We can feel safe before a holy God and boast of a sure eternity. But we cannot do that by looking to ourselves.
Jesus’s encounter with the rich young man has always unsettled me. I’m an American. I’m as middle-class as Americans go, which means I live in a level of affluence and abundance unknown by most of my co-inhabitants of this world today, and by a far, far lower percentage of people in history. In global and historical terms, I am that man.
The most disturbing thing about the young man is that he seemed so familiar with his affluence-shaped religious and cultural assumptions that he didn’t realize how out of touch with spiritual reality he was. I doubt that many around him discerned how out of touch he was. From the very brief glimpses of him we catch in the synoptics, and by Jesus’s response to him in Mark’s account, this man doesn’t seem to match the arrogant rich oppressor we envision when we read James 5:4–6. Those around him might have assumed his prosperity was God’s affirmative blessing.
After all, this man was spiritually earnest — running to Jesus and kneeling before him to ask him if there was more he needed to do to be saved (Mark 10:17). He had all the appearance of piety — having kept (or believed he did) the commandments Jesus listed since he was young (Mark 10:19–20). And he was sincere — Mark records that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). He was all these things, yet he lacked the kind of faith that saves.
Spiritually earnest, sincere, apparently pious — perhaps more than most around him. Isn’t that what faith looks like? No, not necessarily. Faith looks like trusting. And when it comes to what we really believe, trusting looks like treasuring. For when it’s all on the line for us, we always trust in what we truly treasure.Show Me What I Trust
The most loving thing Jesus could do for this earnest, sincere young man was show him the god he trusted: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Then the man saw his real god, and he walked away from Jesus’s incredible invitation “sorrowful.” Why? “He had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). This led to Jesus’s devastating observation:
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! . . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23–25)
When it was all on the line for the young man, he trusted his wealth, his possessions, more than God. His wealth was his god, and that kept him from entering the kingdom. The thing is, he didn’t see this until he really had to choose.
Do you find that disconcerting? The disciples did: “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). As an affluent American living in the midst of unprecedented historical abundance, I do. I don’t trust my faith self-assessment (1 Corinthians 4:3). I can trust only God’s assessment (1 Corinthians 4:4). And since faith is really proven genuine only when it is tried (1 Peter 1:6–7; James 1:2–4; 2 Corinthians 13:5), we must be willing, like the young man, to say to Jesus,
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23–24)
And if Jesus doesn’t call us to leave our abundance, but to continue living faithfully in it — if we are to really trust God and not our abundance — then we need the faith to abound.Faith to Abound
Paul said he had learned to be content in whatever situation he found himself:
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:12–13)
If given the choice, most of us likely would prefer to be given the faith to abound rather than the faith to be brought low. I think that’s because we aren’t fully cognizant of the dangerous nature of material prosperity. Paul meant it when he said it requires God’s strength to “face plenty.”
“Abundance” (prosperity) and “need” (scarcity) are very different circumstances. They both require faith in order to handle them in ways that glorify God. But they demand the exercising of different sets of faith muscles. Scarcity requires faith muscles for trusting God in a place of needy desperation. Prosperity requires faith muscles for trusting God in place of bountiful material security.
Exercising faith in scarcity is not easy by any means. Most of us fear scarcity more than prosperity because the threat is clearly seen. But ironically, that’s one reason it can be easier to exercise faith in scarcity than in prosperity. Because in scarcity, our need is clear and our options are typically few. We feel desperate for God to provide for us and so we are driven to seek him — to exercise our faith.
But exercising faith in prosperity is different. It’s a more complex and deceptive spiritual and psychological environment. It requires that we truly trust — truly treasure — God when we don’t feel desperate for his provision, when we feel materially secure, when nothing external is demanding that we feel urgency. When we have lots of options that look innocuous and we can spend precious time and money on all sorts of pursuits and enjoyments. This environment is so dangerous that Jesus warns it is harder for people in it to enter God’s kingdom than for a camel to climb through the eye of a needle. Test yourself. When have you sought God most earnestly: in need or abundance?When God Is Our Option
Christians have always found it harder to voluntarily give away security than to desperately plead for it. It requires different faith muscles to trust God in divesting ourselves of prosperity for his sake than to trust God to meet our scarcity for his sake. In some ways, it takes greater faith to trust God when you have other options than when he is our only option.
That’s why the laborers are so few when the harvest is so plenty (Luke 10:2). Few want to face worldly need in order to experience kingdom plenty. It makes the kind of faith that saints like George Müller and Hudson Taylor exercised so remarkable.
Yes, they trusted in God in scarcity. But what made this all the more remarkable was that they could have raised money in other legitimate ways to support their work and avoid many of those needy moments. But they voluntarily chose (which is different from being circumstantially forced) to place themselves in a position of desperation to demonstrate that God exists and rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). They, like Paul, learned the secret of facing abundance and need: fully trusting God, their Treasure.Whatever It Takes
We Christians who live in abundance need to heed the story of the rich young man. We need him to unnerve us. For the whole history of the church bears witness to the general trend that the wealthier she grows, the more corrupt, indulgent, and apathetic she grows. And the less urgent over lost souls she feels. It’s harder for people in our environment to be real Christians than for camels to pass through a needle’s eye.
But Jesus does not leave us without great hope. He announces, “With man [handling material abundance faithfully] is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). So, let us run to Jesus — who has power to do what is impossible for us — kneel before him, and plead:
Whatever it takes, Lord, help me to truly trust you as my greatest treasure. I would rather lose my material security and gain the kingdom than gain the world and lose my soul. All I have is yours — my life, my family, my time, my money, my possessions, my future — and I will steward them as you wish, even if it means losing them (Philippians 3:8). And I invite you to search my heart and put my faith to the test.
Your smartphone is changing you, whether you realize it or not. Tony Reinke explains the costs of smartphone overuse, and how we can resist.
Earlier today heiress Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Roy Disney, co-founder of The Walt Disney Company, said she thinks CEOs in general are paid far too much:
If your CEO salary is at the 700, 600, 500 times your median workers’ pay, there is nobody on Earth — Jesus Christ himself isn’t worth 500 times his median workers’ pay.
So Jesus is not worth 500 x $45,000 = $22.5 million annual salary.
I just had to jump on this opportunity to say how right Ms. Disney is. But perhaps for reasons different than she intends.Immeasurable Value
Jesus is not worth a $22.5 million annual salary, first, because the skill set he brings is worth infinitely more. Infinitely, literally. Paying Jesus $22.5 million annually would be an insult. Like paying Churchill a dollar for his part in defeating Hitler. Or paying Martin Luther King a quarter for his part leading to the Civil Rights Act. Or paying Alexander Fleming a nickel for discovering the existence of antibiotics. Paying Jesus only $22.5 million annually would be worse. Infinitely worse.
Jesus’s value for the human race, and his particular skill set, are immeasurable. For example, in Jesus God did what no other human — or even any divine law — could do: “God did what the law . . . could not do. By sending [Jesus] his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).
In other words, all the billions of sins of history deserve divine condemnation. God is just. Nothing is swept under the rug. There were two just options: All humans bear their own condemnation (hell). Or Christ bears the condemnation of all who trust him. That’s what he did. It’s worth more than $22.5 million annually. To put it mildly.The Only One
Another example of his immeasurable worth to the corporation called “the human race” is this: Jesus is the only human who obeyed God perfectly. And he did it so that his perfection could be counted as ours at the last judgment. “As by Adam’s disobedience the many were appointed sinners, so by Jesus’s obedience the many will be appointed righteous” (Romans 5:19). This is called justification. And anyone who has faith in Jesus receives it: “Because a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
How could Jesus do this? Because, unlike every other corporate head, he is both God and man. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14).
Which means that his value is infinite. He is God. And his skill set is unique: he is the God-man. He can die. Which he did. But not for his own sins. And he can rise from the dead. Which he did.
Which also means that, unlike every other CEO, he holds his office forever. And he knows everything about everything. And he rules the universe. He brings competencies to his office that are infinite.Works for Free
One last reason (among many more) that Jesus is not worth $22.5 million annually: he can’t be bought. For any amount. If you try to put a payable value on his worth, you insult him. He works for free, or not at all. He doesn’t need a salary. He owns everything. So he has no needs.
Here’s what he said about himself:
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
He is not for sale. You can’t get his service as CEO by agreeing to work around the clock for him or by offering him $22.5 million annually. His infinite value and his unique skill set are free. He calls it grace. Either you see it and treasure it above everything (faith). Or you don’t (unbelief).
So, yes, Ms. Disney: “Jesus Christ himself isn’t worth 500 times his median workers’ pay.” First, because his value as the God-man, and the uniqueness of his skill set, are worth infinitely more than $22.5 million. And second, because his services are free. Free for everyone who will have him as their greatest treasure.
You got that right. I hope.
We humans have a love-hate relationship with work. We associate labor with childbirth for a reason. And this is no new development; the apostle Paul did it two millennia ago (Galatians 4:27; 1 Thessalonians 5:3).
Labor is painfully difficult, and then exceedingly rewarding. Serious work in a fallen world is like childbirth in microcosm. It doesn’t come easily — not if it counts. It’s challenging. It’s uncomfortable. We encounter obstacles both expected and unexpected. It takes pushing, often beyond our sense of ability. And in the end, it’s undoubtedly worth it.
