May my prayer be set before you like incense. – Psalm 141:2
Throughout the Old Testament, we see incense playing a significant role in the worship God had prescribed for his people. It was so essential that there was an altar of incense in the Holy Place. As we consider this topic, it is important to remember the ceremonies of the old covenant were pictures and shadows of what Christ would accomplish in His atoning work on the cross, and incense is part of that picture. Ultimately, incense is a picture of the sacrifice of Christ, which is the sweet aroma that goes before the Father on our behalf. Still, in another sense, incense also typifies prayer. John Owen, in his commentary on Hebrews, lays out four ways incense is like prayer.
1. The incense was beaten and pounded before it could be used. Likewise, acceptable prayer proceeds from a broken and contrite heart.
Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Elsewhere we are told that God “resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” For our prayers to be as incense, we must approach the Throne of Grace in poverty of spirit, knowing that our sinfulness has separated us from God and that only through Christ our mediator do we have peace with Him. This is biblical brokenness. If we approach God in any other way, we are like the tax collector trusting on our own righteousness, and he went away unjustified. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.
2. Incense rises toward heaven, and the point of prayer is that it ascends to the throne of God.
One of the significant points made in the book of Hebrews is that Christ is exalted and sitting at the right hand of the Father. Yet, we are encouraged to approach the Throne of Grace with confidence. When we pray, we are doing precisely that. We are bringing our praises and petitions to the throne of God. Though we have no merit of our own, God still embraces us with love because of the merit of Jesus and His righteousness. For our prayers to be as incense, we need to be aware of the great heights they are reaching as we commune with the exalted Christ. This goes hand in hand with our brokenness. Pray with confidence. Despite your sinfulness, your prayers rise to the Most High, maker of heaven and earth, and there is no one above Him.
3. Incense requires fire for it to be useful, and prayer has no virtue unless it is set on fire by the power of the Holy Spirit.
By this, we are not referring to some mystical experience. The fact that a believer desires to go to the Lord in prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is not the natural man’s disposition. The only prayer that can take place without the Spirit is prayer that is not in accord with the Word of God. For example, prayers to false gods, and ritualistic prayers by those who believe they will be heard because of mere formality and many words. We must pray in accordance with the Word of God. When this happens, it is because the Spirit is moving. When you feel the urge to pray, do not neglect that desire because your incense is being set on fire by the power of the Holy Spirit.
4. Incense yields a sweet aroma, and our prayers are a sweet fragrance to the Lord.
This seems to be at the heart of the Psalmist’s cry. “May my prayer be as incense,” means, may it be a sweet aroma to the Lord. In Revelation 8:4, we see that the smoke of incense rose with the prayers of the saints. This seems to signify that there is a sweet fragrance associated with our prayers, and the sweet scent is because we approach the Lord in Christ’s name. Our prayers are pleasing to the Lord, and the fact we can bring pleasure to God is something that should cause us to drop to our knees with joy. Pray boldly in Jesus’ name, because it brings pleasure to God almighty.
May this short study encourage you to spend more time on your knees this week. You may not feel worthy to approach him, but that is the only proper way to draw near to the Throne of Grace. From there, your lowly supplications will rise to the heavens where Christ is exalted. If this encourages you to pray, know that it is the Holy Spirit who is encouraging you to do so. Finally, as you pray, you will bring pleasure to the only King of Heaven as the offering Jesus made for sin is presented to the Father on your behalf.
Here is the latest video class I taught through the Gospel Project. In this lesson, we look at Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth. We will look at why the people loved the teaching initially and why they wanted to kill him a few minutes later.
We will also seek to understand a couple key phrases. -“Physician, heal yourself.” -Luke 4:23 -“No prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” -Luke 4:24
I am one of the teachers at our church where we are going through the Gospel Project. Since we are unable to meet for class, I have been uploading these videos so everyone can keep up with the curriculum. If you are interested in following along, you can do so below.
The temptation of Jesus is a pivotal moment in the gospels. To fully understand it, it is important to compare and contrast Jesus’ temptation with what Adam faced in the garden. We will also see relevance to our dealings with temptation as well.
If we withhold the doctrine of the sovereignty of God while discussing coronavirus, we withhold one of the most precious balms of comfort for the Christian found in the word of God. Scripture does not shrink back from showing us God’s sovereign rule amid distress, and neither should we. We indeed only have two choices when it comes to the evils besetting us in covid-19, either our Lord is still in control, or something else is, and he is doing the best he can to manage the situation and turn it for our good. The latter would be an appalling reality because God would no longer be God, and we would have no reason to take comfort. Psalm 93 is an excellent place to find real comfort, especially if we read it in light of the multiple distresses that are coming our way due to coronavirus.
The Reign of God
1. The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt. Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
The first two verses of this short psalm begin by focusing our attention on the attributes of God, primarily as they relate to his sovereign reign. It does not matter what we may face, his throne is established, and his eternal decree orders all things.
He is robed in majesty. Sovereignty is his garment. He is the supreme authority over all things, and He has put on strength as his belt. The belt that holds his rule in place is his power. His omnipotence can never be thwarted. No sin of man, no deadly virus, or any other calamity can ever diminish his perfections. He reigns on high.
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. The world will stand as long as our Father wants it to stand. Humanity will endure as long as he sees fit. Even considering covid-19, the planet continues orbiting the sun and spins with perfection upon its axis, all because of our Father’s established rule.
