How Not to Do the Will of God

Topical Scripture: Judges 11

The big news of the week was President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the US Supreme Court. For the next several weeks, we will learn a great deal about Judge Kavanaugh. Those who support his nomination will tell his story very differently from those who oppose it.

By contrast, one of the remarkable facts about Scripture is the objective transparency with which it tells its stories. A less honest biographer would have left Noah’s drunkenness out of his narrative and Bathsheba out of David’s. Not everything the Bible describes is behavior it prescribes.

A prime example is the judge we will meet this week. If you want to learn how not to do the will of God, study his example. Jephthah makes two mistakes that we are prone to repeat today. But we can choose to make his negative story into our positive story of faith today.

Where do you need to know God’s will today? Here’s what not to do, and thus by contrast, what to do.

Become a prisoner of your past (Judges 11:1–11)

Our story begins, “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead was the father of Jephthah” (Judges 11:1). “Mighty” translates a Hebrew word meaning “powerful” or “brave.” This man was a renowned fighter of great reputation. What’s more, his father was Gilead, who was the head of their entire clan.

However, his mother was a prostitute. As a result, his brothers sought to disinherit him: “And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons. And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, ‘You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman'” (v. 2).

As a result, “Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob” (v. 3a). “Fled” implies that he ran from them, perhaps indicating that they sought to kill him. He chose to live in the “land of Tob,” a pagan area east of the Sea of Galilee. “Lived” means to “settle down” or “make a place your home.” This decision may indicate that his mother was a Canaanite and that he fled to her relatives or acquaintances.

While he was there, “worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him” (v. 3b). “Worthless” translates a Hebrew description for someone who is impoverished and reckless. They “collected around him,” indicating that they joined him rather than him joining them. Apparently, they became a band of bandits together, taking advantage of Jephthah’s superior fighting skills and marauding in the region.

The story turns when “after a time the Ammonites made war against Israel” (v. 4). These were descendants of Ammon, living as a people east of the Jordan River. The threat was so severe that “when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob” (v. 5). This must have been humiliating for them, but their action further demonstrates Jephthah’s remarkable military skill and leadership.

The elders made Jephthah an offer: “Come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites” (v. 6). They were in essence asking him to take charge of their military but not serve as their judge or national leader. Jephthah agreed only if they would make him their ruler: “If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the LORD gives them over to me, I will be your head” (v. 9).

The elders were so desperate that they agreed (v. 10). So the people “made him head and leader over them. And Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah” (v. 11). The latter statement is interesting, since we have no indication that there was a sacred shrine at Mizpah. It seems that Jephthah took his vow of judgeship in the presence of the army encamped there, not before the Lord at his place of worship.

Note that at no point in this narrative did anyone consult the Lord. Not Jephthah’s family before they drove him away, or Jephthah when he fled to a pagan land. Not the elders when they faced the Ammonite threat or when they enlisted Jephthah to lead them. Not Jephthah when they came to him or when he entered the judgeship.

This is as secular a story as you are likely to find.

From this part of the narrative, we learn that if you want to fail the will of God, become a prisoner of your past. Decide that what you have been is all you can ever be.

And refuse to consult the Lord with your future. Follow your own initiative and make your own plan. Decide that you know best and follow your direction rather than the Lord.

But know this: self-sufficiency is spiritual suicide. Jephthah’s lack of submission to the will of God will cost him more than he can imagine. The same is true for us.

Bargaining with the God of the universe (vv. 29–40)

Jephthah tried to reason with the Ammonites, but they refused his call to compromise and peace (vv. 12–28). So he was forced to lead his nation into battle, and “the Spirit of the LORD was upon him” (v. 29).

This is a common Old Testament phenomenon. The same happened with Joshua (Numbers 27:18), David (1 Samuel 16:12–13), and Saul (1 Samuel 10:10). Through the book of Judges, we find the Spirit coming “upon” various leaders.

But this was a specific, one-time empowering by the Spirit for a particular purpose. In the New Testament, we find that the Spirit comes “into” us as Christians (1 Corinthians 3:16–17; 6:19–20) and never leaves us. This indwelling of the Spirit came as a result of Jesus’ atoning death for us.

In our text, the Spirit came “upon” Jephthah to lead and strengthen him. However, such empowering wasn’t enough for him to be confident of victory in the upcoming battle. So he made a horrible, tragic mistake: “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (vv. 30–31).

Nowhere in Scripture does the Lord ask us to make such a deal with him. He is not a God we can coerce by bribery. He is not a peer but the Lord of the universe. We cannot bargain with his omnipotence. Nowhere did Jephthah pray before making this commitment to God, or he would have been instructed by the Almighty not to utter such a foolish vow.

