Getting to the Amen
“Now, to the one who has power to work far beyond all things which you can ask or comprehend according to the power that is at work in us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations to the ages of the ages, amen.”
And so Paul closes this section of his letter with one of the glorious doxologies of Scripture. It is to God that the glory belongs both in the church and in the work of Christ, and it is God who is working in us in ways that we cannot comprehend — even more wonderfully than we can ask. And so, to that, we say with Paul, “Amen!”
But, as with so many things, saying this or reading this, is often easier said than done. Truly, when all things are going our way, perhaps, but when we are struggling through fears, grief, loss, or other trials, that is an entirely different matter. Indeed, if God is able to work far beyond what we can ask or comprehend, why does he often do what we ask for and can comprehend? The answer is often a bitter pill to swallow, but it is precisely because God is able to do that for which we cannot ask and cannot understand that he does so. His ways, most ultimately, are good.
That is not always an easy position to get to…at least emotionally…but it is the only place we will find peace in the midst of turmoil. We are not the adults who have all things figured out — there is a great deal we cannot comprehend about God’s perfect plan. We are the children standing on the ledge of the swimming pool needing to learn to trust our Father who calls out to us from the deep end, “Follow me!” At first, the deep water looks frightful and intimidating, but we will never fully understand the ability of the strong hands of our Father to keep us afloat until we let go of our fears and trust him enough to jump. The saying is easy; the doing is often quite another thing. Yet, until the doing is done, we will not utter the hearty “Amen!” with the Apostle.
Walk the Walk
“For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand in order that we might walk in them.”
As believers, God has created us to walk in good works. Certainly, the notion of walking in the Bible is often used to describe the way someone lives. When God is preparing the people to receive the Law, he instructs them that it is by these statutes and laws they are to walk (Exodus 18:20). In contrast, we are told that we are not to walk in the way of the Egyptians or that of the Canaanites (Leviticus 20:23). God promises that if we walk in His ways, he will provide for our needs (Leviticus 26:3-4), but if we choose not to walk in his ways, he will bring panic and fear and disease (Leviticus 26:14-16). King David describes difficult times as walking in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) and Habakkuk speaks of the faithful one being made to walk in high places (Habakkuk 3:19). Finally, Isaiah calls the people to follow him into the Mountain of the Lord (Zion, which is the place of worship) so that God may teach us his ways and we may walk in them (notice that an important part of worship, according to the prophet, is to learn the things of God and live them out).
The analogy speaks to the mindset of the Christian. Walking is an intentional act. We don’t always do it perfectly — sometimes we trip and sometimes we get distracted and stumble — but it is something we decide to do. Walking also leads us to an intentional destination. When we get up to walk, we don’t let our feet just take us somewhere for the sake of walking, we walk in a particular direction that is governed by our minds. Even if we are the type to walk in circles or pace a room unconsciously, the walking is still a deliberate act.
For the Christian, the faithful life as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be a deliberate act as well. Jesus said that we are to obey all that he taught us (John 14:15) and that a disciple is one who does the same (Matthew 28:20). And, to be obedient to a law, you must not only know what those laws are, you must also strive to live them out. Too often people think of Christian obedience as something that is optional. People get the notion into their heads: “I am saved by grace, not by works, so I can live however I want to live.” They forget the statement of Paul that we are saved to a life of good works to the glory of God. Oh, and what are good works once again? They are works that are conformable to the Law of God.
Dear Christian, Jesus did not die on a cross to give you fire insurance. He died on the cross to redeem you from the fire and to raise you to newness of life — to make you a different creature than you once were before you were a believer (that is the context of this whole chapter!). And newness of life means that the dead works of the flesh are meant to fall away and you are to go about walking in the good works that God has prepared for you to walk in — most namely in diligent obedience to the Law of God.
But what does this mean in a practical, and day to day sense? It means that your ideas about what is morally right and morally wrong should align with the scriptures. We should detest as morally evil all false worship, idolatry, blasphemy, sabbath-breaking, dishonoring of our parents, murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness. And, we should understand those things not only in terms of the letter of the law, but in light of the intent of the Law as Jesus interpreted them. We should love the brotherhood and sacrifice for fellow believers. We should seek to tear down every thought and idea in our own life and in the world around us that stands against the Word of God. This is an active and intentional calling, not a passive one. And, where there is no evidence of striving to walk in this way, there is no evidence of a transformation worked by Christ. True Christianity is not about sitting in a pew; it is about deliberately walking in obedience to God’s ways and not man’s.
His Power toward Us — Those who Believe
“giving light to the eyes of your heart to know the hope of his calling, which is the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints and which is the exceeding greatness of his power toward us, those who believe, according to the outworking of his power and might.”
Okay, time to make some people grumpy. What a way to start off. Here’s the problem, people in the west have bought into the idea that human beings are all part of a “brotherhood of man” and that as such, we are all children of God. And in that myth, our problem lies. While there is but one race (the human race), which makes the prejudices that we might have a foolish proposition, within that one race, there are two lines of people. There are some who are children of God and others who are children of the devil (1 John 3:9-10). What distinguishes between the two lines? God’s seed abides in his children and the seed of the devil abides in his.
This, beloved, is what we call election, plain and simple. God has chosen some as his own and places his seed in them. We do not deserve this privilege nor did we earn it or choose it (Romans 9:16). It is a work of God’s grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). And why might such an idea make people mad? It is plainly taught in the Scripture? It makes people mad because they have bought into a wrong side — a wrong paradigm that makes God responsive to the desires of man — and changing paradigms is often a difficult process. In addition, this very principle means that the blessings of God of which Paul is speaking in this text, only belong to the believer. They do not belong to those outside of the faith.
