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.

The Light of Salvation | Exodus 10:21-29

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

Exodus 10:21-29 ESV

 

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

THE STORY SO FAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

OF DARKNESS

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

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

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

Doesn’t that seem as bit odd?

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

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

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

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

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

A PEOPLE FOR HIS OWN POSSESSION

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

But why did God make such a distinction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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?

To Die Is Gain | Philippians 1:21

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Philippians 1:21 (ESV)

 

Having studied the immediate passage containing verse 21, we have embarked upon a two-part excursus into mining out the meanings of that verse’s two phrases. Thus, in our previous study, we attempted to explain and apply Paul’s idea that to live is Christ. I, to no degree, believe that we successfully explored the depths of that clause, but I do pray that I have provided a slight glimpse of how significant that thought truly is.

The same is true for our present study of the second clause, to die is gain. Whole books might be written about this truth, so we will not pretend to have seen all there is to see. Yet we will attempt to explore and map out some of this mighty notion.

THE DOCTRINE OF THE TEXT

We use the phrase “a matter of life and death” to describe something of near ultimate importance, which is fitting because all things come to us within the context of life or the cessation thereof. Every touch, smell, sound, sight, thought, emotion, and memory occur through the act of living. And since we are alive, living is all we have ever known. Life is hard, yes, and brutal and painful. But life is also present, real, comforting, and here. Despite the sufferings of life, it is still generally assumed to be better than the alternative.

“I’m sorry for your loss” is  an insight into our perception of death. Indeed, death is the great trauma of humanity. A lifetime of struggle, growth, labor, laughter, and tears all lost in a single moment, the silence of the heart, the undying pause of the lungs, and the collapse of the mind. The blackness, for which sleep sought to prepare us, envelops, and all is lost. Life dies.

Try as we might to feel differently about the shadow of mortality that looms overhead, we cannot help feeling the loss of death. For being the natural end of all things, few things feel quite as unnatural. Yet Paul’s view of dying is the exact opposite; in fact, he boldly declares that death is gain. By this he means that there is an advantage to be found in dying. Death is not a loss but, rather, a gain. Dying benefits the Christian.

ARGUMENTS FOR THE DOCTRINE

Such a bold and counterintuitive statement from Paul begs an explanation. If death feels so wrong, how then can it be gain? Although we might present a great number of reasons from the Scripture, we will limit ourselves to three.

By dying, we become free of pain & sin.

Given the profound suffering present in the world, the promise of escaping from the pain is a great promise indeed! Revelation 21:4 gives us this guarantee of God’s work in the world to come:

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.

Why is it so significant that pain will be wiped away?

Consider first the nature of pain. Although unpleasant, pain is vital, which I mean quite literally as being necessary for living. Pain, often blaringly, warns us of danger, that something is wrong. People with congenital insensitivity to pain (or CIP) are born unable to feel pain and rarely live through childhood since serious injuries or disease can easily go unnoticed. Pain is a much-needed gift for living in a world filled with dangers and disease. We need pain because the world is broken by sin. Therefore, the promise of living without pain (and its associates: death, mourning, and crying) is promise that the world will be fully repaired. Paul provides us an insight to this in Romans 8:19-23:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

The sin of Adam and Eve during the Fall marred creation itself, which is seen when God cursed the earth since it was under Adam’s dominion. Therefore, all of creation yearns to be renewed, remade, and resurrected along with us. As we received redeemed and glorified bodies, so will creation be repaired so that pain and death are no longer present. In other words, God’s act of redemption through Christ will not only renew us but the world as well. In our new and resurrected bodies and world, the words of 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 will be realized:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

Death and its harbinger, pain, will be removed from the order of creation for good. God will by His own blood on the cross restore and expand our paradise of communion with Him that we forsook in Eden. By dying, we leave this world behind to be with our Lord, where we will wait until He makes all things new. For the Christian, therefore, dying is gain because through it, the Lord rescues us from this life of pain, suffering, and death.

By dying, we enter rest. 