Paul listed “labors” among the pains he had endured, alongside beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, and hunger (2 Corinthians 6:5). He knew firsthand that life in a fallen world is not easy, and the Christian life all the more. In fact, the Christian life is not just cursed like physical labor, but opposed by demonic forces. Expect the friction and obstacles to be all the more difficult. And yet Paul charges Christians to rise to it. He means for us to encounter resistance and endure, not fold.
Christians of all humans shouldn’t be surprised that our world struggles with work in all its forms. Into the confusion about work we all feel in this fallen, broken age, we have an important word to say about the labor God made us for, even as it is cursed and often feels relentlessly frustrating.Work as God’s Idea
From the very beginning, God created us to labor. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Genesis 1:28). Work is not the product of sin, but a major facet of God’s original plan for human life in his world.
God designed us to move and be active, to exert energy and employ skill to produce goods for human flourishing. Before sin entered the world, God “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). And then God made the man “a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). God made men and women to use, not squander, the energy he gives us daily through food and rest, to accomplish his mission — the work — he gave us to do in the world. Work, then, we might say, is the exertion of energy, investment of time, and application of skill toward the ends of God’s calling to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, as well as subdue it and have holy dominion. Such work is a central aspect of what it means to be human.
And so, it makes sense that when sin enters the world, and God curses the creation, he also curses our work:
Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you. . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread. (Genesis 3:17–19)
Work is good. And work is cursed. Such is our lot in this age, until the creation is set free from its bondage to corruption and enters with us, the redeemed, into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). Even then we will not sit around doing nothing, but we will be freed to work and move and expend ourselves in joy, finally unencumbered by the curse.
In the meantime, we learn to work, despite the curse, at our work.Work with Your Hands
We often have career and work-for-pay in mind when we talk about our work. But for Christians, the concept of work and labor extends far beyond simply what other people pay us to do. Let’s begin, though, with the weekly labors that pay mortgages and put bread on the table.
In all the Scriptures, no one talks about work more than the apostle Paul. “Work” was more than just “working with our own hands” (1 Corinthians 4:12), but not less. Paul himself was a tentmaker. Such work was an especially pressing issue in Thessalonica, where some in the church were idle, refusing to work — waiting, they claimed, for Christ’s imminent return. Paul saw it as a spiritual-sounding covering for laziness. He put himself and Timothy forward as examples of hard work.
You remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9)
We were not idle when we were with you, . . . but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (2 Thessalonians 3:7–8)
And he expected the same from every Christian. “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12).
Paul knew the transforming power of the Spirit, and expected mooches and thieves alike to find a new work ethic once they came to Christ. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Not just to relieve the need for others to be burdened by you, but to secure enough, through honest hard work, to be able to share with others in need.
And yet, for Paul, such work-for-pay was only one aspect of work or labor for the Christian. He didn’t mean for converts to work their forty-plus hours, Monday to Friday, and be idle for the other eighty waking hours of the week. He both embodies and teaches a work ethic that is relevant at the office and at home, even for “time off” and vacation. It begins with a particular kind of rest.Final Rest from Labor
The first word, and foundational word, for the Christian about work is that the labor of our hands cannot get us right with God. Human effort and exertion, no matter how impressive compared to our peers’, cannot secure the acceptance and favor of the Almighty. God’s full and final acceptance — which we call justification — comes to us “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), not through our working, even our doing of God-commanded works (Romans 3:28). God’s choice of his people “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16), and so, fittingly, his final and decisive approval and embrace of his people is through their believing in him, not their working for him (Romans 4:4–5; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5).
The Christian faith — rightly understood, grounded in justification by faith alone — is the world’s greatest rest from human labor. Jesus invites “all who labor and are heavy laden” to come to him for his gift of rest (Matthew 11:28). And then in this rest, God supplies remarkable, even supernatural, ambition for pouring out what energies we have for the good of others.Freed for the Good of Others
As we come to Christ in faith, we receive another gift, in addition to justification: “the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit not only produces in us the faith by which we’re justified, but he gives us new life in Christ, new desires, new inclinations, new instincts. By the Spirit, our coming into such rest does not make us idle or lazy. Rather, Paul says, the Spirit begins to make us “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14), eager and ready to do good (2 Timothy 2:21; 3:16–17; Titus 3:1–2), devoting ourselves to acts that serve the good of others (Titus 3:8, 14).
The Reformation recovery of such ultimate rest for the soul produced a different kind of people. Not a lazy and apathetic people. But the kind of people with new energy and freedom, new vision and hope, fresh initiatives, fresh freedom from self, and new desires to expend self for the good of others. The kind of people who have the Spirit of God in them. It’s been called “the Protestant work ethic.”
Paul not only commended hard work (Acts 20:35; Romans 16:6, 12; Colossians 4:13; 2 Timothy 2:6), but criticized the idle and lazy (1 Thessalonians 5:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 7, 11; Titus 1:12–13). And he was not the first. Proverbs warns against the folly of sloth (Proverbs 12:24, 27; 19:15) and against the sluggard (fourteen times). Twice do we hear this refrain:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man. (Both Proverbs 6:10–11 and 24:33–34)
The opposite of the sluggard is the diligent (Proverbs 13:4) and upright (Proverbs 15:19). Laziness will catch up with us; it’s just a matter of time (Proverbs 6:6–11; 20:4; 21:25; 24:30–34). Laziness makes ridiculous excuses to protect its own comforts (Proverbs 22:13; 26:13). Sluggards may even think (and say) they are smart and develop elaborate rationales against just doing hard work (Proverbs 26:16).
But Christians should be the freest people on the planet to work hard. Because we know we do not have to earn the favor of God Almighty with our works — but that it has been secured for us by Jesus — we have been liberated to pour our energy and time and skill and creativity into blessing others. Which leads to one of the main ways Paul talked about work.Christian Ministry as Labor
Paul wasn’t the first to see Christian ministry as labor. Jesus talked about a plentiful harvest, and few laborers, and told his disciples to ask “the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37–38; Luke 10:2). Such laborers in kingdom work, he said, deserve their wages and food (Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:18).
Paul not only worked with his own hands, and charged others to do the same, but he saw Christian ministry as labor. He wasn’t worried about collapsing tents when he spoke regularly of concern that his labors not be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16; 1 Thessalonians 3:5). A dozen times in his letters he refers to ministry helpers and associates as “fellow workers.” He knew that “living on in the flesh” in this life would mean “fruitful labor” (Philippians 1:22), not retirement, excess leisure, or extended vacations. He wanted every Christian, not just his delegates and assistants, to join him in “always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58).Work with Your Love
Paul knew that hard work in and of itself was inadequate. In Christian ministry, the point is not the hard work itself but the goal: love. He spoke of the “labor of love” — the hard work we do for others (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Hard work in service of private, selfish ends is not commendable, but selfless, others-oriented, loving labor is.
Paul testifies, “I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29), not because he simply had a hard-working personality type, but because he was driven to proclaim Christ for the good of others: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). Because “godliness is of value in every way” (1 Timothy 4:8), he said, “we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God” (1 Timothy 4:10).
He also saw the ministry of Christian preaching and teaching, done rightly, as hard labor (1 Timothy 5:17–18; 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13), not a nice fit for guys with soft hands and a preference for an indoor job. Such labor is not only cursed and opposed but specifically targeted by Satan, who often focuses his assaults on opposing lieutenants. If he can cut off the leadership and supply lines, he will soon overwhelm the ground troops. A pastor who doesn’t sweat and strain, especially at his study and teaching (2 Timothy 2:15), is not fulfilling his calling.
Perhaps Paul would acknowledge that he had some unusual wiring. Maybe it was his singleness that freed him for extraordinary ministry output. Not only did he testify to “far greater labors” than his detractors (2 Corinthians 11:23), but even compared to the other apostles, he said, “I worked hard than any of them” (1 Corinthians 15:10). But again and again, he put his uncommon exertions forward not as an exception to admire, but as an example to follow — within the capacity God had given each, and with the understanding that every Christian can grow and expand our capacity for productive labor.We Are His Workmanship
Few, if any, will match Paul’s labors. As John Piper shares why he loves the apostle Paul, he commends his work ethic:
His achievements were unsurpassed. Now and then, he referred to his hard work and spiritual authority and fruitfulness. But every time he did that, he confessed his utter dependence on the grace of God. He wanted to glory in Christ himself, not in his own hard work. (88–89)
There is a word of hope here for those who battle laziness. Paul professed again and again that the key to his seemingly tireless labors was God at work in him (Philippians 2:12–13; Colossians 1:29). It was not in his own strength to do what he did. Christ was strengthening him (1 Timothy 1:12; Philippians 4:13). In the same breath, he says he “worked harder than” the other apostles, and he says, “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). And still today, Christ strengthens his church by grace (Romans 16:25; 2 Timothy 2:1).
Paul would be quick to challenge today’s hardest workers with the truth that, apart from God, our best labors will prove futile in the end. And for those who know they need help, who have more regrets about laziness than over-work, he would remind them, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). God doesn’t leave us to labor in our own strength. He has our good works prepared ahead of time. And he doesn’t demand a dead sprint, but invites us to walk in them.
