Day 261: Adversaries, Israelites, or Both? (Ezra 4-6)

Detail from the Bible Project’s video walkthrough of Ezra
4 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers' houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” (Ezra 4:1-2, ESV)

Read Through the Bible: Ezra 4-6, Psalm 137

When you compare The Bible Project’s walkthrough of Ezra to Tara-Leigh Cobble’s Day 261 Bible Recap, you get two very different interpretations of the adversaries of Ezra 4.

Tim Mackie and the Bible Project guys believe they are Israelites who remained in the land after Assyria overthrew the northern kingdom of Israel in 722BC. They don’t assume any ulterior motives to their offer to help rebuild the Temple, and it wasn’t until after they were spurned by Zerubbabel that they became adversarial.

In Tara-Leigh’s podcast, however, she sees them as offering to help under false pretenses. Unlike Tim Mackie, she doesn’t consider the possibility that they are actual Israelites and that their offer to help can be taken at face value.

So who’s right?

There is scholarly support for the idea that the people who had been living in the land were at least half Jewish. Many scholars believe these were the descendants of Jews who were resettled in Israel after the Assyrian invasion. While Babylon’s strategy was to assimilate conquered people, Assyria scattered them. They would force them to intermarry with other peoples it conquered, and then drop them throughout the Assyrian empire. The result was a group of half breed Jews that still worshiped Yahweh, but were despised by the “pure” Jews that returned from Babylon. If you’ve ever wondered the source of the enmity between Jews and Samaritans that you see in Jesus’ day, it’s right here in Ezra 4.

On the other hand, Ezra 4:1 calls them “adversaries” right out of the gate. But notice, they are described as “adversaries of Judah and Benjamin.” That doesn’t preclude them from being Israelites. Remember that after the death of Solomon in 931 BC, Israel split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah (see 2 Chron. 11:1-12).

So if they were Israelites, was Zerubbabel right to send them away? Tara-Leigh says that Zerubbabel’s argument was that Cyrus had specified only the exiles were to rebuild the temple, but I can’t find that in the text. In fact, I can’t find anywhere in Scripture where God prohibited Zerubbabel from accepting their help. Clearly they became enemies when the exiles snubbed their offer, but what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if they were sincere when they came to Zerubbabel and said, “We worship Yahweh too”? We don’t know because the text doesn’t make that explicit.

It’s  always risky to try to apply your presuppositions to scripture. That’s called eisegesis— reading meaning into a text, as opposed to exegesis— getting the meaning out of a text, and it’s generally not a good approach to Bible study. To some extent, I think both The Bible Project and The Bible Recap do that with this text. And whether the inhabitants of the land were sincere or not is really beside the point. Ezra is about how to respond to opposition, not about how to discern the motives of people who offer to help.

But if I had to choose one theory over the other, I would probably side with The Bible Project on this one (sorry, Tara-Leigh!). Two reasons:

  1. It helps explain the enmity between Jews and Samaritans that existed in first century Palestine. Jesus constantly encountered this in His ministry (see John 4)
  2. It seems to reflect God’s heart to bring Israel and Judah together. Remember Ezekiel’s performance art with the stick? In Ezekiel 37, God tells Ezekiel to take two sticks. He is to write “Israel” on one and “Judah” on the other. Then, he is to bind them together. The point is to show God’s plan for the two kingdoms:
 19 say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah,[e] and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand. 20 When the sticks on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, 21 then say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. 22 And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. 
Ezekiel 37:19-22

So, holding this with an open hand and being careful not to declare definitively when Scripture itself doesn’t, It seems to me that Ezra 4 is one of those descriptive-not-prescriptive passages.

I wonder how the rest of biblical history would have played out if Zerubbabel had not been on such a high horse. What would Jesus’ ministry look like if the Samaritans weren’t so despised by the Jews? Indeed, what would history itself look like if the Romans had found a unified people instead of a divided people? Could they have conquered so easily? Would they have destroyed Jerusalem in the first place? We will never know.

Ultimately, however, we know that God will unite the nation of Israel. His purposes will not be thwarted.

How to Be Saved (Romans 10)

September 18, 2022, Glynwood Baptist Church, Prattville, Alabama. James Jackson, Senior Pastor

Good morning! Please turn to Romans 10.

I want you to imagine the world’s biggest college football fan. I’m not going to say the name of any particular team. But just imagine the fan. Everything in his wardrobe is the team’s colors. Every dog he’s ever owned is named after either a quarterback or a coach. He never misses a game. Not even for his own daughter’s wedding. The fact is, his daughter would never think of getting married on game day anyway because her daddy raised her right.

This man can tell you the score of every game since 1974. He knows all the stats. His ringtone is the school fight song.

But let me ask you something: on game day, when this Number One Fan comes to the gate of the stadium, what’s it going to take for him to through the gate? Will it matter that his twin sons are named Bryant and Denny?  Will it matter that he has houndstooth seat covers in the F-150? No. One thing, and one thing only, will get him through the gate on Game Day:

A ticket. Either you’ve bought a ticket or a ticket has been bought for you. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how enthusiastic a fan you are, you aren’t going to see the game.

Romans 10 is all about what it takes to get through the gate on Judgment Day. It’s about man’s responsibility when it comes to salvation.

And if talking about man’s responsibility in salvation gives you some whiplash after last week, I can’t blame you. After all, Romans 9 is all about God’s sovereign choice for us to be saved. If it’s all up to God from before the foundation of the world, then what does our choice have to do with it at all?

In order to answer that question, Paul once again uses Israel as a case study. Last week we saw that Israel is the best example of God’s election. God chose Israel as His special possession, and in the same way, if you are following Jesus, it’s because God chose you. God drew you to Himself.

But in chapter 10, we see that Israel is also the best example of rejecting God. God rejected Israel because Israel rejected the gospel. And just as that is true for Israel, it is also true for us, If someone doesn’t have a relationship with Jesus, it isn’t because they aren’t elect, or they aren’t predestined, or whatever. It’s because they have rejected Jesus.

So let me pray for us, and then we will dive in to chapter 10 to see how this works.


You might remember how Romans 9 began. In verse 2-3, Paul said that he had

… great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 

In other words, Paul would give up his own relationship with Jesus if it meant his fellow Israelites would come to faith. But he’s not going to water down the gospel message in order to get there. Remember last week we said that to be a gospel-centered church means you have unceasing anguish for the lost, plus uncompromising faithfulness to the gospel.

Paul begins chapter 10 in a similar way. Look at verse 1:

10 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

It’s not that the Jews lack enthusiasm. Paul says, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. And zeal—which is a word that comes to us straight from the Greek—the Greek word is zelos—means to be hot or fervent. Passionately enthusiastic. Zeal without knowledge is fanaticism.

When Paul says “For I bear them witness,” it’s like he’s saying, “I know what I am talking about here,” because this is Paul’s story. Zeal characterized Paul the apostle when he was Saul of Tarsus. He was a very zealous Jewish man. He was so zealous that he dedicated his life to going house to house, rounding up followers of “the way” (that’s what they called this new sect before they called it Christianity) and dragging them off to prison and to death. This is how he described himself to the church in Galatia:

13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers (Galatians 1:14)

Paul was hardcore. His knowledge of Judaism went beyond what the other guys he was in seminary with knew.

