GOSPEL OF GRACE CHURCH

 

 
 

A Reformed church
worshipping the triune God of grace,
discipling the community of grace, and 
reaching the lost with the gospel of grace.
    

 
Sunday Morning:

    Coffee & Fellowship: 10:30

   Sunday School: 11:00

   Sunday Worship: 12:15

For by grace you have been saved through faith. 

And this is not your own doing;

it is the gift of God, not a result of works,

so that no one may boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9

Our Pastor's Pen

These are the writings of Pastor Zech Schiebout.  He writes them for our Worship Service bulletin, but here they can be shared past the doors of our local church.  His most current writing is featured at the top, unless it is part of a series.  If in a series, it will be posted under the previous one to make reading easier.

 

True Assurance (Part 1)

 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…

Acts 16:31

 

Reformation confessions[1] have specified three means by which Christians can attain assurance of salvation: First, the promises of God; second, the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit; and third, the presence of good works.  Here we consider the first foundation of assurance: the promises of God. 

      Notice in the passages above the issue of central importance is belief.  Everyone who does not believe in the Lord Jesus is not saved, but everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus is saved and has eternal life.  The hinge upon which the door of our eternal state swings is belief or faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

      It is of the utmost importance, then, that we ascertain what “faith in the Lord Jesus” is.  What does it mean to “believe” in the Lord Jesus?  The Protestant Reformers used three Latin terms to clarify what “faith” is: notitia (knowledge), assensus (assent), fiducia (trust).  Each of these three elements of faith is present to some degree when we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  The notitia or knowledge of faith refers to that which is to be believed.  To believe in Jesus is first of all to realize there is a body of truth attached to His Person and Work, or, put another way, the knowledge of faith in Jesus Christ is that which is true of Him.  Jesus is both God and man or God in the flesh, and as God, Jesus humbled Himself under the perfect law of God, fulfilling all of its demands, suffered on the Cross for the sins of His people, and rose from the tomb and ascended to heaven where He is enthroned at God’s right hand as Lord and Judge.  These statements of fact concerning Jesus are some of the elements of notitia—the truth claims of Christianity—which are taught authoritatively in Scripture alone. 

      The second element of faith—assensus—refers to our conviction that the doctrines concerning Christ Jesus are true.  It is one thing to possess an intellectual knowledge of the facts concerning Jesus Person and Work, but it is quite another to personally affirm that you believe those facts true.  It is quite possible for someone to be well acquainted with the doctrines of Christ and yet not personally believe those same doctrines.  Genuine faith not only knows about Jesus (as revealed in Scripture), but also personally affirms as true that which the Scripture reveals about Jesus.   

      The third element of faith—fiducia—is a whole-hearted reliance upon the Lord Jesus Christ to be for you Him whom Christianity claims He is: Savior and Lord.  There are some people who know the doctrines of Christianity, and believe those doctrines true, but who are not saved because they do not personally trust in the Lord Jesus.  They believe Jesus is both God and man; they believe Jesus is the Savior of the world, the only Way back to the Father; they believe Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the dead; and yet they have not personally entrusted their souls to the Savior of sinners.  Genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ knows certain truths about Jesus, affirms those truths true, and personally trusts in Jesus Christ to be and do that which He alone is (the God-man) and that which He alone is able to to (save us from our sins). 

      Now, with these elements of faith freshly imprinted in our minds, some questions might assist us in deciphering whether or not we truly believe in the Lord Jesus: Do you know and believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man?  Do you know and believe that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between a holy God and sinful man, the only way back to the Father?  Do you know and believe that the only way your sins can be forgiven is by Jesus dying in your place and suffering the wrath of God for sins you committed?  Do you know and believe God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus is now ascended in heaven and will come to judge the living and the dead?  Do you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ to deliver you—you, fellow sinner—from the fierce and just wrath of God against your sin?  Do you know Him as the Savior who bled and died and rose again for you, and do you believe that your greatest and most desperate need, both now and in eternity, is to receive from this Lord Jesus a righteousness which He alone possesses, and to know and thank and live for this Lord Jesus Christ as long as you have breath, offering your very life in service to Him?     

      If your answer to the above questions is a genuine, “Yes”, then on the authority of God’s divine promise written in His Word, you can be most certainly assured that you are a Christian.  The passage reads, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”  The passage does not say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you might be saved.”    God has attached a great and precious promise to faith: those who believe in Jesus Christ have eternal life.  God guarantees it.  If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, then at this very moment, you are a saved child of God, a citizen of heaven, a born again Christian who possesses eternal life and upon death will go to be with the Lord.  If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you are a co-heir with Christ, a brother or sister of Jesus Himself, and the rightful owner of the crown of righteousness which will be rewarded you on the Day of Jesus’ coming.  When you see Jesus face to face, He will say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Master.”  You can be sure, dear Christian, that these things belong to you on account of your faith in Jesus Christ.  This is not presumption or arrogance, but is taking God at His Word, for God has declared that those who believe in His Son have eternal life. 

      So the question for us to answer in the midst of our doubts is this: do you believe the promise God has made in His Word?  Do you believe your feelings, your doubts, and the devil’s accusations against you, or do you believe God and take Him at His Word?  When Scripture tells us that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved, do you believe that?  God has promised you that faith in His Son saves: believe Him and be assured.  He never lies (Hebrews 6:18); you can bank your eternal state on it.      



[1] Canons of Dort, 5.10: “This assurance does not derive from some private revelation beyond or outside the Word, but from [1] faith in the promises of God which he has very plentifully revealed in his Word for our comfort; [2] from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying with our spirit that we are God’s children and heirs (Romans 8:16-17); [3] and finally from a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works.”

Westminster Confession of Faith, 18.2: “This certainty [of salvation] is not merely a conjectural and probable persuasion grounded on a fallible hope, but an infallible assurance of faith, founded on [1] the divine truth of the promises of salvation, [2] on the evidence in our hearts that the promised graces are present, [3] and on the fact that the Spirit of adoption witnesses with our spirits that we are God’s children.” 

False Assurance

 

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?”  And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

Matthew 7:21-23

 

These verses are among the most devastating in Scripture and consequently some of the most avoided.  If they were not inscripturated we could scarce believe them, but the Spirit moved Matthew to write these words of Jesus, and all who read tremble, or ought to.  Jesus really said them, and we do eternally well to consider not only that He uttered them, but that He meant them and Judgment Day will proceed accordingly. 

      A few words from Jesus’ lips add weight to this passage.  First, Jesus says, “Many will say to me…”  Read that word again: “Many.”  That alone ought give each of us pause.  Not everyone who calls Jesus, “Lord” will enter heaven; in fact, there will be many on the Last Day appearing before Jesus to remind Him of all they have done in His name who will hear from His lips the most eternally devastating words known to man, “I never knew you.”  The fact that Jesus says, “Many” rather than “a few” is significant, and if you are a Christian of renewed mind and genuine faith, you’ll not quickly pass by without giving due consideration to whether you are among the many.  Self-examination can be overdone, as can anything in the Christian life, but professing Christians are commanded to do it (2 Corinthians 13:5), and those of genuine faith will want to do it.    

      Second, Jesus says, “On that day”, which is a reference to the Last Day when He will judge the living and the dead.  The passage teaches us that many professing Christians will live the entirety of their earthly lives under the assumption they are heading to heaven, and they will not discover their unbelief until they are made painfully aware by Jesus that they never had a saving relationship with Him.  Many people who die assuming they will go to heaven will actually spend eternity in hell.   

      Third, Jesus says, “I never knew you…” rather than, “You never knew Me.”  The difference is subtle but significant.  Many so-called Christians today, if asked whether they know Jesus, will say unequivocally, “Yes, indeed, I know Jesus”, and would be able to convey a fairly significant amount of information about Him.  But asking people if they know Jesus is far different than asking them if Jesus knows them.  One of the most important questions a professing Christian must answer is not, “Do you know Jesus”, but “Does Jesus know you?  Does He know you as a sinner?  Is He personally acquainted with your sins, and has He been personally punished for them on the Cross?”  I don’t think it accidental that Jesus used the words, “I never knew you” rather than, “You never knew me”, for those who are in a state of false assurance can frequently discourse lengthily on their knowledge of Jesus without so much as a spiritual flinch, but when they are forced to answer whether He knows Him, their silence is deafening, and should be, and should remain so until they humble themselves before Jesus as the sinners they are.  Jesus does not savingly know self-righteous people; He knows only sinners in need of His salvation.  Does He know you as a sinner in need of His salvation?  Does He know you as one who needs a righteousness which He alone can supply you? 

      Having noticed the weightiness of the passage, we turn to that which the falsely assured rely upon to be made right with Jesus Christ.  Notice in verse 22 the person comes saying, “Lord, Lord.”  There are two things noteworthy about this address.  The first is that the person is orthodox in theology: they testified that Jesus Christ is “Lord.”  Their theology is sound and good.  The second is that they confess their theology exuberantly, for they say, “Lord” not once but twice, “Lord, Lord!”  These are those who whether by personality or other reason have become passionately orthodox in their Christian walk, and who are not at all afraid to speak out in defense of Christianity and of the deity of Christ.  Now it must be said that genuine Christians will both affirm and passionately speak about the deity of Jesus Christ and other tenets of orthodox theology.  But what Jesus exposes is the proud reliance upon one’s orthodoxy and upon the exuberance with which one professes theology.  In other words, there will be many people (and every demon) in hell who not only believed Jesus is Lord, but also held such belief enthusiastically.  Excitement over good theology is desirable, but a proud reliance upon one’s excitement over good theology is damning. 

      Notice also that the falsely assured rely upon their evangelism and spiritual power for acceptance with Christ: “Did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?”  Those who presume they are believers, though they are not, usually amass a fairly impressive religious resume during their earthly life.  They prophesy (speak to others about Christ from the Word; evangelize), cast out demons, have prayers powerfully answered, and can be the means by which others are morally transformed and spiritually regenerated, yet they themselves are not converted.  One name in Scripture—Judas Iscariot—is all that is needed to illustrate Jesus’ point.  Along with the other disciples, Judas went around Palestine healing people, casting out demons, and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, and many miracles were performed through him, yet, though Judas Iscariot was no doubt the very means by which many were healed and many came to believe in Jesus, he himself was not saved.  Are evangelism and miraculous healings and spiritual power, then, to be at all costs eschewed by Christians?  Certainly not.  In fact, quite the opposite is the case.  But they are most certainly not to be relied upon as the basis for one’s acceptance with Jesus Christ.  God may use you mightily, believer, in the advancement of His kingdom, and you might even be the means by which many come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and grow in His grace, and are healed, but these occurrences are no infallible indicator that you yourself are genuinely converted.  Arguably, Judas Iscariot and Pharaoh’s court magicians evidenced more spiritual power than anyone whose birth date contains Anno Domini, yet they were lost. 

      And now we pause to consider ourselves in light of the passage.  Upon what do you rely to be saved?  Are you going about doing the will of the Father, trusting in the Lord Jesus alone to be saved and in response striving to be obedient to all that He commands, or are you lawlessly manufacturing for yourself a new set of rules by which you think you will be saved?  How do you plan to approach the Lord when you see Him in judgment?  Do you plan to pompously parade before Him everything which you think will cause Him to marvel at you and invite you into His heaven, or do you plan to stand as an unworthy sinner and listen to His declaration with your mouth stopped, knowing full well that your entrance will be by the sheer grace and atoning blood of the One who stands in judgment upon you?  For just one moment forget about what church you attend, or theology you profess, or spiritual and moral transformations you’ve undergone, or the evangelism by which you have been used of God in the salvation of others, and consider what will become for you and me the weightiest truth we will ever face: Does Jesus know you?  Has He delivered you from the Father’s wrath against your sin?   

      John Bunyan’s, “Pilgrim’s Progress” ends part one with a sobering reality that must have been very heavy upon the heart of Bunyan.  He depicts a self-assured man, wise in his own eyes, named “Ignorance” approaching the gate of heaven, seeking entrance.  There was no doubt in the mind of Ignorance that he would enter heaven.  Upon arriving at the gate, he had not the entrance ticket (genuine faith in Christ), and so at the command of King Jesus he was swiftly removed and brought straight way to hell’s door and thrust inside.  And as Bunyan looked upon this event, he commented, “Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.”[1]  

      Dear Christian, do not allow your heart to be deceived by false assurances of salvation.  You will not enter heaven because you are an impressive person; we are not impressive at all.  Entrance into heaven is by a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Does He know you? 

 

 



[1] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress; United States: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1979; p. 156.

The Compassionate Vineyard Owner

 

For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market-place, and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.”  So they went.  Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.  And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing.  And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?”  They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.”  He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”  And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning wit the last, up to the first.”  And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.  Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.  And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  But he replid to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.  Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what belongs to you and go.  I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?”  So the last will be first, and the first last.

Matthew 20:1-16

 

Two oddities of the parable stand out in the opening verses.  First, the vineyard owner himself went out to obtain workers; he did not send his foreman.  Second, the owner makes five trips to obtain workers.  We might conclude the owner underestimated the day’s workload and so kept on acquiring more workers, but this is not the case.  The owner did not obtain more workers because he “saw” or “found” more work; he hired more workers because each time he went out he “saw” (v. 3) and “found” (v. 6) others yet unhired.  The owner hired the other workers because he had compassion on the helpless condition of the unemployed.  This truth comes out when on the 5th trip to town, at the 11th hour of the day (5pm), with only one hour left in the typical Jewish work day, the owner found still more workers standing around and asked them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” (v. 6).   They answered, “Because no one has hired us.”  The laborers were not lazy or slothful; none of them lacked any willingness to work.  They were likely the weakest of all the workers, and so were not chosen early on to work, but what they may have lacked in physical strength they more than made up for in perseverance.  They had been standing there “all day” (v. 6).  For eleven hours they stood waiting, hoping someone would hire them so that they might be able to feed, shelter, and clothe their loved ones.  For eleven hours they stood wondering how they would eat if no one hired them, and how they would pay the rent if no one asked them to work, and they could not bear the thought of heading home even one minute before the end of the day, for what would they tell their loved ones who depend upon them?  And what is more, a denarius was the average wage for one day’s work, so by the 11th hour their hopes of being paid a worthwhile amount of money were certainly dashed.  And besides, who in their right mind would hire them for one hour?  Rather than hiring a “leftover” laborer for one hour, any financially astute vineyard owner would simply wait until the next morning to re-hire the productive laborers.  Yet the owner hired the 11th hour workers, and for 60 minutes they labored with no formal wage agreement.  The first group of laborers were guaranteed one denarius per day, and the second, third, and fourth groups were guaranteed payment of “whatever is right.”  But the fifth group of laborers were not promised anything, so they worked trusting in the owner’s goodness.  He was gracious to hire them; surely he would treat them right.   

      The end of the day was signaled by the six-o-clock buzzer, and each worker walked back toward the owner’s house.  The workers who had been in the vineyard all day trudged slowly, while the others were yet spry, but all punched out at the time-clock, grabbed their lunch boxes and flannel shirts, and stood in line to be paid.  And then it happened.  The owner whispered something in the foreman’s ear, and the foreman hollered, “We’re going to switch up the payroll sequence today; those hired last get paid first.”  So the last workers jumped first in line, and to each the foreman gave an entire denarius—an entire day’s pay for one hour of work.  The whispering grew louder; the other workers cheered up a bit, especially those hired first.  Thought they, “If the last workers receive a denarius for one hour’s work, will we receive 12 denarii for 12 hours work?  Indeed, we will!”  But as each worker filed by the foreman, only one denarius was put into the hand of each until every single worker had gone through the line.  And as the last four groups of workers headed home into the setting sun, thankful, content, and pondering what to pick up at the town market for supper, the 12-hour workers stayed behind to grumble sound logic, “You paid the last workers one denarius per hour, but you paid us only 1/12 a denarius per hour, and we even worked through the heat of the day!  This isn’t fair!”  They were right: it wasn’t fair.  And yet it was perfectly fair.

      “Vineyard workers”, piped the owner, “I have treated you fairly.  We signed a contract this morning in which I agreed to pay you one denarius a day.  You have received your denarius; you are free to do with it as you please.  In the same way you are free to use your denarius as you please, so I am free to use my money as I please, and I have chosen to pay the last workers the same amount I paid you.  Are you trying to tell me I am not allowed to do this [the workers fell silent…they knew he was allowed to do what he did]?  Or, is the real problem that you begrudge my generosity [the workers blushed…how did the master know?...this guy’s smart!]?” 

      Then Jesus states, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”  The parable ends. 

      Though there are many things to notice, we have space to notice four.  First, the owner is compassionate toward the needy, exactly like our God who has a deep concern for those who are spiritually and physically needy.  Before you were saved, dear Christian, God saw your helpless condition and was moved with compassion for you.  He doesn’t need you; rather, He has compassion for you.  Remember this.     

      Second, the owner of the vineyard incarnated to rescue the laborers from unemployment.  Walking for miles, the owner visited the unemployed five times.  What a great God we serve.  Seeing lost sinners in need of His grace and mercy, God did not send a hired worker us, but came Himself, in Jesus.  Our God comes personally.  He refuses to remain aloof or to entrust our deliverance to anyone else.  He takes personal responsbility for our salvation.  Oh, what a glorious thing to behold God borne into our hopeless situation, seeking us out, showing up in our midst to save us.  If you have been saved by God’s incarnate grace, you will not only have compassion on those in need, but will enter their lives—go to them—in order to give them all the aid you are able.     

      Third, the owner of the vineyard is generous.  This parable is not about the unfairness of payment given to the first workers, but about the generosity of payment given to the last workers!  The first workers received fair pay; the last workers received grace upon grace!  What a marvel is the generosity of our God toward sinners.  He is not a God content with fairness or monetary logic, but in every way far exceeds the greatest expectations of those who trust in Him: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20).  None of the last workers would have dreamed of receiving the same payment as the first workers, nor would they have asked for it.  God is endlessly generous with you, dear Christian, no matter how long you have worked out your salvation in the vineyard of His love. 

      Fourth, and most pointedly, those in a contract relationship with God always begrudge and complain about His generosity toward others who have not worked as hard.   Contract Christians disdain the generosity of God, and because they have worked harder than other believers they believe God owes them more than other believers—they believe they deserve more than others.  This is the tell-tale mark of either a full-blown Pharisee or a life-time Christian who has drifted into the lie that the amount of grace God is allowed to extend to other believers must be based upon a mathematical formula.  Oh, believer, as the apostles are by this parable warned, so are you and I warned, that God is free to dispense “too much” of His grace to believers who have labored far less diligently, and for far less time, than you.  Dear Christian, beware the spirit in you which says, “I will serve God only if He signs a contract agreeing to bless me fairly”, for God will make good on His promise to give you that which your legalistic, untrusting spirit demanded, but you will drown in envy when you see God generously bless those who never signed a contract but rather lived by faith, trusting in the generosity of the God who had compassion on them. 

      How many of us work hard for God only if He promises to bless us in certain ways?  We’re living in unbelief and will be swallowed up by envy.  By contrast, how many of us work hard for God trusting in His generosity?  We’re living by faith and will be treated generously.  What is the difference between the two kinds of people?  This: the first workers don’t believe God is generous and good, and so they live contractually with God and thus limit His generosity to them.  The other workers have understood Calvary, the generous gift of a God more willing to crush His Son than He is to crush them, a God more generous to give us eternal life than we are to receive it, a God more generous to love us by condemning His Son to hell than we are to trust His love.  Christian, if God would damn His only-begotten Son on the Cross in order to save your wretched, sin-sick soul, don’t you think you can trust His generosity toward you both in this life and the next?  Of course you can.  Now let’s get to work and leave the wages up to God.  “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” (Romans 8:32)?  

 

Scandalous Grace for Sinners

They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.  Early in the morning he came again to the temple.  All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.  The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.  Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  So what do you say?”  This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.  Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.  And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.  But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.  Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?  She said, “No one, Lord.”  And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

John 7:53-8:11

The scene takes place on a Sabbath Day, the day after the Feast of Booths had concluded (John 7:37).  On this particular day as the night chill dissipated underneath the rising Sun, Jesus sat teaching a multitude of people in the Temple court.  Many of the Jews who had been in Jerusalem for the Feast would have remained in Jerusalem one more day so as not to violate Sabbath traveling laws, so we might imagine a rather large crowd listening to Jesus, and we might also imagine Romans soldiers interspersed throughout the crowd and walking above it on the elevated walkway, keeping a close eye on the gathering lest it lead to an uprising.  Into this scene the scribes and Pharisees drag an adulteress caught in the very act.  Shabbily dressed from the night before, she’s pushed into Jesus’ presence as a filthy thing, a wretched offscouring deserving death, and the charges against her are trumpeted for all to hear: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.  Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  So what do you say?” 

      The charge against the woman was accurate: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10).  The only missing piece, of course, was the adulterer (it takes two to commit adultery), but the setup was brilliant nonetheless.  Having been scheming all night how to trap Jesus, the religious leaders devised this plan, a plan which in their thinking left Him only two options.  Either He could exonerate her and by so doing contradict the Law of Moses, discrediting Himself and removing from the people any hope He was the Messiah.  Or, He could stone her right there in the Temple courtyard and incur the wrath of the Roman soldiers who would squelch such an uprising and more than likely imprison Jesus.  Which would He choose?  Neither.

      Jesus bent down to write in the dirt, and if the religious leaders were smart enough they would have begun to feel in the pit of their stomachs that ache which comes when you realize the trap you’ve set for someone is about to be used against you (Proverbs 28:10).  Later Rabbinic teaching recorded in the Talmud prohibited “writing” on the Sabbath, but defined “writing” as that which leaves an indelible mark, making it highly probable that Jesus’ writing in the dirt was His subtle way of telling the religious leaders, “I am fully aware of all your teachings; so aware, in fact, that I know all the exceptions to your laws.  I know I can write in the dirt without violating the Sabbath because such will not leave an indelible mark on the dirt.  Therefore, if I know all the exceptions to your rules, has it never crossed your mind that you will be unable to trap me in them, and that I am fully capable of trapping you in them?” 

      No one “got” Jesus subtle hint, but they most certainly “got” what He said.  The men who came to pin Jesus were pinned, and with a marvelous efficiency of words, eight to be exact, translated, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  I bet there were some red faces.  Notice Jesus said, “Let the one without sin be the first to throw the stone.”  There’s nothing so effective at disbanding a mob as making men individually responsible for their actions.  Having heard Him, and with egg dripping from their faces, the scribes and Pharisees walked away, one at a time, beginning with the oldest down to the youngest, until every last one of them exited.  After they left Jesus asked the adulteress “Who is left to condemn you?”  The woman said, “No one, Lord.”  She was half right, and Jesus spoke up both to correct her and to exonerate her, “You’re half right.  I’m sinless and have the right to condemn and stone you, but neither do I condemn you; you’re forgiven.  Now go home, repent of your sin, and die to yourself.  My grace to you should propel you to godliness, not sinfulness.  Please put this into action.” 

      The story is simple, but a couple things demand our attention.  First, If the adulteress were stoned in the courtyard, the Roman soldiers would have descended on the crowd to arrest both the one who ordered the stoning (Jesus) and the one who threw the first stone, and so Jesus’ singular challenge to his opponents was this:

“Gentlemen, you clearly want me to go to jail for the Law of Moses.  I am willing to do so.  I have ordered that she be killed.  But I want to know which one of you is willing to volunteer to accompany me to that cell?”[1]

Jesus  ordered her stoning and thereby put His own neck on the line for her sin, but not a single religious leader was willing to put his neck on the line for her sin.  Sound familiar?  Love is measured by cost.  Who has the greater love for the glory of God, the religious leaders who are unwilling to go to jail for stoning this woman, or Jesus who is willing to be imprisoned for stoning her?  Sounds like Jesus love for God’s glory and our salvation far exceeds even the most zealous human love for the same.    

      Second, this passage provides a pattern for the Christian life: 1) We, the adulteress, are rightly accused of our sin by our consciences, by others, and by Satan; 2) We rightly deserve to be punished in hell for our sins, and are thereby left with no defense (notice the woman never defended herself against the charges); 3) We have forgiveness only through Jesus Christ; 4) His forgiveness of our sins demands we return to our responsibilities and relationships with a firm resolve never to sin that way again.  This is instructive for us, believers.  Read through the pattern again and make it your own.  Oh, and one more thing for our consideration: take the log out of your own eye so you can see clearly to point out the speck in your brother’s eye.  Before you throw the stone of public humiliation at another brother or sister, make sure you’re not guilty of the same sins, or that if you are you’ve taken the log out through confession. 

      And now to the question the passage leaves hidden: “Who will pay for this woman’s adultery?”  Make no mistake, my brothers and sisters, this woman deserves to be stoned for her sin, and Jesus commanded she be stoned for her sin.  When she was brought into Jesus’ presence she came as one whose sin demanded execution, but she left exonerated.  Is Jesus unjust?  Is Jesus against the Law of Moses?  Not at all.  He upholds the Law of Moses (“go; and sin no more”), but incurs its punishment. 

      The leaders came resolved to stone the woman, but they left resolved to stone Jesus.  There were many ways one might incur the wrath of religious leaders, but the primary way to do so was public humiliation of the sort in which Jesus engaged.  The leaders were never fond of Jesus (John 7:25), and this episode added much fuel to their hatred.  Their coy entrapment tactics turned from subtle to outright death threats (John 8:59; 10:31).  They approached Jesus with two agendas: the stoning of the woman and the entrapping of Jesus, but Jesus orchestrated the event in such a way to allow only one of their goals: His entrapment.  The woman left forgiven, but Jesus left trapped by the consequences of her sin.   

      What, then, is the answer to the question, “Who paid for the woman’s sin?”  The answer is “Jesus paid for it.”  The religious leaders came ready to unleash the wrath of God (stoning) upon the head of the sinner (the adulteress) as a result of her sin (adultery), but in the midst of the scene there is a great exchange whereby the lady leaves justified (righteous) and the Righteous One incurs her stoning.  Jesus received the wrath due her; she received the sinless record due Him.  What in the world is going on?  Calvary.  Through this passage we sinners are brought, as it were, to the Cross, and there, as we stand guilty of our sinful adulteries, justly deserving the punishment (hell) the law demands for our sins, awaiting the infinite wrath of God which should befall us at any moment, we find that Jesus orchestrates a total reversal of events.  Jesus takes upon Himself the punishment due our sins, and gives us the righteousness He earned (2 Corinthians 5:21).  The stones of condemnation which we deserve fall upon the head of Him who deserves them not.  The God-forsaken agony we should undergo was poured out on Jesus.  “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).  God would have it no other way.  We come to God as hell deserving sinners, but we leave righteous children.  Why?  Because as Jesus hung on the Cross He became, through imputation, a hell deserving sinner, and was stoned by Almighty God for it.  Come, dear sinner, to the foot of the Cross, come with your condemnation; and there at Calvary’s blood-stained ground, hear Jesus, “I’ll pay; you’re forgiven.”  Now go, believer, and cease with sin.   



