I Lift Up My Eyes to the Hills | Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.

Psalm 121 ESV

 

Last week we began the Songs of Ascents with Psalm 120’s lamentation over living among those who reject God, which was fitting since every pilgrimage must begin with a discontentment for present circumstances. Psalm 121 presents the next steps of fixing our eyes upon our destination and establishing our hope that God will keep us safe through the many dangers that meet us along the way.

LOOKING TO THE HILLS

No one will ever venture away from home and the comfort of normalcy unless a yearning has stirred within them for more. Such is the holy discontentment that we described previously. We cannot live as strangers and exiles in this world until we have become sufficiently disillusioned with the world’s many promises of joy and satisfaction. To use the language of these psalms, we will not take the risk of traveling to Jerusalem without being first convinced that it is more glorious than Meshech and Kedar.

But now that we have experienced this discontentment, what is the next step? We lift our eyes toward our destination, toward God’s holy hill, Jerusalem. Interestingly, even though these first two verses sound much more hopeful than Psalm 120, they are actually expressing the same essential idea. Through his lament, the psalmist of 120 expressed his hope that God would ultimately rescue him from his sojourning in Meshech and dwelling in Kedar. Verses 1-2 of Psalm 121 now provide an explicit declaration of God’s expectant rescue as well.

We should make a note that many commentators view the hills of verse 1 in a negative light. They suggest that the psalmist is declaring that he will not fix his eyes upon the worshiping of idols that often occurred on the high places. While this interpretation is certainly plausible, I believe that the hills are instead representative of Jerusalem, and the psalmist is declaring his intention to look away from the things of this world and upward to God.

Sight is a crucial symbol within the Bible because we will walk toward what we are looking at. Only foolishness would claim that we can continue to move forward while setting our gaze upon what is beside or behind us. The high speed of automobiles helps to solidify this point. Far too many accidents occur because the driver is distracted with something in the backseat. Likewise, no hiker would ever attempt to navigate a rocky trail with his eyes fixated on something behind him. In the same manner, the hard and narrow path that leads to life is easy to stray from if our eyes are not set upon our destination. Our goal of eternal life, the Celestial City, is like the hill of Jerusalem, and we must have our eyes lifted toward it. The danger of veering off the path is too great to do otherwise.

Jesus gives this very warning to a potential follower in Luke 9. In verse 61, the man declares to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Seems reasonable, right? Who knew when the man would see his family again since Jesus had an itinerary ministry? Furthermore, many who became disciples of previous “messiahs” met their end via the sword of Rome. Why should he not want to say farewell to his family? Yet Jesus answers the man, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 62).

Does this seem harsh?

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan portrays a similar scene. The main character, Christian, becomes convinced that his city (the City of Destruction) is doomed to meet the fiery wrath of God and that he must journey to the Celestial City in order to be saved. Upon learning this knowledge, Christian becomes incredibly distraught, and his wife, children, and neighbors all attempt to calm his fears. Eventually, he is told by Evangelist to flee this destruction by going to the Wicket Gate and beginning his journey down the Narrow Way. Christian’s response is immediate:

Now he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, Life! Life! Eternal life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the Plain. (4)

Such an extreme response is necessary for following Christ. He has also demanded, after all, that we must love Him more than our own family (Matthew 10:37). The choice to follow Christ, therefore, cannot be made flippantly. To be a disciple of Jesus is to bear a cross (Matthew 10:38), being marked by death even as we yet live. If we seek to be like our master and teacher, how can we expect anything more pleasant than the humiliating rejection that He was given via the cross (Matthew 10:24-25). Becoming Christ’s disciple means choosing the path of greatest resistance, the way of rejecting the comforts and promises of this life. It means lifting our eyes toward the hills and the God who dwells in them. It means becoming an enemy to those who hate God and His Word. It means becoming a foreigner in the very place we once called home. It means considering our life lost for the hope of finding true life in Christ.

Such an action is exclusively individualistic.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying.

Far too often we forget the essential component of community in the life of the believer. The Bible knows nothing of a Christian who is outside of a local church. The assurance of our salvation is given to us through the affirmation of our brothers and sisters around us. We need each other far more than we can truly comprehend.

Yet salvation itself is not a communal event. The blood of Christ does not redeem entire families by simple proximity to a Christian. The journey of faith is one that each of us must walk, and in the end, we must each stand before God alone, naked and bare before His judgment. No one will simply wander into the gates of heaven. Many will enter stumbling and crawling, but no one will just happen to find the entrance. Few will find the narrow gate that leads to life. Find implies the necessity of searching.

Are you searching?

Have you lifted your eyes to the hills of the LORD?

Like Christian, have you placed your fingers in your ears and fled from sin and onto the path of life?

The journey can only begin with eyes lifted toward Jerusalem, toward our eternal home with the LORD.

THE LORD IS YOUR KEEPER

The main theme from verse 2 onward is God’s preserving power upon His people. Keep (or keeper) is used six times within the final six verses, making the point of these verses far from obscure. Like a resounding gong, this psalm seeks to drive the promise of God’s providential protection of His people into our minds and hearts. The LORD, our God, will keep us “from this time forth and forevermore.”

But why do we need this promise?

From what dangers do we need to be kept?

While I am not frightened of flying, few can deny how unnerving the idea of speeding hundreds of miles per hour tens of thousands of feet in the air for several hours at a time is. Consider that the first commercial airline flight took place on January 1, 1914, which means that the airline industry is only 105 years old. Something should be slightly unsettling about that knowledge. And yet before June, I plan to spend approximately 56 hours in the air.

Why take such risks?

For the sake of reaching the destination.

Journeys are dangerous, but some destinations are worth the danger. A pilgrimage is not for the fainthearted because staying home is always safer than traveling. By foot, car, boat, or plan, traveling is risky business. To quote Bilbo’s wise words to his nephew: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Fittingly, the first danger that the psalmist acknowledges is that our feet might slip. In a society where walking was the primary mode of travel, a sprained or broken ankle is a far greater inconvenience than a flat tire. But there is also the danger of our feet being swept off the path. This may come through carelessness, a failure to diligently follow directions. Or it could occur through dangers that force a detour. Whether our feet become injured, we wander from the path, or we are pushed off the road, each poses a serious threat to reaching our destination.

The elements are the second danger of which the psalmist warns. Being struck by the sun and moon in verse 6 may not sound like great threats today, but let’s consider their meaning. The sun is certainly easier to understand. Living in the southern Oklahoma, news stories can be read each summer of individuals who passed away due to having a heatstroke.

The moon is a bit different. The word lunacy derives from the belief that the moon could have direct effects upon one’s mental health. Perhaps this thought could be easily dismissed as a worldly superstition, since the moon’s varying gravitational pull does not seem to impact cognitive behavior. Or perhaps being moonstruck was caused by the comparatively great light of a full moon in a world without electricity. Maybe this “lunacy” was the result of a disrupted circadian rhythm, which we now know can have serious ramifications upon a person’s mental health.

Regardless, the psalmist’s point in using the sun and moon is to illustrate the unavoidable dangers of the natural world. Due to the sin of Adam and Eve, all of creation was plunged into the darkness and brokenness of sin. The earth, which was once meant to be cultivated into a gigantic Eden, now frequently harms we who were placed in dominion over it. Without proper protection, the sun and moon that give us light can also strike us down.

For the third danger, the psalmist simply states all evil. Unfortunately, the risk of traveling is greater than simply losing our way or meeting an unavoidable natural disaster; there is also the threat of wicked men. The heartbreaking reality is that there are people who earn profit for themselves through inflicting harm on others. White-collar conmen, drug dealers, or sex traffickers, the world has a greater number of truly malevolent individuals than we ever dare to think about. Especially when people design attacks purely to cause terror, the natural response is to shrink back in fear, to hide ourselves away from the rest of society, to retreat from the world.

It truly is dangerous business to walk out your door. Possibly more so than we understand. In fact, given that a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is symbolic for the life of a Christian, we should not be surprised to discover that these dangers can also be symbolic for our spiritual journey. It is often said that the three enemies of our walk with Christ are our own flesh, the influence of the world, and the wiles of the devil. The dangers within this psalm seem to parallel those enemies.

Psalm 73 uses the imagery of feet slipping to describe the psalmist almost falling into his envy of the foolish and prosperous. Therefore, our wandering feet could easily be counted as our flesh’s tendency to wander away from the LORD.

The sun and moon, which are ever-present in this life, parallel with the influence of the world upon believers. Like the sun and moon, we cannot exist apart from the world, yet we must always be wary of their dangers, which are all the more intensified by their ubiquitous presence.

Finally, the maliciousness of men is readily compared to the evil one, from whom we pray to God for deliverance. If these symbolic interpretations seem like a stretch, I would argue that the poetic nature of the Psalms absolutely warrants these types of application.

To be honest, with all these dangers in mind, life will probably go much smoother if you do not follow Christ, just as staying home is less risky than traveling abroad.

Walking out your door will always have greater risk than staying behind it.

Picking up a cross will always be harder than leaving it on the ground.

Dying to self will never be immediately more appealing than living for self.

Following Christ is a call to come and die. It means acknowledging that our very bodies are not our own but were bought with the price of Jesus’ blood, making us His bondservants, slaves to His grace.

His yoke is easy.

His burden is light.

But the way is narrow and hard.

Few will find the gate to life at the path’s end.

Following Christ is a one-way flight, a journey from which there is no return.

Only those who endure to the end will be saved. The call for endurance, of course, implicates difficulty.

With so many “dangers, toils, and snares,” how can we ever hope to arrive safely at Jerusalem, the Celestial City?

The psalmist answers by admitting that we have no such endurance within ourselves. God alone can keep us secure until the end. He expresses this confidence in God for three reasons.

First, God does not slumber. By God’s design, we are never more vulnerable than when we sleep. Of course, we can certainly wake ourselves quickly when danger may be near, but sleep itself remains a state of helplessness. I believe this is meant to be a divine limitation upon our pride. We can never escape the necessity of sleep; thereby, we are daily reminded of our creatureliness, that will never be gods. Repeatedly the New Testament writers urge us to be watchful and to stay awake, yet we are only capable of so much vigilance. Our own attentiveness can never fully protect. We are limited, finite, and dependent upon rest. Our God, however, is not. His rest upon the seventh day of creation was, much like Jesus’ baptism, intended to model our behavior. The LORD has no limitations nor does anything lie outside His watchful gaze. Even among the dangers around us, we can pray with David: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

Second, as God kept Israel, so He will keep us individually. Here the psalmist is calling us to reflect upon God’s steadfast love toward His people in general in order to find confidence in Him personally. The account that is repeatedly remembered in the Scriptures is the Exodus. But as Christians, we are now able to also recount the greater exodus, how God freed us from our slavery to sin. If God was willing to rescue us from our sins by the blood of His Son, how much more will He be faithful to deliver us from other dangers as well!

