Are You Prepared to Repent?

Covid has us worshipping at home, but it’s not the first time for many of us who have worked or ministered on Sundays, celebrating the Sabbath another time—Saturday, Sunday night, in airports, on airplanes, buses, or places of work. Whenever I had to travel overseas on the weekend, I planned for a time to quiet down and worship God in the best way I could. Sometimes I was interrupted, but having a plan always ensured that I would find at least a little time to give God the attention he so rightly deserves. Now I am always at home, but I also plan my morning time for Bible study and prayer, depending on my morning schedule. Many Christians do the same but don’t remember the critical aspect of repentance. For the last twenty years, I have repented every morning and have never run out of something vital for which I need forgiveness. Being prepared to repent is one of the most effective ways to stay close to Christ.

Solomon’s Penitent Prayer

King Solomon gathered materials and skilled laborers who worked for many years on the Lord’s temple that his father, David, envisioned. Preparation alone took three years. “At the close of these thirteen years preparations for the dedication of the temple were made on a scale of the greatest magnificence. The ark was solemnly brought from the tent in which David had deposited it to the place prepared for it in the temple, and the glory-cloud, the symbol of the divine presence, filled the house. Then Solomon ascended a platform which had been erected for him, in the sight of all the people, and lifting up his hands to heaven poured out his heart to God in prayer (1 Kings 8; 2 Chr. 6, 7).” (1) Solomon’s glorious prayer for dedication was full of praise for God’s faithfulness and mercy, along with honesty about Israel’s faults. Solomon anticipated the sins of God’s people. He must have seen, as we have, that no man is without a sin nature, and collectively Israel was capable of unified transgression against God. Solomon prayed for Israel to be prepared to repent sincerely in exile, pleaded for God’s compassion to them, and their love for unbelievers. His prayer ends with supplications for Israel’s repentance. As we consider Solomon’s powerful prayer for God’s mercy and Israel’s repentance, let us, the True Israel of God, recognize and embrace the power of sincere repentance for our Christian witness. He prayed:

“If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ if they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace). Let your eyes be open to the plea of your servant and to the plea of your people Israel, giving ear to them whenever they call to you. For you separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God.” (1 Kings 8:46-53)

Repentance is God’s Remedy for Ongoing Sin

Previously in his prayer, Solomon also admitted the sin-nature of the Israelites: “If a man sins against his neighbor” (v. 31); “When your people Israel are defeated before the enemy because they have sinned against you” (v. 33); and “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you” (v. 35). In verses 46-48, Solomon summarizes: “there is no one who does not sin” and optimistically prompts Israel’s repentance by admitting that ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly.’” The Lord had granted Solomon great wisdom, including that which knows to pray ahead of, for prevention from, and humility in the face of sin. We cannot escape from our sins, except with God’s help in particular instances. Matthew Henry comments on Solomon’s wisdom: “Sin is the plague of our own hearts; our in-dwelling corruptions are our spiritual diseases: every true Israelite endeavors to know these, that he may mortify them, and watch against the risings of them. These drive him to his knees; lamenting these, he spreads forth his hands in prayer. After many particulars, Solomon concludes with the general request, that God would hearken to his praying people...In this manner the Israel of God is established and sanctified, the backslider is recovered and healed. In this manner the stranger is brought nigh, the mourner is comforted, the name of God is glorified. Sin is the cause of all our troubles; repentance and forgiveness lead to all human happiness.” (2) In her book, “The Gospel Comes With a Housekey,” Rosario Butterfield writes, “We are called to repent of the original sin that distorts us, the actual sin that distracts us, the indwelling sin that manipulates us. This is a high and hard calling.” (3) God provides the strength we need to fight against the power of sin in us through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t we take full advantage of God’s invitation to confess and engage in heartfelt repentance? Our witness for the gospel is that much more pure and effective.

God’s True Israel Repents

If God had not adopted us, brought us into his kingdom, given us to Christ, and sent the Holy Spirit into our beings, we would not know how to repent. But he has done all that and so much more. The Lord chose Israel and “separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt” (v. 53). Israel was expected to live up to God’s plan and power in them to remain faithful. How can we stay faithful in the face of our ongoing sin? We fight with all our heart, mind, and will to conquer it. As we do, we find that God will do all for us that Solomon requested for Israel. In verses 49-52, Solomon makes eight requests of God: to hear their prayer and plea for forgiveness; to maintain their cause; to forgive his people who have sinned against him; to forgive all their transgressions committed against him; to grant them compassion; to help them to have mercy on their captives; to have his eyes open to the plea of Solomon and Israel, and to listen to his people when they call on him. Since sin separates us from the Lord, it is not surprising that Solomon repeats his request that the Lord actively listen and consider the prayers of sinful Israel. As the True Israel, God indwells us, so there is no question that we have his help whenever we call on him and to help cry out to him. The other day I did something that I shouldn’t have that could violate trust with someone. I am grateful to the Holy Spirit for awakening me to my error the following day, to confess my negligence of a valuable relationship. He helped me acknowledge my mistake and repent. Then God graciously gave me the perfect opportunity to go to a person to rescind my actions. This is how the gospel works in us when we value repentance. My heart was lighter, and my spirit joyful in having resolved the issue before it damaged any of my relationships. My confession and request with the primary person also led to greater depth in that relationship.  

 When I joined a ministry for my full-time work at 40, I learned many “Christian” idioms. The one that has always stayed with me is to keep short accounts—that is, don’t let potential sins, offenses against others, or those toward you linger and fester. Jesus advises us, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24) This is what Solomon had in mind for God’s people, but he recognized the reality that they would fail. So he prayed for God’s compassion to them and theirs to unbelievers. We who have God’s indwelling Spirit can do better; there is no reason not to embrace the power of sincere repentance for our Christian witness. Are you prepared to repent, knowing that the Lord will guide you through it? “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:9)

Related Scripture: Leviticus 26:40-42; Deuteronomy 7:6-11; 14:2; Psalm 106:6, 44-46; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Jeremiah 9:12-14; Daniel 9:4-6; 1 Corinthians 1:9; James 3:2; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 John 1:8-10.

Notes

  1. Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, 1 Kings 8, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  2. Henry, Matthew, “Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible, 1 Kings 8: 22-53, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhn/1-peter-3.html
  3. Rosario Butterfield, The Gospel Comes With a Housekey, Crossway, March 30, 2018.

April 8, 2021             

Christ, Our Help For Repentance

On this first week of April in 2021, a white police officer is on trial, having been accused of applying excessive force to restrain an African-American who died in the process. I heard an NPR reporter start her report with “…, who killed George Floyd” with no hesitation, making a pre-determined judgment before the trial. I was surprised and assumed that she was just plain wrong in making that statement before the jury’s decision. Then I decided to google “NPR reporting “killing of George Floyd” and realized how controversial this issue truly is. (1) Maybe she was wrong, maybe I was, or maybe we’re all wrong about the event—only God knows the truth, but a jury will determine the police officer’s legal culpability. Hopefully, most of us will never see the inside of a courtroom where we are the accused because we see, confess, and repent of our sins before they become criminal. Recognizing our errors or potential errors is a crucial precursor for repentance. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey for the Passover, days before his crucifixion, many Jews hailed him as the next king of Israel, not a suffering, spiritual Messiah. They were wrong but didn’t recognize their error because of their stubborn refusal to humble themselves and see Jesus for who he is. After he was raised from death, leaving the tomb empty, they still didn’t consider that they were wrong and sought to justify this disappearance as anything other than a supernatural resurrection. (See Matthew 28:11-15) Their error was spiritually criminal, leading to their condemnation. 

New Clothing of Righteousness

The Jewish unbelievers in Jesus’s day lost their chance to repent, as did all other hard-hearted Israelites and Gentiles who have died without faith. However, God’s gives us, his elect believers, the ability to recognize our sins against him, the desire to confess them, and the will to eradicate them. Repentance is the culmination of putting our sins off as we put off our old selves. This weekend we will celebrate Jesus’s glorious resurrection from death, having provided substitutionary atonement for our sins, through propitiation of God’s wrath, paving the way for our resurrection. He reigns and continues to intercede for believers and sends his Spirit to unbelievers for saving faith. Repentance means clothing ourselves in Christ’s righteousness. “…put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and…be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:17-24) We must first “undress” from our sin, as  David did. He confessed, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). Here is a devoted servant of God who was plagued by his sinful transgression of God’s laws, knowing that sin was in his very being from birth. God has preserved Psalm 51 as a model of confession and repentance for us. We have the Holy Spirit who confronts us (or other loving people) and should deep conviction of our sin as David did. Only then can we repent. 

