A friend of mine likes to say, “The best gospel presentation is the one given.” That’s true. And convicting. Many good books, sermons, and seminars can help us prepare to share our faith. But none of these resources can do for us what we often find the hardest thing to do: just start the conversation.
We often feel helpless when it comes to our friends and their eternities. We justify the self-centeredness that ignores our neighbors. We subtly, maybe even subconsciously, question the truths that would loose our tongues and break other peoples’ chains — all in favor of maintaining a more comfortable silence. If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we’re content to avoid our fears, accept our obstacles, and nurture our self-centeredness. So, we tell ourselves that someone else will share the gospel; or that the potential awkwardness, rejection, or persecution are not worth it; or that God is not likely to save those people anyway. God help us.
Thankfully, he does help us! We need God’s help to lift our eyes and see we are surrounded by dead people who desperately need us to preach the gospel and live out the life of Christ in their midst. When we focus on what’s really real — the facts that God exists, his wrath against sin is coming, his gospel is the only way to eternal joy, souls are precious and perishing, and the lost sheep will hear their Shepherd’s voice — then evangelism becomes utterly exciting.Your Forever Neighbor
Evangelism will not happen forever. It is a means to one great end. Human beings — every single one of us in history — are created in God’s image for eternal purposes and one immense goal: to bring glory to God. When we read C.S. Lewis’s words about the eternal significance and destiny of our neighbors, we get a sense of the weightiness and joy that come from sharing the gospel:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. (The Weight of Glory, 45–46)
History, and everyone in it, is going somewhere. That means that, while no two conversations, no two train rides, no two lunch breaks, and no two walks at the park are the same, they are all filled with infinite potential. And time is literally running out.
Like the wind, we do not know where the Spirit might blow on our ordinary days (John 3:8) — and that is exciting. Vertically-challenged Zacchaeus climbed a tree because he felt he needed to see Jesus for some reason (Luke 19:1–8); the Ethiopian eunuch was “randomly” pondering Isaiah 53 during his commute (Acts 8:26–40); Sergius Paulus, a highly educated official, asked Paul to bring him God’s word (Acts 13:7–8); and a Roman jailer was set free after he begged Paul to tell him what he must do to be saved (Acts 16:25–34). How would these people call on him in whom they have not believed unless someone tells them (Romans 10:14)? Could it be that the Spirit is already at work in the lives of the people around us in ways we haven’t noticed yet?Embrace the Awkwardness
If we want to take advantage of opportunities to share our faith, we have to learn to embrace the so-called awkwardness. In some cultures, it is deemed awkward to raise the issue of spiritual matters in conversation. But take heart: in whatever culture you live, God has already raised the issue. If he has raised your soul from the dead, the conversation has begun.
You sit next to your coworker as the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.
You stand among other travelers in the queue as a sojourner whose citizenship is in heaven.
You interact with people in this age of intolerance and virtue signaling as one who is humble and contrite in spirit, and who trembles at God’s word alone.
You supervise children at the park as one who has been born again to a living hope.
You drink water with your hiking club as one whose heart overflows with rivers of living water.
You lay on a bed in the hospital as the recipient of a spiritual heart transplant — your stony, dead heart for a living heart of flesh.
Your family members watch you live out a thousand deaths to self (and eventually death itself) as a new creation in Christ.
If our chief concerns are about avoiding awkwardness, it would be more awkward not to talk about eternal things. You and I never know those who have been, who are, and who will soon be wrestling with these weighty spiritual issues, waiting for someone to bring them God’s word. Believe that God is both willing and able to give you what you need in order that you might joyfully spread the word about his Son in any and every cultural scenario — however seemingly awkward it may feel at first.Everyday Examples
God governs the cosmos in such a way that your everyday life shines the light of the gospel in all the strategic places and relationships in which he places you. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1), and Jesus is with you as you go and make disciples in his world (Matthew 28:18–20).
A coworker of mine has a practice of sharing what she read that morning in her Bible with the people she encounters as she goes about her day. This is intentional on her part, but I also think she can’t help herself — she simply overflows.
Another coworker pays for her lattes and chocolate croissants at the cafe she frequents, sits down at a table, and then, when the server brings out her order, explains that she is about to pray for her meal and asks, “What can I pray for you?”
“How was your weekend?” is a question that another friend asks at work every week. And when the person returns the question, they talk about the sermon they heard at church. Another friend asks people to listen to her Scripture memory recitation for the day to help double-check her memory (and spread the word!). Talking about the word that is our very lives (Deuteronomy 32:47) is, naturally, something the Spirit leads word-dependent, word-filled people to do.The Most Effective Place to Start
Perhaps you are praying that God would open for you a door for the word, so that you can “declare the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3). And you unashamedly believe the gospel is indeed God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). But you’re still not sure where to start when God puts someone in your path.
My friend led a training session about how to share the Christian faith. In one especially valuable lesson, the group has some volunteers don a traditional outfit of someone from a different cultural background. They acknowledge how it might feel intimidating to talk with people who look different, eat different foods, speak different languages, and believe different things. But beyond all of the potential hurdles, there is one thing you could say to start a conversation (and friendship) with anyone from anywhere. Across the globe, this is the most effective thing you can say in order to start a conversation:
In whatever language you speak, your hello could initiate the first conversation among many that God uses to draw someone to himself. Maybe the first conversation becomes the conversation. “Hello” is a small word, but it says to someone, “I see you.” And that means something to everyone, no matter where they’re from in the world.
For hello to pass over your vocal cords, it requires only a mustard seed of faith in our great God. In addition to your faithful prayers that God would open a door for his word, the gospel, also ask him to give you everything you need to greet people in his name and be a blessing to whomever he puts in your path.
God commands us to worship him with our emotions, not just our thoughts, deeds, and theology.
“God has promised to supply all our needs. What we don’t have now, we don’t need now.”
When Elisabeth Elliot (1926–2015) says it, I perk up. I nod in agreement. I remember her life, her murdered missionary husband, her devotion to the gospel, her absolute earnestness about Jesus, and the congruity of her words and practice, and I say, “Amen.”
The circumstances of her life were the stuff of legend for me as a growing girl. It was undeniably evident that God was orchestrating all the hardships and massive disappointments she experienced, at the very least, to help all the rest of us. I wanted to be like her, because I wanted to know her God as deeply as she did — the kind of God who made every trial worth it.
But I hadn’t fully reckoned with the means of her unflappable faith in God. I thought, or at least hoped, that the intimacy and trust she had in Jesus could come through a life of ease. I found out that in order to be like her, and to know God in such a way, I would need to learn the glad surrender of discipline. I would have to walk a path through suffering, and I would need to discover the beauty in my own strange ashes.What Are Our Needs?
I stood in the doorway of the biggest ER room at our state-of-the-art Children’s Hospital. There was barely room for me as thirteen medical staff moved with urgency, bumping into each other, with forceful words coming from the doctor in charge. And in the middle of it all, our 13-month-old son, looking still, pale, and lifeless. I wanted to cry loudly, or yell my son’s name, or make someone tell me how this was going to turn out.
I did none of that. I stood quietly, not moving, clenching my hands, while my heart did not pound, but seemed to dissolve. I thought that if I was quiet and composed, they would allow me to stay near my son. I watched them put an IV directly into his bone to get the meds into his marrow as quickly as possible. And I followed behind the gurney with a dry face as the nurse rhythmically pumped the manual ventilator, breathing for our son, until we arrived in our room in the PICU and he could be hooked up to the machine.
I had learned years before (perhaps not as well as I should have) that God doesn’t owe us children. And that sometimes he takes them away after he’s given them. My naïve twenty-something self was shocked by this reality. Subconsciously believing myself to be immune to miscarriage, I was surprised when it happened. The simple words of Job comforted and frightened me: “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away” (see Job 1:21).