[1] Quoted from Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels; IVP Academic, 2008: p. 235.  I am heavily indebted to Dr. Bailey for this entire meditation.

The Way God Loves

“I have loved you,” says the LORD.  But you say, “How have you loved us?”  “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD.  “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.  I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.”

Malachi 1:2-3

The Lord has astonishing ways of assuring us He loves us, one of the most of which we find in this passage.  The cream of the crop exiles had returned from Babylon to Canaan, the wall of Jerusalem had been rebuilt under Nehemiah, and the people were reconstituted under Ezra.  In bringing back the exiles the Lord proved His faithfulness to His people, for He told them the exile would be 70 years long (Jeremiah 29:10), and it was.  But the Israelites had already begun to doubt the Lord’s love: “How have you loved us?”  It is the same question believers ask today.  Whether due to ungratefulness, forgetfulness, or especially waywardness, we lose track of the love of God.  We are told God loves, even that He is love, but the manner in which God displays that love often eludes us.  Life doesn’t go as we believe it ought, or the non-Christians around us flourish more than we, or both, and we begin to ask where is the love of God.  Where can it be found?  “Prove you love me, Lord!  Show me!  In what way have you loved me?  I don’t feel loved, and my external circumstances don’t suggest I’m loved, so it is up to you to demonstrate your love for me.  And hurry please.”   

      Thankfully, our Lord answered the ungrateful question of His people.  “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?  Yet I loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.”  I hope your heart stopped for a moment; the Lord really said it.  In answer to the question about how the Lord loved them, God replied with the doctrine of selection, and selection of the most intimate kind.  Notice He did not say, “Noah and his family I loved, but the rest of the world I hated.”  This was true, but it would have been too abstract to communicate the intimacy of His love.  Neither did He say, “Abram and his family I loved, but the rest of the Chaldeans I hated.”  This would have been a bit more personal than a reference to Noah since Abraham was the well-known father of the Israelites, but the Lord did not say this.  Nor did He say, “Isaac I have loved, but Ishmael I have hated.”  This would have driven home the point quite well, for all Israelites knew Isaac was the chosen seed from whom they originated, and thus explaining He loved Isaac, and by extension them, and not Ishmael, the people would have marveled.  But this was still not close enough to home; Isaac and Ishmael had the same father, but different mothers.  The Lord does one better: “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?  Yet Jacob I have loved; but Esau I have hated.”  (Mal. 1:2-3).  This is intimate love like the world has never seen.  Jacob and Esau shared not merely the same planet or even the same geographic location or even the same father; they shared the very same womb (Rebekah’s), and the Lord chose to love Jacob and not Esau.  God’s personal love cannot come any closer to home!  Two embryos embedded in the same uterine wall, growing up millimeters apart, and the Lord loved one but not the other.  Why does the Lord say this to the Israelites?  To communicate to them the intimate, personal love with which He has loved them.  It is as though He is saying to the Israelites, the descendents of Jacob, “You were a millimeter away from being passed over by my sovereign saving grace.  Aren’t you grateful?  I could just as easily have chosen Esau, in fact, by all human accounts I should have—Esau was the firstborn—but my love wrapped itself around you to the neglect of many others.  How can you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’”! 

      My brothers and sisters, please let the love of the Lord soak into the crevices of your heart and soul for a moment.  You have been saved by God’s electing love, but many have not.  You have been redeemed from hell itself by the blood of the Lamb, but many have not.  You will spend eternity in heaven but many will spend it in hell, and the sole difference, and I mean the only difference, between you and the soul eternally damned is the sheer grace of God which He laid on you.  He could just as easily have left you to be damned and to suffer the punishment our sins rightly deserve.  He could have easily “passed over” you—you, dear believer—and left you lying in your wretched misery.  Has your soul felt the weight of this truth?  Has your heart been awe-struck by the doctrine of God’s selecting love?  Have you ever been overwhelmed by the tear-jerking truth that many will spend forever suffering the undiluted, merciless wrath of a holy God who hates sin infinitely, but you will spend forever enjoying the unmediated goodness and love of the same holy God who bore His infinite wrath in your place, and the only reason is God adopted you before He said, “Let there be light”?  Fellow Christian, there was no reason for God to save us; we deserve, each of us, to be forever damned.  Our sins merit condemnation; our brokenness merits hell.  We deserve to be hated by God, to have God against rather than for us, to have God abhor rather than cherish us, and to have God damn rather than save us.  And only when we fully grasp this truth will we stop asking, “In what way have you love us?”   

      What does this mean for us?  At least this: if election is just a doctrinal formulation which we haul out periodically to smack others over the head, then we have not yet understood it.  If election is just a “Calvinist” doctrine used to disprove competing doctrines, then shame on us.  The way God used election is paradigmatic for our use: He used it to re-kindle His peoples’ love for Him!  God loved Jacob, but He hated Esau; God loves You, but He does not love someone else!  The question which ought to come to us is: “Why me, LORD?  Of all the fallen mass of humanity plunged into sin and rebelliousness, why did you pluck me out of the cesspool?”  There is only one answer: His sovereign love.   

      And now, in the new covenant, we have an even greater answer to the question, “How have you loved us?”  Every Christian should already know the answer to the question, just as the Israelites should have known the answer to their question, but invariably many Christians and entire churches answer wrong.  If you ask the average believer, “In what way has God loved you?”, you might hear him answer, “God has loved me by giving me food, shelter, and clothing.  I have also enjoyed great health and success in my career and a delightful spouse.  This is how God has loved me.”  Such is true, but paltry, and it leaves us asking, “How has God loved me any different than He has loved non-Christians around me?  For they are flourishing just like me, and some far more than me!”  Jesus offers this answer:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

Do you know which word in that great sentence is the first word in the sentence of the original and is very strongly emphasized?  The word “So.”  The point of the verse is not so much the object of God’s love (the world) as it is the manner of God’s love.  God loved the world in this way: He gave His only Son.  He gave Jesus to die for sinners.  He gave His only-begotten Son, the Son He loves, the 2nd Person of the Trinity, to die for wretches like you and me.    God loves us in this way, that He sent Jesus to deliver us from hell. 

      Oh, my fellow men, if you do not know Jesus Christ then you do not know God’s love for you.  God has not primarily displayed his love toward you by giving you health and long life.  He has primarily displayed His love for you by condemning Jesus on the cross so that you might never be condemned for your sins, if you will but believe.  If this day you are asking how God loves fallen mankind, then look no further than Christ crucified, for there, hanging on Calvary’s cross, undergoing the soul-torments of God’s wrath, is Jesus Christ dying for sinners who don’t deserve to be died for.  Therein God’s love is displayed; if you desire to be loved, then believe in Jesus and you will experience God’s love.   

      My fellow believers, if our God only loved the world with big houses and free health care, what kind of cheap love would that be?  If God only took care of us in this life, but provided no escape from hell in the next, what a pathetic message the gospel would be: “Believe in Jesus Christ and you will live more comfortably; you’re still going to hell for your sins, but you will have a few good years to enjoy on this earth beforehand.”  Praise God He did so much more for us!  In what way has God loved us?  He loved us by taking care of our biggest problem: Hell itself.  That is the way God loved us, and that is no small love. 

The Church As Pillar of Truth

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.  Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

1 Timothy 3:14-16

God has ordained one institution, one organization, one place in all the universe where men can finally settle the matter of “What is truth?”  The institution is the confessing (“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness”) church.  Is this the only mark of true churches?  No, but it is certainly a necessary mark without which a church is not a church.  Churches are a pillar and ground of the truth; if they are not they are not churches, at least not according to God.  Who would have thought we could yet make as bold a statement as that, a statement offensive, a statement which cares not if others agree, or even if we agree, but cares about only what God has declared?  Away with the question, “How do I feel about the truth?” and the question, “How do others feel about the truth?”, and in with the better question, “Is it true?”  For if it is true, and all truth comes from God, then it is good for my soul and I shall hold it dear to my heart even if that means it contradicts my feelings.  Such is the attitude of believers toward the Bible.

      In a highly churched culture there ought be very little confusion over what is the church, but such confusion exists copiously.  The churches in Springfield are advertised as “relevant” and “cool” and “exhilarating” and “contemporary” and “come-as-you-are” and “biker” and “cowboy” and a host of other marketing labels meant to draw people in.  But draw them in for what?  What is the church?  What is the church’s duty toward the world?  Why does the church exist?  Does it exist to gather socialites together who have similar tastes in clothing or music or family life or entertainment?  No; in fact, quite the opposite for the church has always been filled with a wide variety of each, and should be, and always will be.  Then why does it exist?  It exists for this reason: to hold fast and declare the truth, to do theology, to announce, herald, preach, teach, proclaim, and every other verb relevant to communicating the body of truth contained in the Scriptures.  The church has no calling to compromise the truth or water down the truth or change the truth based upon what we think of it or upon what others may think of it.  The truth is the truth and will remain the truth no matter what any one of us may think of it.  Our opinions do not make the truth true or relevant.  God alone establishes truth, and Jesus came to tell us where to find it: it can all be found in Him, “I am the Truth” (John 14:6).  It is no wonder the apostle Paul, then, after mentioning the church is the pillar and ground of truth, quotes what had become an ecclesiastical hymn or creed concerning Jesus Christ.  He may have had John 14:6 running through his mind when he wrote it.

      I hope I am wrong and would receive correction gladly if I am, but are not the words of Dorothy Sayers (Letters to a Diminished Church) as relevant to our times in Springfield as they were to her times in 1950’s England?

“Take away theology and give us some nice religion” has been a popular slogan for so long that we are apt to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning…And however unpopular I may make myself I shall and will affirm that the reason why the Churches are discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology…

She says more:

“Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction… If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended… We do Jesus little honor by watering down His Personality till it could not offend a fly.  Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.

        It is the dogma [truth] that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and moral uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.  Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that one might be glad to believe.”

And are not the words of R. B. Kuiper (The Glorious Body of Christ) from 1966 for our day?

The churches are filled with Pilates who ask sneeringly, “What is Truth?”  What they mean to say is: “I don’t know, you don’t know, nobody knows, nobody can know; let’s quit quibbling about truth.

        It has come to pass that in numerous instances the church, having ceased to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, has ceased being the church.

        …The church that has grown indifferent to the truth is…on its way out.  And the church that knowingly tolerates in its midst denial of the basic truths of the Word of God is itself guilty of such denial and by that very token has ceased being a true church.

        A church with a large membership, a huge building, an elaborate worship service, and efficient organization and dignified vestments, but without the truth, is not a church.  On the other hand, a church with a numerically negligible membership, with no building other than a lean-to, with the simplest order of worship, with a minimum of organization and with no clerical vestments at all, is a church of Jesus Christ if only it is loyal to the truth.

        In this world…there is one institution whose sole concern is to hold high the torch of God’s special revelation.  That distinction belongs to the Christian church.

What is the church for?  This: to proclaim unashamedly, unabashedly, and with great love and affection, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth as revealed to us in the Word of God.  Truths about where we came from and where we are going; truths about the Trinity and about God having created everything good; truths about the Fall, sin, judgment, and our rightly deserving hell as the payment for our sins; truths about atonement: propitiation, reconciliation, justification, and redemption; truths about faith and good works and the proper relationship between the two; truths about heaven and hell, about bodily resurrection and the glories of heaven, and about the goodness and greatness of Almighty God in whose presence we will one day stand if only we receive a righteousness which is not our own and which we do not deserve.  As Dorothy Sayers mentioned, such a place is where non-Christians should be able to come hear something which sounds too good to be true, and which they may reject but at least might have been glad to accept!  The church should be a place where God speaks, where truth is declared, and where we find a collective body of people confessing how men must be saved.  It must be a society which has as a primary function the preservation and declaration of the truth.  If so, no matter how small it may be, it is a church; if not, then no matter how big it may be, it is not a church.  May Gospel of Grace Church be one where the truth can be found, and may she be found faithful in both preserving and declaring the truth in order that saints may persevere and sinners be saved. 

      And now why the importance?  The importance is this: Jesus Christ is the Truth (John 14:6), meaning that to the extent we obscure the Word of God, or tuck it away in a seldom accessed corner, or throw it out all together, to that extent we do the same with Jesus Christ and leave men damned.  The whole body of the truth of the Word of God is necessary for the souls of men, or at least God thinks so, and it is time we in the churches think so too.  And I find it no accident that in the same sentence he writes the household of God is a pillar and buttress of the truth, Paul also says the household of God is the church of the living God.  We shouldn’t miss the connection.  To the extent a church preaches and teaches and lives according to the truths in God’s Word, to that extent God lives in her midst; and to the extent a church does not preach and teach and live according to the truths in God’s Word, no matter how large or impressive the congregation may be, God does not live in her midst.  Where is one place in all the universe you can find the God who lives?  In the church which holds truth dearly and graciously.  There is no perfect church on earth, and never will be, but there should be churches where truth can be found, for there, in that place, Jesus Christ can be found, and he’ll be found where we all most desperately need to hear He was: crucified in our place.       

 

 

The  Persecuted

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:10-12

So important is this beatitude (5:10), and so frequently misunderstood, Jesus provides us two verses of commentary (5:11-12) to ensure we get it right.  The beatitude is in some ways one of the most important, for it sums up the whole of life in the kingdom of God where the crucified Christ is King.  Life as a citizen in the kingdom of God, as a born again Christian, necessitates persecution, which is why Paul writes decidedly, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). 

      Vital to notice is what Jesus does and does not say.  He said, “Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake” and “Blessed are you when others revile, persecute, and slander you on my account.”  He does not say, “Blessed are those persecuted because they are obnoxious, in-your-face believers, picking theological and ethical fights with whomsoever they will.”  The distinction is important.  Those of us with a martyr syndrome cringe.  For pastors who preach the newspaper and politics, and who decry any resistance to their social or political agenda “persecution”, we do well to consider we’re not being persecuted for righteousness’ sake; rather, we’re being mocked because we’re obnoxious.  Had we been about the Master’s business, preaching Christ crucified, we might have been persecuted for Jesus’ sake, but being treated as obnoxious because we are obnoxious is not persecution.  And for opinionated, ungracious, know-just-enough-to-be-dangerous believers who get in people’s faces about theological and ethical minutia, claiming their “version” of Chrisitanity the only right one, and labeling opposition “persecution, you do well to consider you’re not being persecuted for righteousness’ sake; rather, you’re being mistreated because you’re mistreating.  Had you been about the business of loving God above all and neighbor as self, you might have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, but being treated as poorly as we treat others is not persecution.  Beware the martyr in others and in ourselves, the martyr who justifies his obnoxious, in-your-face, I-told-you-so, woe is me religion on the basis of persecution.  Such a contentious, self-righteous one is not being persecuted, but only tasting their own medicine, reaping what they’ve sown, sleeping in the bed they made, etc. 

      What, then, is persecution for righteousness’ sake, and being slandered on account of Jesus?  It is this: being mistreated or harassed, by words or deeds, simply because we seek to live peaceable, quiet, Christ-like lives, loving God above all and our neighbors as ourselves.  If you seek this righteousness (as opposed to self-righteousness), you will be persecuted.  On more than one occasion Jesus used the prophets—think of Isaiah and Jeremiah—to illustrate this point (Matthew 5:12; 23:37), and we need look no farther than the apostle Paul and Jesus Himself: Paul stoned and beaten, even left for dead, and Jesus crucified.  These men, Jesus perfectly, lived for God’s glory and were therefore persecuted.  The matter must be put this way, that if you live your life in all good conscience before God, not out looking for fights and debates and confrontations, but as much as depends on you living peaceably with all men, you will be persecuted, period.  And particularly for one reason: your speech.

      It cannot be accidental Jesus’ illustrates the reality of persecution with “the prophets.”  The priests and kings of Israel were persecuted, not to mention some of the judges and patriarchs, but Jesus singles out the prophets, and by so doing gives us a clue as to the most specific catalyst for persecution: speaking of Christ (evanglism).  What did prophets do?  They spoke.  If you desire to ease your way through life to heaven, then profess Jesus but do so quietly, preferably in the company and protection of His people, and only among those believers you know won’t be offended by sin and blood and substitution.  You will still face persecution and opposition, but not near as much.  Muffled Christians provoke nearly no persecution.  But open your mouth, as did the prophets, and out of love for God and love for those to whom you speak tell people with grace and kindness that they, like you, are sinners, sinful from the time they were conceived, and are, therefore, under the wrath of God and subject to hell’s torments the moment they die, and tell them there is no hope for them unless they are born again by the Spirit of God, and tell them they are helpless to save themselves and that they have great need to cry to God to be saved, and tell them their condition is so horrendous, so despicable, so miserable that God Himself had to come to earth to pay hell on the cross for the sins they deserve to pay for, and tell them the only, and I mean the only way God will ever love them is if they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who is freely offered to them, to be accepted as a gracious gift from the Holy King to poor sinners—I say tell them this, out of love for God and the souls of men, and you will experience, almost immediately, the persecution of which Jesus speaks.  If you tell self-respecting men they are sinners, you make them feel dirty and wretched—unrespectable; if you tell self-protecting men they are unable to defend themselves from the undiluted, unmediated, naked wrath of an infinitely holy and powerful God, you stand them in a position wholly unacceptable to them: vulnerable, touchable, stripped bare before the lion of the tribe of Judah; if you tell self-sufficient men they have not the ability to save themselves no matter how hard they try, you run rough-shod over their independence; and if you tell self-made men the only hope they have to be “made” right with God is by standing aside and beholding the only one who is truly self-made, Jesus Christ the rigtheous, hanging from the tree, damned in their place, substituting Himself in order to make them what they cannot make themselves, you trample their boast in their ability to thrive.  If you tell a man this, the good news of God’s amazing love toward sinners, that God in Christ, absent anything attractive or good in us, because of His great love toward us just because He loves us, suffered and died in our place, bearing, naked and vulnerable, the undiluted wrath of God in our place, so that by believing in Jesus’ Person and Work we can be saved from the wrath from which we are powerless to save ourselves—if you tell a man this, or some version of it, you will offend his natural sensibilities and thereby invite persecution.  Non-Christians will deride you for your pessimism when you talk about sin; they’ll slander you for telling them they’re not able to do that which they refuse to believe they are unable to do; they’ll say you have come to stir men up and create havoc, when in reality all men are by nature already in a state of havoc, havoc with God, that is, and you are only trying to get them to see things as they really are.  Oh, my brothers and sisters, that we would speak, that we would talk, that we would tell men and women around us of God and judgment, of accountability toward Him, of the anesthetic fog which is this world and which will one day dissipate, leaving us bare, stripped of the protection which existentialism promised us we’d never need, and of the precious blood of Jesus which alone can justify us—if only we would do this, we will indeed be persecuted for it, but men will, by God’s grace, by saved through it. 

      And when persecution comes, we need only turn to the Bible for encouragement: tolle lege.  Read through Isaiah and Jeremiah, and through the Gospels and 2 Corinthians 11, for in these passages is the unspeakable comfort of good company.  Solitary persecution leaves a man hopeless; but undergoing persecution for the same reasons the prophets old did leaves a believer encouraged, even steadfast.  When living contra mundum causes your reputation, or your body, to bleed, be assured your reward is great in heaven.  When will the persecuted, the harassed, the beheaded, the jailed be rewarded?  In heaven.  How great will be the day when all eyes marvel at the riches which will be ours in the New Jersualem, when the voice of God rushes full force through the air between He and us, shaking us to the depth s of our being with, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your Master.”  What, on that day, will be the cost of persecution or the pain of belittlement, other than a mere passing inconvenience, and what, on that day, will be the joy of eternal riches before us, in the presence of God and of those to whom we had the privilege of speaking the gospel, other than pure bliss?   Temporal pain versus eternal pleasure: an unworthy comparison.  Oh, believer, take heart in the heavenly reward which this beatitude declares yours, and allow it, therefore, to compel you to live, and especially to speak, for Jesus Christ, no matter the cost, expecting it will cost.

 

The Peacemakers

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Matthew 5:9

War-makers are the polar opposite of peacemakers.  War-makers are the kind of people unable to make peace because they themselves are strangers to it.  They are at war with God and must, therefore, be at war with everyone around them, and especially pleased when others war among themselves.  The fights and quarrels of others bring them, in a sick and twisted way, contentment and satisfaction, for since they themselves are full of inner conflict, they delight to see others immersed in it, and are happy to make some if supplies run short.  Misery must have company, or at least be in process of creating some.           

      By now you’re probably not surprised to hear such people exist in the church.  They are malcontents, everywhere disturbing the peace, upsetting entire churches with personal agendas, making every effort to set believers one against another, satisfied only when controversy prevails.  They must have war; brothers dwelling in blest accord affront their every sense.  These are divisive persons who bear no marks of being true sons of God.  Maybe you’ve encountered such a one, or maybe you are one, but know for certain such people reside in the body of Christ, falsely claiming the new birth as their own, and for such the Apostle Paul sounded the “Look-out-for-them!” trumpet in the ears of Ephesian elders, Timothy, and Titus, reserving for the divisive some of his harshest words:

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.  Therefore be alert.

Acts 20:29-31

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sounds words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.  He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth.

1 Timothy 6:3-5

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.

2 Timothy 2:23

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

Titus 3:10-11

      Why are men by nature war-makers?  Sin.  Murder, anger, hatred, and wars were an immediate effect of Adam’s fall: Cain kills Abel (Genesis 4:8); Lamech brags of murder (4:23); Lot’s herdsmen fight with Abraham’s (Genesis 13:7); and nations war by the Salt Sea (Genesis 14:1-12).  Enmity is the usual course of fallen creation.  Unbelievers are at war with God, and to the extent they have not suppressed the truth in unrighteousness—searing their consciences—they sense it.  Something is wrong between the sinner and God, something drastically wrong.  He senses that God’s wrath abides on him, is even being revealed against him, and is, at this moment, thundering above him to the beat of the Battle Hymn of the Heavenlies, ready at the moment of death to trod him underfoot for his sins.  And so he lives accordingly.  You would too.  If you sensed, or knew, that the Commander of Heaven’s Army was incensed at your sin and rebellion, and had unalterable plans to square off with you, Face to face and Arm to arm, you would view all of life as a war too.  It’s impossible to live in genuine peace when at war with the Unseen, but this is not all bad, for until one realizes he is at war with God he won’t seek peace with God.

      How do we obtain peace with God and thereby become a peacemaker?  Through the cross of Jesus Christ.  The word translated “peacemakers” is used only one other time in the New Testament:

In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.

Colossians 1:19-22

Notice the order of operations: first peace is made by the blood of the cross; only then are the formerly hostile reconciled to and presented before Him.  Prior to being saved we are at war with God; after being saved we are brought into His presence no longer as His enemies but as those who are holy and blameless and above reproach!  What transformation through salvation!

      And now, for those for whom Jesus paid the price of their peace, shedding His precious blood on the Cross and ending hostility with God, Jesus issues a call to peace-making.  The verse does not say, “Blessed are the peaceful, those of quiet demeanor and outwardly gentle conduct…”; rather it reads, “Blessed are the peacemakers…”, the emphasis falling on the word “makers.” 

      When the inner conflict of war with God has been settled, a brand new creation emerges bent on restoring relationships.  He begins by feeding his heart and soul on the objective peace he enjoys with God through the blood of Jesus, and by so doing enjoys the subjective peace of God.  When things are well with his own soul, he sets about bringing the same peace he enjoys with God to those without it.  He desires all men be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.  His heart aches for the lost, for those at war with God, for those under the soul-destroying wrath of God.  He sees the world with a whole new set of eyes, noticing that no matter how peaceful a society may be, a man without faith in Jesus Christ is in an eternal war with an enemy against whom he is helpless, and by whom he will one day be utterly crushed, unendingly.  If you desire men be reconciled to God, and lift a finger toward that end (peacemaker), you are a peacemaker; if you don’t you may yet need to be born again. 

      A peacemaker also sets about instilling peace in the relationships closest to him: family, others believers, friends, etc.  He is not content with warring relationships, but seeks, as best as he is able, to live peaceably with all people (Romans 12:18), and especially with other believers (1 Thessalonians 5:13).  He makes peace in marriage; peace at home.  He makes peace at the workplace, going out of his way to repair broken relationships and tensions, and he does all in his power to live at peace with his neighbors.  A person who is quarrelsome, divisive, and continually at war with those around him bears little or no evidence of being a son of God, for our God is a God of peace, justifying the ungodly, loving His enemies. 

      Peacemaking comes at a cost.  The cross proves it.  Our war with God came to an end only because the Peacemaker willingly spilt His blood on the Cross.  There was no other way.  And for you, dear Christian, to make peace between yourself and others, and between others, you must sacrifice.  Peacemaking involves the hard work of bearing emotional loads, listening, caring, counseling, and praying.  It will tax your patience, keep you up at night, and leave you on your knees before the God who alone can change hearts, but it will be some of the sweetest work you ever engaged, for by doing it you find great joy in becoming like your Father in heaven, even being called a “son of God.”  The word translated “sons” in the passage emphasizes character rather than status, so that to be called the sons of God is to be noticed by others as one who exemplifies the very character of God.  God’s character is to make peace by self-sacrifice; a peacemaker, therefore, is one who makes peace through self-sacrifice. 

      Peacemaking is an indelible mark of a Christian; divisiveness the mark of an unbeliever.  If blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God, then cursed are the divisive for they shall be called enemies of God.  Which are you?  You’ll know it not by what you claim, but by what you do. 

The Pure in Heart

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Matthew 5:8

Each beatitude cuts across the grain of human nature, contradicting worldly wisdom and shredding religious hypocrisy.  This one is no exception; it lays a man bare.  Says Jesus, not the pure in speech or the pure in outward deeds, but the pure “in heart” will see God.  Who shall ascend into the very presence of God?  Who shall stand before Him?  He who has clean hands and a pure heart (Psalm 24:4). 

