A harvest of righteousness

The biblical concept of righteousness can be confusing if think of it in terms of actions or duties. The Greek word dikaiosune (dik-ah-yos-oo’-nay) has to do specifically with Christian justification and can be thought of as “being just as one should be” (G1343). In other words, Christians that have been justified are just the way they were intended to be when God created them. From an internal perspective, justification means that our hearts are right with God, hence we are considered to be righteous with regard to our relationship to God. It says in Genesis 15:6 that Abraham “believed the LORD and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Righteousness was imputed or counted to Abraham because he believed what God told him. The Apostle Paul explained Abraham’s justification by faith in his letter to the Romans. Paul said:

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:1-8)

Paul made it clear that the only way we can be justified in God’s sight is by faith in Jesus Christ. Paul stated, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26)

Justification by faith is expected to produce a change in the believer’s lifestyle. In his first epistle, the Apostle John talked about God’s seed abiding in all who have been born again. 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” (1 John 3:9-10). The Greek word that is translated seed, sperma (sper’-mah) means “something that is sown” (G4690) and is derived from the word speiro (spi’-ro) which means to scatter (G4687). Jesus’ parable of the sower and parable of the weeds illustrated how the believer’s heart is either influenced by the Holy Spirit to practice righteousness or by the devil to practice sin. Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the sower indicated that we must understand God’s word in order to benefit from it. Jesus said:

“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:18-23)

Paul associated righteousness with the fruit of the Holy Spirit and said, “For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth” (Ephesians 5:9). Paul identified the fruits of the Holy Spirit in his letter to the Galatians. Paul stated, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Sprit” (Galatians 5:22-23, 25). Keeping in step with the Spirit essentially means that we are conforming our behavior to be consistent with God’s word. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians included a reminder of their pledge to take part in the relief of the saints. Paul was concerned that the Corinthians’ reputation of excelling in spiritual matters might be hurt by their reluctance to participate in this act of grace (2 Corinthians 8:1-7). Therefore, Paul admonished them saying:

Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year. And your zeal has stirred up most of them. But I am sending the brothers so that our boasting about you may not prove empty in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be. Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—for being so confident. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction. (2 Corinthians 9:1-5)

Paul identified the Corinthians’ contribution as a willing gift. The Greek word that is translated willing gift, eulogia (yoo-log-ee’-ah) means “fine speaking” and is used of God and Christ in connection with the invocation of blessings, a benediction (G2129). Paul emphasized the importance of the execution of the Corinthians’ act of grace by linking their pledge to give to the relief of the saints to the invocation of a blessing. The point Paul was likely trying to make was that every word that comes out of the mouth of a believer is considered to be a testimony on behalf of Christ. Paul indicated that he would be humiliated if the Corinthians didn’t do what they said they were going to because they would be making him out to be a liar (2 Corinthians 9:4).

Paul seemed to be linking the Corinthians’ giving with Jesus’ parable of the sower when he used the analogy of sowing and reaping to convey the significance of the size of their gift. Paul said, “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). Paul eluded to a connection between teaching the word of God and receiving financial support in his letter to the Galatians. Paul stated:

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:6-10)

According to Leviticus chapters 6-7, many of the animal sacrifices that were made to the LORD under the Mosaic Law were able to be eaten by the priests. The guilt offering in particular was considered to be compensation to the LORD for an offense that an individual had committed (Leviticus 6:6). Leviticus 7:5-6 states, “The priest shall burn them on the altar as a food offering. Every male among the priests may eat of it. It shall be eaten in a holy place. It is most holy.”

God specifically commanded the people of Israel to give a portion of their peace offerings to Aaron the priest and to his sons because they were serving him. The LORD told Moses, “Whoever among the sons of Aaron offers the blood of the peace offerings and the fat shall have the right thigh for a portion. For the breast that is waved and the thigh that is contributed I have taken from the people of Israel, out of the sacrifices of their peace offerings, and have given them to Aaron the priest and to his sons, as a perpetual due from the people of Israel. This is the portion of Aaron and of his sons from the Lord’s food offerings, from the day they were presented to serve as priests of the Lord. The Lord commanded this to be given them by the people of Israel, from the day he anointed them. It is a perpetual due throughout their generations” (Leviticus 7:33-36). The portion that was given to Aaron and his sons was a consecratory gift that signified justification on the part of the gift and the giver.

