“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
As I was about to begin this devotional, I received word that Marion Newstrum had just died. Marion and her husband Elmer had been part of our church longer than most of our members had been alive at the time. She was 87. They had been married 64 years.
When I spoke to Elmer and told him I wanted him to be strong in the Lord and not give up on life, he said, “He has been a true friend.” I pray that all Christians will be able to say at the end of life, “Christ has been a true friend.”
Each Advent I mark the anniversary of my mother’s death. She was cut off in her 56th year in a bus accident in Israel. It was December 16, 1974. Those events are incredibly real to me even today. If I allow myself, I can easily come to tears — for example, thinking that my sons never knew her. We buried her the day after Christmas. What a precious Christmas it was!
Many of you will feel your loss this Christmas more pointedly than before. Don’t block it out. Let it come. Feel it. What is love for, if not to intensify our affections — both in life and death? But oh, do not be bitter. It is tragically self-destructive to be bitter.
Jesus came at Christmas that we might have eternal life. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Elmer and Marion had discussed where they would spend their final years. Elmer said, “Marion and I agreed that our final home would be with the Lord.”
Do you feel restless for home? I have family coming home for the holidays. It feels good. I think the bottom-line reason for why it feels good is that they and I are destined in the depths of our being for an ultimate Homecoming. All other homecomings are foretastes. And foretastes are good.
Unless they become substitutes. Oh, don’t let all the sweet things of this season become substitutes of the final, great, all-satisfying Sweetness. Let every loss and every delight send your hearts a-homing after heaven.
Christmas. What is it but this: I came that they may have life? Marion Newstrum, Ruth Piper, and you and I — that we might have Life, now and forever.
Make your Now the richer and deeper this Christmas by drinking at the fountain of Forever. It is so near.
You can’t make the new birth happen on your own. If you’re alive in Christ today, you’re a miracle of God’s word.
Let’s stay close to the heart of Christmas: God took on flesh that he might die to destroy our enemies, deliver us from sin, and give us eternal life.
The impact of R.C. Sproul on my life and ministry is owing to an incomparable combination of his unashamed allegiance to the absolute sovereignty and centrality of God, his total devotion to the inerrancy and radical relevance of the Christian Scriptures, his serious and rigorous attention to the actual text of Scripture in shaping his views, and his jolting formulations of biblical truth in relation to contemporary reality.
Let me illustrate. I can remember the very room in which I was standing when this incomparable combination landed on me for the first time. It was a back room of our house, listening to a cassette tape on a Walkman, while doing some chores. The text that R.C. was preaching on was Luke 13:1–5.
I had chosen to listen to it because I was struck by the title of the message printed on the cassette: “The Misplaced Locus of Amazement” (re-preached in recent years as “The Locus of Astonishment”). I had no idea what he meant. Even when I thought about the content of Luke 13:1–5, I didn’t have the wisdom to discern what he would be getting at. Then I began to listen. And as so often happens in listening to his expository messages, I was riveted.Our Misplaced Amazement
Some people had come to Jesus and confronted him with the horror that Pilate had slaughtered some Galileans and mingled their blood with their own sacrifices. Interestingly, those who came to Jesus didn’t ask any questions. They simply expressed amazement. But inside their amazement was a question: What horrible sin had these Galileans committed that brought down such a judgment?
Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2–3). And to make sure they knew he saw such horrors in the world, he added this: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4–5).
Then R.C. made a devastating — jolting — observation. He said that these crowds, who were so amazed that some people had been judged for their sin, had put their amazement entirely in the wrong place — “a misplaced locus of amazement.” They were amazed that something horrible had happened to a few Galileans. What they should have been amazed at was that something equally horrible hasn’t happened to everybody in Jerusalem — indeed, R.C. added, everybody in the world.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2–3)
The meaning of these calamities that happened to others is that I should repent. The amazing thing is that I am not now, at this moment, in hell for my sin. Jolting.Incomparable Combination
As time went by, I came to realize that the impact of such preaching was owing to R.C.’s incomparable combination of allegiances.
First, he had a serious and rigorous attention to the actual text of Scripture. He was not making his points in general, as his sermon floated in a fog above the text. He was reading the text. He was pushing my nose into the clauses. He was showing me what is really there. The shocking realities were real because they were really in the text.
