul good.  In some ways, Psalm 46 is completely straightforward, saying what it says.  If you want a brief summary of its message, you can take the first and last verses.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  …  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  This is the guarantee of our hope.  This is the “plain facts” message of the Psalm.  But rolling it over in our minds a phrase at a time can serve to make those facts bloom into heart-felt praise.  So let’s do that.

The Psalm breaks naturally into 3 stanzas, separated by the “Selah’s.”  Derek Kidner titled 1-3 “God in the tumult,” 4-7 “God in His city,” and 8-11 “God exalted in the earth.”

First, God in the tumult:

Psalm 46:1  To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

From one perspective, God cares for His people in two ways.  He first protects His own from much trouble and harm, and second, in the trouble and difficulty that He does allow, He is there with them, being their only help and hope. He is both refuge and strength in those senses.

From a slightly different perspective, “refuge” speaks of external protection.  It alludes to a stronghold into which we can flee in a time of danger.  It is a fortress, a high tower, a shelter, or fort.  He is our refuge.

“strength” speaks of internal empowerment.  God gives courage to the weak heart.  Barnes put it this way, ” God is the source of strength to those who are weak and defenseless … we may rely on his strength ‘as if’ it were our own … we may feel as safe in his strength as though we had that strength ourselves. We may make it the basis of our confidence.”   God protects His own and is with them in trouble.  In both the external and the internal, He is their only help.

The fact that God is a “present” help speaks of His accessibility and willingness to be found, and His adequacy for all situations. He has been found to be and always continues to be “enough” in trouble.  And this is “very” much the case.  This is a superlative.  It is emphatically or exceedingly true that He aids His people.  He is a very present help in trouble.  And that being the case

2  Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

3  though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

Therefore, because of who He is and how He acts, we will not fear.  We will not fear, no matter what, period.  Nothing will cause us to fear.  Brothers and sisters, what is described in verses 2 and 3 is the most fundamental trouble that could possibly be, the complete unhinging of the natural order, the very reversal of God’s work on the 3rd day of creation.  It is the apparent undoing of what Paul tells us about Christ’s sustaining work in Colossians 1:17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  When it seems like pre-creation chaos is coming back, we will not fear.  When the most solid things we know of in this physical world, the earth and the mountains, are rocked and the sea threatens to engulf them, we will not fear.  We will not fear, because God is our refuge and strength, an accessible and fully sufficient help.

Think about this.  If it were that there was literally no place to stand, the whole of God’s universe were seemingly to become unglued … the Psalmist says that God’s people would not fear.  Now, put our temporal concerns (the kind of things I mentioned before we read the Psalm) up against this picture.  They are nothing in comparison.  Ought these troubles come to our minds?  Sure.  We’re human.  But is there reason they should control us, that we ought to genuinely fear?  No.  Our troubles and others even more serious, times even (as Barnes put it) ” … when commotions and revolutions are occurring in the earth, and when everything sacred, true, and valuable seems to be in danger” will not cause God’s people to fear.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.  Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.

Now, “God in His city”:

4  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

In verse 3, there is chaos, and the wild sea water threatens to swallow up even the mountains.  But put up against that is this wonderful picture of a life-giving river of water in the city of God, Jerusalem.  But from the perspective of a Christian, it’s more than Jerusalem, it’s the church of the redeemed, and eventually the new Jerusalem, God’s heaven.  The river in it is from God Himself, and God is in the midst of the city.

Revelation 21:1  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

2  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

3  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

4  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”


Revelation 22:1  Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb

2  through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

3  No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.


Psalm 46:4  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

5  God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.

How is it that Old Testament Jerusalem or the New Testament church of God is immovable/unshakable?  How can there be stability when the very foundations of the earth seem to be coming unglued?  It is that God is in the midst of her.  He is her Chief Resident.  That’s a very present and comforting reality.

In verse 2, the very mountains will be moved, and in verse 6 the word rendered “totter” is the same word as this “moved” in verse 5.  The mountains and the kingdoms will be moved, but the city of God stands immovable, because He is in her.

God will help her “right early”/”when the morning dawns.”  This is wonderful poetry and reminder of wonderful deliverances God has given His people.  In Exodus 14:27 it was at the break of day when the Red Sea rushed back in to drown Pharaoh’s army.  In 2Kings 19:35 when Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem got up in the morning, they found 185,000 dead Assyrian soldiers outside the city walls in their siege camp.  And it was early in the morning on the first day of the week that the women went to the tomb and found it empty in Luke 24:1.

Of course, God’s working is not limited to the early morning hours, but there is something especially beautiful and moving in pictures of the misery of a dark time fading away and the dawn bringing evidence of His deliverance.

6  The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.

From chaos in the natural world to political upheaval and war and international conflict, none of that shakes the city of God.  Worldwide economic turmoil and the dissolution of governments do not shake the city of God.

But the inherent instability of evil implies tumult/the raging of nations and the tottering of kingdoms.  And it brings the judgment of God.  Sin inevitably brings its own misery and additionally God punishes sin.  God spoke and the world came into existence.  When He speaks in judgment, the earth melts away.  But none of this touches the church of God.

7  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

The LORD of hosts is with us.  This is Jehovah Sabaoth, the I AM of armies/hosts.  He is with us. Luther: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.  Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.  Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He.  Lord Sabaoth, his name.  From age to age the same.  And He must win the battle.”

The God of Jacob is our “fortress.”  Some versions render this “refuge,” but it’s not the same word as in verse 1.  This one implies an inaccessible height.  It is then something like “high stronghold” down from which God’s people look unscathed by what is going on below.

It is the God of “Jacob” mentioned here.  The point of this phrase is the nature of God, not the person of Jacob.  Jacob was not the model saint.  It took him a lifetime to really learn to trust God.  But He was God’s, chosen of God and ultimately loving God.  And God was with Him as He is with us.  The covenant-keeper was God, not Jacob.

The “LORD of hosts” is God’s title of divine power, the “God of Jacob” is His title of covenant relationship, and “God with us” is His name Emmanuel.  In this verse, His immeasurable power and His Fatherly love stand next to each other and we’re reminded of the same double truth that Eric pointed out in his sermons on Ruth.  He is both powerful and full of grace and covenant affection toward His people.

Now comes “God exalted in the earth.”  This is a vision of things to come.  It pictures God’s power over the whole warring world.

8  Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth.

Come, behold … come perceive/behold with the eye of a prophet.  What?  Come see God’s power to destroy!!!  That jars the sensibilities of post-moderns who are wrongly sure that the fact that God is love means that if we will just all hold hands and sing Kumbaya, everything will be rosy.  But this is the truth.

Kidner put it this way: “Although the outcome is peace, the process is judgment.  The reassuring words ‘he makes wars cease …’ are set in context not of gentle persuasion, but of a world devastated and forcibly disarmed.”  There will eventually be peace on earth, but not until Jesus returns in great power and judgment.  The I AM will deal with evil, and there will be peace.

9  He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.

Boice says “God is not a peace negotiator, He is a conqueror.”  He imposes peace.  He breaks the bow, shatters the spear, and burns the chariots.  He disarms His foes and those who would attack His people.  There is the image here of the ruined army of Sennacherib and a siege camp in shambles becoming plunder for inhabitants of Jerusalem, protected by the LORD of hosts.  This is the image of the burning remains of an armored column decimated by superior air power as it attempts to withdraw from a city it has occupied.

10  “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”

This is a command not primarily to God’s people but to His enemies.  The “be still” is not “be quiet and contemplative,” but rather “Quiet! Leave off! Enough!” “Drop your weapons and desist!”

Again quoting Kidner: ” … (it) is not in the first place comfort for the harassed, but a rebuke to a restless and turbulent world”  It’s much like the command of Jesus to the storm and lake “Peace! Be still!”  Know that I am God.  I will be exalted among the nations.  I will be exalted in the earth.  Stop your noise and recognize your Master.  Let God be God.

The Psalmist then comes back to where he was in verse 7.

11  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

The fundamental here, the guarantee of Christian hope, is the presence with us of the promise-making and promise-keeping all-powerful God of creation and redemption.  He is our refuge and strength, a very present help in temporal trouble.  He is with us in all things, even to the end of the created order.  From His throne springs the eternal river whose streams make glad the city of God.

We are going to end this service by singing “A Mighty Fortress.”  Let’s do this with real rejoicing and energy.  This is very good news.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on Psalm 91

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This post is a slight variant of a lesson taught at Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Ames, Iowa, August 13, 2017.

Psalm 91 is one of the very most grand and memorable of the Psalms.  It just sings.  It does good to the souls of Christian believers.  I have been most blessed to live in it this week as I have prepared to teach.  I commend it to your meditation in the coming week.  The Psalm is, in short, encouragement that despite any appearances to the contrary, the basic safety of God’s people is never in doubt.

Calvin said “In this Psalm we are taught that God watches over the safety of His people, and never fails them in the hour of danger.  They are exhorted to advance through all perils, secure in the confidence of his protection.”

Derek Kidner called this “a Psalm for danger.”  He spoke of it as a Psalm “for times of being under attack or for openly opposing the forces of evil.”  You and I are rarely in the kind of open life-and-death-conflict faced by Moses or David or Calvin or Luther, or our persecuted modern brethren in closed countries.  Our temporal dangers are comparatively small.  But we can rejoice that this Psalm is universally true and relevant in all of life’s dangers, big and small.

Let me pray and then we’ll work through this Psalm line by line.

Father, we thank You for Your Holy Word.  Thank You for revealing to us who You are and who we are.  Encourage Your people as we meditate on this Psalm we pray in Christ’s name, Amen.

Psalm 91 divides into 3 sections according to changes of “person.”  Verses 1-2 Kidner called “My refuge” and the Psalmist speaks of himself.  Verses 3-13 might be called “Your refuge,” as the Psalmist speaks to (singular) “you.”  Calvin understood the Psalmist to be speaking to himself in these verses, preaching to His own heart.  But most commentators hear the Psalmist speaking to others in these middle verses.  He is speaking to us, one at a time.  Verses 14-16 might be called (again using Kidner’s language) “God’s pledge.”  God Himself speaks in promise to His people.

Consider with me the first two verses, “My refuge.”

Psalm 91:1  He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.

2  I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

The Psalmist states both the general truth in verse 1 and his personal experience and intention in verse 2.  God protects His own, and the Psalmist can personally attest to this.  The word rendered “to” in verse 2 could be rendered “concerning.”  That is it might be, “I will say ‘concerning’ the LORD.”  The ESV rendering emphasizes the Psalmist’s person-to-person experience with God.  He will speak “to” God.  The alternative has a grandeur about it, with the force of a kind of legal proclamation to all the listening universe.  In either case, this is far more than rote form.  This is personal.

