Study Notes 6-23-13: The Greeks Seek Jesus

John 12:20-26

The Greeks Seek Jesus

12:20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.

I think that it might be helpful to note just a few things about this section before we look at the theological and spiritual significance of the event.

First, from what multiple commentators say about the word “Greeks” here, the meaning is not Jewish Greeks from the Diaspora, and not Greeks as in people from Greece necessarily (though it may have included these types of people), but rather it is foreigners as a whole. The term “Greeks” served as a sort of Jewish umbrella term for those outside their own ethnicity (Gentiles).

James Boice comments, “…they were Greeks in the gentile sense, not Hellenistic Jews…” and D.A. Carson remarks, “These Greeks were not necessarily from Greece: as elsewhere in the New Testament, the term refers to Gentiles who come from any part of the Greek-speaking world, possibly even a Greek city as near as the Decapolis.”

Second, John doesn’t give us a time when this occurs. James Boice says, “From my reading of the other Gospels I doubt that it was on the same day Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, for on that occasion he seems to have returned quickly to Bethany. Perhaps it was the next day…”

Lastly, it is evident that these Greeks are God-fearers. They weren’t in Jerusalem for sightseeing or for the draw of the great marketplace, but rather there were there “to worship.”

12:21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

The significance of the Greeks asking to see Jesus is recognized by every commentator, and is evident in that it “triggers” (Carson) Jesus to declare that the hour has come for Him to be glorified.

As Leon Morris puts it, “Clearly John regards their coming as significant but he does not treat their presence as important. Jesus recognizes in their coming and indication that the climax of His mission has arrived.”

But why is this?

I think it is because it indicates the pregnancy of the historical and biblical timeline as prophesied by God’s prophets according to His plan. The moment where the entire world would hear of the wonders of His plan, and all the nations would be blessed was converging in upon Jesus. The time had come when God would gather from all nations a chosen people for Himself (1 Pet. 2:9).

Of all the prophets, Isaiah has a lot to say about this, so let’s look at a few of those passages so we can see what the Lord had planned from of old:

In that day from the river Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt the LORD will thresh out the grain, and you will be gleaned one by one, O people of Israel. And in that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the LORD on the holy mountain at Jerusalem. (Isaiah 27:12-13 ESV)

“I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;

I will take you by the hand and keep you;

I will give you as a covenant for the people,

a light for the nations,

to open the eyes that are blind,

to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,

from the prison those who sit in darkness.

(Isaiah 42:6-7 ESV)

…“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant

to raise up the tribes of Jacob

and to bring back the preserved of Israel;

I will make you as a light for the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
(Isaiah 49:6 ESV)

Incline your ear, and come to me;

hear, that your soul may live;

and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,

my steadfast, sure love for David.

Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,

a leader and commander for the peoples.

Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,

and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,

because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,

for he has glorified you.

(Isaiah 55:3-5 ESV)

In their groundbreaking book Kingdom Through Covenant Peter Gentry and Steven Wellum comment on how the prophets foretell a time when salvation will come back to Israel and spread to all nations, the effects of sin are reversed, and a new creation is consummated:

…among the postexilic prophets there is an expectation that the new covenant will have a purpose similar to the “old covenant”, that is, to bring the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant back into the present experience of Israel, and even more than this, to the nations. The new covenant, then, will bring about the Abrahamic blessing in that it will benefit both Israel and the nations and thus have universal implications…Within the Old Testament, the new covenant is viewed as both national (Jer. 31:36-40; 33:6-16; Ezek. 36:24-38; 37:11-28) and international (Jer. 33:9; Ezek. 36:36; 37:28). In fact, its scope is viewed as universal, especially in Isaiah (in the passages I quoted above). These Isaiah texts project the ultimate fulfillment of the divine promises in the new covenant onto an “ideal Israel”, i.e., a community tied to the servant of the Lord, located in a rejuvenated new heavens and new earth (Is. 65:17; 66:22). This “ideal Israel” picks up the promises of Abraham and is presented as the climactic and ultimate fulfillment of the covenants that God established with the patriarchs, the nation of Israel, and David’s son (Is. 9:6-7; 11:1-10; Jer. 23:5-6; 33:14-26; Ezek. 34:23-24; 37:24-28). Furthermore, in the story line of Scripture it is not enough to say that the new covenant merely brings about the Abrahamic blessings to Israel and the nations. One cannot understand the Abrahamic covenant apart from the “covenant with creation,” so, in truth, when the new covenant arrives we have the ultimate fulfillment of all God’s promises, the reversal of the effects of sin and the death brought about by Adam, and the establishment of the new creation. (pg. 645)

I especially love the anticipation of a new creation in Isaiah 66 and how the plan of God is not limited to one race or people, but to all people everywhere:

And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the LORD.