For some, it may sound strange that heaven, as we think of it, is not our final destination but rather a new earth with new bodies. This could lead us to question the restfulness of heaven. After all, if we are meant to long for the resurrection, would there still be a sense of restless longing even in heaven? Revelation 6:9-11 provides for us a glimpse at a kind of longing in martyrs who have died:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Here in John’s vision, he beholds the slain martyrs crying out to God for His judgment and vengeance to fall upon the earth. Those who often prayed for the forgiveness of their enemies in life now pray for justice in death. There is, therefore, a form of restlessness in martyrs even though they are in heaven. Yet notice that they are told to rest a little longer until the last martyrs are also killed. Thus, we can infer that while there is a kind of anticipation for God to finish His work, heaven is still a place of rest. Indeed, later in Revelation 14:13-14, John hears these words proclaimed:

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”

Recall that Paul viewed living for Christ to be fruitful labor in this life, which is a joyous and privileged work, but it is still toil and labor. Dying is gain for Paul, in part, because it means resting from his labor. He was willing to stay longer in the flesh for the benefit of other believers, but after long ministry of suffering and nearly constant danger, Paul was longing to rest from his work.

By dying, we are with Christ.

Yet for all the beauties of living without pain and sin and entering into eternal rest, one reason stands above all others for claiming death as gain: when we die, we are united with Christ. This, of course, isn’t to say that Christians are not united to Christ at the moment when they repent and believe the gospel. We are indeed. Without the security of being in Christ, no Christian would be able to sustain their faith until the end. So we know that Christ is spiritually here with us, yet He is also away from us. The Spirit dwells within us and empowers us to be Christ’s representatives, but we still eagerly await His return. While Jesus walked the earth, His disciples did not fast because He was with them. Now we fast, longing for bridegroom to come and commence the wedding feast. In this life, we are with Christ, yet we long to be with Christ still. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 says it like this:

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Here we walk by faith, not by sight, away from the Lord, but when we depart from this present body, we will be with the Lord, at home with Him. John Piper calls this a deep sense of at-homeness. C. S. Lewis calls it the desire for a far-off country:

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.

Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

We are all looking and waiting for the joy of which the greatest pleasures here on earth could only provide the slightest taste. We are each longing for Christ, our true home. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Though now we see with our hearts, one day we will see with our eyes “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

APPLICATION

Now that we’ve discussed why to die is gain; let us now make some direct application of the doctrine.

Our hope must transcend this life.

For the first application, I would emphasize that our hope in Christ must transcend this life. Paul himself makes this very point himself:

1 Corinthians 15:17-19 | And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul labors to explain that Christ’ resurrection cannot be separated from our resurrection, or vice versa. If we deny a future resurrection, then we deny Christ’s resurrection as well. If we deny Christ’s resurrection, then we have no hope of salvation and those who die perish. Our great hope hinges upon Christ’s resurrection as proof of our future resurrection. Without this future hope, we are to be pitied above all people. We cannot, therefore, claim Jesus as a great teacher of morals for living our best life now. Such a thought is antithetical to orthodox Christianity.

Hope in a greater life to come is a centerpiece of the Christian faith. This is critical also to our present doctrine. If there is no hope of a great life to come after death or even that we can achieve the perfect life here, then to die would not be gain. Gain can only come whenever more is available. The simple statement that death is gain for the Christian reveals that the life to come is always better than this present life. We must come to the realization that this life cannot offer us the joy and satisfaction that we seek in its entirety. We need more, and in Christ, we will enter in. Hope, therefore, in our eternal life with Christ.

The hope that death is gain must give us courage to live for Christ now.

As for the second application, we must also know that fixing our hope onto heaven does not mean living this life as a zombie. In fact, our hope that death is gain must give us the courage to live for Christ here and now. Recall that Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:6 that we are always of good courage, even as we walk by faith instead of sight. Knowing that death is gain ought to give us the courage that the fear of death might destroy. The apostles, for example, were willing to suffer torture and execution because they knew that departing to be with Christ was far better than this life. They were ready to lose their lives for the sake of Christ.

But it must also give us the courage to deny our sinful desires. We can only do this if we firmly believe that something better awaits us. Our battle with sin is truly a war of desires. We only sin because we want to sin. Therefore, we will only stop sinning whenever we want something else more. Knowing that the heavenly riches of Christ await us the in life to come enables us to desire that far-off country more than the lusts and lures of this world.

OBJECTIONS & ANSWERS

Now that we have observed the doctrine of to die is gain, argued why it is true, and applied it, we answer an objection that may arise.

Death is a grievous evil.

Having tied this study of Philippians to the back of studying Ecclesiastes, we might remember the Preacher’s view of death to be significantly less positive than that of Paul. In fact, in many ways, death casts a looming and ominous shroud over all of Ecclesiastes, haunting even the corners where it goes unmentioned. The Preacher treats death as a great enemy of humanity, a foe that will always have the last laugh.

