Looking into the Mirror: The Ten Commandments

And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

“You shall not murder.

“You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:1-17).

These words from Scripture are familiar to anyone who has read the Bible for any length of time—and even if one has never read the Bible, they are likely familiar. This section of Exodus, known as the Ten Commandments (literally “ten words”), forms the beginning and basis of God’s law (specifically the moral law). Over the next several posts, we will look closely at the commandments, including the original intent and how they are to be applied to the life of a believer. In this post, we’ll take a broad view of the passage, including its purpose and relevance to the life of the New Testament Christian.

The Context and Purpose: Deliverance

It’s important as we begin to acknowledge the context and purpose of this passage. The context is given a short summary statement: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Lord had just brought Israel out of slavery. The sentence of death He decreed on the firstborn had broken the will of Pharaoh (though he would quickly change his mind, resulting in the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea). That night would mark the first Passover (“pass over”). The Lord had conquered Egypt and claimed Israel as His own. Thus, He gave the covenant to Moses at Sinai to teach Israel how to live before Him.

Though many people try to live by the Ten Commandments to “be good,” that is not, nor ever was, their intent. Note that the first thing God says is that “I have [already] saved you.” The Ten Commandments, and indeed the law in general, was never intended as a means of salvation (Gal. 3:21). In fact, Paul says, that the law is not for the righteous, but the unrighteous. He writes,

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:8-10).

Why does the righteous person not need the law? Because the law is already written on his heart. His obedience is not from an external standard but simply comes from who he is. In the same way, Israel’s response to the law was to proceed from the ground of deliverance, rather than the other way around. Those who exercised faith in the Lord would obey His commandments, showing the reality of their faith.

The Ten Commandments for Us

If it’s true (and it surely is, coming from Scripture), that the law is not for the righteous, then what relevance does this passage have for us, or is it even relevant at all? Though one pastor recently made headlines by stating that the Ten Commandments are not for believers, the Word of God disagrees:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Taking this passage at face value, we must conclude that the Ten Commandments (and indeed all Scripture) is relevant to the follower of Christ. Its value for us lies in Paul’s statement of purpose: “Scripture is profitable [useful] for . . . training in righteousness.” When one is saved, he does not automatically know how to live as a believer, though the desire to obey God’s Word is present. Scripture, then, is used by God to show us what it “looks like” to walk in obedience to Him. (For a look at this, see “Growing in Christ: Our Training Manual”).

To use James’ picture, the law is like a mirror that one looks at to see his reflection. The mirror shows us what we look like in comparison to God’s eternal standards. When we fall short (as we always do), we are to confess and repent, adjusting our thinking and our behaviors to align with Scripture. It is this mirror into which we will look throughout this series, finding the areas that God is calling us to look more like Christ.

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Running the Race

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

In the film Overcomer, Hannah Scott is a cross-country athlete who transfers to a Christian school. There are a few problems, though. Firstly, the school has no cross-country team. Secondly, Hannah has asthma.

Asthma, you say? Yes, asthma. Due to some circumstances, the school starts a cross-country team–with Hannah as the only member. She trains and trains, and finally it’s time for the state championship. During the race, she gives her all, with the help of the voice of her dad in her ear (a pre-recorded message) coaching her through the course. She collapses as she crosses the finish line, but wins by a matter of inches. That story has much to say to us, but in this post, we’ll focus on the truths of the passage above, illustrated in the story.

We Are All Running the Race

All of us are running a race, both believers and unbelievers. It’s called the race of life. We are all striving for something. Some strive for fame, money, success, ministry, or a legacy. These wreaths or crowns are what Paul calls perhishable. At the end of life, these crowns will be gone. One cannot take them into eternity.

For the believer, however, our race is different. We strive for an imperishable crown. The crown that is awarded to the believer at the end of his life will last for eternity. Near the end of his life, Paul tells Timothy,

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

This is the crown that all believers will be given at the end of life. It is a crown based solely on God’s grace and the work of Christ.

The Rewards of the Believer

For the believer, there are more rewards that they will be given at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Paul tells us,

Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

Notice here that we are all building. Some are building with precious things (those things that will last and pass the test), and some are building with cheap material (and that material will be consumed in the fire of testing). We should take care, then, how we build.

