Sunday Morning Greek Blog

September 18, 2022

Strength from Forgiveness (Psalm 51; 1 Timothy 2:12–17)

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Sermon preached at Mt. View Presbyterian Church, September 11, 2022. Edited for publication.

There is no price we can pay or effort we can make to compel God to give us mercy or grace.

I think most of us are familiar with the story of David and Bathsheba. One evening (we don’t know how late, but the text says David had gotten out bed), David was out on the roof of his palace looking over the city when he saw at a nearby neighbor’s house the beautiful Bathsheba bathing (2 Sam 11:2–5). In that moment, David forgot he was otherwise known as a man after God’s own heart. The key word there is “forgot.” David should have known better. Bathsheba was not some exhibitionist bathing for all of Jerusalem to see. She had in that culture that valued purity and faithfulness a reasonable expectation of privacy. Most likely there were civic codes that prevented you from building your home in such a way as to risk violating your neighbor’s privacy. For example, in some Mediterranean cultures, they had rules that you couldn’t have a window in your house that allowed you to see directly into your neighbor’s house or back yard, especially if such a window was on the second floor. The palace may have been large enough to be exempted from such rules, but the principle existed nonetheless.

Add to this that shame of nakedness in that day would not have been on the one who was naked outside, especially if she had a right to privacy, but the shame would have been on the one who looked upon the nakedness. That is why Noah’s sons had to back into the tent to cover their naked, drunk father after the flood. David should have known immediately to avert his gaze and go somewhere else where such a view was not possible. It may be that David was on the roof of his palace, perhaps trying to get a view of the distant battle or the campfires of the troops or just to take in the cooler air. It would not have been a normal place for him to hang out. David had several opportunities to do the right thing in this situation, but the more he looked, the more he wanted Bathsheba. He could have done nothing at that point except walk away, but he didn’t. Instead, he sent someone to bring Bathsheba to him. He lay with her and got her pregnant.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, he tried to manipulate the situation by first giving Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, a break from the battle in the hopes he would lay with Bathsheba and some might not question the paternity of the baby. But Uriah showed more integrity than David, so David sent him back to the battle with instructions to his commander, Joab, to manipulate the battle in such a way that Uriah would surely perish, and he did.

Of course, we know that David’s sin was exposed by the prophet Nathan, and we see David’s repentant, godly response in Psalm 51.

Read Psalm 51:1–10

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;

according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;

so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. [1]

So David is busted. Found out. Exposed. It was pointless for him to deny it. And he didn’t live in a culture where such behavior, especially in the political class, would be ignored and swept under the rug. He had to face his maker. And he chose the best path, the only path, really, to put him on the road to restoration. God was giving his anointed a chance to come clean through the prophet Nathan’s intervention, and David accepted. He pleaded with God for mercy and owned up to his mistake.

This word for “mercy” here, (חָנַן ḥā·nǎn), is almost always used in the context of someone speaking, more so than in a running narrative that tells a story. The New International Version tends to translate it based on the perspective of the speaker. In the current passage, and for about one-third of the total occurrences of the word in the OT, if the speaker knows they’ve done wrong and they ask for ḥānǎn, the translators use the word “mercy.” On the other hand, if the speaker has acted justly and feels threatened by the enemy, or is referencing the goodness of God generally, the translators usually use “gracious” or “generous” for the word. That sense of the word represents about half the total occurrences of the word. These two primary meanings represent a modern distinction that some have made between “mercy” and “grace.” “Mercy” is not getting what you deserve, while “grace” is getting what you don’t deserve or didn’t earn. In both cases, it is a gift of God. And in both cases, there is no price we can pay or effort we can make to compel God to give us mercy or grace. We can ask for it, we can search for it, but the “price” for such a gift can only be paid by God, which he ultimately did through Jesus on the cross.

This is where the other key word in Psalm 51:1 comes in, a Hebrew word you’ve most likely heard before if you been in church or Bible studies for any length of time: חֶסֶד (ḥě·sěḏ), God’s “unfailing love.” Of the 245 times this word is used in the OT, well over three-fourths of the occurrences refer to God’s enduring, unfailing love and kindness. And nearly half of the uses of the word are found in the Psalms, including in the praise Psalm 136, where “His love (ḥěsěḏ) endures forever” is a repeated refrain at the end of each of its 26 verses.

As one Bible dictionary puts it, ḥěsěḏ is not a “disposition,” that is, it’s not just a feeling or a certain way of thinking. It is in the end a helpful act of God rooted in his covenant relationship to us, or when applied to us mortals, our helpful acts of love toward family and friends. It is an overflow of his righteousness, mercy, and shalom peace. As a covenant responsibility, David expects to and has a certain level of assurance that he will be forgiven. This is the same assurance we have when we come to Jesus: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). As I said above, there’s nothing we can do to earn this, but we can and should respond to it with a ḥěsěḏ of our own. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Not only is this ḥěsěḏ toward God, but toward our family and friends as well.

In vv. 5–6, David gives us a contrast between the way we are and the way God wants us to be. I want to use the English Standard Version translation of these two verses here because I think they’re a little less interpretive of the Hebrew text, and come much closer to what David was trying to convey:

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.[2]

On the one hand, David realizes he is a sinner in need of God’s grace. But on the other hand, David knows that only God can transform his inner being into the godly character he desires. God knew David was a sinner in need of his grace, and that David might fall short of the ḥěsěḏ standard miserably at times, but he still chooses him anyway to lead his people. Verse 5 is similar to Paul’s essay in Romans 7 about doing what he doesn’t want to do and recognizing that sin still may try to get a stranglehold on him. But by sending the prophet to David, God is giving David a chance to come clean, to repent, and he does. God doesn’t ostracize or “cancel” his anointed because of one or two or five or ten mistakes. God’s ḥěsěḏ requires our willingness to be taught and to seek his truth to transform our inner being. God is forever the God of the next chance. God’s gift and his calling on our lives are without repentance, “irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). So no matter how many times you think you’ve failed or fallen short, know that he has called you for a purpose, and that he is guiding you and strengthening you in his ḥěsěḏ love to bring about his will.

Verses 10–12 give us a glimpse of how we get God’s truth in our inward being and his wisdom in our “secret” heart. After forgiving us and cleansing us, David recognizes that he must immerse himself in the presence of God to experience the restoration and renewal that awaits him. This is not a passive process: David goes on in the psalm to commit himself to teaching others about God’s ways and singing the praises of God aloud.

Verse 12, then, ties into our Gospel reading this morning from Luke 15: Both the shepherd and the woman have lost something of value. In the case of the shepherd, he leaves behind everything of value he does have, that is, the flock, to find the one sheep that is missing. This is what God does for us to bring us back to him.

In the case of the woman, she must clean her whole household to find the missing coin. David asked God to “cleanse” him with hyssop and remove from him all that would keep him from experiencing God to the fullest. Notice that he didn’t pledge to clean up his own life. God doesn’t need to wait for us to do that on our own. He meets us where we are and works with us from that point forward to bring restoration.

For both the shepherd and woman, there is rejoicing for finding what was lost and restoring it to its rightful place. Jesus draws the parallels there with both stories to the heavens rejoicing when one sinner repents. When we know God is with us, we can feel assured of our salvation, our calling, and the power of his ḥěsěḏ love.

Before I wrap up this morning, I want to bring in a passage that shows how this transformation from sin to victory worked itself out in Paul’s life. Let’s look at 1 Timothy 1:12–17:

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.[3]

We only need to look at verse 13 to see how far Paul was from the Christian faith. First of all, he calls himself a blasphemer, which by itself would have been enough to get him stoned to death in Israel. But in context here, he’s probably referring to his initial denial of Christ as Lord and his approval of the stoning of Stephen, because the Jews thought Stephen had blasphemed in his final, fatal message. Paul was a persecutor. He thought this new Jesus movement was so dangerous to traditional Judaism that the followers had to be jailed or snuffed out, violently if necessary. He even admits to acting ignorantly and in unbelief, and that he was the worst of all sinners.

Yet with all that, God still chose to use Paul to be the main messenger of the faith in the northern Mediterranean region. He humbly gives thanks and praise for all that God has done for him and is doing through him. His life would be the ultimate testimony of the transforming power of God’s grace and salvation.

I want to focus for a moment here on verse 12, because I believe that parallels what David’s desire was in his psalm of repentance: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength.” I guess you could say Paul was “fortunate” enough to have a direct revelation from Jesus to set his life in the right direction. Granted, that was probably a pretty scary situation for him, as it would be for any of us, I imagine. But the attempt to turn a violent and desperate man from his ways required corresponding radical action of God to set him straight. That seems to have been enough, at least initially, to have “strengthened” Paul, because we see very soon after his conversion in Acts 9:22 that Luke tells us, “Saul (Paul) grew more and more powerful (or strengthened) and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” He relates his own story here so that in 2 Timothy 2:1, he can also encourage Timothy to be strong in God’s grace as well. Having the examples of men and women of faith, both in the Bible and in our own lives, will help us stay grounded in the faith and give us strength and endurance for our Christian walk. The author of Hebrews said it well:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.[4]

My friends, do not lose heart. Every day, lift up the Lord Jesus in your life through word and deed, and give God the praise and glory he deserves.

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.[5]


[1] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2016. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[3] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

August 10, 2022

Having a Heavenly Head: Colossians 3

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Sermon preached at Mt. View Presbyterian Church July 31, 2022. Lightly edited for publication.

Probably a lot of people were asking each other this past week, “What would you do with a billion dollars?” With one of the largest jackpots ever, who could blame us for asking, right? If I had won it, I’d probably quit my job, go back to school to get my PhD, and spend the rest of my days preaching and writing. I’d also build, or hire someone to build, a really great model train layout so I’d have something entertaining for myself. And of course, my wife and I would travel to the historic sites of the Bible and other great places in the world.

But as Christians, of course, we’d have to be careful that our wishful thinking about a billion dollars doesn’t turn into outright greed. There’s nothing wrong with wealth in and of itself. But perhaps we should ask ourselves a different question if we have any thoughts about buying that longshot ticket to fortune: “What would a billion dollars do to me?”

Jesus addressed that issue with his followers and disciples in several different ways: “What good is it if for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very soul?” (Luke 9:25). In our Gospel reading this morning (Luke 12:13–21), Jesus said to the rich fool, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Jesus told the pharisees, “You cannot serve both God and Money” (Luke 16:13). He also told a parable about a man who was forgiven thousands of dollars’ worth of debt, but then couldn’t even offer that same forgiveness to someone who owed him a couple hundred dollars (Matthew 18:21–35).

I’ll tell you how I’d answer the question, “What would a billion dollars do to me?” because I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and some of the answers I don’t like. For starters, I think I’d be a little paranoid about people doing all kinds of crazy things to get a piece of the pie. Like claiming to have injured themselves by slipping on the ice in front of my house…in August…when the projected high is over 90 degrees for the next two weeks. I have a mindset that God has me where he wants me, and if I’d win that much money, I might not be doing what God wants me to do anymore. That actually scares me a little. But then again, God can redirect me at any moment he chooses, jackpot or not. I’m not sure I’d tell my kids, either. I want them to know what it’s like to have a career and work for the things that are important to them. That builds character, personality, integrity, and wisdom. I turn 60 in a few months, so I’m thinking more and more about retirement and less and less about working!

But alas, some lucky person in Des Plaines, IL, purchased the winning ticket, so I won’t have to wrestle with that question any time soon, or probably ever. It’s probably a good thing too, because in today’s passage, Colossians 3, Paul warns us about the dangers of greed and inappropriate desires, not to mention a host of other sins and concerning behaviors.

Now to refresh your memories, last week we looked at chapter 2 and how we have fullness and a foundation in Christ that helps us to stand strong in our faith. Paul also used the imagery of baptism to show us how we have been saved from eternal death through the power of Christ’s resurrection that baptism represents. This is where Paul picks up the discussion in chapter 3.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.[1]

I want to stop there because these four verses are intended to let us know what our standing with Christ is, and I want to break that down a little bit.

I mentioned last week that Colossians and Ephesians have numerous parallel themes. The first verse in Colossians 3 sounds very much like Ephesians 2:6: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 3:6 that we are “sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” In a spiritual sense, then we can live and act with the authority of Christ. That doesn’t mean we’re bossing others around, but it does mean we have the spiritual authority to speak against the evil that Satan tries to throw our way.

When talking about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6, Paul says we have the full armor of God so we can stand against the devil’s schemes. And that armor isn’t just “standard issue” that any soldier would get. If you look up the Old Testament references to the armor Paul describes in Ephesians 6, you’ll find that in every case, it refers to armor that God himself figuratively wears. We have divine protection in Christ. And corporately, as a congregation, Paul says in Ephesians 1 that we have every spiritual blessing in Christ. How cool is that!

Colossians 3:3 lets us know we’re protected from Satan’s reach by being “hidden with Christ.” This doesn’t mean that we’ll never be tempted or never have bad things happen to us, but that we can have confidence that Christ will see us through whatever may come our way. And at the consummation of his kingdom, we know that we will appear with Christ in glory ready to embark on our eternal journey in heaven.

But until such time as we depart from this mortal life, Paul warns us about several sins and behaviors that tend to lead us into temptation and sin.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

This is probably one of the most comprehensive lists in the NT of bad behavior and stinkin’ thinkin’. In Colossians 2:11, Paul says “Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ.” In Ephesians 4:22, Paul says something similar: “22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.”

