Blessed Is Everyone Who Fears the LORD | Psalm 128

Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
            you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.

Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.

The Lord bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel!  

Psalm 128

 

As we continue our journey through the Songs of Ascents, we now arrive at the conclusion of the center “trilogy” within the collection. Although these Pilgrim Songs largely meditate upon the pilgrimage of life, these psalms explore how everyday life is a part of that journey.

YOU SHALL BE BLESSED

The predominate theme of Psalm 128 is the promise of being blessed. The word itself occurs four times within these six verses, and the verses that do not contain it (verses 3 and 6) describe the condition of being blessed. It would seem, therefore, most fitting for us to begin by defining what it means to be blessed.

Defining Blessedness

It’s not hard to find people who are blessed. The secular world is obsessed with blessedness, as evidenced by the popularity of #blessed. Within these circumstances, the word takes on malleable connotation that seems to indicate an overall feeling of happiness. Date night with my spouse: #blessed. Kid pooped in the toilet: #blessed. One cookie with two fortunes: #blessed. The Bible can even seem to support this impression. The NASB, KJV, NKJV, CSB, and RSV all translate blessed in verse 2 as happy. But is the feeling of happiness what the Bible means by being blessed?

Happiness is certainly a crucial element of being blessed, yet blessedness is not identical to happiness. I can be quite glad that the latest Marvel movie is finally on Netflix, but that doesn’t mean that I am blessed in the biblical sense of the word. Instead, the Bible’s concept of being blessed is a joyful gladness that stems from experiencing God’s favor. We are blessed because God looks upon us with grace and kindness. He freely establishes us as His people, becoming our God. The God who made heaven and earth unites Himself to us, intending to promote our welfare. What can be more blessed than that?

Verses 2-3 and 6 provide practical implications of this, which form a natural continuity with Psalm 127. You will enjoy the benefits of your work. Your wife will flourish like a vine that bears a lot of grapes, and you will have many children sitting around your table.

These blessings certainly fit with the overall picture in the rest of the Old Testament as well. When God made a covenant with Abraham, He promised to bless him. An integral piece of that blessing was the birth of Abraham’s son, Isaac (not to mention his descendants who would number like the stars in the sky). Even though he lived a nomadic life, the peoples near Abraham viewed his material wealth as sign that he was blessed by God.

Furthermore, when God made a covenant with Israel through Moses, He spells out the blessings for keeping the covenant and the curses for disobedience in Deuteronomy 28. In verse 11, God promises: “And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give you.” Sounds familiar, right? God promises fruit of the ground and livestock (work) and of the womb (children) as their blessings.

Jesus’ disciples also presumed that material prosperity signaled the LORD’s favor. In Mark 10, Jesus encountered a rich, young man who was seeking eternal life. After Jesus lists out some of the ten commandments, the young ruler claims to have obeyed them all. Jesus then tells him to give away all his possessions to the poor and follow Him, but the young man cannot. He walks away in sorrow, and Jesus comments to His disciples how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven. They respond with a telling question: “Then who can be saved?” (v. 26). They assumed that the rich had more favor with God, making salvation easier for them. Jesus declares wealth to be an obstacle in the path to eternal life, which was obviously a startling concept.

Does the Old Testament in general and this psalm in particular disagree with Jesus? Should we again to prosperity as the barometer for measuring our position with God? In a word, no (to both questions). If you look within the account of Abraham, we find that God blesses Abraham, so that Abraham’s lineage would become a blessing to the entire world. In Deuteronomy 28:10, God speaks these words: “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you.” Their physical blessings were a sign to the rest of the nations that their God was the one true God. Their prosperity was a witness of God’s glory to the world, God’s light shining in the darkness.

The LORD has by no means deviated from this principle under the New Covenant, but its appearance does shift. When Jesus entered humanity as the God-man to solve the problem of sin with His life, death, and resurrection, He brought to us blessedness in its purest form. He delivered to us the supreme blessing of peace with God, of our adoption by God. He paid once for all the debt of our sins and signed over the account of His righteous into our name. We are made co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). We have “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Indeed, we are blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3).

Yet this superior blessing comes with a caveat:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:16-17)

Our blessedness in Christ requires our willingness to suffer with Christ. Don’t miss the importance of that particular wording. To say that we must suffer for Christ is not inaccurate, yet here Paul states that our suffering must be with Christ. He suffered for us; now we must suffer with Him. Soon, though, we will be glorified with Him, but even now, we are blessed when we suffer with Christ. Jesus said so Himself (Matthew 5:10-12).