God’s people like the Psalmist, “remain/live/abide” in Him.  They find continual dwelling/hospitality in Him.  They trust Him.  They live in Him and they rely on Him.

Look at the ways that the Psalmist describes God’s gracious protection in these two great verses.  He’s shelter, offering protection.  He’s shade from a withering desert sun, offering refreshment.  He’s “myrefuge/a place the Psalmist personally retreats to.  He’s a fortress, and in fact is the Psalmist’s fortress.  Shelter, shade, refuge, fortress: God is the complete embodiment of protection and relief for those who come to Him.

Look too at the names of God used in these verses.  He’s the Most High/the all-ruling God.  If this is true, then what threat can stand against Him?  He’s the Almighty/the God who intervenes in saving power when human strength is quite gone.  He is the LORD, the I AM, the self-existing, self-revealing, and self-defining One.  And He is “myGod.  That is, He is specially related to the Psalmist.  Again, if this is true, what threat can the person who knows Him face?  In a time of danger, the God of the Bible is all of these things to His people one at a time.  And all of these things ARE constantly true about His person.

There is a wonderful little book entitled The Person of Jesus consisting of transcripts of 5 radio addresses made in the 1930’s by J. Gresham Machen, one of the 20th century’s greatest defenders of orthodox historical Christianity.  At the end of his second chapter, Machen says this, speaking of Christ, the second person of the Trinity:

“We have trusted in Jesus.  But how far can we trust him? Just in this transitory life?  Just in this little speck we call the earth?  If we can trust him only thus far we are of all men most miserable.  We are surrounded by stupendous forces; we are surrounded by the immensity of the unknown.  After our little span of life there is a shelving brink with the infinite beyond.  And still we are subject to fear—not only fear of destruction but a more dreadful fear of meeting with the infinite and holy God.

So we should be if we had but a human Christ.  But now is Christ our Savior, the one who says “Your sins are forgiven,” revealed as very God.  And we believe.  Such a faith is a mystery to us who possess it; it seems folly to those who have it not.  But if possessed it delivers us forever from fear.  The world to us is all unknown; it is engulfed in an ocean of infinity.  But it contains no mysteries to our Savior.  He is on the throne.  He pervades the remotest bounds.  He inhabits infinity.  With such a Savior we are safe.”

In a fundamental sense, every human ever born as a son or daughter of Adam is in the profoundest of cosmic danger.  If not in our temporal lives, surely in eternity we need shelter.  The Psalmist declares that those who seek shelter in the real God find real protection.  Though the Psalmist couldn’t see it in detail when he wrote, the work of Christ is the ground/basis/foundation of that safety.  Believing people are genuinely safe in Christ.

The Psalmist now begins to speak of God’s protection for “you.”  The discussion is not about “I” but now about “you.”  He will protect you.  Calvin thought that the Psalmist was preaching to his own soul.  Even if he was correct about this, these truths really are for each individual person who will trust/abide in God.  They are for the likes of us.

3  For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.

The snare of the fowler is a word picture for a trap that comes unaware on both the strong and the weak.  Deadly pestilence is deadly sickness that you can’t even see.  God protects His own from the subtle plans of unknown enemies and from silent deadly infections, things of which they may not even be aware to ask for or acknowledge His deliverance.  As one is saved from these things, he or she may not even know it!

Most importantly and in its fullest New Testament sense, God delivers His own from the snares of the evil one and the deadly sickness of sin.  In present time and space, God at times supernaturally spares His people attacks of human enemies and the ravages of disease and misery.  But always and forever He protects those who are His from eternal misery that otherwise would of necessity follow from our sin.

4  He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

Is this verse we see pictured the care of a mother bird for her young.  It is the same tender figure used by Jesus in lamenting over Jerusalem in Luke 13:34b when He said “How often would I have gathered your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings …”  But unlike wayward Jerusalem, the Psalmist sees God’s people welcoming the shelter of God’s care.

In verse 4, God’s faithfulness is likened to pieces of armor, first a large shield that covers the majority of the body.  The second is variously rendered as a “buckler” or “rampart.”  If it is the first, it’s a small mobile shield 6-18 inches in diameter gripped in the center.  If it is the second, it’s part of a fortress.  In either case, God’s care has both the personal warmth pictured in the first part of the verse and also the hard, unyielding nature of armor.  Christian, we need both.  Warmth without real strength is ultimately of no help in danger.

His “faithfulness,” is real toughness that gives His care for His people substance and has to do with His whole character.  The King James Version renders the word “faithfulness” as “truth.”  These two English words have the same Hebrew behind them, and we should know that this guarantee of God’s care has to do with His fidelity to His word, to His promises.  It is His nature, and the fact that He can be trusted to be and do exactly as He has said, that is ultimately the believer’s tough, tempered protection in all of existence.

5  You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,

6  nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

God’s protection of His people is a 24/7 and completely comprehensive matter.  He never sleeps nor goes on break.  He’s there in the night and He’s there at high noon.  He saves His people from stuff visible and invisible, natural and supernatural, human, bacterial, and demonic.  So, of course “You will not fear … !”

Mathew Henry said, “God by His grace will keep thee from disquieting fear (that fear which hath torment) in the midst of the greatest dangers.  Wisdom shall keep thee from being causelessly afraid, and faith shall keep thee from being inordinately afraid. … A believer needs not fear, and therefore should not fear any arrow, because the point is off, the poison is out.  Whatever is done, our heavenly Father’s will is done; and we have no reason to fear that.”

7  A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.

8  You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.

The “you” in verse 7 is emphatic.  To you it will not come near.  The picture in verses 7 and 8 is one of complete devastation and carnage, and the child of God standing in the midst of it, unscathed, viewing God’s judgment on sin.  What is it that saves redeemed people from God’s judgment, that protects them from the “recompense of the wicked” that lays waste thousands and ten thousands all around them?  It is His faithfulness to His Word and to His people, made plain to the universe at Calvary.

Verses 7 and 8 are no temporal promise that the righteous will never die in a calamity or military conflict.  They are rather a promise that they will not do so as God’s judgment on their sin (that has been dealt with on the cross of Christ).  And they are a promise that God’s providence is at work on a very minute level.  It works protecting every one of His own.  And it works bringing judgment on every one of those who are in rebellion against Him.

The rest of this part of the Psalm (v9-13) is a series of wonderful promises of God’s care.  But they are not unconditional.  The condition is in verse 9.

9  Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place– the Most High, who is my refuge—

The condition on the protection the Psalm promises is that the individual has the Most High as his “dwelling place.”  James Boice said, “This is more than merely believing in God or coming to God occasionally when danger threatens.  It means resting in God continually and trusting Him at all times.  It means living all of life ‘in God.’  Martin Luther wrote that this refers to ‘one who really dwells and does not merely appear to dwell and does not just imagine that he dwells’ in God.”

It’s in this context, where the LORD is a person’s real constant dwelling place, that the Psalmist says

10  no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.

There is a beautiful little contrast in the promises of this verse.  That is the laying side-by-side this blessed person’s temporal “tent” in verse 10 and his eternal “dwelling place” in God in verse 9.  His real constant dwelling place is God, and that being true, his present tent is secure.  If all is fundamentally well, it is surely well in the here and now.

11  For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.

12  On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.

13  You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

This is, of course, a passage partially quoted by Satan at the temptation of Christ.  If you compare Matthew 4, you’ll find that Satan quotes verses 11 and 12, but purposely leaves out the phrase “in all your ways.”  That is because it is understood that “all your ways” for a person whose dwelling place is the LORD, are ways ordered and directed by the LORD.  They are not ways chosen by a person to suit his or her whim.  The temptation for Christ to toss Himself off the temple and to test God’s care was a temptation to step outside a life “in God.”  It was a temptation to leave off making the Father His dwelling place.

In some sense, it is perfectly obvious that if God is who He says He is, and one’s life is hidden in Him–is truly lived in complete reliance upon Him–one is effectively “invincible” in a proper understanding of the word.  Whatever comes, pleasant or unpleasant, is meant for and will produce good, both for an individual and for the kingdom of God, bringing glory to God.  For the child of God, things are exactly as the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism asserts.

Q1:  What is your only comfort in life and death?

A1:  That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation.  Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

Our frailty and fallen natures make the “all your ways” phrase of verse 11 impossible for you and me in and of ourselves.  The good news of the Gospel is that our lives are Christ’s life, His righteousness is our righteousness.  All of Christ’s virtue, His perfect willing obedience to the Father, all of it is ours.  All His ways are the Father’s ways, and because of this, in Him we are perfectly protected from all harm.  We are completely safe.

We have a hard time keeping all this straight and in focus.  We know that God miraculously and graciously spares His children many hard things, and in fact He spares us all things that would crush us.  We know that in all things He graciously gives us strength.  We sometimes have sense enough to recognize His care for us and give thanks for His daily “ordinary” mercies, and our hearts soar as we read the great Biblical promises of a Psalm like this.  We rejoice as we read 2 Kings 6:15-17 and remember Elisha’s words to his servant when the Syrian army surrounded Dothan and threatened to arrest the prophet “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” and recall the young man’s eyes being opened to see an army of fiery angels on the surrounding mountains. We remember the Apostle Paul in Acts 28 shaking the venomous snake off of his hand into the fire without harm (after the shipwreck on Malta) and say “Amen!” We praise God when we hear of modern miracles of God’s deliverance of His persecuted saints and rightly give Him thanks.

But we then lose focus and jump to the incorrect conclusion that universal freedom from difficulty and the misery of the present effects of the fall is promised, that such deliverances are our right.  This is not so.  What is promised is that fundamentally all is well.  What is promised is that when lives are “in God” there is truly nothing to fear, that God’s purposes for us and for His creation will not be thwarted.  Truly, in His purposes and His contexts and His time, His people will tread on the lion and adder, the young lion and serpent, the most subtle and strongest of opposition.  The angels of God will aid and protect His own.  The very gates of hell will not prevail against His church, for His purposes, and in His time.  This is true at the same time that it is true that some of His people will suffer and die hard deaths in difficult circumstances for His sake.

We are further tempted to treat the promises of verses 11-13 presumptuously, exactly as Christ did not.

Derek Kidner said, “It was characteristic of the devil to read this promise (11f) as an invitation to arrogance.  It was characteristic of God, Father and Son, that angelic help was sent when it was most needed, accepted as strength for service, and refused for self-advantage.”

We don’t call the shots and cannot presume upon God’s validation of our random foolishness.  If we jump off the pinnacle of the temple to demonstrate our “faith,” we’ll break every bone in our bodies.  But humbly walking the ways He leads us, trusting Him in everything, no real harm can come to us.

In the last 3 verses of the Psalm, God speaks to the one who dwells in Him and personally graciously promises aid.  The Psalm opened with the statement of facts and recitation of the Psalmist’s experience.  It proceeded to the Psalmist preaching to himself or us to believe the truth.  Now God Himself pledges His loving protection.