God didn’t adopt because we had anything he needed. He chose his people before the foundation of the world so his grace — not our beauty — might be praised.
I hate my sexual past, and I regret it all the time in marriage. I wish I could retrace every adrenaline-filled step I took into romance and intimacy, and heal every wound I inflicted. I wish I would have made Jesus look real, trustworthy, and satisfying in all of my dating. Instead, it often looked like I didn’t really believe what he said, and that he wasn’t enough for me. I dated, at times, like I simply did not know God.
The lesson we receive from the world is that sex is fun and even valuable, but selfish and fleeting. The sexy, tantalizing “love” of Hollywood mixes seduction, scandal, and passion. It suggests that the best love is found in forbidden love, and with as many lovers as possible. Get yours — you “need” it, and you deserve it — but don’t trust anyone. And don’t be surprised if they leave after they get what they wanted. Just move on.
The media says men have uncontrollable sexual cravings that have to be satisfied somewhere. Women are either helpless objects of their desires, or wield their own sexuality as an instrument of power and influence over men. The default sex education we receive in our world will only produce fallen, selfish ideas about sex, and false ideas produce bad decisions, and bad decisions produce bad habits, and bad habits breed shame, guilt, and hopelessness.
Sex doesn’t breed those things. Do you know that? Sex, as God designed it and gifted it to us to enjoy in marriage, breeds life, and hope, and love for Jesus. Counterfeit sex — distorted sex, plagiarized sex, self-gratifying sex — steals the life and pleasure it was meant to give. I know, because I tried to cash the checks and came up empty, ashamed, and despairing.My Favorite Verses About Sex
My favorite text in the Bible about sex isn’t even about sex (and there are plenty about sex). Paul writes,
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God . . . humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3–8)
When we’re asking questions about how to date and where to draw the lines sexually, we draw a cross. It was the highest act and expression of love the world has ever known, and it’s the mold for our relationships, and for our pursuit of sexual purity. If our love for one another looks selfish — if it takes, rather than gives — it simply isn’t love.
If we aim to love each other like Christ loved us on the cross, we’ll avoid a lot of the sexual immorality, confusion, and heartache that are so common in dating. We’ll love each other enough to say, “No.” What if our love was so strong that it freed us from selfishly indulging now, or taking anything from one another too soon?
True love — the purest, fullest, most pleasing love — was designed by God for our good, and then displayed by God at the cross. That’s the love we need in marriage — sexual selflessness, generosity, and patience — and so that’s the kind of love we should be searching and waiting for in dating.Flee from Sexual Immorality
Sexual selflessness, generosity, and patience looks like Jesus’s love for us on the cross, and it also looks to that love and sacrifice as its driving hope and incentive. Paul writes, “Flee from sexual immorality. . . . Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18–20).
When you begin to feel overwhelmed with temptation and the desires are raging inside of you, remember that you were bought with a price, paid for in full with blood. Sadly, many of us take the purchase of grace at infinite cost, and foolishly and suicidally justify more sin. We assume Jesus will just forgive us, again. But the cross — those two grace-charged beams of murderous wood — call us to do exactly the opposite.
God spent the precious, sinless blood of his one and only Son not just to forgive our sin, but to keep us from it. He wanted us to see the thorns in his head, the open flesh in his back, and the nails in his wrists, and run like crazy away from sin. When we begin to realize that we will never be able to grasp the fullness of the love God revealed in Jesus’s wounds, in his agony, in his last breath, we will dread doing anything to make that price look cheap, like a clearance-rack redemption. When we commit sexual immorality, we discount the cross.What Sex Says
But when we choose to pursue purity and postpone intimacy, Jesus’s sacrifice looks costly — like our most expensive and prized possession.
When we do not push boundaries, we announce the priceless weight of every one of his wounds. When we keep our clothes on and our hands from wandering, we celebrate the immeasurable mercy he carried on a back destroyed with lashes. When we wait in dating, we declare again that he really is risen from the dead and reigning in heaven. Our sexual purity will either make the cross look real and valuable, or it won’t.
With our eyes happily fixed on Jesus, the once-for-all sacrifice for our sins, we can say with Paul, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not at all be ashamed, but that with full courage, now as always, Christ will be honored in my body, whether by [singleness] or by [marriage]” (Philippians 1:20). Looking to the cross and all Jesus paid to make us his own, we trust God for the grace and courage to resist our impulses to dishonor him and to disgrace the cross. And instead we wield our God-given and grace-filled bodies to honor him, to glorify him, to help others see the beauty of his strength, wisdom, love, and sufficiency.
With every second we deny selfish sexual desires, we say that we trust him more than we trust ourselves, and we say that he is more than enough for us.Sex Without God
At its simplest, we should have sex (or not) like people who know God. Paul says, “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–5).
The Gentiles — people in the world and not in Christ — are involved in all kinds of sexual nonsense, and that makes sense, because they don’t know God. We should expect them to go too far, and too fast — to fool around with the random person at the party, or sleep with their third or fourth person in a month, or move in with their boyfriend.
If God is out of the picture, sex can be as good a god as any. It will still fail them forever, but that doesn’t bother them, because they don’t believe in Jesus or sin, heaven or hell. They believe in now, in living it up here on earth as much as possible, and for as long as possible.Like We Know God
But we know better. We know that sin, death, and hell are as real as the roof over our heads, last month’s cellphone bill, and the Grand Canyon. They’re not ideas flying around in our philosophy class. They’re realities hanging over every inch of our lives, including our sex lives.
We live every moment in the shadow of a real Creator and a real judge, one who knows our every thought and move. We know that we deserve less than nothing because of our sin, that we’ve earned conscious, relentless, inescapable destruction for ourselves, and that “everyone who is sexually immoral or impure . . . has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:3–5). And we know that Christ came to die — the crown of the thorns, the whip filled with rocks, the nails in his hands and feet, the terrifying wrath of God — for our sin and to rescue us out of sin.
God made each of us and invented sex, why would we act like we know better than him?
God warns us that sexual immorality only leads to pain, shame, slavery, and ultimately judgment, why would we risk so much for a little pleasure now?
God bought our forgiveness, freedom, and purity with the blood of his own Son — an infinite cost — why would we heave more sin on his shoulders and drive the nails even deeper?
God waits with open arms to welcome us into a never-ending adventure of peace and happiness with him, why would we trade it away for a few seconds of satisfaction?What We Already Know
Sadly some of us still do. Temptation overwhelms us in moments of weakness. I knew what sexual impurity was, and does, and says, and I still fell. I did not fall because I did not know enough, but because I did not take what I knew with enough seriousness and joy — not yet. Paul is saying what we already know about God is enough to keep us from sexual sin. To know God — his sovereign power, his surprising mercy, his sacrificial love, his satisfying friendship — is to hold the keys to sexual purity, even in a sex-crazed society. Especially in a sex-crazed society.
As we set our eyes and hearts above, “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14), and more and more, we “know how to control [our] own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust” (1 Thessalonians 4:4). We put on sexual selflessness, generosity, and patience.
Few things threaten our faith more than when a good gift of God, beautiful and innocent in itself, slowly becomes necessary for our happiness.
“The most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth,” John Piper writes. “For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable” (A Hunger for God, 18).
“The simple pleasures of earth” are good things, of course. A satisfying career, a healthy body, a best friend, a fulfilling marriage, and every other good gift comes down from the Father of lights and, like the heavens themselves, declares something of God’s glory (James 1:17; Psalm 19:1). When Paul says that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17), he really means enjoy. God’s ocean of gifts is meant for swimming.
But the simple pleasures of earth are never completely safe in the hands of sinners — even redeemed ones. Without care, we feast on the abundance of God’s house and forget that it is his house. We eat and eat, and gradually neglect the host. Eyes lower from heaven to earth. Spiritual senses dull. “Desires for other things” begin to choke the word (Mark 4:19).
In moments like these, it is one of God’s severe mercies to deal with us as he dealt with Israel, and to send us into the wilderness.Not by Bread Alone
Forty years had passed since God stretched his arm over Egypt. Israel stood on the edge of the Jordan with their backs to the wilderness, about to trade manna for milk and honey. But before they did, Moses pressed the lesson of the manna down into their hearts:
He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
Bread is another one of earth’s simple pleasures, a kindness from God meant to “strengthen man’s heart” (Psalm 104:15). But when Israel was in the wilderness, the giver of bread took away bread so that Israel might know where life comes from. Life — true, deep, abundant life — does not come from bread, or from any of God’s other gifts. Life comes from the words of the living God — words better than gold, sweeter than honey, more nourishing than Canaan’s best wheat (Psalm 19:10).
If Israel was ever going to stand in the promised land, with their hands full of bread, and say, “I know how to abound,” they would first need to walk through the wilderness, with God’s word in their hearts, and say, “I know how to be brought low” (Philippians 4:12). They would need to learn how to look around at a wasteland of sand, and sing for joy to the one who gives and takes away.Exposed in the Desert
So it is with us. Often, God teaches us how to handle his gifts rightly by first withholding them. He does so for at least two reasons.