Paul explained in his second letter to the Corinthians that giving would result in God’s grace overflowing in a believer’s life. Paul said, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written, He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; righteousness endures forever” (2 Corinthians 9:7-9). The phrase righteousness endures forever refers to an eternal state of justification, which is “the legal and formal acquittal from guilt by God as Judge, the pronouncement of the sinner as righteous, who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ” (G1344). Paul indicated that when God’s grace abounds to us, we have all sufficiency in all things at all times. In other words, we are completely content with our circumstances. Whether Paul was talking about an eternal state of bliss or a life that is available to believers as soon as they accept Christ isn’t completely clear, but it seems that Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that they were able to effect their circumstances by giving generously.

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to rely on God’s provision for their gift. Paul said, “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Corinthians 9:10). The Greek word that is translated seed, sperma (sper’-mah) is used figuratively in 1 John 3:9 “of the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit in Christians that keeps them from practicing sin” (G4690). From that standpoint, Paul’s reference to “the harvest of your righteousness” may have had to do with the fruits of the Spirit. The Greek word that is translated harvest, gennema (ghen’-nay-mah) means offspring (G1081) and is derived from the word gennao (ghen-nah’-o) which speaks “of one who by means of preaching the gospel becomes the human instrument in the impartation of spiritual life” (G1080). Paul seemed to be saying that the Corinthians financial support of the saints in Jerusalem had the same impact and reward of preaching the gospel to them. It could be that the act of grace that Paul associated with the relief of the saints (2 Corinthians 8:6-7) was a type of ministry that complimented the preaching of the gospel in that it depicted the love of God in a tangible way that was unmistakably supernatural and gave the Holy Spirit an opportunity to work in the hearts of the people that were receiving the gift and to bring them to Christ.

Paul’s explanation of the harvest of righteousness that he hoped the Corinthians would experience seemed to center around the grace of God being activated in the lives of believers. The Sermon on the Mount had a similar objective and in it Jesus mentioned giving to the needy in the context of receiving spiritual rewards. Jesus said:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)

The phrase Jesus used, practicing your righteousness, had to do with bringing forth fruit (G4160) and is related to a statement Paul made in his letter to the Ephesians about God’s effort to transform the lives of believers. Paul talked about the immeasurable riches of God’s grace and his kindness toward us in bringing us to Christ (Ephesians 2:5-7) and then he said, “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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

The Greek word poiema (poy’-ay-mah), which is translated workmanship in Ephesians 2:10, refers to a thing that is made, a product (G4161). One of the reasons God saves people is so that he can use them to bless others. We can’t take credit for the good things we do because they are actually a result of God working in and through us to accomplish certain tasks that he had already planned ahead of time to do regardless of our involvement. Jesus’ ministry is filled with examples of the kinds of things that God wants to do and how our submission to his will can make a difference in the world. Jesus indicated that our giving should be done in secret so that our Father “who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4). What Jesus meant by that was that our spiritual growth is a private matter, but God is aware of everything that goes on in the spiritual realm and is keeping track of our spiritual progress. The New King James Version of Matthew 6:4 states “your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” One way of interpreting this statement would be that God will make himself apparent in our lives or that the reward we get will be visible to others. With regard to a harvest of righteousness, this might mean that we will receive a greater portion of the Holy Spirit which would be evident to others through the manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). The important thing to remember is that we are a spiritual work in progress and God is behind every act of grace that we are prompted to do.

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to be generous because it would result in more fruit for the entire body of Christ. Paul stated:

You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:11-15)

Paul specifically mentioned the Corinthians submission to the will of God in order to point out that they were following the example of Christ and were in turn being good examples to others. Paul also made note of the fact that the recipients of their gift would be longing and praying for the Corinthians as a result of their generosity and would be able to recognize that the surpassing grace of God was upon them (2 Corinthians 9:14).