2 Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.
His throne is established from of old; He is from everlasting. We may not have been paying much attention to it before now, but once a microscopic particle altered our lives, we began looking around for meaning. Our minds were turned to thoughts of our frailty and his strength. As Charles Spurgeon put it, though he may now appear in more conspicuous sovereignty, He is no upstart sovereignty. He is from everlasting. The Lord is eternal, and so are his glorious attributes.
Coronavirus Lifts Its Voice
3 The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring.
The floods have lifted up, O Lord. We saw it first when a few people began to get sick and and some of them die. Then it began to spread, and the number of those infected began to grow. The whole world began to pay attention to the rising tide.
The floods have lifted up their voice. We heard its shouts of conquest as it began to conquer one country after another. Victory after victory, as it shut down enterprise after enterprise and sent people running for the cover of their homes.
The floods lift up their roaring. The market crashed, employment rates crumbled, and grocery stores were depleted. The sound of the roar sent anxiety and distress deep into the heart of nations as wave after wave was announced in real-time on the news and in social media.
God is More Mighty than the Virus
4 Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty!
As we trembled before the tempest, we were reminded that there is one who is more mighty. The Lord can restrain it. His knowledge and power are far greater than that of any enemy. He can bring it to an end in an instant if he so chooses. He is the Almighty. This truth also means he could have prevented it if he had desired, but he did not. His ways are higher than ours.
5 Your decrees are very trustworthy; holiness befits your house, O Lord, forevermore.
His Decrees are very trustworthy. What he chooses to do is right, even if we do not fully understand. His word stands unmoved. His promises do not waiver amid chaos. We are to build our house on the rock, and when the waves crash upon it, it will stand. He is trustworthy.
Holiness befits his house, O Lord forevermore. All he does is good, and even the distress we face is for the good of those who love him. God is light, and in him, there is no darkness at all. As he wears the robe of majesty, the only proper adornment of his house is holiness. It is his beauty and splendor. It is also the only ornament appropriate for his people. Through the tumult, he is orchestrating it all to conform us to his image and adorn us in a similar beauty. He will complete the work he has begun in us, and we never need to fear because his reign will never end. He is the Lord forevermore.
The following is Henry Scudder’s reasoning from Scripture as to why Sunday is a day set apart for the Lord. What are your thoughts?
Put a difference between this and the other six days, even as you put a difference between the bread and wine in the sacrament, and that which is for common use. And that because it is set apart for Holy use, by divine institution. For as the seventh day, from the beginning of the creation, until the day of Christ’s blessed resurrection; so our Lord’s day which is the day of the resurrection, is by divine institution moral.
Now it appears, that it was the will of our Lord and Savior Christ, that we should, since his resurrection, keep for our Sabbath that first day of the week; forasmuch as he arose on that day, (John 20:1-19), and appeared divers times on this our Lord’s day to his disciples before his ascension; and did on this day, being the day of Pentecost, (Acts 2:1-4), fill his disciples with the gifts of the Holy Ghost, then being assembled together; all which gives a pre-eminence to this day, and a probability to the point.
But inasmuch as the apostles, (1 Cor. 11:1) who followed Christ, and delivered nothing but what they received from Christ, (1 Cor. 11:23 and 14:37), did observe this day as the Sabbath, (1 Cor. 16:1-2); what can this argue but a divine institution of this day? The apostle Paul might have chosen any other day, for the people to assemble to hear the word, and receive the sacrament: but they assembled to receive the sacrament, and to hear the word, upon the first day of the week, which is our Lord’s day, (Acts 20:6-7). Now the approved practice of the apostles, and of the church with them, recorded in Scripture, carries with it the force of a precept.
Moreover, the Spirit of God honors this day with the title of the Lord’s day, (Rev. 1:10) as he does the communion Supper of the Lord, (1 Cor. 10:21 and 21:20). What does this argue but as they both have reference to Christ, so they are both appointed by Christ.
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. – Matthew 12:31
What exactly is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? There are a three basic views. The first view is that it is something that could only be done while Christ was on the earth. From this view, this sin involved seeing the miracles Christ was working through the Holy Spirit and calling them evil, but since Christ is no longer on the earth, this sin can no longer be committed. Many great men and women of the faith have held this position so it is clearly within the pale of orthodoxy. The problem, as I see it, stems from the fact that the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not against Christ, it is against the Holy Spirit. One of the greatest works of the Spirit is to reveal that Jesus is the Son of God. He has not ceased in doing this work and his work can still be blasphemed.
The second view is also held by many, and it considers blasphemy of Holy Spirit rejecting the Holy Spirit’s work until death. In other words, to never come to faith in Christ. This seems reasonable because that is unforgivable. I believe rejecting Jesus until death is an outworking of blasphemy of Holy Spirit as I will explain below, but this view seems to leave out the fact that blasphemy is a sin of communication. That is the thrust of the sin, and to ignore that seems to miss the mark.
A Third view holds that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is a sin of communication. It is a known, malicious, speaking of the works of the Holy Spirit as evil. It can still happen today, but it cannot be committed ignorantly. What this means is that there must be a mental assent, or a full knowledge, that the Holy Spirit is the one doing the work, but in an attempt to suppress that truth in unrighteousness, the person blasphemes by calling it a work of evil.
