Shelf Life Book Review: Hidden in Christ

Ben Espinoza

Hidden In Christ: Living as God’s Beloved
InterVarsity Press, 2013


In this resource, James Bryan Smith explores 30 words from Colossians 3:1–17 that help us understand the Christian story and what it means to be an apprentice of Christ. Each chapter includes reflections on one of the key words, a suggested exercise or practice such as meditation or journaling, a summary of the main point, a written prayer and several discussion questions for both individual and group study.

Smith’s clear, thoughtful and pertinent engagement with the text strikes a careful balance of personal anecdotes, insights into spiritual formation and exposition of the biblical text. Smith refrains from using scholarly language. This book will serve pastors, ministry leaders and small groups in their journey toward understanding not only this passage, but the Christian story as a whole.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3

A Family Picture

E. Tod Twist

My favorite picture of my parents sits on the mantle of my fireplace. Whenever I look at that photo, I remember them in the best possible way—as I thought of them in my childhood. I’ve looked at that picture for so long that I’ve forgotten the moment it was taken. My brother, though, remembers it keenly. Mom and Dad were at each other, and he and I were trying to stay out of the way. Pictures can be like that—almost timeless, but capturing a moment in time. The truth lies in the tension between the picture itself and the story behind it.


So it is with the book of Obadiah. The book includes a snapshot of an ongoing family dispute between the nations of Judah and Edom. This national rivalry has its roots in the ancient sibling rivalry between Jacob (Judah) and Esau (Edom). While Edom is mentioned several times in the Old Testament, it’s in Obadiah that the nation is judged for its sin:

Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them (Obad 1:10–11).

Several verses of this brief book reinforce the familial connection between Edom and Judah. For instance, Obadiah 1:8 connects Edom to “Mount Esau,” and Obadiah 1:18 contrasts the “house of Jacob” with the “house of Esau.” To better understand what is going on in this snapshot of family history, we can consult resources using the following interpretive steps.

STEP 1: Briefly survey the appearances of Edom in the Old Testament.

To understand the background of Obadiah, we need to get an overview of Edom in Scripture. A good way to survey a narrative is to search for a term using Bible software, such as Logos 5. Doing so enables you to quickly see how often “Edom” appears in Scripture and then check the full quotation of the passages where it occurs.

Most of the biblical references to Edom describe friction between the nations of Edom and Judah, and some of them cast that animosity in familial terms. The rivalry that begins with brothers Esau and Jacob (Gen 25:19–34) eventually culminates in Esau’s bitter hatred of Jacob (“Then I will kill my brother Jacob,” Gen 27:41). The book of Numbers later alludes to this troubled relationship, as Moses mentions “your brother Israel” when addressing Edom and its subsequent refusal to help Israel (Num 20:14). Ensuing references to Edom lack familial language, but it resurfaces in the prophetic books. Although Ezekiel 25:12 and 35:5 condemn the vengeful intensity of Edom’s animosity toward Judah—without using specific familial language—Amos 11 describes Edom as having pursued his “brother.”

STEP 2: Use a Bible dictionary to understand the historical context of Obadiah.

Obadiah prophesies against Edom after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (586 bc). Obadiah 10–14 tells the story of Edom’s crimes. The nation is rebuked for standing by and watching as Jerusalem is destroyed (Obad 12). They participate in looting the city and then help the Babylonians round up stragglers (13–14). The prophet pronounces judgment on Edom in Obadiah 15–18, but then presents a salvation oracle about Judah’s future restoration—but not Edom’s (19–21).

We don’t know all the details of the relationship between Judah and Edom. Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary points out that texts like Jeremiah 40:11, and others, imply that people of Judah found refuge in the areas surrounding the nation, which included Edom. Yet, there is a story behind the picture of Edom that we see in Obadiah, and that story is complex, with many unanswered questions.

STEP 3: Explore later biblical developments involving Edom and Esau.

This story of historical animosity is used later in the Bible as a doctrinal reflection. In Romans 9:13, Paul summarizes God’s favor of Jacob/Israel by saying, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Hebrews 12:16 explains God’s rejection of Esau by saying that he was “unholy” because he had “sold his birthright for a single meal” (see Gen 25:29–34).