What does it mean to build with the things that will last? It means that we are building His kingdom, engaging in activities that will have an eternal impact. What is the one thing that will have an eternal impact? Making disciples. That is the command of every believer. We are to preach the gospel, and then call those that believe to a life of discipleship.

Giving Our All

Like Hannah Scott in the film, we are called to give our all for the race we run. Everything we do should be focused toward making disciples, accumulating those rewards that will stand the test of fire. And like Hannah Scott, we do not run alone. The Father has given the Holy Spirit to us to journey alongside us, encouraging, exhorting, and keeping us on the course. At the end, though we receive those crowns, they are not ours. Like the elders of Revelation 4, we too will cast our crowns at the feet of Him who loves us, saves us, and gave His life for us. He gave His all for us; may we give our all for Him.

The Righteousness of God: The Results

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Rom. 8:28-30).

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13).

In the last post, (“The Righteousness of God: God’s Provision—Jesus”), we saw that God has made a way to justify sinful man apart from the law. That way is through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we said, one is justified by faith in Jesus, and only those who place their faith in Him are so justified.

In our final post in the series, we will look at the question, “Can one know for certain that he is saved?” This is a common question that many ask, usually at a time when they have been confronted with the fact that they still sin as a believer.

We Can Know

The first thing we want to say is that God intended us to know that we are saved. The apostle John wrote a letter for that specific purpose. He told his readers, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (emphasis added). The entire letter of 1 John was written so that we could know for certain. The phrase “we know” appears more than 25 times in the letter.

How can we know? John and the other writers of the New Testament give us evidence tests. There are several in 1 John alone, including love of the brethren, walking in the light, and walking in the truth. All of them boil down to one fact—when God saves a person, that person is changed. They become a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and that change continues throughout their lifetime, being completed only when they are taken Home to be with the Lord. (For an in-depth look at 1 John, take a look at my free commentary That You May Know, or the blog posts based on that.)

When talking about assurance of salvation and works, there are two important things to remember. Firstly, assurance is based on God’s promises, not on our works. Our works (that is, the change in us) give evidence of the fact that we are saved, but without His grace and power, they would simply be dead works. Secondly, and just as important, one who has been saved will change, will grow in love and holiness, and will understand God’s Word more and more. If one claims to be saved but has no desire to grow, change, fellowship or know God and His Word, then such a claim should be questioned.

Salvation and Sin

But what about our sin? As we mentioned, the question of assurance usually comes up when someone is confronted with the fact that they claim Christ yet still sin. However, the fact that believers can and do still sin is recorded in Scripture—a fact that surprises some. 1 John tells us,

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).

Let’s take a brief look at this passage. The first thing we need to remember is that 1 John was written to believers. It was not written to people in general. With that in mind, what does he say here? Firstly, believers do sin, and to deny that is to live in self-deception. Some think that verse 9 is referring to one who is outside of Christ, but John uses “we” (as he does throughout his letter). He is therefore not referring to those outside of Christ (unless he sees himself that way).

Secondly, if we deny we have sinned then we have called the Lord a liar. Why is this? Because He has said all sin, no one is righteous in themselves. To say, then, that we don’t sin even as believers is to say, “Lord, You were wrong about what You said.” Any time we believe something contrary to what the Lord has said in His Word, we call Him at best misinformed and at worst a liar.

Thirdly, when we do confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us. To confess means “to say the same thing; to agree with.” We agree that the attitude, word, or deed was sin. We repent (change our thinking) and turn from it, turning to the Lord in faith. Confession without repentance is little more than saying, “I’m sorry.”

Does That Mean I’m Not Saved?

Many people seem to struggle with the idea that a believer sins. Does that mean that they are not saved, no longer a believer? Those who advocate for this position do so on various grounds, but it generally boils down to a view of salvation as merely a choice of the will. Thus, I can choose to be saved (accepting Christ’s sacrifice as payment for my sins), and then I can choose to walk away from Him.

As we said above, however, salvation is more than that. Salvation changes a person. Under the New Covenant, the believer is given a new heart that wants to follow God. The very core of his being is changed. To “no longer be saved,” then, would require that God 1) either undo what He has done, or 2) that a believer with a new heart be again subject to His wrath. From a plain reading of Scripture, it seems that neither of those are viable options.

