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.
How does one group of people murder another and sleep at night? Answer: they don’t. German soldiers didn’t slaughter humans, Southern whites didn’t lynch humans, and Planned Parenthood isn’t killing humans either.
The infectious pathos, rising from the pit of hell and blackening the darkest periods in human history, is an idea, an idea that a hierarchy of human and subhuman exists. Men who kill men in cold blood lose sleep; men who kill beasts don’t. In Germany, they called the subhuman creatures the Untermenschen. The German propaganda Der Untermensch (thought to be edited by Hitler’s right-hand man, Henrich Himmler), manifested the serpent’s whisper this way:
The subhuman is a biological creature, crafted by nature, which has hands, legs, eyes, and mouth, even the semblance of a brain. Nevertheless, this terrible creature is only a partial human being. Although it has features similar to a human, the subhuman is lower on the spiritual and psychological scale than any animal. . . . Not all of those who appear human are in fact so. Woe to him who forgets it!
Though it may appear to be human, it isn’t. It may look like it is made in the image of God, may look like an actual man, woman, or child — but it isn’t. Its color, disability, or lack of development betrays the fact that the terrible creature is only partially human. And as history repeatedly teaches: when “they” are not fully human, “they” — when their dignity inevitably conflicts with our interests — become not at all human. Our evil, having arrogantly defied God’s law (thou shall not murder, lie, steal), goes on to defy mathematics: rounding three-fifths down to zero.Fourth-Term Abortions
In the American theater, we have moved from despising dark subhuman creatures we brought into cotton fields to despising creatures hidden in the dark whom God placed in the womb. They appear human, but the parent’s desire for the child often determines whether it is in fact so. Since Roe v. Wade the serpent, conspiring with our Supreme Court and government of appointed representatives, has swallowed millions upon millions upon millions of boys and girls whole. The biggest city in America, the one that terminates more black children than it keeps, has led the way with its recent repeal of the state’s protection for abortion survivors. Adam and Eve’s offspring bite from the (Big) Apple, bringing death to their children.
Now, to the most recent developments. No longer can we call the unseen, unheard, unheld creature in the womb a subhuman — we now rise to such boldness as to include the child staring us dead in the face outside of the womb. Senator Ben Sasse recently called the Senate to vote on the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which sought to protect infants born after a botched abortion.
Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) said the bill was “anti-doctor, anti-woman, and anti-family.” The head of the American Gynecologists named it a “gross interference into the practice of medicine, putting politicians between women and their trusted doctors.” Senator Sasse captured the clarity of the moment, saying, “I’m going to ask all one hundred senators to come to the floor and be against infanticide. This shouldn’t be complicated.” And on the floor, he said, “This isn’t about clumps of cells. This is fourth-trimester abortion.”The Baby on the Senate Floor
The bill states, as unemotionally as I can impart, that a baby who has survived the abortion should be protected with the same rights as a child who was born otherwise (to parents who wanted him or her to live in the first place). In other words, should the murder get “botched,” the bill prevented the attempted murderer — after seeing the baby regrettably pass through the birth canal alive — from finishing the job. If the abortionist was thwarted by the defenseless child, the lab coat couldn’t have a second go. It sought to establish fair play outside of the American Colosseum.
A similar bill, the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, passed unanimously (with full bipartisan support) back in 2002, but did not include criminal penalties for doctors, nor specify what medical care must actually be provided for the survivor. But the new bill states that anyone present would be legally obligated to protect the child and admit it into a hospital. Should anyone leave the baby to die on the table — after previously overseeing its torture — they could be charged with a fine and up to five years in prison. Should they take active means of killing the child, they could be tried for murder.
Schizophrenic Uncle Sam would go, should the bill pass, from funding such hits with taxpayer money, to punishing them, as he did on Kermit Gosnell, who is currently serving several life sentences for three counts of first-degree murder because he cut the spinal cords of three babies who survived botched abortions at his clinic. Jailed, not because he was an assassin, but because he cleaned up after shoddy attempts at assassination.
So, on Monday, the baby lay again on the Senate floor. Friendless. Wombless. Defenseless.
Separated from the “health issues” of his mother. A child with ears, hands, legs, eyes, and mouth — and “even the semblance of a brain.” Staring at this child — no cover of skin hiding it, no plantation boundaries veiling it, no concentration camps concealing it — 44 of 47 Democrat senators voted down the bill and left the child on the table. And there, the baby lies.Where Will This End?