When we read Obadiah, we see a family portrait with a bitter backstory. From the biblical authors’ perspective, Esau and Jacob were at each other from the beginning. Their rivalry formed a platform for God’s message of salvation—and one of the reasons God’s grace extends to us.

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 3

Micah: Pollyanna Prophet?

Matt Morton

Many Christians’ familiarity with the book of Micah is limited to a single verse quoted at Christmastime: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity” (Mic 5:2). As a result, Micah is often cast as a gentle prophet who foretold the coming of Jesus. But Micah was no Pollyanna prophet.

A Bleak Future
Micah began his ministry prior to the fall of Israel’s northern kingdom (ca. 725 BC) and predicted catastrophe for God’s idolatrous people. In the first three chapters, Micah details the nation’s heinous crimes: They worshiped idols, preyed upon the weak, and listened to false prophets who were more concerned with filling their bellies than in speaking the truth. Peppered throughout his rant are warnings of impending doom. At this point in the book, it seems God’s people are beyond saving.


The Israelites had abandoned the God who had delivered them from Egypt and had given them the promised land. Consequently, they brought upon themselves the judgment promised in Deuteronomy 28:15–68: They were defeated, removed from the land, and deported to an unfamiliar country. The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, and just over a century later, the Babylonians destroyed the southern kingdom of Judah and carried the people into exile.

Hope in Restoration
It is in the context of this devastation that Micah suddenly shifts his focus. The promises of destruction are interrupted with words of hope: one day, the LORD will rule the earth from Jerusalem as a benevolent and righteous judge (Mic 4:1–5). He will bring His people peace and security (4:6–10).

How could God bless such a wicked nation? Although the people would endure judgment, God would provide a perfect king to bring them peace and safety. That king, born in Bethlehem, the city of David, would gather the nation together and rule over His kingdom in perfect righteousness (5:2). He would protect the Israelites from their enemies and make a way for them to be reconciled to God. He would even forgive their sin, throwing it all “into the depths of the sea” (7:19).

An Unfinished Story
As Christians, we recognize Jesus as Micah’s promised ruler. He provided forgiveness of sin to Israel—and all who believe in Him—through His death and resurrection. Micah 5:2 is a message of hope because we know that Jesus, the king, will redeem God’s people once and for all.

Yet, the story isn’t finished. Jesus’ death and resurrection paved the way for restoration, but we are still waiting for His kingdom to arrive in fullness. Micah 5:2 also points to Jesus’ second coming, when He will return to destroy God’s enemies and reign forever (Rev 19–20). Micah’s dark predictions of judgment will finally give way to a perfect kingdom, ruled forever by a perfect king.

Want to dig deeper into the Word? Faithlife Study Bible provides you with study notes, in-depth articles, infographics and more. Download the app free of charge for a limited time. Go to to learn more.

Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 2

Shelf Life Book Review: The King in His Beauty

Elliot Ritzema

The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments
Baker Academic, 2013

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In this comprehensive overview of biblical theology, Thomas Schreiner argues that “kingdom of God” is the central theme of the Bible. Schreiner believes this is true even for Wisdom literature where the words “kingdom,” “rule,” and “reign” are often absent. He traces the story of God’s reign throughout the Bible, emphasizing that the reason for the story is ultimately God’s glory. These two themes (kingdom and glory) are captured in the title: The King in His Beauty.

The book is arranged according to the Protestant Bible, with similar books placed together, such as the Pentateuch, the historical books, and the prophets. At the end of each section, Schreiner summarizes the message of each part of Scripture as part of the whole.

At 646 pages (not including bibliography and indexes), the book requires a significant time commitment. However, Schreiner keeps the narrative moving briskly and writes at a nontechnical level that is accessible to the average pastor, student or interested Christian. Those looking for a high-altitude overview of the Bible’s narrative will find valuable insight into the story of the King and His kingdom.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 2

How to (Mis)Interpret Prophecy

Michael S. Heiser

There’s no shortage of advice on how to interpret the Bible. One maxim advises, “When the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” I’ve heard it quoted when it comes to biblical prophecy—encouraging people to interpret literally, at face value. Although that sounds like good advice, some New Testament writers didn’t get the memo.

