Let Your Words Be Few | Ecclesiastes 5:1-7

In almost every book or sermon to be found on Ecclesiastes, the emphasis of these verses is placed upon how we worship God, and while worship does form the bulk of the discourse here, the point of this passage is more interested in why we worship than how we worship. The Preacher is diving at the heart behind our worship of the LORD, and the result is rather like a piece of classical music. Two movements are at play here describing how to properly worship God, and each movement ends with a refrain that muses over the vanity of dreams and many words. The piece then closes with a thunderous crescendo that is meant to cast a new light upon everything that came before. Like any complex work of art, the goal is for us to meditate deeply upon what lies before us. Here, specifically, we should consider what the repeated refrain is teaching us about how to worship God and how the Preacher’s conclusion changes how we worship by reminding us why we worship.

Over the course of studying this passage, I’ve toss around various ideas about how to present it. Like many do with Ecclesiastes as a whole, I considered the wisdom of beginning with the ending, so that we might have the proper perspective over the whole text. Yet I cannot bring myself to do it. Such an approach may be more systematic in leaving no stone unturned, but it also loses some of the potency of the poetry. I’ve heard it said that art is like a frog: you can dissect it into its individual parts, but doing so will kill the frog. I pray then that God will guide our discourse as I endeavor to present the text in its poetic structure.

GUARDING YOUR STEPS // VERSES 1-7

We begin with the matter of how to worship God properly. Let us break the commands issued within these verses down to five imperatives: 1) guard your steps, 2) draw near to listen, 3) avoid the sacrifice of fools, 4) avoid rash and hasty words, and 5) pay your vow.

Guarding Your Steps (v. 1)

The first imperative is a warning for us to guard our steps when approaching God’s house. What does he mean by this? Throughout the Bible, walking is a metaphor for living. And it’s a fitting comparison. As the feet move so does the body. The Scriptures, therefore, repeatedly encourage us to walk down the path of righteousness and wisdom, while avoiding the way of wickedness and folly. Of course, Jesus capitalizes on this metaphor in the Sermon on the Mount by describing a narrow road and gate that lead to life and a broad road and gate that lead to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). The point then is that the steps you take (and where you take them) have much to say about the condition of your heart.

Solomon’s call for guarding your steps whenever you approach God is really a plea for you to consider the condition of your heart. Where have your feet been lately? What does that say about your walk with God and the condition of your heart? These are important questions to ask before approaching God. After all, God is mysteriously awe-striking and deserving of reverential fear. He is so much greater than us that we must always approach Him with the utmost reverence.

However, what does this mean for us under the New Covenant? Hebrews 4:16 tells us that we are to boldly approach God’s throne. Does that not contradict with this verse in Ecclesiastes? I believe that one of the greatest errors of modern Christianity is that we place little value on Old Testament thought. We tend to think that God used to be vengeful and angry, but now because of Jesus, He is loving and kind. We treat God as if He has changed personalities. But that is not the case! The God that we serve today is the same God that Solomon wrote about here. Instead of treating God like He is bipolar, we must understand that God is still worthy our highest reverence. He is still infinitely greater and more majestic than we can ever imagine. The only difference between us and Solomon is that because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice we can now come before God, as His children, without fear that He will reject us. We should still approach in reverence, but we also know now that we come before Him in the perfect righteousness of Christ.

Draw Near to Listen (v. 1)

Next, Solomon tells us that it is better to come to God for listening “than to offer the sacrifice of fools.” These two form a contrasting couplet, but let us focus first on the positive command. Listening is crucial whenever we draw near to God because listening involves yielding. As I listen to someone, I am surrendering over a portion of myself and my time in order to know them more. In this way, listening validates worth. By listening, I declare that you are worth my time and attention. My focus shifts off of myself and onto you. This explains then why speaking to someone who listens is truly life-giving.

But if humans who are made in God’s image are worth listening to, how much more God Himself? The point here is not that God does not care what you have to say to Him. Scripture repeatedly makes clear that the opposite is true. But we should deeply care about listening to what God is saying and make every effort to listen to Him.

Unfortunately, we often fail to listen to God’s voice. We are like the people to whom God sent Isaiah, who “keep on hearing, but do not understand” (Isaiah 6:9). God’s Word often goes in one ear and out the other without us having truly listened to any of it. Because of this propensity, God often prefaces His declarations with the word “hear.” By default, we are fools who like the sound of our own voices and who don’t care what God has to say. John Piper describes this heart well: “Many people are willing to be God-centered as long as they feel that God is man-centered” (6). We will delight in meeting with God so long as the meeting is centered around us.

But God is God, not us. We desperately need to hear His voice far more than He needs to hear ours. His ways are higher than our ways, and His plans are greater than our plans. Why would we not take advantage of listening to Him?

Of course, this listening is done primarily through God’s Word. As we read the Scriptures, God Himself speaks. Sadly, the rigidness of our private devotions can often hinder this joy. Too often, we can lock ourselves into a pattern of spending so many minutes reading Scripture and so many minutes in prayer. We do this in order to have a dialogue with God. But how many conversations actually work like that? That pattern is more like a debate than a dialogue. Real conversations have more natural flows in them. And we can interact with Scripture in the same way. Instead of rigidly dividing a time for reading Scripture and for prayer, why not mingle prayer into Bible reading? First, this makes our prayers naturally more biblical. Second, it provides a better environment for conversation to flow. Perhaps one day you have much on your heart, so two or three verses lead you into fifteen minutes of pouring your heart out to God. But the next day a different sort of heaviness is upon you, so you simply open the Word, praying, “God speak, and I will listen.” Both are beautiful forms of communion with God.

Avoid the Sacrifice of Fools (v. 1)

Next Solomon encourages us to avoid offering the sacrifice of fools, which are evil in the sight of God. What exactly is the sacrifice of a fool? I believe they are the kind of sacrifices described in Isaiah 1:12-17:

When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

Unlike the person who humbly comes before God to listen, the fool’s sacrifices to God are all about himself. He is trying to buy God’s favor with his sacrifices, which in the end becomes a form of self-improvement rather than worship. Mike Cosper captures this idea well:

Likewise, any approach to the Christian life that seeks self-improvement as the end goal will fail too. A life of prayer, fasting, and spiritual disciplines can easily be a life of empty religious effort if the goal isn’t communion with God. We don’t need self-improvement; we need to come home. (45)

Furthermore, I think that this kind of selfish sacrifice typically comes in one of two forms. First, fools can offer the sacrifice of good works with a wrong heart. The Christian is called to do everything to the glory of God, but often we can do good works for our own benefit. Sometimes we want to look good before others, while other times we just want to feel better about ourselves. Both are sinful motives. Second, fools can offer the sacrifice of right belief without good works. Such was the case with the recipients of the passage of Isaiah above. They knew all the religious actions to take, but they failed to do good to those around them. Their theology didn’t lead them in compassion for the world around them.

If you notice, both of these sacrifices fail to account for the whole of a person. One has the actions without the head and heart, while the other has the head without actions or the heart. Fools think that they can separate out our lives. They think that they can give God their lives without giving Him their heart. Or that they can give Him their head without giving Him their hands. But we are holistic creatures, who are called to love God with all our heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). Everything we have is from God and must be for Him. This is why overeating doesn’t just bloat our stomachs it dulls our spirit. This is why few things are more spiritually healing than good food and good drink shared with good friends. Fools think that they can compartmentalize God, while the wise know that even our daily food and drink are for His glory and our good.

Religious devotion is a meaningless vanity without communion with God.

Avoid Rash and Hasty Words (v. 2)

This verse builds upon the concluding thought of verse 1. In our relationship with God, are we the ones that do all of the talking? Do we ever give God the opportunity to say anything to us? Solomon’s thought is very straightforward: God is bigger, smarter, wiser, and all around more awesome than you, so you should probably listen to what He has to say more than you tell Him what you think. It is my personal belief that we should all memorize these two verses because they are so counter to our nature. We want to be the ones doing all the talking. We want to be the ones that set the grounds in our relationship. But that’s all foolish. It’s foolish to come before God with many words. James 1:19 echoes this thought: Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” When you approach God, make it about God, not yourself. Be quick to listen to Him, and slow to share your opinion.

Of course, this does not mean that our prayers should be dishonest towards God. Praying dishonest prayers that we think God wants to hear is another sacrifice of fools. In doing so, we attempt to deceive God. But He is in heaven, and we are on earth. The cosmos is held together by His might, and He knows all things. Why then would we try to bring anything to Him other than our honesty? Indeed, letting our words be few is not permitting dishonesty; rather, it is calling us to slow down and understand the weight of speaking to God.