One of the reasons many believe this sin cannot be committed unknowingly is because it is often linked with the sin found in Hebrews Chapter 6. In that passage, the person has been enlightened to the truth, and has even partaken in the Holy Spirit’s work; though not salvifically. They know and understand the truth and still reject Christ. In rejecting Christ they are rejecting the Holy Spirit who testifies of Him. The person who does such a thing is said to have crucified Christ afresh, and that it is impossible to renew such a one to repentance (Heb. 6:6). Since the scripture tells us that all sin is forgiven of men except blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, and the sin committed in Hebrews 6 also seems to be unforgivable, there seems to be a good reason to link the two.
So how do Bible expositors link blasphemy of the Holy Spirit to being a continuous ultimate denial of the grace of God? They do this by looking at Jesus’ words which shows us that this blasphemy is ultimately a sin that flows from the heart. Jesus says, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” This sin flows from a heart that is so hard toward the things of God that it will never repent, and God in his purposes has turned them over to this hardness and leaves them there.
The sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit has caused many people trouble and fear. They wonder after reading about it if they have committed it. If this is you, and your concern stems from a heart that desires to be right with the Lord, then you have not committed it. If a person’s heart is sensitive to the truths of God, then they are not guilty of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. The person who’s heart is as hard as those who blaspheme the Spirit would not be concerned about being right with the Lord. They would despise Him.
Another aspect of this sin is that those who have been saved cannot commit it. In Hebrews 6 the author says to his audience of believers that he did not expect them to fall away and crucify Christ afresh. Instead he expected to see from them things that “accompany salvation.” From the context, perseverance seems is one of those things that will accompany salvation. So a Christian is unable to commit this sin for we are kept by the power of God through faith.
Which one of you having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’? But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me until I have eaten and drunk; and afterward you will eat and drink’? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unprofitable slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done. –Luke 17:7-10 -New American Standard Version-
This parable at first glance can seem a bit perplexing as we try to understand what it is that Jesus is telling His disciples. But as we dig deeper it is quite an amazing teaching because in one short story Jesus shows that works are completely useless for earning salvation and completely necessary in another sense.
As you exegete scripture, you must always start with the context in which you find the passage. This parable is the response Jesus gives his disciples because they had requested more faith. Before Jesus begins to tell this parable, He lays two difficult commands on the disciples; first, he tells them not to cause anyone to stumble for it would be better to have a millstone tied around their necks and be thrown into the water; second, He tells them that they are to forgive anyone who wrongs them and asks for forgiveness, even if they do it seven times a day. In this context, seven represents the perfect number, which means there is no limit to how many times you are to forgive someone. It is these seemingly impossible commands that caused the disciples to ask Jesus for more faith, because they see the difficulty of the commands and understand their own weakness. As David Brown says, in the Critical and Experimental Commentary,
“What prompted so peculiar a petition? No doubt the felt difficulty of carrying into effect such holy directions—the difficulty first of avoiding offences and next of forgiving them so divinely.” (Brown, 298)
Jesus goes on to confirm their lack of faith by telling them that if they only had the faith of a mustard seed they would be able to do many wonders. This is used not only to humble them, but also to encourage them by showing the power of faith in Him. What they could never do themselves, would in fact be accomplished through faith. It is in this context that we find this parable, which cues us into the fact that faith has something to do with what Jesus wants to teach them.
We find in this parable two main characters; the master and the servant. In his book, Interpreting the Parables, Craig Blomberg lays out the idea that there will be a truth, or point, that can be derived from each character in the parable.
The first character we will consider in this parable is the master. It is clear that the master is the figure of authority, which immediately causes us to see him as a representation for God. The master places demands on the servant, with which, the servant is required to comply. We can see that the master is not an equal with the servant. He is clearly above him in authority, and the servant has no authority to question his commands.
The authority of the master is made explicitly clear in the fact that no “thanks” is required in the servant’s compliance with the master’s demands. When one of two people who are equals asks the other to do something for them and it is done, a thanks is usually required because the person who was asked had no real obligation to do it. This is not the case here. The master has the right to command the servant as he pleases and no thanks is required, even if the commands are difficult.
The servants are the subordinates. If the master is a representation for God, then clearly the subordinates are his disciples. As we consider the demands, we observe that they may be difficult, but they are nevertheless just. There is nothing in the demands that is too harsh. In light of the context we understand that the commands are representations of; not causing someone to stumble and to forgive others when wronged.
Before we consider Jesus’ final statement to the disciples concerning this parable, it is important to point out that He begins this Parable with the phrase “Which of you.” Jesus starts many parables with this type of question. When He does this, he is usually expecting a unanimous and obvious answer. As the disciples would have heard this, they would have recognized the master’s authority over the servant, and the servant’s duties to feed the master and gird himself. So when they heard the question that was being posed, –Would you let your servant sit down and eat first before he fed you?–they would have of course answered, “No.” Jesus used what is called an “a fortiori”, or “lesser to the greater” argument. This means that He is saying if a human master has the right to command his servant this way, how much more does God have the right to command his disciples? In other words, if we think a human master has the right to require this of the servant and offer no thanks, then how much more does God have the right to do the same?