Second, over time, when you heard R.C. do this kind of thing repeatedly, you realized such serious and rigorous attention to the text was owing to his total devotion to the inerrancy and radical relevance of the Scriptures. He didn’t believe that the message of biblical texts was innocuous and unexciting, and therefore in need of artificial verbal boosters to make the thunder crack. Oh no. If you take the text seriously, and you realize this is the very word of God, you may expect that its relevance will be repeatedly shocking.
Third, therefore, the jolting formulations of biblical truth that were sprinkled so liberally through R.C.’s preaching and writing were not artificially concocted to add effect, but strategically chosen to express reality. And he would say that the jolting expressions, if anything, fall short of, rather than exaggerate, the reality of the text.
Fourth, emerging from the exegesis, and rising in my heart, was an unashamed allegiance to the absolute sovereignty of God to show mercy or to judge according to his infinite wisdom. This was R.C.’s goal: a heart that is stunned and humbled and captivated by the transcendent greatness and purity of God.Holy God, Humble Man
Consider one other illustration of this kind of jolting exposition. King David decided to bring the ark of God from Kiriath-jearim to the city of David. But contrary to the law of God, it was carried on an ox-drawn cart, not on poles by the priests (Numbers 4:15). The oxen stumbled, the ark tipped, Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark, and God struck him dead (1 Chronicles 13:10).
R.C. suggested that the issue here was deeper than a failure to follow Mosaic stipulations. It was a failure to see the depth of human defilement. Why, he asked, should Uzzah presume that his hands were cleaner than the soil on which the ark was about to fall? Soil is only ceremonially unclean. The hands of sinful men are morally and spiritually unclean — a vastly more serious uncleanness.
To the objection that this seems harsh, R.C. answered that there are, according to Jewish tradition, 23 breaches of the law that receive capital punishment in the Mosaic law. This is an absolutely astonishing and merciful limitation on God’s part since, at the beginning of human history, all sins were punishable by death!
Again and again, I heard him draw out such jolting observations from Scripture — all of it in the service of magnifying the holiness of God, and the humility of man. I marveled. The effect was to make me want to handle the Bible with blood-earnestness, to submit to it absolutely, to preach it faithfully, and to unashamedly herald the greatness of God’s sovereign grace.
For me, it was this faithfulness to biblical texts, and this high view of God’s sovereignty and holiness, that made R.C.’s fight for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness so credible and compelling. The bigger and more central and more sovereign and more holy God is in our eyes, the more clearly we see our desperate need for justification by faith alone.
Someday, when the official biography is written, and the best studies of his life and ministry are done, there will, I believe, emerge a remarkably coherent body of truth and devotion. He never allowed himself to go down marginally important rabbit trails (excluding aberrations like a devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers!). He stayed close to the great doctrines of Scripture and their profound impact on life and ministry and church and missions. These have been the girders from which he has built a coherent, God-centered worldview.“I Love the Chair”
I close with one last personal memory that endeared R.C. to me in a special way. He had invited me to Orlando to be part of one of the Ligonier conferences. I was to preach after he had just preached on the meaning of faith. In his message, he pictured a chair on the platform and illustrated that if you trust the chair, you don’t just say so, you sit in it. That is what faith is.
In the course of my message following his, I ventured to say that there was more to faith than that: that you must love the chair — find the chair beautiful and precious. You must treasure the chair, not just sit in it — not just use it. After the message, I slipped out the back in a hurry to catch my plane home. R.C. had been watching on a monitor in the green room. He grabbed my arm, whispered his thanks, smiled, and said, “I love the chair.”
How easily he might have been miffed. But he was not that kind of man. His smile and his laughter and his affirmation were real and deep. They were not frivolous. We must embrace Christ not only as useful in holding us up, but as precious in being our all-satisfying Treasure.
I love R.C. Sproul. I am sure I owe him more than I can even recall. My reverence for the holiness of God and the truth of his word would not be the same without his influence. I will miss him (for a short while).
Christ was born on earth that you might be born again to heaven.
Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. (Hebrews 8:6)
Christ is the Mediator of a new covenant, according to Hebrews 8:6. What does that mean? It means that his blood — the blood of the covenant (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 13:20) — finally and decisively purchased and secured the fulfillment of God’s promises for us.
It means that God, according to the new covenant promises, brings about our inner transformation by the Spirit of Christ.
And it means that God works this transformation in us through faith — faith in all that God is for us in Christ.
The new covenant is purchased by the blood of Christ, effected by the Spirit of Christ, and appropriated by faith in Christ.