First, the wilderness exposes what’s inside these chests of ours like little else does. For all the beauty of the promised land’s hills and forests, they offer dozens of hideouts for our idols. It is frighteningly easy to give lip service to God while our hearts are lost in his gifts — and to trick even ourselves in the process. We can sing, “Hallelujah! All I have is Christ!” with both hands lifted, while the tendrils of our heart slowly wrap themselves around a marriage, a friendship, or a career — scarcely recognizable, almost incurable.
Not so in the wilderness, where our idols can only sit on sand beneath a barren sky. What comes out of you when you are in the rubble of a broken friendship, or a prolonged season of singleness, or a job that feels utterly hollow? Some of us, like Israel, find ourselves “painting pictures of Egypt,” as Sara Groves puts it: we idealize our former life and pine for its comforts, forgetting how godless it was (Numbers 11:4–6). Others of us run to sexual sin or some other pleasure in an attempt to ease the pain (Numbers 25:1). Many of us grumble against the God who takes away (Exodus 15:24).
Our seasons of lack do not create the cancer that comes out of us; they expose what was already there, but hidden by abundance (Deuteronomy 8:2). In God’s kindness, he puts our idols in plain view so that we might see them, hate them, and give them a desert grave.Fellowship of the Desperate
Second, the wilderness can cultivate in us that quality so beneficial to living faith: desperation. Left to ourselves in uninterrupted comfort, many of us wander. Sleep gradually swallows up our mornings, leaving little time for Scripture and prayer. We live as if sin no longer crouches at the door and Satan has ceased to prowl. We become careless with that one part of us we cannot afford to lose: our soul.
But the desperate, finding themselves in some wasteland of life, do not have the luxury of indifference. They stir themselves to seek God. They come to their Bibles like David: “Consider me and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3). They find that they can scarcely go through an hour (much less a day) without lifting up their hearts to the only one who can help. Eventually, they become part of that great fellowship of the poor in spirit, who know not just in theory but in blood-earnest reality that God is near to the brokenhearted, that he hears the cries of the afflicted, and that, compared to a godless promised land, a God-filled wilderness is a heaven.
If we learn to live by God’s word in the wilderness, then we will find ourselves more ready to use his gifts for what they really are: servants of our joy in God, not substitutes for him. Those chastened by the wilderness will enjoy God’s gifts, not abuse them; delight in them, not put their hope in them; bless God for them, not forget him in them.
And even if God never gives the gift we want most, and the wilderness becomes a lifetime, we will not grumble our way to eternity. We will instead strive to become a monument in the wilderness, chiseled with the words that are better than abundance: “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life” (Psalm 63:3).How Not to Waste the Wilderness
If you find yourself in some dry and barren land, cut off from life’s milk and honey, do not waste this season. Give grief, sorrow, and tears their place. But do not murmur beneath the hand of the Lord. “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.” All the paths — even the ones that take us through the desert (Psalm 25:10). Steadfast love has brought you here, and he will never leave you nor forsake you.
If you are in Christ, God has not brought you into this desert to starve you. He has brought you here to teach you that man does not live by bread alone. Your life, your hope, and your joy are not hidden away in some elusive land of plenty, but in the Christ who died and rose again to save you for himself — the one who is your life, your pleasure, your milk and honey, your all.
If you feel in bondage to pornography, don’t assume it’s too late to repent. But don’t assume that repentance can wait until tomorrow.
Strict practitioners would not have approved of my methods, but on one long ago mid-winter Wednesday, I smeared ashes on the foreheads of my two preschoolers and myself.
An offering of the hardwood that had heated our home the day before, these ashes were not “ceremonially correct” in any way. At the time, I did not know that traditional Ash Wednesday ashes come from the remains of Palm Sunday palms. I did not even know about the forty days of Lent to follow.
However, I did know about sin — my own and my children’s. We were in “time out” season with one of our sons. At our wits’ end, we had exhausted Dr. Dobson, Elisabeth Elliot, and every parenting resource available in the nineties. “Why is it so hard to be good?” our little Dobson-buster would ask. His younger brother’s eyes would fill with tears whenever they were caught in collaborative naughtiness.
In this parenting pressure cooker, maternal apologies had become a daily occurrence. I was hoping to model repentance — while at the same time atoning for sharp words and a short fuse. “I was wrong; please forgive me” were the words through which my sons were learning that their mother had not outgrown the struggle against sin. Ash Wednesday gives Christians an opportunity to grow in our understanding of where to take that struggle.Reclaiming Lent for Christ
Historically, our earliest Protestant ancestors revolted against the idea of Lenten practices, and with good reason. In the pre-Reformation mind, penitence, ashes, and self-denial had become ends in themselves. Gradually, however, a biblical understanding of lament has re-entered Christian orthodoxy, anchored in an embrace of our fallen-ness.
Ashes on the forehead rightly represent our need to “repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6), and our identity as “a people of unclean lips [who] dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Jesus pronounced a blessing upon those who recognize their poverty of spirit and mourn the effects of sin on their life and in the world (Matthew 5:3–4).
Grounded in gospel truth that prompts genuine penitence without crippling guilt and deep conviction without devastating shame, Ash Wednesday invites the believer to a renewed awe of our great salvation. While there is no merit in the wearing of ashes, a season of mourning leading up to Easter may actually enhance our celebration of Resurrection Sunday.A Wednesday to Teach
In my challenging season of parenting, Ash Wednesday became a visual aid, a teaching tool to reassure my young sons that our sin does not signal the end of God’s love for us. In our home, hymns around the breakfast table always matched the season, and one year, we learned all four verses of a “cross hymn” in the weeks leading up to Easter. Rich hymns of the faith offer deep gospel truth that requires explanation (but not dilution) for little singers:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
All the vain things that charm me most
I sacrifice them to His blood.
The vain-ness of the “vain things” Isaac Watts wrote about becomes abundantly clear when we remember that nothing lasts forever. “Remember that you are dust” is the lyric of Ash Wednesday. God made us from dust, and our bodies do not live forever. This is a dying world we inhabit: everything from goldfish to grandfathers eventually stops living. And we mourn the loss.
Without becoming morbid or frightening, we can prepare our children for the inevitability of death by putting it in the context of the gospel. Thomas á Kempis prescribed a regular pondering of and preparation for death as a route to happiness. Author Gary Thomas suggests that we present-day believers ought to join á Kempis in allowing the reality of death to act “like a filter, helping us to hold on to the essential and let go of the trivial.”
For believers, the “essential” is the eternal, and the eternal comes to us through the cross. The paradox of death leading to rebirth only appears to be a contradiction. All of Christ’s gifts are given to us through death — his death. And it will only be through a different death — our death — that we will finally receive the fullness of life that Jesus died to impart.A Wednesday to Remember
My sons and I stood before a mirror together, the three of us with our smudged foreheads. We talked about our struggle to obey God and our sadness over sin — the sin that causes mayhem in our home, hurt feelings between brothers, and, worst of all, separation from a God who loves us.
When a little boy is struggling with disobedience, even as a preschooler, he already feels the grit and grind of life on a fallen planet. He may not be able to comprehend sin’s cosmic scale: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope. . .” (Romans 8:20). But he is already well-acquainted with the collective groaning, and can love the truth about the hope of our future deliverance from the struggle: “. . . that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
Reading selected, age-appropriate portions of the crucifixion story from Luke 22 and thinking about Jesus’s willingness to endure the weight of all the sins of the entire world on his body provides a focus for the wearing of our ashes as a symbol of our grief — mourning that we have sinned and caused division from God and sadness over the suffering Jesus endured when he died in our place.A Wednesday to Rejoice
If good behavior is all I have to bring to Jesus, he cannot help me. The warm welcome of the gospel on a frigid day in early spring takes into account a little boy’s hopelessness in the face of temptation. Our sin does not signal the end of our relationship with God. It’s a beginning, for it turns out that weakness is a powerful claim upon divine mercy.
Learning to hate sin at a young age, to war against it, and to receive God’s forgiveness is a celebratory milestone. There is a reason to rejoice because of Christ’s obedience to all that God commanded. Then, his love in paying the penalty for our failure to obey gives us a reason for hope, even against the backdrop of my own parenting fiascos and my sons’ serial naughtiness.
God knows well the stuff we are made of. “He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). As a loving heavenly Father, he longs to supply every need for righteous living — in fact it is only his righteousness that will suffice. This orientation provides a solid foundation for a lifelong relationship built on the assurance that God’s purposes will not be thwarted by my sin. He delights to meet me and my children in the ashes.
Jesus not only paid for our full acceptance with God, but he also purchased grace for us to embrace obedience. This is the second message John Piper preached at the Bethlehem 2019 Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders in Minneapolis.
The right parents, religious fervor, even good deeds will not save. We could have thousands of confidences, but all will fail unless it is Christ.
ABSTRACT: The glory of the new heaven and earth will not be the streets of gold, the gates of jewels, the tree of life, or the end of night. The glory will be God himself. The book of Revelation gives us four great images of joy in God: an ultimate deliverance, a decisive victory, a spectacular wedding, and a secure eternal home. With the certainty of our future joy in view, God’s people sing the songs of the new heaven and new earth now in the old, sorrow-filled land in which we live.