Jephthah and the army then defeated the Ammonites (vv. 32–33). But when he returned home, “behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter” (v. 34).

Rather than focus on her plight, Jephthah focused on himself: “As soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me'” (v. 35a). His reaction transferred blame from himself to her, as though it was her fault that she came out of the house to greet him.

He explained: “For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow” (v. 35b). Note that he did not go to God with his dilemma. If he had, God would have made clear to him that this vow was not of God and that this father did not need to fulfill it.

Nor did Jephthah teach his daughter good theology. Her response, while noble, was also unbiblical and made without first consulting God. She said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites” (v. 36).

She asked only that she be allowed two months with her friends to “weep for my virginity” (v. 37), a request he granted (v. 38). The word translated “virginity” is better rendered “motherhood.” She was grieving because she would not live to bear children.

Then, “at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow that he had made” (v. 39a). As a result, Jephthah’s family line died with her. But her story lived on: “She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (vv. 39b–40).

To recap: Jephthah did not consult God before going into battle, even though the Spirit of God had come “upon” him to empower him. He did not consult God before making his rash vow with him. He did not consult God when his beloved daughter appeared before him. Nor did she consult God when learning of her fate.

Jephthah made a bargain with the King of the universe. This is always bad theology and a tragic way to relate to our loving Father.


Jephthah refused to ask God to redeem his past or to lead his future. As a result, he became one of the most tragic figures in Scripture.

It does not have to be so for us. Nothing you have done in the past is beyond God’s redemption in the present and providence for the future. What matters is not where you begin the race, but where you end. The key is to seek God’s will and purpose at every step along the way.

Robert McFarlane was Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor, a twenty-year veteran of the Marine Corps, and the architect of the Iran-Contra plan. When his plan failed, Mr. McFarlane resigned his position and later attempted suicide.

I heard him speak several years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast. He told our group his story. He described the incredible power he had achieved, the ladder to success he had climbed. But then Bud McFarlane told us with tears in his eyes that it was nothing. He got to the top, and there was nothing there. Only after he fell off that ladder did he discover that it was leaning against the wrong wall—that life really consists of loving God and loving people. Nothing else.

Then he discovered that God could redeem his past and use his present for a redemptive future. So, this man of such power and significance dedicated the rest of his life to telling his story and calling people to trust God with their lives.

You can follow the example of Jephthah or the will of Jesus, but you cannot do both.

How to Face the Future

Topical Scripture: Psalm 22

I recently came across a list of ninety-eight of our most common phobias. I didn’t know about “ephebiphobia,” a “fear of teenagers” (though I understand it, having raised two of them). I’m glad not to have “glossophobia,” a “fear of speaking in public,” or “gynophobia,” a “fear of women.”

It turns out, experts have ranked the top ten phobias of all time. Our number one fear is arachnophobia, the fear of spiders. This despite the fact that only four people each year die from spider bites in the US. (By contrast, six people die each year from their pajamas catching fire.)

What about the future is worrying you today? What problem, decision, or challenge are you facing?

You’re right to be concerned. No financial professional can guarantee that their advice will keep you from losing your savings. No physician can be sure their medical practice will preserve your health. No one can guarantee that you will have even another day beyond today.

So, if you’re looking for faith to face the future, there’s only one source you should trust.

How David predicted Jesus’ death

As you know, Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). His words are a direct quotation from the first verse of our text.

Since books (papyrus scrolls) were rare and very expensive, the culture of his day was oral, meaning that people were able to remember and recite large quantities of literature from memory. When Jesus called out this verse, those at the cross would remember the rest of the psalm, just as if I were to quote in a sermon, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” the congregation could finish the lyric, “that saved a wretch like me.”

As we will see, Psalm 22 is a remarkable foreshadowing of Jesus’ crucifixion, with stunning detail and descriptions rendered a thousand years before Calvary. I believe that Jesus caused the crowd to call this psalm to mind so they would be able to see the degree to which his death fulfilled biblical prophecy.

Here are some of the scenes they would have seen as they remembered David’s prediction from a thousand years earlier.

Mocked by the people

“All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!'” (Psalm 22:7–8). In Matthew 27 we read of Jesus’ crucifixion: “The chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now'” (vv. 41–43).

None of the religious leaders would have intentionally fulfilled Scripture in this way, making David’s prediction even more remarkable.

