Forty of Rome’s bravest soldiers chose between life and death. The emperor demanded all his warriors offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods, but these men, although pledged to die for their earthly emperor, would not dishonor their heavenly Emperor. Because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ they were stripped naked and left on a frozen lake. On the shore, guards built a fire and prepared a warm bath. They could save their lives if they would simply renounce Christ. As the wind and ice froze their physical bodies, their souls were warmed by singing hymns of praise to their Savior until all the voices faded. One survivor, the last of the forty called out, “I’ll renounce Christ.” He struggled passed his dead companions toward the warm bath. One guard on the shore was so moved by the commitment of the now thirty-nine, he willingly took the man’s place on the ice and willing lost his life for Christ’s sake. He truly found life eternal that day.
You may think to yourself, “What a courageous story! I would hope to have that kind of commitment if I were ever in such a situation.” However, we are not prepared to succeed in such a situation if we have not mastered the criteria of commitment in our daily lives. In Genesis 17, God promises Abram eternal promises and expects Abram will continue to walk before Him. Without any hesitation, Abram obeyed God “in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him” (Genesis 17:23). Instant obedience is necessary if you are to cultivate courageous obedience.
Nehemiah returned the message to his adversaries, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you” (Nehemiah 6:3)? Soon the last stone was in place and the wall was finished in fifty-two days. The enemies of the Lord’s work were disappointed, but Nehemiah’s courageous obedience was only possible because of his insistence to complete his commission. There were plenty of distractions. The world is full of them. For Nehemiah, nothing was as important as pleasing God. There are just two choices on the shelf: pleasing God or pleasing self.
Paul’s courageous commitment put him in the Philippian prison, but the strength of his obedience was already forged by his responsiveness. Going to Bithynia to preach the Gospel was a good thing, but Paul’s sensitivity to the subtle tug on the reigns of his heart made him most useful to his Lord. All of this leads to the courageous obedience Jesus speaks of, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:24–25).
Courageous obedience is not developed in a flash, rather it is forged in the difficult circumstances and choices you face regularly. Paul said the good soldier endures hardness (2 Timothy 2:3). Conventional Christianity tells you today, enjoy the good times and be a good soldier. Indulge in the entertainment of the world, pollute your mind by fraternizing with the enemy, squander your precious, God-given resources on frivolous trinkets of this world AND be a good soldier. The truth is you can’t have both! You must endure the difficulties in order to be worthy of the decoration. Choose to develop the criteria of commitment in your life.
A famous Jewish story tells of a Rabbi Akiba who was put into prison. While in prison, the warden decided to ration the amount of water he was receiving. When Rabbi Akiba received what little water he had been given for the day, he decided to forgo drinking it and used it to wash his hands instead. He said, “to eat with unwashed hands is a sin. It is better to die of thirst than to commit a sin.” In other words, Rabbi Akiba decided that is would be better to die of thirst than to transgress the traditions of the elders. It is evident that this man’s understanding of God’s truth had been obscured by the traditions of men.
In Matthew 15, we see a group of Jews asking Jesus a question. They said, “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread” (v. 2). They didn’t accuse Jesus’ disciples of transgressing the Word of God but, rather, the traditions of elders. These Jews had taken the commands of God and had made them obscure by elevating their own traditions over Scripture. Jesus responded to their question with His own question: “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” Jesus got to the heart of the issue. Christ charged them with elevating their traditions above God’s commands. He would go on to give an example of how they had violated God’s command to “Honour thy father and mother.” The Jews practiced a custom called “corban.” In order to avoid the responsibility of taking care of their parents, some Jews would dedicate all their property to God and say, “I give this all to God. Since I have dedicated everything I have to God, then I am not responsible to support you.” They violated God’s command to honor parents by creating a tradition that gave them a loophole whereby they could avoid their responsibility. Jesus told them, “ye made the commandments of God of none effect by your tradition” (v. 6). Christ got to the heart of the matter by exposing the hearts of the Pharisees and scribes. Christ revealed that their “worship” was “vain” (i.e., empty) because they taught “for doctrines the commandments of men” (v. 9). They worshipped God with their lips but their heart was far from Him.
There is nothing wrong with washing your hands for sanitation purposes. Rather, the lesson from today’s passage focuses on the danger of elevating traditions of men above Scripture. Multitudes of people in our own day worship God with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him. The vainness of people’s worship is evident when the commandments of men are made to be the commandments of God. We must adhere to Scripture alone as our authority for all of faith and practice. We must set aside the traditions of men and serve God according to His commands.
Everyone is born for a purpose. We all play a role in the grand scheme of things. Let’s look back to remember times when our involvement meant something to someone. Some of us will be involved in great things; while others, feel they never participated in anything noteworthy. An example would be Pharaoh who was born to fulfill God’s plan in a negative sense (Rm. 9:17). And then think of Jesus’ birth (Mt. 2:1); He was born to fulfill God’s plan of redemption. Had it not been for that, “we are of all men most miserable” (1 Co. 15:19).
In the reading today, we find four primary characters: Abram (later Abraham) in Genesis 15, Esther in chapter 4 of the book bearing her name, Jesus in Mathew 14 and Paul in Acts 14. In each case, they were the person of the hour. Think on the wise. Had not Abram said yes, and trusted God, the Abrahamic Covenant would bear a different name. Think of Esther, had she not stood up, the Jews may have been annihilated. Consider our Saviour and had He not gone to the Cross, we would be doomed. Moreover there is Paul. No Paul; no fourteen books of the New Testament.