I want you to notice something from Paul’s testimony. Turn to Acts 22 real quick. This is Paul making his defense before the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem after he’s been arrested for preaching the gospel, he told them,

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel[b] according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, (Acts 22:3-4)

So Paul is zealous. He goes on to tell them that he had been sent to Damascus “with letters from the brothers” (meaning, the Jewish leaders, so he was going on their authority) to arrest all the followers of The Way in Damascus.

Listen to how Paul described what happened next:

6 “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’

How does Paul answer?

8 And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’

So Paul had zeal. But it wasn’t according to knowledge. When he encounters Jesus face to face, it changes everything.

Notice what it says on the back of your listening guide. There were two primary words used in the Greek New Testament for knowledge. There’s gnosis, which is basic intellectual understanding of something. But then there’s epignosis, which is described as thorough understanding, discernment, or recognition. This is the word that’s used in verse 2, and it’s the word that is always used in reference to knowledge of God and His truth.

Remember this, because it’s going to help us understand something else in a few minutes.

Back to Romans 10. Verse 3 says that the Jews are “ignorant [they don’t have epignosis] of the righteousness of God, and are seeking to establish their own.”

Paul spent his entire life in Judaism trying to establish his own righteousness. And you can’t do it. God’s righteousness is a gift. It’s not something you earn, it’s something you are given. And verse 4 says it is available to “everyone who believes.”

What does it mean that Christ is “the end of the law?” Does it mean that we don’t have to keep the law anymore? No. It means that we have to stop thinking the law can save us. Christ is the telos—the fulfillment, of the law. The purpose of the law was never for salvation. Paul described it in Galatians 3 as a guardian, or a tutor—meant to show the Jews that they were helpless.  The idea was that when they realized they failed to keep the law, they would be driven to grace.

But instead, the Jews did the same thing lots of people do today. We say, “Well, if we can’t obey the Bible, then we will just spend more time studying the Bible.” This leads to the other problem.

The Problem of knowledge without zeal: Intellectualism

Keep in mind that the church in Rome was made up of people from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. We’ve already seen that the Jews big issue was zeal without knowledge [epignosis ] of Jesus. But the Greeks were a lot more into philosophy. You might remember how Luke described the culture in Athens in Acts 17:  

21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. (Acts 17:21)

The Greeks loved philosophy. To this day we still study the great thinkers of Paul’s day—Plato, Aristotle, Socrates. They were extremely proud of their intellectual pursuits.

And you guys know me enough to know that I can be the same way. I can get really caught up in the latest book I’m reading or the latest idea I’ve heard. I love talking about stuff like that.

And I love, love, love studying the Bible. The other day Miranda put something on Facebook—“Anyone who knows me knows I love [blank].” I immediately said, “The Bible.”

I love the Bible studies that are happening all over Glynwood right now. I love what our women’s ministry is doing. I love that nearly 30 men showed up this past week to begin a Bible study together.

I love studying the Bible. But I have to ask the question, what are we doing with everything we are learning?

When I worked at Lifeway, I remember getting a customer service call from someone who was asking about when the next Beth Moore Bible study was coming out. And I was recommending some of the other Bible study writers LifeWay had. And this woman really said this to me. She really said, “Well, let me ask you—do they get into all that application stuff? Because I don’t really like all the questions about how you’re supposed to apply it to your life. I just want a deep Bible study.”

This is what Paul warned the Corinthians about in 1 Corinthians 8. The issue of the day was whether or not it was acceptable for a Christian to eat food that had been offered to idols. Some thought it was fine, because the idol wasn’t real in the first place. Others thought it would ruin your witness. They all had their ideas, they all had their arguments, and it was causing division in the church. So Paul wrote to them:

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1-3)

Knowledge wasn’t solving the problems in Corinth. It was actually creating them. Because even though people knew a lot, they weren’t acting in love toward one another. They weren’t following the new commandment Jesus gave, that they would love one another as He had loved them.

In other words, it isn’t what you know, it is who you are known by.

So, zeal without knowledge can’t save you. But neither can knowledge without zeal. So many people, when you ask them how they can know for sure they are going to heaven, will either give you a “zeal” answer or a “knowledge” answer.

The zeal answer is talking about all the things they do for God. I go to church, I’m a good person, I take care of my family. I pay my taxes. I give to charity.

The knowledge answer is when they say, “Well, I’m going to heaven because I believe in God. I’ll ask kids, “what does it mean to be a Christian, and their answer is, “It means that you believe in God.” And with all the love in my heart, I want you to know that no one ever got to heaven because they believed in God.

Remember what James said in his letter? “19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 

The union of the two: Gospel

because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

This passage is probably the clearest answer to the question, “How can I be saved.” Paul says it comes down to two things: confessing with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believing in your heart that God raised Him from the dead.

You’re like, well, isn’t that knowledge? Yes. It starts with knowledge. Paul David Tripp says that before you can worship the king of kings and Lord of Lords, you have to know the fact of facts—that according to Hebrews 11, God exists, and He rewards those who seek him.

But this isn’t just gnosis. It’s epignosis. It’s recognizing Jesus is Lord. We don’t really understand the word Lord in our constitutional democracy. We don’t have lords and kings, we have representatives and presidents. But if you have epignosis—full knowledge and recognition that Jesus is the supreme authority over your life, then its going to change how you behave. Go back to Paul on the Damascus road. He said, “Who are you, Lord?” And when the answer came back, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” it changed everything for Paul. He had been zealous against God; he became zealous for God.

What about the second part—“believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead.” Again, that’s a fact that ought to change a person. If God has the authority to cancel death, then doesn’t that mean He has absolute authority in your life?

When you place your trust in someone who has this kind of authority over life and death, then it’s like verse 11 says: You’ll never be put to shame.

This invitation for salvation is offered to everyone. You might have walked away from Romans 9 with lots of questions about election and God’s sovereign choice. But make no mistake. God bestows his riches on all who call on him—verse 12. And, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (verse 13).

Paul closes chapter 10 by reminding us of our responsibility not just to respond to the gospel, but also to proclaim the gospel.

Look at the last section with me:

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent?

The word for preaching is kerysso, which meant to be a herald. Heralds were the guys who stood on the street corners and said “Hear ye, hear ye,” when there was a message from the king. So understand in this sense that preaching wasn’t what happened in the pulpits. It was what happened in the streets. The message had to leave the church and make it into the streets.

With these four questions, Paul emphasizes: [click for each one]

  • The necessity of belief: You can’t call on someone you don’t believe in.
  • The necessity of a testimony: How can they believe in whom they haven’t heard. You’ve probably heard the quote from St Francis—Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary, use words. St. Francis didn’t say that. He said, “When necessary, use words.” Words are necessary. Faith comes through hearing.
  • The necessity of the gospel: How can they hear without a proclamation? This is The transmission of a body of truth that is not someone’s opinion but the authoritative revelation from Christ and His apostles.
  • The necessity of intentionality: How can they preach unless they are sent? We’ve all been sent. Every week we end the service by telling you you are sent.

I think this circles back to Paul’s “anguish for the Jews” in 9:1 and his heart’s desire and prayer for them to be saved in 10:1. Paul wants more preachers to be sent to His brothers.