Not only that, but it also seems that such a position would make God a liar, for He has promised (unconditionally) certain things to the believer. Let’s take a look at the Romans 8 passage quoted at the top of the page. What do we see there? First, we see that Paul is referring to those actions in past tense. They already happened. That is to say,

  • He foreknew you. He knew beforehand who you would be, and more specifically, He created you that way. It’s not just that God knew what you would do, but He knew you (the same thought is expressed to Jeremiah in Jer. 1:5). Eph. 1:4 tells us that “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.” You were chosen, not because anything you would do, but because of His good pleasure.
  • He predestined you. Not only did God foreknow and choose you, but He predestined you. The Greek word for this means “to predetermine, decide beforehand.” Those He knew, He also determined to conform to the image of His Son.
  • He called you. When He determined that you’d be conformed to the image of His Son, He called you to Himself. When you placed your faith in Christ, you answered that call.
  • He justified you. When He called you, He drew you to Himself and justified you (declared you righteous) because of the work of Christ, which He applied to you.
  • He glorified you. This may seem strange to say in the past tense, because it seems we are not yet glorified. God, however, can speak in the past tense. The idea here is that He decreed it in the past even before you were born, and thus it shall be. Another way of saying this (and the other concepts above) is, “It’s already happened, you are simply living it out.”

Think about that last statement: It’s already happened, you are just living it out. That’s what the whole purpose of Rom. 8:28-35 is about—giving hope to the believer in the midst of struggles. And for the believer, sin is the biggest struggle, and the one that will last the longest.  But Paul goes on to tell us that nothing in all creation will ever separate us from His love.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:37-39).

[Note: Some of the material in this series has been adapted from my commentary The Righteousness of God: A Commentary on Romans.]

The Righteousness of God: God’s Provision–Jesus

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (Rom. 3:20, 22).

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).

In the previous post, we left mankind in a bit of a fix. The gospel tells us that all mankind—every person born since Adam was created—have sinned against a perfect and holy God, violating His law. Because all have sinned, all stand under judgment, subject to God’s eternal wrath.

Just Do Better?

We also saw that even if a man could live perfectly from this point on, he has already violated God’s law and is therefore subject to His wrath. Not only that, but Paul tells us, that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Notice that Paul says that no human will be justified (that is, declared righteous, saved from God’s wrath) by keeping the law.

Why is that? Because the law does not produce righteousness. Instead, it produces “the knowledge of sin.” What does that mean? Its basic meaning is that the law sets the standard, and thus also the knowledge of what is sin (anything that violates that standard). However, as Paul will elaborate later, the law also arouses sin. If a parent tells a child, “Don’t go into the kitchen,” where is the first place the child will normally seek to go? The kitchen, of course—even if she had no thought of going to the kitchen before the command was given. So, the law can only tell you what is right and wrong. And, instead of giving you the power to obey, it actually tends to arouse sin in the flesh. The law simply can’t produce salvation.

By Faith Alone

Instead of keeping the law to be saved, God’s righteousness (and thus our justification) comes by another path: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Justification by faith. In looking closely at this verse, we see a few important details:

  • First, it is apart from the law. The righteousness of God is separate from the law, meaning the law is not the path to obtaining righteousness (as we have said many times in earlier posts, keeping God’s commandments is done from the ground of salvation, not the path to salvation).
  • Second, the Old Testament writings (the Law and the Prophets) bear witness to it. Righteousness by faith stretches throughout biblical history, going back to Abraham and beyond, as we mentioned in the last post. The heroes of faith in the Old Testament weren’t righteous because they kept the law. All of them stumbled miserably. Rather, they kept the law because they had faith and thus were declared righteous in God’s sight.
  • Third, the righteousness of God comes by faith in Christ. Paul is very specific here. Faith in Christ is the path to God’s righteousness (the justification of the believer). More specifically, this righteousness is given “for all who believe.” All who place faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are saved.