The surpassing grace that Paul referred to (2 Corinthians 9:14) may have been what Peter was talking about when he encouraged believers to be good stewards of God’s grace. Peter said, “Since therefore Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:1). Peter went on to say that believers should not be judged in the flesh the way people are, but “live in the spirit the way God does” (1 Peter 4:6). To live in the spirit means that we have recovered the physical life from the power of death. The Greek word zao (dzah’-o) means to live “in the sense of to exist, in an absolute sense and without end, now and hereafter: to live forever” (G2198). Jesus told his disciples, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

God’s deliverance

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians pointed out that all unsaved people live according to the covenant that God made with Noah after he destroyed every living thing on the earth (Genesis 9:8-13). Paul said, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1-3). The phrase Paul used, “the course of this world” and the person he referred to, “the prince of the power of the air” have to do with Satan’s attempt to undermine God’s plan of salvation by imitating the work of Jesus Christ. The Greek words that are translated “sons of disobedience” uihos (hwee-os’) which means “the quality and essence of one so resembling another that distinctions between the two are indiscernible” (G5207) and apeitheia (ap-i’-thi-ah) which denotes “obstinacy, obstinate rejection of the will of God” (G543). suggest that anyone that does not do the will of God is a follower of Satan.

One of the important aspects of God’s covenant with Noah was that one of Noah’s sons was cursed because he disgraced his father. Genesis 9:20-25 states:

Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;
    a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”

Genesis 10:6 indicates that Ham had four sons; Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. There’s no explanation as to why Canaan was the only one of Ham’s sons to be cursed, but it can be assumed that Canaan followed in the footsteps of his father Ham and was committed to being a son of disobedience rather than a worshipper of God.

The nation of Egypt is associated with the descendants of Ham in Psalm 105 where it says, “Then Israel came to Egypt; Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham” (Psalm 105:23) and “He sent Moses, his servant, and Aaron, whom he had chosen. They performed his signs among them and miracles in the land of Ham’ (Psalm 105:26-27). Psalm 105 focuses on the purpose of God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt. Psalm 105:1-6 states:

Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;
    make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
    tell of all his wondrous works!
Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!
Seek the Lord and his strength;
    seek his presence continually!
Remember the wondrous works that he has done,
    his miracles, and the judgments he uttered,
O offspring of Abraham, his servant,
    children of Jacob, his chosen ones!

The psalmist’s instruction to “tell of all his wondrous works!” was meant to encourage believers to remind ourselves that God is able to do things that are beyond human capability. The Hebrew word that is translated tell, siyach (see’-akh) means “to ponder, i.e. (by implication) converse (with oneself, and hence, aloud)” (H7878). The Hebrew word pala’ (paw-law’) which is translated “all his wondrous works” means to separate, i.e. distinguish and “is used primarily with God as its subject, expressing actions that are beyond the bounds of human powers or expectations” (H6381). In other words, believers need to talk to themselves about God’s ability to do things that we don’t expect him to, things that we can’t do for ourselves.

Moses was instructed to deliver a series of messages to Pharaoh that were designed to make him think about what God was capable of compared to his own strength and ability. Exodus 9:13-15 states, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, “Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me. For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants, and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth.'”‘” God wanted Pharaoh to understand that he could annihilate him and his people if he chose to, but he had a different objective in mind. God said, “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go” (Exodus 9:16-17).

God described Pharaoh’s behavior as exalting himself against his people. What that meant was that Pharaoh was putting himself in the place of God with the people of Israel. The Israelites were doing what Pharaoh told them to rather than listening to and obeying God’s instructions (Exodus 6:9). One of the problems that the LORD had to deal with when he delivered his people from slavery in Egypt was that they were willing to submit themselves to Pharaoh, but they weren’t willing to submit themselves to God. The foremen that were responsible for making the Israelites deliver a daily quota of bricks accused Moses of bringing evil on God’s people. They said, “The LORD look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Exodus 5:21). Essentially, what Moses and Aaron had to do was to get Pharaoh to drive the Israelites away, to expel them from Egypt (Exodus 11:1). Otherwise, the people of Israel wouldn’t have been willing to leave.

God said that he had raised Pharaoh up in order to show him his power so that his name would be “proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). One of the ways that the Hebrew verb ‘amad (aw-mad’) can be used is to signify something that is immovable or unchanging (H5975). ‘Amad was most likely being used in reference to Pharaoh’s refusal to let the people of Israel go. God exercised force against Pharaoh by destroying everything that was connected to his creation. Exodus 9:23-25 states, “And the LORD rained hail upon the land of Egypt. There was hail and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very heavy hail, such as had never been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. The hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And the hail struck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field.” God’s dominion over the land of Egypt was clearly demonstrated by his ability to kill everything that lived there including man and beast. The hail’s violent crushing of plants and trees was likely symbolic of the devastation that occurred during the flood of Noah’s day when the fountains of the deep burst forth and the windows of heaven were opened and God blotted out all life that was on the ground (Genesis 7:11, 23).