Understanding this, we are able to move to Jesus’ closing statement that says, “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unprofitable slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done’.” It is in this statement that Jesus makes his reasons clear for telling this parable. Nothing we can do causes God to be indebted to us. Matthew Henry puts it this way,
“God cannot be a gainer by our services, and therefore cannot be made a debtor by them. He has no need of us, nor can our services make any addition to his perfections. It becomes us therefore to call ourselves unprofitable servants.” (Henry, 618)
This same truth is found in Job 22:2-3, which says, “Can a vigorous man be of use to God, or a wise man be useful to himself? “Is there any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous, or profit if you make your ways perfect?” We have nothing that can make God indebted to us. We are truly “unprofitable servants.” If we do anything right, we have only done what is required. Even if we go beyond the call of duty, we have been required to go the “extra mile.”
As stated before, this is in a teaching about faith. How does this parable give us instruction about faith? David Brown explains…
“The connection of this with the subject discoursed of (faith), may be thus expressed—‘but when your faith has been so increased as both to avoid and forgive offences, and do things impossible to all but faith—even then, be not puffed up as though you had laid the Lord under any obligation.” (Brown, 298)
Without faith we can do nothing that is pleasing to God, but with faith as small as a mustard seed we can move mountains. Even when we are doing things only possible by faith, we have no reason to boast of our benefit to God, because we are not profitable to Him. Jesus seems to be answering their inquiry about faith by saying, do not worry, you do not have it now but you will, and when you do, do not become proud thinking you have earned anything.
In one short parable Jesus has shown that works are useless in meriting our salvation, but for those who have faith they are absolutely required, because faith produces works. Even the disciples understood this truth. This is why when they are commanded to do great works they respond in asking for more faith. They also understood that faith comes from God, and not something they muster up themselves.
Using Blomberg’s system, we learn something from both characters in the parable. He finds that the two main points of this parable are as follows: First; “God retains the right to command his followers to live however he chooses.” Second, “God’s people should never presume that their obedience has earned them his favor.” (Blomberg, 263). Although both of Blomberg’s points are true it seems to leave out the emphasis on the faith that is required to do such works.
This parable should cause us to be humble as we do great things for God. Anyone who thinks that they have earned some special favor with the Lord because of their good works or service is severely mistaken, because this is what we are supposed to do. Even some of the greatest men who have ever lived such as the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, John Calvin, Charles Wesley, or Charles Spurgeon, have not caused God to look with favor upon them. It is only by God’s grace that He looks with favor upon such people and upon us. There is nothing in ourselves that makes us worthy of being called children of God. That is why some translations of Scripture call the “unprofitable servants” the “unworthy servants.” In ourselves we have nothing of worth before God, but it is God’s love for us that gives us worth. As James Sire states in the Universe Next Door, “God does not love us because we are valuable, we are valuable because God loves us” (Sire, 29). Therefore, as we move forward doing the work God has commanded us to do, we can only do it by faith, and we must never begin to think that we are of such value that God owes us anything. For it is by grace through faith that we are saved, and anything we do for Him is the result of our salvation and not the cause of it. The favor God gives us is completely unmerited.
Then he returned to Bethany, where he stayed overnight. In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs on it, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the fig tree withered up. – Matthew 21:17-19
Following the chronological sequence of the Evangelical narrative, an Olivet ‘memory’ of a different kind, now claims our attention. The incident has the one remarkable peculiarity, that it stands alone in the ministry of Christ as a miracle of punishment. At other times, as we follow the footsteps of our blessed Lord, and are the spectators of His mighty works, He scatters mercy on His path. By miracle and parable, by word and deed, He countersigns and endorses His own declaration, “The Son of man came not to destroy, but to save.” Here, however, though it be but on an inanimate object in outer nature, we are arrested with a strange, solitary exception.
As He is crossing from Bethany on the Monday of the Passion-week, early in the morning, before the great influx of worshipers at this festive season would throng the Temple, a fig plantation, near to the beaten pathway, attracted His eye. “The time of figs was not yet.” As a general rule, it was not yet the fig-season, except perhaps in the earlier and more favoring climate of Jericho and Gennesaret. It was therefore altogether premature and precocious at this period of the year (the end of March) for a fig-tree to be in full foliage, and especially on the comparatively elevated region of the Mount of Olives. While, however, the fig-orchard, now visible, was still destitute of leaves–or, at all events, these were only in embryo–one abnormal and exceptional member of the group is covered with foliage, giving reason to infer that the figs also were ripe and ready for gathering.
You may be aware of the peculiarity in the fig-tree, that the fruit, contrary to the ordinary order of development in the vegetable kingdom, appears before the leaves; so that the spectacle of a tree in full leaf, afforded ground to believe that fruit would be found thereon. Our blessed Lord approaches it, as if He had a right thus to expect, from its leafy appearance, that it should be covered with figs. He finds it to be a mass of pretentious foliage–nothing else; and He utters against it a withering curse. On returning by the same road, that afternoon, to His mountain home, the shades of eventide prevented the disciples noting how literally the blighting word had taken effect. But the next morning, as they are again wending their way to the city, the withered, blasted stem and drooping leaves arrest their attention–“Master,” said Peter, “behold, the fig-tree which you cursed has withered away,” (Mark 11:21.)