And now, with five living children — the youngest with serious medical problems — I was faced with another plan that didn’t match mine. Which, to be fair, is a daily occurrence. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a day go according to my plan. But the differences between my plan and God’s have, with some notable exceptions, generally been of a small scale. Watching my son’s life hang in the balance was not a small-scale difference between God’s plan and mine.What It Means to Thrive
That night in the hospital, alone with my unconscious son and the sound of the ventilator making a terrifying sort of silence, God was reworking my understanding of neediness and flourishing. Over the coming years, I would be faced with lots of questions about what I needed and what our family needed in order to thrive as his people.
Did I need my son to be healthy? How healthy was healthy enough? Did our older kids need a childhood untarnished by suffering? Did they need a family with fewer “needs”? Did they need me to homeschool them full-time to develop into decent Christian people? Did I need sleep? How much? Did I need less vomit in my life? How coherent did I need to be in order to be a kind human?
You likely have your own questions. Do you need a healthy marriage? Do you need your child to be saved? Do you need to move to a different city, a different house, a different neighborhood? Do you need to be rid of your chronic pain? Do you need God to give you a “yes” to the request that you’ve been bringing him for the last twenty years? Do you need to be rid of your aloneness? Do you need stability or change?
What exactly does Paul mean when he promises, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19)?The Calm After the Storm
My son made it through that traumatic hospital stay. So did I. Although it wouldn’t be the last time we were there.
I felt like declaring victory. We survived. My faith was intact — even strengthened. But one discovery of the last decade of my life has been that the big trials aren’t always the test we think they are. Somehow, we get through those Big Scary Trials. By grace and prayers and the help of God’s people, we hold on to hope in God’s promises and endure. But often, it’s the little trials that follow the big ones that threaten to unravel us.
A couple years after that ominous hospital stay, when I should have been thrilled at my son’s progress and how well things were going, I found myself telling God at two o’clock in the morning, “I can’t. I can’t live like this anymore. I can’t do the things I’m supposed to be doing each day with so little sleep each night. I need you to give me relief. I need you to relent of this nightly disaster.” You see, our son has disrupted sleep because of his neurological problems. It’s improved in fits and starts, but by and large, the five years of his life have been challenging in the sleep department. And it was this small trial that was threatening to undo me.Beware of Small Trials
I had the idea that in order for me to disciple my children, I needed to be coherent and less desperate. I had the idea that in order for God to use me to point them to him, I needed to shed this raw, at-the-end-of-my-rope status. I was okay with being brought low — I’d been there many times — but just how low did I have to go? I mean, I’d read Christian articles that declared, Sleep is an act of humility. So, why would God deny me that humility? I wanted to trust him with my eyes closed.
But God wouldn’t let me set my heart on lesser needs. We have bigger needs than sleep. We have bigger needs than our health or the health of our kids. We have bigger needs than a spouse or relief from chronic pain. We have bigger needs than coherency. We have bigger needs than that job, or career, or home. We have bigger needs than serving God the way we hoped.
What I really needed was to read more closely in Philippians 4 in order to discover that Paul himself had gone without his basic needs met. He says it like this: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12). Paul faced unmet needs, and he had learned how to abound in them.In Every Circumstance
God’s ideas about our flourishing are different than ours. We think flourishing means eight hours of shut-eye, a good job, being surrounded by people who treat us with respect, being given the opportunity to succeed at something, good medical care, a loving marriage, and happy children. Those are good things, but they are not the things God is most concerned about supplying us in this life for our flourishing.
In God’s economy, we flourish when our need for him is met in him. Dear brothers and sisters, there is no circumstance under heaven that God isn’t using to grow us into oaks of righteousness. There is no need that he won’t fill with himself. The promise is really true: God really will supply all our needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). There is nothing we truly need that is not found in Christ.
Even more, the circumstances of being denied an earthly need or desire are often his tailored means of accelerating our holiness and happiness in him. When we want, we are given more of Christ. When we suffer, our solidarity with him grows.
As usual, Elisabeth was right, “God has promised to supply all our needs. What we don’t have now, we don’t need now.” And what we do need now, we do have now: God the Father’s loving, sovereign hand working all things for our good (Romans 8:28); Christ the Son as our advocate, Savior, and righteousness (1 John 2:1; Philippians 3:20; 1 Corinthians 1:30); and the Holy Spirit’s intercession, help, and comfort surrounding us day by day (Romans 8:26–27).
So, at the end of our lives, we truly will be able to say, “I never wanted for anything. I never had a ‘no’ from my Father that wasn’t a ‘yes’ to better and deeper things.”
What was Jesus commending in the parable of the dishonest manager, and what are the implications for Christians today?
Satan is trying to steal your joy. God gave us the Psalms to fight back.
If we fully believed what God has promised in the Bible, anxiety would have no place in our lives.
“Nothing makes me more unsure whether I will persevere until the end like spending too long in his presence.” Months had gone by, interactions multiplied, and good intentions no longer were strong enough to sustain my friend.
According to him, this particular gentleman was the type to complain incessantly, listen sparingly, intermingle belligerently, receive presumptuously, smile seldomly, and gossip freely (even when food still lingered half-eaten in his mouth). Like the pre-converted Augustine who took pleasure in senseless offenses, he was a cyclist — not because he enjoyed the exercise — but he peddled leisurely down the middle of the street, prodded along by honking horns, because he took delight in their displeasure. He was the type to stick gum under tables.
My friend tried in vain to enjoy his company. But after a year, he still wondered piously in the words of Jesus, “How long am I to bear with you?” (Mark 9:19). He even began praying, “Lord, allow him to obey your word and live quietly and mind his own affairs” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). He lamented that his love was so small as to only cover handfuls of faults.
My friend didn’t want to admit it, he felt unchristian acknowledging it — and he knew God had placed the man in his life — but he didn’t like him. He preferred a hangnail or wet socks. He wondered how he could obey God’s call to love this man he no longer could stand to be around.An Unpleasant Command
It is unmistakable that Jesus calls his own to love those we don’t like — within the church and without. The love he taught us is not grounded on natural affinities or common interests. We do not stare at our neighbor, as some squint at the shapeless clouds, trying to make out something lovable in them before we act. All it takes to summon our care towards anyone on the planet is our Master’s command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
And vexingly, we do not get to choose who moves next door or who lies bleeding on the side of the road (Luke 10:25–37). God’s expectations for love, indeed, the whole point of commanding it, is that we might extend it to those we wouldn’t love naturally. Jesus even goes so far as to call us to love those we have the most cause to dislike: our enemies (Luke 6:35).
While even unbelievers love those who love them in return — while they invite over the funny, the wealthy, the attractive — God calls his people to love the hard to like, requiring no reciprocation. But, like my friend, we ask the genuine question, How? Jesus and Paul let us in on the secret.Rehearse Our Hope
Paul imparts the divine recipe that the Colossians had discovered:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. (Colossians 1:3–5)
The Colossians loved “all the saints” not because “all the saints” were easy to love. Later Paul would call these same Colossians to continue to bear with one another and forgive each other (Colossians 3:13). Paul did not live in the clouds. He knew that you will have to “bear with” some people, and forgive many others.
But notice that they didn’t wait for these others to clean up their act, become worthy of love, or do kind deeds that make loving easy. No, their motivation was untouchable. They loved because of the hope laid up for them in heaven.Serve the Undeserving
Jesus also taught this way. Expanding our call to love beyond the realms of the faithful, he says,
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:11–12)
The Father will give good gifts to his children. Convinced of this — assured of his eternal provision and unceasing care, “because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” — love others and do them good. The Golden Rule is forged in the fires of trust in our Father’s temporal and eternal provision.
And Jesus practiced what he preached. Notice the indispensable truth motivating our Lord to stoop down to serve those who — within hours — would collectively betray, abandon, and disown him:
During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:2–5)
Jesus did not get up and start doing it out of willpower. Their benevolence did not move him. The text says he knew something, he considered something, he held a truth in mind that braced his back to kneel down and wash his disciples’ feet — an act which anticipated his coming cross (John 13:6–11). He knew that all was his. He knew he was his Father’s Beloved. He rehearsed the hope laid up for him in heaven. His hope in the everlasting tomorrow overwhelmed him with resources to love today.God Moved Towards the Unlikeable
Jesus did not merely preach this way or serve this way. He girded up his loins to die this way.