The manner of his crucifixion

David continued: “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet” (Psalm 22:16). He could not have been speaking of crucifixion, since this gruesome form of execution was first employed by the Persians five centuries after he wrote this psalm. He probably described “dogs” who attacked his hands and feet with their teeth or spears. But his picture describes Jesus’ crucifixion perfectly.

The next verse: “I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me” (v. 17).

Since Roman crucifixion typically led to asphyxiation as the body’s weight crushed down on the lungs, the victim would use his arms to pull up his body. However, nails driven through the wrists (the more typical form of crucifixion) severed the nerves, making such relief impossible.

The victim would then use his legs to support his body. When the soldiers were ready for the victims to die, they would break their legs with a heavy mallet called the “crucifragium.”

This is the practice behind John’s record:

Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs (John 19:31–33).

His clothes divided by soldiers

In another detail that was fulfilled at Calvary, David wrote, “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:18). The soldiers fulfilled this declaration at the cross: “When they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots” (Matthew 27:35). Again, the soldiers would never have intentionally fulfilled David’s prediction, making it even more astounding.

Nor could Jesus have arranged for these fulfillments. He could not have persuaded the religious authorities to mock him or the Romans to leave his bones intact or divide his garments while he was on the cross. These actions clearly demonstrate the prophetic nature of his death and the fact that God knew a thousand years before Calvary how his Son would die for us.

It is no surprise that David would end his remarkable psalm this way: “Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it” (vv. 30–31).

David was more right than he could know. One day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10–11). And the God who is sovereign over the future will be sovereign forever.

Divine sovereignty and human freedom

As we have seen, Psalm 22 precisely predicted and pictured Jesus’ death a thousand years later. It foresaw crucifixion, a manner of execution that had not even been invented. It foresaw actions that Jesus’ enemies would never have taken to fulfill its predictions, behavior he could never have arranged beforehand.

If the Lord knew such details a thousand years ahead of time, can we trust that he knows our future as well? Consider these statements from God himself:

  • “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
  • “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them” (Isaiah 42:9).
  • “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come” (Isaiah 46:10).

You may be wondering: If God knows the future, do I have freedom to choose? Am I a robot subjected to his sovereignty with no free will of my own?

The fact that God knows the future does not mean that he chooses it. He is not bound by time. “Tomorrow” is as real to him as “today” is to us. The fact that he can see something does not mean that he always chooses it.

You can watch people acting around you today, but that doesn’t mean that you chose their behavior. You can watch people sit down in a restaurant, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that you chose their seats.

God sees tomorrow as we see today. That doesn’t mean that he always chooses all that happens. For instance, he is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But clearly, not all “reach repentance” (cf. Revelation 20:15).

God’s will is best for our future

The fact that God knows the future does not mean that we have no freedom. But it does mean that God’s will is the best path to our ultimate destination. He knows where he is leading us and uses every day to prepare us for his purpose. His Spirit is something like a GPS system that leads you turn by turn in ways you may not understand at the time. But it is taking you the best way to your destination. You may not understand his leadership at the time, but you can trust that it is always for your best.

That’s why Scripture encourages us to “trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6).

God’s will is best for our present

And his omniscience means that his will for the future is best for the present as well. Every step we take toward our ultimate destination is the best step for us today.

Remember the Macedonian vision by which God called Paul westward to Philippi. The apostle had no idea he was bringing the gospel to what we call the “Western world.” He didn’t know that he was evangelizing what we know as “Europe.” He didn’t even know that the church he would start at Philippi would become his favorite congregation and the recipient of the timeless letter we know as the Book of Philippians.

He just knew that God was calling him. Every step he took was the best step for that day and the best step for eternity.

In the same way, God will lead us through Scripture, reason, circumstances, other people, and our own intuition. He will lead if we will follow. In fact, he wants us to know his will even more than we do. If we’re not sure what he wants us to do, we may simply ask him. If we don’t receive an answer, it’s because we’re not willing to obey what we hear.

When I was a youth minister in my first church, one of my jobs was changing the church sign beside the road. I have no idea why this was my responsibility, but it was. The pastor would come up with a short, pithy statement I was to put up in six-inch letters.

I’ll always remember this one: “If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved.”


What about tomorrow worries you today? What decision, challenge, or opportunity do you need help in facing? The God who knew every detail of his Son’s death a thousand years before it happens loves you so much that he sent that Son to die for you. Jesus would do it all over again, just for you.

Henry Blackaby: “If you know that God loves you, you should never question a directive from him.”

Do you know that God loves you?