David’s Penitence in Psalm 51

This month we will begin an extended study of Psalm 51, on and off through the rest of the year because it is “A uniquely powerful statement of the depths of sin and the heights of repentance. It is the most striking of the “prayers of penitence”, a type of lament. This psalm exposes the need that results from moral failures. (2) “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:1-5) “David’s sin, in which he committed adultery with Bathsheba and later, after discovering that she was pregnant, arranged to have her husband, Uriah, killed in battle, is the dark background for the psalm (see 2 Sam. 11–12). But this very blackness led David to the light.” (3) “David had such a deep sense of his sin, that he was continually thinking of it, with sorrow and shame. His sin was committed against God, whose truth we deny by willful sin; with him we deal deceitfully. And the truly penitent will ever trace back the streams of actual sin to the fountain of original depravity.  He confesses his original corruption.” (4) Surely David knew that Proverbs 28:13 was to be taken seriously. “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” 

Repenting and Original Sin 

“The Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “Despite this verdict on human shortcomings, the idea persists in our humanistically dominated culture that sin is something peripheral or tangential to our nature. Indeed, we are flawed by sin. Our moral records exhibit blemishes. But somehow we think that our evil deeds reside at the rim or edge of our character and are inherently good. But if we lift our gaze to the ultimate standard of goodness—the holy character of God—we realize that what appears to be a basic goodness on an earthly level is corrupt to the core. The Bible teaches the total depravity of the human race. Total depravity means radical corruption…Total depravity means that I and everyone else are depraved or corrupt in the totality of our being. There is no part of us that is left untouched by sin. Our minds, our wills, and our bodies are affected by evil. We speak sinful words, do sinful deeds, have impure thoughts. Our very bodies suffer from the ravages of sin.” (5) Unfortunately, even our ideas and knowledge about repentance are corrupted by sin. Therefore, God must do the work of repentance in us when we desire it. Our work is to yearn for the transformation enough to pray for and appreciate the Spirit’s conviction of our sins. We will then seek repentance for them and obey the Spirit’s guidance to change. “Repentance is not just saying sorry to God. Genuine repentance is conviction of sin, humble contrition over sin, confession of sin, consecration to turn from sin.” (6) 

Repentance for Falling Short with God

Repentance can be confusing and is usually difficult; therefore, we often need to work through repentance repeatedly for the same sin or slowly. (See last week’s devotion–). While teaching his disciples about forgiveness, Jesus said, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4) “But how do we know whether the repentance is genuine? It is easy to say we are sorry, and Jesus obviously has that in view because he said, ‘If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, “I repent,” forgive him.’” (7) Romans 7 also describes Paul’s difficulty with persistent sin as a mature Christian. “Here is how Packer summarizes [Romans 7:14-25]: ‘Alive in Christ, his heart delights in the law, and he wants to do what is good and right and thus keep it perfectly…But he finds that he cannot achieve the total compliance at which he aims…the Christian’s moral experience is that his reach persistently exceeds his grasp and that his desire for perfection is frustrated by the discomposing and distracting energies of indwelling sin. Stating this sad fact about himself, renews Paul’s distress at it, and in the cry of verses 24, 25 he voices his grief at not being able to glorify God more: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ Then at once he answers his own question: ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’” (8)

As we approach our Easter celebrations, Maundy Thursday calls us to grieve the need for Christ’s crucifixion and black hours on the cross because of our indwelling sin. On Good Friday, we rejoice that our Savior was willing to endure and complete his painful calling of crucifixion. But on Easter Sunday, we sing “hallelujah!” because he victoriously lives to make intercession for saved and unsaved sinners. Whenever we confess and seek repentance, Christ is there for us. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1-4)

Related Scripture: Psalms 14:1-3; 32:5; 53:2-3; Proverbs 28:13; Romans 3:10-12, 21-26.

Notes:

  1. See https://www.washingtonian.com/2020/06/04/npr-once-counseled-it)
  2. The Reformation Study Bible, Psalm 51 Introduction, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 
  3. Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Psalm 51, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  4. Henry, Matthew, “Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible, Psalm 51:1-6, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhn/psalms-51.html
  5. Reformation Study Bible Study, “Human Depravity,” p. 889, Ibid.
  6. Parsons, Burk, Pastor, St. Andrews Church, Sanford, FL, Editor of TableTalk, Tweet 12-10-2020.
  7. A Walk with God: An Exposition of Luke’s Gospel)
  8. Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, The “Man” of Romans 7 is a Mature Christian (7:14-20), Ibid

April 1, 2021  

Repentance In The War Against Worldliness

So much has changed because of the pandemic. We no longer linger in some places where we used to feel relaxed, comfortable, and safe. We have visited restaurants, stores, hair salons, and gyms, knowing that there is some risk involved. But, it has taken a year-long, continuing epidemic to change our viewpoints and habits. This is not surprising given our very human propensity to stick to the same routines and hold onto perspectives on ourselves and others. It usually takes something intensely dramatic, such as an illness, injury, or major life event, for us to see things differently. The most radical change we will ever experience is conversion from unbelief in Jesus Christ to Christianity. We used to look at the world with confusion, cynicism, or Pollyanna-like ideals, but now we see it for what it is…a strange, dangerous, godless place of temptations and seductions. Christians have this perspective on the world at large; the Bible consistently calls us to oppose Satan, the ruler of this world, and his schemes. We were once comfortable and content in the world with its pressures to conform to foolish fads, sinful lusts, and all kinds of distractions from reality. But now we are different. Christ has called us to live as pilgrims in this dark world, to witness for him. Viewing the world as alien and repenting of our conformity to it honors Jesus. 

From Similar to Peculiar

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” (1 Peter 2:9-11) Three characteristics of our former life are mentioned: living in darkness, not God’s people, and without mercy. But then we were regenerated, defined by Berkhof as: “that act of God by which the principle of the new life is implanted in man, and the governing disposition of the soul is made holy…a radical change of the governing disposition of the soul, which, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gives birth to a life that moves in a Godward direction.” (1) The change in our identity is as the “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession results from being brought into God’s marvelous light, having received mercy. Now we identify ourselves as sojourners and exiles of the world, not permanent residents. The KJV Bible translation refers to believers as “a peculiar people.” We should appear strange, odd, weird, abnormal, and maybe even obsessed with Christ to the world. Instead of blending into darkness and godlessness, we stand out as being different. Since God has called us to live as pilgrims in this dark world, to witness for Christ, we must confess when we get pulled into the world’s values and priorities to turn toward God instead through repentance. 

How Does Repentance Look?