The best place to see Christ working as the Mediator of the new covenant is in Hebrews 13:20–21:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The words “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” describe what happens when God writes the law on our hearts in accord with the new covenant. And the words “through Jesus Christ” describe Jesus as the Mediator of this glorious work of sovereign grace.
So, the meaning of Christmas is not only that God replaces shadows with Reality, but also that he takes the Reality and makes it real to his people. He writes it on our hearts. He does not lay his Christmas gift of salvation and transformation under the tree, so to speak, for you to pick up in your own strength. He picks it up and puts it in your heart and in your mind and gives you the seal of assurance that you are a child of God.
Words are the secret of Christmas. Even more important than the gifts we purchase, and the packages we wrap, are the letters we write, and the syllables we mouth. And once you discover the secret, you might even spend less time sweating what to buy, and give more energy to crafting what to say.
Jesus’s own words are what would make us pause and ponder the power of words at Christmas, and all year long. In John 15:11, he says to his followers,
“I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
It’s one thing to feel happy for a fleeting moment. It’s quite another to have Jesus’s own joy burning inside of you — to not only taste joy, but experience fullness of joy. How does that happen? How does Jesus’s own delight — dwelling in him, empowering him, filling his own soul — become ours? How does his own happiness come to dwell in and empower and fill us?
The answer, he says, is the wonder of words. Words are God’s vessel for passing joy from one soul to another.Jesus’s Own Joy in Us
Our lives are awash in words. We encounter (and produce) literally tens of thousands of them every day. We’re prone to take their function and power for granted, when we should regularly marvel. Jesus’s own joy in us through words! How can we not exclaim with John Wesley, “Oh, give me that Book”?
And Jesus has more to say. In John 17:13, he turns to his Father and prays about his disciples,
“Now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.”
Jesus said what he did in the world to be captured and preserved for us in the Gospels, not just that we would have joy, but that his own joy in his Father might be in us. It’s almost too precious to say. If Jesus himself had not said it, we would not presume to walk on such holy ground.
But Jesus means to share his own joy with us. And he does so through words. He designs that his followers hear and receive his words, and feed their souls on them, like the prophet Jeremiah, and taste them as their joy and delight (Jeremiah 15:16).
And in doing so, Jesus models for us how we can pass his joy on to others, at Christmas and year-round. As joy fills and expands in a soul, it rises to the level of expression. The voice box sounds, the lips and teeth form invisible words, which pass through the air and then into these open holes in the sides of our head called ears. Invisible words pass into the open receptacles, and down into our souls, and one person’s joy feeds another’s. Not just from Jesus to us, but from others to us — and from us to others. All through words.“Magic” Words of Joy
If we weren’t so familiar with words, and were to learn about their power for the first time, it might all sound like magic. You mean someone with a full heart of priceless joy in God can exhale, sound and shape these invisible vessels of joy (which pass through the air, into my head, and down into my soul), and by faith give me real and lasting joy? Yes, it is amazing.
And it gets even better. As we draw from a full tank of joy, to transmit into words our joy to fill another’s tank, our own joy doesn’t go down but up! “Praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment,” as C.S. Lewis famously said.
When we stay quiet about what makes us happiest, we don’t preserve our happiness. Hearts don’t stay full by keeping the lid on them. Our joy dwindles when we stay quiet. But when our joy inspires us to expend energy to express it in understandable words — which can be hard work — our joy actually ripens, deepens, expands, and “completes the enjoyment.” Giving ourselves to the effort it takes to carefully say it (or write it) both sweetens our delight and makes it more contagious. Others can share in it when they hear about it.
Which makes us want to tell others not just that we’re happy but why. What is the fuel on our fire? Instead of just saying, “I’m happy,” say instead, “Messiah has come.” Instead of just saying, “I’m hopeful,” say why you have hope. Instead of just saying, “Jesus is my treasure,” say what specifically makes him feel so valuable.God’s Own Joy in His Word
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that words hold such power — not just for spreading discontent and ruining Christmas, but also for passing joy and making it what it is.
After all, when God himself reaches into our world, in human language, to communicate to us a vital aspect of his relationship with his Son, he calls him “the Word” (John 1:1). God’s Word in Jesus to us is so rich and deep and full and personal, that it is not just a word-thing, but he is a Word-person. God has spoken to us, not just through prophets and apostles, but “by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2). Jesus’s person and work is the very embodiment and climactic expression of what God has to say to humanity — and the grace, and joy, he has to offer.
