The Common Made Holy

On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’ ” The priests answered and said, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.” (Haggai 2:10–13)

In this somewhat obscure passage of the Old Testament (how many of us even know about Haggai?), we find the weaknesses of the Old Covenant. Things were purified under the law by cleansing rituals, involving fire and/or blood. In this conversation between the Haggai and the priests, we learn one simple thing about those things made holy under the law: Not only did the holy things not have the power to make other things holy, but they could become unclean themselves through contact with an unclean thing or person.

We live in a world of separation–division, really. Sadly, even much of the church lives in this same world. We are afraid to touch the dead things of this world lest we too become unclean. This was why the priest and the Levite passed on the other side of the road in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). They were on their way to Jerusalem, perhaps to undertake religious duties, and feared becoming unclean. This is why The Pharisees would not enter Pilate’s headquarters during Jesus’ trial: “They wanted to be able to eat the Passover” (John 18:28). 

Much of the church continues to live this way. What’s the problem with this? Aren’t we supposed to be separate from the evil around us? Yes and no. We are to remain in the world while not being of the world. What happens, though, is we still fear being made unclean–unacceptable to God. But that was the Old Covenant. The New Covenant reverses that.

When we were saved, God (the Holy One) reached down and touched us. Did he become unclean? Of course not. Rather, we became clean (Ezek. 36:25-26). The woman with an issue of blood reached and touched the hem of Jesus’ robe (Luke 8:43-48). Did Jesus become unclean? No.  Rather, “. . . I perceive that power has gone out from me” (Luke 8:46). The woman was made clean and healed.

The rituals of the Old Covenant could declare people and things clean–for a time. But those cleansed had no power to similarly cleanse anyone or anything else. Not so in the New Covenant. What’s the difference? The cleansing under the Old Covenant was declaratory only and outward; it did not actually change the person or thing. The change under the New Covenant is inner and consists of an actual transformation. Something new exists now that did not exist before. 

Consider this advice that Paul gave to Christian spouses married to an unbeliever:

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:12–14)

Now, while we should not press the truths of this passage too far, there is clearly a principle here that a follower of Jesus has an inherent cleansing and sanctifying influence on those around him or her (especially his or her household). This has to be at least part of what Jesus meant when he said, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). Salt has a preserving quality, but it also makes one thirsty. But in order to preserve something, salt is mixed into it. It will not do to just put a container of salt next to something. 

While we who follow Jesus may consciously believe and speak as though we are “new creations in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17), many of us live as though we are under the law of the Old Covenant. We fear being contaminated by the world, so we refuse to engage. Instead, we hunker down in our churches and hope that change comes to society by means of the laws we support, the money we give, and the politicians we elect.

We need to remember the words of Jesus:

The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. (John 13:10).

We have been cleansed–really and fully cleansed. We are clean, and no contact with the world will change that. Yes, we will need to wash our feet, but do you see that Jesus said even those who need to wash their feet are still completely clean? We need not fear the contamination of the world. We need to get out and be the salt and light that Jesus told us we are. Because of Jesus and the New Covenant, we have the means to see the common made holy–not just outwardly, but inwardly.


Independence Day–Our True Freedom

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)

I rarely what might be called “holiday posts,” with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas. With the division and chaos troubling the United States, this seemed an appropriate time to do otherwise and give us some reminders.

We Americans have long seen freedom largely as the right and ability to do what one wants. In somewhat of an extreme correction, some segments have defined freedom, however, as the right and ability to do what one should. This definition often rings true to people professing faith in Christ. The biblical perspective of freedom, however, differs from both of these.

Slaves vs. Sons

In the New Testament, we see several ideas of what it means to be free. We first turn to a well-known verse in John:

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:31–36)

In this passage, Jesus is speaking of two types of freedom–or better yet, two results of true freedom. He speaks of both freedom from the enslaving power of sin and freedom to fully enjoy God as members of God’s family. All humanity is born enslaved to sin due to the sinful nature we inherited from Adam. Since there is no reforming the flesh through education, enlightenment, or psychological treatment, the only way to free us is to kill the sinful nature and remove it. 

Because all are enslaved to sin, none is naturally a child of God. Note Jesus’ words on the difference between a son and a slave. A slave may (and often did) serve in the house, but at the end of the day, he or she had to return to the place where slaves dwelt. It is the children who “remain in the house forever.” In these comments, Jesus is saying that the freedom he offers is the freedom to enjoy God fully as his children (John 1:12-13)

Called to Liberty

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we find some of his strongest words on the subject of freedom. He writes:

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . . For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:1, 13)

In the context of Galatians 5, Paul is talking about freedom of conscience. We are free to live in the way that pleases God without condemnation of the law for failing to do so perfectly (Romans 8:1). This goes far beyond the typical, “free to do as we want/should” argument. This is the freedom to live according to who we are. Since the entire Trinity consists of three self-giving Persons who seek not their own but the good of the others, we also were created to seek the good of others rather than our own. 

And we can live that way because the Son has truly set us free (John 8:36). We have a new heart and a new Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-26). Paul’s words on freedom remind us that it’s okay that we aren’t perfect yet–we haven’t arrived. We are free to grow in love, holiness, and obedience without the law’s condemnation. Will we stumble along the way? Yes. But that is a far cry from not being able to do anything but sin. 
We are no longer slaves but children of God. We were seated at his family table and invited to join in the Great Family. We all know what families look like here–loud, messy, joyful (and at times painful). God invites us to bring all of that as we learn to live out our new identity in Christ. That is true freedom, and living in a free country can never compare with that. Because that freedom can never be taken from us.