“We all recognize that the first act of repentance is only the beginning. We recognize that sins must be mortified. We recognize that there is the problem of indwelling sin in the life of the believer. But I suspect that we don’t often attach repentance to these things. In part, this may be because we do not have a sense of what repentance looks like when God is working repentance in us.Perhaps an illustration will help. Imagine repentance as a man walking in one direction who suddenly realizes that he is walking in the opposite direction from which he should be walking. He stops. He turns around. Then he begins walking in the new direction. It is a quick and simple process. He realizes. He stops. He turns…The process is the same for a man in a speed boat. He has to slow down, enter the turn, and come back. But the time and distance required to do so is much longer than what was required for the man walking]. Now imagine that the man is piloting a supertanker. It takes him miles to slow the ship down enough to even begin to make the turn. The turn itself is immense, taking him quite a distance from his intended course. Then again it also takes a large amount of time to get up to full speed in the new direction.Now apply the images to repentance. Some sins are small and easy. We stop and walk the other way…But some sins are enormous. We may not be aware that they really are sins. Or they may be so deeply ingrained in us that we are not willing, at first, to recognize them as sins. God works patiently with us, carefully slowing us down, as the captain does with the ship, so that He can bring us through the turn and into the new direction, where He can bring us up to full speed…God does not work repentance in us instantaneously, but over time. So the awareness of sin and the desire to change come gradually. God brings us, as it were, to a full stop slowly and carefully…The slips and falls have gotten fewer. But there seems to be little progress. We seem to be dead in the water. At that point, we are in the turn. Speed will pick up. Godliness will grow. But it will do so slowly, as God patiently works with us. So if you have prayed for repentance for some particular sin, and there has been no instantaneous change, keep praying. God has promised to work, and He will. And you will be glad in the end that He did it slowly and carefully.” (2) 

Fundamentally Different in Holiness

“If you are a Christian, you are being prepared in the beauty of holiness so that the purifying of your character is a primary task of this life. But you are already betrothed to Christ, your eternal destiny in his love having been made certain by his sacrifice for you. You are fundamentally different from everyone who is not a Christian, and your lifestyle is to reflect this difference in holy obedience.” (3) “God’s elect are a peculiar people, to whom he bears a peculiar love; God, who has chosen them into a spiritual kindred and relation, made them kings and priests, sanctified them by his Spirit, and redeemed them by his Son, as a peculiar people.” (4) Various translations of 1 Peter 2:11 names us sojourners, exiles, strangers, aliens, outcasts, and pilgrims—all convey the idea that we don’t fit into the culture. We’re not meant to conform, adjust, or reflect the values of the world. Like the Israelite exiles, we build homes, support the community, and do our work—being in the world but not of it (Jeremiah 29:28; Luke 9:24; John 8:23). 

Rejecting Ungodly Passions 

“We are citizens of heaven, and therefore we ought to live not according to the laws of this world, which is most corrupt, but of the heavenly city…The children of God live not according to the flesh, that is, according to that corrupt nature, but according to the Spirit.” (5) “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” (v. 11) “As we grow in spiritual maturity, we see the depths of our sin and the deceitfulness of our hearts ever more distinctly. Yet we may have confidence that we will make progress in godliness because God has promised his Holy Spirit to be at work in our hearts, generating his fruits of righteousness and holiness. The work may not progress as fast as we would wish, but its progress is assured because God has promised it. We are not simply to sit back, to ‘let go and let God’; we are to strive with every fiber of our being toward the holiness for which God has designed us…God will work his righteousness in us on the day we stand before him. In the meantime, he will also use our awareness of our own sin to drive us again and again to the cross in thanksgiving for his long-suffering and grace with such unprofitable servants as ourselves. (6) “We are not permitted to look into God’s Book of Life before the final judgment, but we can identify the distinguishing character of those whose names are there. J. C. Ryle points out that, first, ‘they are all true penitents.’ Those destined for the new Jerusalem have felt the condemnation of their sins, have grieved before God for their guilt, and have hated the presence of sin in their lives.” (7)

The pandemic has turned our comforts into dangers. Through Christ, the Spirit of God also turns our view of the world from comfortable to dangerous. We must war against our conformity to it through repentance as pilgrims “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).

Related Scripture: Job 1:6-13; 2:2-7; Matthew 4:10; 16:23; Mark 1:13; 4:15; Luke 22:3, 31; Acts 5:3; 26:18; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 7:5; 2 Corinthians 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:18; 2 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 Timothy 5:15; Revelation 2:13, 24; 3:9.

Notes:

  1. Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, “Regeneration and Effectual Calling,” pp. 468-9., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993. 
  2. Shaw, Benjamin, “An Illustration of Repentance,” Ligonier, January 20, 2021,  https://www.ligonier.org/blog/illustration-repentance/
  3. Phillips, Richard D., Revelation—Reformed Expository Commentary, Revelation 21:9-14, P & R Publishing, 2017.
  4. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 1 Peter 2:9, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/1peter-2.html
  5. Geneva Study Bible, 1560 Edition, 1 Peter 2:5-14.
  6. Duguid, Iain M., “Esther and Ruth – Reformed Expository Commentary,” P & R Publishing, 2005
  7. Phillips, Ibid, Revelation 21:22-27.

March 25, 2021

Repentance For and Before Bitterness

Bitter people are no fun. “It’s so nice when toxic people stop talking to you. It’s like the trash took itself out.” “Just because some people are fueled by drama doesn’t mean you have to attend the performance.” Miserable people love to make other people miserable. I don’t hate them, I just feel sorry for them.” I copied these quotations from the internet.  Perhaps you’ve met some of these people, as I have, and can appreciate the sentiments here. Maybe you’ve been this person, and there may even be some slight bitterness lurking in the recesses of your heart. When we are hurt or disappointed, there is always the chance that we will feed the hurt instead of letting it go or asking God to help us with it. It grows into bitterness that affects us and others in ways we cannot imagine. There is only one solution for peace, and that is confession and repentance—even if the hurt was deliberately inflicted on us—we’re still the ones with resentment. The three quotations in my opening reflect those who want to announce, wallow in, and complain with bitterness—about bitterness. Today our Hebrews passage deals with just this problem and calls us to use an example in the Old Testament as guidance to prevent hatred in our hearts. 

Bitterness spreads

“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” (Hebrews 12:15-17) Esau sought God’s blessing too late, after trading or selling it for a bowl of stew. He devalued God’s gift of his birthright and wasn’t sorry until Jacob received his father Isaac’s blessing instead of him. He never repented and was rejected by God for only wanting His gifts rather than God himself. God will refuse those who show only superficial remorse for losing his blessings. Hebrews 12:15 refers back to God’s OT warning about His covenant with Israel. “You know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed. And you have seen their detestable things, their idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, which were among them, lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.” (Deuteronomy 29:16-19) One Israelite’s bitterness toward God would become a poison that infected many and result in God’s rejection. The many examples of bitter Israelites include Aaron’s sons and Korah, who rebelled against the Lord in their bitterness. (See Leviticus 10 and Numbers 16.)

Dealing With Our Bitterness

When we are resentful, we dwell on our hurt, have trouble concentrating, have imaginary conversations with the offending party, avoid them, are happy when they have a problem or fail—all characteristics that oppose godliness. If we don’t find the root cause of our bitterness, it can continue for years, even decades. When I was in my 40s, I decided to organize our first ever extended family reunion. I worked on it for a year, and when the day came, it was a delightful summer event. Only afterward did my mother tell me that it was the first time she had seen or spoken with her sister in over 20 years because of a grudge; we rejoiced over their reconciliation. Unfortunately, this was not the only bitterness that entrapped my mother, so I am very familiar with the effects of holding onto hurt. Our immediate family was affected by her deep pain, but she would never talk about her disappointments and refused to get any help. Perhaps it’s no wonder that she became so angry in her late stage of Alzheimer’s. I have no idea if she ever repented, even in her last two hours when God gave her a brief time of lucidity, and I shared the gospel with her. Receiving the forgiveness of Christ was her only help; repentance can only follow confession and release of bitterness. I have learned this myself since I also have had hurts that led to some bitterness. I thank God for helping me to recognize, confess, and repent of my resentments. But Esau didn’t recognize his need to repent, became bitter, lost God’s blessing, and was rejected by God. God rejects insincere remorse and sorrow for consequences; only sincere, heart-felt regret will lead to reinstatement in God’s favor with his blessing. 

Esau’s Failure to Repent 

“Esau is presented as an example of one who despised the promises of God (in contrast to the people of faith in ch. 11) and whose loss was irrevocable. [Whereas] Moses traded Egypt’s treasures for the disgrace of Christ because he saw the reward (11:26), Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of food because all he could see was lentil stew. Readers remember the second stage of Esau’s loss, when his brother Jacob took his place as their father Isaac gave the solemn blessing. This blessing included the substance of the promise made to Abraham (Gen. 12:2-3, 27-29). Though Esau mourned his loss with tears, he did not actually repent of the sin of despising God’s promises. Another view is that the repentance he sought was [only] a change in his father’s mind.” (1) “Tears are not an infallible sign of repentance: men may be more concerned for the loss and mischief that come by sin, than for the evil that is in it; and such repentance is not sincere; it does not spring from love to God, or a concern for his glory; nor does it bring forth proper fruits: or rather, the sense of the words is, that notwithstanding all his solicitude, importunity, and tears, he found no place of repentance in his father Isaac; he could not prevail upon him to change his mind; or revoke the blessing he had bestowed on Jacob, and confer it on him, for he plainly saw it was the mind of God, that the blessing should be where it was; whose counsel shall stand, and he will do all his pleasure. This latter seems to be the better interpretation of the word: ‘all the days of Esau the ungodly, they expected that he would have repented, but he repented not.’” (2) Accepting our hurts and insults without becoming resentful (or confessing if we do) leads us to recognize and accept God’s providential sovereignty over our circumstances.

