What does it mean to be united to Christ? John Piper shows how we can begin to mine the riches of this doctrine from Scripture.
What does saving faith feel like? Like water to a thirsty soul. Like finding a treasure you cannot live without.
One of Jesus’s most repeated sayings in the Gospels is some version of this: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23). If we’re wise, we’ll listen carefully to whatever Jesus says, especially what he says repeatedly. And in this case, listening happens to be precisely what he’s telling us to do.
There’s a very, very important reason behind Jesus’s exhortation:
“Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Mark 4:24–25)
Do you understand what Jesus is saying? The fact that this warning itself is somewhat difficult to understand illustrates his point: listen and ponder carefully, for if you don’t, you will not understand, and if you do not understand, you will lose whatever capacity to understand you do have.
Everything hangs on how well you hear what God is saying — what we commonly call the word of God. And hearing God well requires your close attention. Are you paying attention?The Strange Purpose of Parables
Jesus issues this warning in the context of telling a series of parables. Parables were riddle-stories in which Jesus hid profound secrets of God’s kingdom in brief, often mundane-sounding metaphors. In the stories recorded in Mark 4, he uses a farmer’s soils (Mark 4:1–8), an oil lamp (Mark 4:21–25), and seeds (Mark 4:26–32).
Read them. Do you understand them? Of course, Jesus explains the parable of the soils (Mark 4:13–20). But what about the lamp or the seeds? These stories sound simpler than they are. We won’t really get them unless we are paying attention.
And we have Bibles! None of Jesus’s original hearers had ever heard these parables before. They weren’t written down so they could be read over and over, have their grammatical structure examined, and be conveniently cross-referenced with other Scriptures. The first hearers heard these stories once. If they weren’t paying attention, they would miss the kingdom. That’s costly distraction.
When Jesus explained to his disciples why he taught in parables, he said he did so — quoting portions of Isaiah 6:9–10 — that his hearers “may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12). Here again, Jesus’s hard-to-understand explanation illustrates his point: if we’re not listening carefully, we’ll miss what he’s saying.
Is God really telling riddles so that people won’t understand? No and yes. Jesus told the parables to reveal spiritual mysteries of the kingdom, and he really wanted people to understand them. That’s why he said, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” and “Pay attention.” But his revelatory method tested the spiritual wakefulness and earnestness of the hearers. Those who were listening to really hear would hear. But the spiritually dull and distracted would not. Jesus wanted to give the kingdom to the former, not the latter. Those who would not pay attention would reveal their spiritual dullness — dullness that has serious consequences: missing the kingdom of God.God’s Counterintuitive Ways
If Jesus’s words here sound counterintuitive, they are. Jesus spoke and acted in ways consistent with God’s words and ways throughout the Bible, captured in this text:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9)
I’ve seen this passage, or some portion of it, quoted on Christian memes, calendars, and greeting cards, often with a beautiful inspirational landscape, seascape, or skyscape in the background. But if we inserted biblical images as backgrounds, they’d be things like a forbidden tree in Eden, the existence of Satan, a horrific flood, Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob disguised as Esau, Joseph languishing in prison, Israel with a sea before them and the Egyptian army behind them, Rahab the Canaanite prostitute marrying into the messianic bloodline, David hiding in a cave from Saul, Jeremiah weeping over Jewish women boiling their babies, baby Jesus sleeping in a trough, and above all, adult Jesus mutilated and hanging on a Roman cross.
God’s ways truly are not our ways. None of us would have written the story of redemption the way God has. The story itself points to a Personality and intentionality behind it.
And if we’re paying attention, we can detect the same Personality and intentionality in the strange way Jesus communicates the kingdom of God in hard-to-understand parables. None of us would do it that way.Familiar, Affluent, and Distracted
The key qualifier is if we’re paying attention. Because, as Jesus said, if we’re not paying attention to what God says, we will miss what God is doing. That’s a costly distraction.
By God’s grace, we do have an advantage over Jesus’s original hearers: we have God’s authoritative, written word. In fact, never have so many Christians had so much access to God’s word as we do today.
But we must not be lulled into thinking that so much access to and familiarity with Jesus’s teaching means we don’t face the same danger as those first-century listeners. We may have a clearer view of the kingdom than the crowds who heard Jesus’s parables, but we are as endangered by dull hearing as anyone has ever been (Hebrews 5:11).
Never have Christians possessed so much wealth as Western Christians today, which presents many temptations to us and threatens to destroy us (1 Timothy 6:9–10). And never have Christians been barraged with so many and so varied distractions as we are. Overly familiar, overly affluent, and overly distracted is a recipe for the kind of dull hearing that often manifests as being able to explain what Jesus means without actually doing what he says.
It is a false comfort to be able to accurately teach a text if we do not obey it, if functionally our fleshly anxieties and desires govern us, not Jesus’s commands and promises. This can be a more deceptive form of dull hearing than merely not listening or forgetting.Pay Much Closer Attention
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1). If we’re not paying attention, we may not even realize we’re drifting. We can look around and see lots of other distracted, dull Christians who talk Jesus’s talk without walking Jesus’s walk, figure it must be normal, and assume we’re doing just fine. The only way we know if we’re paying close attention to what Jesus says, in the way that he means it, is if we are really doing what he says (John 14:15).