In the above cases, someone took a stand for God. We may never get to read of our own accounts of goodness this side of Heaven, but neither did these folk. However, we will know the good we have done when we get to Heaven (let me caution that good works do not open the doors of Heaven; only forgiveness through Jesus unlocks them Rm. 3:10, 10:13). God will reward us accordingly; albeit, this is not our motive. We do these things because we are to emulate our Master.
We are not all as noteworthy as the aforementioned and we may feel as a grain of sand in the desert. But we are all significant in the work of God. But you say, what have we done? How about that friendly smile, those words of encouragement, that amen to the preacher, the meal with a shut-in or those prayers for someone or the work of God in general. We could go on and on! Some of these may not appear gallant or significant in God’s plan, but anything properly done for God has significance.
Many folk are taking a stand and we need to take a stand with them. A good place to start is alongside a pastor and the members of a local church. God’s man (and his family) have been sent to stand in a gap. Often it is far from home and friends. We need the faith of Abram, the courage of Esther, the character of Jesus and the zeal of Paul. We were born with a purpose and “who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (Es. 4:14)? Onward Christian soldiers!
Imagine you are reading Genesis 11 for the first time. Man is trying to get to God. Man is making a concerted effort to reach God. If this was the first time you had read this, you would think man is on the right track. Then God comes down and looks at man’s efforts and is far from pleased. Not only that, but He goes so far as to thwart their efforts! Imagine you have never read the Bible before and you come across this passage. You might think that God wants nothing to do with man.
Then you get to Matthew 10:20 and Jesus says that God cares about the smallest of birds, and you are far more important to God than that. So does God like man or not? It seems that there are either two very different sides to God, or maybe this is a different God altogether.
On the contrary. God loves His creation, and desires a relationship with man. But there’s something that stands in the way. Man is sinful. Man is inherently rebellious. We find man’s rebellion illustrated in Ezra 10. Israel had been told not to marry pagan women, but that’s exactly what they proceeded to do. It wasn’t just the common people either. The doorkeepers (porters) of the temple, the musicians, the Levites, and even the priests were involved. Sin permeates every part of society: every ethnicity, every age, every social status, every occupation, every income bracket. Sin is everywhere because we are sinners.
But in Acts 10:34 and following, we find out that God does not hold any person in higher regard than another. We are all equal in His sight. That means equally valuable, but as sinners, equally guilty. The only way to receive favor from God is through Jesus Christ.
Maybe you look at this and say, “That’s just a simple Gospel presentation.” And you would be completely right. But that’s the context and content of the Scriptures! If we don’t see how each passage points us back to this one truth, we don’t understand the main point of God’s Word.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and with them, He created man. Man rebelled against God, but God provided a way to reinstate that relationship with Him, by Jesus dying on the cross to pay for our offenses. God doesn’t just like man, He loves man!
Going back to Genesis 10, God does have one stipulation though. You can’t get to God on your own terms. In John 14:6, Jesus, twice, makes it abundantly clear: “I am the way…” and in case you still thought there was another way to get to God, “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” God desires a relationship with mankind. He desires a relationship with YOU! As you read through the Bible this year, let me challenge you: see how each passage of the Bible fits into the overall concept of God’s redemption of rebellious man. With time, you will see the Gospel in a much fuller light.
There is a lot of discussion that goes on in Christian theological circles relating to some distinctions that go by terms such as “dispensationalism” or “covenant theology”. While I would in no way pretend to understand all that goes on in those discussions, I do know the basis these discussions (or arguments as the case may be) deal with how God dealt with certain groups of people in different periods of human history. In our reading today we see a wonderful shift, particularly for those of us who are Gentiles, of how God opened up his offer of salvation from the Jews to the entire world.
In Matthew 10 we read about Jesus commissioning and sending out his disciples to preach that the “kingdom of heaven is at hand”. We see specifically that Jesus wanted these 12 men to target only the Jewish people and to “not go into the way of the Gentiles” (vs 5). While we do see exceptions throughout the gospels, generally speaking Jesus’s earthly ministry, as well as the ministry of his disciples, was centered on the children of Israel.
However, as we skip ahead to Acts chapter 10, we are introduced to a Gentile man named Cornelius. We see that this man, though lost at the time, was described as “devout” or one who followed God to the best of his understanding. As we read through this chapter, we see that God visited the Apostle Peter, one of those sent out in Matthew 10, and challenged his thinking of the Jewish dietary laws by offering him animals to eat that Peter had always considered to be unclean. God then supernaturally directs Peter to the house of Cornelius where he preaches the Gospel to him and those in his house. Peter starts his “message” by indicating that God had changed his thinking. Indeed, the message of salvation was not just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. You can almost imagine how surprised Peter must have been when he confessed he had come to understand that “God shows no partiality” (vs 34) and that He accepts people from any nation who fear Him (vs 35). For a devout Jew like Peter, what a dramatic shift in his way of thinking! And we rejoice to see Cornelius and others believe the gospel as Peter preached.
So while most of us would agree that the Jewish people are still God’s chosen people, in today’s reading we are able to see the shift of the spreading of the gospel to include all peoples of the world. May we be thankful thankful that the “whosoevers” of the Bible truly does include Gentiles as well as Jews.