“The author is not saying that Esau longed to repent but God refused to forgive him, for it can be seen from Peter’s denials and subsequent forgiveness that those who repent are always forgiven. ‘In the phrase’ though he sought it with tears, “it” probably refers to the blessing rather than repentance. Esau still wanted the blessing. If one understands ‘it’ to refer to repentance, then the verse likely means that Esau desired the good consequences of repentance but was not truly sorry for his sins.” (3) Esau lost his place in our faithful fathers’ hierarchy, replaced by Jacob after Abraham and Isaac. “The Church is to guard against the growth of any bitter root, an expression which, coming as it does from Deut. 29:18, probably means a person whose heart has been turned away from the Lord and who becomes ’a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit’, thereby causing trouble within the Christian community and defiling many besides himself. The Church is also to make sure that no second Esau arises among them, a person who is sexually immoral or godless, a person who does not value spiritual things. The writer warns that a decision like Esau’s is irrevocable. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.” (4) 

The Repentant Lifestyle

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses questioning the Catholic sale of indulgences for penance begins with this statement: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” (5) “The pivotal first thesis questioned the entire understanding of penance, which was not something one does, but should characterize the entire life of the believer.” (6) Peter offers us a good NT example of repentance to prevent bitterness. And Hezekiah is a good example of one who was bitter and repented. “A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness… ‘Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back. For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.’” (Isaiah 38:9, 17-19) This is the day of grace and time for us to approach God for repentance over bitterness. 

Related Scripture: Genesis 25:29-34; 27:30-38; Deuteronomy 29:18-20; Job 7:11; 10:1; Proverbs 14:10; Lamentations 3:1-5; Ezekiel 3:14-15; Acts 8:18-22; Romans 3:10-18; 2 Corinthians 6:1; Ephesians 4:31-32.

  1. The Reformation Study Bible, Hebrews 12:16-17, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 
  2. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Hebrews 12:17 https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/hebrews-12.html
  3. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Hebrews 12:16–17, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  4. Zondervan Bible Commentary, F. F. Bruce General Editor, Hebrews 12:15-17, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition
  5. Luther’s 95 Theses, https://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html)
  6. Reformation 500, https://reformation500.csl.edu/timeline/luther-posts-his-95-theses-on-the-door-of-the-wittenberg-castle/

March 18, 2021

Approaching God’s Throne for Mercy and Grace

FOMO—I used to have it. Even as a child, I wanted to stay up late so I wouldn’t miss something, and in my youth, I did just that—to my detriment. Now I have a dog who suffers from the affliction of “fear of missing out.” He can be in a dog park with dogs all around him, but what he wants is the one dog outside the fence. We often focus on what we don’t have, perhaps something others have or something we used to have, rather than see the good things right in front of us. During the pandemic, when people wanted to eat in restaurants, they bemoaned their loss instead of getting the same food to bring home. People complained about being isolated but didn’t gather safely outside or take advantage of nature’s bountiful beauty and peacefulness when possible. Christians have the ultimate blessing of fellowship with Jesus Christ but frequently neglect spending time with him. One of the most valuable ways to commune with God is through confession, but because of pride, stubbornness, or ignorance, most believers neglect this essential means of grace. We are distracted by what we don’t have, afflicted with FOMO. We shop, scroll on our devices, eat, and binge on movies and TV. All the while, Jesus is actively interceding for us, and the Holy Spirit is prompting a closer walk with him. 

In Hebrews, the author establishes the unique, sympathetic priesthood of Jesus Christ and calls us to fellowship with him. “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 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.” (Hebrews 4:14-16) Weaknesses, temptations, and sin are specifically mentioned by the writer. So here our spiritual need for his forgiveness and transformation through repentance is certainly in sight. My prayer for 2021 is that we will be increasingly confident to approach God in confession for repentance, delighting in his mercy and grace.

“This great high priest believers have… Christ and salvation by him…the hope of eternal life and happiness [which is] valuable and there is danger of dropping it…[so] it should be held without wavering; for it is good and profitable; and not to hold it fast is displeasing to God, and resented by him: and the priesthood of Christ is an argument to enforce this duty, for he is the high priest of our profession [and] he prays for the support of our faith.” When Jesus was taken into the wilderness by the Spirit after his baptism Satan tempted him three times—to do a miracle of turning stones to bread, to test God’s love by jumping off a high pinnacle, and to grab glory and worship the world and Satan instead of God (through suffering) (Matthew 4:1-11). These were not small trials for the man Jesus. His victory demonstrated his reliance on the Father’s will to be the second, perfect Adam and on the Word to combat Satan’s attempts to derail him. Jesus further proved his intention to identify and sympathize with his people. (1) “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15) “Though Jesus was tempted in every respect, that is, in every area of personal life, he (unlike every other human) remained sinless, and thus he is truly the holy high priest. In their temptations, Christians can be comforted with the truth that nothing that entices them is foreign to their Lord. He too has felt the tug of sin, and yet he never gave in to such temptations.” (2) 

The Westminster Confession of Faith states:  “All those that are justified…[and] enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have his name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him, as by a father: yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption; and inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation. (3) Given the fact that God has done so much for us through Christ, “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.” (Heb. 4:16) “We should encourage ourselves by the excellence of our High Priest, to come boldly to the throne of grace. Mercy and grace are the things we want; mercy to pardon all our sins, and grace to purify our souls…We are to come with reverence and godly fear, not as if dragged to the seat of justice, but as kindly invited to the mercy-seat, where grace reigns. We have boldness to enter into the holiest only by the blood of Jesus; he is our Advocate, and has purchased all our souls want or can desire.” (4) “Confidence translates Greek ‘parrēsia’ [as] ‘boldness,’ ‘confidence,’ ‘courage,’ esp. with reference to speaking before someone of great rank or power. It indicates that Christians may come before God and speak plainly and honestly (yet still with appropriate reverence), without fear that they will incur shame or punishment by doing so. God the Father, with Jesus at his right hand, graciously dispenses help from heaven to those who need forgiveness and strength in temptation. (5) 

“Our smallest offense deserves the full wrath of God. [But]…God has not only covered our sin in Christ but also allows us to approach Him continually to receive that grace anew. We also know that God is holy—set apart in His perfection, glory, and majesty. We are sinners who sin every day. Our sin should grieve us but not condemn, because we serve a God who is good and gracious but also holy and just. So, what are we to do with this enigma of our sinfulness and God’s holiness that clings so close to us? Repent and receive God’s amazing grace.” (6) “And this may be done ‘boldly’; or ‘with freedom of speech’; speaking out plainly all that is in the heart, using an holy courage and intrepidity of mind, free from servile fear, and a bashful spirit; all which requires an heart sprinkled from an evil conscience, faith, in the person, blood, and righteousness of Christ, a view of God, as a God of peace, grace, and mercy, and a holy confidence of being heard by him; and such a spirit and behavior at the throne of grace are very consistent with reverence of the divine Majesty, with submission to his will, and with that humility which becomes saints.” (7) 

“Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:21-22) Having been chosen, forgiven, and cleansed in Christ, is there any reason you can find to procrastinate or neglect God’s call to receive his forgiveness through regular confession? Our confessions may be spiritually significant, or for simple acts of stubbornness or distrust, doubting God’s faithfulness in some small way. In every case, though, Jesus, our high priest calls us to receive his mercy and grace for our needs. My love for God increases every time I confess and ask for his help to repent—to change my thoughts, attitude, perspective, or behavior. By practicing frequent, humbling repentance, we become more confident to approach God and delight in his mercy and grace for our most challenging, stubborn sins. Our confidence to continue communing with him grows. When we are trapped by FOMO, being afraid of missing out on something worldly, we neglect God’s sweet grace of confession and repentance. But turning to God ultimately results in transformation. What a blessing—to be freed from our sinful entrapments! “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:14-17)

Related Scripture: Exodus 16:9-12; Psalm 8:4; Isaiah 55:6-7; 63:7-14; Matthew 4:1-11; 9:35-36; Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:6; Hebrews 7:25; 10:19-22; 11:6; 

  1. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Hebrews 4:14-15, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/hebrews-4.html
  2. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Hebrews 4:15, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  3. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 12 “Of Adoption,” 1647.
  4. Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible,” Hebrews 4:16, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/hebrews-4.html
  5. ESV Study Bible Notes, Ibid, Hebrews 4:16.
  6. Ligonier Ministries, “Sin, Repentance, and Walking in the Light,” by Trillia Newbellhttps://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/sin-repentance-and-walking-light/
  7. Gill, Ibid, Hebrews 4:16.