Throughout history, Christians have known and displayed this truth. They have displayed to the world a vast blessedness that cannot be contained in this life, a blessedness of which the world is not worthy. Tertullian affirms this with his beloved declaration to the Romans:

The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed. Many of your writers exhort to the courageous bearing of pain and death, as Cicero in the Tusculans, as Seneca in his Chances, as Diogenes, Pyrrhus, Callinicus; and yet their words do not find so many disciples as Christians do, teachers not by words, but by their deeds. That very obstinacy you rail against is the preceptress. For who that contemplates it, is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? Who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines? And when he has embraced them, desires not to suffer that he may become partaker of the fullness of God’s grace, that he may obtain from God complete forgiveness, by giving in exchange his blood?

I recently came across this quotation: “no assessment of the early days and subsequent success of Christianity can ignore the fact that in their own ways the rise and persistence of both Judaism and Islam are equally remarkable and equally ‘miraculous’” (Introducing Jesus, loc. 553). First, as Christians, we certainly assert the statements validity with Judaism, to which we are necessarily attached. But Islam did not experience an equally remarkable and miraculous growth. Muhammed preached peace until he was able to assemble an army. Islam spread by force of the sword; Christianity conquered even when killed by the sword. Tertullian’s assessment still stands today. The blood of Christian martyrs is seed because it displays to the world our blessed hope. As they rejoice in a hope beyond this world, their faith becomes visible evidence of that eternal life.

None of this, however, is to discount how the LORD may still use physical blessings to give evidence of His love. We simply no longer stake of primary hope in them. In Christ, we can still be blessed, even if the fruit of our labor is taken from us. In Christ, we can still be blessed, even when barrenness strikes our family. The physical blessings of this psalm are shadows of Christ’s reality, and our blessedness in Jesus is meant to serve as a beacon of hope for those walking toward the gate of destruction.

Fear the LORD

If now we have a better conception of blessedness, how it achieved? The psalmist declares that those who fear the LORD are blessed. How then does the fear of God relate to our blessedness in Christ? If God has adopted us as His children in Christ, is there no longer any need to fear Him?

The fatherhood of God and fear of God do not stand in opposition to one another. If anything, our adoption in Christ gives greater clarity to how we are called to fear Him. In a healthy relationship, a child ought to have a healthy fear of his or her father because the father is always prepared to use corrective discipline. The child fears the father’s rod of correction. Yet (once again in a healthy relationship), the father also leaves the child without any doubt of his love toward them. Indeed, fatherly love must include discipline. If I do not correct my toddler’s tantrums now, they will lead to greater “tantrums” in the future that will be destructive to herself and those around her. If I do not force her to sleep in some kind of schedule, she quickly becomes fatigued, which thrusts chaos upon herself and those around her. Both are acts of discipline. She is rarely pleased with either. Announcing bed time can even cause her to run from me. But I discipline her for her own good.

The fatherhood of God is so much better than my own. He is perfectly right in all His ways, and His discipline is never too hard or soft. Even still, we are right to fear His hand. We are right to fear His correction, even though in Christ we need not question His love. If we do not know this fear of God, we do not know God at all. To use the psalm’s language, we are not blessed. C. S. Lewis’s poignant observation still rings true:

We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people, I admit, would formulate theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction. (Problem of Pain, 31-32)

God is both love and to be feared. Any theology that cannot cling to both realities is false. True blessedness comes from knowing that God is God, fearing Him, and being loved by Him. Such an understanding can only lead us, then, to walk in His ways. A failure to obey God proves that we do not love nor fear Him. Such a claim isn’t legalism. After all, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). A stubborn refusal to walk in God’s ways and obey His commands is evidence of failing to love Christ. It is also a rejection of blessedness. Our refusal to fear and obey God separates us from Himself, the Source of all blessings. We choose, like Satan in Paradise Lost, to attempt reigning in hell rather than serving in heaven. Trying to be gods, we flee from the only God. To sin, therefore, is to forsake blessedness.

Is that how you view your sin? Do you see it as luring you away from God’s presence and the blessings therein?

Or perhaps even more basic: is your concept of blessedness fundamentally connected to God, or do you look for other streams of blessings?

THE LORD BLESS YOU FROM ZION

Verses 5-6 add another crucial detail to our understanding of blessedness: community is an essential aspect of God’s blessing. Verse 5 both prays that our blessing would come from Zion and that we would be so blessed as to see the thriving of Jerusalem all our days. As we have noted previously, Jerusalem and Zion are often symbolic for the gathered people of God for worship, and the Bible assumes that those who fear God will long to worship with God’s people.

Interestingly, the prayer for the LORD to bless from Zion, therefore, indicates Zion as an instrument for God’s blessings. And why would God’s gathered people not be a channel for receiving the blessedness of the LORD?