We asked Brian Tabb, academic dean and associate professor of biblical studies at Bethlehem College & Seminary, to walk us through the theme of joy in the book of Revelation in our series of feature articles by scholars for pastors, leaders, and teachers. You can download and print a PDF of the article, as well as listen to an audio recording.
All is not right in our world and in our lives. This reality confronts us afresh every time we listen to the daily news report, open our email, or look in the mirror. The nations continue to rage. The wicked prosper and the righteous languish. Our loved ones get sick and die. Our friends disappoint us. Our bodies deteriorate, our hearts grow discouraged, and our daily struggle against sin seems like a losing effort. Sometimes — especially in Minnesota, where I live — it seems like it’s “always winter and never Christmas.”1 Enmity and pain, thorns and thistles, dust to dust — the effects of Adam’s sin still endure east of Eden.
We lament and weep in the present, but we also love and laugh and rejoice. Life is more than rainy days, hospital visits, and funerals. We attend weddings and baby showers. We enjoy the company of dear friends, celebrate birthdays with filet mignon, and savor apple pie à la mode with family gathered for holidays. We cheer when our team wins the championship. We marvel when we hear Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. These are all common-grace joys that believers and nonbelievers alike experience, and they point to the goodness of God’s creation and his kindness to his creatures.2 But we know that every colorful sunset and delicious apple pie is a pointer to God, the one who made the sun and fruit trees and gave us eyes and hands and taste buds to enjoy these gifts. Christians grasp the essential biblical truth that the Lord himself is chief object of our joy; he alone satisfies our weary souls with his steadfast love and goodness.3Present Sadness, Future Gladness
The prophets spoke expectantly of the future joy God’s people would experience when God comes to save them. Isaiah expresses clearly this hope of end-time joy:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. . . . Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. . . . And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:1–10)
Here Isaiah speaks of what God will do and how his people — and all creation — will respond. Yet the Scriptures repeatedly contrast our future gladness and our present sadness. Consider these examples:
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5)
He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalm 126:6)
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord. . . . Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:12–14)
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)
Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. (John 16:20)
What follows is an account of end-time joy. We will first define what we mean by end-time joy. Then we will consider four images of end-time joy in the book of Revelation.What Is End-Time Joy?
Before going forward, it is necessary to define terms to avoid misunderstanding. Joy is generally defined as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.”4 A survey of book titles displays an astonishing variety of proposals for what brings joy: Joy of Cooking (now in its ninth edition), The Joy of Dieting (unsurprisingly out of print), The Joy of Sex (with more than twelve million copies sold), The Joy of Reading, The Joy of Sports, The Joy of Junk, The Joy of Less, The Joy of Doing Nothing, and so on. Here we focus attention on what the Scriptures present as the chief object of our joy — joy in the Lord and in his salvation.
Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his salvation. (Psalm 35:9)
It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:9)
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God. (Isaiah 61:10)
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:18)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)
Thus, in this study joy refers to a believer’s great pleasure and happiness in God and his saving deeds.5Rejoicing in the Last Days
The qualifier end-time specifies when believers experience this joy in God. Theologians typically describe eschatology as “the study of the last things.” Many people assume that these “last things” are limited to the future end of the world and Christ’s return. However, it is more accurate to use the term end-time (or eschatological) to refer to events that take place in what the Old Testament writers call the “days to come” or “latter days,” such as when the messianic king would come and when God would restore Israel, send the promised Holy Spirit, judge his enemies, and establish the new covenant.6
The New Testament writers make clear that the period of the last days has begun through Jesus’s incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Peter declares at Pentecost, “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh’” (Acts 2:16–17). Similarly, the book of Hebrews begins, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2). This period of the latter days has already dawned in the past and will be consummated in the future at Jesus’s return. The theological expression inaugurated eschatology expresses that there is both an already and not yet dimension to this period of redemptive history that begins with Christ’s first coming and concludes with his second coming.7
This already–not yet understanding of the end-times informs our theology and experience in significant ways. Jesus announced that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15), yet he taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Our Savior died and rose again victorious, and believers “have been raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1; cf. John 5:24), yet Christians still sin and still die. We “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons,” yet “we wait early for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:15, 23). We regularly experience this tension between the old age of sin and the new age of salvation.Taste of Heaven
What then do we mean by end-time joy? In brief, end-time joy is a believer’s great pleasure and happiness as we anticipate the fullness of our triune God’s saving power and satisfying presence in the age to come and experience the foretaste of these realities even as we suffer and struggle now in the midst of the old age. Peter expresses well the tension of our already–not yet joy in suffering:
In this [salvation ready to be revealed in the last time] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:6–9)
Peter acknowledges the stunning glories of end-time salvation as well as the sorrow and various trials of his readers’ present experience. We rejoice now even though we struggle and grieve and do not see our Savior face to face. This joy is not motivated by our present predicament but by our glorious future inheritance and the beauty and sufficiency of our Savior, whom we love and trust even though we don’t see him with our eyes. Peter’s description of this joy as “filled with glory” (ESV) or “glorious” (NIV) links it to the eschatological “glory” at Jesus’s return (1 Peter 1:7). Thus, “the joy believers experience is a taste of heaven, an anticipation of the end.”8Images of End-Time Joy
We turn now to consider four glorious pictures of end-time joy in the book of Revelation: joy in an ultimate deliverance, a decisive victory, a spectacular wedding, and a secure home. In this book, the exalted Lord Jesus reveals symbolic visions to John “to show his servants the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1). These end-time visions offer a divine perspective on what is true, valuable, and lasting, which corrects and clarifies our perception of this world as it really is.9 John’s visions encourage struggling saints to persevere in difficult days and warn readers to resist worldly compromise, spiritual complacency, and false teaching.10Joy in an Ultimate Deliverance
Israel’s exodus from Egypt is the Old Testament’s signature story of salvation. The Lord hears the cries of his enslaved people and acts in accordance with his covenant with Abraham. He passes over his people while striking the Egyptians, dries up the sea, saves Israel with an outstretched arm, and leads them to the land of promise. The prophets expected the God of the exodus someday to decisively rescue his people after exile and judge their oppressors.11 Revelation presents the ultimate fulfillment of this biblical hope of salvation.
The Lord does not merely deliver his people from slavery, sin, and death; he saves us to satisfy us by his presence and make us servants who carry out his purpose. Exodus 19:4–6 summarizes well this aim of the first exodus:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
The phrase kingdom of priests aptly summarizes Israel’s God-given vocation to mediate Yahweh’s presence, blessing, and revelation to all the nations (cf. Isaiah 61:6). Revelation similarly refers to Jesus’s blood-bought people as a “kingdom and priests to our God” (Revelation 5:10; cf. 1:6). In both Exodus and Revelation, God’s people are redeemed by sacrifice to serve him as a kingdom of priests. In Revelation 5:9–10 the heavenly worshipers sing a new song extolling Jesus as supremely worthy because he has accomplished the long-awaited new exodus deliverance of people for God from every tribe, language, and nation. Jesus has already decisively freed us from the penalty and power of our sins through his sacrificial death (Revelation 1:5). He will ultimately deliver us from the presence of sin and its effects as he leads us into our eternal inheritance (Revelation 21:7).
In Revelation 7:9–10, John sees an innumerable multitude standing before the throne declaring, “Salvation belongs to our God . . . and to the Lamb.” Salvation is exodus language (Exodus 14:13; 15:2), and the palm branches in these worshipers’ hands recall the feast of booths, which memorialized Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and anticipated their ultimate redemption after exile (Leviticus 23:40–43; Zechariah 14:16; cf. John 12:13).
In Revelation 15:2, John sees people “who had conquered the beast . . . standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands.” These victors then “sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (Revelation 15:3).12 Most likely, the victors do not sing two different songs but one great song of salvation with two great movements. The first, “the song of Moses,” calls to mind the Old Testament’s paradigmatic act of redemption in the exodus (see Exodus 15:1–18), while the second movement, “the song of the Lamb,” celebrates the new exodus deliverance from sin and the final victory over the beast and all God’s enemies that Jesus achieves as the greater Passover Lamb. We are thus saved to sing of the Almighty’s great and amazing deeds of salvation (Revelation 15:3).13Joy in a Decisive Victory
The redeemed also rejoice in God’s decisive victory over his foes. In Revelation 19:1–5, a threefold hallelujah booms from heaven in response to Babylon’s demise. The first two hallelujahs issue from “a great multitude in heaven,” who declare God’s praises because he has judged the great prostitute Babylon and has vindicated his slain servants. They cry, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever” (Revelation 19:1–3). The heavenly elders and living creatures respond, “Amen. Hallelujah!” and call God’s servants to praise him (Revelation 19:4–5).
Babylon is a rich biblical-theological designation for godless, proud human society that seeks its own glory and oppresses God’s people. The name hearkens back to Nebuchadnezzar’s mighty kingdom, Babylon, and its ancient namesake, Babel, where people proudly united to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:1–9).14 The great political powerhouse Rome embodied this archetypal city of man in the first century. But Rome was simply the latest in a long line of societies that boast for a time in their success and strength until their pride leads to a great fall.