Have we forgotten how to weep? Oh, how I lament my own hardness of heart — how can I write these words with dry eyes?
After the angel of death executed judgment on the Egyptians, we are told, “There was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead” (Exodus 12:30). As Herod hands the weapon again to the second-rate angel of death and walks away, tweeting to his followers how he stood for women’s rights, do we cry a great cry? Do we share God’s horror at our ability to terminate pregnancy and infancy?
Make no mistake: God hates our child sacrifice at the altar of convenience. “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:21). Such giving up to Molech was unhesitatingly a capital offense (Leviticus 20:2). And should God’s people “close their eyes” and pretend like they did not see it, scrolling right past it in their news feeds, they too would incur God’s wrath (Leviticus 20:4–5). Child sacrifice is such an abomination before a holy God that it “did not even enter into his mind” (Jeremiah 32:25).
America is in the middle of a holocaust. Can we now, legally and otherwise, look at children out of the womb and kill them? In failing to pass this bill, our representatives have, for the meantime, given their answer. It’s no secret that we’ve been talking about killing babies all along — there it lies. And instead of nursing the child, we dispose of it. Instead of collecting fingerprints, we leave none behind. Lord, have mercy on us.
Many of us marry with little idea of the gifts and hardships ahead. So what would Pastor John tell his newly married self?
In July 1959, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and his wife, Bethan, were on vacation in Wales. They attended a little chapel for a Sunday-morning prayer meeting, and Lloyd-Jones asked those present, “Would you like me to give a word this morning?” The people hesitated because it was his vacation, and they didn’t want to presume on his energy. But his wife said, “Let him. Preaching is his life” (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 373). It was a true statement. In the preface to his powerful book Preaching and Preachers, he said, “Preaching has been my life’s work . . . to me the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called” (17).
Many called him the last of the Calvinistic Methodist preachers because he combined Calvin’s love for truth and sound Reformed doctrine with the fire and passion of the eighteenth-century Methodist revival (Five Evangelical Leaders, 55). For thirty years he preached from the pulpit at Westminster Chapel in London. Usually that meant three different sermons each weekend: Friday evening and Sunday morning and evening.
At the end of his career, he remarked, “I can say quite honestly that I would not cross the road to listen to myself preaching” (Preaching and Preachers, 14). But that was not the way others felt. When J.I. Packer was a 22-year-old student, he heard Lloyd-Jones preach each Sunday evening during the school year of 1948–1949, and he said that he had “never heard such preaching.” It came to him “with the force of electric shock, bringing to at least one of his listeners more of a sense of God than any other man” (Five Evangelical Leaders, 170).Physician of Souls
Lloyd-Jones’s path to Westminster was unique. He was born in Cardiff, Wales, on December 20, 1899. He moved to London with his family when he was 14 and went to medical school at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where he received his MD in 1921 and became Sir Thomas Horder’s chief clinical assistant. The well-known Horder described Lloyd-Jones as “the most acute thinker that I ever knew” (Five Evangelical Leaders, 56).
Between 1921 and 1923, Lloyd-Jones underwent a profound conversion. It was so life-changing that it brought with it a passion to preach that completely outweighed his call as a physician. He felt a deep yearning to return to his native Wales and preach. His first sermon there was in April of 1925, and the note he sounded was the recurrent theme of his life: Wales did not need more talk about social action; it needed “a great spiritual awakening.” This theme of revival and power and real vitality remained his lifelong passion (Five Evangelical Leaders, 66).
He was called as the pastor of Bethlehem Forward Movement Mission Church in Sandfields, Aberavon, in 1926, and the next year married one of his former fellow medical students, Bethan Phillips. In the course of their life together, they had two daughters, Elizabeth and Ann.
His preaching became known across Britain and in America. It was popular, crystal clear, doctrinally sound, logical, and on fire. In 1937, he preached in Philadelphia and G. Campbell Morgan happened to be there. He was so impressed that he felt compelled to see Lloyd-Jones as his associate at Westminster Chapel in London.