Now all sin is equal in God’s eyes, so I don’t think the fact that we seem to have two lists here (vss. 5 and 8) can be used to imply some sort of ranking of sins from worst to not-so-bad. Paul seems to suggest in vs. 5 that the sins listed there have to do with our earthly nature, our “body of flesh” as Paul put it in the previous chapter. They also seem to be a little more aligned directly with the Ten Commandments, especially when he equates greed with idolatry. He also specifically says after that list that it is these things that bring on the wrath of God. He seems especially concerned about these, because those sins were apparently once a way of life for the Colossians.

The second list in vs. 8 seems to be more about behaviors that are not related to our bodies of flesh but rather our minds or our learned behaviors that dishonor God and his kingdom. For example, on anger, Paul says in Ephesians 4:26–27: “26 Get angry but do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold.” In other words, it’s not a sin to get angry; that’s a natural response we have to certain situations. Our modern English translations don’t translate the first part of 26 as a command, but that’s what it is in NT Greek text and the Greek translation of the Hebrew text of Psalm 4:4. It warns us about dealing with our anger quickly and not “sleeping on it,” as that could give the devil an “in” to make your life miserable. Unresolved anger and grudges can eat away at our souls.

And note that Paul in vs. 9 especially highlights not lying to each other and ties that in with the fact that we’ve put off the old self and put on the new self. Lying, along with all the other sins and bad behavior listed here, are not consistent with a new or a renewed life in Christ. We’re learning how to live, love, and act as Jesus would have, because we’ve been transformed into a new creation in the image of Christ.

In a world that spends a lot of energy looking at diversity, verse 11 becomes all the more important. God doesn’t want us looking at people from a worldly point of view or according to their worldly, innate characteristics. Barbarians were those who didn’t speak Greek and lived primarily in northern and central parts of Europe. Scythians lived north of the Black Sea, in what is now modern-day Ukraine. Both were considered to be quite primitive, and the Scythians were considered especially brutal, little more than wild animals. It’s interesting they’re mentioned here, because their civilization had been overthrown by around 200 BC. Survivors of that culture had evidently migrated south across or around the Black Sea into Asia Minor and especially the area around Colossae. Knowing that, one has to wonder if some of the behaviors described in the previous verses may have been from a remnant of the Scythian peoples as they were assimilated into the culture of Asia Minor.

The only thing that matters, then, is whether we have Christ, who is all in all, and are living according to his standards.

Now it’s not enough just to get rid of the old. It’s important to replace our bad behaviors and stinkin’ thinkin’ with a renewed lifestyle and mindset. In Luke 11:24–26, Jesus gives us this teaching:

24 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25 When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26 Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

If we don’t replace the bad stuff with something positive, we run the danger of letting the bad stuff come in again, and potentially make things much worse for us than before. That’s where Colossians 3:12–17 comes in. Paul doesn’t leave us hanging. He gives us a corresponding list of the good behaviors and the mindset we need to lead a successful Christian life.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

That phrase “God’s chosen people” in vs. 12 is not just a nice sentiment or a randomly chosen designation. That’s the same phrase Peter uses in his first letter, chapter 2, verse 9. Peter’s first epistle shares a number of common themes with Ephesians and Colossians as well. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” This goes right back to the authority Paul says we have because we’re raised up with Christ and seated with him. We’re “being built into a spiritual house” as the body of Christ, “offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” (1 Peter 2:5).

The list of good stuff sounds very much like the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians. And notice how he puts it: he wants us to “clothe” ourselves in all these good things. This is a direct verbal contrast to our passage last week where he speaks of “putting off” the old self. I think we all know what the virtues listed are, so we don’t need to dive too deeply into that. I will say something about “kindness,” though. There does seem to be a slight difference between being “nice” and being “kind.” A nice person might not want to confront an issue because they don’t want to upset someone, whereas a kind person would confront an issue and give the other person a chance to do better.

I’ll take a recent example from my own life. We had some new siding put on the north side of our house in April, and it didn’t get painted until June. I was looking at the paint job when it was done, and noticed it was patchy; some places either didn’t have a second coat or perhaps they had two batches with a slightly different tint. As I started to look closer at the siding job, I began to notice there were gaps at the seams of the horizontal planks that were not acceptable. It was wavy and uneven. And to boot, some of the nails were already starting to pop through the siding leaving noticeable holes. Basically that would have left me with the same problem I was trying to fix.

If I had decided to be “nice,” I might have said, “Oh well, they did their best, I guess I’ll have to live with it,” and spend thousands more a few years down the road to fix the same problems all over again. But the “kind” thing to do in my mind was to let the company know and give them a chance to make it right. That may be more painful for all involved, especially for the siding company financially, but in the end we’re both better off knowing it’s a job well done.

The point is, these virtues aren’t intended to make us milquetoast. It takes a certain strength of character and a good deal of self-control to be gentle and patient in the face of life’s challenges. It takes courage to bear with each other through the tough times and forgive one another when we’ve been hurt. Even as Jesus was hanging on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

And just like 1 Corinthians 13, the greatest virtue of all to put on is love. Love covers over a multitude of sin, as Peter says.

And not only are we called to put on new behaviors, but a new mindset as well. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” What does that look like? That may be different for each one of us. When we’re ruled by the love and peace of Christ, we are bold evangelists for the good news. Unbelievers will be more inclined to listen to us if our actions are consistent with what we profess to believe about Christ. And I’m sure many of you have heard the adage, “I may not remember what someone said to me, but I do remember how they made me feel.” If we act and speak in the name of the Lord Jesus, the world will see that and perhaps share in giving glory and thanks to God.

So as we go from here today, let’s remember that not only do we have fullness in Christ, but that he’s empowered and equipped us to live lives holy and pleasing to him. Amen.


[1] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. Note that I did not include the comma after “is” as the NIV (2011) version and other versions have it in 3:1. The Greek text appears to be periphrastic, with four words separating ἐστιν and καθήμενος. The NIV and other versions presume that οὗ ὁ Χριστός ἐστιν modifies ἄνω. But this makes no sense, since the rest of the sentence doesn’t flow neatly after that. The periphrastic makes the most sense here, because Christ is seated at the right hand of God. It does NOT refer to Paul’s audience, since he addresses his audience in the plural, and the participle is singular. (For comparison, see Ephesians 2:6, where Paul says we are “seated with Christ in the heavenly realms.”) The comma only serves to make this poor English syntax.

August 7, 2022

Saved by the Bris: Colossians 2 and the “Circumcision of Christ”

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Sermon preached at Mt. View Presbyterian Church, July 24, 2022. Lightly edited for publication.

I want to pose a question to you as I begin this morning, and I promise I will help you realize the answer by the time I’m done about 25 minutes from now. Here’s the question: What is “the circumcision of Christ”? The follow-up question to that is: “How does it save us?” Intrigued? Good. Let’s dive into Colossians chapter 2.

Colossae was a diminishing river town along a major trade route in what is now southern Turkey between Ephesus on the west coast and the Euphrates River in the east. Its close neighbors, Laodicea and Hierapolis had long before New Testament times overtaken it in prominence and prosperity. But that didn’t stop Epaphras, a convert from Paul’s two-and-a-half-year ministry in Ephesus, from founding a successful congregation there in the mid first century.

At some point early in the life of that congregation, they came under the attack or influence of some heretical teaching. It’s not really clear what exactly the nature of that teaching was, but we can glean some ideas based on the themes Paul addresses in the letter. Most likely, the primary challenge to the Christian faith that was emerging at that time, Gnosticism, was that threat. Gnosticism says that anything done in the flesh is evil, therefore, nothing we do really matters for eternity. What was important in Gnosticism was that you know and believe the right things, things about God and the order of the universe and spiritual powers at work in the universe.

This is why Paul spends a significant part of the first chapter writing about who Christ is and revealing some very important truths about Christ that we don’t get anywhere else. Listen to his words about Christ in chapter 1:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation[1]

Note what he says here: Jesus is the firstborn of all creation. God didn’t have a wife in heaven, of course, so “firstborn” doesn’t mean a literal birth, but that he is the primary and ultimate expression of every God-created element, every being, every creature born at any other time in the world. We know from John 1 that he was with God in the beginning when he began creating the world. In Genesis 1, we hear the refrain over and over again: “And God saw that it was good.”

But the ultimate knock to the Gnostic heresy is Colossians 1:19: “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” That must have blown the Gnostics minds! In their thinking, there’s no way a holy God would have or could have put all his fullness into a physical form they believed to be thoroughly evil. And not only that, Paul emphasizes in vs. 22 that it is through Christ’s physical body, through his death on the cross, that we are reconciled to God. I can imagine the Gnostics were running away with their fingers in their ears screaming “la la la la la la, I can’t hear you!”

Paul goes on to exhort the Colossians to stand firm in the face of this heresy and in fact commends them for doing just that. And he also makes the argument against the Gnostic heresy personal by saying that his own physical suffering for the church is working to spread the gospel and encourage his readers all the more toward undying faithfulness.

And so we come to our passage this morning: Colossians 2:6–15. Let’s look first at vv. 6–8 and see how Paul makes the transition here to the heart of the passage that begins in vs. 9.

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. [2]

Paul recognizes that the Colossians are living faithfully and holding fast to the Gospel message that Epaphras had brought to them in the beginning. It’s good to know that not every church he wrote to had problems from within, as he must address in other letters. The Colossians are exemplary in that regard, but they are still dogged by the outside influence of some Gnostics.

So Paul again addresses the Gnostic heresy here with his warning about “hollow and deceptive philosophy” and the “elemental spiritual forces of this world,” which are probably nothing more than angels, demons, and perhaps some low-level spiritual powers and authorities. The Jews of Paul’s day had access to a great deal of apocryphal, pseudobiblical literature and oral traditions that told tales of angels, demons, and other spiritual forces. Some of these had the names of patriarchs and prophets attached to them, which may have given them a false veneer of credibility. But Paul is reaffirming that everything we need to know about our salvation and about how God interacts with his creation comes from Jesus himself. Let’s look at vv. 9–15 from the English Standard Version, mostly. In verses 11–13, I’m going to give my own translation, partially because most English translations either read too much into what Paul is saying or they don’t respect the strong verbal parallels with similar passages in Ephesians.

A  For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him,

B   who is the head of all rule and authority.

C    In whom you were also circumcised with a hands-free circumcision by the putting off (τῇ ἀπεκδύσει, see vs. 15) of the body of flesh, that is, by the “circumcision” of Christ.

D     You were buried AND raised with him in baptism

E      through the faithful work of God

D’     who raised Christ from the dead. Even though you were dead in your sins

C’   and the uncircumcision of your flesh,

D”    God made you alive with Christ, forgiving all your sins.

C”    by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

B ‘  He disarmed (disrobed? ἀπεκδυσάμενος) the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame,

A’  by triumphing over them in him.[3]

Before we put meat on the bones here, I’d like you to take a look at how the passage is formatted above. You can see how it has successive indents as you read through the passage, and then the indents start to move leftward in the last half of the passage. The bold statement in the center (line E) that has the greatest indent is the key point in the passage: God raises us up and makes us alive in him because of his faithfulness to us. God’s faithfulness is what gives the Colossians the courage to stand up to the Gnosticism they encountered and to stand firm in their faith in spite of sometimes intense opposition. And God is still faithful today, so that you and I can have that same confidence in him to stand firm and carry on with our respective ministries and mission.

You will notice that I’ve italicized some words as well. In addition to similar index indents, those italicized words help you see the verbal parallels between the different parts of the passage. So, for example, in lines B & B’ of the passage, you’ll see the words “rule and authority” highlighted.

If you remember at the beginning, I asked you to dwell on the question, “What is the circumcision of Christ”? It is in the structure of this passage as I’ve laid it out here that we get that answer. Look at verse 11 (line C). Notice that a form of the word “circumcise” is used three times here. Then look down to line C’ (v. 13b): there’s the word “uncircumcision.” At that point, the outline “backtracks” a couple levels to previous verbal connections. Line C” (vs. 14), then, is at the same outline level as the circumcision phrases. But instead of using “circumcision” here, he makes a statement about the crucifixion: “This he removed from our midst, nailing it to the cross.” So here’s the answer to the question: “The circumcision of Christ” is in fact the crucifixion! The crucifixion is, if you’ll allow me this, the circumcision to end all circumcisions. Here’s the logic behind this.

Paul’s use of the phrase “removed from our midst” sounds very much like the statement in vs. 11 about the “putting off” of the body of flesh. And given that Colossians and Ephesians have dozens of verbal parallels, this sounds a lot like Paul’s discussion of this topic in Ephesians 4:22–24:

22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off (ἀποθέσθαι) your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on (ἐνδύσασθαι) the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.[4]

The word for “putting on” the new self is the exact opposite of the word for “putting off” the body of flesh in Colossians. In Ephesians 2:3, Paul speaks of us “gratifying the cravings of our flesh,” from which God saved us. He says a little later in 2:15 something very similar to our Colossians passage about “waging war in his flesh against the commandments and regulations” and making peace with the new creation we are in Christ. The original act of circumcision was intended to set Israelite males apart from all others. It was a sign of the original covenant, but it had no power to save. The crucifixion, however, when we believe in its efficacy, not only sets us apart, but prepares our “new creation” bodies by putting off the whole old person and putting on the new to receive the fullness of Christ through the Holy Spirit.

This is what baptism (practiced as immersion in the early church) represents as well: connecting with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and recognizing the connection with the body of Christ and newness of life we have in him. And all this is possible because, as the central verse of our passage says, God is faithful to work in and through us for the glory of his kingdom.