March 11, 2021         

Believers—Sinners Who Need to Repent

The CDC website has this statement on its main COVID-19 web page: “COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are extremely high across the United States. To decrease your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19, CDC recommends that you do not gather with people who do not live with you at this time. Attending events and gatherings increases your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. Stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” But here’s what the CNN website reported this week: “Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday he’s lifting the mask mandate in Texas… ‘It is now time to open Texas 100%,’ he said.” How can our leaders be so diametrically opposed; surely somebody’s right, and somebody’s wrong. Or, perhaps there are nuances that we haven’t considered, such as Abbot’s inclusion of stipulations in the event of the Covid-19 pandemic worsening. Some issues are thorny, without simple solutions, so we must examine the evidence to come to the correct or most reasonable assessment. My friends in Texas all have different physical issues, business and ministry considerations, and vaccination statuses. So we have different ways of responding to the CDC’s and governor’s stands. But some things are sure—the pandemic isn’t over, it’s still spreading, and it’s still killing people; its effects have been felt in every sector of life. The vaccine is a blessing, and more people are being vaccinated every day. But that does not alter the fact that the virus is prospering. 

There are difficult doctrines in the Bible, about which we also must use careful discernment. Some Christians in the early Church were in danger of thinking that they weren’t sinners or that because they were in Christ, their sins somehow didn’t count or matter. Some Christians believe that today, but nothing could be further from the truth. As we mature in Christ, we should have fewer sins as we confess and cooperate with the Spirit’s sanctifying work in us. But we also see our sins more clearly. The only way we will continue to grow, to be less sinful, is by continuing to confess our sins for repentance and its fruit. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his Word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10) God forgives and cleanses us from ungodliness when we admit and confess our sins, but this does not alter the fact that we are still sinners. We need to embrace the truth that we are still sinners who need to repent regularly, to be forgiven and cleansed by our faithful, just, forgiving God.

Apparently, some Christians thought that once they were regenerated, their sins somehow evaporated. I’ve heard some professing believers say the same thing today—“once saved, we’re cleansed of all sins.” We are, in fact, no longer condemned for our sin. We are covered in Christ’s righteousness, to be saved from the final judgment to come. But John writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (v. 8) “Sinful acts arise out of the sinful condition that we inherit in Adam (cf. Rom. 5:12-20). Though Christ has paid the penalty of sin for His people, forgiven them, and made them part of a new creation, and though He enables them to grow in godliness, they never become perfectly righteous in this life. Consequently, they continue to battle their fallenness until they are completely sanctified at the end of the age. True, Christ paid for both their pre-conversion and post-conversion sins, which means God’s just penalty has been satisfied, however, to deny that one continues to feel the effects of one’s fallenness and still breaks God’s law is deceitful and falsely implies that there is no need of Christ’s sacrificial death for post-conversion sins.” (1) Verse 8 speaks to a condition of habitual sinfulness and verse 10 to specific sinful acts, according to most commentators. Either way, “we deceive ourselves [if we deny that we are sinful believers]; such persons must be ignorant of themselves…thinking themselves to be something when they are nothing; flattering themselves what pure and holy creatures they are, when there is a fountain of sin and wickedness in them; these are self-deceptions, sad delusions, and gross impositions upon themselves…it is a plain case the truth of grace is not in such persons, for if there was a real work of God upon their souls, they would know and discern the plague of their own hearts, the impurity of their nature, and the imperfection of their obedience; nor is the Word of truth in them, for if that had…worked effectually in them, they would in the light of it discover much sin and iniquity in them; and indeed there is no principle of truth, no veracity in them; there is no sincerity nor ingenuity in them; they do not speak honestly and uprightly, but contrary to the dictates of their own conscience.” (2) God’s forgiveness is a precious treasure that saved sinners should not neglect; regular repentance reminds us of his special mercy to us through Christ.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (v. 9) God’s justice is the basis for our forgiveness, based on his Word in us. “When we repent and turn to Jesus, we are objectively forgiven. Our sin is covered with His perfect righteousness, and we do not stand condemned any longer. This objective reality, however, does not always mean that we feel forgiven subjectively. Often our guilt feelings do not go away even though we know—at least in our minds—that the problem of our objective guilt before the Lord has been solved in Christ. What, then, do we do if we have repented and yet do not feel forgiven by our Father in heaven? The only solution is to keep turning back to what the Word of God teaches about the reality of our forgiveness in Christ. If the Lord says that we have been forgiven in Jesus our Savior, we have no right to question Him. In fact, it is a sin to doubt God’s promises, including His promise to forgive. So, if we do not feel forgiven, we may need to repent for not believing God’s sure pledge to pardon our sins when we confess them.” (3)

“If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (v. 10) “Through Jeremiah God declared, ‘I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’” (Jer. 31:34). Clearly, if God had spoken such promises and then had refused to forgive sin, he would have been unfaithful. But he is not…What will be true of the individual if God is actually the light of his life? Obviously, the light of God will be doing for him what light does. For one thing, the light will be exposing the darkness so that the dark places are increasingly cleansed of sin and become bright and fruitful places for God’s blessing. This does not mean that the individual will become increasingly conscious of how good he or she is becoming. On the contrary, a growth in holiness will mean a growth in a true sensitivity to sin in one’s life and an intense desire to eliminate from life all that displeases God. Instead of boasting in his progress, the person will be increasingly ready to acknowledge sin and seek to have it eliminated. (4) Personally knowing that God forgives and cleanses us from ungodliness when we admit and confess our sins, why would we not desire to recognize our sins, confess them, and ask the Lord to help us repent? Do we behave as if we’ve come through the wide gate, rather than the narrow one provided by Christ? (See Matthew 7:13-14.) “Here, everybody is in such a rush to make money or to enjoy some pleasure it is difficult even for Christians to keep their hearts and minds in the best of order. Here, one must be very prayerful and exceedingly cautious, or one will be led or pushed out of the straight and narrow way, and give the Enemy the advantage in the battle for men’s minds.” (5) Rather than adopt others’ opinions about current events, let’s be vigilant to examine the issues and embrace a biblical worldview toward others who may have different opinions. Seeking God’s help to confess regularly will humble us in a  prideful society. But “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Psalm 32:5)

Related Scripture: Proverbs 28:13; Jeremiah 2:35; 31:34; 1 Corinthians 15:34; James 3:2; 1 John 3:4-10; 5:18.

  1. The Reformation Study Bible, 1 John 1:10, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 
  2. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 1 John 1:8 https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/1john-1.html
  3. Ligonier, “Receiving God’s Forgiveness,” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/receiving-gods-forgiveness/
  4. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series,” on 1 John 1:5-10, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  5. Thomas, James, Bunyan, John, Pilgrim’s Progress in Today’s English, p. 227, Moody Publishers, Kindle Edition.