Jesus: The Way to the Father

What part does Jesus play in the gospel? Paul tells us, “Christ died for us.” What does this mean? Remember that the law requires death for sin. Jesus, then, died in our place and bore the penalty of sin—the wrath of God. He could do this because He lived a perfectly sinless life. He said, “I always do those things that please the Father” (John 8:29). Because He lived a perfect life, His death was not for Himself but in the place of others. Because He is God-incarnate (John 1:1-2), His death is sufficient for all (1 John 2:2; 4:10).

How do we know that His death was acceptable to God for our sins? Because He rose from the dead. Remember, death is the result of sin. Because Jesus never sinned, death had no claim on Him. He gave up His life voluntarily for us (John 10:11, 15, 17-18). His resurrection shows that He is righteous. And His righteousness is imputed (credited or reckoned) to those who believe in Him for salvation.

No Other Way

Many people say that there are many ways to God. There are, indeed, many man-made attempts to reach God. But they all fall short for several reasons:

The first reason is that of sin. Sin pervades every part of us and every part of creation. We are fallen people in a fallen world. Our best attempts to “reach God” fall woefully short of His standards.

Secondly, Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes through the Father but by me” (John 14:6, emphasis mine). That automatically excludes every other “way” to God. Either Jesus was right, and all other attempts are wrong, or He was wrong, and thus we have no reason to believe anything else He has said. But again, His resurrection proves that everything He said was true.

How is One Saved?

The Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Their answer? “And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (v. 31). To be saved, one places his trust/belief/faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. To put it another way, as Paul says,

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. . . . For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:9, 13).

This is the essence of the gospel. Turn to Christ in faith and trust.

[Note: Much of the material in this series has been adapted from my commentary The Righteousness of God: A Commentary on Romans.]

The Righteousness of God: God’s Wrath and Man’s Need

God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day (Ps. 7:11).

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Rom. 1:18).

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. . . . For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:10-12, 23).

When we talk about the gospel, the first question we have to ask is, “Why do we need the gospel? What do we need to be ‘saved’ from?” Today, many people scoff at the idea of being saved from anything—or their idea of salvation is becoming a god in their own right (so-called human evolution). The problem, and the reason that the gospel is necessary, is sin.

What is Sin?

We all have at least a vague idea of what “sin” is. Sin, in a general sense, is wrongdoing. In the Bible, sin is defined as “falling short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23, the idea of falling short or missing the mark). Sin is also defined as transgressing the law of God (1 John 3:4, the idea being that one is a law unto himself and thus violates the law of God).

We should be careful to understand that sin goes deeper than just outward behavior. Why is this so? Because God’s law demands perfection, reaching beyond the appearance to the very attitudes of the heart (Ps. 19:7; Mark 12:30). “Wait, God requires me to be perfect?” He does. He is holy and perfect, with no moral blemish, and His law requires that same perfection.

But, no one is perfect. No human since the fall of Adam and Eve has ever kept the law perfectly. That’s a real problem. Why, you ask? That’s a good question.

The Wrath of God

What’s the problem with sin? Those who fail to meet the standard of God’s law are subject to His wrath. His eternal wrath. Some people teach that we are separated from God’s presence by our sin; however, God is omnipresent, everywhere at once. We are certainly separated from His goodness, mercy, and love, but not from Him. And we could never hide from Him, as the psalmist has said:

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you (Ps. 139:7-12).

All humanity, then is in danger of His wrath. Our experience in life confirms what Scripture has already said: No one is perfect. No one is righteous. All have sinned.

God the Righteous Judge

Many people object to the idea of God as a judge, since it means they are subject to His judgment. Scripture does affirm, however, that God looks down and makes righteous judgments, and is rightly indignant with human sin (Ps. 7:11). God’s judgment, however, is not capricious, cruel, or arbitrary. They are righteous. They are based on standards that are in accord with His character.

How is that so? Firstly, because we all are born with an instinctive awareness of God and His righteous decrees:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Rom. 1:19-20).

We all know instinctively that there is a God and He has standards. Those who deny His existence have been taught to deny His existence and violate their own instincts.

Secondly, besides the revelation of nature, man has awareness of right and wrong (God’s moral decrees) through the vehicle of conscience (Rom. 2:15). God has given humanity light to see His moral decrees.

God’s judgments, then, are based on evidence, and as Paul tells us, the judgement of God rightly falls on those who violate His law. The standard has been set, and when people violate the standard, he is subject to the wrath of God.