One of the most well-known examples of a nonliteral reading appears in Acts 15 when the apostle James quotes Amos 9:11–12:


Amos 9:11–12
‘In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
that they may possess the remnant of Edom (‘edom) and all the nations who are called by my name,’ declares the LORD who does this.

Acts 15:16–18
After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind (‘adam) may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by
my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.

In the Amos prophecy, God promises to one day “raise up the booth of David and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it.” Hearing the language of repair and rebuilding, we might think of a physical structure. “Booth” (sukkah, סכה) is a word used for tents at the Feast of Booths (Lev 23:34). Reading literally, we might think that the tabernacle, still used in David’s day and brought into the temple after it was built by Solomon, might be the focus of the prophecy.

Many interpret Amos 9 this way, believing the passage describes the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in the end times. The “possession” of Edom and the nations who are destined to call the LORD their God would seem to fit that context.

But Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t interpret the passage that way. He doesn’t take it “plainly” or literally. In Acts 15, he describes the fledgling church gathering in Jerusalem to hear that Paul and Barnabas had taken the gospel to Gentiles (non-Jewish people), who had embraced it. Peter and James came to their defense. To prove the momentous event had been prophesied in the Old Testament, James quotes Amos 9:11–12. James (and the writer, Luke) understood the language of building and repairing to refer to a person—the resurrected Jesus, the son of David. They also don’t refer to “the remnant of Edom” but instead “the remnant of mankind.”

James and Luke used the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Hebrew version of the prophecy had “Edom” (spelled ‘edom), but the Septuagint reads “mankind” (spelled ’adam in Hebrew). The words share the same consonants but are otherwise entirely different.

The switch to “mankind” fits the occasion of this meeting as well as the ministry of Paul and Barnabas. The Gentiles—all the nations of mankind, not just Israel—are now accepting the gospel. But that is not how the passage read in Hebrew. The interpretation by James and Luke is not a literal one, but an abstract or “spiritual” one, based on a different reading from a translation.

Did James and Luke misread the Bible, then? Not necessarily. The “remnant of Edom” could be considered an abstract reference to “non-elect” people: Remember that the Edomites were descendants of Esau (Gen 36:1), who surrendered his birthright (Gen 25). Therefore, the nonliteral translation of “mankind” in the Septuagint version of Amos 9:11 is within the realm of accurate meaning.

Comparing these passages illustrates important lessons: Interpreting biblical prophecy cannot be distilled to a simple maxim, and not everything can be taken literally. The New Testament shows us otherwise.

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 2

Filtering God

Michael S. Heiser

The Old Testament tells us that no person can see the face of God and live (Exod 33:20). The New Testament echoes this prohibition (John 1:18). The prophet Hosea, however, seems to disagree.

In Hosea 12:3–4, the prophet revisits the story of Jacob as told in Genesis:

In the womb he [Jacob] deceived his brother, and in his manhood he struggled with God.

He struggled with the angel and prevailed; he pleaded for his mercy.

He met him at Bethel, and there he spoke with him.

If we turn back to Genesis, we find that Jacob “struggled” (sarah, שׂרה) with “a man” in a physical scuffle (Gen 32:27). The same Hebrew word is also used in Hosea 12:3 for Jacob’s struggle with God, thereby linking these two passages. As Jacob wrestled the stranger, he came to realize he was struggling with God (elohim, אלהים) in human form (Gen 32:28). He named the place “Peniel” (“the face of God”), expressing amazement that he had been allowed to live (32:30). This incident led Jacob to rededicate himself to God at Bethel (35:1–7), where he had first seen God in a vision (28:10–22).


Hosea 12:3–4 summarizes this series of events in Jacob’s life and confirms the divine identity of his opponent by saying Jacob “struggled with God.” But Hosea takes it one step further: Jacob “struggled with God” and with an angel (mal’ak, מלאך) during that combat. Yet again, the word “struggled” is another form of the same Hebrew word (sor, שׂור). 1 Here, Hosea is asserting that a certain angel in the Old Testament was the God of Israel in human form.

Later in Genesis, when Jacob was at the end of his life, he blessed the sons of Joseph. The terms for God and angel are parallel as though they are the same being. In Hebrew, the verb translated “may he bless” is grammatically singular, confirming the writer saw the two figures as one.