And thus, Paul writes, that all of these things which we have been speaking, through the power of God, have been “toward us, those who believe.” The unbeliever is not adopted into God’s household and thus cannot address God as “Father.” The children of the devil can have no assurance of glory and eternal life in heaven. The reprobate do not have light for their eyes that would give them spiritual sight — they are left blind so that they will not turn from their wicked ways and repent (remember Isaiah’s language that we cited above). And yes, people often get testy when confronted with ideas such as these.
Yet, if you are a believer, then these promises do belong to you. What makes one a believer? We talked a little about assurance above, but it is worth going back to Paul’s language of Romans 10:9-13. If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Indeed, there is much that can be said as we unpackaged these verses, but on the most basic level, there must be faith in the historical bodily resurrection of Christ. That does not mean you believe that he spiritually rose and “lives in your heart,” but that he physically rose and ascended into heaven where now he sits at the right hand of God as King over his Church and over his creation.
Yet salvation is not just a matter of belief; it is a matter of confession that Jesus is Lord. That is simply another way of saying that Jesus is not just a King, but that he is your King and that you live your life in submission to him. That, of course, sends us back to John’s language which speaks of practicing righteousness or practicing sin. You cannot confess Jesus as Lord with any sense of integrity or meaning if you do not seek to live in obedience to His Law. No, we are not saved by our obedience; our obedience is the testimony that we are saved. If someone seeks to live life however they wish and cares not for what the Word of God commands of him, that person cannot be said to be a Christian and thus these promises do not belong to him. Sobering, isn’t it?
Being one of “those who believe” is not something that only requires church attendance from you — a couple hours on Sunday mornings. No, being “those who believe” is something that demands a lifestyle from you — one that is in submission to the Word of God in every way possible. No, we won’t get it right all of the time, but that is not the call. Our call is to strive in that direction so that our King is honored by the actions of those who profess Him.
Assurance of Salvation
“giving light to the eyes of your heart to know the hope of his calling, which is the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints and which is the exceeding greatness of his power toward us, those who believe, according to the outworking of his power and might.”
And thus, when there is light in the eyes of your heart — when the Holy Spirit has opened your eyes so that you may see with eyes of faith and not with natural sight — what is the end goal? It is that we may know the hope of God’s calling. This is a matter of both confidence and assurance.
Assurance is a question with which many Christians struggle. “How can I know that I am saved?” people often ask. Arguably the two most poignant passages that can be pointed to are in Habakkuk 2:4 and Romans 8:16. In the first, the prophet makes the very clear statement that the righteous shall live by faith. This passage, of course, is quoted by Paul in Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, and then in Hebrews 10:38. The second passage mentioned above speaks of the Holy Spirit testifying to our spirit that we are children of God. Since only those who are elect to salvation are God’s children, if the Holy Spirit so testifies to us that we are God’s children, then that is a mark of the faith we have.
True, these two passages are somewhat subjective. Nevertheless, they give you a clear starting point. Look at your life. Do you live righteously? Or, at least, do you try to do so to the best of your ability? And, when a Christian brother or sister points out sin in your life, do you seek to reform that sin because you want to honor Jesus by the way you live? If this describes you, it is a pretty good indication that you are a true Christian. And, if the testimony of the Holy Spirit affirms with your spirit that you are a born again believer — a child of God — then again, you should take this as assurance.
In a more objective sense, 1 John also offers us a very clear indicator of the mark of a Christian versus the mark of a non-Christian. There are various questions about what one believes regarding sin, regarding the person of Christ, and how one lives out their faith. One of the most striking questions that John asks is whether you love your brothers and sisters in faith. John goes as far as to say that if you see a fellow believer in need and you close your heart to him when you have the ability to help, then God’s love does not abide in you (1 John 3:17). In the verses that lead up to this statement, John addresses things from the other perspective and states that everyone who hates his brother is a murderer and eternal life does not dwell in him (1 John 3:15). So, more objectively, perhaps, you can ask yourself, have you hardened your heart against a fellow Christian and are refusing to help him or her when they have need? If so, you are not a believer according to the Apostle John. Repent and sin against your brother no more.
Faith gives assurance, but that faith needs to be a genuine faith — one that affects not just the perception you have of yourself but also the way you live. And that is where the boldness of hope comes into play. Part of the reason that the Christian does not live in the same way the world lives is because we have a hope of something better. What is the world to us when we are promised both heaven and a new creation? Why would we even want to build our treasure here where it can be spoiled or taxed away from us? No, as Christians we store up our treasures in heaven. We do not allow our churches to function as businesses; we function like military outposts in enemy territory, laboring to tear down every stronghold that raises itself up against the knowledge of God. We have the boldness or confidence to live in that way because we hav the hope of glory. Beloved, if you are a true Christian, you will seek to store your treasure in heaven and not on earth. Be at work building the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Questions of Assurance
“who is the downpayment of our inheritance, into the redemption of his possession, to the praise of his glory.”
The classic definition of faith is found in Hebrews 1:11:
“And faith is the essence of that which is hoped for, the proof of things not seen.”