14  “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name.

God says that the one who dwells in Him holds fast to Him in love.  This person sets his heart on/cleaves affectionately to God.  This one who dwells in God “knows my name.”  This person understands what God has revealed about Himself.  This knowing is knowing in truth and in person.  This individual is not worshiping a figment of his or her imagination, but rather the real God of all that is.  This person genuinely knows the I AM, the triune God of the Bible.  Consistent with real whole-hearted and rightly-informed reliance upon God, God will deliver and God will protect.

We should not read this holding fast and having true knowledge of God in verse 14 as human causes of God’s protection.  Further, we should not read them as having human origin.  They are ours, not by our own effort, but in the mercy of Christ.  Christ perfectly loves and holds fast to the Father and knows the Father.  It’s in Christ that Christian people fully hold fast to God and truly know Him.  These are ultimately His gifts in Jesus to His people, and His deliverance and protection in this life are simply consistent with these gifts.  Christ holds fast in love and we are blessed.

It is the testimony of the Scriptures and of the believing church in every age, that God protects and preserves His people, that finally all is well in this life and the next.  He keeps His promise to deliver and protect.

15  When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him.

Those who dwell continually in God call to Him.  They flee to Him in prayer.  Those who have made the LORD their dwelling place will cry out to Him, and He will answer.  He will be with His people in trouble.  Jesus, God in the flesh chose to join the likes of you and me in our trouble and rescue us.  This is basic Bible theology.  The I AM is with His people and answers them when they cry to Him.  The helpless will call to their only Helper, and in grace He will rescue, and He will honor those who are His.

16  With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

With long life He will satisfy those who dwell in Him and show them His salvation.  Old Testament saints like the Psalmist could only see dimly what you and I know is the full gospel truth here, and the end of life described in this Psalm.  Through and in Christ, His people cleave to Him, know Him in truth, and flee to Him in prayer.  The triune God of the Bible delivers, protects, answers, joins them in trouble, rescues, honors, and ultimately saves them eternally and satisfies them forever in His own presence.  Eternal life with God starts now and never ends … such is truly long permanent blessed life.

Glory to the Holy One.  This is exceedingly wonderful.  In a few moments we are going to sing a closing hymn essentially confessing together that this is all God’s doing and is most precious.  But before we do so, let me do two other things.  Let me first read a New Testament passage that comes to the same conclusion as this Psalm.  Then let me leave us with some exhortations consistent with the Scriptures.

Hear the words of Romans 8, beginning at verse 28.

Romans 8:28  And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 

29  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 

30  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 

31  What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 

32  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 

33  Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 

34  Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 

35  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 

36  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 

37  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 

38  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 

39  nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

The Psalmist didn’t know the details, but He knew in general terms that this was coming.  Thanks be to God!

In light of Psalm 91, hear now these exhortations, first for those of us who believe, then for those who do not yet believe.

Christians, dwell wholly in God.  Trust completely in His Son.  Don’t fear.  Give thanks for His gracious protection and go about the life He gives you, doing what He puts before you in complete confidence that all is well.  It really is.  Talk to yourself and to others about this, and make the fame of God great.

If you are here this morning as an inquirer into the Christian faith and nothing that has been said here describes you or your experience, I urge you to flee to Christ.  There is eternal safety in Him and only in Him.  The wonderful condition of life “in God” described Psalm 91 is real.  This is not some fairy story or mystical condition, or mind game, but is instead the way things are.  So too is the eternal real danger outside His forgiveness and protection.  I implore you to cast yourself on His mercy without delay.  The invitation to dwell in the shelter of the Most High and to abide in the shadow of the Almighty is open to you through the work of Christ.  Flee to Him while there is life.

Let me close in prayer, and we’ll sing.

Father, again thank You for Your Holy Word.  Thank You for Your constant care and gracious protection.  Bring Yourself glory as we believe and live Your Word, we pray in Jesus.  It’s in His Name and for His sake we ask.  Amen and Amen.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on Ezekiel 36:16-37:14

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This post is a slight variant of a Bible lesson taught at Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Ames, IA, January 1, 2017.

Can These Bones Live?

The background here is that Ezekiel is in Babylon with the second wave of exiles from Judah.  It’s 586 BC or a bit later.  Israel is off the scene, destroyed some 134 years before by Assyria after a long run of evil rulers and apostasy.  Now Babylon has conquered Judah and in chapter 33 of Ezekiel, word has come of the final destruction of Jerusalem.  The mood among God’s people has to be one of terrible despair.  The exiles with Ezekiel in Babylon had perhaps held out hope that soon things would get better and they’d be able to go home again.  Now there was literally no home to go home to.  The city and the temple have been destroyed.  As we break into the text at verse 16 of Chapter 36, God reviews with Ezekiel how His people have gotten to where they are.

Ezekiel 36:16 The word of the Lord came to me:

17 “Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds. Their ways before me were like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual impurity.

18 So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood that they had shed in the land, for the idols with which they had defiled it.

Evil actions and idolatry go together.  There was improper conduct toward others and toward God.  Idolatry reveals a low view of the one true God, and that will have implications in barbaric behavior towards other people.  Israel and Judah were guilty on these accounts and that had to bring God’s judgment against them.

19 I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. In accordance with their ways and their deeds I judged them.

In both verses 17 and 19 it is “ways and deeds.”  God judges what His people have done.  He judges what is overt, observable, evident.  As punishment, the nation has been driven from the land, has been cast out of the land that God promised Abraham, has seemingly lost its inheritance.

20 But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’

The standard interpretation of the day was that if a nation lost in battle (and certainly if it was driven from its land) the national god was weaker than the national god of its foes.  That’s what the pagan nations were thinking about Judah.  Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth.  Instead, the only real God in the universe was judging His people and ultimately revealing His Gospel plan of redemption.

Pay attention to the word “profaned” in verse 20.  The meaning is to make or count as ordinary, the opposite of to count as set apart, separate, holy.  Any people whose god didn’t look out for them couldn’t have much of a god, surely not One like Yahweh really is.  Observe that the fault when God is profaned is not with those ignorant of who He is, but with His own people, whose actions aren’t consistent with the truth about Him.

21 But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.

22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.

This jars the sensibility of a man-centered sub-Christian religiosity.  God is going to intervene and His intervention WILL most graciously benefit His people.  What He’s going to do will simultaneously vindicate His righteous judgment on sin and provide redemption for His people.  But ultimately it is HIS honor that is at stake, and it is He not we, who is at the center of the universe.  All is well in existence only when its Maker and Sustainer is revered and loved and hallowed.

23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.

This has never changed.  God, from the beginning of time purposed to have a people who will be His and show forth His glory.  That was His purpose in Israel, that’s His purpose in the Christian church.  As regards Judah, God promises Ezekiel that He will act in two steps …

24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.

In the first place, God promises to bring the people back to the land.  Do we understand, by the way, that this is by all reasonable standards impossible?  Babylon was the world power, and had no reason whatsoever let Judah go.  The Medes weren’t much of anything and Cyrus, who sent the Jews home was almost surely only a kid when this prophecy came.  How could a return happen?

Second, He promises to purify the people, and even more … genuinely change them.  That is, He promises to not only make them ritually clean but right in essence.

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

It is God who is acting here.  I (God) will sprinkle, I will cleanse, I will give, I will remove, I will put.  It is God who is sovereign and working for any and all good.  It is not humans who decide to do good and succeed in producing a righteousness of works.

At this point in history, hundreds of years of Jewish history built on the gracious promises and revelation of God have utterly failed to produce the kind of heart God promises here, one that loves Him and His ways.  Both the blessings and the curses of God’s law are true and eternal.  Humans desperately need and desire the blessings and always deserve the curses.

In retrospect, these wonderful verses tell us that the complete fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy awaits the New Testament and the salvation work of Jesus.  Who will save us?  It must be Christ.  Someone of infinite worth must perfectly please the Father, bear the just wrath of the Father for the sins of the world, and somehow transfer His perfect righteousness to God’s people.  God Himself must save if there is to be redemption.

The Bible is consistent that man’s condition has cosmic implications.  In the beginning, when man was in right relationship to God, the physical universe was right.  With man in rebellion, the universe is physically out of kilter.  Ezekiel is promised a time when God’s people will again be in right relationship with Him and all will be right.

28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you.

30 I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations.

31 Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations.

32 It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.

Here is more strong language.  Loathe yourselves and be ashamed.  This is not meant to send God’s people into an emotional black funk, but rather to cause us to think constantly of the astonishing kindness God shows us in Christ.  Every sin of every believing person past, present, and future is under the blood of the Lamb, not remembered by God.  God has sprinkled His own with clean water … and that work ought never be treated as ordinary.  If we never recall or mourn over our sin, we will soon treat Christ’s work as practically inconsequential and grace as cheap.  We must remember and loathe our sin.

33 “Thus says the Lord God: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt.

34 And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by.

35 And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’

36 Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the Lord; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.

37 “Thus says the Lord God: This also I will let the house of Israel ask me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock.

38 Like the flock for sacrifices, like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the Lord.”

Again, there is blessing for God’s people, and the fundamental end here is God’s own glory, that all people and all creatures in the universe will recognize His greatness and live in harmony with His perfect character.  In the short run, God is promising that He’s not done with His people Judah.  Despite how utterly dark and hopeless things seem, release is coming.  The same God who redeemed Israel from Egypt, will bring Judah back from the Babylonian captivity.  In the long run, history is linear.  It began with God’s creation of a perfect world, was broken and made miserable through the fall, and at the time Ezekiel speaks, creation has been groaning and aching for a Deliverer for thousands of years.  Ezekiel is promised that the story isn’t over, that redemption is coming, that figuratively there will be a return to Eden.

Now God gives Ezekiel a striking vision of what He will do, of what He plans for the nation of Israel and what ultimately He plans for all believers of all time.

Ezekiel 37:1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.

Ezekiel is in a valley.  The word here is the same as the one translated “plain” in 3:22.  It’s possible/probable that Ezekiel is in the same place he was when God’s word of judgment on Judah first came to him.  This scene is ghastly.  It looks as if there had been some ancient battle here and the dead bodies of the fallen have decomposed and been ripped apart by scavengers.  Ezekiel is surrounded by piles of body parts.

2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.

There were very many.  There are lots of dead folks represented here.  And they’re real dead, not just mostly dead, all dead.  The bones were very dry.  There is complete desolation here.  The whole of Judah/Israel here is without hope.  All humanity is without hope, slain by sin and torn apart … except for God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Can these bones live?  The obvious answer would be “no.”  Humanly speaking, the situation of Israel/Judah, the situation of all men and women ever born, the situation of these bones is hopeless.  These bones cannot live.  Ezekiel is both humble and honest here.  He doesn’t have all the answers.  He knows that God is sovereign over life and death and it is only God who knows most things.  He doesn’t presume to say they will live, but implicitly testifies that they could live.