Undoubtedly for this strange exception to the customary tenderness of Christ’s miracles, there must be some special reason–a loving Redeemer punishing, and that, also, not a moral, responsible agent, but a dumb unconscious tree. Some peculiar reason indeed there must have been for the miracle at all. Jesus, we may be well assured, did not work it merely to give farther proof and exhibition of His omnipotence. The withering of a tree would, in itself, be comparatively a small attestation to His power, after the grandeur of Lazarus’s resurrection. What, then, meant He? We must go to Himself in the lowly spirit of the disciples, saying, ‘Declare unto us the parable and miracle of the fig-tree.’
The preceding day had been an illustrious one. In the week, it corresponded with our Sabbath, and, as we have found, was signalized by what was outwardly the most brilliant Olivet memory, the Triumphal entrance of the Redeemer into Jerusalem. It closed with an act of sovereign power–the cleansing of the Temple, and the dispersion of the traders, who, with their usurious traffic, were desecrating its sacred precincts. The blighting of the fig-tree forms the completion and complement of this series of expressive symbolic actions, relative to the doom of Jerusalem. And mark the order–the gradation rising to a terrible climax. First, The tender tears–the last pleadings of rejected love. Second, The righteous anger at the desecrated Temple courts, and the figurative dispersion of the Jewish people. Finally, and last of all, the impenitent nation, under the type and symbol of a blighted fig-tree, pining and withering away. These together, formed three acted parables–three illustrations in deed, of the dirge He had spoken in words–“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent unto you; how often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen does gather her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate,” (Luke 13:34, 35.)
Here, then, is the key to this (in some respects, perplexing and enigmatical) incident, in the closing scenes of the Savior’s ministry. That fig-tree is the kingdom of Israel. One thought, next to the great redemption of His Church, seemed, at that time, to occupy the mind of Jesus–it was the nation’s downfall and ruin. It drew tears from His eyes. He who wept not for Himself, wept for the despisers of His mercy and patience forbearance. The tears on the brow of Olivet passed into holy indignation and anger at the sight of the Temple sacrilege; and this again, led these lips, which loved to utter nothing but tenderness, to frame a final, irrevocable, sentence of doom. In order to teach and impress the great lesson, He invests, for the time, that dumb fig-tree with moral qualities–He makes it the expositor of a moral truth.
And observe how specially and singularly applicable the mute symbol was. The Jewish nation stood forth amid its compeers–the empires of the earth–a proud claimant to goodness and righteousness. The other Gentile kingdoms were in darkness and error. These latter had no fruit on their branches; but then, there was this distinction–they made no boastful pretension of having any. They were empty, poverty-stricken, as the Jew himself; no, a deeper blindness sealed their eyes. But, unlike the Jew, they made no vaunting boast of spiritual superiority. They felt that, in moral development, it might figuratively be said of them, “The time of figs was not yet,” they were waiting with longing earnestness for the dawning of some better day, which would give life and light to the world. The nation of Israel, on the other hand, sought to stand out in proud, self-confident pre-eminence. It was a fig-tree clothed with leaves. It had its imposing outward religion–its hallowed traditions–its boasted Temple–its mitred priests–its phylacteried Pharisees–its morning and evening sacrifices–its aromas of incense–its prophets’ sepulchers–its synagogues, and oratories, and mountain-altars–the land was studded with these outward signs and symbols of religious life.
Yes, when we think of all these, there were “leaves” enough. But beneath this ostentatious foliage, what was there? Pride–formalism–vain glory–selfishness–oppression. “How striking the image of that theocracy of solemn form, proudly displaying its ceremonials of worship, while the very heart of the nation was become dry and dead as sapless wood.” (Pressense’s Life of Christ.) This ought to have been the confession of that privileged people in the day of their merciful visitation–‘We, like that fig-tree on our sacred mountain, have had every fostering natural advantage. In a spiritual sense, ours has been the favoring climate, the congenial sunshine, the rains and dews of heaven. But we feel and acknowledge that we have perverted and abused these sacred influences. We are naked, leafless, fruitless, unproductive cumberers. All true and acceptable righteousness in us is lacking. Our ancestral law, which should have produced holiness, proclaims our deficiency–utters our condemnation. We participate in the longings of humanity, and of the holiest and best of our nation, for a better righteousness than our own. We feel our need of such a Savior as that of whom our prophets have thus spoken, This is the name whereby He shall be called, The Lord our Righteousness.’
And was not that Savior in their midst? Had not all the ardent aspirations of the sainted fathers and worthies of Israel met and been fulfilled in the person of “God manifest in the flesh?” Yet, in blinded unbelief, they closed their eyes to irresistible attestations of His divine majesty and power. Though disease fled at His touch, and winds and waves were lulled at His bidding, and devils crouched at His word, and death, at His summons, gave up its reluctant prey, yet ‘He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.’ In defiant pride, the fruitless fig-tree shook its vaunting branches and foliage before the eye of the heart-searching God, and urged its boastful claim to that of which it was utterly devoid. The Incarnate Redeemer approached in divine-human majesty. He unmasked the pretentious hypocrite, and left it with a blighting doom. Like the earth, which, despite of all genial influences, brought forth only briars and thorns, it was ‘rejected–near unto cursing, whose end was to be burned.’ And as we come at this day, like the disciples of old on Mount Olivet, to gaze on this tree once planted by God’s right hand, what do we see? It is a nation scattered and stripped. The Jewish race, for eighteen hundred years, like withered leaves–carrying the tidings of their curse to the kingdoms of their dispersion.