Is that how you view church? Do you eagerly anticipate gathering with other brothers and sisters in Christ, believing that the LORD’s blessing will be found there? It is tragic how gathering together on Sunday is increasingly viewed as a chore rather than a blessing, as a work instead of a grace. The author of Hebrews, after all, teaches that our gathering for worship should be a time of encouraging “one another to love and good works” (10:24), which is another way of saying to walk in the LORD’s ways. We bless one another by encouraging each other to continue walking in God’s blessedness. If we neglect to meet together, we essentially forsake the LORD’s blessing from Zion, while also denying how God might have used us as instrument of His blessing to others. As the body of Christ, we are meant to build one another up in the LORD. We are members of one another. We are Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place. Therefore, the prosperity and blessedness of Jerusalem is our prosperity and blessedness. The peace of Israel is our peace. The maturity of the church is our maturity.

Returning a final time to Jeremiah 29, God commanded the captives to seek the welfare (which in Hebrew is a variant of the word for peace) of their new city, Babylon, and through that action they would find their own welfare. Since we’ve discussed that Babylon is often used to represent the unbelieving world, our welfare is secured as we seek the welfare, the peace, of the world around us. According to Merriam-Webster, a blessing can be defined “a thing conducive to happiness or welfare.” We are blessed whenever we seek to bless those around us.

Yet Psalm 128 is longing for the blessing of Jerusalem, not Babylon. How then do these ideas connect? The greatest peace, the greatest welfare, the greatest blessing that could come upon those who do not follow Christ would be for them to start following Christ. Even as we live in Babylon, we are still exiled citizens of Jerusalem, and we long to take citizens of Babylon with us as we return. Our blessedness must a sign and beacon, a testament to the goodness of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Jesus told His disciples how the world come to recognize this in them: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). A love for God’s people reveals our love for God Himself. As we experience the blessings of this holy community together, we fervently invite those around us to pull up a seat at the family meal and join us.

This isn’t, of course, to say that a church should be primarily inward focused. We must be outward focused, seeking to care for the orphans, widows, and other vulnerable members. Yet we can never forget that our love for one another that provide solid ground for our missions and evangelism.

Have you experienced the blessedness of Christ? If not, come to Him today.

More specifically, have you experienced the blessedness of Christ’s people? Poor, sinful, and broken as we are, the church is Christ’s body and His bride.

May we long to see the prosperity of Jerusalem, to see the flourishing of God’s kingdom as it advances.

May we see our children’s children, the generational fruit of our discipleship as we obey the Great Commission.

May peace, welfare, and blessedness be upon God’s people.

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

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

Philippians 3:10-11 ESV

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this describe you?

Are you pursuing God?

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

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

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

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

SHARING THE SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST // VERSE 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ATTAINING THE RESURRECTION AT ALL COSTS // VERSE 11

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

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

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

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

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

Does that describe you?

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

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

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

Advancing the Gospel | Philippians 1:12-18

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Philippians 1:12-18 (ESV)

 

So far, Paul has opened his letter by thanking God for their partnership in the gospel. As partakers with him of the grace of Christ, Paul expressed his affections for them and his confidence that Christ would continue to preserve them in the faith. Finally, Paul concluded his greeting with a prayer for their love to abound more and more.

The apostle now shifts topics by addressing the fruits of his imprisonment. Learning that Paul was imprisoned could easily have shaken the faith of the Philippians, yet Paul desires the opposite. He assures them that, by God’s providence, his confinement was actually advancing the gospel by making Christ known to the imperial guard and encouraging other Christians to be bold in speaking the Word.

THE ADVANCE OF THE GOSPEL // VERSES 12-14

Paul now begins to describe to the Philippians his present circumstances, which of course was being in prison. Paul’s imprisonment must have been quite a trying time for the early church. After all, Paul was the most prominent missionary of the first generation of believers. His contributions to Christianity have been said to only be second to Christ; however, we must be wary of elevating Paul’s importance too high. As Paul clearly understood, he was simply a servant of Christ. He was merely a living offering and testament to the magnificent graces our Lord. Christianity was not built upon Paul, but upon the Savior that he preached! And with such a great Savior, how could the gospel ever cease its advance!  Thus, for the sake of Christ’s glory, Paul reassures the believers that the gospel continued to advance in the midst of Paul’s present circumstances.

Indeed, the advancement of the gospel is Paul’s primary desire. As we remember, although Paul once persecuted the Body of Christ, Jesus revealed Himself as the risen Lord to Paul and making him an apostle alongside the eleven remaining disciples. Thus, he who ravaged the church (Acts 8:3) was given marvelous grace in Christ. The gospel, therefore, was not an intellectual concept for Paul; instead, it was the very “power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The apostle was more than willing to live or die for this message of good news, and its advancement was his highest priority. O’ that we might also have such desires! Too often are we like one who “is driven and tossed by the wind… a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6, 8). At times, the gospel is our most precious treasure, while at other times, we elevate our will as more important than the will of God. May God make us more like Paul so that every desire we have is secondary to our desire to see the gospel advance.