So, now that we have the theology out of the way, what does that mean for how we live our “new creation” lives in the kingdom of God? Well, Colossians isn’t just about theology. Here are just a few of the exhortations from Paul for us from chapters 1 & 2:

1:23: “Continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope of the Gospel.”

1:28: “So that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”

2:2: “That they may be encouraged in heart and united in love.”

2:4: “That no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.”

2:6–7: “Continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith…overflowing with thankfulness.”

2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”

2:20: “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules?”

2:16: “Don’t let anyone judge you.” (repeat)

Here’s the bottom line: Colossians says that in Christ, you have been brought to fullness. What that means here is that you have everything you need in Christ to carry out the ministries and missions he’s called you to, individually or collectively. Your faith in Christ is your own. You’re the only one who will answer to God for it before the throne. Your faith doesn’t belong to a family member. It doesn’t belong to a friend. It doesn’t belong to a pastor. It doesn’t belong to a congregation, although we hope you’ll share your faith with your congregation, friends, and family. And dare I say it doesn’t belong to any earthly institution or establishment of religion. The Holy Spirit alone determines how his gifts are distributed, and he does so without regard to where you find yourself in any local congregation or church body.

And speaking of gifts of the Spirit, your calling in Christ is your own, except to the extent that that calling leads you to find common cause with others in the local congregation or the broader body of Christ. We are saved as a part of the body of Christ, not apart from the body of Christ. As Paul said in 2:16, “Don’t let anyone judge you” for how you choose to live out your calling. Romans says his gifts and calling are without repentance. God knew what he was doing when he called you to your ministry or mission, and no one should have the power to take that away from you.

And if you want to explore Colossians further, try reading it alongside Ephesians some time. I said at the top of my message that the congregation at Colossae probably started while Paul was preaching in Ephesus. It’s no accident that many of the themes in Ephesians have found their way into Colossians, but in a different order. Ephesians has a very sophisticated organization, while Colossians is, to be kind, a rearranged and shortened version of Ephesians for a different audience and purpose. I guarantee such a study would be very fruitful.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.[5]


[1] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2016. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles. Verses 11–13 are my own translation.

[4] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

June 20, 2022

From Resurrection to Pentecost: Acts 2

Filed under: Acts,Biblical Studies,Tongues — Scott Stocking @ 10:00 pm

I preached this message Sunday, June 5, 2022 (Pentecost), at Mt. View Presbyterian Church. Lightly edited for publication.

Happy Birthday to the Church! Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day many Christians around the world celebrate the anniversary of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the 12 apostles, at least, and perhaps on another 100 or more believers.

My messages have been building up to this point in the past two months. We’ve taken a look at the last week of Jesus’s ministry on earth, culminating in his crucifixion and resurrection. This was the first step of a new beginning for God’s kingdom. Through the resurrected Jesus, God would begin building his church and dealing with his followers in a completely different way. We also looked at Jesus as the good shepherd. Of course, a good shepherd is needed to lead God’s flock, and the NT adopted the imagery of shepherding for elders and overseers in the Church. And we also looked at Jesus as the coming King in Revelation, when he and his church would finally win the ultimate battle over Satan and usher in his eternal kingdom, where there would be no more death or sorrow, tears or pain.

We also looked at the life of Peter, who seemed to be the leader of the Apostles and, after the resurrection, the leader in the early church. We saw Peter make the great confession, that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and how Jesus changed his name from Simon to Peter at that moment, and how Jesus told Peter he would build the church on the “rock” of the truth of Peter’s confession.

As we come to Acts 2, then, this morning, we see Peter, restored by the risen Jesus just a few weeks earlier after denying him three times, take up that mantle of leadership by proclaiming the first recorded Gospel message to an international crowd. Let’s listen in to the first four verses of Acts 2 as Luke sets up the context.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

In order to get a sense of the timing here, we can look at some statements in the Gospels and the first few verses of Acts chapter 1. From John 20, we know that Jesus appeared to the disciples both on the day of his resurrection and then one week later when Thomas had rejoined them. In John 21, Jesus appeared yet again to a few of his disciples who were fishing at the sea of Galilee. It’s not clear when or why they had left Jerusalem; perhaps they thought they should “go back to the beginning” and await further instructions there.

However, at some point before Pentecost, they had returned to Jerusalem, because Luke tells us in Acts 1 that Jesus continued to appear to his disciples “over a period of 40 days” and continued teaching about God’s kingdom. It’s interesting to note there that Jesus was also eating with them, even in his resurrected, incorruptible form. Sometime during that 40 days (and 40 days is significant), Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem and “wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.” He was referring, of course, to the Holy Spirit, that he had taught his disciples about in the John 14 passage we read earlier.

Now in case you didn’t know, the day of Pentecost comes 50 days after the Passover. It’s a time of harvest for the Jews. It seems odd to us that they would be harvesting in May or early June, but keep in mind they lived in a Mediterranean climate. On Jesus’s 40th day of appearances, he told his disciples that the gift of the Holy Spirit would come “not after many days”; in other words, it wouldn’t be long. It’s not clear whether Jesus had told them privately it would happen on Pentecost. More likely, I think, they put two and two together and figured Pentecost would be the time since Jesus had been crucified at Passover. It’s in that last week before Pentecost, then, that the disciples made sure they replaced Judas as an apostle by choosing Matthias. They evidently guessed correctly, because they were all together in one place when Holy Spirit came in power.

It’s not clear from the context if the “they” refers only to the 12 apostles, as they are technically the last group mentioned, or if it includes the rest of the 120 believers. There are at least 15 nationalities mentioned in the next few verses, so my educated guess is that was all the believers.

The wind often symbolizes the presence of God’s Spirit in both the Old and New Testaments, and in fact the words for wind in Hebrew and Greek, רוּחַ (a) and πνεῦμα (pneuma) or πνοή (pnoē), respectively, are typically used for Spirit. The mention of the tongues of fire is a detail that signifies God pouring out his Spirit on all men and women, which is in strict contrast to what we see in the OT. In the OT, Moses is the only one who can stand in the presence of God, and his face glows radiantly every time that happens, including when he receives the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai. God’s presence or glory fills the Tabernacle while Israel is wandering in the desert.

As with Moses, then, this filling with the Spirit was not just some miraculous event, but it was intended to grant special kind of ex cathedra authority to the Apostles, at least, and perhaps others in the crowd, so that the doctrine and practice of the early church could be founded on consistent teaching and a united understanding of how God wanted the church to organize and evangelize. If they were going to go out into all the world, it would certainly take more than 12 Apostles to accomplish that. Now I don’t have any solid proof that the Apostles had such authority to speak God’s truth without error, but it certainly makes a lot of sense to me that they would for the reasons I stated. At the very least, I do not think such authority survived to successive church leaders. It was a limited authority and special dispensation to ensure the integrity and survival of the fledgling church.

Before we talk about the disciples speaking in other tongues, let us look at Acts 2:5–13

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, d 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”[1]

These verses give us a clear understanding of just what the “speaking in other tongues” entailed on this day. First off, it is clear from the text that the miracle was in the disciples and Apostles speaking, not in the crowd’s hearing. Second, they’re not just speaking one of the more common languages that most people would have known at the time. It was not unusual for even the average person to speak two or three languages. Again, the text is clear hear about what the crowd is hearing: the Greek literally says “our own dialect into which we were born.” As such, in this instance, they were not speaking a hidden spiritual language that no one else knew. God wanted to get the word out and get it out quickly. No time to wait for some special interpreter.

My final point involves using some math and geography skills to make an educated guess here. The 15 nations or empires mentioned here are from all around the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea and inland into modern-day Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Since Pentecost is only 50 days after Passover, many Jews who came for Passover stuck around for Pentecost as well. That’s perhaps the main reason why so many nations are represented here, and this hints at divine appointment.

Now, if you have 120 people speaking 15 different languages, that averages out to 8 people per language speaking. Of course, we don’t know the details of how that played out. But could it be that the disciples or Apostles who were speaking these known languages went on to help those in the audience who spoke the languages they were miraculously speaking? Is it possible some of those went on to be missionaries and evangelists in those distant nations? We know from verse 41 later on in chapter 2 that over 3,000 became disciples that day. How many of those were from the distant nations? How many of those new believers would have needed some training from the “experienced” disciples?

This is how you “go and make disciples of all nations”! You take advantage of having all the nations come to you first! The fact that 120 men and women were proclaiming God’s word miraculously in the languages of the hearers. This was fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, so Peter cites that at the beginning of his sermon:

17 “ ‘In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

your old men will dream dreams.

18 Even on my servants, both men and women,

I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

and they will prophesy.

19 I will show wonders in the heavens above

and signs on the earth below,

blood and fire and billows of smoke.

20 The sun will be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood

before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.

21 And everyone who calls

on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

Peter is confirming that God is beginning a new era with his kingdom. As I mentioned earlier, only certain people—prophets, patriarchs, and some political rulers—would receive the Spirit. But now, as God was demonstrating, all people—men and women, sons and daughters, old and young—could receive the Holy Spirit if they repented and got baptized for the forgiveness of sins, as Peter would go on to say in his message.

Peter goes on to cite more prophecy and Jesus’s resurrection as evidence that Jesus fulfilled that prophecy and was in fact the Messiah. Many who were there that day believed and were baptized. I don’t know that any of those 120 disciples could have imagined such a response! I’m sure they were ecstatic but also scrambling a bit to figure out how they would care for all these new believers.

One of the ways they did this was to meet both in the temple courts and in their own homes. Listen to how the early church managed to keep on top of its early success and growth:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship of the breaking of bread and to the prayers. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.[2]

This passage confirms my “educated guess” that the Apostles at least had a special dispensation for ensuring correct, infallible doctrine was taught. The signs and wonders they performed confirmed that dispensation and authority. Since they were meeting in the temple courts as well as in the homes, the “prayers” (the Greek text is plural) they devoted themselves to were probably the daily prayers in the Temple. They still considered themselves Jews, after all, at this point.

This was an exciting time for the early church. Growth was seemingly exponential, and God’s blessing upon the early Christians was obvious. In times of revival, the church has probably had some taste of this kind of excitement, and even in today’s world, we shouldn’t give up on praying and working for such revival. God is still doing mighty things in us through our own ministry efforts, and he’s still pouring out his Spirit on us and through us to take the good news to a lost and hurting world.


[1] Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV® unless otherwise indicated. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] Mostly The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan; vs. 42 is my own translation.

May 23, 2022

A Nation of Praise: Psalm 67

Filed under: Biblical Studies,Hebrew,Psalms — Scott Stocking @ 11:25 pm
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Listen to “A Nation of Praise: Psalm 67”

Preface and Introduction

I want to give this preface to my message this morning: The Book of Psalms was the hymnal for the Jews. It’s not completely clear when the collection as we have it today was complete, but we do know that long before the great Psalm writer David ever was born, God’s chosen nation was already starting to write and sing some of these hymns. So fair warning this morning, since the psalms were sung, you might catch me breaking out into song during my sermon. I may not be able to help myself!

The Songs of Moses and the Israelites

The Old Testament gives us many stories of the deeds of great men and women of faith, along with the praise that accompanied those deeds and in many cases told their stories. The first such example of this, at least in a big way, is the song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15 after the Israelites passed through the Red Sea and God drowned the Egyptian army. Here are the first few lines of that song:

“I will sing to the Lord,

for he is highly exalted.

Both horse and driver

he has hurled into the sea. (sing it with the “Yeehaw” at the end)

“The Lord is my strength and my defense;

he has become my salvation.

He is my God, and I will praise him,

my father’s God, and I will exalt him.

The Lord is a warrior;

the Lord is his name.

There’s a short song of praise in Numbers 21, where the Lord provides water for the Israelites: “Spring up, O well!”

Deuteronomy has another long song of Moses just before his death.

I will proclaim the name of the Lord.

Oh, praise the greatness of our God!

He is the Rock, his works are perfect,

and all his ways are just.

A faithful God who does no wrong,

upright and just is he.

David, toward the end of his life and after had won victory over all his enemies, including Saul, sang a 50-verse song of praise in 2 Samuel 22, which was included with the Psalms in Psalm 18:

“The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;

3     my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,

my shield and the horn of my salvation.

He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior—

from violent people you save me.

“I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,

and have been saved from my enemies.

The Praise of Jehoshaphat

Now all these songs of praise were sung after the fact, after the events for which they tell the story. But in 2 Chronicles 20, we have the story of Jehoshaphat, who decided his army should be led by a choir! We pick up the story of the impending battle in vs. 20:

“Listen to me, Judah and people of Jerusalem! Have faith in the Lord your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful.” 21 After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying:

“Give thanks to the Lord,

for his love endures forever.”

22 As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated.

Did you hear that? Judah put prayer and praise first in their battle plan, and they won the war without ever having to engage a single enemy with weapons of war. Now we probably don’t have the whole song here, because the writer speaks of “prais[ing] him for the splendor of his holiness.” What we probably have here is the most likely the first line of the song, in which case, we could make an educated guess that the rest of the song may be found in Psalm 136:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.

His love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of gods.

His love endures forever.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords:

His love endures forever.

We see what can happen when a nation comes together in their faith in God: Mighty battles can be won, and the nation’s enemies turn and fight amongst themselves or are attacked by third parties to their own destruction. And not only that, it took Judah three whole days to plunder the resources of the dead armies in the desert. And although we have no record of the words of their praise after they finished plundering the Ammonites and Moabites, we still know that they did gather in “The Valley of Berakah”, or “The Valley of Praise,” then returned to the temple joyfully with the music of harps, lyres, and trumpets. Not sure how they managed the harps on the battlefield!