Refrain: The Business of Dreams and Many Words (vv. 3)

Obviously, these refrains are quite important since they are repeated twice, but they are quite difficult to interpret. What exactly does Solomon mean when by dreams? How are the vanity of dreams and many words connected to the rest of this passage? Barrick suggests that as vanities they are meaningless distractions in our life that keep us from true worship. Akin offers that since dreams during sleep after a hard day’s work, these are the works and words that we use to impress God. Moore thinks that words and dreams are cheap; God wants our hearts.

I think, similarly, that the dreams and words of a fool are centered upon himself. Chasing after the dreams in his head provides much business to attend to, but they are mere fantasies with no substance. Likewise, his many words might sound impressive at first, but they too are vanities. With the business of dreams and the fluff of many words, a fool becomes wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 12:15). He becomes fixated upon himself.

Pay Your Vow (vv. 4-6)

Have you ever attempted to barter with God? We say things like, “God, if you just let me find the one, I promise I will be happy and serve you with my whole heart” or “if you give me a million dollars, I promise to give half to my church!” These appear to be facetious examples, but are they not true to our character? We often have an “if you… then I will…” mentality. We make rash vows to God all the time. Our three-thousand-year-old philosopher tells us that this is not such a good idea. We make promises to God in haste, and should God actually give us what we want, we flake out in fulfilling our vows. Solomon says that this is foolish, and God “has no pleasure in fools.” We just discussed that God is far greater than ourselves and we should approach Him with fear, so it would make sense that we should keep any promises that we make to Him. He says plainly, “pay what you vow.” If there is anyone that you should avoid lying to, it’s God. In fact, Solomon says that it would be much better to just, like the previous verses say, keep your mouth shut before God than to make promises that you won’t keep. Jesus gives us this same message in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us not to make any vows because we don’t know if we will be able to fulfill them. Instead, let our ‘yes’ be yes and our ‘no’ be no (Matthew 5:37). We are to be a people that fulfill our word.

We must be careful with the words that we say because an unfulfilled vow to God is sin. How true is this that our mouth tends to lead us into sin! The king of Israel also warns that God will not accept the excuse that we made the vow as a mistake and that there will be consequences for us lying to God. Next, Solomon issues the same warning as in verse 3. If there is one lesson to learn quickly when studying the Scripture, it is that God does not repeat Himself needlessly. Since this repetition is here, we must assume that we definitely need to take its words to heart. Here is the thought: words become meaningless when they don’t have actions to back them up. Stop presenting verbal fluff. Fear God. Worship Him with a lifestyle of reverence and intentional actions.

Refrain: The Vanity of Dreams and Many Words (v. 7)

Dreams and many words are vanity because we are terrible at judging what we truly need. We have all sorts of dreams and desires that we long to see fulfilled, but we rarely pause to consider how beneficial or damaging they might be. God, of course, does not yield to our desires, which causes many to question His goodness. How can a God who is all powerful and completely good withhold pleasure from me? Surely His goodness or omnipotence is lacking, right? Wrong. God is our Father who sees things far clearer than we can. Consider my one-year-old daughter, who just today saw her mom painting some shelves outside and decided that she also wanted to play with some paint. For most one-year-olds tasting forms a significant component of playing and our daughter is no different. In that moment, being a loving father meant withholding a desire from her. Forbidding her from eating the toxins in paint is an act of love that she doesn’t yet understand; therefore, she perceives that I am limiting her freedom.

The reality is that we need limits. We need boundaries. We need a heavenly Father who loves us enough slap our hand when we reach for things that can harm us or, more accurately, things that we use to hurt ourselves. Paint itself is not harmful when used properly, but the toxins within can kill if ingested. Likewise, wealth itself is not sinful, but when clutched by immature hands, it often is. Sex was designed by God to foster intimacy between a husband and a wife, but many use it to drag the decaying carcass of intimacy across the floor of self-gratification. Because of this, there are times when God giving us what we want is like handing a toddler a steak knife. In short, God’s refusal to fulfill your dreams may, in fact, be one of His greatest graces upon you.

FEARING GOD // VERSE 7

Thus far, we have addressed five commands regarding how we ought to worship, but now the Preacher will address why we should worship God in those ways. He does this by summarizing the commands above and pointing us to the fear of the LORD.

The Preacher concludes these verses with a marvelous conclusion, which ties together the whole of the text. In many ways, this is final phrase is foreshadowing how Ecclesiastes’ epilogue will enlighten the entire book as well.

If the root problem with in our worship is that we are too focused upon our own dreams and words, then fearing God is the alternative. In fact, the fear of God is the reasoning behind the five imperatives in verses 1-6. Because God is worth fearing, we guard our steps when we approach Him, we draw near to listen to Him, we avoid the sacrifices of fools, we avoid uttering rash and hasty words, and we pay whatever we vow to Him. Each of these can only be properly motivated by first possessing a fear of the LORD.

But why is the fear of the LORD necessary? Fearing God simply comes from understanding that God is God. To know God is to fear Him. He is holy. He is unique and in a class all unto Himself. It is only right and proper to have a healthy fear of Him, and only utter foolishness fails to do so. We fear God by simply acknowledging that He is God, and seeing God as God can only result in living a God-centered, not self-centered, life. The knowing and fearing God smashes self-aggrandizement into bits by pointing us to the magnitude of His glorious worth. All of our pretty words and lavish dreams are particles of dust compared to snow-capped mountains of His sovereign decrees.

But fearing God is not just proper; it is also practical. As humans, we were created to fear the awesome might of the LORD, so when we fail to fear God, other fears take root within the heart. Consider the rise of fear, anxiety, and depression within our society which coincides with the decline of those holding to the Christian faith. Fear of terrorism. Fear of disease. Fear of collapsed economies. Fear of isolation. Fear of people. The list can (and does) go on without end. We fear these things because we fail to fear God. After all, the fear of God is exclusive. We cannot have a proper view of God, while continuing to fear other things. Understanding God’s greatness and His love for us must cast all other fears aside. Why fear the uncertain future when the One who stands sovereign over time is our Father? Why fear death when it ushers us into eternal life with our Savior? Why fear the temporal opinion of others when God’s evaluation of us is eternal? There is an exclusivity to fearing God. By properly revering Him, we realize that all else pales in comparison.

The fear of God is as good as it is exclusive. The fear of Him “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28) is the same fear that enables us to say as in Psalm 118:6, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” The Christian’s cry against the fears and anxieties of the world is “If God is for us, who can be against us” (Romans 8:31)? Our heavenly Father desires our good, so we are most benefitted by shifting our focus from self and onto God. Our greatest happiness is only found through our trembling pursuit of God. He is the supreme Treasure but not all desire to look upon Him, as Owen warns:

Not all who desire to go to heaven are fit and ready for it. Some are not only unworthy of it and excluded from it because of unforgiven sin; they are not prepared for it. Should they be admitted, they would never enjoy it. All of us naturally regard ourselves as fit for eternal glory. But few of us have any idea of how unfit we really are, because we have had no experience of that glory of Christ which is in heaven. Men shall not be clothed with glory, as it were, whether they want to be or not. It is to be received only by faith. But fallen man is incapable of believing. Music cannot please a deaf man, nor can colours impress a blind man. A fish would not thank you for taking it out of the sea and putting it on dry land under the blazing sun! Neither would an unregenerate sinner welcome the thought of living for ever in the blazing glory of Christ. (p. 7-8)

Indeed, everyone will one day fear God, but there will be two distinct kinds of fear. Those who have not beheld the glory of Christ by faith will be cower before Him, while those who by faith have tasted and seen that the LORD is good will rejoice in awestruck wonder. Because God is God, He will be feared. Let us earnestly seek the second kind of fear. Let us tremble that the One who authored quantum mechanics, photosynthesis, and platypuses is the same God who died in humiliation on the cross to rescue us from our sin. Let us quake that Holy of Holies has become our Father by adopting us as sons and daughters.

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The Light in the Darkness | Isaiah 9:1-7

 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9:1-7 ESV

 

As we continue to approach Christmas, we keep moving through the overall narrative of Scripture, centering upon the themes of light and darkness. Having seen that God is the Author of light and the controller of darkness, we now study one of the most pointed promises of Christ’s coming. Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah prophesied that Christ’s coming would be like a light shining in the darkness, a light that would defeat the chaos of sin with the peace of God’s rule and reign. These verses are some of Isaiah’s most well-known. Verse 6, at least, is a classic Christmas Scripture reading. And why wouldn’t they be? God piercing the darkness with His own Son! As we traverse these powerful promises, may God give us a renewed joy at His mighty hand of salvation.

THE STORY CONTINUED

Having previously studied one of the plagues brought upon the Egyptians during the Exodus story, we will need once again to briefly explain the history leading up to our present text.

