A life and death decision

At the end of his life, Joshua summoned all Israel and challenged the people to make a commitment to the LORD. The central point of Joshua’s argument was the covenant that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai which stipulated their “total consecration to the Lord as His people (His kingdom) who live by His rule and serve His purposes” (Major Covenants of the Old Testament, KJSB, p.16). When Moses told the people of Israel all the words of the LORD and all the rules, the covenant was confirmed by them. “All the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do’” (Exodus 24:3-4). Because God had kept his promise and had given the people of Israel all the land that he had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Joshua 23:9); Joshua said, “Now, therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness” (Joshua 24:14). Fearing and serving the LORD meant that the people worshipped God by living according to his Ten Commandments and the other laws that were recorded in Exodus 20-23. The Hebrew word that is translated serve, ʿabad (aw-badˊ) means “to work (in any sense)…When the focus of the labour is the Lord, it is a religious service to worship Him. Moreover, in these cases, the word does not have connotations of toilsome labour but instead of a joyful experience of liberation (Exodus 3:12; 4:23; 7:16; Joshua 24:15, 18)” (H5647). Joshua instructed the people to worship the LORD in sincerity and in faithfulness. Both of these words have to do with living by faith, or more specifically, living consistent with the truth of God’s word. “To walk in truth is to conduct oneself according to God’s holy standards (1 Kings 2:4; 3:6; Psalm 86:11; Isaiah 38:3)” (H571).

Joshua’s challenge eluded to the fact that the people were free to worship whatever gods they wanted to, but they could not serve God and others at the same time. Joshua instructed them to:

“Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14-15)

“This challenge was similar to that issued by Moses to the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). Joshua summarized the options that were open to the Israelites: (1) They could return to serve the gods of their ancestors. The expression ‘beyond the River’ refers to the Euphrates. ‘The gods that your fathers served’ is a reference to the ones worshipped by Terah, Abraham’s father (Joshua 24:2). They may have been similar to the images in Laban’s home (Genesis 31:19, 30, 34). Apparently there were some Israelites who privately worshipped these false gods (Joshua 24:23). (2) They could serve the gods of the Amorites. Although the term ‘Amorites’ often refers to a specific people, it was also used in a generic sense for all the people living in Canaan. (3) They could follow the example of Joshua and his family in serving the Lord” (note on Joshua 24:14, 15).

Joshua realized that not everyone in Israel was committed to the LORD. Joshua presented three options to the people as a way of acknowledging their divided interests. The Hebrew word that is translated choose in Joshua 24:15, bachar (baw-kharˊ) “denotes a choice, which is based on a thorough examination of the situation and not an arbitrary whim” (H977). Bachar is used in Deuteronomy 7:6 and 7:7 to signify God’s selection of the people of Israel as his treasured possession. Deuteronomy 7:6-11 states:

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.”

Moses pointed out that God’s selection of the Israelites was based on his love for them and that he was a “faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him” (Deuteronomy 7:9). The Hebrew word ʾaheb (aw-habeˊ) “means ‘to love; like.’ Basically this verb is equivalent to the English ‘to love’ in the sense of having a strong emotional attachment to and desire either to possess or to be in the presence of the object” (H157). The expected extent of the Israelites’ love for God was expressed in what Jesus referred to as the greatest commandment, which stated, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

When Moses presented the Israelites with the choice to serve God or not, he made it a life and death decision. Moses said:

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

Moses indicated that life must be chosen and equated life with “loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him.” And then, Moses told the Israelites emphatically that God is “your life and length of days” (Deuteronomy 30:20). At the end of his ministry, Jesus encouraged his disciples by telling them, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) and then went on to say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”

The Apostle Peter connected followers of Christ with the covenant that God made with Israel on Mount Sinai in his letter to the exiles of the Dispersion. Echoing God’s statement to his chosen people in Exodus 19:5-6, Peter said, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10). Jesus also made it clear that his ministry was meant to bring to fruition what God had initiated on Mount Sinai when he gave the Israelites his Ten Commandments. Jesus told his followers, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus’ interpretation of the law was often challenged. When he was confronted by a rich young man about the way to get to heaven, Jesus explained that God’s standard was beyond what could be humanly attained by him. Matthew’s gospel tells us:

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:16-30)

Jesus’ statement, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” indicated that salvation was a divine act rather than a human one. The Greek word dunatos (doo-natˊ-os), which is translated possible, is derived from the word dunamai (dooˊ-nam-ahee). “Dunamai means to be able, to have power, whether by virtue of one’s own ability and resources (Romans 15:14); or through a state of mind, or through favorable circumstances” (G1410). According to Jesus, no one has the power; whether by virtue of one’s own ability and resources, or through a state of mind, or through favorable circumstances, to save himself, but God can save anyone that he chooses to.