In his first advent, the Word became flesh that the very joy of God — eternal, indomitable, unassailable, unshakable — might become our joy. That Word, his words, and our words about him are the greatest gifts of Christmas. Let’s learn the secret. Even more valuable than anything we can wrap in paper is the joy we can capture in words, whether spoken or written, to help fill others with the sweetest delight a soul can taste: Jesus’s own fullness of joy.
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. . . . They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” (Hebrews 8:1–2, 5)
We’ve seen it before. But there’s more. Christmas is the replacement of shadows with the real thing.
Hebrews 8:1–2, 5 is a kind of summary statement. The point is that the one priest who goes between us and God, and makes us right with God, and prays for us to God is not an ordinary, weak, sinful, dying priest as in the Old Testament days. He is the Son of God — strong, sinless, with an indestructible life.
Not only that, he is not ministering in an earthly tabernacle with all its limitations of place and size while getting worn out and being moth-eaten and being soaked and burned and torn and stolen. No, Hebrews 8:2 says that Christ is ministering for us in a “true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” This is not the shadow. It’s the real thing in heaven. This is the reality that cast a shadow on Mount Sinai for Moses to copy.
According to Hebrews 8:1, another great thing about the reality which is greater than the shadow is that our High Priest is seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. No Old Testament priest could ever say that.
Jesus deals directly with God the Father. He has a place of honor beside God. He is loved and respected infinitely by God. He is constantly with God. This is not shadow-reality like curtains and bowls and tables and candles and robes and tassels and sheep and goats and pigeons. This is final, ultimate reality: God and his Son interacting in love and holiness for our eternal salvation.
Ultimate reality is the Persons of the Godhead in relationship, dealing with each other concerning how their majesty and holiness and love and justice and goodness and truth shall be manifest in a redeemed people.
If we serve the Lord without gladness, we serve him as if he is not the true source of delight and satisfaction.
The key to magnifying Christ in life and in death is to find him more precious and more satisfying than everything we lose in death.
Your address is not a coincidence.
Where you live — house, townhome, duplex, apartment, or dorm — is not ultimately a consequence of your budget, your stage of life, or your commute. You live where you live because God has deliberately, sovereignly placed you here. The long series of events, decisions, and circumstances that led you here really did lead you here. He brought you home one detail at a time.
The God who made the world, and everything in it, as Paul preached at Mars Hill, “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26–27).
God not only knit you together in your mother’s womb; he also sovereignly orchestrated all the places you would call home — the periods and boundaries of your “dwelling place.” You do not have a home by accident. Your home is an invitation from God to seek God, and a commission from God to help others seek God.Five Dreams for Our Home
Our family’s address changed in the last few weeks. We only moved three short miles away, but we have felt the weight of leaving our last (and first) home behind. And we have felt the joy of making this new house our home (even with the joys of painting and moving wearing off more quickly).
The move has given us a fresh opportunity to think and dream and pray about having a home. Why do we have a home? What do we want to happen inside these walls? What will the legacy be of our years here, however many years we end up living here? As a family who believes in Jesus, obeys Jesus, and loves Jesus above all else, how do we make the most of this home?
The questions are all too big for us on our own, so we take them to God and let him speak. The verses below are shaping how our family intends to steward our home, and inspiring us to make it an outpost for ministry, rather than a retreat from our mission.1. May we build our home on Christ and nothing less.
Of all the things that might show up on an inspection report, foundation issues are the worst. If you decide to buy a house with a bad foundation, you’re signing up to suffer a host of serious problems throughout your home, or you’re signing up to pay tens of thousands of dollars to have the foundation fixed. Most buyers simply walk away from a bad foundation, and for good reason.
If Christians are ever going to maintain and steward a home in a meaningful way, we must build our house on Christ. Regardless of whether we own or rent, whether we have lived here for 25 years or a few days, we have the opportunity to rebuild the foundation under our spiritual feet.
Jesus tells the parable,
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:24–27)
If you’ve been living on sand, start pouring God’s word into the foundation underneath you and your family. As strong and secure as most modern homes may seem, many of them are quietly crumbling from the inside out because we’ve neglected the words of and about Jesus in Scripture. We subtly (or overtly) build homes on comfort, privacy, entertainment, and safety, without making room for God himself to speak. Then when the rains of various trials fall, or the floods of crises come, or the winds of life beat against us, the once strong house suddenly falls apart.