“For as the new heavens and the new earth

that I make

shall remain before me, says the LORD,

so shall your offspring and your name remain.

From new moon to new moon,

and from Sabbath to Sabbath,

all flesh shall come to worship before me,

declares the LORD.

“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:20-24 ESV)

The reason I wanted to quote such an extended section from Gentry and Wellum has to do with their grasp of the magnitude of the new covenant ushered in by Christ. When these gentiles came to see Jesus, He clearly saw this as a sign that His hour had come, and that soon all the promises and covenants made with His people in ages past, were about to be fulfilled in Him (2 Cor. 1:20).

Morris says, “Plainly their coming is important. Jesus views it as evidence that his mission has reached its climax and that he is now to die for the world, Greeks included.”

12:22-23 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. [23] And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

Boice says there are two ways in which Jesus would be glorified. First, the Greek’s seeking Him indeed gave Him glory. It showed that He was a significant person, but more than that, it showed that those outside of ethnic Israel who were looking for the light of life thought that perhaps they had found it in Him.

Secondly, and most prominently, Christ would be glorified in His death and resurrection. In His sacrificial atonement, and triumph over the grave, Jesus would show the world the meaning of His coming in plain terms, and put Satan and his army of demons to open shame by triumphing over them (Col. 2:15).

In saying that “the hour has come” Jesus undoubtedly is referring to his death, yet as Morris notes, “…He speaks not of tragedy but of triumph.” And so it is that He sees in His death the anticipation of victory, and that is what is meant by “glorified.”

 

Study Notes June 16: The Triumphal Entry

12:12-13 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. [13] So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”

How the Crowd Reacted

First, the crowd here seems to have been part of the large group that came from all over Israel to the annual feast, and not specifically those who were Jerusalem dwellers. As Morris points out, many of these folks probably knew Jesus from His ministry in Galilee, and so there was likely a familiarity with Him. Which leads us secondly to the fact that there is an intentionality of the crowd that is significant. John says that they “went out to meet him.”  It isn’t as though He was gathering a crowd around Him.

But what was their mindset? Morris says, “When on this occasion he (Jesus) did not reject their acclamation their enthusiasm knew no bounds.”

The ESV Study Notes have some solid insight as well:

Most of the crowd probably understood the title King of Israel in a political and military sense, still hoping that Jesus would use his amazing powers to resist Roman rule and lead the nation to independence. Like Caiaphas (John 11:49–52), however, they spoke better than they knew, as his disciples later understood (12:16).

What has always been interesting to me is this waving of Palm Tree branches. From what I read (Morris also mentions), Palm branches are symbolic of victory. Morris comments, “In John’s mention of them (palms) here we must detect a reference to the triumph of Christ.”

D.A. Carson gives an in-depth background on the use of the palm trees, as does John MacArthur. Carson says this:

From about two centuries earlier, palm branches had already become a national (not to say nationalist) symbol. When Simon the Maccabee drove the Syrian forces out of the Jerusalem citadel he was feted with music and the waving of palm branches which had also been prominent at the rededication of the temple. In short, waving palm branches was no longer restrictively associated with Tabernacles (the Feast of the Tabernacles).

MacArthur also mentions Simon the Maccabee and his victory and says, “Perhaps many in the crowd had that incident in their mind as they waved their palm branches. Maybe, they hoped, Jesus would prove to be the great messianic King and military conqueror who would liberate them from the yoke of Roman (rule) and establish the promises to Abraham and David (Gen. 12:-1-3; 2 Sam. 7:1-16).

What the Crowd Said…

First, the crowd began to shout “Hosanna!” which is literally translated “give salvation now” and as D.A. Carson notes, “had come to be a term of acclamation or praise. Every Jew knew of its occurrence in Psalm 118:25, for Psalm 118 is part of the Hallel (Pss. 113-118), sund each morning by the temple choir during the Feast of Tabernacles but also associated at this period with the Feast of Dedication and with the Passover…The connection was so strong that many Jews referred to their lulabs (used in the Feast of the Tabernacles) as hosannas.”

Secondly, they said “blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” – this is also from Psalm 118 (verse 26) and should be understood as a messianic title. They clearly see Jesus as their messiah, although as we have mentioned before, their version of what the messiah would be and what the messiah actually ended up being are completely different things altogether.