The Apostle Paul explained in his letter to the Philippians that righteousness can only be achieved through faith in Christ. Paul told the Philippians:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:1-11)

Paul said that as to righteousness under the law he was blameless, indicating that he had done everything that was required of him according to the law; and yet, Paul said, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7). Paul understood that it was not his own righteousness that mattered, but the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ (Philippians 3:9, Genesis 15:6).

The Israelites response to Joshua’s challenge was favorable. It showed that they were willing to abandon their false gods, but Joshua didn’t believe that their decision to serve God was sincere. Joshua 24:16-23 states:

Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

Joshua’s cynical attitude may have been due to his experience wandering in the wilderness with the Israelites. Joshua’s statement, “You are not able to serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:19) was true in the sense that the people of Israel did not have the spiritual strength within themselves to obey God’s commandments; but the key to the Israelites’ success was not their spiritual strength, it was their continual pursuit of a relationship with God (Joshua 22:5).

Jesus’ parable of the ten minas revealed that Israel had actually rejected God because they hated him and that the people didn’t want to be subject to Christ. Luke 19:11-27 states:

As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas,and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”

The wicked servant in Jesus’ parable characterized the Lord as a severe man that took what he had not deposited with him and reaped what he had not sown. Even though the wicked servant wasn’t faithful in his service to the Lord, he wasn’t punished, he merely lost out on his reward. Jesus’ concluding statement, “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:27) indicates that only those who have refused to serve him will be put to death when he returns. “No matter how much or how little one has, it must always be remembered that it has come from God. Each person is responsible to him for the way he uses what the Lord has given” (note on Luke 19:11-27).

Unresolved Conflict

The first interpersonal conflict that occurred in the Bible was between Adam and Eve’s sons Cain and Abel. Genesis 4:1-7 tells us:

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”

“The fact that God ‘had regard for Abel and his offering” raises the question, is God completely impartial? In some texts (Exodus 2:25; Leviticus 26:9; 2 Kings 13:23; Psalm 138:6), he is said to acknowledge or pay attention to a person or group of individuals. Other passages state that God is no respecter of persons (2 Chronicles 19:7; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11: Ephesians 6:9; 1 Peter 1:17). Although no one has a higher standing in God’s eyes because of their status in life or of something they themselves have done, God does, according to his sovereign will, pay specific attention to certain individuals and situations. The fact that God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s may not have been based on the fact that Abel’s involved the shedding of blood and Cain’s did not. Some of the required Old Testament offerings were bloodless, such as the grain offering (Leviticus 2:1-14; 6:14-23; 7:9-10) and the sin offering brought by the very poor (Leviticus 5:11-13). It may have been that the attitude of faith in which Abel brought his offering pleased God rather than the offering itself” (note on Genesis 4:3-7). It says in Hebrews 11:4, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.”

God asked Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). The Hebrew words that are translated well and accepted have to do with being happy and exhibiting cheerfulness (H3190/H7613). God was pointing out to Cain that he was responsible for his own happiness and said that sin had to be mastered by him. Cain’s response to God’s intervention indicated that he was not willing to take responsibility for his own actions. Genesis 4:8-9 states, “Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” 1 John 3:9-12 explains that the interpersonal conflict between Cain and Abel was based on their relationship to God. John said, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” John identified two categories of people, children of God and children of the devil, and said that it is evident which category people belong in. The phrase born of God is “spoken of God begetting in a spiritual sense which consists in regenerating, sanctifying, quickening anew, and ennobling the powers of the natural man by imparting to him a new life and a new spirit in Christ (1 John 5:1).

God’s selection of Jacob rather than Esau created a conflict between these two brothers that was never resolved. Genesis 25:21-23 tells us:

And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
     and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
     the older shall serve the younger.

