Reading 1 - Jdg 9:7-21
"Jotham's parable of the trees of the forest, quite without parallel in Scripture, is full of interest (Jdg 9:7-21).
"When the trees decided that they must choose themselves a king, first the olive and then the fig-tree and then the vine declined the honour emphatically on the grounds that they had more profitable work to do than merely spend time lording it over their fellows, which egotistic activity was -- so they all implied -- a particularly futile way of life; they had much more important things to do, fulfilling their responsibilities both to God (in His sacrifices and drink-offerings), and also to man.
"So in desperation the rulership was offered to the bramble, a trailing spiny plant of the wall of thicket, having neither fruit nor shade nor timber; it could only be a nuisance to its fellows and to men. The bramble, aspiring after the honour and wishing to make its position secure against those who doubted its qualifications, reinforced its persuasions by threat and bombast. By all means 'Put your trust in my shadow (the shadow of the bramble, forsooth!); and if not let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.'
"Jotham then proceeded to expound at least in part his own parable. The olive, fig and vine represented Gideon and his sons who had served the community faithfully and despised the transient rewards of royal status at the expense of the rest. Whereupon these men of Shechem had chosen one who could be likened only to a bramble, destitute of fruit, shade, and timber, and having only nuisance value, especially in starting a forest fire. Jotham went on: 'Did you men of Shechem show good faith with Gideon? Then what prospect is there of realisation of Abimelech's hopes that you will be true to him? Let me wish you joy of your new monarch!'
"With that, he uttered his solemn curse on them all: 'Let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the men of Shechem, and the house of Millo; and let fire come out from the men of Shechem, and from the house of Millo, and devour Abimelech' " (Harry Whittaker, "Judges and Ruth").
Reading 2 - Isa 35:6
"Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert" (Isa 35:6).
"The picture of God-given blessing in the Land (v 1) is now continued. Waters, streams, pools, springs are everywhere in abundance (Isa 43:19,20; 48:21; 49:10). It must have been a remarkable year of frequent and copious rainfall, so that with little effort on men's part there was abundant fruitfulness (Lev 25:11). For the freed captives (Lev 25:10), streaming back from Babylon [having been released by Sennacherib after his terrible defeat: GB], the hardships of the way were made easy by the ready availability of food and water. As Israel in the wilderness had the smitten rock to save them from the horrors of thirst, so now this later generation saw 'waters break out... in the desert' -- the verb means 'cleave [the rock or the ground]' " (Harry Whittaker, "Isaiah" 342).
Reading 3 - 1Pe 1:13-16
"Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance; but as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy, for I am holy" (1Pe 1:13-16).
Peter is quoting a series of passages, from Leviticus (Lev 11:44,45; 19:2; 20:7,26; 21:8). After the verses cited above Peter reminds the believers that they have been redeemed by the blood of Christ out of their former "useless way of life" (1Pe 1:18,19), so as to be a holy nation, a purchased people, kings and priests who have been delivered out of darkness into light (1Pe 2:9,10).
The basic ideas of both the Old and New Testament words for "holy" (Heb "kadesh" and Gr "hagios") are quite similar: they signify "set apart, pure, sanctified". This process of being called out to form a distinct community or congregation is the means by which the ecclesia is formed.
Under Christ's law, the ecclesia is to be a congregation of "called out" and "set-apart" ones. They are to be a "city set on a hill", an "island" of light in a sea of darkness (Mat 5:14-16), harmless and blameless in the midst of a crooked and perverse people (Phi 2:14,15). Their "holiness" is to be not merely one established by physical barriers between themselves and that which is unholy (such as was the essence of the Law of Moses), but it is to be a spiritual separation and preparation of mind, attitude and conduct.
1Pe 1:16 is an echo of Mat 5:48: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."
The word "perfect" (again, both in Hebrew and Greek) means "to be complete or finished", as a "perfect heart" -- one that is whole and undivided in its loyalties, and complete in its integrity. A consideration of holiness, therefore, leads us naturally to Christ's Sermon on the Mount: the living heart of the Truth. "If ye love me," said the Master, "keep my commandments." And here they are: prayer, self-denial, loving one's enemies, giving, preaching.
"Be ye therefore perfect." Does Christ really expect us to be "perfect"? What he does require is that we exert every effort in that direction. He requires no more than the very best we can do, but he expects no less. His words leave us absolutely no excuse for relaxing our efforts at any point short of perfection, or complete holiness. The great example is God Himself, awesome as that example may be:
"Be ye holy, for I am holy."
"Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect."
Holiness is both a state of mind and a series of acts. It cannot be one without the other. Growing complacent in our reliance on the mercy of God, we may come to accept "holiness" as nothing but a state of mind -- a vague "feeling" of "righteousness" -- without being over-concerned with "deeds", because after all Christ can forgive and has forgiven us!
It is true that Christ can and will forgive, and that salvation is by grace. But our works -- our acts of "holiness" -- are the only means of putting ourselves in the position -- and keeping ourselves in the position -- where we may hope for forgiveness when we fail. The crucial truth is that God will not forgive our shortcomings unless we are seriously committed to Him and to holding firm to the hope He has given us -- and this requires effort on our part. Only then are we sure of being in the "place" where, by grace, our sins may be forgiven.