We can understand, then, the primary meaning and intention of the Savior in this strange exceptional act among His miracles of mercy–mutilating and destroying a work of His own hands–it was, that that blighted tree of the fig-forest might take up a parable to the house of Israel. Nothing could be more impressive. There, on one of the heights or undulations of that holy Mount, like the solitary calcined pillar which once overlooked the Valley of Siddim–stood a withered thing, all the more conspicuous by contrast with the rich carpet of spring-flowers and verdure which doubtless then, as now, spread around; on its scarred stem the doom written, “O Israel, you have destroyed yourself.”
But we have not exhausted the divine purpose and meaning in this symbolic action. That stern deed was a prophecy and sermon to EVERY AGE–a solemn sermon preached for all time, alike for the Church collectively and for believers individually. The Savior’s dooming sentence on the fig-tree, is a searching word to all formalists–boasting hypocrites–who stand forth before the world in pretentious leaves, but who are utterly devoid of that which the great Seeker alone values–fruit to His glory.
Churches are involved in that doom. Since the introduction of Christianity, down to our own days, have there not been too many examples of leaf-covered, but fruitless fig-trees–churches with imposing worldly splendor; decorated aisles–splendid liturgies–venerable relics–dim religious light–gorgeous festivals–priestly and hierarchal orders boasting apostolic succession and sacramental efficacy–and yet, within all this pomp of show, this imposing ecclesiastical organization–an utter dearth and destitution of spiritual energy and life? What have all such been, and proved? deceptive leaves–outer foliage, screening and masking utter barrenness, the outward work of man attempted to be put in the place of the inner work of God–the pomp of ritual and sensuousness of ritual, having the precedence over repentance and faith–the external of the casket looked to, more than the enclosed jewel of holiness.
Is it not this ostentatious outward profession (clustering foliage without corresponding fruit) which is delineated by an inspired pen, as the attribute of the Church in its latter day of lukewarmness and apostasy? Hear the words of the apostle, “But mark this–there will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good,” and then, mark how the mournful catalogue is summed up–it is by telling us, that this accursed, cumbering tree–not one branch of which has a redeeming cluster of fruit–is nevertheless clothed with pretentious leaves; for it is added, “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”
Nor does the searching lesson terminate here. The doom of the withered fig-tree has a personal application to individual professors. Who has not seen the living counterpart in the ostentatious Christian, the flaming orthodoxy of whose creed is sadly belied by the daily life–by the manifestation of selfishness, peevishness, fretfulness, pride, frivolity, discontent, uncharitableness, censoriousness–no inward crucifixion of sin, no molding of the heart in conformity with the will of God? These are the poor, withered, scarred stems, which the leaves of profession overlap and conceal.
How Christ again and again, by word and deed, shows how He hates all facade, pretense, display, unreality. He ever dealt with tenderness to the very chief of sinners. He never spurned true penitence, however great the guilt, from His feet. But with what burning invective does He hurl His denunciations against Pharisees, “HYPOCRITES!” Fruitless professor, sad and mournful indeed is your state. There is more hope for the open sinner than for you. Yours is the mimic life of the dumb insensate mummy in the Egyptian sarcophagus. It is the hectic flush in the maiden’s cheek–the appearance of loveliness, the deceitful sign of beauty–but, in reality, the ominous symbol of inner waste and decay and death. The blight of God’s curse is upon you. “How soon is the fig-tree withered away!”
The great practical deduction from this solemn passage, may be expressed in the words which the old Preacher of the desert addressed to the thronging crowds around him–“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees–therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.” This whole passage, indeed, seems to bring out “the goodness and severity” of Jesus. His goodness and tenderness towards all–but that goodness when insulted, injured, despised–passing into needful severity and doom!
We may mark, also, in these chapters, the same gradation in the case of individuals, we have already noted with reference to the Jewish nation collectively. First, There are the tears of divine human emotion; the unutterable sorrow over His rejected overtures of love, as the Redeemer still strives and pleads with the impenitent, saying, “How shall I give you up?” The next step, is when He enters the soul-temple, and sees it degraded and desecrated with works of darkness and sin–that soul, with its Godlike chambers converted into a robber-haunt of Satan, a den of thieves. Then comes the sad climax of all. The soul He has loved, wept over, borne with, entreated, becomes a doomed, blighted, withered thing, a dreadful monument of His righteous judgment and avenging wrath!
In these different ways He may be dealing with those whose eyes trace these pages. With some, it may be, in the way of tears and tenderness. Seated on the brow of the Heavenly mount, He may be bending over you in pitying love, and addressing you in words of affectionate admonition. In the case of others, He may be using sterner means, He may be entering the Temple with the whip of small cords, “driving,” with affliction’s scourge, these robber spoilers from what He would still reclaim and purify for Himself, saying, “Except you repent you shall all likewise perish.” In the case of others (may there be none such) it is the last, sad, utterance of all. Warning, and admonition, and forbearance, and patience, are terminated. The tears have wept themselves away; compassion has exhausted its treasures; and the thunder-cloud rises in its stead. He must (dreadful alternative!) curse those who will not receive His blessing–“Henceforth let no fruit grow upon you forever.” Oh what a terrible state is this, into which the doomed soul then passes! The tree–the moral, thinking, living agent, is dead. Yes, living on, a conscious existence, and yet dead while he lives!