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.

Ezekiel is to speak to the bones, to speak to them the word of the LORD.  From a natural point of view he’s been told to do something pretty silly.  But God asks obedience and Ezekiel does his part as a servant of God.

5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

The word translated “breath” here by ESV is the Hebrew word “ruah” which can mean breath/Spirit/wind.  It is the same word that is used twice in Genesis 2:7 then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. This same word appears repeatedly in the next few verses, and gets translated by the ESV in different ways at those appearances.  But underneath breath/Spirit/wind are all the same Hebrew, “ruah.”

6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

And you shall know that I am the LORD (I am the I AM).  The object/end of all human existence is that we know that the LORD is God and that we know Him, that we are loved by and love Him.  Again, the chief end of the restoration that God is sending is that He be honored.

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.

8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.

This is a wild scene, something that today we’d expect to be cooked up through computer-generated special effects … dry bones flying together, sinews and flesh appearing out of nowhere … called into existence by the Creator of the universe.  But there was no breath in them.  Much as at creation, where God formed Adam from the dust, when there was no life/breath/spirit in him until God breathed it into him.  We’re seeing pictured here the creation of new humans … humans with hearts for God!  And the starting point is not completely new material, but dry dead bones.  He could begin afresh, but He does not.  He begins with the wreckage of ruined humanity.  There are two stages.  In this first, God has made bodies from dead bones.  But there is no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”

Prophesy to the breath/wind/spirit, son of man, and say to it, “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath …”  There’s a lot of air needed here and God sends it rushing in from all directions.  There is an abundance … and where God’s breath is sent, there is life.  The lifeless human forms live.  We ought to be reminded here of the rushing wind on the day of Pentecost.  This is a prefiguring of that great act that inaugurated and empowered the Christian church.

10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

They came to life and stood up on their feet–a vast army.  A few moments ago, this was a bunch of dead dry bones.  Then there were bodies without any real life.  Now there is a something worthy to be called an army, a vast army at that, through the work of the breath/spirit/wind of God.

English theologian John B. Taylor said about this scene, “What is the significance of the two stages?  The difference between them is surely to be found in the direction of Ezekiel’s prophesying; first to the bones, telling them to hear, and secondly to the Spirit, invoking its inspiration. The first must have seemed to Ezekiel very much like his professional occupation, exhorting lifeless people to listen to God’s word.  The effect was limited: true, something remarkable hap­pened, but the hearers were still dead men.  The second action was praying, as Ezekiel besought the Spirit of God to effect the miracle of re-creation, to breathe into man’s nostrils the breath of life (cf. Genesis. 2:7).  This time the effect was devastating.  What preaching by itself failed to achieve, prayer made a reality.”[1]

11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.’

Ezekiel isn’t left guessing here about the short term meaning of what he’s been shown.  The northern kingdom is gone and Jerusalem has fallen.  What’s left of the nation is in captivity and as good as dead.  As far as the captives can see there’s no hope left.  But that’s not what God says.  Instead, says the I AM, there waits for them a future restoration where the nation will be a vast army dedicated to God.

12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel.

The figure changes somewhat from dried bones to a graveyard, but the promise remains that God is not done with His people Israel.

13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.

14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”

Paul tells us plainly in Romans that God is not yet finished with physical Israel, that in the end the Jewish people will turn to Christ, their Messiah.  They will come to eternal life and the end of such restoration will be the glory of God.  All the world will know and honor His greatness.

As we begin 2017, some 2600 years or so since these wonderful prophecies came through Ezekiel, what applications can we draw from the passage?  Here are a few that occur to me.  I am sure the same Spirit that gave life to the bodies in the valley will bring others to your minds as well, as you dwell on this Word.

First, let us constantly remind ourselves of what really matters.  It is the honor of God that is at the center of this passage.  It is the honor of God that is at the center of existence.  Let us mediate on the truth that there is real horror and misery when our actions profane His name, make Him out to be ordinary, portray Him as anything less than of supreme worth.

Second, let us always live profoundly grateful for the Gospel.  Let us see ourselves as formerly dead and dry bones on the valley floor slain by sin and without hope.  As we abhor our remaining sin, let us wonder at Christ who bore the wrath of God in our place and by His Spirit gives us pardon and real life.  Let us fill our minds and hearts with Christ and His matchless grace.

Third, let us always take heart and remind ourselves that no matter how bleak any circumstance in this life, the God of the Bible makes dry bones live.  Let us live cheerful lives, full of the promise of a blessed eternity in the presence of the Giver of life.  He orders existence.  He works only for real good.  Let us rest in Him.

Finally, in our evangelism, in our declaration of the Gospel of Christ, let us keep the vision of Ezekiel before us.  Let us be realistic about the real situation as we interact with neighbors and coworkers and family.  We walk about among dead bones.  There is no real life at all in those with hearts hard towards Christ.  And no amount of strategy or formula or cleverness or organization on our part can replace a single heart of stone with one of flesh, none of these can make the bones live.  That transformation depends rather upon two: the Word of God and the Spirit of God.  In all humility and gentleness, let us therefore tell people the truth about Christ and let us plead for their souls in prayer.  Like Ezekiel, may we speak to the bones and plead with the Spirit/breath/wind.

Thanks be to God for His gracious Word and the work of His Spirit.

[1] John B. Taylor, (1969).  Ezekiel, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, p. 235.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on Deuteronomy 6

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This lesson is a small variant of one taught at Grand Avenue Baptist in Ames, Iowa, in May 2016.  The text is Deuteronomy 6.  This is one of the grandest chapters in all of Scripture.  It is our great privilege to open it and savor the great grace of God that it presents.  The immediate context of the text is Moses’s review of the 10 Commandments, as the people Israel are gathered on the plains of Jordan, ready enter the promised land.  The broader context is that of all Christian people as we ready ourselves for today, tomorrow, and a promised glorious eternity in the presence of the King of Kings.

Deuteronomy is “the second law,” and the 10 Commandments are reviewed in the chapter just before this one.  In Matthew 22 and Luke 10 and Mark 12, the lawyer of the Sadducees asks Jesus “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” or “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” or “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus doesn’t answer with one of the 10 Commandments of Chapter 5, but rather with (slight variants of) verse 5 of this chapter:

Deuteronomy 6:5  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

This is the central matter of the whole chapter, and indeed the whole Biblical revelation.  There are things to know, things to do, things to avoid, attitudes to have, attitudes to not have, virtues to exhibit, and vices to flee.  But fundamental is this: to love Yahweh/the I AM, the only true God, the God of the Bible, with absolutely every fiber of one’s being.  The rest is important, but to some degree is detail that follows from the central matter.  The Westminster Catechism begins with Q1: What is the chief end of man?  A1: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.  The first concern of all genuinely Biblical teaching is that above all, you and I love and honor our Creator.

With this in view, let us make our way through the chapter a few verses at a time.  Moses is speaking/preaching.

Deuteronomy 6:1  “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it,

Now this is the commandment/”charge”—the “statutes” or things which God has defined, marked, and traced out so that we know what is pure conduct—and the “rules” or judgments, formal decrees by the great Judge of all—that  Yahweh your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them.  It is the will of God that Moses teach these things and that God’s people do them.  There aren’t so many specifics in this this chapter, but rather general principles.  They are general principles, but far more than suggestions or advice or techniques for skillful living.  These are the serious “charge”/commandment of the One who called Moses and has delivered Israel.

This charge—the statutes and rules—of this chapter are given in the context of verses 21b-23 and the gracious history of God’s deliverance of His people.

Deuteronomy 6:21  then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.

22 And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes.

23 And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers.

This is the Bible order.  Obedience does not produce deliverance.  It never did and it never can.  Rather, deliverance motivates obedience.  The gracious covenants preceded the giving of the law.  Abraham was called and justified by faith before Sinai.  Grace precedes works of righteousness, that can only be done in gratitude and humility.  Pharaoh’s slaves were delivered by the I AM before they were taught how to live.—But if a people is to live with the holy One, it needs to know His nature and what He desires.  This, Moses was to deliver to God’s chosen people on the plains of the Jordan, before they entered the promised land.

So, “Now this the charge— …”

Deuteronomy 6:2  that you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long.

There remains a right and correct reverence and holy fear of Yahweh.  He was the God of the Israelites.  He is our God in Christ.  He is favorably disposed and gracious to us.  But He is also completely out of our class.  And He is the very definition of “what is what.”  It would be absurd to flaunt rebellion against Him and yet expect to live well and prosper.  One might as well say “I don’t believe I’ll cooperate with the law of gravity.  I intend to go my own way and step wherever I choose, including off this cliff.”

So, Hear O Israel, how things really are at the very core of existence:

3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.

The gracious will of God, the destiny of His people, is eternal good.  The Israelites were headed for a temporal promised land.  Christian believers are headed for something far more grand, not temporal but rather eternal.

What is the core of this revelation of life lived in line with God?   The center of the text is verses 4 through 6.

4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.

Various translations give verse 4 various shades of meaning.  Literally, it reads something like “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh one.”  There is a purposeful ambiguity in the original language of the 4-word statement about God.  It says a number of things, depending upon where (and how many times) the verb “is” is inserted.  It could be “Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” (as the ESV renders it) or it could be “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one.” or it could be “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone.”  The phrase “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh one.” teaches that it is Yahweh/the I AM who is Israel’s God and the Christian’s God.  It teaches the essential unity of God—to the exclusion of even the possibility of any other real “gods.”  And it teaches the exclusive nature of Israel’s relationship with God (and the Christian’s relationship with God).  There is simply no room for anyone or anything else in God’s place.

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  This One God is to be loved with every ounce of one’s being.  This is how what seem to the non-regenerate mind to be impossible moral “oughts” of God’s revealed Law become the “wants” of a person’s heart.  It’s how a self-righteous score-keeping earthbound person becomes one who is grieved by remaining sin that dishonors the great Person who has given forgiveness.  This is not sinless perfection.  It is the repenting heart of King David.  This is real faith and repentance.

These words, says verse 7, are to be on your hearts.  Far from being means of self-justification or intellectual abstractions, these words are a gracious constant guide to who God is and what He desires in His people.  If I love Him and He is truthful, I want to be truthful.  If I love Him and He is merciful and generous, I want to be similarly merciful and generous.  If there are things that He hates, I want no part of them.  These words become part of a believing person’s basic control system.  DA Carson put it this way: “True freedom is not the liberty to do anything we please, but the liberty to do what we ought; and it is genuine liberty because doing what we ought now pleases us.”

In some ways, Deuteronomy 6 gives form to the first two of the 10 Commandments.