In fact, Paul’s hope in his imprisonment is rooted in its service to the gospel’s advancement. While the word “served” is not present in the Greek (the NASB’s phrasing, “my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel” is more literal), the idea is still doctrinally sound. God, in His providence, takes our trials, tribulations, and sufferings and uses them as servants for the advancement of the gospel.

Such providential workings of God can be seen clearly in the life of Joseph, who experienced slavery in Egypt in order that he would rise to second-in-command and save Egypt and his own family from a severe famine. He confessed God’s providence to his brothers after Jacob’s death: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Belief in God’s providence means placing our confidence in God’s promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Martin Luther believed suffering’s key role in God’s providence to be an essential truth not just for daily life but also for the studying of Scripture. John Piper quotes Luther as giving his three rules for studying theology:

“I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself… here you will find the three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout Psalm [119] and runs thus: Oratio, meditation, tentatio (prayer, meditation, tribulation)… [These rules] teach you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is: it is wisdom supreme.” (21 Servants, 86)

God providentially brings good out of suffering. We can rest in the comfort of that truth, so long as we remember what “good” God is doing. For Luther, God used his sufferings to give him deeper comfort in the Word of God. For Joseph, God used his sufferings to rescue many from famine, including his brother Judah from whose lineage Jesus would come. For Ruth and Esther, God also used their sufferings to preserve Jesus’ ancestry. For Paul, God used his imprisonment to advance the gospel.

God, therefore, promises to use our suffering for good, but if our idea of good does not align with God’s idea of good, then how can we hope to be comforted? If our heart is set on things other than the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), we will often be sorely disappointed as God advances His own kingdom rather than ours. Yet if our heart is in heaven with God, who is our treasure (Matthew 6:21), we can then find great comfort that God would use us as instruments for the advancing of His kingdom.

To many, this may sound petty, as if God is merely using our trials and sufferings for His own gain. However, what better use could there be of our sufferings? What higher good could be brought from our tribulations? What greater purpose might be gleaned from our hardships? If we recall that suffering comes as a result of sin’s entrance into the world via the Fall, we would behold this for the grace that it is. Our rebellion, both of Adam and Eve and us today, rightfully earns our trials within this broken world. In fact, we do not deserve how peaceful and ordered the world presently is. We deserve to feel the effects of our cosmic treason against the Creator, both directly and indirectly. The miracle, however, is that God would, first, save us from our sins at the cost of His own blood and, second, would thereafter ensure that all of our hardships and sufferings serve the greatest goal imaginable, God’s glory.

If we indeed love God and His purpose, we can trust that He is working out everything for His good, and in that, we will rejoice.

Verse 12 presents the thesis of our text, that Paul’s imprisonment is advancing the gospel. Within verses 13-14, Paul provides two examples of how this is occurring: first, the whole imperial guard is now aware that his imprisonment is for Christ and second, many of the brothers have been further emboldened to preach without fear.

The Whole Praetorium

Paul’s first example of how the gospel is advancing through his imprisonment is that the whole imperial guard now knows that he is imprisoned for Christ. Who are the imperial guard, and why are they a big deal?

The word here for imperial guard is praitorion, which could refer to a ruler’s palace or to the Roman Emperor’s private soldiers, the Praetorian Guard. If Paul wrote this letter from anywhere other than Rome (such as Caesarea, which is the second most common thought), he would obviously then be referencing the local governor’s palace. However, if Paul is writing from Rome, he would then be speaking of the Praetorian Guard. The Praetorians were originally used to protect prominent Roman generals, but Augustus, the first emperor, transformed them into his personal bodyguards. Within a few decades, the Praetorians became a dominant political force in Roman, assassinating Emperor Caligula and inaugurating Claudius only fifteen or so years before Paul wrote this letter. They would continue such patterns until they were disbanded by Constantine in 312 AD. Furthermore, the prefect of the guard would often act as second-in-command to the emperor. Fee offers insight on why Paul’s message reaching these soldiers would give him such pleasure:

One should not miss Paul’s obvious delight in this mild “triumph” regarding his arrest, the same kind one senses at the end of the letter when he sends greetings from “all the saints, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (4:22). While this might be interpreted as a kind of “one-upmanship,” Paul’s concern would be to encourage the Philippians in their own current suffering, resulting in part from their lack of loyalty to the emperor. To the world—and especially to the citizens of a Roman colony—Caesar may be “lord”; but to Paul and to the believers in Philippi, only Jesus is Lord (2:11), and his lordship over Caesar is already making itself felt through the penetration of the gospel into the heart of Roman political life. (114)

