In the book of Judges, seven times the people are said to do “the evil” in the sight of the Lord. While most English translations ignore the definite article, preferring to translate it as “evil” or “evil things,” the Hebrew text clearly presents the term as a definite noun. The authors of this book of the Bible do not explicitly refer to that which this phrase refers, but context most commonly implies that it is a reference to the idolatry of the people of Israel.
When we look for the same phrase, “the evil” or חָרַע (hara), in the rest of the Hebrew Canon, one discovers that there are numerous things that God views as “the evil” and perhaps, it might be suggested, this understanding helps to shed light on Jesus’ language of asking God to delver us from “the evil” or τοῦ πονηροῦ (tou ponerou) in Matthew 6:13. In other words, asking God not to deliver us into temptation but to especially protect us from those sins in this category. References where “the evil” is given more specific definition are found below:
Exodus 33:4 — “the evil word” in context is the news that God was refusing to go with the people due to his idolatry.
Numbers 32:13 — “the evil” is a reference to not trusting God in the wilderness
Deuteronomy 4:25 — making carved images is referred to as “the evil”
Deuteronomy 9:18 — the people worshiping the Golden Calf was “the evil”
Deuteronomy 13:12 — Leading others into idolatry
Deuteronomy 17:2,5,7 — serving idols (note that here the death penalty is mandated for idolatry)
Deuteronomy 19:19-20 — being a malicious witness — conspiring against another
Deuteronomy 21:21 — the rebellious son
Deuteronomy 22:21 — the immoral daughter
Deuteronomy 22:24 — adulterers
Deuteronomy 24:7 — taking a Jew as a slave or selling a Jew into slavery
Deuteronomy 30:15 — here we have “the good” contrasted with “the evil” — obeying God in contrast to serving an idol
Joshua 23:15 — idolatry
1 Samuel 15:19 — Failing to destroy Agog
2 Samuel 12:9 — David’s adultery and the murder of Uriah
2 Samuel 14:17 — once again we find “the good” contrasted with “the evil” — right from wrong, in this case it is a statement that the wisdom of David is akin to the wisdom of the Angel of the Lord
1 Kings 11:6 — Solomon’s pursuit of idols
1 Kings 14:22 — The idolatry of Judah under Rehoboam
1 Kings 15:26 — King Nadab of Israel’s idolatry
1 Kings 15:34 — King Baasha of Israel’s idolatry
1 Kings 16:19; 16:25; 16:30 — more idolatry of the kings
1 Kings 21:20,25 — King Ahab’s idolatry instigated by Jezebel
1 Kings 22:52 — King Ahaziah’s idolatry
2 Kings 3:2; 8:18,27; 13:2,11; 14:24; 15:9,18,24,28; 17:2 — more idolatry from the kings
2 Kings 17:17 — burning sons and daughters in sacrifice to Molech
2 Kings 21:2 — following the practices of pagan nations
2 Kings 21:6,15-16,20; 23:32,37; 24:9,19 — more idolatry
2 Chronicles 12:14; 21:6; 22:4; 29:6; 33:2,6,22; 36:5,9,12 — more idolatry
Esther 7:6 — Haman is the evil
Nehemiah 13:17 — profaning the Sabbath is the evil
Job 2:10 — being under judgment
Psalm 51:4 — adultery and murder
Psalm 54:5,7 — to be under God’s judgment
Ecclesiastes 4:3 — better off is one who has never seen “the evil” deeds (be careful little eyes what you see)
Isaiah 5:20 — “Woe to those who call the evil Good”
Isaiah 65:12; 66:4 — idolatry
Jeremiah 3:17; 7:24; 11:8; 18:12; 32:30; 52:2 — the evil in their hearts is idolatry
Jeremiah 18:10 — the evil is not listening to God’s voice…in light of this, woe to those who claim to be Christians yet choose to ignore the Word of God
Jeremiah 23:22 — speaks of “the evil way”
Ezekiel 13:22 — “the evil way”
Micah 7:3 — idolatry
There is no debating that idolatry is the recurring theme that runs through these passages and indeed, idolatry destroys the people of God and the communities in which we dwell. And even though it is uncommon here in the west to run into people with large idols in their yards or homes, westerners make idols out of so many other things as well: performers, athletes, their wealth, a car or other precious item, etc… Anything that draws you away from having God and focusing on seeing Christ’s kingdom grow, that is an idol in your life. And these things are not just evil in God’s eyes, they are “the evil.” Pray that God delivers you from “the evil” that is in your life — is that not indeed, the heart of Jesus’ prayer?
Yet, we must notice that there are other things that are equally destructive and are “the evil” in God’s eyes. Things like not trusting God, lying, conspiring against the people of God, sexual immorality, murder, calling evil good, and not listening to the Word of God. How often do people turn a blind eye to dishonoring the Sabbath — in the eyes of God, it is “the evil.” Then we have the sacrifice of children to Molech. Indeed, that is another expression of idolatry, but it also contains the idea of the murder of one’s own offspring. How awful a notion that is, yet it is tolerated in society and in many churches.
Finally, there is the sin of following the ways of other nations. That had obvious implications in the lives of those people who lived in ancient Israel but the sin often goes overlooked in the church today. It is commonplace for the church to incorporate pagan traditions into their public worship. Churches often draw from the practices of nature worship, nation worship, and entertainment. How many church holidays have simply been appropriated from secular sources or other religious traditions. When art, drama, organized dance, and patriotism are incorporated into the worship of God’s people, are they not guilty of this? That does not mean that art, dance, drama, and patriotism are bad things in and of themselves; they just do not belong in the worship of God’s people.
“In Him we have deliverance through His blood — liberation from trespasses — according to the riches of His grace, which abounds to us in all wisdom and understanding,”
While we talk a lot about grace in the Christian world (and rightly so!), before we do so in this context, it seems appropriate to first ask the question as to why Paul refers to this grace as “rich” or “abundant.” It certainly sounds nice and many of the hymns that are sung speak of God’s amazing grace, but why is Paul making such a big deal of the notion here? Is this just flowery language to create a nice flow and rhythm for the Ephesian Christians? Or, is there something more.
The word in question is the Greek word, πλοῦτος (ploutos), which is the word we get “plutocrat” (someone whose power comes from their wealth) and “plutocracy” (rule by the wealthy). On the most basic level, in Greek, it translates as wealth, abundance, and as plenty — implying that it will not and cannot run dry. It is like the oil and flour of the widow of Zerephath (1 Kings 17:8-16) whose water and oil did not run out. So too is God’s grace, Paul is saying, the implication of his words are this: that no matter how grievous your sin may be, grace is plentiful — it can fill the gap.
Sometimes people ask the question, “can God forgive even me?” The answer is, “yes!” The reason that the answer is an affirmative is because Grace is abundant…it is πλοῦτος, to borrow Paul’s language. Just as the oil and flour did not run out, no matter how many times the widow dipped into it, God’s grace for his people will not wear out no matter how badly or how often we have sinned.