Deuteronomy 5:6  “‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

7 “‘You shall have no other gods before me.

8 “‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

9 You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,

10 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

These commands: “No other ‘gods.'” and “No idols.”  How?  How?  Calvin correctly said that our hearts are idol factories.  Ruined by the fall, we cannot suppress idolatrous impulses by dint of negative effort.  Only a positive active passion for Yahweh alone, given by and empowered by His Spirit can shut down the idol factory.  That is His wonderful work in those who come in faith.  Thanks be to God!

We often use the modern idiom “What does it look like?”  In the present context … what does loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and strength, “look like”?  The balance of the chapter gives some guidance.

Deuteronomy 6:7  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.

9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

For one thing, Israelite family life was to be saturated with the love of the I AM.  Christian family life is to be saturated with the love of the I AM.  Children are to know that the one great passion of their parents’ lives is Christ.  The first impulse in good times and bad times is to be to turn to God in prayer.  Every situation is to be seen through the lens of the Scripture.  Every word spoken and action taken is to be understood as Corem Deo, before the face of God.  Days are to begin and end with God.

These things are to be true in the home.  These things are to go with believing people as they go out of the home.  The God who really is, who is loved with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength cannot become invisible as one goes out the front door.  Secular society pressures God’s people to act in public as if He is not there, as if He’s some silly private fiction.  But to the contrary, the Israelites were to see themselves as publicly marked people.  Christians are to see themselves as marked people, not in some easy way of wearing symbolic jewelry or a religious tee shirt, but in word and deed genuinely consistent with His presence.  Their dwellings are to be marked out, not with Jesus junk, but with real evidence of the presence and grace of God—with hospitality, with kindness, with compassion, with the fruit of the Spirit of God, with evident goodness and reverence for the Holy One, with clear testimony to His Kingship.

10 “And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build,

11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full,

12 then take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

God’s people Israel are about to enjoy great benefits for which they had not worked, benefits that they didn’t in any sense merit.  With those benefits comes the danger of ingratitude.  Moses has been around the block.  He’s 120 years old as he speaks here.  He knows the human condition, and as a good shepherd of God’s flock, he warns the people of the danger of forgetting, of taking the grace of God for granted.  He calls the people to be careful to dwell on the saving acts of the I AM.  They are never to lose track of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

Christian people are recipients of benefits and blessing immeasurably beyond anything experienced by Israel.  In view of this great grace, we are obliged to continually remind ourselves of God’s great deliverance of our souls in the work of Christ.  We never get beyond that fundamental.  It is our duty and joy to remember, to rehearse, to meditate on, to live constantly in the light of God’s redemption from bondage to sin, hell, and the grave.  A Christian life lived loving the I AM with all heart, soul, and might, is one that meditates and wonders constantly and joyously on its deliverance in Christ Jesus.

13 It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.

You were “slaves” in Egypt, now you shall “serve” Him.  The words “slaves” in verse 12 and “serve” in verse 13 have the same Hebrew root.  It’s no accident that they are here back-to-back.  The Israelites have been taken from dark and miserable service to a cruel and oppressive human tyrant to bright privileged service of the great beneficent divine King of all.  In Christ, the I AM gives a far greater and lasting deliverance from bondage to His service.  The Apostle Paul put it this way:

Colossians 1:13  He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,

The Scriptures and human experience are clear.  We either serve God or we serve sin.  There is no other option.  The wonder is that God doesn’t leave us in the misery that human rebellion chooses and warrants, but instead gives redeemed people life in His good and blessed Kingdom in the service of Christ.

By His name you shall swear says 13b.  The veracity of the word of God’s people is guaranteed by their all-consuming love for the person of the God of truth.  Of course, Jesus takes verse 13b a step further in Matthew 5.  A life lived with passion for Yahweh is one where no oaths are needed and “yes is yes and no is no.”  God’s word is sure.  The word of a devoted Christian disciple is similarly sure without resort to offering a guarantee.

In a way, verses 14 and 15 restate things that have been said before in this chapter.

Deuteronomy 6:14 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you—

15 for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.

It is only consistent with verse 5 and a whole-hearted love of the real God that there is no room for dabbling with other supposed deities, or really, any rivals for a person’s basic affections.  This is, again consistent with the first and second of the 10 commandments.  What is jarring to post-modern sensibilities in these two verses are the words “jealous,” “anger,” and “destroy.”  But that is the fault of impoverished post-modern Biblical understanding and pop theology.  Human jealousy is always small and hateful and ugly.  God’s jealousy is none of these.  It is instead His white-hot passion for all that He is, for all that is right and good and true.  Brothers and sisters, this would be an awful universe if God was not properly jealous and protective of those things.  But thanks be to Him, He is not indifferent to honor being given to made-up and corrupt objects of worship.  It is a wonderful thing that He is jealous for His own glory.  He could not be genuinely good and fail to hate and finally destroy evil and crush misrepresentations of good.  It is both wonderful and most serious and dangerous to be called to know, love, and represent such a God.

Here is another aspect/outworking of undivided love for the God of the Bible:

16 “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.

The nature of putting God “to the test” is this: In human difficulty, there is the possibility of essentially saying to God “I don’t like this.  Get me out of it now.  I want XYZ.  If you don’t give it, I’ll presume that You aren’t for me or reliable or powerful enough to help me.”  That was what happened at Massah.  The people were thirsty and demanded that Moses produce water as a test of whether God was really with them.  God is pleased with cries for mercy and help from His children.  But this is something else entirely.  It forgets the past saving acts of God and substitutes in their place demands for signs of human choosing right now.  This is impertinence.  This is the “forgetting” of verse 12.  This is human arrogance presuming to order about the Creator and Sustainer of all.  This is antithetical to the pure love of God of verse 5.

17 You shall diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you.

Natural human rebellion against God’s Law, against the commandments, implicitly assumes that God’s Law is arbitrary, that it could be something else, that it is whim.  But it is not.  It is gracious revelation of His nature.

The word “testimonies” used here has interesting implications.  What is given in Deuteronomy points to or bears witness to something “beyond.”  The charge, the commandments, the statutes, are not ends in themselves, but testify/witness to who God is.  They reveal what is true and what is true about Him.  Real love of God gladly embraces them, and when embraced they give guidance to right living in the here and now.  You shall do what is right and good.

18 And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may go well with you, and that you may go in and take possession of the good land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers

19 by thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the LORD has promised.

Of course.  Doing right and good is consistent with walking with the One who is right and good.  It doesn’t justify one, but a person who doesn’t care about it doesn’t know Him.  And doing what is right and good, living in accord with Biblical revelation is prerequisite to sane blessed living in the here and now.

And now we come back to the context of the great commandment to love God with a whole heart.  In the ordinary rhythm of a God-honoring God-saturated family life, there will come times when the children will ask “Why do we live like this?  We’re not like others.  We spend our time and resources differently than they do.  We interact with people differently than they do.  We are people of the Book and they hold it in derision.  We honor the I AM and they ignore Him.  We love the Son, and they hate him.  So

20 “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?’

21 then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.

22 And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes.

23 And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers.

The father is to answer: “We were slaves!”  Christian parents are to answer to their children: “We were slaves!”  Why do we live this way? We were slaves and have been delivered!  The nation of Israel is a picture for us of universal human slavery to corruption and death.  There was no possible way for the enslaved nation to get itself out of bondage.  Humanly speaking, it was doomed to horrible misery for the balance of its existence.  But “the LORD/Yahweh/the I AM brought us (Israel) out (of Egypt) with a mighty hand.”  Glory to God!

The Israelite father would go on “He did the impossible and led us over Jordan under His protection by His great presence.  He pledged Himself to us forever.  How, son, could we not love Him with a whole heart?”

Christian brothers and sisters, we were dead in sin, with no ability to escape eternal darkness, and He brought us out by the miracles of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and the work of His Spirit in our dead hearts.  How then could we not love Him with whole hearts?  How could we not choose to obey Him?

24 And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.

When God then graciously describes what life with Him must be like, how could our hearts not sing?  How could we not embrace His statutes?

25 And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.’

Don’t hear what this doesn’t intend to say.  Moses is not promising forensic/judicial justification on the basis of obedience.  That would make absolutely no sense in context.  In the words of theologian Christopher Wright, the righteousness of verse 25 is “a righteousness that presumes the experience of redemption, not a righteousness that presumes to achieve redemption.”  The statement is that single-hearted love of God in response to His merciful sovereign deliverance motivates glad acceptance of His ways and produces the great joy and blessing of all of existence being fundamentally right, in line with who He is and how things really are.

Deuteronomy 6 is the Gospel of Moses.  The natural human condition is one of miserable slavery to sin and death.  God acts to deliver, doing for humans what they could never do for themselves.  The only sensible response to that redemption is a heart of unalloyed love for the I AM.  That love is lived out in humble gratitude and lives marked as belonging to the Redeemer.  The end is life that is fundamentally whole and good and blessed, now and forever.  Amen, Amen, and Amen!

Our Father, hallowed be Thy name.  Thy Kingdom come.  Thy will be done!  We love You.  Lead us in Your ways for Your own glory and our good in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on John 21

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Chapter 21 of John amounts to a kind of epilogue to the book.  It is the account of a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to some of the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee.

John 21:1 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. 

2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 

3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

“The” boat is perhaps Peter’s boat.  It seems as if that’s what’s being said.  They’re going to go out and use Peter’s gear.  It’s an interesting point that the disciples, in the whole of the Gospels never manage to catch one fish without the express work of Jesus.  Here again, the efforts of the disciples on their own are completely futile.  So are ours.

Night fishing on the Sea of Galilee is widely believed to be better than daytime fishing.  Besides, if they were thinking commercially, fish caught at night could be sold fresh during the day.

4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 

5 Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.”

6 He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. 

7 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. 

Why does it come to John that this is Jesus at this point?  See Luke 5:1-11.  The circumstances were similar when Jesus called James, John, Peter and Andrew.

Peter is always Peter.  He can’t wait for the boat to get to shore.  He gets properly dressed to greet Jesus and jumps overboard.

8 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.

9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. 

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 

11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. 

This, of course, has its literal meaning.  Most commentators also see it having a figurative meaning parallel to the meaning of fishing given at the calling of the disciples.  There seems to be a picture here of a great catch of human souls, so large that the disciples could barely handle it.

12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 

Once again, by saying “They knew it was the Lord” John is implying that there was some reason that they might have not been sure.  Jesus’s appearance may have been somewhat different from before His death and resurrection.

13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is recognized in the breaking of bread.  He is seen most clearly in the breaking of bread in the Lord’s Supper.  But before that, He’s revealed as the Son of God as He breaks bread and feeds the multitudes.  The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognize Him in the breaking of bread.