Lastly, Morris notes that the part “even the King of Israel” was not an expression that is from prophecy, but is rather the crowd’s addition. It also brings us to mind how Nathanael called Jesus the King of Israel in 1:49. This just further goes to show the fact that while the crowd saw Jesus as a political power and savior; in their ignorance they spoke truer words than they knew. For Jesus indeed was the King of Israel and of the whole of creation!

How Jesus Reacted…And What He Said

Luke records for us what Jesus said after reaching Jerusalem, and far from the “giddy” (MacArthur) crowd’s reaction to His coming to town, Jesus was heartbroken over the shallowness of the people.  He knew the nature of their interest in Him.  Listen to what He says:

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, [42] saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. [43] For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side [44] and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44 ESV)

This is a powerful, and painful, passage.  We see that Jesus was really the only one who understood the gravity of the moment.  He was the only one who really knew what was about to happen. Knowing what He did, how could He not have grieved over a people who were so faithless, and so blind.  The same holds true today. People lap up the teaching of prosperity gospel preaching because that’s what they think they need to hear. They want all that “positive reinforcement”! All the meanwhile they’re missing the gospel. They’re missing the atonement and the fact that they NEED an Atonement. While the people here in Jerusalem desired a savior from their political oppression, what they needed was the same thing we need, a Savior from the oppression of our own sinfulness!

Christ didn’t come to set us free from political bondage, but rather to free us from the bondage of sin that has enslaved the entire human race (see Paul’s discourse in Romans 6).

The Moment Had Come!

And so Christ came to set us free. That was His mission. When He began His ministry He quoted several prophecies that bore witness to this:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, [19] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 ESV)

Furthermore, this entry into Jerusalem marked the fulfillment of Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy. Listen to what MacArthur says about this:

The exact day that the Lord chose to enter Jerusalem fulfilled one of the most remarkable prophecies of the Old Testament, Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy weeks (Dan. 9:24-26). Through Daniel, the Lord predicted that the time from Artaxerxes’ decree ordering the rebuilding of the temple (in 445 B.C.) until the coming of the Messiah would be “seven week and sixty two weeks”, that it, 69 weeks total. The literal translation is “seven sevens and sixty-two sevens”, seven being a common designation for a week. In the context of the passage, the idea is 69 weeks of years, or 69 times 7 years, which comes to a total of 483 Jewish years (which consisted of 360 days each, as was common in the ancient world). Several different systems of reckoning have endeavored to determine the chronology of the 483 years after Artaxerxes’ decree, putting the date at either A.D. 30, 32, or 33, depending on the actual decree date and the complex calculations through those years…it is best to understand the triumphal entry as taking place on 9 Nisan, A.D. 30. But even the other dates offered by these authors leave one thing remaining undeniably clear: whatever may be the precise chronology, Jesus Christ is the only possible fulfillment of Daniel’s prophetic timetable.

Peter Gentry and Steven Wellum agree with Dr. MacArthur (although not on the dating):

Thus, the seventieth sabbatical is from A.C. 2-34 following Zuckerman or A.E. 28-35 following Ben Zion Wacholder. Halfway through this time, i.e., A.D. 31, the Messiah is cut off, but not for himself. Astonishingly he dies, but his death is vicarious. The phrase commonly rendered “and he will have nothing,” is better translated “but not for himself”…The point in the vision is that the coming king dies vicariously for his people.

And so as was predicted long ago, Christ came to set the captives free and lead a new exodus (a third one counting the Mosaic and Babylonian ones), only this one would be the beginning of a mass exodus spiritually from the bondage of sin and death that will one day culminate in the glorious day of the Lord.  Listen to Isaiah who mentions this:

In that day from the river Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt the LORD will thresh out the grain, and you will be gleaned one by one, O people of Israel. [13] And in that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the LORD on the holy mountain at Jerusalem. (Isaiah 27:12-13 ESV)

12:14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, [15] “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

The quotation here is from Zechariah 9:9 which says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Delivery From Oppression

“Fear not” is how John chose to interpret “rejoice greatly” (it could also be taken from Is. 40:9 according to the ESV Study Notes), and it is a poignant expression because when I think of the situation that the Jews were in at the time, they were being oppressed and under the rule of yet another foreign nation (this time the Romans). They longed for the day when a great king would deliver them – not from another nation, but from within their own people. They knew that the Scriptures spoke of such a Messiah, and they new that when that great leader came they could have no reason for fear of oppression any longer.

The people were right to expect a great leader who would deliver them from bondage, but this would not be a physical exodus but a spiritual one. Jesus came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18) and deliver His people (the elect) from bondage and usher in kingdom (Matthew 10:7; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 9:2, 60; Acts 28:31 etc.) that would not be of this world (John 18:36).