At the same time, he recognizes that it may not do any good. In verse 16, he admits that the Jews have not all obeyed the gospel. Then Paul asks two questions he already knows the answer to. Have the Jews not heard? They have. Did they not understand? They did. It wasn’t a lack of understanding that has kept them from Jesus. It is a lack of submission. The word in verse 16 is “obeyed,” even though some translations read, “They have not all accepted the gospel. It really should be “obeyed.”Go back to verse 3: the Jews were so busy seeking to establish their own righteousness that they refused to submit to God’s righteousness.

As a result, Romans 10 ends with the image of God “holding His hands out all day long to a disobedient and contrary people.”

Have you ever tried holding your hands out for a long period of time? There’s some military movie I saw where new recruits had to hold their rifle at arms length for as long as possible. Imagine holding your hands out in front of you for as long as you could? How tired would you get? How long before they just gave out?

We know God doesn’t get physically tired. But the implication in verse 21 is that God is getting weary of holding out the gospel to a disobedient and contrary people.

And to that point, I will say, as Paul does elsewhere, that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Or between the Jew and you. Is God getting tired of holding out His hands to you? Then repent. Confess. Believe. Receive.  

Day 259: Love, Understanding, Strength (Daniel 10-12)

23 At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision. (Daniel 9:23)

10 And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. 11 And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. (Daniel 10:10)

18 Again one having the appearance of a man touched me and strengthened me. 19 And he said, “O man greatly loved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And as he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.”  (Daniel 10:18-19)

Three times in two chapters, Daniel is described as a man “greatly loved.”

Notice when he gets the word. All three times, it is when he is overwhelmed by the visions he is seeing. In chapter 9, the visions have driven him to an extended period of mourning, fasting, and repentance. This period lasted three weeks (see 10:2-3).

In all three cases, three things are emphasized:

  • When Daniel is weak and confused, he is reminded that he is loved.
  • With love comes understanding.
  • With understanding comes strength.

When I was in high school, I was involved in drama, chorus, and theatre. It was always interesting to contrast what was going on behind the curtain with what was happening on stage. Backstage is often a frenzy of controlled chaos. Actors are changing costumes. Stagehands are moving sets into place. Prop masters are getting props where they need to be. All the while the tech director, lighting designer, prompters, musicians, sound engineers, and a host of others are in communication with the director, all working to make sure the vision of the creator is realized onstage.

The book of Daniel is like that. We don’t always (if ever) get a peek behind the curtain the way Daniel did. But we can be certain that God hears our prayers from the moment we begin praying, and that there is an entire backstage crew that is at work, bringing the production to life according to the vision of our Creator.

And know this, beloved: When you are at your weakest and most confused, God reminds you that you are greatly loved. Be strengthened.

Day 258: Get on With The King’s Business (Daniel 7-9)

“And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days. Then I rose and went about the king’s business, but I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it.”
‭‭Daniel‬ ‭8:27‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Even though Daniel was overcome and sick and appalled by the visions he had seen, he still “rose and went about the king’s business.”

This is a great lesson for those of us who get obsessed with end times prophecy.

When we see the world as it is, spinning out of control as it seems to be, with a sigh we say, “Come, Lord Jesus! Let it be today!” And we come to Daniel 7-12, with its beasts and horns and kings of the south and the north, and its seventy weeks and its times, times, and half a time; and, like Daniel, we can be overwhelmed.

But Daniel had a job to do. He was one of the three high officials under King Darius (see Daniel 6:2). So no matter how mysterious and fascinating these visions were, he still had the king’s business to attend to.

It made me think of a similar scene from the New Testament. We read in Acts 1 that after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus spent the next forty days with His disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. It must have been pretty heady stuff, full of signs and proofs and portents (see Acts 1:3). At one point, they got so excited about all of it that they blurted out, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Look at Jesus’ response:

He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.””
‭‭Acts‬ ‭1:6-8‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Then, Jesus ascends to heaven, and the disciples are left on the hillside, staring, slackjawed, at the sky. I think maybe they would have stayed there staring until they went blind; because it took two angels appearing and saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” before they snapped out of it and returned to Jerusalem (see Acts 1:11).

End times prophecy can be endlessly fascinating. But there is still the King’s business to attend to. All of our charts and interpretive graphs and Left Behind books and studies on the four blood moons may be the equivalent of staring at the sky and waiting for Jesus to return. And perhaps we need to be reminded that, like the disciples, it is not for us to know the times and the seasons.

Because at the bottom of the hill lies Jerusalem. And beyond its borders are Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. We’ve been given a commission to be His witnesses. And we have the Holy Spirit’s power to accomplish the Heavenly father’s purpose, all the while assured of the risen Son’s presence.

Don’t stand staring at the sky. Go about the King’s business.

Day 257 The Lions of Babylon and the Lion of Judah (Daniel 4-6)

 “And a stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel.” (Daniel 6:17, ESV)

I love how every time I read the Bible, God shows me something I had not seen before. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the story of Daniel and the lion’s den. But somehow, I missed Daniel 6:17: “And a stone was laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet…”

This made me think of Matthew 27:66. When the Jewish leaders came to Pilate and told him they were afraid Jesus’ disciples would steal His body, Pilate ordered the soldiers to secure the tomb by sealing the stone.

I realized another parallel. Daniel makes a big deal of how once the law of the Medes and the Persians was established, it could not be revoked, not even by the king. So even though the king loved Daniel, the law had to be satisfied (Daniel 6:12).

In the same way, the penalty for sin had to be paid. God could not sweep it under the rug, because the law is irrevocable. So even though God loved His son, God’s wrath against sin had to be satisfied.

There’s more. Notice that king Darius arose and went to the lion’s den “at break of day” (Daniel 6:19). He fully expected to find a dead body. Instead, he rejoiced and was “exceedingly glad” to find that Daniel was alive.

Sound familiar? Five hundred years later, two women would rise before the dawn and come to a cave, expecting to find a dead body:

“Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭28:1-2, 4-8‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Oh, how I love God’s Word! And how thankful I am for this one crucial, life-changing difference between Daniel and the Gospel story:

In Daniel, when the stone was removed, none of the lions of Darius escaped. But in the Gospel, when the stone was rolled away, the Lion of Judah walked out. The lions couldn’t touch Daniel, and death couldn’t touch the Lion.

Day 256: When the World Wants to Change You (Daniel 1-3)

“Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.” Daniel 1:6-7

Names and languages fascinate me, so I did some digging on what Daniel and his friends’ names originally meant, compared to what their new Babylonian names meant. And in this, I think you see the subtle, demonic, and crushingly effective strategy of the Enemy.

All four names had something in the name itself that referred to God. Here’s a pro tip: if a Hebrew name has “el” anywhere in the name (Elijah, Ezekiel, Daniel) that goes back to the Hebrew word for God, El. And if it has the syllable “yah” (Jeremiah, Micah, Zechariah) it’s a derivative of Yahweh.

Conversely, a Babylonian name with Bel, ach, or Nebu/Nego will relate to Baal, Aku, or Nebu respectively—the names of Babylonian gods.

So Daniel (God is my Judge) became Belteshazzar (Bel protect his life).