Greater Boldness

The second effect of Paul’s imprisonment is that it emboldened other Christians to speak the Word without fear. Obviously, the Roman officials and Jewish authorities were hoping for the exact opposite results, that Paul’s imprisonment would discourage other Christians from spreading the gospel. Unfortunately for Christianity’s opponents, history reveals time and time again the truth of Tertullian’s words: “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apology, L). Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, warned the Sanhedrin of this very problem in Acts 5. He recalls two examples of leaders whose revolutionary movements dissipated after their deaths, and he advised that if Jesus was merely a man, His followers would disband as well. Yet Jesus’ disciples only became bolder after His death (because of His resurrection), and the church continued to spread even as the apostles were each imprisoned and martyred. Just as Gamaliel feared, Christianity was not formed around a cult of personality but around the divinity of Christ. The church continued to survive the sufferings and deaths of its leaders because Jesus ultimately is the builder of His church, which He guides by His Word and empowers by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, the imprisonment of Paul only emboldened the Christians in Rome. His life displayed what Jesus promised would happen: “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:17-18). Yet throughout his sufferings, Paul repeatedly modeled the power of God in enabling him to bear through such torments. In other words, Paul’s joy throughout his trials was evidence to the believers watching him that eternal life in Christ is worth facing the greatest horrors of this world.

In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the church of Smyrna notes that this is the blessed witness of all the martyrs:

…when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood pitied and bewailed them. But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them. (II)

God’s grace in preserving our brothers and sisters through suffering also serves as a reminder to us that His grace will also preserve us when our time comes. May we, therefore, become emboldened to speak the Word without fear whenever we see the Lord standing beside and communing with those who are suffering.

PREACHING CHRIST // VERSES 15-18

These three verses expound upon the effect of Paul’s imprisonment in verse 14. Unfortunately, even though Paul’s sufferings did embolden the other believers to proclaim Christ, not everyone did so from pure motives. Paul explains that some were preaching Christ from love and good will, knowing that Paul’s trial is really all about defending the gospel. Yet there were others who proclaimed Christ from envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition.

That last group can be quite puzzling, especially since proclaiming Christ meant placing a target on one’s back for persecution. We may, therefore, be tempted to wonder what made them envious of Paul’s imprisonment and how they were preaching Christ from selfish ambition. The answer, unfortunately, provides us a further glimpse of the human heart’s depravity.

These verses are the only details we have of why Christ was being preached insincerely. Paul is obviously not placing these people in the same grouping as the Philippians’ opponents (1:28). Since we are left to our own deductions, I would assume that these people had a pharisaical mindset. Just as religious hypocrites would look gloomy and disfigure their faces to get attention while fasting (Matthew 6:16), so this group is probably attempting to appear bolder and more spiritual than Paul. In other words, they may have been jealous of the attention Paul was getting in prison. In essence, this group seems willing to embrace the suffering that might arise from proclaiming Christ, not for God’s glory, but for the elevation of their own name.

If this sounds a bit difficult to believe, simply consider those who sought martyrdom in the early church. While many Christians in the Roman Empire lived in near constant fear of the next wave of persecution, some Christians actually looked to be martyred. Some desired martyrdom because they viewed it as a guaranteed way of entering heaven, which more resembles the Islamic doctrine of jihad than the assurance of salvation in Christ. Others faced martyrdom with the hope of being remembered for their bravery and holiness. Such a mentality is probably why the Polycarp (the martyr mentioned above) was praised by his church for not seeking martyrdom but also not fleeing either.

But does such selfish ambition make these people false teachers?

Technically yes, but certainly not in the ordinary sense. Typically, false teachers are thought of proclaiming false doctrine. Since Paul rejoices that Christ is still proclaimed, their teaching must be orthodox. The problem lies in their hearts, not their words. They are declaring biblical truth, yet they are still false teachers in the sense that their teaching comes from false motives. They may be proclaiming the supremacy of Christ, but they are seeking their own glory in doing so.

We must carefully guard against such a subtle and secret sin.

As a preacher of the Word, this reminds me that I can preach truth for others and still lose my own soul. I can get the technical details of the gospel correct while citing beautiful quotes from godly men throughout history, but if I do so out of selfish ambition, then I don’t truly understand the gospel nor the glory of God. As Thomas Boston laments, “There are many that know the doctrine of the gospel, the history of the gospel, that are mere strangers to the secrets of the gospel.”