He did not look at us and choose the cross because we were so attractive. He did not squint to find a strain of loveliness to move towards the cross for us. He left heaven and came to die a shameful, bloody, brutal death, bearing the Almighty weight of punishment for our sin, while we breathed to disregard him. When we were most unlovable, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). While we esteemed him not, he esteemed us. His hands were pierced by our unloveliness, but his love remained unscarred. “Father, forgive them” was his cry.
And Isaiah foretold what came to pass: Amidst his soul-crushing anguish, he would see something to satisfy him and sustain his love until the end (Isaiah 53:11). What did he see?
Love himself looked beyond the whips, the nails, the cross. He heard something other than the taunts, the laughter, the cries of “Crucify him!” He saw more than just betrayal, dereliction, wrath. He saw the eternal bliss of his Father’s smile and the eternal destiny of his people propped against the backside of the cross.
And for the joy, the reward, the prize that lay before him, he took up his cross (Hebrews 12:2), despised its shame, and conquered death for his own. He saw beyond the unlikeable to make them his beloved.Grabbing Our Towels
Our love also looks past our neighbor to the promises of heaven and, having our hearts warmed there, looks upon them afresh with a resoluteness to care. We do not love past them, around them, above them; we love them — despite their annoyances, oddities, shortcomings, ungratefulness. We repay them with love, not because they have earned it, but because we hadn’t either and yet are inheritors of the world.
Giving kindness, sacrifice, and consideration to those who cannot (or for whatever reason, will not) repay us, does not bankrupt us. Our reward is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” kept for us in heaven (1 Peter 1:4). With the pockets of our minds filled with heavenly gold and chests brimming with imperishable treasures, we are wealthy enough to spend time with the irritating, the exasperating, the mostly tiresome and vexing.
Knowing that we are born of God, and going back to him, we can rise, wrap a towel around our waists, and bend low to serve others we might otherwise find impossible to love.
The standard dictionary definition of anti-Semitism is “hostility to, or prejudice against, Jews.” There is a long history of such mistreatment of Jews (some horrific) by professing Christians. The aim of this article is to show that those Christians were acting contrary to the Bible — the very Scripture they claimed to believe. The cumulative effect of these twelve observations is to show that the Christian Scriptures do not support anti-Semitism, but forbid it.1. God freely and graciously chose the Jewish people from all the peoples of the world to be recipients of a covenant with him that would bestow unique blessings on Israel, and would be the means through which all the families of the earth would be blessed.
The Lord said to Abram . . . “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1–3)
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. (Romans 9:4)2. Jesus, who the Scriptures teach is the incarnation of the eternal, divine Son of God, was Jewish. This incarnation was the means of God’s fulfilling his covenant with Abraham — Jesus is the offspring through which all the families of the earth are blessed.
It is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah. (Hebrews 7:14)
To [the Israelites] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:5)
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16)3. All of the twelve apostles chosen by the Lord Jesus were Jews.
These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5–6)4. The fact that the Jewish people rejected (and, as a whole, still reject) Jesus as their Messiah, and were instrumental, along with Pilate and other Gentiles, in his crucifixion, was not a warrant for their persecution. Jesus himself, as he died, set the example for his followers by praying that the Jews and Gentiles responsible for his death would be forgiven, which many of them were when the apostles offered them gospel grace, not retribution.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Peter . . . lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea, . . . this Jesus . . . you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up. . . .” Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart. . . . Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” . . . So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:14, 22–24, 37–41)5. Paul spelled out the short-term sorrowful, and long-term hopeful, implications of the Jewish rejection of the gospel, explaining that Jewish enmity toward Jesus as the Messiah was for the sake of the salvation of Gentiles, which in turn would be for the sake of the salvation of Jews. In other words, God’s design in the temporary disobedience of both Gentile and Jew was finally for the good of both.
As regards the gospel, they [the Jews] are enemies for your [the Gentiles’] sake. But as regards election, they [the Jews] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [the Jews] disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you [Gentiles] they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. (Romans 11:28–32)6. God has chosen to save Jews and Gentiles in a way that severs the root of pride in both. He especially warns Gentiles not to boast over Jews just because some of them did not believe while Gentiles did believe.
If some of the [Jewish] branches were broken off, and you, although a wild [Gentile] olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the [Jewish] branches. (Romans 11:17–18)7. To support Paul’s rejection of Gentile boasting over Jews (with the kind of derision and persecution that may go with it), he reminded Gentiles that to this very day Gentile salvation depends on God’s faithfulness to his covenant to the Jewish forefather Abraham.
If you are [arrogant], remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. (Romans 11:18)
[Jesus said,] “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22)8. Another argument from Paul that the Gentiles must not boast over Jews is that God not only can, but will, someday draw Israel as a whole to Jesus as the Messiah so that all Israel will be saved.
If you [Gentiles] were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree [the Abrahamic covenant], how much more will these [Jews], the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. Lest you [Gentiles] be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved. (Romans 11:24–26)9. The almost exclusive priority that Jesus gave to Jews in his ministry (Matthew 10:6; 15:24) was changed so as to include all the nations in the offer of salvation (Matthew 21:43; 28:19–20), but it was not entirely abandoned, as we can see from the fact that the apostles, even on their Gentile mission, considered it fitting that God’s first covenant people receive the gospel first.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16; see also Acts 3:26; 18:5–6)10. Paul set the example for how Christians should relate to Jews until the final day of salvation for all God’s elect from Israel and the Gentiles: he did everything he could to bring Jews to salvation, even being willing to suffer on their behalf rather than bringing suffering on them.
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [the Jews] is that they may be saved. (Romans 10:1)
I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. (Romans 11:13–14)
I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my [Jewish] kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1–3)11. Paul also set the example for us (Philippians 3:17; 1 Corinthians 4:16–17) when he was persecuted by Jews, in that that he did not respond in kind. To our knowledge, Paul and the other apostles of Jesus, who spread the gospel after Jesus’s resurrection, never lifted a finger of hostility against Jewish people.
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. (2 Corinthians 11:24)
When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1 Corinthians 4:12–13)12. Jesus taught his followers to treat their neighbors the way they would like to be treated, and to respond to mistreatment from their enemies with mercy; and his apostles continued that teaching after him.
Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. . . . Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:27–29, 35–36; see also Matthew 5:44–48)
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. . . . Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8, 10)
If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:20–23)
Therefore, the entire scope of Scripture, the Spirit of Jesus, the example of the apostles, the explicit commands of love, and the future destiny of the nations, including Israel, show that hostility toward Jews, in thought and act, is forbidden by Scripture.
Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. One day Israel will see this with joy. In the meantime, the Christian followers of the Messiah are called to commend Jesus as the only Savior from sin for all the peoples of the world. We do this by speaking and showing the word of God, with the good news of Jesus at the center: “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
The fall of 2009 was the inaugural year of Bethlehem College & Seminary. On November 5, 2008, I delivered an address with the long title “The Earth Is the Lord’s”: The Supremacy of Christ in Christian Learning — Biblical Foundations for Bethlehem College & Seminary. In the present article, I aim to reflect on the last ten years and on aspects of that foundational address that should be underlined, corrected, or expanded.
The mission statement of Bethlehem College & Seminary is the following:
Under the authority of God’s inerrant word, Bethlehem College & Seminary exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ by equipping men and women to treasure Christ above all things, to grow in wisdom and knowledge over a lifetime, and to glorify God in every sphere of life.
I love that mission. And I love to see it happening before my eyes.The School Today
In the last ten years, the school has been fully accredited by the Association of Higher Biblical Education. The seminary has been at capacity from the beginning, with an annual enrollment target of 15–17 students who progress together through the four-year Master of Divinity in a cohort model. The target enrollment for the college is about 180, with a present enrollment of 105. There are two evening degree programs: (1) the degree-completion program, which enables folks in their careers to come back and finish a bachelor’s, and (2) the new two-year Master of Arts in Exegesis and Theology.