Right and Wrong Ways to Know God’s Will

Topical Scripture: Judges 6

You know the world is changing when the World Health Organization proposes adding “gaming disorder” to its manual of disease classifications. According to the manual, “Gaming disorder is characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behavior.” Symptoms include a lack of control over gaming; giving gaming preference over other life interests and daily activities; and continuation or escalation of gaming despite negative consequences.

We live in a culture that is changing more rapidly than ever before. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the most common question I’ve been asked in four decades of ministry is, “How can I know God’s will for my life?” Some people ask this question with regard to a specific decision they are facing, others as they seek their general direction and life purpose.

In our series from the Book of Judges, we come today to a man who desperately needed to know how to answer this question. His story is in Scripture as an example for us today. From Gideon we will learn what to do and what not to do. Both lessons are vital.

Believe in God’s love

Our story is set in one of the most dangerous periods in Jewish history. It begins, as so often in Judges, with the nation’s sin: “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (Judges 6:1a). As a result, “for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites” (v. 1b).

Who were these oppressors? Why were they so dangerous?

Midian was the fourth son of Abraham by his second wife (or concubine) Keturah (Genesis 25:2). His descendants intermingled with the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:25), living as nomads in the desert east of the Dead Sea and the Sinai Peninsula (modern-day Saudi Arabia).

In our text, the Midianites aligned with “Amalekites and other eastern people” (Judges 6:3) to attack Israel. They amassed large herds of camels, making them much quicker than the foot soldiers of Israel (v. 5b). When the harvest was ripe, they would appear “like swarms of locusts” (v. 5a) and steal the sheep, cattle, donkeys, and crops of the Jews (v. 4).

The Israelites were forced to hide from them in mountain clefts, caves, and strongholds (v. 2). They could not defeat their enemy or live like this much longer. So, they finally “cried out to the Lord for help” (v. 6), repenting of their sin and turning to God.

Who or what are the Midianites and Amalekites in your life? Where are you facing challenges and struggles? They may be the result of your sins, or they may be the result of living in a fallen world.

Either way, know that God still loves you. He knows your pain (Hebrews 4:15) and cares about your suffering. You can still call out to him for help. It’s never too soon to give up on God.

Go where God sends

The Lord’s revealed will for their need came in a surprising way.

He sent his angel to Gideon, son of Joash the Abiezrite, while he was “threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites” (Judges 6:11). Wheat was typically threshed in an open area where the wind could carry away the chaff, while grapes were crushed into wine in an enclosed area where they would be more protected from the elements.

Gideon was a laborer, working as a field hand. He was hiding from Israel’s enemies in fear. Such was not the resume we would expect for a “mighty warrior” of God (v. 12b).

The angel assured Gideon that “the Lord is with you” (v. 12a). The frustrated Israelite immediately protested that God’s presence should not have allowed them to fall into the hands of the Midianites (v. 13). Rather than speculate as to the reasons for their suffering, the angel offered the practical next step of God: “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (v. 14).

There is an entire theology of God’s will in this one verse.

Lesson one: God’s direction is always more practical than speculative. We want to know why something happened—our Lord is usually more interested in showing us what to do when it does occur. Rather than providing a full philosophical theodicy for their suffering, he provides a practical solution in Gideon’s leadership.

Lesson two: God has prepared us for whatever he calls us to do. Gideon was to “go in the strength you have,” not waiting until he acquired greater physical prowess or military might. The Lord has already made you ready for the next step you are to take, or he would not call you to take it. If you are to share Christ with a difficult neighbor or give a greater sacrifice of your time and money, or follow God into a new vocation, he has already prepared you for the will he now reveals. You have the strength you need for the task at hand.

Lesson three: His will is always for what comes next. He was to “save Israel out of Midian’s hand,” because that was the problem before them. We want a five-year plan, but no one in Scripture is given such advance notice. Today is the only day there is. God’s will is first and foremost for this present moment and the faithfulness it requires of us. Obedience, more than knowledge, is the issue.

Lesson four: God’s will never leads where his grace cannot sustain. He was “sending” Gideon in his will, provision, and power. He would go before him and prepare the way; he would sustain Gideon and his people in their battles; he would use them for his glory and their good. When Gideon protested that he was the weakest member of the weakest family in the weakest clan of Israel (v. 15), God repeated his assurance, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together” (v. 16).

Trust where God leads

But such assurance was not enough for Gideon. So, he placed a wool fleece on the threshing floor where he was at work (v. 37). He asked God to make the fleece wet with dew and the ground dry, and his request was answered (vv. 37–38). Then he asked that the fleece be dry while the ground was wet (the greater miracle, as fleece would absorb much more dew than the ground), and again it was so (vv. 39–40). And Gideon had his assurance and was ready to lead the armies of Israel into battle.