Third, God made the heavens and the earth. It is glorious news that God desires to be our helper and keeper, but that fact remains nothing more than a pleasant sentiment unless God can actually do it. Joyously, the LORD’s hand is not to short to save (Isaiah 59:1)! Because He is the all-mighty and sovereign Creator, God is entirely able to keep us “from this time forth and forevermore.” What a magnificent truth! God absolutely can preserve us to the very end of our journey, and, in fact, this is our only hope of reaching our destination. Just as we are justified by God’s grace, so are we also preserved by His grace. Without the strength and guide of the Spirit within us, we could never endure to the end and be saved.

Of course, this promise of perseverance does not guarantee ease. God does not promise to make the journey smooth for His people; He promises to see them safely to the end. Often it is through the challenges and hardships that God both teaches and shapes us. By His providence, the dangers around us become the instruments of our growth and progress. Our great hope, therefore, is not that we will be spared from all tragedy, sorrow, and pain; it is that in the midst of those things God will ultimately work each of them out for His glory and our good.

Brothers and sisters, lift your eyes up to the hills. Set your sights upon Jerusalem, our heavenly home with the God. The journey is perilous indeed with dangers always at hand. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), yet by the LORD’s strength and provision, those who seek it will find it (Matthew 7:7-8). Follow Christ and look to Him as your keeper both now and forevermore.

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Deliver Me, O LORD | Psalm 120

In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me.
Deliver me, O LORD,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.

 What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!

Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!

Psalm 120 ESV

 

God rarely chooses to do what we expect or want. Fittingly, the Songs of Ascents do not begin with the easily remembered words of Psalm 121:1-2, “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Instead, they begin with Psalm 120, a lament. Although lamentations are often abnormal for us today, we will discover by studying this psalm its important place as the first of the Pilgrim Songs.

LAMENTATION: A HOLY DISCONTENTMENT

Lamentations are songs of sorrow, prayers of anguish, to God. Such psalms comprise the largest genre within the Psalter. One out of every three psalms are laments. The Bible expects us to be familiar with laments because life is full of lamentable things. Psalm 120 is one such psalm, so the first question for us to ask should be: why is the psalmist lamenting?

He is crying for God to deliver him from the people around him. The description is twofold. They are deceitful and violent. The similar language of other psalms helps us understand what’s happening.

Psalm 109:1–3 | Be not silent, O God of my praise! For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. They encircle me with words of hate, and attack me without cause.

Psalm 140:1-3 | Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men; preserve me from violent men, who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually. They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s, and under their lips is the venom of asps.

The psalmist finds himself among people who are opposed to God and His truth and peace; instead, they delight in causing strife and spewing slander. The Slanderer and Accuser is their father, for they are like him in nature (John 8:44-45). They willfully reject the peace and truth of God.

And the psalmist is distressed. Regardless of how the actual events unfolded, he felt as though he was a sheep in the midst of wolves. That’s one great point of poetry, after all, to capture the emotions of the writer. He feels lost and abandoned by God, left to wander in the wilderness alone.

While the psalmist probably lived in Israel, he claims that he was dwelling and sojourning in two lands: Meshech and Kedar. The first was in present day Turkey, while the second was in Arabia. These locations must then be symbolic. Meshech might represent the liars, those who serve false gods rather than the LORD, and Kedar may be the violent since they were Ishmaelites who regularly came into conflict with the Hebrews. More broadly, however, they seem to represent the Gentile world as a whole, the lands of the godless. If he lived in Israel, this would become a forceful rebuke that many of God’s own people have rejected God’s ways. Biologically, they were Israelites, but they were Gentiles at heart. Alongside David, he cries: “Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man. Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak” (Psalm 12:1-2).

Such a lamentation is the perfect place to begin the Pilgrim Songs. At the heart of Christ’s followers must be a kind of holy discontentment. Don’t misunderstand me. Improper discontentment is the root of many sins. The discontentment of Adam and Eve (with pride) caused the first sin to be committed. It is proper, therefore, to pursue the contentment of God as Paul did (Philippians 4:11-13). We must learn to eat and drink and enjoy the life that God has graciously given to us (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

But another form of discontentment exists as well, a holy and godly discontentment. This psalm expresses it well. It is a discontentment with the world as it is, broken and marred by sin. It looks forward to something better. It longs for a renewed paradise, a world without evil, sin, and death. It hates the constant rebellion of God’s creatures against the Creator. It especially hates when that very rebellion is found in his own heart. Such discontentment yearns for peace and truth in the midst of a world of war and lies. It cries out for God’s final rescue.

This discontentment with current conditions is in the heart of all pilgrims. The Separatists aboard the Mayflower risked the cruel waves of the Atlantic and the brutal winters of the New World because such a journey was better than staying in England. The Israelites (despite their complaining) continued to wander the wilderness because the hope of Canaan was better than the slavery of Egypt.

The pilgrimage of the Christian life is same. We are in this world, but we are not of it (John 17:14-16). We hate the sin that both surrounds us and indwells us. Our hearts cry out for rescue, for deliverance from this life. Like the Israelites, we have been rescued from slavery but are not yet in the Promised Land. We are sojourners and exiles in the wilderness of this life. We have seen the eternal truth and can no longer be satisfied with the lies of this world. Eugene Peterson captures this discontentment perfectly:

Christian consciousness begins in the painful realization that what we had assumed was the truth is in fact a lie. Prayer is immediate: ‘Deliver me from the liars, God! They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth.” Rescue me from the lies of advertisers who claim to know that I need and what I desire, from the lies of entertainers who promise a cheap way to joy, from the lies of politicians who pretend to instruct me in power and morality, from the lies of psychologists who offer to shape my behavior and my morals so that I will live long, happily and successfully, from the lies of religionists who ‘heal the wounds  of this people lightly,’ from the lies of moralists who pretend to promote me to the office of captain of my fate, from the lies of pastors who ‘get rid of God’s command so you won’t have be inconvenienced in following the religious fashions!’ (Mk 7:8). Rescue me from the person who tells me of life and omits Christ, who is wise in the ways of the world and ignores the movement of the Spirit.

The lies are impeccably factual. They contain no errors. There are no distortions or falsified data. But they are lies all the same, because they claim to tell us who we are and omit everything about our origin in God and our destiny in God. They talk about the world without telling us that God made it. They tell us about our bodies without telling us that they are temples of the Holy Spirit. They instruct us in love without telling us about the God who loves us and gave himself for us. (27-28)

Christian, do you feel such a discontentment with the world? Is Christ your ultimate treasure?

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t enjoy the gifts of God in this life. By all means, we must! But even as we celebrate those gifts, our hearts must yearn for more, for the delights of which this life can only offer us the slightest taste.

If you are fully satisfied with this world, you will never complete the treacherous journey toward the next one. Do not allow “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word” (Mark 4:19) so that it proves unfruitful.

Do you possess a holy discontentment with this life? Do you cry out to God for an end to your sojourning in Meshech and Kedar? Do desire to be free from the empty lies of this world, to live forever in the truth of God?

AN UNFAILING HOPE

The greatness of sorrow and turmoil within lamentations can sometimes blind us to the hope that is almost always present within them as well. Such hope is evident twice in this psalm.

First, we must not fail to notice that the psalmist grounds his lamentation by remembering his history with God: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.” Before he cast his petition at God’s feet, he recalled God’s faithfulness to answer Him in the past. Such verses are why we need to let the Bible guide the complaints we lay before God’s throne! He felt abandoned by the LORD, but he gently reminded himself that God had yet to fail him.

Second, he surrendered the judgment of his enemies over to God. Verses 3-4 are essentially poetic ways of trusting God to enact vengeance on behalf of His people. As suggested, the broom tree was used in the same function as coals, which provides a vivid imagery of God’s fiery judgment against these violent liars.

Like the psalmist, we stand upon the promise that God will one day rescue us from our sojourning. He will pour His wrath and perfect justice upon everyone who rejects His Son, and He will gather His people to dwell with Him forever. Our hope in the wilderness is that God will bring us to our blessed rest in Him. He will preserve us through every trial along the way because He will be faithful to finish the work that He began (Philippians 1:6). In faith, both we and the psalmist sing the words of John Newton: “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

A PRAYER OF JESUS

While the words of this psalm must be the cry of every Christian, we must remember Bonhoeffer’s council that the Psalms are not primarily about us but about Jesus. With this thought in mind, we can safely claim that no one has more right to pray this psalm than Christ. The world itself was Meshech and Kedar for Him, and we are the violent and the deceitful. We rejected God’s commandments, serving our own passions and desires. We deserved the “warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree” because we actively chased after lies of the world.

With His birth, Jesus entered this fractured and corrupted place. The eternal God left His home and throne to become a pilgrim among us. Jesus “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3).

Jesus had more right to pray this prayer than any of us. He had the right to pray down God’s judgment upon us, and yet Jesus absorbed the arrow of God’s judgment in our place by His crucifixion. We can look by faith for God’s rescue because Jesus “was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

Are you a citizen of Meshech and Kedar, separated from the truth and peace of God? Then look to Christ, who has paid the penalty for your sins and now offers you life in His name.

Are you a follower of Christ, placing one foot in front of the other as you traverse the straight and narrow path? “Lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Brothers and sisters, “consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3).

May this song of Christ be an expression of our hope as we journey ever closer to our heavenly home. May we cry in our distress to the LORD, who has answered us by the blood of His Son.

Of the Psalms & Songs of Ascents: understanding the songs & prayers of God’s people

The Songs of Ascents are a collection of psalms within the overall Psalter. In order, therefore, to understand these fifteen psalms, we must first come to a basic knowledge of the Psalms as a whole.

The book of Psalms is a collection of poems within the Bible. Although the book’s arrangement may appear quite random at first, in reality, great structure and order is given to the composition (as is always the case with the works of God). For instance, the Psalms seem to move generally from lamentation to exultation. Hymns of praise are certainly present toward the beginning, just as songs of lament are found near the end. But the overall trajectory seems to go from sorrow of life to joy in God. Furthermore, the Psalms are not one book but five, which some theologians have suggested is for each book to serve as a kind of worship commentary (a soundtrack, perhaps?) to the Pentateuch, the books of Moses.