The school has thirteen full-time faculty, who are spiritually, theologically, academically, pedagogically, and personally the kind of teachers I would want my sons or daughters to study with. The church-based mentoring model is in place and vital. The tuition is a fraction of what a comparable education would cost at most other colleges and seminaries, because (1) we aim at no student debt, and (2) we raise funds from folks who believe in what we are doing, so that every student receives a $10,000 Serious Joy Scholarship.What Has Changed?
In the last ten years, the greatest things have not changed at all. God is still holy, merciful, and sovereign. Man is still spiritually dead apart from Christ, cut off from God, and perishing. Christ is still a reigning, all-sufficient, and global Savior. The Holy Spirit is still active, omnipotent, and faith-creating. The Bible is still completely true and ever relevant. And the gospel is still the power of God unto salvation. It is thrilling to be anchored in stupendous realities that never change.
But aspects of the world we live in have changed. Some of these changes call for comment as they relate to aspects of the message I gave ten years ago.The Bible
The ongoing prioritization of anecdotal preaching of experience rather than systematic preaching of Scripture has contributed to a pervasive ignorance of Bible facts and Bible doctrine. We in the American church have reaped what we have sown.
Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). Three verses earlier he made clear that the “word” was the Scriptures, which are inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Paul’s conscience was clear as he left the Ephesian church, because he “did not shrink from declaring to [them] the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). There are thousands of churches where that does not happen. The Bible is not explained so that the people understand the flow of its thought and taste the glorious realities behind it.
Worse, some popular pastors belittle this kind of preaching, discourage preachers from basing their points on what “the Bible says,” and tell their people that whole stretches of the Scriptures may be calmly ignored. Old-fashioned liberals (who have turned the mainline denominations into a declining spiritual wasteland) have been talking like this for a century. What’s new is that so-called evangelicals now do so openly.
With increasing clarity, I see students’ attitudes toward the Bible as the watershed issue of their life. Are they deeply persuaded that the Bible is completely true? Do they love the process of discovering the meaning of Scripture? Does it thrill them daily to mine the gold of God’s mind revealed there? Do they instinctively transpose what they see into a passion to obey and share? Do they have unbending courage to stand for biblical truth, though the entire culture stands against them?
This priority of Scripture led me in the last five years to write three books that I regard as legacy books. That is, they attempt to summarize a lifetime of thinking about why I trust the Bible as completely true (A Peculiar Glory), how it is to be read supernaturally (Reading the Bible Supernaturally), and how it is to be preached (Expository Exultation). If I were delivering a foundational message for Bethlehem College & Seminary today, the stress on our being Bible-based and Bible-saturated in all we teach would be even stronger.Christian Hedonism
Here again, I would say things with even greater emphasis and confidence than I did ten years ago. Here is what I said:
Essential to the foundation of Bethlehem College & Seminary is the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. God’s self-exaltation and our everlasting joy are not at odds. They happen together. His worth is magnified when we treasure him above all things.
In other words, since we aim in our education to glorify God in all we think and do, and since he is not glorified as he ought to be in hearts where he is not treasured above all things, therefore, it is essential that we instill in students the unabashed, unwavering habit of pursuing more satisfaction in God than in any other treasure in the world.
What I would clarify now is this: Christian Hedonism is not the addition of a new doctrine to the palace of Reformed truth seen in Scripture. Rather, Christian Hedonism is a relentless emphasis on the supreme preciousness of that Truth, and on the corresponding spiritual pleasure the heart must find in that preciousness if its truth and beauty and worth are to be magnified as they ought to be.
Knowing God and his ways, without cherishing God and his ways, dishonors God and his ways. Seeing without savoring demeans what is seen. I do not regard Christian Hedonism as marginal, or optional, or cute, or clever. I regard it as an essential emphasis that should pervade all our dealings with truth, and without which the human heart does not magnify the beauty and worth of God as it should.
I gladly note that since I gave the foundational lecture, faculty member Joe Rigney has published his book The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts. This is explicitly intended to fill a deficiency in my emphases. It is a course correction for any who have taken my Christian Hedonism to mean that delighting in God supremely means not delighting in his creation. Joe labors effectively to honor the Scriptures that say, “God . . . richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17) and “God created [food] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3). I rejoice in this kind of correction, and hope for more of it as more and more people deal seriously with how massively important Christian Hedonism is in the palace of Reformed truth.Pride
I actually began the message ten years ago with a warning about pride. This may seem gloomy. But I spent so many years in the academic world, and even more years looking at my own bent toward self-glory, that it seemed fitting to make our first act a penitent renunciation of pride.
I also wanted to make clear that academic pride comes in more than one form. Craving praise for one’s scholarly achievements is one form. But just as potent is cowardice. This is the spineless flip side of boasting. The pride of boasting seeks praise — especially from powerful people. The pride of cowardice seeks to avoid criticism — especially from powerful people. I listed ten positions we take as a school that elicit criticism. This means we cannot be what we are if the pride of cowardice holds sway.
What I did not foresee ten years ago was the normalizing of proud behaviors that would once have been considered disqualifying for ministry, or at least for maturity. This process of normalizing self-exaltation has been energized by social media. Virtue signaling on Twitter, for example, is pervasive: “I am among the few people right now who are praying about this tragedy rather than commenting on it.” “Take note, everyone, that my heart is broken over this injustice.” Even more blatant is retweeting other people’s praise of your book or article. When Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth,” it does not mean, “Make other people the mouthpiece of your own self-praise.”
Two other symptoms of the normalization of strutting one’s self have emerged. One is the childish antics of grown-up NFL players after they do something outstanding. The gesticulating self-congratulation would have been regarded as disgustingly immature just a few decades ago. Finally, and perhaps most damaging of all since I spoke ten years ago, we now have a president of the United States who seems incapable of giving any evidence of humility or fallibility or interdependence.
Therefore, if I were giving that lecture today, my concerns about the insidious nature of pride in public life (including the pastorate) would be even greater, and the subtleties of its influence would need more analysis and resistance.Sexuality
In positioning Bethlehem College & Seminary in our cultural controversies over sexuality, my statement ten years ago focused narrowly on so-called homosexual marriage.
Marriage is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman. No kind of relationship between two men or two women is marriage. Whatever two men do or say to each other, or whatever two women do or say to each other, it is not now, never has been, and never will be marriage in God’s eyes.
The cultural cancer of sexual disintegration and perversion has metastasized more quickly than most of us foresaw. The new forms of cancerous growth are both tragic and ludicrous. Perhaps most prominent at the moment is the transgender phenomenon — men and women wanting to be a different sex than they are. This impulse is part of the wider and deeper sense in the modern soul that our identity is not given by God or nature or grace, but rather is decreed by our own sovereign selves.
As a tragic result, more adults are having surgery and hormone treatment in a futile effort to re-create themselves. Even more tragic is the increasing number of children who want to be a different sex than they are. Already in Australia, some states are allowing parents to surgically alter their children’s anatomy without legal permission. And in America, it is possible for parents to lose custody of a minor child for refusing to let the child undergo sex-change surgery.
Less tragic, but more ludicrous, is the fact that now a biological male can win a women’s cycling championship, while the insanity of it is muted by the cultural pressures to look with favor on that man’s freedom to defeat women. If I were giving the ten-year-old lecture today, I would have driven a stake in the ground along the lines of the Nashville Statement on sexuality.Racism and Ethnic Diversity
Among the ten values that I highlighted ten years ago was this:
Delighting in and desiring racial and ethnic diversity is crucial. Indifference to active love across ethnic lines is an assault on the purpose of the cross of Christ, who ransomed people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Happy, unified ethnic diversity in Christ is our destiny in the age to come and should be loved, longed for, and sought after here and now.