Hannaniah (Yahweh is gracious) became Shadach (Command of Aku).

Mishael (Who is what God is) was changed to Meshach (Who is what Aku is).

And Azariah (Yahweh has helped) became Abednego (Servant of Nebo).

Changing the names of the exiles was just one part of the Babylonian strategy. Daniel 1:4-5 lays out the full scope of the indoctrination program:

“Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king.”
‭‭Daniel‬ ‭1:3-5‬ ‭ESV‬‬

By the way, I can’t help making connections between what Daniel 1 lays out and what often seems to happen when we send our kids off to college. Take the best and brightest of a generation and send them away for three or four years.

Give them a new name (anyone have a nickname they got in college that they still go by?).

Teach them the language and literature of the culture. Give them a steady diet of the food and wine of the culture (both literally and metaphorically).

At the end of their four years of study, stand them before the provost for their commencement ceremony. They will have a degree conferred upon them that tells the world they have been thoroughly assimilated and enculturated, ready to represent their new culture in all walks of life.

It worked then and it still works. After seventy years in Babylon, many of the Jewish exiles were so comfortable with the culture that they didn’t want to leave.

This world wants to change me. It wants to feed me with its choice food. It wants me to speak its language. And it wants to take from me what identifies with God and get me to find my identity in lesser gods, which are no gods at all.

But Daniel 1-6 is about the resistance. It’s about refusing to assimilate. It’s the story of faithful people who faced the culture and said “You can change my name if you want to. But you will not change my allegiance.”

Lord, I may be in Babylon. But help me not to let Babylon be in me.

The Israel Trilogy, Part 1: How Odd of God (Romans 9)

September 11, 2022, Glynwood Baptist Church. Prattville, Alabama. James Jackson, Senior Pastor

Once again, I am thankful for the teaching ministry of Skip Heitzig at Calvary Church, Alburquerque. The structure of this message is based on his teaching on this passage.

Good morning! Please turn to Romans 9.

In the early 20th century, there was a British journalist named William Norman Ewer, who has become famous for a little two line quip he made up and said to a friend at a bar one night in the 1920’s. He said,

“How odd of God to choose the Jews.”

People have been divided over whether or not Ewer intended that quip to be anti-semitic. It was the 20’s in Europe, so it certainly could have been. But a few years later, a Jewish American humorist named Leo Rosten added a couple of lines to Ewer’s poem. It now read,

How odd of God to choose the Jews

But not so odd as those who choose

The Jewish God, but hate the Jews.

We ended Romans 8 by talking about one of the greatest promises in all of Scripture—verses 38-39: that nothing can separate us from the love of God. So that raises the question, well, what about God’s chosen people, the Jews? Have they been separated from the love of God? Did God reject them?

There’s a line of incredibly ugly and anti-semitic theology out there that says that the Jews have been replaced as God’s chosen people by Christians. Is that true? Be very, very careful when you hear teaching along these lines. Because the Jews have NOT been replaced. They are still God’s chosen people, and God still has a plan for them.  But what is that plan?

We are going to spend the next three weeks talking about that, as we continue our journey through Romans.

You might remember when we first started talking about Romans that I showed you how Romans is divided into four sections: The overall theme of Romans is The Righteousness of God. Then, you have:

  • Romans 1:1-3:22: The wrath of God.
  • 3:23-8:39: The grace of God.
  • Now, chapters 9-11 are section three, which is the plan of God, for the Jew and the Gentile. This is the plan of God.

One preacher has called chapters 9-11 the “Israel Trilogy” of Romans. Chapter 9 is about Israel’s past. Chapter 10, principally about Israel’s present. Chapter 11 about Israel’s future. This morning we are going to look at chapter 9.

And I want to make four points about God’s plan in relation to the nation of Israel. So let me pray, and we will jump in to this text:


So the first part of the plan is that God chose a people

Let’s look at verses 1-4:

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers,[a] my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites…

Let’s  just pause and reflect on Paul’s emotional anguish in the first couple of verses. This whole thing about “I’m telling you the truth, I’m not lying, God knows how knotted up I am about this: if it were possible for me to be cut off from God’s promises, I would totally do it, for the sake of my brothers.

This is stunning. Keep in mind that the Jews are the very ones that have been trying to kill Paul ever since he became a Christian. He is in prison in the first place because of the opposition to the gospel from the Jews.

And I guess if I was in that situation, it would be really tempting to look at the people that put me in jail and say, “Ha! You rejected Jesus. I’ll get my revenge. You can put me in jail, but you’re going to hell.

But Paul doesn’t do that. Because he understands that the Jews are God’s chosen people, that Jesus is a Jewish Messiah; that Paul himself is a Jew—circumcised on the 8th day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, he tells the Philippians in chapter 3.

So Paul has “unceasing anguish” for his Jewish kinsmen, and says that if it were possible, he would wish himself cut off from all the grace of God for the sake of his brothers.

Let me stop and ask you— to what extent are you in anguish for the lost around you? How much do you pour your heart out on behalf of those who reject you? It’s a humbling thing to think about.

But for all Paul’s anguish, he doesn’t water down the message to make it more acceptable to those who reject it. He longs with all his heart that his countrymen would embrace Jesus as their Messiah, but he isn’t going to alter the gospel to get them to buy in to it.

Paul sets an example for us today. If we want to be a gospel-centered church, those are the two things we have to have: Unceasing anguish for the lost and uncompromising faithfulness to the gospel.

In verses 4-5, Paul lists several advantages, several benefits, that the Jews have. For the sake of time, I’m going to fly through these, but there’s basically seven things Paul says God gave to the Israelites:

First, the adoption. No other nation on the planet could say that they were God’s special treasure like Israel could. In Deuteronomy chapter 7:6, the Lord declared,

out of all the nations on the earth, I have chosen you as my special treasure.

Second, they have the glory. It  means the presence of God. Exodus 29:42-45 describes the presence of God filling the tabernacle in the center of the Israelites camp.

Next, to the Jews belong the covenants. There are several covenants in the OT. He made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the world with water. He made a covenant with Abraham to bless him and make him a great nation. God made a covenant to establish his house forever, and that there would never fail to be a son of David sitting on the throne of David.

The receiving of the Law. God gave the Jews the Law on the top of Mount Sinai.

He gave them the worship,  the complex and detailed rituals and offerings and sacrifices and feasts days laid out in the Torah.

Next, Paul says that to the Jews God gave the promises. That’s the next blank on your outline: God made a promise.

Did you know that in your Bible, you have 31,173 verses in total?

Of all those verses, it is estimated there are 7,487 promises that God made to us.

Many of them are promises God gave specifically to the nation of Israel. God promised them a land. God promised them and eternal kingdom. And God promised them a messiah.

Paul continues his list of the advantages of the Jews with verse 5: “To them (the Jews) belong the patriarchs. These are like the founding fathers of the Jewish faith.

God chose one man, one person, by the name of Abraham. God said to him, through you, I’m going to make a great nation. God took an old man with an infertile wife and gave them a baby. The family grew. That family went on to produce lots of children. Eventually they moved the entire family to Egypt, where for 400 years they were in slavery. God delivered them and brought them back to their promised land.

They conquered the land under Joshua. Then had 400 years of moral decline under the judges.