Lloyd-Jones and G. Campbell Morgan were joint ministers until Morgan’s retirement in 1943. Then Lloyd-Jones was the sole preaching pastor for almost 30 years. So many people were drawn to the clarity and power and doctrinal depth of his preaching that in 1947 the Sunday morning attendance was about 1,500 and the Sunday evening attendance 2,000. He wore a somber black Geneva gown and used no gimmicks or jokes. Like Jonathan Edwards two hundred years before, he held audiences by the sheer weight and intensity of his vision of truth.
Lloyd-Jones became ill in 1968 and took it as a sign to retire and devote himself more to writing. He continued this for about twelve years and then died peacefully in his sleep on March 1, 1981.‘We Need Revival’
From the beginning to the end of his life, Lloyd-Jones’s ministry was a cry for depth in two areas — depth in biblical doctrine and depth in vital spiritual experience. Light and heat. Logic and fire. Word and Spirit. Again and again, he would be fighting on two fronts: on the one hand, against dead, formal, institutional intellectualism, and on the other hand, against superficial, glib, entertainment-oriented, man-centered emotionalism. For Lloyd-Jones, the only hope of a lasting solution was historic, God-centered revival.
When revival happens, it is visible. It is not just a quiet subjective experience in the church. Things happen that make the world sit up and take notice. This is what was so important to Lloyd-Jones. He felt almost overwhelmed by the corruption of the world and the weakness of the church. And believed that the only hope was something stunning.
The Christian church today is failing, and failing lamentably. It is not enough even to be orthodox. You must, of course, be orthodox, otherwise you have not got a message. . . . We need authority and we need authentication. . . . Is it not clear that we are living in an age when we need some special authentication — in other words, we need revival. (The Sovereign Spirit, 25)
Revival, for Lloyd-Jones, was a kind of power demonstration that would authenticate the truth of the gospel to a desperately hardened world. What lay so heavily on Lloyd-Jones’s heart was that the name of God be vindicated and his glory manifested in the world. “We should be anxious,” he says, “to see something happening that will arrest the nations, all the peoples, and cause them to stop and think again” (Revival, 120).Clean Power
Lloyd-Jones had enough extraordinary experiences of his own to make him know that he had better be open to what the sovereign God might do. For example, Stacy Woods describes the physical effect of one of Lloyd-Jones’s sermons.
In an extraordinary way, the presence of God was in that Church. I personally felt as if a hand were pushing me through the pew. At the end of the sermon for some reason or the other the organ did not play, the Doctor went off into the vestry and everyone sat completely still without moving. It must have been almost ten minutes before people seemed to find the strength to get up and, without speaking to one another, quietly leave the Church. Never have I witnessed or experienced such preaching with such fantastic reaction on the part of the congregation. (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 377)
Another illustration comes from his earlier days at Sandfields. A woman who had been a well-known spirit medium attended his church one evening. She later testified after her conversion,
The moment I entered your chapel and sat down on a seat amongst the people, I was conscious of a supernatural power. I was conscious of the same sort of supernatural power I was accustomed to in our spiritist meetings, but there was one big difference; I had the feeling that the power in your chapel was a clean power. (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 221)
Lloyd-Jones knew from the Bible and from history and from his own experience that the extraordinary working of the Spirit defied precise categorization. He said, “The ways in which the blessing comes are almost endless. We must be careful lest we restrict them or lest we try to systematize them over much, or, still worse, lest we mechanize them” (Joy Unspeakable, 243).Better Credulous than Dead
These are remarkable teachings coming from the main spokesman for the Reformed cause in Britain in the last generation. Lest you think Lloyd-Jones was a full-blown charismatic incognito, he was careful to express his disenchantment with Pentecostals and charismatics as he knew them.
Contrary to the many of the charismatics of his day, for example, he insisted that revival have a sound doctrinal basis; that the Holy Spirit is sovereign and comes and goes on his own terms; that people baptized with the Holy Spirit do not necessarily speak in tongues; and that spiritual experiences are never given for their own sake, but are always for empowerment in witness and the glory of Christ. On this last point, Lloyd-Jones wrote, “The supreme test of anything that claims to be the work of the Holy Spirit is John 16:14 — ‘He shall glorify me’” (The Sovereign Spirit, 106).
But having said all that by way of warning and balance, Lloyd-Jones comes back to the strong affirmation of openness to the supernatural demonstration of power that the world needs so badly. Of those who sit back and point their finger at the charismatic excesses of good people, he says, “God have mercy upon them! God have mercy upon them! It is better to be too credulous than to be carnal and to be smug and dead” (The Sovereign Spirit, 83).Make Your Mighty Hand Known
What is Lloyd-Jones’s counsel to us as we try to navigate between uncritical and unbiblical gullibility on the one side and Spirit-quenching resistance on the other?