Psalm 67

So, when Psalm 67 came up on the Lectionary calendar for today, I knew I had to preach on it. It was the first psalm, in its entirety, that I’d ever written music for. I don’t remember whether it was in college or after I got to seminary, but I do remember after really reading it for the first time, and not just speed reading through it, that I actually felt inspired to put it to music. Let’s listen to it again, and I’ll offer up my own rendition of the chorus verses (3 & 5):

For the director of music. With stringed instruments. A psalm. A song.

May God be gracious to us and bless us

and make his face shine on us—

so that your ways may be known on earth,

your salvation among all nations.

May the peoples praise you, God;

may all the peoples praise you.

May the nations be glad and sing for joy,

for you rule the peoples with equity

and guide the nations of the earth.

May the peoples praise you, God;

may all the peoples praise you.

The land yields its harvest;

God, our God, blesses us.

May God bless us still,

so that all the ends of the earth will fear him.

Now I always liked to add a little pep to the song if it was appropriate, and since this was about everyone praising God, I thought the chorus should sound something like this (New American Standard Version):

Let the peoples praise thee, O God, Let all the peoples praise thee!

Let the peoples praise thee, O God, Let all the peoples praise thee!

Psalm 67 is a carefully structured psalm that really does lend itself to being put to music, especially in the modern era, as music theory has developed to this point. Verses 1 & 2 are the first stanza or musical “verse” of the song. Verse 3 is the chorus; verse 4 is the bridge and the only verse in the psalm that has three lines as formatted; followed by the chorus repeated in verse 5. Verses 6 & 7 are the second stanza or musical verse of the song.

The other interesting thing to note about the structure of the psalm is that it’s a chiasm. What’s that, you ask? A chiasm is fancy term describing a particular structure of a section or written text, large or small, in which the elements or themes as presented in the first part of the text section are repeated in reverse order in the last section of the text. So here we have a stanza, chorus, bridge, chorus, stanza. The reason this is important to know is that in a chiasm, usually the middle element (in this case, the bridge) is the main idea of the passage, if it’s long enough to warrant that. We’ll get to that part in a moment.

Let’s break down this passage. The first verse sounds very much like what we know as the Priestly Blessing from Numbers 6:24–26:

24 “ ‘ “The Lord bless you

and keep you;

25 the Lord make his face shine on you

and be gracious to you;

26 the Lord turn his face toward you

and give you peace.” ’

Now this passage really brings back some memories of Mt. View when I was a kid. If you attended this church when I was a kid 45+ years ago, you know why. The choir used to exit down the aisle and line up in the walkway at the back of the sanctuary and sing this to end the service and dismiss us. (Sing it)

The Lord bless you and keep you,

The Lord lift his countenance upon you

And give you peace.

Now as when I was a kid, even though by that point in the service I was probably wanting to get home, I do remember having a bit of fascination with that musical benediction. Our choir back then did it quite well. Beautiful four-part harmony, a little bit of antiphony and overlapping melodies to mimic the voices congregation as they greeted each other on the way out of the sanctuary, and the descant over the “amen” chorus at the end as if an angel of God were signaling God’s pleasure with the saints gathered.

Verse 2 is the reason why he makes his face shine upon us: so we can share the good news with the world! If I’m not mistaken, I’d say that sounds very much like being the light of the world and letting the whole world see and glorify God. We are God’s representatives here on earth, and we’re called as a holy, set apart, people to live such lives that the world cannot refute or call us into question for what we believe. When the world sees us living united in our faith, that sends a positive to message to the world that the peoples and nations have no option but to praise God. And what is praise? Praise is nothing more than an expression of worthiness toward the one who is the object of praise.

As I indicated above, vs. 4 is the “bridge” verse, or perhaps better, the hinge pin that the Psalm is centered on. From vv. 2–4, we have three different words used for the “nations” or “people.” In vs. 2, the psalmist uses the word (גּ֝וֹיִ֗ם) goyim for “nations.” Typically this might be translated specifically as “gentiles,” referring perhaps to more of a religious feature: those who don’t worship God regardless of their nationality. “Peoples” (עַם ʿǎm) in vv. 3, 4, and 5 probably has to do more with local family units or tribes within a nation than a whole nation.

“Nations” in verse 4 (לְאֹם leʾōm) refers more to the general population as a whole without referring to ethnicity, race, or religious affiliation. This would simply indicate that God’s word is for everyone; no one is excluded!

If we recall Jehoshaphat’s strategy, he praised God with a choir at the head of the army. In our world today, which is becoming increasingly hostile toward Christianity and Christian values, we can use praise as a weapon to keep all things aligned for God. Our hope as Christians is that speaking and living out God’s word will bring all nations to repentance and to follow their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We hope that all things will work together for good for those who love God. And we hope that we can convince the world to live in true peace and love.

In the last two verses, we see a promise of God, that we will not have need because we will have a good harvest to maintain our health and strength. As the light of God’s face brightens our lives, so the blessing of God in our lives will convince even more to acknowledge the healthy sense of fear we should have when coming before the God of the universe.

Conclusion

Every time we share the good news of Jesus and God’s greatness, we have the promise of Isaiah 55:10–11:

10 As the rain and the snow

come down from heaven,

and do not return to it

without watering the earth

and making it bud and flourish,

so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:

It will not return to me empty,

but will accomplish what I desire

and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Sometimes we may look at the world and see the moral fabric deteriorating around us. The words of the psalmist seem truer every day (14:1):

The fool says in his heart,

“There is no God.”

They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;

there is no one who does good.

We are the light of the world. We are the city on a hill. We are the salt of the earth. We are God’s hands and feet to take his message of hope and love to the world. Let’s go forth, singing his praises and proclaiming his blessings to those around us.

May 15, 2022

Jesus, the Good Shepherd (John 10:22–30)

Author’s Note: I preached this sermon on Mother’s Day (05/08/22) at Mt. View Presbyterian Church. The text is lightly edited for publication. For a related post, see “I Am the Door of the Sheep”; “I Am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:7, 11).

I mentioned last week how the challenge of preaching from the lectionary texts has served to sharpen my preaching and academic skills. But this week’s texts presented an additional challenge for me, because none of them lined up with today’s special designation on our social and cultural calendars: Mother’s Day. What’s a preacher to do!?!

Well, fortunately, God gave me a unique 7-pound mass of gray matter that never ceases to amaze my wife with the connections I can make between seemingly unconnected concepts. At least, I think I amaze her. She would probably tell you I befuddle and bewilder her and then roll her eyes for emphasis. But anyway, I digress. Although I can’t make my whole message about motherhood based on the text today, I can highlight some principles of motherhood that undergird Jesus’s ministry and apply them to our situations.

Jesus in His Father’s House

To set the stage for our text today, we need to go back to Jesus’s preteen years, when he was only 12 years old, probably his “coming of age” year as a young Jewish male. Jesus’s family had gone to Jerusalem every year for the Passover, and that year was no exception. Only this time, according to Luke 2, Jesus decided to give his parents the scare of their lives by staying behind in Jerusalem while his parents headed back to Nazareth. His parents didn’t realize this until about a day later, because they thought he was hanging out with the other kids in the caravan they were travelling with.

It took them three days to find him, and when they did find him, he was in the temple courts hanging out with the teachers of the law. They were “amazed [ἐξίστημι (existēmi)] at Jesus’s understanding and answers.” In other words, they couldn’t believe their ears that such wisdom was coming from a 12-year-old boy. On the other hand, his parents were “astonished” or “overwhelmed” [ἐκπλήσσομαι (ekplēssomai)] that he was apparently commanding so much respect from the teachers of the law, let alone that he had managed to survive half a week in Jerusalem without his parents.

Jesus’s response to his earthly parents I think has been largely underappreciated or at least underemphasized in most circles: “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Now every Jewish mother expected her boy might someday be the Messiah, but Mary knew it for a fact that Jesus was the Messiah. So Jesus’s response here may be the first time the implications of his conception and birth really hit her: Jesus IS the Son of God.

Luke says that Mary “treasured these things in her heart,” which probably meant that she had a choice to make about being the mother of the Son of God. Any other Jewish mother would have encouraged her son to follow in his father’s footsteps. But Jesus had a “stepfather,” if you will, in Joseph the carpenter as well as his true father, the God of the universe. So we can make an educated guess at this point that, not only did Mary and Joseph encourage Jesus to be a carpenter, but they also had to respect that his true home was the temple, where God was said to live. It’s fairly easy to assume then, that they continued the annual trips to the temple (perhaps at least three times per year) to help him develop and maintain that connection, at least until Jesus struck out on his own.

Jesus’s love for the temple, which he had such a special, passionate connection to, seems to be a main focus of John’s gospel, wherein lies our text for this morning. Now think about this for a minute: John’s first story about Jesus in the temple is Jesus chasing out the money changers. And what does he say? “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” If the temple is his father’s house, then isn’t it technically his house too as the son of God? As God’s earthly representative, Jesus has sort of a default power of attorney over the temple and must protect the honor of his father and the integrity of his father’s house. For Jesus, then, clearing the temple wasn’t just an act of righteous indignation, but a deeply personal act of protecting his family honor. I must admit that this thought didn’t occur to me until just this week as I was preparing my message. This is the kind of passion you can expect when a good mother—and a good father—instill in their children a profound respect for family and home.

Seven of the 21 chapters in John place Jesus at the temple in all or part of the chapters. This is one feature that sets the gospel of John apart from the other three gospels. Sure, John does have Jesus ministering in locations outside of Jerusalem, like the wedding at Cana and the feeding of the multitudes. But he always comes back to the temple or a festival at the temple.

Jesus: The Gate and the Good Shepherd

That’s where we find ourselves in today’s passage, John 10:22–30. Jesus has come to the Festival of Dedication, what we know today as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, to participate in the celebration and do a little more teaching as well. He uses the metaphor of sheep in his discussion, which fits right in with two “I am” statements John records in the first part of chapter 10: “I am the good shepherd [ποιμήν (poimēn)],” and “I am the gate [θύρα (thyra)] for the sheep.” In fact, John 10–14 would seem to be the core of John’s gospel, because we also have two more “I am” statements in that section: “I am the resurrection and the life,” and “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

So how does this all tie together? And why is Jesus using the imagery of sheep here? His first “I am” statement in John 10 is perhaps the biggest clue. When he says, “I am the gate for the sheep,” he’s most likely standing very near the Sheep Gate, one of the ancient entrances into Jerusalem, which is within 100 feet of the outer court of the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles. The Sheep Gate was so important given its proximity to the temple that Nehemiah (3:1) lists it as the first gate the Israelites repaired when they returned to Jerusalem. John’s first account of Jesus healing someone is in chapter 5, where Jesus healed a man who had been lame for 38 years at the pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate.

The other thing Jesus says about being the gate for the sheep is significant: “Through me, whoever enters will be saved.” That sounds very much like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” in John 14:6. Another way to look at this is that John arranges this core section of his gospel with the two “I am” statements where Jesus says he’s the only way at the beginning and end.

Now Jesus saying that he’s the gate for the sheep leads naturally into Jesus’s next “I am” statement: “I am the good shepherd.” The shepherd fulfills multiple roles while he’s tending his flock. He serves as protector of the flock, fighting off wolves, predators, and thieves in the wilderness. Of course, these are roles we’d typically assign to a father, especially in Jesus’s day. But the shepherd also helps the ewes give birth and tends to any injured sheep, roles we would typically assign to, wait for it, mothers! See what I did there? I snuck that reference into my Mother’s Day message, wink and a nod.

And why can Jesus say he’s a good shepherd? Well in part, it’s because he healed that man at the Sheep Gate a few chapters earlier. But that’s not all. Jesus gives a pretty full explanation of what it means to be a shepherd. Here are the highlights:

  • The shepherd knows his sheep by name.
  • The sheep know the shepherd’s voice and to follow the shepherd’s voice; they won’t follow a stranger’s voice.
  • The shepherd will lead them to fertile pastures.
  • The shepherd ensures the sheep will have a full and abundant life (sounds kind of like “I am the resurrection and the life,” right?)
  • The shepherd will not abandon the sheep when danger is present; in fact, he will lay down his life for the sheep.

So with this background in mind, let’s read again today’s passage.

22 Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.” [1]

John 10:22–30

The Jews want to know if Jesus is the Messiah, but many of the Jews are probably still thinking of a political Messiah who will overthrow the rule of Rome from their lives and restore a theocracy again, or at least something akin to what they had in the days of David and Solomon. Jesus’s response is a bit cryptic, as it usually is. He doesn’t want people to believe because he’s told them so. He wants people to look at what he’s done in the way of his miracles and teaching and figure it out for themselves. Figuring it out for yourself is always more convincing than just being told outright, right? Jesus’s followers know him and recognize him for who he is. They made the sacrifice to follow him, learn from him, and grow closer to God in him. They were the “sheep” following the shepherd. I don’t use that term in a disparaging way, of course. His followers put their trust in him, and Jesus proved faithful with that trust. But those who haven’t been following him or are just casual observers, they can’t believe because they don’t have the experience with him just yet.

Recognizing the Shepherd’s Voice

I think vs. 27 is the most important concept to grasp here. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” How is it we can get to a place where we can distinguish the Savior’s voice from all the other noise around us? I’m going to include another motherly fact here: audiologists say that between 6 and 7 months in the womb, a baby begins to recognize their mother’s voice and respond consistently. That’s two to three months BEFORE they’re born! How about you? When did you first realize God was speaking to you, calling you into his fold? Are you able to look back on your life and recognize, “Hey, maybe God was talking to me in this or that situation and I didn’t even realize it!” I’m sure he was talking to you even before you made your faith your own.