The last four years have seen a fiery sea change in race relations in America. The tinder for this new conflagration has, of course, been piling up with countless smaller and larger acts of racial disrespect and discrimination over the decades. Three torches have been put to that tinder in the last four years. (1) The recurrent, high-profile conflicts between minorities and police where a minority person has been killed, with the consequent upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement. (2) The election of Donald Trump as president, in spite of his being morally unqualified for such leadership, including his divisive way of talking about racial issues. (3) The rise of public advocates of white supremacy in the wake of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally.
This conflagration has jumped the banks of the world and spread into the church, with many blacks feeling perplexed and dismayed at the number of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump. Some black brothers and sisters have felt the need to step away from some kinds of togetherness with evangelicals that seemed to compromise their commitment to truth and justice.
If I were giving the foundational lecture today, I would mention one thing that makes me sad, and one that makes me glad. The sad one would be the fresh acknowledgment that some advances we hoped we had made in racial harmony were not as deep as we thought, calling for a fresh commitment to go deeper and do better, with fresh focuses not only on diversity and harmony, but also on justice.
The glad one would be to draw attention to two concrete steps that Bethlehem College & Seminary has taken to put our money where our mouth is. Our mouth said ten years ago, “Happy, unified ethnic diversity in Christ is our destiny in the age to come and should be loved, longed for, and sought after here and now.”
In the meantime, the words, longed for and sought after have taken on dollars and flesh. To commemorate the heartbreaking death of one of our incoming students, the Alex Steddom International Student Fund was created to provide scholarships for international students holding appropriate visas.
More recently, we have launched a new scholarship initiative specifically for African-American students and other American students of color. We are calling it the All Peoples Scholarship. We will be offering three full-tuition scholarships to qualified minority applicants in each of our programs. We would appreciate any help you can give in spreading the word about these scholarships in appropriate ways.Still Anchored
I end by circling back to the part of our history that is most important but gets no press — namely, that the greatest things have not changed at all.
God is still holy and merciful. Man is still fallen and perishing. Christ is still reigning and saving. The Holy Spirit is still omnipotent and faith-creating. The Bible is still true and relevant. And the gospel is still the power of God unto salvation. And yes, I say it again, it is thrilling to be anchored in stupendous realities that never change.
God designs all our weaknesses — even those that leave us unable to do anything. And one of his purposes in our weaknesses is to sanctify the strong.
“See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor. You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. . . . When you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat.” —Joshua 6:2–3, 5
“But the people of Israel broke faith . . .” (Joshua 7:1). Those are the first words of the first chapter after the fall of Jericho.
God had just knocked down the city walls to give them the victory. And before the dust settled, they had given up on him. They had lost faith. They had watched a fortress fall, an army quiver, and a kingdom crumble. God gave them the triumph, almost without a fight. They barely had to lift a finger; they simply raised their voices.
And then they rejected God’s voice. Having watched him conquer their fears, they did the one thing he told them not to do. God’s messenger said, “Keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction” (Joshua 6:18). Do not horde or indulge in the idols of Jericho, but destroy them so that they do not steal your heart away from God.
“But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things.”The Wall Before Them
The temptations were already there for some as they walked silently around Jericho for six days. You can imagine them thinking, Why doesn’t he just knock the walls down now? God had told them how their victory would happen, but seven days probably began to feel like seven years while they walked and waited, walked and waited.
If you’ve walked with Jesus for long, you’ve likely felt what some of them were feeling: a hope in God’s promises mixed with rising impatience about his timing; an awareness of God’s bigness and wisdom, but a lingering suspicion that you know better than he does; a genuine faith that he would come through in the end, but with persistent questions about how he would do it.What God Said to Them
But God had said, “On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. . . . When you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up” (Joshua 6:4–5).
Before that, he said, “Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you. . . . No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. . . . I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:2–3, 5).
And God had not failed them yet, so they walked and waited, walked and waited. They circled Jericho once a day for six days, wondering how God would bring down those walls.God’s Word Did Not Fail
On the seventh day, just as he said he would, God turned their waiting into prevailing. They marched around the same walls seven times that day. And just as they were told, “the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown . . . and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city . . . and they captured the city” (Joshua 6:20).
It happened exactly like God said it would, and yet it must have surprised many of them. This generation had not seen the plagues in Egypt, or watched Moses split the Red Sea, or witnessed God wipe out Pharaoh’s army. They had walked across the Jordan on dry ground, and they had won battles of their own, but not like this. They had not watched fortified walls fall at the sound of their voice. God tore down the defenses, overwhelmed their enemies, and gave them the city.What God Says to You
What walls do you want to see come down? It might be a difficult or broken relationship with a family member or friend. It might be your battle against a besetting sin. It might be massive barriers in ministry.
You have walked and waited and prayed, and yet the walls before you stand tall and strong above you, tempting you to feel small and forgotten. But what has God said to you? “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31–32). Your battle has been won. Your God will never leave you. One day, he will give you everything — and everything else will pale compared to having him. And every wall you ever faced will seem small.
“But the people of Israel broke faith . . .” It’s a severe warning. While we wait for God to knock down every last wall, we will be tempted to set our hearts on other things. Never forget that he did not spare his Son for you. Never forget that he has promised you all things forever. Never forget the mountains he has already moved for you — and believe he will do it again.
The never-ending rewards of heaven give us never-ending reasons to love others today.
There was no more money for milk.
Donations to the orphan house had been drying up for months. Week after week, they had gotten by with barely enough: a dollar here, some pennies there, drips compared to the river of provision they had once known.
The director rose from bed and thought of the hundreds of children still sleeping. They would wake up soon. They would come to the kitchen expecting milk, a staple breakfast food at the orphan house. And if God did not intervene, they would go away hungry.
He prayed on the two-minute walk to the orphan house. He asked that God would show compassion like a Father to his children, that he would not lay on them more than they could bear, and that he would somehow provide the money they needed for milk.Poor and at Peace
If anyone had a right to be worried, George Müller did. For decades, he walked through trials of faith that would leave many of us shattered in mind and body. More than ten thousand children depended on him for food, clothing, and shelter throughout his lifetime. His orphan houses lived for years on the edge of poverty. And he had committed early on to never ask anyone but God for money.
But few people walked with more of the peace of God that “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Over and over in his autobiography, or in his shorter book Answers to Prayer, readers find Müller poor, pressed down with cares, and yet at peace.
The key for Müller was prayer. John Piper writes, “When George Müller was asked how he could be so calm in the middle of a hectic day with so many uncertainties at the orphanage, he answered something like, ‘I rolled sixty things onto the Lord this morning’” (The Satisfied Soul, 308). How did Müller handle the burdens of ten thousand orphans? He took them, one by one, off his own shoulders, and he rolled them onto God’s.
In a sermon on Philippians 4:6–7, Müller tells us how.1. Hear God’s Invitation
When we bring our worries to God in prayer, we will never meet a deaf ear or a reluctant glance. We will instead find a Father who gladly bends his shoulder to bear our burdens.
The children of God, Müller says, “are permitted, not only permitted but invited, not only invited but commanded, to bring all their cares, sorrows, trials, and wants to their heavenly Father. They are to roll all their burdens upon God.”
The command Müller has in mind — “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6) — is just one example in a Bible full of invitations to roll our worries onto God. When we search the pages of Scripture, we see a Shepherd who gathers us up in his arms (Isaiah 40:11), a Bridegroom who makes our troubles his own (Ephesians 5:25–27), a King who hides us away in his tower (Proverbs 18:10), a Warrior who fights our battles himself (Exodus 14:14). On nearly every page, God invites us to come out of the howling winds of our worries and into the warmth of his home.
Our worries may feel close to us, but in Christ, our Father is closer. Hear his invitation, and come.2. Roll All the Big Burdens
Sometimes, we feel that our worries are too big even for God to carry. Perhaps we don’t entertain the conscious thought, but deep down we doubt that the peace of God could ever guard our hearts and our minds as long as this burden lasts.
Müller recognizes as much: “But you say, how can I, a wife with a husband given to drinking, not be anxious?” We could name a hundred other worries that feel just as heavy. But Müller goes on to say, “It is the will of your heavenly Father that you are not to be anxious even in such circumstances. . . . If you roll the burden upon God and cast all your care upon him, you will be free from anxiety even regarding this.”