The Hebrew word that is translated divided, parad (paw-radˊ) “often expresses separation of people from each other, sometimes with hostility” (H6504). Genesis 27:41 indicates that Esau hated his brother Jacob, “because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him” and Rebekah sent Jacob to live with her brother Laban, stating, “Behold, your brother comforts himself about you by planning to kill you” (Genesis 27:42).

Unresolved conflict continued to be a part of Jacob’s heritage. His son Joseph was hated by his brothers because of a dream he had that indicated he would rule over his family (Genesis 37:8). When his brothers “saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams’” (Genesis 37:18-20). Jacob’s family was forced to leave the land of Canaan because of a famine and remained in Egypt as slaves for 400 years until God sent Moses to deliver them from their bondage (Exodus 6:6). After they returned to the land that God had promised to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each of the twelve tribes of Israel were given an inheritance that required them to occupy specific territories within the borders of the Promised Land. The territory allotted to the tribe of the people of Benjamin “fell between the people of Judah and the people of Joseph (Joshua 18:11). The inheritance for the tribe of the people of Simeon “was in the midst of the inheritance of the people of Judah” (Joshua 19:1). “Dan’s inheritance was on the coastal plain, south of the territory given to Ephraim” (note on Joshua 19:40-48). The inheritances of Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, and Naphtali were nestled in between the eastern and western portions of land given to the tribe of Manasseh (Joshua 19:10-39). The close proximity of the tribes’ inheritances to each other’s made it more likely that their unresolved conflicts would continue. “Having distributed the land to the tribes, the Lord’s next administrative regulation provided an elementary system of government; specifically a system of regional courts to deal with capital offenses having to do with manslaughter. Thus this most inflammatory of cases was removed from local jurisdiction, and a safeguard was created against the easy miscarriage of justice (with its endless blood feuds) when retribution for manslaughter was left in the hands of family members” (note on Joshua 20:1-9, KJSB).

The record we have of Jesus’ birth in the Bible indicates that he was born into an environment that was hostile to him. John’s gospel states, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). Two groups of people that Jesus focused most of his attention on were neighbors and enemies. It can be assumed that both of these groups consisted of unsaved people that Jesus’ followers lived in close contact with. Neighbors might have been open to God, but enemies were not, and yet, Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies. Jesus said:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:27-36)

Jesus’ message left no room for retaliation and made it clear that love was the only acceptable response to all types of harsh treatment. With regard to judging others, Jesus went on to say, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye” (Luke 6:41-42).

Proverbs 27:17-19 provides important insight into how positive human interaction can change the outcome of an unresolved conflict. It states:

Iron sharpens iron,
    and one man sharpens another.
Whoever tends a fig tree will eat its fruit,
    and he who guards his master will be honored.
As in water face reflects face,
    so the heart of man reflects the man.

Iron sharpening iron depicts the effect of a harsh attitude or fierce look toward another person. It says that “one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17), indicating that the person’s response will be made more sharp or more fierce by the attitude or look that has been displayed to him (H2300). The contrast between iron sharpening iron and a person tending a fig tree (Proverbs 27:17-18) has to do with a person’s investment in a particular relationship. The Hebrew word that is translated tends in Proverbs 27:18, natsar (naw-tsarˊ) “refers to people’s maintaining things entrusted to them, especially to keeping the truths of God in both action and mind” (H5341). Whereas a harsh attitude or a fierce look can quickly sharpen the countenance of another person, tending to a relationship over time will produce spiritual fruit in the life of a believer. Likewise, protecting someone that has authority over you will benefit you in the long run.

The statement, “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man” (Proverbs 27:19) indicates that it is impossible for us to hide our attitude toward another person. When God confronted Cain, he made note of the fact that his face had fallen (Genesis 4:6). The Hebrew word that is translated face, paneh (paw-nehˊ) “represents the look on one’s face, or one’s countenance” (H6440). What God meant by Cain’s face falling was that Cain’s negative attitude toward Abel was evident in his facial expression. God could tell that Cain was very angry that his brother’s sacrifice had been accepted and not his own. The heart of man is considered to be the seat of his inner nature (H3820). Jesus explained to his disciples, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19). Jesus also remarked to the Pharisees, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:34-35). When God asked Cain, “’Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” (Genesis 4:9). Cain’s response made it clear that he had no regard for his brother’s well-being. When Cain killed Abel, he intentionally murdered him and was not sorry for his crime.