This is a definition which we have explored elsewhere and does not bear repeating here. The main idea that the author of Hebrews is driving home is that the faith given to us is part of the proof that God is working within our lives — proof to us and proof to the world. What follows, then, in Hebrews 11, is a series of examples from the lives of those with faith as to what that faith looks like when it is lived out in a believer’s life. One might summarize the chapter this way, “If you live boldly for God and for His Kingdom then it is an indication that you have faith and the faith that you have (as it comes from God) is that which affirms that you are genuinely a child of God.
Paul is alluding to that same idea here. Paul again, ties this idea of a downpayment (or earnest) with the notion of being sealed by the Holy Spirit in 2 Corinthians 1:22 and reminds us that this is once again a work of God in 2 Corinthians 5:5. Why a downpayment? That is simply because we will not understand the fullness of the sealing of the Holy Spirit and the fullness of our faith until we are glorified in the presence of our King and Lord, Jesus Christ. Yet, for now, God gives us a little taste of such things in this life through the faith we are given — and this is a big part of the assurance that we have.
Over the years as a minister, one of the questions that I have often fielded is that of assurance. “How can I know that I am saved?” people ask. Certainly, one of the places I go is to Romans 10 and ask, “Do you believe that God raised Jesus from the dead?” Then I ask, “Do you confess that Jesus is Lord of your life in word by action?” Assuming the answer is “yes” to both of these questions, then my response is to remind them of God’s promise that you will be saved. Remember, our salvation rests in God’s will and power and not in our own.
That said, people often want something that is more experiential in nature (not that a living testimony of Jesus’ Lordship is not experiential — it most certainly is!). So, in such cases, I remind them of this passage and of that in Hebrews 11:1. I ask, “Do you have faith?” If the answer is “yes,” then that faith comes from God himself and he has given it as a kind of “good-faith payment” to assure you that in the fullness of time, what he has begun in you he will make complete and whole. Though you see as through a mirror dimly now, you will one day see as if face to face. If you struggle with assurance of salvation, be encouraged by the faith you have, it is deposited in you by God as a sign that he will fully apply the payment worked by Christ on the cross and bring you eternally into his presence.
There is Intellectual Content to the Christian Faith
Soapbox time… One of the things that really bugs me is when people believe that they can believe whatever they want to believe and yet still be called a “Christian.” True, there are certain things that are disagreed upon within the Christian faith — subject and mode of baptism, forms of liturgy, and the nature of the end times for example. But there are also some ideas and facts that are non-negotiable and are a “must be affirmed” part of the Christian faith.
This means two things…first, that there is intellectual content to the Christian faith. In other words, there are ideas that a person must positively affirm to be considered a Christian. Or, maybe even simpler yet, Christianity is not a set of feelings that you might have toward God or fellow man. It is not that “fuzzy-warm” sense that all things are going to be okay. And being a Christian (and with that, your assurance of salvation) has a great deal more to do with what you think than what you feel inwardly.
Think about it this way: there is a saying in America that the only things that are guaranteed are death and taxes. Let’s take the second part of that. Every year, come mid-April, people in America need to file their income tax paperwork (or an extension in some cases). If you do not file your taxes by this time than you can be assured that the IRS is going to visit you at some stage of the ballgame. As Americans, we are assured of this — that is the job of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). That assurance does not come from any set of feelings that we may or may not have. It comes from the facts that surrounding what the IRS is and what it is designed to do. It is built on an intellectual content about the IRS that is defined not by you, but by the IRS.
Similarly, when it comes to our assurance of salvation, we too must recognize that this assurance does not come from our inward feelings or preferences. It comes from our knowledge of God — who he is, what he has done, and what he has promised to his elect. Feelings and preferences are irrelevant in this case. We know what we know about God because God has revealed these things about himself…feelings about God are irrelevant. All weight must be based on what has been revealed in the Scriptures.
The second thing that this means is that if we are going to call ourselves Christian, we must affirm those things that God reveals about himself and cannot confirm that which is contrary. For example, there are some people who claim to be Christian yet deny the Triune nature of our God. Such is an untenable position. The God presents himself within the Scriptures as three persons yet one God. The creeds and confessions do not create this doctrine, the creeds and confessions simply articulate in a concise form what the Scriptures teach in a more exhaustive way. And thus, there are not only teachings that the Christian must positively affirm to be a Christian, but there are also positions which one cannot reject.
And thus, question 22 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, what does the Christian have to believe (intellectual content of the Christian faith)? The answer? “All that is taught in the Gospel…” And what is the Gospel? Good News — and that is all of Scripture. What comes next is how the Apostles’ Creed is helpful in explaining this in concise form (so long as we understand the Creed rightly). And though we are not saved by our knowledge, those who are brought to Christ in faith submit their understanding to the authority of Christ just as they do every other aspect of their lives.
A Sincere Trust
Remember those days when you were first learning to swim, perhaps with your father or mother standing beside the swimming pool, encouraging you to jump in and they would catch you? Perhaps it was learning to ride a two-wheeled bike for the first time and your parent (or maybe a trusted older sibling) was keeping you up, saying “trust me, I’ve got you.” Perhaps the thing to which you can relate is stepping out in a business venture and your partner or backers saying, “trust me, you got this!”
We rely a great deal on trust…and to some extent, if you don’t place your trust in others you end up becoming a curmudgeon and a cynic and you isolate yourselves from relationships. But even though trust is a part of most of our relationships, often we do not spend much time thinking about what trust happens to be.
The dictionary defines trust in terms of your “belief in the reliability” of another — in other words, it points to someone or something that is outside of you upon which you rely. In many ways, the word is almost synonymous with the word, “faith.” Trust is that recognition that if you rely upon another person, they will not let you down.