We cannot place too much weight on God’s shoulders. Not one of our worries is too heavy for the God who has already traveled to the depths of our misery, carried our curse on his back, and then thrown off the chains of death (Philippians 2:5–11). To every worry, want, or weakness, no matter how big, he says, “I will supply every need of yours according to my riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (see Philippians 4:19).3. Roll All the Small Burdens
But God cares about more than our biggest worries. He cares about the smallest worries that weigh on our hearts. If not one hair on our head goes unnumbered (Matthew 10:30), if not one tear on our face goes unseen (Psalm 56:8), and if not one cry from our mouth goes unheard (Psalm 6:8), then not one of our worries will go unnoticed by God.
“It is not simply great matters we are to bring before God, not simply small things but ‘everything,’” Müller writes. “Therefore, all our affairs, temporal or spiritual, let us bring them before God. And this for the simple reason that life is made up of little things.”
For the most anxious Christians, worry does not grow quiet when outward circumstances do. Even when all around is calm — our families healthy, our jobs secure, our friendships steady — worry can work with the smallest of burdens. So we must take even those, trifles though they seem, and roll them onto our Father’s shoulders. As Müller writes, “When we have any little burdens we must tell our heavenly Father, ‘I have no strength for this weight, I cannot carry the burden.’” And then remember: “Our heavenly Father is ready to do this for us.”
Over time, rolling every burden onto God can become as reflexive as a frightened child reaching for his father.4. Keep Rolling
Of course, our worries will not always roll smoothly off our backs the moment we rise from our knees. Some worries have a grip on us that a single prayer can’t loosen. So, Müller tells us, we must keep rolling.
He says, “Now this is what we may have to do: not simply to mention our request before God but to go on asking again and again with earnest prayer and supplication until we receive.” Sometimes, relief from our worries comes only on the other side of earnest, pleading prayer, as when Paul received comfort for his thorn only after three petitions (2 Corinthians 12:8).
In one of Müller’s many stories of God’s last-minute provision, he gives us a clue as to why God sometimes tarries to bring us relief. He writes, “It was from the beginning in the heart of God to help us; but because he delights in the prayers of his children, he had allowed us to pray so long” (Answers to Prayer, 25).
God delights in the prayers of his children, and extended seasons on our knees can cultivate that same delight in us. When God calls us to roll our worries onto him not once or twice, but continually, he invites us to press deeper into his promises, linger longer in his presence, and eventually find, as so many of the psalmists did, that “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).Precious Proofs
As Müller prayed on his walk to the orphan house, he met a fellow Christian who had risen early for work. The two exchanged greetings, talked briefly, and then parted ways. But a minute later, Müller heard hurried footsteps behind him. His acquaintance ran back, slipped some money into Müller’s hand, and said, “for the orphans.” Enough to pay for milk.
As Müller remembered the story, he wrote, “Truly, it is worth being poor and greatly tried in faith, for the sake of having day by day such precious proofs of the loving interest which our kind Father takes in everything that concerns us” (Answers to Prayer, 14).
Why does God daily try our faith? So that he might daily bear us up (Psalm 68:19). Why does God fill our hearts with cares? So that he might cheer us with his comforts (Psalm 94:19). Why does God lay burdens on our backs? So that he might lift them onto his own (Psalm 55:22).
As worry lures us to bear the burdens of a broken world upon our own broken backs, hear your Father’s constant invitation to come to broader shoulders. Draw near to him through Jesus “with thanksgiving” (Philippians 4:6), and know that the God who bore yesterday’s worries is able to bear today’s as well. Take your burdens, one by one, and learn to roll them onto him.
We can say all the right things and go through all the motions, but if our hearts are far from God, our worship means nothing.
God has designed, for now, that our joy not always be great.
The word joy appears more than 200 times in the English Bible, and more than sixty in the New Testament. Joy is not a peripheral note in God’s word, but a massive, unavoidable theme. Of the sixty mentions in the New Testament, however, only four times do we hear of “great joy.” Careful attention to the word great can help clear up confusion for some and relieve unnecessary guilt for others.
Some of us are prone to mistake the everyday joy of the Christian life in this age — in all its depth and power and sweetness — for the “great joy” that is occasional for now and coming in future fullness. And others overlook the preciousness of the joy God gives us in this age because it’s not yet the great joy that is coming.
Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10), but we do not have it all right now. He came that we might have joy, real joy, wonderful joy, “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8), and yet a “great joy” remains that we sample for now and will experience without interruption in the age to come.Four Glimpses of Great Joy The Messiah Is Born
Both Matthew and Luke tell of “great joy” at Jesus’s first coming. First the magi: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10). Then, as herald angels announced to certain shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
At long last, Israel’s promised Messiah had come — and not just the anointed descendant of king David, but God himself in the person of his Son. He has taken our flesh and blood, and come to save us. At such moments, ordinary joy will not suffice. Such is an occasion for great joy.The Lord Is Risen
How much more, then, when the darkness of his torture and crucifixion has passed, and news begins to spread that he is alive?
Again, Matthew and Luke speak of great joy. “They departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Matthew 28:8). “They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52–53). Resurrection joy is not everyday joy.The Gospel Goes to the Nations
Also it is fitting when news spreads in the early church that Gentiles — even Gentiles! — are embracing the Jewish Messiah as their Lord. “Being sent on their way by the church, [Paul and Barnabas] passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers” (Acts 15:3).
If there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10), how can the outbreak of the gospel from the Jews to the nations not be an occasion for great joy?Finally in His Presence
The first three are past events, but Jude’s mighty doxology gives us a future glimpse of what lies in store for us with the final great joy: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy . . .” (Jude 24).
The day we stand before our God, and see Jesus face to face, will be no ordinary day. This will be no ordinary joy. This will be a day of great joy that will usher in an eternity of great and ever increasing joy.Joy Deeper Than Sorrow
For now, though, Christian joy is caught in the tension of the already and not yet. Already Christ has come the first time. Already he has paid for our sins, and is risen as our living hope. Already he is seated in glory at his Father’s side and given us his Spirit. Already God has caused us to be born again, to taste and see his goodness, to experience a joy in him in this life that is deeper and more durable than anything the world has to offer.
But we are not yet home. There is “fullness of joy” in his presence (Psalm 16:11), where we ascend by faith, through the Spirit, but we are not yet fully and finally there. We live with “the sufferings of this present time” (Romans 8:18), devastating as they can be. And we endure not only in the joy we have, but in light of the great joy we’re promised. In fact, the great joy we’re promised is essential to the joy we have. What we endure for now is “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Not only does our world groan under the curse of sin, but “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).
In this age, our joy rarely escapes the burden of regular sorrows, some of them great. But joy and sorrow are not equals. Even our not yet joy is deeper than our present sufferings, and more enduring than our many pains. We are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).Gritty, Mixed, Real
When Jesus invites us into joy, he doesn’t promise or expect great joy at every moment. Not yet. And he doesn’t mean for us to expect everyday euphoria and mountaintop elation. We will have our moments of great joy. God gives us occasions that echo the explosive mirth that came with his Son’s birth and resurrection and that anticipate our future appearing before him face to face. These are wonderful; may God increase them.
And yet “great joy” is not the experience or demand of the everyday Christian life in this age. Our lot, for now, is not daily ecstasy. We have not yet come into final bliss. Our joy, for now, is gritty. It’s mixed. It’s not simple. It’s not uncurbed, untainted, undiluted. And yet it is real. And it is powerful for demonstrating the worth and excellency of God, because our joy is challenged from within and without by so many obstacles.
The great joy to come will indeed glorify Christ, but part of why it will be so powerful is because it follows the real but assaulted joy we lived here. Joy and great joy both have their place in magnifying God’s value. First the one; then the other. Either without the other would not be as glorifying to God, and as finally satisfying to our souls, as the two together in their proper time.