Proverbs 27:4 states, “Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” In this proverb, jealousy is portrayed as an intense fervor that is greater than anger or wrath. The letter of James which is largely composed of general exhortations and admonitions, has been referred to as “The New Testament Book of Proverbs” (Introduction to The Letter of James). James offered warnings and advice on many difficult topics including conflict among believers and judging your neighbor. James wrote:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:1-12)

James attributed quarrels and fights to passions that are at war within us and indicated that the fallen spirit of man is responsible for his propensity to sin (note on James 4:5). James identified grace as the solution to our sin problem (James 4:6). Grace is “the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life” (G5485). Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

James identified three critical steps that can restore our relationship with God and others. James said, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7-8). The Greek word that is translated submit, hupotasso (hoop-ot-asˊ-so) means “to subordinate; reflexive to obey” (G5293). Hupotasso is derived from the words hupo (hoop-oˊ) which means “under” (G5259) and tasso (tasˊ-so) which means “to arrange in an orderly manner, i.e. assign or dispose (to a certain position or lot). Submission to God involves our acceptance of the circumstances that he has placed us in and also the destiny that he has prepared for us before the world began (Ephesians 1:4-5). The allotments of land that each of the twelve tribes of Israel received as their inheritance was determined by God (Joshua 14:1). They were instructed to take possession of the land, but it was their decision to do it or not.

Resisting the devil means that we stand against him, we oppose the thoughts and feelings that he brings into our minds (G436). Paul instructed the believers in Ephesus to stand against the schemes of the devil. He said, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:10-12). When we draw near to God, we are approaching him with the intent of worshipping him without any ulterior motives. We’re not trying to get something from God or trying to get God to do something that we want him to. The offerings that Cain and Abel brought to God were both acceptable types of offerings. It was the way that they were offered that caused one of them to be accepted and the other rejected. The interesting thing to note about Cain’s offering was that even though his offering wasn’t accepted, God personally interacted with Cain and attempted to prevent him from making the wrong choice. “The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it’” (Genesis 4:6-7). God depicted sin as something that is waiting to overtake us and said it must be mastered by us. Living with unresolved conflict is like we are leaving the door open, but don’t expect sin to come in. James advised us, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:8-10).

Good news

The birth of Jesus came suddenly and unexpectedly, at a time when there was little hope left that God would fulfill his promise to bring a Messiah to his chosen people, the Jews. Luke made a specific reference to a historical event, so that the date of Jesus’ birth would be accurately recorded. He said, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed (and this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria)” (Luke 2:1-2). The Roman government was at the height of its success in dominating the world and wanted to take advantage of its opportunity to collect taxes from every person that fell under its jurisdiction. God used the decree of a pagan emperor to fulfill an important prophecy recorded in Micah 5:2. It says, “But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

The location of the Messiah’s birth wouldn’t have been as critical if the Jews had remained in the Promised Land and their population kept in tact. Because the Jews had been scattered throughout the world during their captivity, and their geographical footprint altered by Roman occupation, the only way to know for certain that Jesus was actually a descendent of King David was to have his birth occur during the Roman census. Luke recorded, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child” (Luke 2:4-5). Joseph’s residence in Nazareth indicated that his relationship to King David was of no benefit to him. Most likely, it was unknown to everyone around him, and perhaps even to Joseph himself, that he was of royal descent until the Roman census occurred.

The shepherds that were keeping watch over their flocks the night that Jesus was born may have been the only group of people that were collectively willing to believe the good news they were told about their Messiah’s birth. The fact that the shepherds were given a sign to assure them that what the angel said was true suggests that even they were skeptical about the message they received (Luke 2:12). After seeing and hearing “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God,” (Luke 2:13) it appears that the shepherds were still unconvinced. At the conclusion of this amazing worship event, Luke 2:15 tells us, “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” It wasn’t until the shepherds saw the sign promised them, the babe lying in a manger, that their belief became evident. Luke said, afterwards “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” (Luke 2:20).