There is true freedom at the foot of the cross.

Autonomy or Security?

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. (Luke 12:4)

There’s been a lot of talk over the last 50 years about “bodily autonomy.” The idea is that a person should control whatever happens to their own body. We’ve seen this most prominently, of course, in the abortion debate. At the same time, it has also appeared in large segments of the conservative church, particularly in the debate of vaccine mandates due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s interesting about this phrase is that one group will claim it for their issue yet deny it for the other issues. Supporters of abortion rights (with some exceptions, of course) are more likley to be in favor of vaccine mandates, thus denying the idea of “bodily autonomy” applies in that situation. Those who oppose vaccine mandates (on the principle of “my body, my choice,” and again with some exceptions) deny this principle applies to abortion.

Now, before I go any further, let me say that abortion (and by that I mean the intentional termination of pregnancy that results in the death of the unborn baby) is different from vaccine mandates, because it involves the life of another. Likewise, vaccine mandates are different in that they introduce a substance into the body that someone may or may not want in their body. But, I digress.

The common thread here is this idea of “my body, my choice.” What is the church to do with this? I have long said that it’s inappropriate and contrary to the gospel for followers of Jesus to place their idea of “rights” over the gospel. We live in a culture (at least those of us in most of the western world) that elevates individual autonomy far above the community. It’s this thinking that is behind the “my body, my choice” idea, and that idea has long been making inroads into the church. 

What the church must realize is that underneath the “my body, my choice” idea lies the deeper needs for security and significance. The deepest human need is to feel a sense of personal wholeness, and that sense comes through what we might call significance (or impact or purpose) and security (relationship, acceptance, unconditional love). Now, these needs are not the problem. They are part of how we are created. 

In fact, before the fall they were not needs but attributes of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve enjoyed a sense of personal wholeness as they knew God and walked with him. They found their security in their relationship with the Triune God, the Eternal Community. They found their significance in the fact that God created them and had given them a purpose–to take care of the garden and display his glory. When they fell into sin, however, they were cut off from God. Their sense of personal wholeness (expressed in significance and security) was gone. Those attributes now became needs.

All fallen humanity has these needs. The problem is that, being fallen, we seek to fulfill those needs outside God. When people can’t find security and significance in the world, the only thing left for them is control of their own body. Now, don’t get me wrong. As image-bearers of God, we have inherent dignity, and no one should be able to violate our body. I’m not suggesting otherwise.

What I’m suggesting, however, is that underneath the “bodily autonomy” talk is a deep, almost desparte, need to control our bodies so that we can have at least some shred (and it is a tiny shred) of personal wholeness. These needs are often so strong that even the human conscience will give way under the weight, causing us to do whatever we think we have to in order to have those needs met and avoid the soul-crushing pain of emptiness. And, these ideas have become so deeply ingrained in us, that most are unaware of them.

We’ve seen countless people kill others to preserve their own sense of importance (“if people find out what really happened, I’ll lose my security and significance”). Why would it be surprising that talk of abortion and vaccine mandates be any different? 

It’s not enough, then, to say, “You are not your own, you were bought with a price” (though that’s true). It’s not enough to just say, “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” (though that’s true). It’s also not enough to say, “Abortion is murder” (even though that’s true). It’s not enough to say, “Love your neighbor” (to the opponents of vaccine mandates). As always, it comes down to the Gospel of Jesus. We need to be teaching, preaching, and living the truth that we are fully secure and significant because of what God did for us in sending Jesus to die for us on the cross. We are secure because nothing that happens to us in this life can take that away. We are significant because he has given us a great purpose–to exalt him and spread his glory among the nations. 

We need to be helping those in the church identify and repent of those sinful patterns of thinking (of which many are consciously unaware). Only then, when we experience the truth that Jesus really is enough, and that our deepest needs really are met in him, will we see major change in the church–and our society.

What Do We Do Now?

For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23)

The church in America recently entered a new reality. The era of Roe is over, many say. Supporters and opponents blasted away at each other on social media (including many Christians, sadly). Many other believers tried to step back, sort out their mixed feelings, and asked, “What now?” To put it another way, “What do we do now?”

Many (rightly, I believe) fear that in winning what essentially amounted to a political battle, the war for hearts, minds, and souls has been or is in danger of being lost. As usual, this is not a post about political strategies, debates, or outcomes. This is a post, rather, about the church’s role in a post-Roe era. 

For the past 40 years or so, the “pro-life” momvent in America has been largely about abortion. Increasingly over the last 20 years, abortion was seen by evangelical Christians as the only issue that mattered when deciding who to vote for or what bills to support or oppose. What’s been the result of this thinking? In large part, the church has been seen as only caring about abortion, regardless of the circumstances, while leaving other issues behind–the needy, poor, justice for other vulnerable people, etc. 

As some have opined over the years, pro-life does not stop with “anti-abortion.” Pro-life means that we are pro- ALL life. And indeed we should be. Jesus came to give us life. He had compassion on the vulnerable people of his day, and rebuked those who would hinder “the least of these” from coming to him. In fact, in Jesus’ picture of the final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), the sheep and the goats were separated based on how they treated the most vulnerable people of the day–but that wasn’t defined by just one group. 

Those vulnerable people are still among us, church. They are the poor, homeless, needy, disabled–the list could go on. 

And those with unplanned pregnancies are often just as vulnerable.

Now that the shock has worn off, read the statement again: Those with unplanned pregnancies are often just as vulnerable as other groups of vulnerable people. They are often faced with pressures few of us know. They are often scared, intimidated, manipulated, even coerced. Now, before you rise up and check out, read the rest of what I have to say. Many have and will continue to simply say something like, “Well, they just need to do what’s right,” consider this question:

Is that what Jesus did in your case?