God designed us as male and female for his glory. And he intends for us to reflect him in every relationship, not just marriage.
Over time, a family with four sons develops a unique tone, a guy culture with a certain decibel level and a distinct way of doing life. As a mother of some now-married sons, it has been a joy to welcome other women into this circle — women who love my sons well and also have opened their hearts to me.
Of course, the messy flip side of this blessing is the requirement that I acknowledge and appreciate another woman’s way of doing things — important things like parenting my grandchildren, feeding a family, and managing a home.
Just as I have prayed for 25 years for grace to be a good mother, I am now trusting for grace to be a good mother-in-law. Wisdom for this challenge flows in abundance from one of Paul’s lists in the book of Romans. Some translators have labeled Romans 12:9–21 as “Marks of the True Christian.” I can’t think of any better advice for women striving to be good Christian mothers-in-law.1. Expect that this new family will be different than your own.
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. (Romans 12:16)
When our sons have gotten engaged, my husband has made a point of sitting down with the future daughter-in-law to let her know, in no uncertain terms, that we realize our son is not perfect. With a strong desire to “live in harmony” with every branch of our family tree, we have expressed our love for the brave soul who is marrying into our family and have communicated our intent to support and encourage them as a couple in any way we can. Learning to offer help with no strings attached has been a crash course in humility, and the lesson has been reinforced in recent years as our grown children actually have offered to us their gifts of wisdom or practical help.
In None Like Him, Jen Wilkin warns readers against the tendency to usurp the incommunicable attributes of God — those qualities of deity that are his alone. Nowhere is this more of a temptation for me than in parenting. God will stop at nothing to pour his holiness, justice, and patience into the love I have for my kids, but what I really covet is his sovereignty. When I become “wise in my own sight,” in awe of my own cobbled-together wisdom, I am rescued from this misplaced awe by the truth that God’s wisdom flows from his unlimited authority.
By entrusting my family to God’s sovereign plan for each member, I am enabled to release the death grip on my desire to control and manage things from my limited perspective.2. Be slow to give unsolicited advice.
Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. . . . Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:10, 12)
I am honored (and flabbergasted) when one of my daughters-in-law calls, requesting input on anything: preparing a meal, nursing a sick child, or removing a stain from a garment. It’s a great gift, and one I hold loosely, because my sons married smart and capable women who already surpass me in many ways. Therefore, when I observe some small trait or practice that does not meet with my approval, and when I am tempted to offer my sage counsel on the matter, I try to recall all the times I have been consulted and the times when my feelings and opinions have been taken into consideration with grace.
It is not for nothing that the phrase “patient in tribulation” precedes being “constant in prayer.” If you are convinced that your child’s spouse is lacking in some serious way, and you are not already praying for them every day, start now!3. Remember, your son or daughter now belongs to his or her spouse.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)
The old adage “Good fences make good neighbors” applies in families as well. An invitation is not a summons, and missing a family gathering is not a shun-able offense. Rejecting unrealistic expectations, refusing to manipulate with guilt, and saying no to the insidious tendency to keep score (as if our fellow in-law counterparts are the competition) are all ways of declaring war in this battle for peace. And because each temptation is subtle and inward, they are the part that “depends on me” with the Spirit’s enablement.
To be sure, I have been married longer than my kids and their spouses have been alive, I have parented a number of children, and I could devise all manner of additional rationalizations for playing the mum card, offering gratuitous advice, or harboring resentment. But if I want to live peaceably with my sons and their families, I must respect the God-given boundaries that have been established since the words leave and cleave drifted from the mouth of God into Eden’s clear air.4. With a sincere heart, thank God for this new son or daughter.
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9)
In the same spirit as Paul’s command to “let love be genuine,” Amy Carmichael prayed,
Love through me, Love of God;
Make me like Thy clear air
Through which, unhindered, colors pass
As though it were not there. (“Love Through Me”)
Kicking myself out of the center of the universe, I am astonished to see God answering this prayer as my sons marry and start new lives. Given half a chance, the love of God will enable me to reject negativity or prideful insistence on having my own way, and to feel genuine gratitude for this new son or daughter.
The handed-down love of God is trustworthy and openhanded. Holding my heart to the high standards of genuine love cuts across all my natural tendencies to control and to protect, and it negates my cherished job description as God’s Official Northeast Representative. However, rising to that challenge with a strength that is not my own puts the power of God on display for the next generation and frees my children to establish the habit of looking first to God, and then to each other, for all that they need.
That sort of genuine love will enable the Spirit-filled mother-in-law to “hold fast to” the good of her son or daughter’s expanded world, the good of them doing things in their own way, and the good that she might even learn a thing or two from them in the process.
Smoke filled the air as the music’s bass reverberated in our ears. The lights were low but glow sticks and lines of cocaine had everyone high. It was a typical Friday night in my college apartment, until God intervened. A friend had talked to me about Jesus the week before, and I could not shake the truth he had shared.
I went down the hallway, shut my bedroom door, and picked up a previously hidden Bible. Through tears I said, “God, if you’re real, show me something.” I opened the New Living Translation my parents gave me before I went to college to the words of a prophet named Ezekiel, “Put all your rebellion behind you, and find yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O people of Israel? I don’t want you to die, says the Sovereign Lord. Turn back and live” (Ezekiel 18:31–32). As I read, God’s word shone light into my heart and began to transform my life.The Greatest Evangelist
God loves to save sinners like me, like you, and like those around us. God is the great evangelist. He is the Father who runs to prodigal children (Luke 15:11–32). His Son left glory to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). The Spirit gives power to God’s people to be witnesses of Jesus’s saving work (Acts 1:8). God desires none to perish, but for all to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3–5). He sought me that night in my apartment, and he used my friend’s witness to do it.
Saving sinners is God’s delight, and it should be ours as well. But too often, we are fearful, shortsighted, and unmoved by the fact that billions of people are on their way to an eternal hell. We need God’s intervention to stir zeal in our hearts for evangelism. What follows are four simple prayers that ask God to help us join him in saving the lost.1. God, help me see lost people as you do.
Naturally, we see people according to the flesh. Nosy neighbors or gossiping co-workers can tempt us toward calloused indifference. But in Christ, we no longer see people with natural eyes (2 Corinthians 5:16). God’s Spirit enables us to see the people around us as immortal image bearers who will either live forever under God’s wrath in hell or forever in the joy of his presence (Matthew 25:46).
When was the last time you wept over someone’s salvation and labored in prayer over someone’s soul? I’m not trying to shame or manipulate you, but God’s people ought to be moved by the prospect of people heading toward eternal destruction. Jesus wept over a city filled with lost people, and Paul wept with “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart” over the unbelief of his fellow Israelites (Romans 9:2–3). Plead with God to give you this same empathy.
Ask God to enlighten the eyes of your heart to see people from an eternal perspective. Ask him to give you the same compassion for the lost that Jesus felt when he looked upon the shepherdless crowds (Matthew 9:36). Ask him to help you see that Jesus suffered for sinners and desires for them to repent of their sin (John 3:16). These prayers renew passion to proclaim Christ to those who are perishing.2. God, open doors for the gospel.
Because God is sovereign over all situations, circumstances, and people, we ought to ask him to arrange opportunities to proclaim the gospel. Paul implored the Colossian church, “pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3). Paul knew God could open doors, so he asked the church to plead with God to do so.
Our church regularly asks God to do this, and we have been amazed at how he answers. In just the past week we have seen Muslim neighbors ask to read the Bible, homeless heroine addicts desiring to hear of Christ, new unbelieving neighbors desire prayer, and many other encounters that can only be explained by the Lord’s arrangement.
As you pray for opportunities, you should also ask for attentiveness to recognize them. We often miss what God is doing around us because we are distracted by entertainment, numbed by sin, or wearied by varying concerns. But as God answers our prayer, we will begin to realize that every brief encounter is an opportunity arranged by the Lord. Every moment is packed with eternal meaning. The clerk at the checkout counter or the person next to you on the plane will no longer be just another person in your eyes, but someone the Lord has placed before you to show his love and speak about his gospel.3. God, give me courage to proclaim Jesus.