The hardness of Pharaoh’s heart was not broken until God slew the firstborns of Egypt in the tenth plague. Yet again God distinguished His people by having them paint their doorframes with the blood of a slaughtered lamb in order to be spared from the death which God brought. The Israelites were then released from Egypt to return to Canaan, the land promised to their patriarch Abraham.

After forty years of wandering in the wilderness because of their disobedience, Israel prepared to conquer the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man. The conquest served both to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, while also bringing God’s judgment upon the peoples of Canaan (after all, God told Abraham that the sins of those peoples did not yet fully warrant judgment in his day).

Having settled in Canaan, the Israelites were led by a series of judges who acted as governmental representatives of God their king. Unfortunately, the people repeatedly rebelled against God’s sovereign rule. They rejected God, choosing instead to worship idols. God, therefore, brought another nation upon them as judgment. The Israelites then repented of their sin, and God graciously sent a new judge to rescue them. And so the process repeated.

Soon Israel began to compare themselves to the rest of the nations, demanding that God give them a king. God consented to this request. First, He provided them with Saul, a large and imposing man who seemed to be the perfect candidate. But Saul proved to be terrible king, so God instead placed a small-statured shepherd boy upon the throne, David.

Despite David’s all-too-human wrestle with sin, he repeatedly sought God’s face and repented of his sin. God, thus, called David a man after His own heart and gave him the glorious promise that his throne would last forever. God pledged that one of David’s descendants would reign everlastingly over all the earth.

But David’s son, Solomon, failed to be that king. Nor was Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. In fact, under Rehoboam’s folly, Israel was divided into two nations, Judah (composed of the two tribes that remained loyal to David’s blood, Judah and Benjamin) and Israel (the remaining ten tribes that rebelled and made Jeroboam their king).

Generally, the next several hundred years for Judah and Israel resembled the time of the judges: sin, judgment, repent, rescue, repeat. However, God would soon disturb that well-worn cycle. The LORD began sending prophets who warned that a judgment was coming that would no longer simply oppress the Israelites but destroy them. Isaiah was one such prophet. Although he was primarily a prophet to Judah, our text comes on the heels of his prophesy of Israel’s annihilation under the hand of Assyria, a judgment Isaiah would live to see. Into this context, we see the following promises.

THE PROMISE OF LIGHT // VERSES 1-5

Our text begins with a sharp contrast to the judgment promised in chapter eight. The word “but” gently urges us to read what came immediately before. Having pledged to bring the Assyrians upon the Israelites, God ends chapter eight with this bit of encouragement: “And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness” (v. 22).

Side note: despite what many people think, the Bible is not a very Instagram-friendly book.

Yet after promising darkness and gloom, God immediately foretells hope upon the horizon. After a time of anguish, God would show grace again. He would make a glorious way (a path to salvation and hope) in the land of Galilee. There, among the Gentiles, God would shine a light into the darkness.

Let us consider just two major points from these first several of verses.

First, we must keep in mind that, in the immediate context, God brought the darkness upon the Israelites. Their darkness was the judgment of God upon them. In many ways, this emphasizes the seriousness of Israel’s sin. Although their darkness was metaphorical for the invasion of the Assyrians, it symbolically reveals that Israel was becoming Egypt. As they continued to reject God, they were becoming the very people that God rescued them from.

From this reality, we can remind ourselves of the great problem of sin: God’s wrath and judgment. While death (the fruit of sin) is an enemy, we must always remember that God brought death into the world in judgment upon our sin. And it was just of Him to do so. God’s character would not be perfect if He did not judge sin. He would not be entirely good if He allowed even one act of evil to go unpunished; to do so would be tantamount to saying that some sin really isn’t that bad. Either God is good and will judge all evil, or God is not good and tolerates some evil on a whim.

Fortunately, God is good, but unfortunately, that means that each sin deserves His eternal wrath. Even the smallest of sins is a cosmic treason against the Creator, a claim that we know better than the One who made us. God’s judgment, therefore, is the great problem of sin. Our transgressions turn us into enemies of God. Israel, God’s people, were in reality no better than the Egyptians or the Assyrians. Like all of humanity, they were sinners, rebels against the King of kings. The darkness of God’s judgment was justified. It was earned in full, and if we had any question for God, it should only be, “Why not sooner?”

Second, we must note that God is promising to bring light into the darkness of their judgment. What a gracious word from the offended God! Even though by their sin, Israel chose the darkness rather than the light; God stood ready to rescue them again. Just as, through Moses, God pulled the Hebrews out of their bondage to the Egyptians, He was preparing to liberate them once more. Verses 3-5 give three descriptions of God’s rescue.

First, God promises to increase the joy of the nation. God’s people, the holy nation set aside for Himself, will rejoice before Him like the rejoicing that comes when it’s time to harvest the crops, which were grown through sweat and toil. Such joy is the exact opposite of the anguish that God’s judgment would cause.

Second, God promises to break the rod of their oppressor. Drawing back upon God’s deliverance of the Israelites from their oppression under the Midianites, God pledges to set His people free once again. Yet the scope of this deliverance will be much greater, as described in verse 5.

Third, all equipment for warfare will be burned. Of course, this means that battle gear is no longer required. Peace will be permanent. God’s people will no longer need to defend themselves. God will have defeated their enemies once and for all.

These are glorious promises. God’s light would bring to them joy and peace, following the anguish and pain of God’s judgment upon them. Israel could cling to these words in the midst of their suffering as hope that God would one day turn their sorrow into joy.

THE PRINCE OF PEACE // VERSES 6-7

While the first five verses presented God’s overall promise, these two verses give a bit more detail as to how that promise would be fulfilled. Verses 1-2 revealed that God would make a way of light in Galilee of all places, but what would that way look like? How exactly was God intending to pierce the darkness?

God’s promise of salvation was found in a person. The light in the darkness would be a child, a son, a ruler and mighty king. He would be the descendant that God promised to David. This Savior would sit upon David’s throne, ruling over all the earth with an eternal kingdom. Isaiah has already given us one other name for this king, Immanuel (meaning God with us), but now he gives us four more names. Although we do not have the time to discuss in length each name, we must remember that, to the Hebrews, names reflect a person’s character. These, therefore, are not just honorific titles. They describe the very essence of the coming Savior.

First, He is called Wonderful Counselor. A counselor is someone who gives wise advice, someone who is worth listening to. The adjective wonderful literally means something that inspires wonder. The Savior, therefore, would be a majestic sage who perfectly embodied the wisdom of God.

Second, He is called Mighty God. While some have attempted to argue that Isaiah was using hyperbole to describe a person so great that they needed to be described in divine language, that line of thought is a stretch at best. As previously noted, Isaiah has already called the Savior’s name, Immanuel. Isaiah is clearly invoking the imagery of a God-King, which Israel had always rightfully rejected. Yet this Savior would be different. He would be the actual God-King, a man and yet also God.

Third, He is called Everlasting Father. The Savior, who is a son given by God, would also be named the Father Without End. Once again, this is obviously divine language. God alone is the Father of all things without end. How then can the son that He gives also be called Everlasting Father? As Jesus, the Son and Savior, would later explain, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). As the Word who was eternally with the Father, Jesus is the exact imprint of His nature (Hebrews 1:3); it is proper, therefore, to give Jesus the name Everlasting Father.

Fourth, He is called Prince of Peace. For the Hebrews, peace encompassed more than just the absence of war. Peace was the state of perfect existence, the world as it was meant to be. Peace is what we were made for, the nagging feeling in our gut that longs for something better than all of this. Peace is Eden, the garden of God. Peace is paradise, a cosmos uncorrupted by sin. The Savior’s reign as king would not only be marked by this peace; He is the Prince of Peace. Peace pours forth from the very essence of His being.

Each name reveals the character of the coming Savior. Of course, we recognize this Savior as Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. After all, Jesus made quite similar claims about Himself, and He even performed most of His ministry in Galilee. So why didn’t the people of Israel whole-heartedly embrace Him as their long-awaited Redeemer?

Consider what would happen after Isaiah’s prophesy. The prophet probably lived to see his predicted judgment come to pass: Assyria obliterated Israel. Yet the kingdom of Judah continued for many more years, only to be crushed by the armies of Babylon. After the Persians replaced the Babylonians, a remnant rebuilt Jerusalem, but soon Alexander the Great conquered the known world, including Persia and Jerusalem. Alexander’s empire was divided into four kingdoms after his death, kingdoms that were soon swallowed up by the Roman behemoth. Thus, when Jesus was born, the Jews were still living under the yoke of their oppressors, which meant that they were looking for this conquering king who would bring peace to the earth. They gladly longed for the day when their Savior would bring all nations under His dominion.

