I Will Build My Church

Introduction

Ecclesiology is a word most of us can hardly spell, let alone define. Simply put, ecclesiology is the doctrine of the church. Very few people find this doctrine all that exciting. For many, a study of the church is about as exciting as a visit to the doctor for an annual checkup. Unless I am convinced otherwise, I am about as likely to commence a study on the church as I am to initiate a conversation with my wife about how she makes a dress, or about how I change a timing belt on a car.

Here we are, setting out on a study of the church (ecclesiology). If my assessment of the situation is correct, you can see the problem that we face. If we are going to really engage ourselves in this study, we must first be convinced of its importance. Just how important is a study of the church? It is as important as the church is in God’s program for this world, and for the world to come. The primary purpose of this introductory lesson is to convince you that our study of the church is well worth your time and mine, your study and mine. I have chosen to focus on the Book of Ephesians in this lesson because I believe that in this great epistle Paul underscores the importance of the church in God’s program, and thus in our lives. Let us listen well to the Word of God, which speaks to us of Christ, of His church, and of our place in it.

The Church in the Book of Ephesians

It is generally agreed that the Book of Ephesians has two parts. Chapters 1-3 lay a doctrinal foundation and chapters 4-6 spell out the practical ramifications of this doctrine. I believe that the church is central in both sections of Ephesians. Let us begin by focusing on the doctrinal portion of Ephesians. I understand that chapters 1-3 expound on the subject of salvation from three points of view:

Ephesians 1 The source of our salvation – the sovereignty of God in salvation
Ephesians 2 The outcome of our salvation – reconciliation, with God and with men
Ephesians 3 The divine purpose of salvation – the glory of God

Ephesians 1

1 From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints [in Ephesus], the faithful in Christ Jesus. 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! 3 Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ. 4 For he lovingly chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight. 5 He did this by predestining us to adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the pleasure of his will— 6 to the praise of the glory of his grace that he has freely bestowed on us in his dearly loved Son. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us in all wisdom and insight. 9 He did this when he revealed to us the secret of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ—the things in heaven and the things on earth. 11 In Christ we too have been claimed as God’s own possession, since we were predestined according to the one purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, may be to the praise of his glory. 13 And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation)—when you believed in Christ—you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:1-14, The NET Bible).[1]

These verses are rich with doctrinal truths, but our purpose here is to summarize the nature of the spiritual blessings of salvation that God has bestowed on us.

(1) Our spiritual blessings are indeed bountiful. We are blessed with “every spiritual blessing” (1:3), which are “freely bestowed on us” (1:6), according to “the riches of His grace” (1:7). Indeed these blessings have been “lavished” upon us (1:8).

(2) These blessings have God the Father as their source. It is He who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing (1:3). It is He who chose us in eternity past, before the foundation of the world (1:4). He predestined us to adoption as sons (1:5).

(3) The blessings of salvation are accomplished through the person and work of Jesus Christ (1:3; 1:4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13) and are assured through the Holy Spirit, Who seals us until our day of redemption (1:13-14).

(4) We have been predestined and saved unto good works. He purposed that we should be “holy and unblemished in his sight” (1:4).

(5) We have been saved according to the will of God (1:4-5, 9, 11), to accomplish His foreordained purposes (1:6, 9-12).

(6) We have been saved for God’s pleasure (1:5, 9), and for the praise of His glory (1:6; 12).

(7) Our salvation is a part of God’s program to exalt and glorify Christ, so that He is preeminent in and over all creation (1:9-10).

Now here, my friend, is a view of salvation that we hear all too seldom. Salvation is neither attributed to our goodness, nor to our choice. It is the work of God. It is not “inviting God into our life,” but God giving us life through His Son. It is not Jesus dying on the cross because He could not bear the thought of living without me, but rather God sending His Son to the cross for His pleasure, and to bring praise and glory to Himself. Salvation is more about God than it is about me.

To put it in a different way, the doctrine of the church must be grounded in the doctrine of salvation. Do we wonder why we have so many “consumer-oriented” saints, who shop around for the church that will offer them the most benefits? It is because we have too many misguided folks who think that God needs them. Salvation is about a gracious God, Who chose to save a people for Himself, for His own pleasure, and for His glory. It is time for us to see that we have been saved by a sovereign God, and that we are His possession (1:11), subordinate to His purposes.

15 For this reason, since I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you when I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you spiritual wisdom and revelation in your growing knowledge of him, 18 —since the eyes of your heart have been enlightened—so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the incomparable greatness of his power toward us who believe, as displayed in the exercise of his immense strength. 20 This power he exercised in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms 21 far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And God put all things under Christ’s feet, and he gave him to the church as head over all things. 23 Now the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:15-23).

At verse 15, Paul writes of his prayers for the Ephesian saints, based upon the fact that they are now saved through faith in Jesus Christ, a fact that is evident, in part, by their love for all the saints (this all will be pursued further in chapter 2, in verses 11-22). Paul is ceaseless in his prayers of thanksgiving, because the Ephesians have come to faith, and the eyes of their heart have been enlightened. He also petitions God for their spiritual growth, praying that they might come to a deeper knowledge of Him through the spiritual wisdom that God supplies (1:17).

Specifically, Paul prays for three things. (1) He prays that they might come to know more fully the hope of their calling – that is, that they might come to grasp the marvelous future that God has for them, based upon the fact that God has chosen them and called them to salvation (see 1:3-5). (2) Paul prays that they might come to a fuller knowledge of the “wealth of God’s glorious inheritance in the saints” (1:18). (3) Paul prays that the Ephesian saints might come to a deeper grasp of the immensity of God’s power toward the saints (1:19).

It is this third request that Paul chooses to elaborate upon in the verses that follow. (I should also point out that Paul will once again turn to this subject of God’s power in 3:14-21.) Paul does not leave us in the dark as to the kind of power he is talking about. The immeasurable power of God available to us is that same power that can be seen in the resurrection and ascension of our Lord (1:20-23).[2] Look at what accompanies the resurrection and ascension of our Lord: He is seated at the right hand of God, exalted above “every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named” (1:21). Is there anything or anyone that is not subjected to His authority?[3] The exaltation of our Lord over earthly and celestial powers is not just for this age, but also for the age to come. Who has greater power and authority than this?

God subjected all things under Christ’s feet, exalting Him as Lord over all. In the last two verses of chapter 1, Paul stresses the relationship between our Lord’s sovereign authority and power and His leadership of the church:

22 And God put all things under Christ’s feet, and he gave him to the church as head over all things. 23 Now the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:22-23).

Elsewhere, we are told that our Lord is the Head of the church (Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18), but that is not exactly what Paul is saying here in the closing verses of Ephesians 1. It is one thing for someone to be the head of the church. It is something even greater when that person is not just head over the church alone, but over all things. If we are members of His church by faith in Him, Jesus is the Head of the church, in addition to being the Head over all things (just as Paul stated earlier in 1:20-21). Whatever it is that our Lord purposes to do in and through His church, He will accomplish because He is Head over all things.

Let me seek to illustrate what Paul is saying here. Several years ago, I was attempting to purchase a car for a missionary who was returning to the United States for a period of time. I was introduced to a man, the owner of a car dealership in the area, who said he would like to help supply this missionary with a car. He then referred me to his best salesman. When the right car came along, the question of price came up. I asked the salesman if the total price of the car would fall within the amount of money we had to work with. The salesman replied in words to this effect, “If the owner of this company tells me to sell you a car for so much, then you can be assured that will be the price.” The owner of the company was “head over all things” so far as that car dealership was concerned, so I was assured that I would find a car for the right price. Jesus Christ is the “Head over all things,” and He is also the Head over the church. We can be assured that He will employ His power to accomplish His purposes in and through His church.

Paul has prayed that the Ephesians would come to grasp the power of our Lord toward the saints. He points to the power that was exercised in the resurrection, ascension, and exaltation of our Lord. He then tells us that Jesus Christ, Who is Lord over all, is also the Head of the church. The church can be assured that what God purposes to do in and through His church will be accomplished. But Paul takes this one additional step in the final verse of chapter 1. He informs his readers that the church is the body of Christ, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:23).

What does this mean? Consider these words written by Paul in Colossians 1:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son (Colossians 1:19).

All of the fullness of the Father dwells in the Son. The Son thus manifests all that the Father is, just as we read in Hebrews:

1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world. 3 The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. 4 Thus he became so far better than the angels as he has inherited a name superior to theirs (Hebrews 1:1-4, emphasis mine).

To see the Son is to see the Father:

7 If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content.” 9 Jesus replied, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:7-9).

Paul is telling us that the church is the body of Christ. The church is “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” What an amazing statement! Paul has just told us how great our Lord Jesus Christ is, and he concludes by telling us that the church is His body, His fullness. And so I ask the question, “How important is a study of the church?” Answer: It is as important as the church is, and the church is the fullness of Christ, the One who fills all in all.

Ephesians 2

Salvation from a Human Perspective

1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved!— 6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not of works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them (Ephesians 2:1-10).

In Ephesians 2, Paul describes our salvation from a human perspective. In verses 1-10, Paul describes our salvation in terms of sinful men being reconciled to God through faith in Christ. He describes our complete inability to save ourselves in verses 1-3, which demonstrates our desperate need for grace. Before we came to faith, we were dead in our sins – not sick, dead. We marched to the beat of a deadly drum, living in accordance with the world. And because we were conformed to the world, we were under bondage to the “ruler of the kingdom of the air,” the devil, who even now inspires and empowers those who are lost, the “sons of disobedience” (2:2).

The tragedy of our lost condition is that we didn’t even know we were lost and in desperate need of salvation. We lived our lives thinking we were free. In reality, we were enslaved to our fleshly passions and lusts. We pursued the pleasures of the flesh, without even knowing we were in bondage to the flesh. To sum it all up, we were enslaved by the world, the flesh, and the devil, and thereby we were doomed to eternal wrath.

Our salvation was not of our own doing. It was the outworking of God’s love as He mercifully saved us by His grace (2:4-10). Even though we were dead in our sins, He made us alive by joining us with Christ in His saving work on our behalf. In Him, we who were dead in our sins were made alive. In Him, we were raised up with Him and seated with Him in the heavenly realms. In other words, we became partakers with Christ in His exaltation, which was described in Ephesians 1:19-23.

Paul makes two things abundantly clear in the first half of Ephesians 2. First, Paul emphasizes that the salvation we have experienced is the work of God on our behalf, and not the result of any works we have done. We were dead in our sins, the pawns of sin and of Satan. We were saved by grace, through faith, and not of any work on our part (Ephesians 2:8-9). Even the good works that we may accomplish as Christians are the works He prepared beforehand (2:10). Second, Paul informs us that our salvation is not primarily for our benefit, but for God’s benefit:

6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (2:6-7, emphasis mine).

God saved us to manifest His grace and kindness, and thus to bring glory to Himself, both now and in the ages to come.[4]

In verses 1-10, Paul describes our salvation in terms of sinful men being reconciled to God through faith in Christ. Now, in verses 11-22, Paul describes our salvation in terms of our reconciliation with others. Specifically, Paul speaks of the salvation God accomplished in Christ Jesus as that which reconciles Jews and (their bitter counterparts) the Gentiles.

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed in the body by hands— 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who turned both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, in his flesh, 15 when he nullified the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).

In the Jewish mind, no one could be more lost than a Gentile (see Galatians 2:15). Paul does not minimize the “lostness” of his Gentile readers who have been converted. In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul described the hopeless condition of his readers by virtue of the fact that they were sinners, enslaved by the world, the flesh, and the devil. They were, without a doubt, “children of wrath,” that is, those who were destined to God’s eternal wrath because of their sin, which made them enemies of God. Now, in Ephesians 2:11-12, Paul describes his readers’ hopeless condition as Gentiles, from the standpoint of their separation from Israel. Notice all that the Gentiles lacked, from a Jewish point of view. They were …

… without circumcision (2:11)

… without the Messiah (2:12)

… without citizenship in Israel (2:12)

… without the covenants made with the patriarchs (2:12)

… without hope (2:12)

… without God in the world (2:12).

They were in bad shape. From the Jewish point of view, they were hopelessly lost.

You can understand, then, why “uncircumcised Gentiles” were looked down upon by the circumcised Jews. They were considered unworthy of the blessings God promised Abraham and his descendants. The mere thought of God including Gentiles in His blessings sent the Jews into a frenzy (see Luke 4:16-30; Acts 22:21-23). Nevertheless, Paul declares that the saving work of Christ at Calvary reconciles Jews and Gentiles who trust in Him. Lost (dare I say heathen) Gentiles who were formerly “far away” have been “brought near” through the blood of Christ (2:13).

Not only did God bring salvation to lost Gentiles through the work of Christ, making them participants in the blessings promised to the patriarchs, God also brought about reconciliation between these very hostile groups. Those who were once bitter enemies find peace and harmony, in Christ (2:14-15). We are not two “separate but equal” groups, but a new creation, “one new man” (2:15). The wall which separated Jews and Gentiles in the temple has symbolically been torn down in Christ. Through the body of Christ (“one body,” 2:16), believing Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled; hostility has been done away with. We now all have access to the Father through the same Holy Spirit.

In the final verses of chapter 2, Paul once again chooses to bring his argument to a climax by turning our attention to Christ and to His church. We were once “illegal aliens” so far as God’s covenant promises were concerned, but in Christ we are now fellow citizens, members of God’s household. The imagery now changes from a family, or household, to a temple (2:21). Believing Jews and Gentiles are, on the one hand, one new man (2:15); on the other they are one building – a temple (2:20-21). The foundation of this spiritual temple is the apostolic preaching of the cross. The “apostles and prophets” are the New Testament “apostles and prophets,” (see also 3:5), who proclaimed the shed blood of Jesus Christ as God’s remedy for sin, and God’s only way of salvation for sinners. In this temple, Jesus Christ is the cornerstone (2:20). He is the One Who ties the whole building together, the One common point of reference by which the building can be constructed. This temple is described as still under construction (by way of evangelism). The end result is a “holy temple” which serves as a dwelling place for God through His Holy Spirit (2:21-22).

Notice that once again the church is the finished product of God’s redemptive work. I do not mean to say that the church is to be preeminent. Christ is the One Who is preeminent, as the One who brought the church into existence. Christ is the One Who is to be preeminent as the Head of the church (Ephesians 1:20-23; 4:15; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). But God’s work at Calvary was meant to produce more than a multitude of individual saints; His saving work was intended to produce a church, a temple, a dwelling place in which He would reside by the Holy Spirit.

I would ask again, now based upon Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2, “How important is the church, and thus our study of the church?” The church is God’s dwelling place. The church is the temple of God, composed of both Jewish and Gentile Christians, who have been reconciled to God and to each other through the saving work of Jesus Christ. Heaven is, more than anything, God dwelling in the midst of His redeemed people:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more. 2 And I saw the holy city—the new Jerusalem—descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among men and women. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:1-3).

The church is as close to heaven as men will ever get on earth, because the church is the place where God has chosen to dwell, through His Spirit.

Ephesians 3

1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— 2 if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that by revelation the divine secret was made known to me, as I wrote before briefly. 4 When reading this, you will be able to understand my insight into this secret of Christ. 5 Now this secret was not disclosed to mankind in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, 6 namely, that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. 7 I became a servant of this gospel according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the exercise of his power. 8 To me—less than the least of all the saints—this grace was given, to proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ 9 and to enlighten everyone about the divine secret’s plan—a secret that has been hidden for ages in the God who has created all things. 10 The purpose of this enlightenment is that through the church the multifaceted wisdom of God should now be disclosed to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and confident access to God because of Christ’s faithfulness. 13 For this reason I ask you not to lose heart because of what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. 14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on the earth is named. 16 I pray that according to the wealth of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner man, 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, so that, by being rooted and grounded in love, 18 you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, 21 to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:1-21, emphasis mine).

It is not our purpose to give a full exposition of these first chapters of Ephesians, but only to show how important the church is in each chapter. In chapter 3, Paul spells out what he has already alluded to in chapter 1:

9 He did this when he revealed to us the secret of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ—the things in heaven and the things on earth (Ephesians 1:9-10).

Paul has been privileged to reveal the “secret” or the “mystery” that was hidden in times past. Now it is important to understand what a mystery is. A mystery is not something which has never been mentioned before; a mystery is something at which God has been hinting, but which men have not understood. One might say that our Lord’s death on the cross of Calvary was a mystery to the disciples, as was His resurrection. This is not because Jesus never said anything about dying, or being raised from the dead. It is because the disciples had a very different kind of “king” and “kingdom” in mind:

21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s” (Matthew 16:21-23).

The “secret” which God privileged Paul to announce was the “mystery” of His bringing all things to a head in Christ. Put differently, the “mystery” was the “secret” of His church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, through faith in Jesus Christ:

5 Now this secret was not disclosed to mankind in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, 6 namely, that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:5-6).

This mystery is great—but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32).

Looking back, the salvation of Jews and Gentiles should come as no surprise, as we can see from Paul’s quotations from the Old Testament in Romans 9-11. But looking forward, no one saw the church coming. It was a great surprise. Paul was privileged not only to proclaim this mystery (a proclamation that was not always welcomed – see Acts 22:21-23), but to actually preach the gospel to the Gentiles.

My theological training predisposed me to think of the church as a kind of parenthesis, sandwiched between God’s working with the Israel in the Old Testament and His working with Israel in the future. But this is not the impression I get from Paul at all. As I was reading this week, I found that I was not alone in this conclusion:

“Several times I have read the Bible straight through, from Genesis to Revelation, and each time it strikes me that the church is a culmination, the realization of what God had in mind from the beginning.”[5]

As Philip Yancey puts it, this sense of culmination is not something reached independently of God’s Word, but as a result of reading His Word. Consider whether or not these texts don’t also point to the same conclusion:

5 Now may the God of endurance and comfort give you unity with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Receive one another, then, just as Christ also received you, to God’s glory. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of God’s truth to confirm the promises made to the fathers, 9 and thus the Gentiles glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Because of this I will confess you among the Gentiles, and I will sing praises to your name.” 10 And again it says: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” 11 And again, “Praise the Lord all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him.” 12 And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, and the one who rises to rule over the Gentiles, in him will the Gentiles hope.” 13 Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in him, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:5-13).

39 And these [Old Testament saints] all were commended for their faith, yet they did not receive what was promised. 40 For God had provided something better for us [New Testament saints], so that they would be made perfect together with us (Hebrews 11:39-40).

The church is not a parenthesis but an exclamation point! The church is not just an interlude or intermission, something to occupy mankind while God prepares to save Israelites. The church is the culmination and climax of God’s eternal plan. It is the consummation of God’s purposes, the completion of what God had predestined in eternity past. The Scriptures had spoken of this, but not so clearly that men would understand (and even if it were clearly revealed, it would not be welcomed).

This “mystery,” now revealed, puts Paul’s persecution in a different light:

13 For this reason I ask you not to lose heart because of what I am suffering for you, which is your glory (Ephesians 3:13, emphasis mine).

20 Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, 21 to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21, emphasis mine).

The gospel is glorious. Suffering for the gospel is glorious. Paul speaks of his sufferings for the sake of the gospel as being the glory of the Ephesians. The gospel is the “mystery,” which is proclaimed by Paul, along with the apostles and the prophets (Ephesians 2:20; 3:5). The gospel is the good news that faith in Jesus Christ not only reconciles one to God, but also with believing Jews. The gospel is the good news that faith in Jesus Christ joins one to the body of Christ, the church, and thus makes every believer a part of God’s temple, God’s dwelling place.

Is the church worthy of our study of this doctrine? Most definitely. The church is the climax of God’s eternal purpose. The church is not only the place where God dwells, it is the place where God is glorified (Ephesians 2:20-21). The church is the stage in human history upon which the wisdom of God is displayed before the celestial beings, to the glory of God:

10 The purpose of this enlightenment is that through the church the multifaceted wisdom of God should now be disclosed to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ephesians 3:10-11).

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. 11 They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. 12 They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who evangelized you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things angels long to catch a glimpse of (1 Peter 1:10-12).

For this reason a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels (1 Corinthians 11:10).

Conclusion

Now we know that Ephesians 4-6 has to do with application. As we conclude our study, let’s consider what role the church might play in the practical outworking of the doctrine Paul has taught in chapters 1-3, doctrine which places a great emphasis on the church.

Ephesians 4

Someone may very well ask, “So what does Ephesians have to say to me?” That is always a good question, but it can also reveal an improper perspective and focus. The inclination of our flesh is to be self-centered, and so we immediately seek to see how the Bible impacts me, personally. What we need to see is that God did not save us to become little islands in the sea of His grace. He saved us to become a part of His church. Baptism is not just about us, individually; it is about us being joined with Christ’s body – His body in His literal death, burial and resurrection, as well as His body, the church. Communion likewise is not merely an individual experience:

16 Is not the cup of blessing that we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread that we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

We in the West tend toward rugged individualism. This is very different from the sense of community that one finds in the East, especially in Asia. In Ephesians 4-6, Paul applies the doctrine he has taught to the church corporately, as well as to saints individually. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that there is more corporate emphasis than individual. This becomes apparent as we begin to think our way through chapters 4-6.

Paul begins his application by emphasizing the urgency of maintaining the unity within the church:

1 I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you too were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:1-6).

The unity of which Paul speaks must surely be the unity that he described in Ephesians 2:11-22, that is the unity which resulted from the reconciliation God brought about between Jews and Gentiles, in Christ. The church is the body of Christ, and it is the temple in which God dwells by His Spirit. It is “one new man” made up of Jews and Gentiles, who come from very different cultures, and who have lived all their lives in hostility toward each other. The work of Christ at Calvary accomplished a great reconciliation, but maintaining this unity is something for which all the saints must strive.

7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. 8 Therefore it says, When he ascended on high he took captives, he gave gifts to men.” 9 Now what is the meaning of “he ascended,” except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth? 10 He, the very one who descended, is also the one who ascended above all the heavens, in order to fill all things. 11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature. 14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. 15 But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head. 16 From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love (Ephesians 4:7-16).

The church not only comes from very diverse backgrounds, the church is, by design, made up of individual believers whose gifts and ministries are diverse. This diversity of gifting is not designed to undermine unity, but rather to facilitate unity. The spiritual growth Paul speaks about here is not individual, but corporate. It is the whole body which is to grow up into Christ (4:15). It is the growth of all (4:12-13). It is brought about as each individual member of the body utilizes his gift for the building up of the whole body (4:16). The church grows corporately as the church functions corporately. Note how central the church is here.

The remainder of chapter 4 contains Paul’s instructions to the church pertaining to relationships with one another. We are not to seek our own good at the expense of others; rather, we are to strive to promote the good of others at our expense.

Ephesians 5

In chapter 5, Paul has more instructions for the church. Verses 1-5 speak of our responsibility to love one another in a way that is very different from the “love” of those who are lost in their sins. We are to love others as Christ loved us (5:1-2), as Christ loved His church (5:25-31). We are likewise to stand apart from this world, the world which once enslaved us (2:1-3; 5:3-14).

Paul said earlier that the church is the dwelling place of God in the Spirit (2:22). Paul now instructs the church to be “filled with the Spirit” (5:18). How does this filling of the Spirit evidence itself? Is it something individual, so that people look at us, so that people conclude that we are spiritual? No.

15 Therefore be very careful how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 taking advantage of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 For this reason do not be foolish, but be wise by understanding what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for each other in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:15-21).

The manifestations of the filling of the Spirit are described in corporate terms, rather than in individual terms. Those who are Spirit-filled walk in wisdom, and they make the most of the opportunities to live righteously (5:15-16). Those who are Spirit-filled grasp God’s will (5:15). They speak and sing spiritual truths to one another. They are characterized by thanksgiving and by submission to one another. The filling of the Spirit is evident in the corporate life of the church. I see the same thing in the early church following Pentecost:

38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself” (Acts 2:38-39).