Speaking to others about Christ can be terrifying. We fear being rejected or misunderstood, losing friendships or social standing, or even facing physical retaliation. Yet we must not retreat in fear, because God is greater than any opposition we may face.
When Paul was opposed in Corinth, the Lord Jesus encouraged him, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9–10). As we proclaim Christ, we have the same promise of his presence (Matthew 28:18–20) and the assurance that God will draw his predestined people to himself (John 6:37–39).
Ask God to give you courage. Paul pled with the Ephesian church to pray “also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Ephesians 6:19–20). This divinely inspired prayer request twice asks for boldness.
We must ask God to put our sin of cowardliness to death and give us a willing spirit that is ready to do his will. Come humbly before the Lord, and offer yourself as an answer to Jesus’s prayer for laborers to go out into his plentiful harvest (Matthew 9:37–38). Come as a living sacrifice, desiring to be used in his mission. Ask him for courage; he will supply it.4. God, let me see conversions.
We have the honor and responsibility to proclaim the gospel, but only God can give people hearts to believe. So, pray for God to do it. Ask him to not let his word return void, but to raise the dead to life. Ask him to open the hearts of non-believers to receive the gospel. Ask him to remove the veil of unbelief that blinds them from seeing the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4). Ask him to grant them repentance and free them from Satan’s snare (2 Timothy 2:24–26). Ask him to enable you to share in the joy of heaven by seeing a sinner repent (Luke 15:7, 10).
As we pray and as we proclaim the gospel, we know that God will answer in his perfect way and in his perfect timing. We sow and water seeds of gospel truth, but trust God to make them grow (1 Corinthians 3:6–9). But our hope must never be in the immediate results of our evangelism. Our calling is to prayerfully share the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit and then leave the results up to God as that eternal day draws near when all of God’s people will be gathered in worship before his glorious throne. There, we will be amazed that God brought salvation to each of us through the courageous witness of fellow redeemed sinners. He will get all the glory, and we, endless joy.
If we don’t plan ahead for prayer, we are cutting ourselves off from God’s supply of nourishment for our needy souls.
“See how much he has been able to accomplish through me, though I did no more than pray and preach. The Word did it all” (Here I Stand, 212). On this date, now more than five hundred years ago, the word of God waged a serious war against threats to the gospel emerging from the Roman Catholic Church, when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
The Ninety-Five Theses may not have been nailed to the door, as the scene has been famously painted. They were probably pasted with glue. Pieces like these were often posted to the door, which served as a bulletin board for the university. Luther likely did not even post the theses himself. But his ninety-five nails drove deeper than any metal might have, because they were forged for this emerging war in the fire of divine revelation.His Ears Led the Way
Timothy George writes,
What Luther did do, what he was called to do, was to listen to the Word. “The nature of the Word is to be heard,” he remarked. . . . He listened to the Word because it was his job to do so and because he had come to believe his soul’s salvation depended upon it. Luther did not become a reformer because he attacked indulgences. He attacked indulgences because the Word had already taken deep root in his heart. (Theology of the Reformers, 55–56)
George goes on to quote Luther: “If you were to ask a Christian what his task is and by what he is worthy of the name of Christian, there could be no other response than hearing the Word of God, that is, faith. Ears are the only organs of the Christian” (56). We often remember Luther for his extraordinary mouth, but it was first and foremost his ears that led to his challenging the Roman Church. He launched a revival of faithful and valiant listening — to God.
Long before he composed “A Mighty Fortress,” before he was driven into exile, before he stood fast at the Diet of Worms, before he courageously debated Eck at Leipzig, before he posted his ninety-five theses at the Castle Church, Martin Luther listened. And while he listened to God, he gave birth to centuries of lionhearted listeners.How Luther Listened
The listening began for Luther long before the reforming, while he still lived and served as a devoted monk in the cloister at Erfurt. Herman Selderhuis writes,
While in the monastery, Luther learned that Bible reading is actually ‘listening to the Bible’: a text had to be read but also heard, again and again, as frequently as necessary until one gained an understanding of what the text said. . . . The goal was to read and listen until one heard God’s voice in the Word. (Luther: Spiritual Biography, 59)
Luther himself explains the importance of good listening: “If you want to become a Christian, you must take the word of Christ, realizing that you will never be finished learning, and then with me, you will recognize that you still do not even know the ABCs. If one was to boast, then I could certainly do that about myself, because day and night I was busy studying the Bible, and yet I have remained a student. Every day I begin like someone in the primary school” (Spiritual Biography, 59).
Behind the brilliant rhetoric and revolutionary leadership was a tenacious humility to hear from God. Luther did not pretend to have mastered Scripture, even as one of the greatest theologians in history, but considered himself always a student, and an elementary school student at that. And by opening the Bible as if he had not seen anything yet, he saw far more than most — certainly far more than the respected priests and scholars of his day.
Selderhuis continues, “Luther searched in the Bible, he ‘knocked’ on the texts, he shook them like the branch of a fruit tree, and then he listened to find words of comfort and reassurance to drive away his fears” (59). Good listeners search and knock and shake the word of God until they hear God speak — until he gives the long-awaited answer, or whispers their fears away, or leads them with clear direction, or breathes fresh inspiration and strength into their life and ministry, or reassures them with his promises. Listening to the very words of God in the Scriptures is not only the quiet key to the Protestant Reformation, but to the faithful, fruitful, and happy Christian life.What Listening Will Do
We do not need Luther, however, to know what this kind of listening does to a man (or woman). The first psalm tells us, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalms 1:3). If our delight is in the law of the Lord — if we listen to the word of God day and night because we love to hear him — our lives, like Luther’s, will be marked by unusual strength, stability, and eternal productivity.
Writing about the Diet of Worms, biographer Roland Bainton describes what listening made of Luther:
At a time when the choicer sort were glorying in the accomplishments of man, strode this Luther, entranced by the song of angels, stunned by the wrath of God, speechless before the wonder of creation, lyrical over the divine mercy, a man aflame with God. . . . The ultimate problem was always God and man’s relationship to God. (Here I Stand, 214)
The joyful, focused, even relentless discipline of meditating on Scripture will inevitably plant God (and not ourselves) at the center of our universe; it will try all of our thoughts, desires, and ambitions against his living, active, and invincible word; and it will set us aflame — to enjoy him with all our hearts, to see him everywhere in his creation and providence, and to stand against anything that challenges or dishonors him. Ultimately, the pages of Scripture, not the abuses of Rome, kindled the fire of Luther’s faith-filled resistance.
When asked to repudiate what he had written about the fatal errors in the Catholic doctrine and practice of his day, he said, according to Bainton, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. . . . Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise” (180). No one who casually or occasionally dabbles in reading the Bible will stare death in the face, and stand like Luther stood. Though he was never forced to die for his faith, listening had made a martyr out of Martin.Adore Every Trace
After years of poor health, Martin Luther fell seriously ill at the age of 62. On February 18, 1546, we lost the lionhearted listener. His loved ones found the following written on a piece of paper by his deathbed:
Nobody can understand Vergil in his Bucolics and Georgics unless he has first been a shepherd or a farmer for five years. Nobody understands Cicero in his letters unless he has been engaged in public affairs of some consequence for twenty years. Let nobody suppose that he has tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently unless he has ruled over the churches with the prophets for a hundred years. . . . “Lay not your hand on this divine Aeneid, but bow before it, adore its every trace.” We are beggars. That is true. (Theology of the Reformers, 104–5)
Adore its every trace. Do you want to imitate the boldness and faithfulness of Martin Luther? Adore every trace of God in Scripture. Do you want the courage to stand in your own day of trouble? Adore every syllable of what God has said to us. Do you want to preserve and spread the one true gospel — the only hope for anyone, anywhere, at any time in history? Listen to every word from him.
Aspire to say with Luther, when your last day comes — at 62, 82, or at 32 — “The Word did all the work.”