But what are the psalms themselves, and why are they included in the Bible? Fundamentally, the Psalms are poetry, which means that we must read them with a different mindset than when we read historical narratives or didactical literature. A primary target of Hebrew poetry is to be meditative. The terse wording is carefully selected to incite ponderings. Parallelism (where a thought is repeated in different words) is a common device employed to call our attention toward certain truths. For this reason, many verses are composed of two repetitious lines. Occasionally, the two lines of a verse will express antithetical notions, which is meant to be accented by the surrounding repetitions.

The goal of meditative reading is expressed in the two primary ways that the Psalms have been used throughout the centuries by God’s people: as songs and as prayers. Many are familiar with the Psalms being called the Bible’s hymnal. The word psalm means “a sacred song or poem used in worship” (according to Merriam-Webster). Fittingly, many psalms begin with musical annotations, identifying the tune or instrumentation to be used. The Psalms are meant to be used by God’s people to worship Him. The Apostle Paul affirms this by commanding us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, during which the “the word of Christ” will dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16).

In Diarmaid MacCulloch’s historical opus of the Reformation, he argues that “the metrical psalm was the perfect vehicle for turning the Protestant message into a mass movement capable of embracing the illiterate alongside the literate” (308). He continues to explain how this recovery of Psalm singing was used:

The psalms could be sung in worship or in the market-place; instantly they marked out the singer as a Protestant, and equally instantly united a Protestant crowd in ecstatic companionship just as a football chant does today on the stadium terraces. They were the common property of all, both men and women: women could not preach or rarely even lead prayer, but they could sing alongside their menfolk. To sing a psalm was a liberation—to break away from the mediation of priest or minister and to become a king alongside King David, talking directly to his God. (308)

We today suffer a great loss of continuity with both God in our worship and fellowship with previous generations of brothers and sisters in Christ because we do not regularly sing the Psalms.

Yet the Psalms are not just songs; they are also prayers. Throughout history, God’s people have clung to the Psalter as a prayer book, giving them words to speak to the LORD Most High. Perhaps the greatest example for us is Jesus’ prayer from Psalm 22 while upon the cross.

But how can the Psalms be both our prayers to God and God’s inspired Word? Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers the analogy of a child learning to speak by repeating his father’s words back to him as an explanation (11). By repeating God’s Word back to Him, we learn to pray how God desires for us to pray. The benefit of this is beyond comprehension, especially since true prayer is not simply the process of pouring out one’s heart before God (9). True prayer is centered on Christ.

If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and then we shall be able to pray them. It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.

Thus if the Bible also contains a prayerbook, we learn from this that not only that Word which he has to say to us belongs to the Word of God, but also that word which he wants to hear from us, because it is the word of his beloved Son. This is pure grace, that God tells us how we can speak with him and have fellowship with him. We can do it by praying in the name of Jesus Christ. The Psalms are given to us to this end, that we may learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ. (14-15)

A common objection is that praying from the Bible cannot capture our emotions. Brothers and sisters, know that praying the Psalms does not negate and suppress our emotions; instead, they provide them with the proper and reverential language to speak to our Creator. The full range of human emotions is masterfully on display in the Psalms. This is because Jesus, as the author of the Psalms, lived the life of a man, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus knows the joys and sorrows of life; He experienced them personally. But He never once sinned. He cried to the Father in lament of being forsaken by Him, and His lamentation was godly, holy, and righteous.

Would you ever have the boldness to pray Psalm 44: 23 to the High King of Heaven: “Awake! Why are you sleep, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!”? Might I suggest that praying these words apart from the guidance of God’s Word could easily be a sinful rant against the LORD. Yet whenever we pray them from the Scriptures, we are repeating God’s Word back to Him, holding Him to His promises, and expressing our faith that He will not abandon us forever. The boldness of bringing our complaint to God from the Psalms is an act of faith, while simply complaining against God is an act of foolish disrespect to the one before whom our words ought to be few (Ecclesiastes 5:3). Psalm 44, after all, begins by praising God as King (v. 4) and declaring, “In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever” (v. 8). The Psalms, therefore, balance our emotions, giving us the confidence of great boldness before God, while also reminding us of God’s inapproachable glory.

Like the rest of the Psalms, the Songs of Ascents are both songs and prayers. What differentiates this mini collection from the others is their specific function. While there are many suggestions as to purpose of collecting these psalms together as the Songs of Ascents, two are most common. The first suggestion is that these were psalms to be sung by the Levitical priests as they were ascending the steps of the Temple to perform their priestly duties. The other offers that these were prayed and sung by Jewish pilgrims while traveling to Jerusalem to worship at the annual festivals. Either way, we can safely assume that these poems were most likely written individually and grouped together at a later date.

I believe that the second thought is the more likely of the two, which has been the predominate view throughout history as well. Because they are believed to be sung during pilgrimages to Jerusalem, they have often been called the Pilgrim Songs. Such a view makes them eminently practical for Christians today.

The Christian life, in fact, is a pilgrimage, and we too are traveling toward Jerusalem. We are sojourners and exiles in this world (1 Peter 2:11), but our destination city is not of this world. We march toward New Jerusalem (see Revelation 21), which is our eternal home with the LORD.

John Bunyan powerfully captured this biblical metaphor in his allegorical fantasy story, The Pilgrim’s Progress. In that book, the main character, Christian, encounters many tests and trials as he leaves his home in the City of Destruction to reach the Celestial City. The story’s goal is to conceptualize the life of a Christian as a great journey down the straight and narrow path toward that heavenly city.

And it’s all true. We are pilgrims. Wanderers and foreigners traveling a vast and perilous journey toward our home. Our love of adventure and fantasy stories, tales with action, suspense, and peril, comes from God designing our lives for this quest.

The Christian life only becomes dull whenever we forget this truth. The straight and narrow path is long, arduous, and full of danger. In the end, few will traverse it. A broader road exists too. It’s way is easy, and the risk is kept to a minimum. The path of ease is always tempting, but destruction is its destination. So we choose the hard road. Come what may. We walk forward, ever onward, ready to endure to the end.

Music is often tied to journeys and their stories. Tolkien filled The Lord of the Rings with songs because they enhanced the depth of Middle-Earth. The spirituals sang by slaves gave voice to their oppression and eventually gave birth to blues and jazz. Even the stereotypical ideal of a roadtrip is not complete without fitting tunes to accompany the mileage.

The great reformer, Martin Luther, called music the second greatest gift of God to humanity (the Scriptures being first). It’s not difficult to see why he believed this. More than anything else, music seems to be able to stir up our affections. Music can move us even when nothing else seems to. It captures both the head and the heart.

I’ve titled this series, The Pilgrim’s Playlist, because the Songs of Ascents are the Christian’s God-given soundtrack for our roadtrip through this life. They are hymns for us to sing as we take another step closer to the Celestial City in the distance. Like all good music, they speak to us. They keep the destination in sight even when our physical eyes fail. They remind us of what we have left behind, of what we will surely encounter along the way, and what a mighty hope we cling to. They are the psalms of the desert wanderers, ready for the Promised Land. They are our songs. The songs of the redeemed people of God, the followers of Jesus Christ our Lord. As we sing them on the long, hard road of life, may they also prepare us for the songs of praise that we will sing together in the heavenly city.

Where We End And He Begins | Luke 3:15-22

The following guest post is by Andy Whitley.

It is the manuscript of his sermon that was preached last Sunday evening. I trust that you will also be blessed by his exposition and proclamation of God’s Word as you read it. 


I remember the first few times I saw the human iris behind a microscope. As light hit the eye the pupil would shrink and move as the colorful magnified tissue contracted. I was captivated at this living miraculous eye that God had woven together to see light and experience life in vivid colors and motions. It took a special type of lens to magnify this beauty. It took light going through the lens. It took much skill to hold it all perfectly to view it and behold. For many centuries, it was not even known that this ability was possible.

In a similar way, watching micro-organisms moving under a microscope was once not a thing, and then it became a thing. People just did not know microbes even existed. All of this wasn’t even known about by humans until they were first seen in the 1600’s. With advancing technology in optics and microscopes we began to discover a hidden microscopic world within our world that has revolutionized the way we thrive as a species and understand the world around us. God made this stuff and then gave us insight to view it and see his handiwork within it. His invisible attributes and divine power were  being shown off by it, look at Romans 1. We just had to figure out how to magnify the seemingly infinite miniature world.

Flip that around to the glorious beauties that telescopes and other tech has revealed. A world of enormous beautiful creation endlessly floats on forever and ever for infinity so far as we know. The huge-ness of it all steals your breath when you get the right moment, everybody here has had those moments. Once again, a world unknown, now magnified has become more known. Infinitely more to discover yet we know more of it now than we once did.

This seems to be much of this thing we know called life. A process of knowing more and more of things. The soul of every human has a mouth watering desire to fully and intensely know and grasp the thing their heart desires most. The soul thirstiness of the Christian minister is for the magnification of the highest unknown mystery, the one true God. This is a summary statement of the Christian life, to magnify the name of the one we bow down to. He has revealed much to us and will reveal all we need in time, but He can never be fully known.

The outside world sits and laughs because they don’t see what we see. They don’t believe in our germs because they have no scope, they don’t believe in our radio waves, because they have no radio to hear the sound, they scoff because they cannot see or feel what we devote our entire life to.

Our joyous dutiful privilege as Christians is to use every moment we get and every intention to increase or magnify or glorify or beautify the name of Jesus in our hearts and those around us. There is no greater joy in life than to drink deeply in awe at God. It gives people a momentary thrill to pursue creation wonders such as discovery of planets, but it is just a shadow of the true Beauty. Everybody wants to stare at something beautiful and then reach for it with all their might, we are just wired that way.

As we look at the end of John the Baptists’ ministry today in Luke 3:15-22, we see a man who is gazing at this true joy and screaming and pointing at it for everyone to join him. John 3:30 says that Jesus must increase as John decreases. Jesus must be magnified as John is minified. John’s pursuit takes him to his persecution, imprisonment, and death.

THE CONTEXT

Dustin preached to us the first half of chapter 3, verses 1-14. John is at the height of his ministry. He’s calling people to repent and be baptized to be cleansed of their sins. Many are coming out to him in droves and he rebukes the religious people because they are stirred up against him like snakes coming out of a brush pile that just got lit on fire. He says in vs. 7, “who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” He’s saying “don’t come out here to act like you’re part of this if you think you’re good to go, because of your religious heritage.”

It was a lot like that viral video called “the shocking youth message” when Paul Washer stares down a crowd who’s clapping for him and tells them “I don’t know what you’re clapping for, I’m talking about you.” The crowd was there for the spectacle yet their hearts could not care less, because they had “religion” in the bag, good to go.

The Jews were used to baptizing Gentiles into the Jewish religion, also known as proselytizing….John’s preaching a baptism at the Jews and Gentiles to repent into the True Kingdom. The people then get to taking him seriously, and they show signs of this message hitting home with them. They ask “what should we do?”, and he lays it out for them.