Rejoicing

After the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem was completed, there was a celebration in which the wall was dedicated. Nehemiah’s description of what took place showed that it was a very joyous occasion. He said, “And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgiving, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps” (Nehemiah 12:27). Nehemiah choreographed a sequence of steps and movements that involved dividing the Levites into two great companies. According to Nehemiah’s plan, “One went on the right hand upon the wall toward the dung gate…with the musical instruments of David the man of God, and Ezra the scribe before them…And the other company of them that gave thanks went over against them, and I after them, and half of the people upon the wall” (Nehemiah 12:31,36,38).

Nehemiah went on to say, “Also that day they offered great sacrifices, and rejoiced: for God had made them rejoice with great joy: the wives also and the children rejoiced: so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off” (Nehemiah 12:43). One of the songs that was likely sung at the dedication of the wall was Psalm 126. This short psalm is part of a collection of psalms known as the songs of degrees which were sung by Jews that traveled to Jerusalem for festivals. Psalm 126 focuses on the fulfillment of God’s promise that his chosen people would return to the Promised Land after their captivity was completed. It says:

When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them. The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad. Turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalm 126)

A key statement in this psalm is actually a promise that reveals God’s intent in sending his people into captivity. Psalm 126:5 states, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. God dispenses his blessings based on a system of sowing and reaping. Jesus eluded to this in one of his teachings known as the beatitudes which means supreme blessedness (Matthew 5:3-11). Before they went into captivity, God’s people lacked faith and were unresponsive to his warnings about the dangers that lay ahead of them. After they returned to the Promised Land, the Jews were thankful and felt extreme joy even though they were dealing with great affliction and reproach from the nations around them (Nehemiah 1:3).

The new temple (part 6)

According to Ezekiel’s vision, in the center of the temple courtyard there stood an altar on which sacrifices were to be made. Since the period of grace began, after Jesus’s death and resurrection took place, it has seemed as if sacrifices are no longer necessary. What we can assume from the appearance of an altar in the new temple is that there will come a time when salvation by grace will no longer be available to mankind. In other words, God’s law will once again be the standard by which all men will be judged (Ezekiel 43:27). Although Jesus’ death paid the penalty for every sin that ever had or would be committed, our ability to claim that payment and apply it to our spiritual account has an expiration date, the day he establishes his kingdom on earth.

During Christ’s millennial reign on earth, a new world order will exist that requires submission to God’s will. Obedience to God’s laws will no longer be optional. If you can image a kingdom in which there will be no sins committed against God, you will understand that God’s sovereignty has never been forced upon man up to this time. Free will represents the ability man has to rebel against God. There will come a time when man’s free will is exempted and God’s grace will cease to exist in the sense that it can no longer be claimed in lieu of obedience to the law. Therefore, sacrifices will be made to God just as they were when the first temple was built by king Solomon. At that time, the celebration of feasts signified a right relationship between God and his people. In the future, that relationship will be restored and it will cause the people to do what was never possible before, live according to God’s commandments.

A glimpse into this future new world order is given in Hebrews 13:10-21. It says:

We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle. For the bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burnt without the camp. Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come. By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly. But I beseech you the rather to do this, that I may be restored to you sooner. Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

The new temple (part 1)

Ezekiel was taken to the site of a new temple after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. The purpose of the visit was for Ezekiel to see and record the floor plan for a restored place of worship for God’s people. It was evident that God wanted his people to know exactly what the temple would look like because a man whose appearance was described as “like the appearance of brass” (Ezekiel 40:3) took great pains to measure every detail of the structure. Ezekiel was told to set his heart upon all that he was shown. In other words, he was told to pay close attention and not to miss any of the specifications that were pointed out to him.

The first aspect of the new temple Ezekiel was shown was the eastern entrance to a courtyard that consisted of a gate, steps, a porch, and chambers or alcoves in which guards could rest. No doubt, the eastern gate would have been where the general public entered the temple. Along with the dimensions of the chambers, Ezekiel was told “between the little chambers were five cubits” (Ezekiel 40:7) or spaces approximately nine feet wide. There is no indication why the chambers were spaced out in such a way, but it is possible the spaces in between the chambers were designed for storage or a place to hold prisoners.

One of the things known about the new temple Ezekiel was shown is that it was never built. After the Israelites returned from captivity, the temple built by Zerubbabel was built by a different specification and so was the temple built by Herod, which was the one standing at the time of Jesus’ birth. There is no reference in Ezekiel’s vision as to when the temple he saw was to be built, but it could be that it will be in use during the millennial reign of Christ. An indicator of this is the type of measure Ezekiel used in his measurements, a long or royal cubit, approximately 20.4 inches in length.