      Negatively, purity in heart is not good grooming, well-mannered politeness, or external conformity to the polished etiquette of British high society:

Civility is not purity.  A man may be clothed with moral virtues—justice, prudence, temperance—yet go to hell…Civility is not sufficient.  A swine may be washed, yet a swine still.  Civility does but wash a man, grace changes him.  Civility, like a star may shine in the eyes of the world, but it differs as much from purity as the crystal from the diamond.  Civility is but strewing flowers on a dead corpse.  A man may be wonderfully moralized, yet but a tame devil.  How many have made civility their saviour!  Morality may damn as well as vice.  A vessel may be sunk with gold, as well as with dung.[1]

      Examples of impure hearts?  David, the man after God’s own heart, displayed his own impurity by trying to cover up Bathsheba’s conception through facilitating intercourse between Uriah and Bathsheba, and then, the attempt unsuccessful, by having Uriah placed on the front lines of the next battle and be killed, thereby freeing David and Bathsheba to keep their secret to themselves.  Judas Iscariot is another: evangelizing others when he himself didn’t believe that which he spoke, and pretending to participate genuinely in the life of Jesus in order to obtain money possibly through thieving as treasurer and most certainly through betrayal.  And Satan, of course, is the ultimate in impurity, the father of lies and hidden agendas, promising happiness and joy in sin so that through our sinful misery he might have company in hell.   

      What, then, is purity of heart?  Purity of heart is an intrapersonal business no other human being can transact for you: it cannot be discerned with the eye; its counterfeit looks identical.  Only as we begin to see ourselves in the presence of Him who is altogether holy and pure are we able to discern the purity of our hearts, or more likely the lack thereof.  A pure heart is a sincere heart, one without guile, an inner disposition with no hidden motives or underlying agendas, the absence of slyness and evil cunning.  The pure in heart desire not exterior but interior cleansing; they seek righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with other Christians, fleeing from foolish fights and quarrels.  Hear David and Paul: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10); “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.  Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (2 Timothy 2:22-23). 

      What do the pure in heart receive?  The sight of God.  For non-Christians this sounds anti-climactic, a sort of let down.  “What’s the big deal about seeing God?” they ask.  They find nothing blessed in it:

If it were possible for them to see God, they could not find any blessedness in it.  What pleasure would it give to the soul that hates holiness, to see the holiness of God; what pleasure to them who are God’s enemies, to see his greatness and glory?[2]

      But the pure in heart, those born again by the Holy Spirit, though now they behold God through a glass darkly, will see Him in His beauty face to face.  In some ineffable way this excites Christians, and is one of the ways to tell we are born again.  Non-Christians are scared to meet God; Christians can’t wait to meet Him.  Non-Christians dread His holiness; Christians long for it.  Non-Christians hate His greatness; Christians take comfort in it.  To see the one who saved us, who bled for us, who loved us so much He died unthinkably our death and bore unfathomably our sin, is enough to set the Christian heart aflame with love.  Non-Christians define heaven as a place without God, for in their scheme heaven is where they can be, and be treated as, god; Christians define heaven as the place God dwells, for in our scheme heaven is where we’re no longer tempted to be, and try to be treated as, god.  For non-Christians the immediate presence of God is hell, even if they’re standing in heaven; for Christians the immediate presence of God is heaven, even if they’re standing in hell.  To behold the majesty of God greater than Everest, the voice of God louder than Niagara, the holiness of God untouchable, and the very presence of the I AM, will glorious beyond words.  We’ll worship.  As the greatest sights can only be seen with the naked eye, and all who have seen them report, “A picture doesn’t do it justice; you had to be there”, so will be the sight of God, an experience unto eternity which you have to see with your own eyes to appreciate, and which will be the greatest show on the new earth, satisfying every nook and cranny of our beings.

      What do we do with this beatitude?  First, we examine our hearts.  Have you felt the impurity of your greatest motives?  Have you seen through the self-centeredness of your own heart?  Have you ascertained your own hidden agendas?  Are you skeptical of your own motives and reasons?  If you answer “Yes”, or believe you ought to have, then, ironically, you evidence purity in heart, for a pure heart hates the sin of duplicity.  If you answer “No”, and could go endlessly on defending the near sinlessness of your every motive, then you may be of that generation self-deceived, thinking themselves righteous and pure while yet unrighteous and impure and blind to it.  When a Christian does good works for the wrong reasons he feels himself dirty, hollow, cheap, a sham or fraud, a glory-hungry vacuum using others for self-glory; but when a moralist does good works for the wrong reasons he feels self-satisfied.  A Christian who prays and reads his Bible in order to receive from God an increasingly comfortable and easy life begins to feel an impostor in the throne room; but when a moralist prays such he feels at home.  When a Christian serves others to be praised for serving (though, of course, we usually deny such motives!), he feels himself a thief and robber, not a servant; but when a moralist serves this way they consider themselves rather godly.  How is it with you? 

      Second, we seek this purity.  To be sure, purity of heart is the work of God inside a person, changing them from being full of dead man’s bones to full of the Holy Spirit.  No man ever succeeded in obtaining heart purity by external ritual or moral reformation.  A man may rise early to pray, and serve his neighbor all the day, yet have mud for a heart, dirty as the driven snow.  But while only God grants this purity, we must diligently seek it: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8-10).  Every double-minded believer is duty bound to purify their hearts, meaning, we must be done with our mental schemes and devices how to obtain self-centered ends under the guise of humble service and smooth words.  We must be finished with our impurity because we serve a pure God.  As is our earthly custom to arrange our affairs to fit the company we keep, so believers pray God cleanse their hearts that we might be fit for His company.  The only proper way to appear before an earthly sovereign is respectfully clothed and with few words; the only proper way to appear before the Almighty is with heart purity, the kind of holiness without which we will not see Him.  In Eastern Oriental culture the way to see a monarch was through the backdoor of influence, connections, and twisted speech, rubbing disingenuous shoulders with his companions in order to receive a hearing face to face.  A sight of the reclusive monarch demanded deviousness; only once arrived before the monarch would you divulge the true reason behind your deviousness.  But such is not the case with God.  Only the pure in heart, those honest about their need for the blood of the Lamb and their total unworthiness to stand before God in acceptance, will see Him. 

      Third, we should behold the Pure One.  Oh the motives others thought Jesus had.  King Herod must have thought Jesus came to take away His throne, for he tried to kill Him through the death of Bethlehem’s baby boys.  The Pharisees and religious leaders must have thought Jesus came to usurp their authority and strip their influence, for the more He blasphemed, “I AM” and increased in wisdom and stature with men, the more they tried to kill Him, and did, and even sealed His tomb to ensure the divine miscreant disrupted their religious influence no more.  James and John thought Jesus came to get worldly glory, so they asked to be at His right and left hand when the glory was gotten.  Peter thought Jesus came to advance His kingdom through military might, but was exhorted to sheathe his sword.  Pilate was so skeptical of Jesus’ hidden agenda he twice pulled Him into the solitude of his headquarters (John 18:33; 19:9) to give him his best-buddy-club speech, “Okay, man, I’m cutting you a break; just shoot straight with me and tell me your agenda”, but to no avail, for the Truth simply reiterated the truth, and maybe, just maybe, it dawned on Pilate this guy was for real (John 19:12).  And Satan must have thought (well, who knows what Satan was thinking…) Jesus came to live a long and prosperous life through which He would reform Palestinian monotheistic religion, so to thwart this Satan put on his thinking cap, entered Judas, and began Jesus’ cruciform demise, altogether convinced Jesus came to do a lot of things, but He certainly did NOT come to be betrayed, mocked, scourged, humiliated, and crucified.  And so it was, no matter how long Jesus wore His name (“He who saves” His people from their sins), mentioned being delivered up to be killed, and was read about from Isaiah 53 in the local synagogues, no one possessed a heart pure enough to conceive God would suffer and die for them.  The motive of self-sacrifice; the motive of paying debts He didn’t owe; the motive of loving His enemies, redeeming the worthless, humbly dying for the proud, doing the will of God even unto death, trusting the Father even to hell itself; these motives were passed by.  The Pure in Heart came to be shattered in heart; the One who with single-mindedness came to do God’s will died for those more interested in having their own way; the Clean in Heart died for the dirty in heart that we might become clean.  Blessed are you, dear Christian, for Jesus Christ was imputed with all your filth, and destroyed under wrath, so you could be cleansed and see God.  And see him you will.   

 



[1] Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes (Banner of Truth, 2007); pp. 172.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2 (Hendrickson, 2004); p. 912.

The Merciful

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Matthew 5:7

Mercy is “a melting disposition whereby we lay to heart the miseries of others and are ready on all occasions to be instrumental for their good.”[1]  In its simplest form mercy is compassion for the downtrodden, help for the helpless, a warm-hearted disposition toward the distressed, and an attitude of heart residing in every true believer which propels them to act kindly toward the suffering.  The merciful don’t merely “feel” for the broken, they also act on their behalf. 

      Such is the disposition of a Christian toward the hurting.  Once born again, a person never looks upon suffering the same way.  Because God looked upon us with infinite mercy, seeing the desperate, hell-bound plight of our condition, and was moved to act on our behalf, so too our hearts go out toward the suffering, and we are moved to act.  One of the surest signs of the new birth, of our being Christians, is compassion for people.  Christians are compassionate toward the lost, desiring all men be saved.  We so desire men be delivered from the wrath to come that we would sooner wish ourselves suffer the torments of hell than have anyone else feel them (Romans 9:1-3).  We would lay down our lives in death if there was a chance our death meant the salvation of even one sinner.  We have a heart for those who have never heard the gospel, desiring they hear it and giving of our time and resources so they might.  Our hearts go out to those easily exploited—the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners—not content to let their care reside with others, but going out of our way to help them acquire work, food, shelter, clothing, companionship, protection, and everything else basic to human life.  When natural disasters hit our hearts go out toward those affected; when people grieve the loss of a loved one we grieve too, and when a fellow brother or sister is brought under extremely difficult providences, stripped of the most basic necessities of life, despairing of even life itself, we mourn with them, offering them our very lives.  Such is the action of a new heart: mercy.

      The casual observer of this text will realize the one who spoke it never enjoyed the reality of it.  Who is the most merciful of all persons?  Who does the Bible say is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love?  God; Jesus Christ!  Yet this beatitude could not be more untrue for Jesus, “Blessed is Jesus Christ, the most merciful Person ever to have lived, for He shall receive mercy…”  But He didn’t receive it.  If ever there was anyone who should have received mercy it was Jesus, and He should have received it particularly at the cross.  For centuries God had been looking at sinful, fallen men with compassion, abundantly pardoning the sins of His people, showing pity to them as a father does toward his children.  For centuries God had been merciful to sinners, merciful to the heavy laden, so at the moment Jesus Christ became sin, and was accounted more filthy and sinful and ugly to God than any one man had ever been, we would expect the Father to look upon the crucified Christ with a measure of mercy and compassion never before seen in the history of the world.  Hearing the cries of His Son from the cross, cries of agony, cries of mercy toward His crucifiers, surely the Father would come speedily to the rescue of His Son.  But He didn’t.  The moment Jesus Christ appeared before the Father as the most despicable, detestable, offensive being ever to have existed in all creation, mercy fled, compassion ran scared, and a warm-hearted disposition was nowhere to be found.  In order that we might receive mercy, Jesus received none; in order that God might have compassion on us in our sins, God had absolutely no compassion on Jesus when He bore our sins.  The most merciful one received judgment; the beloved incarnation of God received the undiluted damnation of God.  The one who showed infinite mercy to undeserving sinners received undeserved wrath in the place of sinners.  Jesus Christ, on the cross, received no mercy so that we might receive mercy.  All praise be to God.  This is life changing.  

      How is this with you, dear Christian?  Are you merciful?  Are you compassionate toward the hurting, or calloused and cold?  Are you merciful toward those who labor under the weight of sin and toward those who have not yet achieved the degree of sanctification which you might enjoy?  Are you compassionate toward the souls of those who dangle precariously over hell’s eternal grip, any moment to be plunged into an eternal misery unless the repent and trust in Jesus?  Do you show mercy to your fellow sinners, or are you judgmental and condemning, curiously void of mercy toward others?  If you are harsh and judgmental, then with the measure you use it will be measured to you: “Judgment without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13).  If you extend no mercy to others you can be sure God has extended no mercy to you.  And if God has extended you mercy but you refuse to extend it to others, you should repent.  But make no mistake; you can test the genuineness of your faith by this beatitude: are you merciful toward others?  Mercy is not mere talk.  If you’re merciful you’ll act.  Have you done anything for anyone in distress?  Have you acted in any way to relieve the burdened, to encourage the downcast, or to rescue those trapped in the snare of sin?  Have you done anything to deliver the abused from their abusers, to comfort the sick and afflicted, or to be a surrogate parent to abandoned children?  As God’s talk would have been cheap had it not been accompanied with the redemptive action of our Lord Jesus Christ, so our talk of mercy is cheap if not accompanied by prayers and fasting for the lost and by action on behalf of those in need of mercy.   

      And for those of us who have been embraced by God’s mercy at the cross, and who are responding by being merciful to others, as imperfect as our mercy toward them may be, we have the sure promise of our loving God that when we see Him, face to face, on the Last Day, we will receive mercy.  He will have compassion on us.  Make haste that day.



[1] Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes (Banner of Truth, 2007); p. 143.

The Hungry and Thirsty

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied

Matthew 5:6

The beatitudes describe the life of a believer.  Believers are poor in spirit, believers mourn, believers are meek, and, regarding this beatitude, believers are hungry and thirsty for righteousness.  You likely already noticed.  Using two of the most basic, life-sustaining desires Jesus impresses upon us the reality that Christians have an insatiable hunger and thirst for righteousness.  To be sure our appetite increases and decreases on account of our sin, but the general tenor of the Christian life is lived hungering and thirsting.  What is this righteousness which we desperately crave?  To use the language of John Stott, righteousness in the Bible has at least three aspects: legal, moral, and social.[1]  A Christian hungers and thrists for all three.

      Regarding legal righteousness, we crave to be made right with God.  Once we are justified we have an insatiable hunger to be continually reminded that on account of the Lord Jesus Christ God counts or reckons us righteous through faith.  Oh the bliss of this glorious thought, that our sin, not in part but the whole, was nailed to the cross, borne by our Lord Jesus Christ, and in exchange God declared us righteous in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).  The righteous has suffered for the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18); Jesus has become to us righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30); The LORD is our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6).  Believers all have in common a craving to hear an authoritative Word from God declaring us righteous in Christ.  This alone can satisfy our souls, and does.    

      Regarding moral righteousness, the new birth ushers in a radical change in our cravings.  When the Holy Spirit indwells us at conversion He creates within us a hunger and thirst for genuine holiness.  Whereas a non-Christian may desire to be moral in order to avoid the consequences of sin, a Christians desires genuine holiness to glorify God.  A Christian hungeres and thirsts to be perfectly whole, to be conformed into the image of our Savior Jesus Christ, to be rid of sin and the sorrow and sadness it brings, and to be a fit instrument for use in the Father’s hands.  There is no such thing as a Christan settled in love with sin, for though we may find some fleeting pleasure in it, and even momentarily desire it, the Holy Spirit produces inside us a growing distaste for it.  Christians hunger and thirst to be morally perfect as our heavenly father is morally perfect; we desperately desire to become what we will one day be; and we remain, in this life, appropriately discontent with our advancement in righteousness, driven to put to death the deeds of the flesh and seek after the holiness without which we will not see the Lord.  Oh, believer, when you examine the inner workings of your heart and soul you will find a craving which can never be extinguished, a craving for something which you shall one day become in fullness but now experience only in part, a craving for true righteousness and holiness, a craving to be like Jesus Christ, This craving is given you by the Holy Spirit, a craving to pursue righteousness.  If you find in yourself this craving, take time to thank the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for it is a sure mark of conversion and a downpayment of the glorious, sinless body which you shall one day receive at the coming of our Lord.  It’s an interesting change which takes place in our lives at conversion: our stomachs begin to grumble and our mouths run dry for the day when the recurrent sins with which we now struggle are bygone memories of a faintly memorable someone we used to be but are no longer.  We possess a longing not only to be cleansed from sin’s guilt and power but also to be delivered from its presence, and even its possiblity.    

      Regarding social righteousness, believers thirst for everything wrong in the world to be made right.  While disagreeing with the worldview of the one who sang, “Heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race”, Christians do indeed desire the world be a better place.  We desire racism be banished, wars cease, the vulnerable be exploited no more, the oppressed be vindicated, the sick be healed, the poor be fed, the mourners be comforted, the abused be restored, and the perpetrators be punished.  We desire society function as God created it to function, men loving God above all and their neighbors as themselves, and where this does not take place, both in our own lives and in the lives of others, we grieve and we act.  As hungering and thirsting lead us most naturally to eat and drink, so hungering and thirsting for righteousness in the world will lead us to seek it.  Martin Luther had this to say about hungering and thirsting after social righteousness:

The short and simple meaning of these words is this: “That man is righteous and blessed who continually works and strives with all his might to promote the general welfare and the proper behavior of everyone and who helps to maintain and support this by word and deed, by precept and example.”[2]

And for those of us who may be frustrated by the lack of fruit accompanying our efforts to do justice in the world, be encouraged by another word of counsel from Martin Luther on this passage:

If you cannot make the world completely pious, then do what you can.  It is enough that you have done your duty and have helped a few, even if there by only one or two.[3]

        All wrongs will one day be righted.  God guarantees it.  One day justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:24).  God will do in the new creation what we crave be done, and we will be satisfied.  To this we look forward with eager expectation, together with all creation. 



[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (IVP, 1978); p. 45.

[2] Luther’s Works: The Sermon on The Mount and Magnificat, Vol. 21; Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Concordia, 1956); p. 26.

[3] Ibid., pp. 27-28.

The Meek

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth

Matthew 5:5; cf. Psalm 37:11

The beatitudes commence Jesus’ sermon on the mount dripping with both direct (“prophets” in 5:12) and indirect allusions to the Old Testament: Jesus stands on the mountain and, prophet-like, opens His mouth (Matthew 5:1-3) to pronounce blessings.  We’ve seen this coming and been here before: Moses and the LORD told us a Prophet would come (Deuteronomy 18:15,18), and from mountains Gerizim and Ebal the LORD spoke blessings and curses upon the Israelites (Deuteronomy 27:9-28:68).  But from Matthew’s beatitudes (unlike Luke’s) there is a crucial omission: curses.  Where are the curses?  Let’s just say Jesus Christ would soon undergo the curses of Mt. Ebal so we could enjoy the blessings of Mt. Gerizim.  The curses of Mt. Ebal (Deut. 27-28) fell upon the Him so that the blessings of Mt. Gerizim would fall upon us.  The beatitudes imply this; the cross screams it (cf. Galatians 3:10-14).   

      Meekness may be one of the most difficult concepts to grasp because it is surrounded by a host of secular counterfeits.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek”, we often mistakenly take Him to say, “Blessed are the ‘Type B’ personalities, the nice, the limpwristed, the appeasers and manpleasers, those who agree at all costs, those of persona patterned after Rodney King’s dictum, “Can’t we all just get along?”  We take Him to mean, “Blessed are the quiet, the softspoken, the well-mannered, the doormats; blessed are the laid-back, the calm and collected, those who don’t make waves or ruffle feathers; and, for all you Waylon Jennings fans, blessed are the good ol’ boys never meanin’ no harm.”  It must be said at this point, in no uncertain terms, this is not at all what Jesus means.  Such traits are of personality—the constitutional temperament with which we are born or which ours parents and environment trained us to live according to—but are not meekness.  Since we live in the Ozarks, where meekness and niceness are often equated, I feel compelled to distinguish between niceness and meekness as strikingly and pointedly as possible lest the souls of the “nice” be forever tormented because no one told them “Niceness doesn’t save; neither is it a fruit of the spirit.”  It is entirely and completely impossible for a non-Christian to be meek.  One must be born again by the Spirit of God into the kingdom of heaven to be meek.  The Bible absolutely insists on this.  If you are a non-Christian you might be nice, but it is fundamentally impossible for you to be meek.  Meekness is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23; ESV, “gentleness”), not a fruit of good parentage.  Put another way, if you have confused your niceness for meekness, please listen carefully, for you may yet be dead in sin and under the wrath of God.  Niceness is not proof you are a believer; meekness is.

      But not only can men counterfeit meekness, they can also try to obtain the earth rather than inherit it.  Every non-Christian is trying to obtain the earth one of two ways: either by aggressively conquering it, or by nicely winning people over to themselves.  We just noticed the latter.  The former, according to Psalm 37, stake their claim to this earth by trying to prosper through evil (Psalm 37:7), by plundering the weak and vulnerable to gain status (v. 14), and by parading themselves around as green pastures of fruitfulness and fertility (v. 20) with estates and influence which have grown exponentially (v. 35).  They obtain the world, or appear as though they have obtained it, by winning, conquering, and ruling the world through their devices.  But eventually, says the Lord, you will look for them and not find them (v. 10)—they will be no more—they have no place in the new heavens and earth.

      What does meekness look like?  You might be surprised.  The meek are bold, destroying arguments and lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:1-6).  The meek confront fellow Christians caught in sin in order to restore them to repentance (Galatians 6:1).  The meek, in the face of staunch opposition, patiently, kindly, and willingly instruct those who oppose them in the hope that God will grant the opposition repentance (2 Timothy 2:4).  The meek are always ready and willing to share the good news of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:15).  

      Where do the meek get this kind of strength?  It sounds as if the meek are strong, bold, and courageous, even outspoken and confrontational (in a good way).  How is this possible?  It is possible for only one reason: they will inherit the earth, and they know it.  Think deeply about the reality that you, my fellow Christian, yes you, will inherit the earth.  This is no small promise and will most certainly change every ounce of your life if you believe it.  There are many ways to take this phrase, but here we notice two.  First, that the meek shall inherit the earth means the meek genuinely enjoy the good things God has entrusted to them in this life.  How can you tell if you are meek, genuinely enjoying God’s providence in this life?  You’ll be content.  The meek are, with Paul, content both in poverty and riches, in plenty and in want, in banquets and in starvation.  You’ll nearly always notice a meek person when you meet them: they are content with their lot in this life for they know the next life will be infinitely better.  You’ll find more joy in them than in the wealthy and prosperous for there is something mysteriously sublime about simplicity of life:

Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it.  Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it.

Proverbs 15:16-17

Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.

Proverbs 17:1

Are you content, believer, with what you have?     

      Because the meek are content they are also patient.  Though they are diligent and hard working, their constant posture is that of waiting for the new heavens and new earth.  They work hard, but not anxiously; when their heads hit the pillow they sleep with a clear conscience (Psalm 127:2), resting in the knowledge that though they did not, and never will, obtain the earth through the work of their hands, they will one day, through the work of He whose hands were pierced, obtain the whole thing. 

      The meek are humble on account of their sin.  They know they will never, in this life, be without sin, and so if you expose sin in their life, they will readily accept the exposure.  This is one of the greatest ways to tell whether or not we are genuinely meek or merely nice.  A nice person welcomes the opportunity to admit their own sin, and are often proud to do it…they’re proud of their (feigned) humility; but a meek person welcomes the opportunity for others to expose their sin, even sin they never knew they had.  The meek have nothing to prove in this life; Christ has already proven Himself for them. 

       If you encounter a meek person you’ll often know it immediately, but they won’t have a clue of their meekness.  They’ll be simultaneously kind and courageous, gentle and determined, approachable and bold, and, to use a John Piper phrase, lion-hearted and lamblike.  They are uncomfortably content, having accepted the providence of God in their lives and also working to advance His kingdom on earth.  They are diligent but not aggressive, productive but not greedy, and industrious but not workaholics.  They know God has given them a calling and gifts which they must strive with all their might to use while they yet live, but they have always in the forefront of their mind that this world is not all there is, and if they die poor or unnoticed they are not bothered in the least for they know they will inherit the earth.  Christians are those patiently waiting for God to freely give them what the rest of the world is trying to earn: a place in this world.  Believer, do you live daily in light of the fact that no matter your success on this earth you stand to inherit the earth.  Do you realize, that though you may die owning a mere .2 acre plot of earth with a $120,000 house on it, you will one day inherit the entire earth?  Think about it...that’s a lot of land and a lot of possessions, all soon to be yours, mine, and ours.  If you believe this, and if you are a Christian you must believe this, you will not spend your life anxiously worrying about the size of your bank account or whether or not you are getting ahead enough in life.    

      Second, inheriting the earth means the meek will be given a place in the new heavens and new earth: they will inherit it.  The meek, those who through faith in Christ are patiently waiting on God to give them something they could never earn for themselves, will soon possess the new earth.  Oh how this changes the way we live now.  Have you ever watched the lives of those who stand to inherit 100 million dollars?  Have you noticed how care-free these people are when it comes to life?  If they get fired they don’t care; if they wreck their car it is no problem; if they make a few bad investments they are not shaken; and if they don’t succeed in a business venture they are not concerned.  Why not?  Because their present failures don’t annul their future inheritance!  They know they can make an incredible mess of their lives now yet not lose a single penny of their inheritance.  Oh, believer, if you drink deeply of the inheritance Christ spilt His blood to earn for you, you will never again worry, fret, or entertain the attitude, “Lord, I will amass my own mansion; You can cancel my reservation in Yours.” 

      My fellow Christian, never forget an inheritance is earned by the sweat of another; in this case our inheritance has been earned by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.  He was momentarily disinherited, cast out, forsaken, and stripped of all privileges of his deity, especially at the Cross.  You will inherit the earth but only because when Christ came to earth He was rejected by His own.  All Jesus’ work on earth was to earn an inheritance for you; He left his riches to earn you riches; He left what He stood to inherit that we might become co-heirs with Him, all at His expense, and all to His glory. 

      You will soon possess the wealth and property of the nations, yes, including that plot of land or house you would love to own now.  So relax, work hard, and live like you stand to inherit it.

 

Those Who Mourn

        Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted—Matthew 5:4

Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourning ones, the meek—as if Jesus were referring to specific groups of people, each familiar to His hearers.  He was.  Who, then, are the mourning ones?  Skilled lamenters: 

Consider and call for the mourning women to come; send for the skillful women to come; let them make haste and raise a wailing over us, that our eyes may run down with tears and our eyelids flow with water. 