What is to Be Done?

What is the solution to this dilemma? How can a righteous and holy God justify and reconcile sinful man to Himself? Are we to simply “do better?” Is that enough? That can’t be enough, simply because even if one could be perfect from this point on (an impossible task), he has already sinned in the past! If salvation from the wrath of God is not possible by keeping the law, then what hope have we? That will be the subject of the next post.

[Note: Much of the material in this series has been adapted from my commentary The Righteousness of God: A Commentary on Romans.]

The Righteousness of God: The Gospel

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:16-17).

Out of all the books in Scripture, Romans gives by far the most detailed and systematic presentation of the gospel of Christ. Beginning with this post, we start a series looking at the gospel as articulated by Paul in Romans. We obviously won’t cover every verse in this long and deeply challenging letter, but we’ll look at the overall message of the gospel.

Paul wrote this letter as a means of introducing himself to the church of Rome (having not been there prior). He tells them that he is “eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (v. 15). You might say his life’s work and passion is “the gospel,” and he would agree.

The Power of God

Why is this? Why should he devote his whole life to declaring the gospel? Because “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Salvation is solely of, by, and through God. It is His power at work in a person’s life. There is nothing that a man can do to save himself. Salvation is more than just the forgiveness of sin, however. Salvation is restoring of all things, setting the believer right with God and making possible the process of transformation into the image of Christ.

Notice the only condition of salvation is faith (“to everyone who believes”). One does not experience salvation apart from saving faith (more on that in a future post). Notice also that salvation is open to all (“to the Jew first and also to the Greek”). Here, Paul’s use of “Greek” should better be understood as Gentiles or nations, that is, all others not of the Jewish race. So, salvation is available to all (which he will show, and we will discuss, later).

The Righteousness of God

Not only is the gospel the power of God, but it also reveals the righteousness of God. The gospel reveals that God is good and holy, and all His ways are just. In addition, the Gospel proceeds because of God’s righteousness–that is to say the way of salvation is in harmony with His very character, as it reveals all that He is (holy, just, merciful, compassionate, longsuffering).

This righteousness, Paul tells us, has been revealed “from faith to faith,” or throughout all history. Righteousness by faith is not a new concept in the New Testament. Rather, it stretches back through all of history, even as far back as Abraham and beyond. A great example of this is found in Hebrews 11, the long list of the heroes of faith. In fact, as Paul reminds us, “The just live by faith.” The sense of that verse is that, “The just have always lived by faith.”

In the very first post of this blog (“What is the Gospel? Good News and Bad News”), we discussed the basics of the gospel. This series will take those concepts and elaborate on them.

The gospel tells us that:

  • God is a righteous Judge, and all mankind stands guilty before Him, in danger of His eternal wrath.
  • God’s way of salvation is by faith apart from works of the law, since man can do nothing to save himself.
  • God sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty for our sin (the wrath of God).
  • One’s only hope of salvation is trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ rather than any form of self-righteousness.
  • Those who trust in Christ can be assured of their salvation and eventual glorification.

At the end of this series, you’ll hopefully have a richer understanding of the gospel, why it was necessary, and what it means to you.  It is only by God’s grace that we are saved, and it by His grace that we stand.

[Note: Much of the material in this series has been adapted from my commentary The Righteousness of God: A Commentary on Romans.]

Last Words: Lukewarm Laodiceans

And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,’ not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:14-22).

One of the worst states a believer or church can fall into is self-deception. Self-deception is when one perceives himself one way, and the truth is far different. Such was the case with the church of Laodicea. They had given into the culture with endless compromise, and thought they were as spiritually wealthy as they were financially. Thus, they had become lukewarm. In His letter to them, Jesus set out to bring them back to life.

Laodicea was about 45 miles southeast of Philadelphia (and about 100 miles due east of Ephesus). Along with Colossae and Hierapolis, it formed a triad of cities in the fertile Lycus Valley. It was an important center for both trade and communication, and it had a large wool industry (its glossy black wool was famous throughout the world), as well as a large banking industry. The city was extremely wealthy, and had a famous school of medicine, which produced a special ointment known for its cure of eye defects.

The True Witness

As in all the previous messages, Christ begins with an introduction referring to His character. Here, He describes Himself as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.” These three descriptions all tie together.