Here is the promise of salvation for all who will believe, a promise which includes the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are told that many who heard this promise trusted in Jesus Christ and were added to the church (Acts 2:41, 47). What were the evidences of the Spirit’s presence and power in the church?

41 So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added. 42 They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Reverential awe came on everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and held everything in common, 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need. 46 Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, 47 praising God and having the good will of all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved (Acts 2:41-47).

In Ephesians 5:22-33, the doctrine of the church which Paul expounded earlier is applied to marriage. The relationship between our Lord and His church is the pattern for the way husbands and wives relate to each other in their marriage. Here is an interesting thought. How many different kinds of marriage counseling exist today? How many approaches are there to marriage? It would seem to me that a good marriage would be established on the basis of Ephesians 1-3. Christian marriage is the application of the church truth taught in the first half of Ephesians. Can you believe it? Ecclesiology is the key to a godly marriage!

Ephesians 6

One may think that in Ephesians 6 Paul finally gets to the individual application. There are implications for individuals, it is true, but these seem to stem from the corporate nature of the church. The church is a corporate body, encompassing a very diverse group of people: parents and their children, slaves and their masters. All have a unique stewardship as a result of being a part of the larger body, the body of Christ.

When I come to the “spiritual warfare” section of Ephesians (6:10-20), I must admit that I have always viewed these instructions as individual. But seeing the corporate (church) emphasis in Ephesians, I am obliged to consider these instructions as having a corporate dimension. Let us remember our Lord’s first words regarding His church in Matthew:

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on the earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” 20 Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ (Matthew 16:16-20).

Peter’s great confession (that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the Son of the living God) was the foundation of the church. The first thing that Jesus says about the church is that “the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18). This strongly suggests to me that our spiritual warfare should not be individualistic, but corporate. It is the church that will withstand the attacks of Satan. Should we therefore not wage our spiritual warfare as a part of the church, and not merely as an individual? The last verses of Paul’s instructions regarding spiritual warfare call for our prayers “for all the saints” (verse 18), as well as for Paul (verses 19 and 20). Paul does not wish to go it alone, but rather urges the Ephesians to join with him in his warfare against the kingdom of darkness.

When the apostles faced persecution for preaching Christ, where did they go as soon as possible? Was it not to the church?

23 When they were released, Peter and John went to their fellow believers and reported everything the high priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices to God with one mind and said, “Master of all, you who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything that is in them, 25 who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather, ‘Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot foolish things? 26 The kings of the earth stood together, and the rulers assembled together, against the Lord and against his Christ.’ 27 “For both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do as much as your power and your plan had decided beforehand would happen. 29 And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage, 30 while you extend your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously (Acts 4:23-31).

8 The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” Peter did so. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.” 9 Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening through the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they had passed the first and second guards, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went outside and walked down one narrow street, when at once the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from everything the Jewish people were expecting to happen.” 12 When Peter realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many people had gathered together and were praying. 13 When he knocked at the door of the outer gate, a slave girl named Rhoda answered. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she did not open the gate, but ran back in and told them that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 But they said to her, “You’ve lost your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was Peter, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 Now Peter continued knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were greatly astonished. 17 He gave them a signal with his hand to be quiet and then related to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He said, “Tell James and the brothers these things,” and then he left and went to another place (Acts 12:8-17).

When they came out of the prison, they entered Lydia’s house, and when they saw the brothers, they encouraged them and then departed (Acts 16:40).

It was the church that sent out missionaries (Acts 13:1-3), and when they had completed their mission, they returned to report to the church (Acts 14:25-28). Paul understood that the church was intimately involved with him in the preaching of the gospel (Philippians 1:3-5, 19; 4:15-20). We do not live our lives in some autonomous fashion, but as a part of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We could go on to show other ways in which the doctrine of the church is applied in Ephesians 4-6. But have we not made the point that the doctrine of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) is vitally important? It was to Paul, as we can see from the Book of Ephesians. Should it not be important to us as well? If so, then we should proceed with our study of the church, convinced that this is an endeavor well worth the time and effort required. May God grant that we might better grasp the glorious relationship between Christ and the church, His bride, His body, His dwelling place, His fullness, His glory.

Lesson 2 — The Church as God’s Dwelling Place[6]

Introduction

It is little wonder that the church was a mystery to the Old Testament saints.[7] Who could ever imagine that God could dwell among His people as Jesus promised and as Paul describes?

16 Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you. 18 I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you[8] (John 14:16-18).

19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).

The purpose of this lesson will be to trace the story of the birth of the church through the Bible, to see how God has worked to display His glory in and through the church.

Old Testament Anticipation

The church is the consummation of God’s eternal plan to dwell among His people on the earth. The story begins way back in Old Testament times with none other than the rascal Jacob.

10 Meanwhile Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11 He reached a certain place, where he decided to camp because the sun had gone down. He took one of the stones and placed it near his head. Then he fell asleep in that place 12 and had a dream. He saw a stairway erected on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens. The angels of God were going up and coming down it 13 and the Lord stood at its top. He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the ground you are lying on. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. All the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name and that of your descendants. 15 I am with you! I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you!” 16 Then Jacob woke up and thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, but I did not realize it!” 17 He was afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! This is nothing else than the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:10-17)

Jacob was not doing very well with his family these days. Having lost his wrestling match with Esau in his mother’s womb (Genesis 25:21-26), Jacob found himself in second place. He was not about to be outwitted again. First, Jacob managed to “purchase” Esau’s birthright (Genesis 25:27-34), and then he (with much encouragement from his mother) successfully deceived his aging father so that he pronounced his blessing on him, thinking he was Esau (Genesis 27:1-41). Jacob was his mother’s child indeed. It was by staying at home and cooking (two fateful meals), while Esau was out hunting in the field, that Jacob managed to gain both the birthright and the patriarchal blessing.

Esau was furious and was simply biding his time until Isaac died; then he fully intended to kill Jacob and retrieve what he believed was rightfully his (Genesis 27:41). There is no mention that either Jacob or Esau was aware of the prophecy concerning these two boys, given to Rebekah while she was still pregnant (Genesis 25:22-23). It was Rebekah’s idea to have Jacob leave the country until Esau cooled down. It was all done in the guise of finding a “godly” wife (Genesis 27:42—28:5). Once again, Isaac fell for the scheme.

Jacob was thus fleeing for his life. Granted, Rebekah had said that he needed to be gone to her brother Laban’s house for “only a few days” (Genesis 27:44), but Jacob had to know better than that. It was no small journey to Haran in the first place. On his journey from Beersheba toward Haran, Jacob spent the night under the stars, with a rock for a pillow. He had a most unusual dream that night. He dreamed that a ladder was set up on the land, reaching up into heaven. On this ladder, the angels were ascending and descending. God then reiterated the promise He had made to Abraham and Isaac to Jacob. God would give this land – the land on which the ladder was set – to Jacob and his descendants. His descendants would be numerous, and in Jacob and his seed,[9] He would bless all the families of the earth. Most significant of all, I believe, is God’s assurance that He will protect Jacob and bring him back safely to this land.

Jacob was impressed, and rightly so. His words reveal his understanding of the vision he had been given.

16 Then Jacob woke up and thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, but I did not realize it!” 17 He was afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! This is nothing else than the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:16-17)

Jacob took note of the place where the ladder was standing. This place, he reasoned, was a holy place. God was there, and He did not even realize it (until his dream). This was God’s dwelling place. This place was somehow “the gate of heaven,” the place where heaven and earth met, where men on earth found access to heaven. As a result, Jacob named the place Beth-el, the house of God. This seems to have been a major turning point in Jacob’s life. It certainly provided a strong incentive for him to return to Israel (in spite of the danger of doing so).

For now, let us recognize that God had chosen to identify Himself with a particular place – Israel. It was this place where God and men would somehow meet. It was this place where God had chosen to dwell. Only time would reveal the full meaning of what had happened to Jacob on that fateful night.

Many years passed, and Jacob finally did return to Bethel and to the land of Israel. But it was not yet time for him or his descendants to possess the land. Years earlier, God had informed Abraham:

13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country. They will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. 14 But I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve. Afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 But as for you, you will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will return here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit” (Genesis 15:13-16).

Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, and it was Joseph and Egypt that God used to save Israel (Jacob) and his family (see Genesis 50:20). Jacob’s descendants greatly multiplied in Egypt, in spite of their adversity. Eventually the time came for God to deliver His people from Egypt and return them to the land of Israel to possess it. After passing through the Red Sea, the nation came to Mount Sinai, where God gave the Israelites the law. God warned the people not to draw near too near:

16 And on the third day in the morning there were thunders and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a very loud horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the lower end of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was completely covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire; and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain shook greatly. 19 When the sound of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking and God was answering him with a voice. 20 And the Lord came down on Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain; and the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and solemnly warn the people, lest they force their way through to the Lord to look, and many of them perish” (Exodus 19:16-21).

God’s presence there on that mountain was terrifying, so much so that the people were too frightened to draw near. They gladly accepted Moses as their mediator:

18 And all the people were seeing the thunderings and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking—and when they people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. 19 And they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).

God’s presence among His people was vital. Moses did not wish to go on unless God remained with them:

12 Then Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have been saying to me, ‘Bring this people up,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. But you said, ‘I know you by name, and also you have found favor in my sight.’ 13 And now, if I have found favor in your sight, show me your way, that I may know you, that I may continue to find favor in your sight. And see that this nation is your people. 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence does not go with us, do not take us up from here. 16 For in what way will it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we will be distinguished, I and your people, from all the people who are on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:12-16)

The problem was that these were a sinful, stiff-necked people. How could a holy God dwell in their midst? The solution is found in the law itself. First, God gave His law that forbade things which were offensive to Him. Second, God provided a sacrificial system, where sins could be temporarily atoned for. Men could not keep the law that God gave; thus the sacrificial system was provided so that atonement could be made until the “Lamb of God” came to atone for sins “once for all” (see John 1:29; Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 9). Third, God established various boundaries, assuring that sinful men would not come too near. This is especially evident in the tabernacle, where only the high priest could enter into the Holy of Holies, and just once a year.

Even when Moses asked to see God’s glory, it was necessary for God to shield his view, so that he would not look directly upon Him and die:

18 And he said, “Show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before your face, and I will proclaim the Lord by name before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.” 20 And he said, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Here is a place by me; you will station yourself on a rock. 22 And when my glory passes by, then I will put you in a cleft in the rock and will cover you with my hand while I pass by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face must not be seen” (Exodus 33:18-23).

It is no wonder that those who encountered the Angel of the Lord expected to die (see Judges 6:22-24; 13:21-23).[10]

When all of the precautionary separators or barriers were in place, God’s presence did come and fill the tabernacle, as it later did the temple:

34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35).

10 Once the priests left the holy place, a cloud filled the Lord’s temple. 11 The priests could not carry out their duties because of the cloud; the Lord’s glory filled his temple (1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chronicles 5:11-14; 7:1-3).

Israel’s sins resulted in the departure of God’s glory,[11] the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, and the destruction of the temple, just as the Lord had warned:

19 “But if you people ever turn away from me, fail to obey the regulations and rules I instructed you to keep, and decide to serve and worship other gods, 20 then I will remove you from my land I have given you, I will abandon this temple I have consecrated with my presence, and I will make you an object of mockery and ridicule among all the nations. 21 As for this temple, which was once majestic, everyone who passes by it will be shocked and say, ‘Why did the Lord do this to this land and this temple?’ 22 Others will then answer, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord God of their ancestors, who led them out of Egypt. They embraced other gods whom they worshiped and served. That is why he brought this disaster down on them’” (2 Chronicles 7:19-22; see also Deuteronomy 28:36-37, 41; 2 Kings 24:20—25:21; Lamentations 2).

God also promised that He would restore His people, freeing them from their bondage, and bring them back to the land of Israel:

1 “Now when all these things happen to you—the blessing and the curse I have set before you—and you remember them in all the nations where the Lord your God has exiled you, 2 if you turn to the Lord your God and listen to him just as I am commanding you today—you and your descendants—with your whole mind and being, 3 then the Lord your God will reverse your captivity and have pity on you. He will turn and gather you from all the peoples among whom he has scattered you. 4 Even if any of your dispersed are under the most distant skies, from there the Lord your God will gather and bring you back. 5 Then he will bring you to the land your ancestors possessed and you also will possess it; he will do better for you and multiply you more than he did your ancestors. 6 The Lord your God will also cleanse your heart and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your mind and being, in order to live” (Deuteronomy 30:1-6).

The day finally came for God to deliver the Jews from their captivity and to return them to the Promised Land. They found Jerusalem in shambles and their glorious temple destroyed. Work soon began to rebuild the temple. When the foundation was laid, there was great celebration, but it was mixed with the tears of those who had seen the glory of the previous temple:

10 When the builders established the Lord’s temple, the priests, ceremonially attired and with their clarions, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with their cymbals, stood to praise the Lord according to the instructions left by King David of Israel. 11 With antiphonal response they sang, praising and glorifying the Lord: “For he is good; his loving kindness toward Israel is forever.” All the people gave a loud shout as they praised the Lord when the temple of the Lord was established. 12 Many of the priests, the Levites, and the leaders—older people who had seen with their own eyes the former temple while it was still established—were weeping loudly, and many others raised their voice in a joyous shout. 13 People were unable to tell the difference between the sound of joyous shouting and the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people were shouting so loudly that the sound was heard a long way off (Ezra 3:10-13).

Through the prophet Haggai, God addressed this mourning, putting this whole matter into perspective:

1 On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the Lord spoke again through the prophet Haggai: 2 “Ask the following question to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak, and the remnant of the people, 3 ‘Who among you survivors saw the former splendor of this temple? How does it look to you now? Doesn’t it appear as nothing by comparison? 4 Even so, take heart, Zerubbabel,’ says the Lord. ‘Take heart, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you citizens of the land,’ says the Lord, ‘and begin to work. For I am with you,’ says the sovereign Lord. 5 ‘Do not fear because I made a promise to your ancestors when they left Egypt and my spirit even now testifies to you.’ 6 Moreover, the sovereign Lord says: ‘In just a little while I will once again shake the sky and the earth, the sea and the dry ground. 7 I will also shake up all the nations, and they will offer their treasures; then I will fill this temple with glory,’ says the sovereign Lord. 8 ‘The silver and gold will be mine,’ says the sovereign Lord. 9 ‘The coming splendor of this temple will be greater than that of former times,’ the sovereign Lord declares, ‘and in this place I will give peace’” (Haggai 2:1-9, emphasis mine).

It appears to me that the weeping of the “old timers” was due to the external inferiority of the second temple. It certainly did not have the splendor of the first temple. But was this what made the temple great? Was external beauty what should have been important? As I understand the Word of God through Haggai, the second temple was great because of what it anticipated. God was with His people; His Spirit was dwelling in their midst[12] (Haggai 2:4-5). God was with them. That was what mattered.[13] And more than this, the second temple was but a foretaste of something far greater that was yet to come, something that is still yet to come – God dwelling among His people in the new heavens and the new earth. The writer to the Hebrews will pick up on Haggai 2:6-7, showing us that this glorious event is still future (see Hebrews 12:18-29). The glory of the temple is not to be found in the artistry or in the gold, but in the presence of God Himself, dwelling among His people.

New Testament Realization

God did come to dwell among His people in the Person of His beloved Son:

14 Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. 15 John testified about him and cried out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’” 16 For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in the presence of the Father, has made God known (John 1:14-18, emphasis mine).

This footnote in the NET Bible explains what it meant for our Lord Jesus to “take up residence” among men:

The Greek word translated took up residence (skhnovw, skhnow) alludes to the OT tabernacle, where the Shekinah, the visible glory of God’s presence, resided. The author is suggesting that this glory can now be seen in Jesus (note the following verse). The verb used here may imply that the Shekinah glory that used to be found in the tabernacle has taken up residence in the person of Jesus. Cf. also John 2:19-21. The Word became flesh. This verse constitutes the most concise statement of the incarnation in the New Testament. John 1:1 makes it clear that the Logos was fully God, but 1:14 makes it clear that he was also fully human. A Docetic interpretation is completely ruled out. Here for the first time the Logos of 1:1 is identified as Jesus of Nazareth—the two are one and the same. Thus this is the last time the word logos is used in the Fourth Gospel to refer to the second person of the Trinity. From here on it is Jesus of Nazareth who is the focus of John’s Gospel.

The glory of God that once indwelt the tabernacle, and later the temple, came to earth in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Late in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, our Lord is linked with yet another Old Testament manifestation of God’s presence:

45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and exclaimed, “Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?” Jesus replied, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel!” 50 Jesus said to him, “Because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 He continued, “I tell all of you the solemn truth—you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:45-51, emphasis mine).

Because of what Jesus had said to Nathanael, he believed that Jesus was the Messiah. That is a wonderful reality, but Nathanael does not yet fully grasp just all that being Messiah means. Jesus takes Nathanael back to Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28, to which we referred at the beginning of this lesson. As a result of his dream about the ladder, Jacob rightly believed that this place (Bethel) was the dwelling place of God, the place where heaven and earth intersected, the place of access to heaven.

Jacob’s attention was fixed on the ground on which the ladder was placed. Jacob was impressed that God somehow dwelled in this physical place – Bethel. What Jesus tells Nathanael has everything to do with this. Jacob saw the land as all-important – “this place.” It was important, but Jesus takes this to a whole new level. It was not the ground on which the ladder was placed that was all-important, but the ladder itself. The ladder was the gateway to heaven, as it were. And Jesus was that ladder! Jesus was the Messiah, Who came to earth as the one Mediator between God and men:

5 For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time (1 Timothy 2:5-6).

Jesus was God dwelling (tabernacling) among men. This theme is picked up, I believe, in the very next chapter of John:

12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there a few days. 13 Now the Jewish feast of Passover was near, so Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple courts those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting at tables. 15 So he made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple courts, with the sheep and the oxen. He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold the doves he said, “Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will devour me.” 18 So then the Jewish leaders responded, “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” 19 Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” 20 Then the Jewish leaders said to him, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and are you going to raise it up in three days?” 21 But Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 So after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the saying that Jesus had spoken (John 2:12-22, emphasis mine).

Jesus spoke of Himself as God’s temple, God’s dwelling place. No wonder John says that Jesus “tabernacled” among men (John 1:14). Wherever Jesus was, God was there. Wherever Jesus was, men could worship God by worshiping Him. This is precisely the point of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. When Jesus asked this woman to call her husband, she responded that she had no husband. Our Lord’s reply made it clear that Jesus knew this woman’s story completely, that nothing was hidden from Him. The woman concluded that Jesus must be a prophet, and so she inquired of Him about the great Jewish/Samaritan debate over the proper place of worship:

19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you people say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You people worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But a time is coming—and now is here—when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (the one called Christ); “whenever he comes, he will tell us everything.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I, the one speaking to you, am he” (John 4:19-26).

I believe that Jesus is telling this woman more than she could understand at the moment. He is telling her that it is no longer a matter of where to worship, but rather of whom to worship. Worship the Messiah! And when the woman asked just whom that might be, Jesus informed her, “I … am” (4:26). Jesus is God dwelling among men. It is He that is to be worshiped. The right place is no longer the issue; the right person is.

All this leads me to understand John 14-16 in a different way. I have always been inclined to think of this passage as our Lord’s words of personal comfort to the disciples. It was that, of course (see John 14:1; 16:6), but it was more than this. Jesus, I believe, was speaking to His disciples as those who would constitute the founders of His church (remember Matthew 16:18). Jesus speaks of His absence as something better than His physical presence, because His presence will continue in a more intimate way through the Holy Spirit, Whom He was about to send:

7 “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:7-11).

15 “If you love me, you will obey my commandments. 16 Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you. 19 In a little while the world will not see me any longer, but you will see me; because I live, you will live too. 20 You will know at that time that I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you” (John 14:15-20).

The Spirit would call to their remembrance the things Jesus had told them and enable them to understand these things (John 14:25-26; 16:13-14). The Spirit would empower their preaching by convicting the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment (John 16:8-11). But most of all, I believe, the Spirit would dwell within the church, and within each individual believer, manifesting the presence of Jesus. In other words, our Lord’s departure (resurrection and ascension) was not the end of God dwelling among men through Christ, but the beginning of God dwelling within men through the Holy Spirit Whom Christ sent from heaven.

Pentecost in Acts

I now view Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit in the Book of Acts in a somewhat different way. There are but four times in the Book of Acts when the Spirit falls upon believers in a “pentecostal way” (Acts chapters 2, 8,[14] 10, 19). In each instance, the Spirit comes upon a group of people, rather than upon an individual. In none of these instances does the person who receives the Spirit do anything to bring about the event. It would also seem that the coming of the Spirit took men by surprise. It was not something they were seeking to experience.

I would like to suggest that there is a similarity between the way God’s presence came down upon the temple and the way God’s presence (through the Spirit) came upon the church.

1 When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the Lord’s splendor filled the temple. 2 The priests were unable to enter the Lord’s temple because the Lord’s splendor filled the Lord’s temple. 3 When all the Israelites saw the fire come down and the Lord’s splendor over the temple, they got on their knees with their faces downward toward the pavement. They worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “Certainly he is good; certainly his loyal love endures!” (2 Chronicles 7:1-3, emphasis mine)

When God’s presence filled the temple, fire came down from heaven, consuming the sacrifices. As a result, the glory of the Lord filled the temple. In response, people fell on their knees and began to praise God. Now consider the similarity of this incident in the temple with the first Pentecost in Acts 2:

1 Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:1-4).

Pentecost was a visible manifestation of the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell the church. In each and every instance in Acts, the Holy Spirit fell upon a particular group of people. In Acts 2, it was the Jewish followers of Jesus. In Acts 8, it was upon Samaritan believers. In Acts 10, the Spirit came upon Gentile believers. In Acts 19, the Spirit came upon those in Ephesus who had been disciples of John the Baptist, and who had just come to a saving knowledge of Christ. These “pentecosts” were visible proof that these believers were a part of the church, and that the Spirit of God was dwelling in them. The purpose of these “pentecosts” was not to prove the piety of individuals, but to demonstrate the inclusion of various groups of believers into the church. God had now come to dwell in His church, just as Jesus had promised in John 14-16.

A Comment Regarding the Stoning of Stephen
Acts 6:12-15; 8:54-56

12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 All who were sitting in the council looked intently at Stephen and saw his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:12-15).

54 When they heard these things, they became furious and ground their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked intently toward heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look!” he said. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:54-56)

Like Jesus (Matthew 26:60-61; 27:39-40; Mark 14:57-58) and Paul (Acts 24:5-6; 25:8), Stephen was accused of speaking against the temple. One can understand why. The Jews made too much of the temple (Matthew 23:16-17). Even the disciples seemed to be overly impressed with its external beauty (see Matthew 24:1-2). Stephen reminds his accusers that God needs no man-made dwelling, and that He is vastly bigger than any temple could contain. The tabernacle was God’s idea, while the temple was David’s, although he was not permitted to build the temple (Acts 7:44-50).

Stephen’s words cut his audience to the quick. As they commenced to stone him, Stephen looked into heaven, and there he saw the glory of God, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Did his accusers charge Stephen with speaking against their glorious temple? The glory of God was seen in heaven, in the presence of Jesus. The glory of God was not to be found in their temple, for in a very short time that temple would be destroyed:

1 Now as Jesus was going out of the temple courts and walking away, his disciples came to show him the temple buildings. 2 And he said to them, “Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!” (Matthew 24:1-2)

The Glory of God in the Church, through the Spirit

The teaching of the New Testament is that God now dwells in the church through the Spirit:

19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).