The curious nature of the new temple’s design may be due to its representation of spiritual concepts that have yet to be introduced into God’s kingdom. For instance, the integration of Jews and Gentiles into a single worship system as well as the mixture of resurrected and unresurrected persons into kingdom activities. The only way to tell the real significance of Ezekiel’s new temple may be in the timing of his vision. It says in Ezekiel 40:1, “In the five and twentieth year of our captivity, in the beginning of the year, in the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after that the city was smitten, in the selfsame day the hand of the LORD was upon me, and brought me thither.”

All the dates in the book of Ezekiel are reckoned from the 597 exile. The Hebrew New Year festival known as Rosh Hashanah would have been taking place at the time of Ezekiel’s vision, had the people not been in captivity. More than likely, the vision was a reminder that God’s worship system remained in tact and was still active in spite of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple that was built there. Perhaps, the introduction of the new temple at that time; April 28, 573 B.C. was a sign that God’s calendar of events was being set in motion and would conclude at the appointed time, the start of millennial reign of Christ.

The liar

One of the few descriptions of the devil in the Bible is found in John 8:44. Differentiating between those who are true children of Abraham and those who are not, it says, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lust of your father ye will do .He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for his is a liar, and the father of it.” Satan’s reputation as the father of lies implies that all lies originate from him. In the book of 1 Kings, there is recorded an incident in which a lying spirit was sent to the king of Israel (1 Kings 22:23-24). A conversation between God and the host of heaven suggested that king Ahab could be persuaded by a lying spirit to do something that would result in his own death.

At the time of the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, the people were being told lies about their safety inside the city walls. Ezekiel was told, “They have seen vanity and lying divination, saying, The LORD saith: and the LORD hath not sent them: and they made others to hope that they would confirm the word” (Ezekiel 13:6). “Divination was a pagan parallel to prophesying…it seems probable that the diviners conversed with demons…Divination was one of man’s attempts to know and control the world and the future, apart from the true God” (7080). Even king Zedekiah participated in the deception of God’s people. His consultation with Jeremiah revealed that surrender was the only way to avoid death, and yet, Zedekiah chose to keep the information from the people and tried to escape secretly by night (Jeremiah 39:4).

In an attempt to make the truth known to his people, Ezekiel was given advance warning of king Zedekiah’s plot (Ezekiel 12:6) and was told to warn the people against false prophets (Ezekiel 13:2). God said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, what is that proverb that ye have in the land of Israel, saying, The days are prolonged, and every vision faileth? Tell them therefore, Thus saith the Lord GOD; I will make this proverb to cease, and they shall no more use it as a proverb in Israel; but say unto them, The days are at hand, and the effect of every vision. For there shall be no more any vain vision nor flattering divination within the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 12:22-24).

The connection between idolatry and lying divination was found in a sacrificial system that promised peace and prosperity at a price. In a sense, the false prophets were bribed to tell the people what they wanted to hear. Sacrifices to pagan gods were used as a front for the business of organized crime. It was illegal for the Israelites to worship other gods, and yet, idols were kept in God’s own temple (Ezekiel 8:12). God’s condemnation of the false prophets showed that his people were under their control and needed to be delivered from their dangerous practices. He said, “Because with lies ye have made the heart of the righteous sad, whom I have not made sad; and strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way, by promising him life: therefore ye shall see no more vanity, nor divine divinations: for I will deliver my people out of your hand: and ye shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 13:22-23).

Heart trouble

At the beginning of Jeremiah’s ministry, the city of Jerusalem was active in its worship of the LORD. After king Josiah made a covenant “to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments,” a Passover celebration took place that included every citizen of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 34:31; 35:18). It says in 2 Chronicles 35:18, “And there was no Passover like to that kept in Israel from the days of Samuel the Prophet; neither did all the kings of Israel keep such a Passover as Josiah kept.” And yet, the LORD challenged Jeremiah to try to find one upright man for whose sake he might pardon the entire city. He told Jeremiah, “And though they say, The LORD liveth; surely they swear falsely” (Jeremiah 5:2).