But Jesus was different. He didn’t usurp the king, and He certainly didn’t depose Caesar. Jesus did not place the government upon His shoulders, nor did He usher in world peace. Instead, Jesus died a criminal’s death on a cross. To say that He didn’t exactly meet everyone’s expectations is kind of an understatement.

Why then do we believe that Jesus is the Savior prophesied of in this passage? As we learned in Genesis 1, God works through processes, and the work of Jesus is the greatest of all of God’s processes.

First, Jesus did break the yoke of the oppressor and bring joyful peace… just not how everyone was expecting. The Jews thought that the Savior would rescue them physically from the Roman Empire (like Moses did when they were in Egypt), but Jesus had an even greater exodus to accomplish. He targeted an enemy far deadlier than any one nation on earth. Jesus came to repair humanity’s fundamental problem: sin. He went for the root instead of focusing on limbs and branches. He treated the ailment, not just the symptoms. Jesus, as God made man, sacrificed Himself for the sins of humanity, taking the wrath of God for sin upon Himself. By His death, He broke the yoke and slavery of sin, and in Him, we can have endless joy and peace with God. And even now, Jesus is building His kingdom. Jesus’ church is a nation that runs throughout all the nations of the earth, and more are being added each day. It is multiplying, and there will be no end.

However, it is also important to remember that Jesus will one day return to complete this process physically. Soon, Jesus will come down from the heavens to make the earth His dwelling place. On that day, He will defeat eternally His enemies and complete the expansion of His kingdom. His government will be without end, and the earth’s peace will be plainly seen. Can you imagine it, a world where every single person loves and serves Jesus Christ as their physical King and Savior?

But we’re not there yet. Even as the gospel and the kingdom expand, wars and rumors of wars abound. Terrorist organizations continue to strike. Mad men continue to command nations with massive armaments. Tensions continue to rise. Pacts and treaties continue to deteriorate. Life is fragile, and people are sinful. Catastrophe will always be the result.

What hope then can we have? Pay attention to the final sentence of this prophesy: The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. God Himself will ensure that all of this will be realized. Interestingly, the promises of verses 2-5 also show this security. While verses 6-7 clearly present the fulfillment as occurring in the future, Isaiah writes verses 2-5 in the past tense, which is a subtle way of saying that these promises are so certain that we might as well think of them as history. Just as God was faithful to send Jesus, so He will be faithful to come again. We must simply wait. We must trust in Him who will one day redeem us and the cosmos entirely. Until that day, we both pray and enact the expansion of Christ’s kingdom here and now.

By the Holy Spirit, we continue Jesus’ earthly ministry.

To those lost in the foolishness of sin, we present Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor.

To those whose life is chaos and ruin, we present Jesus, the Mighty God.

To those broken by the curse of sin, we present Jesus, the Everlasting Father.

To those with no hope, we present Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

Immanuel is still with us, even while we wait for Him to come again.

The Light of Salvation | Exodus 10:21-29

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the people of Israel had light where they lived. Then Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go, serve the Lord; your little ones also may go with you; only let your flocks and your herds remain behind.” But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must take of them to serve the Lord our God, and we do not know with what we must serve the Lord until we arrive there.” But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me; take care never to see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” Moses said, “As you say! I will not see your face again.”

Exodus 10:21-29 ESV

 

Having witnessed the beginnings of both the biblical story and the themes of light and darkness, we now move forward in the narrative, jumping to Exodus. While the account of the Israelites’ rescue by the hand of God is well-known, we will fix our eyes upon a particular moment of that narrative: the ninth plague, darkness. Within this single moment of the battle between God and Pharaoh, we are able to further glimpse the significance of our themes of study.

THE STORY SO FAR

Before we can properly understand our present text, we need to fill in the gaps between Genesis 1:1-5 and here. After God created and ordered the cosmos, He made the first humans, Adam and Eve, making them the bearers of His own image and His stewards over the earth and its creatures. He commanded them to enjoy and cultivate the earth and to spread God’s image across the world by reproducing. A planet of pleasure was placed before them with only one prohibition: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Wishing to become gods themselves, Adam and Eve ate the fruit, gaining experiential knowledge of what it meant to rebel against God. God’s judgment upon our fore-parents was swift but gracious. In the midst of the curses, God promised a savior, a serpent-crusher who would defeat sin, evil, and death.

And so, God’s stewards multiplied, spreading the Creator’s image that was now stained by sin. Within just a few generations, sin’s conquest of human hearts was such that God annihilated humanity from the earth with a flood. We exist today only because of God granting His grace to the family of Noah, sparing the eight of them alone from the deluge of His wrath.

But sin didn’t cease. As humanity grew strong again, they clustered together for the purpose of building a mighty tower to their greatness. This blatant disobedience to their Creator’s design was a mere recycling of the first sin, so God once again came down to bring judgment. Since they refused to fill the earth, God divided their languages to cause them to scatter, giving birth to different nations (or ethnicities).

Into this new landscape, God reached out to humanity again. God calls a man named Abraham to Himself, promising to form a great nation from his lineage, to bless all nations through him, and to give him the land of Canaan. Although Abraham and his wife were barren and beyond the years of child-bearing, he trusted God.

After Abraham’s death, his son and grandson (Isaac and Jacob) continue serving God and awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. Jacob’s family is eventually taken down into Egypt due to the prosperity of his son, Joseph. Although he was sold into slavery by his older brothers, Joseph rose by the providence of God to Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and by the wisdom of God, he was able to rescue Egypt and his family from a severe famine.

While dwelling in Egypt, Jacob’s family grew. Generations passed by, and a new Pharaoh became threatened by these Israelites ever increasing numbers. He enslaved them, and Abraham’s descendants groaned to their God for salvation. Eventually God raised up Moses, a prophet through whom God would rescue His people. Through Moses, God challenges Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods by pouring out plagues upon their land. After enduring flies, sores, locusts, and many other horrors, God unleashes the ninth plague, a thick darkness upon the whole land. Upon the significance of this plague, we now turn our attention.

OF DARKNESS

While each plague upon the Egyptians was devastating, the latter ones are certainly the most horrific. Only the tenth plague, the death of the firstborns, can rival the terror of this one. Notice first God’s initial words describing the darkness that He will bring upon the Egyptians: a darkness to be felt. God apparently intended to redefine the concept of thick darkness. We tend to think of darkness as being an absence of light. Similar to coldness (which is the absence of heat), darkness is not an entity in and of itself; it is mere what is left behind whenever light is removed. While we instinctually understand this to be the norm, we also have the capacity to fear a different kind of darkness. We think of darkness as thick whenever darkness seems to have substance. Such deep darkness feels like an envelopment or swallowing of light, rather than merely its absence.

Terror is the proper response to such primordial chaos. Within it, we glimpse the horror of having the Creator’s hand of grace removed, of a disordered and rebellious cosmos. In a sense, then, God was providing the Egyptians with a tangible representation of sin, and they were right to fear. Moses says that no one rose from his place for those three days. What else could they do? Although they were all in darkness, it separated them from one another. They were all together alone. God left the entire nation to cower in the dark.

This scene is an interesting juxtaposition with God’s commanding of light in Genesis 1. There, God brought light into existence and established the division between the two elements. The darkness was a primordial chaos, an absence of light, and God was dispelling it away as He shaped His cosmos into order. His commanding of light, therefore, seems entirely natural. But here He is commanding the darkness as well. He is actively shrouding the Egyptians in un-light.

Doesn’t that seem as bit odd?

Of course, darkness itself, while symbolic of evil, is morally neutral like the rest of the plagues. Flies are often associated with death and decay, but they are not themselves wicked. God, as Creator, certainly reserves all rights to use the less than pleasant portions of creation as instruments of His judgment. Nothing strange there.

And yet we could consider the symbolic nature of darkness and ask how God relates to evil in general. How, for instance, are we to think of God’s sovereignty over all things, particularly the malevolence that exists in the world? Does God control evil like He controls the darkness here?

Such complex questions require complex answers, and so if we are not willing to entertain difficult answers then we should stop asking difficult questions. And much of the complexity revolves around the meaning of words. Do we mean by controlling evil that God is responsible for the evil actions? If so, then God is NOT in control of (or, we might say, the orchestrator of) evil. Or do we mean that God controls evil by limiting its presence and consequences and by ultimately using its effects for good? If so, then God is absolutely in control of evil.

God is sovereign over all things, even evil, yet He is not the Author of evil. He actively limits the presence and consequences of evil in the world. Without His common grace, we humans would have annihilated ourselves long ago. The mere existence of each person’s conscious severely decreases the base desires and impulses that would wreak havoc. Even Satan himself is kept on this leash. In the book of Job, Satan must ask God for permission to strike Job, and although God grants his request, He still sets the boundaries which Satan cannot cross.