Came together again as a monarchy under Saul, David, and Solomon. Split into two kingdoms for the next 400 years after Solomon’s death.  

The northern kingdom was overrun by the Assyrians, the southern kingdom by the Babylonians, and for 70 years the Jews were in exile.

Cyrus decreed they could return to the land in 520 BC, and so the Jews lived in the Promised Land for the next 600 years, until Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.

And for the next two thousand years, the Jews were a people without a country. But in 1948 they were able to return to their homeland. And if your Bible has maps in the back of it, you can flip to the maps and see that the land of Israel today has roughly the same borders as it did then.

So why this loong history lesson? Because I want you to see that God is faithful to His promises. The land God promised to them four thousand years ago is the land they still occupy today.

Against all odds, it still exists. Today, there are 9 million people living in that tiny little state of Israel, the entirety of which could fit into the state of Florida.  

This tiny country is a great nation, with a $300 billion per year gross domestic product.

  • It is the fourth leading exporter of citrus to the world.
  • It is the third leading exporter of flowers to the world.
  • If you like cherry tomatoes on your salad, they were invented in Israel.
  • If you use Waze to get from one place to another, it was invented in Israel.
  • If you’ve ever used a flash drive (hold up a flash drive), guess where it was invented? Right. Israel.

If you were to go to the nation of Israel today, there is a town in the West Bank that in the Bible is called Bethel. It is the place where, according to Genesis 28, Jacob laid his head on a stone pillow and dreamed of a ladder ascending to heaven. There is a sign at one of the intersections just outside of Bethel that says, “Here in Bethel 3,800 years ago, the Creator of the world promised the land of Israel to the people of Israel. By virtue of this promise we are living today in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Shiloh, and Hebron.”

I mean, if you’re one of those dad nerds that will add two hours or more to every road trip because he wants to stop and read every single historical marker, this is like the mack daddy of roadside historical markers!

In other words, they’re saying, the only reason we’re still here is because God made promises to us for us to be here. And so they are there.

And why? Paul gives the answer in verse 5:

“and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all,” Amen.

Every advantage to being a Jew Paul gives in verses 4-5 is leading up to this statement in verse 5.

From the Jews came Jesus. Jesus was a Jewish man. He was dedicated in the Jewish temple. He went through the Jewish bar mitzvah. He went to the Jewish Passover. And so salvation came to the Jews through a Jew.

So God chose Israel, for one reason and one reason only. Earlier I took you to Deuteronomy 7, where God told the people of Israel that He had chosen them, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth, for his treasured possession. But look at the next verse:

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,

The only reason God chose Israel is because Jesus had to be born somewhere. God knew that for all mankind to be redeemed, they would need a savior who would be made in human likeness and found in appearance as a man. So He would need to send His son to be born, somewhere. Could have been Asia. Could have been Australia. Could have been Mexico.

But God picked Israel. And thousands of years before Jesus was born, God established a covenant with His people. He gave them the Law, the prophets, the worship, and the promises. All to pave the way for his greatest gift—His son.

So, the first part of the strategy: God chose a people.  The second part: God made a promise.

Now we get to the part that is hard for us to understand sometimes, but when you understand this, you will also understand Paul’s anguish in verse one.

God chose a people, and God made a promise, but God made the promise distinct from the people.

Look at verses 6-8 with me:

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 

Imagine Paul’s critics. He’s finished up that incredible teaching of Romans 8, which says that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can thwart the purposes of God, that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God; that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose; that those whom God foreknew, he predestined, and if he predestined them, he called them; and if he called them, he justified them, and if he justified them, he glorified them.

And so now, imagine the guy at the back of the room, going, “hold on, Paul! What about the Jews?”  Martyn Lloyd-Jones imagines the conversation going this way:

You say that when God starts a thing He always completes it; you say that when something is the purpose of God nothing can frustrate it. But if your preaching of the gospel is right, then God’s purpose has gone very seriously astray, because the fact is that the vast majority of the Jews are not Christians. So has God’s promise failed? (MLJ, Rom 9, p. 4)

God’s promise didn’t fail. Why not? Look at verse 6: not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.

Whaat? What in the world does that mean—are you saying not all Israel, is real Israel?

To answer—Paul goes into another history lesson in verses 7-17. Abraham had one son with his wife Sarah. His name was Isaac. At one point, God tested Abraham and told him to take his only son, Isaac, and offer him as a sacrifice. When Abraham passed that test, and the Lord stopped him from slaying His son, God renewed His promise to Abraham, and He told him that in his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed.

One generation later, Abraham’s son Isaac had two sons—twins—named Jacob and Esau. And here’s where things get uncomfortable for us. Even before they were born; in Paul’s words in verse 11, before either had done anything good or bad,” God revealed that His promise would be reckoned through Jacob, and not Esau. Verse 12:

11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

“Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” Now, that’s a bothersome verse. But here it is. Both Jacob and Esau were children of Abraham, but only Jacob was the child of promise. Again, remember that Jesus had to be born somewhere. If God’s plan was He would take on flesh and bone, that means he had to have a family line. And in His foreknowledge, God knew that the line would go through Jacob and not Esau.

Why? Because Jacob was awesome, and godly, and virtuous? No!

When you read your Bible, Jacob really comes off as a dirtbag.

There was once a seminary student who said to his professor, Professor, I’m having a problem with Romans 9:13– “Jacob I have loved. Esau, I have hated.” What’s up with that?

And the professor looked down at the verse. And he said, “you know, I have a problem with that verse too. But my problem is different from yours. I don’t understand why God loved Jacob.”

Listen, friends—God takes every opportunity He can throughout Scripture to remind us that we aren’t chosen because of our own merit. We’ve already referenced Deuteronomy 7. Israel wasn’t chosen because they were more numerous than anyone else, or because they were more virtuous. And God didn’t choose Jacob over Esau because of any good Jacob had done or any evil Esau had done. It was all set before they were born.

Why? Because Jesus had to be born somewhere. And through Jesus, salvation is going to be available to everyone who places their faith in him. Including the Jews themselves.

So God’s promise to Israel has not failed. Because some Jews did believe. And for those Jews who did believe, they are a part of God’s elect remnant. God still has a covenant with them.

But understand: that covenant is through Jesus. Because of Jesus, it is now the same covenant He has with every single person on earth. It is a covenant not based upon physical descent nor human merit. The covenant doesn’t operate on the basis of human connection, who you’re related to.

It’s not based on  human perfection, working really hard, earning your way to God.

It’s based on divine election.

Now, again, this whole idea of election has had people twisted in knots for hundreds of years. It’s hard to figure out how God can predetermine and elect you before you are born and then demand that you make a choice to follow him after you are born.

He chooses us. But then he says to you, you must choose him. God elects us, but then he tells us to call on him. God predestines us to believe, but then He calls us to put our faith in him. How does that work? I can’t unravel it perfectly.

But let me tell you how DL Moody described it. Moody says, imagine you are walking down a hallway, and there are lots of doors on both sides of the hallway. You see a door marked “Whosoever will may come.” And you walk through that door. You trusted in John 3:16. You put your faith in Jesus, and you walked through that door.

But after you walk through the door, you look over your shoulder. And carved into the wood on the other side of the door it says, “chosen, from the foundation of the world.”