Is that a license, then, to sin all the more? To use Paul’s language again, “Shall we sin all the more so that grace shall abound?” That almost sounds like a reasonable answer. It might be reasonable if we did not also understand the notion of being liberated from our trespasses, of which Paul speaks in the previous verse. We are the slaves who have been bought at a tremendous price, to go back to our sin would be to go back into the wretchedness of our slavery. And since, our slavery bound us to death (Romans 6:23), then we are binding ourselves to the tomb once again. And thus, we again say with the Apostle Paul, “May it never be! How can we who have died to sin still live in it?” Indeed, it would be like those Israelites in the book of Numbers who constantly wanted to go back into bondage in Egypt. How harshly God dealt with those who despised his grace like that! They were swallowed into the earth, burned by fire, bitten by poisonous serpents, and plagued by diseases that took their lives and sent them into judgment. They tasted the goodness of the manna in the wilderness (which points to Christ!) and they spat it out, preferring the slop of the Egyptian gruel. Even the prodigal son came to his senses when he had to eat with pigs.
Until you really come to terms with the depth of your sin and depravity, you will never come to terms with the depth of God’s grace, which is deeper still. Unless the Law is preached and we truly come to terms with who we are and with our wretched state before God, grace will just be one more word that is thrown around in the church and sung about in the hymns. It should be noted that God’s grace is not reserved for those who will understand or appreciate it — that’s not how grace works. At the same time, it is my conviction that those who genuinely receive it will appreciate it and seek to understand its implications all the more in their lives.
“In Him we have deliverance through His blood — liberation from trespasses — according to the riches of His grace, which abounds to us in all wisdom and understanding,”
Do we really think of our deliverance from sins as “liberation”? Sadly, I fear that we do not. In America today, we don’t have much personal experience with slavery in a formal sense and we are accustomed to having freedoms to move and go where we wish. During my years in seminary, I worked with homeless men, many of whom were drug addicts and former drug addicts. Particularly amongst the latter group, I got a taste for the gratitude that comes along with being delivered from this horrible addiction. Today, there are many that are addicted to other sorts of sins — pornography, for example, and gambling. Therein, we can also get a sense of what it means to be delivered from something oppressive. And the most basic response to real deliverance is gratitude.
Genuine gratitude is easy to see. It shows in the way people live and in their change of thinking. It shows in their desire to please the one who has delivered them. Think of how people often respond (and rightly so) to first responders who deliver them from the jaws of death, whether it be from a fire or an accident somewhere. People go to great lengths to honor those first responders as a demonstration of their gratitude. And again, it is right and proper to do so. Yet, what does our gratitude toward God look like with respect to this great salvation that is offered in Jesus Christ? How do we show our gratitude for His delivering us? Sadly, we often don’t.
Our gratitude or ingratitude toward God for this deliverance is proportional to how seriously we take our sin and its consequences. If we really recognize that our sins (even the “little” ones) are outward rebellion against God and are worthy of the fires of eternal hell, then we will show much gratitude. But, if we look at our sins as nothing more than bad habits that need to be addressed and corrected through therapy or will-power, then our lives will hardly be marked by the gratitude we are called to give. They will be marked by an obedience to God that is pragmatic (this seems to work for me) and that is is not fundamental to one’s very existence. We will never see this deliverance as something that truly comes from the “riches” of God’s grace until we really come to terms with this notion of being delivered from our bondage to sin and death.
“In Him we have deliverance through His blood — liberation from trespasses — according to the riches of His grace, which abounds to us in all wisdom and understanding,”
To start with, let’s talk about the idea of deliverance. In context, Paul parallels the idea with the phrase, “liberation from trespasses,” giving us a degree of additional clarity as to specifically the kind of deliverance that the Apostle has in mind. The word in question is ἀπολύτρωσις (apolutrosis), which most commonly refers to paying a ransom to free someone from slavery or bondage. The next logical answer to ask, then, is “what kind of bondage are believers delivered from?” The answer is found in Paul’s clarification — from our bondage to sin.
One of the errors that crept into medieval theology was the notion that the ransom payment for believers was paid to the devil. Yet, we are not bound by the devil, we are bound by our sin. Further, the devil has no rightful or legitimate claim upon us as if he were some sort of equal power with God (that would be Manicheanism). No, we are bound by our sin and it is the Law that reveals our sin (Romans 7:7) and thus, any ransom that is made is ransom to the Law. In turn, then, given that the remission of sin requires the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22), then the ransom paid is not one of gold or silver or other forms of wealth, the ransom was made in blood…namely the blood of the one who has ransomed us from the bondage of sin before the Law.
The real issue that Christians too often struggle with today is that they do not see their sin as a form of bondage. Worse, some even see grace as a license to sin! Paul is very clear that such is not the view of the believer (Romans 6:1-2). Sin, all too sadly, is soft-pedaled in churches. It is seen as “not that bad” because there are others who are far more sinful than they. Thus, church discipline, too, has been put to the side. If sin is not that big of a deal, why take it so seriously as that? And the circle of cause and effect spirals downward.
Sin, even the smallest and most “insignificant” of sins, is bondage to us according to the Biblical text. Even the most minor “little white lie” would have cost Jesus his life upon that cross on Golgotha. Woe to those who will not treat it as such. Woe to the ones who excuse and justify their pet sins and an abundance of woes to the ones who look upon sin and call it by any other name. When one justifies sin, one justifies remaining in bondage and even celebrates the bondage of others.
Loved ones, do you not see that your sin binds you? Do you not recognize the toll it takes on your life? Do you not realize that obedience to the Law in Christ is a blessed freedom, not something that robs us of all our fun. You must realize that in heaven we will be unable to sin — unable! Yet, shall we be any more free than when we are in glory? Most certainly not! How sin has so muddled our brains that we would think of bondage as good and of freedom as unstimulating and tedious.
In Christ we have been redeemed from our bondage to sin just as the Israelites who followed Moses were redeemed from their bondage to the toil of Pharaoh’s work details. Sadly, just as there were complainers under Moses, people constantly nostalgic for the stewpots of Egypt, there are Christians in the body of Christ who likewise pine for their pet chains and shackles of sin. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free from our slavery (Galatians 5:1), shall we not enjoy and rejoice in the freedom that Christ has sacrificed to provide for us?
“Predestining us for adoption through Jesus Christ into Him, according to the pleasure of His will,”
Predestination is one of those words that often causes people to recoil. The funny thing is that the Bible uses the term six times in the New Testament, so somewhere along the way, people need to wrestle through the word, what it means, and how it relates to God and mankind. The Greek word in question is προορίζω (proorizo), which very literally means, “to decide upon something beforehand.”
One might contest that you and I also decide to do things beforehand. We plan out road trips and vacations weeks or months in advance, deciding that on such and such a day we will go to this place or eat dinner at that restaurant. Yet, we already know from the context of this passage that the choosing, or electing, work of God is something that took place before the foundation of the earth. Thus, the context of this deciding also must be understood as a pre-creation decision. So, before anyone existed, before anyone could do anything good or bad, before the Fall of Adam took place, God had decided to adopt his chosen elect through Jesus Christ and His work.
Some have suggested that perhaps this pre-deciding is something that took place on the basis of God’s foreknowledge. Given that God knew all things that would or could happen (in philosophical terms, that is what we call God’s knowledge of all “eventualities”), they suggest that God, on the basis of that knowledge, just chose those who would eventually choose him. The nature of God that such a response presents is as unsatisfying as it is unBiblical. It presents God as responding to our actions like a human would respond to the actions of others and it strips God of any claim of sovereignty over history, let alone, over human salvation. He merely knows the things we will do and responds accordingly. It is only the illusion of sovereignty that such a view attributes to God. If you or I could somehow look into the future and discover who won the World Series, would that knowledge imply that we had any control over the victor of those games? No, it would not.