His basic counsel is this that we “cannot do anything to produce” true revival and therefore must labor in prayer, be patient, and not set time limits on the Lord (Joy Unspeakable, 139, 231, 247). But it seems that there is more that we can do than only pray. Elsewhere, Lloyd-Jones mentions his appreciation of a prayer from D.L. Moody that asks for “a prepared heart” (Joy Unspeakable, 220). If a prepared heart is important, then there are means of grace besides prayer that cleanse the heart and conform it more and more to Christ. One thinks of meditation on the Scriptures, exhortation from fellow Christians, mortification of sin, and so on.
But not only that, Lloyd-Jones teaches that the Spirit can be quenched by certain forms of barren institutionalization. Concerning the deadness of formal churches, he says,
It is not that God withdrew, it is that the church in her “wisdom” and cleverness became institutionalized, quenched the Spirit, and made the manifestations of the power of the Spirit well-nigh impossible. (The Sovereign Spirit, 50)
Now that is a powerful statement from one who believes in the sovereignty of the Spirit — that certain forms of institutionalization can make the manifestations of the Spirit’s power “well-nigh impossible.” If the Spirit in his sovereignty suffers himself to be hindered and quenched, as Lloyd-Jones (and the apostle Paul!) says, then it is not entirely accurate to say that there is nothing we can do to open the way for his coming. It is only that we cannot constrain him to come. Or to put it another way, while it seems we cannot make the Spirit come in power, we can do things that usually keep him from coming.
Lloyd-Jones sets us down the right path in one of his many beautiful closing exhortations:
Let us together decide to beseech him, to plead with him to do this again. Not that we may have the experience or the excitement, but that his mighty hand may be known and his great name may be glorified and magnified among the people. (Revival, 117)
What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2)
While most Christian leaders agree that we must revive the practice of discipling (personally helping Christians grow), few seem to be doing it. Numerous cultural factors today make it countercultural for leaders to disciple others in the way we see Jesus and Paul doing in the New Testament (Matthew 4:19; 28:19; 2 Timothy 2:2).
Efficiency and productivity are key values today. People are told that they must push for measurable results, and usually those results are quantified in terms of numbers. In a Christian setting, such an emphasis could result in concentrating on increasing attendance, events, programs, and buildings.
These visible goals can take so much time that there is no time left to give concentrated attention to personal discipling. Granted, the fruit of person-to-person discipleship is not immediately visible. Now a biblical leader should be concerned with numbers, in some sense, because the numbers represent people who have come within the sound of the gospel, and our programs and structures are helpful in maturing new and old Christians. But the focus on numerical growth must not be at the cost of nurturing saints.The Cost of Other Opportunities
As we grow in leadership, we often need to pass up what looks like wonderful opportunities to serve so that we can have enough time for personal ministry. These days I meet many young pastors and Christian workers for mentoring or counseling. I have been surprised (and saddened) to hear that many of them have never had an unhurried conversation about their personal lives with their leaders in ministry. Most of these pastors serve in churches that are growing numerically.
If the top leaders in our churches do not give time for personal work, it is unlikely that there will be a culture of discipling in the groups they lead. The leaders must demonstrate by example (1 Peter 5:3) that investing in others is a key aspect of Christian ministry.
When I was leader of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka, I always tried to disciple a few young staff. This gave rise to an awkward situation, as some people felt I was giving preferential treatment to them. But I felt that this problem was worthwhile because of the high place personal work deserves in the culture of our movement. If the leader finds time to disciple, others also are encouraged to give time for it, despite all the other things calling for their attention.
As the possibility of an imbalance in our priorities is very real, we need to keep revising our list of priorities constantly while growing in leadership. Unhealthy baggage can accumulate in our lives without our realizing it. I need to be careful about accepting too many speaking engagements and serving on too many committees. As leaders grow, they should constantly divest themselves of some responsibilities so that they can concentrate on the most important ones.The Cost of ‘Wasting Time’
People are very busy today. Besides physical work, they are often “busy” in the cyber world with social media or are watching television. In this environment, people find it a strain to interrupt their activities for long one-on-one conversations, which are an important part of discipling relationships. Such rootless busyness has produced an insecure generation. They are missing the completion and security that come from committed relationships with trusted friends and relatives.