A Humble King

We also see the mode of Jesus’ transportation – a donkey. And as R.C. Sproul says in his description of the triumphal entry, these donkeys are not the traditional American donkeys we picture in our minds – they are much smaller.  In fact to our western eyes the sight of a grown man on one of these small animals might make us chuckle, but this is the creature that Jesus chose to ride into town on just days before He would die a gruesome death for His people.

As Leon Morris puts it, “But he rode intro Jerusalem on a donkey to symbolize a conception of messiahship very different from that of the crowds. They hailed him as the messianic King. He came as the Prince of Peace.”

So why a donkey? I think the picture of a grown man riding on such a lowly beast is the exact opposite of the picture that the Jews were hoping for. They wanted a powerful political warrior king who would ride into Jerusalem and kick the Romans out. But Christ came to be a servant, a meek man and humble king. This picture embodies His humanity – He is the Son of Man as well as the Son of God. We humans like to picture ourselves as more than we really are, but Jesus Christ shows us what we are, we are small and weak creatures in comparison to the King of kings and Lord of lords.  This is the picture He paints, that in His humanity He identifies with us – but He doesn’t puff Himself up as we do, instead He shows what true humanity is like, what it was meant to be like in the beginning with Adam (Romans 5:12-21). He is the last Adam, the perfect obedient Son who will deliver His people from their sins.

He is also the Greater Son of David who is fulfilling the Davidic Kingship role. He is going to not only deliver the Jews and be their King, but He is going to be a King for all His chosen people from all corners of the world (Matthew 28:19).

12:16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.

I love how John inserts editorial notes like this so we understand better the work of God, His character and will for our lives. John is saying here that the Holy Spirit, who came at Pentecost, illuminated the minds of the disciples and brought them into all truth and helped them understand all that had happened during the life and ministry of Jesus. The man they saw do some many amazing things had mystified them for years, they had only understood a very little. But when the Spirit came they began to understand all that had taken place – can you image all the pieces being put together for them like that! They had just lived a three-year roller coaster of learning through difficult and amazing circumstances, and not only were they beginning to recount all of that, but all of their learning of the Old Testament as well. Their minds must have been spinning! Like when you watch a mystery television show or a movie that’s billed as a thriller, its not until the end when all the pieces start coming together and you see the main characters start to get really excited (or really fearful) as “it all begins to make sense.”

Christ predicted this would happen, and we’ll look at this passage a little later in our study of John’s gospel:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. [13] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. [14] He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [15] All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15 ESV)

What This Means for the Christian Life

As Christians we have an amazing advantage to learning and growing in maturity and understanding – not only of the things of Christ and His Word, but in understanding the ways things are in this world. What I mean by that is that for thousands of years philosophers and scientists have been trying to figure out the nature of being, life, the transcendent, mankind and more. The problem is that they start from the wrong places – they’re essentially trying to “solve for x” without allowing themselves to believe “x” exists!

And so these great minds have either begun their work from an incorrect premise that there is no transcendent personal God who created all things, or they work from the premise that there is a transcendent God or Creator or Mover but He is not personal and therefore He is unknowable. In other words they have an epistemological problem.

Francis Schaeffer saw this and pointed out that Christians don’t have an epistemological problem. We believe that God is a personal transcendent Being, and that we were created in His image. We believe that because we were created in His image and because we communicate using language, that therefore we are meant to communicate with Him and get to know Him. Enter revelation. As Christians we believe that because we can communicate and because we are made in God’s image, we inherently know we are made to communicate with God. He has made us for a relationship with Himself (as Augustine says in his Confessions).

And this is where the Holy Spirit comes in.  The Holy Spirit is God’s way of showing us that He wants a deep and intimate relationship with us, and that He cares for and loves us. We normally would look to the cross for this, and indeed we should! But as I consider the third member of the Trinity, I am amazed at the level of investment that God has made in us, His creatures. He so condescends to us that He indwells us with His presence and leads us into “all truth.” And why does He do this? Because He wants us to know Him. He seeks for us to have knowledge of Him. He is truth, and therefore being led into “all truth” is being led into a more clear understanding of who He is, His character, and His desires for us and this world.

There is simply no other religion that comes close to this kind of epistemology. All other religions are simply forms of ignorance and the inventions of man’s own mind. For though we can perceive that God exists and even have a sense of His moral norms from without our souls, yet He has revealed Himself outside of ourselves, both in His Word (special revelation) and in nature (general revelation).

This truth is amazing, and it ought to cause us to worship.