Others have suggested that as God is outside of time, he looks on all time and space simultaneously and similarly elects those who come to faith. While it is true that God is outside of time, this view presents the time and space continuum, as it were, as something that exists in its own right and is thus eternal as God is eternal. That would ultimately be a view propounded by gnostics over the years and is entirely unbiblical once again. The creation owes its very existence to God (Colossians 1:16), so how could it ever be said that it is co-eternal with God? Some would grant the error of Gnosticism, but would say that once God created all things, he took a step back as a passive observer, allowing the creation to run along on its own. This would be the error of Deism and is in contradiction to the very next verse which I cited just above, for Colossians 1:17 speaks of Christ holding all things together — actively engaging in the maintenance of the creation, not passively watching to see what it is that we will do.
Not only is such an idea contrary to the plain reading of Scripture, who would wish to worship such a God, if he could ever truly claim the title of being God at all? Here, he is portrayed as an all-knowing God, but one who is impotent to do anything or ordain anything in history. He is a slave, as it were, to what he knows to take place. In some senses, it makes God subservient to creation and not the Author, Keeper, and Lord of it. Woe to those who present God in ways that are so contrary to the way that God presents himself in Scripture and woe to those who settle for such a lowly God to worship.
Instead, the Scriptures present God as a God who knows all things because he has predestined and preordained all things to take place. The Scriptures present a God who is indeed not bound by time and space, but who has created it for His purposes and who governs it through his works and providence. The Scriptures presents us with a God who is absolutely and unapologetically sovereign over all things that take place, both great and small and who is surprised by nothing not simply because he has perfect foresight, but because he has ordained all things that come to pass (Ephesians 1:11). While many feel uncomfortable with such a depiction of God, that it constrains their free will, they need to recognize that this is the way God has presented himself and the wills that they so celebrate are bent and warped and twisted by sin, constraining them not just to bad behavior but to bad thoughts about their creator. While God may indeed conform our wills to His, his doing so is not a matter of constraint in a negative way, it is a matter of helping us conform to what is True and good for us in the first place.
Think about it in this manner — it is in heaven that we will be most free, yet we will be unable to sin in heaven and we will only be able to do what is right and good and pleasing to God. So where is your glorious human “free will” in that context? I present to you that what most people champion as a “free will” is nothing short of a will in bondage to sin. A truly free will is not one that can make any choice in any situation, but one that makes a choice in conformity to God’s will in all situations.
If you have grown up in the church, you know that the only just punishment for sin is Hell. You also know that Hell is described in the Bible in three general ways — a separation from all goodness that God brings to existence (2 Peter 2:4), positive retribution for our sins (Mark 9:47-49), and a process of eternal destruction and dying without ever being annihilated (Matthew 10:28). But, sometimes people ask, why does it have to be eternal (Matthew 25:41)? Are our sins that bad that they deserve eternal condemnation? The answer, of course, is yes — this indeed is the testimony of the Scriptures. But again, the question before us is “why”?
Perhaps an analogy is helpful. Do you realize that the one against whom you commit a crime determines (at least in part) the severity of the crime? For example, if I walk down the street of our local town of Zelienople and punch someone in the nose, I will get in trouble (rightly so!). Since I do not have a criminal record, though, I probably would just be given a slap on the wrist, perhaps a fine, and maybe even some community service. If I happened to break the other person’s nose, then I would probably have to pay any medical expenses.
But imagine the difference in the scenario had I walked up to a police officer and punched him in the nose…or to the mayor. The punishment would be more severe and lengthy, would it not? Now, imagine again that I did the same thing, but I did so to the president of the United States. Now, I might be locked up in prison for a season (if not longer!). Can you see how the severity of the crime is greater given the importance of the person offended?
Let’s build on the analogy, though, and shift the offense from an active crime to a matter of disrespect. Imagine that I am walking through downtown Zelienople during Horse Trading Days (a local community event where craftsmen and artisans show their wares. Now imagine me walking by a painting by a local student — it is skillfully done, but will probably never hang in a museum. Now, imagine that as I walk by I mock the painting and the one who painted it. That would be quite disrespectful, but how much more disrespectful it would be were there a world-class painter showing his or her wares and I did the same?
To go even further, imagine that you invite me over for a meal and you have worked the day away in the kitchen preparing the meal to your best ability. It would be disrespectful were I not to show my gratitude for the meal and my appreciation for your creation. Yet imagine that you were a world renown chef and had done the same thing. Would it not be even more disrespectful were I to have shown contempt for his or her skillful labors?
The point is that God is infinitely more powerful than the President of the United States. And, his work is infinitely more praiseworthy than the greatest painter in the history of mankind or of the greatest chef that the world has ever produced. He is God! That means that the punishment for our sin against God — whether that sin is an active offense, a matter of scorn, or that of passively neglecting to honor Him with worship for his greatness — is infinitely more severe than a sin we could commit against another human. And since the sin is infinite in its greatness, it only suits that the punishment is infinite in its severity and duration.
And, we also need to be reminded that every sin that we commit against man is a sin that we also commit against God (Psalm 51:4). And so, just as the punishment issued by a righteous judge is commiserate with the crime and cumulative on the basis of the number of crimes committed, our punishment for sin is eternity plus eternity plus eternity in an infinite progression given our countless sins against God, against his name, against his creation, and against his people. And so, hell is eternal — “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the Law” (Deuteronomy 27:26).
“Indeed, there is not a man who is righteous on the earth who does good and does not sin.”
Boy, this sounds an awful lot like the Apostle Paul when he writes:
“What then? Are we in a more prominent position? By all means, no! For both Jews and Greeks are already found guilty under sin, just as it is written: ‘No one is righteous, not even one; no one is understanding, no one searches diligently for God.’
Gee, it seems as if Solomon has a pretty good handle of the basics of the Gospel…Paul will go on and write:
For all have sinned and failed to reach the glory of God, but are justified freely in his grace through the redemption of Christ Jesus whom God sent as propitiation through faith in his blood, which is a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of sins that were done beforehand, in the clemency of God to demonstrate his righteousness in this time — to be just and justifier of him who has faith in Jesus.
Truly, Paul takes this further than does Solomon and leads us to Jesus Christ the Messiah, but Solomon understands the problem that is at the heart of the existence of man (see also 1 Kings 8:46 at the dedication of the Temple). We sin. We cannot, no matter how good we try and be, merit heaven. It just is not possible.
And so Solomon makes it very clear to us that we will all fall short — we will sin and miss the mark of God’s perfection. This, of course, is not an excuse for failure to live with integrity nor is it a justification for our sin. It is a reminder of the reality that we need one to redeem us from our sins.
All too often, people think of the Gospel as only a New Testament thing, yet, it is impossible to understand the Gospel apart from the Old Testament. Contrary to those who suggest that we “unhitch” from the Old Testament, we must be assured that if we cast off the Old Testament as irrelevant or inapplicable, we enter into heresy and we render the work of Christ in the New Testament worthless. They are dangerous grounds on which folk such as that stand.