Based on today’s attitude toward time, Christianity could be considered a religion of wasting time. We “waste” a lot of time each day in prayer and Bible reading. We could say the same about discipling appointments. Close relationships do not develop through highly structured and restricted conversations. As we linger with each other, chatting about our lives, ties develop that engender trust.
Once trust is won and the environment created through long conversations, people have the freedom to talk about the deep secrets of their lives. A side benefit of this is that it dispels damaging insecurities of constantly being rushed. Discipling appointments slow us down.The Cost of Safe Superficiality
People today have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of friends on Facebook (and other platforms) to whom they openly share about themselves. But often these relationships are with people unwilling to pay the price of costly commitment to them. They don’t need to be honest; they can even tell lies about themselves. And if the friendship gets inconvenient, you can simply “unfriend” another person. How sad that “unfriend” has become a popular word today.
When you get used to multiple superficial relationships, you may find it difficult to nurture deeper bonds. You may not make time for such relationships and may find it awkward to share deeply with others. But how important it is for us to nurture deeper friendships. Proverbs has sage advice to our generation with its addiction to social media:
A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24)
In an environment that is unfriendly to such close ties, the discipler has the challenge of winning the trust of the disciple to create these bonds. I do not think we should force people to “submit” to a discipler of our choice. Disciplees should have a say in who disciples them. But sometimes we may have to disciple people who are not fond of us. Some such relationships in my own life have produced some of the most joyful I have had.The Cost of Trusting Others
Today, with the prevalence of abuse of personal information, people are afraid to trust others with details about their lives. They are afraid of betrayal, so they don’t confide in people enough to entrust themselves to their care. Sometimes they may not personally like the leader who has been assigned to disciple them.
Large congregations fall into a trap when everyone keeps a “safe distance” from others. It is all too easy to remain anonymous and be lost in the crowd. Some prefer this, as they move to larger churches after being hurt in smaller, more personal ones. This problem must be confronted with the persevering commitment of personal discipleship.
I am convinced that everyone needs the kind of accountability, comfort, and trust that a discipling relationship affords. It may be strange culturally and practically inconvenient to many today. But it can be done, and there is an urgent need for all Christian leaders to commit themselves to it.
Sexual sin goes against who God created humans to be. The Bible teaches us this lesson in Proverbs 5 as the sage warns a young married man against the adulteress.
You may not be young, or married, or a man, but the wisdom of this text applies to you as much as to anyone else. Committing adultery with a woman is not the only form of sexual sin, but it follows a pattern that is common to all. Listening to this passage will help all of us. As the passage unfolds, it presents to us four steps we’ll need to take to avoid sexual sin.1. Flee from Temptation
The author begins with an exhortation to listen:
My son, be attentive to my wisdom; incline your ear to my understanding that you may keep discretion, and your lips may guard knowledge. For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil. (Proverbs 5:1–3)
Sexual sin is often attractive. It has a certain charm that invites and allures with seductive and smooth speech. It is also addictive: “The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin” (Proverbs 5:22). Like any appetite, the more we feed sexual sin the more it grows. The more we commit it, the more we will feel we need it, the easier it will be to do it, and the harder it will become to stop.
So, we need to flee.
Now, O sons, listen to me, and do not depart from the words of my mouth. Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house. (Proverbs 5:7–8)
Fleeing sexual sin means doing all we can to avoid it. For some of us, that will mean restricting what we look at online, or not watching certain TV shows, or being more careful about what social situations we place ourselves in, or breaking up with someone (even if they mean the world to us), or changing our job.
If any of this seems like an overreaction, listen again to how it all ends: “He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray” (Proverbs 5:23). Sexual sin is attractive and addictive, and this is a lethal combination. Any action and sacrifice is worth it.2. Consider the Future
The writer wants us to see what it all comes to in the end: “At the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed” (Proverbs 5:11). Sexual sin has consequences. We may talk about these things as a “fling” or “one night stand,” but the fact is, such sins are not so easily containable.