In Ecclesiastes 5:16, Solomon calls death a grievous evil: “This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?” The common expression of coming into and departing from the world naked derives from verse 15. The immediate context refers to a man who lost all his riches, failing to leave an inheritance for his son, but the truth, of course, is that no one takes their money with them in death. Death makes real gain nothing more than a vanity since we cannot live long enough to see the full fruits of our labors. A full or empty bank account means nothing to the dead. Naked we arrived, and naked we shall depart. This is a grievous evil, says the Preacher.

Is this a biblical contradiction?

How can Paul call dying gain, while Solomon calls it evil?

The answer is that they are both correct. Solomon is correct in calling death evil, and Paul is right to say that death leads to gain for the Christian. To understand this unlikely pairing, we must understand the nature of death. Ecclesiastes treats death like an enemy because it is. 1 Corinthians 15:26 promises that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Death is a consequence of humanities greatest plague: sin. Death seems unnatural because it is. Eternity is etched into our souls, so we feel the wrongness of life coming to an end. Cognitively, we understand that dying is inevitable, yet we live the majority of our lives as if we were immortal. Every death around us stings each and every time, as if deep down we hoped an exception might be just this once. But death is linked to sin, which means that death can only cease once sin is eradicated.

Yet Paul is also able to claim that death is gain for the Christian because Christ became flesh and blood “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15). Notice that Christ defeated the devil who wields death like a weapon and delivers us from the lifelong slavery of fearing death through death. Jesus, therefore, defeated His enemy through His enemy. By redeeming humanity through His death and resurrection, Jesus broke the power of death over us. Yes, we must still walk through our physical death, but now in Christ, our physical death is merely a transition into eternal life with Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ, therefore, boldly declares that our enemy is now also an instrument for our joy.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR OBEDIENCE  

Since we have now argued for the doctrine, applied the doctrine, and answered an objection to the doctrine, we shall conclude with a final call to obedience.

Hope in Christ.

First and foremost, if you desire the confidence of Paul in saying to die is gain, you must hope in Christ. Why do I say Christ instead of God? Almost everyone when faced with death hopes in God (or perhaps I should say a god). Especially if we argue that there is no such thing as pure atheism, everyone holds onto something for comfort as they prepare to breath their last or witness a loved one doing so. We love to take comfort that there is a “better place” out there, but the truth is that a mere belief in God is not sufficient. James poignantly reminds us that the demons believe in Him as well (James 2:19). Our hope must be set upon Christ as the only mediator between us and God. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are still dead in sin. But if we hope in Christ, we are then not only made alive with Him in this life but we enter into joy, peace, and rest with Him in the life to come.

Hope, therefore, in Christ as your only Savior in life and death.

Live for Christ.

Second, use your life as fruitful labor for Christ. To die is gain is often highlighted more frequently than to live is Christ, yet we cannot possess the hope of death being gain unless Christ is also our life. The two clauses cannot be separated from one another. Our rest with the Lord only comes on the heels of living a life of fruitful labor for Him.

I believe that the fear of death and love of the world in many Christians is directly correlated with being slothful toward the work of the Kingdom. Now please do not hear what I am not saying. The fear of dying will always be more or less present. I recall hearing in some episode of R. C. Sproul’s Renewing Your Mind that while he was not afraid of death, he was afraid of the act of dying. I appreciate such candid honesty from a strong man of the faith because I too tend to fear the means by which I will die. Of course, I rebuke this thought with the promise of God’s timely grace, but I imagine it to be a lifelong battle.

Dying is frightening prospect, and there is no avoiding that truth. However, if our lives were as poured out in the service of the Lord as Paul’s life, perhaps we might less frightened of it. Paul toiled so tirelessly for Christ that death was a welcome transition from this life of suffering to one of rest and peace. It is the diligent worker, after all, who sleeps deeply, not the sluggard, and what is sleep if not a daily preparation for death? Each night our bodies collapse into a virtual coma, as our heart and lungs function only enough to keep us alive. For hours we helplessly shut down our senses, trusting the Lord’s hand to protect us and awaken us with renewed strength. If each day is life in miniature, then sleep is a daily death, yielding in the morning to new life. A well-lived day provides a well-rested sleep, which thrusts us brightly into a new day of work.

Labor, therefore, for the Kingdom. Toil hard for Christ, knowing that sleep is coming bring rest from our labor along with it.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

No one wants to die, but for the Christian, dying is a means of great gain. By dying, we escape this world of pain and sin. By dying, we find eternal rest in the Lord. By dying, we enter eternal life at home with Christ. So long as we have breath, let us therefore hope in and live for our Lord.

Romans 14:7–9 | For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.