The prophet Jeremiah was perhaps the greatest of the “covenant prosecutors,” the men who were called to declare to ancient Israel their persistent disobedience of the covenant they had made with the Lord. In passage after passage in his prophecy Jeremiah testified of Israel’s flagrant violations of the Law of the Lord and urged them to repent of their evil and to turn back to the Lord. In chapter 13, Jeremiah again warns the nation of Judah that the Lord is bringing on them great punishment and judgment and that they need to return to the Lord immediately or they will be punished. The nation of Judah replies (13:22):
‘Why have these (terrible) things happened to me?’
Because of the magnitude of your iniquity
Your skirts have been removed
And your heels have been exposed.
Then comes one of the most beautiful and profound verses in this section of Jeremiah (13:23):
Can the Ethiopian change his skin
Or the leopard his spots?
Then you also can do good
Who are accustomed to doing evil.
I want to take a few minutes to meditate on this verse and to consider what it tells us about the condition and the nature of man. But first, we need to carefully understand what the verse says. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or (can) the leopard (change) his spots?” Jeremiah gives us two graphic pictures of things that are impossible. First, he give the example of the Ethiopian’s skin. The Ethiopian was born with brown skin and the Ethiopian will die with brown skin. No matter his efforts or his will or his amount of hard work, the Ethiopian cannot change the color of his skin. The color of his skin is part of his most basic, most essential nature and unless somehow his basic nature is changed, his skin color cannot change. In other words, the Ethiopian does not have the power to change his skin color. The same thing can be said for the leopard and his spots. The spots on the leopard’s fur are part of the essential nature of the leopard and they cannot be changed. Nothing and no one has the power to remove the leopard’s spots. They are there to stay and are unchangeable. Clearly, then, Jeremiah has given us two things that are utterly unchangeable.
But the punch line is in the second half of the verse. “Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” If the Ethiopian can change his skin and the leopard can change his spots, then it is possible for Judah to begin to obey the Lord and do good. But this analogy exposes the impossibility of their obedience. With the Ethiopian and the leopard, Jeremiah paints a picture of how impossible it is for Judah to obey the Lord and to pursue righteousness. Even if Judah had some desire for obedience, they have no ability to obey. By their fallen nature and by habitual behavior, they are bent toward iniquity and transgression and cannot do good nor can they obey. They do not have the ability. It is impossible. This is what Jeremiah is saying about the people of Judah.
But this verse in Jeremiah is profound because this description is not limited to those from ancient Judah. What the word of God is saying to us is that, just as it is physically impossible for an Ethiopian to change the color of his skin, so it is spiritually impossible for any human being to change his own moral condition. As the leopard is effectively trapped in his spots and is a slave to the pattern of his fur, so the natural man is trapped in his disobedience and is a slave to his sin. The natural man can no more stop his sin than the leopard can change the spots on his fur coat. By his very nature, the leopard has his spots and by his fallen nature, the natural man practices sin.
In one short and profound verse Jeremiah communicates to us vital theological truth that is expanded elsewhere in Scripture. The truth is that unconverted, unsaved man is a slave of sin and is unable to change himself and to escape from his prison of sin. In John 8:34 Jesus tells us that man is a slave of sin. In Romans 3:10 Paul quotes the Old Testament and tells us that there is none righteous. Later in Romans 6:17, 19, and 20 Paul tells believers that they were slaves of sin before their conversion. Also those who do not know Christ are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1) in trespasses and sins. In 2 Corinthians 4:4, we read that unbelievers are spiritually blinded by Satan so that they will not see the glory of Christ. Finally those outside of Christ are slaves of their own lusts and long to indulge their flesh. Again Paul writes that “we were once . . . enslaved to various lusts and pleasures (Titus 3:3).” The theological truth is that unsaved man is enslaved to sin and is as trapped in his sin and disobedience as the Ethiopian is trapped in his brown skin.
The first application begs the answer to the question, “Have you been set free from your slavery to sin?” Since we are all born into this world as slaves of sin, we must all be set free from that slavery. And who can set us free? The only one who can set us free is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus says in John 8:36, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Has He set you free?
The second application has to do with our evangelism. Understanding that all men and women are born spiritually dead and enslaved to sin, we must wonder how they can be made alive. If the natural man or the natural woman is unable to change their spiritual condition, then how do we evangelize them? If they are blinded by Satan and are spiritually dead, how are we to reach them? To this we say that the Bible makes clear that the preaching of the gospel has the power to bring about the salvation of all those who believe. In Romans 1:16-17, Paul says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek; for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.'” The preaching of the gospel has the power in it to bring about salvation in anyone. So to those who are dead and who cannot do good, we preach the universal sinfulness of man, the righteousness and holiness of God and His wrath against sin, we proclaim the perfect sinlessness of Christ and His atoning death on the cross; we preach His resurrection and we preach that through faith in Christ anyone who believes in Him may have forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
The third application is one of praise from those who have been changed by Christ. If you were once dead in your sins and enslaved to sin and have been delivered and set free, you know that Christ has the power to do the impossible. You know that Christ has changed you and that you are free indeed. From this position there is praise to God for His deliverance and prayers to the Holy Spirit for greater holiness and greater sanctification in our daily lives.