He could have, you know. The law was out there. Even the Gentiles, without the written law of Moses, have the revelation of nature and conscience to tell them the difference between right and wrong. God could have simply said, “Hey, just do what’s right! You know what to do, so do it.” But, thankfully (for all of us, including the self-righteous among us), he didn’t do that.

Instead, Jesus came down and entered our world. He became a servant to teach us how to take care of each other–and then he died and rose again to give us new life and the power to love others, especially those trapped in sin, as we were.

For too long, the church has forgotten the lesson of Matthew 23:23. The church has focused on the outward “big” sins, giving time, treasure, resources to the causes, while neglecting the other parts. Now, am I saying that the church should have stayed away from the issue of abortion? Of course not. I’m saying that how the church dealt with abortion was short-sighted, and now we are reaping the fruit of that short-sightedness. 
Perhaps now, with God’s grace, the church will wake up and begin to take care of all of “the least of these.” How should that look? Where should it start? I suggest it starts with repentance. Repentance for “fighting the battle” man’s way instead of God’s way. What is God’s way? The Gospel. And the Gospel is “two-handed.” Not only do we declare the grace of God, but we live it. We help. We listen. We pray. We love. We take care of “the least of these,” the vulnerable people.

Shepherds, Sheep, and Discipleship

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. . . . Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:1–18)

If you have read much of this site and blog, you know that there is an emphasis on discipleship. Jesus did not call us to go out and make converts; He called us to go and make disciples. Lately, I have been thinking much more intentionally about discipleship in the church, not just in the individual lives of believers. 

When we look at Jesus’ ideas about discipleship, we learn quite a bit about discipleship, and one of the best portraits He painted of discipleship is found in John 10.Though this is probably a very familiar passage to most who have attended church, it’s not often referenced in talking about discipleship. Or maybe that’s because discipleship is not often talked about in the church–but that’s another topic. For now, we’ll examine this passage and see what Jesus was telling us about discipleship.

Some Context: The Shepherd and the Sheep

The first thing Jesus says here is, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door . . .” Now, let’s stop for a moment and get some context. Jesus is talking about a sheepfold, something we may or may not have an accurate idea of. The sheep pen was a common sight in Palestine, and thus would have been familiar to His listeners. It would have been a stone or mud-brick enclosure partially roofed, or perhaps a cave in the hills. Either would have had a single point of entry and was designed to protect the sheep from wolves and thieves. The roofing was often made of briars to prevent thieves from trying to climb over the wall.

It was common for multiple families to use the same sheepfold, and so Jesus indicates that the shepherd calls out his own sheep (v. 3). Only the sheep that belonged to the shepherd would respond to his voice. In fact, a shepherd would often individually name his sheep, and thus “he calls his own sheep by name.” But the sheep wouldn’t respond to the voice of one they did know; they would flee from someone trying to imitate the shepherd’s call (v. 5)

Since the people listening to this did not understand what Jesus was trying to teach them, He explained it. First, He said that He was the door. As the door, the only way to salvation is through Him. Likewise, to truly be a part of the flock, one is required to go through Him. Anyone else offering a different way of salvation is a thief and a robber. Unlike the thief, Jesus came to give His sheep salvation, significance, and security. He came to give them life–all the things we cannot find apart from Him.

The Shepherd, Sheep, and Discipleship

Now we are going to look at some things we see in this passage about disciples and discipleship. Some are directly taught, some are implications from the text (taken with other texts). With them, we begin to get a broad picture of what discipleship should look like.

1. Discipleship must start and end with Jesus.

Jesus said I am the door. Biblical discipleship is all about the process of being transformed into the image of Christ. Therefore, anyone who will begin on this journey must go through the door of Christ. Not only that, but the goal of biblical discipleship is Christ. It’s not just mastering a body of knowledge. Rather, it is becoming like Him.

2. We imitate others only to the extent that they imitate Christ.

Throughout the New Testament we are called to imitate Christ. Jesus said that His sheep know His voice and flee from a stranger’s voice. Because we have the Holy Spirit, we can speak to each other with the same voice as Christ. This is why Paul and other writers can urge their readers to imitate them. But, we are to imitate another only to the extent they imitate Christ. And that requires seeing the fruit of their life. (See 1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9; Heb. 13:7; 3 John 1:11.)

3. Discipleship is done in community.

The picture Jesus paints here is of the sheepfold. There are none of the sheep left outside the sheepfold (except to go out and come back in, see #4). This is a theme throughout the New Testament. While we in the west have made faith highly individualistic, this is not the thrust of the biblical writers. They wrote to people in community and encouraged them within that community to stay in community. Why is this? Because discipleship is relational in nature, and therefore can best be accomplished in community.

4. Discipleship leads to making more disciples.

Notice that Jesus said that those who enter through the door “will be saved and will go in and out.” Disciples, like sheep, aren’t meant to live permanently in the sheepfold, never venturing out. No, we are to go out as we are ready and make more disciples to bring into the fold. Notice also that Jesus said the one who enters through the door will do these things. Discipleship naturally leads to the process repeating itself.

5. Discipleship is measured by fruit-bearing. 

In verse 10, Jesus says that He came to give His sheep life. He also says that those who enter through the door (Himself) will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. We have life from the moment we are saved. Yet, what Jesus is talking about here is our experience of life. As we’re transformed more and more into His image, we experience more of that abundant life He promised. This is not primarily about things like health, wealth, success, or other worldly ideas of life. It has rather to do with viewing people and life as Jesus does, and placing our absolute trust in His goodness, no matter what.