Jeremiah 9:17-18

      In Jeremiah’s day there were wailing women so skilled (genuine) in weeping they incited weeping in others upon tragic events (cf. Mark 5:38).  These had not only large tear ducts but also large hearts.

      What did they mourn over? 

      First, they mourned over death:

Man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets.

Ecclesiastes 12:5

      Blessed, then, are believers who cry at funerals, for men were not meant to see death. 

      Second, they mourned over hypocrites—over professing believers faking relationship with Christ:

“In all the squares there shall be wailing, and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’  They shall call the farmers to mourning and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation, and in all vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through your midst,” says the LORD.  Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!  Why would you have the day of the LORD?  It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him.  Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?   

Amos 5:16-20

      In Amos’ day they mourned hypocrites who desired the day of the LORD, “fakers” for whom the day of the LORD would be darkness and condemnation.  Blessed, then, are those heartbroken that in Christian churches everywhere sit unregenerate men and women who hear the gospel weekly, and profess to believe, yet don’t believe.  Blessed are those who shed tears because many professing Christians are faking relationship with Jesus Christ, and upon death will be plunged to hell rather than lifted to heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn that many accounted believers trust not in Jesus, but in themselves, and plan to stand before Holiness Himself without a substitute, and will therefore be eternally condemned to the lake of fire.   

      Third, they mourned over backsliders: professing believers wayward in their walk with Christ

I was angry and struck him; I hid and was angry, and he went on backsliding in the way of his heart.  I have seen his ways, and will heal him; I will also lead him, and restore comforts to him and to his mourners.

Is. 57:17-18 

      Mourners grieved the backslider’s waywardness.  Blessed, then, are the ones who mourn when someone formerly accounted a brother or sister strays from Christ and is excised from the body of Christ.  Blessed are those cut to the heart when professing Christians cast off their confidence in Christ.  Blessed are the ones mourning over those who stop running the race, who put down their boxing gloves and walk away from the fight.  Blessed are the parents who mourn wayward children; blessed are the children who weep that their parents have abandoned the faith they once professed.  Blessed are the elders and deacons who shed tears during the process of church discipline and are broken-hearted when the excommunication form is read to the church.

      Fourth, they mourned over Christ’s coming: they so badly desired Christ they shed tears of longing

He has sent me to bring up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Isaiah 61:1-3

      The people of Zion mourned because they longed for Christ to appear.  Blessed, then, are believers who long for the 2nd Coming of Jesus Christ.  Blessed are those dissatisfied that they see Jesus through a glass darkly, not yet face to face; blessed are those who mourn their faith is not yet sight, who mourn their Savior is away yet a little while.  Blessed are those who whole-heartedly yearn for the second appearing of God our Savior. 

      Fifth, they mourned over personal sin.

My life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.

Psalm 31:10

      David mourned his iniquity.  Blessed, then, are those who mourn with heartfelt groans that they sin against God, and God alone (Psalm 51:4), who loves them.   

      Sixth, they mourned the effects of sin in a fallen world.

Consider and call for the mourning women, that they may come; and send for skillful wailing women, that they may come.  Let them make haste and take up a wailing for us, that our eyes may run with tears, and our eyelids gush with water.  For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion: “How we are ruined!  We are utterly shamed, because we have left the land, because they have cast down our dwellings…Death has come up into our windows; it has entered our palaces, cutting off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares”…The dead bodies of men shall fall like dung upon the open field, like sheaves after the reaper, and none shall gather them.

Jeremiah 9:17-22

      The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. on account of Judah’s sins.  The effects were devastating: young men were slaughtered; Babylonian soldiers destroyed children by dashing their heads against rocks (Psalm 137:8-9); houses were destroyed; an entire nation was rampaged.  Blessed, then, are those who mourn the consequences of sin in a fallen world—the deadly effects of life outside the Garden. 

      Blessed are those who mourn earthquakes kill hundreds of thousands and governments have to hire track-hoes to dig mass graves.  Blessed are those heart-broken a tsunami killed tens of thousands Indonesians, and starvation, disease, and abusive governments ravage.  Blessed are those who mourn all humans are conceived guilty before God, not innocent, and will perish in hell unless born again.  Blessed are those who mourn people born broken: mentally handicapped, physically deformed, terminally ill—we weren’t meant to be born such.  Blessed are those who mourn humans abort themselves, and have always done so, in some cases tearing apart the in utero piece by piece.  Blessed are those who grieve millions of children receive more comfort from hard-core drugs, alcohol, and elicit sex than from a parent who believes the child a bane, not a blessing, a mistake they’d like to erase but can’t.  Blessed are those who mourn 12-13 year old girls are slaved out on the prostitution market, forced into masochistic sex by men themselves abused, and grown to know only a life of prostitution, sexual torment, and manipulation.  Blessed are those who mourn children verbally, emotionally, physically, and/or sexually abused at the hands of parents, siblings, and/or other relatives.  Blessed are those who mourn marriage has become a relationship of self-centered convenience, rather than Christ-exalting sacrifice, because little boys are taught to consider women sex objects and personal slaves and little girls are taught to consider men security blankets and objects for manipulation.  Blessed are those who mourn babies shaken to death, suicides, the raped, the elderly abused, the mentally handicapped exploited, orphans neglected, forced abortions, widows pillaged, and foreigners mistreated by ingrown locals.    

      Blessed are those who mourn their personal sin devastates others, who mourn the gossip they spread destroyed another, and who mourn the trail of tears their sin has left behind in the lives of others. 

      This beatitude is not for the melancholy, but for those who live in reality.  If you mourn not for these, you are either hard of heart or dead in sin.  If you didn’t know these things happen, please read your Bible: it’s all in there (natural disasters; prostitution; rape; verbal, physical, sexual abuse; hell’s sufferings; slaughtered children; suicide; etc.).  And if you didn’t know these happen today listen to the news and open your eyes to the people right in front of you.  These things don’t occur only in a land far, far away, but across your street, just down the road, and in the house of your loved ones.  Standing next to you at any given moment are people hurting from sin.  Why don’t you see it?  For the same reason they don’t see yours: either blindness on our part or hiding on theirs.  But it’s there.  Smokey Robinson explains: 

People say I'm the life of the party, because I tell a joke or two;

Although I might be laughing loud and hearty, deep inside I'm blue.
So take a good look at my face; you'll see my smile looks out of place.

If you look closer it's easy to trace, the tracks of my tears.

Outside I'm masquerading; inside my hope is fading…

My smile is my make up I wear since my break up with you.

Where are the sorrows?  Behind the jokes, inside the laugh, underneath the made-up smile.  If you look and listen close enough you’ll see the tear tracks of self-protection, distance, anger, coldness, resentment, and pride.  These are cover-ups for sorrow.  Be not surprised.  If we’re honest we’ll realize others see ours.  If they don’t we’re just better at faking; but they do.

      Christian, does your heart break for people living in a fallen world?  Do you keep company with them?  Do you wisely reach outside your own comfort zone to help them, to visit them in their grief?  Or do you foolishly seek the comfortable company of great feasts, laughter, pleasant living, and mirth?      

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.  Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.  The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

Ecclesiastes 7:2-4

      Believer, Jesus Christ was moved by your sorrowful condition.  As He gazed from heaven where comfort, worship, and everything pleasant surrounded Him, He had compassion on you.  The God of all glory became a man of sorrows, leaving heaven’s delight to acquaint Himself with your grief.  He was wounded for your transgressions, flogged and mocked that you, broken and destroyed by sin, might be healed.  He so badly desired to put an end to your crying, that He came, with tears (John 11:35), to turn your sorrow and sadness into singing and dancing.  And if you are born again, the same love which moved Christ to enter your mourning, and bear the sorrow of your sin and hell, will move you to enter the sorrow of others.  If you’re not moved, you’re not born again and need yet to be saved. 

      When are the mourners comforted?  When Christ comes again.  Soon enough heaven’s veil will open and God will come in comfort to His people.  He will lower the New Jerusalem onto the earth and Revelation 21 will become no longer an end-of-this-world fantasy, but the beginning of a new reality.  Read it and weep, for it is not yet here, but soon will be:

I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

The Poor in Spirit

        Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven—Matthew 5:3

We might have expected Jesus to say, “Blessed are the rich in spirit…”, but He didn’t.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit”: what a soul-encouraging phrase.  Blessed are the bankrupt, the empty, those who lack, those who have discovered their spiritual barrenness.  Blessed are the dirt poor in spirit, the beggarly, the spiritual panhandlers, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  This is an odd word: “Happy are God’s beggars—those entirely unworthy of mercy and grace—for, though you would never guess it, they currently possess the kingdom of heaven.”  Blessed are those who have nothing to bring but nothing.

      Why is spiritual poverty so hard to embrace?  Because of exploitation and vulnerability.  Beggars are at the mercy of those to whom they beg.  Panhandlers are at the mercy of passerbys, each closed window declaring “You are not worth it!  You don’t fit my criteria for giving.  You’re a bad investment: no mercy for you.”  Being turned-down while in need of mercy hurts; therefore admitting spiritual poverty grates against our souls.  If we come to God admitting need for mercy, admitting we are not worthy of His grace, admitting He would be just and right to leave us impoverished, we would find ourselves keenly aware of a truth: God doesn’t have to be merciful to us.  The thought alone is the scariest a human can entertain; most are so scared they never entertain it.  The thought is also the only gate to blessedness.  God is merciful and gracious.  He never turns away the spiritually broken:

This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.

Isaiah 66:2

      The gospel is very counterintuitive!  In order to receive the kingdom, you must admit you don’t deserve it.  This is a hard step for proud man.  The rich in spirit refuse to give up their riches; the moral and upright refuse to give up their morality and uprightness; the good refuse to give up their good works; the grossly wicked refuse to give up their excuses.  Clinging tightly to their works and excuses, these forfeit heaven: they cling tightly to the rusted-out Ford Escort of riches while God offers them BMW’s best, if only they will let go.  They won’t.  The Escort is theirs: they have earned it and are, for some odd reason, proud of it.  The BMW is something they haven’t earned: their acceptance of it would be an acknowledgement of poverty, and of their need of grace, something their proud hearts cannot admit.  They would rather drive their rusted-out Escorts proudly to hell than God’s BMWs humbly to heaven.  The human heart is, by nature, that proud. 

      By contrast, a Christian is one who has stood before God empty-handed and entered the plea, “Guilty as charged; a debtor; whatever Your sentence be is just.”  Have you appeared before God like this?  If you have not you are not a Christian and have no possession of heaven’s kingdom.  Dr. Martyn-Lloyd Jones drives home the point of spiritual poverty this way: 

“[Being poor in spirit] means a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of self-assurance and of self-reliance.  It means a consciousness that we are nothing in the presence of God.  It is nothing, then, that we can produce; it is nothing that we can do in ourselves.  It is just this tremendous awareness of our utter nothingness as we come face-to-face with God.  That is to be “poor in spirit”.  Let me put it as strongly as I can, and I do so on the basis of the teaching of the Bible.  It means this, that if we are truly Christian we shall not rely upon our natural birth.  We shall not rely upon the fact that we belong to certain families; we shall not boast that we belong to certain nations or nationalities.  We shall not build upon our natural temperament.  We shall not believe in and rely upon our natural position in life, or any powers that may have been given to us.  We shall not rely upon money or any wealth we may have.  The things about which we shall boast will not be the education we have received, or the particular school or college to which we may have been.  No, all that is what Paul came to regard as “dung”…We shall not rely upon any gifts like that of natural “personality”, or intelligence or general or special ability.  We shall not rely upon our own morality and conduct and good behavior.  We shall not bank to the slightest extent on the life we have lived or are trying to live…There must be a complete deliverance from and absence of all that.  I say again, it is to feel that we are nothing, and that we have nothing, and that we look to God in utter submission to Him and in utter dependence upon Him and His grace and mercy.[1] 

      How is this with us?  If only the poor in spirit are blessed, are you blessed believer?  Do you enjoy living on God’s grace in spiritual poverty, or have you plunged yourself into the Galatian error: saved by grace, but being saved by your good works, or so you proudly think?  Do you feel far from blessedness?  The reason is pride.  Spiritual pride.  No man presently humbled by sin and graciously resting in Christ feels lack of blessedness.  Such a man is assured and blessed: you won’t find a happier man on earth.  But when pride in good works creeps in, and Christ becomes a forgotten book on a dusty shelf, possession of the kingdom of heaven seems hopeless: assurance wanes; despair sets in.  You won’t find a more miserable man on earth.  The moment we pride ourselves in prayer, in Bible reading, in personality traits, in the methods with which we school our children, in frugality, in work ethic, or in self-discipline, hopelessness comes knocking and Christ feels afar off.  My brothers and sisters, if you bring any of these before God expecting Him to give you the kingdom of heaven on account of such, you are in for a sore disappointment.  The only way God accepts you is by coming to Him with nothing, approaching Him naked, stripped of everything, arms extended, palms up, hands entirely empty.  Is this how you come?  “Naked come to thee for dress; helpless look to thee for grace.  Foul I to the fountain fly, wash me Savior or I die.”  Let me put it another way.  If you are not poor in spirit, you are not a Christian.   There are no self-made men in the kingdom of heaven; the only ones possessing the kingdom are God-made.  The kingdom of heaven does not belong to the rich in spirit (those trusting in their pedigree for salvation) or to the middle-class in spirit (those trusting in their hard work for salvation), but to the poor in spirit: to those bankrupt before God who say from the heart, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the Cross I cling.”  If you bring anything but emptiness to the cross, you are not a Christian, you are proud.  Only the broke possess heaven; only the poor have the kingdom.   Admittedly this teaching sounds ridiculous.  Our hearts naturally cry out, “Surely I have amassed spiritual riches enough to approach God acceptably clothed in them.  Surely this is exaggeration; surely Jesus does not mean by poor in spirit absolute poverty and brokenness.  Surely God intends I strive to find the good inside myself and others, and by this means possess the kingdom of heaven.”  But our hearts are wrong.  No man who prays the Pharisee prayer, “God I thank you that I am not like other men” is a Christian; only one who prays with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” is a genuine believer.   Only those who say with Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” have tasted of the new birth.  The proud have no need of Jesus; they believe themselves sufficient to stand before God and obtain the kingdom, but those humbled by their sin feel in the crevasse of every bone their desperate need for Jesus Christ and would not dare presume possession of the kingdom without His merits.   

      Let us note here the very great danger of a spiritual pride which masquerades itself as spiritual poverty and drags many souls to the pit: pride in repentance.  By sorrow for sin some are prone to believe God owes them grace, but this is nothing more than works righteousness: salvation by repentance.  This is a teaching straight from Satan’s kitchen, and if you feed your soul on it you will be destroyed.  One who is genuinely poor in spirit does not feel more worthy of God’s love when repentant.  The one who is poor in spirit never feels worthy of God’s love, and thus lives in perpetual poverty, always, and keenly, feeling that God has every right, at every moment, to banish him forever to the lake of fire, and that it is only, and always, the sheer and precious promises of God to us in Christ which guarantee He will bring us to heaven. 

      How can we know if we are poor in spirit?  There are a few ways to tell.  First, if we are poor in spirit, we will not be condescending toward others.  If you have come to know the God who loves you at your worst, has seen you at your worst, and has felt in His body on the tree divine wrath against the sins you committed at your worst, you will deal graciously, not snobbishly, with others at their worst.   Second, the poor in spirit cherish Christ and all He has done for them.  In his beatitudinal sermon, Charles Spurgeon said it this way: “Christ is never precious till we are poor in spirit, we must see our own wants before we can perceive His wealth.”  Third, if we are poor in spirit we will be most content (blessed) and happy when admitting sin and meditating upon the Savior who loved us so infinitely much He voluntarily died for our sin.  That is to say, those poor in spirit are most happy when they make much of Christ, and are most discouraged when they make much of themselves.  The weight of having to put on a show, of having to parade a false show of piety, of having to portray ourselves as something when we are nothing, the weight of this is a miserable stress.  Happy is the man who has embraced spiritual poverty, for he has nothing to prove.  A proud man must keep up with appearances, but one who is poor in spirit has no appearances to keep up and has no fear others will find him out as he really is, for he knows and confesses himself a sinner and does not hide this from others, therefore he lives in freedom and joy before others, trusting in Christ alone to be saved. 

      Blessed are those convinced they deserve hell, for, in Christ, they possess heaven; blessed are the bankrupt, for in Christ God gives them a kingdom. 



[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount.  Eerdmans, 1976; pp. 40-41.

The Power of Words

There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing—Proverbs 12:18

You can thrust a sword through a man two ways: with steel or with words.  Both hurt, and both have the same effect—killing—yet rash words may cause more damage.  If you thrust a man through with a real sword, his life will end quickly and the pain soon subside; if you thrust a man through with nasty, vindictive words, you will end his life, but slowly, and the pain will linger.  Words are powerful.  Sticks and stones can break only bones, but words inflict pain cardiac-ally—they cut to the heart.         

      The proverb before us says words hurt or heal; they ruin or repair; they can kill or bring to life.  “Rash” words are “reckless words spoken inconsiderately in disregard of their harmful effect, rash vows uttered without proper forethought or careful consideration, and harsh words and extreme overstatements spoken rashly in an unrestrained burst of anger.”[2]  In short, they are words spoken angrily, unrestrainedly, and without any consideration of the damage they will cause another.  Moses was prevented from entering Canaan for uttering such words (Psalm 106:33); he was extremely angry, he “saw red” as they say, and let it fly. 

      For those who justify their rash words, consider the homicide/suicide of a husband who shot his wife, then himself, because he could no longer handle her rashness.  She spoke nastily and vindictively, seeking in every way to pierce him through with the most brutal words she could muster.  It worked; her words pierced him; they cut. He cut back.  Words are not benign.  Without justifying the husband’s actions, the incident beacons a truth: words cut like a knife, a long knife.  And if you don’t believe it, you haven’t lived long enough.  You’ll believe it eventually, for you’ll see it.  You’ll see men and women furious, mad, even murderously so, yet no action was committed against them: only words spoken.  You’ll encounter people whose entire lives are lived in depression, near suicide, simply because of a rash word spoken to them by a loved one years, even decades earlier.  If you want to ruin a child, treat them like royalty but tell them they’re worthless: you’ll ruin them.  If you want to ruin other believers, speak rashly to them; if you want to ruin your spouse, you need only words.  And beware: the damage done by rash words spoken impatiently extends beyond the moment.  Even apologies cannot erase indelible scars.  Words have consequences; words leave marks.  You can apologize for a nasty word, but you cannot undo the harm.  Forgiveness removes the sword, but only the Resurrection removes the scar. 

      If you wonder whether or not you speak rashly, there is a way to tell.  Those prone to rashness in speech usually leave behind them a trail of disastrous relationships, a long trail of trashed friendships and broken relationships.  Unable to control their vexation or frustration, the moment they encounter difficulty their tongue lashes.  People can handle the lashing for a short while but eventually flee.  It is just too hard to be around such people; it hurts too much; the sword has plunged too deep too many times.

      The second phrase of the proverb is a welcome change: the tongue of the wise brings healing.  A wise tongue mends relationships, reconciles enemies, heals bitterness in soul, and leaves behind it a lengthy track record of people formerly broken but now healed.  Counselors are trained to heal; they specialize in healing with their tongue.  Amazing, isn’t it, how festering relational sores can be healed just by sitting in a room with another person and exchanging words.  Where a rash tongue ruins relationships and creates enemies, a wise tongue heals broken relationships and creates friends.  Rash-tongued people are oftentimes lonely and friendless; wise-tongued people are usually approached by hurting people in desperate need of a healing word.  

      How do we become wise-tongued?  At this point the moralist and Christian diverge.  The moralist says, “I will tame my tongue.”  Go ahead.  When you fail, read James 3:8: “No human being can tame the tongue.”  If you keep trying, you’ll notice a pattern in your life: extended periods of “niceness” followed by explosions of deadly words from out of nowhere.  You can’t tame your tongue.  By contrast, the Christian says, “I have a deeper problem than my tongue; I have a heart problem.”  Indeed we do.  Words are a matter of the heart.  Listen to the Bible’s teaching on the source of our words: “The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice.  The law of his God is in his heart” (Psalm 37:30-31); “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips” (Proverbs 16:23); “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34); “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart…for out of the heart come…false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19); “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).  I trust this truth is clear: our speech, whether good or ill, comes from our hearts.  Wise words of healing come from a healed heart; rash words of destruction come from a destroyed heart.  Which heart have you?  We’ll know it by our words—a humbling truth.

      How, then, can our hearts be healed?  They can be healed with the work of Christ, but they need to be healed specifically, meaning, when each of us speaks rash words, we need to ask ourselves not “if” we spoke rashly, but “why” we spoke rashly.  Why did we kill rather than heal?  And for those of us already justifying our rash words with excuses, let me say there is no excuse for them.  They are sinful.  Speaking rash words is sin.  For such we must repent, and on account of such we must examine: Why did I speak such?  If you examine “why” you spoke rashly, you’ll usually find a pattern, a consistent sickness in heart.

      If you are like me you speak such because you believe, at that moment, Burger King was right: Have it your way…right away.  You believe that if things proceed any other way than your way, and more slowly than you would like, the whole world will fall apart and God will fall off His throne.  This is partly true: your world will fall apart, and god (you) will fall off the throne.  These are good things, not bad.  I need my world to fall apart in order to remind me God’s way, not my way, is the best way; and why was I sitting on the throne anyway?  Should a mere mortal occupy the throne of God as if he were a god?  And why the impatience?  Does impatience ever produce genuine godliness?  No.  Never. 

      At such times the problem is a sick heart which has forgotten not only that patience is a fruit of the Spirit, but especially that patience is the only thing which delivered us from hell.  If God were impatient, I would right now be in hell; if God had no forbearance, I would not be His child.  If God had no patience, Adam and Eve wouldn’t have had time to fashion fig leaves; the earth would have opened and hell swallowed them the moment their tastebuds registered knowledge’s fruit.  But God is patient.  He waited to punish sin; he waited to unleash hell; He waited until Jesus was on the Cross before He punished my sins, and thank God He waited.  If he had punished my sins at any other time than at the cross, I’d be eternally condemned.  And if He had punished them in any other way, according to any other will, I’d be condemned as well.  But God knew how to restore our relationship with Him.  In order to restore it, God had to be patient, and He was.  And if we have tasted God’s kind treatment to us, we will treat others the same.  If God has spoken healing to our souls, we will speak healing to the souls of others.  Impatience damns and destroys people; patience reconciles and heals people.  Oh, my fellow brothers and sisters, we treat others as we believe God treats us.  If we speak rashly to others, it is because in our heart of hearts we believe God speaks rashly to us; if we speak words of healing, it is because we believe God speaks words of healing and reconciliation to us.  What do you believe about God? 

      The next time you are tempted to speak rashly, thoughtlessly, or impatiently, remember the Almighty God of the universe could have spoken rashly to you, but He didn’t.  He could have said, justly so, and immediately, “You’ve earned hell.  Bye.”  But in wisdom he spoke words of healing, “I’ll send a seed of Eve to save you” (Genesis 3:15).  If you have tasted of the healing power of God’s good news to you, you will undergo a heart change.  If you have felt in your soul the damnable situation you were in, and have heard from God not “Burn in hell for your sins”, but, “By Jesus stripes you are healed”, you will never speak the same.     



[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount.  Eerdmans, 1976; pp. 40-41.

[2] New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Vol. 1. Edited by Willem A. Van Gemeren; Zondervan, 1997; p. 642.

Jesus Satisfying

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus—Romans 3:21-26

Verses 24-25 contain powerful words for our noticement: “justified”; “grace”; “gift”; “redemption”; “propitiation”; “blood.” 

      That we are “justified” means “declared morally righteous.”  Notice two things.  First, being declared morally righteous is far different than being morally righteous.  In this life we are becoming morally righteous (sanctification), but not until the next life will we be fully there.  Second, being declared righteous is more than forgiveness of sins.  To be declared righteous is indeed a declaration our sins are forgiven (innocence; clean slate), but is also, additionally, a declaration of complete moral perfection.  We are credited with the holiness and perfect obedience of Jesus Christ!  A foreign righteousness, a righteousness outside ourselves, Christ’s righteousness, is imputed to us, so that though we are not righteous in ourselves, God considers or counts us righteous. The Heidelberg Catechism beautifully states the case (Lord’s Day 23, Q&A #60),

Without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.

      Glorious, isn’t it!  If you are a Christian you are not on probation: you are a child, fully accepted, fully righteous; case closed.  Only never forget our righteous standing came through Jesus suffering the hell our unrighteousness deserves, and never forget the whole package is gifted to us by God’s sheer grace.  In “His grace”, God gave us the “gift” of Christ’s righteousness.  Merry Christmas; Merry Good Friday; Merry Easter.  Justification, then, is a gift to us from God, but the passage does not stop there.  Paul goes on to describe the cost of our justification—the price Jesus paid to redeem us.   

      Our entire salvation hangs on one word in the passage, a word without which man would still be an offense and God offended: blood.  His blood.  By his blood.  The means by which God’s holy wrath against sin is propitiated (satisfied, exhausted) is Christ’s blood.  What is so special about Christ’s blood?  Nothing and Everything.   

      Nothing: His blood was in every way ordinary.  Jesus’ hemoglobin carried oxygen at a normal saturation rate, say 97%.  His blood contained the usual amount of red and white cells, and the plasma content was “normal.” Medically and biologically speaking, and said cautiously, the blood running through Jesus’ arterial system differed none from that of any healthy human being alive today.

      Everything: His blood was in every way extraordinary.  In biblical terminology “blood” has a deeper meaning than the red stuff coursing through veins.  Blood is atonement.  Consider some New Testament passages: God obtained the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28); we have been justified by Jesus’ blood (Romans 5:9); In Christ we have redemption through his blood (Ephesians 1:7); God made peace by the blood of Christ’s cross (Colossians 1:20); our eternal redemption  is secured by Christ’s own blood (Hebrews 9:12); Jesus sanctified us through his own blood (Hebrews 13:12); the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7); and we are freed from sin by Jesus blood (Revelation 1:5).  Christianity is a religion soaked in The Blood.

      But blood is not new to the New Testament.  Consider a few passages from the Old Testament, especially Leviticus:

You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

Genesis 9:4

You shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out on the earth like water…Be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh.  You shall not eat it; you shall pour it out on the earth like water.