12:17-19 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. [18] The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. [19] So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”

I love what Leon Morris says about the irony and hyperbole of the Pharisees’ statement in verse 19, “It is ironical. They are concerned that a few Judeans were being influenced. But their words express John’s conviction that Jesus was conquering the world.”

The religious leaders were beginning to see the situation go sideways. They were obviously concerned that the Romans would not welcome the noise and start clamping down on the people – though they were not truly concerned for the people, but for their own power.  The reaction of Jesus to their concerns is captured in another gospel:

And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” [40] He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:39-40 ESV)

The reason for this is that unlike the lying hearts of the Pharisees, the creation is subject to its Creator and knows its creator. It’s an apt analogy because indirectly Christ is saying that He is Lord of all the earth! Little do most people realize the power that God has over you as well as nature. We think that we hold complete sovereignty over our lives sometimes, over our minds and our souls. But this is simply not the case. For one word from the Spirit of God spoken sweetly to your heart is enough to forever awaken your soul and implant in you a love for Jesus you never knew before. He is the Lord of all creation, and we are part of that creation.

Paul agrees in his doxological burst of praise in Romans 11:

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:36 ESV)

Conclusion: Ultimate Triumph

Although the crowds didn’t truly have a good understanding as to the nature of Christ’s impending triumph, we have the privilege of looking back at that week in history and seeing the pregnancy of this moment. The most heinous of all crimes was about to be committed, and these fickle people would soon be cheering, “crucify Him” instead of “hosanna!”  Yet we today have reason (a great reason!) to be shouting “hosanna!”  We can see the triumphal entry for what it really was: a precursor to Christ’s great triumph over sin and death, not simply for Himself, but for you and for me.

God’s Sovereign Sustaining Grace

This week our church is in a study of ‘Grace’ – an apropos topic leading up to the Easter holiday.  One of my favorite passages on grace is Ephesians 2:1-10, and that’s what we’ll be looking at in class on Sunday morning.  Here are the notes, enjoy!

Ephesians 2:1-10 God’s Sovereign Grace

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins

For thousands of years mankind has rebelled against the idea that he is sinful, or immoral, or in anyway imperfect – at least as long as that “imperfection” is measured against an absolute standard. He’d be perfectly willing to admit he’s not perfect, but by his own independent subjective standard.  One of the champions of this kind of thinking was 18th century philosopher Jean Jaque Rousseau whose romanticism philosophy declared that man is basically “good” until corrupted by outside influencers. This humanistic philosophy is alive and well in or own day as well.  In high school I remember a popular song by Sarah Mclachlan called ‘Adia’ whose refrain was “we are born innocent, believe me Adia, we are still innocent.”

Contrary to this, the Bible tells us that we are born in sin (Ps. 51:5), and it is not unintentional that Paul begins this section of his letter by pronouncing very clearly the true state of mankind before the intervention of God.

Paul surely realized the nature of what he was about to convey, more than a theory of being and nature, it was the very essence of truth.  In fact Paul was painting here a picture of reality that is so dark, so bleak, so scary, that only against the blackness of this backdrop will he lay forth the most precious light and purity of the gospel.

Steven Lawson, in his series on the Doctrines of Grace in John, gives the analogy of the black velvet display case you would see at a jeweler.  The jeweler uses the black velvet as a contrast against which he can lay the diamonds he’s selling you. Certainly the diamonds are intrinsically glorious and beautiful, but when set against he rich blackness of the velvet their worth and brilliance seems to shine all the more brightly.  So it is with the gospel of Jesus Christ when set against the darkness of our sin riddled lives.

I wish that the only people arguing for man’s innocence were the humanists, but historically, and contemporarily, there have been many in the church who see man as not completely fallen.  They argue for an “island of righteousness” in which man’s will and mind have the power to make moral decisions – most particularly these same thinkers reserve this power of right moral action for the most important “decision” one can make, the choice to follow Jesus.

Paul’s theology cannot be reconciled with such thinking.

The way I like to think of our pre-Christ situation is similar to a scene from the Matrix, where the inhabitants of the Matrix were “living in a dream world.” We thought that certain things were true, they seemed true, but until we took the red pill we were unable to see reality for what it really is/was. We were living in a world, which was mostly a lie – and no wonder, it was Satan who helped weave this lie around and about our minds as we willingly bought into his deceptions.  Now this is only a picture, and like so many analogies there are imperfections.  However, the main thrust is this: before we are born again by the power of the Holy Spirit, we cannot and will not see the kingdom of God (John 3) which is equivalent to seeing the reality of Christ’s reign and absolute power (in fact we will not agree to any absolutes until we realize that all absolutes find their ‘yes and amen in Christ’, but that is another matter).