Build your home, instead, on the Rock. Allow his voice to be the regular stabilizing, guiding, shaping, correcting, and comforting foundation under your lives.2. May we hold this home loosely.
Even hours into living in our new home, the temptation emerges to idolize the familiarity, comfort, and security a home brings. We are walking into our second home with eyes wide open to the reality that God may take away this home a year from now, or he may call us away from this home at any time for the sake of his kingdom.
Just as he has graciously and lovingly given, he may graciously and lovingly take away (Job 1:21). We bless his name today, and we resolve to bless him if and when a harder day comes.
Jesus says some of us will lose houses because we decided to follow him,
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29–30)
We may lose a house because of Christ, but we will never be losers in the process. However much we lose for his sake in this life, we receive a hundredfold now because of him — and infinitely more in eternity. For all those thousands upon thousands of years, having lost a house in this life will suddenly look and feel like having lost a favorite pen or pencil.
So, enjoy this home, but hold it loosely.3. May we make our home a home for others.
When God gives us a home, he wants to care for our immediate family, but he also has other people in mind. The New Testament makes clear that God wants every Christian home — whether we are single, married, or parents — to be a home for people outside our home. Sometimes literally and physically, often more spiritually and emotionally.
Paul charges every home owner (or renter), “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:13). Hebrews adds, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2). Show hospitality. Meaning, wherever you call home, bring people home with you — and use your home to serve the needs of others.
And do the harder, even impossible work of showing hospitality without grumbling (1 Peter 4:9) — without complaining about cleaning the home, or making extra food, or changing our plans, or being inconvenienced. Grumble-free hospitality and generosity will produce “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15–16) — the distinct and beautiful smell we all want filling our homes.4. May we prioritize our true family.
Among all the people we might bring into our home, the Bible calls us to prioritize one group above the rest — perhaps even more than our biological families. Paul says, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:9–10). Especially to other lovers of Jesus.
When asked about his biological family, Jesus says, “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:46–50). He also tells us to honor our parents and to provide for our biological families, but with a special burden for those who love and obey him with us.
You not only live in a home, or own a home; you are being made, with lots of other believers, into a home: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Let your home be a catalyst for that kind of spiritual building, joining, and maturing within the family of faith.5. May we remember that this home is not our home.
While we may live here for a season — five years, 25 years, maybe even 50 years — this is a temporary living situation. Our earthly home is not our true home, because we have a better home, and an abiding one, in heaven (Hebrews 10:34). “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). If we love, follow, and serve Christ, wherever we live in this world, we know we belong somewhere else.
That does not mean we cannot treasure these four walls. God has chosen these walls, for these days, specifically for us — for the sake of his glory through us and our joy in him. It does mean that we live inside these walls and care for these walls with hearts set on our final and everlasting home. As you enjoy this dwelling place for this allotted time, prepare your heart and family to live forever at home with the Lord.
The key to magnifying Christ in life and in death is to find him more precious and more satisfying than everything we lose in death.
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. (Hebrews 8:1–2)
The point of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has not just come to fit into the earthly system of priestly ministry as the best and final human priest, but he has come to fulfill and put an end to that system, and to orient all our attention on himself, ministering for us first on Calvary as our final Sacrifice and then in heaven as our final Priest.
The Old Testament tabernacle and priests and sacrifices were shadows. Now the reality has come, and the shadows pass away.
Here’s an Advent illustration for kids — and those of us who used to be kids and remember what it was like. Suppose you and your mom get separated in the grocery store, and you start to get scared and panic and don’t know which way to go, and you run to the end of an aisle, and just before you start to cry, you see a shadow on the floor at the end of the aisle that looks just like your mom. It makes you really hopeful. But which is better? The hopefulness of seeing the shadow, or having your mom step around the corner and it’s really her?
That’s the way it is when Jesus comes to be our High Priest. That’s what Christmas is. Christmas is the replacement of shadows with the real thing: Mom stepping around the corner of the aisle, and all the relief and joy that gives to a little child.
One way to clarify the meaning of a Christian act is to take note how much of the act the devil can do.