And so, when the Catechism, in Question 21, asks about true faith, it speaks of having a sincere trust that the Holy Spirit works in me through the Gospel. What is this all about? The Spirit has many roles in the life of the believer — he is counselor (John 16:7), teacher (John 14:26; 1 John 2:27), and giver of gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) amongst other things. But most basically, His role is to conform the life of the believer into the image of the Son.
How does the Spirit do this? The most basic way he does this task is through the Gospel — through the word studied and preached and applied to the life of the Christian. We might even more simply speak of this in the context of the “ordinary means of grace” or in the context of the “keys of the kingdom,” both of which we will talk about more later in this catechism.
And so, an aspect of True faith, or saving faith as some would put it, is the trust that the Spirit is at work in me, conforming me into the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29) — in other words, that tomorrow I might look more like Jesus than I did today. Trusting also implies that we act upon that trust — striving as empowered by the Holy Spirit toward this goal of honoring Christ, whether through applying the Ten Commandments to my life as a way to grow in my sanctification or in seeking to be obedient to the many other commands we would see Jesus, our Lord, set before us. In other words, genuine trust requires an action on my part — a response to that trust — jumping in the pool, riding the bike, entering that business venture. We act in faith in the confidence that the Spirit is acting in us through the Gospel.
And note one more thing…it is the trust that the Spirit is acting in us through the Gospel — this does not require (or even speak of!) supernatural works (this I would argue, ended at the close of the first century with the close of the Canon). It is through the Gospel — the written revelation of God contained in the Bible. A humble and faithful life, rooted in the Word of God, is a far greater testimony than all the “miracles” that man might like to think he can produce.
The Tyranny of the Devil
“Be self-controlled. Be Alert. Your enemy the devil goes about roaring, seeking one to devour. Oppose him firm in the faith, knowing that these things are being endured throughout the world by your brothers.”
(1 Peter 5:8-9)
“And the dragon became angry about the woman and departed to make war with her remaining offspring — those who keep the commands of God and who have the witness of Jesus.”
As a Christian in this fallen world, life can be hard. We know the promise that Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33) and thus, in Him, we also have overcome the world by faith (1 John 5:4). We know that the world will hate us (1 John 3:13) and that we are engaged in a war with the powers and principalities of evil in the world around us (Ephesians 6:12). Yet, that does not lessen the reality that life can be really hard — choices of doing the right or the wrong thing, times of grieving in the presence of death, persecution and mocking for the faith that we have, life is not easy.
Perhaps that is why we most need to be reminded that, as Christians, not only has Jesus’ blood paid the penalty to satisfy the Law of God, but his blood has also broken us from the power of the Devil. Yes, the Devil is still a tyrant. And yes, the Devil is still an accuser. And yes, too, the Devil still seeks to prowl and destroy and can make our lives miserable. Yet, the Devil has no eternal power over us and can do nothing to us apart from the permission of God, which means the Devil is often God’s tool to refine the Christian in faith.
But why does the Heidelberg Catechism speak of Jesus’ blood as that which breaks the power and tyranny of the Devil? The author of Hebrews puts it this way:
“Therefore, because the children share in the blood and flesh, he also similarly partook of it in order that through death he should exhaust him who holds the power of death, that is the devil.”
Peter similarly writes:
“And if you call upon him as Father, who is an impartial judge over the deeds of all, live in fear during your time as an alien, knowing that not with the perishable silver or gold you were ransomed from your vain lifestyle inherited from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ — like a lamb without blemish and without defect.”
(1 Peter 1:17-19)
Do you see what these texts are saying? The power that the Accuser had over us was that we stood guilty before the Law of God. Yet, with the death of Christ on the cross, he removes our guilt, taking it upon himself — Jesus being the substitute to fully satisfy the Law of God for all of God’s elect. And if Jesus has done this, then the power the devil has over us is exhausted — completely and thoroughly. There is no nuance of the Law that Jesus did not satisfy and thus the Devil is without power.
And, for those who go through trials in this life where it seems as if the Devil is perpetually pouncing, this is good and encouraging news. Sadly, there are many who would rob the Christian of this assurance. They would argue that the death of Christ only creates a potentiality not an actuality. In other words, they say that Jesus’ death makes it possible for a person to be released from the Devil’s grasp, but there remains in the hands of the individual believer an action that must be taken to turn this potential into something that is realized. In most cases, that action is a choice that the person must make to ask for this release.
You might say, but what inmate in prison would not ask for release from their bondage? The reality is that many prisoners do not. They have become accustomed to their cells, they are afraid of what release might entail for them, the comfort of their wicked ways shines brighter to them than the moral obedience required in society. Further, in the kind of prison that unbelievers are in, from the point they enter the world, is such a kind as those in prison do not realize that they are in prison. They are bound and they know no different. And so, if they do not know they are enslaved, how is it possible to ask for release? Further, if they believe they are free agents, how will they believe those who will tell them otherwise? No, they must be given ears to hear that will register and understand their predicament and new ears, just like new life, must come from God, not man.
In addition, the presumption that man must ask for release implies that there is some small nuance of the Law that Jesus’ blood did not satisfy. And if one suggests that Jesus’ blood does not satisfy even the smallest bit of the Law, does that not contradict what Jesus said when he claimed to come to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17)? I do not think that even those who claim you must ask for Jesus’ fulfilled work would be so bold as to suggest that Jesus’ death is lacking, but that is the implication of their view.