Be different.

Tax collectors, act this way and soldiers stop doing evil stuff with money, be content, share your stuff, and so on.

Stop being who you are and be different.

It’s reminds me of the counseling you see in Bob Newhart’s comedy video where a lady is struggling and asking for help for various fears and he says “just stop it!” John is saying, quit being like you are and be different. Just stop it!

But stopping is only half the battle. Repentance always involves a negative and positive. It always is a movement away from one thing and a movement toward something else. It is a turning away from sin and turning towards God. Nothing else will do. Nothing else can change a person.

Now don’t confuse what I’m saying. This power of repentance can only happen by the Holy Spirit through Faith. Up until the moment of repentance, the person has had nothing but self or something in the world to turn to. There is no real lasting power within ourselves to repent because we can only turn to objects or people without power.

In comes faith in Jesus. With faith, we an turn away from sin and let go as we cling to the object of faith, which can only be Christ. Faith is the stimulant or cause to repent. Without faith it is impossible to turn to God and let go of sin.

So here we are on the scene with John the baptizer in verse 15. He just preached hard for them to repent; they said: “What’s that look like?” His response is for them to be different and He gives examples of how that looks.

How do you feel when you see your faults and your sins? When someone comes along and tells you to stop being you and to start living different and you know they are right, what’s your first thought or feeling? When someone says you shouldn’t be addicted to your phone or food and you know they are right and want to change, what do you do? When someone tells you that you aren’t compassionate and you know it’s true, what do you think and do?

I’ll tell you what I think: I have no way to change myself. I just can’t be different. How? How God? How? No matter what I do, I keep doing the things I don’t want to do, I don’t give a flip about the things I should. Test me on this…Usually, when rebuked, we get angry or we turn to the person who rebuked us and who sees through us and sees the lies that we are living and then we try to be like them. We think that they can fix us.

This is what the people do in verse 15. They are so intrigued and convicted by what John says that they begin to think that He is the Savior. We usually go to man before we go to God for fixing us. Likewise, how does your google search history compare to your Bible search history for tough questions in your life?

These people want to know if John is the Christ. How does John respond? He magnifies Jesus and minifies himself. He does this by pointing to Jesus the Gracious and Jesus the Powerful, as he does this he calls himself a grace recipient and weak. The way he does this is by comparing his ministry to Jesus’s ministry, in other words he shows the power of Jesus’s baptism of people compared to the lack of real power of his own baptism of people. Lets look at that…

I BAPTIZE YOU WITH WATER

Verse 16 says “I baptize you with water.” John was quick to give credit to Jesus and not take any for himself. He does this by teaching that his baptism was something of significantly lesser value than what Jesus was going to do.

What was this water baptism performed by John? John doesn’t say. Most commentators say that this is not John’s point to discuss the differences in baptism, but that his only point is to show that Jesus’s baptism has power and that all that John can do is dunk in water. I think, however, that it is worth the time to sidestep and explain the basics differences between what John was doing and what Jesus would do.

Various Views:

  • One view is that the baptism of John is a continuation of washing Laws from Leviticus.
  • Another view is that this baptism of John is Proselyte baptism, which was Gentiles converting to become Jews. But in argument against that, we here have Jews being baptized which makes this argument incomplete.

I believe that there are elements of truth to the above views. John was calling the Jews to something that usually the Jews just saw the Gentiles doing. So, this was kind of like proselyte baptism, except where the Jews usually saw Gentiles repenting and taking up the Jews life now we see Jews being told that they need to repent and become “proselytized” into the Kingdom of God, which they thought they were. This brings up remembrance of Romans where Paul continually talks about God’s people not really being His people. Not all in Israel are Israel, Romans 9:6. A modern-day way of saying that would be that not all Christians are true Christians.

Most importantly in this passage is the contrast that John is giving his audience. He’s less concerned with explaining water baptism doctrine and is and more concerned with showing them the great difference between his own ministry and Jesus. At best, John baptizes with water, at best. This is like 1 Peter 3:21, which talks about the true meaning of Jesus’s baptism, it’s not about the water and the external, it’s about the inner spiritual reality of the person. It’s about the person and their conscience making an appeal to God. That’s what baptism represents, and we should agree with John that we cannot cause change in people by ministry efforts or baptism. Our role is to point them to one who can. By our life and our word, living and preaching the gospel, that’s all we can do.

NOT WORTHY TO UNTIE HIS SANDALS

Verse 16 John also calls Jesus “Mightier”

John has no desire to let the people trust in him. He says He is mightier than I. Doesn’t that sound flippant to us. Obviously Jesus is mightier. No brainer. But lost people don’t know that. They see the powerful preaching of John and He is quick to not let their hearts be carried away into John idolatry. He will take no glory or credit in this. Our American christian culture proves that this is our default: the preacher to seek his own glory, the listeners to give the preacher glory. John wants none of it. He wants Jesus to have it all.

John says he is “not even worthy to untie Jesus’s sandals.” This was the job of the lowest servant. John places himself below that. It’s easy to say such a thing, but for me a near impossibility to actually believe it. This reminds me of Peter, who didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet, because He knew his position. John is saying that he’s not even important enough to take off Jesus’ sandals which is not even to the foot washing part yet.

This reminds me of the parable that Jesus gave in Luke 18:13 of the tax collector who would not even lift his head to heaven because he was a sinner and knew he didn’t deserve mercy. What are you worthy of? Before God? Before men?

Regarding God, literally nothing do you deserve. You don’t even have the honor of the lowest amount of service. You’re not even free labor. That’s what John is saying regarding the honor that Jesus deserves. Why not? Because He’s God and you are a not. Because you have sin and He doesn’t. Infinitely below Him.

Yet if you’ve been saved you are now His and you’ve been made worthy. But here’s the thing, you are a brother who was given grace, a grace-recipient. You are not indebted to Him because you could never pay Him, yet you live in a way that is better than indebtedness. It is greater to live out of gratitude for grace than servitude from debt. You are the former. So you throw yourself low, humble yourself in the sight of the Lord. What about position toward other people?

This is that great theme of Jesus. The self denying service of your life should be evident. It should come from a heart that thinks of yourself not more highly than you ought to , but with sober judgement. It should be a heart that considers the interests of others above your own. YOU ARE AT BEST, A LOWLY SERVANT, AND NOT EVEN THAT WITHOUT GOD’S GRACE. YOU ARE PRIVILEGED TO SERVE OTHERS. PRIVILEGED. IT IS A GREAT HONOR TO SERVE.

People will strike you, serve them. When people hate or slander you or gossip about you, bless them. When you overhear someone cursing you, remember that you have cursed others. Regarding people, because of your sin, you don’t have the right to put yourself above others. Because you are a sinner and both you and others are made in God’s image, the right heart posture of your life is one of eagerness to lift other people up and serve them in each passing moment. When you wake up and go out and lay down to bed.

All of this needs to be brought into subjection to the passage point, back to a God-ward orientation. He’s talking about his unworthiness to the Creator-man Jesus. When you consider your own evil heart, His kindness toward you despite that, and you respond in Gratitude, your heart will reproduce His mercy to others. Getting Grace produces Grace. Getting Mercy multiplies mercy to others. Water droplets that are close run together to form eventually form a pool that is pleasing to dip in and cleanse. John’s humility comes because he was very near to Jesus. We must try to be near to Jesus. All by submitting to Him. Submit to Him. Submit. Submit to listen to Him.

This starts with whatever way you can take His Word in, audio Bible, reading, listening to others who are acquainted with Him. Drink His word in. Submit and drink. You must have intake or you will fall and bleed and hemorrhage and ache and sin and on and on. We must drink to be healthy. Submit by listening. Submit by responding to Him. You must speak to Him to have a relationship. If you do not speak to Him, you are not showing Him affection. You praise the thing you love. You pursue with your eyes and your mouth what your heart desires. If you are not speaking to Him, you may be like Zechariah who doubted the Lord and was shut up for 9 months unable to speak at all. Maybe you have closed your own mouth. Praise Him! If you have no praise for Him then you must repent. If you cannot speak one kind word to your Lord then you are in the midst of uncaring sin, you are not dwelling and basking in gratitude of His graces that fall all around your life sparkling like gemstones. The stones are shining, are you observing.? Listen to Him, Speak to Him. This is the way with all relationships grow. If you are worthy [in and of your own self] to untie His sandals, you will not listen; you will not praise. Be very careful.

The most humble are the grace-recipients, not the indebted servants. The servant says “I will serve this person because of my debt to them” The grace-recipient says “I don’t deserve to be near this person.”

So that is where John places his ministry, in complete dependence on God’s power to change people’s hearts. He knows he himself is a grace-recipient, and that unless the Lord builds the house the people strive in vain.

HOLY SPIRIT AND FIRE

So John is now at the heart of His message. Now he proclaims a truth that makes all people stagger. Look at the end of 16 and verse 17. This truth is that Jesus will gather some and the rest he will burn eternally. That’s hard. There’s nothing harder. It’s good news and bad news. It’s fire for some and glory for others. Don’t get too caught up in the baptism terminology here. Baptism means immerse. He’s talking about how some will be immersed into the person of the Holy Spirit and others will be cast out into eternal torment. This makes my palms sweat a little bit. After wheat would be brought into the barn, they would take a big fork and throw the wheat up in the air with the other pieces that were not wheat, but were just waste pieces. The wheat is heavier and so it would fall to the ground into a pile and the waste pieces or chaff would fly up into the air. The wheat and the chaff would be gathered into separate piles and the wheat would be useful and the chaff would be burned in the fire as waste.

The good news, some will be gathered as wheat.

The bad news, some will be burned with eternal fire.

The real good news always comes after knowing the real bad news. Light always is contrasted with dark. Being embraced after long absences of touch. Listen closely to this, some people will be sent to burn forever in Hell and some will be embraced by Jesus forever. To know that I was once chaff and would have been burned forever in hell if God had not set His love on me is overwhelming. Was I really so bad? Yes, if I took each of my sinful thoughts and let them run full course and held them up next to the Holiness of God and His Law. Should they be Punished? For how long? For eternity? A thousand years? What is the measure of my sin? Isn’t it measured only next to the righteousness of God? How else can I measure evil? How would I know evil if I did not know good? If I wrote down my every thought about Courtnie and handed it to her, would she say “come stay with me my good and faithful husband?” Would she divorce me on the spot? What would she be justified to do? She is not God, but He is.

So what if I took all my thoughts about Jesus Christ in a video file on my computer and titled it : “Andy’s complete thought file about Jesus.” Where would I be left? Ok, so I still believe that I’m pretty good.