There are two ways by which God deals with incorrigible sinners, corresponding to the two ways He dealt with the two fig-trees of the Gospels. Both were cumberers. Both were doomed. But by different methods was their doom consummated. The one was ‘cut down.’ After a three years’ patient bearing with it, (continuing to resist all efforts to make it fruitful,) the insulted Husbandman clears the grass around the stem; the axe descends; it lies prone on the ground, stripped, bared, plucked up by the roots; the place which once knew it knows it no more!
The dealing with the other is different. It still keeps its place in the plantation. But it is a naked, lonely, blighted stem, bearing upon it the curse of permanent unfruitfulness. It needs not a judgment to come. It is judged, ‘condemned already’–“I the Lord have dried up the green tree,” (Ezek. 17:24.) The dreadful doom is consummated in silence. There is no audible voice to record its fulfillment; no avenging angel descends to pour his vial on the stem of the fig-tree; no horde of devouring locusts to strip its leaves; no tempest to wrestle with its branches. Unlike the symbolical vine of Egypt, no boar out of the wood desolates it, no wild beast of the field devours it. God simply withdraws the agencies which have been so long repelled and resisted–the moistening rains and the reviving sunshine, which, in the case of others, have quickened life and fruitfulness.
Like Gilboa, on whose arid top, amid its sisterhood of mountains, the refreshing dew seems, to this day, to fall in vain–the barren tree stands in its life of death, given up by God–“Ephraim is joined to his idols, let him alone”–“Let no fruit henceforth grow upon you forever!” Yes! I repeat, dreadful indeed such a case as this. Abandoned! Like that picture of the abandoned vessel, so truthfully delineated by the pencil of a great modern painter, a hulk on the wide sea, abandoned to its fate, the sport of winds and waves and ruffian elements, an unwieldy log on the great waters, without mast, or sail, or helm, or crew–drifting, drifting onwards along the ocean, amid the bleak howling winds and wastes of a dark and cheerless eternity!
‘Forever,’ ‘irreversible,’ did I say? No, not so! God speaks of those who are ‘near unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.’ “But the end is not yet”–while there is life there is hope. In the middle acted parable to which we have adverted, (the driving from the Temple,) there is an incident of blessed significance introduced. Jesus healed the diseased ones–“And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them,” (Matt. 21:14.) It was an evidence interjected in the midst of righteous retribution, that ‘in wrath He remembers mercy;’ that even now, that heart of Divine power and human love is a hoarded garner of pity and compassion, open to all who will avail themselves of its treasures.
We dare never, to one lost soul on this side the grave, shut the door of pardon. “Forever” is the fearful word for the dungeons of despair. Mercy, pardon, forgiveness, are still words for the living. There is a summer-time of grace ever near, even in the dreariest winter of spiritual desolation. God is giving us a reprieve. Every new day is such–another chance of salvation, another offer of mercy, before the knell of the soul be rung forever! Prisoners–but “Prisoners of hope.”
Yes, go stand by that stripped, speechless, silent fig-tree, on the crest of Olivet, and while you behold there a dreadful witness to the Redeemer’s wrath, look at the same time at that sister fig-tree to which He pointed, at an earlier date of His ministry, in the regions of Galilee. He came to it, as He comes to each one of us, expecting “fruit;” “I looked that it should bring forth fruit.” There was none. Is it doomed at once?–No; an all-prevailing Intercessor pleads for one other year of respite and mercy–one other year to fertilize and dig about its roots, one other blessed chance of hope and forgiveness; and then, if there be no fruit, “after that,” to cut it down.
‘After that’–who can tell how brief the duration? ‘After that’–it may be a measured, meted out, perhaps nearly-exhausted season, for some one of us! Reader, self-convicted and self-condemned, are you led in prayerful penitence to exclaim–‘Lord, I am that fig-tree; the message of this ‘memory’ is for me. That one year of gracious respite and reprieve, oh let me improve it! There may be but some weeks of it, some days of it, yet to run. A few more swings of the pendulum, and the time so graciously included in “after that,” will have fled forever, beyond the possibility of recall. Oh spare me that I may recover strength before I go hence and be no more!’
And if we would add one word more, it is a closing gospel thought, suggested by the fig foliage of this parable-miracle. It was with the pretentious leaves of this same tree, that Adam and Eve, in Paradise, sought to cover their nakedness. God stripped away the leafy garments, and provided them instead, with the hides–the skins of the animals slain on the sacrificial altar. That was the earliest of the Bible’s acted parables. It was a Gospel Parable uttered in Eden, but one full of gracious comfort to the Church in every age. The fig-tree clothing of self-righteousness is utterly unavailing; the Lord who walks amid the trees of the garden strips it away–it cannot abide His righteous glance, His avenging scrutiny. But He has a blessed substitute at hand. He has woven, into a divine texture, the leaves of the Tree of life for the healing of the nations. “I will bring near,” says He, “my righteousness”–the covering, the glorious vesture provided by the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world. He reveals “the righteousness of Christ, which is unto all and upon all those who believe.” Oh! dead, barren fig-tree, lift up your drooping withered leaves and live. “For whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life!”