God’s willingness to meet Gideon’s conditions demonstrates his grace. He takes us where we are and leads us where we need to go. His incarnational love comes into our condition and accommodates his holiness to our fallenness. But the fact that he was willing to give Gideon such signs is not clear proof that he intends us to ask for them today.

Gideon’s method of determining God’s will has come down through history as “putting out the fleece.” Countless believers have followed his example by constructing circumstantial tests for knowing God’s direction.

For instance, I have known of pastors who would go to a church only if a specific percentage of the congregation voted to call them, believing that such a number would show them whether it was God’s will for them to accept the call or not. I have heard of churches which decide that they will move forward with capital projects only if a certain percentage of the needed funds are pledged in a given time period, as indication of God’s will in the matter.

Either decision could be pragmatic; I would not pastor a church if the large majority did not want to call me, or move forward with a building project if a sizeable percentage of the needed funds were not pledged. But for some, the specific number itself is an indication of God’s will. One pastor I know refused a church’s call because he had set a “fleece” of 90 percent and received 88 percent instead.

I would caution you against using the “fleece” method as the biblical way of knowing God’s will, for several reasons.

First, Gideon’s fleece is described in the Bible, not prescribed in Scripture. No verse of God’s word asks us to seek God’s will in this way. The fact that Gideon used this practice does not mandate it for us. David’s sin with Bathsheba is described accurately, but certainly not prescribed for us today.

Second, Gideon is not the best moral character in Scripture to follow. When the people of Peniel would not help him in battle, he pulled down their tower and killed all the men of the town (Judges 8:17). Then he took gold from the people and formed an ephod (a priestly garment) as an idol for the people to worship (vv. 24–27). He had many wives, and at least one concubine as well (vv. 30–31). Nowhere does the Bible lift him up as an example for us to follow in seeking the Lord’s direction for our lives.

Third, a circumstantial “fleece” must be interpreted carefully. Satan can move people to act, as with Judas’s betrayal of Jesus (John 13:27). People can misuse their freedom to act in ways which contradict God’s word and will, as the Hebrews did in our text. And events can be understood in different ways. Jesus’ miracles caused many in the crowds to believe in him, but some to attribute his powers to Beelzebub (Luke 11:14–15).


Let me say it again: God’s will never leads where his grace cannot sustain. Whatever your challenges, know that your Father loves you. Choose to go where he sends and trust where he leads.

He may reveal his will through Scripture, circumstances, other people, or by speaking to you intuitively. But if you are willing to go anywhere and do anything, when you need to know his will, you will. The question is not one of knowledge, but obedience.

God has a plan for Adam and Eve—where and what to live. A plan for Noah—how to build his ark, right down to the exact specifications and building materials he should use. A plan for Abraham, including where he should live, how old he would be when he had his son, and even that son’s name. A plan for Joseph, using his slavery and imprisonment to save the entire nation. A plan for Moses, encompassing the very words he should say to Pharaoh. A plan for Joshua, showing him where and how to take the land. A plan for David and Solomon, for their kingdom and the temple they would build for him. A plan for Daniel, even in the lion’s den.

Jesus had plans for his first disciples—plans they could not have begun to understand. He had a plan for Saul of Tarsus as he left to persecute the Christians in Damascus. He had a plan for John on Patmos.

Now God has a plan for your life.

In what way is your Lord calling you to be a Gideon for today? Identify your Midianites, and the reason they are persecuting you. If sin is causing your suffering, admit it and claim your Father’s forgiving grace. Then seek his direction for your next step. Surrender to his will before he reveals it, refusing to be conformed to the world’s mold, being transformed daily by your communion with him. And you will know his “good, pleasing, and perfect” will (Romans 12:2).

Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits, and made this prayer theirs:

Teach us, Lord, to serve you as you deserve,

To give and not to count the cost,

To fight and not to heed the wounds,

To toil and not to seek for rest,

To labor and not to ask any reward,

Save that of knowing that we do your will.


The Key to True Peace

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:9

A friend sent me these first-grade proverbs. The teacher gave the kids the first half of the sentence, and they supplied the rest:

  • “Don’t bite the hand that . . . looks dirty.”
  • “If you lie down with dogs, you’ll . . . stink in the morning.”
  • “A penny saved is . . . not much.”
  • “Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and . . . you have to blow your nose.”
  • “Better to be safe than . . . punch a fifth grader.”