We should take comfort in this truth. There is no evil in this world that God will not ultimately use for good, especially for His people (Romans 8:28). This by no means excuses evil deeds; instead, it magnifies the supremacy of God’s goodness. Yes, He continues to permit wickedness for now, but it will never have the final word. We can trust that even evil plays a role into God’s unfolding story of redemption.

A PEOPLE FOR HIS OWN POSSESSION

Verse 23 ends with a phrase that I must have always read but overlooked: but all the people of Israel had light where they lived. Throughout the plagues, God made a point of explicitly distinguishing between His people and the Egyptians, and that practice is continued here. This idea is repeated throughout the rest of the Old Testament. God’s people, Israel, are separated from the other nations, the Gentiles. In fact, nations and Gentiles are the same word in Hebrew. The division was so ingrained that much of the New Testament is concerned with how Jews and Gentiles are supposed to relate to one another in Christ.

But why did God make such a distinction?

The Israelites, as the descendants of Abraham, were the inheritors of the promises that God made to their ancestor. They were made God’s people by God’s pure grace. Think about it. The Creator could have called anyone from any place to be the patriarch of His people, but He chose Abraham. And in choosing Abraham, He also chose the nation of Israel. He is clear throughout the Scriptures that this choice was unilateral. The Israelites were not chosen for their greatness nor for their morality; instead, they repeatedly prove not to be those things. God chose them in an act of grace. He became their God by choosing to be their God, and even as they repeatedly reject Him, He continues to chase after them. God chose them; they did not choose God.

Yet does this unilateral act of God mean that He simply abandoned the other nations? Did He leave them to walk in the darkness of their ways, only granting salvation to the Israelites? Too many people (even Christians) believe that a disparity lies between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, God seems to only care for His people, while in the New Testament, God desires that all ethnicities should become followers of Christ.

Such a thought is nothing more than a misunderstanding. It is a reasonable misunderstanding, since most of the Jews failed to grasp it, but a misunderstanding, nonetheless. God’s plan was always to make the nations His people. Recall that God’s original design for humanity was to fill the earth with His image-bearers who would worship Him through stewarding His world. The Great Commission was a recommissioning of the First Commission. God’s design has never wavered, but its mode of expression has manifested differently throughout various ages.

God’s plan for making the Israelite’s into His people was for them to be a beacon of light unto the other nations. Consider God’s words to them in Exodus 19:5-6:

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.

Israel was a holy nation, a people set apart exclusively for the glory and purposes of God. They were in all matters His people. But their status as God’s treasured possession was not so that they could develop a superiority complex over the rest of mankind. Instead, the Creator rightfully claimed the whole earth for His possession. Israel, therefore, was intended to be a kingdom of priests. Because priests acted as mediators between God and man, Israel’s responsibility was to lead the rest of the nations into loving worship of the one true God. They were to follow Israel’s example. But unfortunately, Israel repeatedly failed to offer a proper example of true worship to the nations. They constantly rejected the LORD, their God.

Through Jesus, God’s people came to be called by a new name: the church. Most in the early church also belonged to ethnic Israel, but the balance quickly shifted as the message of God’s grace spread across the globe. Today, the vast majority of the God’s people are adopted into Abraham’s family, while many of the patriarch’s biological descendants are willfully disavowing their inheritance. If the church’s fulfillment of Israel’s function was not clear enough, listen to Peter’s message to us:

1 Peter 2:9 | But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

We are a new race of people within the overall race of humanity, a new ethnicity. We are the kingdom of royal priests, ready to lead others to the living God. We are a holy nation, a nation within the nations of the world, with a common heavenly citizenship. We are God’s treasured possess, His people. And He is our God.

Before God called him, Abraham dwelt in the darkness of sin, much more insidious than the physical plague that was brought upon the Egyptians. God brought the man of faith out of darkness so that God’s marvelous light might be displayed through him. Likewise, God’s light upon the Israelites was meant to contrast the darkness upon the Egyptians. Through His people, God revealed Himself to the Egyptians as the Most High God, the God who easily dismantled their deities, but the Egyptians continued to dwell in darkness, rejecting God’s light.

The distinction between those who belong to God and those who do not is not to be made light-heartedly. It is a deathly serious matter to claim that most people in the world are children of the darkness instead of the light. But the distinction must be made. God’s people cannot attempt clothing themselves in darkness so as not to make others uncomfortable. Light stings eyes that are accustomed to the dark. In the light, deeds are exposed, but they can be hidden under the cover of darkness. Men, therefore, love the darkness rather than the light.

The light is truly marvelous, but countless image-bearers will freely choose the dark instead. Even still, we must proclaim God’s excellencies. We must shine as lights in the world. We must reach into the darkened crevices, knowing that many will wander further still away from the light. We are God’s people, saved by the grace of the Most High; let us, therefore, fulfill our commission by filling the earth with more who will joyfully walk in His light.

 

 

Let There Be Light! | Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Genesis 1:1-5 ESV

 

We begin this season of Advent by going back to the very beginning, the creation of all things. In Genesis 1, we meet the Author of all existence, God the Creator. Because the miracle of the incarnation (the first advent of Jesus) is all about God becoming man, we must spend time gazing upon the holiness of God in order to grasp even a fraction of the significance of Christ’s birth.

Let’s be honest right from the start: these verses can be taught from an infinite number of angles. In fact, I’ve already preached through them once before. Our focus, therefore, will be far from exhaustive; instead, I desire to structure our study around three questions, from which we will derive points of application as well.

WHO IS GOD?

This question is easy to ignore, to bypass on our way to deeper discussions. However, God is not merely our subject; He is the very context of our discussion.

What exactly does this mean?

First, we see that God is the subject of this text. He is the only person performing actions here, and, as the rest of the Bible makes clear, He is the ultimate and primary protagonist of Scripture. People like Moses, Abraham, and David play crucial roles in the storyline of the Bible, but they remain secondary characters. God Himself is the hero of the Bible, no one else.

This, of course, should impact how we are meant to read the Bible. Scripture is not a self-help manual, a history book, nor many of the other ways people often think of it (although it does contain elements of those things). God’s Word is, rather, the revelation of Himself to us. The Bible primarily shows us God, which includes for what purpose He made us, how we rejected Him, and how He rescued us from our rebellion. Reading the Bible will certainly always apply to you, but it is not about you. It’s about God.

But God is not only the Bible’s main subject; He is also its context. Notice that in Genesis 1:1 God creates everything. The phrase the heavens and the earth is a merism (much like searching high and low for something) that means everything that exists. So if something exists, God made it. This means that God began the beginning but was never begun Himself. Side note: meditating in your bed on truths like this will probably give you that slightly dizzying sensation that kind of feels like looking out over the edge of a cliff. Existence itself is dependent upon God for its being. As people who exist, we are dependent upon God for continuing to be. The Apostle Paul rightly applies these words of a pagan poet to our relationship to the one true God: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is the context for both our study and the Bible’s story because we can only read these words from Him, by Him, and through Him.

Of course, all of this is just a more complicated way of saying that God is the Creator. He is the Author, not only of the Bible, but of soft-shelled crabs, trees, the color spectrum, and everything else. He stands outside of time as the One who eternally is, without both beginning and end. Beside Him stand no equals. He alone is supreme, holy. He is God, and there are no others. As Creator, He began creation, and He will ultimately judge all His creatures.

Consider the reality of what this means. You are not a god. You are a creature created by God. You, therefore, do not know what is best for your life or how to be fulfilled; God does. He designed you, so He knows how you are meant to live and function. And particularly if you are inclined to reject the claims of the Bible, consider what even the possibility of this God existing would mean. If there were even the slightest chance that this Creator is real, would it not be advantageous to investigate these matters further?

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS?

On the first day of creation, God brings light into creation establishing day and night. Like almost everything else in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, these two concepts are a reoccurring theme throughout the Bible. The light and darkness here are literal, yet as they continue to be used, we begin to understand their symbolic significance. Allen Ross clarifies this point:

It is natural light, physical light; but its much more. The Bible shows again and again that light and darkness signify mutually exclusive realms, especially spiritual matters of good and evil. Through Scripture light is the realm of God and the righteous; darkness is the domain of the Evil One and death. Light represents that which is holy, pure, true, life-giving, and gladdening. (108)

It is no small thing that we are more at ease in the light. By light, we are able to see whatever is around us, surveying and understanding our environment. Because of this, light is also often symbolic for knowledge, while ignorance is represented by darkness.