The God (elohim) before whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked,

The God (elohim) who shepherded me all my life unto this day,

The angel (mal’ak) who redeemed me from all evil,

may he bless the boys. (Gen 48:15–16)

So, is there a contradiction between the verses in Genesis and Hosea and those in Exodus and the Gospel of John that say people are forbidden from seeing the face of God?

The key is in the translation of the Hebrew word used for “face” in these passages. The Hebrew word translated “face” in Exodus 33:20 is panim (פנים), which colloquially means God’s presence. Old Testament passages that make this declaration actually state that no one can see the presence of God unveiled. That privilege was reserved for those in heaven—such as Jesus before coming to earth (John 1:18).

God’s presence had to be filtered for humanity. In the Old Testament, God sometimes chose the filter of human form (the angel) so He could speak with people. They saw the face of the angel but were protected from direct contact with the presence of God. In the fullness of time, this was accomplished even more dramatically through the incarnation of Jesus—Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt 1:23).

Research Hebrew words with the help of the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Pick up your copy at

Scripture quotations are from Lexham English Bible (LEB).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 2

1.Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, (ed. Baumgartner and Johann Jakob Stamm; Leiden, Boston, Koln: Brill Academic Publishers), p. 1313.

The Predestined, Yet Free, Prophet

John D. Barry

The prophet who found himself deep in the belly of a great fish wasn’t there by chance. You could argue that he wasn’t there merely by choice, either. Jonah’s story articulates how our own will interacts with the will of God. While God had a plan for Jonah that could have been fulfilled much sooner than it was, He gave His prophet the freedom to run, hide and argue.


Jonah Is a Weird Kind of Prophet

At the very beginning of the book, we find out Yahweh’s will for Jonah: “Get up! Go to the great city Nineveh and cry out against her, because their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). The plan is clear, but Jonah does not respond as expected. Instead of obeying, he flees to Tarshish—the opposite direction (1:3).

Yahweh doesn’t stop Jonah, but He doesn’t put up with his nonsense either. He sets the prophet back on course by raising a storm to buffet the ship he boarded (1:4). Jonah admits to his shipmates that the storm is a result of his decision to disobey God, and he tells them to cast him overboard (1:15). But Yahweh doesn’t allow this to be Jonah’s demise, and we know the rest—a great fish comes along, swallows Jonah, and then vomits him onto the shore three nights later (1:5–2:10).

When Yahweh issues His orders a second time, Jonah, who surely smells worse than any fisherman, marches into Nineveh and delivers the lamest prophetic message in the Old Testament: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be demolished” (3:4)—that’s all he says. But Yahweh uses those words; the people of Nineveh repent (3:5–9). God then “changed his mind about the evil that he had said he would bring upon [the Ninevites], and he did not do it” (3:10).

God Seems Weird to Jonah

Although we might wrestle with what it means for God to change “his mind,” Jonah knew God would relent: “O Yahweh, was this not what I said while I was in my homeland? Therefore I originally fled to Tarshish, because I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God … who relents concerning calamity” (4:2). Jonah wanted Nineveh, a city in enemy Assyria, to be destroyed. He knew that God would “relent” once the people repented—and his enemies would live another day.

We can learn about predestination and free will from Jonah’s response. He understood that God can declare a possible outcome, yet He is still free to change it. God knows what we do not, and He can orchestrate events to align with His goodness, justice and mercy.

God may determine where things are going or who He intends to use for His purpose, but His grace allows us to make decisions and to respond freely. God wants Jonah to prophesy to Nineveh so badly that He is willing to chase him—perhaps because the message of repentance was as much for Jonah as it was for the Ninevites.

God is not a dictator—not even a benevolent one. He leaves decisions up to us and responds to the choices we make. We are free, yet predestined for a purpose.

The Weirdness of Being Predestined but Free

God directs us to spread the good news of Jesus to others so they will repent and believe—just as He directed Jonah to Nineveh. Jonah’s decision to delay altered immediate events, but it did not change God’s major objective: giving the people of Nineveh one last chance to repent. But Nineveh’s choice did result in God’s forgiveness.

Looking at the pain in our world—past and present—we know there must be countless situations where people did not and are not following God’s plan. However, God continues to pursue them, just as He did when Jonah disobeyed. We have the freedom to choose a back road, a wrong turn or a ship to Tarshish to delay His purposes, but God will often—in His great mercy—steer us back in the right direction. And even when we fail Him, His ultimate purpose to bring many to Himself through the good news of Jesus’ saving work is still underway.