So, for example, when clarifying what it means to have saving faith, James says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder!” (James 2:19). In other words, saving faith has to be more than what the demons can do. So, take note of that, and find out what it is that they can do. Never settle for a definition of “faith” that requires only what the devil can do.The Exegetical Devil-Principle
There is an exegetical principle here that is useful in numerous biblical contexts. The principle is: when you are seeking to discern the meaning of a biblical duty, ask how much of the duty the devil can perform; take note of that; and don’t equate the biblical duty with what the devil can do. Every Christian duty taught in the Bible involves more than what the devil can do.
In 1 Corinthians 12:3 Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” So, applying my devil-principle here, we recall that the devil has no doubt about the lordship of Jesus over the world, and over the entire demonic realm. He knows Jesus is Lord. And his demons say as much.
In Matthew 8:29, the demons cry out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” And in Mark 1:24, a demon says to Jesus, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God.” These phrases “Son of God” and “Holy One of God” clearly ascribe lordship to Jesus. This is even clearer when you see what the demons say Jesus can do: “torment us” and “destroy us.” The devil knows and admits that Jesus is stronger than he is and that the devil’s days of freedom are numbered.The Devil Believes Jesus Is Lord
So, it’s clear that the devil can say, “Jesus is Lord.” In fact, he does say it. This is helpful in grasping Paul’s meaning in 1 Corinthians 12:3, when he says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” Since the devil can say, “Jesus is Lord,” we know that the duty of saying “Jesus is Lord” is more than believing and saying that he is supremely powerful. The devil believes and says that.
The same thing is true when we stir in Romans 10:9, where Paul says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Now we see that Christians not only confess that Jesus is Lord, but also believe in the heart that God raised him from the dead.The Devil Believes Jesus Rose
Does the devil believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? Yes, he does. He devotes much of his energy to blinding the minds of people precisely so that they will not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). And that glory is the glory of the crucified and risen Christ shining in the gospel. The devil knows God has raised Jesus from the dead.
So, the duty of confessing Jesus as Lord, and believing that God raised him from the dead, must mean more than what the devil confesses and believes. My point is that this devil-principle is a very helpful exegetical pointer to go deeper into the reality Paul has in mind.Demonic Faith and Saving Faith
Romans 10:9 gives a clue to what that deeper reality is. “If you . . . believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” It’s true that the reference to confessing with the “mouth” and believing with the “heart” is taken from Deuteronomy 30:14 (“The word is . . . in your mouth and in your heart”). But what’s Paul’s point? That’s the question.
What Paul signals by the words “in your heart” is that you joyfully confess that Jesus is Lord and gladly embrace his resurrection as his glorious entrance into that saving lordship. We know this because Paul speaks in Romans 6:17 of being “obedient from the heart,” meaning, not begrudgingly but joyfully. And he explicitly contrasts willing something in the heart with willing it “reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Which is exactly the way the devil affirms the resurrection and the lordship of Jesus — reluctantly and under compulsion.
So, back to 1 Corinthians 12:3: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” What Paul means is that without the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, no one can say “Jesus is Lord” with a joyful and glad embrace of the Lord Jesus as one’s supreme treasure. The devil admits his power and final victory, but he hates it. Only by the Holy Spirit can we love it. And that is what makes us Christians — not just believing the same true facts that the devil believes.Abide in Christ
I recently paused over these words in 2 John: “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9). This is obviously supremely important, since not having God would result in perishing without God.
So, I pondered what “abide in the teaching of Christ” means. My eternal life hangs on this. If I don’t do it, I don’t have God. If I do it, I have “both the Father and the Son.” So, I applied my devil-principle. In what sense can the devil “abide in the teaching of Christ”? Well, he is very competent intellectually, he has a supernatural memory, and he was there when all the teachings were given. So, I assume he can “abide” in Christ’s teaching in the sense that he “remembers” them and “believes” them to be true. So this means that, when John says we must “abide in the teaching of Christ,” he means more than merely “remember it” and more than “believe it as fact.”
When the devil remembers the teaching of Jesus and believes it as fact, he hates it. He does not love the teaching of Christ. He does not cherish it or treasure it. But in the mind of Jesus and John, abiding in the teaching, or keeping the word of Jesus, flows from loving Jesus.
Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” (John 14:23–24)
Applying the devil-principle set me on a quest for what abiding in the teaching of Christ means in reality. It must be more than the devil can do. Indeed, it is more! It is holding fast to and treasuring and obeying because it is the teaching of the one we love above all else.Needed Shock Treatment
My own conviction is that thousands of nominal churchgoers would be well-served if pastors asked, How is your faith different from the devil’s? How is your “abiding” in the teaching of Jesus different from the devil’s?