Therefore, we can measure the extent to which discipleship is occurring in one’s life by fruit. Paul gave an excellent list of this in Galatians 5:22-23. The extent to which these are present in the disciple’s life determines his experience of life. (See also Hebrews 13:7).

6. Disciplers are devoted to the Shepherd and the welfare of the sheep.

In the analogy of shepherds and sheep, those who disciple others, coming alongside them in their journey of transformation, are really under-shepherds. They will give of themselves for the sake of the sheep. While they may not be called to literally die for the sheep, they have a willingness to “lay down their lives” for the sheep. They invest in the sheep because of their love and devotion to the Shepherd.

7. Disciplers are concerned about those not in the sheepfold.

Notice that Jesus said He had other sheep not in that fold. Not only was He referring to unbelievers who would believe the gospel, but He was also talking about those who were already His sheep, just living outside the sheepfold. That is the most dangerous place for a sheep to be, since the wolves can easily attack and kill it. One who is an under-shepherd and called to disciple others cares about these “lost sheep,” and seeks them out to bring them back into the fold.

In the end, there will be one fold and one Shepherd, and it’s the job of the Body to see that come to pass. We are to bring them in, that the fold may be full.

Living in the New Covenant

In the last two posts, we’ve been discussing the heart of fallen man and the New Covenant as the solution. When we look at the promises of the New Covenant against the needs of fallen humanity, we see that God has given the believer everything he or she needs to live in Christ (2 Peter 1:3-4). 

In this post, we are going to discuss some realities and implications of the New Covenant. As a fan of “theology meeting reality,” what does it mean for the believer? One of my favorite questions to ask is often, “So what?” We’ll take some of the most common and important questions about the New Covenant and see what the Scriptures say about them.

The Reality of the New Covenant

Question: Isn’t the change promised in the New Covenant just “positional” truth?

This is a common question when considering the New Covenant, and in fact, many Bible teachers teach this very idea, that the truth of the New Covenant is only “positional.” What they mean is, “This is how God sees us, since we are ‘in Christ’.” The implication is that the changes we’ve talked about didn’t really happen (as a matter of historical fact); we are to simply believe they did and live them out.

Without getting too technical, most of the debate centers around interpretation of Romans 6-7, particularly where Paul describes what happens to a person who is saved. The thrust of Romans 6 is union and identification with Christ. Because those passages don’t specifically mention the changes of the New Covenant, and because one of favorite phrases to describe Christians is one who is “in Christ,” many conclude that this truth is only positional in nature.

Thus, many (if not the majority of) Christians today live as though the New Covenant is only a truth to be believed, not an actual reality from which to ground their life on. My question to think about is, “Did God do what He promised He would do?” The Scriptures give us the answer:

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19)

The short answer, then, is “Yes! He accomplished what He promised.” In fact, the New Testament has much to say about the new Covenant. (In fact, the term Testament is the old word for Covenant, so when we read in the New Testament, we are really reading all about the New Covenant.) Jesus told His disciples that His death would usher it in, and His blood was “the New Covenant in my blood” (or “the blood of the New Covenant”). The Scriptures treat the New Covenant as a reality, not as an exercise in pretend or make-believe. (For more information, including an explanation of how this is seen in the New Testament, see the article The Nature of Salvation.)

Evidence, Please

Question: How can I know I have the new heart?

When writing to the church at Colosse, Paul said this:

Of this [hope] you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, (Colossians 1:5–6, emphasis added)

Whatever else Paul is saying in this passage, he is saying one inescapable thing: the gospel (the New Covenant) always bears fruit and increasingly so. When one is saved and given the new heart, he or she is changed. Our lives are always producing fruit, whether good or bad. Jesus had something to say about that:

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:43–45)

What does this mean for us who are saved? In short, it means that we will begin to produce fruit. Why? Because it’s now our nature to do so. Will we be perfect? No. Will we grow in love, holiness, and obedience? Absolutely. The first letter of John is all about this. The apostle John wrote this letter so that “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 this letter, he gives specific marks or signs of a believer. He says, “This is how you can tell a believer.” And the signs all come down to one thing: the fruit of a person’s life.

For the one saved, there will be evidence of the change–sometimes only small pieces of evidence, subtle changes at first. But they will be there.

What About This Sin?

Question: Why do I still struggle with sin?

This is another common question when learning about the New Covenant. A related question is, “Can a Christian live a perfectly sinless life?” Some teach that Christians who struggle with sin just aren’t trying hard enough or haven’t fully surrendered to God, or some variation of those things. Scripture, however, has a different perspective. We’ll start by looking at Romans 8.

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. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:1–11)  

In this passage, Paul is talking about what he calls the flesh. What do we know about the flesh? In short, we see that the flesh is hostile to God and cannot please God (vv. 7-8). Now, do we still have the flesh? Yes. Remember, Paul is writing to believers here. Notice he makes a distinction between being in the flesh and walking according to the flesh. He pointedly says to his readers, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (v. 9, emphasis added). 

However, he also says that it’s quite possible to “walk according to the flesh.” What does this mean? It means that we live in the same manner, with the same attitudes, as we did before we were saved. He defines walking according to the flesh as setting the mind on the things of the flesh. Likewise he defines living by the Spirit as setting the mind on the things of the Spirit (v. 5). Like the Sinful Heart, the flesh desires one thing–to find life through independence, apart from God and His ways.