The temple is not a physical building; it is the spiritual body of Christ, the church. It is composed of Jewish and Gentile believers who have united together through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the cornerstone of the church (Ephesians 2:20).

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul uses two different images to describe the church. The first image is that of a field; the second is that of a building:

1 So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, 3 for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like ordinary people? 4 For whenever someone says, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” are you not typical people? 5 What is Apollos, really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow. 7 So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters are united, but each will receive his reward according to his work. 9 We are coworkers belonging to God. You are God’s field, God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 14 If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are (1 Corinthians 3:1-17).

It would be good for us to consider the context in which these words are written. The Corinthian church was divided by various schisms (1 Corinthians 1:11-12). The issue seems to be “wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:18—2:16). It is my conviction that other “teachers” had come to Corinth. Their message went “beyond” the simple message of “Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23), and their method was one that appeared persuasive and powerful. Paul, on the other hand, seemed to have but one note – Christ. His approach was simple and direct (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). He did not rely on humanly persuasive gimmicks or techniques, but upon the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10-16).

As wise as the Corinthians may have considered themselves to be, they were really just babes, still in need of spiritual baby food (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). Their spiritual infancy was betrayed by their dependency upon others to do their thinking for them. They relied too heavily on men, and the wrong men at that. Paul first describes the church as God’s field in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9. Paul compares himself here with Apollos.[15] What (not who) was Apollos, and what (not who) was Paul? They were merely servants, hired farm hands. They did not produce crops; God did. They played a role, of course. Paul planted, and Apollos watered. But it was God Who produced the growth, and thus it was He (and not mere men) Who should get the glory. How was it then that the Corinthians placed so much stock in mere men?

Now, in verses 10 through 17, Paul changes to the imagery of a building – a temple. Paul no longer speaks of himself and Apollos, but only of himself as a “master-builder.” He laid the foundation for the church in Corinth (and elsewhere) by declaring the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This foundation cannot be changed, even by Paul himself (see Galatians 1:6-9). Others could build on it, but they must do so in a way that does not disturb or seek to modify the foundation. Whoever builds on this foundation (of Christ alone) must do so very carefully. They must be careful how they build – building in a careful manner, and not sloppily. They must not, as it were, set aside the architect’s master plans. They must also build with only quality materials.

Using this imagery of a building, being erected on a sure foundation that has already been laid, Paul emphasizes that anyone who seeks to build on it had better do so in a way that is consistent with the foundation. In other words, the construction must be consistent with sound doctrine (and not the shoddy material of worldly wisdom). Neither the message nor the methodology employed should depart from that of Paul and the true apostles:

I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6, emphasis mine).

Paul continues to use the imagery of the church as a temple in 2 Corinthians 6:

14 Do not become partners with those who do not believe, for what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship does light have with darkness? 15 And what agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share in common with an unbeliever? 16 And what mutual agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, “I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” 17 Therefore “come out from their midst, and be separate,” says the Lord, “and touch no unclean thing, and I will welcome you, 18 and I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,” says the All-Powerful Lord (2 Corinthians 6:14-18, underscoring mine).

Being a Christian does not exempt one from the sufferings and groanings of life (2 Corinthians 4:16—5:10; see also Romans 8:18-25). By faith in Christ, one does become a new creation in Christ and is thus reconciled to God and to others (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Living the Christian life involves adversity, hardship, and persecution, as Paul’s experience demonstrates (2 Corinthians 6:1-10). I think it was precisely because of Paul’s afflictions that some withdrew from Paul (2 Corinthians 6:11-13), and at the same time entered into relationships with those who were not even Christians (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Paul turns back to Old Testament language describing God’s relationship with the Old Testament saints. If a holy God was to dwell among His people, they must separate themselves from the abominable practices of the heathen nations. The assumption that Paul makes in this passage is that God does indeed dwell among His people in the church. And since God dwells in the church, those who are in the church dare not create alliances and relationships which are incompatible with the character of God.[16]

As I look at the Corinthian church, it is not a very pretty sight. The church is divided into factions, and the saints are carnal, lacking any depth of spiritual insight. The church meeting is unruly and undisciplined, and people seem more interested in performing for others than in worshiping God. One has to look hard, it would seem, to find God dwelling in this church. Unfortunately, Corinth is more the rule than the exception. A look at the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3 does not present a pretty picture of the church either. How then can Paul say,

To him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:21, emphasis mine).

How can God be glorified in a flawed, imperfect church? Paul tells us:

26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were members of the upper class. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me—so that I would not become arrogant. 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10).

The glory of God is displayed in and through the church as God uses weak and foolish men to accomplish His divine purposes. This is nothing new:

10 Then Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I am not an eloquent man, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of mouth and slow of tongue.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Who gave a mouth to man, or who makes a person mute or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 So now, go, and I will be with your mouth, and will teach you what you must say” (Exodus 4:10-12).

4 The Lord said to me, 5 “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I chose you. Before you were born I set you apart. I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.” 6 I answered, “Oh, Lord God, I really do not know how to speak well enough for that, for I am too young.” 7 The Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ But go to whomever I send you and say whatever I tell you. 8 Do not be afraid of those to whom I send you, for I will be with you to rescue you,” says the Lord. 9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I will most assuredly give you the words you are to speak for me” (Jeremiah 1:4-9).

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your gracious will” (Matthew 11:25-26).

13 When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus. 14 And because they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say against this (Acts 4:13-14).

As I read the Book of Acts, I do not see a flawless group of men, but rather those who are fallible. In chapter 1, the apostles and others attempt to appoint the twelfth apostle as a replacement for Judas. They sought to follow Scripture, they prayed, and they seemed to come of one mind. But it looks to me as though God appointed Paul as the twelfth apostle, and not Matthias. In chapter 6, the apostles sought to correct a problem that had arisen in the care of their widows. They appointed a group of godly men to oversee the care of the widows so that they, the apostles, could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). But in the end, it was two of the seven “deacons” who were the key to much of the evangelism that took place – Stephen (Acts 6:8—8:3) and Philip (Acts 8:4-40).

The apostles were hardly on the cutting edge of Gentile evangelism. It took dramatic action on God’s part to convince Peter that he could go to the home of a Gentile (Acts 10:9-16). When he went to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, and preached, these Gentiles were marvelously saved. Not only were these folks saved, they received the Holy Spirit, just as Peter and his Jewish colleagues had in Acts 2 (10:17-48). And yet the folks in Jerusalem were greatly distressed when they learned that Peter had associated with the uncircumcised (Acts 11:1-3). Peter’s account of their baptism by the Holy Spirit seemed to clinch it:

15 Then as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them just as he did on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 Therefore if God gave them the same gift as he also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:15-18).

And yet look at the very next verse:

19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews (Acts 11:19).

It was not the church in Jerusalem that aggressively sought to evangelize the Gentiles; it was an unnamed group of folks who could not contain themselves as they fled from persecution in Jerusalem:

20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 A report about them came to the attention of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch (Acts 11:20-22).

The church in Jerusalem did send Barnabas to the newly-formed church at Antioch, but it was Paul (and others) who became the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:7-9).

What was so glorious about God’s dwelling in His church? Paul gives yet another reason in 2 Corinthians 3:

1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? We don’t need letters of recommendation to you or from you as some other people do, do we? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone, 3 revealing that you are a letter of Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on tablets of human hearts. 4 Now we have such confidence in God through Christ. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as if it were coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who made us adequate to be servants of a new covenant not based on the letter but on the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 But if the ministry that produced death, carved in letters on stone tablets, came with glory so that the Israelites could not keep their eyes fixed on the face of Moses because of the glory of his face (a glory that was fading away), 8 how much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit be? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry that produced condemnation, how much more does the ministry that produces righteousness excel in glory! 10 For indeed, what had been glorious now has no glory because of the tremendously greater glory of what replaced it. 11 For if what was fading away came with glory, how much more has what remains come in glory! (2 Corinthians 3:1-11).

Paul’s message, as we have already noted, was simple: Christ crucified (see 1 Corinthians 1:23). Paul’s method was also simple – a clear proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, without all the embellishments and enticements of worldly wisdom:

For we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit, but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God (2 Corinthians 2:17).

1 Therefore, since we have this ministry, just as God has shown us mercy, we do not become discouraged. 2 But we have rejected shameful hidden deeds, not behaving with deceptiveness or distorting the word of God, but by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience before God (2 Corinthians 4:1-2).

I am sure the Corinthian charmers impressed some with their “enlightened” words, but it was not the gospel that they proclaimed. They probably made light of Paul and his simplistic preaching – “How provincial!” “How plain!” “How dull!” How could Paul ever expect to convert many with his kind of preaching? Paul answers this challenge in 2 Corinthians 3.

Saving men is not Paul’s task. Paul does not need to commend himself, seeking through human devices to impress his audiences (2 Corinthians 3:1). The proof of Paul’s ministry is the fruit that God has produced – the Corinthian believers themselves (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Paul readily admits his inadequacy, for his adequacy is from God (2 Corinthians 3:5). Paul’s style and content may not appear spectacular to his critics (and competition), but the apostle defends his New Covenant ministry and message as far more glorious than that of the Old.[17] If the Law had glory, the gospel had greater glory (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).

The work of our Lord on the cross of Calvary produced what the law could never accomplish – a salvation achieved once for all, for all who believe. This new way of access to God through the shed blood of His precious Son gives us a boldness to approach God in a way that no Old Testament saints could do:

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:19-25).

We should not, however, be cavalier about approaching God. The writer to the Hebrews takes up the theme of Haggai 2, applying it to us in a sobering way:

18 For you have not come to something that can be touched, to a burning fire and darkness and gloom and a whirlwind 19 and the blast of a trumpet and a voice uttering words such that those who heard begged to hear no more. 20 For they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” 21 In fact, the scene was so terrifying that Moses said, “I shudder with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly 23 and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does. 25 Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven? 26 Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” 27 Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. 28 So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. 29 For our God is indeed a devouring fire (Hebrews 12:19-29).

We have seen that God dwells in the church through His Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22). He does so to bring glory to Himself (Ephesians 3:8-12, 21). He is a holy God, and we dare not ever forget it (1 Peter 1:16). God’s temple is a holy temple 2:21, and we are to be a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5). We must therefore not become unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). We must serve God in reverence and fear, for God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29).

What does that “service” look like? I believe it is outlined, among other places, in Hebrews 13. It should be characterized by brotherly love (Hebrews 13:1), hospitality toward strangers (13:2), care for persecuted saints (13:3), sexual purity and fidelity in marriage (13:4), freedom from greed and fears regarding money (13:5-6), honoring the leaders in your life (13:7), purity in doctrine (13:8-9),[18] boldness to venture beyond our own safety zone to reach out to others (13:10-14), offering the sacrifices of praise (13:15), and charity toward those in need (13:16). Once again, the writer returns to the spiritual leaders whose responsibility it is to shepherd them (13:17). They are to obey these leaders in a way that makes their job a delight. Finally, they are to pray for the writer and those with him who are proclaiming the gospel (13:18-19).

Conclusion

This week someone told me about a friend who was considering the gospel. This person believes the essential facts about Jesus but will not become a Christian because he does not want to be obligated to attend church regularly. What a distorted view of the church this person has! God has chosen to dwell in His church through His Spirit. God has purposed to glorify Himself in the church, not only before men, but also before celestial beings (Ephesians 3). What is more exciting than to have the privilege of becoming a part of the church?

This friend is too much like many of us – he is too interested in what church will do (or will not do) for him. I think of some in the Corinthian church who were oblivious to the spiritual significance of the Lord’s Table, and who were only interested in stuffing their faces with food and drink (1 Corinthians 11). They were more interested in performing before others than in edifying others (1 Corinthians 14). In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Paul reviewed Israel’s failures in history, concluding that they were preoccupied with fleshly self-indulgence than in worshiping and serving God.

Contrary to popular thinking (some of this among church leaders), the church does not exist to make us happy or to make us feel good. The purpose of the church is to glorify God as we obey His commands. We should not go to church so that God will serve us, but so that we may serve Him. Everything we do as Christians should be governed by the principle set down by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31:

So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

No wonder Paul speaks of our service in the church in terms of sacrifice (see Romans 12:1ff.; Philippians 2:1-8; 4:18; Hebrews 13:15-16). What a privilege it is to be a part of the church and to participate in bringing glory to our God!

Lesson 3 — Here Comes the Bridegroom[19]

Introduction

When Craig Nelson and I were traveling together and teaching in India, we were invited to attend the wedding ceremony for a young Indian couple. It was Craig’s turn to speak in the church service the following morning. After the wedding, he decided to speak on Ephesians 5. I will never forget that sermon because he used the familiar marriage text in Ephesians 5:22-33 as the basis for challenging two Indian marriage customs: (1) the payment of a dowry price by the bride’s parents, and (2) the practice of Indian wives walking behind their husbands, rather than alongside them. I must confess I had never considered how Ephesians 5 applied to these two customs, not until after Craig’s excellent sermon.

The Bible’s teaching on the relationship of Jesus Christ to His church is intensely practical. It has much to teach us about how Christians can be godly husbands and wives. But this is just one area of application. In this lesson, we are attempting to consider the church in the light of the biblical imagery of a bride and a bridegroom. I believe that this way of looking at the church distinguishes Christianity from every other religion. To think of ourselves as the bride of Christ is a most profitable and encouraging exercise. As we begin our study, let us agree with the Apostle Paul as he prays for the Ephesians (and thus for us):

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on the earth is named. 16 I pray that according to the wealth of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner man, 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, so that, by being rooted and grounded in love, 18 you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19, NET Bible, emphasis mine).[20]

Who Is the Bride?

Initially, I had titled this lesson, “Here Comes the Bride,” but after further study and reflection, I have chosen to change the title to, “Here Comes the Bridegroom.” I will explain this more fully later in the message. When we speak of “the bride,” it is important to understand just who “the bride” is. In this lesson, I have chosen to deal with this term in reverse chronological order, starting in the Book of Revelation and working back from there. This is something like reading the last chapter of the book to get an idea of where the book is going.

Revelation 17-22: The “Tale of Two Cities”

In the Book of Proverbs, both wisdom and folly are described as women.[21] In the Book of Revelation, we again find two women contrasted. The first is the “great harlot,” and the second is “the bride.” First, we find the “great harlot”:

1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke to me. “Come,” he said, “I will show you the condemnation and punishment of the great prostitute who sits on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth committed sexual immorality and the earth’s inhabitants got drunk with the wine of her immorality.” 3 So he carried me away in the Spirit to a wilderness, and there I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. 4 Now the woman was dressed in purple and scarlet clothing, and adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She held in her hand a golden cup filled with detestable things and unclean things from her sexual immorality. 5 On her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the Great, the Mother of prostitutes and of the detestable things of the earth.” 6 I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of those who testified to Jesus. I was greatly astounded when I saw her (Revelation 17:1-6).

1 After these things I saw another angel, who possessed great authority, coming down out of heaven, and the earth was lit up by his radiance. 2 He shouted with a powerful voice: “Fallen, fallen, is Babylon the great! She has become a lair for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detested beast. 3 For all the nations have fallen from the wine of her immoral passion, and the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have gotten rich from the power of her sensual behavior.” 4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, so you will not take part in her sins and so you will not receive her plagues, 5 because her sins have piled up all the way to heaven and God has remembered her crimes. 6 Repay her the same way she repaid others; pay her back double corresponding to her deeds. In the cup she mixed, mix double the amount for her. 7 As much as she exalted herself and lived in sensual luxury, to this extent give her torment and grief because she said to herself, ‘I rule as queen and am no widow; I will never experience grief!’ 8 For this reason, she will experience her plagues in a single day: disease, mourning, and famine, and she will be burned down with fire, because the Lord God who judges her is powerful!” 9 Then the kings of the earth who committed immoral acts with her and lived in sensual luxury with her will weep and wail for her when they see the smoke from the fire that burns her up. 10 They will stand a long way off because they are afraid of her torment, and will say, “Woe, woe, O great city, Babylon the powerful city! For in a single hour your doom has come!” (Revelation 18:1-10)

As one reads through the final chapters of Revelation, it becomes clear that the “great harlot” is a city (17:5, 18; 18:2, 10, 16, 18, 19, 21). She is called “Babylon,” but this is said to be a mystery name (17:5), so it may very well be a symbolic name, rather than a literal one.[22] While we may speculate as to the exact identification of this harlot city, this will all be clear in the outworking of God’s eternal plan.

Against the backdrop of the “great harlot,” a wicked city that corrupts many, is the “bride” of our Lord. We see a number of references to the “bride” in the Book of Revelation:

7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, because the wedding celebration of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 She was permitted to be dressed in bright, clean, fine linen” (for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints). 9 Then the angel said to me, “Write the following: Blessed are those who are invited to the banquet at the wedding celebration of the Lamb!” He also said to me, “These are the true words of God” (Revelation 19:7-9).

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more. 2 And I saw the holy city—the new Jerusalem—descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among men and women. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more—or mourning, or crying, or pain; the former things have ceased to exist.” … 9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven final plagues came and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb!” 10 So he took me away in the Spirit to a huge, majestic mountain and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God (Revelation 21:1-4, 9-10).

Like the “great harlot,” the “bride” of our Lord is also said to be a city, but this is a heavenly city – the new Jerusalem. I believe that this picture of the Lord’s “bride” in Revelation is consistent with the teaching of Hebrews:

13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

22 But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly 23 and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does (Hebrews 12:22-24).

In Hebrews, the bride is the “city” that God has prepared for the Old Testament saints (Hebrews 11:16), as well as New Testament saints, and it is called “the assembly and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:22-23). The “bride,” then, is that body of true believers, Jew and Gentile, Old Testament and New, who have placed their trust in Jesus as the promised Messiah. The bride is to be distinguished, I believe, from the “wife” of Jehovah, which is faithless Israel.

This conclusion regarding the bride of our Lord appears to be consistent with other New Testament texts. In John 3:27-30, John the Baptist described himself as the “friend of the bridegroom” (3:29). He was the forerunner of Jesus, who was privileged to point Him out as the Messiah, the promised “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). His mission in life was to invite all who would hear to trust in Jesus, and thus to become a part of the bride.

The Apostle Paul likened himself to the “father of the bride,” who not only introduced the Corinthian saints to Christ, but who also felt it his duty to preserve the purity of the Corinthian’s church as the bride of Christ:

1 I wish that you would be patient with me in a little foolishness, but indeed you are being patient with me! 2 For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy, because I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. 3 But I am afraid that just as the serpent deceived Eve by his treachery, your minds may be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:1-3).

I must confess that this passage fascinates me. Why does Paul choose to focus on Eve, rather than on Adam? Is Eve turned from her devotion to God, or from her devotion to her husband? Just how does Eve illustrate the point Paul is trying to make? Let me share the explanation that makes the most sense to me.

Eve was created as a helper, companion, and counterpart for her husband Adam. She and Adam were placed in the garden, and it was there that they had sweet fellowship in daily communion with God (Genesis 3:8). Maintaining a relationship with God could not have been more simple. She knew that God had created her and was (in this sense) her Father. All she had to do was to trust Him and to obey but one commandment, which was that she not eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree. Eve was naïve, and Satan took advantage of this. Satan came to Eve as a serpent and did some really smooth talking, and Eve was foolish enough to believe him. Satan convinced her to act independently of God in the pursuit of her own interests, rather than to trust God and to obey His one command. As a result, she sinned.[23]

Paul feared that something similar was taking place in Corinth. He had come to Corinth with the good news of the gospel, and many of the Corinthians had believed in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of eternal life. In this sense, Paul was the spiritual father of the saints in Corinth. The church was like a daughter to Paul, since he had betrothed these saints to the Lord Jesus. Paul wanted to present his daughter-bride to Christ in purity, but he feared that just as Eve had been deceived by a smooth talker, so these Corinthians were falling for the smooth talk[24] of the deceivers who had come into their midst. As 2 Corinthians 11 unfolds, the true identity of these smooth talkers becomes clear:

12 And what I am doing I will continue to do, so that I may eliminate any opportunity for those who want a chance to be regarded as our equals in the things they boast about. 13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their actions (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).

Paul introduced the “bride” to her husband-to-be, Jesus Christ. It was of the greatest importance for her to be pure when she was joined with Him in marriage. Paul, as the “father of the bride,” had great concerns for his daughter-bride. Smooth talkers were seeking to seduce this pure virgin and to lead her away from a simple faith in Jesus Christ alone. This is why Paul wrote his two epistles to the church at Corinth – to call her to the purity of her initial faith in Christ.

The theme of the “purity of the bride” is also taken up by Paul in Ephesians 5:

22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church—he himself being the savior of the body. 24 But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, 27 so that he may present the church to himself as glorious—not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In the same way husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one has ever hated his own body but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 for we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32 This mystery is great—but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless, each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33, underscoring mine).

Christian marriage is to be a reflection of the relationship of Christ to His church, His bride. The wife is to submit to her husband as the church is to submit to Christ (Ephesians 5:22-24). The husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the church. This love is to be sacrificial, because Christ gave Himself as a sacrifice for His bride. Christ is presently preparing His bride for the wedding we find described in the Book of Revelation. It is at this wedding that our Lord will come back, to be joined to His church as His bride. In the meantime, Christ is purifying His bride in preparation for her wedding day. So, too, husbands are to seek to promote the sanctification of their wives.

In the closing words of Ephesians 5, Paul makes a very important statement regarding marriage. He informs us that the full meaning and significance of marriage is a wonderful mystery, one which Paul has been privileged to reveal. Christian marriage is to be a picture of the union of believers to Jesus Christ. When a man and a woman come together in marriage, they become one flesh. Previous relationships change and become subordinate to the union of a husband and his wife. When a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, they are united with Christ and become a part of His bride-to-be, the church. Marriage is one of the ways that God physically and tangibly depicts the relationship of the believer to the Lord Jesus Christ. All this was a mystery until the coming of our Lord and the proclamation of the union of believers with Christ by faith.

The Husband-Wife Relationship in the Old Testament

Old Testament saints were ignorant of this mystery. Nevertheless, marriage was used as a picture of God’s relationship with the nation Israel. Instead of being a “bride-to-be,” Israel was depicted as the unfaithful “wife” of God. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of Israel’s infidelity to God in terms of a wife’s infidelity to her husband:

1 “If a man divorces his wife and she leaves him and becomes another man’s wife, he may not take her back again. Doing that would utterly defile the land. You, Israel, have given yourself as a prostitute to many gods. What, then, makes you think you can return to me?” says the Lord (Jeremiah 3:1).

31 “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new agreement with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It will not be like the old agreement that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. For they violated that agreement, even though I was a faithful husband to them,” says the Lord. 33 “But I will make a new agreement with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. And I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

God’s faithfulness in spite of Israel’s infidelity is dramatically portrayed in the Book of Hosea. God instructs Hosea to marry a woman who is a harlot. When he marries Gomer, some of her children are not fathered by Hosea, but by her lovers. For a time, Gomer is put away, but eventually she is restored. The story dramatically portrays Israel’s spiritual infidelity to God, and God’s loyal love for His people.

Another text which very graphically depicts Jerusalem’s infidelity and God’s faithfulness is found in Ezekiel 16. God describes the way in which He first found Israel, like a “dumpster baby,”[25] left in the trash to die. God had pity on this pathetic infant and spared her life. It was not because she was so beautiful, but because she was so pathetic in her need. It was God’s mercy that chose her, and nothing else. This is consistent with the origins of the nation Israel:

2 “Son of man, confront Jerusalem with her abominable practices, 3 and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. 4 As for your birth, on the day you were born, your umbilical cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water for cleansing; you were not rubbed with salt, nor wrapped with clothes. 5 No eye had pity on you to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; you were thrown out into the open field because you were detested on the day you were born’” (Ezekiel 16:2-5).