In fact, every believer, not just nominal ones, would do well to ask, How are my prayers different from the kind the devil would approve — or even perform? (The devil does ask God for things in Luke 22:31.) Satan has no problem with human beings praying for food and clothing and health and relational peace and financial success and good grades on tests, and so on and so forth.
The reason the devil is just fine with those prayers is that they express desires that we share with people who are not born again. You don’t have to be born again to want food and clothing and health and success. And you don’t have to be born again to ask God to provide them.
But the devil never prays or helps anyone pray, “Hallowed be your name.” Or, “Lord, cause your name to be honored, magnified, adored, revered!” The devil never prays or helps anyone pray, “Lord, advance your saving kingdom against the powers of darkness.” The devil never prays, “I am sorry for my sin. I hate it, and I confess it, and I ask you, Father, for forgiveness in Jesus’s name.”
So, we would do well to apply the exegetical devil-principle to the duty of faith, and the duty of abiding in the teaching of Christ, and the duty of prayer, and dozens of other duties.
Without some such shock treatment, the nominal Christian and the worldly Christian may never wake up to the fact that they are believing and abiding and praying the way the devil does.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, 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)
This, I think, is my favorite Advent text because I don’t know any other that expresses so clearly the connection between the beginning and the end of Jesus’s earthly life — between the incarnation and crucifixion. These two verses make clear why Jesus came; namely, to die. They would be great to use with an unbelieving friend or family member to walk them step-by-step through your Christian view of Christmas. It might go something like this, a phrase at a time:
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood . . . ”
The term “children” is taken from the previous verse and refers to the spiritual offspring of Christ, the Messiah (see Isaiah 8:18; 53:10). These are also the “children of God” (John 1:12). In other words, in sending Christ, God has the salvation of his “children” especially in view.
It is true that “God so loved the world, that he gave [Jesus]” (John 3:16). But it is also true that God was especially gathering “the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:52). God’s design was to offer Christ to the world, and to effect the salvation of his “children” (see 1 Timothy 4:10). You may experience adoption by receiving Christ (John 1:12).
“ . . . he himself likewise partook of the same things [flesh and blood] . . . ”
This means that Christ existed before the incarnation. He was spirit. He was the eternal Word. He was with God and was God (John 1:1; Colossians 2:9). But he took on flesh and blood and clothed his deity with humanity. He became fully man and remained fully God. It is a great mystery in many ways. But it is at the heart of our faith — and what the Bible teaches.
“ . . . that through death . . . ”
The reason he became man was to die. As God pure and simple, he could not die for sinners. But as man he could. His aim was to die. Therefore he had to be born human. He was born to die. Good Friday is the purpose of Christmas. This is what most people today need to hear about the meaning of Christmas.
“ . . . he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil . . . ”
In dying, Christ de-fanged the devil. How? By covering all our sin. This means that Satan has no legitimate grounds to accuse us before God. “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33) — on what grounds does he justify? Through the blood of Jesus (Romans 5:9).
Satan’s ultimate weapon against us is our own sin. If the death of Jesus takes it away, the chief weapon of the devil — the one mortal weapon that he has — is taken out of his hand. He cannot make a case for our death penalty, because the Judge has acquitted us by the death of his Son!
“ . . . and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
So, we are free from the fear of death. God has justified us. Satan cannot overturn that decree. And God means for our ultimate safety to have an immediate effect on our lives. He means for the happy ending to take away the slavery and fear of the Now.
If we do not need to fear our last and greatest enemy, death, then we do not need to fear anything. We can be free. Free for joy. Free for others.
What a great Christmas present from God to us! And from us to the world!
When Jesus speaks, he desires that you would overflow with the same joy he shares with his Father.
“Grandma, what big eyes you have!” she said.
That big bad wolf, discouraged by a recent episode with the third little pig, developed a new tactic. He could no longer rely solely on brute force to win his prey. Huffing and puffing would have to be replaced with cunning.
And so it is with our enemy. He has plotted, and for the time being we live more in “Little Red Riding Hood” than “The Three Little Pigs.”
Against many in persecuted lands, he still huffs and puffs through wicked men to tear the church down and feast upon souls. He threatens death to those who would follow the Way in hopes of intimidating people away from eternal life.