Even first-graders know that peace is valuable. And they’re right. It has been estimated that in the last 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, constituting 8 percent of recorded history.

Clearly, our world needs peace. Between the floods on the Gulf Coast, rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, and challenges with Iran’s nuclear programs, it seems that turmoil makes the news every.

Where do you need more peace in your life? With whom are you at odds today? Where do you need a relationship to be healed? Where do you need peace?

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God,” Jesus promises. The Hebrew word for peace is “shalom”: peace with God, self and others. Today we’ll learn from God’s word where we find such peace for ourselves, and then how we can give it to the person with whom we need it most.

Make peace with God

Where can you find peace for your own heart, soul, and mind?

The Bible says, “May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!” (Psalm 29:11).

Jesus promised us, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Later he said, “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).

Peace is one of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). It is the result of the Spirit’s work, not human ability.

Clearly, we cannot create peace ourselves. We can only receive it from God. How? Here are some answers from God’s word.

First, if you want peace, accept the love of God.

Actress Sophia Loren told USA Today, “I should go to heaven; otherwise it’s not nice. I haven’t done anything wrong. My conscience is very clean. My soul is as white as those orchids over there, and I should go straight, straight to heaven.”

Listen, by contrast, to the word of God.

The prophet said of Jesus, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5).

Paul added, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).

When we accept Jesus’ forgiving love by faith, we receive God’s peace: “Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1).

We cannot be at peace with a perfect God and live in his perfect heaven, unless we are made perfect ourselves. This is why Jesus died on the cross: to pay the penalty for our sins, to purchase our forgiveness. We can only be at peace with God by accepting his love, by making Jesus our Savior and Lord.

If you’re trying to be good enough for God—religious enough, moral enough, successful or significant enough—know that you’re not succeeding. Imagine what it would take for a human being to impress the God of the universe. But we can accept the atoning love of Jesus and be made right with God. This is the first step to true peace.

Next, if you want peace, obey the word of God.

Musician Paul Simon once told an interviewer, “The only thing that God requires from us is to enjoy life—and love. It doesn’t matter if you accomplish anything. You don’t have to do anything but appreciate that you’re alive. And love, that’s the whole point.”

Note the contrast between his statement and God’s word.

The Psalmist prayed, “Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble” (Psalm 119:165). God said through his prophet, “Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea;” (Isaiah 48:18).

God’s word gives the guideposts we need to live successfully. Herein are the signs which point us to our destination and keep us out of ditches and dead ends. These principles are for our good, and they give us God’s peace.

So, meet God every day in the Scriptures. Measure your every decision by his truth. Obey his word, and you’ll have his peace.

Third, if you want peace, receive the forgiveness of God.

Dwight Moody gave a Bible to a friend, but first wrote these words on its flyleaf: “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.”

When we obey the word of God, we judge ourselves in its light. We see ourselves as God does. The closer we are to God, the further away we realize we are. Then we seek and receive his forgiveness for our sins, and we have his peace.

God told the prophet, “There is no peace for the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22). He added: “But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud.” (Isaiah 57:20). And he warned: “The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked; no one who treads on them knows peace.” (Isaiah 59:8).

His word is clear: “Be sure that your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). So confess your sins to God if you want to have peace with him. He is waiting to forgive you, cleanse you, and set you free. He loves you that much. But you must ask.

Fourth, if you want peace, trust the will of God.

Advice from the Book of Job: “Agree with God, and be at peace; thereby good will come to you.” (Job 22:21). Paul agreed: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15).

Trust the will of God, and you’ll say with the prophet: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” (Isaiah 26:3).

Are you at peace with God this morning? Have you accepted his love? Are you obeying his word? Have you received his forgiveness? Are you trusting his will?

H. G. Wells was right: “If there is no God, nothing matters. If there is a God, nothing else matters.” He promises you his peace and tells you how to receive it. The decision is yours.

Make peace with others

Now, how do we give this peace we receive from God? How do we become “peacemakers” with others? With whom do you most need peace today? Think of that person and take these biblical steps toward the peace you need.

First, initiate pardon.

As we learned from the fifth beatitude, we are to choose not to punish whatever wrong has been done to us. God’s word instructs us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:18-19).

Later the apostle adds, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Initiate pardon. And you will be a peacemaker.

Second, seek reconciliation.

Jesus teaches us, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23–24, emphasis added).

If someone has something against you, whether you believe their anger is justified or not, go to them. Seek reconciliation. And you will be a peacemaker.

Third, choose peace.

Whether the person accepts your pardon or receives your attempts at reconciliation, choose peace. Give them to God and choose his peace.