This description is true to the facts, as we can see from God’s words of instruction to the Israelite nation as they were on the brink of entering the Promised Land. God warns the Israelites about becoming proud when He prospers them by reminding them of their humble origins:

6 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. He has chosen you to be a people prized above all others on the face of the earth. 7 It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the Lord considered and chose you—for in fact you were the smallest of all peoples— 8 but because of his love for you and his faithfulness to the oath he swore to your ancestors the Lord brought you out with great power, redeeming you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8).

1 When the time comes for you to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and you occupy it and live in it, 2 you must take the first of all the ground’s produce you harvest from the land the Lord your God is giving you, place it in a basket, and go to the place where he has chosen to locate his name. 3 You must go to the priest in office at that time and say to him, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 The priest will then take the basket from you and set it before the altar of the Lord your God. 5 And you must affirm before the Lord, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor, and he went down to Egypt and lived there as a foreigner with a household few in number; but there he became a great, powerful, and numerous people” (Deuteronomy 26:1-5).

Ezekiel goes on to show how God tenderly cared for the Israelites, providing bountifully for all their needs. God gave her the finest food and clothing. When she grew up, the surrounding nations took note of her beauty. But Israel forgot her humble beginnings, and Who it was who made her beautiful. As God’s wife, she prostituted her beauty and all of the gifts God had bestowed upon her, using them to lure men as she offered herself for hire. Israel sunk so low in her sin that she went beyond harlotry – she actually paid men to be her lovers (Ezekiel 16:30-34). She even sacrificed her children to heathen idols. God warned Jerusalem that He would judge her by turning her over to her “lovers,” who would abuse her (Ezekiel 16:35-43).

Judah and Jerusalem’s guilt is even greater than that of their older sister, Samaria, or her younger sister, Sodom (see Ezekiel 16:44-59), for she looked on as the northern kingdom turned from God and observed God’s judgment upon them. Nevertheless, the people of Judah and Jerusalem persisted in their adulterous ways in spite of the lessons they should have learned from their “sisters.” In spite of all their harlotries, God promised to graciously discipline and restore Judah, and to re-unite her with Israel (Ezekiel 16:53-59).

What Does the Bride-Groom Imagery Mean to Us?

The bride-groom imagery of the Bible is a wonderful picture of the security of the children of God in their relationship with Him through faith in Jesus Christ. In our day, the permanence of marriage is far from certain. How much less certain is an engagement? But in biblical times, engagement was viewed as having the binding force of marriage. We see from Matthew 1:18-25 that Joseph could only break his engagement to Mary by divorcing her, and this he could do only on the grounds of sexual infidelity.

The wonder of the gospel message is that God chose to save us while we were impure, and to engage us, so to speak, to the Lord Jesus Christ. He did not choose us because we were pure, but rather in order to make us pure:

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; 26 that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-27).

If our salvation is our acceptance of God’s “proposal” in the gospel, sanctification is the process by which we are purified in preparation for our wedding day. Salvation is not the end of the process, but the beginning. We are being sanctified and purified here and now, to make us ready for the great marriage to the Bridegroom as described in the Book of Revelation. Those who look upon salvation as a license to sin have completely missed the point. Salvation is the commencement of the divine process of purification and preparation for marriage – to the Savior, Jesus Christ.

Our security is not based upon our perfection (toward which the sanctification process takes us), but rather is based upon His perfection. It is He Who chose us. It is He Who died on the cross of Calvary, bearing the penalty for our sins, and providing the means for our sanctification. It is because of His covenant with us and the perfections of His character that we are assured of heaven. Those who would take sin lightly need to recall the discipline of God upon wicked Israel.

The image of the church as the bride of Christ is one that portrays the eager sense of expectation that every Christian should have regarding the return of our Lord. We, the bride of Christ, should look for the day of our Lord’s return. It should be foremost in our minds. It should be our great desire. We are the bride, and our Bridegroom is soon to return for us. What could bring greater joy to us than His return?

Perhaps more than anything else, the imagery of the bride and the Bridegroom describes the believer’s relationship with God in the most intimate and passionate terms possible. There is no human relationship more intimate than that of a husband and wife. There is no love more passionate than the love of husband and wife. The Song of Solomon speaks of this love and intimacy, so much so that we are reluctant to read some portions of this book publicly.

This intimacy and passion is one of the many ways in which Christianity stands head and shoulders above any other religion (not to mention the fact that faith in Christ alone is the only true religion). One kind of religion assures us that we will ourselves become gods, like Jesus “became” god. Some religions view heaven as a mere continuation of the pleasures of this life, with virgins waiting for us if we are faithful enough. Most religions view their relationship with God in terms of fear. They view God as harsh and capricious. They can never be certain that they have done enough to earn their salvation. God is not a God with whom you can enter into an intimate fellowship, but one from whom you must keep your distance. While God is wholly “other,” and cannot look upon sin, He is also the God Who cleanses us from sin so that we may become one with Him. The Christian faith is one that calls for believers to draw near, not to draw back:

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:19-25).

Heaven is the place where God draws near to us, where we will live forever in intimate fellowship with Him:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more. 2 And I saw the holy city—the new Jerusalem—descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among men and women. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:1-3, emphasis mine).

This is not to say that we cannot enjoy great intimacy with our Lord here and now:

16 Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you. 19 In a little while the world will not see me any longer, but you will see me; because I live, you will live too. 20 You will know at that time that I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you. 21 The person who has my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will reveal myself to him.” 22 “Lord,” Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “what has happened that you are going to reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” 23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and take up residence with him” (John 14:16-23).

When you think about it, the bride-groom imagery of the Bible underscores the submission of the church to her Lord and also her dependence on the Lord. When a young woman marries a man, she leaves her old life behind, even more than the man does. She now finds her identity in relation to her husband. Her last name changes (at least usually). She takes on his identity; he does not take on hers. She becomes dependent upon him for her daily needs, and he is obliged to provide for her. So also we, as the bride of Christ, now find a new identity in Him, and we look to Him for all of our needs.

If there is anything that sticks out in the Bible regarding the imagery of the bride and the Bridegroom, it is that the glory belongs to the Groom. It is the Groom (Jesus Christ) Who chose us to be a part of the bride (John 15:16). It is the Groom Who laid down His life to purchase the bride (Ephesians 5:25). It is the Groom Who is working to perfect and purify the bride, so that He may present her to Himself (Ephesians 5:26). The glory goes to the Groom.

It is interesting how, in our culture at least, too much attention is drawn to the bride, rather than to the groom. The groom rents a tuxedo; the bride buys an expensive wedding dress. How many wedding pictures feature the groom, as opposed to the bride?

I was privileged to participate in the wedding ceremony of Robert and Adria Warner some time ago. One of the unique things they decided to do (apart from my prompting) was to strive to put the emphasis where it should go. Instead of the bride coming down the aisle to meet the groom at the front of the room, Robert went to the back to bring his bride down to the front. It was he who sought out his bride, just as our Lord sought us out. Every effort was made to make the groom prominent, rather than incidental, in the ceremony, because it is our Lord Who is prominent in relation to the bride.

20 Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, 21 to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21, emphasis mine).

Conclusion

Let me conclude by pointing out a few areas of application. First, have you given sufficient thought to the privilege of being a part of the bride of Christ? Is it not a marvelous thing to know that Jesus Christ loves you and wants you to live with Him forever? That assumes, of course, that you have accepted His “proposal” – the offer of salvation through faith in Him. He died on the cross of Calvary to bear the penalty for your sins. He rose from the dead, so that you might have new life in Him. The gospel is the good news that God has offered you the proposal of an eternal relationship with His Son. Have you received that offer? If so, are you eagerly awaiting His return? Are you cooperating in the purification process in preparation for the great marriage that is yet to come?

Second, do you understand why the way you conduct yourself in your marriage is so important to God? Can you see why God hates divorce? God wants every Christian marriage to be a picture of the relationship of Jesus Christ to His bride, the church. Every time we fail to obey God in the way we conduct ourselves in our marriage, we convey a warped and distorted picture of the gospel, and this is a most serious offense. Let us grasp the fact that our view of the church should transform our view of marriage.

Third, thinking of the bride-groom relationship helps me to better understand our Lord’s words to us from the Book of Revelation:

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write the following: “This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who has a firm grasp on the seven stars in his right hand—the one who walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 ‘I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false. 3 I am also aware that you have persisted steadfastly, endured much for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you: You have departed from your first love! 5 Therefore, remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—that is, if you do not repent. 6 But you do have this going for you: You hate what the Nicolaitans practice—practices I also hate. 7 The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will permit him to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God’” (Revelation 2:1-7, emphasis mine).

Have we lost that “first love,” the kind of love that a bride has for the man she is soon to marry – the kind of love that yearns to spend time with Him, and to proclaim that love to others. Let us ask God to give us the kind of love that yearns to spend time with Him and to proclaim that love to others.

Finally, I cannot conclude this lesson without calling attention to one of the great tragedies of our time. Several years ago, the State of Vermont legalized the civil union of same sex couples. In June of this year, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a Texas law prohibiting sodomy. And just recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that their state constitution requires the state to allow gay marriages. Knowing what marriage is to signify, it is not really surprising that Satan would attack the institution of marriage. And attack he has! Marriage is not only under attack in the courts and legislatures of our land; it is under attack in our own homes. Let us look to the Bridegroom to give us the grace to preserve and to protect marriage, to the glory of God.

Let me press this one step further. It is not only marriage that is under attack by Satan and our culture; so is the period of engagement. Some feel that engagement legitimizes premarital sex. This is not consistent with the picture of the bride-to-be of the Bible. Let us protect and preserve the sanctity of engagement, as well as marriage, to the glory of God.

Lesson 4 — The Good Shepherd and the Flock of God[26]

Introduction

When our niece came to live with us several years ago, she had never really had a dog of her own. As she began to watch for dogs in the paper, she became particularly interested in Australian Shepherds as a breed. One day she saw an ad for a puppy that caught her attention, and we agreed to drive out to the country to look at it. “Now, we’re only going to look, Uncle Bob,” she said. “After we’ve had time to think about it, if we decide to buy it, then you can begin to bargain with the owner.” You see, my niece had been with us long enough to observe me in the process of buying a couple of cars. From her limited observation, she was convinced that I could buy almost anything for half of what the owner was asking, and she was certain I could strike the same kind of bargain with the owner of this pup.

We made our way out into the country where the breeder lived, and he invited us into his home. We learned that the man had just the one pup left. He went outside and brought the pup into the house. My niece was sitting on the floor, and the pup immediately ran over to her and plopped in her lap. “I’ll take him,” I said, grabbing for my wallet. Without so much as a hint of dickering, I paid the man exactly what he was asking. She called him “Billy Boy,” or “Bill” for short; I (at times) called him “Big Bopper.” And he certainly did fit the “big” part – he came to weigh 70 pounds. Sometimes in the night, I experienced all 70 pounds of the “Big Bopper” when he would leap unannounced onto the bed in one single bound.

Eventually, “Billy Boy” and our niece moved to the Pacific Northwest, and he now lives on a small ranch, along with a small flock of sheep – a sheep dog’s version of heaven. One thing I’ve noticed about sheep dogs is that they really don’t seem to care for sheep all that much. From my experience, it’s all about dominance. Sheep dogs like to “herd” (as in “boss around”) almost anything … children (if there are enough of them), ducks, cows, you name it. It’s a contest between the dog’s will and the determination of the animal being herded. The sheep dog locks eyes with whatever creature he is seeking to control. If that isn’t intimidating enough, he will rush toward the animal. And if that isn’t sufficient, the dog is not above a little nip in the backside or on the hoof to make its point.

Sheep dogs are very effective, but in my limited experience, they are nothing like a shepherd. In this lesson, we are going to study the church by turning our attention to the biblical imagery of a shepherd and his flock, or more precisely the “Good Shepherd” and His flock, the church. This lesson is important, not only because it helps us to understand how God leads us, but also because it instructs us how we should lead if we are to be like God. Let us listen well, then, to what the Bible teaches us about the Good Shepherd and His sheep.

The Shepherd and His Flock: An Easy Image to Comprehend

One of the most common images in the Bible is that of the shepherd and his sheep. Even if we have not grown up on a farm, we should have little trouble grasping this imagery, because it is so commonly spoken of in the Bible.

We should remember that God’s chosen people were shepherds. Abraham was a keeper of sheep (Genesis 13:3). As a matter of fact, Abraham was so successful that he and Lot had to split up, because they could not sustain both of their herds in the same grazing areas (Genesis 13:7). Jacob, too, was a shepherd, and this is how he became wealthy while working for Laban, caring for his flocks (Genesis 30:43). When Jacob and his family went to join Joseph in Egypt, they were shepherds, which is part of the reason why the Egyptians avoided intermarrying with the Hebrews (Genesis 46:33-34; 43:32). If Judah married a Canaanite and allowed his sons to do likewise (Genesis 38), it would not have been long until the tribe of Judah (from which the Messiah would come – Genesis 49:8-10) would have ceased to exist as a distinct tribe, due to their intermarriage with the Canaanites. Since the Egyptians loathed shepherds, they would not (with the possible exception of Mrs. Potiphar – Genesis 39) have considered intermarrying with the Hebrews.

The Shepherd and His Flock in the Bible: A Model for Leaders

Shepherding is an image that pertains to ruling, to a leader (or shepherd) exercising authority over a group of people (his flock). This is clearly indicated in both the Old and the New Testaments. You will remember the story of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, Ahab, king of Israel, and Micaiah the prophet of God in 1 Kings 22. Ahab wanted Jehoshaphat to join him in battle against Syria. Jehoshaphat wanted divine confirmation that this was truly God’s will, and the theatrical production of the 400 prophets of Ahab failed to convince Jehoshaphat. And so Micaiah was called for a “second opinion.” Micaiah warned Jehoshaphat against this military alliance and informed Ahab that if he were to go to war against Syria, it would cost him his life. Notice the imagery he uses to describe the death of Ahab, king of Israel:

17 Micaiah said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep that have no shepherd. Then the Lord said, ‘They have no master. They should go home in peace’” (1 Kings 22:17, emphasis mine).[27]

In His earthly ministry our Lord expressed great compassion for the people because they lacked spiritual leadership. He described the plight of the people in “shepherding” terms:

36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were bewildered and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).

To be a shepherd over a flock is thus to be a leader over a group of people. It is little wonder, then, that David saw his relationship to God as that of a sheep to its shepherd:

1 The Lord is my shepherd,

I lack nothing.

2 He takes me to lush pastures,

he leads me to refreshing water.

3 He restores my strength.

He leads me down the right paths for the sake of his reputation.

4 Even when I must walk through a dark ravine,

I fear no danger, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff keep me calm (Psalm 23:1-4).

God’s relationship to the nation Israel was likened to that of a shepherd and his flock; God was Israel’s Shepherd, and the people were His flock:

Yet he brought out his people like sheep;

he led them through the wilderness like a flock (Psalm 78:52).

6 Come! Let’s bow down and worship!

Let’s kneel before the Lord, our creator!

7 For he is our God; we are the people of his pasture,

the sheep he owns.

Today, if only you would obey him! (Psalm 95:6-7)

Realize that the Lord is God!

He made us and we belong to him;

we are his people, the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100:3).

The imagery of a shepherd and his flock thus provided a picture of the way God cared for His people, and thus this imagery also serves as a model for human leaders. God cares for His people as a shepherd cares for his flock. Human leaders are likewise to rule over men as a shepherd tends his flock. I believe we can safely infer that God prepared Moses to lead the Israelites by first having him serve as a shepherd in the wilderness for 40 years (cf. Exodus 2 and 3). God likewise prepared David for leadership by his experience as a shepherd in the days of his youth.

8 “So now, say this to my servant David: ‘This is what the Lord of hosts says: “I took you from the pasture and from your work as a shepherd to make you a leader of my people Israel”’” (2 Samuel 7:8; see also 1 Chronicles 17:7).

70 He chose David, his servant,

and took him from the sheepfolds.

71 He took him away from following the mother sheep,

and made him the shepherd of Jacob, his people,

and of Israel, his chosen nation.

72 David cared for them with pure motives;

He led them with skill (Psalm 78:70-72).

When David spoke of going to battle against Goliath, his oldest brother mocked him by referring to his seemingly insignificant service as a shepherd:

28 When his oldest brother Eliab heard him speaking to the men, he became angry with David and said, “Why have you come down here? To whom did you entrust those few sheep in the desert? I am familiar with your pride and deceit. You have come down here to watch the battle!” (1 Samuel 17:28)

David saw this situation with Goliath and the armies of Israel in a very different way. It was his experience as a shepherd that gave him the confidence to challenge Goliath. He was confident of this because of the way God had empowered him to care for his “little flock” of sheep:

33 But Saul replied to David, “You aren’t able to go against this Philistine and fight him! You’re just a boy! He has been a warrior from his youth!” 34 David replied to Saul, “Your servant has been a shepherd for his father’s flock. Whenever a lion or bear would come and carry off a sheep from the flock, 35 I would go out after it, strike it down, and rescue the sheep from its mouth. If it rose up against me, I would grab it by its jaw, strike it, and kill it. 36 Your servant has struck down both the lion and the bear. This uncircumcised Philistine will be just like one of them. For he has defied the armies of the living God!” 37 David went on to say, “The Lord who delivered me from the lion and the bear will also deliver me from the hand of this Philistine!” Then Saul said to David, “Go. The Lord will be with you.” 38 Then Saul clothed David with his own fighting attire and put a bronze helmet on his head. He also put body armor on him (1 Samuel 17:33-38).

To be a good leader was to be a good shepherd. The same principles that guided David as the shepherd of a little flock prompted David to step forward in the face of Goliath’s ranting. Just as David must have seen his little flock terrorized by a bear or a lion, so he saw the armies of Israel terrorized by the Philistines, and Goliath in particular. God had given David the strength to care for his flock, and God would surely give David the strength to care for this larger flock, by attacking the one who threatened them.

The shepherding model not only encouraged David to stand up against Goliath, it also served Nathan well when rebuking David for his abuse of power as Israel’s king. When David sinned against God by taking Bathsheba and killing her husband, Uriah, God confronted him through the prophet Nathan. Nathan got David’s attention by telling him a story that would have touched the heart of any good shepherd:

1 So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, Nathan said, “There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a great many flocks and herds. 3 But the poor man had nothing except for a little lamb he had acquired. He raised it, and it grew up alongside him and his children. It used to eat his food, drink from his cup, and sleep in his arms. It was just like a daughter to him. 4 “When a traveler came to the rich man, he did not want to use one of his own sheep or cattle to feed the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and fed it to the man who had come to him.” 5 Then David became very angry at this man. He said to Nathan, “As surely the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! 6 Because he committed this cold-hearted crime, he must pay for the lamb four times over.” 7 Nathan said to David, “You are that man! This is what the Lord God of Israel says: ‘I chose you to be king over Israel and I rescued you from the hand of Saul. 8 I gave you your master’s house, and put your master’s wives into your arms. I also gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all that somehow seems insignificant, I would have given you so much more as well! 9 Why have you shown contempt for the word of the Lord by doing evil in my sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and you have taken his wife as your own. You have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 So now the sword will never depart from your house. For you have despised me by taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own.’ 11 This is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to bring disaster on you from inside your own house. Right before your eyes I will take your wives and hand them over to your companion. He will have sexual relations with your wives in broad daylight. 12 Although you have acted in secret, I will do this thing before all Israel, and in broad daylight’” (2 Samuel 12:1-12).

As you well know, through this story Nathan got the point across, and David repented of his sin (see Psalm 51). Later, David sinned by numbering the people. When God gave David his choice of punishment, David responded with the heart of a true shepherd:

17 David said to God, “Was I not the one who decided to number the army? I am the one who sinned and committed this awful deed! As for these sheep, what have they done? O Lord my God, attack me and my family, but remove the plague from your people!” (1 Chronicles 21:17)

The shepherd model became the standard for all leaders. God used shepherd imagery to describe the abuses of power that characterized Israel’s leaders. Because of their sins, the leaders of Israel would lose their flocks and lose their positions of leadership over the people of God:

18 The Lord told me, “Tell the king and the queen mother, ‘Come down from your thrones. That is because your glorious crowns will be removed from your heads. 19 The gates of the towns in southern Judah will be shut tight. No one will be able to go in or out of them. All Judah will be carried off into exile. They will be completely carried off into exile.’” 20 Then I said, “Look up, Jerusalem, and see the enemy that is coming from the north. Where is the flock of people that were entrusted to your care? Where are the ‘sheep’ that you take such pride in? 21 What will you say when the Lord appoints as rulers over you those allies that you, yourself, had actually prepared as such? Then anguish and agony will grip you like that of a woman giving birth to a baby” (Jeremiah 13:18-21, emphasis mine).

1 The Lord says, “The leaders of my people are sure to be judged. They were supposed to watch over my people like shepherds watch over their sheep. But they are causing my people to be destroyed and scattered. 2 So the Lord God of Israel has this to say about the leaders who are ruling over his people: “You have caused my people to be dispersed and driven into exile. You have not taken care of them. So I will punish you for the evil that you have done. I, the Lord, affirm it” (Jeremiah 23:1-2, emphasis mine).

1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not shepherds feed the flock? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the choice animals; but you do not feed the sheep! 4 You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the broken, brought back the strayed, nor sought the lost; but with force and harshness you have ruled over them. 5 They were scattered because they had no shepherd; and when they were scattered they became food for every wild beast. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, but there was no one to seek or search for them. 7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my sheep have become a prey, and have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd and my shepherds did not search for my flock, but fed themselves and did not feed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep from their hand. I will make them stop feeding sheep; the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore. I will deliver my sheep from their mouth, so that they will no longer be food for them’” (Ezekiel 34:1-10, emphasis mine).

God not only condemned Jewish leaders for their injustice and oppression; He also judged other rulers for abusing their position and power. While the term “shepherd” is not used in Daniel 4, I think we can see that God disciplined and humbled the mighty Nebuchadnezzar because of his oppressive leadership:

24 “This is the interpretation, O king. It is the decision of the Most High that this has happened to my lord the king. 25 You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and you will become damp with the dew of the sky. Seven times will pass by for you, before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes. 26 Now in that they said to leave a taproot of the tree, your kingdom will be restored to you when you come to understand that heaven rules. 27 Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you. Break away from your sins by doing acts of righteousness, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps your prosperity will be prolonged.” 28 Now all of this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 After twelve months, he happened to be walking around on top of the walls of the royal palace of Babylon. 30 The king uttered these words: “Is this not the great Babylon that I have built for a royal residence by my own mighty strength and for my majestic honor?” 31 While these words were still on the king’s lips, a voice came down from heaven: “It is hereby announced to you, King Nebuchadnezzar, that your kingdom has been removed from you! 32 You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and seven times will pass by for you before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes.” 33 Now in that very moment this pronouncement came true with Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from human society, he ate grass like oxen, and his body became damp with the dew of the sky, until his hair became long like an eagle’s feathers, and his nails like a bird’s claws. 34 But at the end of the appointed time I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up toward heaven, and my sanity returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and I praised and glorified the one who lives forever. For his rule is an everlasting rule, and his kingdom extends from one generation to the next. 35 All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he wishes with the army of heaven and with those who inhabit the earth. No one slaps his hand and says to him, ‘What have you done?’ 36 At that time my sanity returned to me. I was restored to the honor of my kingdom, and my splendor returned to me. My ministers and my magistrates were seeking me out, and I was reinstated over my kingdom. Tremendous greatness was restored to me, greater than before. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, for all his deeds are right and his ways are just. He is able to bring low those who live in pride (Daniel 4:24-37, emphasis mine).