But we who labor in preaching and teaching are not the only ones warned. The people to whom Paul refers were likely ordinary Christians, who were proclaiming Christ to whomever they encountered. Acts 8:4 shows us that following the martyrdom of Stephen, many Christians fled Jerusalem and “those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” Justo Gonzalez writes that these everyday Christians were also responsible for the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire:

The missionary task itself was undertaken, not by Paul and others whose names are known—Barnabas, Mark, et al.—but also by countless and nameless Christians who went from place to place taking with them their faith and their witness. Some of these, like Paul, traveled as missionaries, impelled by their faith. But mostly these nameless Christians were merchants, slaves, and others who traveled for various reasons, but whose travel provided the opportunity for the expansion of the Christian message. (35)

Most Christians will never proclaim Christ in a sermon from a pulpit, but each of us is called to preach Christ to the dying world around us, to our friends, family, and neighbors. Evangelism, therefore, like the preaching of a sermon, can be done technically correct, while arising from impure motives. This sharing may even yield fruit, but such fruit comes from the grace of God and is not necessarily indicative of our motivations. We certainly can do good works from a sinful heart. Let us regularly examine ourselves then, that we will repent of doing anything for God out of pretense.

And yet another great indictment lies upon many of us today. Such a warning to preach Christ from truth rather than pretense may ring hollow for us because we fail to proclaim Christ at all. The primary cause of this failure is lack of understanding of and/or meditation upon the gospel. If we truly believe that eternal life is only found in Christ and apart from Him is only eternal death, then the good news that Jesus rescues sinners from the eternal consequences of sin is the greatest message imaginable. The gospel proclaims that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13), but no one can call without first believing. And no one can believe without first hearing. And no one can hear unless someone first preaches the gospel to them (Romans 10:14). To understand the gospel means also understanding that others need the gospel. We should all, therefore, cry out with Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16)! Repent of silence and proclaim Christ with all boldness.

In spite of some preaching Christ from selfish ambition and because of his passion for the gospel, Paul still rejoices in the proclamation of Christ. This returns us to Paul’s original hope and desire for the advancement of the gospel. The gospel advances wherever Christ is preached. In fact, the gospel cannot progress without the proclamation of Christ. The gospel is good news, and news must be delivered in words, whether spoken or written. Paul, therefore, rejoices in the proclamation of Christ (even when done in pretense) because the gospel is advancing. And if the gospel advances, so too does the glory of God.

May we rejoice as well in the glory of God through the progress of the gospel and the proclamation of Christ.

The Vanity of Laughter Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 7:1-14

Listen to the sermon here. 

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 7:2 | It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:14 | In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

OPENING THOUGHT

Ecclesiastes is a brutally honest study of a post-Genesis 3 life under the sun. Because of sin, death entered the scene, and creation has never been the same. Even as we were meant to live eternally with God, we are now forced to watch as generation after generation comes and goes while the earth remains steadfast. After observing all of this, the Preacher arrives at the conclusion that everything under the sun is vanity, nothing more than the merest of breaths.

For the bulk of the book, Solomon strives to show how he reached his conclusion that all is vanity. He describes his near-endless pursuit of pleasure, his sobering observations on time, his firsthand experience that the love of wealth is unsatisfying, and much more. All of this is organized as an philosophical investigation of trying to find something of lasting meaning in this life.

As we enter the second half of the book, the Preacher continues his declaration of difficult and perplexing teachings. In a series of loosely connected proverbs, Solomon points to the good things of life (like laughter, songs, and feasts) and informs us of what is better (namely, sorrow and mourning). These sayings are so difficult because they cut against the very fiber of our being. Pain is unpleasant, so we shirk pain as an evil to be avoided. Yet Solomon’s message is that pain, sorrow, and adversity do have a place in this life: they are teachers, used by God to show us more of Himself.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. Why does the Preacher proclaim that sorrow is better than laughter, mourning better than feasting, and the day of death than the day of birth?
  3. How is wisdom an advantage even in a world where everything is vanity?
  4. What commands does Solomon give us for days of prosperity and of adversity? What do times of adversity in life teach us?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions about the present text.

  • What has God taught you about Himself?
  • What sin is God convicting or reproving you of?
  • How is God correcting you?
  • How is God training and equipping you for righteousness?

Christmas, Sin, & Small Towns (Dec 2, 2016)

Here are a few articles from around the Internet that are worth reading.

A Plea to Pastors: Don’t Cancel Church on Christmas

Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, so why should we attend church on Christmas?

It’s the day we celebrate the incarnation, the birth of the Messiah, the entrance into our world of the second Person of Trinity. Don’t we want to sing? Don’t we want to celebrate? Don’t we want to preach and praise and pray?

Sin Will Never Make You Happy

With all eternity hanging in the balance, we fight the fight of faith. Our chief enemy is the lie that says sin will make our future happier. Our chief weapon is the truth that says God will make our future happier. And faith is the victory that overcomes the lie, because faith is satisfied with God.