People sometimes ask me how a book that is several thousand years old can still be relevant to life. The answer is simple and is found here. No one does good without sin. No one. We all fall short of the glory of God. And because we all sin, no matter our culture, our upbringing, or our pedigree, we all share the same problem: “How are we reconciled to God?” The only answer is Jesus Christ. And the Bible is the only place that answer can be found. That makes the Bible the most relevant book that mankind has ever seen and a gift of God’s grace to fallen man. Too bad so many people despise and ignore this book (even some who profess to be Christians!).
“And Ehud went out of the window and he had closed the doors to the upper room behind him and secured them.”
Once again, depending on how you understand the visual imagery of what is going on will depend on how you translate this passage. For example, some commentators who interpret NØwdVv√rAÚp (parshedon) in the previous verse to Eglon’s dung coming out of him have presumed that this upper room was a place to go to the bathroom in the first place. Preferring to translate h…ÎyˆlSo (aliyyah) as “upper room” (as discussed above), I would simply see this as a cooler place to go after official activities were through. That means that the term NØwr;√dVsIm (misderon) as essentially a window — the opening in the upper room through which the breeze comes in and out to cool the space, not some sort of porch or ventilation shaft as some have suggested.
Yet, before Ehud leaves, he secures the doors so that others cannot easily come in to Eglon’s rescue while Ehud makes his escape. And thus, our hero is off, preparing to rendezvous with his soldiers and secure the victory over their wicked oppressors…leaving behind the body of the wicked king in a shameful condition…God’s judgment upon those who oppress his people.
It strikes me as interesting, noting accounts like this, that anyone would ever want to oppress God’s people. It always turns out bad for the oppressor. But knowing this full well, nation after nation, government after government, association after association have oppressed God’s elect through the ages. It is as if they said to themselves, “I know I’ll probably meet a terrible end for doing this, but I want to do this anyway.” Then again, isn’t that the mindset of ever sin we commit as well? God says , “no, don’t do this.” Yet, as Christians, we so often do it anyway. In eternity we may be forgiven in Christ, but God often disciplines us to break of us of these practices that dishonor his name.
For us, this is a passage that not only ought to encourage us as we face trials and oppressions in this life, but also one that ought to warn us against excusing sin, for God will call us to task on these matters. The clay must honor the design of the potter.
“And so the nose of Yahweh burned toward Israel and he sold them into the hand of Cushan Rishathayim, king of Aram Naharayim. And the Sons of Israel served Cushan Rishathayim for eight years. The Sons of Israel cried out to Yahweh and Yahweh raised up a deliverer for Israel who delivered them — Othniel, the son of Qenaz, who was the younger brother of Caleb.”
We now move from matters that are introductory into the actual history of the people during the era of the judges. The first enemy comes from Mesopotamia (the interpretation of MˆyårShÅn — Naharayim from the LXX), to the northeast. The people are oppressed by him for a period of eight years and then they cry out to the Lord and he raises up a deliverer (some translations — “a savior” — same word), who happens to be someone we have already met from the original conquest (see Judges 1:13): Othniel, Caleb’s brother.
This first cycle of sin will serve as a model or paradigm as to what a Judge should be and do and how the people are to respond. The reality is that the people will continue this cycle of sin and the Judges will not ever reach as high as did Othniel before them. This is the best it gets in what becomes a dark time.
What should strike us is the duration of time that God permitted the people to suffer for their sins before he raised up Othniel. To us, eight years must seem like an eternity. Yet, in an eternal perspective, particularly in comparison to the seriousness of the people’s sins, the permission that God gave to Cushan Rishathayim to oppress his people is comparatively short and extraordinarily gracious. Remember, it is Hell that we deserve…it is Hell that we always deserve, yet God shows himself eternally gracious.
What must not be missed regarding these cycles of sin and deliverance is that we (the church) have changed little. We cry out for a deliverer but are all too often unwilling to repent of that sin which placed us under God’s hand of judgment. We neither hate our sin nor view our sin as seriously as God views our sin. And what shall we say for ourselves? Perhaps we should plead to God, “help us to repent and love you in deed as well as word.”
“The five Lords of the Philistines and all the Canaanites and the Sidonians and the Chivites who dwell in Mount Lebanon — from Mount Ba’al-Chermon as far as Lebo-Chamath. They were for the training of Israel to know whether they would obey the commands of Yahweh which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses.”
To us, this repetition might seem redundant. To others, they may justify the repetition due to the ancient world being predominantly an oral culture. Yet, let us also not lose sight of the fact that these words are also recorded for us…we who need the reminder that God expects and even demands obedience from us. He expects that we be obedient to His commands that have been handed down through the generations.
The reality is that our corporate memories are as short as these ancient Israelites. It is kind of sad, isn’t it? As a result, the Israelites are surrounded by pagans and live with pagans in their midst. As a result, the church in America today is also surrounded by pagans and we have pagans again in our midst. How little times change because how little the sinful heart of man changes. Thus, we need the same reminders.
“And so, Yahweh raised up Judges for them and Yahweh was with the Judge and saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the Judge, for Yahweh was grieved by their groaning caused by those who oppressed them and crowded them out. But at the death of the Judge, they returned and behaved corruptly (in contrast to their fathers) and went after other gods to serve them and bow before them. They did not abandon their deeds or their impudent ways.”
In some senses, there seems little to say about these verses, though they speak volumes about the nature of man and about the character of God. The reality is that, like the people of Israel, apart from a savior, we are helpless to do anything but to fall into sin. The good news is that unlike the Judges of old, which came and delivered for a season, Jesus promises never to leave nor to forsake us.
Even so, God often allows oppressors to enter into our midst to teach us reliance on Him and not on our own strength. Even as I have often told my children with respect to challenges they face in life, it is typically those things that are difficult that God uses to grow us and to mature us the most greatly.
Moving from the personal to the level of Christ’s church, these verses also highlight the importance that a church have both godly leaders and a godly pastor. For when the leadership of the church fades, the people will pursue sin. History is marked by numerous examples of churches and even whole denominations that have drifted into sin because their leaders have not been vigilant to govern the church according to the Scriptures. And once these institutions fall into apostasy, the people will rarely abandon their wicked deeds or their impudent ways.
“And Joshua, the son of Nun, the servant of Yahweh, died; a son of a hundred and ten years.”
As humans we are tempted to think ourselves immortal and to cling to the things of this earth with clenched fists. Yet, this earth is passing away and our immortality is often not how we imagine it to be. Indeed, we will live forever and resurrected bodies are promised to all — though those who are not born-again believers in Jesus Christ will be resurrected to eternal torment. How we have our lives upside down, though, clinging to that which cannot last and neglecting that which does. And then again, even that tendency is a result of the fall and our sin.
Thus the theme, “and he died,” is pronounced through the scriptures and is one that yet haunts us today. Too many people die way too young and many more, though they grow old, suffer maladies which do not permit them to live like they would like. And that reality, as grim as it is, is designed to point us back to Christ, for in Him is the only solution to death and the grief that accompanies death. For in Christ is life and life eternal…and not eternal life in this frail and fallen world, either. We are promised eternal life in a remade heavens and earth that will be free from the devastation of the Fall. For that we wait in hope, but for now, we grow old and die as a reminder to those who follow us of mankind’s sad state.