March 5, 2021

Repenting of Works Righteousness

Do you have a to-do list, a calendar, a phone app, or another method of keeping track of your appointments, meetings, and important tasks? I have used my phone calendar for decades to remember commitments. I take great pleasure in deleting the reminders as they’re finished or at the end of the day. If I didn’t get to something, I move it to the next day, and then when I look at my empty “today” I have a feeling of completion. This organizational habit is helpful when I’m busy, but when I am not, it feels like a layer of unnecessary work since I know what I’m supposed to be doing. Perhaps my tendency toward task completion is what makes me so concerned about its detrimental spiritual influence. It seems like I confess most often about my legalism. Ironically, confession is part of my very structured daily quiet time, leading to even more legalism if I weren’t so cautious. “God himself has placed a self-defeating principle within all ungodliness. Derek Thomas writes, ‘There is no resolution of the insecurity that is at the heart of rebellion. Finding no way to defeat the Lamb, the forces of evil turn upon each other…It is only in Jesus that fullness and light are to be found.’” (1) I became a Christian after a long history of trying to find the “right religion” legalistically. The importance of God’s initiative in salvation can’t be overstated, proving the necessity of rejecting self-righteous justification by works.

I never believed that being born Jewish had any special meaning for me. But for the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s time, it was everything. Being Jewish by birth, appearing to follow the Ten Commandments and all the Jewish traditions, checking their religious tasks off the list, and teaching others to do the same is works righteousness. Any attempt to “find” God by personal effort is legalism as if it is possible to earn or deserve salvation. In Matthew 3, John the Baptist began his ministry by calling people to repentance and then baptizing them in Judah’s wilderness. Many Jews came out to see him, and he boldly rebuked them for their legalistic religious beliefs and practices. John the Baptist understood the Old Testament teaching that God desires circumcision of the heart—“a broken and contrite heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Psalm 51:17). He knew that salvation required repentance for trusting in works righteousness. “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’…Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’” (Matthew 3:1-12) **

“Repent [was] the first command of both John the Baptist and Jesus (4:17). Repentance is not just sorrow for sin but a decisive change, a turning away from sin to a life of obedience that flows from trust in God. ‘Repent’ translates the OT call to Israel to ‘return’ to faithfulness to the covenant…The arrival of the promised Messiah means that the age of God’s redemptive intervention in justice and mercy is dawning, giving urgency to John’s summons to turn from sin to God for salvation.” (2) Scripture is saturated with God’s unchanging command to repent; believers must confess the only saving gospel that rejects justification by works. “[The Jews] would have been excusing themselves from John’s demand on the ground that they were Jews. ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ they were thinking. John rejected that claim in exactly the way Jesus and then Paul did after him. Jesus told the leaders, ‘If you were Abraham’s [true] children…you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God’ (John 8:39–40)…In other words, not all who are physically descended from Abraham or the other Jewish patriarchs are God’s spiritual or regenerated children. The situation is exactly the same for us today as it was for Jews then. No one is saved by his or her ancestry. You will not be accepted by God because your mother was a Christian or because some other godly relative has prayed for you. You yourself must repent of your sin and put your trust in Jesus, who alone is God’s beloved Son and the Savior.” (3) 

The Jewish leaders were to repent rather than mislead and harm their disciples by their false teaching and legalism. “This is a powerful demand. The Hebrew word for repentance means more than simply having a change of mind or even being sorry for one’s sins…John was demanding a radical change of life. On one occasion, a group of children were asked about repentance. One said that it meant being sorry for your sins. But a little girl defined it better, saying, ‘It’s being sorry enough to quit.’ D. A. Carson writes, ‘What is meant is not a merely intellectual change of mind or mere grief, still less doing penance…but a radical transformation of the entire person, a fundamental turnaround involving mind and action and including overtones of grief, which results in “fruit in keeping with repentance.’” (4) Instead of trusting in their Jewish heritage, they, like all people, had to trust Christ alone for salvation, which requires repentance for trusting in works righteousness.

The Jews and many people today are guilty of different aspects of legalism: excelling only in external acts of righteousness, focusing only on God’s easy commands, following the letter of the law, but not its spirit, neglecting godly morals, and having a distorted view and judgment of others. (5) 

John warned them according to his limited understanding of the Messiah’s ministry during his first incarnation. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12) John knew the Messiah would be both Savior and Judge, but it had not yet been revealed that salvation was Christ’s mission during his first incarnation, and judgment would be finalized upon his return (John 12:47-48). However, the day of grace for repentance is over upon death, and judgment will follow for all who refuse Christ. 

The Apostle John’s visions in the Book of Revelation are meant to prepare unbelievers for the judgment to come in even stronger language than John the Baptist’s words in Matthew 3. “They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give Him glory…People gnawed their tongues in anguish 11 and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds. (Revelation 16:9-11 ) “The terrible words of e Revelation 16:9, 11  explain something of hell itself. Hell is not filled with people who have learned their lesson. It is filled with people who still refuse to repent…they suffer and curse God because of their suffering, but they refuse to repent of what they have done. That is what hell is like: an ongoing cycle of sin, rebellion, judgment, sin, rebellion, judgment, world without end…It is written: ‘Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy’ (Rev. 22:11). But Revelation ends with an invitation: the Spirit and the Bride (another word for the church, the people of God) still cry ‘Come!’ (Rev. 22:17). ‘And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17).” (6)

Related Scripture: 2 Kings 1:7-8; Isaiah 5:24; 21:10; 41:14-16; Malachi 3:1-3; John 1:6-7, 32-34; Acts 11:13-17; 13:24-25; 19:1-7; Revelation 16.

  1. Phillips, Richard D., Revelation—Reformed Expository Commentary, Revelation 17:16-17, P & R Publishing, 2017.
  2. The Reformation Study Bible, Matthew 3:2, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015.
  3. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Matthew 3:7-8 https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/matthew-3.html
  4. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series,” Matthew 3, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  5. Patton, Michael, “Five Characteristics of Legalism,” 10/9/2013, https://credohouse.org/blog/five-characteristics-of-legalism
  6. The Gospel Coalition Devotion, Revelation 16, November 2020

** Two helpful commentary notes on John’s baptism:

“[John’s] practice of baptizing people [was] a sign that they had done what he demanded. They had repented of their sins and were looking forward to the coming Messiah…the uniqueness of John’s practice is seen in [the contrast to] proselyte baptisms [which] signified the admission of Gentiles into the Jewish community and were never administered to Jews. John’s baptism was a once-for-all baptism, and it was primarily for Jews, though John would not have excluded Gentiles.” (Reformation Study Bible, v. 6)

“Christian baptism is not identical with the baptism of John. Although Christian baptism retains the symbolism of repentance and purification, it is performed in the name of the triune God  and signifies our union with Christ in his death and resurrection.” (Boice, Ibid)

February 26, 2021    

Who is Jesus, Who Calls People to Repent?

Recently a dear friend sent a birthday card to me with an Amazon gift card enclosed. Uncharacteristically I used the gift card to purchase a small gift for her, in addition to applying it to my purchase. Not surprisingly, my friend was offended, as if I didn’t appreciate her present. At first, I had no idea why I did this, but later I realized that I felt guilty (for reasons I won’t explain here). My friend forgave me because she is a godly, merciful woman. I now know more about my negative attitude toward personal gifts. Whenever someone refuses a gift, he or she has a reason. When people reject the generous gift of salvation in Christ, they do so from hardened hearts, incomplete understanding of sin and redemption, pride, fear, or a host of otherworldly reasons. Our extended passage today from Acts describes Paul’s witness to two Roman rulers and their rejection of Christ. He was prepared and not discouraged when they scorned Jesus’s divinity. Let us follow Paul’s example to press on for the sake of others who will repent of their unbelief. Jesus is the eternal God who calls us to be his ambassadors.