Think of it in this way. If someone commits a crime and is sent to prison for a five-year sentence. At the end of his (or her) designated time, that person is set free. Not only does that person not have to ask to be set free, but were that person to ask to remain in prison for another 3-5 years, his request would be flatly denied — the demands of the law have been satisfied, it would be unjust to keep you in prison for a crime that is no longer held against you. And, if such is the case with earthly prisons, how much more so when it comes to eternity?
No, if one suggests that a small portion of the Law has not been satisfied (namely the request to make it your own), then the Devil still has leverage in your life. Perhaps you did not ask in the right way. Perhaps you need to ask more frequently than you have done so. Perhaps the asking did not “take,” could it be that since you still struggle with sins that you were mistaken in your asking? Do you see how easily the Devil can exploit this gap? If a weed gets its roots set in even the smallest crack in your concrete walkway, it will grow and expand that crack — it will even break the concrete to pieces if left unchecked long enough. And this idea of “decision theology” leaves open no mere crack, but a chasm large enough to bring doubt through.
No, loved ones, the Bible is quite clear that Jesus’ work is sufficient to save and there is nothing we can add to it and nothing we can take from it. That means the Law has been fully and absolutely fulfilled by Jesus for God’s elect. God then applies that salvation in His time by giving people spiritual rebirth and faith so that they might have ears to hear the call of the Gospel and that they might have lips to repent of their sins and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Yes, the believer makes a confession, but the confession is not that which applies salvation to their soul, no, the confession is the response to God’s saving work in their lives.
And thus, believer, take heart, for Jesus has overcome the world and in faith, we too are overcomers.
Pursuing Virtue is a Virtue
“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”
Virtue is again one of these words we don’t hear a lot in our modern, western culture…perhaps apart from a phrase that no one really seems to take seriously: “Patience is a virtue.” Indeed, patience is a virtue but few people seem to want to work on practicing patience as they live out their lives. Everyone seems to want the things they want… “And we want them, NOW!”
Yet there is more to the idea of a virtue than just patience. The meaning of the term is to have “excellence of character.” Interestingly, this Greek term only shows up 4 times in the New Testament…in each case, commending us to live virtuous lives, but never giving us a detailed exposition of those traits that one might consider virtuous. Yet, as we study the Bible, we are not left to our own imaginations as to defining the term for virtue, because it is also used 6 times in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and in each case, the term is applied to the character of God. Thus, it is God’s character that defines what is virtuous and as we seek to model our lives after the example of Jesus Christ, we then seek virtue.
In historic Christian theology, virtue was often defined as “Faith, Hope, and Love,” reflecting Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 13. During the reign of King Louis IX (1226-1270 AD) in France, the notion of Christian virtue was nuanced slightly to become “faith, wisdom, and chivalry,” but again, embracing the notion of excellence in character. In the Roman Catholic Catechism, they present 7 virtues (to contrast with the “Seven Deadly Sins”) by combining the ancient Greek “Cardinal Virtues” of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage with the three “Theological Virtues” of faith, hope, and love.
However you construct or deconstruct these lists, the end result should be the same…we should emulate the character of God as we live our lives and in doing so, that produces virtue within us. God is the source and seat of all virtue, we will only find that virtue in emulating Him and His ways. Further, Peter reminds us that adding virtue to the faith God has given to us is not simply a virtuous thing to do, but it is commanded lest we remain “nearsighted to the point of blindness” (2 Peter 1:9).
Stand With Conviction in the Lord
“Therefore, my beloved and longed for brothers, my joy and my crown, be firmly committed to the Lord, my beloved.”
The message that Paul leaves us with in this verse is simple, but profound. He begins with another display of affection for this church. He speaks of them being the object of his love and of his longing — his desire, as he said before, is to be with them face to face, not at a distance. He calls them his joy and his crown, which may seem a bit odd to us at first, for we usually see Paul applying this kind of language toward Christ, not men. That said, these Christians in Philippi have embraced Christ through the message of the Gospel brought by Paul. In addition, they have been faithful in aiding Paul in his ministry and they are continuing to uphold Paul in prayer. Thus, it should be no surprise that they have earned a special place in Paul’s heart…thus his words of affection. The notion of a crown is that of the garland a runner might earn for running a race well. Paul has done just that as he awaits his execution in prison. Then the verse closes with a reference to the people as beloved (while we could read this final “beloved” as applying to Christ, context seems to dictate that it again applies to the people of Philippi).
We are left with one instruction, then, in this verse. “Be firmly committed to the Lord.” You could render this also as “stand with conviction in the Lord.” Both would convey the same notion. Those things that are right and true and given to us by God are things that we must stand upon and stand for — even fight for when necessary. I am sometimes accused in the broader community of holding too fiercely to those things that I believe to be revealed in Scripture — things that some people would call “Evangelical Truths” in some circles, though the word “Evangelical” seems to be thrown around so often today that I venture that many can no longer define the term. I have sometimes been told that I am too narrow in my position that there is salvation in no other person than in Jesus Christ alone. To those who so challenge me, I ask, what would the Apostle Paul have to say?
So, beloved, be firmly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and to everything that our Lord has spoken and taught. Further, be committed to everything that our Lord has revealed, which is the entirety of the 66 books of the Bible. Do not back down from these things, for as Peter remarks, Jesus is the only one that has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). If Jesus alone has the words of eternal life, why would we bother listening to others? Stand firm in what is true and do not fear the criticisms of those who would water down the truth. They are of this world and will not listen to us because we are not…our homeland is in heaven.