This scene of heavenly exultation at Babylon’s fall sharply contrasts with the scenes of powerful and wealthy people on earth lamenting as they see “the smoke of her burning” (Revelation 18:9, 18). The angel explains that Babylon “will be found no more” and highlights five things that “will be . . . no more” in the great city: the sights of craftsmen and lighted lamps, and the sounds of musicians, mills, and marriage.15 This list of special and commonplace lost joys concludes appropriately with the end of weddings. Thus, Babylon the great is “a city without a bride” (Revelation 18:23),16 which prepares the way for the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7) and the presentation of Jerusalem as the bejeweled Bride (Revelation 21:9–11).
Following the joyous news that the Lamb’s bride is ready for the marriage supper, John sees the glorious champion — Christ, the King of kings — riding on a white horse with heaven’s armies behind him. God’s most formidable enemies have assembled for the last battle against Christ (Revelation 16:12–16; 19:19). One expects a fierce fight, but instead birds are summoned to feast on the flesh of God’s foes (Revelation 19:17–18), and the opponents are completely defeated (Revelation 19:20–21).17 Christ’s followers rejoice and take heart that their Savior is also their returning King, whose people will share in his consummate victory.Joy in a Spectacular Wedding
The heavenly exultation over Babylon’s demise (Revelation 19:1–5) gives way to resounding joy because “the Lord our God the Almighty reigns” and because “the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:6–7). John stresses the loud and effusive joy of the heavenly multitude in Revelation 19:6 as he hears “the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder.” They cry, “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory” (Revelation 19:7). The apostle John does not describe this scene of extravagant heavenly exultation simply to inform his readers of what will happen at the end of history but to encourage us to reflect this pattern of praise in our lives.18
The drama of the divine marriage unfolds in several phases. First, the wedding is planned, publicized, and prepared (Revelation 19:7–9). Next, the Bride is revealed and covenant promises are made (Revelation 21:2–3). Finally, John describes the bejeweled Bride (Revelation 21:18–21).
The Old Testament frequently depicts Israel as the bride or wife of the Lord. Ezekiel recounts how Yahweh “clothed” his bride Jerusalem in fine linen and embroidered apparel, yet she “played the whore” (Ezekiel 16:10, 16). However, the prophets announced a coming day when the Lord would call back his wayward partner and “betroth” Israel to himself forever “in righteousness” (Hosea 2:14–20; Isaiah 54:5–8). Isaiah 61:10–62:5 presents the end-time relationship between God and his restored people as a joyous wedding. The nuptial scene in Revelation 19 alludes to Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s people will rejoice when the Lord clothes his bride with “the garments of salvation . . . with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10).
In Revelation 19:9 the imagery shifts from the Bride’s preparation to the guests’ invitation to the marriage supper. In this passage and elsewhere, the book sometimes uses multiple images to describe a single referent. Here John pictures God’s people as the Lamb’s betrothed and as the blessed guests invited to the party. These images convey believers’ corporate and individual joy, anticipation, and intimacy with Christ, the Groom.
While Revelation 19 announces that the Bride is ready, she is not revealed and the marriage is not consummated until chapter 21, after the Lamb has conquered all his enemies. Then the angel says to John, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:9). Then John sees “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal” (Revelation 21:10–11). The Bride in Revelation refers to both the redeemed people of God and the eternal city of God. The attractive picture of the Lamb’s stunning Bride contrasts sharply with the repulsive portrait of the imposter harlot Babylon. We should desire the former and detest the latter and thus persevere in faithfulness to Christ while we await the joyous consummation of his promises.Joy in a Secure Home
We have considered how Revelation presents end-time joy in the context of an ultimate deliverance, a decisive victory, and a spectacular wedding. The book’s final chapter presents a fourth picture: joy in a secure home. John writes,
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1–5)
These verses build upon the earlier description of the glorious new creation in Revelation 21:3–5. God will dwell forever with his people and bring ultimate healing, comfort, salvation, and restoration to all things. This vision also recalls Genesis’s description of Eden before humanity’s sin brought curse, disorder, pain, and death.19 Adam and Eve were sent away from God’s presence lest they eat from the tree of life (Genesis 3:22–24). However, one day God’s presence will endure forever, and the redeemed will have unending access to the tree of life (Revelation 21:3; 22:2, 14).
Revelation 22 presents not simply a restoration of Eden but its glorious end-time transformation. Gone is every trace of Adam’s sin and banishment from Eden. Gone is every threat, trouble, or temptation. Instead, the redeemed behold God’s face, are marked by God’s name, and fulfill their calling as royal priests (Revelation 22:3–5). This vision of new creation satisfies believers’ longings for full redemption (cf. Romans 8:18–23), for a renewed vocation as priest-kings, and for an enduring home in God’s presence. Tom Schreiner rightly says, “What makes the new universe so dazzling is not gold or jewels but rather the presence of God.”20 We will see, savor, and serve God and the Lamb forever. This is the ultimate consummation of end-time joy.End-Time Joy Now and Forever
These four pictures of end-time joy are not pie in the sky or wishful thinking. This is our secure future that shapes our lives and our loves in the present. We can and must sing a new song in this old land even though now for a little while the nations still rage and we still endure hardship and heartache. We rejoice now because Jesus loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood (Revelation 1:5). We rejoice now because our Savior lives and holds the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). We rejoice now because he is coming soon to consummate his kingdom, right every wrong, and be with us forever (Revelation 21:1–5; 22:20). We rejoice now because we have a better hope than anything Babylon can offer: an ultimate deliverance, a decisive victory, a spectacular wedding, and a secure home. We rejoice now by faith to celebrate and anticipate what we will one day know by sight.
Jonathan Edwards writes, “So far therefore as we sing this song on earth, so much shall we have the prelibations of heaven. In this way we shall have something of heaven in our closets and in our families. And this will make our public assemblies some image of heaven.”21 So now, with wet eyes and aching hearts, we join the heavenly chorus and declare, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12).Listen to the Audio
See Genesis 1:31; Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17; 1 Timothy 4:4. ↩
See Psalms 90:14; 107:9; Jeremiah 31:14, 25; Philippians 3:1; 4:4. ↩
John Piper similarly explains that in Philippians, “Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world” (“How Do You Define Joy?” Desiring God, 25 July 2015, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-do-you-define-joy). ↩
See Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 4:30; 31:29; Isaiah 2:2; Jeremiah 23:20; 30:3, 24; 31:31; 33:14; 48:47; 49:39; Ezekiel 38:16; Daniel 10:14; Hosea 3:5; Micah 4:1; Acts 2:17; 2 Timothy 3:1; Hebrews 1:2; James 5:3; 2 Peter 3:3. ↩
For additional explanation of inaugurated eschatology, see G. K. Beale, “The End Starts at the Beginning,” in Benjamin L. Gladd and Matthew S. Harmon, Making All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 3–14. ↩
Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, NAC 37 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 70. Similarly Paul declares that fellow believers “are our glory and joy” now and will be “our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20; cf. Philippians 4:1). Paul rejoices in these saints for Christ’s sake, celebrating the work that he has done, is doing, and will bring to completion in and through them when Christ returns (Philippians 1:6). ↩
See, for example, Isaiah 40:3–5; 32:1–2, 16–19; 51:9–11; Jeremiah 23:5–8. ↩
A number of commentators argue that the conjunction kai (“and”) in Revelation 15:3 it is better translated “even” or “that is,” identifying “the song of Moses” and “the song of the Lamb” as a single hymn. See, for example, G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 793; Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 564. ↩
The beast in Revelation recalls the great vision in Daniel 7. The beast likely signifies the state’s political and military power. Satan empowers the beast for a time to wage war on God’s people while demanding total allegiance and even worship (Revelation 13:1–8), until Jesus conquers the beast and hurls it into the lake of fire (Revelation 19:20). ↩
The names Babel and Babylon render the same Hebrew word, bābel. ↩
Lynn R. Huber, Like a Bride Adorned: Reading Metaphor in John’s Apocalypse, Emory Studies in Early Christianity 10 (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 185. ↩
The strange supper scene in Revelation 19:17–18 alludes to the graphic curse against Gog in Ezekiel 38–39. See G. K. Beale and Sean McDonough, “Revelation,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 1144. ↩
Robert S. Smith, “Songs of the Seer: The Purpose of Revelation’s Hymns,” Them 43 (2018): 195–96. ↩
In addition, Revelation’s presentation of a new, greater Eden draws upon the restoration prophecies such as Ezekiel 47 and Zechariah 14. ↩
Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 629. ↩
Sun Tzu, the ancient author of The Art of War, believed the key to winning a battle was knowing both your enemy and yourself. “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
When it comes to our battle with sin, we must know our enemy and ourselves. Our enemy, Satan, is sinisterly active in our battle with sin (1 Peter 5:8). Satan tempts, deceives, lies, and devours.
But what about our relationship with sin? The lines between Satan’s actions and our own are, at times, closely linked in the Bible. Satan filled Ananias’s heart to lie to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3). Satan can tempt because of a lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:5). Satan can deceive us so that our thoughts are led astray (2 Corinthians 11:3).