Ok, change the title of the file to “ a complete list of all the uncaring thoughts Andy has had toward the graces that Jesus Christ has given him.” How does that make you feel? Better or worse? Apathy, well of course it’s ok right because everyone else is doing it? All are apathetic. Nobody gives a flip about Jesus and what He created us for.

Title the file “all the good thoughts and deeds done by Andy of his own merit, apart from any source file relating to Jesus.” Unfortunately that File is completely empty. Really? Is it really? Now for sure I own some good deeds. Some credit? As evil as the murderer? Me? No, I never went that far. Why not? Why did I not become a killer or adulterer or drunkard? THE LIMITS OF MY EVIL ARE ONLY THERE BECAUSE GOD PLACED UNMEASURABLE FAVOR ON MY LIFE. THE LIMITS OF YOUR EVIL ARE ONLY THERE BECAUSE GOD PLACED UNMEASURABLE FAVOR ON YOUR LIFE. Much of your moral goodness is circumstantial, grace-circumstantial. Had He given you worse circumstances you might be in prison for some terrible crime.

You may still not believe me. Not really. Until you do, you cannot believe this verse applies to you. You cannot believe that this passage is relevant to your life until you believe that you deserved to be burned and tormented in Hell forever and that God would be just and fair and good and right to tell you to go to Hell and then make it happen, forever. You still don’t believe me. I mean I know some of you have said you believe it when you were saved. But do you believe it still that you once deserved it?

Many have left the Christian Faith because they cannot believe this teaching. They are embarrassed of it and cannot see how God can be good and send people to Hell. Rob Bell is the most popular heretic I know in this camp. His book called “Love Wins” is completely against this passage. He teaches that God’s love will eventually win out and all will be saved from Hell. This is nowhere in the Bible and it diminishes the goodness of God and abolishes the need for the Cross. How so? Bell cannot fathom a completely holy and good God that a sin against would be worthy of eternal punishment. So he doesn’t know God. It destroys the need for faith and you have to throw away most of the Bible. Hell exists because God is good and it is the place for those who are not.

There are 2 things that we are freed from when we are saved. The binding and condemning power of the Law and the paralyzing power of Hell (see the book of Romans). Christians can still benefit greatly by remembering law and hell, don’t just forget about it. The law of God is protective to the Christian in this way. When you hold yourself to it, like a mirror, if you are honest, it should cast you into eternal hell. What does this do for the saved person to think hard on this and weep over this? For the saved person, remembering how you were enslaved to sin and condemned, should again draw you to God, because you know that what you ought to get you won’t get. There is no condemnation for you (Romans 8). None, it’s impossible for you to be punished according to the law.

Don’t miss the benefit of the law as it draws us to Jesus. When was the last time you wept over your sin? When was that? Take your sin to the Law, follow it’s course, and it walks you to Jesus’s feet. Ask for righteous tears from God. For the unsaved person, the law is good in that it casts you at the mercy and grace of God and if you refuse that, then you are solidifying your death penalty in hell. If you find yourself unprotected and hanging an inch above hell, not a grace recipient, today is the day for you to repent and quit resisting. Jesus took your beating, He’s got scars all over His back to prove it. Don’t reject Him any longer.

THE BAPTISM OF JESUS

I’m going to skip over John’s imprisonment and down to Jesus’s baptism for a moment in vs. 21. I would encourage you to personally study this section, it is worthy of it’s own sermon series.

Jesus asks John to baptize Him, we see this in the other gospels. We also know from other gospel accounts that Jesus said the reason that He was to be baptized is “to fulfill all righteousness.” What this means is this: Jesus not only died the death that we deserved, but every aspect of His life He lived in the exact way that He intends for us to live. So, he was baptized for us, not because of anything that He lacked. It was another way that Jesus shows us how “He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf.” He was baptized in order to identify with us, to please the Father, and to show the trinitarian nature of God as all three are seen in this passage. We have Jesus being baptized, the Holy Spirit descending, and the Father speaking. This is one of the great texts that reveal that God is 3 persons and one God.

JOHN’S IMPRISONMENT

Lastly, John gets locked up in prison because he is preaching hard at everyone he sees. When you preach the good news and rebuke people’s sin, you will get strong opposition. You will decrease as He increases. This can be from inside your own home or at work or all the way to rulers of the land. You will find yourself standing on peaceful solid truth as the world bends in chaos to destroy you. You may find yourself resolved to walk into Africa to unknown tribes and get speared to death. You may find your spouse telling you to curse God as Job’s wife did. You will know the truth and it will set you free no matter who comes against you.

Yet you may still fall in great seasons of doubt. We know John later in prison sent his followers to ask Jesus if He was the one to come or should he wait for another. Wait what? John was the man! Jesus called him the greatest man who ever lived and now he doesn’t even know if Jesus is the Messiah?

But John continued to be faithful even in prison. Eventually, Herod got deep into a lustful situation with his daughter in law and offered her anything on earth. You see how his drunken desires consumed him. She asked for John’s head to be cut off and put on a silver plate. Her greatest desire was His head. He must increase as we decrease. What a man, what a servant, what a grace recipient John was! What a preacher. What a beautiful example God has shown us of a man who was faithful even to death. He was set with the course of his life to take up his cross, deny himself, and follow Christ. One commentator [MacArthur] says: “It’s better to have a head like John’s that gets cut off than an ordinary head and keep it.”

And this is where it gets tough for you and me. We hop in our cars and go home and start a new workweek with all our usual habits and schedules and joys and pains. John’s life somewhat makes us feel like we are blowing it because he’s getting his head cut off and we can barely figure out a good plan to make sure we fit God into our work week. He’s dying for Jesus, and we usually are ticked because we ran out of milk and Wal-Mart is 2 miles away and it’s cold and almost bed time. That can ruin my evening. Do you feel that weight of having an Americanized life compared to what you read in the Bible?

Now to be fair, comparing getting milk at night to John’s persecution is kind of extreme. You aren’t John the Baptist, but what are you willing to set aside to magnify Jesus and His desires for your life rather than your own? Or would you like to just keep being a good person and going to Church and that’s it? Is that really it? Have you on a whole-life scale, let go of yourself to have Him?

You must decrease, repent to be saved. You must decrease, are you denying yourself to really live? You must decrease, are you living like a grace recipient? You must decrease, do you realize the same one who stands between you and the fires of Hell is the same one who calls you beloved and wants to be with you, to embrace you with his scarred up arms and hands?

He will never leave you or cast you out. Do you realize that? Is He increasing in your mind and in your desires? Is He increasing in your ministering to your spouse, your kids, your work, your churchy activities? In whatever grand-scale way or miniature way, ask God what all this means for you when you start your car up and drive home in a little bit.

The Greatest Commandment | Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.
You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV

 

The mission and purpose of God’s people, the church, is clearly given by Jesus in His Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Of the four commands given, making disciples is the primary. We go into the world for the purpose of making disciples. We baptize believers into the church in order to make disciples. We teach one another every command of Jesus so that disciples are made. Making disciples of Jesus, therefore, must be at the heart of everything we do as a church.

The book of Acts gives us a further glimpse at how the New Testament church sought to make disciples: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). They devoted themselves to the Scriptures, to prayer, and to community. It is my belief that a life molded by these values cannot help but obey the Great Commission. In our present text, we will observe particularly how a life saturated in God’s Word is essential to obeying the Great Commission.

Deuteronomy literally means “second law,” which is fitting because it is composed of the final sermons of Moses given to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land, and much of their content is reiterating the laws and commandments that God gave them forty years earlier. In the sixth chapter, we find our present text, which is one of the most important portions of Scripture. Called the Shema (the Hebrew word for hear), they essentially formed the doctrinal thesis of the Jewish religion, the central belief of their faith. Because of this, these verses were regularly prayed in both the morning and the evening and were often the final words upon the lips of dying Jews. Jesus, of course, affirms their importance by citing verse 5 as being the greatest commandment within the Bible. This text, therefore, is certainly worthy of our study and careful attention.

The general outline of the passage is: the central doctrine is presented in verse 4, the central command is given in verse 5, and proper application is given in verses 6-9.

THE LORD IS ONE // VERSE 4

Hear.

I am tempted to spend all our time with this one word, but alas, we shall not (today…). The importance of our text beginning with this word is multitude.

First, by being command to hear we must conclude that something is about to be said that is worth listening to. Something important is about to be communicated, so we would be wise to give our attention.

Second, we must remember who is commanding us to hear: Moses, the prophet of God, the vessel through whom God provided His holy law. Moses is such a dominating figure within the Old Testament that Jesus was prophesied to be a prophet like him (Deut. 18:18). This prophesy is the confirmed to apply to Jesus by how frequently their lives are paralleled. Both survived mass infanticide by an evil king, from which both found refuge in Egypt. Both were sent to rescue God’s people from slavery. Both issued the commands of God. And Moses is issuing those very commands here. He is speaking on God’s behalf, commanding us to pay careful attention to his words.

Third, because Moses is speaking the words given to him by God, we know that God not only communicates to us but actively entices us to listen to Him.

Fourth, God speaks this command to Israel, His people. God’s people should, of course, listen to their God.

This, then, begs the question: are you listening?

The reality of life is that we are hearing messages constantly. The entire field of business marketing is devoted to getting you to listen to a company’s message. People and devices are constantly vying for our attention, and we are largely influenced by the voices we are hearing. The Creator knows this, so He steps forward and demands our listening. As we will see, this God wants nothing less than to have our full attention. He requires it of His people. Why?

He is God. Two names are given here for the Creator of everything: the LORD and God. The LORD, in Hebrew, is God’s holy name, His personal name, while God is His divine title. Although we know that there is only one true God who formed the cosmos, people constantly worship other beings that they call gods. The LORD, therefore, is God’s proper name for clearly identifying the God of the Bible, which is why He specifies to Israel that He is their God.

This is intriguing because we might expect God to declare Israel as His people, as He often did. We would expect the Creator to brand them with His mark of ownership; however, He reverses the order. He calls Himself their God. He attaches Himself to them, not the other way around. I don’t think this observation is merely semantics for the sake of semantics; rather, this displays the kind of condescension that God shows repeatedly throughout the Scriptures. God does not treat us as nothing more than a pet or property. He doesn’t merely claim us as His own (even though that thought is no small wonder either!); He ties Himself onto us. Jesus is the most obvious example of this glorious condescension by literally becoming a human as we are human.

God, therefore, identifies Himself as being the God of Israel, but He also identifies Himself as being one. This means that God alone is God. Christianity is a monotheistic religion because we live in a monotheistic reality. There is only one Creator, and His name is the LORD. And He is our God. Other spiritual beings (i.e. demons) might establish false religions in which they are called gods, but they are not divine. The LORD is God, and there is no other.