Pharaoh’s attitude toward God began to change when he saw that there was no hail in the land of Goshen where the people of Israel lived. Exodus 9:27-29 states, “Then Pharaoh sent and called Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘This time I have sinned, the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the LORD, for there has been enough of God’s thunder and hail. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer.’ Moses said to him, ‘As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the LORD, the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the LORD’s.'” The Hebrew word that is translated sinned, chata’ (khaw-taw’) is sin conceived as missing the road or mark. “From this basic meaning comes the word’s chief usage to indicate moral failure toward both God and men, and certain results of such wrongs” (H2398). Pharaoh’s admission of guilt indicated he understood that he had done something wrong, but it didn’t go so far as to affect a change in his behavior. Exodus 9:34-35 indicates that Pharaoh had not actually repented of his sin. It states, “But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses.”

The battle of the wills between God and Pharaoh was similar to the battle that all unbelievers go through when they are forced to admit that they don’t have the power to control their own circumstances. The essential element that was missing in Pharaoh’s situation was the gift of God’s grace. After describing the spiritual condition of unsaved men (Ephesians 2:1-3), Paul went on to tell the Ephesians, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved…so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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 2:4-9). Paul emphasized the hopelessness of those that are opposed to God’s will when he said, “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12).

The Greek word that is translated hope in Ephesians 2:12, elpis (el-pece’) has to do with the unseen and the future. As a noun in the New Testament, it means a “favorable and confident expectation, a forward look with assurance” (G1680). To be without God in the world means that one is an atheist. “In Ephesians 2:12 the phrase indicates, not only that the Gentiles were void of any true recognition of God, and hence became morally godless (Romans 1:19-32); but, being given up by God they were excluded from communion with God and from the privileges granted to Israel (cf. Galatians 4:8)” (G112). Paul explained that the reason why Pharaoh was unable to have faith was because he had no knowledge of God and was alienated from him because of the hardness of his heart (Ephesians 4:17-18). Paul used the words futility and ignorance to describe the mental barriers that can inhibit faith. One of the benefits of the miracles that Moses performed was that they revealed God’s existence and displayed his magnificent power to Pharaoh and his people. Each time the plagues were removed, Pharaoh was given the opportunity to repent and do God’s will.

One of the reasons the LORD eventually hardened Pharaoh’s heart, meaning God dulled his spiritual senses and made it impossible for him to believe, was because the LORD was strengthening the Israelites faith at the expense of the Egyptians unbelief. Exodus 10:1-2 states, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go in to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.'” The Hebrew word that is translated know, yada’ (yaw-dah’) means to have an intimate experiential knowledge and primarily has to do with relational knowledge, “it refers to knowing or not knowing persons” (H3045). God was in the process of developing a relationship with his people when he delivered them from their slavery in Egypt. An important aspect of yada’ is the involvement of the senses, especially eyesight. In other words, you are only able to ascertain who someone really is by seeing them in action.

Pharaoh’s servants seemed to be able to grasp the situation better than he did because they knew there was no hope for them apart from God. Exodus 10:7 states, “Then Pharaoh’s servants said to him, ‘How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?'” Pharaoh’s servants expected Egypt to cease to exist as a result of the plagues that they were experiencing. Rather than completely destroying Egypt, God’s intention was to bring Pharaoh to his knees (Exodus 10:3). God’s discipline of Pharaoh was likely a result of his attempt to make things right in spite of the hardened state of his heart. After a plague of locusts wiped out all the vegetation that survived the hail, Exodus 10:16-17 states, “Then Pharaoh hastily called Moses and Aaron and said, ‘I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. Now therefore, forgive my sin, please, only this once, and plead with the LORD your God only to remove this death from me.'” The natural disasters that God used to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt were perceived to be instruments of death and each of the ten plagues became more intense as they progressed. The actual result of the plagues was not so much meant to be the death of the Egyptians as it was an awareness of their lost or unregenerate spiritual state (Exodus 10:7).