“We do not want you to be without knowledge, brethren, regarding those who sleep, in order that you may not grieve as others do, even as those who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and arose, in the same way God, through Jesus, will bring those who have fallen asleep to himself.”
(1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)
“As soon as the Angel of Yahweh spoke these words to all the Sons of Israel, the people lifted up their voice and wept. And the name of the place is called Bokiym. They sacrificed there to Yahweh.”
As bad as Israel will become in this book, they are not there yet. Despite their failures and sin, they respond in exactly the way a believer should respond to the recognition of sin. Sadly, God has to confront them as a people, but holy grief and sorrow is their response. In fact, the Hebrew word which we translate as “voice” is singular to indicate the people lifting their voices and weeping as one body.
Here is also an example of corporate sin being addressed. When it comes to individual sin, we are called to grief and repentance just the same, but typically this does not take place in the assembly. Yet, when there is corporate sin — a church has been guilty of harboring a given sin, then it is proper to address that sin as a body, weeping and grieving over the path the body has taken. We even see this language applied to the nation of Israel (2 Chronicles 7:14).
The real question with sin, though, is what we do after we repent. We may grieve and we may weep, but if there is no change in our lives then our repentance is not a repentance in faith. Certainly we will stumble again into sin…we may even stumble into the same sin a second time. The real question is whether we strive to put that (and every other) sin to death and strive towards a life marked by righteousness. Sadly, as we look ahead to the rest of the book of Judges, we find repentance, but rarely for more than a generation (if that.). How sad it is to see, but lest we become arrogant, we should note that our own generation has not fared much better in the life of the Christian church. Apart from the decline of faith in our culture, there is a decline in faith amongst both denominations and individual churches as well. Indeed, it is time that we repent (corporately) of those things we have tolerated that dishonor our Savior and then seek to carve out lives that are marked by Truth and righteousness.
“having been filled with the fruit of righteousness because of Jesus Christ to the glory and honor of God.”
“Having been filled…” Notice the language that this verse begins with. We do not “fill” ourselves but we are filled. It is God’s work in us from the beginning to the end. We take no credit, we can only ever give praise for what our God has done in and through unworthy lumps of clay such as we. With the Apostle Paul, I can say that my works are but dung…something to be cast out lest they defile the holiness of the camp. Yet, in Christ, I can also say (again, with the Apostle Paul) that I have been filled with the fruit of righteousness. What a blessed tension there is between the two.
Thus, the righteousness that I have been given — the righteousness in which I stand clothed before the throne of God — is not my own. It is Christ’s. Everything that is good or admirable that is found within me is because of Jesus Christ. I bring nothing of my own to the table when it comes to things of value. Without Christ’s work, I would be but a hollow shell in line to be crushed…destroyed under God’s wrath for God’s glory. Such is the man that I am and such is the cause for my praise. He has done for me that which I could never have done for myself. My debt of sin has been paid and I have been redeemed from death and Hell. I have been purchased by the blood of Christ, forgiven, reconciled to God, adopted as a son of the Most High, and am being prepared, along with the rest of the church, to be part of the bride of Christ. What more can we say but, “Glory!” and “Hallelujah!” What more can we do but to tell others the good news of this wonderful Savior!
And to whom is the honor given for this work? To God himself. May we never be “stingy” with our praise to our Redeemer-King. May we never hold back the honor that he is due. May we sing our praises to the Triune God without compromise and may we strive to live lives that are honoring to Him in everything we do. Such is the heart of a believer. Such is my prayer for you.
“The wicked sprout like weeds,
And all who do iniquity blossom;
To be destroyed, forever and ever.”
(Psalm 92:8 [verse 7 in English translations])
Paul writes in Romans 9:21-23 that God has created the wicked as vessels of wrath for the purpose of pouring out his power upon in destruction. The psalmist speaks in similar terms here. Though the wicked seem to sprout up like weeds all around us and those who revel in their sin seem to prosper, there is a purpose for which they were created…and that purpose is destruction. While the believer may be created, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” the wicked are created to face His wrath and be destroyed forever.
For most of us, that is a fearful warning, for though we may be believers we know many who are not. Indeed, some may be destined for this destruction. Others may be of the elect of God, yet in God’s providence they have yet to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. The question is, might you be the one whom God will use to share the Gospel with such persons? Yet, such cannot take place unless you begin the conversation with them about what is true and what is eternal. The grass withers and perishes but the word of the Lord lasts forever. Will you be the one to share that word with those in your midst? Will there never be left any question as to your care for their eternal souls?
All too often we read passages like this and we fail to seriously consider the reality of hell and the horrors of such eternal destruction. The scriptures refer to it as the “second death” (Revelation 2:11; 20:14; 21:8). A dying that lasts eternally in all its fearful connotations, devoid of hope. Such is the end to which those this verse speaks of are destined…should it not make us shudder that we have friends, neighbors, and coworkers that will be found under God’s thumb of wrath. Will you warn them of the coming wrath?
“And while they ridiculed him, they took off the cloak and put his own clothes on him and took him to crucify him.”
“And while they ridiculed him, they took off the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him and took him out in order to crucify him.”
“Then they entrusted him to them that he might be crucified. Therefore they took Jesus.”
Thus we arrive at the end of a section; what follows will be the crucifixion and the death of our great and glorious Lord. All that will take place follows directly from this wicked trial. Justice is being served…yes, you read this right, but not in the way that you probably think. Justice is being served not in Jesus’ case and not because of this wicked trial, but because God is bringing us to justice but is substituting his Son in our place. The wrath we deserve will be meted out on the cross — that is justice. God’s Son, though, is on the cross in our place — that is grace.
What strikes me as this section wraps up and as we anticipate the following sections of the Gospel accounts, is how little description that the Gospel writers give on the physical events of the crucifixion…even the events here that speak of Jesus having been whipped and mocked and beaten. Very little physical detail is being given.
Now, granted, the physical event must have been horrifying, but it as if the Gospel writers don’t want us dwelling there…instead they want us dwelling on the innocent man who is making atonement for us as our Great High Priest. They want us to focus on the completed work of the cross and the guilt of all of us who sent Jesus to the cross. As horrid as the event on the cross was, this substitution should be even more scandalous to us…and even more wonderful at the same time. Our guilt being paid for…justice being served, just on the head of another.
Yet, if this is the case, why is it that those who produce films and books about this event spend so much time emphasizing the gore of the cross and so little time emphasizing the wrath of God being poured out or the atonement that is being worked. Perhaps could it be that we “moderns” have become so desensitized to gore that we need to be shocked? Could it be that we moderns have become so desensitized to our own sin that the substitutionary atonement of Christ no longer shocks us? Could it be that the film producers simply want to tell a story and don’t want to offer (or don’t understand themselves) truth? Whatever the reason, in communicating the truth of this event, should we not endeavor to place emphasis where the Scriptures place emphasis and tread lightly where the Scriptures also tread lightly?
Thus, as we close this section, Jesus was entrusted to the Roman soldiers and they took him to crucify him that on the cross of Calvary he might bear the wrath of his Holy Father and pay the penalty for my sins…every single one…that I might be made clean and whole…and not just for me, but for all of the elect through the ages. What a wondrous Savior we have…how can our response be to do anything but worship?