Entering Into Christ’s Sufferings
“to know him and the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of his sufferings, sharing in the sake kind of death as his —”
What does it mean to be “found in Christ”? It means that in the context of his imputation of righteousness to us, we come into relationship with him — we know him — and that knowledge gives us a promise of the resurrection to come. He who was raised from the dead will also raise us that we may indeed experience the power of that resurrection firsthand.
Yet, the power of the resurrection also comes at a cost. Paul writes of a fellowship of suffering and entering into a death that is “like his.” How are we to understand this death? Certainly, one must not die on a cross to enter heaven? So, what does Paul mean by this? As you continue to read the flow of Paul’s language, he explains exactly what he means by this — Paul means the putting to death of his sins and the things of the world that he might boast in. That means suffering, when God calls him to suffer, that he might be found faithful in service and grow more like Christ.
Yet, this notion of suffering is something that often is difficult for us to hear. We have been accustomed to the notion that we are to seek the comforts of life and that suffering is somehow undesirable. Yet, did not our Lord choose to suffer for us? Did not our Lord choose to die on the cross for us? And did not our Lord enter into glory through the pathway of suffering? If it was good enough for our Lord’s entrance into heaven, is it not good enough for us? Is not suffering often the way that God refines those who are most precious to him? As C.S. Lewis wrote in his Problem of Pain, if we ask for less suffering and not more, are we not asking God for less love and not more?
We live in a world where many Christians are dying for their faith. And, these Christian brothers and sisters count it their privilege to “enter into” our Lord’s sufferings. At the same time, in the west, we live in a world where, while there is comfort for those who believe, people and churches are apostatizing faster than can be counted. While it is quite true that the freedoms we enjoy in this western world have been a great and profound blessing to the church, particularly in the realm of discipleship (formation of Christian Schools, Colleges, Seminaries, Book Publishers, etc…), with that freedom there has also been a fertile seedbed for false teachers and lazy believers. Let us be neither, even at the cost of persecution, that we may guide the church in a way that willingly enters into Christ’s sufferings — internally as we put sin to death and externally as we face persecution.
Righteousness from God dependent on Faith
“And that I might be found in him, not having my own righteousness from the Law, but rather through faith in Christ — a righteousness from God that is dependent on faith.”
“Therefore, having been justified as a result of faith, we have peace toward God through our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
This is one of the most theologically significant verses in Scripture when it comes to the nature of the righteousness we have in Christ. Paul is making it very clear that the Christian does have a righteousness … a righteousness that comes not from the works of the individual (for our works are surely dung) but instead that comes from Jesus himself — the works of Jesus imputed to the believer. We might even say, on the basis of this text, that this righteousness is a sign that genuine faith has been given to the believer (a sign of rebirth).
I think that it is worth clarifying a distinction here between Paul’s language in this verse and the language he uses in Romans 5:1…namely the distinction between righteousness dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosune) and justification dikaio/w (dikaio’o). We should note that both are related words, the first being a noun and the second being a verb. They also both deal with a legal standing that one might have before a judge or a court of law. The verb, dikaio/w (dikaio’o) — “to justify” — refers to a pronouncement made by a judge that a person is righteous. The noun, dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosune) — “righteousness” — refers to that actual righteousness that a person has which is the basis for the pronouncement by the judge.
Why is this important? It is argued by some (incorrectly so) that the reason those justified are righteous is because of the pronouncement that they are righteous. Yet, that presumes righteousness to be an adjective and not a noun, and thus a description and not a thing. Yet, when the term dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosune) — “righteousness” — is used in Paul (and also in the LXX), it is a term that refers to the actual righteousness of the one coming under judgment.
Are we splitting hairs here? At first, it might seem like it, but let me explain a little further. If righteousness is something that is based on the declaration of God as judge, then it has been argued by some that the personal nature of salvation becomes something that God does for a group or a body of people — God declares the church to be righteous…further, your standing before God then relies on the standing of the church and not your own standing before God.
While Jesus did establish the church, our righteousness does not come from the church or our relationship to it. What Paul is teaching here is that God pronounces us to be justified because we are righteous. And why are we righteous? Certainly not because of our own works … they are dung … we are righteous through faith in Jesus Christ. God gives rebirth, generates saving faith within us which imputes to us Christ’s righteousness, and then he declares what is so — that we are righteous…not by works of the law, but by the work of Christ. And faith, which Paul writes is the basis on which righteousness stands or falls, comes from and finds its power in Christ.
And folks, that is good news because our works are dung and the church has often misled, falling far short of what Christ instituted it to be. That does not mean that we abandon the church as some in the emergent movement have sought to do, but simply that we recognize that our standing before God is not built on the church. Yet, as people who have been made righteous, we are to work as the church to be salt and light, to disciple the nations, and to tear down the high places that this world has set up to rail against God. We have work to do as the church, work not done in our own strength, but in the strength that comes from the Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit…and work that is done righteously not because of our own righteousness, but because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.
Pursuing the Gospel, not Self
“Now, I want you to know, brothers, that which has happened to me is rather for the advancement of the Gospel;”
Paul’s focus here and always is on the advancement of the Gospel. He is willing to suffer anything and lose everything, and still call it good, so long as the Gospel goes forth. For Paul, every encounter, good or ill, is an opportunity to share the Gospel with those who are perishing. And oh, how far short of Paul’s example we generally fall.
