Ever since Genesis 3, it has been hard for people to get along. We’re all so different, and, because of our fallenness, those differences can annoy us, threaten us, and make us suspicious of one another. In jealousy, envy, and pride, we tend to think, say, and do nasty things to each other, making life unpleasant at times.
In the first century, there were two groups of people who didn’t get along very well—Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles were everybody else. Both latent and overt hostility marked their relationship over the centuries. Paul addresses that enmity in Ephesians 2, and he talks about what God has done to rectify it. The solution he offers is still relevant today because the world is more polarized now than ever. In recent years we have witnessed a growing hostility between races, classes, genders, and political parties. The tension is exhausting and disillusioning.
How can God take widely diverse and disparate people and put them successfully into one new group? Paul’s answer is Jesus. Why? Because “he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).
Paul argues that the source of alienation between Jew and Gentile—God’s law—was put on the shelf (2:15a) because the source of reconciliation—God’s Son—was put on the cross (2:13b, 16b). Human beings may be hostile to each other, but God treated his perfect Son as if he were all the world’s hostility rolled into one. And when Christ died on the cross, the Father regarded the hostility itself as having died, too. God’s purpose was to create one new humanity out of the two—a horizontal hostility replaced with horizontal peace (2:15b).
The result is that irreligious people (like the Gentiles, who thought they are “far off”) can now hear and believe the gospel of peace (2:17a). Religious people (like the Jews, who thought they are already near) can hear and believe that same gospel (2:17b). All are “far off” because of sin, but all can “draw near” now because of Jesus. God is wise in this regard. All who draw near to him wind up drawing near to each other, too. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate fully in his new community—the church.
That’s not always easy because we’re all different. But believers who draw near to God bear the marks of unity in diversity. That’s why Paul cites the Trinity two times in this passage (2:18, 22). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the ultimate model for the church—a community of truth, love, and unity in diversity.
Psalm 23 is one of the most popular texts in the Old Testament. Charles Spurgeon called it “the pearl of Psalms.” James Montgomery Boice called it “the most beloved of the 150 Psalms in the Psalter.” And J. P. McBeth called it “the greatest poem ever written.” It’s often read at funerals, or during times of profound grief and sadness. That’s appropriate, but King David’s composition is a psalm for life, not just death. Indeed, we likely need this psalm now more than ever.
Stress is a prominent reality of modern life. Never before in history have people been more anxious and overloaded than they are today. Life has always been hard on a fallen planet, but it seems to be getting harder. We live in an age of exploding technology that’s hard to keep up with; information overload that threatens to overwhelm us; political polarization that breeds cynicism and disillusionment; media manipulation that makes it hard to trust anything we see on our screens; a cancel culture that keeps people captive to the fear of other people’s judgments; a global pandemic with widespread disagreement over how best to navigate it. And, as many people have discovered, stress takes its toll physically and emotionally. As one book title says, The Body Keeps the Score.
What is stress? It’s the pressure, strain, and tension we feel whenever a situation or event demands more from us than we think we can give. The tell-tale sign we’re stressed out is when we find ourselves saying, “I just can’t handle this right now!” A well-mannered, kind-hearted young woman can turn into a screeching bridezilla in the run-up to her wedding. A tender, warm-hearted young man can turn into a cauldron of bitterness when there are more deadlines than time to meet them. People routinely suffer chronic stress as a result of financial woes, work pressure, bullying, relationship troubles, or the challenges of parenting. All of it can cause anxiety, irritability, depression, headaches, insomnia, and other serious physical or psychological symptoms.
How do we cope? How do we survive? How do we overcome the taxing stresses of life? How did King David do it? How did he cope? How did he overcome? After all, the “sweet singer of Israel” spent several years of his life being pursued by his enemies. On more than one occasion did a spear whizz by his ear and twang into the boards where he was lodging. Most people have never been on the receiving end of that kind of incoming enemy fire (police and military personnel excepted). And most of us have never spent a great deal of time living as a fugitive, running for our lives. David did. And yet he had a way of rising above the stresses of life.