The ninth plague that the Egyptians experienced may have been designed to make them feel like they were living in hell. Exodus 10:21 states, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.'” The pitch darkness that lasted for three days made it impossible for anyone to move about or even to recognize each another (Exodus 10:22-23). The Hebrew word that is translated darkness, choshek (kho-shek’) is derived from the word chashak (khaw-shak’) which means “to be dark (as withholding light)” (H2821). In other words, there was a concealment or blocking out of all the light in the land of Egypt for three whole days. God said that the darkness was to be felt. What he may have meant by that was that the Egyptians would experience the effects of not having the sun, moon or stars as resources. After the light was restored, some of the Egyptians no doubt realized the extreme depths of their depravity and may have felt like they had been resurrected from the dead. Paul used the analogy of things that were once hidden being exposed by the light to describe the experience of being born again and encouraged unbelievers to let the light of Christ shine on them. Referring to a hymn that was used by early Christians, Paul stated:

“Awake, O sleeper,
    and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)

Paul went on to warn believers that they should be careful about how they use the freedom that Christ has purchased for them. Paul said, “Look carefully then how you walk not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). The Greek word that is translated “making the best use of,” is exagorazo (ex-ag-or-ad’-zo). “Exagorazo, as a verb, is a strengthened form of agorazo (59 – “to buy”), and denotes “to buy out,” especially of purchasing a slave with a view of his freedom” (G1805). Christ paid the ransom to God for the life of every believer in order to satisfy the demands of His holy character. Paul’s admonition to walk not as unwise but as wise was meant to point out that like God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, there is a purpose for each believer’s salvation; to do God’s will and we must be pay attention to that because the devil is actively engaged in a war against us (Ephesians 6:10-11).

One sinner

As Jesus passed through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, he came across a man that was eager to meet him (Luke 19:3-4). Luke identified Zaccheus as a chief tax collector and noted that he was rich (Luke 19:2). Zaccheus’ occupation is “referred to only here in the Bible, probably designating one in charge of a district, with other tax collectors under him. The region was prosperous at this time, so it is no wonder that Zaccheus had grown rich” (note on Luke 19:2). The problem with Zaccheus’ profession was that he worked for the Roman government and was probably perceived to be a traitor. It is likely that everyone hated Zaccheus except for those who worked in the same profession. When Jesus decided to stay at Zaccheus’ house, the crowd complained about it, saying, “That he has gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner” (Luke 19:7).

Tax collectors and sinners were often associated with one another (Matthew 9:10, 11:19, Mark 2:15, Luke 5:30); most likely because they were both perceived to be the outcasts of society. The assumption that Zaccheus was a sinner may have been based on him having a reputation for stealing money from his constituents. When Jesus told Zaccheus he was going to stay at his house, it says in Luke 19:8 that “Zaccheus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” Jesus responded to Zaccheus’ gesture by stating, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he is also a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9-10).

The Greek word translated lost in Luke 19:10 is apollumi. The idea apollumi conveys “is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” (G622). In Zaccheus’ case, it could have meant being separated from loved ones or isolated from the community because of his job as a chief tax collector. According to the Apostle Paul, the destruction of unbelievers is “not annihilation, but exclusion from the Lord’s presence (2 Thessalonians 1:9); thus the ruin of life and all its proud accomplishments” (note on 1 Thessalonians 5:3). In that sense, you could say that a sinner’s life is wasted because all that is accomplished is lost at the time of his death. The Greek term that is usually translated sin, harmartano is properly translated “to miss the mark (and so not share in the prize)” (G264).

Jesus likened his mission of seeking and saving the lost to a shepherd searching for his one lost sheep. He asked his listeners, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” (Luke 15:4). Jesus went on to say that repentance from sin was a cause for celebration and was witnessed by those who are in heaven. He told his audience, “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10). Zaccheus’ conversion is an important example of God’s unbiased desire to reverse the effects of sin in any and every person’s life that is willing to admit he had missed the mark and alienated himself from God. As a result of his repentance, not only was Zaccheus saved, but his entire family was also (Luke 19:9).

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is something Christians are expected to do. Jesus described it as an obligation, like something required of a slave or servant (Luke 17:9-10). One of the reasons Christians are expected to forgive others for the sins they commit against them is because they have received forgiveness from God. Jesus said, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). It could be that God expects his children to forgive others because it is a basic principle of his kingdom, something that everything else depends on. Without forgiveness, salvation would be worthless.

Jesus told his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Luke 17:1, ESV). Jesus made it clear that sin was a part of life, but he also wanted his disciples to know there was a penalty for leading others astray. He said, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast  into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:2, ESV). In order to avoid the temptation of sin, Jesus told his disciples, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3, ESV).