The Amen. The word amen is a response to the divine Word. It typically means “it will be done” (when spoken by God or Jesus) and “let it be so” (when spoken by humans, thus standing in agreement with the divine Word). Jesus, then, is the ultimate Amen, in that He perfectly carried out the Father’s will, having said both let it be done and let it be so.

The faithful and true witness. A witness is one who testifies to what he as seen and heard. Jesus is the ultimate witness, knowing the truth of men’s heart, though they seek to hide it. When Christ speaks of what He has seen and knows, we can be assured that He speaks the truth.

The beginning of God’s creation. This phrase may cause confusion if one is not careful. While the Bible teaches that Jesus was begotten of the Father, He was not created in the sense that everything else was. More light can be shed on this phrase when we look at the Greek word translated “beginning.” The word archē can mean “first; beginning,” but it can also mean “principality; ruler.” Thus, the phrase may rightly be translated “the ruler of God’s creation.” Since Jesus often refers to the fact that all authority has been given to Him by the Father, this seems to be the preferred translation.

Taken together, these descriptions show Jesus as the One who holds the authority and power over all creation, and is the One who knows the innermost thoughts and intentions of the heart. He calls all to follow His example of not only saying “amen” but also living a life of “amen.”

Lukewarmness in the Church

As the true and faithful witness, Christ tells the church exactly what He has seen. “I know your works,” he says. He knows they are “neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm.” Because they are neither hot nor cold, he is going to expel them–vomit them from His mouth.

This verse is often misinterpreted, by assigning a state of salvation to being “hot” and a state of “unbelief” to being cold. Yet that would mean Christ would prefer one to be unsaved rather than lukewarm. Since God wills that none perish (John 3:16; 1 Pet. 3:9), and given that the idea of cold or hot as a measure of spiritual temperature would have been a foreign concept to them at the time, this interpretation is simply untenable.

The correct interpretation lies in the fact that Laodicea received water from the two other cities in the region–cool water from Colossae and hot water from Hieropapolis. Both are useful. But when they reached Laodicea, they would often have warmed or cooled to the extent that they were “lukewarm,” which is often useless. The sense, then, is that Christ is telling the church, “You are becoming useless to Me, with your spiritual indifference.”

The Testimony of the Witness

The cause of this lukewarm state is then described by Christ in verse 17. Notice the difference between the assessment by the church and the assessment by the Lord:

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing. The Laodiceans had become as prosperous as the city around them. They had accommodated over and over, and now were just like the culture, indeed, a part of the culture.

Not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Not only did Christ give His own (true) evaluation, but He points out that the church is blind to their true state. This is self-deception, when one remains blinded to the true condition of his heart. These descriptions are in direct opposition to the Laodiceans’ evaluation of themselves.

The Counsel of the Witness

What can the church do to correct this state of affairs? Christ counsels them (not threatens, not warns, but counsels) to buy from Him the thing they really need:

Gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich. The gold that Christ offers is pure gold, for it has been refined by fire. Material wealth can never compare to what Christ offers. And the spiritual wealth that He offers is bought by obedience to His Word.

White garments so that you may clothe yourself. In the spiritual realm, the realm that counts, the black woolen clothing that the city was famous for was useless. Christ counsels the Laodiceans to buy white (spotless) clothing to cover their nakedness.

Salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. This was perhaps the biggest problem of all. The Laodiceans were blind to their true condition. And in this case, the special ointment of Laodicea would be useless. The church needed Christ’s salve to open their eyes.

The Exhortations of the Witness

Even in the wretched condition that the Laodiceans find themselves, Christ assures them of His love. “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (v. 19, emphasis added). He loves the believers. He calls them to have their eyes opened. To repent. The implication of this statement is that He will restore them if only they will show true zeal in repentance.

How should the Laodiceans show their repentance? By opening the door that Christ stands at knocking (v. 20). While some interpret this verse in an evangelistic manner (to unbelievers), it was applied to the church, to those who at least by profession were believers. To those who do repent and open that door to Christ, they are promised that “I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” In the culture of the day, sharing a meal was the highest form of fellowship. Christ is calling the church to true fellowship with Him, but that requires repentance and faith.