Big Dreams and Blue Jeans

Since I pastor a church within a small town, it’s encouraging to remember that small towns matter in the kingdom of God.

How to Stop Despairing Over World Suffering and Start Addressing It

I believe we should act locally, specifically, and personally. We should start with the spheres closest to home, and then continue to reach out from there, as God gives time, money, and opportunity. Such giving combats some of the feelings of fatigue and guilt that come with knowledge of worldwide suffering. To stay stuck in that place of guilt is to remain in a selfish spot. But if we assume ourselves responsible for all the problems of the world, that also is a selfish response.

5 Christian Clichés That Need to Die

But one-liners aren’t always helpful. Sometimes, in our desire to simplify truth, we can trivialize and even obscure it. And to obscure the truth is to tell a lie.

To Philadelphia: Patiently Endure | Revelation 3:7-13

Seven Letters Week 7

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have kept my word and have not denied my name. (Revelation 3:8)

Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. (Revelation 3:10)

I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. (Revelation 3:11)

OPENING THOUGHT

With the exception of the faithful sufferers in Smyrna, each church appears to be the downward progression from the previous one. Ephesus had good doctrine but not love. Pergamum had good works, but they were conforming to the world around them. Thyatira had love and good works, but they allowed false teaching to enter the church. Sardis received no encouraging commendation; they looked alive but were dead.

Like Smyrna, the church of Philadelphia disrupts this pattern, as both are the only churches to not be rebuked at all by Jesus. Philadelphia was apparently a fairly small church in an environment that was hostile to Christianity. This persecution seems to have come from the Jewish population of the city attempting to stir up conflict between the Roman government and the Christians.

But even though Philadelphia was constantly threatened and had little power, Jesus gives them a flurry of encouragements. First, after being dispelled from the Jewish synagogue, Jesus promises that He has opened a door to His Kingdom for them, and no one can shut it. Second, He promises to one day reveal before all that the church of Philadelphia is loved by Him. Third, because of their patient endurance, Jesus promises to keep them from the hour of trial yet to come. Finally, Christ promises to establish those who finish their race faithfully within the New Jerusalem, which is an assurance that He will love them for all eternity.

Read verses 7-8 and discuss the following.

  1. Jesus introduces Himself as having “the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” He then states to have placed an open door before them that no one is able to shut. What is the open door to which Jesus refers?
  2. Jesus knows that the Philadelphians have little power, but they faithfully keep His word and do not deny His name. What encouragement can smaller churches gain from these words?

Read verses 9-11 and discuss the following.

  1. As in Smyrna, we see that the Philadelphians were coming under persecution from the Jews of the city. Why did the hostility exist? Why does Jesus claim that the Jews are not really Jews?
  2. Because the Philadelphians were faithful to keep Jesus’ word, He promises to keep them from the hour of trial that is coming. What does Jesus mean by this promise?

Read verses 12-13 and discuss the following.

  1. To the one who conquers, Jesus lists a staggering series of promises. What is New Jerusalem, and what is the significance of these promises?

ACTIONS TO CONSIDER

  • Though the world might have considered the church of Philadelphia to be weak, Jesus knows that in Him they are strong. Consider your areas of weakness and how God might be glorified by working through them.
  • Philadelphia was built around a major trading road, meaning that traffic between Rome and Asia constantly poured through the city. This placed in Philadelphia a uniquely opened door for sending the gospel to places further to the east, like India and China. As in Colossian 4:3-4, pray also for open doors to declare the mystery of Christ in your own life.

4 Things Abraham Taught Me

This week, we will finish our almost four month long study of the life of Abraham in Genesis. Before completely jumping into the next sermon series, I thought it might be beneficial for me to reflect upon some lessons that the LORD taught me through studying Abraham’s life.

1. Abraham’s physical life represents our spiritual life.

Stepping out on a limb, I assume that God will not call most of us to journey off toward an unknown destination. I also doubt that many of us will find ourselves leading men into a war between nine kings in order to rescue our kin. The chances, as well, are rather slim that God will ever cause any of us to give birth at age 90 or 100. Further, God is not likely to demand that we plunge a knife into our child to display obedience.

But God led Abraham through each one.

Most of our lives will simply not be the dramatic epic that Abraham’s life was. We will probably live quiet, unassuming lives, while faithfully doing the work of the gospel in the field that God has placed us. On paper, it seems that we are far from being like Abraham, the great man of faith.

While this thought appears to be well grounded, it undermines the entire premise of following Christ. Though Abraham physically left behind his family and security to follow the LORD, every follower of Christ is called to do the same. Jesus tells His disciples that “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”[1] The call to follow Christ upon a believer is a call to kill within us any selfish ambition. It is a call to follow Jesus, wherever He may lead, at whatever cost.