In a way,  you could say that forgiveness is a type of cure for sin. It’s like putting a bandage on an open wound. If there is no forgiveness, then the wound can get infected and might lead to death. The example Jesus gave of the brother that sinned repeatedly, but repented every time, may have been meant to convey the idea that sin is like an addictive behavior. It can take a while for it to be brought under control. As long as someone is aware that what he is doing is wrong, and wants to stop doing it, the bandage of forgiveness needs to continually be reapplied. The idea being that although it may take longer, the wound will eventually be healed.

Jesus’ disciples looked at forgiveness as an act of faith. In response to Jesus’ command to forgive him every time a brother repents, it says in Luke 17:5, “And the apostles said unto the Lord, increase our faith.” Rather than faith, Jesus implied forgiveness required a forced act of obedience. The only thing that would convince someone to do it would be harsh discipline. Jesus reminded his disciples that they were called to serve God and commanded to forgive others. He then concluded, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10, ESV).

 

 

Lost and Found

Jesus used an analogy of being lost to describe people that have sinned against God. In a series of three parables, Jesus taught that the secret to being found was repentance, “to think differently or afterwards that is reconsider” (G3340). In his first parable, Jesus said that the lost sheep was so important to its owner that he was willing to leave his other 99 sheep behind in order to find it (Luke 15:4). Afterward, Jesus said of the owner, “And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost” (Luke 15:6). Jesus compared the sheep owner’s rejoicing to what happens in heaven when a sinner repents. He said, “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance.

Jesus’ example showed that the goal of having a relationship with God was not to be perfect, but to recognize when we have sinned against him or “missed the mark” (G266). Jesus’ second parable pointed out that every person has value to God and that the value of a sinner is no different than the value of someone who has not sinned. Jesus asked the question, “What woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?” (Luke 15:8). The woman’s effort to find her lost coin illustrated her responsibility to keep track of it and her diligence in recovering it. This example shows us that God is responsible for saving sinners and does not want anyone to remain lost or without his forgiveness.

Jesus’ final parable about the lost son illustrated how our free will can lead to our own detriment. In this story, the son took his inheritance and moved away so he could do what he wanted to with it. After his money ran out, he had no means of supporting himself, so the son “went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed the swine” (Luke 15:15). The Greek word translated joined himself, kollao (kol-lah’-o) means to glue or to stick. Kallao is also translated as cleave, suggesting a type of permanent relationship similar to a marriage. One way of interpreting the lost son’s relationship with this stranger could be to say they were codependent or the stranger was in some way supporting the lost son’s addiction.

Eventually, the son reached a point of desperation, what we might refer to today as hitting rock bottom. At that point, Jesus said the lost son “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). The words Jesus used to describe the son’s condition suggests that repentance is a realization that we are God’s children. In other words, we belong to God and he has the right and responsibility to take care of us. When the lost son returned home, his father gladly welcomed him back into his home and gave a party in his honor. It says in Luke 15:21-21, “And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.”

Upside down religion

The purpose of the Mosaic Law was to keep the Israelites from being separated from God. Over the years, the content of God’s message to his people was transferred from generation to generation by means of a religious system that focused on purity or “cleanness” (Psalm 18:20), which meant you were undefiled or without blemish, i.e. perfect, complete, whole in God’s sight. At the time of Jesus ministry, the Jewish religious system had gotten so far off track from God’s original intent that Jesus called its leaders hypocrites (Matthew 15:7). They pretended to know what they were talking about, when in actuality, they were blind to the truth of God’s word. Jesus said of these religious experts, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8).

What was happening among God’s people could be referred to as upside down religion. In other words, they were doing the opposite of what God wanted them to. An example Jesus used to illustrate his point was the fifth of God’s Ten Commandments, which stated, “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12). The Jews were being taught that it was lawful for them to take resources that could benefit their parents and give them to God as a gift or sacrificial offering (Matthew 15:5-6). Jesus said about this practice, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition” (Matthew 15:6). The Greek term Jesus used that is translated none effect is akuroo (ak-oo-ro’-o), which means to invalidate.