I like to use the analogy of a mainframe computer connected to other computers. If a virus was to be implanted in the mainframe computer, it would systematically program the rest of the computers with that virus. This is what’s happened with fallen humanity. The Sinful Heart programmed every part of us to live independently of God. When one is saved, the old heart is removed and replaced by the Spiritual Heart (Ezek. 36:26). But, the other computers are not replaced. They have to be reprogrammed. 

This is where Paul’s words about “crucifying the flesh” in Romans 6 and renewing the mind (Romans 12) come in. Theologians call this process sanctification, but it really just means we are becoming more like Christ; we are living according to our new identity more and more and less and less like our old self. This is a lifelong process, Paul told the Philippians,

I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)

When will this work be completed? At the day of the return of Jesus Christ. Will it be completed? Absolutely. For those of us who have surrendered to Christ, we have God’s Word on that. No matter how much we stumble or how slowly we grow, we can be sure that He is walking with us and will finish what He started.

[For a more detailed look at these questions read the 5-part blog series How Then Shall We Live?]

A Cure for the Incurable

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

In the last post (An Incurable Diagnosis, 2/18/2021), we saw the condition of fallen humanity. It was a grim discovery. To be blunt, the idea that humanity is basically good is a myth, which is supported by neither Scripture nor historical evidence. Humanity has, as we said in the last post, an incurably terminal disease–the disease of sin and self. Because of sin, every person is born with what we might call the Sinful Heart. 

The Sinful Heart, as we saw in the last post, is totally corrupted, and completely bent away from God. Its sole motivation is to find life apart from God and His ways. Because the heart is at the center of being, the Sinful Heart systematically programs every part of a person–mind, will, emotions, and body–in those same desires and strategies. And because every person is born with the Sinful Heart, the entire human race has been corrupted.

And this condition, according to the Lord, is terminal (leading to spiritual death) and incurable.

A Heart Transplant

It’s not enough to have a system of sacrifice in place. It’s not enough for people’s sins to be forgiven. It’s not enough to exhort people to obey the law. In order to save those doomed to separation from God, a radical solution is needed–a heart transplant. And that’s exactly what the Lord has provided. Let’s look at two passages that describe this transplant.

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33–34)

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25–27)

When we take these two passages together, we get a full and complete picture of how deeply the Lord responded to the plight of the human race, even beyond the needed heart transplant.

Preparation for the Surgery

The first thing the Lord says to Ezekiel in this passage is, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezek. 36:25). To prepare us for the heart transplant, the Lord first cleanses us. As part of that, He also told Jeremiah, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). 

This is an important statement, since sins were not fully put away under the Old Testament sacrificial system. The author of Hebrews tells us,

[The law] can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. (Hebrews 10:1–3)

Instead of putting away sin, the sacrifices actually reminded people that they were still under sin. Their sin was covered, not forgiven. Yet, the Lord says He would not only forgive sin, but would “remember it no more.” So, under the New Covenant that the Lord is making, His people are now cleansed of sin and totally forgiven. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven and cleansed.

A New Heart

After preparing for surgery, it’s time to actually do the heart transplant. The Lord told Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:26). Let’s unpack this a little. If you’ll recall, the heart of fallen sinful man was compared to stone, on which sin had been written. This resulted in a heart totally corrupted, hostile to God’s ways and determined to find life apart from God. This heart could not be changed (hence the idea of sin being inscribed with iron and diamond). It must be replaced.

This new heart, according to the Lord will be a heart of flesh, instead of the heart of stone that resides within fallen humanity. What this means is that, instead of the Sinful Heart, then, His people would have the Spiritual Heart–a heart that is bent toward following the Lord and His ways, as much desiring to live in dependence on God as the Sinful Heart desired independence from Him.

But that’s not all; the Lord goes further. Not only does He replace the heart, but he says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). Not only will His people  have a new heart, but that new heart is inscribed with the Law of the Lord (the direct opposite of Jer. 17:1, “[their] sin . . . is engraved on the tablet of their heart”).

A New Way to Relate

In addition to changing the very nature of His people, the Lord does something else. He gives us a new way of relating with Him. Look at these statements:

I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.

And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 

These promises all boil down to one thing: intimacy with God. An intimacy that was unknown before. Yes, the Lord called Moses His servant and friend, and He called David a man after His own heart, and walked and talked with Abraham. But even they did not have the intimacy that he offers His people now. As part of the New Covenant, the very Spirit of God will reside in His people! All of His people will know Him, from the least to the greatest. There will be no distinction between priest and commoner. All will be priests. 

A Long-Awaited Answer

This is really the answer to the long-before prayer of King David. In Psalm 51, He prays:

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. . . . Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. . . . Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:1–12)

When we compare David’s prayer to the promises of the New Covenant, we find that God did fully and completely grant David’s plea. Likewise, those of us who have repented and cried out for mercy can rest assured that, as He did for David, as He promises to Israel, He will give us that same new heart and a willing spirit, in order that we will love, obey, and walk with Him. We have been made new, cleansed, and forgiven by the New Covenant sealed by Christ’s blood.

An Incurable Diagnosis

“The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of their altars, while their children remember their altars and their Asherim, beside every green tree and on the high hills, on the mountains in the open country. Your wealth and all your treasures I will give for spoil as the price of your high places for sin throughout all your territory. You shall loosen your hand from your heritage that I gave to you, and I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.” 

Thus says the LORD: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” 

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jeremiah 17:1–10)

Some time ago, we looked at Jeremiah 2:12-13, exposing the root of all sin as the desire to find independence and life apart from God (see Dying of Thirst, 9/16/2019). In this post, we are going to look at another part of Jeremiah that helps us understand why we need Jesus.