How easy it is for us, in today’s age, to forget that we know the answer to the question that people are asking in the depths of their soul. We know that there is a God and that he is the one that gives meaning to life. We know that though we all fall woefully short of the standard of perfection that God sets, he sent his Son, Jesus, to live amongst us, show us the Father’s character in himself, and then to die in our place that we might stand in his place in judgement…we might be viewed as righteous sons, not disobedient rebels. We know that there is life after death and that the only way to the Father is through the Son and all who reject the Son will be cast into the fires of Hell…righteous judgment for a life of sin and rebellion against the Father. We know the Truth of these matters and we have also experienced the life that comes from being indwell by the Spirit of God…why do we shy away from sharing this with others? Why do we not use every opportunity as a tool to advance the Gospel?
Sadly, our tendency is to be consumed with ourselves. When things are going wrong…maybe we are hospitalized for something…we tend to focus on our suffering rather than use the interaction with Doctors, Nurses, and other care-givers as a chance to share the Gospel. When things are going well, perhaps when we are making plans for a wedding or graduation, we tend to be focused again on the details of our own celebration rather than in using this event to evangelize guests or those who we are hiring to cater, decorate, or provide other services. Loved ones, we do this not because of God’s design for us, we do this because of sin. Paul sets another model for us, one where self is secondary to Gospel and where even though he has suffered and has been falsely imprisoned, he is still using these events to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Will you, this day, covenant to start seeing all your interactions as opportunities to share the Gospel with others instead of serving self? Such is the model that Paul sets before us.
I am Persuaded
“being persuaded of this: that the one who began a good work in you will accomplish it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
This verse is well known to many of us, and what a beautiful statement it is and indeed, it is the true source of joy for Paul as he reflects upon the dear saints in the Philippian church. Yes, they have been his helper and have provided him with a gift so he may continue the work of ministry in Rome, but more importantly, Paul has the assurance that the work the Spirit began in this church will be continually worked out in faith until that glorious day when our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ will return.
The language of the “Day of Christ Jesus” is a reference to the Old Testament language of “The Day of the Lord.” In the ancient cultures there was a notion that one day there would come a king who would be powerful enough to defeat all of his enemies in a single day and thus conquer the known world. Indeed, the ancient world never saw such a king for the one to whom that pointed was Christ Jesus. And indeed, on the cross, Jesus slew the great and powerful enemy, Satan, and demonstrated that he had defeated death by raising from the dead on the third day. In addition, when our Lord comes again, the scriptures speak of a time when all of the armies of the world will raise up against the righteous one and will be crushed under the foot of our Lord’s judgment. Indeed, what a glorious day that will be!
In the meantime, there is a promise that we can cling to as well. The work that has been begun in us by God is not work that rests on our skills or abilities to bring to completion. Indeed, it rests on God for His completion. And that is good news. How easy it is, sometimes, to get discouraged that the work you are seeking to do in a church, in a community, or even in a family is not bearing much fruit or any fruit at all. We set our timetables and our agendas for such things, but God has his own timetable and it is in God’s timetable that we must learn to trust and it is in his power (not our efforts) we must learn to rely. For indeed, as Paul says of this church, I too am persuaded that our God is able to continue his work in this world and even in this particular church until that day when he sends his Son to bring judgement upon his enemies once and for all time.
Where Does Your Understanding of Jesus Come From?
“Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again and questioned Jesus and said to him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you say this from yourself or has another spoken to you concerning me?’”
Jesus has thus been returned to Pilate’s custody and now Pilate must decide how to handle the matter. His first question to Jesus returns to the matter of politics — is this man a threat to Rome. While it may be a surprise that Jesus breaks his silence for a moment, it ought to be considered that this is, for the first time, a private audience without the priests screaming false accusations. Here, an honest conversation can take place. More importantly, Jesus uses this opportunity to change the discussion from the earthly to the eternal.
What is striking about this dialogue is its similarity to one that Jesus had with Peter earlier in his ministry, recorded in Matthew 16:15-17. Jesus is asking his disciples who people said he was. Many answers were given and then Jesus made the question more personal and asked Peter who he said that Jesus was. Peter’s response has become the bedrock of the Christian profession of faith — “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
But notice what Jesus says to follow: “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” This question of Jesus is a spiritual question. Jesus is asking whether Pilate is saying this because that is what he is thinking or because it has been told by another. The right answer would have been, “because I have been told by the Holy Spirit.” This, of course, was not in Pilate’s vocabulary and thus his response is very different than Jesus‘ — rather than professing Christ, the rock upon which the church is built, he professes that one cannot know anything that is true, but we get ahead of ourselves.
The definition of King and Lord and Savior is radically different depending on the source of that understanding. Many would intellectually call Jesus their Lord or King, but have lives that do not reflect that this is something they really believe. Many call Jesus Savior out of an emotional response, often from an experience during a difficult time in their lives, but when the emotion fades the lifestyle does not reflect the profession. The truest way to test a profession of faith is by watching the person persevere in that faith as they live their life because we can reform our lives for a short time, but lasting change requires a work of the Holy Spirit. Pilate sadly demonstrates the source of his understanding about Jesus (or lack thereof); what is the source of yours?
Hope or Despair; Life or Death
“Then, when Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he had second thoughts and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? Look to yourself.’”
In the flow of things, this is a little out of order (at least with Matthew’s chronology). The main thing to remember, in this case, is that this event is essentially taking place at the same time as some of the mob demands before Pilate — behind the scenes. Moving it down into this position in the harmonized account, allows for the full story around Pilate to be told and then the comments around Judas’ betrayal.