Jesus described this upside down form of religion as the blind leading the blind. He told his disciples, “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into a ditch” (Matthew 15:14). Even though the Pharisees false teaching was harmful to those that believed it, Jesus knew it was useless to try and change the minds of those who were unable to see the error of their ways. Instead, Jesus presented them with the truth and left it up to each individual to believe or not believe what he said. Mark tells us of Jesus’ response, “And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: there is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 7:14-16).

The problem with the Jews upside down religion was that it took the emphasis off of being separated from God and put it on cleanness or what could be described as self-righteous religiosity. When his disciples asked him to explain what he had said to the people, Jesus asked them, “Are ye so without understanding also?” (Mark 7:18). This remark revealed that even Jesus’ twelve apostles had been influenced by the Pharisee’s false doctrine about the importance of making sacrifices to God. In order to set the record straight about what actually separated them from God, Jesus stated, “Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into man, it cannot defile him; because it entereth not into his heart…for from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:18-23).

Forgiveness of sins

The link between sin and disease in the minds of the Jews made it necessary for Jesus to deal with the topic of sin while he was in the process of healing those that came to him for restoration of their health and well-being. One of these instances was when a man described as “sick of the palsy” (Mark 2:3) was brought to Jesus as he was teaching in a home in Capernaum. Mark said of this event, “And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee” (Mark 2:4-5).

Nothing is know about the condition of the man with the palsy except that he was unable to walk. The Greek word translated palsy, paralutikos means to loosen beside that is relax and is a term associated with being paralyzed or enfeebled (3885). Mark’s reference to the man being sick suggests that this man had an illness that caused his paralysis, perhaps something like what we know today as Lou Gehrig’s disease where the body’s muscles cease to function properly. An interesting aspect of Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) is that in around 90-95% of the cases, the cause for ALS in not known. In about 5-10% of the cases, the condition was passed on from parents. If the man sick of the palsy had ALS, the mysterious aspect of the onset of his disease might explain why it was associated with sinful behavior and assumed that he was being punished by God.

It says in Mark 2:5, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.” The faith that Jesus saw was probably that of the four men that broke open the roof and let the man down on his bed so Jesus could heal him. The Greek word used here for faith, pistis refers to reliance upon Christ for salvation (4102). Most likely, the four men were known by Jesus and their belief in him is what caused him to deal with the issue of the sick man’s sins before or rather than just healing him. By forgiving the man’s sins, Jesus guaranteed that when he died, the man sick with the palsy would go to heaven and one day be reunited with his believing friends. Afterward, when he commanded the man to, “Arise, and take up thy bed and walk, and go thy way into thy house” (Mark 2:11), Jesus demonstrated his willingness to give this man a second chance at living his life according to God’s laws.

The Greek word translated sins, hamartia literally means “a missing of the mark” (266). Sin should be viewed as a principle or source of action. From God’s perspective, sin is seen as a governing principle or the power behind our actions. When we choose to go our own way rather than the way that God directs us to, we are sinning against God and will be punished for our disobedience. Forgiveness of sins is when God removes or takes away the effect of the wrong things we have done. An illustration that is used to explain forgiveness is that of a husband divorcing his wife. In that situation, there is no longer a legal claim to assets or an inheritance. The divorced person is freed from all legal obligations. Behind the concept of forgiveness is the idea of abandonment. Whereas sin once had a claim to our life and our possessions, forgiveness allows us to abandon sin and also takes away sin’s ability to claim anything from us in the future.

Second chances

God’s system of justice is based on his willingness to give second chances. Although God judges us and punishes us when we do something wrong, he does not expect perfection or condemn us because we can’t stop doing what is wrong. Even when we intentionally break God’s commandments, all we have to do is repent and God will give us a second chance to do things right.

God’s exception to his rule of judgment was explained to Ezekiel this way. He said, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. But if the wicked will turn from his sin that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die” (Ezekiel 18:20-21).

The Hebrew word translated turn in Ezekiel 18:20 is shuwb (shoob). Typically, shuwb is used to describe a situation in which one must go back to a previous location. “The basic meaning of the verb is movement back to a point of departure,” (7725) but it does not necessarily mean that you have to return to the starting point. In the context of a journey, shuwb means that you go back to the point where you got off track or departed from the prescribed pathway you were supposed to follow.

Although some people may think God wants to punish us and is glad when we get into trouble, God’s intention in establishing the Mosaic Law was to prevent his people from doing things that offended him. God asked Ezekiel two rhetorical questions to point out the absurdity of believing God wanted to destroy his people. He said, “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?