Many of us in the church are probably familiar with Jer. 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” I have been for a long time. When one reads it in context, however, the reason for the problem becomes clear. We’re first going to look at that diagnosis and then look at the underlying cause.

The Diagnosis

Jeremiah diagnoses the human condition in verse 9. He writes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” The NIV translates this as, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure,” while the NET translates it as “incurably bad.” The idea in the original language is that 1) the human heart is deceitful to the core; and 2) this condition is incurable. 

Think about those statements; the human heart (in Jewish thinking, the center of being) is rotten to the core. It is self-centered and deceitful. This is the coup de grace of all viruses, illnesses, and diseases. Even worse than that is the fact that said condition is incurable. It is what we’d call a terminal disease. In today’s modern era, we will have diseases such as cancer for which we have no cure. Some of these diseases can cause death, hence the phrase terminal disease

Jeremiah’s diagnosis, though, is a terminal disease of staggering proportions. The disease of sin leads to spiritual death, or what the Bible calls eternal death–being eternally separated from God. And again, there is nothing we can do about it. Our best efforts simply aren’t good enough, because we aren’t good enough. Why is this? Now we turn to the cause.

The Root of the Problem

The root of this incurable problem is found in verses 1-3. The Lord, speaking through Jeremiah, tells us:

The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of their altars, while their children remember their altars and their Asherim, beside every green tree and on the high hills, on the mountains in the open country. (vv:1–3)

To understand the significance of the mention of “the tablet of their heart,” we need to remember that the Law of Moses was written on tablets of stone (Exodus 31:18; cf. 20:1-17). Here the Lord is displaying irony at the fact that the hearts of His people are as hard as a stone tablet, on which not the law of God, but their sin was engraved. It was engraved with such firmness that it can never be erased. As it was with Judah and Israel, so it is with all of fallen humanity. 

Now, it’s not only that individual sins were written on the tablet of their hearts, but also that sin itself was inscribed on their hearts. This gives a picture that the heart itself has been corrupted, and this is seen in how the NET translates vv. 2-3a: “Their children are always thinking about their altars and their sacred poles dedicated to the goddess Asherah, set up beside the green trees on the high hills and on the mountains and in the fields.” Here, we see that the people always have idolatry on their mind. 

In our day, many don’t think of actual gods and goddesses; rather they simply think about themselves–how they can find life apart from the Lord. Fallen humanity either creates ‘gods’ in their own image, or (for the more intellectual who shun religion), simply make themselves the god of their own life.

Because the heart itself is corrupted, everything else about fallen humanity has been corrupted–reasoning, choosing, feeling. Even the body often does not work as it was intended. Sin has corrupted everything about us.   

The Results of the Diagnosis

In verses 3b-4, the Lord tells Judah of the judgment to come as a result of their idolatry. He promises to give both their wealth and their land to others, and make them servants of foreigners. Why? He gives a straightforward answer: For in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever (v. 4).

Then, however, the Lord makes a general statement, which we can see is the result of the incurably bad heart. The Lord first says that a certain type of person is cursed. He says, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord” (v. 5). Remember what we said about the root of all sin? It’s found in the foolish desire to find life and purpose independently of God. This verse describes such a person.

When one turns his heart away from the Lord, his only recourse is to turn to himself and others. He is trusting in flesh for what he needs and wants. The problem with this is that every fallen human being is primarily concerned with his or her own well-being. The Lord says that such a person is cursed. It’s not that the Lord is placing a curse on him or her. Rather, He is simply stating what will happen to this person.

In the next verse, the Lord says, “He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land” (v. 6). The Lord has drawn a picture of the fate of a person who trusts in himself. This person, the Lord says, will always be dry and unfulfilled. Now, wait, many people seem happy with wealth, power, status, etc. Right? They seem that way, but those things can never satisfy the deepest thirst of the human soul, and so they will always strive to seek after more. Those who have wealth, power, and status want more. They are truly never satisfied. Worse, the person described by the Lord uses whatever he or she can–including others–to get what he or she thinks will bring satisfaction (only to see it too lead to emptiness).

The Blessed Person

In contrast, the Lord says the one who trusts in Him will be blessed. Notice that He says what seems to be a repeating phrase: “. . . the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” (v. 7). They really aren’t repeating phrases, though. There are two specific emphases here. The first phrase speaks of a person who “trusts in the Lord.” This is an active phrase, indicating that one intentionally places his or her trust in the Lord at specific times. The second phrase, “whose trust is the Lord,” indicates a state of being. This person has surrendered his or her life to the Lord, and so trust in the Lord is the default attitude of the heart.

This person, the Lord says, is like a tree by the river. Like the tree, the person has been rooted deeply and receives all he or she needs from the water. This is the inevitable result of trusting the Lord. Instead of constantly seeking satisfaction on his or her own terms, the blessed person has entrusted life itself to God and has found the true Satisfier. Notice that there is a further result:  Not only does this person receive all he or she needs, but is also said to “not cease to bear fruit [even in the year of drought].” In Scripture (particularly in the New Testament), the idea of fruit almost always has the idea of going forth and doing good to others. Because the blessed person has all he or she needs, attention can now be turned to others for their good.

But there’s a problem. Where do we find such a person? How can such a person exist since all have this incurable disease of sin, resulting in the foolish attempt to live independently of God? If sin itself is written on the tablet of the fallen heart, how can one be made to turn to God?

That is the beauty of the New Covenant…. which we will discuss in the next post.

The Armor of God

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, (Ephesians 6:10–18)

Any believer who has read much of the New Testament has likely come across this passage. How does it apply to us today? Are we called to warfare? If so, what is the nature of the warfare? And how do we “stand” in the midst of the battle? These are the questions we’ll look at in this post. 