14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

John is evidently counting those appearances to the majority of the apostles at once.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus asks “more than these?”  It seems there are 3 possible meanings  1) “more than these other guys do?” 2) “more than you love the rest of these guys?” and 3) “more than you love this fishing gear?”  It seems pretty that the intention is the first, although some people have argued otherwise.

The question is ironic in that Peter has, at the last supper blustered that even if everyone else fails Jesus, he will not.  See Mark 14:29.  In fact, although they all failed Jesus, Peter did so most spectacularly.

But note now that Peter is not blustering, or promising more than he can deliver.  He’s simply appealing to Jesus on the basis of what Jesus knows to be true about him.  Here, instead of working from his ability or resolve, he’s pointing to Jesus’ supernatural knowledge and more or less throwing himself on the care of Jesus.

People have made a lot of the fact that in the Greek there are two different words for love being used in this conversation.  Jesus asks the first two times about agape love.  All three times Peter replies in terms of phileo love and Jesus’ last question is phrased in term of phileo.  Considering that the distinction between these is not present in either Aramaic or Hebrew, I don’t see much sense in trying to read meanings into the different uses.  The conversation was not carried out in Greek, and there is no hint on the part of Peter that the distinction is part of his meaning or what he’s picking up from Jesus.  It seems more likely that John is simply making use of literary variation, trying to avoid being repetitious in word choice.  Both terms are used of God’s love towards us, so it’s not really correct to think of one as inferior to the other anyway.

Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.”  See to it that the tender ones in the church are nourished and brought along in the Faith.  The measure of Peter’s devotion to Jesus is to be how he cares for the young church.

16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 

17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 

Jesus goes through this quizzing 3 times.  Do you love me?  This is painful, but it’s grace.  Peter had denied Jesus 3 times.  Here he’s getting a chance to symbolically wipe the slate clean, to wipe out the memory of his most miserable failure of the Lord.

3 times he’s told to care for the Master’s sheep.   Ryle said this “was meant to teach Peter and the whole Church the mighty lesson, that usefulness to others is the grand test of love, and working for Christ is the great proof of really loving Christ.  It is not loud talk and high profession; it is not even impetuous, spasmodic zeal and readiness to draw the sword and fight, — it is steady, patient, laborious effort to do good to Christ’s sheep scattered throughout this sinful world, which is the best evidence of being a true-hearted disciple. … Let us aim at a loving, doing, useful, hard-working, unselfish, kind, unpretentious religion.  Let it be our daily desire to think of others, care for others, do good to others, and to lessen the sorrow, and increase the joy of this sinful world.”

Again notice Peter’s attitude here in comparison to his attitude before the denial.  There he was full of himself.  Here all he can do is rely upon the perfect knowledge of Jesus, that as sincerely as he knows how, he does indeed love Jesus.

18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 

19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Some people see here an explicit prophecy that Peter will be crucified as was Jesus.  Whether the meaning was intended to be that explicit or not isn’t clear.  And it is not really important.  In any case Jesus is clearly telling Peter that he’s to feed the flock and follow his Master.  And that in the end, it is not going to be easy.  Nevertheless, he (Peter) has been so called.  Peter wasn’t up to the task the night of the arrest when he acted in his pride and self-sufficiency.  His outlook is different now and in dependence upon Christ, he will face persecution much differently.

20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”

21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?”

Peter, like the rest of us is so human.  He’s just been told that in following Christ and carrying out His will, hard things will be endured.  Immediately Peter wants to know what about John.  Clearly, that’s not Peter’s business.  That’s between John and his Master.  Jesus tells him so.

22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

Mind your own business Peter.

23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

John is correcting a rumor that was apparently rampant in his time.  According to tradition, he was the last of the Apostles to die.  Some thought that Jesus was going to return before his death.  John says that that was not what Jesus said.

24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

John is saying that it was he who wrote this down and appealing to the fact that the truth of his testimony was well known.  His testimony is true in two ways.  Factually, what he has said is accurate.  And what he has said concerns the very origin of all truth, Jesus Himself.

25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

John ends his letter with a disclaimer that not all possible things were recorded.  But while His account is not exhaustive, it is sufficient to show an honest heart the way to Christ.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on John 20

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This chapter is John’s account of Resurrection Sunday.  Recall what John says in the first epistle of John.

1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—

John was there, he saw these things and he recognizes that it is vital that you and I know that we’re hearing the account of such a witness.

John 20:1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.

This is “early,” probably before dawn and it may be that here Mary Magdalene is alone.  Matthew and Mark place 2 Marys and Salome at the tomb later (at dawn).  But it is also possible that there are others here and John is simply concentrating on Mary Magdalene.

Ryle wrote of this scene, “… her conduct this memorable morning was so remarkable and prominent that St. John speaks of her alone.  All the women showed faith and courage and love, he seems to intimate; but none so pre-eminently as Mary Magdalene.  She was the first to come near the tomb, first to discover that the stone was rolled away, first to conjecture that something remarkable had happened, and the first to act at once on what she saw.”  He further said, “… we are distinctly told that she was one out of whom the Lord had cast ‘seven devils’ (Mark xvi. 9; Luke viii. 2), –one who had been subjected in a peculiar way to Satan’s possession, –and one whose gratitude to our Lord for deliverance was a gratitude that knew no bounds.  In short, of all our Lord’s followers on earth, none seem to have loved Him so much as Mary Magdalene. None felt that they owed so much to Christ.  None felt so strongly that there was nothing too great to do for Christ. Hence, as Bishop Andrews beautifully puts it, — ‘She was last at His cross, and first at His grave. She staid longest there, and was soonest here.  She could not rest till she was up to seek Him.  She sought Him while it was yet dark, even before she had light to seek Him by.’  In a word, having received much, she loved much; and loving much, she did much, in order to prove the reality of her love.”  He went on to infer that relative lack of passion for Christ and His Gospel follows from “a low sense of debt and obligation to Christ,” an inadequate grasp of the enormity and eternal implications of our sin.

John also doesn’t tell us the details of the stone.  By the time he is writing here, the synoptic Gospels are in wide circulation.  He expects his reader to know those accounts and doesn’t feel the need to repeat all the details from them … rather, he concentrates on those that are most relevant to his stated purpose in John 20:31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  

2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

The synoptics put Mary of Magdalene at the tomb with Mary the mother of James and Salome.  Ryle believed that immediately upon seeing the stone, Mary Magdalene ran off to get Peter and John, and in the meantime the angels appear to the other women, who are gone by the time she returned.  In any case, mark Mary’s reaction.  The furthest thing from her mind here is the possibility that Jesus has risen.

3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb.

4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

We have here, not a single witness, but two, in keeping with Old Testament teaching on the importance of corroboration.  Modesty forbids John to say directly that it is he who outran Peter!

5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.

6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there,

Peter is always Peter.  He charges right into the tomb, not hesitating the least in the possibility that the evidence that he’s observing concerns the most important occurrence of human history.  Ryle wrote, “Grace does not alter natural temperaments, when it changes hearts.”

7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.

In telling us the details about the grave clothes, John wants us to know that this is a real, physical, space-and-time resurrection, not some make-believe fairy tale kind of thing.  Nor is it the work of grave robbers.  Grave robbers wouldn’t leave behind the grave clothes and try to handle a naked, cold, slippery, stiff corpse.  Nor would they take time to fold up the cloth that had been around his head.

8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;

We have the picture of Peter standing and gawking, not knowing what to make of the scene.  John enters and believes.  This is a detail that only an eyewitness could or would supply.  He believes that Jesus has been resurrected.

9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

John is saying that while he has believed that Jesus has been resurrected, he doesn’t see how it fits into the big picture.

Note that the disciples were caught completely by surprise.  The secularist attempt to explain this away as some kind of hoax that the clever disciples carried off just doesn’t square with their state of mind or with their fairly bumbling unsophisticated backgrounds and ways.

10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.

“to their homes” is literally “to themselves”  They went back to where they were staying while in Jerusalem.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb.

John has apparently not filled Mary in on what he thought he knew about what has happened.  Mary is crying, upset about the location of the body.  From one perspective it is her incredible loyalty and love for Christ that puts her here to begin with, and especially after the men have left.  The “But Mary stood” is in contrast to the men who had gone.  But she’s also as thoroughly human and as blind as any of us.  Thank God the tomb was empty!  Thank God she doesn’t get what she thinks she wants!  Mary’s concern at this point is simply for the dead body.

12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.

Despite the fact that there is no natural explanation for how these beings got there without Peter and John seeing them, Mary may not recognize them as angels.  And even if she dis, she wasn’t going to let the appearance of angels get her off track from her grief over the missing body.

13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

The angels surely know why she is weeping.  They are not asking to gain information.  They are asking to prod her to think this through and figure out “Hey! This is wonderful! The tomb is empty!  He’s not here!”  Mary, in her authentic humanity, clings to her grief over the death.

14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

Apparently the phrasing in the Greek describing Mary’s turning is a bit odd, and has led commentators to speculate on why Mary turned.  Ryle saw the angels stirring at the entrance of Christ, and Mary being alerted to His presence behind her.  But she doesn’t know that it’s Him.  This is not the only time that His followers fail to recognize the resurrected Jesus.  His appearance must have been somewhat different than before.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Why are you weeping?  Who is it that you are looking for?  Like the angels before, Jesus hints to Mary that she wasn’t on the right track.  She was looking for a corpse, when she should have been looking for a person.  She was blind to her Help and Master, though He was right there beside her.  Indeed, why was she weeping?  And who was it that she thought she was looking for?  Was it a dead prophet, or the living Son of God?  She was indeed faithful and loving, but she was so absorbed in the situation that it didn’t even occur to her to use Jesus’s name describing the situation.  When she speaks it’s simply “him” who has been carried away, the one who is in the center of her thinking and her world.  But she also was a frail human being who wasn’t keeping clear in her head the divinity of her Master and His teaching on His resurrection.

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

When the Good Shepherd calls His sheep, they know His voice.  Now Mary “gets it.”  Rabboni, (my) teacher.  This is a bit of an odd word.  It was usually used in calling out to God in prayer.  It was a somewhat more respectful form of “Rabbi.”

17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ “


John 14:1  “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.

2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

4 And you know the way to where I am going.” 

It seems likely that Mary thinks that Jesus is back for the disciples.  Jesus says, “I have not yet ascended to the Father.”  He can’t mean that He’s been hiding in Jerusalem and isn’t yet ready to go see the Father.  It is, rather, likely that He’s saying that He hasn’t yet gone away in the John 14 sense.   He has not yet completed His ascent to the Father in the sense of leaving until the second coming.  Jesus’s command that she not cling to Him simply means that Mary’s desire for a physically-present Jesus won’t be realized at this time.  John 16:16 isn’t going to be realized in the way she expects.

John 16:16   “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.”