Psalm 23 gives us a clue as to how he did it. The composition is a declaration of trust and confidence in God despite all that was going on around him. Two main metaphors drive the poem: (1) God as David’s Shepherd (vv. 1-4); and (2) God as David’s Gracious Host (vv. 5-6). Together these metaphors paint a stunning portrait for us: God is the ultimate Shepherd-King to his people. People are the sheep of God’s flock and the guests of God’s kingdom. Now, sheep are essentially helpless and not particularly bright. That’s not a good combination, as the following video clip indicates:
People and sheep have a lot in common! They both desperately need a good shepherd! Thankfully, believers have one in Yahweh, the God of Israel. If David were here today, he might say to us, “Rest in the Lord who is with you and good to you.” Specifically, he might tell us to rest in the PROVISIONS of the Lord (vv. 1-3), the PRESENCE of the Lord (vv. 4-5), and PROMISES of the Lord (6). God is the caretaker and protector of his people, and he will ensure that they do not lack in basic needs as they navigate the stresses of this life. Rather, he pursues them with goodness and covenant love all the days of their lives (v. 6).
Last night I sinned. Multiple times. My son and son-in-law were with me at the time. They sinned, too, and we all had a great time doing it. Let me explain. We were celebrating my son-in-law’s birthday, so we went to a shooting range before dinner, cake, and gift giving. It’s something Micah enjoys, though he doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to do it, so we surprised him with a round at Enck’s Gun Barn. My son Drew also has more experience than I do in this area, making me the rookie of the bunch.
I’ve shot pistols before, but only a few times in the distant past and only at Coke cans set up in the woods near my brother-in-law’s house in North Carolina. Last night we used a rifle—a Ruger AR-556, which is considerably louder than a pistol, though the kickback isn’t bad at all. Given my lack of experience, I was hoping to just get my shots on the paper target!
I didn’t get a bullseye this time, but all my shots were inside the 8 and 9 rings, and one even nicked the center circle. Not bad for a beginner. But all three of us kept missing the mark, which is one of the biblical metaphors for sin. There are many other images, too, but this one is prominent.
Judges 20:15-16 says, “At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].”
The word ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ is a general word for sin, usually having the sense of missing the mark, going astray, offending, or ignoring something required by God’s law (e.g., Gen 40:1; Jdgs 20:16; Neh 13:26; etc.). It can also mean “sin offering” (e.g., Exod 29:4).
King David prays in Psalm 51:2, “Cleanse me [ṭāhēr] from my sin [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].” The word ṭāhēr means to “be clean,” “cleanse,” “purify,” or “pronounce clean,” as from a defiling condition. It can have a ritual context (e.g., Lev 11:32), or it can refer to the actual cleansing of impurities (e.g., Naaman’s leprosy in 2 Kgs 5:10).
It can also refer to the removal of impurities from metal (e.g., refined gold and silver in Mal 3:3). Therefore, the word does not necessarily have a sacramental connotation (contra Goldingay, etc.) or even a ceremonial connotation (contra Wilson, the ESV Study Bible, etc.). Indeed, David’s hope of forgiveness rests on nothing ceremonial (cf. vv. 16-17). The sense of his prayer in v. 2 is, “Purify me from my defiling sin.”
Because of his mercy, grace, and compassion (Ps 51:1), God can certainly do that. And because David came to him humbly, he did. “The Lord has taken away your sin,” said Nathan the prophet. You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12:13-14). David later wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven” (Ps 32:1).
Interestingly enough, all three of us last night were landing our initial shots low and to the right of the bullseye. That would seem to suggest a sighting issue on the gun. Our Range Safety Officer (RSO) helped us make the necessary adjustments to shoot more accurately. He also helped me with my stance and positioning vis-à-vis the target. He was patient, kind, and supportive, not condescending at all toward this novice.
Probably my biggest challenge as a shooter is the fact that I’m left-eye dominant trying to shoot from a right hander’s position. My impulse, then, is to use my left eye to align the sights, but that doesn’t work when you’re pressing your right cheek to the gun stock. Here again, the RSO was perceptive and gave me some suggestions to help me “not sin.”