What Kind of Warfare?

No doubt the imagery of this passage is taken from the battle dress of a Roman soldier at the time. Paul may have gotten the idea from observing Roman soldiers during his time awaiting trial. The Scriptures are full of physical images/symbols to communicate spiritual truth, and this is no different.

To begin with, Paul makes it clear that we need armor to stand. To stand against what? To stand against “the schemes of the devil.” Thus, this automatically means that the battle we find ourselves in is spiritual. Paul further emphasizes this point when he says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Since the battle we wage is not physical but spiritual we need spiritual weapons. In fact, Paul writes of our weapons,

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:4)

Therefore, we are engaged in a spiritual battle, and need spiritual weapons and armor. What is this armor, and how do we use it? That is the question. In describing the armor, Paul uses two different verb forms. For the first three items, he uses a form that’s rendered “having” done it. For the rest, we may render it, “Do this,” or “take up” this. The clear implication is that the first three are necessary in order for us to take up the other three.


Notice Paul begins in verse 15 with “Stand, therefore, having fastened . . . “ He is not telling us to do so. Instead, he is telling us that we can only stand when we have already done this. This must be the first step.  What is it that we are to fasten? Here is the full verse: “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth.” In the Greek, this is simply “having girded your waist with truth.” Paul’s reader’s would have understood what he meant; modern translations supply the image of a belt for clarity.

Why must we begin with truth, and how do we “fasten” it around us? Notice Paul doesn’t say that we are to know truth or accumulate knowledge of truth. No, he says that truth is to be that which binds everything else together. We are to be immersed in truth. One can make an argument here that he is referring to Christ, since He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We are to not only be immersed in truth, but we must first surrender to the truth. We must surrender to Christ.


Pau uses similar language for the next piece of armor. He says, “. . . and having put on the breastplate of righteousness.” This is something else that must be in place before the believer can stand. It is what we might call a prerequisite or a basic requirement. Righteousness is not a series of acts but a state of being. Since Paul speaks of “the breastplate of righteousness,” it’s clear he means that our right standing before God is a matter of the heart and also protects our heart.

Elsewhere he speaks of “the breastplate of faith and love” (1 Thessalonians 5:8), and thus links righteousness to faith and love. As throughout Scripture, righteousness comes by faith (Galatians 3:11; also see Romans 3-4 for a fuller explanation). How are we made righteous? By surrendering to Christ, the Truth (as we saw above). Only by trusting in Him and the work He accomplished for us can one be made righteous.

The Gospel of Peace

The third “having” statement Paul gives us is “having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace” (v. 15). He likens this to shoes on the feet. There are two possible meanings of this. First, one who has surrendered to Christ is to be “ready” to preach the gospel (hence “the readiness”). It is natural for a new believer to want to share the amazing story of salvation. 

Secondly, the term can also mean “footing” or “foundation.” Shoes can be seen as the foundation upon which walks. Thus, the gospel itself becomes the foundation for one’s life, faith, and practice. This is the preferred meaning since it fits well into the context of standing firm. In addition, Paul’s words, “the gospel of peace,” directly link it to Philippians 4:6-7, where he says, “And the peace of God . . . will guard your hearts and your minds.”

Take Up the Armor

Beginning in verse 16, Paul tells us to actively “take up” the rest. This is an act that we are responsible for doing. Even if we have surrendered to Christ and have the gospel as our foundation, if we fail to do this, we will not be able to stand. The remaining things we are to take hold of and use are:

The Shield of Faith

It’s no accident that Paul places this first on the list of things we are to take up. The shield protects the heart, and likewise our faith in Christ protects our heart. The apostle John wrote about this protection: 

By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. (1 John 3:19–22)

Faith, it must be remembered, is not faith “in faith.” We must first have that foundation that Paul talks about in verses 14-15. We must have surrendered to Christ. Otherwise, there is no basis for our faith, and it’s no better than the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19.

The Helmet of Salvation

One might wonder why Paul includes this here, since he has already dealt with salvation in verses 14-15. One cannot hope to stand unless he or she is saved, right? Right. The helmet protects the head. Spiritually speaking, the helmet of salvation protects the mind. As those who have been saved, we not only have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), but we still have the flesh–that part of us that seeks to live independently of God.

We are therefore called to renew our minds (Romans 12:2). At the core of this renewal is remembering the simple fact that, “I am new in Christ; I don’t have to live that way anymore.” As we focus on our salvation, our minds can be renewed, and this helps keep us on His path.

The Sword of the Spirit

The last item Paul tells us to take up is “the sword of the Spirit.” He defines this as “the word of God.” To his readers, that would have not only meant the existing Scriptures, but also the indwelling Holy Spirit, whose function is to “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, this is how He fought temptation–by using God’s Word.

In order to effectively use God’s Word, however, we must be intentional about studying and knowing it. I don’t mean just memorizing it, but letting it penetrate deep within us. This is why a regular habit of Bible reading and study is essential in the life of a believer.

One more thing should be noted. Paul closes this section by adding, “. . . praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (v. 18). Some see this as different than taking up the sword of the Spirit. However, Paul links this directly to using our sword. Thus, our prayers must come from what we know in God’s Word. When we pray for people and situations, we must have an idea of how to pray, and God’s Word teaches us how we are to pray. 

We are to “stay alert” in this attitude of prayer, much as a soldier would keep watch on the wall at night. We must never separate the sword of the Spirit and our prayer. The place we take up the sword of the Spirit is on the battleground of prayer. 