Mary, the real human being she is, is making too much of the immediate physical presence of Jesus.

I am ascending”  is “I am in the process of ascending”  Things are not simply going back to the way they were before the crucifixion and resurrection.  Things are fundamentally different.

to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”  That language is parallel to Ruth 1:16.  Coming from the lips of Jesus, it emphasizes the great honor that God does us by inviting us into His family.  What mercy and grace there is in this language.  Jesus says, “go tell my brothers.”  Go tell the same ones who had a couple of days earlier deserted Him.  Jesus knows our weakness and frailty and in mercy calls such as you and me His brothers.

John 20:18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

It’s worth noting that the first to carry the news of resurrection was Mary. Brentius said, “Jesus made Mary Magdalene an Apostle to the Apostles.”

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

Peace be with you.”  Shalom.  May God give you every good thing and set all things right.  This is perhaps an ordinary Jewish greeting, but likely much more.  Remember that on just Thursday night Jesus spoke to them the words of John 14:27-28.  Here He’s confirming that indeed all is well, but that He is going to the Father.

Joh 14:27  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.

In view of their behavior on Friday morning , the disciples might have expected worse.

John 20:20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

Jesus’s resurrection body is both similar and dissimilar to our present earthly bodies.  He entered the locked room, and yet they can see the wounds in His hands and side.  Luke 24:36-43 gives us more details.

Luke 24:36  As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!”

37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.

38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?

39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.

41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish,

43 and he took it and ate before them.

John 20:21  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

Here’s a tall order.  Think of some of the implications of this.  Jesus’s mission is now our mission.  The Son must be present with us just as the Father was with Him.  Whoever saw Jesus saw the Father, so whoever sees us should see Jesus.  Jesus was submitted to the Father’s will and we should be to His.

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

This should remind us of Genesis 2:7 and Ezekiel 37:3-5.

Genesis 2:7  then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

Ezekiel 37:3  And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord

GOD, you know.”

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

breath/spirit are the same word in both Greek and Hebrew.  Here the Holy Spirit is giving real, eternal life.

John 20:23  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

This famous verse has been the subject of much exegesis over the years.  Various interpretations have been offered.  Possibilities are 1) a statement of the church’s power of excommunication, 2) the bringing of guilt when the church declares the truth and it is ignored (more of John’s theme of implicit judgement). and 3) that the church’s forgiveness or lack thereof is really only of a declarative nature  (that is, that it is simply saying only what God has already determined).

24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.

Thomas is a hard-headed, skeptical, but intensely loyal guy.

John 11:16  So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John 14:4  And you know the way to where I am going.”

5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

John tell us about Thomas because there is value in watching an extremely cautious man come to faith.  This is not just some kind of mass hysteria going on here.  And in the end, Thomas’s confession of Jesus is the fullest and most magnificent in John’s book.  Barclay said “he was not airing his doubts just for the sake of mental acrobatics; he doubted in order to become sure; and when he did, his certainty was complete.”

John 20:25  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

The sense of the verb is that the other disciples “kept on telling him.”  He doesn’t believe the other disciples in spite of their repeated testimony.  In fact, he wants more evidence that they’re even claiming to have had.  He’s not interested in either participating in some kind of religious make-believe or in some kind of non-physical “spiritual” ghost-type resurrection.  The “I will not believe it” is closer to “I will certainly not believe it.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Jesus could have been touched in exactly the physical way that Thomas talked about.  This was a real, physical event.  Nevertheless, there is probably a note of rebuke in Jesus’s statement.  Thomas crossed the line into impudence.  Jesus invites him to “stop doubting, but on the contrary believe.”

28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas recognizes 1) Jesus’s miraculous presence, 2) Jesus’s supernatural knowledge, and 3) his own impudence, and makes the most complete Gospel confession of Jesus.

John 8:28  So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.

When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM.

John 20:29  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

It was vital that there be witnesses, but the ordinary person is promised no glimpse of the risen Christ in this life.  We are encouraged to rely upon the written accounts of reliable witnesses.

Romans 10:17  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

“Blessed” Not any more blessed than Thomas, but blessed indeed.

John 20:30  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;

31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

This is John’s wrap-up of the main part of his account.  This is the plain statement of why he has written.  He’s hit the high point and the rest is epilogue.  Nothing greater could be said about Jesus.  One of the commentators said about these verses that if you are writing biography of a great dead person, you strive to be complete, but John’s not doing that.  He’s introducing us to One who is living.

He couldn’t tell everything, but he’s given us enough that we can believe and thereby have life.  The perfect tense that he uses to say “these are written” carries an air of permanence.  John has written to bear witness to the grand fact that God has acted on our behalf in Christ, and that there is thus life and wholeness if we will take it.  John says this reliance upon God has content.  It is not some vague thing.  It is reliance upon the facts that Jesus is Messiah, God’s anointed One, and that He is the Son of God, one with the Father.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on John 18:28-19:37

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This is a re-post of a lesson first posted in March 2015.

The fundamental problem of the Bible is this: God is absolutely holy and perfect. Human beings are fallen, rebellious, and broken. By nature and choice we are sinful, unfit for His presence. How then, does a holy God maintain His perfection and holiness, and yet have mercy on such as you and me? If He ignores our sin, if He just looks the other way, He’s not just. But if He is just, it seems like we’re hopelessly undone. In this text we’re given the astonishing, awful, wonderful Gospel answer to this completely impossible problem. God, Himself, in the person of Christ Jesus bears the crushing weight of just punishment for sedition and blasphemy against Himself, and in that He gives us life.

In these verses and events we are at the very center of the Bible message. They are profound and deep, and are to be approached carefully, reverently, in holy awe. We have here a telling of the circumstances of the Death of the King of Glory.

John 18:28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.

John 18:29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?”

John 18:30 They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.”

John 18:31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”

John 18:32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

Jesus is brought to Pilate and the stated charge is “doing evil.” In the illegal show trial before the high priest and the Jewish council recorded by both Matthew and Luke, the charge was blasphemy. The accusation brought against Jesus there concerned His claim to be God’s Son. That is a true piece of evidence. And if the facts don’t match the claim, then blasphemy is a right description of His claim. But His accusers know that correct or not, such a charge won’t get Him killed by the Roman authorities. They’ve got to make one that will work in a Roman civil court. In verse 30, it sounds like they are a bit vague, maybe fishing for what will work. But listen to what Pilate hears.

John 18:33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Are you the King? Indeed He is THE KING. Handel got this right in his composing of “Messiah.” He’s the King of Glory. He’s the One of whom Psalm 24 speaks when it says

Psalm 24:7 Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.

Psalm 24:8 Who is this King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!

Psalm 24:9 Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.

Psalm 24:10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory!

He, Jesus, is the promised Son of king David. He IS the promised eternal King. Of course, that is not what the accusers are insinuating. They are recasting their charge of blasphemy as a false charge of civil sedition. As far as Pilate is concerned, the Jews can have their silly religious disputes, as long as there is civil order. But the accusers make Jesus out to be a political figure, a threat to Roman rule.

John 18:34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”

John 18:35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”

Pilate is no Jew. And he has no evidence that Jesus is a political subversive. There was that strange parade into the city a few days ago, on Palm Sunday, but Pilate has no basis to know that Jesus was consciously fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9.

Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

And even if Pilate had understood what Jesus was doing, it was no political threat to Roman authority.

Jesus makes a complete answer to Pilate. Yes, He is THE KING. No, He is not guilty of sedition. He says:

John 18:36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

John 18:37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

John 18:38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.

Pilate renders an honest verdict on the sedition charge, and in the process speaks prophetically about Jesus. Indeed, there is absolutely NO guilt in Him. Here is the great righteous eternal King judged honestly and found innocent FOR HIMSELF. This is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

John 18:39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?”

John 18:40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.

The truth regarding Jesus is “not guilty on all charges” (both the blasphemy charge because He really IS God’s Son, and the trumped up civil sedition charge). But fallen humanity doesn’t want a righteous King. In our reprobate state, we don’t want to be ruled by a holy God. We’d rather pretend that we are gods and kings. That’s been the case since Genesis 3. So the cry is not for justice, but for injustice. Spare the unrepentant guilty rebel in the place of the Righteous One.

John 19:1 Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him.

John 19:2 And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe.

John 19:3 They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands.

John 19:4 Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.”

Maybe Pilate can appease the accusers by abusing and humiliating One he knows to be completely innocent. He doesn’t understand Jesus to be God, but he does know Him to be “not guilty.” So Pilate looks for a miserable human compromise that will abuse the truth but perhaps save him from the personal guilt of killing the Innocent.

John 19:5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!”

Behold THE MAN. Hear Pilate. He doesn’t really understand what he’s said, but we should. This is the perfect man, the second Adam. Here standing in “the dock” (in the defendant’s box) is the Son of God who is the Son of Man. The apparent defendant here is in Himself innocent of both blasphemy and sedition. But He’s not here for Himself, He’s here for humanity. He’s here for you and for me. He is personally NOT guilty of blasphemy against God nor rebellion against Caesar. BUT … you and I, in whose place He stands, certainly ARE guilty of both blasphemy and sedition against our Creator, the great I AM, the Alpha and Omega. “Behold THE MAN,” says Pilate.

John 19:6 When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.”

John 19:7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.”

Christ’s accusers pronounce their own verdict. They aren’t going to be satisfied with a little abuse and humiliation. They want this One, who has plainly claimed to be the Son of God, gone.

John 19:8 When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid.

John 19:9 He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.

Earlier, so that Pilate would know the truth in the case against Him personally, Jesus answered. He personally was innocent. But we are not, and as our representative He is not, and He doesn’t contest the proceedings. He doesn’t seek release. Isaiah prophesied

Isaiah 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

Jesus doesn’t demand justice for Himself, because He’s not here on His own behalf! He’s here in your place and mine, and He is receiving the just verdict regarding our sedition and rebellion against the I AM. Believers, there’s no defense that could or should be made on our account, and He’s silent. Of course.

John 19:10 So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?”

John 19:11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”

Pilate presumes he’s in control. But neither he nor the accusers are in charge. They are there in the providence of God. Isaiah was told hundreds of years before

Isaiah 53:10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring;

It was the will of the LORD to crush Him. This is in not in the hands of humanity.

John 19:12 From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”

The accusers apply the pressure of position and self-interest, implicitly threatening to report Pilate to Rome.

John 19:13 So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha.

Pilate’s earlier judgment was spoken more or less in private. Now he takes the official judgment seat. This is an elevated stone platform, out in the open, where verdict and sentence will be pronounced.

John 19:14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!”

“Behold your King.” In verse 5 Pilate correctly said, “Behold the MAN.” Now he correctly says, “Behold your King.” Before him is our representative who is also THE KING of glory. We must understand that in truth, it’s not Jesus who is on trial here. Pilate has already pronounced Jesus personally innocent. It is us in the person of His accusers on trial. It is fallen humanity whose guilt is about to be definitively established.