Our night at the range caused me to think about the fact that we’re in this spiritual journey together. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), which is why judging and condescension are out of place in the Christian life. Smug self-righteousness is just a way to justify our anger at other people because they sin differently than we do.
Our natural misalignments and daily temptations to “miss the mark” don’t go away when others scold us, humiliate us, or impose their asceticisms on us (Col 2:21-23). They tend to dissipate when those with a little more experience help us learn how to aim higher.
We are pilgrims on a journey We are brothers on the road We are here to help each other Walk the mile and bear the load
The RSO actually showed me last night how to be a better pastor. Lord knows, I need ongoing training.
There are two main words in the Old Testament for “forgiveness,” and they’re usually translated in the semantic range or cluster of “pardon” / “pardoned” / “forgive” / “forgiveness” / “forgiven” / “forgiving.” Together they form a mega-them in the Hebrew Bible. The two words are nāśā and sālǎḥ.
The first word is transliterated nāśā.
The word nāśā (accent on the second syllable, with the vowel sounding like the word “ah’”) means “the taking away, forgiveness or pardon of sin, iniquity, and transgression.” So characteristic is this action of taking away sin that it is listed as one of God’s attributes (e.g., Exod 34:7; Num 14:18, Mic 7:18).
Sin can be forgiven and forgotten by God because it is “taken up and carried away.” In Exodus 32:32, 34:7, Numbers 14:18, 1 Samuel 15:25, Job 7:21, and Micah 7:18, nāśā means “take away guilt, iniquity, transgression, etc.” (i.e., “forgive” or “pardon”). Micah 7:18-19 contains these wonderful words:
Who is a God like you, who pardons [nāśā] sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
This passage reveals that no angel or human has a character so willing to pardon wickedness done against himself or others as God does. Micah 7:18 says that God delights in showing mercy. This means he enjoys doing it. He does not pardon our sins in a begrudging way. Verse 19 here shows how far God removes our sins from us. He figuratively hurls them into the depths of the sea.
The second word is transliterated sālǎḥ.
The word sālǎḥ (accent on the second syllable, same vowel sound as nāśā, hard “ch” ending as in “Bach”) is used of God’s offer of pardon and forgiveness to the sinner. Never does this word in any of its forms refer to people forgiving each other (e.g., Exod 34:9; Num 14:19-20; 2 Kgs 5:18, 24:4; Ps 25:11; Isa 55:7; Jer 5:1, 7, 33:8, 50:20; Lam 3:42). It is exclusively a divine action.
Sālǎḥ removes guilt associated with a moral sin or wrongdoing connected to a ritual or vow. Isaiah 55:7 reveals that God calls individuals to turn from their known sinful ways and thoughts to him so that their sins may be pardoned:
Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon [sālǎḥ].
And now let us add a New Testament (Greek) word to the mix:
The Greek word is transliterated Iēsous.
Iēsous (ee-YAY-soos) is a proper noun that comes into English as “Jesus,” which is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “the Lord saves.” Matthew 1:21 says:
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus [Iēsous], because he will save his people from their sins.
According to the New Testament, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the Creator and Savior of the world, the founder of Christianity, and the sinless exemplar of the nature and ways of God. Since the name was common in his lifetime, he was usually referred to in a more specific way, such as “Jesus of Nazareth” (e.g., John 1:26).
“Christ,” which means “the anointed one,” is a title acknowledging that Jesus was the expected Messiah of Israel. In the Gospels, Jesus is usually identified as “the Christ” (e.g., Matt 16:16). After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:38, he was usually referred to as “Jesus Christ.” This composite name joins the historic figure with the messianic role that prophetic expectation and early Christianity knew he possessed.
In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is anointed by a sinful woman in the presence of Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader in first-century Israel. The scene is provocative and scandalous for its day, but the encounter ends like this in vv. 48-49:
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
That’s the right question to ask. Jesus Christ is the embodied forgiveness of God. He is nāśā and sālǎḥ in the flesh.
Bobby was six years old, and he had an inquiring mind. He had been learning how to measure things at school, and his teacher suggested the class go home that night and see what they could find there to measure. Bobby took the challenge to heart. When he got home, he measured his desk. He measured his toy box. He measured his bed. He measured everything within reach.