God also judged the leaders of Assyria and Babylon for their cruelty against God’s people. This time He did use the shepherding model as the basis for His rebuke:

1 The Lord spoke concerning Babylon and the land of Babylonia through the prophet Jeremiah. He said: 2 “Announce the news among the nations! Proclaim it! Signal for people to pay attention! Declare the news! Don’t hide it! Say, ‘Babylon will be captured. Bel will be put to shame. Marduk will be dismayed. Babylon’s idols will be put to shame. Her disgusting images will be dismayed. 3 For a nation from the north will attack Babylon. It will lay her land waste. People and animals will flee out of it. No one will live in it.’ 4 “When that time comes,” says the Lord, “the people of Israel and Judah will return to the land together. They will be coming back with tears of repentance as they seek renewed relations with the Lord their God. 5 They will ask the way to Zion, and turn their faces toward it. They will come and bind themselves to the Lord in a lasting agreement that will never be forgotten. 6 “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have let them go astray. They have wandered around in the mountains. They have roamed from one mountain and hill to another. They have forgotten their resting place. 7 All who encountered them devoured them. Their enemies who did this said, ‘We’re not liable for punishment! For those people have sinned against the Lord, their True Pasture. They have sinned against the Lord in whom their ancestors trusted.’… 17 “The people of Israel are like scattered sheep which lions have chased away. First the king of Assyria devoured them. Now last of all King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has gnawed their bones. 18 So, I, the Lord God of Israel who rules over all, say, ‘I will punish the king of Babylon and his land just as I punished the king of Assyria. 19 But I will restore the flock that is Israel to their own pasture. They will graze on Mount Carmel and in the land of Bashan. They will eat until they are full on the hills of Ephraim and in the land of Gilead. 20 When that time comes, no guilt will be found in Israel. No sin will be found in Judah. For I will forgive those of them I have left alive. I, the Lord, affirm it’” (Jeremiah 50:1-7, 17-20, emphasis mine).

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection is able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

[2] The same argument is employed by Paul in Romans 8. In chapter 7, Paul demonstrated from his own experience the agony of the Christian who seeks to live the Christian life in his own strength. The fact is that we are overpowered by sin, and the reason is that our flesh is weak. Paul concludes with these agonizing words, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) The answer comes in chapter 8: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is your life because of righteousness. Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:8-11). The Spirit Who raised the dead body of Jesus from the grave is the same Spirit who indwells the Christian, and Who gives life to our dead bodies, thus enabling us to live in a way that pleases God.

[3] We must keep 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 in mind, for here Paul tells us that once everything is subjected to the Son, He hands it all over to the Father, as the Son, Who is submissive to the Father.

[4] I am utterly baffled by the theology of contemporary Christian songs which speak of our Lord dying on the cross of Calvary because He could not bear the thought of living without us. How arrogant. Salvation is not nearly so much about us as it is about God. As Paul said elsewhere, all things (which surely includes salvation) are from Him, through Him, and to Him (Romans 11:36).

[5] Philip Yancey, Church: Why Bother? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), pp. 37-38.

[6] Copyright © 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 2 in the A Study of the Church series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on November 16, 2003.

[7] See Ephesians 1:9-10; 5:32.

[8] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

[9] One must bear in mind here the words of Paul in Galatians 3:16.

[10] These seem to be rare exceptions, as was the fascinating “meal” the leaders of Israel had with God in Exodus 24:9-11.

[11] To my knowledge, there is no specific reference to the glory of the Lord departing from the temple, but we would have to assume this.

[12] In the NASB, we find “My Spirit is abiding in your midst” in Haggai 2:5.

[13] I am reminded of Asaph’s protest in Psalm 73. How could God be good to Israel if the wicked were prospering and the righteous were suffering? Asaph learned the answer when he came to the sanctuary of God (73:17). God was not with the wicked in their prosperity, but rather was with Asaph in his adversity (see 73:21-28).

[14] Some might wish to debate whether or not Acts 8 is a truly “pentecostal” event. I think it is safe to assume that these Samaritan believers spoke in tongues as we read in Acts 2, 10, and 19. Otherwise, why would Simon have sought to purchase the power to bestow the Spirit as he did (Acts 8:17-24)?

[15] I do not believe that Apollos and Peter (Cephas) were the real troublemakers. Paul seems to use these names, while referring in reality to others (see 1 Corinthians 4:6).

[16] There is a personal application to this as well, for we are, as individual believers, the temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul spells out the personal application in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. Here in 2 Corinthians 6, Paul is talking about the corporate indwelling of the Spirit in the church and the implications of this.

[17] It is my understanding that many of Paul’s opponents – who appealed to some of the Corinthian saints – were Jewish. This is particularly clear in 2 Corinthians 11:22ff. There is a Jewish element among those who are exposed by Paul in his Pastoral Epistles (see, for example, 1 Timothy 1:3-11; Titus 1:14).

[18] I include verse 8 because I think it is directly related to verse 9. If Jesus Christ is the same and doesn’t change, ever, then there is no need for “new” and novel teachings (verse 9).

[19] Copyright © 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 3 in the A Study of the Church series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on November 30, 2003.

[20] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

[21] See http://www.bible.org/docs/ot/books/pro/deffin/prov-04.htm

[22] We find Peter speaking of “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13, which may not refer to a literal Babylon, but rather to a city that has some of the ungodly characteristics of Babylon. In Revelation 11:8, the great city is “symbolically called Sodom and Egypt.”

[23] The case with Adam is somewhat different, because he was not deceived (1 Timothy 2:14). Knowing Eve had sinned, Adam willfully chose to disobey God, and thus to stand (or rather to fall) with his wife.

[24] Compare 1 Corinthians 2:1; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2.

[25] Just recently in Dallas, Texas, another abandoned baby was found in a trash dumpster. Fortunately, the baby was alive and in good health.

[26] Copyright © 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 4 in the A Study of the Church series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on December 7, 2003

[27] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

The Promise of the Good Shepherd

Israel’s leaders were a great disappointment. The patriarchs were far from perfect. Even the best of Israel’s leaders had feet of clay. Moses’ failure as a leader kept him from entering the Promised Land.[1] David abused his powers as king when he sinned by taking Bathsheba and killing Uriah.[2] His leadership with his family was flawed,[3] and his last days as king were not his finest.[4] Eli[5] and Samuel[6] were great men, but their leadership, especially in regard to their families, was far from exemplary. Even the great prophet Elijah sought to resign from his ministry, and from life itself.[7] Solomon’s early years as king were awe inspiring, but his later life was in shambles.[8] In the end, there was no perfect leader throughout the history of Israel.

How, then, could any human king ever fulfill all of God’s promises and Israel’s hopes for a coming king who would sit, forever, on the throne of David as promised in 2 Samuel 7:12-13? When the Old Testament prophets spoke out against the wicked leaders of their day, they spoke words of hope concerning a “Good Shepherd,” Who would someday come and tenderly rule over His people:

1 The Lord says, “The leaders of my people are sure to be judged. They were supposed to watch over my people like shepherds watch over their sheep. But they are causing my people to be destroyed and scattered. 2 So the Lord God of Israel has this to say about the leaders who are ruling over his people: “You have caused my people to be dispersed and driven into exile. You have not taken care of them. So I will punish you for the evil that you have done. I, the Lord, affirm it. 3 Then I myself will regather those of my people who are still left alive from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their homeland. They will greatly increase in number. 4 I will install rulers over them who will care for them. Then they will no longer need to fear or be terrified. None of them will turn up missing. I, the Lord, promise it. 5 “I, the Lord, promise that a new time will certainly come when I will raise up for them a righteous descendant of David. He will rule over them with wisdom and understanding and will do what is just and right in the land. 6 Under his rule Judah will enjoy safety and Israel will live in security. This is the name he will go by: ‘The Lord has provided us with justice’” (Jeremiah 23:1-6, emphasis mine).

10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep from their hand. I will make them stop feeding sheep; the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore. I will deliver my sheep from their mouth, so that they will no longer be food for them. 11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my flock. I will deliver them from all the places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from foreign countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams and all the inhabited places of the land. 14 In a good pasture I will feed them, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their pasture. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I will feed my sheep and I will make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy—I will feed them with judgment… . 23 I will set up one shepherd over them, and he will feed them—namely, my servant David. He will feed them and will be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be prince over them; I, the Lord, have spoken. 25 “‘I will make a covenant of peace with them and will rid the land of wild beasts, so that they can live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. 26 I will make them and the regions around my hill a blessing; and I will make showers come down in their season; they will be showers of blessing. 27 The trees of the field will yield their fruit and the earth will yield its crops. They will live on their land securely; and they will know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them. 28 They will no longer be prey for the nations and the wild beasts will not devour them; they will live in security and no one will make them afraid. 29 I will establish for them a renowned planting place, and they will no longer be victims of famine in the land and will no longer bear the insults of the nations. 30 They will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, my people, are the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord. 31 And you, my sheep, are the sheep of my pasture, you are people, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord’” (Ezekiel 34:10-16, 23-31).

12 I will certainly gather all of you, O Jacob, I will certainly assemble those Israelites who remain. I will bring them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in the middle of a pasture; and there will be so many of them they will make a great deal of noise. 13 The one who can break through barriers will lead them out they will break out, pass through the gate, and leave. Their king will advance before them, The Lord himself will lead them (Micah 2:12-13, emphasis mine).

We can see from the prophecies above that the Good Shepherd would be God Himself. The wonder of it all was that the Good Shepherd would Himself become a lamb, on Whom the sins of the world would be placed:

5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed. 6 All of us had wandered off like sheep; each of us had strayed off on his own path, but the Lord caused the sin of all of us to attack him. 7 He was treated harshly and afflicted, but he did not even open his mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughtering block, like a sheep silent before her shearers, he did not even open his mouth. 8 He was led away after an unjust trial— but who even cared? Indeed, he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded. 9 They intended to bury him with criminals, but he ended up in a rich man’s tomb, because he had committed no violent deeds, nor had he spoken deceitfully. 10 Though the Lord desired to crush him and make him ill, once restitution is made, he will see descendants and enjoy long life, and the Lord’s purpose will be accomplished through him (Isaiah 53:5-10, emphasis mine).

Jesus Is the Good Shepherd

The One of whom Isaiah spoke was none other than our Lord Jesus Christ, the “Lamb of God,” Who came to bear the penalty for our sins:

On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29, emphasis mine)

21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may leave sin behind and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:21-25).

In John 9, we read of our Lord healing the man born blind, something that had apparently never happened before (1 John 9:32-33). The Jewish religious leaders first attempted to prove that the man claiming to have received his sight was not really who he claimed to be. When this failed, they sought to explain the miracle in some way that did not acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah. In the end, these leaders excommunicated the healed man for believing Jesus was someone who came from God (9:33-34). The transition from the end of chapter 9 to the beginning of chapter 10 is really seamless. I take it, then, that chapter 10 is closely related to chapter 9. Is John not underscoring the fact that the Jewish religious leaders are really “evil shepherds,” as is evident in their response to the man who was healed,[9] and to Jesus, the Messiah?

In contrast to these “evil shepherds” in chapter 9, Jesus proclaims Himself to be the “Good Shepherd” in John 10.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand who is not a shepherd and does not own sheep, sees the wolf coming and abandons the sheep and runs away. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 Because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep, he runs away. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:11-16, emphasis mine).

The “Good Shepherd” cares for His sheep, so much so that He will lay down His life for them. He cares for the sheep because they are His sheep. And because they are His sheep, He knows them, and they know Him. They recognize His voice, and they follow Him. Ultimately, the Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. Notice how this text also indicates that the “Good Shepherd” has “other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold” (10:16). What a beautiful way to describe the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s flock!

Before the “Good Shepherd” ascended to heaven, He provided for the on-going care of His flock by appointing men as under shepherds:

15 Then when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these do?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus told him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus said a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus told him, “Shepherd my sheep.” 17 Jesus said a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” and said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17, emphasis mine).

Who better than Peter to address those whom God had appointed as shepherds over God’s flock?

1 So as your fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: 2 Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. 3 And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock. 4 Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away (1 Peter 5:1-4, emphasis mine).

Jesus had earlier warned of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15-23), and so does the apostle Paul. Paul’s parting words to the Ephesian elders, like our Lord’s words to Peter in John 21, instruct elders to fulfill their calling as shepherds by protecting God’s sheep from false teachers:

28 “Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them” (Acts 20:28-30, emphasis mine).

When our Lord returns, He will do so as a shepherd (among other things), separating the “sheep” from the “goats,” separating true believers from those who are not.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Matthew 25:31-34, emphasis mine).[10]

Conclusion

What are we intended to learn from the imagery of the Good Shepherd and the flock of God? First of all, we learn something about ourselves, as sheep. I must warn you that it is not a very flattering image. Sheep are not all that smart. They seem prone to trouble. They are easily led astray. They are vulnerable to wolves and other animals (who would gladly make a meal of them).

Whether we like it or not, sheep are often destined to die. I am reminded of Charlotte’s Webb, a book which my grandchildren have read and watched as a video, and of Wilber the pig. What a shock it was for Wilber to learn that pigs became bacon and ham and pork chops! Sheep, too, are often destined for slaughter:

You handed us over like sheep to be eaten;

you scattered us among the nations (Psalm 44:11).

Yet because of you we are killed all day long;

we are treated like sheep at the slaughtering block (Psalm 44:22; see Romans 8:36).

The best thing about being a sheep is that we belong to the “Good Shepherd.” Sheep belong to the Shepherd, who owns them. Under His care, they are tenderly looked after, and all of their needs are met. As David put it, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing” (Psalm 23:1). He leads us; He protects us, and He goes after us when we wander too far from Him. And best of all, He gave His life for the sheep, so that we might have eternal life.

The wonderful thing about this imagery of a shepherd and his flock is that it depicts the tender way God leads His own, His flock. Think of it, the all-powerful, all-wise God could rule over mere men any way He chose. I remember a particular seminar I taught in one of the Texas state prisons. One inmate was really large and muscular. He had many scars on his body, proof that he had seen his share of conflict, and his front teeth had all been knocked out. I had never heard “Amazing Grace” sung toothless before that seminar. But my friend Dick introduced this fellow by saying, “Here’s Mo. He’s going to sing for us. Let’s see, what is he going to sing? Anything he wants!”

Mo was big enough that he usually got his way. God is infinitely bigger. Who could resist if He chose to rule over men as a cosmic tyrant? And yet He has chosen to lead His own people as a shepherd tends his flock. He loves His church as a groom loves his bride. He leads His church as a shepherd tends his flock. There is no other kind of leadership I would rather be under than that of the Good Shepherd.

 

The invitation of the gospel is that we submit ourselves to the leadership of the Good Shepherd, Who became the Lamb of God to bear the penalty for our sins. The gospel is an invitation to submit ourselves to the Great Shepherd of the sheep (Hebrews 13:20). What a gracious and tender invitation the gospel is:

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:28-30).

All Christian leaders are to follow the example of our Lord and to lead as shepherds. This was the kind of leader Paul was. What a contrast there is between Paul’s leadership and those who loved to flex their muscles and abuse their authority:

18 Since many are boasting according to human standards, I too will boast. 19 For since you are so wise, you put up with fools gladly. 20 For you put up with it if someone makes slaves of you, if someone exploits you, if someone takes advantage of you, if someone behaves arrogantly toward you, if someone strikes you in the face. 21 (To my disgrace I must say that we were too weak for that!) But whatever anyone else dares to boast about (I am speaking foolishly), I also dare to boast about the same thing. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am talking like I am out of my mind!) I am even more so: with much greater labors, with far more imprisonments, with more severe beatings, facing death many times. 24 Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with a rod. Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. 26 I have been on journeys many times, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, 27 in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing. 28 Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not burn with indignation? 30 If I must boast, I will boast about the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is blessed forever, knows I am not lying. 32 In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to arrest me, 33 but I was let down in a rope-basket through a window in the city wall, and escaped his hands (2 Corinthians 11:18-33).

The “false apostles” led in a very different way. They abused their authority and those who submitted to it (11:20). Their gullible followers confused domination and dictatorial edicts with apostolic authority. Paul’s authority was that of God’s Word, and his authority as an apostle was demonstrated by the suffering and sacrifice he made to carry out his mission. Paul not only led as a shepherd, but as a father, and as a nursing mother:

5 For we never appeared with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is our witness— 6 nor to seek glory from people, either from you or from others, 7 although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ. But we became little children among you. Like a nursing mother caring for her own children, 8 with such affection for you, we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. 9 For you recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery: By working night and day so as not to impose a burden on any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, as to how holy and righteous and blameless our conduct was toward you who believe. 11 As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his own children, 12 exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you live in a way worthy of God who calls you to his own kingdom and his glory (1 Thessalonians 2:5-12, emphasis mine).

Here is the leadership style we should practice:

25 But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 26 It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

24 And the Lord’s slave must not be a fighter but kind toward all, an apt teacher, patient, 25 correcting opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance and then knowledge of the truth 26 and they will come to their senses and escape the devil’s trap where they are held captive to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26, emphasis mine).

It is the leadership style of our Lord, the Good Shepherd. The question is, “Are you one of His flock?” In John 10, Jesus told us how we may know who the Good Shepherd is, and who His sheep are:

1 “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The doorkeeper opens the door for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought all his own sheep out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice. 5 They will never follow a stranger, but will run away from him, because they do not recognize the stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus told them this parable, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So Jesus said to them again, “I tell you the solemn truth, I am the door for the sheep. 8 All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly. 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand who is not a shepherd and does not own sheep, sees the wolf coming and abandons the sheep and runs away. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 Because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep, he runs away. 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:1-16).

As I close, I must warn you that while our Lord’s relationship to His church (those who have trusted in Him for the forgiveness of sins) is that of a Good Shepherd to His flock, the church, this image does not describe our Lord’s relationship to those who have rejected Him and His offer of salvation:

10 Look, the sovereign Lord comes as a victorious warrior; his military power establishes his rule. Look, his reward is with him; his prize goes before him. 11 Like a shepherd he tends his flock; he gathers up the lambs with his arm; he carries them close to his chest; he leads the ewes along (Isaiah 40:10-11).

Those who follow Jesus as the Good Shepherd know Him as a shepherd, but those who reject Jesus as the Good Shepherd will experience His coming in a very different way.

9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow —in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11).

1 Why do the nations cause a commotion?

Why are the countries devising plots that will fail?

2 The kings of the earth form a united front;

the rulers collaborate against the Lord and his chosen king.

3 They say, “Let’s tear off the shackles they’ve put on us!

Let’s free ourselves from their ropes!”

4 The one enthroned in heaven laughs in disgust;

the sovereign Master taunts them.

5 Then he angrily speaks to them and terrifies them in his rage.

6 He says, “I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

7 The king says, “I will tell you what the Lord decreed.

He said to me: ‘You are my son!

This very day I have become your father!

8 You have only to ask me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,

the ends of the earth as your personal property.

9 You will break them with an iron scepter;

you will smash them as if they were a potter’s jar.’”

10 So now, you kings, do what is wise!

You rulers of the earth, submit to correction!

11 Serve the Lord in fear!

Repent in terror!

12 Give sincere homage! Otherwise he will be angry,

and you will die because of your behavior,

when his anger quickly ignites.

How happy are all who take shelter in him! (Psalm 2:1-12)

Those who reject Jesus as the Good Shepherd will, in the end, confess Jesus to be Lord, but not as one of His sheep. I pray that you are one of His sheep, and that you know and love the Lord Jesus, the Good Shepherd. If so, you can say with the psalmist:

Then we, your people,

the sheep of your pasture,

will continually thank you.

We will tell coming generations of your praiseworthy acts (Psalm 79:13).

Lesson 10 — The Glory of God and Idolatry[11]

Introduction

They made an image of a calf at Horeb,

and worshiped a metal idol.

They traded their majestic God

for the image of an ox that eats grass.

They rejected the God who delivered them,

the one who performed great deeds in Egypt (Psalm 106:19-21).[12]

“Too many gods.” That’s what my Indian friend said as we traveled in his great homeland. And many gods there were. I’ve seen very few idols in this country, and when I have seen them, they were usually in the home of someone from a country where idols were worshiped. Idolatry may seem to be one sin that we are unlikely to find in America, and certainly not in the church in America.

If we define idolatry as the worship of other gods, or, as the Old Testament often referred to them, “foreign gods,” then we might suppose that idolatry hardly exists in this country. But if we were to define idolatry as the worship of the One True God as a lesser god, we might find idolatry in many evangelical churches today.

We are pursuing the theme of the glory of God, and for several lessons, we shall be looking at Exodus 32-34. You will remember that this is the portion of Scripture where Moses asks God, “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18), and his request is granted (Exodus 34:5-7). But before we can consider these wonderful verses, we must first see how the sin of idolatry is an offense against the glory of God. That is our topic for this lesson.

Circumstances Leading to the Sin of Israel in Exodus 32

The revelation of God’s glory to Moses comes out of the context of Israel’s great sin of creating and worshiping the golden calf (Exodus 32). I wish to begin by reviewing the setting for this great sin, for it is only against this backdrop that we can appreciate the magnitude of Israel’s sin.

Three months[13] after their departure from Egypt, the Israelites arrive at the Desert of Sinai, at the base of Mount Sinai. The miracles of the exodus must therefore be fresh in their minds. Did they continue to sing the “Song of Moses,” which we find in Exodus 15? From the crossing of the Red Sea to their arrival at Sinai, God had: (1) sweetened the bitter waters at Marah (Exodus 15:22-26); (2) provided manna (Exodus 16:1ff.) and quail (Exodus 16:13); (3) provided water at Massa and Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7); and (4) gave the Israelites victory over the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16).

When the Israelites reached Sinai, God reminded them of all that He had done for them and promised to make them “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” if they would keep His commandments. The people agreed (Exodus 19:3-8). God spoke to Moses in such a way that the people would revere Moses and listen to him (Exodus 19:9). After Moses sanctified the people and established boundaries at the foot of the mountain, God revealed Himself in a powerful way:

16 And on the third day in the morning there were thunders and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a very loud horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the lower end of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was completely covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire; and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain shook greatly. 19 When the sound of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking and God was answering him with a voice (Exodus 19:16-19).

It is hard to tell exactly how many times Moses ascends and descends the mountain; my estimate is that it must have occurred five times from Exodus 19:1 to 23:33. On what appears to be Moses’ fifth ascent, God gives these specific instructions:

22 The Lord said to Moses: “Thus you will say to the Israelites: ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken with you from heaven. 23 You must not make alongside me gods of silver, nor make gods of gold for yourselves. 24 You must make for me an altar made of earth, and you will sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle. In every place where I cause my name to be honored I will come to you and I will bless you. 25 And if you make me an altar of stone, you must not build it of hewn stone, for if you use your tool on it you will have defiled it. 26 And you must not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness is not exposed’” (Exodus 20:22-26).

Here, God begins by calling attention to the fact that He has spoken from heaven but has not appeared in any form. They must not seek to fashion an image (an idol) to represent Him because He cannot be represented by any such form. When they offer their sacrifices, they must not do so on a stone altar that has been fashioned in any way with tools. (I take it that they would be tempted to embellish it with idol-like representations.) There must be no steps leading to the altar, lest one’s nakedness be exposed. Men’s devotion and worship should be focused on the unseen God.

When we come to Exodus 24, we come to one of the most unusual accounts in the entire Pentateuch (the first five Books of the Law). The Lord summons Moses, Aaron, and his sons Nadab and Abihu, along with 70 of the elders of Israel (Exodus 24:1). They will worship God from a distance; only Moses may draw near to the Lord (Exodus 24:2). When Moses spoke to the people, he repeated all the instructions God had given. I assume this to be all of the instructions recorded in Exodus 20:22 through 23:33. The people responded, “We are willing to do all the words that the Lord has said” (Exodus 24:3b).