How does this interplay between Satan’s temptations and our actions work? If we want to understand our enemy and ourselves, we must answer this question.Itch Before Temptation
Perhaps our best guide for understanding how temptation and action work together is James 1:14: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” While the emphasis on ourselves instead of our enemy may surprise you, James teaches an important fact about how sin works by telling us that desire comes before temptation. It is not temptation by itself, but our heart’s desire for something that leads us into sin (James 4:1–2).
You can’t be tempted to do something you don’t desire. I can’t tempt you to eat a bowl of gravel. No matter how much I wave it tantalizingly in front of your face and woo you with sweet words of seduction about its texture and taste, you won’t find it tempting. Why? Because you have no desire to eat gravel.
We can only be seriously tempted by what we desire. Temptation, then, is not something that happens to us; it is something that happens within us. As James says, our own desires lure and entice us into sin. Our desires are our chief tempter. This should be a huge wake-up call for us. The way to fight sin is not mainly by trying to resist temptation. The most effective way to fight sin is by changing our desires.Where Desires Come From
In order to change our desires, we must know where our desires come from. Desire can only exist where something is lacking. Desires are born out of a need, perceived or real, seeking to be met (Genesis 3:6). We desire food when our stomachs are empty. We desire warmth when our bodies are cold. Desires are born when we lack something.
Sinful desires, then, must come from a sense that we lack something. Why would someone abuse or oppress another person? Because they lack a sense of power or authority. Why would someone overwork at the expense of their family? Because they lack a sense of purpose or achievement. Why would someone cheat on their spouse? Because they lack a sense of fulfillment. Temptation is the offer sin makes to your desires to fill in the places that are empty.
But why do we choose sin over something else to fill in those places we lack? Why would we do what Isaiah 55:2 clearly advises against: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” The answer gets us to the root of all sin.All Sin Comes from Unbelief
Unbelief is the root of every sin (Romans 14:23). We choose sin to fill the places in our lives that lack because we don’t believe God can really fill it himself. Jesus taught this principle in the Sermon on the Mount. He said that we get anxious because we don’t believe something about who God is for us. Jesus tells us that since God cares for the sparrows and flowers, he will care for us all the more (Matthew 6:25–34).
When we don’t believe this truth about God’s provision, we sin through anxiety. The chain reaction Jesus assumes in his teaching on anxiety can be traced as follows:
- Unbelief: We don’t believe in God’s provision (“O you of little faith”).
- Lack: We lack a sense of security and safety (“What shall we eat?”).
- Desire: We desire to feel protected and in control (“Gentiles seek after such things”).
- Temptation: Sin tempts us to figure out how we’ll fix it ourselves (“Do not be anxious”).
- Sin: We commit needless worry (“Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”)
So, how does knowing ourselves and knowing our enemy help us fight sin? If we want to fight a sin, we have to change a belief.
Consider the sin of anxious worry Jesus talked about. How do we stop being anxious? Well, it’s not just by saying no to its temptations. It is by changing what we believe about how God provides. Remember that since God cares for the “birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26) and the “lilies of the field” (Matthew 6:28), he will care for you who are “of more value” sparrows (Matthew 6:26). We don’t fight anxiety by trying to stop being anxious. We fight anxiety by “seek[ing] first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” knowing that everything else we need “will be added” to us (Matthew 6:33).
The more we put our faith in the truth of who God is for us in Christ, the more he fills in the places within us that are lacking. As he does this, the Holy Spirit creates new desires within our hearts (Romans 8:1–11). These new desires cut temptation’s legs out from under it and lead us away from sin and toward holiness.
If Christians are born again and have therefore died to sin, why do we need to fight so hard to put sin to death?
God likes to place gems of comfort, encouragement, guidance, and conviction in odd places in the Scriptures — places we don’t expect to find them. Places like the more tedious parts of Exodus, where I was in my devotions recently.
Full disclosure: in devotional reading, I’m tempted, like many, to skim over the portions of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy that contain the kinds of details that I rarely find “relevant” and that my brain doesn’t retain well (genealogies, ritual instructions, temple inventories, and so on). Sometimes I do skim. I’m grateful I didn’t this time because I came across a rare gem.
First, here’s a word about gem-finding before describing what I found. One reason we read the whole Bible over and over is that its “gems” move around. The Holy Spirit may illumine one particular detail one time, and then something else the next time. A text that seemed rather bland this time through Exodus might hit us with fresh wisdom-giving insight next time. That’s part of the never-ending adventure of interacting with the living and active word of God (Hebrews 4:12). The Spirit surprises us. Like he did when I was reading about the tabernacle construction.Given an Impossible Job
In Exodus 25–30, God gives Moses a lengthy list of detailed directions for how to build the tabernacle. Besides the “blueprints” for the tent, God gave precise instructions for the handcrafting of the Ark of the Covenant, the bread table, the lampstand, the lampstand’s oil, the altar of sacrifice, the altar of incense, the incense itself, the water basin, the priestly garments, and the recipe for the holy anointing oil. These instructions fill six chapters.
I was struck by how often God told Moses, “you shall make . . .” (Exodus 25:13). I looked up the phrase “you shall make” in Hebrew. The “you” is a second person, masculine, singular verb. In other words, You, Moses, shall make.
Moses already had an impossibly huge job. He was lead prophet, head-of-state, foreign minister, chief justice, supreme military commander, lead biblical counselor, and more for a nation of two million discontented nomads, who all depended on his guidance for their daily sustenance and safety. Now God was saddling him with a bunch of exacting “you shall make” projects. Moses was an extraordinarily humble man of faith (Numbers 12:3). If it were me, I may have been thinking, Me and what army? An impossible job just became more impossible.Sufficient Ability Provided
Then I stumbled on the gem in this pile of precious stones:
The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you. . . . According to all that I have commanded you, they shall do.” (Exodus 31:1–6, 11)
God gave Moses the abilities he personally lacked in the form of other able people. He expanded the “you shall make” into “they shall do.” An impossible job just became more possible.
Never before had this text struck me with such hope and joy. God has given to all men — and women (Exodus 35:25–26) — the needed abilities to carry out every work God calls his people to do.
I felt a particularly renewed hope in the responsibilities God has given me as a father. A Christian father (and mother) feels the weight of God’s command: “You shall teach them diligently” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Parenting is an overwhelming job. I’m regularly tempted to anxiety by all that my children yet need to know — not just hear, but know and believe. I’m aware of my limitations to help them know and believe. And with my youngest three (of five) all in their teens now, I feel the time getting short. I’m simply not adequate to the huge job of equipping them in all the ways they need — and now they’re at ages when many other things compete for their time and attention.
This gem in Exodus 31:6 reminded my soul that God will supply everything I need to fulfill my calling as a father, including other precious people to whom he has given abilities to do for my children what I alone cannot (Philippians 4:19).You’re Not Alone
This, of course, goes for every overwhelming job God gives us. We are never truly alone in the work God gives us to do. God will provide all the ability we need. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). Hudson Taylor said, “Depend upon it, God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supplies.” And when God supplies the abilities, most will likely come in the form of other able people. God expands almost every “you shall . . .” into “they shall . . .”
A New Testament version of Exodus 31:6 is 1 Corinthians 12:18–20:
As it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
What God requires of us is almost always meant to be carried out in the context of a community or “body” of saints. For “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). As each contributes his or her abilities, we work together so that “all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). That’s how God loves to make our impossible jobs more possible.
All that comfort in one verse in Exodus 31, where I wasn’t expecting it. It was a good reminder, not only that God provides all I need, but that he likes to place his gems of comfort, encouragement, guidance, and conviction in surprising places.
God has given you a mind not just to know him, but to love him. Don’t waste your mind with an intellect that never learns to love.
I know it feels like you will always be frustrated — like God has somehow forgotten you or is acting only as your own personal cosmic killjoy. While you’re hitting barrier after barrier pursuing your heart’s dreams and desires, it seems like everyone around you is living their best life now. You are tired of wrestling. You just want something to break your way.
But there’s something I want to tell you that you probably don’t want to hear right now. I promise, though, that you will be so glad if you hang on to these words in the years ahead.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4)Broken Dreams, Delayed Desires
Yes, this “trial” is nothing compared to what others who worship Jesus are facing. You aren’t being persecuted for your faith; you aren’t destitute. Although you are living in the foreign wilderness of West Texas, you aren’t an exile or refugee. Nonetheless, this trial fits among the “various kinds,” and thus has the potential to do a tremendous work on your heart, if you will let it.
On one level, it doesn’t feel like your faith is being tested. You still believe God is able to do anything; he’s just choosing not to do the things you want him to do for you. It feels like punishment. It feels unfair and confusing. You didn’t ask for these desires, but here they are. There’s nothing wrong or sinful about them. So what are you to do with them? In your mind, you assume there are two choices: either he gives you what you want the way you want it, or he takes the desires away.
Beloved, there is so much more.
Here’s what he’s doing. He is burning away the fluff. He is pulling out every false prop on which you’ve built your trust. He is frustrating your plans so that you turn your eyes from those around you and the lack you find inside you to see and love him for who he is and not merely what he can do for you. There is no more vital work than that. He loves you too much to give you what you want too soon. I know that’s easy for me to say when I know how this will all play out — when I know that you will be relieved that you didn’t get what you thought you wanted in the way you wanted it. The pressing and breaking of steadfastness doing its work is worth it.Portraits of Steadfastness
So what does steadfastness look like?