Another way we recognize God’s voice is by staying engaged with his word. I will never forget the time when I was a campus minister at Northern Illinois University, and our ministry operated some student housing. We had one resident who wasn’t working; he claimed God didn’t want him to work. Unfortunately, that meant he never had money to pay his rent. I guess he thought it would somehow magically fall from the sky and into his pockets. However, somehow, he always had money for food. When we finally confronted him about this, including Scriptures about working to provide for yourself (Eph 4:28; 1 Thess 5:14; 2 Thess 3:6–13, esp. v. 10), his response floored me: “I can’t help it if I’m more spiritual and you’re more scriptural.” In other words, he thought the Holy Spirit was telling him to do something that contradicted the word of God! I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work like that. The more we get into God’s word, the more we understand what he wants for our lives.

Assurance of Eternal Life

In the final part of this passage, we see that the good shepherd has given us eternal life; “life” without end. On the one hand, that means life to the fullest, as he promised earlier in the chapter. On the other hand, that means we have the promise of his resurrection, which he affirms in chapter 11 not only by saying he is the resurrection and the life, but by raising Lazarus from the dead as well. Not only do we have this eternal life, but we have the promise that, as long as we abide in him, nothing will ever overcome or nullify that promise of eternal life.

Paul reaffirms this in Romans 8:38–39:

38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38–39

Conclusion

To bring this to a close, I want to look briefly at chapters 12 & 13, the rest of this core section of John’s gospel, to grasp how Jesus further demonstrates himself as the good shepherd. In chapter 12, we see Jesus anointed with perfume in preparation for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we looked at a few weeks ago. In chapter 13, we see the true servant nature of Jesus as he washes the disciples’ feet. He’s also preparing his disciples for when he departs from them after his crucifixion and resurrection, although they don’t seem to fully comprehend that. He’s truly ready and preparing for the time when he’d have to lay down his life for his sheep.

Are you a member of God’s flock? Are you part of the fold? Now is the time if you’re not. Reach out to the Father and ask him for forgiveness and acceptance, while pledging your life to be part of his kingdom.


[1] Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

May 11, 2022

A Tale of Two Preachers: Life Lessons from Peter and Paul

Filed under: 1 Peter,Acts,Biblical Studies — Scott Stocking @ 9:21 pm
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Listen to “A Tale of Two Preachers”

Message preached at Mt. View Presbyterian Church, May 1, 2022. Lightly edited for publication.

I want to start off this morning with a personal note: I have thoroughly enjoyed filling the pulpit here at the church I grew up in, and hope to continue to do so as long as you’ll have me. My last main preaching assignment in Illinois before moving back to Nebraska was in a rural community of about 400 people that had seven churches, and the attendance at the church I served was a little less than it has been here. But in many respects, even as a small church in middle of a metro area of about half a million people, you’re not unlike those rural folks.

Most of my ministry career in Illinois from 1987 through 2007 was spent in towns of less than 5,000 people. But even though I now find myself preaching with some regularity in a city 100 or even 1,000 times larger than what I was used to, I’m really not feeling any different about the task here as I did in rural Illinois. I’m grateful for these opportunities, and they have helped me sharpen my preaching and academic skills.

Now this week, the lectionary readings presented me with a bit of a challenge with what to preach on. Two of the four passages in Lectionary calendar had to do with two different apostles being commissioned to preach God’s word to the early church. We’ve read from both of them this morning (John 21:15-19; Acts 9:1-6). It seemed odd to me that I might have to choose either Peter’s reinstatement after the resurrection or Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road. But then I realized I could probably relate to both and glean some valuable principles from their respective stories to share with and encourage you this morning. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the highlights (and lowlights) of Peter first, followed by Paul, and see what we can learn for ourselves about being evangelists for the risen Lord.

Peter’s Life

Of all the apostles who traveled with Jesus during his earth-bound ministry, Peter is certainly the most famous. Throughout the Gospels, we see that Peter was often the first one to open his mouth, the first one to volunteer, or the first one to make a big promise. Of course, this also meant that he was usually the first to eat his words, the first one to be rebuked, or the first one to fail in some way, large or small.

Now Simon Peter, along with his brother Andrew, were the first two apostles to follow Jesus. In John 1:42, Jesus officially gives him the name “Cephas” (Aramaic), which is translated in Greek as “Peter,” both of which mean “rock.” In the lists of the apostles, Simon Peter is always found first, which is certainly a nod to his position in the early church at the time the Gospels were being written.

Now we know Peter was not from any elite class of his day. He and his brother were fishermen, and they probably socialized with other fishermen, namely the sons of Zebedee, James and John. These fishermen probably had a pretty good knowledge of the OT, especially the Psalms, from their time in the Synagogue on Sabbath and the basic education any Hebrew youth would have received. They just didn’t go on any farther in the education to be a pharisee or other religious leader.

In Matthew 14, we have the story of Jesus walking on the water to the boat the apostles were in, which was being buffeted by the waves. Of course, Peter is the first one to speak up about going out to see Jesus. Here’s a man who wants to take charge, take the lead, and show the others what it truly means to follow. Jesus invites Peter out of the boat to walk on the choppy waters, and for a time, Peter does walk on the water. But instead of keeping his eyes on and faith in Jesus, the wind and the waves around him cause him to fear and doubt, and he begins to sink. Jesus catches him, though, and they both get back on the boat.

What’s impressive here is that Peter was the only one who even thought of getting out of the boat, and then he followed through on his thought. None of the other apostles had the courage of Peter to follow their master in this radical way, by trying to muster up the faith to do what no other mortal had ever done.

It wasn’t long after that incident that Peter had the opportunity to say what none of the other apostles were willing to say. In Matthew 16, Jesus asks the apostles, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The apostles hem and haw and beat around the bush, but Peter is the first to answer Jesus’s more direct question, “Who do YOU say I am?” Peter responds boldly, proclaiming that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praises Peter for his response. But in the very next paragraph, when Jesus predicts his death, Peter rebukes Jesus for talking like that. Jesus immediately rebukes Peter, saying “Get behind me, Satan.” Talk about going from emotional high to emotional low!

A few weeks ago, we saw one of the last major blunders of Peter before Christ’s crucifixion. He claimed he would never forsake Christ, yet on the night of the illegal trial to condemn Jesus, Peter denies knowing Christ three times. And Jesus had told him he would do that despite Peter’s repeated objections. Peter had to feel like the bottom of the barrel at that point.

And so we come to the Gospel text we read this morning, John 21:15–19, the story of Jesus reinstating Peter to his leadership role. I don’t think there’s anything significant to be made of the two different Greek words used for “love” in this passage. But why did Jesus ask Peter three times if he loved him? Because Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus gave Peter a three-fold mission here: “Feed my lambs”; “Take care of my sheep”; and “Feed my sheep.” Again, not much difference between the three, but a commission to care for the church, young and old, when it would begin on the Day of Pentecost. The result? We never hear about Peter’s shortcomings throughout the rest of the book of Acts. And he wrote two epistles to boot.

Lessons from Peter’s Life

So what can we learn from Peter here before moving on to talk about Paul’s ministry? First, don’t be afraid to do great things for God. “Great” may not necessarily be fabulous or seen by all. Sometimes the smallest gesture can have a huge impact. Theodore Roosevelt makes the point here: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they lie in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Second, God can work with whatever level of faith you’re willing to bring to the table. It took incredible faith just for Peter to get out of the boat in those choppy conditions, let walking on water. As Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Third, know that when we mess up, it’s not the end of the road with God. Peter probably thought he had lost his place among the apostles. But as 2 Timothy 2:13 says, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself,” that is, he can’t disown those who are members of his body, the church.

Paul’s Life

Now Paul had quite a different introduction to Jesus. While he was headed to Damascus “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” the resurrected Jesus appeared to him in a blinding light. He was blinded and led into Damascus where he was to await further instructions. A disciple in Damascus named Ananias also got a visit from Jesus, who told him to go find Paul, because he would be God’s “chosen instrument to proclaim [his] name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” God even told Ananias to let Paul know how much he would suffer for Jesus. Ananias laid hands on Paul; Paul received the Holy Spirit; and he experienced a physical manifestation of scales falling from his eyes so he could see again, and then got baptized.

Paul does a little preaching defending Christ rather than persecuting his followers in Damascus, and then from Galatians 1, we know he went to Arabia at some point, then returned to Damascus for three years until he finally went before the early church leadership in Jerusalem. It’s hard to determine this exact timing, because Acts chapter 9 doesn’t say anything about when he went Arabia or when he came back to Damascus. It is during that time when Paul is getting grounded in the faith that Peter gets a calling from Christ to go eat with a Gentile named Cornelius. This must happen for Paul to minister to the Gentiles as Christ had commissioned him.

After Peter defends a ministry to the Gentiles, we see Barnabas goes to Tarsus to look for Paul to urge Paul to work with him in Antioch for about a year. It is from Antioch, somewhere around AD 46, that Paul and Barnabas initiate the first of several missionary journeys. Of course, Paul had several stops along the way to preach the Gospel, but I want to highlight three main events: Paul in Athens, Paul at Ephesus, and Paul’s trials.

Paul’s Ministry Highlights

On Paul’s second missionary journey, we find him in Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. Athens was one of the premier cities at the time, and Paul was quite active there. Not only was he “reasoning” in the synagogues with the Jews, but he was also out in the marketplace daily speaking with passers-by. At one point, a mixed group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers start debating him in the street, because he’s talking about something they’ve never heard, the resurrection of Christ. Because the Greeks loved to discuss new ideas, they invited Paul to the Aereopagus, where he made reference to an idol he’d seen with the inscription “To an Unknown God.” The Greeks had a whole pantheon of gods, but they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss anything. Paul used that idol as an object lesson to talk about the God (big G) they didn’t know yet, Yahweh, and his one and only son who rose from the dead. Some of those philosophers and several others became Christ followers because of his willingness to speak anywhere and at any time about the gospel.

A couple chapters later, at the beginning of Paul’s third missionary journey, we find him in Ephesus. He spent at least 2 ½ years preaching and teaching there, first in the synagogue for about 3 months before he got kicked out and took his followers to the lecture hall of Tyrannus. It seems like Ephesus was the shining jewel of Paul’s ministry. Paul did many miracles there, even to the point of Paul touching handkerchiefs and aprons that brought healing. He made quite a dent in the evil side of the spiritual world when several people burned their sorcery books. Even the people who made the Artemis idols were noting a decline in their business and rioted because of Paul’s preaching and teaching. The disciples feared that Paul might be killed if he tried to defend himself before the mob.

Paul moves on from there for a short time to minister elsewhere, but returns to Ephesus for a very teary farewell as he’s preparing to return to Jerusalem one last time. Paul gives a passionate address to the Ephesians, where he says “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). He goes on to encourage the leadership there to be shepherds and overseers of God’s flock, which is where we get the clearest teaching and example of what church leadership is all about.

Once Paul arrives in Jerusalem, it doesn’t take long for the final “race” of his ministry to begin. He suspects he’ll probably be arrested when he gets there. He knows the road he’s on is filled with prison and hardship, but he presses on faithfully. He even receives a prophecy on his way back to Jerusalem to confirm that he would be arrested, and indeed he is. He appears before the Jewish leaders in the Sanhedrin, who no doubt are questioning his status as a pharisee, among other things. They can’t do anything with him, since the power to impose the death penalty rested with Rome, so Paul begins a series of appeals to the upper echelons of Roman leadership, because he was a Roman citizen and had that right. No regular Jew from Judea would have had that right. He was first brought before Felix, the governor of the region, who kept Paul in prison to the end of his term. When Felix was replaced with Festus, Paul appealed to him and recounted his ministry activities, but again, no one could prove the Sanhedrin’s charge against him. Festus wasn’t quite sure what to do with Paul at that point, but Paul made his decision easy: Paul appealed to Caesar himself for a hearing.

After that, Paul had to wait for King Agrippa to come to Caesarea to hear Paul’s second appeal. Paul gave a full account of his conversion and ministry, so much so that Agrippa was almost converted himself: “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28). Agrippa agrees that Paul had done nothing wrong and that Paul should have been set free, but when you appeal to Caesar, that trumps everything, and there’s no turning back at that point.

The book of Acts ends before we find out what happens to Paul’s appeal. It seems from the last couple verses of Acts that Paul was under house arrest in his own rented home, and “He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!”

Lessons from Paul’s Life

So, what are the lessons we can take from Paul’s ministry? First, as he did in Athens, look around and see what’s available to help you share the good news of Jesus. It may be objects, it may be events, or it could be something simple, like a beautiful landscape or something in nature. You don’t have to know all the answers to all the questions people may ask you, but you can speak passionately about what you believe and defend it from the heart.

Second, church leaders have an immense responsibility for caring for the spiritual lives of their congregations. Shepherding refers primarily to taking care of the physical and emotional needs of the congregation, while the overseer (in Greek, ἐπίσκοπος, from which we get the terms “episcopal” and later in Latin “bishop”) function has more to do with spiritual teaching and managing the affairs of the congregation. These are not necessarily functions performed by two different people. Every overseer should be a good shepherd, but not every shepherd would make a good overseer. The term “elder,” from Acts 20:17, 1 Peter 5, and Titus, is derived from a Greek word you all should be familiar with, πρεσβύτερος, from which we get the word Presbytery. It simply means “older,” but given its connection with leadership in the NT, it probably also implies “wiser” as well and a degree of responsibility for the well-being of the congregation.