Moses then wrote down all the words God had spoken thus far and built an altar as God had instructed (Exodus 24:4; compare 20:24-26). Moses sent some young men to offer burnt offerings and peace offerings on the altar (Exodus 24:5). Moses took half of the blood of these sacrifices and splashed it on the altar. He then read the “Book of the Covenant” (that is, the book in which he had written all the words of the Lord, Exodus 24:4a), and when they heard the words Moses read, the people agreed to do and obey all that the Lord had spoken (Exodus 24:7). The people thereby entered into a covenant with God:

3 And Moses came and told the people all the Lord’s words and all the decisions. All the people answered together, “We are willing to do all the words that the Lord has said.” 4 Then Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. Early in the morning he built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve standing stones—according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls for peace offerings to the Lord. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. 7 And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “We are willing to do and obey all that the Lord has spoken.” 8 So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it over the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exodus 24:3-8).

It is what happened next that is most amazing:

9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet something like a pavement made of sapphire, and clear like the heaven itself. 11 But he did not lay a hand on the leaders of the Israelites, so they saw God, and they ate and they drank (Exodus 24:9-11).

I believe this is a covenant meal, whereby the people formally enter into covenant with God through their representatives, the 70 elders. The Book of the Covenant has been written, Moses has read it, the blood of the covenant has been sprinkled, and the covenant meal has been eaten. The covenant is sealed by these actions. The “ink is hardly dry” in the Book of the Covenant before the covenant will be broken.

Moses is now summoned to the top of Mount Sinai, where he will receive the remainder of the law, and the commandments written on stone:

12 And the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me to the mountain and be there, and I will give to you stone tablets, namely the law and the commandments that I have written, so that you may teach them. 13 So Moses set out with Joshua his minister; and Moses ascended the Mount of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Remain in this place for us until we return to you. Aaron and Hur are here with you. Whoever has any matters of dispute can go to them.” 15 Then Moses went up into the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 And the glory of the Lord resided on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in plain view of the people. 18 And Moses went into the midst of the cloud when he went up to the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:12-18).

If I am reading this right, the 70 elders remain on the mountain, at the place where they ate the covenant meal in the presence of God. Aaron and Hur go down to the people, at the base of the mountain. There, these two will deal with any disputes until Moses returns. Moses goes up the mountain, accompanied by Joshua. Joshua stops short of the top of the mountain, and Moses alone ascends into the cloud of God’s glory. Moses then remains there for 40 days and nights. Chapters 25-31 record the things God spoke to Moses during these 40 days and nights.

Rebellion and Revelry in Israel’s Camp
Exodus 32:1-6

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered together around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods[14] that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Break off the gold earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people broke off the gold earrings that were on their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received them from their hand, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord.” 6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play (Exodus 32:1-6).

What is described here is all the more amazing in the light of the earlier chapters of Exodus. In something short of 40 days, the Israelites are no longer willing to wait for Moses to return. They persuade Aaron to make them a god. Aaron is not presented in a favorable light in these verses; indeed, he is presented as the counterpart of Moses. He is almost a Jeroboam (see 1 Kings 12:25-32). He calls for the Israelites to give him their gold jewelry, he melts it down and then fashions it into a golden calf. Sacrifices are offered, and a day of feasting and celebration is declared. In fact, this “celebration” was a drunken orgy (Exodus 32:2-6).

Israel’s Rebellion Scrutinized

I have studied and taught this text before, but somehow I never considered Israel’s rebellion in Exodus chapter 32 in the light of the earlier events in Exodus, particularly Israel’s ratification of the covenant with God in chapter 24. Allow me to make some observations and then to note the contrasts between what we have read earlier in Exodus and what we now read in chapter 32.

(1) According to Moses’ instructions, Aaron and Hur[15] were to lead Israel until his return; instead, Aaron followed the lead of the people. Consider these words in Exodus 24:

12 And the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me to the mountain and be there, and I will give to you stone tablets, namely the law and the commandments that I have written, so that you may teach them. 13 So Moses set out with Joshua his minister; and Moses ascended the Mount of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Remain in this place for us until we return to you. Aaron and Hur are here with you. Whoever has any matters of dispute can go to them” (Exodus 24:12-14).

The 70 elders were on the mountain, where they had eaten in God’s presence – and lived! (Exodus 24:9-11). When God called Moses to meet Him at the top of Mount Sinai, he took Joshua with him part way. Moses instructed the 70 elders to remain where they were until he returned. I take it then that these elders were not a part of the idolatry that took place back in the camp of the Israelites. Moses sent Aaron and Hur back to the people, to lead them in his absence, until he returned.

My point is that Aaron, along with Hur, was appointed by Moses to lead in his place, until he returned. We do not hear anything about Hur in the description of Israel’s idolatry. What we do find is that Aaron is the prominent figure – not as a leader, but as a follower:

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered together around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Break off the gold earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people broke off the gold earrings that were on their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received them from their hand, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord.” 6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play (Exodus 32:1-6, emphasis mine).

When I read this passage, I see Aaron, not as an agent of God, nor as an agent of Moses, but as the agent of the people. The people spoke, and Aaron acted. They initiated, and Aaron followed. As Moses put it,

And Moses saw that the people were running wild, for Aaron had let them get out of control, to the derision from their enemies (Exodus 32:25, emphasis mine).

Leaders do need to be responsive to those whom they are called to lead, but first and foremost they must obey God’s commands, as declared in His Word. Let God’s leaders beware of catering to the wishes (and even the demands) of those who find God’s Word and God’s presence insufficient.

(2) Earlier, the Israelites were repeatedly commanded to “keep their distance” from God, but in Exodus 32, they want Aaron to fashion a “god” they can handle. Notice how often and how emphatically God instructs the Israelites to maintain a healthy distance from Him:

12 And you will set boundaries for the people all around, saying, “Take heed to yourselves not to go up on the mountain nor touch its edge. Whoever touches the mountain will surely be put to death! 13 No hand will touch him—but he will surely be stoned or shot through, whether a beast or a human being; he must not live. When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast they may go up on the mountain” (Exodus 19:12-13).

21 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and solemnly warn the people, lest they force their way through to the Lord to look, and many of them perish. 22 And let the priests also, who draw near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break through against them” (Exodus 19:21-22).

23 And Moses said to the Lord, “The people are not able to come up to Mount Sinai, because you solemnly warned us, ‘Set boundaries for the mountain and set it apart.’” 24 And the Lord said to him, “Go, get down. And you will come up, and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people force their way through to come up to the Lord, lest he break through against them” (Exodus 19:23-24).

18 And all the people were seeing the thunderings and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking—and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. 19 And they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).

God instructed the Israelites to keep their distance, and they gladly did so. They were terrified by the presence of God in their midst and did not wish to draw near. Now, somehow, in Exodus 32, the people are troubled by the absence of Moses, and they want to have a “god” who can be near them, a “god” who will go before them. They want a “god” they can handle:

When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered together around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” (Exodus 32:1).

(3) The golden calf was no work of art, but a crude counterfeit of Israel’s glorious God. Three observations led me to this rather unexpected conclusion that the golden calf was a very crude piece of work. First, there is no evidence that Aaron has any metal working skills, or that he has any great artistic ability. While Aaron is at work at the foot of Mount Sinai fashioning an idol for the Israelites, God is informing Moses that He has gifted Bezalel and Oholiab as master craftsmen, and He designates them to do the skillful, artistic work on the tabernacle furnishings (Exodus 31:1-11). We must conclude that Aaron was not the most suitable person for making anything of gold. Second, we have to take the time factor into account. Do you think that Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel in a week? Do we think that Leonardo da Vinci could have painted The Last Supper in a couple of days? The Israelites convinced Aaron that Moses had been gone so long that there was little chance he would return (Exodus 32:1). We know that Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and nights (Exodus 24:18). Surely we must conclude that it was late in this 40-day period that Aaron set out to make the idol. That would mean he had but a few days to complete this project. One doesn’t do great work quickly. Third, we have the words of Aaron himself:

22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they tend to evil. 23 And they said to me, ‘Make us gods that will go before us, for as for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, break it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and this calf came out” (Exodus 32:22-24, emphasis mine).

I have always laughed at this ridiculous explanation, but there must be a measure of truth in it. While Aaron has sinfully minimized his role in the making of this idol, he has called attention to the fact that it was not a masterpiece, but rather something very hastily fashioned. All three lines of evidence point to this same conclusion.

God gave Moses very specific instructions as to how the tabernacle and its furnishings should be fashioned, and it was done just that way (Exodus 25:9; 26:30; 31:1-11; 39:32). There were no divine instructions given to Aaron; he seems to have done this on his own (or with the advice and counsel of some of those who had seen foreign idols). Bezalel, Oholiab, and those under them carefully crafted the tabernacle furnishings, and this process seems to have taken considerable time. The golden calf had to have been hastily “crafted” by Aaron. It could hardly have been a work of art. And yet the Israelites were willing to worship this “half-baked god” as their god.

My point is this: this idol was no work of art, which by virtue of being a masterpiece, naturally attracted people to worship it. It was a piece of junk art, with all sorts of flaws and imperfections. I would like to suggest that these flaws actually made the idol more appealing to the Israelites. When the moral failures of President Clinton were eventually exposed, I expected outrage on the part of the American people, but there was none. A friend from another country told me that in other parts of the world, people expect this kind of conduct from their leaders. I think I can partly understand why this would be so. If our leaders can have their flaws – if they can sin and get away with it – then it must be alright for me as well. A flawed leader makes me feel more comfortable about my flaws.

The God of Israel, whose glory was displayed on Mount Sinai, was terrifying to the Israelites:

18 And all the people were seeing the thunderings and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking—and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. 19 And they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).

The manifestations of the presence of the awesome and holy God of Israel terrified the people. They wanted to keep their distance. They were afraid to sin and thus offend Him. Who could fear the ugly creation of Aaron’s hands? Here was a “god” they could take with them, a “god” who could be near to them, a “god” who would not intimidate them with its perfections. The flawed god of Aaron was just the kind of “god” who made the Israelites feel more comfortable. Now, they could sin in its presence without fear.

(4) God had already revealed some of His laws to men (Ten Commandments), and the people had promised to obey. Among these commandments was a specific prohibition against idolatry. At the exodus, God had declared victory over the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12; 15:11; 18:11; Numbers 33:2-4). He showed them to be powerless, and Himself to be all powerful. That took place only three months before (Exodus 19:1). From the time that the Israelites reached Sinai, God warned them not to practice idolatry:

3 You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on earth under it, or that is in the water below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations to those who hate me” (Exodus 20:3-5).

“You must not make alongside me gods of silver, nor make gods of gold for yourselves” (Exodus 20:23).

“Take heed to do everything I have told you to do, and do not make mention of the names of other gods—do not let them be heard on your lips” (Exodus 23:13, see also 23:24, 32-33).

This prohibition of idols was clearly a part of the covenant to which the Israelites committed themselves:

3 And Moses came and told the people all the Lord’s words and all the decisions. All the people answered together, “We are willing to do all the words that the Lord has said” (Exodus 24:3; see also 23:7; 19:8).

How quickly the Israelites forgot and forsook their covenant commitment!

(5) God had manifested His glory on the mountain for some time, and it was apparently still evident at the time of Israel’s sin.The glory of God was displayed at Sinai, beginning with the Israelistes’arrival at Sinai:

16 And on the third day in the morning there were thunders and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a very loud horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the lower end of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was completely covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire; and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain shook greatly. 19 When the sound of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking and God was answering him with a voice (Exodus 19:16-19).

18 And all the people were seeing the thunderings and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking—and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance (Exodus 20:18, emphasis mine).

15 Then Moses went up into the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 And the glory of the Lord resided on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in plain view of the people (Exodus 24:15-17, emphasis mine).

The point I am trying to make is that the physical manifestations of God’s glory (the smoke, the fire, the blast of the horn, the earthquake-like trembling of the ground) were on-going throughout the time Moses was on the mountain. We would have been amazed at the scene taking place at the base of Mount Sinai. The Israelites are worshiping the golden calf as their “god” while behind them, in full view, is the smoking mountain, with all of the other manifestations of God’s glory. How could they exchange such inferior “glory” (that of their idol) for the greater glory of God on the mountain?

Israel had grown accustomed to the supernatural and the spectacular. Every day God miraculously provided His people with manna and water. They had come to expect it. And if there was any kind of delay, they protested. They grew discontent with mere manna and demanded the meats and spices they had enjoyed in Egypt. The presence of God on the mountain had somehow become common fare to the people. Is it not amazing how quickly we become accustomed to the supernatural presence of God in our midst? Do you not see this in your own life? How wonderful it was at first to know the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life! How amazing was the knowledge of His grace! What a joy it was to know that God dwells in us, through His Spirit! And yet how quickly these supernatural blessings are assumed, and virtually forgotten. So it was with the Israelites and the presence of God in their midst.

(6) Before the Israelites worshiped the golden calf, God had already promised that His presence would go before the Israelites to drive out their enemies:

“I am going to send an angel before you, to protect you in the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20).

“For my angel will go before you, and bring you in to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I will cut them off” (Exodus 23:23).

“I will send my fear before you, and I will destroy all the people to whom you come; I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you” (Exodus 23:27).

Yet in the absence of Moses, the Israelites demanded an idol from Aaron so that “god” could go before them:

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered together around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” (Exodus 32:1)

The very fire and cloud that underscored the presence of God on Mount Sinai had already protected them at the Red Sea:

21 And the Lord was going before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them in the way; and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could go by day and night. 22 He did not take away from before the people the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of the fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22).

God was present with His people, in the pillar of fire and the cloud, fighting for them:

24 And in the morning watch the Lord looked down on the host of Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud, and he threw the Egyptians into a panic. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so they had difficulty driving, and the Egyptians said, “Let’s flee from the presence of Israel, for the Lord fights for them against Egypt” (Exodus 14:24-25).

It was the pillar of fire and the cloud that gave evidence of the presence of God with Moses (Exodus 33:9-10), as it was the pillar which filled the tabernacle as visible evidence of God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. It was by this means that God would guide the Israelites in the wilderness:

34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 36 But when the cloud was taken up from on the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on all their journeys; 37 but if the cloud was not lifted up, then they would not journey on until the day it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, but fire would be on it at night, in plain view of all the house of Israel, in all their journeys (Exodus 40:34-38).

Is it not amazing that the Israelites wanted a golden calf as proof of God’s presence with them and of His protection of them, while the pillar of fire and the cloud were there on the mountain? While Moses in on the mountain, engulfed by the glory of God and asking to see more, the Israelites are down below (in full view of the mountain and the glory of God), seeking to exchange the glory of God for a golden calf.

(7) There is a very clear contrast between the worship led by Moses in Exodus 24 and the “worship” led by Aaron in Exodus 32. We must remember that God gave these instructions to Moses in chapter 20:

24 “‘You must make for me an altar made of earth, and you will sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle. In every place where I cause my name to be honored I will come to you and I will bless you. 25 And if you make me an altar of stone, you must not build it of hewn stone, for if you use your tool on it you will have defiled it. 26 And you must not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness is not exposed’” (Exodus 20:24-26).

Notice the worship led by Moses, in accordance with God’s instructions in chapter 20:

4 Then Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. Early in the morning he built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve standing stones—according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls for peace offerings to the Lord. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. 7 And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “We are willing to do and obey all that the Lord has spoken.” 8 So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it over the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” 9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet something like a pavement made of sapphire, and clear like the heaven itself. 11 But he did not lay a hand on the leaders of the Israelites, so they saw God, and they ate and they drank (Exodus 24:4-11, emphasis mine).

Moses did the following things as recorded in Exodus:

He built an altar, as instructed (24:4; see 20:24).

He[16] offered burnt offerings and peace offerings (24:5).

He read the Book of the Covenant (24:6-7a).

The people agreed to obey—they entered into covenant with God (24:7b).

The covenant was ratified with blood (24:8).

Moses and Israel’s leaders ate and drank at a covenant meal in the presence of God (24:9-11).

Moses established the pattern for true worship for the Israelites, just as God instructed him.

Approximately one month later, we see Aaron leading the Israelites in worship. (We should recall from Exodus 24:12-14 that only Moses went to the top of the mountain. He was accompanied part way by Joshua. The 70 elders were told to wait where they were, until Moses and Joshua returned. Aaron and Hur were sent back down the mountain to judge the people in the absence of Moses. After some period of absence,[17] the people persuade Aaron to lead them in a very different kind of worship, but one that mimics that of Moses:

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered together around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Break off the gold earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people broke off the gold earrings that were on their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received them from their hand, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord.” 6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play (Exodus 32:1-6, emphasis mine).

What a contrast we find here!

Moses listened to God and obeyed; Aaron listened to the people and did as they said.

Moses made an altar; so did Aaron (32:4).

Moses offered burnt offerings and peace offerings; so did Aaron (32:6).

Moses went up on the mountain with the 70 elders, and there they shared the covenant meal; Aaron declared a feast, and the Israelites had a drunken orgy (32:6).

Moses set a pattern for true worship; Aaron established a pattern for false worship:

25 Jeroboam built up Shechem in the Ephraimite hill country and lived there. From there he went out and built up Penuel. 26 Jeroboam then thought to himself: “Now the Davidic dynasty could regain the kingdom. 27 If these people go up to offer sacrifices in the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem, their loyalty could shift to their former master, King Rehoboam of Judah. They might kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah.” 28 After the king had consulted with his advisers, he made two golden calves. Then he said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to go up to Jerusalem. Look, Israel, here are your gods who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” 29 He put one in Bethel and the other in Dan. 30 This caused Israel to sin; the people went to Bethel and Dan to worship the calves (1 Kings 12:25-30, emphasis mine).

(8) The Israelites worshiped this idol as the true “God who brought Israel up out of Egypt” (32:4). God was not visible; He did not manifest Himself in any form that could be represented by an idol. Thus the Israelites were forbidden to represent God in any “creaturely” form (compare Deuteronomy 4:11-18). Yet Aaron fashioned a golden calf, and regarding this image, he said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 34:4). If Aaron thought he was only creating a “visual aid,” he was wrong. This was an idol.

The Inspired Interpretation of the Incident at Sinai

We are not left to our own devices so far as the interpretation of the incident at Sinai is concerned. Beyond what we read in Exodus 32-34, several other texts interpret what happened at Sinai. Let us briefly consider them:

Psalm 106:19-22

19 They made an image of a calf at Horeb,

and worshiped a metal idol.

20 They traded their majestic God

for the image of an ox that eats grass.

21 They rejected the God who delivered them,

the one who performed great deeds in Egypt,

22 amazing feats in the land of Ham,

mighty acts by the Red Sea (emphasis mine).

If I had a Ford Pinto and traded it straight across for a classic 1965 Mustang in mint condition, I would be “trading up.” I would be getting something far better than I was giving up. At Sinai Israel was “trading down.” They were “trading their majestic God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20). They were rejecting the God who delivered them powerfully at the exodus for a metal god that would “go before them” in future battles. They traded the awesome God of Mount Sinai, the Creator of the universe, for a shoddy creation made by Aaron. Granted, they called this idol “the God who brought them out of Egypt” (Exodus 34:4), but saying so doesn’t make it so. It was but a piece of metal, formed in the shape of an ox that eats grass.

Acts 7:38-43

38 This is the man who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors, and he received living oracles to give to you. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him, but pushed him aside and turned back to Egypt in their hearts, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go in front of us, for this Moses, who led us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him!’ 41 At that time they made an idol in the form of a calf, brought a sacrifice to the idol, and began rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘It was not to me that you offered slain animals and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, house of Israel? 43 But you took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images you made to worship, but I will make you move beyond Babylon’ (emphasis mine).

Stephen is standing before the Sanhedrin, but he is not defending himself. He is declaring the gospel in the most powerful terms. He shows that these religious leaders are doing exactly what their forefathers did – rejecting God and those who spoke for Him. As a part of his indictment, Stephen turns to Israel’s rebellion at Mount Sinai. They rejected Moses (actually for the second time in this sermon – see Acts 7:27, 35) as their leader. Stephen says that they did this because they had already “turned back to Egypt in their hearts” (Acts 7:39). Stephen quotes from Amos 5:24-27 to show that Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness was not what we might have expected (or what his audience would have liked to believe) – a time of devoted worship and service to God. In the wilderness, they sacrificed to the idols of their ancestors. Wow!

The expression which really caught my attention is Stephen’s prophetic indictment: “God turned away from them and gave them over to worship the host of heaven” (7:42). The expression “turned them over” reminded me of the same expression in Romans 1.[18]

Romans 1:18-25

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made [in this case, what He has done at the exodus]. So people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen (emphasis mine).

Paul begins in chapter 1 by showing that the Gentiles are sinners, deserving of God’s wrath. It is not until the next two chapters that Paul really bears down on the Jews, accusing them of even greater guilt because of their greater knowledge of God. But as I compare the incident at Mount Sinai with Romans 1:18-25, I see many similarities. The Israelites, like the Gentile heathen, knew about God, because God made it plain to them with all of the manifestations of His power in Egypt, in the desert, and at Mount Sinai. His “invisible attributes” – His eternal power and divine nature – were clearly revealed to the Israelites. But in spite of this knowledge, the Israelites refused to glorify God. They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for that of a four-footed beast – a cow no less. The result was a feast that brought about sexual anarchy and chaos.

In Exodus 32, the Israelites were acting just like the heathen! Then as I read several other biblical passages, I realized that they were heathen. Why do we suppose that the Israelites worshiped God in truth while they were in Egyptian bondage? I looked at the passages where God heard the cries of His people:

23 It happened during that long period of time that the king of Egypt died. And the Israelites groaned because of the slave labor and cried out, and their desperate cry about their slave labor went up to God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 God saw the Israelites and God had compassion (Exodus 2:23-25).

7 Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. 8 I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a land that is both good and large, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the territory of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. 9 And now, indeed, the cry of the Israelites has come to me, and I have also seen how severely the Egyptians oppress them (Exodus 3:7-9).

The Israelites were certainly being oppressed and mistreated by the Egyptians, but I do not see any reference to prayer. God heard the groanings of His people, and He remembered His covenant. There is no indication that the Israelites faithfully served God during the time of their sojourn in Egypt. (To be sure, Joseph remained true to his God, but one doesn’t see this with any other Hebrew, except for a few like Moses’ parents and Moses himself.)

What we are told in Scripture indicates that the Israelites were idol-worshipers while they were in Egypt, just as they had been when they were in Paddan-Aram.

3 “Blood guilt will be accounted to any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat inside the camp or outside the camp, 4 but has not brought it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to present it as an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord. He has shed blood, so that man will be cut off from the midst of his people. 5 This is so that the Israelites will bring their sacrifices that they are sacrificing in the open field to the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting to the priest and sacrifice them there as peace offering sacrifices to the Lord. 6 The priest is to splash the blood on the altar of the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting, and offer the fat up in smoke for a soothing aroma to the Lord. 7 So they must no longer offer their sacrifices to the goat-demons, acting like prostitutes by going after them. This is to be a perpetual statute for them throughout their generations (Leviticus 17:3-7, emphasis mine).