Then, while enjoying a moment of inspiration in the second-floor bathroom, Bobby thought to himself, “I wonder how long the wiggly white worm is that lives inside the tube of toothpaste.” Soon, under the pressure of eager, juvenile fingers, the wiggly white worm oozed its path down the sink, across the bathroom floor, out into the hall, and down the stairs into the living room, where the economy size tube finally expired.
Bobby was ecstatic. It was only a moment’s work to walk his ruler along the gleaming white trail and record the measurement. “Now,” he said to himself, “all I’ve got to do is put the toothpaste back into the tube before mommy finds out.” Sadly, Bobby’s progress in physics was not as advanced as his mathematics, or else he would have known that certain processes are irreversible.
His mother’s voice sounded from the kitchen, “Bobby, what are you doing?” A deep intuition alerted him to the fact that she would not be pleased with the long white worm on the floor. Frantically, he tried to scoop up the evidence, but that only made the mess worse.
“Bobby!” cried his mother at the sight of the strange new design on her favorite carpet. “What have you done?”
And with no further ingenuity forthcoming, Bobby—in typical six-year-old fashion—burst into tears. He ran full tilt and buried his face in the apron of his startled but kindhearted mother. “I’m sorry, mommy. I’m really sorry!”
Has it ever occurred to you that life can be a bit like toothpaste? It, too, flows out in an irreversible stream, and sometimes we wish we could put it back. But that cannot be done, and we’re often left with a mess we cannot clean ourselves.
“If life had a second edition,” wrote the poet John Clair, “I would correct the proofs.” King David might have agreed with that sentiment. After his famous sin with Bathsheba and his murderous ploy to cover it up, he realized he had made a terrible mess of his life and kingdom, and he had no ability to clean it up himself. Yet in the midst of his tormented soul, he somehow knew that God did. In Psalm 51:1-2, he asked the Lord:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
With true remorse and raw repentance, David ran full tilt and buried his shame in the apron of God’s lovingkindness. He understood full well that to get clean with God, he had to come clean with God. And so, the disgraced king cried out to God in Psalm 51:7-10:
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
David discovered that the crushing weight of sin was no match for the mercy of God. In fact, he went on to celebrate in another psalm the forgiveness he received from the Lord: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Ps 32:1). God had truly made him “whiter than snow.”
Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, received this instruction: “Call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). “Jesus” means salvation. Reflecting on what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection to make sinful people righteous, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom 5:20).
Ultimately, David learned that while our lives may be irreversible, they are not irredeemable. That’s true of your life, too.
Thank you, Lord, for your merciful heart. I confess that I’m not a person with a small debt. Sometimes I willingly choose my way above your way, preferring my own glory to yours. Sadly, I have done this, like David, even as a believer. Yet, your gracious heart remains. Thank you, God. I am grateful that my forgiveness is based on your character and not my own; that it’s based on your love for me, not my love for you. If that were the case, I’d be lost forever. But you are the God who still gives people new hearts. Do that for me, I pray, and help me to walk in your ways. In Jesus’ name, amen.
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).
The dictionary definition of self-righteousness usually goes something like this: “Confidence in one’s own goodness or virtue, especially while being smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” That’s not a bad place to start, but it’s more descriptive of the symptoms of self-righteousness than the underlying disease. The deeper problem is legalism—the notion that we could somehow generate enough righteousness on our own to make ourselves acceptable to God for salvation. The idea is ridiculous on its face because it makes us partially our own saviors.
Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector specifically to “those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (Luke 18:9). The pious leader in Jesus’ story assumed his acceptance with God was based on his own actions, while the tax collector recognized there was nothing in him by which he could commend himself to God; he was totally dependent on divine grace for his salvation. Quite significantly, it was the despised tax collectorwho “went home justified before God,” according to Jesus, not the religious leader (Luke 18:14). Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus warns his followers about the dangers of self-righteousness, emphasizing that without him, they could do nothing (cf. John 15:5).