Our status before Christ burst forth into our lives was like that of Paul before his dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus.  We were not simply dead, we were rebels.  We hated God, because we hated what God stood for – God stood for everything we stood against.  We were independent beings, after all!  We didn’t need anyone bossing us around, telling us what was right and wrong.  We didn’t need someone else’s version of absolutes!  We had our own minds and could think for ourselves, thank you very much!

The deep, deep sinfulness of our sins warranted Divine justice.  Paul wants to be clear as he begins this section that we were completely and utterly cut off from God: dead.

2:2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—

But it gets worse!  Not only were we dead, we were enemies of God (as I mentioned above).  And not only enemies, but also enemies duped into following a commander who was happy to use of and abuse us for his own purposes and his own pleasure and cared nothing for our souls.

Therefore, Paul outlines two concepts…

First, Paul states that we were walking in our flesh, in our sin according to a certain leader, “the prince of the power of the air”, which is Satan.  In Ligonier’s Tabletalk daily devotions this verse is referenced and they say that, “In ancient times, the term air often referred to the spiritual realm of angels and demons.”

Secondly, we learn is that those who follow this “prince” are “sons of disobedience.”  That’s us! In open rebellion against our Creator.  Jerry Bridges puts it this way:

No one ever has a valid reason to rebel against the government of God. We rebel for only one reason: We were born rebellious. We were born with a perverse inclination to go our own way, to set up our own internal government rather than submit to God.

But this disgusting description of our satanic sonship brings to mind the beautiful reality that we celebrate today, namely the fact that we have been adopted by God, that we were once sons of another – sons of the Devil (John 8:44) – but now are sons of God Himself!

2:3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

The result of living as sons of the Devil means that we are going to fulfill the passions of the flesh and the desires of the mind and body. There is a small shift here from Paul’s speaking directly to the gentiles to now addressing mankind as a whole, and the universality of sin on the earth. C.S. Lewis said that, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” Paul contrasts these two types of slavery in Romans 6.

We have gone from being slaves of the enemy, under the cruel Egyptian task master, to being liberated from that slavery into the lovely bondage of Christ. Slavery to Christ may seem like a harsh term, but that’s how Paul described it over and over again.  Furthermore, Jesus reminds us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Slavery to Christ is actually, paradoxically, freedom!

2:4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,

Note that both Greek words used for “love” here are forms of the word agapē – the strongest and most profound of the Greek words for love.  Perhaps the most important word in this verse is the word “but.” This word marks the transition from our old state as sinners following the course of this world to our death, to the story of what God did for us in His richness and mercy.

Someone once said, “thank God for the ‘buts’ in the Bible.”  I couldn’t agree more.  This word is the turning point from Paul’s explanation of who we (humans) are, to what God has done for us, and, in essence, who He is.  He is love, and He cannot act out of His own character.

The most important concept in this verse is comprehending the motivating force behind why God did what He did.  Love – His character.  The fact of the matter is that he did what He did because He couldn’t deny Himself and His own love for His creation and His desire to be glorified by His creation.

He is rich in mercy!  He is a God of great love. And we are His image bearers, and the objects of His great love.

God does what He does because He is who He is.

2:5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—

Two concepts are again brought to bear: life and death.  We are reminded again that we were dead, and that even though we were dead we have been made alive together with Christ.  Paul has undoubtedly in mind the resurrection and powerful triumph over death of our Lord Jesus, and wants us to likewise picture our own powerful triumph over death – not in or of our own power, but by the power of the Lord Jesus Christ we have been “raised to walk in newness of life”(Romans 6:1-14, Eph. 1:20, and Colossians 2:12-13).

We are also brought to understand that if we were dead, then we couldn’t have made the decision to be saved on our own – it was purely by the grace of God.  Remember, grace is an active giving of something that we don’t deserve.  This isn’t passive.  This isn’t mercy, which withholds what we DO deserve.  This is the Spirit of God imparting something TO us, namely, spiritual rebirth.

A.W. Tozer says, “The love of God is manifested brilliantly in His grace toward undeserving sinners. And that is exactly what grace is: God’s love flowing freely to the unlovely.”