The Bible says, “God has called us to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15). It exhorts us: “Be at peace among yourselves. (1 Thessalonians 5:13). Our Master tells us, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15:7).

God commands us: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God, and that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14–15).

When we have God’s peace in our heart, we can give it to others. And when we give peace to others, we find it in our own heart. As we love God, we love our neighbor. As we love our neighbor, we love God.

And then we “will be called sons of God.” Jesus does not say that we become sons of God—that would be works righteousness. But people will know that we are God’s children as we give his peace to them: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).


Is your soul at peace with those who matter to you? Would you seek peace with God, and with them? Your life will be forever different if you will.

Consider John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. He rode enough miles on horseback preaching the gospel to circle the globe ten times. He preached more than forty thousand sermons. You can buy more than ninety-five books containing his writings in English. He was clearly one of the greatest Christian leaders in history.

But his story did not begin the way it ended.

As a young man, Wesley went to America as a missionary but was not himself converted. He wrote in his journal, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh! who shall convert me?”

Then he encountered Moravian missionaries on board a ship bound for America. He notes in his journal that one day, the group had just begun to sing a psalm of worship when “the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans [Moravians] calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, No.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’

“From them I went to their crying, trembling neighbours, and pointed out to them the difference in the hour of trial, between him that feareth God, and him that feareth him not. At twelve the wind fell. This was the most glorious Day which I have hitherto seen.”

Wesley later testified that the Moravians’ peace contributed directly to his conversion.

Who will see the peace of Christ in you this week?

Working as God Works

Scripture: Matthew 9:1-8

Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer. It is also the end of hot dog season. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, hot dogs are consumed most often between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

I had no idea there was such a thing as the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, so I visited their website. There I learned the answer to a question that has vexed me for nearly all my life: Why do they sell hot dogs ten to the package but hot dog buns eight to the package?

It turns out, hot dog buns are baked in clusters of four in pans designed to hold eight rolls. In 1940, however, when hot dog manufacturers began packaging their product as they do now, they chose the ten–pack formula. Why the hot dog makers and hot dog bun makers cannot collaborate on this is beyond me.

By the way, the council estimates that Americans eat twenty billion hot dogs a year, averaging around seventy per person.

Labor Day is known for more than hot dogs, of course. It’s the annual day for us to honor the 160 million people who are either full or part-time workers in our nation. We celebrate their labor by giving them a day free from labor.

Here’s the good news: The God whom we worship today never needs a Labor Day off. Scripture promises: “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4).

When we go back to work on Tuesday, we can ignore the fact that he is working in the world, separating Sunday from Monday and “religion” from the “real world.” Or we can resist his work in the world, rebelling against the King of the universe as he works to extend his kingdom on earth. The best option, of course, is to join him at work. How do we partner with the God of the world in the work of our days?

Use your influence for God’s glory

Matthew 9 finds Jesus on his way back to Capernaum from Gadara, a region on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum is his adopted home town, where he lives in the home of Simon Peter.

This was never a large city, numbering 1,500 inhabitants at most. But it was one of the most significant towns in Galilee, for five reasons.

First, it was a thriving business center. The town stood astride the Via Maris, the international trade route connecting Damascus and Mesopotamia to the north with Caesarea Maritime (the major seaport in Israel) and Egypt to the south. Caravans made their way through its streets daily. A large number of coins and imported vessels from Syria, Phoenicia, Asia Minor, and Cyprus have been found here.

Second, Capernaum was home to a thriving fishing business. Nearby springs and the Upper Jordan River feed into the Sea of Galilee, making this part of the lake especially vibrant for fish even today. There was a large fish market here, exporting dried fish across the country. Peter’s home, the largest yet discovered in Capernaum, attests to the financial significance of this industry.

Third, Capernaum was a major agricultural center. Standing on the plain of Gennesaret, it enjoys abundant rainfall and a warm climate. Olives, dates, and citrus were grown here in abundance. Giant millstones and olive presses found in the area attest to its agricultural vitality.

Fourth, the city was an important political center. It was a major port of entry into the region of Galilee from the north, serving as a customs station and military outpost. A military garrison included a centurion and detachment of troops (Matthew 8:5–9) as well as a Roman bath with caladium, frigidarium, and tepidarium.

Fifth, Capernaum was an important religious center. The largest synagogue yet discovered in Israel was located on the highest point of the town. It served as Jesus’ “home church,” where he taught regularly and performed miracles.

Jesus grew up in Nazareth, forty miles to the west. He could have based his ministry in Jerusalem, the religious capital of Israel. But he chose Capernaum, one of the most influential cities in all of Galilee. He chose a place where he could reach Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slaves and free.