You were chosen to choose Christ before the foundation of the world. And if you were chosen, you will choose Christ.

Now, somebody can look at that and say, that’s not fair. Well, glad you brought that up. Because that’s exactly what he talks about in the next verse, verse 14.

“What shall we say then. Is there unrighteousness with God, or is God unfair?”

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion,[b] but on God, who has mercy. 

Now here’s the fourth aspect of the promise: God’s plan is perfect. Look again at verse 14:

“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! “

I want you to notice what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t ask if God is fair. He asks if God is unfair. What’s the difference?

Consider for a minute how it would be if God acted fairly toward us. Fair would be saving the people that deserved to be saved, right? But if that was the basis, how many people deserve to be saved? Right! Nobody. Thank God He isn’t “fair.” Instead, He is merciful. Verse 16 continues:

“So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

Mercy is waaaay different from fairness. It wasn’t fairness that nailed Jesus to the cross. Jesus didn’t deserve that. He was perfect. Yet he did it. Why?

Because God was showing mercy and compassion to me and to you. And God will do that, if you allow Him to. But if you harden your heart against Him, God will allow your heart to get harder and harder against him, until, like Pharaoh in verse 17, you are no longer able to choose God.

The point of all this is simple. If you decide you’re going to harden your heart against God, if you are determined to go to hell, God will honor your choice. Listen: God did not create hell for any human being. Let’s make that clear. Jesus said that hell is a place of everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. God never meant humans to go there. But he lets them go there if they choose to go there.

So if you want nothing to do with God, God’s not going to force you to have anything to do with him. You hear people say, “How could a loving God just hurl people into hell?” But turn it around: If someone spends their entire life pushing God away from themselves, then how could a loving God make them be in heaven with him forever? How cruel would that be? “I want nothing to do with you, God.” and God says, “Fine. I’m taking you to heaven then, so you have to be with me forever.

So don’t worry. God won’t save you if you don’t want to be saved.

But if you want to be saved, the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ. God chose the nation of Israel, the tribe of Judah, the family of Joseph and Mary, for His Son Jesus to be born into. Jesus grew up learning the Jewish Scriptures. Worshiping in the Jewish Temple. Observing the Jewish feasts.

And he died in a Jewish city, at the hands of Jewish authorities, on the day of the Jewish Passover, and the eve of the Jewish Sabbath.

He was buried in a Jewish tomb, according to Jewish burial practices.

Three days later, He rose again, in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures. And it is those same Jewish Scriptures that Paul quotes in verse 24:

25 As indeed he says in Hosea,

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
    and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
    there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”

God’s plan includes everyone, Jew and Gentile. It is all inclusive. He is not willing, the Bible says, that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. God’s plan includes you. Now, you might fold your arms and say, well, maybe God’s plan doesn’t include me. Maybe perhaps I’m not elected to be saved. This whole deal about election—and God choosing people for salvation. Well, maybe I just haven’t been chosen. What do you say to that, Pastor?

I’ll say, well, why don’t you choose him right now, and you’ll discover God already chose you. You’ll discover God has already been pursuing you. For Jesus said, no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And he said to his disciples who made their own choice to follow him– He said, you didn’t choose me. I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bring forth fruit.

You wonder whether or not God chose you for salvation? Here’s how you can know: choose him. Receive him today. Receive him right now in your heart. And you’ll discover God picked you.

You say, “No, I’m not willing to do that. Don’t push me into this. I’m not ready. I’m not ready to receive Jesus yet.”

OK, well, maybe he didn’t choose you then.

You say, Well, that’s not fair.

Well, then choose him! Pick him. Surrender to him.

Listen, God’s predetermination and God’s election never precluded anyone from entering the Kingdom of God because they just discover they were already selected by God when they made that choice.

Salvation is like throwing a rope to a drowning man. The rope itself doesn’t save the drowning man. The drowning man has to grab it. He can’t stay in the water and go, well, there’s the rope. I hope it saves me. He’ll die. He has to grab the rope. But he can’t be saved unless there’s somebody at the shore pulling him to shore. So that’s how it works. God, by election, draws you to safety. You, by your choice, grab a hold of the rope.

God’s plan includes you. But does your plan include God? And that’s where the appeal comes in to make a choice. Make a choice to follow him. You can argue over election and predestination all you want. I say just enjoy it. I don’t argue over it. I walk away going, he picked me. I’m on his team. I’m on the winning team. I don’t care how you wrangle that in your mind. The fact that he picked you should cause you great humility, because you didn’t deserve to be picked, and great joy, because He did!

Fearless Christianity (Romans 8:31-39)

September 4, 2022, Glynwood Baptist Church, Prattville, AL. James Jackson, Senior Pastor

If you wanted to be cool in the nineties, there is a 100% chance that you had at least one article of clothing from No Fear [logo]. No Fear was launched in 1989 by two brothers and their friends who were really into motocross, and they basically sold shirts that were all about living on the edge, and taking risks, and winning at sports, and chugging energy drinks. They had slogans like, “You can’t steal second with your foot on first,” and “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”

“Second Place is the First Loser.”

And my personal favorite, “Life’s Not Too Short, It’s Just that You’re Dead for So Long.”

But for awhile there, you couldn’t walk through a middle school cafeteria without seeing every other kid wearing a No Fear shirt.

Why were they so popular? Because everyone wants to have the reputation of being fearless. You want to be the guy that says, “get the ball to me, Coach” when your team is down by two with ten seconds left and only a three pointer will keep your season alive.

You want to be the pitcher who stares down the best hitter in the league… and winks at them.

You want to be the kicker that says, I can hit the field goal with one second left, Coach Saban, and there’s no way they would ever run it back for a touchdown…

We all want to be fearless, but the truth is, Henry David Thoreau was right when he said that “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” We want to be bold and courageous risk takers, but we almost always default back to playing it safe.

And we do that in our Christianity as well, don’t we. We want to be that fearless witness who speaks up about our faith at school, or shares the gospel with the guy at work. We want to be the husband that sits down with his wife and says, hey, can we pray together?

But instead of being fearless Christians, we usually default to being quiet Christians. Timid Christians.

Fearful Christians.

So as we come to the end of Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find the secret to living this kind of fearless, audacious, bold Christianity. I want us to read this together, and then I want to point out the four rhetorical questions Paul throws out in order to make his argument that we can live fearlessly before God when we understand that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. If you are physically able, would you please stand to honor the reading of God’s Word.

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 8:31-39 ESV

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Pray with me.

Sinclair Ferguson tells about a time a number of pastors from the Czech Republic were attending a preaching conference in the American South. And during some downtime, the host took these guys, who had grown up in Eastern Europe under Communist rule, to a Wal-Mart SuperCenter. Now, most of us would not think anything at all about Wal-Mart—it wouldn’t be the highlight of our trip abroad, would it. But these guys had never seen anything like it before. And when they walked through the doors and beheld the shelves lined with every imaginable fruit and vegetable and product, they turned to their host and they said, “Is this a store for the people in the government?” They couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea that all of these things were accessible to everyone in America.