Finally, most of us will probably never be in a position to defend our faith before kings or other political rulers, but Paul was always ready to give a defense of what we believe, just as Peter encouraged his readers to do (1 Peter 3:15). That defense may be as simple as “Jesus loves me, this I know,” or it may involve a more detailed argument from Scripture. You may not know the answer to every question that comes at you, but I’ll bet you know someone who does, and you can always say you’ll get back to them.

Conclusion

Peter and Paul are the two most prominent examples of church leadership we have in the NT, especially in the Gospels and Acts, and their surviving letters that make up most of the rest of the NT. Jesus wouldn’t let Peter’s repeated failures stop him from being a powerful force for the gospel, preaching the Pentecost sermon that initiated and ignited the church in Acts 2. Paul was quite the opposite of Peter, always seeming to choose his words carefully and being careful not let his tongue get ahead of his brain. Together, their writings represent 15 of the 27 books of the NT, and they are the two main leadership figures in the book of Acts, which recounts their stories.

God doesn’t really care whether we’re fishermen or a scholars. What he cares about is that we’re faithful with the gifts and abilities he’s given us, for his gifts and calling are without repentance: God doesn’t reconsider those gifts, but at times he may redirect you, as I’ve learned in my life. My prayer is that go from here this morning encouraged by the examples and the teaching that Peter and Paul have left for us, and that you will allow God to use you according to your own gifts and abilities. Amen.

April 24, 2022

The Coming King: An Exegesis of Revelation 1:1–8

Listen to “An Exegesis of Revelation”

In the past four months, I’ve explored much about the life of Jesus with you in the Gospels, especially as it relates to the fulfillment of prophecies about Jesus. At Christmas time, of course, we looked at his birth. A couple weeks ago, we looked at some of the prophecies surrounding his triumphal entry and final week up to the crucifixion and resurrection. The Old Testament prophets also told us he would teach in parables (Psalm 78:2||Matthew 13:35).

Variety of Interpretations

Now if you’ve spent much time reading and studying the book of Revelation or the end times in general, you probably know that there are many different views about how to interpret the book, especially as how it relates to the calendar. Views range from the preterists, who believe the end-time prophecies have already been fulfilled, perhaps when the Romans conquered Jerusalem in AD 70, to the postmillennialists, who think Christ will return after a literal 1,000-year reign of the church on earth. Then there are those who think there will be a 7-year period of tribulation prior to Christ’s return and millennial reign, with varying views on when the “rapture,” the transformation of God’s living saints into heaven, happens. And the last major view I’ll mention is that of the amillennialists, who see the church’s current presence on earth as a figurative expression of the 1,000-year reign of Christ, with Christ coming at the consummation of history and establishing his new heaven and new earth.

These differing views have all been put forth by their respective proponents based on well-intentioned study of and meditation on God’s word and historical theology. As someone who spent a great deal of time studying the end times when I was a renewed believer, I’ve seen some of these proponents use the same Scriptures to support their differing views! Add to that that much of the literature on end times is written from an American or Western perspective, but Christians throughout the world at various times and places have at one time or another experienced intense persecution and interpreted the signs of their own respective times such that they thought their generation would be the one to see the return of Christ. So let’s be honest and face the facts—we really don’t have enough solid information to make any absolute statements about when and how Christ will return. And as such, I’m not here this morning to defend any one of these viewpoints.

Setting the Stage

Instead, I believe that the message of the Revelation to John, when taken at the face value of the printed word, is one that can be easily understood. For example, we don’t have to know who or what the four horsemen of the apocalypse represent (or represented) in the historical context (past, present, or future; although we are called to discern those signs); the important thing to grasp is how the events surrounding these players would impact the church, and how the church should respond to those events. So this article, we’ll take a look at the first few verses of Revelation chapter 1 to see how John is setting the stage for us regarding the revelation he received while imprisoned on Patmos, which he recorded for all posterity.

Prologue

1 The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

Greetings and Doxology

4 John,

To the seven churches in the province of Asia:

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits l before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” 

and “every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him”;

and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”

So shall it be! Amen.

8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” [1]

——Revelation 1:1–8

Defining “Revelation”

First, it helps to know what exactly is a “revelation.” In the biblical sense, a revelation (Gk ἀποκάλυψις apokalypsis) involves making something known that was previously hidden and that could NOT have been known by man prior to its being revealed. In Romans 16:25 and Ephesians 3:3, ἀποκάλυψις refers to a mystery. In Galatians 1:11–12, Paul claims to have received the Gospel not from any human source, but directly from Christ. This lines up with the testimony from Acts 9 when Paul is confronted by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and his own testimony that he waited at least three years before going fully public with his conversion to Peter and James.

Revelation is a broad category. A revelation may simply be a statement from God about the truth; some sort of physical sign that appears in the natural world; or a “vision,” which in modern technological terms is similar to a 3-D interactive hologram, except some of the people and things in the vision may have some physical substance to them that the person actually experiences. Usually a vision is limited to one person, and is almost always accompanied by a messenger or angel, as in the current text. This helps give credence to John’s testimony, as he would have otherwise been alone when he received the revelation.

Location and Occasion

The book of Revelation is a very long epistle written to seven churches on or near the western coast of Asia Minor, what we know today as western Turkey. Because it was so long and John needed to get the word out quickly “because the time is near,” verse 3 has the instruction that the entire book be read out loud to the seven churches rather than have separate copies made and delivered to each of the churches. The order of the churches in vs. 10 (and their corresponding letters in chapters 2–3) would have been a typical circuit for anyone who traveled regularly through that region. What probably happened is once the book was read at Ephesus, someone would have travelled to Smyrna to pass it off to the next church, and so on.

What we don’t seem to know, at least, no one in the several commentaries I reviewed knew, is why these seven churches. There were other churches nearby who had already had letters from Paul: Colossae was just a few miles to the east of Laodicea, and the region of Galatia was just east of there. A simple answer, and the one I’ll assume here, is that John functioned as some sort of overseer for these churches, and so he “stays in his lane” and focuses on those churches. With these cities being on an established circuit, we can make an educated guess that there may have been some strategic considerations as well for eventually distributing the message to the rest of the Mediterranean region and beyond. At least one commentator suggested this area could have had the highest concentration of Christians at the time.

Many commentators focus on the number of churches, seven, because that symbolizes completeness, and as such, each in their own way may represent established churches elsewhere in the world. But there are local details that only the believers in the respective churches could have related to, so that might lessen a broader appeal to other churches. At the very least, if other churches besides those mentioned received this letter, they surely would have been able to discern broader principles that applied to their situation, and the grand visions of Revelation in chapter 4 and beyond would have had universal significance to the church as it existed at the time. For now, though, we can set the question of “Why these seven churches” aside and still discern some meaningful truths from the passage.

The OT Connection

Many early– to mid–20th-century versions of our English Bibles do not indicate that the book of Revelation has many, if any, direct quotations or allusions to the Old Testament. But as scholars and translators have studied the book in more detail, and the use of computers facilitated better text comparisons between the Old and New Testaments, they’ve come to discover the book’s extensive connections to the OT.

Verses 4 and 5 are at the heart of what I hope to communicate to you this morning. Not only do they speak to who Christ is, but to our relationship with Christ as well and how he views us in his eternal plan. After greeting the seven churches, Paul opens with a pretty standard greeting formula: “Grace and peace to you.” The word “grace” was rarely used in the OT, and when it was, it usually referred to adornment, graceful speech, or a graceful appearance. Only a couple uses of the word in the NIV could be considered to come close to the NT understanding of grace as a free gift from God, especially for salvation. “Peace” was the more common OT greeting, so John and the other epistle writers use this formula to tie together the new and old covenants when addressing a mixed audience. “Peace” is not just the absence of conflict in the OT context, but a sense of security and acceptance as well.

The next phrase, which is also repeated in vs. 8, tells us who the sources of grace and peace are: “The one who is, and who was, and who is to come” is, of course, God himself, the father. The phrase is a direct reference to the Greek translation of God’s divine name in Exodus 3:14, when he reveals it to Moses at the burning bush: “I am who I am,” or perhaps better “I will be who I will be” (Hebrew: אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה; [ehyeh asher ehyeh] Greek LXX: Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν [egō eimi ho ōn]). In Hebrew, we know that name to be Yahweh, which as a word, is nothing more than a glorified form of the “to be” verb in Hebrew. This refers to the timeless, eternal, self-sustaining nature of God. One other interesting fact about this description: The phrase “who is to come” sounds like it might be a future tense, right? But in Greek, it’s actually a present tense verb. Why is this little bit of grammar important? Because in Greek, the present tense usually implies an action is in process and is not a one-and-done event. God is saying that, even now, he is actively working on coming to us to redeem us once and for all and finally put an end to Satan’s power. We can always count on God’s presence and involvement in the affairs of our lives and in the world around us.

The next source for grace and peace is the “seven spirits before his throne.” This is a little trickier to discern, because John describes the seven spirits differently in each context he mentions them. In 3:1, when addressing the church of Sardis, Jesus says, “These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God….” In 4:5, John says the seven lamps blazing in front of the throne of God are the seven spirits of God. In 5:6, John says the “seven eyes” of the Lamb “are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” At the very least, then, it would seem like these spirits represent a special group of divine beings, perhaps archangels, who have some authority to carry out God’s will on the earth, especially with respect to the judgment events later in the book. However, this may in fact be an expanded way of referring to the Holy Spirit, because then we would have an expression of the Trinity in vss. 4–5: Father, Spirit, Jesus.

If you’re following along in your Bibles, some of you may have a footnote with an alternate translation: “the seven-fold Spirit.” This may refer to a seven-fold description of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11:2 about the shoot that comes up from the stump of Jesse, and thus support the idea this is in fact a statement about the Trinity:

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—

the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

the Spirit of counsel and of might,

the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord

If this is the case, it would seem these seven spirits (or the seven-fold Spirit) may have a role to play in preparing and protecting believers in the tribulation that John will describe. However we interpret the phrase “seven spirits,” we at least can be assured that God is working in our best interests to bring us grace and peace.

Moving on, we see the final source of our grace and peace is Jesus himself. We’re reminded of who he is and what he’s done for us. He’s first called a “faithful witness” here, which brings us back to Isaiah again, 55:4:

See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,

a ruler and commander of the peoples.

He is the faithful witness because he did all that his father commanded him to, even accepting death on a cross for our sins. This is also why he’s called here “the firstborn from the dead,” because God raised him from the dead and proved once for all that death could in fact be defeated (Psalm 89:27; Colossians 1:18). It’s important here that John reminds his readers of this hope of the resurrection because of the intense suffering some of them may face based on the revelation John is proclaiming.

The final piece in the first part of vs. 5 here is that Jesus is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” This again hearkens back to the last part of Isaiah 55:4 I read a moment ago. Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

In response to the grace and peace of the blessing from the Father, Holy Spirit, and Jesus, John returns thanks to Jesus and acknowledges what the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have done not just for him, but for all believers everywhere. First off, he loves us. I think we all know the passage from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” He’s also “freed us from our sins by his blood.” The death of the perfect Lamb of God was powerful enough to cleanse us and make us holy in his sight. Finally, John mentions a promise that goes all the way back to their release from captivity in Egypt and before God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. Exodus 19:5–6 says:

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

What a blessing to know that we have power, authority, and hope in our Savior to face whatever may come our way! And because of that, John can conclude that God deserves all glory and power for who he is and what he’s done for us.

Verse 7 isn’t so much a vision but a mash-up of several OT verses that confirm that God is indeed all powerful and worthy of all glory. Let’s hear it again before breaking it down:

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,” 

and “every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him”;

and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”

So shall it be! Amen.

“He’s coming with the clouds” is a direct quote from Daniel’s vision in 7:13. The gospels use this description of Christ’s return as well. The next few lines about being pierced and the people mourning come straight from Zechariah 12:10. The Jews always recognized these two passages as Messianic from the time they were published after the exile. John is confirming that here.

Verse 8 closes out this passage with God himself saying he is the Alpha and Omega. This also hearkens back to a passage in Isaiah 41:4:

4 Who has done this and carried it through,

calling forth the generations from the beginning?

I, the Lord—with the first of them

and with the last—I am he.”

Long before this, Jewish writers were referring to God as the ‘’Aleph and Tau,’ the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Some Jewish writers went even further and added the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet between the first and last, which made the Hebrew word ’emeth, which means “truth.” So God calling himself “Alpha and Omega” is nothing new to Jewish Christians who spoke Greek. A few verses later, in Revelation 1:17, Jesus calls himself “the First and the Last.” In Revelation 21:6, God again calls himself Alpha and Omega, only this time he also adds “the Beginning and the End.” In the final chapter, 22:13, we see Jesus taking on both those titles as well, only this time he adds in “the First and the Last” from 1:17. In other words, Jesus affirms that he is part of the Trinity with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God, not “a” god little g, but the one and only “God” big G.

Conclusion

Revelation can be a difficult book to navigate. It’s full of strange and sometimes bizarre images of multihorned beasts, horses of different colors, and terrible cosmic events. But even if you don’t understand all that, the important thing to understand is what we’ve talked about here this morning. Here’s what I hope you’ll take away from today’s message:

  1. God is in control even in the most difficult times, and his presence is always with you.
  2. God loves you and has freed you from your sins. With that kind of freedom, you can and will do great things for God’s kingdom.
  3. No matter how bad things get around us, we have the absolute assurance that God and his church will win in the end. We don’t know how much of the bad stuff we’re going to have to go through, but we can be sure God will rescue us in the end and bring us safely home to his eternal kingdom.