Do not go near the door of her house lest you give your honor to others and your years to the merciless lest strangers take their fill of your strength, and your labors go to the house of a foreigner. (Proverbs 5:8–10)
Sexual sin seems so attractive now, but fast-forward to the end and it all looks very different: “You say, ‘How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof! I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors’” (Proverbs 5:12–13). The wise consider their end before they get there.3. Uphold Your Marriage
The young man being addressed needs to see how overwhelmingly positive a thing it is to enjoy sexual fulfillment within marriage.
Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. (Proverbs 5:15–19)
The Bible is not at all embarrassed by the enjoyment of sex in marriage. Some of the imagery here leaves little to the imagination. Cistern and well are both images of female sexuality, as the fountain is of male sexuality. We shouldn’t be surprised to see such imagery in the Bible. God is the one who designed human sexuality, intending for the husband and wife to enjoy their sexual union.
It is a man being addressed in this passage (“be intoxicated always in her love”), and so this is being spoken of from his perspective. But it is equally true of how the wife is to be delighted and intoxicated by the sexual love of her husband. Paul makes this clear in the New Testament:
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:3–4)
But there is alternative intoxication offered: “Why would you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?” (Proverbs 5:20). It can feel every bit as heady and dizzying as romantic fulfillment within marriage, but we know how devastating the fallout of adultery can be. It can wreck a whole life, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and economically.
So we must work at our sex lives. And, it probably goes without saying, investment in a healthy sex life is not likely to happen without investment in the marriage relationship as a whole, building and deepening the friendship that lies at the heart of it.
What about those of us, like me, who are single? This kind of language can be painful. We hear of the intoxication of sexual satisfaction and it is hard to hear. We must persevere in upholding the Bible’s teaching and honor the marriage bed by living lives of purity. And we need to uphold the marriage we have together with Christ. The language of intoxication that can be so hard to hear is a picture of what we will experience in eternity with him. We are pledged to him and need to honor our relationship with him by remaining faithful to him.4. Remember God Is Watching
All that we do, and say, and think, takes place in the full view of God: “A man’s ways are before the eyes of the Lord, and he ponders all his paths” (Proverbs 5:21).
This is a warning to us. We may be able to deceive other people; we will never deceive God. There is simply no thought he hasn’t seen and doesn’t know through and through. God sees every word we type into our search engines.
God sees our sin. But he also sees every striving to be pure and godly. He knows when we are battling; he knows what we are going through. It may well be that no one really seems to understand the kind of struggle you face or really knows the pain you go through as you fight temptation. But Jesus does. He draws near to us, as we draw near to him. Our labors for him are never unnoticed. As we fight for purity, he fights for and with us.
Jesus is worthy to be praised with our every thought and deed. But what about our feelings? The Bible’s clearest answer is also the best of news. John Piper preached this message at the Bethlehem 2019 Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders in Minneapolis.
When we begin to despair in life — about marriage, or lost loved ones, or sickness, or work, or ministry — darkness falls like a fog.
Spiritually, we struggle to make sense of our surroundings. The eyes of our heart squint, searching for even a fragment of the light of Christ. In those days (or weeks, or years), we will be tempted to try and dispel the darkness — to alleviate the discomfort of waiting on God — by lighting our life a thousand other ways. Instead of navigating the deeper darkness by patiently following the voice of God, we will look for a torch of our own making.
Isaiah warned a despondent and wandering Israel against walking by theirs: “Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches! Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled! This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment” (Isaiah 50:11). God’s warning is clear: if we walk by the light of our own torches when darkness falls, we will eventually be burned by them.Torches We Bear
Years ago, I experienced an especially dark season when I fell back into sexual sin after years of defeating temptation. The fall cost me greatly, and it (graciously) landed me in a desperation I had not known before. The bitterness of those days was a kindness that led me to enduring repentance, vigilance, and purity. But the days were often bitter and dark. I tasted the consequences of my own sinfulness, especially how it hurt the ones I loved. I often had a hard time looking God (or anyone else) in the face.
I was tempted to despair. What if I never win this war? What if these relationships never heal? What if I forfeit future ministry? What if I fall again? In moments like these, Satan interrogates us with all the wrong questions, trying to drown out God’s voice with daunting fears and doubts. Whether the darkness is self-inflicted, like mine was, or falls outside of our control, like it often does, the descent of darkness can simultaneously leave us more desperate than ever and yet deaf to God — the savior, helper, and counselor we need when the lights go out. So, instead of relying on him and his word, we often learn to cope, to crawl through the darkness on our own.