God forbade the Israelites to sacrifice their animals anywhere except at the tabernacle. He did so because the people were sacrificing to the goat demons. This seems to have been their normal practice. It was a practice that they had learned earlier, in the land of their ancestors, as well as from the Egyptians:

14 Now obey the Lord and worship him with integrity and loyalty. Put aside the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the river and in Egypt and worship the Lord. 15 If you have no desire to worship the Lord, choose today whom you will worship, whether it be the gods whom your ancestors worshiped beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living. But I and my family will worship the Lord!” (Joshua 24:14-15, emphasis mine)

We tend to think that just because the Israelites (and a few others) followed Moses out of Egypt that they were believers. We might be left with some doubt if we had only Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5 But God was not pleased with most of them, for they were cut down in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-5, emphasis mine).

Jude puts it a bit more plainly:

5 Now I desire to remind you (even though you have been fully informed of these facts once for all) that Jesus,[19] having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe (Jude 5, emphasis mine).

Those who were destroyed in the wilderness were those who did not believe. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the Israelites did not enter the Promised Land because of unbelief:[20]

16 For which ones heard and rebelled? Was it not all who came out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership? 17 And against whom was God provoked for forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose dead bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear they would never enter into his rest, except those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they could not enter because of unbelief (Hebrews 3:16-19).

Conclusion

There are many lessons to be learned from the failure of the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Allow me to suggest several.

First, we are instructed that just being numbered among the children of Israel was no guarantee that they were true believers in God. Judas was one of the 12, but merely being with Jesus did not make him a true believer. Jesus warns of the danger of assuming that one will receive God’s blessings merely by being in close proximity:

24 “Do your best to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, then you will stand outside and start to knock on the door and beg him, ‘Lord, let us in!’ But he will answer you, ‘I don’t know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will reply, ‘I tell you, I don’t know where you come from! Go away from me, all you evildoers!’ 28 There will weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God. 30 But indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:24-30).

Merely being among those who believe is not enough. You may have attended a church for 25 years, but you may not be saved. You may have given time and money, but that will not save you either. Salvation is not a matter of attendance, or even of participation in church. Salvation comes when you acknowledge that you are a sinner, and that only Christ, the Lamb of God, can save you. Let us learn from Israel that being in a place where God is near is not the same as having experienced God personally, through faith in Jesus Christ.

Second, we should see that idolatry is an offense against the glory of God. It is so obvious with the Israelites at Mount Sinai. They worshiped a golden idol (and not a very glorious one, I have suggested) while the glory of God was displayed on Mount Sinai, in the sight of all (Exodus 24:17). Idolatry is seeking glory in something other than God. Idolatry finds God insufficient and inadequate. Idolatry insists that there must be something better than God. Whatever we value more than God is an idol, and thus the attention we give it is the practice of idolatry. This may be different things for different people, but I believe that we all have our idols, the things we turn to before we turn to God, the things we turn to instead of God.

Third, we learn from this incident that idolatry is most dangerous when it is practiced in the name of the One True God. I believe that the idol Aaron crafted looked very familiar, like one of the idols these folks had worshiped before, or that they had seen others worship. But they did not name this “god” Baal or some other name. They spoke of this “graven god” as “the God who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). The most dangerous form of idolatry is that which claims to be orthodox, but which turns men’s hearts from God, and from obedience to His Word. Idolatry at Sinai was practiced as worship. It was nothing of the kind.

Fourth, we should see from our text that God takes idolatry seriously. Idolatry is an offense against the glory of God, because it seeks glory elsewhere than in God, and because it diminishes the glory of God. God could have completely annihilated the entire nation for their sin at Sinai. Let us not dare think of idolatry as something petty in the eyes of God.

Fifth, idolatry leads to self-indulgence, sin, and utter chaos. The Israelites’ worship turned into an orgy. True worship involves awe and reverence because of the character and glory of God. Seeing God as He really is produces a godly fear, and this fear motivates us not to sin:

And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin” (Exodus 20:20).

Israel’s “worship” of the golden calf minimized the fear of God, resulting in all kinds of sin and disorder:

So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play (Exodus 32:6).

17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “It is the sound of war in the camp.” 18 And Moses said, “It is not the sound of those who shout for victory, nor is it the sound of those who cry because they are overcome, but the sound of singing I hear.” 19 And when he drew near the camp he saw the calf and the dancing, and Moses became extremely angry. He threw the tablets from his hands and broke them to pieces at the bottom of the mountain… . 25 And Moses saw that the people were running wild, for Aaron had let them get out of control, to the derision from their enemies (Exodus 32:17-19, 25).

I believe we can illustrate the way idolatry promotes immorality in the New Testament Book of 1 Corinthians. In chapters 8 and 9, Paul has been dealing with the issue of food offered to idols. In chapter 8, Paul argued that one ought to refrain from eating “idol food” if it causes a weaker brother to stumble. In chapter 9, Paul argued that one should refrain from “idol food” if it in any way hinders the advance of the gospel. From 1 Corinthians 9:24—10:13, Paul shows how important it is for Christians to discipline their bodies and their fleshly appetites. In the first 13 verses of chapter 13, Paul looked back over the history of Israel in the wilderness and showed that Israel’s failures often were associated with fleshly indulgence.

Based upon this Paul writes, “So then, my dear friends, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). From there, Paul showed how involvement in these heathen practices made one a participant in idolatry and all it involved:

15 I am speaking to thoughtful people. Consider what I say. 16 Is not the cup of blessing that we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread that we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread. 18 Look at the people of Israel. Are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? 19 Am I saying that idols or food sacrificed to them amount to anything? 20 No, I mean that what people sacrifice is to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot take part in the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Or are we trying to provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we really stronger than he is? (1 Corinthians 10:15-22).

I am not really surprised to find that in chapter 11 Paul must deal with fleshly indulgence in the meeting of the church, at the Lord’s Table no less:

20 Now when you come together at the same place, it is not in order to eat the Lord’s Supper. 21 For when it is time to eat, everyone takes his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink? Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I will not praise you for this! (1 Corinthians 11:20-22).

It is my understanding that when some Corinthian saints participated in heathen idol worship ceremonies (so they could enjoy a juicy steak or some kind of sumptuous meal), they observed and perhaps participated in other excesses. (Is it any wonder that Paul had to deal with sexual immorality in this epistle?) I believe Paul’s words imply that some participated in a heathen “table of demons” only to then gather with the saints to observe the Lord’s Supper (see 10:21). And when they came to the Lord’s Supper, I believe they brought some of the fleshly indulgence they learned from the idol worship ceremonies. Idolatry has the uncanny ability to promote all kinds of license and excess. I don’t think we really want (or need) to know all that happened before the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai.

I must conclude that idolatry is not merely a sin of the ancients, but it is also a sin practiced today, even by Christians. We must avoid the sin of idolatry:

“So then, my dear friends, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

“Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

We are not nearly as likely to find men and women worshiping images (idols) in America as we are elsewhere in the world today. But I believe that idolatry is just as prevalent in America as it is anywhere else in the world. What form does idolatry take? What does it look like? How can we recognize it, in order to avoid it or to flee from it? We certainly do not have time to explore this matter as thoroughly as we should in this message. Nevertheless, let me conclude with a few statements about the characteristics of idolatry as seen in our text.

First, idolatry involves the work of men’s hands. The Israelites worshiped what Aaron made.

“Their idols are made of silver and gold

— they are manmade” (Psalm 115:4).

“Their land is full of worthless idols;

they worship the product of their own hands,

what their own fingers have fashioned” (Isaiah 2:8).

Second, idolatry is misdirected religious devotion. Israel’s idolatry here is misguided religion. I have often heard it said that we make idols of our cars, of our jobs, of money. Perhaps so, but in our text the Israelites worshiped an idol as though it were the true God, the God who brought them out of Egypt.

Third, idolatry is misplaced trust. The Israelites wanted an idol that would “go before them” (Exodus 32:1). When this expression is used in the Pentateuch, it conveys the idea of protection.[21] They wanted an idol to carry before them to protect them. They were placing their trust in an idol, rather than in the living God, who had brought them safely from Egypt to Sinai. At the Red Sea, they had expressed confidence that God would lead the people to the Promised Land (Exodus 15:13-18). Now they think they need additional help. Idolatry is misplaced trust:

5 They have mouths, but cannot speak,

eyes, but cannot see,

6 ears, but cannot hear,

noses, but cannot smell,

7 hands, but cannot touch,

feet, but cannot walk.

They cannot even clear their throats.

8 Those who make them will end up like them,

as will everyone who trusts in them (Psalm 115:5-8).

17 Those who trust in idols will turn back and be utterly humiliated,

those who say to metal images, ‘You are our gods’” (Isaiah 42:17).

Fourth, idolatry involves misplaced praise. Idolatry gives praise to idols for what God has accomplished for His people:

And he received them from their hand, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

5 “I announced them to you beforehand;

before they happened, I predicted them for you,

so you couldn’t say,

‘My image did these things,

my idol, my cast image, decreed them’” (Isaiah 48:5).

Fifth, idolatry is self-serving, misdirected religious devotion.Men worship idols for what they will do for them. Idols represent what men fear (in India, for example, it was tigers and cobras) or what they want (victory in war, safety fromharm, rain, fruitful crops or herds, virility). Idolatry is very self-centered. Look at the outcome of Israel’s worship of the golden calf – self indulgence. Satan seemed to falsely suppose that Job worshiped God for the same reasons men worship idols:

9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Is it for nothing that Job fears God? 10 Have you not made a hedge around him and his house and all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his cattle have increased in the land. 11 But extend your hand and strike everything he has, and he will indeed curse you to your face!” (Job 1:9-11)

What Satan should have learned from Job’s suffering was that this man worshiped God because of who He was, not because of what He gives. Idolatry is very different. It is not so much what the idol god is as what it is thought to give.

Sixth, idolatry is self-energized worship and service. The idol itself is man-made, as we have observed. But beyond this, the idol is absolutely impotent. It has to be carried about. It cannot see, or speak, or act. An idol is something that men seek to manipulate in order to obtain the outcome they desire. It is man’s manipulation, and not God’s sovereign action, which brings about what men desire. Idolatry reduces God to a “god” men can manage and manipulate, which leads to my final point.

Seventh, Israel’s sin of idolatry involves reductionism. Idolatry produces a god made in man’s image. As said above, Israel found God inadequate in that they felt they needed something more, namely a “god” they could carry with them, a “god” they could manipulate. But in another way I believe we can safely say that the Israelites wanted less of God than He really was. This is because they were terrified of the God of Israel:

18 And all the people were seeing the thunderings and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking—and when they people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. 19 And they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).

A holy and righteous God who hates sin is a terrifying God to sinners. The Israelites found God just a bit too much. They wanted a God that more closely suited their perceived needs, a “god” in whose presence they could feel comfortable. Idolatry never does justice to God; it always understates Him, always diminishes His glory. Idolatry adds nothing to who God is, but instead takes something away. Their idol was not the terrifying God whose glory was displayed on the mountain; theirs was a much tamer god, one whom they could be near and manipulate. He was not a God who terrified them, thus motivating them not to sin; theirs was a “god” in whose presence they felt free to sin:

“So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6).

I believe reductionism can be seen in several ways in our passage. First, there is reductionism with regard to Israel’s leadership. It was God who was leading Israel, not Moses. He was the One leading Israel by means of the pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19-20). He was the One going before Israel (Numbers 14:13-14). He was the One who spoke to Israel through Moses (Exodus 20:18-21; 33:9-11; Deuteronomy 5:22-33). The Israelites demanded an idol because Moses was not among them, and they wanted something to go before them (Exodus 32:1). If they could not see and hear Moses, then let them have their idol. And so God’s sovereign rule over His people has been reduced (in their minds) from God, to Moses, to a golden calf.

We see reductionism in yet another way. God spoke to His people, giving them commandments that would govern and guide their daily lives. God was making a covenant with His people so that He could dwell among them and lead them into the Promised Land. God’s rule was to encompass all things. But the people demanded an idol that could not breathe, hear, or speak. They reduced the infinite and eternal Creator to a piece of gold they could carry about with them. And they reduced God to something (the idol Aaron made) that they could carry with them to battle to assure their victory. They wanted a good luck charm to carry into battle.[22] They wanted less of God; Moses wanted more: “Show me Your glory” (Exodus 33:18).

I believe we are tempted to commit idolatry in this same way. We are tempted to emphasize the love of God and to minimize, ignore, or even deny the wrath of God. How often I’ve heard someone say, “I like to think of God as … .” It’s not surprising that their “god” is not the same god as the God of the Bible. Theirs is a god of their liking, a god they have fashioned in their minds (and not with their hands). If we don’t like what the Bible says about the ministry of women in the church, we pass it off as culture-bound and not universal truth. If we don’t like what the Bible says about homosexuality, we stress the fact that our God is a “God of love,” and so we reason that He (“he”) would not condemn people on the basis of their sexual practices. We see that divorce is now common among those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and so we water down or avoid the texts which condemn divorce. We are like so many preachers, who preach on the “happy texts” of the Bible, while omitting the hard texts. That, my friend, is 20th century reductionism – whittling God down to a smaller and more comfortable size.

Faith Haynes, an insightful member of our congregation, pointed out something about reductionism I had not considered. She said that our use of vocabulary and language has contributed to reductionism. We have taken all the words of majesty and greatness and neutered them. Someone goes camping in the mountains or whitewater rafting, and we ask them how it went. They are likely to respond, “Awesome!” What words today are reserved for God alone? In the King James Version of the Bible, the words “Thee,” “Thou,” and “Thine” were reserved for God. Now, we refer to God as “you,” without a capital “Y!” That is reductionism – thinking or speaking of God as less than He is.

Let us always be on guard against reductionism, representing God as something less, something other, than who He is. May God use this message to cause us to look for idolatry in our own lives and to serve Him for all that He is, in all His majesty.

Lesson 11[23] — The Glory of God in the Passion of Jesus Christ[24]

February 29, 2004

Introduction

A very audible “crack” echoed down the school hallway. Shortly thereafter, I heard one student yell to another, “They got Baldwin!” Actually, it wasn’t “they,” who got Baldwin; it was me. The “crack” was the sound of my paddle, which I had tucked away in my closet except for a few occasions like this one. I was a sixth grade teacher in those days, and I was known for using a paddle when needed. “Baldwin” wasn’t even one of my students. He was a fifth grade student, and perhaps more significantly, he was the son of the school principal. I honestly don’t remember the offense, but it took place on my watch, probably on the playground or around the buses at the close of school.

What made it even more interesting was the conversation I had with the lad’s father, just before corporal punishment was meted out in the hallway. I usually allowed the wayward student to ponder his punishment for a few minutes, before I carried it out. During this period of contemplation, word of this boy’s impending paddling reached his father, my principal. He did not forbid me to carry out the punishment, though it was clear that this was not his way of dealing with such matters. To add further weight to his counsel, he reminded me that the boy had a glass eye. I assured his father that I would be dealing with another part of his anatomy. And so, a few moments later, punishment was meted out. It was then that the students all knew that even the principal’s son was not exempt from the rules or the consequences for violating them. (And, to be honest, I think the boy actually gained status – something like successfully completing an initiation rite.)

This incident in my life reminds me of the passion of our Lord, but with some very significant differences. In my teaching days years ago, it was the father who tried to prevent the suffering of his son; at Calvary, it was the Father who brought suffering upon His Son. It was the Father who punished His innocent, sinless, Son, so that we who are guilty sinners might be saved:

3 He was despised and rejected by people,
one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness;
people hid their faces from him;
he was despised, and we considered him insignificant.
4 But he lifted up our illnesses, he carried our pain;
even though we thought he was being punished,
attacked by God, and afflicted for something he had done.
5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds,
crushed because of our sins;
he endured punishment that made us well;
because of his wounds we have been healed.

6 All of us had wandered off like sheep;
each of us had strayed off on his own path,
but the Lord caused the sin of all of us to attack him.
7 He was treated harshly and afflicted,
but he did not even open his mouth.
Like a lamb led to the slaughtering block,
like a sheep silent before her shearers,
he did not even open his mouth.

8 He was led away after an unjust trial—
but who even cared?
Indeed, he was cut off from the land of the living;
because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded.
9 They intended to bury him with criminals,
but he ended up in a rich man’s tomb,
because he had committed no violent deeds,
nor had he spoken deceitfully (Isaiah 53:3-9).[25]

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring;
he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand (Isaiah 53:10, ESV).

This past week, Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ,” began showing in theaters across the country. Millions will view this dramatic portrayal of the final 12 hours of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. In a strange and unexpected way (for men), it would seem that the words of this prophecy have come to life:

And again another scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced” (John 19:37; see Zechariah 12:10).

Having viewed the film, having heard the comments of believers about the cross for many years, and recently having read some of the commentary of fine evangelical scholars on the passion of our Lord, I have a concern. My concern is that there is too little emphasis on the glory of God in reference to the passion of our Lord.

You should know that in the midst of a series on the church, my attention was drawn to what the Bible indicates is the principle mission of the church: to pursue and to promote the glory of God. We have considered the glory of God in a number of contexts, and we shall continue to pursue this theme. But since the movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” came into being, I have been watching for references to the glory of God.

I fear that with so much emphasis on the agony and humiliation of our Lord,[26] men may not recognize and appreciate the glory of God in our Lord’s monumental sacrifice. Even evangelical writings which seek to explain the passion of Christ have not emphasized the glory of God in the cross of Christ.

Some have reacted to the Gibson film on the passion of our Lord because they believe it is anti-Semitic, or at least they fear that it may provoke yet another iteration of persecution of the Jews. I agree with John Piper when he writes that we should not focus too much attention on the cause of the passion, but rather we should focus on the purpose of the passion.[27]

This sermon will attempt to make two main points:

  1. The passion of the Lord Jesus Christ is the most dramatic demonstration of man’s sin in all of human history.
  2. The passion of the Lord Jesus Christ is the most dramatic demonstration of the glory of God in all of human history.

Let us consider the passion of our Lord, then, and find in it a marvelous manifestation of God’s glory.

The Passion of Jesus Christ:
The Greatest Demonstration of Man’s Sin in History

The magnitude of man’s sin at the cross of Calvary can only be understood in the light of who it was that men rejected, mocked, and brutally crucified. I have never heard anyone protest the execution of the two men who were crucified beside our Lord. One of the two men even admitted that he deserved his punishment:

39 One of the criminals who was hanging there railed at him, saying, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we rightly so, for we are getting what we deserve for what we did, but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:39-41).

Jesus was without sin. This is a most crucial point. Jesus was the innocent, sinless Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (see John 1:29):

“Who among you can prove me guilty of any sin? If I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me?” (John 8:46)

18 You know that from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors you were ransomed—not by perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, namely Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19).

21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:21-25).

God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Paul calls attention to the fact that God’s love for unworthy sinners was demonstrated in Christ’s death. His death was virtuous because of His innocence. That is the point Peter is making in 1 Peter 2:21-25 above (see also verses 18-20). And after our Lord’s resurrection, at Pentecost, Peter drives home the point that sinful men revealed the magnitude of their sin by crucifying the sinless Son of God:

22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know— 23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles” (Acts 2:22-23).

Paul’s message would be the same (see Acts 13:16-41).

Jesus was not only without sin; He was God in human flesh. And thus, as God incarnate, our Lord was the manifestation of the glory of God:

1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world. 3 The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3, emphasis mine).

Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glorythe glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father (John 1:14, emphasis mine).

Thus, when men crucified Jesus Christ, they crucified “the Lord of glory”:

6 Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing. 7 Instead we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).

Mankind’s sin is dramatically evident in the rejection of Jesus Christ. I would go so far as to say that it was the passion of our Lord which caused many to reject Him as the promised Messiah. Look at the reaction that word of the cross provokes in Peter:

21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s” (Matthew 16:21-23).

When Jesus began to speak of His sacrificial death (even though the implications of His words were not fully grasped), the crowd that had followed Him in Galilee left Him (John 6:35-71). I believe the crowds in Jerusalem turned against Him when His passion appeared to be inevitable. How do we explain the sudden change that took place the final week of our Lord’s life? What happened to the crowds who welcomed Jesus at the triumphal entry?

7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road. Others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those following kept shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 As he entered Jerusalem the whole city was thrown into an uproar, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matthew 21:7-11).

As I understand the sequence of events, Jesus was popular with the people right up to the time of His arrest and trials. The Jewish religious leaders were already determined to put Jesus to death (John 11:46-53). The common people, however, loved what they heard and saw in Jesus. They were awestruck by the raising of Lazarus from the dead a few days earlier (John 12:17-18). The popularity of Jesus prevented the chief priests and other prominent leaders from openly assassinating Him:

47 Jesus was teaching daily in the temple courts. The chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people were seeking to assassinate him, 48 but they could not find a way to do it, for all the people hung on his words (Luke 19:47-48).

Then the experts in the law and the chief priests wanted to arrest him that very hour, because they realized he had told this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people (Luke 20:19).

What changed, so that Jesus was publicly crucified, and yet without any strong protest from the crowds? Indeed, why did the crowds suddenly turn against Jesus? What turn of events changed the situation from that of the Jewish leaders being in opposition to the people, to this new alliance between the leaders and the people?

4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” 5 But they persisted in saying, “He incites the people by teaching throughout all Judea. It started in Galilee and ended up here!” (Luke 23:4-5, emphasis mine)

13 Then Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers, and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. When I examined him before you, I did not find this man guilty of anything you accused him of doing. 15 Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, he has done nothing deserving death. 16 I will therefore have him flogged and release him.” 18 But they all shouted out together, “Take this man away! Release Barabbas for us!” 19 (This was a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city, and for murder.) 20 Pilate addressed them once again because he wanted to release Jesus. 21 But they kept on shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done? I have found him guilty of no crime deserving death. I will therefore flog him and release him.” 23 But they were insistent, demanding with loud shouts that he be crucified. And their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted (Luke 23:13-24, emphasis mine).

I can think of only one reason why the people suddenly turned against Jesus, demanding His death and the release of Barabbas. I believe it was for the same reason that Peter denied his Lord. When the people saw Jesus under arrest, seemingly unable or unwilling to resist the authorities (Jewish and Roman), they recognized that He was going to die. It was the passion of Jesus that turned the people against Him. Their taunting words at the foot of the cross seem to indicate that their rejection was related to His failure to resist and to overcome His enemies:

39 Those who passed by defamed him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who can destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross!” 41 In the same way even the chief priests—together with the experts in the law and elders—were mocking him: 42 “He saved others, but he cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel! If he comes down now from the cross, we will believe in him! 43 He trusts in God—let God, if he wants to, deliver him now because he said, ‘I am God’s Son’!” 44 The robbers who were crucified with him also spoke abusively to him (Matthew 27:39-44).

That was a terrible day for mankind. Man’s sin never looked worse than it did at the passion of our Lord. Men rejected the Son of God, the One who was God incarnate, the perfect representation of the glory of God. And they chose in His place the worst of the worse – Barabbas. The passion of our Lord reveals what we would have done if we had been there on that passion day. Listen to these powerful words from the pen of A.W. Tozer:

Who Put Jesus on the Cross?[28]

There is a strange conspiracy of silence in the world today – even in religious circles – about man’s responsibility for sin, the reality of judgment and about an outraged God and the necessity for a crucified Savior.

On the other hand, there is an open and powerful movement swirling throughout the world designed to give people peace of mind in relieving them of any historical responsibility for the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The problem with modern decrees and pronouncements in the name of brotherhood and tolerance is their basic misconception of Christian theology.

A great shadow lies upon every man and every woman – the fact that our Lord was bruised and wounded and crucified for the entire human race. This is the basic human responsibility that men are trying to push off and evade.

Let us not eloquently blame Judas nor Pilate. Let us not curl our lips at Judas and accuse, “He sold Him for money!”

Let us pity Pilate, the weak-willed, because he did not have courage enough to stand for the innocence of the man whom he declared had done no wrong.

Let us not curse the Jews for delivering Jesus to be crucified. Let us not single out the Romans in blaming them for putting Jesus on the cross.