“And Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’ After this he went out again to the Jews and said to them, ‘I find no grounds for a charge in him.’”
“Pilate then summoned the chief priests and the leaders and the people, saying to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people, but behold, I have examined him before you and I found no guilt in this man with respect to your charges against him. And neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Behold, nothing deserving of death has been done by him. Thus I will punish and release him.’”
There is some overlap here, but Luke is really just providing us with a little more detail on the content of the conversation being had between Pilate and the Jewish authorities. Frankly, Pilate wants nothing to do with this Jesus. The offer to release is an interesting one that we will reflect on further when we approach the tradition of releasing a prisoner at Passover, but one can speculate what was going through Pilate’s mind. Here is an angry mob desiring Jesus’ death, if he releases this man to the mob, what else would he expect apart from the mob’s angry murder of the man? Essentially, he must know that Jesus’ blood will be spilled, the question will be, by whose hands and Pilate wants nothing of it — and neither did Herod, which is (on a human level) why they are passing Jesus back and forth like a hot potato. Of course, in hindsight, we recognize that each player in this account is culpable and the passing back and forth is divinely designed to ensure that all the wicked had a part in this man’s death.
And when speaking of “all the wicked,” that finger needs to be pointed at us as well. It is because of sin that Jesus was sent to die — and it is because of our sin that we need that sacrificial death of our Lord. That means we too are part of that guilty group that would condemn Jesus. We stand guilty with the crowd of shouting, “Crucify!” if only by our actions.
How often, too, we stand with Pilate in wanting to turn a blind eye toward sin and unrighteousness. It is easy to fall into that trap. Somehow we get it in our heads that if we don’t see it, touch it, taste it, smell it, or hear about it (like those five monkeys) we won’t be guilty of it. But what if we know about it? Washing our hands of the act, as Pilate did, does not excuse our guilt. God regularly calls his people to seek to work justice in this world, especially for the poor and outcast — and Jesus qualifies on both levels at this point! So, the sin of omission is just as damning as the sin of commission.
Loved ones, examine your lives and reflect on how God calls you to take a stand in this world. It might not be in a murder trial, but God might be calling you to take a stand against injustice in your local community and not remain silent even if remaining silent is the popular thing to do. Ultimately it is God’s design that our sins would be wiped clean by this work of Christ and the cross to come, but we must understand that we all stand guilty of Jesus’ death because of our sins. Let us live in a way that reflects that knowledge and does not follow the pattern of Pilate and Herod.
* Note: to those of you who have been following this blog, my apologies for this past hiatus. I have been finishing up a text on Reformed Theology that I began over the summer, so put this to the side to finish that… Thanks for your patience.
“Then they spat upon his person and they beat him. Some slapped him saying, ‘Prophesy to us, O Christ, which one of us struck you?’”
“And some began to spit on him and they covered his face and they struck him while saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the assistants took charge of him having been beaten.”
There are times, when reading passages, where I cannot help but be overwhelmed by a sense of evil that permeates the actions that the text is recording. There is no other way to put it and any word short of evil, wickedness, diabolic, or foul just cannot seem to come close to describing these events. Jesus brought peace and truth; he was received with blows and spit — he came to his own and his own received him not (John 1:11). How could anyone act in such a way toward any human being is beyond me, let alone this human who is also God. To what end does this accomplish or achieve apart from demonstrating the wickedness of human hearts? Yet, that is exactly the purpose. Jesus endured the wickedness of wickedness for us even before he met judgment upon the cross — he is the Passover Lamb and the Scapegoat of Atonement (Leviticus 16:21-22) for his people — for me — and for all who are trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Yet, let us take things a step further. Are we not guilty in the same way as these servants of satan who are tormenting Jesus? By our disobedience and intentional sin, do we not spit at Christ and mock his name? When we call ourselves Christian yet behave in a way that is consistent with a child of the devil, are we not just as guilty of hatred as those in the High Priest’s hall? I suggest that we are — and in fact, are doubly guilty because we know the truth as to who Jesus is. We may not have covered the face of our Lord and struck him with our two hands, but by the sins of our two hands are we not guilty of slapping our Lord. And, when we act sinfully thinking that God is not aware, are we not guilty of saying, “Who struck you?”
Loved ones, take these words to heart and ask yourself, does the way I live honor the one who endured this for me? If not, repent and turn from your wickedness, pursuing the righteousness of God.
“But when he said this, one of the subordinates who was standing there gave a blow to Jesus saying, ‘Is this how you answer the High Priest?’”
Again, many of our English translations like to render this word as “officer” when it comes to the one who slapped Jesus, giving the impression that this was one of the military guards. A better translation is subordinate, particularly recognizing that this term often refers to governmental offices, not military offices. Thus, we should see this man not as one of the soldiers, but as one of the underlings of Annas, perhaps even one of the Sadducees in authority — we are just not told. And this man strikes Jesus because Jesus refuses to submit himself before Annas in this false trial.
It is interesting that this subordinate also refers to Annas as the “High Priest” although the title rightly belongs to Caiaphas. Thus adds a further degree of support to the theory that Annas is still pulling the political strings of the High Priest’s office from behind the scenes and has likely arranged the events of the night to bring Jesus under Caiaphas’ judgment.
The blow that is struck upon Jesus will be the first amongst many, though it stands out as one of contempt and pride — it is the blow of an underling, likely trying to gain credibility in the eyes of his master, though truly only doing the devil’s deed. Many of our English translations render this phrase in such a way as to argue that the man slapped Jesus. That could be the case, though the word could also refer to one clubbing another with a stick or another blunt object. Were this man one of the mob that was so armed with torches and clubs from earlier that night, it could conceivably be the club and not the hand with which this man struck our Lord.
Loved ones, the one thing that we must keep painfully clear and before our eyes is that Jesus did not need to endure such suffering. Yet, in an outpouring of his grace, he chose to suffer for us by the hand of wicked men. Jesus could have called legions of angels to his defense and left the entire countryside scattered with the bodies of his enemies, but he chose to go like a lamb to the slaughter, be beaten and abused, falsely tried, and then horrifically executed on the cross. He did that for me. He did that for you, that is, if you are trusting in Him as your Lord and Savior. They say that the story of the Gospel is the “Greatest Story Ever Told” and there is truth in that claim. Yet, it is a story that not only travels to great heights in terms of the resurrection and promise of glory — but it is a story that travels to the greatest depths of misery — human and divine — as Jesus enters the household of the wicked to bear the sins of the wicked (you and me!) on his shoulders — and not only facing false judgment by the hands of wicked men, but facing righteous judgment by the hands of a holy God, who crushed him for our sin. Jesus was our substitute, so when you are tempted to wag the finger at these hypocritical Jewish authorities, remember first that he did this for you … and he did this for me. We are the reason Jesus gave himself into the hands of these men, thanks be to God! But oh, my soul, what a debt of love I owe to the King of Grace!
Normally I try and stay out of the fray when it comes to the frenzy around popular scandals and sensationalistic stories. Maybe I should make more social commentaries than I do, but guess that I would rather immerse myself more deeply in God’s word and trust people to have a little common sense that can be applied to a situation strange or otherwise. Yet there has been an odd buzzing around evangelical circles and I am feeling compelled to at least comment in the hopes that this buzz will go along the wayside sooner than later.