How do you soothe yourself in the throes of the unbearable? Maybe you medicate with distraction, defaulting to simple and superficial pleasures that keep your mind from the darker realities you face. You watch, or eat, or shop, whatever it takes not to feel, even for a few seconds. Maybe you prefer to wallow in self-pity, experiencing comfort only when you obsess over your pain. Instead of building a tower of Babel, you carve out a canyon to try and hide from reality. Maybe you take your despair out on others, turning the broken shards of glass in your heart into weapons. If you see someone else suffer, you don’t feel so alone anymore. It feels like justice — or at least equality.
We’re not proud of the torches we light. They not only expose the quiet idolatries we cultivate, but they also uncover just how unprepared we are for trials. They illumine our besetting sins and our weaknesses. And, as Isaiah warns, they damn us if we depend on them. We’re ashamed of them, but we trust them, at least when we’re desperate.Bleakness in Life
Why do we abandon God in the darkness? When life does not go the way we expect or want, we can be tempted to become bitter (or at least suspicious) toward God. When life turns for the better, we may run gladly into his sovereign, all-knowing arms. But when life turns for the worse, the same infinite power and wisdom may seem suddenly dangerous, careless, aloof. He is absolutely and completely sovereign, so isn’t he ultimately to blame? The thought can leave us looking for a match to strike.
When God’s people begin to resent how he rules, grumbling, complaining, and falling into despondency, he responds, “Why, when I came, was there no man; why, when I called, was there no one to answer?” (Isaiah 50:2). I warned you, and I was patient with you. Where were you when I called? Their distress is not owing in any way to God’s neglect. No. “For your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away” (Isaiah 50:1). The bleakness of life is owing to the blackness of sin, often our own. Not to any wrong in God.
When life gets hard, God does not want us to begrudge his plan; he wants us to bank on his love. “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:1–2). God is able to save us from whatever we face. He wants to carry our anxieties because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:6–7).
His ear is not closed to us. His heart is not dull toward us. Yet we refuse to have him, because the darkness in us and around us has hidden him from us.Walk (Not) by Sight
As the crowds closed their ears to the Lord’s invitations and warning, lighting up their God-despising torches, Isaiah says a listener arose from among the deaf — a servant strong enough to suffer injustice and compassionate enough to care for and sustain the weak.
While so many, disillusioned by despair, covered their ears and resented their own Lord in their hearts, this servant boldly says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught” (Isaiah 50:4). While others were striking matches, he followed his ear, through pitch-black darkness, to the words of life. When he could not see the light, he listened for it instead.
Then he says in the next verse, “The Lord God has opened my ear” (Isaiah 50:5). In the darkest hour, God did it for the Lord’s servant. In a far darker hour, he did the same and more for Christ (John 17:8). If you can hear his voice in your dark hours, it’s because he has done it (Matthew 11:15). He has opened the ears of your heart. Do not despise his voice; do not reach for a torch of your own making. No, let this extraordinary hour of darkness teach you how to walk by faith, and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).Walk by Another Light
If we walk by the light of our own torches, we will be burned. How, then, do we persevere in our darkness of desperation? Isaiah lights the other path. “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10). Trust him, rely on him, listen to him. Toss aside the torches you’re tempted to trust in, and walk by the light of his voice — the voice we hear only in his word. Repent, believe, and take the next step.
If you can hear his voice, he has awakened your ears to hear. And among all that he says to you, he promises, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2). No matter how dark it gets, I will be with you. “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you” (Isaiah 41:10).
And when we sit in darkness, surrounded by obstacles and enemies, and even our own failures, we can say, “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me” (Micah 7:8). When we’re laid low and made desperate, tempted even to despair, he will be all the light we need.
Making a decision with a coin flip glorifies chance. But making a decision from a renewed mind glorifies God.
Paul had an impressive résumé and a lifetime’s worth of accolades—but none of them could save him, and none of them could compete with gaining Christ.
Jesus told a one-sentence parable about a man who “sold all that he had.” He was a merchant who found something so precious that it far surpassed even the sum of all the other treasures he held dear.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45–46)
One supremely precious pearl. One single pearl of exceedingly great value. So great, in fact, so precious, that he sold everything, including all his other fine pearls, to buy this one surpassingly great pearl.Jesus Taught in Twos
Jesus pairs this parable with another one-sentence lesson about treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44). Jesus often does this in his teaching: pairing two illustrations, each with their individual emphases, to make the same general point (Carson, Matthew, 376).