Paul’s witness for Christ, Savior of all

In Acts 26, Luke reports how Festus and Agrippa rejected Paul’s witness of Christ’s ministry and salvation during his trial. “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. For this reason, the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day, I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles. And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.’ But Paul said, ‘I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.’ And Agrippa said to Paul, ‘In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?’ And Paul said, ‘Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.’” (Acts 26:19-29)

Jesus, very God of very God

“One of the first marks of our conversion is that we obey Jesus Christ. We might even call it the first mark, except that faith itself is the first evidence. Are you obeying Jesus? Jesus said, ‘Why do you call me, “Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say?’” (Luke 6:46). If you are disobeying Jesus, you are not his disciple. If you are not his disciple, you are not saved. People who have heard the voice of Jesus Christ just do not ignore it.” (2) There are so many ways to witness for Christ today. Blogs, tweets, social media, emails, phone calls, texts, personal interactions, preaching, Sunday school lessons, family devotions, and cards or letters. The method or medium must dictate to some extent how we approach our testimony for Christ and His invitation for forgiveness through repentance. But “The first and most important thing any person needs to understand about Jesus is that he is the Son of God, ‘very God of very God,’ as one of the ancient creeds puts it. That is because the value of his work, dying for sin, depends on who he is. If he is not God, his death would have no more value than any other person’s death. But because he is God his death has infinite value and is able to take away sins.” (3) 

Jesus, God of love and mercy

“What should our response to such a gospel be? Paul gives this as well, no doubt for the explicit benefit of King Agrippa, Festus, and the others. He says that the Gentiles should ‘repent,’ ‘turn to God,’ and “prove their repentance by their deeds” (26:20)…It means finding righteousness and a new life in Christ. This new life is not only different but better. It is a life lived in and with God.” (4) Repentance is one aspect of our rebirth for a different quality of life that is impossible when we are enslaved to sin. “Being dead in our sin” expresses our inability to have the blessed life outside of the divinity of Christ applied to ourselves. (See Ephesians 2:1-5). Festus and Agrippa would have none of it, being spiritually dead and unable to yield to Christ. They specifically denied the possibility that Christ was who Paul said he was. Festus accused Paul of being insane from too much study. “Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft deftly shows why we must reject the option of Jesus being a liar or a lunatic…Jesus has in abundance precisely those qualities which liars and lunatics most conspicuously lack: His practical wisdom, His ability to read human hearts…His deep and winning love, His passionate compassion, His ability to attract people and make them feel at home and forgiven, His authority; and above all…His ability to astonish, His unpredictability, [and] His creativity. Liars and lunatics are all so dull and predictable! No one who knows the Gospels and human beings can seriously entertain the possibility that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic, a bad man.’” (5)

Christ, the wisdom and power of God

Then, “Paul, who all along had chiefly been addressing Agrippa, turned to him, making a neat little transition in which he began by replying to Festus but quickly switching over to Agrippa, saying…‘King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.’ Agrippa was no Roman. He would have had some acquaintance with what Moses and the prophets had written. Agrippa probably believed in the resurrection. But he had his position, and he just could not humble himself, acknowledging himself to be a sinner like anybody else, and receive Jesus Christ as his Savior. He was put on the spot—embarrassed, no doubt, before the governor. So he dodged the question, saying, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’ This is precisely what men and women do today. When the supernatural gospel of a crucified but risen Savior is proclaimed, a gospel that demands that we turn from sin and begin to show our conversion by good works, the world puts up barriers and rejects it for precisely these reasons: pride of intellect and pride of position” (6) Agrippa diverted Paul so as not to consider Jesus’s divine ability to convert him at that time. The Bible prepares us to hear rejection. For example, Paul encouraged the Corinthians believers: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

Paul, like Peter, and all us believers, know that Jesus Christ is “the exact imprint of [the Father’s] nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3) He is God, the Redeemer, Savior, and Propitiation for our sins. “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi…He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’” (Matthew 16:13-18) So we continue to witness for Christ, the Alpha and Omega, Almighty God who calls all people to repent—to receive his gift of forgiveness—and we pray for a great, global penitent revival. 

  1. Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” Acts 26, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/acts-26.html
  2. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Act of the Apostles,” Acts 26, Baker Books, Software version, 2006.
  3. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Matthew 16:13-20 “Peter’s Great Confession,” Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  4. Josh McDowell Ministry a CRU ministry https://www.josh.org/jesus-liar-lunatic-lord/  
  5. Boice, Acts, Ibid.
  6. Boice, Acts, Ibid.

Related Scripture: Isaiah 52-53; Psalm 22; Matthew 3:8-10; Mark 3:21; Luke 2:30-32; John 10:20-21; 12:34-36; Acts 2:38-39; 13:46-48; Romans 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; 15:1-4.

February 19, 2021

The Permanence of Saving Repentance

We live in a world with innumerable choices. People of financial independence can try out different hobbies, travel destinations, even different houses, cars, and vacation homes. Others of us enjoy trying new foods and recipes, walking trails, phones, restaurants—the list goes on and on. And every once in a while, we will taste or experience something that we know we want to make a permanent part of our lives because it will improve them. When my brother taught me how to make Spaghetti Carbonara forty years ago, I knew it would be my favorite pasta (according to the authentic Italian recipe).  On the other hand, the first time I tried cross-country skiing or golf, I knew I would repeat neither since they turned out to be more work than fun for me. I tested religions the way I tried out new foods and sports, looking for the right “fit” (i.e., self-fulfillment)—Reform Judaism, Mystical Judaism, Zen Buddhism, Bahai, Wicca, and Christian Science—all only temporarily interesting. But Christ captured my heart, God did the work of my redemption, as he always does. I knew right away that my search was vain, and the matter settled for him—not for self-fulfillment, but eternal satisfaction in Christ. However, as I told a friend last night, my first year as a Christian was one of intense guilt, remorse, and repentance. The Bible warns us against any temporary faith and repentance in the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-30). As people fill local churches, hear Scripture, make confessions, recite creeds, sing hymns, and pray, they receive the foundational doctrines for salvation. But only those who have Christ’s faith and repentance are preserved by God. Christians build on the foundation of our salvation and pray for others to repent of satisfying themselves with only a temporary taste of God’s goodness.

The Spiritual Maturity of the Hebrew Christians

The writer of Hebrews did not shy away from tackling some thorny theological problems facing the greater Christian community who were in danger of falling away. One particularly tricky warning is in Hebrews Chapter 6, where the author voices his frustration with his brothers’ lack of spiritual maturity. “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:1-6). “Even unregenerate and unconverted persons may be in the covenant. Ishmael and Esau were originally in the covenant, the wicked sons of Eli were covenant children, and the great majority of the Jews in the days of Jesus and the apostles belonged to the covenant people and shared in the covenant promises, though they did not follow the faith of their father Abraham…they are in the covenant as far as their responsibility is concerned. Because they stand in the legal covenant relationship to God, they are duty bound to repent and believe…The special relationship in which they are placed to God, therefore means added responsibility…They are in the covenant also as far as the common covenant blessings are concerned. Though they do not experience the regenerating influence of the Holy Spirit, yet they are subject to certain special operations and influences of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit stives with them in a special manner, convicts them of sin, enlightens them in a measure, and enriches them with the blessings of common grace.” (1) 

Building On Our Spiritual Foundation

In his Bible commentary John Calvin writes, “…in building a house we must never leave [out] the foundation; and yet to be always engaged in laying it would be ridiculous…In short, as the builder must begin with the foundation, so must he go on with his work that the house may be built. Similar is the case as to Christianity; we have the first principles as the foundation, but the higher doctrine ought immediately to follow which is to complete the building. They then act most unreasonably who remain in the first elements…as though a builder spent all his labor on the foundation, and neglected to build up the house.” (2)Further clarification about these basic, foundational doctrines is helpful before we proceed. “The writer’s summary of elementary teachings from which Christians are to move on in the sense of building upon a foundation, falls into three groups of two each. The first is repentance and faith and has to do with the Christian’s ‘personal character’. This repentance is a radical reorientation of outlook which results in a turning away from acts that lead to death, that is, from all activity done in rebellion against God. Faith, on the other hand, is both a trust set upon and an obedience rendered to God. The second group involves the ‘outward ordinances’ of the Christian society…The last group is eschatological and has to do with the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” (3)