It looks like Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord (Genesis 32:24–32). He didn’t run away. He endured. He grappled with God even when it gave him a limp. He held on for dear life — for a blessing. He didn’t give up, and neither did God.
Steadfastness looks like Job. He suffered horribly. He cried out desperately. He even lamented the day of his birth (Job 3:3). He questioned the Lord’s ways and was confronted with the terrifying beauty of God’s holiness. But he didn’t turn away. He was humbled in God’s presence. He laid his hand on his mouth and opened his ears to what God had to say. He rightly saw his scrawny, limited self in light of the magnificence of God. He repented. He prayed for his friends who just didn’t get what he was going through. God rebuked them, but he didn’t rebuke Job in the same way. He corrected and challenged him and eventually blessed him.
Steadfastness looks like Hannah. All she wanted was a baby, but all she had was the love of her husband. She wept. She didn’t eat. Her heart was broken into pieces (1 Samuel 1:6–7). But she still went, year by year, with her husband to worship and sacrifice to the Lord in Shiloh. She poured her heart out to the Lord in her distress and through bitter tears. She didn’t hold back. She came honestly, though reverently, knowing that the Lord was the only one who could do something about her pain. And the Lord heard her prayer. He opened her womb and gave her a son that she gave back to him in return (1 Samuel 1:19–20).Perfect and Complete
Do you remember when Jesus told his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12)? The same is true of me to you; some things you learn only by growing older. But I will say this: Steadfastness looks like you falling forward into God’s grace — wrestling hard, crying out, and bringing the broken pieces of your heart to the Lord. It’s you looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith, who was perfectly steadfast through the most excruciating trial (Hebrews 12:2). He endured. He cried out. He became broken on your behalf so that his steadfastness could be your steadfastness.
So when you’re in the midst of the hard work of steadfastness, remember that it won’t be pretty. And although you are being made “perfect and complete,” it’s not going to look perfect or feel complete. But who you are becoming is better than anything you now imagine — better than any desire or dream fulfilled before its time. You are becoming slowly but surely like Jesus.
Be patient with yourself. You will need to read this letter again. And again and again. The process of becoming more steadfast won’t stop until you see your true heart’s desire face to face.
Many Christians know at least some of the biblical do’s and don’ts about sex — especially the don’ts. What we don’t always understand is the beauty of the why — why God says what he says about sex, and why it is meant for our blessing.
The better we understand God’s sacred design for human sexuality, the less we will settle for smaller pleasures that quickly turn into spiritual bondage. Instead, we will be so captivated by God’s sacred design that we will feel compelled to surrender our sexuality to Jesus Christ, and experience the freedom and the joy that will come as a result.Part of a Glorious Story
We won’t understand sex unless we understand marriage, which we can’t understand unless we see its grand purpose in God’s eternal plan.
God designed marriage to show us our soul’s relationship to him. After the apostle Paul gave the Ephesians explicit instructions about the one-flesh relationship between husband and wife, he went on to say that he was not really talking about human marriage at all. “This mystery is profound,” he wrote, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). The gift of marriage is meant to teach all of us about our personal, communal, covenantal relationship with Jesus Christ, which we do not have to be married to experience.Blind Date to Beautiful Bride
We encounter this theme all the way through Scripture, not just in Ephesians 5. The story begins in Genesis with a blind date, in which God the Father introduces the first woman, Eve, to the first man, Adam, and tells them that they are designed to become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).
The story ends in Revelation with a wedding to end all weddings, where the people of God are presented to Jesus as a “bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2) — the most beautiful bride ever, clothed “with fine linen, bright and pure” (Revelation 19:8). The giving of the bride is followed by the best wedding reception ever: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb [namely, Jesus] has come, and his Bride [that’s us!] has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7). This is the beauty we were always meant to become.
Between the blind date and the wedding reception — from Genesis to Revelation — the Bible sets our relationship to God in the context of marriage. For example, the prophet Isaiah tells us that our “Maker” is also our “Husband” (Isaiah 54:5). Our relationship to God is so exclusive that we are spiritually “betrothed” to him (2 Corinthians 11:2).
When we turn away from God, then, we are guilty of nothing less than spiritual adultery — as the children of Israel often committed (Jeremiah 3:20; Ezekiel 16:30). But praise God, when we confess and repent of our sin, we become God’s virgin bride all over again (Jeremiah 31:4); this is how complete our cleansing is. We become as pure and pristine as a perfectly white wedding dress.
In short, the Bible uses marital imagery to help us understand our soul’s relationship to our Savior. No other human relationship is as exclusive as the love covenant between husband and wife. Thus, the Bible uses marriage as a metaphor to tell the story of salvation. The story even comes with a soundtrack: the love songs that we read in the Song of Solomon.Covenant Cement
Sex plays its part in this beautiful story by securing the bonds of marriage. Think of sexual intimacy as “covenant cement” — the physical bonding agent of a holy commitment. It has other purposes as well, including the propagation of the human race. But God has so much at stake in marriage as a symbol of spiritual reality that he has designed the gift of sexual intimacy to help secure its sacred vows. This is how unified a husband and wife become — their bodies literally become one flesh.
The sexual is always connected to the spiritual. The apostle Paul confirms this mystery when he talks to husbands and wives about their sex lives and says he’s especially concerned about their prayer lives (1 Corinthians 7:5), or when he ties his teaching against prostitution to his doctrine of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:15–17). Our sexuality — what we do with it and what we don’t do with it — turns out to be one of the most spiritual things about us.Given, Not Taken
None of this will make much sense to us unless sex and our sexuality become something for us to give rather than to take. This too is part of the beauty.
God’s relationship with us is one of totally self-giving love. So anything intended to show us God’s love must also display selflessness and even sacrifice. This means we will never experience the beauty of our sexuality until we stop treating it as something for ourselves and start thinking of it as something for God, most of all, and also for others.
Unfortunately, most of us are not givers, but takers, and when it comes to sex, there are so many ways for us to take. Sexual contact without consent is taking. Using pornography is also taking — from the women and men exploited by that industry, from the people around us who suffer from our diminished capacity for affection and purity, and maybe from a future husband or wife. If only we could see the damage that we do when we take instead of give.Surrendered Sexuality
Giving starts when we surrender our sexuality to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, offering our sexuality up to God and then letting him show us how he wants to use it. He will keep what we shouldn’t have anyway and give us back what is best for us to have.
There is something about the beauty and purity of giving our sexuality to God that unleashes great spiritual power in the world. We see this supremely in the life of our Lord Jesus, who was never a taker, only a giver. Not that he wasn’t tempted, because the Bible says that he was tempted in every way, just like we are (Hebrews 4:15), which presumably includes various sexual temptations.
But in his flesh-and-blood humanity, Jesus surrendered his sexuality to God; this was part of his complete submission to the Father’s will. Jesus was not called to marriage as part of his earthly ministry. He was called instead to celibacy — a calling he embraced with purity and chastity.
We see the results in his relationships with women especially. No woman was ever more secure than she was in the presence of Jesus. Whether rich or poor, homemaker or prostitute, Samaritan or Jew, women were always drawn to Jesus. Part of their attraction was their sense of absolute security. They knew that they could trust Jesus with anything, which they could do only if he had surrendered his sexuality to his Father.
We see similar power in single men and women who so devote their lives to Christ and his kingdom that they choose to offer up their sexuality to God. Some of the most remarkable Christians I have ever known or read about made that holy choice. I think of William Still, one of my mentors in ministry, who devoted more than fifty years to serving the same church in downtown Aberdeen, in Scotland. Mr. Still, who never married, enjoyed remarkably intimate friendships with the people in his congregation.
I think of Helen Roseveare, a missionary doctor to the Congo. Roseveare’s account of the abuse she endured from soldiers who attacked her hospital is one of the most profound things ever written on suffering for the sake of Christ.
There are so many others that I could mention, like John Stott, the English preacher and scholar whose ministry continues to influence the global church, or Lottie Moon, the Southern Baptist missionary to China. Through their single-hearted devotion to Jesus, such women and men became living witnesses to the enduring reality of our eternal union with Christ.Freedom and Beauty
It’s not just single people either. When we look at exceptional Christian leaders whose ministry lasts over a lifetime — people like Ruth and Billy Graham, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, and John and Vera Mae Perkins, to name a few — we find a commitment to purity at the core of their ministry. They gave their sexuality to God by safeguarding sexual intimacy within the promises of covenant matrimony — the only lifelong relationship in which our bodies do not belong to ourselves, but are given to someone else in the name of Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:4).
We tend to see sexual purity mainly in terms of things that we shouldn’t do — something negative. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s purpose for our purity. Of course, all of us are called to say no to ungodliness. But there are even more ways for us to say yes, and pursuing sexual purity is primarily a way of saying yes to the beautiful purposes of God.
The more we take sex for ourselves, the more we are in bondage. But the more we offer it to Christ for his kingdom, the more freedom and joy we have, the more we bless others, and the more beauty we see in the world.
We act out miracles when we do ordinary tasks — attending a work meeting, eating dinner with our family, talking to a neighbor — relying on Christ.