And Tony Merida, author of the Christ Centered Exposition commentary on the book of Romans, says that when we get to Romans 8, especially verses 31-39, we might have a similar feeling—are all these promises and privileges for every Christian? Or are they only for a few, like really elite Christians.

And the answer is, this is for all of us. As staggering as it is to comprehend, these great and precious promises are for every single follower of Jesus.

Paul asks four “who” questions in this passage. Romans has sixteen chapters, and this is the end of chapter 8, so really these questions are like the midterm exam.

Each of the questions starts with “who”: [Each transition]

  • Who can be against us? (verse 31)
  • Who can accuse us? (v. 33)
  • Who is to condemn us? (v. 34)
  • Who can separate us? (v. 35)

 Now,  with each one, he gives the answer of the person or thing that is able to, but doesn’t.

He tells us who is able to be against us, but is actually for us.

He tells us who has the right to accuse or condemn, but chooses not to.

Or, with the last one, the things that seem like they ought to be able to separate us from the love of God, but actually have no power to do so.

And here’s what is truly amazing: Not only do they not do what they have a right to do, but they actually accomplish the exact opposite of what you would expect them to do.

If you really take this to heart, you are going to find you have a capacity for fearless Christianity that you never thought you had. And in fact, you’ll find yourself impatient and bored with weak, timid, riskless, gutless Christianity. Let’s look at them one by one.

1st question: Who can be against us

Paul begins with “what then shall we say to these things?” These things could be the previous paragraph, beginning in verse 28—that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. Or you could back it up to verse 1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” But most scholars believe that these things really is taking into account everything Paul has written so far in Romans. Go back to Romans 1:2. Who is Paul writing to—“to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.”

So the entire message of Romans can be summed up in verse 31: GOD IS FOR YOU. That alone should be a source for incredible comfort. God is for you, even though you have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

God is for you. Even though your sins deserve death, His free gift to you is eternal life through Jesus Christ.

God is for you. He demonstrated His love for you in that while you were still a sinner, Christ died for you.

So if God is for you, Paul asks (and he’s spent the last eight chapters proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is for you); then who can be against you?

Remember I said that Paul follows up all four of these rhetorical questions with the possible answer. Here’s how it works in the first question:

Question: Who can be against us?

Answer: He who did not spare His own son. God is the only one that could possibly be against us, is the one who did not spare His own son. And if He did not even spare His own son, so great was His desire to restore us to right relationship with Him, then we can be confident. Flip the question and make it a declaration. If God is not against us, then no one can be.

Listen, beloved: The only way God will be against us is if we reject the Son He did not spare for us. If we turn our nose up at so great a gift, then God is right to condemn us. Hebrews 2:3 says, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” If we reject His salvation, then He will reject us.

But when we surrender to His Lordship, not only is God NOT against us, but He graciously gives us all things. There’s that word again. We talked last week about how the Greek word translated “all things” is panta. It doesn’t actually have a word for things. English supplies that. But in the Greek it says, He who did not spare his own son but graciously gave Him up for us ALL, how we He not also with Him graciously give us ALL. What an incredible promise!

Because of that promise, we can live fearlessly. God graciously gives us all things. Think of it like the simplest Venn diagram you’ve ever seen. This circle represents all things. What is the subset of things God hasn’t given us? It’s not there.

2nd question: Who can bring any charge against God’s elect?

Paul asks his second question in verse 33: Who can, or who shall, bring any charge against God’s elect?

Before we deal with the question, let’s make sure we understand what we mean by God’s elect. On the back of your listening guide you’ve got a very basic definition of the doctrine of election. It is the scriptural truth that God chooses to show grace to undeserving sinners. You also hear it talked about as predestination. Now we could really get into the weeds and try to work out how this works with free will, but that’s a sermon series for another year. For now, just take “God’s elect” to be all of us, as followers of Jesus. So who can bring an accusation against a follower of Jesus.

If you stopped with just the next three words, you would have your answer: “It is God.” But you can’t stop with the next three words. You have to read the next five words: It is God who justifies. So God can accuse us, but God doesn’t accuse us. Instead, God does the opposite. Instead of bringing a charge, God justifies.

You also have a basic definition of justifies on the back of your listening guide. It means declaring a person to be just or righteous. This is a present active participle in the Greek, which means it’s an ongoing action. God is still in the business of justifying the ungodly to Himself! We have been justified— that is a once and for all, completed action, but God is continually justifying.

Make no mistake—God and God alone is doing the justifying. Our good deeds don’t make us right. Being born to Christian parents doesn’t make us right. It is God who justifies.

Aren’t you glad? Do you see how this truth enables us to live fearlessly? Because if I could do something to gain my salvation, then that means I could do something to lose my salvation. But if it’s God who justifies, then I can trust that God isn’t going to change His mind. God isn’t going to take it back. Because God is the one who justifies, then my salvation is secure, and I can be fearless.

Number One: God is for us, and no one can be against us.

Number Two: God justifies us, and no one can bring a change against us.

Now for Paul’s third question: Who is to condemn?

Verse 34 asks, “Who is to condemn?” And in what by now is a familiar pattern, the next phrase gives the answer for who is able to condemn: “Christ Jesus.”

Jesus can, but Jesus doesn’t. Instead of condemning, Christ died and was raised. And now that He has been raised, He is now seated at the right hand of God. And not only does He not condemn (speak against us); He actually does the opposite: He speaks for us. He intercedes.

There is no better illustration of this than Jesus with the woman caught in adultery.

The apostle John tells us in chapter 8 of his gospel that one day the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman before Jesus. And they said to Him,

“they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.

And they were correct, sort of. Leviticus 20 does indeed say that a woman who commits adultery must be stoned. But what it actually says is that both the man and the woman must be stoned.  The man is conveniently missing from this story, which means that this was probably a prostitute, and they were using her to trap Jesus. They knew that if Jesus said “let her go” then they could accuse Him of breaking the Law of Moses. But if He said to stone her then He would lose the support of all of those who had come to hear him teaching on love and forgiveness.

They figured they had him between a rock and a hard place.

Jesus ignored them at first, but when they pressed Him for an answer, John says

he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And when all those who had gathered up stones heard His response,

“they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

Jesus stood up and asked her the same question Paul asks in Romans 8:33 “Who condemns you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Beloved, do not miss this: Jesus was the only one in that circle who had no sin. He was the only one that had the right to condemn.

But the one who had no sin had no stones.

Listen: Satan desperately wants to condemn you, and he will do everything in his power to make you feel condemned. But that is all he can do. He can’t condemn you; he can just make you feel that way.

The One who is able to condemn you died on the cross so you wouldn’t have to be. The One who can condemn you was Himself condemned for you.

He died the death you deserved to die. And three days later, He rose again to show that the grave has no power over us. He died, was raised, and is now seated at the right hand of God. The image is of a courtroom. God is seated where the judge sits. And to the right of the judge is the defense attorney.

Get this: Jesus is sitting in the place of the defense attorney.  So, not only does He not condemn us, or accuse us, or speak against us, verse 34 says that He is actually interceding for us. To intercede for someone is to speak on their behalf. Can you imagine?

This is why the writer of Hebrews says that we can approach the throne of grace with confidence, because we have a high priest who is interceding to the Father on our behalf. Hebrews 4:16 says “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

In other words, let us fearlessly approach the throne of grace!