Deuteronomy 12:16,23-24

The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have give it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life…the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life.

Leviticus 17:11,14

All throughout the Old Testament animal blood is the focal point of sacrifice.  Though the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin, God commanded it shed in abundance.  Far from being clean, priests were covered in blood, and everyone attending the tabernacle and temple ceremonies knew one thing about Israel’s God: the only way to approach Him was through blood sacrifice. 

      Now the question we must answer is what is meant by blood, or, what does blood represent.  A careful glance at the O.T. passages above offers this answer: blood is life poured out to pay for sin.  Blood is life emptying unto death to atone for sin and satisfy God’s wrath.  Therefore, Jesus’ blood is extraordinary: the shedding of His blood is the emptying of His invaluable life unto death.  Hold that thought.

      What, then, did all the animal sacrifices mean?  They did not mean God is blood-thirsty.  They meant God is just: sin against Him must be paid by death.  God revealed this truth in the Garden of Eden, “In the day that you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17), and Paul states the case again in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.”  Sin against God merits death.  In order to atone for sin, life must be poured out, and since “life is in the blood”, pouring out blood “on the earth like water” (Deut. 12:16,24; 15:23) is symbolic of atoning for sin.  Pouring the blood on the earth symbolizes the emptying of life unto death in order to pay for sin and satisfy God’s wrath; concerning this the Old Testament is clear.  But what is not so clear is how God will accomplish complete forgiveness.  Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22), but the blood of bulls and goats isn’t enough.  Would God bring a final sacrifice to end all sacrifices?  If so, how would He do it?  After all, everyone knows God doesn’t have blood, so He cannot shed His own blood to pay for our sins.  God is spirit, and therefore does not have a circulatory system.  Prior to the incarnation this was true. 

      But one day that changed.  In order to atone for our sins God needed blood—He needed to obtain “his own” blood to obtain us.  This He did in the Lord Jesus Christ: God became man with real blood, and on a particular Thursday night, tucked away in a corner of Jerusalem during the Feast of Passover, in an upper room, Jesus in no uncertain terms said the unthinkable: “Drink of it…for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28; cf. Luke 22:20).  Did you hear it?  Jesus equated His blood with the blood of the Old Testament animal sacrifices.  He spoke of His blood being “poured out”, using exactly the same language of Deuteronomy 12:16,24.  This is not a random statement: Jesus replaced the pouring out of animal blood with the pouring out of His blood.  The new covenant has a new blood.  But there’s a difference: we weren’t allowed to drink the blood of animal sacrifices, but Jesus commands us to drink His blood—another subject for another time. 

         It gets better.  In Luke’s account of the Garden of Gethsemane, the Holy Spirit writes, “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground/earth.  Whether or not Luke realized the significance of these words, the Holy Spirit did: In the same manner as the O.T. sacrifices, Jesus’ blood was being poured out on the earth like water (sweat).  The sacrifice was being prepared; the sacrifice was dying.  There, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the blood of every Old Testament sacrifice which was poured out on the ground like water found its fulfillment: Jesus’ blood was being poured out onto the ground like water.  Jesus was in utter agony because He felt in His body and soul what He always knew in His head: He had come not to offer an animal sacrifice for our sins, but to be the sacrifice for our sins.  Blessed be the blood. 

There is a fountain filled with blood,

Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;

And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,

Lose all their guilty stains.

      There is still more.  The problem with Old Testament animal sacrifices was they did not satisfy the wrath of God.  No animal contained enough blood, enough life, to satisfy God’s wrath.  When the blood was drained, and the animal completely dead, the wrath of God remained, and so did sin.     

      But in Jesus Christ we find a different kind of sacrifice with infinitely valuable blood and life.  On the cross, the Lamb’s blood was shed; His life was poured out; He was emptied under the wrath of God.  But unlike every animal sacrifice prior—finite sacrifices which had not enough life in them—Jesus’ sacrifice was different.  At the end of the three hours of intense, acute hell, after God poured out His wrath against our sin on the Lamb, the Lamb was not dead.  The Blood had been spilt; The Life had been poured out, but the Life was not completely exhausted.  This time, the only time it has ever happened, and the last time it will ever be needed, the sacrifice had enough life in it to completely and entirely exhaust God’s wrath against our sin!  How do we know?  The Lamb cried out, “It is finished.”  No sacrifice had ever before declared such.  In fact, every animal sacrifice cried out, “It is NOT YET finished.”  With each passing year of sacrifices, there was not the removal of sin, but the reminder of sin (Hebrews 10:3).  Priests daily sacrificed animals, but sin remained (Hebrews 10:11).  Every single year the Jewish High Priest, while slaying the sacrificial lamb in the Temple court during the Feast of Passover, declared, “It is finished.”  But it never was.  Sins and wrath remained year after year.  The high priest’s benediction meant the end of the lamb’s life, but not the end of sin.  Oh, to hear the precious words resound from Jesus’ lips, “It is finished.”  The blood of the eternal covenant has been shed.  Your sins, believer, are forgiven.  Glory, Hallelujah! 

God Offended

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus—Romans 3:21-26

The Christian God is a God of moral absolutes, right and wrong, righteousness.  God is intolerant of evil: 

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousand, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.

Exodus 34:6-7

You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.  The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers…The LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

Psalm 5:4-6

Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

John 3:36

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…

Romans 1:18

      God hates sin, and if we think carefully about it we can relate.  Every human being is created in God’s image, and therefore, though sin has distorted the image, we possess in some measure a sense of justice, just like God.  Here’s proof.  If someone were to punch you in the face, or sexually assault your spouse, or rape a small child, or commit any number of injustices, what would be your natural reaction?  Revenge; payment; righteousness.  When we are sinned against we cry out, in some form or fashion, “I demand justice!  Give me justice!  Right the wrong by punishing the wrongdoer!”  Being created in God’s image means we want everything wrong with the world to be made right, and rightly so.   

      Now, if we who are sinful and broken have a strong disposition to punish evildoers, how much stronger do you suppose is God’s disposition to punish evildoers?   God is “of purer eyes than to see evil” (Habakkuk 1:13) and “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).  Wrongs committed against Him, therefore, are infinitely more heinous than wrongs committed against us sinful humans, so it makes sense that both God’s settled disposition against evil be infinitely greater.  Sins committed against human beings raise our ire; therefore, it is very reasonable that sins committed against the infinitely holy God raise His ire at least “a wee bit.”  Multiply your desire for justice times infinitude, and you will have barely scratched the surface of God’s desire for justice! 

      Not only is God righteous and just, He shows (displays) His righteousness.  Most of us, if honest, are slightly embarrassed when we give full vent to our wrath.  Our wrath against sin is intermixed with more sin: we blow our tops, throw what Paul calls “fits of rage”, or silently nurse bitterness in our souls.  Because our justice is almost always intermixed with embarrassing sins, we are slightly hesitant to exact justice in all its fullness.  But not God.  He is not in the least embarrassed or sheepish to display His righteousness.  He displays it in full force and without sin.  Far from embarrassed, God is glorified in displaying His absolute commitment to right and wrong, so much so that He orchestrated a divine drama played out over thousands of years and culminating when He “put forward” Jesus as a propitiation by his blood!  Why did God put Jesus forward?  Why did God wait until Christ was hanging to exact vengeance upon our sin?  He tells us why: “This was to show God’s righteousness.”  He did it to show all humanity the magnitude and glory of His righteousness.   

      In order to display His righteousness in full force, God exercised “divine forbearance”, passing over former sins.  In other words, God waited a very long time to display the full force of His righteousness.  Marvel at the patience of God!  The God who is not mocked waited while men mocked Him: “Where is the promise of His coming? (2 Peter 3:4)  Where is this God who punishes evil and rights wrongs?  I don’t see Him; He doesn’t exist; He’s a bluffer!  If He’s real, why doesn’t He show up and prove Himself!”  God waited through the long years of Israel’s wilderness rebellion; He waited through the period of judges when His people whored after other gods (Judges 2:17) and everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25); He waited through centuries of hypocrisy while people “faked” relationship with Him, bringing Him offerings but neglecting to do good to others, and assembling for worship services but not lifting a finger to seek justice, correct oppression, and protect the fatherless and widows (Isaiah 1:12-17); He waited until religious guides were blind (Matthew 23:16) and religion had so far degenerated into Satan’s grip that converts to Judaism were made children of hell rather than of heaven (Matthew 23:15).  Patiently bearing with the taunts and jeers, God waited, and waited, and waited. 

      Then it happened: the time fully came. God showed up.  He came; He walked; He talked; He miracled; He healed; He fell silent; He hung.  And while the Son hung the Father unleashed everything He had waited to unleash—the grand finale of His righteousness.  The amazing part?  Jesus, not we, bore God’s wrath against our unrighteousness.  The One who did everything right became everything we did wrong; the God offended by our sin became the offense of our sin; the God who hates unrighteousness took the blame for our unrighteousness.  And at that moment God displayed the seriousness with which He takes sin.  But if ever there was reason for God to punish sin lightly it was at the Cross.  If ever we might have expected a poker fold it was when the object of the Father’s infinite affection (Jesus) became everything God hates most (sin).  Never before or since has such a dilemma, such a “catch 22”, such a “rock and a hard place” existed in all creation.  Jesus Christ became the object of infinite extremes: He whom God loves most became that which God hates most. The universe paused; the stars stilled; the sun blushed; you could hear the Son agonizing in the loud cries and screams; you could hear the Father agonizing in His deafening silence.  What would God do?  How serious is He about righteousness?  Would He pour out His wrath against sin if it meant crushing His beloved Son?  Would He damn the beloved?  Would He forsake the Son of His bosom?  Would He crush in time the object of His eternal affection?  Just how far would God go to display His righteousness?  Would He do the unthinkable?  These questions hung over the crucified Christ like a cumulonimbus cloud: would the thunderstorm hit or roll over.  If the Father punishes the Son accordingly, He really does take sin seriously; but if the Father refuses to punish the Son, He isn’t just, and we aren’t justified.  Displaying His righteousness would crush His Son; withdrawing His righteousness would crush His sons.  Praise God He did it; He unleashed it; He poured the cup of His wrath down the throat of His Son, and Jesus drank, voluntarily I might add, every last drop.  The God who spoke voluminously throughout history said nothing: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me” met with silence.  Verdict: God takes His righteousness seriously.  Ask Jesus; He felt it.  In this God is most glorified; and in this we are most satisfied that the God who loves us doesn’t bluff. 

      What does this mean for believers?  It means our sanctification, holiness, and good deeds cannot in any way bear the weight of, or magnify the glory of, God’s righteousness.  God is growing us in holiness not so we can one day replace His Son but to glorify the work of His Son.  Any insertion of ourselves into the display of God’s righteousness at the Cross is a belittling of God’s glory, an anticlimax, a pair of smelly socks on the dinner plate.  It is offensive and upsetting, really.  This passage puts us in the only place we rightly occupy: sitting down in God’s redemption theatre with closed mouths.  As in the movie theatre, so in God’s redemption theatre, if you stand up you get in the way of others who came to see God’s glory displayed.  We’ve come to see God, and no one else.  Please sit down.        

      Which brings us to another implication: the closed mouth.  “Whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped…for by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:19-20).  Only those who have been silenced by the demands of God’s righteous law are hearers of His redemptive grace.  Christians are those whose mouths have been stopped, who have ceased bragging of themselves:    

You are not a Christian unless you have been made speechless!  How do you know whether you are a Christian or not?  It is that you ‘stop talking’.  The trouble with the non-Christian is that he goes on talking.  He says ‘I do not see this, I do not see that.  After all I am doing this and I am doing that.’  He is still talking. 

        How do you know whether a man is a Christian?  The answer is that his mouth is “shut.”  I like this forthrightness of the Gospel.  People need to have their mouths shut, ‘stopped’…You do not begin to be a Christian until your mouth is shut, is stopped, and you are speechless and have nothing to say.  You put up your arguments, and produce all your righteousness; then the Law speaks and it all withers to nothing—becomes ‘filthy rags’ and ‘dung’, and you have nothing to say.[1] 

Have you listened to the law condemn you?  Have you stopped talking long enough to hear God’s condemnation of your best deeds?  Have you stopped trying to persuade God you’re a cut above the rest?  If the law has not stopped your boasting in your good works, you are a moralist not a believer; if you have not undergone the law’s slaying of all your moral goodness, you are yet lost.  But if you have stopped, then you know the sweetness, the bliss, the joy, the unfathomable delight in soul of one who has tasted the sweetness of Paul’s discovery: “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may…be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Philippians 3:8-9).  God be praised.

 



[1] Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapters 3.20-4.25 (Banner of Truth, 2007); p. 19.

Man Offending

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is not distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus—Romans 3:21-26

This passage has been called not only the heart of Romans but the heart of the Bible, the place man offending, God offended, and the only mediator between the two meet.  Ever since the Garden of Eden where man offending overheard God offended mention something about sending a child to fix the problem, the Holy Spirit has been shining the spotlight on these three characters.  The only difference, really, between Genesis 3:15 and Romans 3:21-26 is we now know the Child’s name, and that somehow—something to do with Jesus’ blood—God emerges just and we justified.  More on that later.

      It’s a hard pill to swallow, if you’ve swallowed it—man offending.  We’d like to think ourselves harmless, innocent, or at least not much an inconvenience to others and especially not to our Maker.  But the Holy Spirit, in characteristic fashion, spells out our condition bluntly: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  Ouch.  We know He had to say it, but did He really have to say it?

      Sin is transgressing God’s command, yet much more.  Sin is a forfeiting of glory, an irreversible giving up of something we thought we could live without but can’t.  “All have sinned” would have been enough, but for the one asking, “What does my sin mean practically?”, the Holy Spirit explains, “falling short of the glory of God.”  As a result of our sin, we fall short of the glory of God. 

      To “fall short” means literally, “to lack; to be without.”  Every single human being lacks the glory with which God made us, the glory of God’s approval, the glory of being right with God.  Since the glory is gone, each of us lives daily with a keen sense something is drastically wrong with “Me”, and with “Them.”  Each human being has the keen sense that at one time we were glorious creatures, but that somewhere between the beginning of time and now something has gone terribly wrong.  Each of us feels we lack glory, we lack splendor, and we are not what we ought to be and are, therefore, trying to get it back.  There is something deeply and disturbingly wrong with us, and we hate it, and we want it fixed. 

      The reason we feel the emptiness so powerfully is we lost something we once had.  If we had been created without glory we would not miss it, at least not so much.  Men born blind don’t feel as keenly the darkness of blindness as a man whose seen creation’s glory and now cannot.  So too with men born deaf and paralyzed may desire to hear and be mobile, but not nearly as much as those who’ve once heard and been mobile.  If you don’t know what you’re missing you miss it less; if you’ve known it you long for its return.

      It gets worse.  Having a hole deep inside needing filled is bad enough, but we cannot fill it.  What we lost in Eden cannot be obtained on Earth.  What we forfeited in the Garden cannot be re-negotiated.  The hole in your heart which you believe can only be filled with a member of the opposite sex, or with a glorious career, or with a glorious child, or with a glorious house, or with a glorious body, can’t be filled with these.  But don’t take my word for it.  If you must, try it out for yourself.  Try filling the whole with what you do and who you hang out with, only be ready for great disappointment—the hole is bottomless.  And the emptiness is so pervasive non-Christians feel it too, and very aptly describe it.  Consider the early 1990’s lyrics from “Hole hearted”, sung by Extreme: 

Life's ambition occupies my time, priorities confuse the mind;
Happiness one step behind, this inner peace I've yet to find.
Rivers flow into the sea, yet even the sea is not so full of me;
If I'm not blind why can't I see, that a circle can't fit where a square should be.
There's a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you;
And this hole in my heart can't be filled with the things I do.

I’m not suggesting Extreme’s remedy (female companionship) correct; I don’t believe a being merely mortal can fill the hole.  But they did get two things right: there is a hole deep inside our hearts needing filled; the hole can’t be filled with achievements or success but only with a person. 

      Christianity says every human being is under divine disapproval; it makes sense, then, that we can feel it.  If you enter a room where the person in charge is displeased with subordinates, you describe the situation thus: “I could feel the tension; the tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife.”  Without a word you can “feel” tension in human relationships, so if we can “feel” tension in human relationships, how much more can we feel the tension in relationship with God?  Much more.  All human beings by nature reside under divine disapproval, a state which we can sense.  We all know our biggest problem is we’re at odds with the God who made us, and have been at odds with him since the time we exchanged the glory He created us with for the more extensive glory we thought we could obtain apart from Him.  Oh to have Him back!  Oh to have the hole forever filled, filled with God!  Our hearts are made for God and are restless until they find their rest in Him.  God is not pleased with fallen human beings.  You may not believe it, but I’m sure, if you’re honest with yourself, you can sense it.  You, as a person, are an offense to this God.  You have become dirty before a God who doesn’t dwell with dirt; we have become ugly to a God who does not live with ugliness; we have become inglorious in the presence of an all-glorious God. 

      Jesus can relate.  As He hung on the cross, by every external appearance an offscouring, a shameful sight, a truly hideous looking man, something far worse encroached upon Him, our lack of glory became His:

[While hanging on the Cross, Jesus] begins to feel a foreign sensation.  Somewhere during this day an unearthly foul odor began to waft, not around his nose, but his heart.  He feels dirty.  Human wickedness starts to crawl upon his spotless being—the living excrement from our souls.  The apple of his Father’s eye turns brown with rot.

        His Father!  He must face his Father like this!

        From heaven the Father now rouses himself like a lion disturbed, shakes his mane, and roars against the shriveling remnant of a man hanging on a cross.  Never has the Son seen the Father look at him so, never felt even the least of his hot breath.  But the roar shakes the unseen world and darkens the visible sky.  The Son does not recognize these eyes.

        “Son of Man!  Why have you behaved so?  You have cheated, lusted, stolen, gossiped—murdered, envied, hated, lied.  You have cursed, robbed, overspent, overeaten—fornicated, disobeyed, embezzled, and blasphemed.  Oh, the duties you have shirked, the children you have abandoned!  Who has ever so ignored the poor, so played the coward, so belittled my name?  Have you ever held your razor tongue?  What a self-righteous, pitiful drunk—you, who molest young boys, peddle killer drugs, travel in cliques, and mock your parents.  Who gave you the boldness to rig elections, foment revolutions, torture animals, and worship demons?  Does the list never end!  Splitting families, raping virgins, acting smugly, playing the pimp—buying politicians, practicing extortion, filming pornography, accepting bribes.  You have burned down buildings, perfected terrorist tactics, founded false religions, traded in slaves—relishing each morsel and bragging about it all.  I hate, I loathe these things in you!  Disgust for everything about you consumes me!  Can you not feel my wrath?”[1] 

        Oh, could He ever feel the wrath!   We hate to think Jesus became this inglorious because it means we’re such.  The Glorious one took upon Himself our shame; the Beautiful One our ugliness.  He was reckoned as ugly as us, and treated likewise.  It was horrendous.  That I should bear the curse of my disgrace is an unbearable thought; that God should bear it for me is unfathomable.  How can I live with such a thought?  How can I hold my head high with this teaching?  How can I live a self-respecting person?  You can’t.  If you come to grips with Jesus Christ suffering the penalty for your sins you won’t live: you’ll die to yourself and live for Him; and you won’t hold your head high, but level, humbled by your sin yet elated Christ paid for it; and you’ll not live a self-respecting person, but a Christ-exalting person whose nearly entirely forgot about self.  And when you live every minute of the day under the banner of this good news, you’ll feel the glory come back.  That hole in your heart you’ve been unable to fill will fill.  God loves you so much He became the curse due us.    “Someone loves me that much?” you ask.  Yes.  God—God alone—does.  The relationship is restored.  Glory!

      Christianity teaches men are wicked and depraved, deceitful and desperately sick in heart (Jeremiah 17:9).  We are, each of us, Ichabod, “The glory has departed.”  But in order to restore our glory, God, in amazing love, piled on His own back our filth, paid the penalty of our grunge, and gave us, in exchange, His glorious righteousness!  God gets all the glory; we get none.  And that, my friends, is glorious, and something which, once you’ve tasted it, you’ll spend the rest of your life glorying in.   

 



[1] When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada & Steven Estes.  Zondervan, 1997; pp. 53-54.

Doing Evangelism

To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some—1 Corinthians 9:22

Inside the phrase, “by all means” exists good and bad methods, well-thought and spur-of-the-moment methods, wise and foolish methods, but methods nonetheless, and methods which Christians must act upon.  Paul said he became all things, meaning he did something—whatever was necessary—to save people.  This is the principle we’ll look at: Doing something—anything—to save the lost. 

      Imagine a child was trapped inside a burning house.  Several people who could have helped stood motionless outside as the child screamed from inside, trapped underneath the collapsed roof and burning alive.  The only one who entered the house to attempt a rescue was an awkward teenager who happened to be passing by on his way home from school.  The teenager didn’t remove his backpack—there wasn’t time—and entered in through a large window, cutting his hands and knees deeply as he entered.  He held his breath each time he re-entered, and each time his breath ran out he emerged from the window, sucking for air and taking another deep breath as he returned to his desperate search.  The house collapsed some more, and the child stopped screaming, but the teenager managed to find the child, free the child from the wreckage, drag the child to the window, prop the child upon the window ledge (severely cutting the child’s back on the jagged glass), leap out the window, and pull the dangling arm of the child, tipping the child off the window ledge into his arms.  With what little breath he had left he began CPR on the unconscious child.

      The awkwardly mobile, out of shape teenage boy was nothing compared to the many able-bodied adults who could have rescued the child.  Standing by was a former fire-fighter bragging about how he used to rescue people, telling people of his expertise in rescuing folks from fires.  Four fathers from the neighborhood laughed at the teenager each time he came back to the window sucking for air—they laughed because the boy didn’t know better than to run upright through the house rather than crawl below the smoke.  And while the teenager and child bled massive amounts from their gaping wounds onto the sidewalk, one couple scolded the teenager for entering and leaving through the broken window rather than the front door: “Why didn’t you think before you acted?  The child is bleeding profusely; you’re both a bloody mess; you should have used the door.  Shame on you for your rescue method!”  Topping it all off was an EMT who pointed out the teenager’s deficient CPR methods: “Three breaths, not four, and then ten pumps, not fourteen.”  The teenager paid no attention; he was too busy coughing from smoke inhalation, pumping the child’s chest with what strength remained in his feeble arms, and using every ounce of breath to breathe life back into the child he rescued.  All he could think about was bringing the child from death to life; he didn’t even know the child, but had himself been rescued from a fire and resuscitated years earlier by a complete stranger; the child resuscitated; the teenager rejoiced.

      The newspapers hailed the teenager a hero; the neighbors hailed him ignorant and crazy, saying he should have known better than to enter a burning building without proper equipment and training.  Months later, after the child healed from severe burns and deep cuts, he saw the teenage kid heading back from school and ran outside to give him a huge hug.  He thanked him for caring about him enough to risk his life and undergo ridicule.  The two became best friends.

      Thankfully, some Christians are like the teenage boy, plunging themselves into dangerous situations in order to rescue dying sinners from hell.  These Christians are getting the job done, crass as their methods might be, because they actually care for lost souls.  They live daily with the knowledge they were once helplessly trapped in the grip of Satan’s inferno, and are therefore compelled to reach the lost as they were reached, to spend themselves as those were spent who saved them, to seek the lost because they were sought by Heaven’s Sacrificial Seeker.  By their lives they mock the sideline mockers, scorning their scorn with genuine care for lost sinners.       

      But regrettably, some of us are exactly like the neighbors, mocking from the sidelines, too proud to participate in the humbling work of evangelism.  And make no mistake, it is humbling.  Maybe this is why some of us aren’t doing it: we’re too proud to fail; too proud to become weak; too proud to care for the lost, to care for those “other” people, to care for those we once were. 

      I’m not sure why many of us mock those who invite prostitutes and homeless folks into their home, or scorn those who could have spoken the gospel better, or ridicule those who in saving the lost cut them deeply with the jagged glass of less-than-ideal theology.  Maybe one of the reasons we so readily scorn them is we feel guilty, for genuine Christians know way down deep that we, yes we ourselves, should be evangelizing.  Yet for some stubborn reason we justify our heartlessness, if not by finding something wrong with the methods of others, then by finding something (lack of time, hobbies, energy, a comfortable life) or someone (Christian family, Christian friends, children) to hide behind.      

      Briefly, notice three principles we can derive from the passage we’re looking at.  First: There is no wrong way to bring someone to Christ.  Every method is defective, and all gospel presentations could be done in better fashion, but there is no wrong way to “save some.”  Few stories illustrate this point better than the one about a lady who criticized D. L. Moody for his methods of evangelism.  After the lady criticized him, Moody replied to her, “I agree with you. I don’t like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you [evangelize]?” The lady replied, “I don’t do it.” Moody retorted, “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”  D. L. Moody used deficient methods to evangelize, and Paul used “all means” to save people.  What means are you using?  Are you having strangers over to your house; are you talking to your neighbors; are you becoming really good friends with non-Christians; are you speaking of what Christ has done on the Cross for you with all whom you come into contact?  Are you using all means at your disposal to save the lost?  Any means of saving people is acceptable; the only unacceptable means is no means.  If you’re a Christian standing on the sideline mocking believers who reach the lost with methods you don’t approve of, then you need to wonder if you’re really a Christian.  If, after examining yourself (2 Corinthians 13:5) you conclude you’re a genuine Christian, you’ll know it by your outreach.  Uncomfortable isn’t it.  I know.  But Jesus never calls us in without sending us out. 

      Second: There is no wrong way to come to Christ.  If by God’s grace you have become a Christian, then it matters not how you came to Christ but only that you came to Christ.  Every Christian is resuscitated into deep wounds and painful burns, but healing begins.  No matter what means God used to save you, be glad you are saved, and now you should care not so much how you save others as that you save others.

      Third: Evangelism requires each Christian do something.  Consider what Jeremy Walker wrote in The Brokenhearted Evangelist:

Do you pray for the men who stand to preach in your church—and elsewhere—pleading with God for a blessing upon the work?  Good—there will be no success without it!  Do you support the church with cheerful generosity, financially and in other ways, so that your local congregation and others might spread the gospel?  Excellent—much to be commended!  Do you encourage others who engage in this work, drawing alongside truehearted brothers and sisters, assuring them or your prayers and concern for them?  Praise God—much to be appreciated!  But what do you actually do? 