It seems that recently, Atlanta pastor, Louie Giglio was first invited and then disinvited to offer the benediction at the second inauguration of President Barak Obama. It is said that the invitation came as a result of Giglio’s work to raise awareness about sex trafficking in the United States. The disinvitation came as a result of a twenty-year-old sermon where Giglio presented the Biblical testimony that homosexuality is sin. And now, it seems that every major figure in evangelical Christianity along with major figures in the liberal establishment are offering us commentaries — folks, enough already! Yet, let me ignore my own advice and make a couple of comments:
1) Why in the world would the Obama Administration invite an evangelical evangelist to offer the benediction? And why, oh why, did Giglio accept said request? Think about it. Perhaps it would be flattering to be asked to offer such a benediction, but there comes a point when one ought to decline.
Though I have never been asked to offer a prayer at such an auspicious occasion (and don’t expect to be), as an area pastor I do regularly get asked to pray or offer a benediction at community events. In these cases, the first question that I ask is always, “Am I allowed to pray in the name of Jesus Christ?” If the answer is, ‘no,’ then my answer is ‘no’ as well. Inclusivity in presidential politics is no new thing to the scene and clearly guidelines and rules would be established for such a benediction that would water down the intentional Christian spirit of the prayer.
One might counter that this is a pluralistic nation in terms of religious beliefs, and indeed it is, but I am not a pluralistic pastor — I am a Christian pastor, and so is Louie Giglio — and thus my loyalties lie with Christ and any authority I have to offer a blessing upon the lives of others also comes from Christ.
Furthermore, when one shares the stage in a setting like an inauguration with someone, that offers an implicit endorsement of the person with whom the stage is shared. Why go down that road? How can an evangelical endorse any politician that supports the gay agenda, the pro-choice agenda, and the agenda of those who are seeking to marginalize the Christian voice from civil life (in our schools, our courts, etc…)? What fellowship does light have with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)
2) While my intention is not to slam Pastor Giglio here, it seems odd to me that those pursuing a liberal agenda would have to go 20 years back to find something “incriminating” against him in his sermons. Surely, I would hope, that nearly any evangelical pastor would regularly be speaking in a way that those who pursue sin would find offensive. My grandfather (a Methodist minister) used to say, “if you are not stepping on toes, you are likely not preaching the gospel.”
As preachers, part of our responsibility is to address the sins of our time in a way that reflects God’s word and not the fickle preferences of men. We are to call the culture away from its self-destruction and not chase the culture to the praise of men. We should be calling people to repent of their sins — homosexuality being just one of such wicked lifestyles our world has embraced. We should also be calling people to repent of sexual immorality of all kids, including sexuality outside of wedlock. We should be calling people to repent of pornography, slander, gossip, unforgiveness, anger, pride, adultery, and the list goes on! We should be proclaiming the truth that we are fallen sinners and that there is forgiveness in Christ Jesus alone — there is no other way to the Father but through the Son. Surely that too must be greatly offensive in our politically correct society!
This does not mean we are wagging our fingers at the world, for we point toward our own fallenness as well, and we proclaim that in Christ there is grace and forgiveness — yet Christ himself also calls us to turn away from our wicked lifestyles, not to become comfortable in them or accepting of them. “Go and sin no more” are words from Christ that echo down through the centuries.
When the issue of homosexuality was raised with Giglio, rather than to use that opportunity to speak truth into the culture, he soft-pedaled the matter and stated that the question of homosexuality had not been in his “range of priorities in the past fifteen years.” Really? Surely homosexuality is one of the most significant issues eroding the morality of our society over the past fifteen years…am I missing something? Especially given that much of Giglio’s public ministry has been focused on calling kids to “making much of Christ,” does one not think that one’s lifestyle is part of that? Were one to have a ministry that focused primarily on our older generation (let’s say 65 and up…sorry Mom and Dad!), then it would be easy to see how this social issue would not play a role in the forefront of his ministry because that generation in our culture was largely raised on Biblical moral teachings. The younger generation was not and has been encouraged to experiment with sin. One ought to keep that in as much of the forefront as sex trafficking, the use of drugs, and other self-destructive behaviors. Giglio clearly is committed to the Biblical truth on the matter, given the language of his released sermon, but why has he played down the question when raised?
3) It is true, as people like Al Mohler point out, that Biblical foundations are being eroded from our culture and that society is actively seeking to marginalize the influence and presence of evangelicalism from public life. That said, why do we assume (as evangelical Christians) that having an evangelical pastor pray for our president (one who rejects what evangelicals stand for) will change the current state of affairs? Don’t get me wrong, we are to pray for all of our leaders — in this case, I would argue for conversion — but the public prayer at an inauguration does not seem to be the kind of thing that Paul was speaking about when he wrote those words to Timothy.
And why should it bother us if our president would choose a liberal pastor, a unitarian pastor, or even a Muslim Imam to pray for him at his Inauguration? Why not find someone to speak words that will be meaningful to the man being Inaugurated?
Yes, as Christians we may not like the idea of our Christian presence being lost in the Presidential Inauguration, but is it really there just because a Christian offers a prayer and the President swears on a book he cares nothing for? It is said that of Evangelical Christians in America, only about 20% eligible to vote did, so why bother getting upset now? And why bother getting upset at anyone but ourselves. If we have chosen (as evangelicals) to refuse to be salt and light, then it is we who need to repent for our bashfulness. We have bought into the idea that if we put up the pretense that we are a Christian culture we will be…sadly, the Bible calls that hypocrisy. We are a nation grounded in Christian roots, but we have strayed far from the spot where we began. We need a political revival like the spiritual revival that took place in Josiah’s day, calling people in our nation back to the foundation upon which we began — the foundation that God blessed and made our nation the great beacon of freedom and liberty that is — though as we stray further and further from that foundation, we will lose more and more of that freedom and liberty that made our nation great.
The bottom line is that these kinds of things (disinvitations and the like) are not the problems; they are only symptoms of the problem. We, like ancient Israel, have fallen into a time where every man does what is right in his own eyes — and we are paying the price for that sin. No, I don’t think I am missing something.
“So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his lord and he swore to him on these matters.”
Isn’t it interesting how there seems to be such a different emphasis in the Old and the New Testaments when it comes to swearing an oath. Here we find Abraham requesting his chief servant swear an oath to him regarding the journey that he will go upon looking for the woman we will later know as Rebekah. In fact, God himself commands that his people, if they swear, they shall swear by his name, Yahweh (Deuteronomy 6:13, 10:20). When the command is given about not taking the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7) it is not implying that God’s people should never use God’s name nor is it implying that we ought never swear by God’s name, but it is saying that we should not do so for vain (empty or thoughtless) purposes. The same command is given in Leviticus applying to all oaths taken (Leviticus 5:4) and clarified later that we are not to swear by God’s name falsely (Leviticus 19:12; Psalm 24:4). In fact, when it comes to God’s wrath in judgment, He puts those who swear falsely in the same category as sorcerers, adulterers, and those who abuse the widow and orphan (Malachi 3:5).
Yet, when we get to the New Testament, we find Jesus speaking these words:
“Again, it was spoken in ancient times, ‘You shall not perjure yourself, but you shall pay out to the lord your oath. But I say to you do not swear at all — neither by heaven for it is the throne of God, nor by the earth for it is the stool for his feet, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. Neither should you swear by your head for you do not have the power to make one hair white or black. Instead, let your word be, ‘yes, yes’ and ‘no, no;’ anything more than this is from the evil one.”