4rd question: Who can separate us?

Once again, Paul argues that the things that would be able to separate us actually accomplish the opposite.

Paul isn’t saying that none of these things will happen to followers of Jesus. He isn’t saying Christians won’t experience hardship or distress; or that they won’t be persecuted, or face famine, nakedness, danger, or sword.

Paul knows this firsthand. Remember, he is writing this letter from prison.

If our earthly bodies survive the tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword, then all of those crises will draw us into a closer relationship with God. If our bodies don’t survive, then we will be ushered into the presence of God. That’s why Paul, in the next verses, says “As it is written, for your sake we are being killed all the day long, we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

Either way, we win. This is what Paul was talking about when he said in Philippians 1 that to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

We are more than conquerers. It’s not that Paul had a death wish, He wasn’t like a suicide bomber who sought martyrdom. Paul wanted to live. But he also knew that all his enemies could do was kill him.  So he was like, do your worst. Nothing will separate me.

The end result ought to be fearless Christianity.

I heard an illustration years ago—this was actually an illustration I used in the first sermon I ever preached, when I was sixteen years old. But none of you were there, so I’ll use it again.

In the late 1800’s, a young man in Europe worked for years to earn enough money for passage on a ship to America. He saved every penny until finally he was able to buy his ticket. He thought to himself, all this suffering will be worth it when I can finally get to America.

It was a long voyage, and the small amount of food the man had brought with him was soon gone, and the man grew hungry. Every night he would look through the windows at the first class dining room. He would see the rich food laid out on the Captain’s table for all the wealthy people, and the hunger in his belly would gnaw at him.

Finally, the night before they were to dock in New York, he couldn’t stand it any more. He went to one of the ships stewards and begged him for some of the scraps from the captain’s table.

The steward asked to see the man’s ticket, and when he examined it, he said, “Sir, this is a first class ticket. You’ve been entitled to eat from the captain’s table for the entire voyage.”

Beloved, the promises of Romans 8:31-39 are your first class ticket.

  • Nothing can stand against you because God is for you.
  • No one can bring a charge against you because God has justified you.
  • No one can condemn you because Jesus was condemned instead of you.
  • Nothing can separate you from God’s love.

So live fearlessly. Come to the captain’s table.

And feast.

Day 241: Cracking the Code of Ezekiel’s Vision (Ezekiel 9-12)

9 I looked, and I saw beside the cherubim four wheels, one beside each of the cherubim; the wheels sparkled like topaz. 10 As for their appearance, the four of them looked alike; each was like a wheel intersecting a wheel. 11 As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the cherubim faced; the wheels did not turn about[b] as the cherubim went. The cherubim went in whatever direction the head faced, without turning as they went. 12 Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels. 13 I heard the wheels being called “the whirling wheels.” 14 Each of the cherubim had four faces: One face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a human being, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.  (Ezekiel 10:9-14)

I’ve always kind of written off the visions in Ezekiel as bizarre imagery that I would never understand. Especially the four creatures carrying the throne of God that are described in Chapters 1 and 10. (Side note: in the 70’s, there was a cultural obsession with UFO’s and extra-terrestrials, and I actually heard a Bible teacher argue that Ezekiel was describing flying saucers. If you are too young to remember the 70’s, you missed one funky decade!)

Anyone else remember this book?

Anyway, on this read through, I’m seeing some meaning to the imagery that I have never seen before. I am not claiming any special knowledge that this is the definitive, be all and end all interpretation for Ezekiel’s vision. I’m just saying this made sense to me during this season of my life.

Ezekiel is sitting by a canal in Babylon when he first has his vision. I would imagine he’s having a moment. After all, it’s his 30th birthday, and he’s not supposed to be in Babylon. As a priest, he was supposed to be beginning his service in the Temple, instead of sitting by this smelly canal in downtown Babylon.

So maybe he’s in his feelings a little. Wondering where God is. Wondering what his purpose in life is, as a priest without a temple.

As a pastor, I had a lot of moments like this during the pandemic lockdown when we weren’t having worship services.

But then, Ezekiel sees the glory of the Lord, represented by a throne sitting on the backs of four living creatures, each with four faces— angel, man, lion, eagle—balanced on wheels within wheels that go in all directions but never turn; which are covered with eyes.


But here’s the word God showed me this morning. I think every detail of this vision was intended to reassure Ezekiel in that season of Ezekiel’s life. For example:

God goes everywhere! Ezekiel sees the glory of the Lord, in Babylon. Not in the temple. That’s what the wheels are for.

God sees everything! Even when we are far from home and wondering what our purpose is, there is nothing that escapes his notice. That’s what the eyes are for.

God’s glory is reflected in all creation. Over and over, the Psalms talk about how every creature in heaven (angels) and on earth (man and beasts) and the birds of the sky express God’s glory. See Psalm 8, 19, and 103 for example. That’s what the four faces are for.

God’s character never changes. The vision is specific in that regardless of which direction the throne is going, the wheels never turn. James describes God as “the Father of lights, in whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. No matter where we are or how long our exile might feel, God’s face will always be toward us.

Day 240: Right Place, Wrong Worship (Ezekiel 5-8)

“And he brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord. And behold, at the entrance of the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the Lord, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east.” Ezekiel 8:16 ESV

Ezekiel 8 is all about the corruptions of temple worship. In a vision, God brings Ezekiel to the Temple. God shows Ezekiel idols that are set up in the inner court (v 5-6). And God essentially says, “But wait. It gets worse.”

Then God shows Ezekiel seventy elders burning incense within the temple. But rather than the smoke of the incense rising up to God, the elders are in the dark, “each in a room of pictures” (v 12). In other words, offering incense to graven images. And again, God says in verse 13, “It gets worse.”

Next, God shows Ezekiel a room full of weeping women. This sounds like a good thing. Maybe they’re repenting. Sadly, no. They are weeping for Tammuz, a fertility God.

And for the third time, God says, “It gets worse” (v 15).

Finally, God shows Ezekiel 25 men (24 priests + the high priest) standing between porch and altar, but with their backs to the Lord and worshiping the rising sun.

In all this, there’s the appearance of doing what you are supposed to do in the Temple, but with completely and utterly the wrong focus. Elders with censers—yay! God set that up in Numbers 11:16-17.  But though they have the title and the equipment, they are offering their incense to idols. They are literally just blowing smoke.

The women in the temple are weeping. Good! But they are weeping over Tammuz. Bad! They have the right emotion, but in service to the wrong thing.

The priests are in the right place. Between porch and altar, which is where they would have stood to make intercession for the people. Awesome! But they are turned away from the only One who could hear their prayer. Not awesome.

What a word as we get ready to worship on Sunday. We can be in the right place but with the wrong focus. We can have all the appearance of doing godly, pious, religious things, but in reality, we are in the dark, each in our room of pictures, or weeping over our idols.

We can be dressed for worship, show up at church, yet still turn our backs on God. And when that’s  the case,  we face the same judgment as the people of Ezekiel’s day:

“Therefore I will act in wrath. My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. And though they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them.””

 Ezekiel 8:18 ESV

God, have mercy on us. Let us turn our faces to you and not away. Bring us out of the darkness and into your marvelous light, and receive our worship. Amen.

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