        Do you personally exercise your particular obligation and privilege to teach transgressors God’s ways?  [Psalm 51:13].  [Evangelism] is not something carried out by one, two, or a few people.  This is not a spectator sport, nor is it bounded by the physical limits of the pulpit.  It is not something carried out by a few particularly keen or overly enthusiastic or even strangely deluded individuals.  This is the work of an entire redeemed church of Jesus Christ—and not just collectively.[1]

        One more thing: don’t forget the joy of evangelism.  Remember the seventy-two Jesus sent out, two-by-two, to evangelize?  They’re ordinary people representative of all believers, and when they saw the mighty works which Jesus did through them, they came back rejoicing (Luke 10:17).  You, too, will rejoice exceedingly when used by God to cast out the demon of unbelief from the hearts of sinners. 

      The call to evangelism is no moralistic guilt trip; it is, rather, a gospel call for heart examination.  If you’ve been saved from your miserable condition by the Christ who was damned in your place; if you’ve been redeemed from slavery by the Jesus who sold Himself into the slavery of your sin; and if you’ve been rescued from hell’s pit by the Savior who went through the hell of God-forsakenness to reach you, then you’ll seek the sinners you once were.  You won’t need to be persuaded to reach the lost; you’ll reach them.  You won’t need to be hounded to evangelize; you’ll evangelize.  You won’t need to be prodded to tell others of Christ; you’ll tell them.  You’ll want to reach them; you’ll want to evangelize them; you’ll want to tell them.  From the groaning depths of your new heart, you’ll go so far as Paul in wishing yourself into hell if through your going there sinners would be saved (Romans 9:3).  Oh, brothers and sisters, this is no fairy tale wish, but the longing of a rescued heart.  Do you care for your unbelieving neighbors so much you’d willingly endure the infinite and eternal wrath of God in hell in order that they might be saved?  If so, then you’ll know it by your willingness to endure their ridicule and persecution when you speak to them of Christ.  If not, go weep for your soul as it’s either lost or very sick, for when you enter into a personal relationship with the Jesus who desired “by all means” to save you, even the means of a shameful cross and hell itself, you’ll use every means at your disposal, any and all, to bring others into saving relationship with the same Savior.     

 



[1] Jeremy Walker, The Brokenhearted Evangelist.  Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012; p. 23.

Hell: God Plays Fair

If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured out full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.  And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beats and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name—Revelation 14:9-11

Surely God does not mean what He says.  Surely God will relent from wrath after a few weeks of torment, right?  Surely God will pity the tortured in hell who dry for mercy, don’t you agree?  Isn’t He just kidding around a little, exaggerating, overemphasizing, threatening mankind to make a point from which He will eventually back down?  How can God carry through with this?  For those of us laughing at such questions, ridiculing in heart those who wrestle with the reality of hell, you might consider you’ve never understood hell, and you might consider, I surmise, that if ever a glimpse of those tormented should enter the eyes of your then glorious body, you wouldn’t consider such inquiries trite.  Hell is not to be taken lightly, and if you confess you believe in it, your life will show it.  It matters not what a man says about hell that tells me he believes it true, but how a man lives.  A man who lives flippantly, comfortably, and with no heart for the lost denies the reality of hell, no matter how much he may say he believes it.  Do you live like hell exists?  

       Many believe hell is impersonal torment, a place into which God piped limitless fuel, lit a match, and walked away never to return.  Such is not the case.  The wrath of God is personal, meaning God Himself inflicts His wrath against hell’s inhabitants (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).  The flames of God’s justice against sinners are upheld every second by His almighty hand, and the holy angels and the Lamb of God stand watching those tormented with fire and sulfur.   Hell would not be so bad if it was suffering brought on by an impersonal force, and if the God who made us were standing by with tears in His eyes, wishing it would stop.  But I tell you with God-honest sobriety and truth that one of the worst aspects of hell is its deeply personal: in hell, God is against you not for you.  Every ounce of His justice against your sin exacts vengeance upon your body and soul. Oh, my fellow men, this is a sobering truth, one which I tremble to speak of, and one which no human being would have invented.  If you do not believe in Jesus, you will suffer the infinite wrath of the God who gave you life.  If you trust not in Jesus to save you from the wrath to come, then He who personally formed you will personally torture you, and yours will be all the blame.  He who is now for your repentance will be eternally against you; He will keep you alive in body and soul only to punish you in body and soul. 

      Some of you may believe you’ve seen or experienced hell on earth, but you have no more seen hell on earth than Christians have experienced the fullness of heaven’s bliss on earth.  The tortures of burning men at the stake, of sewing them up in animal skins, of dousing them with flammable liquids and lighting them on fire, are not worthy to be compared to hell, for here and now God’s wrath is mixed with mercy, but not in hell.  There and then His wrath will be unalloyed, without any mercy, and the inhabitants thereof will “drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger” (Rev. 14:10).  Consider Jonathan Edward’s comments on this verse from his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God”:

[Against hell’s inhabitants] God will inflict wrath without any pity; when God beholds the ineffable extremity of your case, and sees your torment to be so vastly disproportioned to your strength, and sees how your poor soul is crushed and sinks down, as it were into an infinite gloom, he will have no compassion upon you, he will not withdraw the executions of His wrath, or in the least lighten His hand; there shall be no moderation or mercy…God will have no regard to your welfare, nor be at all careful lest you should suffer too much, in any other sense than only that you shall not suffer beyond what strict justice requires: nothing shall be withheld because it is too hard for you to bear.

      Still, some be-little hell by claiming God will relent.  Several years ago I watched a documentary on training techniques used by government agencies, and of particular interest was the nearly unanimous response of those deprived of sleep and food for one week.  After the deprivation, each person was given the choice to eat or to sleep, and nearly every single person chose sleep over food.  Rest is something we cannot live without, or not very long.  Give a man a good night’s sleep, and he can handle almost anything; take away a man’s sleep, and he will soon go insane.  Yet few take seriously the words of this text that God will not allow those in hell any rest, day or night, and after one day, or even one week, when their bodies are entirely exhausted from torment and they have screamed 1000 times over, “I cannot take anymore,” God will not relent.  The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they will have no rest day or night (Rev. 14:11).  

      Others pass off hell as something which God threatens but will not follow through on.  Such persons should read John 3:18 & 3:36, “Whoever does not believe is condemned already” and
“Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”  The divine jury is not out; the verdict is in.  If you die in unbelief, you will suffer eternally.  The wrath of God is on you, right now, unless you repent.  If I told you that you would die a tortured death at the hands of professional killers trained to keep you alive only to inflict more pain upon you, you would do everything in your power to escape it.  Yet those of you who are not born again are only a few days, a few months, or at most several years away from the infinitely greater torments of hell, and you seek no escape.  Oh, my fellow sinful man, at least be well informed that if you die in unbelief, on that day you will curse yourself.  I pray the Holy Spirit shows you the infinite, eternal consequences of your unbelief, and turns your heart around.  I pray you will stop dilly-dallying around with Jesus Christ, as if He were a teddy-bear, and as if the wrath of God against your sin were a figmund of His imagination.  I pray God will strike you in heart to flee the wrath which you now lie under, much like a man whose head has been fastened to the block awaiting the guillotine’s fall.    

      And now we brace for the most sobering aspect of hell: God has been there.  While Jesus Christ hung on the Cross He was forsaken, personally, by His own Father.  The wrath of God meted out upon Christ’s hanging body was no impersonal force, but the calculated, precise, just wrath of God against sin.  For the first, and only, time in history, Jesus was imputed with our sin and the Father beat down every ounce of His wrath upon the Son.  The beloved Son became accursed, and at that moment the Father unleashed hell itself against Him.  What did it look like?  No one knows.  God shut off the lights for three hours, but though no one saw it, Jesus felt every ounce of it.  And who can know the torment Jesus endured while undergoing wrath, for the eternal punishment of our sins was condensed into a few hours on the Cross: the Son suffered in time what it would have taken us all eternity to suffer.  The very thought ought to make every fiber of our being writhe with groans of thankfulness.  He did it; He endured it; He went through it.  God played fair:

For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine.  Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself.  He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death.  When he was a man, he played the man.  He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.[1]

      Oh, my non-Christian friends, please give sober thought to this truth: when your strength is exhausted, your energy consumed, and the torture of God’s wrath wracks your every nerve ending with unbearable pain, you will have no one to blame but yourself.  And if in that day you cry to Jesus, “This is not fair; You’re treating me unjustly; You’re making me suffer more than you ever suffered”, He will respond, “It is fair; you are being punished justly for your sins; and on the Cross I suffered infinitely more than you are suffering right now.  I know what you are feeling, for I have been through hell Myself.”  Not a single person in hell will suffer more than Jesus did on the Cross.  There was condensed into a single cup the infinite wrath of an All-Powerful God against every single sin of every single believer.  And Jesus drank its every drop.  And at the moment Jesus was imputed with our sin, redemption’s decree cried out more thunderously than Maximus, “Unleash hell!”  It was unleashed.  Now God knows what it’s like: He’s been there.  Is it any wonder that He desires all people to be saved?  Oh unbeliever if only you saw hell as the measure of God’s love for you, the measure of what He was willing to endure to save you, you would fall down before the merciful Father and ask His forgiveness.  You mock the God who hung on the Cross to offer you eternal life, and in so doing you mock yourself.  Don’t you see the wisdom of God?  He’s not merely a Judge, but a God who underwent His own judgment that you might be saved.  How much longer will you trifle with Him?  Has it ever occurred to you that he desires your redemption more than you do?  Don’t take my word for it; look at the Cross: He died to offer you life. 

      Some of us Christians may be asking for applications of the doctrine of hell.  Here is one in particular: evangelism.  Read, and re-read the following quotes from Spurgeon, then act on them:

If sinners be dammed, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. If they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees. Let no one go there unwarned and unprayed for.

Have you no wish for others to be saved? Then you are not saved yourself. Be sure of that.

 



[1] Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church.  W Publishing Group, 2004; p. 2.

 

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Then David came to Nob to Ahimelech the priest.  And Ahimelech came to meet David trembling and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?”  And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, ‘Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’  I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place.  Now then, what do you have on hand?  Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.”  And the priest answered David, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.”  And David answered the priest, “Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition.  The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey.  How much more today will their vessels be holy?”  So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away—1 Samuel 21:1-6

For highly moral people this passage slides down like a camel.  Seldom able to understand God’s mercy toward rule-breakers, moralists usually avoid this passage (because David lied to Ahimelech), and Rahab’s lie (Joshua 2:4-6), and Paul’s circumcising Timothy but not Titus (Acts 16:3 with Galatians 2:3).  More like Joab than King David, they demand Shimei’s head (2 Samuel 16:9) the moment he throws a rock, justifying the decapitation, of course, with the law: “You shall not curse a ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:28).  For them, and wrongfully so, Christianity is more about right and wrong than about what God has done to right our wrongs.  And, to be sure, their bantering sounds godly; after all, no Christian in his right mind is against doing what is right.    

      Here’s the rub of our text: David ate bread which it was not lawful for him to eat, and Jesus defended David’s lawless consumption of the bread:

“Have you not read...how [David] entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?’…If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matt. 12:3-4,7). 

How can Jesus approve David’s lawless eating?  Isn’t this a travesty of religious absolutes?  Where do we draw the line?  We draw the line where Jesus draws it, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Matthew 12:7)?  Mercy toward men is our teacher.  Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon, “Mercy and Not Sacrifice”, explains:

Hypocrites and self-righteous persons do much more commonly abound in the outward acts of worship of God than they do in the duties of righteousness and mercy towards their neighbors.  Thus it was with those notorious, self-righteous hypocrites in Christ’s time, viz. the Pharisees.  They very greatly abounded in the external acts of worship, such as prayers and fasting, and reading and teaching the law, and making proselytes, and tithing mint and anise and cumin [Matt. 23:23], seemed to spend almost all their time in acts of worship of God, so that the people had an extraordinary opinion of their holiness; but yet were notoriously negligent of acts of righteousness and mercy…

        …This may teach us how we may best judge of the state of religion in a town.  It looks well when there is a great deal of religious discourse in a town, at least if it be managed prudently and without any show of ostentation.  It looks well if there be a great deal done at outward acts of worship.  It looks well if a people are forward to come to the public worship, show a spirit to come seasonably to meeting and carry themselves devoutly in times of public worship.  It looks well if a people are forward to embrace opportunities of outward worship, of going to private meetings.  Such things look very well and gives ground to hope that there is a great deal of religion among a people.

        But it looks yet a great deal better when a professing people do excel other people in a just and righteous, humble, meek, peaceable, quiet, loving conversation one among another, far from all revenge and ill will, all living in love, studying to promote one another’s good, abounding in deeds of righteousness and mercy, apt to forbear with one another, apt to forgive one another, ready to deny themselves one for another, living together like a society of brethren in all Christian and holy behavior one towards another.” [1]

      Let’s update Edward’s insights by answering the question: How do hypocrisy and self-righteousness guise themselves as genuine Christianity in the Ozarks?  Answer: The same way they did in Edward’s day.  Ever been in a conversation like this?

      “Hi, nice to meet you.  I’m ‘Me’, and moved to Springfield from ‘Yonder, YO.’  What’s your name?”

        “Welcome to Springfield.  Nice to meet you too.  My name is ‘Been-here-longer-than-you’.  I’m a Christian; where do you go to church?”

        “Pardon?...I mean, uh, Gospel of Grace Church.  Why?”

        “What kind of church is it?”

        “Ahhh…” (voice trailing off, mind desperately searching for a good way to say what you’re about to say, trying to remember what ARPC stands for, and wondering if you should even use it because you’re afraid they’ll ask you if “Associate” means you’re only partly Reformed/Presbyterian), “…Presbyterian or Reformed or something like that.  God is sovereign and the people are friendly.  You should come.” 

        “No thanks; I already have a great church.  Presbyterian, huh?  What do they believe about baptism?”

        “Ummm…that we should do it.  It’s a sacrament.” (evasion tactic—you don’t have time to explain; you just wanted their name; supper’s burning, or soon will be).

        “Who do you baptize?” (they do have time).

        “Members of the visible church” (evasion tactic #2—use technical language to divert conversation).

        “Oh…” (diversion successful; they start to ask if that means there is an invisible church, then decide to Google “invisible church” later, and ask instead…), “What do you believe about speaking in tongues?”

        “Um…the early church did it in the absence of a closed canon; now we have the fullness of God’s special revelation in the 66 books of the Bible.”

        “Closed canon?…um, no, wait, there’s no such thing as a special Revelation…there’s only ever been the ordinary one at the Bible’s end.  What I mean is what kind of music do you sing in church?”

        “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”

        “Is it contemporary?”

        “We sing to skillful accompaniment.  Hey, can we get to all this later?  I wanted you to know my name, and me yours.  I pay all my taxes, mow the lawn, keep the decibels below 70, and promise to tackle anyone crawling through your front window.  We’ll have you over for supper sometime soon, how’s that?”

        “For supper, huh?” (clears throat, looks worried) “You wouldn’t feed us pork, would you?  Do you eat pork?  Pork is unclean and unhealthy, and we don’t eat it.”

        (Unaware “unclean” refers to old covenant foods laws from Numbers 11:1-8) “Yes, we love pork, but don’t worry, we buy lean pork and clean most of the fat off the meat, so it’s clean and healthy.  Why don’t you eat it?  Are you allergic to pork?”  

        (Unacquainted with Romans 14:2,14,17) “God doesn’t want us to eat pork.  I’ll teach you later.  For now, given your doctrinal beliefs, worship style, and eating habits, we can’t be friends, and I won’t be asking you to collect my mail when on vacation, and I certainly don’t trust you—I won’t be surprised if you’re the one crawling through my window someday—but we met, and I’m here if you ever want to discuss the Bible.  Do you have a copy of the Bible in the right translation?” 

        (Sarcastically) “I prefer Hebrew and Greek” (that should end the conversation quickly). 

        “No, I meant do you have an inspired translation of the Bible?” (you were wrong)

        (Alas, with 2 Timothy 3:16 and the history of OT and NT canon on the tip of your tongue, you fall silent and wonder if there’s a special “insider” brand of Christianity outside of which you’ve always stood; later, after listening to local church authorities, you’ll discover there is; enter crisis; later on, after searching the Scriptures, you find out there isn’t; relief)  “Judging by the way you asked the question, probably not.” 

        “I didn’t think so.  How about I give you one for free?  I have an extra.”

        “Free?  With no strings attached?”

        “No strings attached.  You just have to stop reading yours and read this one only, and come to my church.”

        “But those are strings…oh…nevermind.  I’ll pay double for it.  Here’s $30.00.  You don’t work for a local Bible retailer, do you?  Gotta run.” 

        “From who?” 

        (Tired of the skepticism) “Law enforcement.”

        “I thought so; I knew it!  I’ll be keeping my eye on you!!” 

      Notice what happened.  Christianity was defined not by love toward neighbor (mercy), but by denomination, baptismal recipients, extraordinary gifts, food, worship music, and Bible translation, all elements related to public worship (sacrifice).  What, then, is wrong with the conversation?  Nothing inherently, except that Christ did not say, “All people will know you’re My disciples by denomination, baptismal nuances, extraordinary gifts, what you eat and drink, music, and Bible translation.”  Rather, He said, “All will know you’re my disciples by your love for one another” (John 13:35).  So, now, how is it with you, Christian?  Amid efforts to obey Christ’s commandments, are you merciful toward men?  Do you care for your neighbor?  Do you stick up for widows in your church?  Do you even know the widows, the orphans, the poor, or the foreigners (recently relocated, visitors) in your church?  Are we concerned more with the record of our impeccable attendance in Sunday worship than with those alienated from the God we worship?  Sisters, are you concerned more with the appearance of your Sunday clothing than with those who lack clothing; or are you consumed with the quality of food you eat to the neglect of those who have little or no food; or do you pretend godliness on Sunday, yet live in disrespect for your husband throughout the week?  Brothers, are we staunch supporters of the regulative principle of worship, yet lacking a taste of God’s goodness as we worship; or are we particular about Bible translation, yet harsh with our wives and abusive to our children; or are we hyped over songs the church should and should not sing, but financially stingy toward a brother in need and unmercifully lazy while working for a less-than-stellar employer?  My fellow Christians, if the nature of our God has anything to do with how we live, and it does, then we should, each of us, be well acquainted with mercy toward men, for mercy, not rigid religious ritualism, is what God desires of us. 

      But if, professing Christian, you have a beef to pick with Ahimelech and Jesus, and want to trample mercy underfoot by ramming unmerciful rules down the throats of any and all, then, fair enough, open wide, for your God has an unmerciful pill to shove down your throat: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20).  God’s righteous law demands each human being suffer eternal damnation for his/her own sins: no substitutes allowed!  A little hard to swallow?  Why?…it’s just your own medicine.  Do you force others to drink the rules straight up?  Then, without dilution, you also must drink.  Fair is fair, right?  Rules are rules, right?  You must die for your own sins.  Case closed; law kept.  You who unmercifully make others live by the strictures of God’s law, how do you like being held, unmercifully, to the same strictures?  Surrender yet?...good.  Now listen to what God, in mercy, has done for you, and let it transform you, and especially your attitude toward those you look down upon.

      God’s Mercy #1: You have sinned against an eternal and holy God, and therefore deserve to suffer His eternal and infinite wrath in hell.  If you’re not there (if you’re reading this I assure you you’re not in hell), then God is exercising forbearance and patience toward you.  Mercy #2: In order to save you, God had to allow that someone else could pay the punishment due your sins (impossible: Ezekiel 18:20).  Mercy #3: God had to find a human being, like you in every way, who could stand up to the full force of His wrath against your sin without crumbling (impossible: Psalm 130:3).  Mercy #4: But, since all men are fallen (Romans 3:10), and therefore unable to pay the ransom for their own sins, or the sins of others (Psalm 49:7-9), God had to bring into world history a human being untainted with sin (impossible: Job 14:4; 15:14; Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12; Ephesians 2:3), able to live sin-lessly (impossible: Romans 7:18-19; 1 John 1:8,10), willing to lay down His life for those who hate Him (John 1:11; Romans 5:10), and able to bear-up under the crushing weight of God’s fierce wrath against sin (impossible: Nahum 1:6).  Mercy #5: He did it!  God, in mercy toward you, did not send you to hell the moment you were conceived (mercy #1); He devised a method called imputation whereby Jesus Christ, though Himself sinless, could be accounted/considered sinful by taking upon Himself our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21; mercy #2); God promised He would send a human being who could shoulder the weight of our iniquities (Isaiah 53:6) and withstand the infinite crush of God’s wrath against sin (Isaiah 53:10; mercy #3); God Himself came into this world through a virgin woman conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-23), taking on every aspect of our humanity (Hebrews 2:17) except sin, and was tempted in every way yet never fell (Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 4:15), all because He knew He was the only one who could withstand His wrath against our sin (Romans 3:23-25; mercy #4), and He faltered not: “It is finished!” (John 19:30).  Oh, believer, has it ever occurred to you how far out of His way God went to show you mercy?  An attribute of God’s divine nature is mercy; if you’ve partaken of His nature (2 Peter 1:4), you will grow in mercy.  And in case you believe I’m charting new theological waters, read the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A’s 10-18, written 450 years ago (A.D. 1563).  It’s all there.  Praise God our Savior, it’s all there. 



[1] Works of Jonathan Edwards, V. 22;  Edited by Harry S. Stout.  Yale University Press, 2003; pp. 123; 132-133.

 

Is God Angry With Me?

 

“What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin before your father, that he seeks my life?” And [Jonathan] said to him, “Far from it! You shall not die. Behold, my father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me. And why should my father hide this from me? It is not so.” But David vowed again, saying, “Your father knows well that I have found favor in your eyes, and he thinks, 'Do not let Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved.' But truly, as the LORD lives and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death.” Then Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.”—1 Samuel 20:1-4

 

     We’ve all been there, or soon will be. The doubts and skepticisms about our safety from God’s wrath turn from ordinary tidal flux to pummeling waves. Most Christians live somewhere between presumption’s mirage and despair’s desert, but every now and then the Almighty carves an unavoidable cliff of doubt over which we must fall. Walking over the cliff, we suddenly relate to John Bunyan’s Little-Faith when the three rogues—Faint-heart, Mistrust, and Guilt—mugged the silver bag of his assurance and bludgeoned him over the head. Though not forever lost, we feel presently ungrounded, and so we are, falling through life wondering if the Hands upon which we are engraved underwent cosmetic surgery. Taking Abraham’s words upon our lips, we cry, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know…?” (Genesis 15:8). How am I to really know if your wrath against me is fully satisfied? How can I be sure my soul hangs not precariously over hell’s fiery lake by a flammable thread? How can I know that the promises which yesterday I so firmly believed remain true when today I so confidently doubt? How can I know if, when I behold the Lamb of God face to face at the Last, He will find faith, in me?” Welcome to the Christian life: though the object of our faith be perfect and steadfast, our faith itself quakes like fault-line ground.

     Strangely, we draw comfort from David’s doubts. The man God chose to anoint wonders if he is chosen; the man who took off Goliath’s head wonders if he’ll keep his own; the man who escaped Saul’s jealous spear wonders if he will continue to escape. David doubts; so do we; praise God David was afraid.

     Few things are worse than absence of salvation’s assurance, than finding yourself praying with David, “Take not your Holy Spirit from me”, than having the promises of God seemingly turn from “Yes and amen” to “No and maybe.” You attend the funeral of a friend, of like age or younger, and, keenly aware the statistics call for division of your body and soul, you ask, “Knowing Christianity has the answer for death, am I a Christian?” Or we wake one day surrounded by doubt and fear, for no apparent reason, other than, we conjecture, the guardian angel of our assurance daydreamed for a moment, and Satan took advantage of the temporary lapse in our protection, and we reel with thoughts of coming face to face with a God whose wrath we are not so sure has been taken away.

     At such times, what we need most is a Jonathan; someone to say to us, “Whatever you say, I will do for you”; someone to do whatever it takes to reassure us that the wrath of God does not remain on us (John 3:36). More on this later.

     In order to bring ailing David comfort, Jonathan and he devise a plan to test Saul’s wrath against David. If Saul congenially excused David from the new moon feast, David had nothing to fear; but if David’s absence infuriated Saul, David was in great danger. And in order to communicate the test results, they devised a fancy scheme of shooting and chasing arrows. Here is how it played out.

     Jonathan, doing all things necessary to assure David he need not fear Saul’s wrath, strides confidently to the feast, pulling up a chair near his father. Jonathan risks his life for David, sitting in the place of danger in order to find out Saul’s anger, and he found out the worst. Saul was angry: “Bring [David] to me, for he shall surely die” (1 Sam. 20:31).

     The next day, grieved, Jonathan told David the news according to their bow-and-arrow plan. Since arrows in the Bible, when portrayed as God’s arrows, represent God’s wrath1, it is no stretch to say the scenario enacted by David and Jonathan was highly symbolic. The significance is this: David is clear if the young boy looking for the arrows goes beyond the arrows, symbolizing the wrath of God (the arrows) having been outperformed; however, David is in trouble if the boy does not go beyond the arrows, symbolizing that the arrows of wrath outperformed the boy. The issue of the scene, then, is whether or not the boy extends farther than the arrows, or the arrows extend farther than the boy; whether the arrows outpace, outdo, and out-distance the boy, or whether the boy outpaces, outdoes, and out-distances the arrows.

     So there sits David, symbolized by the little boy, outdone by the arrows of wrath. The arrows Jonathan shot flew beyond the boy. David was right: there was but one step between him and death. Jonathan’s presence at the feast, his work on David’s behalf, his explanation of David’s absence to his father—all these succeeded not in assuaging Saul’s wrath against David.