Jews have rightfully identified this as being a cornerstone doctrinal statement, which specifies which God we serve. To affirm this declaration is to reject other views of God. For instance, we cannot properly believe that Allah, the god of Islam is the same as the God of the Bible because Allah is not the LORD. We serve the God whose name is the LORD, who attached Himself to the people of Israel, and who is uniquely God.

THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT // VERSE 5

Following such a necessary declaration of doctrine, Moses then provides us with what Jesus calls the Greatest Commandment: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you might. Each command is contained within this one. Even the second command, love your neighbor as yourself, will naturally be accomplished if we truly love God as we ought. Therefore, if the aim of our life is to obey God, the process has been simplified tremendously. Obey this one command, and everything else will be naturally obeyed. How then should we obey it?

Moses explicates three realms of obedience.

First, we must love God with all our heart. In Hebrew, this refers not only to feelings and emotions (as we think of the heart today) but also to the mind alongside its thoughts, desires, and will. When Jesus added the mind onto this list, He was not adding a new concept but making the idea more explicit.

Second, we must love God with all our soul. Again, the Hebrew’s conception of soul differentiates from what is common to today. We tend to imagine the soul as metaphysical, akin or even conjoined to consciousness. While the Hebrews did conceive of the soul as being alive (perhaps even the lifeforce of a person), they also viewed the physical body as part of being a soul.

Finally, we must love with all our might. The word used here is often translated as very or much. For instance, it is used when God declared creation very good in Genesis 1. When used as a noun, the word implies might, strength (as it is said in the Gospels), force, or we might add, fervor or zeal.

Together these categories encompass the entirety of a person.

So how then do we obey the command?

Here’s an idea. Grab a piece of paper and write those three realms of life side-by-side. At the end of each day, think back over how much you loved God within those categories and assign a percentage value to your effort. Now strive each day to increase those percentages until you are living each at 100%.

If the previous paragraph didn’t raise a few red flags, your heresy alarm system might need some maintenance. Such a goal-setting mindset misses the entire point of this command. After all, what is the command again? To love God. While true love often requires us to act without emotional backing, love itself is an affection. Love is not simply an action that can be accomplished; it is the prime motivator behind our actions. We spend time with our spouse because we love them. We watch television because we love it. Even actions we dislike, we do out of love. We work a job we hate because we love what it provides for us (at least more than the alternative of not having an income). Because love is a motivation, while it is easy enough to do loving things, it nearly impossible to force ourselves to love something or someone. Yes, we can certainly stir up the flames of love, but can we actually create love? Can I force myself to love something that I am truly apathetic towards? Without outside intervention, I don’t think we can. Our loves proceed from our being, and so what we love is a reflection of who we are.

This command, therefore, is not so much about what to do as it about what to be. In order to properly obey this command, your love of God must become your identity. You love God with your whole person. Every thought, emotion, desire, intent, word, action, breath, and heartbeat come from your love of God. That is what the word all means, after all. Nothing lies outside of your love for God. Loving God is woven into each fabric of your existence.

Of course this means that we can never hope of obeying. Even if, by some miracle, we managed to love God with our entire being for one whole day, we’ve still fundamentally disobeyed. Not loving God entirely yesterday ruins an entire lifetime. The command says all, and everything less than that is disobedience.

But, you interject, God will judge me by my effort, not the result; He knows that I tried. But have your really? Might could also be translated as effort, so did you actually make every effort every moment of every day to love God? I don’t think so.

But, you offer again, won’t God show me His mercy by relaxing such an unattainable standard? For God not to demand obedience as the command is written would be for Him to lie. To command one standard but accept a lower one is dishonesty, and God never lies (Titus 1:2).

All of this means that you can never do enough to obey this command. More than that. You, as a person, are not enough to obey this command. The problem is not just your actions; it is you as a person. You are utterly incapable of loving God as He commands and deserves.

And I’m in the same boat.

We all are.

No effort will ever be enough because we ourselves are not enough. We each stand before God, disobedient to His commandments and deserving His just judgment.

Yet for all the insufficiency that mars our love for God, His love for us is more than sufficient. The glorious news of the gospel is that God extended His boundless love toward us, even when we willfully refused to love Him. Although we could never fully obey this command, Jesus did. He lived a life of total love for God, never once failing to glorify the Father in all things. Such obedience is a battle to even comprehend for us. Yet He obeyed perfectly, and then He willingly submitted Himself to die in our place. His undeserved death then became the payment of the penalty for disobedience for all who believe in Christ. For those who are united with Christ, we are now presented before God as if we have completely obeyed this command. Our status before the Father by the blood of Christ is as if we truly have loved God with all our heart, soul, and might for every single moment of our lives. Jesus Christ is our only hope. Without His righteous being imputed onto us, we are each guilty of blatant and continual disobedience, earning us the fury of God’s wrath, but in Christ, we are now children of God.

SCRIPTURE AND DISCIPLESHIP // VERSES 6-9

Verse 4 gave us the key doctrine, and verse 5 was the key command. These final verses show us how to apply them into our lives. Verse 6 is the backbone for the remainder of the passage, while verses 7-9 explain what that verse looks like when lived out.

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. What words is Moses referring to? Of course, the immediate context is in reference to verse 5, but they also apply to the words of all of Deuteronomy and, then, to the rest of Scripture. But even if Moses only meant verse 5, we could not properly love God without keeping His entire Word upon our heart.

What then does it mean to keep the Greatest Commandment specifically and all of Scripture generally on your heart? As we said earlier, the heart in Hebrew entailed much more than just feelings and emotions; for them, the heart was always the center of thought and reason. Therefore, keeping God’s commandments on your heart is the same practice as meditating on God’s law, which the Psalms urge us to do. Because God is revealed through His Word, we must treasure the Word in order to properly love Him.

Verses 7-9 describe how to do this. First, Moses gives the command of discipling our children in the Word of the LORD. Notice how Moses describes the manner in which such teaching ought to be done: diligently. Just as the early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, so Moses commanded the Israel’s to diligently teach their children God’s commands. Discipleship has always been God’s idea of expanding His kingdom in both Testaments.

While peer-to-peer or mentorship forms of discipleship are thankfully resurging today, we must never forget this ancient truth that, for parents, our children are our primary disciples. They must not be recipients of our secondhand efforts. They must be our first and most important ministries, second only to our spouse. While the community of the church can be lifesaving in childrearing, the God-given responsibility is upon the parents’ shoulders and no one else.

If that sounds intimidating, Moses continues in verse 7 to show how this is to be done. By stating two pairs of opposites (sitting-walking and lying down-rising), the prophet is emphasizing that all of life should be filled with discussion of the Scriptures. Tremendous benefit can be found in having a daily time of family prayer and Bible reading, but that is not enough. The goal is not simply to read the Bible at least once a day; the goal is the saturate life with it. That is how to disciple our children.

The great difficulty of saturating life with Scripture is that we tend to be very biblically illiterate. Living in the Bible Belt, this is especially tragic. Many people spend their entire lives attending church faithfully who still do not know the basic storyline of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. They may know the Sunday School stories (Noah, Jonah, Daniel, etc.), but they do not know which books of the Bible focus on the period of the Babylonian Exile. They do not know the basic purpose behind Paul’s letter to the Galatians or why Revelation isn’t as scary as it seems (for Christians, of course).

By God’s providence, the tide is changing, but much progress remains to be made. In order to discuss the Scriptures with our children and the people around us, we must first know them, and we can only know them by first consuming them. This is why Moses tells the Israelites to bind these words to their hands, place them on their forehead, and write them on their doorposts. While many Jews have (and still do) take these commands literally, the prophet is simply commanding them to be remembered. He essentially saying: do whatever you need to do to keep God’s Word in your mind and heart.

Of course, the added depth of meaning to having them on your hand, forehead, and doorposts is that they are visible to others. The significance here is that as we saturate ourselves in the Scriptures, we will be marked by them. They will brand us in such an obvious way that we might as well have them glued to our forehead. The Bible-saturated life is easy to recognize and impossible to hide.

If we don’t have to literally bind Deuteronomy 6:5 on our hands, how then do we dive deeper into Scripture? How can we place it constantly before our eyes?

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Read it for the story. One of the best ways to become more familiar with the Bible to read it, and particularly read it with the goal of first becoming familiar with the overall narrative. While the Old Testament can be quite intimidating, it’s story can be fully grasped by reading eleven books (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah), and the other twenty-eight books take place within the timeline of those. The New Testament typically isn’t as frightening, but if the complexities of the letters are an issue, try reading them an entire letter in one sitting (as their recipients would have read them), focusing on understanding the main idea. Reader’s Bibles can be a great asset in the endeavor to enjoy the story and message of the Bible. They remove chapters and verses so that it is easier to focus on the actual words. This also makes them ideal for a self-paced reading plan.
  2. Listen to it. I think audio Bibles are awesome. They might not be for everyone (I certainly go through seasons of use), but I’ve found them to be of great aid. While visibly reading the Bible is still ideal, listening is a valuable supplement (especially when remembering that most Christians throughout history only heard the Bible read on Sundays). Most Bible apps and websites have free audio to use, but my two favorite apps are Bible.is and Streetlights. Bible.is contains dramatized Bibles, which I’m a fan of, and Streetlights throws really great background music behind them.
  3. Pray it back to God. Reading the Bible is often be boring because we fail to properly interact with the Scriptures. Praying God’s Word back to Him is the easiest (and probably best) way of developing such an interaction. Plus, if the Bible is how God speaks to us and prayer is how we speak to God, this truly turns our reading time into a dialogue with God.
  4. Meditate on it. Meditation is hard because there are, at once, so many ideas of what it might look like as well as no ideas at all. So how should you meditate on Scripture? Having a time of silence to think through a portion of Scripture is one form; however, if you are like me, our distracted age has made maintaining internal trains of thought quite difficult. Journaling can remedy this problem. Follow a formula of questions (like from 2 Timothy 3:16) or simply ask a question about the text and attempt to answer it. Regardless of how it is done, think deeply about the text and keep thinking about it throughout the day.
  5. Choose a book to study in-depth. I know this is the polar opposite of the first suggestion but hear me out. First of all, I would not suggest this approach until you have at least read the entire Bible and have a basic understanding its whole. That said, every Christian should remember that Bible commentaries are not pastoral exclusives. Anyone can, and should, grab a biblically faithful commentary and have it aid you in a deeper study of God’s Word. Tim Challies (at Challies.com) and Keith Mathison (at Ligonier) both have lists of the best commentaries on each book of the Bible, which are invaluable resources. The Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary Series is easy to read and contain questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. Also listening to a sermon series or reading a book of sermons can be use in the same way.