Yet this first act of creation also provides a further glimpse at answering our first question. In 1 John 1:5, we learn that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” God brings light into the creation because He is light. His very presence chases away darkness, so it is only natural for Him to begin creation by forming light. As if to emphasize that light flows from Him, the creation of the sun, moon, and stars (objects that give light) does not occur until day four.

WHY WAS THERE DARKNESS IN GENESIS 1:2?

Our final question is certainly one of the most intriguing from the creation account. If God, who is light, makes light on the first day, why was there already darkness in verse 2? The attempted answers for what exactly is happening in verse 2 are multitude.

The gap theory is particularly popular, which posits that a large gap of time exists between verses 1 and 2. Satan’s rebellion in heaven occurred during this time period, and the ensuing heavenly battle left creation in the condition of verse 2.

Although the gap theory quite possibly might be the correct answer, I lean towards the idea that verse 2 describes the raw state of the world from when God began to create in verse 1. Indeed, verse 2 has a chaotic undertone, while the remainder of the chapter centers around God bringing order from chaos.

But why would God create the cosmos in a state of disorder and chaos just to put it into order over the span of one week? Of course, we know that God could have created everything in working order in an instant, no days of creation required. But He didn’t. He chose to create through a process, which can only mean that it is significant. It is not a stretch, therefore, to view God as creating the world disordered and primordial, so that He could shape it properly. In fact, this is God’s mode of operations throughout the rest of the Bible too (even from chapter one, He is revealing to us His character). Consider God’s promise to give Abraham the Promised Land, which was only fulfilled more than four hundred years later by his descendants under the leadership of Joshua. Or think of David’s long road to being king after being anointed by Samuel as a boy. Our own salvation is quite another process, as we struggle through the already-not-yet of both wrestling with and being freed from sin. We see this in nature as well (i.e. photosynthesis and the water cycle). The examples are endless because God works through processes.

This also explains why our obsession with instant gratification, deep down, feels so wrong. Sin corrupts our desires, making our wants prone to contradict God’s perfect design. We long to escape the systems that God designed, which is just a repackaging of the first sin.

But back to the original question: why was darkness present in verse 2? I believe it is to show that God is the dispeller of darkness. Here He forms light and establishes the division between darkness and light, but in our final sermon, we will see God dispel darkness completely. Creation begins with no light but ends with no darkness. This is the Creator’s plan. This is the good news.

Unfortunately, God’s dispelling of darkness is also a problem for us since Adam and Eve plunge the world into deeper chaos in Genesis 3. That chapter tells how our ancestors rejected God’s glorious design for creation. While God made them His stewards, exercising dominion over the earth, they wanted to be like God Himself. They attempted to usurp God’s throne, and because of that sin, we and all of creation have become corrupt and broken. We now follow the same pattern. We sin. We reject God’s design, choosing instead our own wants and desires. We elevate ourselves above the God who formed us from the dust and breathed life into our bones. This is folly defined, the rejecting of light in favor of the dark.

Fortunately, God would not leave us to grope about in the dark. He would come to rescue His people. During Advent, we celebrate the glorious coming of God in the person of Jesus Christ. By becoming human (while still retaining His divinity), Jesus walked the earth as the second Adam, the perfect human who (unlike Adam) rejected each opportunity to sin. He walked the earth, drawing some into His light, while others shrank away further into the dark. Then, at the end of His life, He willing submitted Himself over to death, suffering the righteous wrath of God in our place, and after rising from the dead, He freely grants us His righteousness.

This is the gospel, the good news and grand message of the Bible. This is the story that God has been telling from the beginning. Like the primordial chaos of creation’s beginning, God made us knowing that we would sin. Even before He said, “Let there be light”, the advent of Jesus was planned. This is His story, His process of creation and redemption, the revealing to His people His glory and splendor, His justice and wrath, His grace and mercy, His love and His compassion.

 

Why Advent?

The Bible is a story. In fact, it is the Story, the true myth, the architype that is woven into who we are as people. It is the story that we all long for, even those who have yet to hear it and those who reject it. It’s the story that we continue telling. The story of a paradise lost, of brokenness in need of repair, of betrayal and treason, of rescue and redemption. It’s our story, the story of Who made us, what went wrong, and how He fixed it and will fix it permanently.

Advent is intrinsicately about that story. Meaning coming or arrival, Advent is typically used to refer to the miracle of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the moment when God came down to rescue His people from the plague that we wrought upon creation: sin. That infant in a manger some two thousand years ago was God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.

God became man. Divinity and humanity mysteriously complete in person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Without this advent, the rest of the story collapses. The crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation all hinge upon Jesus being both God and man, the perfect high priest and only true mediator between the Creator and His rebellious creatures.

The season of Advent is an opportunity to immerse ourselves once again in the Story, to marvel anew at the sheer audacity of God’s plan, to be awestruck once more by the vast treasure of our redemption.

But it is also a time to refresh our anticipation for Christ’s return, the second advent. The decisive battle was won on the cross, but the war has yet to conclude. Like the Old Testament saints, we await still our coming King.

May the LORD, thus, draw you into a deepened sense of wonder over Christ’s incarnation and gospel this Advent.

May you long for Christ’s return with same confident anticipation as those who eagerly awaited His first coming.


My God Will Supply Every Need of Yours | Philippians 4:14-23

Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Philippians 4:14-23 ESV

 

Now Paul turns his heart once again to the gift of the Philippians, saying that it was kind of them to share in his troubles. Even though Paul wants to be clear that it was Christ that enabled him to face his various tribulations, he wants the Philippians to understand that their gift was a joy upon joy. He further describes the previous help that these brothers and sisters had been to him while he was in Macedonia and Thessalonica. Christ alone is sufficient for every concern, but he was incredibly thankful to have such a generous and loving family around the world.

PARTNERING IN THE GOSPEL // VERSES 14-20

Having taken a detour in thought to describe his contentment in the Lord in verses 11-13, Paul now returns to commenting on the concern the Philippians showed him through their gift. Sent by the hands of Epaphroditus, we do not know what their gifts to the apostle were, although we can assume that they included a letter of encouragement to him. Whatever the gifts were (whether financial, literary, or something else), Paul makes it clear that the Philippians were partnering with Paul in his ministry. And since Paul’s primary ministry was to preach the gospel to those who had yet to hear of Jesus, we can look to these verses for a theological snapshot of why churches supporting missionaries is so crucial to the advancement of the gospel.

Verse 14 gives us our first principle: partnering in missions means sharing trouble. The sufferings of Paul are no secret. Few people can even fathom persevering through the trials that he faced. He lists a few of these tribulations in 2 Corinthians 11:24–28:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

Most of us would cease after facing even a fraction of what Paul experienced, yet he continued onward. This letter has revealed much of the apostle’s theological grounds for joy in the midst of such suffering; however, Paul also took joy in knowing that churches like the Philippians were ready to share with him in his trials. The word for share here derives from the same root word that Paul uses for partnership in verse 15 and in 1:5. He is describing the fellowship, community, or communion that followers of Christ share. Such partnership and community are marks of true Christians. It is fitting, therefore, that we would also share each other’s sufferings.

But how can long distance partnerships, like Paul and Philippians, really mean sharing in the missionary’s troubles? First, we must remember that sending Epaphroditus with their gifts was a sacrifice in and of itself. The journey from Philippi to Rome was around 800 miles, which was an especially significant voyage in the ancient world. Indeed, as we should recall, Epaphroditus nearly died taking their gifts to Paul (2:27). So the risk of sending someone to Paul was great; however, there was also danger in openly showing their support of Paul and his ministry. Remember that Paul was imprisoned because his proclamation of the gospel was thought to stir up public outrage. The Romans considered Paul an enemy of the state, a danger to the fragile peace of the ethnically-diverse patchwork that was the Roman Empire. And for a city as Romanized as Philippi, knowledge of such support could have intensified their already present persecution.

Finally, we must also remember that there is much spiritual comfort in knowing that brothers and sisters are praying for you. Even if the Philippians could not be sitting with Paul in prison, there was comfort in knowing that they were concerned and praying for him. Simply knowing that fellow Christians around the world were petitioning the Father for him and eagerly awaiting news from him must have strengthened his resolve to persevere.

Although I don’t pretend to know anything close to Paul’s trials or even those of career missionaries, I do recall the encouragement of support while spending two months in Venezuela. As humans, it is impossible not to have days of discouragement, yet the knowledge that I was serving on behalf of others that could not go often gave me strength to keep pressing forward. May we never forget how much it means to those who are on the frontlines of missions that we care about them and are praying for them. Doing so is a form of sharing in their troubles.