Earlier in Matthew 13, it’s mustard seeds with leaven (Matthew 13:31–33), to show God’s surprising way of bringing to earth the fullness of heaven’s kingdom. In Matthew 13:44–46, Jesus accents the superlative worth of his kingdom. The pairing not only reinforces the point, but fills out the picture, and introduces new contours of meaning.Treasure and Pearl
In the first parable (Matthew 13:44), the hidden treasure is found “by chance,” it seems, without the man looking intentionally for it. In the surprise of it all, the accent falls on his shocking and happy response: from his joy he goes and sells all he has to buy the field. Joy flooded his heart as he stumbled on such value.
In the second parable (Matthew 13:45–46), we have a merchant. He is looking. He is searching high and low, near and far. Well does he know the value of pearls. In the ancient world, pearls “were regarded as very precious,” says George Knight, “in more demand even than gold” (Pastoral Epistles, 135). And this merchant is not just seeking pearls but “fine pearls” — beautiful pearls, precious pearls. His palate is refined. He has a keen eye.
The merchant’s life has been bound up with pursuing the most precious of earthly objects. Now, he comes across one singular pearl of such beauty, of such great value, one pearl so precious, he goes and sells all he has to have it. The emphasis is not on his accidental find but on the over-the-top fulfillment of an intentional search. Now the accent is not on the subjective response of joy but on the exceedingly precious value of the object.Worth Every Sacrifice
Together the short parables contribute to one picture, seen in the obvious repetition: the man sells all he has to obtain the newfound treasure. However accidental or intentional the search, the man has come upon something of such value that he is eager (“from his joy”) to count all else loss in view of the surpassing value of the treasure — of the exceeding preciousness of the pearl.
Neither parable minimizes the cost. In fact, both draw attention to it: literally, “all things, as much he has.” There is a cost — a great cost — to this discipleship. But the Discipler, who is himself the Treasure, so far outstrips the cost that we gladly say, “Gain!” This one great pearl is so surpassingly precious that many even say with the great army of missionaries and martyrs, like David Livingstone, “I never made a sacrifice.”
What will it look like for Christ’s kingdom to come to us like this? How do we receive Jesus as an infinitely valuable treasure, or a singularly great pearl, that far surpasses all else? The concept of superlative worth or supreme preciousness in Matthew 13 points us to at least two pictures elsewhere in the New Testament.Exceedingly Precious
The first is the anointing at Bethany (John 12:3–8; also Mark 14:3–9). Martha served. Lazarus, freshly resurrected, reclined at table. Their sister Mary “took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 12:3). Here, expensive is the same word used for the one great pearl in Matthew 13 (Greek polutimos, “exceedingly precious”). So manifestly, uncomfortably valuable was the ointment that the disciples, and chiefly Judas, registered their concerns. “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5).
A denarius was a laborer’s daily wage. This ointment represented a whole year’s earnings for a six-days-a-week worker. Likely this was Mary’s nest egg for the future. And yet, as precious as it was, she saw Jesus as more precious. She saw him as surpassingly valuable. She poured her future on his feet, and in doing so, she demonstrated who was supremely precious to her.Supremely Valuable
Paul takes up the same search, sacrifice, and joy in Philippians 3. Did he perhaps see himself in the merchant of Jesus’s parable? If so, what were the “fine pearls” he amassed before encountering the supreme preciousness of Christ? He provides a list: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5–6).
As a leader among the strictest sect of his religion, he had an unassailable pedigree (what he couldn’t control, by birth) and performance (what he could, by effort). These were fine pearls indeed. Until he stumbled upon a Treasure who confronted him, knocked him off his horse, and opened his eyes. This was a Treasure that had been hidden from Paul, and yet one he had long been seeking. Now Paul saw Jesus as the one great Pearl of all-surpassing preciousness, and he counted all to be loss — both pedigree and performance — in view of “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Jesus became to him both an infinitely priceless Treasure to gain and a supremely precious Pearl to know.
God, in all his divine goodness, took on flesh in this one man Jesus. “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Finding him as your one Precious will not poison and shrink your soul. He is the antidote to what ails us, the catalyst to expand our small hearts, the surprising remedy we’ve long been seeking.