Finally, to the one who does open the door and remains faithful, Christ promises that such a one will reign with Him (“sit with Me on my throne”). In this verse, as with the other letters, conquer does not mean physical force; rather it means to hold fast to the faith and teachings of Christ, overcoming the fleshly desires of the world.

Let us then remain useful to Christ, not being lukewarm. Let us continue to have our eyes opened to His Word so that we may have fellowship with Him.

Last Words: Perseverance in Philadelphia

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev. 3:7-13).

Among the seven churches in Revelation, the church of Philadelphia was the most faithful. There are no words of hesitation or condemnation (except against the enemies of the church).

Philadelphia was created by King Attalus II (159–138 B.C.), who was given the nickname Philadelphus, which means “brother lover” (he was very fond of his brother). The city lay some twenty-five miles southeast of Sardis. As with the other cities around it, Sardis was prosperous, having a rich vine-growing district, as well as leather and textile industries. The church’s faithfulness can be seen in the fact that long after all the surrounding country had succumbed to Muslim control under Turkey, Philadelphia held out as a Christian populace till 1392.

Holding the Key of David

The speaker (Christ) identifies Himself as “the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” These characteristics reflect back on several aspects of Jesus.

Holiness is an essential characteristic of God (and Jesus, being God-incarnate). Without holiness, God would cease to be God. While of course including freedom from any type of moral impurity, holiness embodies all the other characteristics of God (love, justice, mercy, etc.). It is similar to white light that contains all other colors together. Jesus therefore claims to be God-incarnate, the One to whom all mankind will give account.

The true one reflects back to Jesus’ statement, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6, emphasis added). Not only does Jesus speak the truth, but He is the embodiment of truth. No truth exists outside Him, and all truth is His truth. Paul was right in mentioning “the belt of truth” (Eph. 6:14). Truth holds all things together.

Who has the key of David refers to Christ as the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant. David was told that his seed would rule the kingdom forever. It also refers to Jesus’ statement to Peter about giving the keys to the kingdom (Matt. 16:15). In Israel, the King always held the keys, unless he delegated someone else to act in his authority. Christ alone grants entrance into the Kingdom of God. (This is likely to combat the teaching of the Jews in that city that they alone were the gatekeepers to the Kingdom.)

The Open Door

Christ begins by using His key. He tells the church, “I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” The sense is, “Because I know your works, I have opened the door to you, and no one can shut it.” The “works” He mentions here are elaborated on:

  • You have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. The ‘power’ referred to here is likely political or physical power. The church appears weak to the world, but their faith is strong. That faith has enabled them to publicly confess their allegiance to Christ and keep His commandments.
  • You have kept my word about patient endurance. Patience and endurance always refers to perseverance in the midst of trials and persecution. Rather than complaining or losing hope, the church of Philadelphia has endured patiently as good soldiers of Christ (2 Tim. 2:3).

The church had remained faithful even in the face of persecution by “those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie.” This likely refers to the Jews who vehemently (and often violently) oppose the teaching that Jesus is the Messiah and persecute those who teach this doctrine. Because Christ has the key of David, He thus is denying the Jews’ claim that they are the true people of God. The open door, then, is assurance of entrance into the Kingdom.

Preservation Because of Perseverance

Because the church has kept His Word and has been patiently enduring persecution, Christ promises that those Jews will acknowledge that Christ is Lord and that “I have loved you.” The church is not called to conquer those Jews and force them to bow. Rather Christ Himself will come and make them bow, acknowledging the rightness of the church’s belief and standing before God.

Not only that, but the church is also promised to be kept “from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” This promise has caused much debate over the centuries, particularly in the Rapture/Tribulation debate, since Christ mentions the trial that is coming on the whole world” and to “try those who dwell on the earth.” This seems to indicate that all who are on the earth will experience that great trial (often known in the OT as the “Day of the Lord”).

Will the church go through the great tribulation? The phrase “keep you from the hour of tribulation” could have two meanings: 1) removal from the tribulation; or 2) keeping safe in the midst of the tribulation. Either of these is a likely rendering in the context of the letter. It’s not necessary, therefore, to answer that question to understand the meaning. The bottom line of the promise is that the church will be protected, whether by removal from or by preservation in the midst of the the tribulation. Whichever view one takes of that question should be held loosely.