     What is the point of the story? This: we are David, Saul’s wrath is God’s wrath, and Jonathan is the Christ-figure. Christians have no problem affirming they often fear God’s wrath against them, and they have no problem affirming the ability of God’s wrath to put them to death. Christians believe, and must believe, that we were once children of wrath (Eph. 2:3), ungodly enemies of God (Rom. 5:6-10) whose sins were punishable by eternal conscious torment at the hands of a God righteously indignant against sin. The Christian God will by no means clear the guilty (Exodus 34:7). He is a “jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies…Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him” (Nahum 1:2,6). Yes, Christian, this is your God, who changes not (Malachi 3:6), and this is His disposition toward sin, all sin, including our sin. We have every reason to tremble at God’s wrath, for we deserve to be punished eternally for our sins. There is one thing sinful human being have earned aright: hell. We deserve to come face to face with the holy God whose eyes flame with fire and whose anger against sin is a consuming fire. To use the language of Jonathan Edwards in his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, here is the predicament in which we once stood:

 

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

 

God help us. Fear not, He has. The difference between David’s situation and ours, then, lies not so much in the difference between David and us, or between Saul’s wrath and God’s wrath, but between Jonathan and Jesus. Jesus is a better mediator than Jonathan. Jonathan couldn’t assuage Saul’s wrath, but Jesus assuaged God’s. Where Jonathan failed, the greater than Jonathan succeeded. Jonathan went to the New Moon meal to find out David’s standing with Saul, but Jesus arrived at the Cross knowing full well our standing with God; Jonathan went to the meal unaware he was risking his life to protect David, but Jesus ate His last meal cognizant He would lose His life to protect us; Jonathan came to the meal and sat in his own place, but Jesus came to earth to stand in our place; Jonathan came to the meal unsure of his father’s anger toward David, but Jesus came to earth fully aware of His Father’s wrath against us; and Jonathan escaped Saul’s wrath, but, on the Cross, the wrath of God pinned Jesus, drove straight through Him like a spear, tore Him, and consumed Him. O, believer, there is no greater remedy for your doubts than Calvary, and no greater answer to your fear of God’s wrath than Christ crucified. God is no less wrathful today than He was 3000 years ago; He is no less angry toward sin than when David lived. And sinners today are no less under judgment than they were prior to Christ’s coming. We deserve to be struck, then, with God’s wrath, unless someone is struck in our place; we deserve to suffer the hell of eternal torment, unless someone suffers it for us; we deserve to be thrown into the abyss and endure, forever, the infinite wrath of an infinite God, unless someone, Someone, else, is thrown into the abyss and endures infinite wrath in our place. Far from ignoring the reality of God’s wrath, or passing it off as a nasty rumor, Christianity affirms it, and in so doing, proclaims a love greater than any other: God became man in order to suffer the penalty due our guilt.

     So you see, believer, that God is still wrathful against sin, but no longer against your sin, for Jesus drank, and exhausted, the infinite wrath of a holy God against your sins. And now, do you know what Jesus says to you? He says the same thing Jonathan said to David. “Go in peace” (1 Samuel 20:42), only Jesus words are better. It was easy for Jonathan to tell David to go in peace, but for David, the peace Jonathan left him with was partial and uncomfortable: Saul was still trying to kill David. But for you, dear Christian, there is a word of peace from the greater than Jonathan, your Lord Jesus Christ. But you must realize, unlike for Jonathan, it was not easy for Jesus to tell you, “Go in peace”, for our peace with God cost Jesus His life, and because He bore the full wrath of God against our sins, the peace Jesus leaves you with is full and comforting: God is no longer out to get you; we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). Hear it, soak your heart in it, and believe it, for Jesus laid down His life to achieve it, for you, and for your comfort:

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).

1 Numbers 24:8; Deuteronomy 32:23,42; Job 6:4; 20:23-24; Psalm 7:13; 18:13-14; 38:1-4; Ezekiel 5:13-16

Saul: Maddened by Idolatry

Saul sent messengers to David’s house to watch him, that he might kill him in the morning.  But Michal, David’s wife, told him, “If you do not escape with your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed.”  So Michal let David down through the window, and he fled away and escaped.  Michal took an image and laid it on the bed and put a pillow of goats’ hair at its head and covered it with the clothes.  And when Saul sent messengers to take David, she said, “He is sick.”  Then Saul sent the messengers to see David, saying, “Bring him up to me in the bed, that I may kill him.”  And when the messengers came in, behold, the image was in the bed, with the pillow of goats’ hair at its head.  Saul said to Michal, “Why have you deceived me thus and let my enemy go, so that he has escaped?”  And Michal answered Saul, “He said to me, ‘Let me go.  Why should I kill you?’”—1 Samuel 19:11-17

Ever since David struck down his ten thousands, and Saul his thousands (1 Sam. 18:7), Saul has been self-destructing.  Kings fought battles; great kings won; greater kings won more.  David, over against Saul, fights like a greater king, and each time he succeeds in battle, Saul tries to kill him.  David’s victories incite Saul’s anger.  In the text before us we are told why.

      There are biblical texts seldom exposited because the message of the text startles.  1 Samuel 19:11-24 is such a text, and the startling message is this: refuse to repent of idolatry, and you will be crushed, humiliated, destroyed.  Mess with God, and you, not He, will become a mess.  Play with God’s methods for life, and you, not God, will be played.  Mock God, and you, not He, will become a mockery.  You cannot break God’s Word; eventually, in the end, the Word will break you.   

      Christians worship the Triune God, which means we set the desires of our hearts upon Him, and particularly upon what He has accomplished for us through the work of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  Christians are enthralled with Jesus, enraptured by Him, consumed by His sacrificial love.  We spend our lives praising the Father for His plan to redeem us (election), the Son for His willingness to accomplish the plan (atonement), and the Holy Spirit for applying the benefits of the plan to us personally (regeneration).  Christians never “get over” this, and come what may, we never, or should never, allow anything to replace God in our lives.  But, as with Saul, we frequently fall into idolatry—the replacing of God with something or someone not-God.  What was Saul’s idol?  The passage offers us a subtle clue: “Michal took an image and laid it on the bed” (19:13).  What was David to Saul?  David was Saul’s idol.  Saul idolized David for what David had: prominence from God and praise from men. 

      Michal used an image, an idol, to counterfeit the presence of her husband David.  I doubt Michal gave careful thought, or any thought at all, to the portrait of idolatry when she tucked the image neatly into bed with clothes and goat’s hair.  The image she used was probably the closest, and quickest, thing she could find in the house to counterfeit David’s presence.  She had to make it look like David was in bed, and quickly. 

      Nevertheless, though Michal didn’t plan to preach a sermon by means of the image, the Holy Spirit did.  The image Michal used is an insight into Saul’s self-destruction.  Saul idolized David; Saul worshiped David.  An image of deception becomes a voice of truth.  The image in bed is a thousand words Saul must have muttered to himself; the image is the power behind thrown spears, Philistine foreskins, and years of hunting David in the wilderness.  Saul wanted what God had given David: power, authority, promises.  He set his life upon it.  Saul was in the trap of idolatry, what Herbert Schlossberg called ressentiment (roughly equivalent to “resentment”):

Ressentiment has its origin in the tendency to make comparisons between the attributes of another and one’s own attributes: wealth, possessions, appearance, intelligence, personality, friends, children.  Any perceived difference is enough to set the pathology in motion.  Ressentiment “whispers continually: ‘I can forgive everything, but not that you are—that you are what you are—that I am not what you are—indeed that I am not you.’”  The other’s very existence is a reproach.[1] 

        Saul could forgive anything, but not David for his existence—not David for his kingliness—not himself for his losing the kingship—not himself for not being David.  David’s very existence was a reproach of Saul.    Saul was at one time exalted by God and popular among the people, but these he lost.  And, since Saul based his life on prominence and praise, their leaving left Saul devoid of meaning, and to that we can relate.   

      Idolatry is almost always making something you can live without into something you cannot live without, turning something good or excellent (spouse, job, child, promotion) into something vital.  For this reason, idolatry is subtle, and deadly.  When idolatry arrives, we look as foolish as the carpenter of Isaiah 44:13-20, who, cutting down a tree, uses half the tree to cook his food, and worships the other half.   It must seem funny that a full-grown man would worship something he cut down—idolize something he conquered—and that is just the point: idolatry is ridiculous, yet we do it.  And most often we seldom notice it, after all, is exalting good things such as a spouse, a child, or a career to a place of preeminence in my heart really that bad?     

      Idolatry turns us into beasts, into animals, into dehumanized, uncontrollable entities.  If you have seen someone, or yourself been in, the throes of idolatry, you know they have lost what makes them human: boundaries, self-control, cognition.   Idols suck the life out worshipers, and the promise they once made—the promise of divinity—eventually, if believed and embraced, leaves us not only without divinity, but also without humanity, plunging us into the animal kingdom.        

      It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if Solzhenitsyn were wrong, if the problem of good and evil were somewhere out there, somewhere in society where we could arrest it, jail it, try it, and destroy it.  But he’s right:

If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?[2]

        Saul’s problem is not David; Saul’s problem is himself, and his unrepentant idolatry.  And in the same way our biggest problem is not the idol we worship, but our unrepentant worship of the idol.  Put another way, you and I don’t have to worship created things, but if we do, the problem is not with the created thing, rather, the problem is with our worship of it.  We are the problem.  Scary, isn’t it, but also enlivening.  If idols had to be worshiped, then we would have to rid our lives of them, and that is impossible: send us to the moon, and we’ll worship the Space Shuttle which took us there.  But since idols don’t have to be worshiped, that means we have the ability not to worship them.  We can live in a world full of idols—full of money, power, promiscuity, and success—and not bow down.  And this we shall do; hopefully, quickly.  If not, we shall come to a rather abrupt end.

      Saul is utterly consumed by his idol, and, in the end, perishes under it.  Saul was chasing his idol over against the Word of God, in order to break the Word of God, but in the end, the Word of God chased Saul down, and broke Him.  Instead of heeding the Word, stepping aside, and allowing David to arise into kingship according to the Word of the LORD, Saul fought against it, and lost.  At the end of the episode, even Saul had to acknowledge the power of the prophetic Word: what God says will come to pass, whether you like it or not, and you will be forced to acknowledge it ( 1 Samuel 19:23-24).

      Here is the cold shower: unrepentant idolatry will break you.  Some of us may be asking ourselves why life is unraveling, becoming increasingly frustrating, and filled with so much anger.  It may be that you are worshiping something or someone other than God.  Most often those closest to us can see it.  Do you ever ask them?  Others of us, like Saul, know exactly what we must do, and won’t.  We are trying to live comfortably in idolatry, and are broken, and are breaking those close to us.  Remember, idolatry destroys relationships.  Not only is Saul destroyed by his idolatry, but so is his family.  Jonathan has abandoned Saul, and Michal is lying to her dad.  Idolatry is a rippling sin: commit it unknowingly and rowing will become rough; commit it unrepentantly and from shore to shore your raft will become wreckage.  Saul’s entire life is wreckage; his family is in shambles; he won’t repent; he is broken. 

      My fellow Christians, toy not around with idolatry, for it toys not with you.  Discover it quickly before it blinds you and breaks you.  The moment you find your idol, repent of it and replace it with Christ.  Jesus promises you what an idol promises, but Jesus’ doesn’t lie.  He alone can satisfy you, and will.  He alone loves you so much He would die for you, and has.  Why do we waste time worshiping what cannot satisfy?  There is only one thing we cannot live without.  God’s ceaseless approval?  You have it in Christ, but nowhere else.  Idolize Him.    

      Worship an idol to attain heaven on earth, and life on earth will become a living hell; worship Jesus who suffered hell on earth, in your place, and life on earth will become heavenly, and heaven your inheritance.  Jesus is the only idol who shares what He has: Life; all other idols take from you what they don’t have: life.    

Michal: The Deafening Silence of Longing Love

Now Saul’s daughter Michal loved David.  And they told Saul, and the thing pleased him.  Saul thought, “Let me give her to him, that she may be a snare for him and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.”  Therefore Saul said to David a second time, “You shall now be my son-in-law.”  And Saul commanded his servants, “Speak to David in private and say, ‘Behold, the king has delight in you, and all his servants love you.  Now then become the king’s son-in-law.’”  And Saul’s servants spoke those words in the ears of David.  And David said, “Does it seem to you a little thing to become the king’s son-in-law, since I am a poor man and have no reputation?”  And the servants of Saul told him, “Thus and so did David speak.”  Then Saul said, “Thus shall you say to David, ‘The king desires no bride-price except a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, that he may be avenged of the king’s enemies.’”  Now Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines.  And when his servants told David these words, it pleased David well to be the king’s son-in-law.  Before the time had expired, David arose and went, along with his men, and killed two hundred of the Philistines.  And David brought their foreskins, which were given in full number to the king, that he might become the king’s son-in-law.  And Saul gave him his daughter Michal for a wife.  But when Saul saw and knew that the LORD was with David, and that Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved him, Saul was even more afraid of David—1 Samuel 18:17-29.

The passage begins and ends with a subtle, or not so subtle, statement of Michal’s fondness for David: “Michal loved David” (vv. 20,28).  Sandwiched between these statements is a heart-wrenching saga of two men on a power trip: Saul using Michal to kill David (1 Sam. 18:21,25); David using Michal to attain the status of son-in-law to the king (twice in vv. 26-27).  We can all relate. 

Michal was a princess, the daughter of a king, wealthy and of no little reputation.  Her love for David, a man of poverty and no reputation, was genuine, or at least more genuine than David’s for her.  David had killed Goliath, but was not wealthy or royal.  Michal’s love for David, then, was absent a cost-benefit analysis, and for that we can appreciate it.  Yet our hearts simultaneously ache for Michal.  Nowhere in the passage do we read David loved Michal.  The silence of his feelings for her is deafening. 

Not only is [Michal] the third party in this chapter said to love David, but she is also the only woman in the entire Hebrew Bible explicitly reported to love a man.  Nothing is said, by contrast, about what David feels toward Michal, and as the story of their relationship sinuously unfolds, his feelings toward her will continue to be left in question.[3]

Or are they left in question?  If we listen to the text, the deafening silence breaks, and breaks our hearts: “It pleased David well to be the king’s son-in-law” (v. 26).  The one thing for which our hearts long is to be loved for who we are; the one thing at which our hearts break is the news of being used.  David married Michal for what he could get out of her: the status of son-in-law to the king.  It would have been nice, wouldn’t it have, if David had killed 200 Philistines out of love for Michal, if David had been so madly in love with Michal that, blinded by love, he upped the ante 100% by exerting double the effort needed to attain her hand in marriage.  But he did no such thing: he killed 200 Philistines out of self-love, love for royalty, love for his own advancement.  He wanted to be the king’s son-in-law, not Michal’s husband.  Michal was a means to an end.  To make matters worse, not even her dad loved her: Saul’s only interest in Michal was using her to kill David.  There sat Michal, in the middle of a power struggle.  As the story closes, the reader feels, or should feel, deep sorrow for Michal.

I say we can relate because life in a fallen world is filled with Michals, with used lovers.  Oh, to be sure, not all find themselves in the details of Michal’s predicament—an envious father; a power-hungry husband—but all find themselves in the heart of Michal’s predicament—sold-out by those closest to them, and “loved” by self-aggrandizers.  The employee loves his employer, and labors tirelessly for him without a raise, but the employer loves the employee on the basis of profitability alone.  A child loves his parents, but his parents love him because he is a better baseball player than the son of their enemy, or because he behaves more appropriately in public than So-and-So’s son.  And someone you thought a genuine friend, a Jonathan of sorts to your lonely soul, turns out to love you for your money, your advice, your status in the circles in which you run.  They cared nothing for you as a person, because the moment you provided them nothing they didn’t already have, they left.

I remember sitting across from a parent and child some years ago for a meal, and during the course of the meal the child, maybe 9 years old, acted up a little and the parent said, “Stop it, you’re embarrassing me in front of our guests.”  What struck me was not the parent’s attitude toward the child, nor my own conviction that my attitude was, wrongly so, often the same toward my children, but the damage done to the child.  The child connected the dots immediately: mom and dad don’t love me for me, they love me for the reputation they can get out of me; they’re not concerned about my heart, but only about controlling my behavior to avoid damage to their reputation.  The child wanted a Greater than David’s love. 

The story is told of a wealthy British lady whose son cared diligently for her as she aged.  Her friends warned her he was a particularly hateful man, and he cared for her only to acquire her wealth.  As a mother, she scarce believed her friends, but decided one day to put the possibility that her son was caring for her solely to acquire wealth to rest.  She dressed as a bag lady and sat on the front stoop of her housing complex, and when her son arrived at his usual time, her identity completely concealed, she asked him for some help.  He spit on her, cussed her out, and degraded her for her poverty, telling her to get off his step and get a job, denouncing all helpless people as worthless.  His mother stood up and flipped back the hood to uncover her face.  He was exposed.  He had no heart for the helpless, which meant he had no heart for his helpless mother.  It was true: He wanted not her, but her money.   

You see, believer, what we all desire for Michal, and for ourselves, is a lover who loves us not for what He can get out of us, but for us.  David had everything to gain by marrying Michal; Michal had everything to lose.  Our hearts break for Michal.  But now imagine you’re not a valuable daughter of a king, but a worthless sinner.  Imagine that you, Christian, are a worthless bride, ugly and undesirable, banished from even the possibility of being loved, and left alone and lonely.  Imagine that you are not wealthy as Michal, but poor, and imagine you have nothing to offer a suitor, nothing attractive or beneficial to provide a lover, nothing which would produce in someone a desire to have you, to hold you, to love you.  Imagine that, unlike Michal, you have no status.  Imagine this true of yourself, and imagine what life would be like if you came to see yourself as you truly are: entirely worthless and utterly unworthy of anyone’s love.  If you grasped this, your poor heart would long for a love you know you don’t deserve, and you would search desperately for a lover who could satisfy that deep ache which wants to be loved but knows it will never happen.  What would it take for someone to satisfy you with their love?  Would it take an incredible lover, a lover who has no vested interest in himself, a Lover who cared only about his beloved, only about loving His bride and nothing for how his bride benefits him?  Would it take the Lover who didn’t just risk His life, but gave His life to acquire a loveless bride?  If your heart aches for Michal’s predicament, why doesn’t it ache infinitely more so for your predicament?  Michal had something to offer David; we have nothing to offer God: Michal loved David, but we hated Jesus; David had everything to gain marrying Michal, but Jesus had everything to lose marrying us; David’s marriage to Michal advanced his reputation, but Jesus’ marriage to us ruined His reputation; Michal’s hand in marriage meant status, but our hand in marriage meant sacrifice; marriage to Michal promoted David’s life; marriage to us demanded Jesus’ death; Michal was an opportunity for glory, but we were a guarantee of shame; David would have been crazy not to marry Michal, but Jesus was crazy to marry us; Michal represented to David instant royalty (humanly speaking), but we were to Jesus a crown of thorns, the mockery of a purple robe, floggings, spittings, crucifixion, and God-damnedness.  David married Michal to gain royalty.  The Greater David left behind his royalty to marry us, to marry you, to love an infinitely worthless bride. 

Don’t you see, dear Christian, the grace of love?  Don’t you see, fellow believer, David’s love for Michal has been superseded infinitely by Jesus’ love for you?  Don’t you see, beloved, that Jesus Christ lost all He had to attain us—merely us, simply us, nothing but us?  Don’t you see that His love for you is so powerful and strong that He did not merely risk His life to obtain something from you, but gave His life to attain you, His priceless treasure, His joy, His delight?  When you have been loved by the sacrificial Lover, you will be changed into one.  When, in your heart, you have experienced the Love of the Perfect Lover, Jesus, for you, an immeasurably worthless bride, and have tasted how worthless and thus undeserving you are to be loved by Him—when you have experienced this, you will never love the same.  You will love at the risk of being hurt.  You will shamelessly and tirelessly love those who benefit you in no way.  You will invest yourself in people who can hurt you, and will hurt you, and it will hurt.  But the alternative—lovelessness—is far worse.  The hell of heartache is nothing compared to the hell of hard-heartedness.  

There is no safe investment.  To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.  Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.  The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the danger and perturbations of love is Hell.[4]

 



[1] Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (Thomas Nelson, 1983), p. 52.  The quote inside the quote is from Max Scheler, Ressentiment.

[3] Robert Alter, The David Story (Norton, 1999), p. 115.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Harcourt, 1988), p. 121.

Jonathan: The Power of Powerlessness

As soon as [David] had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.  And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house.  Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.  And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt…As they were coming home, when David returned from striking down the Philistine…the women sang to one another as they celebrated, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”  And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him—1 Samuel 18:1-4,6-8

On account of David’s success, Saul’s life spiraled down into a life of anger (18:8) and intense rage (18:10).  Saul suffered from envy: the desire for the destruction of someone whose success threatens your success, whose rise in status threatens your status.  The worst part of envy is it sucks the life out its adherents.  Envy is entirely negative.  An envious person may be tremendously gifted and quite successful, yet the news of someone else, even one person, more gifted and more successful makes him miserable.  The envious person remains forever unable to live—he is angry that others are more alive than he. 

[The envious man] is not grateful for, or happy in, what he is or what he has.  The sin is deadly, less because it destroys him, than because it will not let him live.  It will not let him live as himself, grateful for his qualities and talents, such as they are, and making the best and most rewarding use of them.[3] 

Saul, controlled by his envy, lived to destroy David, but, in the end, his envy destroyed no one but himself.  Saul, not David, was a living dead man.  Saul was an addict, an addict to kingship—to prominence, to power, to control—“They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands, and what more can he have but the kingdom?” (18:8). 

      Addiction always commences with the addict doing the addiction—a drug user does the drug; a businessman does the money; a pervert does the perversion—but ends with the addiction doing the addict: the drug does (controls) the user; the money does (controls) the businessman; the perversion does (controls) the pervert.  The addict is enslaved: they cannot say, “No” to the addiction.  Such was Saul.  Unable to control himself, he “raved” (18:10).  Saul was out of control; his addiction for power and control were “doing” him, strangling him, cutting off his oxygen, sucking the life right out of him.  Look at the rest of his life and judge for yourself: does Saul live as a free man content with his sphere of influence, or does Saul live as a slave, a madman, ruthlessly angry that his sphere of influence wanes?  It would appear he lives as the latter.  And now consider the scariest part of the whole story: we can relate. 

      Daily surrounded by people whose power and influence prevent us from monopolizing others with our influence, we face the allure of power—of control and influence—and, if honest, confess it nearly irresistible.  But the gospel throws this ironic twist into the struggle for power: he who gives up power becomes powerful; he who grabs for power becomes powerless.  Think about it.  Who are the most genuinely influential people in your life?  I am not speaking of those who through threats coral you into obedience, but of those you want to follow, those who, in your heart, you respect and voluntarily come under the influence of?  If I had to guess, it is not those who control or manipulate you, but those who genuinely serve you and love you; not those who lord it over you, but those who become vulnerable to you; and not those who strip you of your worth to control you, but those who strip themselves of their worth to serve you.  If so, do you know why this is?  It is because such a person lives according to the gospel.  Do you know that your neighbors and non-Christian friends are starving for us to live this way with them?  If you open your eyes wide enough, and look carefully, even for a moment, you will see a world filled with people dehydrated by manipulative control freaks, and thirsting—desperately thirsting—for people strong enough to be vulnerable, to use their power to serve and love.  The world is filled with people who want to submit themselves to loving authority, but, having found no authorities who will not exploit them, make themselves their ultimate authority by withdrawing from all authority.  Springfield, MO is a skeptical culture, a culture with a fiercely independent spirit, a culture composed of people who have isolated themselves, withdrawn from each other and insulated themselves against nearly everything because they fear the abuse of power, whether political, financial, ecclesiastical, or familial.  But what many don’t see is the problem of abuse of power is not mainly with those people out there, but with us right here.  The biggest problem for the average Springfieldian is not the abuse of power by those in authority, but our addiction to our power and influence.  Every culture has its idols.  One of Springfield’s idols is control of environment, and it doesn’t take long to figure out.  When Rachelle and I first moved to Springfield 2.5 years ago I asked nearly everyone I met why they lived in or moved to this area.  The responses were, “Because there are fewer federal and state regulations” or “Because people keep to themselves” or “Because the crime rate is low.”  And after much thinking about it, distilling each reason down to its core, what most are really giving as the reason for living in Springfield is, “Because I can control my surroundings; I have power to live life how I want to live it, with no inconveniences.” 

      But what most don’t realize is that the addiction to power is deadly.  Living in the Springfield area does give us much power and control over the way we live, but for those of us who worship power and control, it fosters our addiction: this culture allows us to maximize our idol; we can live with our addiction unhindered, which always leads to envy and self-destruction. 

      You hear the envy and self-destruction from the lips of parents addicted to controlling their children.  As their children grow, the parents become angry—raving mad—at the influences of teachers, spouses, friends, employers, and the government.  And as they desperately try to put the influences to death, the parents die themselves, and soon live more like slaves than free men—they live like Saul.  Had they relinquished control appropriately, they may have gained it, but having demanded it, they lost it, and lost their children, and lost themselves. It is no accident that children of controlling parents seldom say, “Please help me; please direct me; please guide me.”  They usually say the opposite.  But it is also no accident that, for the most part, children of wise parents often say, “Help me; direct me; guide me.”  Why?  As children grow, the more power you give up to them, the more you receive, ironically. 

      You see the envy and self-destruction in the face of the husband addicted to power over his wife.  He is forever angry at those who exercise influence upon his wife: a teacher, a friend, an employer.  Enthroning himself, not Jesus, in his home, the husband loses control by being addicted to control.  Unwilling to make himself vulnerable, unwilling to be wrong or to let go a little bit, his wife goes, if not officially, certainly influentially, until such time as he stops controlling her.  By God’s design spouses have a powerful influence upon each other, but such an influence is not a monopoly, and the minute a spouse tries to control the other, they lose control both of themselves and of the other. 

      And you hear the envy and self-destruction from the lips of so many Christians addicted to power over their spiritual lives: they are forever angry at those who exercise influence upon their spirituality.  They usually spend the rest of their lives vehemently denouncing anyone who disagrees with them, and shedding more heat than light on a given subject.  They are addicted to spiritual power, and their addiction strangles what little faith they have, if any, and makes them unfit for any real use in spreading the gospel.  They cannot tell you much about Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, or about what He accomplished on the cross, or about the good news of reconciliation with God, but they could write a book, and will speak one if you let them, about what they don’t believe, and about what others believe but shouldn’t, and about why they are the only one whose interpretation of the Bible is correct.  They are addicted to control, including control of the Bible. 

      What, then, does Springfield need?  What can we Christians at Gospel of Grace Church do to shine as lights in an escapist, reclusive culture darkened by addiction to power and control?  We can take a long, hard look at Jonathan.