Paul did the same thing, choosing to begin his ministry in the West in Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of the district. He spent the most time in Ephesus and Corinth, two of the cultural centers of the Roman Empire. He spent several years in Rome itself.

In the same way, God has given us a Kingdom assignment that includes a place and a time for our lives. He wants us to use our influence for his glory. What resources, gifts, and abilities has he entrusted to you? How are you using them for his glory and our good?

Bring hurting people to the Great Physician

Our story continues: “And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed” (v. 2a). Luke gives us a clue as to the location of the house: “Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem” (Luke 5:17). This must have been a big house.

Since Simon Peter’s home is the largest yet discovered in the city, it seems likely that this miracle occurred there. Luke continues: “Some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus” (vv. 18–19).

This man obviously could not make his way to see Jesus, so his friends brought him. They climbed up to the roof, most likely a flat structure, and set aside the “tiles” there to make an opening. Then they lowered their friend down on ropes and set him before Jesus.

Our text continues: “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven'” (Matthew 9:2b). Does this mean all sickness is associated with sin? Absolutely not. In fact, this is the only time in all the Gospels when Jesus associates sickness with sin.

The response from the crowd was disappointing: “And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming'” (v. 3). The paralytic most likely had not sinned directly against Jesus. For him to forgive the man’s sins was therefore something only God could do. The scribes considered Jesus’ claim to be blasphemous in the extreme.

So our Lord responded: “But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Rise and walk?” But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—’Rise, pick up your bed, and go home'” (vv. 4–6). He proved his divine status by his divine omnipotence.

With this result: “And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (vv. 7–8).

We are not surprised by Jesus’ power to forgive sins or heal bodies. We are not surprised by the religious authorities’ reaction and rejection of our Lord. But we should take note of the surprising initiative of the friends who brought the paralytic to Jesus.

They are the unsung heroes of our narrative. Without their work on behalf of their friend, the paralytic would not have been laid before Jesus. They did what they could, and God did what he could.

This is the divine-human partnership in a single text. Noah builds the ark, then God closes the door. Moses extends his staff, then God parts the Red Sea. Joshua and the priests step into the Jordan River, then God stops the flood. The people march around Jericho, then God destroys the city.

Peter preaches at Pentecost, then the Spirit falls and three thousand are saved. Paul follows God to Philippi, then the Lord brings the gospel to the Western world. John worships Jesus on “the Lord’s Day” while imprisoned on Patmos, then Jesus gives him the Revelation.

As we work, God works. If we seek to lead people to Christ in all we do, God will use all we do.

We can bring paralytics to Jesus in all kinds of practical ways. I know a CEO who has a Bible present on his desk where people can see it and who is known for praying before making decisions. I know a business owner who leaves Christian literature on tables where people wait for service.

One of our ministry’s board members uses his conference room for early morning Bible studies to which all are invited but none are required. Another member of our board uses his leadership position in a significant service club in Dallas to bring ministers before the group to pray before events and to speak when appropriate.

I once served on the board of a secular business that tithed its income to ministries. Not only did the leaders tithe from their personal income—the company itself tithed. From the gross, not the net. This was a powerful witness to employees, customers, and the community.

God has paralytics for us to bring to Jesus. If we will ask, he will direct us and use us for eternal good.


Where is God working on this Labor Day weekend?

Philip Yancey: “I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God moving geographically from the Middle East, to Europe, to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he’s wanted.”

Do you want him to work as you work? Then ask him to use your influence for his glory. Look for ways you can make your faith public and your compassion clear. God has entrusted paralytics to you. Now he wants you to entrust them to your Lord.

One last point from our story: if you’re a paralytic, Jesus is ready to heal you. He’s ready to forgive your sins, to meet your needs, to redeem your suffering and show you his love. You can come to him today, knowing that he will never turn you away.

Last weekend, I got to be with all of my grandchildren. One had a birthday party (he’s now two years old), and the other two were invited. It was one of the great days of life. It’s been well said that being a grandparent is the only thing in life that’s not overrated.

We spent much of the day at a public park. And we spent every minute of that day watching our grandchildren. We were never more than a few feet from them. They never left our sight. We did all we possibly could not to let anyone hurt them or anything happen to them.

As I was playing with my granddaughter, loving her and loving every moment with her, the thought occurred to me: my Father in heaven loves me even more than this.

He loves you the same way. Bring your paralysis to him and your paralytic friends to him as well. As you work, he works. This is the invitation, and the promise, of God.