The Pilgrim’s Playlist

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.

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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 Light in the Darkness | Isaiah 9:1-7

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

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

Isaiah 9:1-7 ESV

 

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

THE STORY CONTINUED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE PROMISE OF LIGHT // VERSES 1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE PRINCE OF PEACE // VERSES 6-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let There Be Light! | Genesis 1:1-5

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

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

Genesis 1:1-5 ESV

 

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

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

WHO IS GOD?

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

What exactly does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS?

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

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

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

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

WHY WAS THERE DARKNESS IN GENESIS 1:2?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why Advent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Philippians 4:10-13 ESV

 

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

CHRISTIAN CONCERN // VERSE 10

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

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

THE ART OF CONTENTMENT // VERSES 11-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this look like in your life?

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

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

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

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

Paul answers that very question in our final verse.

A MISUNDERSTOOD VERSE // VERSE 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing Christ & His Resurrection | Philippians 3:10-11

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10-11 ESV

 

Having expressed his dependency upon the grace of God for righteousness, Paul now proceeds to detail the benefits of knowing and being found in Christ. We can roughly break these benefits into three sections: knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection, sharing His sufferings, and attaining the resurrection of the dead.

KNOWING CHRIST & THE POWER OF HIS RESURRECTION // VERSE 10

The first benefit of being saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection. In verse 8, we described briefly the importance of knowing Christ, which Paul considered surpassing more valuable than his own religious works. Here the apostle emphasizes that knowing Christ is a fruit of the gospel itself. Too many envision the good news as a kind of Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card. By saving us from our sins, Jesus grants us access to heaven. Period. End of story. The gospel, however, promises us so much more than a pleasant place to spend eternity; it promises us Jesus Christ. Failing to understand the majesty of such a promise can only mean that the gospel itself is not understood. Jesus is the both the means and the goal of the gospel. He rescued us, and He is our great reward.

Of course, a new Christian who first believes the gospel knows something of Christ but will be hungry to know more of Him. How does he or she do this? We grow in knowledge of Christ through reading and understanding the written Word of God. The Bible is the special revelation of God to humanity; therefore, we come to know Him through the Scriptures. But the need to grow in our knowledge of Christ is not just for new Christians. Because Jesus is the eternal God, we will never know Him fully. Finite minds simply cannot understand entirely that which is infinite. Thus, to suggest that we already sufficiently know Christ is, first, a statement of supreme arrogance and, second, actually reveals that we do not comprehend even the basic divinity of Christ. We shall spend all of eternity coming to understand more and more of our Savior, yet we will never reach the end. Tozer captures what must be the heart of each Christian with these words:

To have found God and still to pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too easily satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart. St. Bernard stated this holy paradox in a musical quatrain that will be instantly understood by every worshiping soul:

We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread
And long to feast upon Thee still:
We drink Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill. 

Does this describe you?

Are you pursuing God?

In Christ, the Father is revealed to us; therefore, our pursuit will not be in vain. God has commanded this of us: “You have said, ‘Seek my face’” (Psalm 27:8). May we answer with the psalmist: “My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek’” (Psalm 27:8).

But the apostle does not stop at simply knowing Christ; instead, he also adds another phrase: and the power of his resurrection. Thus, being transformed by the gospel means knowing Christ and the power that raised Him from the dead. What then is the power of Christ’s resurrection? We should begin with the reminder that it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:17, Paul bluntly states: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Without the resurrection of Jesus, Christianity comes undone. There is no hope for the life to come, for us to be saved from our sins, if Christ remained in the grave. The gospel itself depends upon the resurrection. What can be more powerful than that? What knowledge on earth can compare to knowing that God Himself died for the sins of His rebellious creatures and rose from the dead to display His power for all to see? No truth is greater than this.

But how can we know the power of Christ’s resurrection? Romans 8:11 provides us with a clue: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” The Holy Spirit of God dwells within each and every believer, granting to us spiritual life in Christ here and eternal life with Christ in the age to come. Each Christian knows the power of Christ’s resurrection because it is the very power which saved us from being dead in sin. To believe the gospel is to experience the power of the resurrection.

Finally, notice that knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection are entwined with one another. This is no accident on Paul’s part. Rather, Christ cannot be known apart from also knowing the power of His resurrection. To deny the reality of His rising is to deny Christ Himself. We are only able to know Him because of His victory of the grave on our behalf.

SHARING THE SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST // VERSE 10

The second benefit of salvation is sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Like verse 29 of chapter one, we might be tempted to slide past this verse without giving it too much thought; however, it is crucial for understanding Paul’s joy in the midst of suffering. To understand this, we must first understand Christ’s sufferings. The afflictions of Christ were so essential to His life that Isaiah gave Him this description: “He 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” (53:3). As the hymn declares, “Man of sorrows, what a name for the Son of God, who came ruined sinners to reclaim”! And although Christ’s life was one of rejection and sorrow, the very pinnacle is the cross. In fact, Paul made such a claim already by placing the crucifixion of Christ at the very depth of His humiliation for us (2:8). The sufferings of Christ upon the cross are so central to the life of Christ that we can rightly declare that Jesus came to earth to die. His atoning death was the reason behind the glorious miracle of the incarnation. As with the resurrection, we cannot overstate the vast importance of the sufferings of Christ via the cross.

But what then does Paul mean about sharing in Christ’s sufferings? After all, wasn’t the whole point of the cross for Jesus to suffer in our place? Paul is certainly not implying that we must somehow add to the sufferings of Christ with our own. The blood of Christ is entirely sufficient to save. Instead, he is describing how we must become imitators of Christ, especially in suffering. If Jesus was the Man of Sorrows and we are His disciples, will we not also be marked by suffering? Jesus warns us of this very thing: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Mark 10:24-25). As followers of Christ, we can only expect to suffer like our Lord suffered. The writers of the New Testament remind us often of this fact.