Go in peace today with the assurance that your sins are forgiven, and that God is preparing a place for you.


[1] Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™
Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Scott Stocking

My opinions are my own.

April 10, 2022

The Day of the Donkey: Holy Week Events From the Perspective of the Prophesied Donkey

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™
Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Author’s Note: Dr. Wayne Shaw, my preaching professor at Lincoln Christian Seminary in late 1980s, had assigned as one of our textbooks Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor. He did this so that we as preachers would not just preach exegetical, point-by-point sermons all the time, but to learn how tell stories as well. Every once in a while, I will break from my normal preaching (and writing) style and do just that, tell a story. My message this morning at Mt. View Presbyterian Church in Omaha, Nebraska, was a retelling of the triumphal entry and the events of Holy Week from the perspective of the donkey who carried Jesus into Jerusalem on what we now know as Palm Sunday. I hope you enjoy.

My name is Ḥamor (חֲמוֹר). A silly, almost embarrassing name, really. I mean, why couldn’t my parents just name me Hammer, like the great Judas “the Hammer” Maccabeus. That sounds so much cooler than “Ḥamor.” That guy knew how to take it to the enemy and gain Jewish independence 200 years ago. But I digress.

I said my name is almost embarrassing. In fact, it really is quite embarrassing unless you know the history of my ancestors and how they’ve played an important role in the spiritual history of my people. Wait, what? You say you don’t know what the name Ḥamor means? Ohhh, that’s right, most of you probably don’t speak Hebrew, do you. Well, this is embarrassing then, because in your language, my name really doesn’t have a good reputation at all. In the language of the Romans, Latin, I’m known as Equus asinus (AH see noose). The Greeks would call me ὄνος (onos). That came over into the King James Version of the Bible as, well, uh—this is so embarrassing—(whisper) “ass.” Whew, there, I said it. Let me say it again (with confidence): “I am an ass.” Feels good to get that out. Yes, I say it proudly: I am a donkey! Go ahead, get it out of your system. Laugh if you want, “heehaw” and all that. I’m used to it. But be careful: I’m not just any donkey. I am THE donkey. Yep, I’m the one the prophets talked about as far back as the time of Jacob and his sons in Egypt. I’m the one the Messiah rode into Jerusalem last week.

Now you may think I’m just a dumb…donkey, a beast of burden to carry your stuff around and pull your plows. But what you don’t know is that, just like every Hebrew mother thought her son would be the Messiah, every donkey mom thought her little colt would be the one who’d fulfill the donkey prophecies in what you call the Old Testament. What? You’re not familiar with those prophecies? Well, we donkeys are taught them from the time we’re born. I guess if you’re not a donkey, it might be hard to appreciate the stories about donkeys. But it really is a fascinating story, and I hope by the end, you’ll have a new appreciation of donkeys, and maybe you’ll stop using that other word as a bad word, because I’m proud of our history and heritage.

Before we get too far into those stories, let me give you a little history of donkeys, especially as they relate to this part of the world. We donkeys have a bit of a mixed reputation throughout history. Let me start with the bad news first: some Christian traditions later on will associate us with absurdity, obstinacy, and slothfulness, and at some point, a red donkey becomes the symbol of Satan. I really don’t know how we got connected with that evil accuser, but I do admit that we can sometimes be a bit stubborn and slow starters. Plato called us “perverse” for whatever reason, and another Roman writer said we were the meanest of all animals. Not sure where he got that one from. Maybe he was thinking of our half-breed cousins, the mules.

But the good news is, there were plenty of cultures that had very high opinions of donkeys, so much so that they were always included in royal ceremonies. The Ugarits have artwork showing their gods riding donkeys, while the Muslims would call some of their heroes “donkey-riders.” One ancient Christian tale (Vita Sanctae Pelagiae Meretricis) even suggests that a woman riding on a donkey represents the height of beauty. Generally speaking, if someone with a lot of power and clout was riding a donkey, it usually meant that they were coming in peace.[1]

As far as the Bible itself goes, however, we seem to get a pretty fair shake. It all started with Jacob when, on his deathbed, he was blessing all his children, and pronounced this regarding Judah (Genesis 49:8‒12):

      8 “Judah, your brothers will praise you;

         your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;

         your father’s sons will bow down to you.

      9 You are a lion’s cub, Judah;

         you return from the prey, my son.

         Like a lion he crouches and lies down,

         like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?

      10 The scepter will not depart from Judah,

         nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,

         until he to whom it belongs shall come

         and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

      11 He will tether his donkey to a vine,

         his colt to the choicest branch;

         he will wash his garments in wine,

         his robes in the blood of grapes.

      12 His eyes will be darker than wine,

         his teeth whiter than milk.

All the Hebrews knew that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah based on this prophecy. And all the donkeys knew that this ruler, the Lion of Judah, would eventually choose one of us for the most important mission in history. It seems like God is saying that he’s already got a plan to put all the players in place for when this ruler comes, even though the Hebrews had never had a king to this point. But one thing we’ve never been able to figure out about that prophecy is the bit about washing his garments in wine and his robes in the blood of grapes. Seems like they’d come out sticky and disgusting if we did that. One day we’ll know, though, I guess, right?

It’s not really a prophecy, but there is that story about Balaam in Numbers when he got a little too eager to help Moab out against the Hebrews. Keep in mind that Balaam probably wasn’t a Hebrew, but just a pagan prophet for hire. When the mama donkey (אָתוֹן, ʾāṯôn) he was riding (yes, she was female!) saw the angel of the Lord trying to stop him three times, she stopped and got a beating each time from Balaam. When mama donkey had finally had enough of that, she became a mama bear and chewed Balaam’s…, I mean scolded Balaam for his misplaced eagerness. Wouldn’t you have loved to see Balaam’s face when that mama bear voice started reading the riot act to him? He must have been white as a ghost. Mama donkey saved our reputation that day. She’s definitely one of our heroes.

Then there was that time that David had his son Solomon ride David’s own mule (פִּרְדָּה, pirdā(h); in case you don’t know, a mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey) to name him as successor to his throne. That must have been quite a day of celebration, pomp, and circumstance. I wish I could have been there.

But the ultimate prophecy that impacts us donkeys is the one in Zechariah 9. All of us have to learn this one.

      9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!

         Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!

         See, your king comes to you,

         righteous and victorious,

         lowly and riding on a donkey,

         on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

      10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim

         and the warhorses from Jerusalem,

         and the battle bow will be broken.

         He will proclaim peace to the nations.

         His rule will extend from sea to sea

         and from the River to the ends of the earth.

      11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,

         I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.

      12 Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope;

         even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.

      13 I will bend Judah as I bend my bow

         and fill it with Ephraim.

         I will rouse your sons, Zion,

         against your sons, Greece,

         and make you like a warrior’s sword.

Oh, how I love this prophecy, especially now, because I’m realizing I’m living in the midst of it. Verse 13 refers to Judas Maccabeus, you know, the Hammer guy I mentioned at the beginning of my story. He and his followers were able to overcome the Greek Seleucids and bring independence to Judah for a long time. It was from them that the Herod dynasty arose in Judah. They were okay at first, as most new rulers are, but they’re just sniveling little Roman puppets now. Nobody likes them. In fact, one of them tried to have the Messiah killed after he was born, and another one had John the Baptist beheaded. They’re just puppet kings; they’re not real kings, and they’re certainly not on the Messiah’s side. But, that was exactly the situation God needed to send the Messiah.

I’m pretty sure the current Herodian wouldn’t have ridden into town on a donkey. He’s too full of himself to go near us donkeys. But about a week ago, we started to hear the buzz around Jerusalem: Jesus and his disciples were on their way. He’d already earned quite a reputation with his miracles and his teaching, and it was obvious he was doing something right because the religious rulers were having a really hard time accepting him. Our donkey spy network, if you want to call it that, had been hearing troubling conversations, even to the point of the religious rulers wanting to crucify the Messiah. We were scared and excited at the same time.

We had been noticing that the crowds coming to Jerusalem for Passover were a lot bigger than in recent years, so my person thought we ought to get a jump on the day last Sunday, even though my hometown of Bethphage was only a few miles away. My mom and I were tied up outside, waiting to get loaded up and leave, when these two guys who looked like they’d been traveling forever came up, scratched my nose, and started to untie me. Now you’d think my mom would have started braying and kicking up a storm when that happened, but instead, she gave them both a gentle nuzzle. My person came out and asked, “Why are you untying the colt?” The older of the two just smiled and said, “The Lord needs it.” That was good enough for my person. Mom gave me a knowing look and kind of nudged me, as if to say, “It’s okay. Go with them. It’s time.”

So they led me a little way toward Jerusalem, and who do think was at their camp waiting for me? It was Jesus!!! There were so many people around, I was a little scared, but I realized this must be the time that Zechariah and Jacob had talked about in their prophecies. People put their cloaks on me and on the road ahead of me, waved palm branches, and Jesus himself sat on me! What an honor! A whole crowd of people were so happy to see him and were shouting all kinds of praises to him. But I saw a couple grumpy Pharisees trying to get Jesus to quiet the crowd. Yeah, right. Good luck with that, Pharisees. I imagine Rome was getting pretty nervous as well.

Even though the crowd was cheering, as we got closer to Jerusalem, Jesus started crying and pronounced a sad, scary prophecy about the city. That kind of took me by surprise. Why was he so sad and so gloomy about Jerusalem when most everyone else seemed so excited and joyful?

Well, it didn’t take too long to find out. Our huge parade went into the city, and the first place we went, as you might imagine, was the Temple. I couldn’t go in, but Jesus was really upset at those who were taking advantage of the poor who were coming in for the Passover and overturned their tables and chased them out of the Temple courts. Something about making his father’s house a den of robbers. That just seemed like quite a turn of events at that point, and it seems to have set the stage for what happened the rest of the week.

Now I did stay in Jerusalem after that Temple incident, but I didn’t go everywhere Jesus went. However, I had begun to hear stories of Jesus confronting the Pharisees, prophesying against the Temple, and other stuff like that. When I did see Jesus, he was resolute, like a man on a mission who could not be deterred. On Thursday night, a few of the disciples loaded me up with some Passover food and we headed to a house in town. The meal was upstairs, so I had to stay outside. It was a quiet night because it was the Passover meal, so I was able to hear bits and pieces of the conversation coming through the windows. Something about washing their feet, body and blood, and even a betrayer. It wasn’t long after that conversation that I saw Judas running out of the house and headed toward the Temple.

After that is when things get a little confusing. Jesus and the rest of the disciples sang a hymn and came down from the meal. We all went to the Garden of Gethsemane, but by that time we were all getting pretty tired and the sun had set. I lay down there to try to sleep, and I heard Jesus say something to Peter and John about staying awake. All of the sudden, everyone started shouting, because Judas had come to the garden with soldiers. They were arresting Jesus!!! Things got really confusing then. I heard a couple swords drawn, someone got hurt but Jesus healed him, and then all the disciples scattered, forgetting about me.

I managed to follow Jesus back to Jerusalem without being too obvious and was just able to slip through the city gate before they closed it again. I heard someone say they were going to the high priest’s house. We got there, and there was quite a crowd for that late at night. I heard a lot of shouting and arguing coming from the house, and eventually Jesus came out, still tied up. It was weird. Right when he came out, a rooster crowed, and I could see Jesus was looking straight at Peter, who was in the crowd. Peter looked sad, but the crowd surged at that point, and I lost sight of him.

It’s hard for me to describe what happened the next day, because it was so gruesome and ugly and I’m still pretty shaken by it. The pharisees turned Jesus over to the Romans, who whipped him, then he was brought to Pilate, who wanted to release him. But the Pharisees were stirring up the crowd, shouting “Crucify him!” I couldn’t bear it anymore. I just wanted to go home. Here, I thought I was the donkey of the prophecies, yet the “king” was going to be crucified instead. As I was exiting the city, I saw three poles on a hill nearby. It looked like there were already several Roman soldiers there and a crowd gathering. Then I heard behind me a mob approaching. I went down the road a little bit where I could get off to the side and still watch the hill. In the midst of the mob, I saw Jesus, whipped, bleeding, struggling to carry the horizontal beam of the cross. Oh, wait, maybe that’s what the prophecy meant about his garments washed in wine. Eww (shudder). It couldn’t be. I watched the rest of that scene unfold in utter disbelief. I watched as they hung Jesus from the cross between two other criminals. I could see that Jesus was shouting something as best he could, but I couldn’t make it out. I saw a soldier poke him in the side. Then the sky went dark. Yeah, that seems to fit the way this day is going.

As I was watching all this, I remembered that along with the donkey prophecies, my parents had taught me an Isaiah passage as well: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds, we are healed.” How could all that pain and suffering bring healing? Then I made the connection: I realized I have a cross on my back; most donkeys do. Could it be that God made us beasts of burden with a cross on our backs because one of us would one day bear the one who would be burdened with the sin of mankind on a cross? As much as I wanted to go home, my eyes and my soul were captivated by the horror of what I was seeing. I had to get closer. I watched as they took his limp body down from the cross. I could see the general direction they were headed, so I tried to get to where they seemed to be headed. I’m glad I did. When I got to the place where they would bury him, I watched as they took his body, wrapped in linen cloths, into the tomb, rolled the stone in front of it, and put the Roman seal on it. And then I saw two people I recognized: Mary and John. I went up and nudged them gently, and they recognized me. But it was getting close to sundown, and they had to get home before the Sabbath started. They tried to get me to come, but I put on my stubbornness and wouldn’t budge. I wanted to stay near the tomb.