So how do we reconcile these two things? Is this just a change in the way that God expects us to do business or is there something else going on here? The answer to these questions seems to be rooted in the context of what Jesus is teaching as well as in the use of the term “lord.”
In New Testament Greek, the term ku/rioß (kurios) or “lord” has both a general and a specific meaning. In terms of the general meaning, it can refer to anyone who is in authority over you — an employer, a master, a leader, etc… It can also be used as a simple term of respect, much like we would use the term “sir” today. Its specific use is essentially the superlative of the idea of lordship and is only used of God. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint or the LXX, the word ku/rioß (kurios) was used to translate both the Hebrew words yˆnOdSa (Adoniy — usually written as “Adonai”) and hwhy (Yahweh). Thus, when the specific use of the term ku/rioß (kurios) is applied to Jesus in the New Testament, we recognize it to be the application of the covenantal name of God to our Lord and Savior.
The practical question, though, is which use of the term ku/rioß (kurios) is Jesus intending in this passage? Typically, translations of the New Testament have seen this as a specific use of the term “Lord” thus have written it with a capital “L.” This is based on the references to the Third Commandment that are found in the Old Testament in terms of not vowing falsely when you use the Lord’s name (see references above). And while that might seem the plain reading of the text at the onset, the statement that Jesus makes is not implying that one is using the Lord’s name as part of the oath, but instead it is toward the lord that one is making said vow. Thus, it seems that it is better to understand this passage as a comment on the Ninth Commandment, not on the Third. In turn, the “lord” in reference, being the one to whom you are making an oath, is a human master or leader.
A reading focused on Jesus’ interpretation of the Ninth Commandment would also be consistent with the rest of this section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus addresses the Sixth Commandment (Matthew 5:21-26), the Tenth Commandment (Matthew 5:27-30), the Seventh Commandment (Matthew 5:31-32), and the Eighth Commandment (Matthew 5:38-42) respectively. This covers Jesus’ interpretation of the second half of the Law (Commandments 6-10) if understood in this way. Jesus then teaches that we ought not ever be in a position where we need to take oaths to confirm the truthfulness of our words — in other words, because we build a reputation where our “yes is yes” and our “no is no,” there is no question of a need to swear an oath.
If that is so, then we are still left with a bit of a quandary. If Jesus is teaching us that we should never need to swear, why here is Abraham still demanding the oath from his servant? Surely Abraham knows the character of his chief servant by this point in his life. The easy out is simply to say that Abraham slipped in his faith and demanded something from Eliezer that he ought not have demanded. Yet that answer is a bit of a cop-out based not only on the context of Abraham’s request but also on the various teachings of scripture calling for oaths in God’s name. It is also tempting to draw a line of division between different kinds of oaths. It could be argued, and rightly so, that this oath that Abraham is swearing his servant to is an oath in connection with the covenantal promises of God, not simply a human transaction to which Jesus (and the Ninth Commandment) arguably is speaking. While at the onset, this might seem to be appealing, it creates divisions that seem a bit artificial to the reading of the text.
The better answer seems to be the way in which Jesus is interpreting the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. He is deliberately intensifying them not only to show the intention behind the commandment, but also to make sure that none of us walk away from the Ten Commandments feeling as if we have somehow satisfied the command by satisfying the letter of the law. Thus, Jesus states that if you are angry with another person, you are guilty of breaking the law against murder; if you have lusted in your heart, you are guilty of adultery, and thus, if you have taken an oath by anything that is outside of your sphere of control (which, apart from your word is not much), you have broken the commandment about not bearing false witness.
And here we have an answer, I believe, that suits the context of Abraham’s action while also understanding what Jesus is trying to show us in the Sermon on the Mount. Abraham is a man of faith, but he is also a sinner — as we are all. Indeed, we should strive to live a sinless life, but the reality is, we all fall short of the mark in our daily activities and we need to take that principle and set it before us always.
So, then, what ought we do when making a contract with another? Should we take an oath or not? The best answer to that is first, never bear false witness against another so that they want anything more than a “yes” or “no” from you along with a handshake or a signature. Yet, if their conscience is burdened or if they do not know you and desire a greater assurance, said oath may be taken, but do not take the oath on heaven and earth or even on the hairs of your own head. First of all, you neither made them nor can control them. Second of all, there is someone higher and greater than the heavens and the earth — compared with whom the heavens and the earth are rather puny. Indeed, God states (and Jesus does not contradict) that we ought to swear an oath by the name of Yahweh, the God and creator of all things. He is the superlative of superlatives and you belong to him. It is not that your oath will compel Yahweh to complete what you cannot complete, but your oath, taken in holy reverence for the one in whose name you are taking it, ought to compel you to truth and action. May your word be your bond, but if you are compelled to swear an oath, do not do so by anything in creation for the earth and the stars cannot compel you to action; God can and will.
“Thus Abraham went to his young men and they rose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham dwelled in Beersheba.”
And so, Abraham travels back to Beersheba, the place of the covenant, located in what would later be southern Israel. Yet, for now, Abraham is still living amongst the pagans, Philistines and Canaanites. One must ask oneself, though, how an event like this would leave a man changed. When you have gone through an experience like this, there is no way you can go back to living as you once did.
At the same time, this becomes the climax of Abraham’s recorded life. What we have next are the accounts of the death of Sarah, the finding of a wife for Isaac, Abraham’s remarriage, and Abraham’s death. No more encounters with Melchizedek, no more engagements with enemy armies or kings. Largely, Abraham lives the rest of his days in some semblance of peace. God gives him rest from his wandering and we are told that Abraham dwells in Beersheba. The alien traveler has found a home. And, it would seem, Abraham and Sarah spend the next 20-25 years (until Sarah’s death) dwelling comfortably in the land promised to their descendants.
Because the Bible often does not give us a concrete timeline at the beginning of each chapter, we often do not do the homework to discover how many years take place in between events and thus are drawn to believe that one thing takes place then the other takes place immediately afterwards. Such is not the case. Just as God does with our lives, sometimes there are great periods of times between major trials and times of testing and growth. It is in these times that God gives us some rest and peace and it is in these times that our changed lives are to be used to minister to others.
The sad thing is that in these times of rest that God gives us, we often do one of two things. Sometimes we go back right where we were as if no lasting growth has taken place and sometimes we do not recognize the rest for what it is, and we create crises of our own design. Neither of these are healthy nor are they faithful to God’s use of times of trial and rest. Indeed, after great trials, we must be changed and we must never fall back into those old sins and doubts that God has delivered us from. At the same time, when we create crises, we rob ourselves of the rest we need and we rob those around us of the faithful mentoring we can give to them. When there are times of crisis, our focus narrows inward toward what we are struggling through and directly on God’s provision for us. When we are at times of rest, we need to focus outward to our brothers and sisters around us who are undergoing great times of difficulty and mentoring them through their trials.
May we not only be changed by the trials that God brings us through faithfully, but may we use the times of rest that God gives us not simply to feed ourselves or to manufacture problems of our own, but to feed others. May we indeed live in a way that honors God and teaches others to do the same.