Oh, they were guilty, certainly! But they were our accomplices in crime. They and we put Him on the cross, not they alone. That rising malice and anger that burns so hotly in your being today put Him there. That basic dishonesty that comes to light in your being when you knowingly cheat and chisel on your income tax return – that put Him on the cross. The evil, the hatred, the suspicion, the jealousy, the lying tongue, the carnality, the fleshly love of pleasure – all of these in natural man joined in putting Him on the cross.

We Put Him There.

We may as well admit it. Every one of us in Adam’s race had a share in putting Him on the cross!

I have often wondered how any professing Christian man or woman could approach the communion table and participate in the memorial of our Lord’s death without feeling and sensing the pain and the shame of the inward confession: “I, too, am among those who helped put Him on the cross!”

The passion of our Lord – His suffering and death on the cross of Calvary – is the measure of man’s sin. And remember this: at the very time when our sin was never more apparent to God, our Lord chose to remain on that cross, to provide an atonement (payment of the penalty) for our sins. That leads to my second point: The Passion of Jesus Christ is the Fullest Measure of God’s Glory.

The Passion of Jesus Christ:
The Greatest Demonstration of God’s Glory in Human History

I would contend that our Lord actively pursued the cross because of His passionate desire and commitment to glorify the Father. This is a particularly prominent theme in the Gospel of John. Over and over again, Jesus made it clear that His purpose was to do the will of the Father:

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34).

“I can do nothing on my own initiative. Just as I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me” (John 5:30).

38 “For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. 39 Now this is the will of the one who sent me—that I should not lose one person of every one he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father—for everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him to have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:38-40).

Jesus is specific about what He has purposed to do; He has purposed to undergo the passion. He exercises His will to accomplish the Father’s will:

17 This is why the Father loves me—because I lay down my life, so that I may take it back again. 18 No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down of my own free will. I have the authority to lay it down, and I have the authority to take it back again. This commandment I received from my Father” (John 10:17-18).

Jesus purposes to suffer and die on the cross of Calvary in order to glorify the Father’s name:

27 “Now my soul is greatly distressed. And what should I say? ‘Father, deliver me from this hour’? No, but for this very reason I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (John 12:27-28).

31 When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and he will glorify him right away (John 13:31-32).

Now when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).

It is important to underscore the fact that when Jesus “set His face toward Jerusalem” (to use the words of the King James Version); He did so knowing exactly what He would undergo in His passion. Jesus not only knew that He was to die in Jerusalem; He knew how He was to die:

14 Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (John 3:14).

32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 (Now he said this to indicate clearly what kind of death he was going to die.) (John 12:32-33)

18 “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the experts in the law. They will condemn him to death, 19 and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged severely and crucified. Yet on the third day, he will be raised” (Matthew 20:18-19).

The agony of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane reveals the degree to which our Lord understood the suffering that lay ahead at the cross:

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and became anguished and distressed. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, even to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.” 39 Going a little farther, he threw himself down with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me! Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Matthew 26:36-39).

It occurred to me in the course of my study that although the Gospels do not sensationalize or even emphasize the degree to which our Lord suffered in His passion, the Old Testament prophecies are much more graphic. Why would the Old Testament prophecies pertaining to our Lord’s passion be more graphic than the New Testament accounts of His death?

I think there are several possible answers. I would contend that these Scriptures would make it very clear to our Lord what lay ahead for Him at Calvary. I know that our Lord was omniscient, but we also read,

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and with people (Luke 2:52).

When Jesus responded to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, each time He responded with Scripture. I would contend that while the apostles (and even the prophets who wrote the Old Testament Scriptures – see 1 Peter 1:10-12) did not understand what many of these prophecies meant before our Lord’s passion, our Lord did understand them. He fully grasped the agony that lay ahead for Him in His passion:

7 All who see me taunt me;
they mock me and shake their heads.
8 They say, “Commit yourself to the Lord!
Let the Lord rescue him!
Let the Lord deliver him, for he delights in him.” …
12 Many bulls surround me;
powerful bulls of Bashan hem me in.
13 They get ready to devour me
like a roaring lion that rips its prey.
14 My strength drains away like water;
all my bones are dislocated;
my courage is like wax;
it melts away inside me.
15 The roof of my mouth is as dry as a piece of pottery;
my tongue sticks to my gums.
You are making me descend into the grave.
16 Yes, wild dogs surround me—
a gang of evil men crowd around me;
like a lion they pin my hands and feet to the ground.
17 I can count all my bones;
my enemies are gloating over me in triumph.
18 They are dividing up my clothes among themselves;
they are rolling dice for my garments (Psalm 22:7-8, 12-18; see also 69:20-21).
14 Just as many were horrified by the sight of you—
he was so disfigured he no longer looked like a man;
15 his form was so marred he no longer looked human—
so now he will startle many nations.
Kings will be shocked by his exaltation,
for they will witness something unannounced to them,
and they will understand something they had not heard about (Isaiah 52:14-15).

The second purpose I see in these graphic Old Testament prophecies is striking evidence that everything that took place in our Lord’s passion was the predetermined will of God:

22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know— 23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. 24 But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:22-24).

Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (as recorded in Acts 2) is buttressed with many Old Testament texts to demonstrate that what happened at Calvary was the predetermined will of God.

I am constantly impressed as I read the Gospels that Jesus was in charge of His death. It was not something that came upon Him unexpectedly, but rather something He pursued – to the glory of God. While the Jews sought to kill Him by pushing Him over a cliff (Luke 4:29) and by stoning Him (John 8:59; 10:31, etc.), Jesus spoke of His crucifixion (see texts above) and brought that about so as to fulfill all the prophecies pertaining to His death:

After this Jesus, realizing that by this time everything was completed, said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty!” (John 19:28)

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).

Think of it. The Jews wanted to stone Jesus; Jesus prophesied and fulfilled His death by crucifixion. The Jews insisted that Jesus not be crucified during Passover (Matthew 26:5); Jesus brought about His death during Passover, because He was the Passover Lamb (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7). I believe the Jews loathed the Romans and wanted them to have nothing to do with the execution of our Lord. But our Lord’s death was at the hands of Jews and Gentiles, thus implicating all in this incredible sin.

I have claimed that the passion of our Lord was the greatest demonstration of the glory of God in all of human history. I have shown some verses from the New Testament which support this. But the greatest proof is yet to come! It begins in that marvelous passage in the Book of Exodus, which records Israel’s worship of the golden calf, and in God’s dealings with Moses and His people.

I wish to demonstrate the progression of divine revelation from Exodus chapter 20 to chapter 34. Let me begin with this text in chapter 20, where God is giving Moses the Ten Commandments:

4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on earth under it, or that is in the water below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, who visits the iniquity of fathers on children, even to the third and fourth generations to those who hate me, 6 but who extends love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).

This text sets the standard for God’s blessings or judgment, based upon the Mosaic Covenant. The blessings and cursings are spelled out in much greater detail in Deuteronomy chapters 28-31. Here, suffice it to say that God promises to bless those who love Him and keep His commandments (verse 6). Conversely, God visits the iniquity on the generations of those who hate Him (verse 5). I think one can safely infer from the context that those who worship idols “hate God” and are worthy of condemnation. Now, to our next text:

31 So Moses returned to the Lord, and he said, “Alas, this people has committed a very serious sin, and they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will forgive their sin…, but if not, blot me out from your book that you have written.” 33 And the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me—that person I will blot out of my book. 34 So now go, lead the people to the place I have spoken to you about. See, my angel will go before you. But on the day that I visit, then I will visit their sin on them.” 35 And the Lord plagued the people because they had made the calf—the one Aaron made (Exodus 32:31-35).

The people have just bowed down in their worship of the golden calf Aaron made. God has threatened to wipe out the entire nation and to make a new nation of Moses (Exodus 32:9-10). Moses interceded with God for the people, not on the basis of Israel’s goodness, but on the basis of God’s glory. He made a covenant with His people, and He must keep it to be true to His nature, and to bring glory to Himself by fulfilling His promises (32:11-14).

Still, the sin of the people must be dealt with. The standard declared in Exodus 20:4-6 must be upheld. Moses appealed to God to forgive the sins of His people. If God could not do that, then Moses seems to have offered himself as an atonement for the sins of his people (32:32).[29] God refuses Moses’ offer, but promises to send His angel to lead the nation into the land. He then went on to send a plague on the people, punishing (I suppose) those most actively involved in the heathen idol worship of the golden calf.

18 And he said, “Show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before your face, and I will proclaim the Lord by name before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:18-19).[30]

While the people diminished the glory of God by their worship of the idol, Moses sought to know more of God’s glory. That was his passion, his comfort, and his strength. God promises to make His goodness to pass before Moses, but I am most interested here to note the aspect of God’s nature which reflects His glory – His sovereignty. He will be gracious to whom He will be gracious; He will show mercy to whom He will show mercy.

I believe this is in response to Moses’ petition in Exodus 32:31-35. God’s glory is seen in His sovereignty.[31] Moses could intercede for the nation Israel, but there was nothing he could do to predispose the outcome of that petition. More specifically, offering himself as a kind of sacrifice could not predispose the outcome. To be sovereign means to be absolutely free from outside influence as to one’s actions. We cannot manipulate God. Idolatry seeks to reduce God to the point where we have a “god” whom we can manipulate. If Israel survives and possesses the Promised Land, it will be solely due to the glory of God. It will be solely due to His sovereign will, and to His faithfulness to His covenant. Israel’s “salvation” will not be the result of man’s works, not even those of Moses.

And so we come to this final declaration of God’s glory in Exodus 34:

6 And the Lord passed by before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, 7 keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and on the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).

God’s glory is reflected in the visual splendor that Moses saw on that mountain, but I believe that God’s glory is most evident in who God is, and in what God does. That is the emphasis of Exodus 34:6-7. God has said that His glory is evident in the salvation of sinners, as He forgives their sins. God has also said that His glory is evident in His punishment of sinners. I think our tendency is to try to separate these two truths, rather than to see them as joined. I have tended to think that God chooses to forgive the sins of some men, while He chooses to punish the sins of others. It is true that God chooses to save some and to reject others (see Romans 9:6-24).

Beyond this, I believe that Exodus 34:6-7 informs us that God’s glory is evident when He forgives sinners and at the same time executes punishment for their sins. How this could happen is, I believe, a mystery at this point in time. How could God possibly forgive sinners and punish their sins at the same time? The solution is our Lord Jesus Christ and His saving work at Calvary. Listen to these words from the pen of the Apostle Paul:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed— 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness (Romans 3:19-26, emphasis mine).

It was at the cross of Calvary that the statement of Exodus 34:6-7 was fully and finally carried out. It was at the cross of Calvary that God poured out His righteous wrath on sinners:

God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

In Christ, lost sinners can be saved because He has borne the punishment for their sins. In this way, Paul writes, God can be just, because He does not overlook sin. Sin is punished. The demands of justice are met. The wrath of God toward the sinner is satisfied. And as a result, guilty sinners are saved. Do you not find yourself wanting to skip ahead to Paul’s words in Romans 11?

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! 11:34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? 11:35 Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him? 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36).

When Moses asked God to see His glory, God responded by declaring that He would save guilty sinners, while at the same time He would exact punishment for their sins. God’s glory is most evident when unworthy sinners are saved, and at the same time their punishment is meted out. That has only happened at the cross of Christ. It is our Lord’s passion that God’s glory is seen in its fullness.

In Exodus 33, Moses asked to see God’s glory. In Exodus 34, Moses saw God’s glory, in part, as he looked on the “backside” of God:

19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before your face, and I will proclaim the Lord by name before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.” 20 And he said, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Here is a place by me; you will station yourself on a rock. 22 And when my glory passes by, then I will put you in a cleft in the rock and will cover you with my hand while I pass by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face must not be seen” (Exodus 33:19-23, emphasis mine).

In the New Testament, Paul declares that in Christ (in His passion) the full glory of God has been demonstrated, and that in Christ we now see the glory of God in the face of Christ”:

5 For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:5-6, emphasis mine).

The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is the fullest manifestation of the glory of God in all of human history! The passion is not a tragedy; it is a triumph. The passion of our Lord is the ultimate manifestation of man’s sin, as seen in his wrath toward God. But the passion of our Lord is also the manifestation of God’s glory because it is on the cross that God accomplished the salvation of sinners and satisfied His righteous anger toward sin, at the same time.

Conclusion

Is there anyone who cannot embrace this as the truth? Do you find the passion of our Lord somewhat less than glorious? Then let me ask you this question? Does God do anything that is contrary to His glory? In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:

So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The standard for our conduct is that we should do everything to the glory of God. Would God do any less? If we acknowledge that it was God who put Jesus on the cross (not to exclude the guilt and participation of men – see Acts 2:22-24), then surely He acted in a way that accomplished His glory. The work of Christ in His passion is the greatest work of all time, and thus, I contend it is the greatest manifestation of God’s glory. Let us now seek to explore the implications of this glorious truth.

(1) The passion of Jesus Christ is, at one and the same time, the greatest manifestation of man’s sin and the most dramatic demonstration of the glory of God. I would suggest to you that these two truths are interrelated. The thought occurred to me that when our Lord hung on that cross, suffering the wrath of God, He did so at the very same time He suffered abuse at the hands of men. We must be careful here to distinguish between man’s wrath toward God and God’s wrath toward the Son, as the sin-bearer. In Mel Gibson’s film, there is a great deal of attention given to the physical suffering of our Lord. I don’t deny that this was the case. But I fear that too little attention was given to the three-hour period of darkness. I believe that it was at this time that God’s eternal wrath was poured out on His Son. (It is almost as though God pulled the curtains for this time of judgment.) My point is that at the very time our Lord was suffering the eternal wrath of the Father, He was suffering the greatest manifestation of man’s sin in the abuses He endured at their hands. If there ever was a time for our Lord to come down off that cross, it was then. But if He had come down, it would not have been to save men, but to destroy them for their monumental sin. What amazing grace we see in the passion of our Lord. He endured the wrath of God toward sinners at the very moment that men committed the greatest sin in human history.

But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

(2) We should be very careful not to flatter ourselves about the primary purpose for the passion of Christ. I’ve heard it many times: “If I were the only one … He would have died for me.” That makes me the center of the passion, and that misses the point! The passion of the Lord Jesus Christ was, first and foremost, done to the glory of God. Praise God that He has purposed to accomplish His glory and our good at the same time. But let us not flatter or deceive ourselves about the primary purpose of the passion – it was to demonstrate in a most incredible way the infinite glory of God, as He saved sinners and punished sin, in the person of His own Son. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound … .

(3) If sin is “falling short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), then righteousness must be accomplishing the glory of God. What more righteous act has ever been achieved than that which our Lord performed at His passion? What a difference we see between the work of Adam and the work of Christ:

18 Consequently, just as condemnation for all people came through one transgression, so too through the one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous (Romans 5:18-19).

(4) Suffering is glory. Most of us tend to think of suffering as a kind of “necessary evil,” which we endure in order to obtain glory. Such thinking is wrong-headed. It is like thinking that marriage is a necessary evil, so that one can have children. The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ demonstrates a revolutionary truth: suffering is glory. Now this is not to say that every form of suffering is glorious. The only suffering that is glorious is that which is innocent.

18 Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse. 19 For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. 21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25, underscoring mine).

This truth did not come easily to Peter, as we well know (see Matthew 16:21-24). It was the passion of our Lord that finally brought this truth home to Peter (as we see in his citation from the Book of Isaiah above). And once this truth was grasped, it revolutionized Peter’s thinking, and his teaching:

12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker. 16 But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name (1 Peter 4:12-16).

(5) The passion of Christ should serve as a pattern for our proclamation of the gospel. I have maintained that the cross of Calvary manifests the sin and guilt of men, while at the same time it is the greatest display of God’s glory in all of human history. If we are to preach the gospel, we dare not exclude either aspect of the passion – man’s sin and God’s glory in saving sinners. This was the apostolic preaching of the cross that we find in the New Testament, and it should be our message as well.

(6) The passion of our Lord is both an invitation and a warning. If God’s purpose for the passion of His Son was to glorify Himself by the infinite suffering of His Son, how do you think God will respond if you reject the offer of salvation through His Son? How do you think God will respond if you were to say, “I think that there are many ways to heaven, and I would prefer to get there another way, my way”? Do you think that God would have sent His Son to suffer as He did at Calvary if there were other ways for men to be saved? Jesus is the only way to heaven. He alone has borne the penalty for your sins. Trust in Him, and be saved. And, if you reject Him, be warned of what you bring upon yourself:

16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. 19 Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil (John 3:16-19).

9 If we accept the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, because this is the testimony of God that he has testified concerning his Son. 10 (The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has testified concerning his Son.) 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life (1 John 5:9-12).

(7) The passion of our Lord should be a strong incentive for Christians not to turn back to the sins for which Christ suffered:

4 For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, 6 and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt (Hebrews 6:4-6).

I realize there are differing interpretations of this passage. But can we not agree at least to this: It is a most terrible thing to willfully sin, presuming on the passion of our Lord. Willful sin is something like putting Jesus back on the cross, like reliving the passion. How could a Christian do such a thing?

(8) The passion of our Lord is something He commanded us to remember weekly by celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, 24 and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

Listen to these words from the pen of A. W. Tozer:

The suffering of Jesus was corrective. He was willing to suffer in order that He might correct us and perfect us, so that His suffering might not begin and end in suffering, but that it might begin in suffering and end in healing.

Brethren, that is the glory of the cross! That is the glory of the kind of sacrifice that was for so long in the heart of God! That is the glory of the kind of atonement that allows a repentant sinner to come into peaceful and gracious fellowship with his God and Creator! It began in His suffering and it ended in our healing. It began in His wounds and ended in our purification. It began in His bruises and ended in our cleansing.

What is our repentance? I discover that repentance is mainly remorse for the share we had in the revolt that wounded Jesus Christ, our Lord. Further, I have discovered that truly repentant men never quite get over it, for repentance is not a state of mind and spirit that takes its leave as soon as God has given forgiveness and as soon as cleansing is realized.

That painful and acute conviction that accompanies repentance may well subside and a sense of peace and cleansing come, but even the holiest of justified men will think back over his part in the wounding and the chastisement of the Lamb of God. A sense of shock will still come over him. A sense of wonder will remain – wonder that the Lamb that was wounded should turn His wounds into the cleansing and forgiveness of one who wounded Him.[32]

Let us never forget that for all eternity we will worship Him who was slain for our salvation. Let us never forget that it is this glory that will endure for all eternity, and for which we will fall at His feet in worship and adoration:

7 Then he came and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne, 8 and when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders threw themselves to the ground before the Lamb. Each of them had a harp and golden bowls full of incense (which are the prayers of the saints). 9 They were singing a new song:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were killed, and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. 10 You have appointed them as a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:7-10).

Glory to the Lamb who was slain. Praise God for His passion!

[1] Numbers 20:1-13.

[2] 2 Samuel 11-12.

[3] He failed badly in the matter of the rape of his daughter Tamar by his son Amnon (2 Samuel 13), and he did badly in dealing with his son Absalom (2 Samuel 13-15, 18, 19).

[4] It would seem that David should have handed the kingdom over earlier. He had to be prodded to act decisively to insure that the kingdom was given over to his son Solomon (1 Kings 1).

[5] 1 Samuel 2:22—3:18.

[6] 1 Samuel 8:3; 16:1.

[7] 1 Kings 19.

[8] 1 Kings 11.

[9] Matthew 23 is also a powerful indictment of the Jewish religious leaders.

[10] Compare Ezekiel 34:15-24.

[11] Copyright © 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 12 in the A Study of the Church series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 15, 2004.
*note: used with permission

[12] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

[13] The expression “in the third month” (Exodus 19:1) does not precisely tell the time involved, even though Moses goes on to say that this measurement of time is to “the very day.” The question is whether this expression means that they arrived on the first day of the third month, and thus just two months from the exodus (as the New Living Translation renders, “The Israelites arrived in the wilderness of Sinai exactly two months after they left Egypt”) or after three full months (as the New Jerusalem Bible renders, “Three months to the day after leaving Egypt, the Israelites reached the desert of Sinai”). Most translations do not seek to clarify the matter.

[14] The translations differ as to whether this should read “god” or “gods.” The term is plural, but that is not unusual. Did they want “gods” (i.e., several idols) to represent the “God” who led them out of Egypt, or just one “god” to do so? I am inclined toward the singular = “god.”

[15] Is this the same “Hur” who was the grandfather of Bezalel, the one God gifted as an artisan (Exodus 31:2)? If so, it seems most significant that Hur is not mentioned as a participant in the making of Israel’s idol, or in their heathen celebration.

[16] Through the young men he instructed.

[17] It is not possible to discern precisely how many days passed before the Israelites approached Aaron. We do know that Moses was in the presence of God on Mount Sinai for a total of 40 days and nights before he came down (Exodus 24:18). It had to take several days for Aaron to fashion the golden calf, so the people must have begun to pressure Aaron sometime before the 40 days had expired.

[18] A footnote in the NET Bible at Acts 7:42 reads, “The expression and gave them over suggests similarities to the judgment on the nations described by Paul in Rom 1:18-32.”

[19] Some manuscripts read “the Lord” here. I am inclined to agree that it was Jesus who saved the people out of the land of Egypt. Paul tells us the Christ “was the rock that was following them” (1 Corinthians 10:4).

[20] Moses did not enter the land either, but this was not because he did not believe in God; it was because he struck the rock in his anger (see Numbers 20:1-13, 24; Deuteronomy 1:37; 4:21-22).

[21] See Genesis 33:12; Exodus 23:23; 32:1, 23; Numbers 14:14.

[22] In this way, the Israelites made an idol of the ark (see 1 Samuel 4:1-11).

[23] Copyright © 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 11 in the A Study of the Church series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 29, 2004.

[24] One might wonder why this lesson has been included in a series on the church.  During this series (see lesson 8, “The Mission of the Church”), it became evident that primary mission of the church is the pursuit of the glory of God.  In the midst of this series on the church, Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ,” was released.  This lesson is an attempt to show that the primary purpose of our Lord’s passion was to glorify God.  Therefore, it was decided to leave it in this series on the church since it further explores the glory of God.

[25] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

[26] I am not saying that Gibson’s film exaggerated the physical suffering and abuse of our Lord; I am suggesting that the emphasis may be somewhat disproportionate because so little emphasis was placed on the outpouring of God’s

wrath on His Son. I believe that our Lord’s suffering involved much more than physical torture and mental abuse from the hands of men.

[27] “When all is said and done, the most crucial question is: Why? Why did Christ suffer and die? Not why in the sense of cause, but why in the sense of purpose.” What did Christ achieve by his passion? Why did he have to suffer so much? What great thing was happening on Calvary for the world?” John Piper, The Passion of Jesus Christ (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 17.

[28] This is the title of A.W. Tozer’s book as well as the title of his first chapter, from which the quotation below is cited. A.W. Tozer, Who Put Jesus on the Cross? (Camp Hill, Pennsylvania: Christian Publications, 1975, 1996), pp. 1-3.

[29] Do Paul’s words in Romans 9:1-3 come to mind here? Did they originate with Moses?

[30] Notice that nothing is said here about the judgment of the wicked. The salvation of some will be the result of God’s sovereign choice to show mercy. Men’s condemnation, by inference (and consistent with Exodus 20:4-6), is due to their sin. I am not denying here the fact that God’s sovereignty includes the destruction of the wicked. I am, rather, saying that God did not choose to emphasize this here.

[31] I believe that the connection between one’s “glory” and one’s “sovereignty” can be seen in the way God dealt with Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:28-37 and 5:17-24.

[32] A.W. Tozer, Who Put Jesus on the Cross?, pp. 8-9.