1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 | And we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.

1 Peter 4:12-13 | Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something stranger were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.

Christians are destined to suffer for Christ, and that should not be strange news to us. The disciple must be like his teacher. Christians must be like Christ.

Yet also pay attention to the particular wording here: and may share his sufferings. I cannot recall whether it was a book or a podcast where I was first introduced to this idea, but it is a crucial distinction to make: Paul, along with the early Christians, considered themselves to be suffering alongside Christ during their afflictions. Today, however, a strong tendency exists to take comfort that Christ suffers alongside us in our sorrows. Instead of being comforted that we are with Christ, we are comforted that Christ is with us. The difference is subtle, but this is not a splitting of hairs. One view gives us the honor of suffering alongside Christ, while the other essentially gives Christ the honor of suffering alongside us. Christ is the focus of the first, while we are the focus of the second. We are each called to suffer with Christ. And yes, Jesus promises to be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), but our joy in the midst of suffering is that we (like the apostles) are “counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).

The final phrase of verse 10 is an interesting one. As we suffer with Christ, we become like Him in His death. The NASB’s translation is more preferable: being conformed to His death. Just as form and conform are related words in English, so is the Greek word here related to the word used for form in verses 6-7 of chapter two. Just as Jesus took the form of a servant when dying for us upon the cross, so we are conformed to Him through our sufferings for the gospel. In this way, the life of the Christian is cruciform. We live in the shadow and shape of the cross, and it impacts every aspect and facets of our lives.

By the way, in case it has not become obvious yet, the letter of Philippians increasingly becomes the bane of Nominal Christianity. Cultural (or Nominal) Christianity has also been called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and it is nothing like what Paul has been describing here. These “Christians” give no concern to knowing Christ, only to escaping hell. They do not desire to be conformed to the death of Christ, only to live as comfortably as possible in this life and in the one to come. They are not driven by a love of God but by selfish motives. Cultural Christianity goes against everything that Paul is presenting before us.

ATTAINING THE RESURRECTION AT ALL COSTS // VERSE 11

The third and final benefit of being saved by the gospel is attaining the resurrection of the dead. First of all, we should remind ourselves what resurrection Paul is referring to here. Within the Christian faith, two resurrections must be believed in order to remain orthodox: the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. Having already discussed Jesus’ resurrection, the resurrection of the dead is the future resurrection of all mankind either to everlasting life or everlasting death. Thus, the common conception of us spending an eternity in heaven floating on clouds with harps and angel wings is not presented by the Bible. Instead, followers of Christ will be raised back to life in glorified bodies that are no longer capable of sin, and we will live forever with the Lord upon the New Earth. Heaven, therefore, is not a mystical dreamworld. It is the reality, and this life is the dream. We will live forever in the physical presence of Jesus Christ our Lord. Because being with Christ will be our great reward, we must understand that even our resurrection is about knowing Christ. And this, again, is why the resurrection of Jesus is so crucial. His raising from the dead is the pledge of our resurrection with Him to come.

The resurrection is, therefore, an essential doctrine of the faith, which helps to explain Paul’s language for attaining the resurrection by any means possible. But what exactly does that phrase mean? Should we be desperately looking for a means of attaining the resurrection? Was Paul not confident in the sacrifice of Christ to give him eternal life? No, and no. The apostle has just finished ranting against attempts to earn salvation through human effort, meaning that the resurrection is also a gift from God through faith in Christ. Instead, Paul is pointing to the intimate connection between attaining the resurrection and being conformed to the death of Christ. He is looking to the resurrection as His final goal, the finish line, and against such a magnificent promise, the present sufferings are a light momentary affliction. Once again, this isn’t saying that we are justified by our cruciform life, but the evidence of the gospel is the daily death of self as we come to know Christ more and more.

In short, those who will not die with Christ here will not live with Christ in the resurrection. But of course, I’m not talking about martyrs exclusively. Each day we are given the choice of living for our own glory or the glory of Christ, to yield to our desires or to die to self. If we have no willingness to pour out our lives for the sake of Christ, then we cannot hope in the being with Him for eternity. If we do not treasure Him above all things now, how can we expect to treasure Him in the life to come?

Brothers and sisters, attaining the resurrection of the dead must be our goal. Our eyes must be fixed upon spending our eternity in the presence of Christ. By doing so, we will live differently in this life. The sufferings of this world will be nothing but transient pains leading to our future glory. The temptations of this world will become mere trifles in comparison to our enjoyment in Christ. How often, therefore, do you think of our eternal rest with the Lord? John Owen gives this warning:

Why are men so stupid? They all want to go to heaven. Nobody wants to go to hell. Most, like Balaam, would ‘die the death of the righteous’ and have their ‘latter end like his’. Yet few make any effort to get right ideas of heaven, to see if the true heaven really would satisfy them and make them eternally happy. They are stupidly content with vague ideas of heaven or deceive themselves with their own ideas of heaven. But those who have been taught heavenly truths and who profess that their chief desires lie in these truths, yet who neglect to meditate on them, show that, whatever they claim to be, they are still earthly and carnal. (Spiritual-mindedness, 70)

Does that describe you?

Do you enjoy Christ here on earth? If not, you will find no enjoyment of Him in heaven.

Does your life here revolve around the crucified and risen Savior? If not, heaven will be entirely unpleasant for you since heaven is all about Christ.

But if knowing Christ is your greatest joy now, you will know Him by sight in the resurrection, which indeed is joy unspeakable and full of glory.