2:6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

The amazing and awe-striking paradox of this statement is that while we were the ones who raised Christ to His painful position on the cross, He repays us with grace and raises us up and seats us in the heavenly places.  I think about Rembrandt’s famous painting ‘The Raising of the Cross’ (circa 1633) where Rembrandt depicts the people lifting Christ up to die on the tree, and includes himself in the men who are responsible for the act.  Martin Luther also identified with this reality when he stated, “Take this to heart and doubt not that you are the one who killed Christ. Your sins certainly did, and when you see the nails driven through his hands, be sure to that you are pounding, and when the thorns pierce his brown, know that they are your evil thoughts. Consider that if one thorn pierced Christ you deserve one hundred thousand.”

In addition, I find it worth noting here that we are not only brought to life, not only forgiven of our sins, but we are adopted and then seated with Him in the heavenly places.  This says something of our spiritual royalty.  (Colossians 3:1 says “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”) Christ makes reference to this special place in heaven in Luke 22:29-30 and John makes reference to it in Revelation 3:21.

Lastly, and perhaps this should have been firstly, this verse tells us of the certainty of our salvation.  For what the Lord has gathered in heaven to Himself by the purchase of His Son’s blood will certainly not be foreclosed upon by any higher power in the universe.  As far as Paul is concerned, the matter is done.  Paul speaks similarly in Romans 8 when he says – in the past tense – that those whom God justified He also “glorified”, as if the thing had been done already, for God sees all time at one time. In Schreiner’s commentary on Romans he talks about how this kind of writing is indicative of Pauline theology – specifically, and I paraphrase, “the radical invasion of the future into the present.”

2:7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Notice again that we are said to be “in” Christ Jesus.  Our entire wealth and inheritance comes by way of Christ and what He did to earn it.  We haven’t done anything to deserve this, but are taking part in His wealth and just deserts.

The word “immeasurable” is also “surpassing” and “exceeding” and “incredible” in other translations.

If we contrast the nature of God’s grace with the situation in which we found ourselves prior to salvation we would also be able to use the same adjectives.  We were incredibly, exceedingly, surpassingly, immeasurably separated from God and lost in our sin.  So fallen were we, and so incredibly holy is God that the difference and the chasm that separated us was gigantic.  In Luke 16 that fixed chasm is called “great”, and great indeed it was.  How could we, by some human effort, seek to cross that chasm.  How could we of our own volition find a way across?  We couldn’t, we can’t, and we won’t.  Only by the One who bridges that gap are we saved.  He is the intercessor between God and man.  He is “the way”(the truth and the life) and no man comes to the Father but by Him (through Him).

2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,

Nothing could more clearly outline the basis for the doctrine of “sola fide” which was one of the doctrinal hallmarks of the 16th century protestant reformation. (Gal. 2:15-16 is a great reference – verse 16 says “We also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified”).

In a past issue of the devotional magazine ‘Tabletalk’ there is a great devotional addressing this passage/verse which says, “The man made religions of this world prove that without the work of the Holy Spirit, people think that they are basically good and can contribute something to their salvation. This strips glory from God and gives it to us, for if we can do even one thing to merit salvation, then we deserve some credit.  All belief systems except biblical Christianity encourage us to believe that we contribute our salvation, even if they deceitfully assert otherwise.”

I like what Jerry Bridges has to say in his book ‘Transforming Grace’:

God answered my prayer for only one reason: Jesus Christ had already purchased that answer to prayer two thousand years ago on a Roman cross. God answered on the basis of His grace alone, not because of my merits or demerits.

Lastly, as an aside, how do the Roman Catholics view this?  R.C. Sproul explains their view of the role of faith in salvation, “Contrary to what many Protestants think, Roman Catholicism affirms that we are justified or accounted as right before the Lord by faith in Christ and that no one is saved apart from Him. However, Roman Catholic theologians deny that faith is sufficient for justification. Instead, good works of obedience must be added to faith in order for God to declare us righteous. Justification comes first through the sacraments — justifying grace is poured into the soul at baptism, lost through mortal sin, and restored through confession and works of penance. Rome argues works cooperate with grace to make us righteous, and we are justified only if we have actually become righteous through our faith and works.”[i]

2:9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

A great cross reference on this verse is Romans 3:27, which states, “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.” And Paul also states this in 1 Cor. 1:29-31.

The idea here is that in our fallen state we cannot save ourselves, and if we were to somehow achieve a salvation of our own concoction we would then have reason to boast or brag or say that some part of our salvation emanated or originated from ourselves and something we did, thought, or “realized.”  This is the folly of so many other religions. They fail to take into account the holiness of God.  Once that is taken into account, our own radical falleness is revealed and any chance we thought we may have at saving ourselves is utterly destroyed.

The kind of pride it would take to both realize our radical sin and separation from God and yet devise a way of works with an end of salvation is the kind of pride that would certainly negate any successful achieving of this end.