One final promise is given; “I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God.” This is a promise of a permanent place in the Kingdom of God. It also speaks of the believers collectively as the Temple of Christ. We are the pillars of that temple, having been built on the foundation of Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11). And again, this speaks to an assurance that the believers will be granted entrance into the Kingdom. For those faithful to Christ, their place in the Kingdom and the Temple of God is assured.

Next: Lukewarm Laodiceans

Last Words: Soiled in Sardis

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:1-6).

Many people want to live in the past, reliving their “glory days,” whether in sports, fame, or ministry. Instead of continuing the journey, they get stuck. The church of Sardis had fallen into this trap.

Sardis was about thirty miles south of Thyatira. It was known both as a commercially prosperous and militarily important city of the time. Three aspects of the area are notable: an 800-foot high acropolis, a temple to Artemis (unfinished), and a necropolis (cemetery), known as “the place of a thousand hills.” Sardis was also home to a large woolen industry, which may explain the reference to clothing in verse 4. The prosperous living of the citizens soon lapsed into moral indifference and decadence, as the citizens relived their past glories of being the capital city of Asia for Persia.

Alive but Dead

Christ introduces Himself to the church as the one “who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” We mentioned in a previous post (Last Words: The Author and Judge) that the seven stars are the seven angels of (or messengers to) the churches. The “seven spirits of God’ would represent the fullness of the Holy Spirit (seven being the number of perfection or completion). So, Christ is telling the church, “I am the one who holds the churches in My hand and who sends the Holy Spirit to you, to enable your service and judge your deficiencies.”

Christ knows their “deeds.” They have, He says, a reputation of being alive. At one time, the church was full of His love and service. But, they have lost that. They are dead, He says. This is the strongest condemnation given to any church (even Laodicea was described as “lukewarm,” not dead). What has caused this state of affairs? Christ doesn’t lay out as many specific charges as with some other churches, but there are some things that can be seen:

  • “Wake up.” This command is given because the church is in a state of lethargy, spiritual sleep. They are going through the motions of things with no real motivation.
  • “I have not found your works complete.” The church of Sardis was showing at best half-hearted devotion to Christ.
  • “You have still a few . . . people who have not soiled their garments.” The implication here is that those who have held fast to Christ in full devotion are in the minority. The church at large has abandoned Him.

The Call to Repent

The church is to do three things, lest they be found unprepared at His coming. They are to:

“Remember what you received and heard.” At one time the true message of God had been declared to this church, and they had received it and kept it. Repentance always starts with remembering the truth of God’s Word.

“Keep it [what you received and heard].” When Christ and the New Testament writers use the phrase “keep My Word,” they mean that we are to to not only know it and remember it, but live it. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). This is likely the state that the church has found themselves in. They knew the Word of God, yet failed to obey it. When we do that, we fall into self-deception. The solution to that is to begin to keep (read “obey”) it.

“Repent.” This is a simple and straightforward command. Repent means first to change my thinking on a matter, and then act accordingly. Repentance involves a change of attitude that results in a change of behavior. They are to once again be fully devoted to Christ, both in heart and in works.

To the Overcomer

Soiled garments often represent moral and ritual (in the OT) uncleanness. Whether from outward disobedience or a corrupted heart, the picture is one of moral filth.

Notice, however, that Christ doesn’t call the church to “wash your garments” or even “change your garments.” For those who repent and remain faithful, He promises this: “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments.” The implication is that Christ Himself changes the garments. We have no power to cleanse ourselves, only His blood and the Holy Spirit can do that.

Two additional promises are given, and both flow from the change of garments. First, Christ promises that “I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” He will look at the Father and say, “Yes, this one belongs to me. I know his name. She loves me.” This is by far the highest compliment a believer can be given. And it’s all because of His grace.

Second, Christ promises to never remove the faithful believer from the book of life. In ancient cities the names of citizens were recorded in a register till their death; then their names were marked out of that book. Christ offers this assurance to the faithful believer. He will have an eternal citizenship in heaven, which will never be terminated. Thus, the believer can say with the words of Paul,

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:37-39).

Next: Perseverance in Philadelphia