For more on interpreting the book of Jonah, pick up Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching Hosea to Micah. Go to

Scripture quotations are from the Lexham English Bible (LEB).

This Time, It’s Personal

Eli T. Evans

The prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries BC proclaimed God’s word in sprawling poems and stories. Yet they were more than just messengers; they became part of the message. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the first three chapters of Hosea. Here we find the heartbreaking story of Hosea’s marriage to an unfaithful wife—an allegory of Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh. His dogged pursuit of his wife in spite of her misadventures parallels Yahweh’s unwavering commitment to redeem His people from sin.

Hosea’s autobiography-as-oracle transforms stark imagery into something intensely personal. He becomes more than preacher—he is a character in his own sermon. This melding of person and message is a standard feature or “trope” of the Bible’s prophetic books. As the following tropes demonstrate, the biblical prophets weren’t afraid to get personal when preaching God’s word.


All in the Family

Hosea retells his personal life in terms of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh, down to the names he chooses for his children: Jezreel, the site of a political mass murder and later a battlefield; Lo-ruhamah, which means “no mercy”; and Lo-ammi, meaning “not my people” (Hos 1:3–11). Isaiah also chooses telling names for his children: Shear-jashub, which means “the remnant will return,” and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, which means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” (Isa 7:3; 8:1–4). More than just a mouthful, these names transform the prophet’s family into self-declaring sermons, prompting the question wherever they go: Why that name?

Prophet as Prop

In lieu of a personal story, prophets sometimes resort to performance to illustrate their oracles—often in graphic ways. Isaiah goes naked for three years “as a sign and a portent” of what will happen to Egypt and Cush (Isa 20:1–6). Jeremiah purchases a field to illustrate how ownership of Israel will eventually be transferred back to the exiles (Jer 32:1–15). A well-known episode has Jeremiah soaking his spoiled loincloth—spoiled just as the people of Israel are spoiled (Jer 13:1–11).

The book of Ezekiel takes this trope to its logical extreme: He lays siege to a model of Jerusalem made from a brick and then lies on his side for over a year, bearing the sin of the people of Israel; after that episode, he shaves his head and burns his hair (Ezek 4:1–17; 5:1–4), carries baggage and digs a hole in the wall (Ezek 12:1–20), and then brandishes a sword (Ezek 21:1–32). These antics are meant to bring attention to the prophet and his message in the hopes that “perhaps they [the people] will understand” (Ezek 12:3).

Prophet as Interlocutor

Sometimes the prophets engage in an extended conversation or argument with a divine being or Yahweh Himself. The book of Habakkuk is a give-and-take between the prophet’s “Job-like” omplaints and Yahweh’s responses. The “call narratives” in Isaiah 6 and Jeremiah 1 echo Moses’ protests at the scene of the burning bush. Many of Jeremiah’s oracles alternate between monologue and dialogue, to the point that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether God or Jeremiah is speaking. Daniel 7–8 ends with a conversation between Daniel and “one having the appearance of a man” (Dan 8:15–26).

Prophet as Spirit Traveler

The prophets sometimes offer their readers descriptions of the spiritual realm. In some cases, the prophets gain the information they describe through visions. This is the case with Daniel, who remains stationary while the angel Gabriel parades various monsters and events in front of him. Similarly, both Isaiah and Ezekiel have visions of God on His heavenly throne, but transposed to the earthly realm—by the Chebar river or near the temple (Ezek 1; 10; Isa 6:1–6). Also, while the Apostle John is “in the spirit,” he is invited to “come up here” to stand in heaven before the throne (Rev 4:1–2).

All of these prophetic actions point to the ultimate melding of message and messenger: Jesus Christ. While John the Baptist is called a prophet, he is cast in the mold of Elijah, not one of the later literary prophets (Matt 11:11–15). He leaves no poetic epic, except that the Messiah he proclaims is the very embodiment of the Word of God (John 1:1–8). Nor does Jesus participate in His own prophecy merely as prop or performer. In Him, prophet and prophecy become one. Where the prophets’ lives and messages align by means of allegory, Jesus is the Father’s message in person—His purpose, will, and Word perfectly expressed (John 5:19; 14:8–11; Heb 1:3; Col 1:15).