The point of these suggestions is not a heap a new burden upon you but to give ideas for how to begin swimming in the sea of God’s Word. The more we see God in His Scriptures, the more we will love Him. And the more we love the LORD, the more we will saturate our lives with His Word. And the more our lives are saturated with His Word, the more naturally we will disciple those around us.

Brothers and sisters, it is a new year; take this season to renew your hunger for God’s Word.

Read the Scriptures.

Meditate on them.

Study them.

Pray them.

God is speaking.

Are you going to hear Him?

Are you listening?

 

The Light of the Glory of God | Revelation 21:22-27

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Revelation 21:22-27 ESV

 

Having now studied and celebrated Christ’s first advent, we shift our focus toward His second advent. Jesus defeated sin and formed His church through His first coming. Upon His return, Jesus will establish His physical and visible reign as King over the new heavens and earth that He will create. In Revelation 21, the Apostle John describes his vision of the new creation by focusing upon the New Jerusalem that becomes God’s dwelling place on earth. Within our text of study, we find, therefore, the conclusion of our theme of light and darkness as well as the climax of the Bible’s story.

NO MORE NIGHT // VERSES 22-23

Revelation can be a scary book to read. Composed of visions given to the Apostle John while exiled onto the island of Patmos, it contains copious amounts of apocalyptic imagery, which can be quite intimidating to read. Yet the message of Revelation is meant to be one of joyful hope since it foretells how God will right the wrongs of sin, evil, and death once and for all. Revelation is all about reminding us that God ultimately wins and Jesus will return and reign supreme.

The final chapters of Revelation drive home that message by providing the mirror image of Genesis 1-3. The symmetry of these bookends of the Bible is astounding.

Consider Genesis first.

Chapter one, as we studied in week one, gives us the account of creation, particularly emphasizing the means by which the world was created: God’s words. Chapter two (along with the ending of chapter one) gives us our only glimpse of pre-sin life in the Garden of Eden. Chapter three, of course, is where everything unravels, explaining how our sin broke both creation and ourselves.

The final three chapters of Revelation mirror this layout. Chapter twenty foretells the final defeat of Satan and the great day of God’s judgment. It is the final undoing of Genesis 3, the permanent defeat of evil. Chapter twenty-one (along with the beginning of chapter twenty-two) provides our only glimpse of post-sin life on the new earth. Finally, chapter twenty-two turns our attention to the means by which all things will be recreated: Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God.

Our present text closes out chapter twenty-one. The beginning of the chapter describes the new earth and, particularly, the New Jerusalem, which descends from heaven onto earth. Within this heavenly city, God Himself chooses to dwell with His people.

Revelation 21:3–4 | And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

There are two primary views concerning New Jerusalem. The first is that it is a literal city that will essentially serve as the New Eden upon the remade paradise. The second is that it is symbolic for God’s people, the church. I tend to lean toward the second, but both are plausible and biblical, and on that day, I will not be disappointed in the slightest if I am incorrect. Here is my (brief) reasoning.

First, the angel who guides John’s vision of the city begins by saying this: “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (21:9), which is a title used of Christ’s church. The descriptions are then highly symbolic for the church, such as the twelve gates containing the names of Israel’s patriarchs and the twelve foundations listing the names of the apostles. It also fits with Babylon in chapter seventeen representing those who reject Christ. Therefore, as our text describes the city of New Jerusalem, I believe that this description is of God’s people in our glorified and eternal state.

The first description that we will note is the absence of darkness in the heavenly city. Once again, this is mirroring the original creation from Genesis. In that text, God brought matter into existence without light or order. He then brought light into the darkness. The opposite happens here. In the new creation, God permanently dispels all darkness, so that the cosmos is forever basking in eternal light.

And notice the source of that light. Just as God created light on the first day but created the objects of light (sun, moon, and stars) on the fourth day, God Himself provides the light once more. To be more specific, God’s glory will be the light of all creation.

What is the significance of this? Why does John specify that the glory of God is the light? First, we should arrive at some level of understanding what glory means. Glory, when used in human terms within the Bible, is often linked to boasting. For me to glory in something means that I boast and celebrate its value and worth. Glory, therefore, seems to be related to the outward manifestation and celebration of an object. God’s glory (and His zeal for it throughout the Scriptures) is the visible display of God’s holiness.

The term holy is a description of God’s very Godhood. To be holy is to be distinct and different. We saw this distinction last week with John displaying the divinity of Christ by emphasizing that Jesus was never created. God alone is the Creator, and all other things are created. God alone is, thus, truly holy. Our holiness is secondhand, a marker of God reserving us exclusively for His purposes.

“God’s glory is the radiance of His holiness, the radiance of his manifold, infinitely worthy and valuable perfections” (Piper). His glory is the visible display of Himself and His presence. To say, therefore, that God’s glory will be our light means that God’s manifest presence is our light. The very light by which we behold all things will be the rays of beauty emanating from God being in our midst, which means that heaven, our eternal paradise, is not a gift from God; it is the very presence of God.

The significance of this eternal daylight is found in verses 3-4. The casting away of all darkness is symbolic for the removal of evil, sin, and all their effects. “And death shall be no more.” Pain will be vanquished because its use will have expired. Violence, disease, and mishaps will no longer be existent. Tears and mourning will be things of the past, distant memories lingering vaguely upon the horizon of eternity. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

THE LIGHT OF THE NATIONS // VERSES 24-26

Although the description of the new world clothed with the light of God’s presence would be sufficient enough to arouse our longings for that day, John’s vision continues still. In verses 24-26, John beholds the nations bringing their glory into the New Jerusalem. What does this mean?

This is God pledging to fulfill His promises. Which promises, you might ask? For the sake of time, we will only focus on the Great Commission (although God’s promise to Abraham practically begs to be remembered as well). The mission and goal of Jesus’ church, the people of God, is to make disciples of all nations.

Recall that God’s purpose for the nation of Israel was to be a light for the other nations, a kingdom of priests. Yet Israel repeatedly failed at that job. Instead of influencing the world, they were constantly influenced by the world. This mission continues today through the church, the collective number of Jews and Gentiles who worship God through His Son, Jesus Christ. God’s people, therefore, is no longer a physical nation; rather, we are a spiritual nation within all the nations of the earth. And our goal is to keep expanding, to have disciples of Jesus within every single nation (or ethnicity).

This task is daunting. According to the Joshua Project, 41.5% of the world’s population remains unreached, which means that they “lack enough followers of Christ and resources to evangelize their own people.” With currently 7.6 billion people alive, this means that 3.14 billion have not heard the gospel and probably still do not even have a means of hearing it. Of the 17,014 people groups (or ethnicities) in the world, 7,063 remain unreached.

The Great Commission is far from complete. We have much work left to do. Jesus told us, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14), so that our wait for His return would not be a passive action. Instead, we reveal our longing for Christ’s second advent by proclaiming His good news to those who have yet to hear it.

This is Revelation’s message as well. Twice in the middle of the book are we called to endurance in our mission. “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:10). “Hear is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus” (14:21). This endurance of God’s people is found in the continued expansion of Christ’s kingdom, His church, despite the oppositions that come.

The nations bringing their glory into New Jerusalem is an assurance that the Great Commission will one day be complete. God’s plan will ultimately triumph, so we can have hope as we live through the process of their fulfillment now, a hope that springs us into confident action rather than comforting our sitting on the sidelines.

THE LAMB’S BOOK OF LIFE // VERSE 27

The chapter and our passage end by informing us of who is able to enter the New Jerusalem and partake in all of its glories: only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. What is the Lamb’s book of life, and how can we know if we are written in it?

First, we must point out that Jesus is repeatedly referenced throughout Revelation as the Lamb, which is pointing to the Passover. As we’ve noted previously, the tenth plague upon the Egyptians in Exodus was the death of the firstborns. God once again differentiated between His people and the Egyptians by sparing the Israelites as long as they painted the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a lamb. This imagery was continued by God commanding the Israelites to sacrifice two lambs each day, one in the morning and the other in the evening (Exodus 29:38). The sacrificed lambs were meant to remind God’s people that they were only spared from God’s justified wrath at their sin because God willingly accepted innocent blood instead.

Of course, the blood of lambs was never sufficient to cover sin. A greater sacrifice needed to be made, and Jesus was that sacrifice. Freely suffering an unjust death on the cross, Christ’s divine and innocent blood now perfectly cleanses our sins. Jesus, therefore, is the Lamb that was slain, the One who rescued His people by His own blood.

The people saved by Christ’s sacrifice have their names written in the Lamb’s book of life. Whether that book is literal or symbolic, it is essentially the full listing of the universal church. It contains the name of every follower of Christ who ever lived. And access to New Jerusalem is their exclusive right. They are able to enter because in Christ, they are no longer unclean, detestable, and false. They are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Himself, which offers them unfettered entrance into the presence of God’s glory.

Does that describe you?

Make no mistake, even though those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life are never blotted out, the assurance of that inheritance is only found through daily walking with Christ. Do not place your hope in a decision made or a prayer prayed once upon a time. The Lamb’s book is a book of the living, and the evidence of life is a heartbeat, not a birth certificate.

Place your hope in your walk with Christ today, and do the same thing for as long as breath still fills your lungs. Then when you breathe that last breath, commit it in faith to Lord’s steadfast love that endures forever.

Revelation 22:17 | The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.

Jesus Christ, the water of life, is free for the taking, but doing so means admitting our neediness and insufficiency. It means losing your life in order to find it. Bring your own glory and honor and lay them down at the feet of Christ. God’s glory is infinitely better.

THE STORY CONCLUDED

At Christ’s second coming, we will watch the final chapters of the Bible unfold into reality before our very eyes. Toward this destination, our brothers and sisters in the faith have looked for two thousand years in the midst of triumphs and failures, crowns and swords, laughter and tears, joy and sorrow. We stand upon their shoulders with faces likewise set toward our Lord’s return. Let us, therefore, work as they worked, repent as they repented, and die as they died. May we wait upon the return of Jesus with hands set to the plow.

Throughout Advent, we’ve been tracing the storyline of the Bible and of humanity, but this is where our story will end. But that ending is also a new beginning, the beginning of a story beyond what can be captured in our tiny thoughts and words. Yet Lewis seems to come the closest with his final paragraph of the Narnia series:

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. (The Last Battle, 228)

Revelation 22:20 says, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’” And we shout with alongside John and all of our brothers and sisters throughout time: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

The True Light | John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, the gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

John 1:1-18 ESV

 

After spending three weeks in the Old Testament studying the hints and promises of Christ’s coming, we now focus our attention upon the incarnation of Jesus. Although the life of Jesus is told four times in the Gospels, each brings a unique and complementary perspective on the long-awaited Savior. John’s Gospel is particularly interested in the glorious truth of Christ’s eternal divinity becoming human. Our text, John’s prologue, turns our attention toward this wondrous mystery.