The Christian life is an attentive life (Mark 13:37; Luke 21:36; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8). The Christian life is a hearing life (Mark 4:24; Luke 8:21; John 10:27; Romans 10:17; Hebrews 3:7–8). But attentive listening to Jesus does not come naturally. It must be cultivated and diligently guarded. And there is no formula for how to pay closer attention. It is cultivated by making attentiveness habitual — by practicing the habits of grace. We learn to pay attention by intentionally trying to pay attention. The Spirit will help us if we ask the Father to teach us (Luke 11:9–10; Psalm 25:4).
So whatever it takes, we must pay attention to what we hear. For Jesus’s ways and words are often counterintuitive, and we live in a destructively distracting age. And everything hangs on how well we hear Jesus.
During a particularly stressful period of pastoral ministry, I began to more intentionally seek out joy in God as the dire remedy for my own frayed and threadbare heart.
I had diagnosed myself as markedly joy-deficient when I searched for evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in my life (Galatians 5:22). At age 35, leading a midsize Presbyterian church was already wearing me out. I became stressed at home and frustrated in the office. My coworkers could see it on my face. I needed a deeper source of joy than the world could give, despite its barrage of empty-promise advertisements and panaceas.
So, for nearly three years, I plunged headlong into a deep study on eternal happiness from the theologian of joy, Jonathan Edwards. I surveyed large swaths of his major works and personal writings, mining for gladdening gold.
In my study, I learned at least three methods for maintaining joy in God that Edwards practiced in his own life amid the relentless trials and strains of pastoral ministry. Although most Christians are already familiar with these methods, I discovered that studying the writings of a pastor-theologian from a different historical context opened my eyes for seeing well-worn paths in new ways. The means of grace discussed below are not new or innovative concepts, but rather the ancient paths reinvigorated by considering them afresh through the lens of a joy-absorbed sage.Creation: God’s Beauty on Display
First, Edwards rejoiced in the natural world and the beauty of creation. Edwards saw a strong connection between beauty and joy. Both beauty and joy are to be found in the “excellencies” of God’s nature, by which Edwards meant the praiseworthy attributes of his essential being. These include God’s holiness, love, power, mercy, and righteousness, just to name a few.
One of the ways that Edwards savored the excellencies and beauties of God was through engaging with, and enjoying, his natural creation. For Edwards, being in and among the creatures in the natural realm stirred his affections for God’s creative power and beauty, in turn stoking the fires of joy in his heart.Edwards in the Woods
In his Personal Narrative, Edwards described what may have been the most ecstatic experience of his life, a vision of Jesus that he beheld in the woods when riding his horse:
Once, as I rid out into the woods for my health . . . as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer; I had a view, that for me was quite extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God; as mediator between God and man; and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension . . . which continued, as near as I can judge about an hour; which kept me, the bigger part of the time, in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 16:801)
Although Edwards was constantly in his study and among his books, he also greatly treasured the outdoors and drank in the beauty of God’s created world whenever possible. He drew upon natural themes for his sermon illustrations, and spoke often of the light of the sun, the taste of honey, water from spring fountains, and the like. Just as John Calvin wrote in the Institutes, Edwards saw the universe as the beautiful “theater” of God’s glory (1.6.3).Walk Out of the Study
One of the very practical things that I learned from Edwards is to see vestiges of the gospel in the creation itself. In his notebook on Images (or Shadows) of Divine Things, Edwards constantly peered through creation to see the gospel everywhere around him.
For Edwards, “roses upon briers” are a type of Christ’s glory (the flower) wrought by suffering (thorns). In lightning, he saw a type of the wrath of God, threatening judgment. The rising and setting of the sun he viewed as a type of the death and resurrection of Christ. Even in the lowly silkworm, Edwards saw a type of Christ’s righteousness given to men (the silk) through the suffering and humiliation of Christ (the lowly worm). We too can begin to make these types of observations.
Almost every pastor or Christian leader would do well to spend more time in nature. We could start, for example, by using a day each month to take an intentional prayer walk through a local park, or even by doing some simple gardening in our own yard. I recently listened to the story of another pastor in my city who took a four-week sabbatical, not to study or write in a library, but to spend eight hours a day among the trees in a nearby nature preserve, thinking and praying. He came back refreshed and renewed for his third decade of ministry. At the very least, pastors could make it a regular practice to journal about spiritual insights gleaned from nature and creation in a journal similar to Edwards’s Images of Divine Things notebook.Scripture: Window to Glory
Second, Edwards rejoiced in the study of Scripture. Edwards saw the glory of eternal joy not only in natural revelation (creation) but also in special revelation (the word of God). Edwards is practically famous for his long thirteen-hour days in the study, surrounded by his books and Bible texts.Edwards with His Bible
The Holy Scripture itself was an undeniable and unequaled source of divine joy for Edwards. He writes, “How little do most persons consider how much they enjoy in that they have the possession of that holy Book the Bible which they have in their hearts and which they may converse with as they please” (Edwards on the Christian Life, 104).