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness. Most of the time it feels like something God should be pleased with—something that should make him smile. To do our good works, and catalog our achievements, and then present them all to God—that feels like something the Almighty should appreciate. After all, God is holy, and he demands holiness from his people, right?
Yet everywhere in Scripture, that kind of a self-righteous approach to God is sharply condemned. It’s sharply condemned not only in Luke 18, but also in Philippians 3. In fact, not only is it condemned in that chapter, it’s severely ridiculed. Paul calls it “garbage” in verse 9. Other versions say “rubbish.” Those are awfully polite translations.
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness.
The original word is skubalon, which means “dung,” “manure,” “excrement,” and a few other words that preachers aren’t supposed to say. Why such colorful language? Why such a linguistic jolt in holy writ? Because there’s an important distinction to be made between presenting our good works to God as a gift and presenting our good works to God as currency. The gift says, “Thank you, God. I obey you because I love you.” The currency says, “Pay up, God. I’ve been good; you owe me.” The two approaches are light years apart.
But what’s so terribly wrong with that second view? It sounds logical, doesn’t it? I do this, and God gives me that. Quid pro quo. Makes sense. But here’s the problem: Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do. Just take an honest look at your motives and attitudes some time. Have you ever done anything with completely perfect attitudes or motives? Chances are slim. No one bats a thousand all the time, so without God’s mercy, we’re toast.
When one of my swim coaches was in college, he used to walk past the President’s house every day on the way home from practice. The university President had a horse, and my coach would stop by and pet it every day, feeding it apples and other treats. After doing this for several years, my coach developed a good relationship with the horse, so one day he just took it home with him. He stole the President’s horse!
Word went out over campus radio that someone had stolen the President’s prize possession. It was a major scandal since the man loved his horse. After several hours of not being able to locate the animal, the college began offering a sizeable cash reward for its safe return. When my coach heard about the monetary reward, he returned the horse…and collected the cash!
Now, we can probably all agree that it was a good thing that my coach returned the President’s horse. It was a good work. But I’m sure we can also agree that there was something very wrong with that good work. Here was the thief now cashing in on his own criminality! And so it is with fallen people before a holy God. Even the good things we do are tainted to a certain extent.
Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do.
So, when we do our good works and present them to God, it must always be with the understanding that we’ve already stolen something from him. We already have a criminal record against him. And trusting Christ alone is the only way to get rid of our rap sheet against heaven. That’s what Paul argues in Philippians 3. Consider the “good things” he could point to in his own life that contribute nothing to our standing with God:
Religious ceremony cannot make us right with God. “…circumcised on the eighth day” (5a)
Ethnic identity cannot make us right with God. “…of the people of Israel” (5b)
Social status cannot make us right with God. “…of the tribe of Benjamin” (5c)
Orthodox tradition cannot make us right with God. “…a Hebrew of Hebrews” (5d)
Theological conservatism cannot make us right with God. “…in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (5e)
Spiritual enthusiasm cannot make us right with God. “…as for zeal, persecuting the church” (6a)
Impeccable morality cannot make us right with God. “…as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (6b)
It’s all skubalon, says Paul. Having seen Jesus for who he is and what he’s done for the entire human race on the cross, Paul abandons all reliance on a good resume to make himself right with God. Indeed, he fires a silver bullet into the heart of self-righteousness by telling us to reject all sources of self-righteousness, and trust in Christ alone for salvation. Or, to put it simply, Paul tells us to take out the garbage of self-righteousness. It stinks to high heaven, and it needs to be removed.
Why? As human beings created in the image of a good God, we were made to do good works—but there’s nothing meritorious about those good works. We don’t congratulate water for being wet. It’s supposed to be wet. Nor do we congratulate human beings for doing good things. We’re supposed to do good things. It’s how we’re made. As a result, we can never put God in our debt by doing good works. As Edward Mote put it:
My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness I dare not trust the sweetest frame But wholly lean on Jesus’ name
Paul’s desire was to be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of his own that comes from keeping the law, but that which comes from trusting in Christ alone for salvation—“the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil 3:9). He took out the garbage of self-righteousness. We must do the same.