In an attempt to set the record straight once and for all, God said plainly, “I will judge you,” but added that it would be on an individual basis that he would make his call. He said, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin” (Ezekiel 18:30).

In his plea for repentance, God explained that it was necessary for a change to take place that involved the inner being of man. As if it were possible to become an entirely different person, God said that heart and spirit must be transformed in order to truly have a second chance at life. He said to his people, “Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed:  and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? for I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye” (Ezekiel 18:31-32).

No remedy

After king Solomon dedicated the temple he built, God appeared to him in a night vision and said, “If my people, which are called by my name shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). God’s promise to Solomon was a conditional covenant that ensured the well-being of God’s people based on two criterion: 1) they had to humble themselves and pray with a sincere desire to do God’s will, and 2) they had to stop doing things that they knew violated God’s commandments.

Throughout the history of the nations of Israel and Judah, the hearts of God’s people became more and more hardened toward him, until finally, it says in 2 Chronicles 36:16, “they mocked the messengers of God and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy.” The Hebrew term translated remedy, marpê’ (mar – pay) is properly translated as curative. It refers literally to a medicine or a cure (4832). Marpe is derived from the Hebrew word raphah which means “to heal, a restoring to normal, an act which God typically performs” (7495).

One of Jesus’ main activities while he was living on earth was healing the sick. On more than one occasion, Jesus linked sickness with sin. In Matthew 9:2-5, it says:

And behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. And behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth. And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?

Jesus explained to the people around him that as the Messiah, he had the ability to forgive sins, and therefore, the means for healing the sick. Essentially, what Jesus said was, the medicine the sick man needed was forgiveness of his sins.

At the time of their exile, the wrath of the LORD arose against his people because they were no longer confessing their sins and receiving his forgiveness. God’s promise to Solomon (2 Chronicles 7:14) revealed the real problem or sickness that needed a remedy, wickedness. Wickedness is a mode of life or lifestyle that is harmful to others (7451). Another way of thinking of wickedness is selfishness. Someone who is wicked only thinks of himself. God’s commandments were meant to be a guide for living in peace, a way of getting along with others. Speaking to Jesus, a certain lawyer summarized God’s commandments with the statement: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27).

God waited to send his people into exile until it was evident that their hearts were hardened to the point they were incapable of loving him. In order to cure them of their sin, God first had to deal with their hard-heartedness. He did that by breaking their hearts and allowing them to see what life was like without him. It says in 2 Chronicles 36:17, “Therefore he brought upon them the king of the Chaldees, who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion upon young man or maiden, old man or him that stooped for age: he gave them all into his hand.”

Missing the mark

Jeremiah described the permanent nature of sin when he said, “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven upon the tablet of their heart” (Jeremiah 17:1). The tablet of our heart can be thought of as the place inside our mind where we record memories. Sometimes, we would like to forget things that we have done or things that have been done to us, but the horrible memories won’t go away. As with the recording of the Ten Commandments, Jeremiah was letting the people of Judah know that God’s legal system was permanent and all offenses would have to be dealt with at some point.

The word Jeremiah used to identify sin was chattâ’th (khat – tawth´), which means “an offense and its penalty” (2403). “The basic nuance of this word is ‘sin’ conceived as missing the road or mark…Men are to return from ‘sin’ which is a path, a life-style, or act of deviating from that which God has marked out.” The key to understanding God’s expectation regarding sin was the concept of repentance, or in Hebrew, shuwb (shoob). “The basic meaning of this verb is movement back to the point of departure” (7725).

God expected his people to sin, that’s why he established a way for sins to be forgiven. What most people didn’t seem to understand was that the only way sins could be forgiven was to confess them to God. Jeremiah said, “Blessed is the man that trusteth in the LORD, and whose hope the LORD is” (Jeremiah 17:7). The essence of what Jeremiah was saying was that a person had to have the kind of confidence in the LORD that enabled him to confide in the LORD something that could be counted against him as sin. The result of a confession of sin was the restoration of God’s blessing.

Jeremiah stated, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” (Jeremiah 17:9). Jeremiah’s declaration made it clear that God had access to the inner being and could discern the motives behind actions. Even though the people of Judah thought they were sinless, God’s judgment determined that everyone had broken his commandments.