Once, Edwards preached to the Mahican Indians that “God gave his Word for the sake of men, for their happiness” (Edwards on the Christian Life, 111). This is true for Edwards, because the Bible contains the message of Christ, the purest source of real joy for the believer. The Bible is the window through which the glory of Christ is perceived. Tellingly, he wrote, “This course of employ in my study . . . [has] been the chief entertainment and delight of my life” (A Jonathan Edwards Reader, 322).Linger in the Book
A couple practices that I have lifted directly from Edwards himself is in beginning my own “Miscellanies” notebooks, as well as my own Blank Bible. In his “Miscellanies” system, Edwards began to categorically compile a large system of general observations on theology and doctrine as well as other pertinent thoughts on human life, philosophy, and ethics, titled and cross-referenced for later recollection and study. Edwards’s system of miscellaneous thoughts grew to over 1,400 in number, all classified and organized by subject heading. Although my own approach is far from perfect, I have begun to formulate a similar notation and observation system, greatly advancing my joy of the study of God’s word.
More than that, I also acquired an interleaved Bible with a blank leaf between each page of text, again directly modeled after Edwards. I use this interleaved Bible to record brief observations on the words and phrases of Scripture, creating what I hope will be a lifelong system of observations and textual analysis. I am convinced that Edwards rejoiced in Scripture study precisely because it was a lifelong obsession with the most gladdening subject matter, the glory of God in the gospel.
As a pastor, these kinds of organized note-taking systems for collecting thoughts on Scripture and theology not only increase my joy in studying God’s word more deeply now, but they also will pay off in the future. Since stress is one of the primary joy-killers in ministry, then reducing the stress of relentless sermon preparation over the long haul is a worthy end. The short time I expend to take notes in my miscellanies journals and interleaved Bible in the present will one day pay me back in dividends of delight in future sermon and lesson planning.Fellowship: Where Earth Is Most Like Heaven
Third, Edwards rejoiced in the body of Christ, the fellowship of the church. We would certainly be mistaking Edwards’s views on joy if we were to think of these pursuits as individualistic. Edwards himself loved the local church and saw it as the matrix of Christian joy, celebrated corporately. He wrote once, “Union is one of the most amiable things, that pertains to human society; yea, ’tis one of the most beautiful and happy things on earth, which indeed makes earth most like heaven” (God’s Grand Design, 170).Edwards with God’s People
Edwards understood the brutal realities of life, that one’s pilgrimage of faith could be difficult and lonely. Therefore, he said,
Let Christians help one another in going this journey. There are many ways that Christians might greatly help and forward one another in their way to heaven: by religious conference and otherwise. . . . This is the way to be more successful in traveling and to have the more joyful meeting at their Father’s house in glory. (God’s Grand Design, 175)
Of particular importance to Edwards was the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. Edwards held a very high view of the Lord’s Table, seeing it as the place where Christians meet their Lord in covenant renewal, and get a glimpse of joy on earth as it is beheld in heaven. Very early on in his career, he preached on the joy to be had at the Lord’s Supper: “In that ordinance, we may have the foretaste of that eternal feast with Christ in glory. That spiritual food is afforded us in the Lord’s Supper and is given to the worthy partakers as a foretaste and earnest of that future happiness” (God’s Grand Design, 157).Prepare for the Table
My study of Edwards makes me concerned that many may approach the Table far too casually today. We saunter into the sanctuary and are almost surprised by the presence of the prepared elements: “Oh yeah, I guess it’s the first Sunday of the month again. Today’s service will be fifteen minutes longer I suppose.” For Edwards and the Puritans, the Lord’s Supper was a banquet to be longed for. The heart was to be prepared in advance. The individual Christian, as well as his family, was to be made ready in advance for an encounter with Christ.
For this reason, I have cultivated the habit of reading question 171 of the Westminster Catechism with my family on the eve of Communion Sunday as part of our family devotions. In addition, the elders and I have been more purposeful about announcing the Communion service a week in advance, suggesting devotional content for our people to consider before coming to the Table.
We remember, of course, the old adage that influencing people is as much about what is caught as what is taught. This is true for pastors, their congregations, and the Lord’s Supper. Our people must sense that this event is special for us as ministers, that we personally long for the delights of the Table, that for us this sacrament (or ordinance) is the very place where we meet with our Lord in covenantal renewal. If I treat this Supper casually, or matter-of-factly, my people will sense that over time. It is not a mere routine. It is an encounter with Christ, and it should be anticipated and rejoiced in every time God’s people gather around his banquet table. The joy of Communion can be seen in the pastor’s eyes by his own people.Resolved: To Be Happy
My stress and exhaustion as a now 42-year-old pastor have not fully gone away since I started studying the works of Edwards. But through a study of his theology of joy, I have acquired more tools by which to pursue holy happiness. For this, I am deeply grateful.
Christian joy, Edwards taught me in his twenty-second resolution, is to be a lifelong pursuit. As a 19-year-old, he wrote, “Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 16:754). Would that we too could make this resolution our own.
Gambling your money — whether at a slot machine or with your fantasy team — is not just unwise. It is sin. Pastor John gives seven reasons why.