In verses 15-16, Paul recalls how the Philippians repeatedly helped to meet Paul’s needs throughout his journey in Macedonia and even to Thessalonica (which was nearly one hundred miles from Philippi). Notice how carefully Paul words things here. He does not say that the Philippians met all of his needs while he was traveling in their area; instead, he says that they helped to meet his needs. The apostle is careful not to place too great of a burden upon the Philippians since they certainly did not have the ability to meet his needs entirely, not while he was still in Macedonia and especially not while he was in Rome. God alone could meet Paul’s needs, yet the Philippians were used by the Lord to meet some of his needs.

Likewise, we must understand that in our support of missionaries today we are called to meet their needs, yet we cannot meet all their needs. Only the Father can give them the support that they need, yet it is our privilege to be one instrument through which he provides that very support for them. This keeps us from two common errors: pride and discouragement. We are kept from pride because we know that regardless of how great our support is it will never be entirely sufficient. But we are also kept from discouragement because we know that God is ultimately the one who is doing the work and meeting the needs. We, therefore, have the ability to do our part with joy, knowing that God is true supplier.

In verse 17, Paul reiterates his selfless mentality by stating that he seeks the fruitful increase of the Philippians’ account rather than their gift itself. Paul’s language here is undeniably financial. The ESV footnotes suggests another possible translation as being: I seek the profit that accrues to your account. Unmistakably, Paul views the Philippians’ giving as a financial investment, one that is accruing fruitful interest on their behalf. But how are we to understand this concept of heavenly investment?

Paul’s language is similar to Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 6:19-20 | Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

Like Paul, Jesus is describing a kind of heavenly investment, storing our treasures in heaven rather than on earth. The wisdom is found in the security of our investment. On earth, savings can be lost. In a moment, people with great wealth have been reduced to poverty (as we learned in Ecclesiastes 5:13-17). Earthly funds are never entirely safe, but what can rob us of our heavenly treasure? Investing in the kingdom of God will never prove unsecure or unprofitable. It is, therefore, foolish not to store our treasures in heaven. By their support of Paul, the Philippians were doing just that. Their partnership in Paul’s ministry was an investment in God’s kingdom, in the advancement of the gospel. One day, when the gospel has spread through all the earth and Jesus has returned as King, the Philippians’ investment will be proven fruitful indeed. We likewise make such an investment whenever we support the spreading of the good news. Generous giving toward gospel efforts is an eternal investment for us.

In verse 18, Paul now returns to the significance of their gift. First, he assures them of his satisfaction with their gift. The word Paul uses for more at the beginning of the verse is actually the same word Paul used in verse 12 for abound; thus, tying this thought with that one. Indeed, we would expect prison of all places to have put Paul in a position of need, yet he writes to the Philippians that their gift has well supplied him, giving him plenty. In other words, he understands the tremendous grace God has given him through the generosity of the Philippian church.

But once again, his emphasis turns from himself back onto the Philippians as he calls their gift a fragrant offering to God. Having used financial language, Paul now uses the language of Old Testament sacrifices to describe their partnership with him. Like a sacrifice made on the altar of the Temple, so is the giving of the Philippians to meet the needs of Paul. It is an offering back to God from what he has generously provided for us. In the Old Testament, offerings were made to God in thanksgiving and recognition that He gives all that we have. Sacrificing an animal, therefore, was certainly a financial sacrifice, but it served as a physical reminder that all things ultimately belong to God. In this way, a sacrifice is a form of recognizing God as God. Thus, Paul informs the Philippians that the same event is occurring with their gift. Their giving was a sacrifice, money that could have been used to meet other needs, yet they still gave, knowing that God Himself is the Giver of all things. Their gift to Paul was ultimately not about Paul but about God. They sacrificed to the God of all things and to the work that He is doing here on earth.

In verse 19, Paul’s attention shifts yet again back to the benefit of the Philippians in their giving. This mighty verse is essentially the apostle’s expression of confidence that God will be faithful to pay his tab. Especially in the culture of the Roman Empire, reciprocal giving among friends was commonplace. Giving to a friend was done with the understanding that they were essentially indebted to you and would need to one day return the favor. Paul takes this customary mentality and flips it on its head, assuring the Philippians that God Himself would take care of Paul’s end.

It is worth making a side note that God has always been in the business of rearranging cultural norms and practices. Because we are made in God’s image, every culture will somewhat reflect God’s character; nevertheless, each reflection is broken by sin. Whenever the gospel penetrates a society, its culture must bow to the gospel, not the other way around. As with the reciprocal giving of friendship in the ancient world, God will often use the language of our culture to reach us, but He recircuits our customs, beliefs, and values for His glory. While giving with the understanding that the other person is indebted to you could lead to non-generous, selfish giving, Paul shifts their expectations by pointing them to God as the one who would give to them in return.

Now this verse can very easily be taken as support for property theology. After all, it does sound like Paul is saying that because the Philippians supported him, God will completely provide for the Philippians. They give, and God blesses. That’s how it works, right? Not exactly. We can never forget that this verse is in the context of the Philippians’ partnership with Paul in advancing the gospel. Paul is not saying that for every dollar that the Philippians gave to his ministry God would give them ten more. Instead, he is saying that as they continue to partner in the spreading of the gospel God would continue to give them the ability to do so. In other words, as they did the work of expanding God’s kingdom, God would be faithful to supply their every need.

Seeing verse 19 as following verses 14-18 is crucial to our mentality of giving. Too often, we either give less than we should or not at all because we are waiting for God to give us a greater ability to give. However, God expects us to give sacrificially, while trusting Him to provide. Indeed, as we support the work of His kingdom, God will be faithful to support us. John G. Paton wrote these words about his home church in Scotland’s support of his missionary work:

Nor did the dear old Church thus cripple herself; on the contrary, her zeal for Missions accompanied, if not caused, unwonted prosperity at home. New waves of liberality passed over the heart of her people. Debts that had burdened many of the Churches and Manses were swept away. Additional Congregations were organized. And in May, 1876, the Reformed Presbyterian Church entered into an honorable and independent Union with her larger, wealthier, and more progressive sister, the Free Church of Scotland. (21 Servants, 541)

This isn’t to say that we should give in order to be blessed by God; however, it is a promise that God will provide for His work. God desires for disciples to be made of all nations, and He will be faithful to fund that mission. We should not be surprised, then, that many of the healthiest churches are also the most mission-minded churches.

Unsurprisingly, all this talk about partnerships, giving, and being supplied causes Paul to erupt into a doxology of praise. Just as our supply from God only comes through His riches in Christ Jesus, so the apostle emphasizes again that God alone receives the glory for all things. Yes, we are called to do our part in accomplishing the Great Commission, but we are not entitled to any praise for our work because it is the Father who enables us to do it in the first place. In the spreading of the gospel, as in the gospel itself, the glory is to God alone.

FINAL GREETINGS // VERSES 21-23

Paul concludes his letter by exchanging greetings. He wishes for greetings to be sent from him and “all the saints” to each believer that is with them. While this is a common element for Christians to express toward one another, the real surprise is Paul’s inclusion of the saints in Caesar’s household. Our minds should recall Paul’s assurance in 1:13 that through his imprisonment even the Praetorian Guard had heard the gospel. Now, as if to comfort the Philippians even more, Paul subtly lets them know that even members of the Roman Emperor’s household believe in Christ. This is a powerful foretelling of the far-reaching pervasiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although Paul would be beheaded by the order of the Emperor only a few years after writing this letter, Christianity would be the official religion of the Empire in about three centuries. Regardless of the present circumstances, both history and the Scriptures remind us that the Jesus’ kingdom always triumphs and will permanently triumph in the end.

In a letter as Christocentric as Philippians, it is only fitting for it to end by turning toward Jesus once again. Paul’s final prayer is for the grace of Jesus to be with them. This was the greatest prayer that Paul could give them because only by the unmerited grace of Christ, could they take hold of the joy presented in this letter. And two thousand years later, the same is still true for us.

By grace alone, we have hope of being completed at the day of Jesus Christ.

By grace alone, our love will continue to abound more and more.

By grace alone, our life is Christ.

By grace alone, our death is gain.

By grace alone, we behave as citizens worthy of the gospel.

By grace alone, we are unified in our minds and hearts toward each other.

By grace alone, we clothe ourselves with the humility of Christ, treating others as better than ourselves.

By grace alone, we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

By grace alone, we know Christ and the power of His resurrection.

By grace alone, we are citizens of heaven, awaiting the Savior who will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body.

By grace alone, we are content in every situation, being strengthened by Jesus Himself.

By grace alone, we partner in the advancing of the gospel into all nations.

By grace alone, we rejoice in the Lord always, no matter the circumstance or tribulation.

By grace alone, we count everything as vanity for the sake of Christ.