A Warning Against Temporary Repentance

Having established that his audience has indeed received these important doctrines for salvation the author or Hebrews goes on to warn them about backsliding, hypothetically. Only those who sincerely repent and come to faith in Christ are preserved by God, and he will express his assurance or their perseverance in Hebrews 6:9 “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” We can receive this warning by embracing and building on the foundational doctrines of Christ. And we pray for others to repent of satisfying themselves with only a temporary taste of God’ goodness. “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:4-6) There is general consensus among commentators that this passage is very difficult to interpret. Does it refer to believers or unbelievers, given the description in verses 1-3? “The question of whether the Apostle speaks of converted or unconverted men is entirely beside the purpose, and may safely be relegated to the limbo of misapplied interpretations…It is more to the purpose to remind ourselves that all these excellences are regarded by the Apostle as gifts of God, like the oft-descending rain, not as moral qualities in men. It may be compared to the opening of blind eyes or the startled waking of the soul by a great idea. To taste the heavenly gift is to make trial of the new truth…All these things have an intellectual quality. Faith in Christ and love to God are purposely excluded. The Apostle brings together various phases of our spiritual intelligence, the gift of illumination, which we sometimes call genius, sometimes culture, sometimes insight, the faculty that ought to apprehend Christ and welcome the revelation in the Son….God has bestowed His gift of enlightenment, but [if] there is no response of heart and will the soul does not lay hold, but drifts away.” (4) 

Eternal Repentance and Sanctification

“These who fall away demonstrate that their faith was never genuine to begin with. Calling the warning hypothetical, however, might have the unintended consequence of implying that we need not take the warning seriously. But since we work our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13), it is by taking such warnings seriously that we remain in the faith, by the power of the Spirit.” (5) When God works his redemption in us, we want nothing more than to mature in our faith, unlike those who give up and give in to discouragement. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way…” (Philippians 3:12-15)

Related Scripture: Psalm 34:8; Matthew 19:24-26; John 4:10; Acts 19:4-5; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 2:12-16; 3:12-16; Hebrews 5:12-14; 1 John 2:19.

  1. Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology,” pp. 288-9, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993. 
  2. Calvin, John, “John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible,” Hebrews 6:1-6, Bible Learning Societyhttps://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/hebrews-6.html
  3. “Zondervan Bible Commentary,” F. F. Bruce General Editor, Hebrews 6, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition.
  4. “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Hebrews to Revelation” Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland, Editors, Zondervan, 2005.
  5. “The Reformation Study Bible,” Hebrews 6:4-12, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 

February 12, 2021    

Zion, the City of God, Only For the Penitent

What did the pandemic motivate you to do last year? Some people found that living in their big city was a distinct disadvantage during a pandemic and moved to the suburbs or more rural areas. I have read reports that people moved out of NYC and San Francisco to places like Austin and Seattle. “While it seemed like everyone was staying at home, they were actually moving in even larger numbers than usual. Looking at the number of movers who filed for mail forwarding from February to July 2020, requests are up 3.92% from the same time the previous year. There have been more than 15.9 million requests in 2020. In comparison, there were just over 15.3 million requests during the same period in 2019.” (*) There is one city whose residents will never want to leave; it is God’s City, also known as the City of David—Zion. In the Bible, Zion is mentioned in the OT historical and prophetic books, in Psalms, and a few times in the New Testament. It represents the place of God’s dwelling, where his people arrive upon redemption by Jesus Christ through faith and repentance. “The Bible frequently promises that those who repent—who turn from their sins—will enjoy life forever in God’s presence (Mark 1:14–15; John 3:16; Acts 11:18). If we read the Bible honestly, we cannot miss its repeated calls for repentance…[and] we are warned that those who do not repent are in danger of destruction (Psalm 7:12)…John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles all call for sinners to repent, to turn from their wickedness and follow the Lord.” (1) To become citizens of Zion. “For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord will do this” (2 Kings 19:31). We become Zion’s citizens upon conversion through our repentance and faith in the Messiah. Zion represents God’s dwelling place and presence to the OT saints—and we are “marching to Zion.”

Zion in the Psalms
The Psalms often speak of Zion as God’s holy city, the City of David, and the location of Mt. Zion. “For God will save Zion and build up the cities of Judah, and people shall dwell there and possess it; the offspring of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall dwell in it.” (Psalms 69:35-36) “The Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling” (Ps. 132:13). “Of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her;’ for the Most High himself will establish her. The Lord records as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’ (Psalms 87:5) “We can hardly read this without thinking of Hebrews 11:10, which praises Abraham because ‘he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.’ The Hebrews chapter makes clear that it was a heavenly city rather than an earthly residence that Abraham was seeking. So we learn at once that even in Old Testament days the greatest saints did not set their affections on earthly Jerusalem alone, but loved it rather only as a symbol of the greater glories they knew they would enjoy in heaven.” (2) Zion’s residents are those the Lord recognizes as being “born there,” which commentators generally agree refers to the new birth we have in Christ, not our physical birthplace. “But you have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” (Hebrews 12:22-24) There is no perfection or entrance into Zion without repentance. Studying the psalms may give us a greater desire for our own repentance and for others to repent. Hopefully, we will pray even more for individuals and collective repentance and talk about repentance in our witness.

Zion in the Prophetic Books
The prophets mention Zion over one hundred times, of which 48 belong to Isaiah in the ESV translation, starting in the first chapter. “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness… It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 1:27; 2:2-3, 5) “The blessing of redemption by Christ is the source and foundation of the other blessings of grace…as justification, pardon of sin, and conversion…for by Zion is meant, not a place, but people, even the church and people of God, who frequently bear the name of Zion in this prophecy, and in other passages of Scripture, both of the Old and of the New Testament…for being the object of God’s love, the instance of his choice, the place of his habitation; where his worship is, he grants his presence, and distributes his blessings…Moreover, in the latter day, when there, will be a redemption and deliverance or the church out of all her troubles and distresses, her converts will manifestly appear to be all righteous, being justified with the spotless righteousness of Christ (Isaiah 60:21).” (3) “The judgment [of exile] is not the end of the story; its purpose is to smelt away the dross, i.e., to remove the unbelieving members of the people (called rebels and sinners, those who forsake the Lord). Afterward, what remains will be a chastened people of God, those…who repent (i.e., who embrace their covenant privileges from the heart). The prophet looks forward to a cleansed people after the historical judgment of the exile, restored to its mission…The Temple Mount in Jerusalem [Zion], though unimpressive from the lofty gaze of human religion, was God’s choice and the true hope of the world. [It was] the highest of the mountains…By a miraculous magnetism, a river of humanity will flow uphill to worship the one true God.” (4)

Zion in Revelation
The New Testament has only a few references to Zion; all of them quotations from the Old Testament except for Hebrews 12 and Revelation 14:1, when John “looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” In his vision of Mount Zion, John “…saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” (Revelation 14:6-7) “Here, the gospel is presented in the form of a call to repent…The coming of Jesus is the good news, calling for repentance and faith. Jesus spoke of the coming ‘kingdom of God’ and the first angel declares that the ‘hour of his judgment’ has come, which amounts to the same thing. He preaches his message to all unbelieving people who ignore Jesus and are comfortable with sin. The angel shows how God calls them all to take notice and heed the message of his Son’s coming. The afflicted Christian church rejoices to know that her enemies either will be converted, joining their own ranks, or will be judged by God so as to deliver his people. Instead of showing indifference to God’s claims, people should take God seriously and grant him the honor he deserves as universal Sovereign…This is basic to the message that Christians speak to the world: ‘There is a God! Grant him the glory he deserves! Appeal to his mercy for the forgiveness of your sins, and then honor him with your lives!’” (5)

God’s Word consistently calls for repentance; His blessings are only for the penitent. Zion, the holy city, will be the permanent residence of believers. But oh, how we pray that our family members, friends, and neighbors will join us there! May our desire for others to repent grow, resulting in more prayers and considered, gentle talk about repentance in our witness. “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 28:16; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:6)

Related Scripture: Deuteronomy 28. 30; Psalms 48:28; Ps. 68:15–16; 78:34; Mark 1:14–15; John 3:16; 12:32; Acts 11:18; Revelation 14:1-13.

* https://www.mymove.com/moving/covid-19/coronavirus-moving-trends/
1. Sproul, R. C., Ligonier Ministries, “Repentance Required” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/repentance-required/)
2. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series,” “Psalm 87, “Zion, City of Our God,” Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
3. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” PASSAGE https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-1.html
4. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Isaiah 1:24–28, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
5. Phillips, Richard D., Revelation—Reformed Expository Commentary, Revelation 4:6-12, P & R Publishing, 2017.

February 5, 2021