“Then the crowds who went ahead of Him and those who followed kept shouting: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Matthew 21:9
It was only five days before the crucifixion. This day Jesus was the people’s idol. Was He Himself deceived by this popular outpouring and acclaim? Did He suppose that at last, after their rejection of Him for so long—they were now going to accept Him as their Messiah? No! He knew it was only the outburst of a day. He knew this was but the first stage of His last journey to the cross. As he heard the cries of the throng, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” there was an undertone ringing in His ear, and the words of the undertone were—
“Ride on, ride on in majesty, In lowly pomp—ride on to die!”
There must have been a deep spiritual meaning in the triumphal entry, since Jesus Himself planned it! It was a declaration of His Messiahship. The prophet had foretold that the Messiah would come in this very way. “Behold, your King comes unto you: He is just, and having salvation; lowly, riding upon an donkey.” In thus claiming that He was the person to whom the prophet referred, and in thus bringing about the fulfillment in Himself, Jesus clearly proclaimed to the rulers that He was the Messiah!
There was also in the manner of this triumphal entry—an announcement of the character of His kingdom. If it had been an earthly royalty that He was proclaiming, He would have come riding in a war chariot.The donkey suggested lowliness and peace. He was the king of love—not of strife. He came to fill the world with blessing—not with carnage!
As we look at the people in their enthusiasm and hear their rejoicings, we cannot forget that in five days the Passover throngs cried “Crucify Him!” and we learn how fickle worldly enthusiasm is. A picture by Tintoretto gives the scene of the Crucifixion after all was over. It is evening. The multitude has dispersed. The crown of thorns is lying near by. Then in the background an donkey is nibbling at some withered palm leaves. That tells the story of the fickleness of the world’s honor.
The Palm Sunday pageant was but a day’s spectacle. Jesus went to a cross—and not to an earthly throne. But in its deeper meaning His entry into Jerusalem was a triumph indeed. The cross was the way to His true glory. Now He is our King—and His people are with Him in His triumph.
“For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.” – Hebrews 10:26-27 (KJV).
This verse has caused many people undue anxiety. J. Vernon McGee says, that this verse should cause the hair on the back of our necks to stand up, but not in the way it does for many who read it out of context. If we were to look at this verse by itself we might assume that if we deliberately sin after we are saved, we are without hope and should simply await judgment, but does the author of Hebrews mean any sin, or does he have a specific sin in mind?
The first thing we need to do with this scripture is to check the context in which we find it. First, according to Henry Virkler in his book on hermeneutics, we need to find out some basic information about the book in which we find the statement. We should start by asking, “to whom is this book written?” When studying scripture, the best place to start looking for answers to questions like these is scripture itself because it is infallible unlike external sources. Without much effort we will find that it is written to people familiar with the Jewish sacrificial system, and who have converted to Christianity or at least have made some commitment to it. This is quickly apparent because according to Albert Barnes, in his Notes on the Bible, the author of Hebrews speaks about Jewish customs without any explanation. It is apparent that the audience was Jewish or at least had practiced the customs and knew what they were and what they represented.
Another question we should ask is, “why is this book being written?” As we study the book we find that it has a general purpose, first, the author describes what Christ has done for them as the only true sacrifice for sin and then warns them against falling away. The concern about falling away was not due to persecution but due to the many who were tempted to go back to the old sacrifices which were only symbols of the true sacrifice which is Christ (Heb. 10:14).
After we have the overall argument of the book, the next question we should ask is, “how do these verses of scripture fit into the overall argument of the book?” As we read the book we see that chapter 10 seems to bring the first and major section of the book to a close. Chapter 10 starts by showing that Christ is and was the only sacrifice by which any person will ever be saved. The author in verses 19-25 lays out the “new and living way”, which indicates that the old method of sacrifices are no longer of any value and to continue in them is sin.
It is in this context that we find our text. When the author says, “if we willingly sin” he is clearly speaking of willfully rejecting the sacrifice of Christ and going back to the old symbols which never actually cleansed anyone from sin. If a believer does this, then there is no sacrifice for their sins and they can only await judgment. In a broader sense, the sin that the author is speaking of is apostasy, which is when a member of the visible church walks away from Christ, and as John indicates “were never really of us.” Therefore as J. Vernon McGee said, it should cause the hair on our neck to stand up, because this is a strong warning to keep us from ever letting anyone lead us away from trusting in the only true sacrifice that can cleanse us from our sins; Jesus Christ.
If the book of Hebrews’ internal evidence is not enough to comfort a trembling soul who thinks they are forever lost because they have willfully sinned, then we must always remember that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” In them we will find no contradictions. If we ever have trouble with a difficult verse that is not immediately clear to us, then we need to go check the scriptures that are clear, for Scripture is it best interpreter. In doing this we will find a verse like 1 John 2:1, which is crystal clear and says, “and if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” In a quick study of the context we see that John is speaking to believers. We also have the story of David being a man after God’s own heart even after committing adultery with Bathsheba and having Uriah killed. There is also the encouragement found in the account of Peter’s three denials and the forgiveness he receives from Christ, or of Paul in Romans 7 struggling with the flesh and committing sins that he hates. All of these are ample evidence that the two verses in Hebrews 10 are not saying that if you willfully commit a sin, you are lost and no longer have hope. It is saying that if you reject the sacrifice of Christ you have no hope.J