As we consistently and consciously take up God’s armor, we will see that we grow and mature in love, obedience, holiness, and victory over temptation.

Fasting and Fighting

“Shout loudly! Don’t be quiet! Yell as loud as a trumpet! Confront my people with their rebellious deeds; confront Jacob’s family with their sin! They seek me day after day; they want to know my requirements, like a nation that does what is right and does not reject the law of their God. They ask me for just decrees; they want to be near God. They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast? Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’ Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires, you oppress your workers. Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls, and fistfights. Do not fast as you do today, trying to make your voice heard in heaven. Is this really the kind of fasting I want? Do I want a day when people merely humble themselves, bowing their heads like a reed and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes? Is this really what you call a fast, a day that is pleasing to the LORD? No, this is the kind of fast I want. I want you to remove the sinful chains, to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke, to set free the oppressed, and to break every burdensome yoke. I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood! Then your light will shine like the sunrise; your restoration will quickly arrive; your godly behavior will go before you, and the LORD’s splendor will be your rear guard. Then you will call out, and the LORD will respond; you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’ You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully. You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed. Then your light will dispel the darkness, and your darkness will be transformed into noonday. The LORD will continually lead you; he will feed you even in parched regions. He will give you renewed strength, and you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring that continually produces water. Your perpetual ruins will be rebuilt; you will reestablish the ancient foundations. You will be called, ‘The one who repairs broken walls, the one who makes the streets inhabitable again.’ . . . ” Know for certain that the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 58:1-14, NET)

There’s been a fair amount of teaching on the subject of fasting in the last twenty years within the church. Many of us know what fasting is supposed to be about, and even how to do so. There are even movements dedicated to the idea of fasting and prayer for specific things. With all the fasting going on, many wonder why we don’t see more breakthroughs. This passage sheds some light on the question.

Confronting God’s People With Their Rebellion

The Lord starts out by telling the prophet to loudly and forcefully confront the people of God (Israel/Jacob) with their sin and rebellion. Yes, He uses the word rebellion for what He is about to describe. Whatever it is, the Lord takes it seriously. In the same way, we must take His words to us as seriously.

The first thing God points out is that Israel seeks Him daily. Surely this is no sin in itself. The Lord acknowledges that Israel wants “to know my requirements, like a nation that does what is right and does not reject the law of their God. They ask me for just decrees; they want to be near God” (v. 2). Sounds like Israel is on the right track there. Israel wants to be near the Lord, but they cry out, “Why don’t you notice when we fast? Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves” (v. 3a), For some reason, God was not hearing their prayers and paying attention to their fasting. Why is that?

God does not keep the reason hidden from them: “Look, at the same time you fast, you . . . .” (v. 3b). Here the Lord begins to lay out a series of indictments. What it comes down to is this: While the people pray and fast, their heart is not pure. They are not doing what He told them to do. He called them to devote themselves to His way, and they are trying to gain His favor while doing what they want. In fact, he says:

Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires, you oppress your workers. Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls, and fistfights. Do not fast as you do today, trying to make your voice heard in heaven (vv. 3-4).

In other words, the Lord was telling Israel, “Don’t keep doing things the same way you have been and expect different results!” He calls such a fast a fake or false fast. He asks the rhetorical question,

Is this really the kind of fasting I want? Do I want a day when people merely humble themselves, bowing their heads like a reed and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes? Is this really what you call a fast, a day that is pleasing to the LORD? (v. 5)

Of course the expected answer to that question is, “No!” Then the Lord tells Israel what they do need to be doing. He lays out His desires in detail:

  • to set free those bound in sin
  • to work for the freedom of the oppressed
  • to share food with the hungry
  • to shelter the homeless
  • to clothe the naked

These are the things the Lord wants His people to be about. This is not new territory either. In Deuteronomy 10, the Lord reminded Israel:

“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? . . . He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:12–13, 18-19, ESV)

Because the Lord was concerned about the fatherless, widows, sojourner, and homeless, Israel was also commanded to care for these vulnerable peoples. They had failed to do that. Not only that, but they were fighting each other! Read again the Lord’s indictment: “Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls, and fistfights” (Isa. 58:4). And James tells us where such quarrels come from:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:1–3, ESV)

Is This For Us?

Can anyone who takes an honest look at the church today deny that these words are as much for us as they were for Israel? Do we not see the church embroiled in controversies (which often have little to no eternal value), quarrels, and even fights? Many in the church claim to be followers of Christ while aligning their heart with a political system that is anti-Christ and anti-gospel. Even if we don’t often fast, we do engage in other religious activities–church, prayer, witnessing. And when we do those things without obeying God’s commands to see and care for people, we fall under the same condemnation.

Why are we arguing about masks, vaccines, CRT, and a host of other things (and even making them essentials to the Christian faith) while pushing the very people away to whom we are to be declaring and living the gospel? Why is our only response to the chains of sin and oppression often “Receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” It seems that our exercises of orthodoxy, prayer, and witnessing have fallen to the same level as those of the Pharisees.

“Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23–24, NET)

What must we do? The call to us is the same as the call to Israel:

[T]his is the kind of fast I want. I want you to remove the sinful chains, to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke, to set free the oppressed, and to break every burdensome yoke. I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood! . . . You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully. You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed. (Isaiah 58:6–7, 9-10)

When we do that, we have the same promise that God gave Israel:

Then your light will dispel the darkness, and your darkness will be transformed into noonday (v. 10).

We in the church have cursed the darkness for too long. We have “fought the culture wars” too long. It’s time to instead shine the light of Christ into the world.