Although the people  of Jerusalem were practicing their religion, God could see their hearts were not in it. Jeremiah said, “O LORD, are not thine eyes upon the truth? thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved, thou hast consumed them, but they have refused to receive correction: they have made their faces harder than a rock; they have refused to return” (Jeremiah 5:3). Jeremiah’s reference to the peoples’ faces being harder than rock was actually a reference to their hard heartedness. The Hebrew word translated harder, chazaq (khaw – zak´) is the same word used to describe Pharaoh’s hardened heart when he refused to let the people of Israel leave Egypt (Exodus 7:13). In reference to Pharaoh, chazaq means “to brace up and strengthen and points to the hardihood with which he set himself to act in defiance against God and closed all the avenues to his heart to those signs and wonders which Moses wrought” (2388).

When the people of Jerusalem celebrated the Passover, they were only going through the motions. Their true motive for participation was a free meal at the expense of king Josiah (2 Chronicles 35:7). God could see the people had become complacent and were no longer concerned about his judgment of them. It was as if they believed God was unaware of what they were doing and could not hold them accountable for their sin. In order to show them the foolishness of their decision to reject his offer of salvation, God intended to let his children experience the fruit of their own labors. He declared through the prophet Jeremiah, “A wonderful and a horrible thing is committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means, and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?” (Jeremiah 5:31).

 

Exempted

A key component of the Israelites’ sacrificial system was the Passover. The Passover was instituted on the eve of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Prior to that night, the Egyptians had experienced nine plagues because Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go into the wilderness and worship their God. The plagues were intended to demonstrate God’s miraculous power. The LORD told Moses, “the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth my hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:5).

During the plagues, God made a distinction between the  Israelites and the Egyptians. God told Pharaoh, “I will put a division between my people and thy people” (Exodus 8:23). The Hebrew word translated division, peduth is derived from the word padah. “Padah indicates that some intervening or substitutionary action effects a release from an undesirable condition” (6299). Padah is usually translated as redeem or ransom. God was letting Pharaoh know that his people were no longer subject to Pharaoh’s command and would be exempted from the rest of his plagues.

The last plague God brought upon the Egyptians was the death of all their firstborn. Even though the Israelites were exempted from this plague, they had to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle its blood on the doorposts of their home as a sign to God that he should pass over that household (Exodus 12:7). The lamb was later referred to as the Passover (Exodus 12:27) and the Israelites were expected to celebrate this event annually in remembrance of God’s deliverance. After the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, the Passover celebration was for the most part ignored or forgotten. It wasn’t until king Hezekiah ordered the people to observe it, that the Passover was kept as it was originally intended to be (2 Chronicles 30:5).

In 622 B.C., after the book of the law was found and read to all the people, king Josiah kept the Passover exactly as it was prescribed by Moses. Every person that was living in Judah and Jerusalem participated in the celebration (2 Chronicles 35:17). This may have been the only complete observance of the sacrifice since it was celebrated in Egypt. Josiah  himself provided 33,000 animals for the sacrifice, indicating there were probably only 100,000 – 200,000 people residing in the nation at that time. Around 800 B.C, there were 300,000 men alone in Judah, 20 years old and above that were able to go to war, suggesting the total population was over one million.

The significance of king Josiah’s Passover celebration was that it occurred within a generation of when Judah went into captivity. There were three kings that followed Josiah; all of whom were his sons. It seems as if the first Passover and this last Passover celebration served somewhat as bookends to the Israelites’ freedom. The only way God could get the people to celebrate it was through the threat of death. Given that the Passover exempted the Israelites from all punishment of their sins, you would think they would have been more diligent about its observance.

Boasting

Psalm 135 begins with the statement, “Praise ye the LORD” (Psalm 135:1). The Hebrew word translated praise in this verse is halal. In its simplest active form, the word halal means to boast” (1984). Everyone knows how to boast and most people do it on a regular basis, and yet, boasting about God is not something that happens naturally. The reason we are told to praise the LORD is because “the LORD is good” (Psalm 135:3).

Goodness is not a measure of quality, but a characteristic or attribute of a thing or person. When he was referred to as “Good Master,” Jesus responded, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17). What Jesus was saying was, it is impossible for a human to be or become good. The best we can do is live by God’s standard and give him the credit for the result.