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 2

Traditions and Miracles

John D. Barry

1 Kings 14:1–15:24; Mark 9:2–37; Proverbs 3:23–35

In the face of perplexing situations, we naturally respond with what we know and understand—we even take refuge in familiar traditions. This is precisely how Jesus’ disciples respond when Jesus is transfigured before them.

After Jesus is transformed and Moses and Elijah appear, Peter says, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! And let us make three shelters, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5). Peter is drawing on the Festival of Tabernacles (or Booths), which celebrated God’s dwelling among His people (Lev 23:42–43). Peter isn’t certain how to respond, so he evokes a tradition. At least Peter understands that this confusing event shows God at work among His people.


But is Peter’s response the correct one? Mark gives us a hint in an aside: “For [Peter] did not know what he should answer, because they [Peter, James, and John] were terrified” (Mark 9:6). It’s not surprising that Peter has trouble understanding this situation—who could? But his response, underscored by the editorial aside in Mark, suggests something larger about how we, as the audience of this Gospel, should understand Jesus.

When Jesus reveals Himself to us—really inaugurates His reign in our lives—it may be terrifying, but we do not need to resort to our traditions to understand it. By going back to our old ways, we might lose sight of the point of God’s work altogether. Instead, we must be ready to accept what is new. We must realize that when God acts, the results will be unexpected and perhaps unexplainable. When God intercedes in our lives, when He lets us experience Him, our lives—our very view of the world—will change.

What traditions is Jesus radically altering in your life?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.

Into the Mess

Jake Mailhot

“Cookies are not treasure!” Max’s shrill voice rose over the din of the cafeteria, causing every head to turn. “Treasure is permanent!” he wailed. I had to summon all my strength to keep a straight face in front of the infuriated 8-year-old. Max was one of 96 kids attending a summer day camp for at-risk youth, and his class had just discovered cookies at the end of their afternoon treasure hunt. I tried to convince Max that homemade cookies were a desirable prize, but despite my best efforts, he screamed, “It’s not fair!”

I can relate to Max’s feelings of injustice—on a different scale. For the past four years, I’ve served with a non-profit that offers programs and other services for at-risk children. Working with children who live on the fringe has often caused me to struggle with injustice. I couldn’t understand why the foster care system decided to return four of seven children to their neglectful mother—all at once. My heart broke when I heard the story of a child who was abused and abandoned by both her parents.


Each of us has our own personal sense of justice that helps us discern right from wrong, fair from unfair. But what happens when our sense of justice clashes with God’s?

Jonah’s life demonstrates what can happen when we’re at odds with God. Nothing goes the way Jonah anticipated as he reluctantly made his way to Nineveh. When God spared the city, it “seemed very wrong” to Jonah (Jonah 4:1). You can almost hear him crying out, “It’s not fair!” His idea of justice for the Assyrian city was destruction—fair punishment for their sins.

Sometimes we’re unable to muster compassion for those who have acted sinfully. Jonah acknowledges his failure in this regard: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:2–3). God does not respond to Jonah or Nineveh’s sin with punishment and destruction, but with compassion and mercy. God’s grace extends beyond mere justice. He brings healing and restoration.

I keep this in mind as I interact with Max and the other children I serve. We can shy away from the mess, or we can seek to see people the way God sees them. Once we’ve caught a glimpse of His vision, we gain a clearer picture of His mission. The neglectful mother has since fallen in love with Jesus and is now attending a church where she can receive the support she needs to raise her children. The abused and neglected child was adopted by her aunt and is now thriving as a junior counselor at camp. These are the glimmers of hope that remind me that God is “gracious and compassionate” (4:2).

Jonah’s story reminds us that even when we fall short of God’s mercy and grace, He still invites us to serve in His kingdom-building work. Jesus surrounded Himself with people on the fringe because He knew they needed Him most: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:31). Jesus invited them into His life and restored their relationship with God.

Kingdom-building work is not glamorous or easy. It’s hard and dirty, and we rarely see the rewards. But when Jesus leads us into these broken places, we have a choice. Are we going to cry out, “That’s not fair”? Or will we jump into the mess to share His mercy?

Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 2