      Jonathan, the son of King Saul, the rightful heir to Israel’s throne, instead of envying David, stripped himself of his robe and gave it to David, along with his armor, sword, bow, and belt.  Instead of challenging David’s rise to power, Jonathan acknowledged it, embraced it, and made himself utterly vulnerable to it.  Jonathan gave David his very own sword, and by so doing, said, in effect, “Do with me as you please, even kill me; I am your servant.”  Don’t you see, believer, that at great cost to himself, Jonathan gave up his power and control, and thereby loved David and enjoyed an incredible friendship.  And there, in the person of Jonathan, we see a picture of the Greater than Jonathan, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Jonathan loved David at the risk of losing his throne, but Jesus Christ loved you at the cost of leaving His throne.  At the risk of being exploited, Jonathan made himself utterly vulnerable to David by giving him his sword, but at the cost of being exploited, Jesus Christ came among us with no sword, and made Himself so incredibly vulnerable we could kill Him, and did.  Jonathan stripped off his robe and gave it to David, but Jesus exchanged His royal robe for a robe of mockery, in order to give to us His robe of righteousness.  Don’t you see, dear Christian, that the only cure for addiction to power, the only cure for a life of envy and hate, is to give up power, to relinquish power, and to saturate yourself with the Savior who gave up every ounce of power and every last breathe in order to have us? 

      Matthew Henry, commenting on this passage, put it this way:

Our Lord Jesus has thus shown his love to us, that he stripped himself to clothe us, emptied himself to enrich us; nay, he did more than Jonathan, he clothed himself with our rags, whereas Jonathan did not put on David’s.

      Do you realize, believer, that Jesus loved you so much He covenanted Himself to leave His throne for you so you could sit enthroned with Him?  Do you realize Jesus loved you so much that on the Cross He was ashamedly stripped of His clothing, so we could be clothed unashamed in His royal robes?  Are you afraid to become vulnerable?  Then you have not come to grips with Jesus becoming so utterly vulnerable that you could crucify Him with your sins, and you did, in order that you might be saved.  Are you afraid to let go of power and control?  Then you have not come to grips with Jesus letting go of all his power, trusting in His Father’s good will, even to death, in order to rescue you.  If you live vulnerably, you will discover the unexpected: people will trust you, will covenant with you, will embrace you, and will appreciate you.  Then you can enjoy the influence you have in the lives of your children, while you have it, and will be thankful to relinquish it as they grow; then you’ll enjoy the influence you have in the life of your spouse, while you both live, and will grow in marriage; and then you’ll have an uncanny influence upon your non-Christian friends, and will become highly influential with them.  And watch, someday, maybe soon, as you live vulnerably among non-Christians, they may ask you to explain why you live in such a way that people can take advantage of you.  With a smile on your face, you can explain how God loved you: He made Himself vulnerable enough to be taken advantage of, and was taken advantage of, so you could be saved.  That’s a message no other religion spreads. 

David & Goliath (Part 1)

When the Philistine [Goliath] arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine.  And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead.  The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.  So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him.  There was no sword in the hand of David.  Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it.  When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.  And the men of Israel and Judah rose with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron—1 Samuel 17:48-52

Goliath sounds an awful lot like Satan and our sins: “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field” (1 Samuel 17:44).  Goliath wasn’t kidding.  He would have made minced meat of any Israelite who challenged him.  And as the Israelites stood across the valley from Goliath, their fear and dismay (v. 11) is not surprising.  You would have shaken in your boots too.  The Israelites probably felt before Goliath like a marked terrorist, armed with only a BB gun, would before a fully-armed Navy SEAL, in an open field: helpless, hopeless, and wishing desperately he was on your side.  Probably, after seeing Goliath, some Israelites wished they were Philistines for as long as Goliath was one.

      But the end of the story is a far different scene.  The Israelites, the scaredy-cats, are chasing down the Philistines.  What happened?  A young boy, David by name, buried a stone in the giant’s head, but what does it mean?  What changed the Israelites from fearful to confident?  One thing: the Israelite’s saw their champion defeat the Philistine’s champion; they saw their anointed one, their messiah-ed one, their Christ-ened one, do something for them. 

      There are basically two ways to unfold the story of David and Goliath, depending upon our preconceived notions of what the Old Testament is about.  Wait a minute, did I just say our preconceived notions of the Bible affect the way we interpret passages within it?  Yes I did, contrary to the approach of supposedly objective thinkers who believe the Bible provides no internal evidence of how it should be read.  Why is it so important to acknowledge everyone approaches the Bible with an agenda?  It is important because it’s true: the atheist reads the Bible to disprove it, or prove it absurd; the agnostic reads the Bible to know for certain nothing can be certainly known; the moralist reads the Bible to find himself in it, and particularly what he must do to please God; the Christian reads the Bible to find Jesus, and especially the good news of what He has done for us. 

      There are, in other words, many ways to read the Bible, but if we take Luke 24:27, “He [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself”, seriously, and if apostolic preaching, which was always about Christ, is any guide, then we must read the Bible to find Christ.  The Bible is all about Jesus Christ.  He is the main character, without whom the Bible makes no sense.  Yes, I know, this approach sounds narrow-minded, but Christ narrowed it for us that we might not narrowly miss Him.  He wrote the Bible; probably, then, as with all authors, He knows the point of the story He wrote.  Indeed, my fellow Christian, if the Bible is ever to make sense to you, you must read it to find Christ; if you don’t, the Bible will become to you a drudgery—a story about what you should do, and must do, but know you cannot do, and will eventually lose interest in doing altogether.   

      If we read the epic of David and Goliath moralistically, we might derive the following morals:

1.       “The bigger they are, the harder they fall”; or

2.      “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”

These clichés invigorate a moralist, for a time, but leave Christians powerless.  Big enemies do fall hard, if they fall, but I threw all 5 stones at Satan—hit him square in the forehead—and he didn’t even totter.  Small dogs with massive fight defeat bigger dogs with little fight, but I bit Goliath with every ounce of fight I had—clenched with all my might—and he didn’t even blink: now he’s angrier.  I took a knife to a gun fight; I started a fight I can’t finish.  Please don’t tell me to be David.  I’ve tried already, really, I have, and I am not him.  If I must become a David, give me another religion.  

      You can rejoice: you are not, and will never have to become, David.

      David was a vulnerable boy, certainly not large or experienced enough to pass as a man, much less a warrior, even less a champion.  He walked into the fight of his life with five smooth stones and a sling—somebody should have told him Goliath didn’t come to play “catch” or “Annie annie over” across the valley.  David entered this epic battle clueless, and readers weep that a war between two nations will soon claim an innocent lad’s life.  But the careful reader will notice the Holy Spirit alluding to something: David, little, vulnerable, unarmed David looks like…a sacrificial lamb?  Pause, for a moment, and pretend you don’t know how the story ends.  Does David have a snowball’s chance in this battle?  No.  Not even close.  About as much a chance as a sheep before a pack of wolves.  

      But he enters anyway.  It should have been over quickly.  With one swing of his giant sword or one thrust of his spear, Goliath could have polished off young David.  Ironically, it was over quickly.  A smooth stone, slung by a boy confident in his God, landed in just the right spot, and penetrated deeply enough to kill the impenetrable fortress.  Did you notice verse 50?  “There was no sword in the hand of David.”  Weak, helpless, vulnerable, and virtually unarmed.  David defeated Goliath in utter weakness.  Does this remind you of Anyone else who defeated an opponent with weakness, Someone who entered a fight without a sword or club (Matthew 26:55), and demanded those with Him, Peter in particular, put their swords away?

      And then it ended.  Israel’s worst nightmare turned into one of her greatest victories.  The Philistines fled; the Israelites chased.  All Israel enjoyed the spoils of David’s victory.  David won the battle; every Israelite benefitted.  Theologians call this imputation—benefitting from a victory someone earned for you; enjoying the freedom of a battle someone else won for you.  Call it what you like, and if imputation over-complicates, call it being an Israelite in the battle of David and Goliath: you receive freely what David earned on your behalf.  You win because, and only because, David won.  You receive the plunder of an enemy (v. 53) David defeated for you. 

      But there is something you must know, dear believer: the Greater David’s sacrifice, the sacrifice of the One of whom David is only an analogy.  David fought Goliath at the risk of his life, but Jesus fought Satan, sin, and the law’s demands at the cost of His life.  David risked death to set the Israelites free; Jesus embraced death to set you free.  David risked his life; Jesus lost His life.  David walked into Israel’s battle with 5 smooth stones and a sling, but Jesus entered into our battle armed with nothing but Scriptures, which Scriptures demanded He die.  David entered a fight he didn’t pick, but Jesus entered a fight we picked with God in the Garden of Eden.  David risked his life to deliver his brothers from military defeat; Jesus gave His life to deliver His enemies from eternal punishment of body and soul.  David was mocked by the ones he fought to save (vv. 28,33), but Jesus was crucified by the ones He came to save.  The Greater David, Jesus Christ, won for us, on the Cross, our battle with sin, Satan, and the curse of the law, and we receive the benefits.  Theologians call this imputation—benefitting from a victory Jesus earned for you; enjoying the freedom of a battle Jesus won for you.  Call it what you like, and if imputation over-complicates, call it being a Christ-ian in the battle of Christ and Satan: you receive freely what Christ earned on your behalf.  You win because, and only because, Jesus won.  At the Cross, Satan and the rulers and authorities were disarmed—their firepower ransacked (Colossians 2:15).  Jesus, then, so to speak, is your Navy SEAL; Satan has the BB gun.  Fear not.   

      Where are you, Christian, in the story of David and Goliath?  You are an Israelite, scared to death of your enemies—Goliath in particular—and skeptical of the weak warrior who decided to risk his neck for you, only hoping, and secretly so lest you be ridiculed for hoping in a little boy, that this David guy will pull it off.  He did.  Israel won.  But David is only a picture of Jesus, your real champion.  Jesus’ weakness defeated Satan; His death is your victory.  You win, so enjoy the plunder. 

David & Goliath (Part 2)

—1 Samuel 17

Last week we noticed Jesus Christ in David; this week we notice ourselves in the Israelites.  The Old Testament is primarily about Jesus Christ, yet also about us: “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”  When Paul penned 2 Timothy 3:16, “all scripture” referred to the canon of the Old Testament—the New Testament canon was not yet formed—so we would be remiss to neglect the personal applications of David and Goliath. 

      The primary message of the text is clear: the Israelites’ champion set Israel free from Philistine domination.  Without David the Israelites were helpless, hopeless, despairing, and frightened.  The text uses powerful language to describe their state: “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid” (1 Samuel 17:11).  The word translated “dismayed” can mean “shattered”, where the inevitability of extensive or even total devastation looms.[4]  In short, both Saul and the Israelites believed they would soon be shattered, crushed, totally devastated by the Philistines, and if we are honest, or aware, we live every day surrounded and taunted by enemies which threaten the same.  How do you handle them? 

      For example, how do you face the enemy of bitterness, the giant of festering anger, the Goliath of constant hostility toward the few, or the many, who continually get under your skin?  The fear of facing them sours your entire attitude, and no matter your attempts to “just let it go” you cannot, and will not, and desire not to let it go.  The root of your bitterness is killing you, springing up and causing all sorts of problems in your life.  Your marriage is failing; your children resent you; your friends are fleeing.  You are continually, and increasingly, livid.  And Christians who believe the gospel can help annoy you, just like they annoyed Eliab (1 Samuel 17:28).  A Christian suggests your bitterness is really disbelief in the gospel, but you say it is more complicated than that.  And like Eliab, you say to him, “Look, buddy, I know you’re excited about the gospel of God’s victory, but my problems are too big for the gospel to solve.”  Really?  What if the gospel told you, bitter Christian, that Christ suffered, in your place, the infinite wrath of the God whose “skin your sin got under”, so He is no longer angry with you?  Would that settle your anger?  Yes, it would.  You are bitter toward others, amassing records of their debt, because you believe God is bitter toward you, amassing records of your debt.  The gospel says, however, that God incurred your debt, cancelled it, forgave it, let it go (Colossians 2:14-15).  Jesus paid your massive debt with His life; when the news melts you, you will erase the debts others owe you.             

      Or take the giant of guilt.  Every day the Philistine army (Satan; your own conscience) puts forth the biggest and most indicting sin in your life to intimidate you, to scare you, to create within you fear that Christ’s blood is not deep enough to immerse this sin from God’s sight.  So you run into the battle swinging the short sword of future obedience, or of “God as forgetful”, or of “God as indifferent”, but soon you fall into the sin again, or you realize God neither forgets nor is indifferent toward sin, and in one fell swoop, Goliath’s mammoth sword destroys you.  On the ground you lay, slain, stricken, plagued by guilt, and, on account of one sin, doubting whether or not you’re a child of God.  But what if the gospel told you that, in the midst of recurrent sin (Romans 7:19)—sin which you hate (Romans 7:15) but cannot seem to kick; sin which is so contrary to what you want to do that you cannot help but conclude, somehow, it is no longer you, but the sin inside of you, that causes you to do what you don’t want to do (Romans 7:17); and sin that makes you feel utterly wretched, even, almost, dead (Romans 7:24)—what if in the midst of such sin the gospel broke through into your ear-drums, saying, “There is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)?  If it was declared about you, dear Christian, would you believe it?  If you have seen Jesus march up Calvary’s hill to suffer hell for your recurrent sin, and crush Satan’s head in the process, then why do you listen to the snake say Christ is not enough for God to love you?  Isn’t it about time you drowned not only your sin, but Satan’s taunts, in the blood of Christ’s atoning sacrifice?  Isn’t it about time you stopped pretending your recurrent stands 9 feet tall with a helmet on and sword in hand?  Your recurrent sin lay on the ground decapitated; your hero, Jesus, has its head firmly in hand; it has been paid for.  The next time Goliath’s ghost taunts you, run to Golgotha, and there, listen to your True Judge cry out with finality, “It is finished.”  Go, then, and sin no more.   

      Or how will you face the giant of rejection?  How many of us wake in the morning scared someone may not accept us for who we are, may not appreciate the way we dress, the way we speak, the way we carry ourselves, the car we drive, the side of town on which we live, the spouse we married, the children we had, the career we hold, the company we keep, the hobbies we enjoy, the talents we have, or the Savior we claim?  Every minute we stand on the razor-thin edge of acceptance by others, and, if honest, are tired of being cut.  Then jump off the razor.  In Christ, believer, you are already accepted.  Jesus Christ was cast off, crucified outside Jerusalem’s gate (Hebrews 13:12), rejected by His own as a filthy, unclean thing, so that you could be brought in, accepted in the beloved, and now, we must learn to live with rejection, bearing the reproach Jesus endured (Hebrews 13:13).  No one can dull the pain of rejection when you lose a job, or are turned down for a job, but rejection need not shatter us.  No matter how men reject you, and they will, even those closest to you, you are accepted by the only One whose opinion matters.  When God’s acceptance of you, His delight in having you, permeates your soul, rejection will still be painful, and will leave you reeling, but will not crush you into despair.  

      Or how will you face the giant of failure?  It will rule over you until you see that in weakness, as a failure, as One about whom men said he was no Messiah, Jesus Christ conquered.  Now, his conquest is yours, and no matter how successful your career, your financial life, your social life, your family, your marriage, there is one life, your eternal life, which God promises will be a grand success.  Your crucified Savior, through His apparent failure, was raised from the dead in victory!  His supposed failure was, in reality, a grand victory, for you.  You need not fear failure in this life, for your heavenly success, which will soon be yours, is secure! 

      Or how will you take down the Goliath of depression (assuming the depression has no physiological basis) unless in the midst of feeling defeated, rejected and worthless, hopeless, cut-off, colorless and drab, and without a song, you know for sure that you are more than a conqueror (Romans 8:37), are “chosen and precious” in the sight of God (1 Peter 2:4), possess the certain hope of a glorious future (1 Peter 1:13), are the inheritor of a grand estate (1 Peter 1:4), have been made alive with Christ (Ephesians 2:4-7), and are one over whom God sings (Zephaniah 3:17)?  Will these truths, which are true of you, in Christ, change the way you view yourself, the way you feel about yourself?  They can, they should, they must, and they will if you drink deeply of them.  Does it matter to you that Jesus Christ was defeated and rejected in your place, cut-off by His Father, and left without so much as a song, with only loud cries, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” and “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit”?  Does it lift your spirit to know Jesus did this for you, yes, for you? 

      Or, finally, consider the giant of child-rearing.  How will you train, parents, your children to face the giant of the world?  They will, one day, leave your home, if not physically, at least influentially, and come face to face with the Philistines.  How can we prepare them for that day?  We can do one of three things: 

1.       We can throw our children to the giant as sacrificial lambs, pretending him little more than hot air.  We can plunge them into the world, with its ideologies, ethics, morals, pseudo-saviors, and religions, desperately hoping and diligently praying they find the One, True God.  We can give them a few “Jesus” tidbits, assure ourselves that their use of the word “Cross” means they are budding apologists, ripe for the robust defense of Christianity against the foremost religionists, ready to fillet prominent atheists in the public square, and hope for the best.  I suggest this is not our best option: they will be sacrificed in advancing the gospel among non-Christians, but for the grace of God.

2.      We can shelter them overly much, not teaching them about the giant, and not even allowing them to glimpse the reality of the giant (What was Jesse thinking, anyhow?  Shouldn’t he have kept David home at such a young age?).  We can raise them in a Christian commune, teach them to be scared to death of the world, and familiarize them with the Ostrich at an early age so they learn to bury their noggin in the reclusive sand of ignorant, and saltless, bliss.  We can even teach them the biggest problem in the world is the world, not their own hearts, but one day, hopefully soon, they will wake to the filth of their own hearts, and say with G.K. Chesterton, in answer to the question, What’s wrong with the world?, “I am.”  I suggest the Ostrich is not our best model; they will be useless for advancing the gospel among non-Christians, but for the grace of God. 

3.      We can teach them about the One who came into the world—into all its sicknesses, sins, dirtiness, prostitutions (literally and figuratively)—and defeated the giant.  We can, appropriately, as they mature, teach them about the realities of life in a fallen world: the world is fallen into sin, and yes, sin is enormously ugly.  The world is filled with war, rape, murder, cussing, alcoholism and drug abuse, prostitution, thieving, and every other injustice, but what is more, the root of these lives in our children’s hearts: our children envy and exploit, want control, hate, tear others down, seek escape from reality, use others for what they can get out of them, and take what is not theirs.  Are we teaching them to handle these, or to fear them?  The Bible handles them, but do we shelter our children from the Bible?  The world is not an unconquerable giant; Jesus has overcome the world.  Christians, then, must be culturally engaged, not culturally afraid, or aloof, and as such, must teach their children not withdrawal from a scary world, but wisdom for living in a broken world, and for living with their own, sin-sick hearts.  I suggest this is our best option: they will be trained, and hopefully, more importantly, converted, to advance the gospel among non-Christians, trusting in the grace of God.  

Looking at the Heart

Samuel looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.”  But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.  For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”  Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel.  And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”  Then Jesse made Shammah pass by.  And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”  And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel.  And Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen these.”  Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?”  And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.”  And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.”  And he sent and brought him in.  Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.  And the LORD said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.”  Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers.  And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward.  And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah—1 Samuel 16:6-13

King Saul was handsome and tall, (1 Samuel 9:2), so when he failed as Israel’s king, and the Lord commissioned Samuel to replace him (1 Samuel 16:1), it was only natural Samuel should look for someone tall and handsome.  So he did, and Eliab, apparently a nut which fell not far from the tree, caught his attention.    

      But Samuel was in for a surprise.  The LORD rejected Eliab, then Abinadab, then Shammah, then the other four sons, and as Samuel stood by, maybe wondering if the Bethlehem phone book contained another “Jesse”, he asked Jesse if he had another son, one whom he forgot about or thought beneath the dignity of a king.  Jesse said he had one more, “the youngest,”[5] a rather trivial and insignificant lad, certainly not royal material, and who was out “who knows where” with the sheep.  Samuel perceived at once the lad should be sought, brought, and waited upon with at least an ounce of dignity, so everyone remained standing.   

      Ruddy and handsome, David arrived and the LORD wasted no time.  “Arise, Samuel, wait no longer, this is the LORD’s anointed, the LORD’s messiah, the LORD’s christ.  Anoint him.”  Samuel anointed David, the Holy Spirit rushed upon him, and the scene closes.  Why, out of all things the Holy Spirit could have written, did He write these verses into the Bible?

      The heart of the text is about serving God.  Christians are anointed—messiah-ed, christ-ened—by the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:27) to serve God.  But if honest, will probably have to admit they believe themselves unimportant, or at least less important than others, to God’s greater purposes.  This text, however, teaches differently. 

      Notice, first, the emphasis on the heart.  Samuel was fooled by Eliab’s appearance, but most of us would have been too.  We don’t see as God sees.  What is racism?  Not seeing those with different color and language than us as God sees them.  What is pornography?  Not seeing women as God sees.  What is choosing friends by the way they dress, or the phone they carry, or the number of children they have or don’t have, or the neighborhood they live in, or the car they drive, or the intelligence they have acquired?  Not seeing as God sees.  What is choosing a spouse on the basis of physical beauty?  Not seeing as God sees.  What is “keeping up with the Joneses?”  Not seeing the Joneses as God sees them.  Do you judge people shallowly, by external, social factors?  If so, it may be that you yourself are shallow, living the bulk of your life consumed with “keeping up appearances,” never engaged in the deeper work of cultivating godly character.  Do you want to be used of God, while you yet live, in great deeds of service?  Cultivate your heart, and so learn to look at life more deeply.  In the words of a 19th century Scottish pastor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne,

In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.

      Notice, second, David is forgotten—left on the outside.  His own father ignored his existence until Samuel pressed him.  David killed lions and bears with his bare hands in order to protect his dad’s sheep, yet his work went unnoticed; more than that, he went unnoticed.  In a forgotten corner of creation, David risked his life and gave his all for his work.  Ponder this for a moment.  Do you feel passed-by in life?  Do you feel that your work or calling is insignificant?  Do you feel like everyone else’s vocation is more important than yours?  You should know, dear Christian, that each of us is called to serve God where we are.  If He has assigned us ditches to dig, houses to build, pencils to push, companies to manage, manure to scoop, keys to type, toilets to clean, people to care for, or diapers to change, then we shall dig, build, push, manage, scoop, type, clean, care for, and change with all the gusto we can muster, not for earthly, temporary notice-ment, but because we have been noticed by Heaven’s Eternal.  It was precisely David’s lowly service which prepared him for greater things.  Because his former work required him to kill lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-37), he hesitated not when called to bury a stone between Goliath’s eyes.  Who had any idea the lad who delivered sheep from predators would one day deliver an entire nation, on numerous occasions, from her enemies.  If in this life you tend seemingly irrelevant sheep, then tend them well, knowing that if God calls you elsewhere, His voice is loud enough to reach your ears wherever you are; and if you don’t hear the call, He will send someone to get you, and those He has prepared for you to serve will, in the meantime, stand patiently by.   

      Notice, third, not natural talent, but God, makes us useful.  The moment David was anointed, the Holy Spirit rushed upon him.  He needed the Spirit, and so do we.  Natural talents are not the measure of usefulness in God’s kingdom.  The measure of success, if we can use such a word, is being filled with the Spirit.  A Christian man may be good looking, well-respected, financially stable, successful in career, and every woman’s dream, yet be a miserable husband and father because he has no godly character.  A Christian woman may be attractive, confident, and well-dressed, yet be a miserable wife because she has no godly character.  A Christian friend may be witty, like-minded, and fun to be with, yet be a miserable friend because he lacks godly character.  Being filled with the Spirit, not being naturally good-looking or talented, is the measure of success in God’s kingdom. 

      Now, what can we do to build or shape our character into usefulness?  How can we become people of substance rather than shallowness?  There is, finally, only one way to accomplish this most needed task: You must gaze upon the Greater David.  David was a child born in Bethlehem, but centuries later another Child, Jesus, was born in Bethlehem, and like David, was not welcomed in, but was kept out with the sheep and other animals (Luke 2:6-7).  David was anointed with the Holy Spirit to fight Israel’s ongoing enemies (Goliath; Saul; Philistines), but Jesus Christ was anointed with the Holy Spirit to die fighting our enemies that we might be forever delivered.  David was relentlessly avoided as king, but eventually brought forth and honored before his brothers; Jesus was relentlessly rejected as king, and eventually brought forth and crucified before His brothers.  David was forgotten by his father Jesse, counted as less than equal to his brothers, but Jesus, on the Cross, was forsaken by His Father, counted as infinitely less than we, His brothers, so we would never be forgotten (Isaiah 49:15).  And David lacked one aspect of physical beauty—stature—thought necessary for a king, but Jesus, on the Cross, lost all of His physical beauty (Isaiah 52:14; 53:2)—marred by floggings; His bloody body so entirely unsightly men hid their faces—so that we who are spiritually ugly could become beautiful in the eyes of God.  Don’t you see, Christian, God has chosen the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, the lowly and despised to shame the high and popular, and the worthless to shame the seemingly worthy (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).  If we miss this, we will miss Christ, and if we miss Christ, then we remain ever frustrated by our lot in life.  So if you tend sheep in no-man’s-land, forgotten by those who should notice, and possess very few qualities which the world honors, despair not.  Your Savior took on each of these for you, and now with you accompanies you as a friend in no-man’s-land, remembers you because the Cross-spike has engraved you on the palm of His hand (Isaiah 49:16), and cares not what natural talents you were born with because His Holy Spirit, who indwells you, not natural talent, is what you need to serve Him.     

      Your beauty will fade, dear Christian, and your external appearance will give way to something, hopefully, more substantive.  In times of emotional/spiritual crisis, in times when divine providence sends hardships insurmountable, in times when you are relegated to the periphery, unnoticed, cast out, and forgotten, your character will be exposed.  If anger, frustration and despair boil to the top, you know you have never been, or are not currently, a person of godly character.  But feed your soul on the ugly One, the forsaken One, the lowly One who became such for you, believer, and you will be satisfied with who you are in Him, no matter where you serve.     

 



[1] Robert Alter, The David Story (Norton, 1999), p. 115.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Harcourt, 1988), p. 121.

[3] Henry Fairlie, The Seven Deadly Sins Today (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), p. 67.

[4] New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Vol. 2 (Zondervan, 1997; edited by Willem A. Van Gemeren), P. 332

[5] The word translated “the youngest” can mean small, or young, or trifling and insignificant.