May we fall constantly and continuously upon the grace of Christ.

I Can Do All Things Through Him Who Strengthens Me | Philippians 4:10-13

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:10-13 ESV

 

Here in chapter four, Paul is giving his final comments to the Philippians and wrapping up the themes of the letter. He has urged the Philippians once again to fight for unity, to rejoice in the Lord always, and to practice what they have learned from him. The apostle now writes about the Philippians revived concern for him, while also emphasizing that even while in prison he has learned to be content in the Lord.

CHRISTIAN CONCERN // VERSE 10

As Paul’s letter nears its end, he now turns his mind toward the love that the Philippians have shown him. This is an interesting verse because at first it could appear that Paul was suggesting that the Philippians did not have concern for him at some point. In order for them to revive their concern, they must have lost some of that concern previously, correct? Certainly not. The apostle even explains that their concern never diminished but their ability did. We do not know why exactly the church of Philippi did not have an opportunity to support Paul, but he expresses his gratitude that they were now able to send him such a gift when they previously could not. Paul’s receiving of their gift likely meant that the situation was improving for the Philippians.

We will focus on a point to be made from this verse more next week, but it should also be noted here: local churches must have a vision for fulfilling the Great Commission beyond themselves. While it is true that the importance of the local congregations of believers is difficult to over-emphasize, we must never forget that the gospel can only be made known to every nation and ethnicity via the collective effort of all believers worldwide. Practically, if most of the unreached people groups live in the 10/40 Window, then most churches around the world are not in a position to interact on a daily basis with those people. In fact, many of those areas are hostile to the very idea of an established Christian church existing within their homelands. Thus, we send and support missionaries who take the gospel especially to unreached lands. It is crucial for churches that are not on the frontline of taking the gospel to unreached peoples to partner in the word of these missionaries. Paul’s mission, after all, was just that; he aimed to preach Jesus Christ where He had not yet been named (Romans 15:20). The majority of Christians will not find themselves doing this work for Christ, yet those who do the work of Paul must have the support of we who seek to imitate the Philippians. While there are many ways to express our support and partnership with them, the two primary means are through financial giving and prayer.

THE ART OF CONTENTMENT // VERSES 11-12

Just in case his brothers and sisters have mistaken Paul’s gratitude over their gift for him being in great need, he is quick to note that he is content. Notice his wording. He does not claim that he is not in need because he definitely did have needs. However, so that he would not place extra pressure upon a struggling church, Paul quickly emphasizes that despite his needs he found true contentment. In fact, Paul’s rejoicing in their gift was more because of the love that it showed for him, not primarily because of the needs that it met.

There is a supernatural beauty to the contentment that is found in Paul. Though he has not mentioned his contentment until now, its calm and confident effects are felt throughout the entire book and throughout his life. The apostle was sitting in prison, his fate uncertain at the time of writing this letter, yet his heart is not troubled or anxious. Paul’s life was a living expression of the peace of God that verse seven describes. The supreme joy that Paul found in Christ displayed itself in an overarching satisfaction that was not contingent upon his circumstances. He had learned to rely upon and need only Jesus in both times of abundance and times of need. Even in the presence of hunger, Paul was able to acknowledge Jesus as the Bread of Life and find his contentment in Christ.

This is the true peace that God offers. God does not promise to magically meet every need, as though He were a cosmic genie. God gives us Himself, which is the greatest gift, so that regardless of what befalls us we will be able to rejoice in Him because He is sufficient.

This biblical understanding of contentment emphasizes the crucial role of being satisfied in the Christian life. Our contentment is an outflow of God’s goodness toward us, while discontentment reveals a struggling faith in God’s providence. To be dissatisfied as a Christian is to proclaim God Himself and His provisions as insufficient.

Of course, most of us would immediately reject such a thought. We would reason that we may be discontent on occasion, but we are not distrusting God Himself through our discontentment. Unfortunately, even sporadic discontentment is just that. A lack of contentment with your spouse reflects a dissatisfaction with God as well as your spouse because God is the giver of every good gift. In fact, coveting can only form in the absence of contentment. Looking longingly at the lives of those around us, therefore, is an indicator of our soul’s present danger. Coveting, envy, and materialism are the fruit of discontentment. Because of this, we might possess a greater fear of being brought low and facing hunger and need, yet times of abundance and plenty are just as dangerous, if not more so, to our souls. Agur is wise to write the following prayer:

Proverbs 30:7-9 | Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal band profane the name of my God.

Yet Paul’s words are distinct from Agur’s words. Agur knew his own inability to process both riches and poverty; therefore, he prayed for the LORD to keep him from both. Likewise for us, this is still a very wise prayer to pray. Paul, however, speaks to the reality that we will almost always experience times of riches and times of need, yet he has learned to be satisfied even during those highs and lows. He was able to recognize his fulfillment during times of hunger, while also still recognizing his need in times of plenty.

What does this look like in your life?

Are you forgetting God in the midst of living in abundance?

Are you feeling the pain of need and feeling discontentment with your life?

Has your discontent ever spiraled into other sins, such as coveting, envy, or greed?

But how exactly do we fight for contentment, regardless of our circumstances?

Paul answers that very question in our final verse.

A MISUNDERSTOOD VERSE // VERSE 13

Yes, the high school football verse! There is nothing that is impossible for a Christian because at just the right moment, Jesus will give them all the strength that they need. If you fail to study for a test, don’t worry. Trust in Jesus, and through Him you will be able to do all things. That is what this verse means, right? Jesus gives us strength, so we can do anything that we set our minds to.

Nothing could be farther away from the depth behind this incredibly popular verse. Paul penned this verse in the face of death and imprisonment with his body already failing because of the hardships that he had received. Paul was not looking toward Jesus as an extra boost of strength or a fix-all in the midst of arbitrary circumstances; he was looking to Christ as the only necessary element for strength through imprisonment and even into death. Paul knew that he was able to face any circumstance with joy and contentment because Jesus was everything to him! Jesus was the treasure of Paul’s life. Thus, if he had already found the Source of supreme joy, how could any trial damper his satisfaction? No situation was too great for Paul because Christ gave life to his joints. Even in death, Christ would be all-sufficient. Jesus is the secret to contentment in all circumstances.

Unfortunately, this is an easy teaching to claim, but it is quite difficult to actually live. We are so prone to do things in our own strength. Trusting self is for us like water to a fish; we rarely even recognize just how thoroughly we are swimming in it. We move along through our daily lives without blinking at the how frequently take things into our own hands. For instance, since we live in culture of abundance, we rarely pause to give thanks to God for the vast supply of food within our reach, but it is even less common for us to actually pray for Him to continue providing it. Or how often do we approach God’s Word without first begging His Spirit to grant us both understanding and obedience? We do things ourselves. We are, after all, red-blooded Americans who can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps whenever the going gets tough, right? Such an attitude is the opposite of Paul’s confidence in Jesus Christ. The apostle knew that Jesus alone was his strength. His own efforts were hopelessly futile without the Lord’s powerful supply in his life.

Brothers and sisters, the greatness of Paul is found only in the apostle’s continuous acknowledging of his own weakness and Christ’s infinite strength. Likewise, the mightiest figures in the history of the church were those who depended upon Jesus the most. Spurgeon, when asked how he was able to do everything that he did, responded by reminding the person that he and the Holy Spirit counted as two people working. Augustine’s profound insights into the ways of God came from how the gospel triumphed over his deep longings for the lusts of the flesh. Martin Luther proclaimed the glories of grace so boldly because he first felt the brutal weight of not being able to obey God’s commands. In God’s kingdom, the least truly are the greatest and the last are first. The weakest often prove to be the strongest because in their weakness, Christ’s strength is upon greater display.

Similarly, we will never conquer our own discontented hearts without Christ’s supernatural aid. We cannot face both need and plenty in righteousness unless Jesus is giving us the strength to do so. In fact, we see this very thought in the very first line of Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” The great value of sheep can only be achieved through the meticulous and gentle care of a shepherd. He is their defended and provider, their strength and their support. In the hands of a good shepherd, sheep are content.

Likewise, because Jesus is our Good Shepherd, we have no reason to want, to be discontent. If we are hungry, He Himself will be our daily bread. When He commands us to obey, He provides His Spirit to enable us to do it. When we are faithless to Him, He remains faithful. When we are lonely, He is beside us, even if we made our bed in the grave (Psalm 139:7). When our own strength and even our heart fails, He is the strength of our heart and our portion forever (Psalm 73:26).

Is Jesus, therefore, your strength, or do you desire something or someone else?

Are you living according to our own abilities, or is Christ working through you in everything?

Are you satisfied and content in Christ, or is your heart searching vainly for something greater?