Against many in the West, he takes a subtler approach, alluring us into the trap with comforts. Leisure, success, and ease lull us into the cottage, while our entertainment numbs our ability to discern that grandma has extremely large teeth.Joy, What Big Teeth You Have!
Simply put, the devil often confuses us to think that our worldly contentment is spiritual satisfaction. We delightfully receive the new acquisition — a job, a relationship, a success — and we assume, often wrongly, that our joy automatically finds its source in God.
It often sounds like this: My time with God — though brief — has been sweet! I feel his presence in new ways and am wonderfully delighted in him during this season! In my experience — both by saying and hearing it — what we mean by this is that we were blessed with a new promotion or got back together with our ex.
The wolf is unmasked when asked: What about your communion with God has been sweet in this season? Have you been increasingly led to him in his word? Have you been much more consistent in kneeling before him in prayer? Have you seen lusts that displease him replaced with good works and love for neighbor? Are these marks of the delightful season? There is no doubting that your wallet is full, a lovely wife awaits you at home, and your anxieties over work have fled — but what of Jesus Christ?
Now surely God is the Giver of all good gifts (James 1:17), and they are given to be enjoyed. But if we learn anything from Israel’s history, it is that physical blessing is not the same as spiritual blessedness. Their abundance in the promised land often led to spiritual neglect, apostasy, and finally exile.A False Joy Observed
Even C.S. Lewis was perplexed by this. In A Grief Observed, he writes of his own experience with God’s apparent nearness in prosperity and then his staggering absence in suffering.
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. . . . Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble? (5–6; emphasis added)
In our most prosperous times, we often forget God for his gifts and join Lewis in a wolf-joy that, instead of leading to communion with him and deeper levels of obedience to him, leads to “a sense of not needing him.” Indeed, this sheep-skin happiness makes God and his claims upon us feel like an interruption: “Go away, Dad, can’t you see I’m playing!”
It’s no wonder he feels absent in suffering. When trials jolt us from our spiritual slumber, we realize that we have secluded ourselves from God, hidden in a cave to enjoy our precious little trinkets. We wrongly assumed that more presents meant more presence. In so doing, we have more prosperity gospel in us than we think.Do We Want True Joy?
Beloved, should we receive blessing from the Lord and repay him with forgetfulness? Should we see the demonstration of his love in the sending of his Son and requite him neglect? Should we forget our God’s name while he engraved our name on his palms? Can there be greater injustice than for a people so loved to lock their heavenly spouse in the attic of their affections?
Ask yourself: Is the sun of my affections for Jesus rising or setting? Must I have more of Christ, or will other delights fill me?
Beloved, do not trade communion with God for his things. Enjoy God’s gifts, but don’t trade him for them. Christ himself is our life (Colossians 3:4). Lasting joy is not found in God’s stuff but in God (Psalm 16:11).
The only kind of sin that does not lead to death is the sin that we confess, repent of, and resolve to fight by God’s grace.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:10–11)
God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything (Acts 17:25). The gifts of the magi are not given by way of assistance or need-meeting. It would dishonor a monarch if foreign visitors came with royal care-packages.
Nor are these gifts meant to be bribes. Deuteronomy 10:17 says that God takes no bribe. Well, what then do they mean? How are they worship?
Gifts given to wealthy, self-sufficient people are echoes and intensifiers of the giver’s desire to show how wonderful the person is. In a sense, giving gifts to Christ are like fasting — going without something to show that Christ is more valuable than what you are going without.
When you give a gift to Christ like this, it’s a way of saying, “The joy that I pursue (notice Matthew 2:10! “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy”) — the joy that I pursue is not the hope of getting rich by bartering with you or negotiating some payment. I have not come to you for your things, but for yourself. And this desire I now intensify and demonstrate by giving up things, in the hope of enjoying you more, not things. By giving to you what you do not need, and what I might enjoy, I am saying more earnestly and more authentically, ‘You are my treasure, not these things.’”
I think that’s what it means to worship God with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Or whatever else we may think of giving to God.
May God awaken in us a desire for Christ himself. May we say from the heart, “Lord Jesus, you are the Messiah, the King of Israel. All nations will come and bow down before you. God wields the world to see that you are worshiped. Therefore, whatever opposition I may find, I joyfully ascribe authority and dignity to you, and bring my gifts to say that you alone can satisfy my heart, not holding on to these gifts.”