THE STORY CONTINUED…

In our previous study, we briefly explained the timeline of events between Isaiah’s lifetime and the coming of Jesus; however, it can’t hurt to rehearse them again.

After being used to foretell Israel’s destruction by the Assyrian Empire, Isaiah most likely lived long enough to see the LORD’s promise fulfilled. Known for their terror tactics, the Assyrians left the northern kingdom in ruins with much of the population either slaughtered or forced into slavery. While Judah manages to postpone such a defeat for a few more generations, the Babylonian Empire eventually leaves Jerusalem as little more than rubble.

But just as the Babylonians replaced the Assyrians, so the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Providentially Cyrus the Great issued an edict authorizing many exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem for the purpose of rebuilding the city and the temple.

Soon Persia fell to the military brilliance of the young Alexander the Great. After conquering the known world, Alexander died suddenly without leaving a successor to his throne; his empire, therefore, was divided into four kingdoms led by four of his generals (the Kingdoms of Ptolemy, Cassander, Lysimachus, and Seleucus).

For nearly three hundred years, Jerusalem is captured and recaptured by Seleucids (basically Persia) and the Ptolemies (Egypt). This tug-o-war ended when Rome began its lengthy time as king of the hill. Despite appointing Herod the Great as king of the Jews (although raised under Judaism, his Jewish lineage is pretty questionable), the Hebrews repeatedly revolted against the vastly superior might of Rome.

Yet empires don’t stand for hundreds of years by being nice, and Rome was no exception. To the Romans we owe much of our Western heritage, yet their brutality should not be quickly ignored. Many historians argue that Rome’s endurance was largely the result of two implementations: roads and crucifixions. The cross was as much a warning as it was an instrument of torture, an easily arranged punishment for any dissent against Roman security.

But the massive construction of highways also proved threatening to the Jews. As travel became easier so did the spreading of ideas. Religious pluralism was the sign of the times, one which the Israelites repeatedly rejected to their sorrow.

This was the setting of the birth of Christ. As the Son of God came into the world, Augustus sat upon a global throne proclaiming himself the son of god. Physical and spiritual oppressors circled about them. They were shrouded in darkness. Where was the light God promised, the Savior-King, David’s son? No prophet had uttered even a word in four hundred years. Perhaps God had forgotten them altogether. Maybe the light would never come.

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD (WHO IS JESUS?)

John’s Gospel is unique to say the least. Matthew, Mark, and Luke bear so many similarities that they are often called the Synoptic Gospels. John is the odd duck of the bunch, and the evidence for this can been seen from its opening words. The Synoptics begin by grounding Jesus in reality. Matthew opens with Jesus’ Davidic lineage. Mark dives straight into the ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist. Luke cites his journalistic intensions for composing a biography of Christ.

John, however, doesn’t so much ground Jesus in reality as ground reality in Jesus. Verse 1 makes this clear by pointedly tying the story of Jesus to the first verse of Genesis. The words in the beginning should ring through our ears with awe at the God who formed all of existence out of nothing. He who made the heavens and the earth must rightfully be worshipped as the Creator of all things.

But that’s the end of that story, right?

Didn’t we, after all, already tell that story?

What more is there to say about creation?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. We could spend an entire sermon (and may one day) attempting to mine the depths of this verse, but let us attempt to be brief at the present.

As John’s Gospel continues, it becomes quite clear that Jesus is the Word being described in this verse. This designation is important in several ways. First, the Greek word for Word is logos, which was an essential concept for many Hellenistic philosophies. Gregory Hays attempts to explain logos as such:

The term (from which English “logic” and the suffix “-logy” derive) has a semantic range so broad as to be almost untranslatable. At a basic level it designates rational, connected thought—whether envisioned as a characteristic (rationality, the ability to reason) or as the product of that characteristic (an intelligible utterance or a connected discourse). Logos operates both in individuals and in the universe as a whole. In individuals it is the faculty of reason. On a cosmic level it is the rational principle that governs the organization of the universe. (Meditations, xx)

Such a belief would be impossible for John to be ignorant of, so there seems to be a sense in which he is pointing to Jesus as the true logos, not a passionless principle but a person.

Second, Jesus as the Word provides greater revelation (although, crucially, not a different one) of how God created all things. In Genesis 1:3, God formed light by speaking it into existence. The pattern continues through day six. Creation is created by the words of God or, as John now reveals, by the Word of God. God the Father ordained an item of creation, which then came into being through Jesus.

What then does this tell us about who Jesus is?

Jesus is both the same as and distinct from the God the Father. That is the paradox of the second and third phrases of verse 1. Jesus was both with God and was God. Before the universe was formed, Jesus existed alongside God as a distinct person, yet He was eternally God as well. Jesus is not the same person as the God the Father, yet He is also not a second God. Only one God exists (Deuteronomy 6:4), and Jesus and Father (and the Holy Spirit) are that singular God. Welcome to the mystery of the Trinity, ladies and gentlemen.

In no uncertain terms, John is magnifying the divinity of Christ. Jesus is God. Period. Any attempt to grasp the significance of Jesus’ life must begin with this fundamental truth. Jesus is the Word through Whom the world was made. He is the Creator, with all its rights and privileges. Jesus is the God we described in Genesis 1.

THE TRUE LIGHT (WHAT DID JESUS COME TO DO?)

Yet John is not content to simply tell us who Jesus is; he also reveals why Jesus came to earth: to pierce the darkness as the true light. Like the Egyptians and the Israelites, humanity has long been under the darkness of God’s judgment because of sin. This darkness can easily be felt, a darkness so thick that it seems to overcome light. We see such darkness in people being left to their own devices. We see it in systematic pillaging and raping of villages and villagers. We see it in the abduction of toddlers for organ harvesting or sex slavery. We see it in the crushed skulls and dismembered bodies of late-term abortions. It’s visible in parents who abandon their families or abuse their children. It floods the Internet with the defilement and slander of God’s images. It cries out of every heart for more, more gossip, more things, more money, more sex, more food, more drink. The world is dark. If you don’t think so, it’s probably because you haven’t glimpsed the light in order to know the difference.

Sin is self-destruction, and God often judges sin by simply not interfering. After all, the fruit of sin is death, and we each deserve it. We constantly reject God in order to follow our own desires. We exalt ourselves as supreme, relegating God to being our sidekick at best and our enemy at worst. We attempt to force the Creator to submit to our will instead of submitting to His. This prideful arrogance is the human condition; no one is the exception. We deserve to be abandoned by God. We deserve death. We deserve the darkness of His judgment.

Yet God did not abandon us. Jesus, the eternal Word and the true light, came to pierce the darkness of sin. He came to give life in the midst of death’s reign. Like God saved the Israelites from the Egyptians, Jesus came to rescue His people. He came to break the rod of their oppressors, to bring joy and peace, to dispel the darkness with His light. Jesus came to save those who committed treason against His throne.

THE WORD BECAME FLESH (HOW DID JESUS DO IT?)

Jesus is God Himself, who came to save those who repeatedly rejected and rebelled against Him. That is gloriously good news, but we must still ask the question of how. How did Jesus save His people from their sins?

He did it by becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The eternal Holy One became human. Divinity became (literally) personified. God became man. Consider the anew the wonder of the incarnation. At His conception, Jesus did not cease to be God. The fullness of His deity was maintained, which is good for us since the unraveling of the cosmos is not exactly ideal. And yet Jesus was also entirely human, flesh, blood, neurotransmitters, and all.

This incarnation was absolutely necessary for solving the problem of sin. Since our sins were against the eternal God, they necessitate an eternal judgment. Physical death does not wipe our slate clean, only an eternal, spiritual death can achieve that. Our doom, therefore, is everlasting, an infinite debt to which we must continue making payments. The glory of the God-man enters this bad news. As man, Jesus was able to do what we could not: live in perfect obedience to God. As God, when Jesus was crucified in our place, His infinite worth paid entirely our infinite debt. This substitutionary atonement pulls us from the darkness of God’s judgment into the marvelous light of His grace. Indeed, from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

Verse 12 gives us the unbelievable application of that grace: those who believe in Christ’s name have the right to be become children of God. Because of Jesus, the only Son of God dying in our place, we are now adopted as God’s sons and daughters. We who attempted to usurp His throne are now welcomed into His family, the family of the Creator! The overwhelming terror of being the sovereign God’s enemy is now transformed into the incomprehensible joy of being His beloved child.

Notice also the emphasis of verse 13. God alone accomplish our transformation, our new birth. No flesh, no blood, and no will of man can save sinners from the righteous wrath of God. Only the broken flesh, spilled blood, and gracious will of Jesus Christ is sufficient. No amount of effort, good works, or good intentions can save us. We contribute nothing; Jesus did everything. This is good news. This is the good news.

But if Jesus did everything for us, why is the gospel so hard to believe?

Why does the world continue to reject the Word through Whom it was made?

One reason is that people love darkness instead of the light. Jesus told Nicodemus this very fact in John 3:19-21:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.

The sad reality is that we are not forced to sin. We sin because we love sin. We love darkness, not the light. The human heart will often gladly live in hell so long as it bows to no one. We each chose hell, and we continue to do so whenever we sin. We willful reject God’s light in favor of the darkness of our own desires. Many, therefore, reject the light of the gospel of Christ because they will not be parted from their sin.

Another reason is that we want the glory of saving ourselves. Michael Lawrence identifies three ideas that actually form a false gospel: “an optimistic view of human beings, a domesticated view of God, and a view of religion as a means of moral self-reform” (Conversion, 19). Or to say it another way: “I can be good. God will be impressed. Religion will help” (20). Deep down, we desire self-help of religion because we want to save ourselves. Any honest person knows that they are sinful and broken, but even still, we often fail to see the utter hopelessness of our situation. With a little more discipline and control, we can change ourselves. We can grit our teeth and make ourselves good. Of course, we then get the glory of being the self-saved man. It’s the classic story of rags-to-riches only on an eternal scale.

But the gospel rejects that notion fundamentally. We are entirely incapable of saving ourselves, which is why Ephesians describes us as being dead in sin. The challenge of the gospel is to reject self, to lose your life in order to find it, to believe in Jesus’ name and become a child of God by walking away from the darkness of sin and into His light. May we walk in the light of His glorious grace, for it pierces the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.