John 19:15 They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”

Our blood should run cold here. Listen to the self-condemnation of fallen humanity, the confession in open court! “We have no King but Caesar.” Except God grant faith and repentance, we will not be ruled by the real King. We’ll instead have one we make up. We’ll captain our own ship. Listen carefully. This is real sedition. This is real blasphemy. Human beings will reject the real King, who is also the real Man. Instead we’ll take Caesar to rule over us. We’ll put ourselves in the place of the King of Glory. Pilate, acting in official capacity, lets them have their chosen self-judgment. He doesn’t have to utter the verdict. Christ is going to be killed and bear the punishment, but the real guilt and real judgment is on rebellious seditious blasphemous humanity. And while Pilate allows it, the confession and implied judgment is spoken by the chief priests. Pilate doesn’t need to say who is “guilty.” It comes from the lips of the priests. Humanity is, by its own declaration, guilty.

But now, the awesome and wondrous central surprise that is going to unfold here is that the just punishment that rightly accompanies the judgment is not to be suffered by the guilty, but by the Innocent, by our righteous King.

John 19:16 So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus,

John 19:17 and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.

“He went out,” outside the city. It was against Jewish law to conduct an execution inside the city. And the Old Testament sin offering on the Day of Atonement was carried out “outside the camp.” (See Leviticus 16:27.) Jesus, the real and permanent sin offering for all repentant humanity, is taken outside the city. He is likely bearing the cross piece, and in this act fulfilling the Old Testament type/shadow of Isaac carrying the wood upon which Abraham had been commanded to sacrifice him.

John 19:18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.

Fulfilling the words of Isaiah:

Isaiah 53:12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.

John 19:19 Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

John 19:20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek.

It was standard to put a sign above a criminal’s head or around his neck giving the charge against him, and the official charge against Jesus was political sedition. Ironically, the false charge provides a true declaration of His identity. It’s written in 3 different languages, for all to read. This Jesus is King of the Jews. He is the King of Glory.

John 19:21 So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’ ”

John 19:22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”

John 19:23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom,

When they had crucified Jesus … Notice what John does and doesn’t emphasize. Crucifixion was a horrible, shameful, cruel death reserved for the worst of offenders. But the Gospels are purposely short on gory details. Their intent is not to evoke our sympathy for Jesus, but rather to show us who Jesus is and what He did on our behalf.

It is fair to see here that Jesus is no stranger to our pain and misery. But the deep horror of this scene isn’t the brutality of the death. Many humans suffer awful deaths, including two others crucified this day. The central point here, the horror, is the wrath of the Father and separation from Him poured out on the Son, rather than on you and me, as He willingly bears the guilt of our sin.

John 19:24 so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” So the soldiers did these things,

John 19:25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

John 19:26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!”

John 19:27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

John 19:28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”

“All” was now finished. Everything that the Father had given Him to do is finished. And in fulfillment of prophecy, Jesus, the only source of living water is thirsty.

Psalm 22:15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

Psalm 42:2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?

John 19:29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.

Psalm 69:21 They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.

Hyssop had a prominent place in the Old Testament, where it was closely connected to atonement for sin.

Psalm 51:7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

In Exodus 12:22 hyssop was prescribed for spreading the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts. In Numbers 19 it was prescribed for sprinkling the blood of the red heifer sacrificed outside the Israelite camp for the purification from sin. Here it figures in the substitutionary death of the King of Glory.

John 19:30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

IT is finished. All that the Father had given Him to do is complete. The great work of redemption/your salvation and mine, the perfect keeping of the Law, all of the Old Testament prophecies, all of the types of the Old Testament ceremonies, all of His sufferings, all of IT is finished.

Jesus “gave up his spirit.” Make no mistake, this is a very unusual description of death. You and I don’t “yield up our spirits.” But this is the Son of God and HE is in control of all this.

John 19:31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.

The legs are broken to hasten death. In accord with Deuteronomy 21:22-23, the bodies were to be taken down before nightfall.

John 19:32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him.

John 19:33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.

John 19:34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.

What the soldier intends here isn’t completely obvious. Perhaps he’s prodding Jesus to verify that He’s dead, and in this we know that Jesus really died dead. This was no swoon. But what is most important is the sign that comes through this action. This sign points back to the promise that Jesus would give the Spirit.

John 7:38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ”

John 7:39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

There is living water flowing from Jesus. This is the fulfillment of the Exodus 17:6 picture of Moses striking the rock and water pouring forth. The event fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah:

Zechariah 13:1 On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.

Jesus Himself has opened the fountain of water that cleanses from sin and uncleanness.

John 19:35 He who saw it has borne witness— his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth— that you also may believe.

This is important. In 1st John, John writes:

1John 5:6 This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.

1John 5:7 For there are three that testify:

1John 5:8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.

There’s water and blood. Water is associated in Scripture with the Holy Spirit, with cleansing, and with life. Blood is associated with atonement and forgiveness, and the sacrificial death of a substitute to secure them. In the crucifixion these come together. There is water and blood. In death for our sedition and blasphemy, our great King brought cleansing, life, the Spirit, and full atonement. Those are not separate matters. Indeed, you cannot separate them. There is no real life without provision for sin. And both are aspects of His cross.

John emphasizes that this Jesus is the real sacrificial Passover Lamb and the righteous Man.

John 19:36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.”

Speaking of the Passover Lamb, Exodus 12 says:

Exodus 12:46 It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones.

And speaking of the Righteous Man that the LORD watches over, David prophesies:

Psalm 34:19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.

Psalm 34:20 He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.

John 19:37 And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”

This is a loose quotation from Zechariah 12:10.

Zechariah 12:10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.

Zechariah sees God pierced by the apostasy of Israel, and the people mourning over what they have done, pleading for mercy, and somehow being moved by a spirit of grace. Jesus, God’s Son, has been pierced by the sin of all humanity. We ought to see the cross, mourn the enormity of our sin, plead for mercy, and rejoice in the grace of our relief.

In the death of the Innocent King of Glory, the real guilt of human rebellion/blasphemy/treason against God was judged. As our substitute, Jesus, bore its horrible just punishment. In that act, He provided life, cleansing/justification, atonement, and the Holy Spirit for all who will repent and believe. This is the center of our faith, Christian believers.

Thanks be to our great, glorious, and merciful King. Amen!

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on John 18:28-40

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is a short lesson on John’s account of the trial of Jesus before Pilate.

John 18:28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.

There is awful irony here.  The officials have illegally and unjustly decided on Jesus’s condemnation.  Yet here they are scrupulously keeping the finest details of the Sabbath/Passover law.  They’re in the midst of the most awful thing they could possibly be doing and they’re worrying about ritual defilement.  This is completely absurd.  Ryle quoting Poole here said, “Nothing is more common than for persons overzealous about rituals to be remiss about morals.”  In any case, they come to Pilate.

29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 

There is a reasonable amount known about Pilate from secular historians.  He ruled Judea from AD 26 through AD 36.  The historian Philo tells about his robbery, murder and inhumanity.  Josephus tells of his blunders of government and atrocities.  In Luke 13:1 we can read of a slaughter of Galileans that was his doing.

Pilate says, “What accusation”/charges?”  This seems like a formal/legal proceeding though it is illegal.

30 They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” 

This has an arrogant tone about it.  They didn’t like this man and were on the edge of insulting him and his authority.

31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” 

Roman occupation forces upheld local law, but reserved the right of capital punishment.  Implicit here is the idea that the Jews are going to ask for death on grounds that Pilate will recognize as a capital offense.  They’re going to charge political insurrection.  Pilate, for his part, is afraid to cross the mob and would like to avoid the case.  He’s smart enough to know that there was no chance that they’d be clamoring for the death of one whose plan was to throw off Roman rule.

32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

If the Jews had executed Jesus, it would have been by stoning.  Jesus has said it would be otherwise.

John 12:32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 

33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

John is speaking in sync with Jesus’s own words.

John 18:33  So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 

Are you a political rebel?  The title that Pilate uses, “King of the Jews,” is a title used by the last truly independent rulers (the Hasmonean priest/kings) before the arrival of the Romans in Palestine.

34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 

There is a double meaning here.  As Pilate is thinking, the title “king” means political rebel.  Prophetically it means “messianic king.”  Jesus is  not asking this question to gain information.  He’s asking to force Pilate to consider the shameful injustice of this whole situation.  It’s the same kind of question as “Adam, where are you?” in the garden.

35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 

Pilate disavows any firsthand knowledge of what’s gone on.  Instead he asks “What have you done?” claiming that this will answer the question whether Jesus is a threat to Roman rule.

36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 

Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate directly.  Rather, he begins to explain to Pilate the nature of His kingship.  He says plainly that His kingdom is not a temporal one supported by armies and taxes and the trappings of earthly power.  It is a real kingship, in fact the most real kingship, for sure … but not the kind of kingship that Pilate should worry about as a political threat.  Pilate doesn’t pay attention.

37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world— to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 

Pilate says “So you are a king and therefore a political threat” … Jesus says “No, listen.  I’m not a politician.  I’m here to testify about Truth .  I AM the Truth.”  There is an implicit challenge to Pilate in what Jesus says to respond to that Truth.  Pilate wants to reduce all to politics and power here and now.  Jesus won’t let him do that.

38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 

Pilate is impatient and is turning from the Truth.  The big questions of life are not really of interest to him.  He dismisses them as of no account.  He breaks off the conversation, uninterested in any answer to his question.  Compare what Proverbs has to say about Wisdom.

Proverbs 2:4  if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures,

5 then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.

Pilate is instead a “practical” man.  He tries to remain neutral between Jesus/the Truth and the world/the Jewish accusers.  He looks for an easy way out.  He’d like there to be some middle ground.

39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 

In Pilate’s mind, the plan here is that everyone gets what he wants.  He declares Jesus guilty and worthy of death.  That makes the Jews happy.  Then they turn around and choose to have Him released and Pilate doesn’t have His blood on his hands.  Everyone goes home happy … crooked, but happy.  But the knot-headed Jews won’t play ball.

40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.

This is terribly ironic.  The Jews have presented Jesus (who is morally innocent) as a political rebel (which they know He is not).  They end up asking for the release of a real political rebel who is morally guilty of murder and under no interpretation of their won Jewish law should be released.  Pilate, by his trying to remain neutral, ends up doing something contrary to his own interests, releasing a real threat to Roman rule.  When we set out to suppress the Truth, the consequences are always insane.  And this is turning crazy.

It is also a picture of the substitution of Christ for all of us.  We all stand in the place of Barabbas, genuinely guilty and worthy of death.  And Christ died the death we ought to have died.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.