As much as I wanted to go home, my eyes and my soul were captivated by the horror of what I was seeing. I had to get closer. I watched as they took his limp body down from the cross.

That Sabbath yesterday was the worst day of my young life. I was still in shock. I couldn’t even move, let alone eat. I just hid out in some nearby trees and kept guard as best I could. I dozed off and on all day (just like the Roman guards!), until I finally realized I had slept through most of the night. Just before daybreak on the morning after the Sabbath, I felt the ground shake and heard the Roman guards yelling as they ran away. Then I saw them at the tomb, two angels rolling the stone away! I saw Jesus come to the opening of the tomb. He looked straight at me, winked, and disappeared. Could I be dreaming?

Just then Jesus’s mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene came running up to the tomb, only to find the stone rolled away. I hadn’t been dreaming! I wanted to approach them, but before they noticed me, the angels appeared to them and told them what had happened. It was true then, Jesus was alive! The women never saw me, but turned and ran back toward Jerusalem, presumably to tell the rest of the disciples.

After the women ran off, one of the angels looked at me and said, “Well done, faithful Ḥamor. You may return home.” I had done my part that the prophets had predicted so long ago. I was indeed THE donkey that gave the king a ride into Jerusalem, and now I knew just what kind of king he would be. I headed home to tell my mom, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.


[1] Ryken, Leland, Jim Wilhoit, Tremper Longman, Colin Duriez, Douglas Penney, and Daniel G. Reid. 2000. In Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, electronic ed., 215. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

March 27, 2022

Lost and Found: The Parable of the Prodigal (Luke 15:11-32)

This message was preached at Mt. View Presbyterian Church, Omaha, Nebraska, March 27, 2022. The text has been lightly edited for publication and to add in references to the key Greek words.

We can’t do anything else to earn [God’s forgiveness] because it’s already been granted to us in full by his grace.

When was the last time you “lost,” or rather, “misplaced” something you really needed? Since I had my third surgery on my leg a month ago, I’ve gotten out of my usual dressing habits and have been wearing sweatpants. The pockets in sweatpants tend to not be as deep as pants pockets, and this has gotten me out of the habit of where I put all my stuff during the day. With my pants, I could have my keys and change in one pocket, billfold in the back pocket, handkerchief in the other back pocket, and cell phone in my other front pocket. Pockets were made for carrying stuff, and I take full advantage of that.

But in the last couple weeks, I’ve “lost” or misplaced my house keys three times! They weren’t in their usual spot. One of those times, I looked all over the house during the day and couldn’t find them. When my wife got home from work, I looked in her car, and discovered they had fallen out of my sweatpants pocket between the driver’s seat and the center console. The other two times, I had taken them out of my sweatpants pocket and put them on my desk in my office instead of on the shelf in my bedroom where they usually go. The other day, I even lost my phone in the couch cushion, because I was keeping my leg elevated, and the phone fell out of my sweatpants pocket.

We hate it when we lose stuff, right? I went looking for some information on what are the most commonly “lost” items by Americans. What do you think is the number one item Americans say they lose?

Top Items Lost in US & UK

US: TV remotes, phones, car & house keys, glasses, wallets and bags 

UK: Keys, phone, pens (or other items of stationery), glasses or sunglasses, remote controls

CHipolo.com

The Parables of the Lost

According to the article this all comes from, written as a marketing piece for a company that sells electronic products you can attach to your lost items to help you find them with your smartphone, we spend on average 5 minutes and 20 seconds looking for lost items. That’s not to say we find the item after we search. This is quite the contrast to the time it takes to recover what the people in the parables in Luke 15 lost. The shepherd goes out into the open field to look for his lost sheep; probably not a quick walk. Or the woman who sweeps and cleans her entire household to find one coin, perhaps the most valuable thing she owned. And after the hard work to try to find what was lost, both the shepherd and the woman rejoice in finding what they’d lost.

The Lost Son Begins the Downward Slide

So as we come to the parable of the “lost” or “prodigal” son, we’re faced with a story of a different kind of “lostness.” Instead of an item, we’re dealing with a person, who by his own choice, loses himself by virtue of a series of poor decisions. Let’s look at the first part of that story.[1]

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

Let’s break this down a bit. The most important thing to note here is that, in that time, it was a grievous dishonor to your parents to ask for your share of the inheritance before they died. It was akin to saying to your father, “I wish you were dead.” It would have brought shame not only on the son, but on the father as well. The father could have easily said no, or he could have disowned his son altogether for such an act. It’s likely the father knew how the son would handle himself as well. Yet in spite of all this, the father consented and let the son go his own way.

This was not easy for the family. The oldest son was always entitled to twice the inheritance of the other sons, so the father probably would have had to sell off assets (βίος bios) he’d accumulated through his life’s work to give the younger son 1/3 of what the total inheritance for his sons would have been. The older son got his 2/3 inheritance as well, as vs. 12 says he divided his property between them. That will be important to remember as we come to the end of the story.

The younger son was impatient to get started on his newfound “freedom,” if we want to call it that, and dispensed with the cultural norms of saying goodbye. Keep in mind that most family units remained in close proximity to their ancestral home, so this was no small thing for the son to go away to a distant land. It was a sad time indeed, almost akin to mourning the loss of a loved one. But the younger son was seemingly insensitive to all of that, and went his own way.

So he “squandered his wealth in wild living.” That word “squandered” (διασκορπίζω diaskorpizō) is one of the most egregious terms for wastefulness in the New Testament. It implies an indiscriminate scattering of people, sheep, or even seed for planting. It tends to be a descriptive word about what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem to carry too much moral weight in that it’s not necessarily a strong condemnation. However, the results of his wastefulness come home to roost with him. Instead of planning for a rainy day or investing his wealth in something that might have earned him more money, he scattered it abroad indiscriminately. When the money dried up, so did his friends.

The beginning of his need was the beginning of his feeing of lostness. He had no friends, no nearby family, and there was no food bank or other charity nearby. He hired himself out to feed pigs, an animal considered unclean to the Jews. It was the ultimate shame, and he began to feel it. The pods the pigs were eating were carob pods (κεράτιον keration). Have you ever had carob? I remember several years ago carob had gained some popularity as a substitute for chocolate. But when I tried it, there was no comparison. If you like carob, more power to you. You won’t get any judgment from me. I’ll take the real chocolate any day.

Rock Bottom

But I digress. The son has hit the bottom of the barrel at this point, and he knows he needs to make a complete 180 degree turn with his life. We see his desperation in the next part of the story.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’

He thinks because he has brought such shame and disgrace upon himself that he can’t go back to his family with all the rights of a son. But he knew his father treated the servants well, so he at least thought he’d stand a better chance of survival and success there than all alone in a distant land.

Repentance and Ascendance

This 180-degree turn is what the Bible calls repentance. Repentance not only means to change your mind about the way you’ve been living, but also to change the way you’ve been living. He decides his best course of action is to humble himself and return home, where at least someone might love him.

20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

This part of the parable is one of the most beautiful pictures of God’s acceptance of a sinner returning to him. The younger son had probably spent most of his journey home rehearsing what he’d say to his father. Can you relate to that? You don’t have to raise your hand if you do. How many times have we found ourselves in a similar situation, where we knew we messed up and we have to humble, or even humiliate ourselves to croak out a huge apology. No excuses, no rationalizations, no passing the buck to someone else. It’s all on you, right? Those of us who’ve had those moments will most likely never forget how we felt in those moments.

But the younger son didn’t count on his father still loving him and missing him. Their parting was probably not pleasant as I hinted at above. The younger son had every right to assume his return would be met with skepticism, sorrow, and anger from the father. But the father shocks his son with his response, as Jesus shocks his listeners by telling this part of the story. The father runs to greet his son not with punishment or anger, but with love and compassion. This would have been somewhat embarrassing for the father, having to tuck his outer garment under his belt so his legs were free to run. It would seem all this time, the father never took his eyes of the horizon, waiting for his son to return, and the father didn’t care one bit what others may have thought of him for running to welcome his prodigal son home.

The prodigal, perhaps experiencing shock, embarrassment, and relief all at once, tries to get his prepared speech out, but the father cuts him off before he can get to the part about being one of his father’s hired servants. Instead, his father cuts him off and orders the servants to bring the best robe, a signet ring, and sandals. In that culture, those were signs of authority. The sandals were probably the most important part to the son, as slaves went barefoot. Right away, the son knew he was not going to be welcomed back as a slave, but as a son. When pharaoh made Joseph second in command in Egypt (Genesis 41:41ff), he received pharaoh’s own signet ring, which was a sign of authority and allowed Joseph to make financial decisions and royal decrees in Pharaoh’s stead. He got robes of fine linen from pharaoh, which must have brought back memories of getting the coat of many colors from his own father as a young man. Joseph received a gold chain as well, although there’s no mention of that for the prodigal. Joshua, the high priest in the time of the prophet Zechariah, had his filthy clothes exchanged for fine garments at the order of the angel as a sign that his sins had been removed (Zechariah 3:3–4).

To bring it back to our story, then, the younger son was experiencing complete forgiveness and restoration from his own father. Not only that, but the father orders the fattened calf to be killed for a great celebration feast. Notice the contrast between the response here and the responses in the first two parables in this chapter. The one seeking what was lost gathers friends and neighbors together to “Rejoice with me; I’ve found what I lost.” And then Jesus says that there would be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the 99 who don’t need to repent. Those first two parables use a form of the word for “rejoice” (συγχαίρω/χαρά sunchairō/chara) four times, but never use the word “celebration.” In the prodigal story, Jesus skips the “Rejoice with me” part and goes straight to a heaven-worthy celebration. The word for “celebration” (εὐφραίνω euphrainō) is used four times in the prodigal story. As such, we see how much more valuable God considers our own souls over and above what we possess or are called to care for.

How much is that like our God? Before we can even get the words of apology and repentance out of our mouths, God comes running to meet us where we are, ready to embrace us and welcome us into his kingdom. He’s ready to forgive the moment we change our minds; we can’t do anything else to earn it because it’s already been granted to us in full by his grace.

The younger son’s response here is similar to what we see in Psalm 51, which David wrote after his sin with Bathsheba was exposed:

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your unfailing love;
   according to your great compassion
   blot out my transgressions.

2 Wash away all my iniquity
   and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is always before me.

4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
   and done what is evil in your sight;
   so you are right in your verdict
   and justified when you judge.

Or again, like the ending of the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119, the younger son seeks out restoration:

169 May my cry come before you, LORD;
   give me understanding according to your word.

170 May my supplication come before you;
   deliver me according to your promise.

171 May my lips overflow with praise,
   for you teach me your decrees.

172 May my tongue sing of your word,
   for all your commands are righteous.

173 May your hand be ready to help me,
   for I have chosen your precepts.

174 I long for your salvation, LORD,
   and your law gives me delight.

175 Let me live that I may praise you,
   and may your laws sustain me.

176 I have strayed like a lost sheep.
   Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands.

The Other Lost Son

It would be great if the story of the prodigal son ended here, with everyone rejoicing, but it would seem that the role of the problem child is transferred to the older son.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”

Evidently the servants had been so busy preparing things for the prodigal-come-home that no one thought to go get his older brother to join the celebration. Or, to be fair, maybe the servant assigned that task hadn’t got to him yet, and was meeting him half way. We don’t know how far out in the field the son was. Of course, the older brother’s attitude is what we might expect. His attitude is much harsher than the description of his squandering at the beginning of the story. Jesus here puts a different word for “squandering” (κατεσθίω katesthiō) in the older brother’s mouth, and adds the bit about prostitutes as well. The word for “squandering” here seems to carry a much more judgmental tone through the Scriptures, sometimes translated as “devour” or “exploit.” The father tries reassuring the older son that everything he has is available to him, but still emphasizes the need to celebrate his brother’s return. Jesus ends the parable abruptly there, presumably on purpose. He leaves us to think about what our own response might be in that situation. Would we continue to be indignant and jealous about the attention his younger brother is getting, or would we follow in the footsteps of his father and rejoice that a lost one has returned?

I get it. Sometimes it’s hard to trust that someone who has turned their back on God might genuinely want to come back to Jesus and get their lives back in order. Sometimes, they really have made the change in their lives. I’ve known people who’ve done that. But I’ve also known those who made a play at repenting, but then continued on with the bad decisions in their life. There was no real motivation for positive change or repentance. Do you have a lost loved one who may be showing signs of wanting to be restored? Run to them and let them know they’re welcome. Or have you lost your way and need to come home? Turn around. The father is waiting to welcome you into his kingdom with open arms.

Epilog: The Connection to the Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1ff)

I want to offer a brief epilog here, because even though it looks like the three “lost” parables in chapter 15 stand as a unit of teaching, there’s a connection to the very next parable, the parable of the shrewd manager. The word for “squandered” (διασκορπίζω diaskorpizō) from the first part of the prodigal story is used to describe the manager in 16:1. But the parable of the shrewd manager ends quite differently. All we know is that the manager was accused of “squandering” the owner’s possession, but nothing seems to have been proven. The manager takes a couple bills and discounts them for the debtors so he can collect something for his master, and at the same time, earn a little favor with those to whom he gave the discounts. The owner commended the manager for his shrewdness, and Jesus closes the parable by saying “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” The prodigal wasted his money on things that wouldn’t bring him any eternal benefit. The shrewd manager, however, used the money under his control to win friends and influence people. I’ll leave you with this question: How can we as individuals and as the body of Christ, grow the kingdom with our worldly wealth?


[1] Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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