And though God may not demand that we physically sacrifice things that we might treasure above Him, we are certainly commanded to do so spiritually. Internally, we are constantly at war with our heart’s inclination toward idolatry, fighting to keep every good gift of God from becoming our god.

Abraham’s journey is indeed the physical embodiment of each believer’s spiritual journey.

2. Following God is far from easy.

Following Jesus is full of rest and comfort. Jesus promised His followers, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”[2] There is great truth to be found in those words. Jesus gives us true rest from trying to earn God’s favor and love.

The life of Abraham also teaches us, however, that following God is not easy. The patriarch’s life was full of trials and challenges. In addition to following blindly in the direction that God told him to walk, Abraham also waited patiently for 25 years to receive the son that God promised to him. Abraham watched as Sarah and himself become much too old to have children, but he still had faith that God would do as He said. Not to mention that when he finally received his son, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice him as an offering to the LORD. Abraham faced great difficulties throughout his life of following the LORD.

And so it will be with us.

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”[3]

“And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”[4]

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”[5]

The verdict is clear: life following Christ is not a life of ease. Yet we must also note the great blessing and favor that God showed to Abraham (a blessing that was not merely financial). God was faithfully with Abraham through every single trial that the man of faith faced. We too hold onto that promise in life.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”[6]

3. Faith without works is dead.

Abraham has two great titles given to him by New Testament writers: the man of faith[7] and a friend of God.[8] Both of these titles seem rather fitting given the experiences that Abraham encountered. Thus, as the Bible’s example of the epitome of a faithful follower of the LORD, what comes into our minds when considering Abraham’s faith? Obviously, we think of Abraham’s blind walk of faith, his patient 25-year wait for Isaac, or his willingness to sacrifice his son. In short, we think of Abraham’s actions, his works.

It is no accident that James uses Abraham as an example to support his claim that faith without works is dead. At first, we might think that James 2:24 stands in direct contradiction of Ephesians 2:8-9. However, we know that they cannot be contradictory because Paul uses Abraham as an example of salvation by faith alone in Romans 4:1-12. Abraham exemplifies what both Paul and James argue, and James’ statement is particularly potent.

The essence of the statement that faith without works is dead is that faith will reveal itself through works. Though our works (that is, all of our good deeds) do not save us, we cannot truly have faith in God without showing that faith via works. Abraham proved to be a man of faith because of his obedience. By his willingness to trust God fully, even if it meant sacrificing Isaac, Abraham revealed the great faith that he had in God. Thus, Abraham is one of the Bible’s greatest examples of the relationship between faith and works.

4. God is always faithful.

I believe that this is the greatest lesson to be learned from studying Abraham’s life. Clearly, we have seen how Abraham displayed great faith in God through his willingness to obey God’s commands, no matter how difficult. For all of Abraham’s victories and successes, his life was not without failures either.

Consider Abraham’s sins.

Within the same chapter that Abraham shows great faith by following God without being told a destination, Abraham fled to Egypt to escape a famine. While in Egypt, Abraham made Sarah claim to be his sister, so that Pharaoh would not kill him in order to take Sarah as his wife. Out of fear for his own skin, Abraham was willing to sell his wife into the hands of another man. Obviously, this is quite frowned upon.

In chapter 16, we find that Sarah becomes impatient with the LORD’s promise to give her and Abraham a son. She, therefore, suggests that Abraham sleep with her servant, Hagar, so that Sarah can have a child through her servant. This went about as well as one might expect. Sarah immediately became jealous of Hagar, and she expressed that jealously by abusing her servant. Abraham is notably quiet throughout this event, passively leading his entire household into sin.

Then in chapter 20, we read of Abraham’s encounter with Abimelech. Since Abimelech was a king, Abraham feared the same as he did with Pharaoh: that Abimelech would kill Abraham in order to take Sarah as his wife. Thus, Abraham proceeded to repeat his sin from back in Egypt.

Though he was the man of faith, Abraham was far from perfect. He was a flawed and sinful man. In fact, if God did not first come to Abraham in chapter 12, Abraham would have likely continued to follow after the gods of his family.[9] Whatever faith Abraham displayed is by far eclipsed by God’s faithfulness toward Abraham, which is good news because if God is not faithful, then placing our faith in Him does us no good. Fortunately, God was faithful to Abraham, through obedience and through sin. We can, likewise, have confidence that the God of Abraham will also be faithful to us.

[1] Matthew 10:37

[2] Matthew 11:28-30

[3] Philippians 1:29

[4] Mark 13:13

[5] 1 Peter 4:12-13

[6] John 16:33

[7] Galatians 3:9

[8] James 2:23

[9] Joshua 24:2-3