2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Our Purpose: to Bless the Nations and Glorify God

Here we see the ultimate reason for our election.  Some might say that ‘now that we are elect why would we evangelize?’ and this is the verse that contradicts this thinking.  We were elected beforehand unto not only salvation, but unto good works, which are the fruit of salvation.

Because we are so naturally ego-centric, we think of salvation as the end, and that now we need to live this Christian life on our own, but God thinks of it as the beginning of His work of grace in us.

We must not miss the reason for which we were saved: good works. This means not only living a holy life, but also sharing the good news of the gospel to the world. For we are to love our God and to love the world.

In fact, we have been called to bless all the nations of the world through the spreading of the gospel.  This is the fulfilling of the great promise made to Abraham so long ago. It is through the spread of the gospel to a dying world that we bless the world and bring glory to God.

Now God does not leave us alone to this mission.  No indeed, for His grace is with us to sustain us throughout our life through the inward working of the Holy Spirit. John Piper says, “Grace is not simply leniency when we have sinned. Grace is the enabling gift of God not to sin. Grace is power not just pardon.”

So we see that eternal respite from hell and damnation is only the first part of God’s grace.  That is one part of the consequence of salvation, but there is also a plan of action moving forward that God in His righteous omnipotence has designed for us since before the foundation of the world.

Holiness

This means not only that we are to spread the gospel, but that we are to strive for holiness.  We can only do that be surrendering to God’s powerful working within us. We have to trust God, and lean on His truth and His grace.

He will indeed provide us grace in our time of need.  That is the magnificent difference between the New Covenant believer and the Old Covenant Jew.  We can obey.  God wanted to create a covenant with people who could actually keep the covenant (cf. Peter Gentry and Steven Wellum)! This is what Jeremiah emphasized over and over again.  No one was going to need to teach his brother because God was going to put His Spirit within His chosen ones.  HE would be the teacher! He would be the one helping us, enabling us to keep the covenant.

But what if we failed?  He had that part figured out as well.  For Christ would be sent to pay for every failing in the past, present, and future. His death on the cross paid for sins you haven’t even committed yet.  That should blow your mind!  Jerry Bridges puts it this way, “Furthermore, grace does not first rescue us from the penalty of our sins, furnish us with some new spiritual abilities, and then leave us on our own to grow in spiritual maturity.”

He does not leave us alone; His presence is the great blessing of the Christian life.  He is working through us to sanctify and keep us. Augustine said, “Nothing whatever pertaining to godliness and real holiness can be accomplished without grace.” Amen.

Conformed into His Image for a Reason

Lastly, we are said to be “His workmanship” which implies more than simply our good works are at issue here. There is a sanctification piece as well. Our very being, our soul, is at issue here.  He is molding us into a creation that will glorify Himself. (Ps. 138:8; Is. 29:23, 43:21, 60:21; Matt. 5:16; 2 Tim. 2:21) If He stopped at salvation He would certainly receive glory for His heroic and unfathomable love, mercy, and grace, but He doesn’t stop there.  He continues to mold us, shape us and refine us unto His own glory. (Phil. 2:13)

Now being the clay in the Potter’s hand is not always a pleasant experience.  There will be times when we are called to suffer. I do not want to here answer the reason in-depth for suffering except to say that it can be for molding, or discipline, or simply because we are under the attack of the Devil.  Whatever the case may be, we must realize that the servant is not greater than the master.  Christ promised that we would suffer as He did if we publically identified with Him. It is an honor to suffer in the name of Christ, but when we suffer we need to keep a few things in mind:

  1. The suffering of Christ – personally I like to mentally picture the walk of Christ up to the road at Calvary.  Suddenly my situation doesn’t seem so bad.
  2. The power of Christ – I am constantly reminded that the very Spirit who raised Lazaraus and indeed Christ from the dead is at work within me to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).
  3. The triumph of Christ – when Christ rose from the grave, He defeated sin and death. Revelation 21:3-4 reminds us of this great truth, “ 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The Ultimate Reason for Conformity…

The reason for this is because He wants to conform you to the image of His Son.  Why? Because He is at work to restore you to the original image in which He made you.  He delights in this because when He restores us to His original image, the image of His Son who reflects all the radiance of His glory and is the very embodiment of His character and goodness, then what He is looking at is a miniature reflection of Himself.  God loves Himself and cherishes His own glory – and when He sees us gradually conformed into the image of His Son whom He loves with infinite love, He smiles.  This is the essence of what it means to bring God glory.  To submit to the work of the Spirit within you, to respond in love both to God and to His image bearers.