A contrast takes place here, though, that is very important to note. Here, Judas is called, “the betrayer,” a name that will stick with Judas through the rest of history. The term that is used is paradi/dwmi (paradidomi), which literally means “one who delivers.” In this case, context has clarified how the delivery takes place, for Judas has delivered Jesus into the hands of the wicked. The contrast that takes place, though, is that you have two deliverers at work in this passage — Judas the betrayer, the one who delivers Jesus into the hands of the wicked, and Jesus the deliverer of the elect of God. One a worker of unrighteousness the other the Lord of all righteousness. Indeed, what a sad contrast this is.
We are told that Judas had second thoughts. The term used here is metame/lomai (metamelomai) and it conveys the sense of being sorry for an action, regretting one’s decision, and wishing that it could be undone. We should not see this as repentance, though. Typically the word translated as “repent” is metanoe/w (metanoeo), and refers to a total change in one’s worldview or perspective. Judas felt bad because he realized his betrayal was that of condemning an innocent man to death, but his hard heart did not change (to be evidenced by his suicide to follow). Nevertheless, there is honest grief that is exhibited here.
Judas seeks to undo his actions rather than asking Christ for forgiveness, thinking that if he returns the blood money he won’t be as culpable. Again, this is a sign of a heart that is not regenerate, simply regrets his actions and fears his future condemnation. The priests are unable to accept blood money, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Notice, though, their response to Judas. “It’s your problem, not ours” is essentially what they tell him. They have what they want and nothing can undo the events that will soon transpire.
The final phrase is translated in a variety of ways, often implying that Judas is responsible for fixing his own mess — “don’t involve us” is implied. I would suggest that is partially true, but misses the force of this statement. They say, “look to yourself” or even “look on yourself” (the verb there is a “middle” form, implying an action that one is doing upon or to oneself). Here’s the thing. Judas is sorry for his actions and is going to the priests. It was the priests whose role was to be the intercessor between God and man for sins. They are basically saying to him that there is nothing they can do, he needs to make atonement by his own works — they demonstrate their own impotence as priests do do what they have been called to do. Judas will not run to Christ, he recognizes he stands condemned, what will be left to do but to take his own life — indeed he will look to himself.
Oh, beloved, the despair that comes from looking upon oneself for your own deliverance. It simply cannot be done. No matter how high and lofty the Christ-less ideals of the unbeliever may sound to our ears, they cannot hope to live them out and will end up in despair…like Judas. There is hope in one name for in only one name is there forgiveness for sins and a promise of deliverance from this body of death. And that name is the name of Jesus Christ! Run to him! Cling to him! And call the world to do the same! For in Him and in Him alone there is life and hope and peace and joy! Oh the sorrows we inflict upon ourselves when we seek to take matters into our own hands; what life there is in the hands of Christ. Choose this day, loved ones, whom you will serve — and do it! Live out your faith in everything you say and do, growing in faith and grace yourself and pointing others to the only hope for this life and for the next. Amen.
Faith of Our Fathers
“And it came to pass that Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the cave of Makpelah — the one in the field of Ephron the son of Tsohar the Hittite which is in the direction of Mamre — the field which Abraham bought from the sons of the Hittites. There Abraham was buried along with Sarah, his wife.”
Abraham’s body is now placed in the same cave which he bought to hold his wife’s body — property that rightfully belongs to him. As we read in Genesis 23, Abraham goes to lengths to ensure that this property is rightfully purchased and belongs to him, not something given as a gift or a loan — not something that the Hittites would have any recourse to come and take back. But a piece of property that now belongs to Abraham and is meant as a covenantal foretaste of the reality that one day Abraham’s descendants will come back and take the whole land as their own. Compared to the whole, it is a small spot — yet it is a spot nonetheless and it is here that Abraham’s body will be buried alongside of his wife’s remains.
And notice that it is not all of the sons of Abraham that return to bury their father. Nor is it Isaac alone. But Isaac and Ishmael work together to this end. This may seem odd to us, but Isaac is the son of the covenant and Ishmael is a son that is covenantally blessed because of his lineage from Abraham (see Genesis 16:11-12; 21:18). From both men great nations will arise — nations that will perpetually be at war with one another even up until this very day. His other sons are sons nonetheless, but no covenantal promise is attached to them. They are simply a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the sky.
And here ends the account of Abraham, the friend of God. What follows in this chapter is the transition of the covenant story to the life of Isaac, Abraham’s son. The baton has been passed from one generation of promise to the next. To cite God’s statement regarding Abraham earlier in his life — here is one who will “teach his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice…” (Genesis 18:19). May that statement be made of each of our households as we seek to pass the baton of faith from one generation to the next…
“So Rebekah and her young women got up and they mounted camels and followed after the man. In this way the servant took Rebekah and went on.”
And thus Laban and the rest of the family are left behind … for the moment at least … and Rebekah travels on with Eliezer to meet Isaac and Abraham. One must commend Rebekah as well as Eliezer for their faith, but in different ways. For Eliezer, his faith is demonstrated in his willingness to follow his master; for Rebekah, faith is demonstrated in her willingness to follow the instructions of Abraham never having seen him or having known his character. She trusts in his authority and follows; Eliezer knows Abraham’s authority and follows. Jesus said blessed are those who believe without having to see (John 20:29). Eliezer has seen Abraham and has witnessed the mighty works that God has done through this man; Rebekah has not, yet she still follows. Eliezer reasonably knows what the outcome will be when he returns home to Abraham; Rebekah does not.
Miracles and magnificent works really are overrated. While they can perhaps confirm faith, they are impotent in producing faith and the faith that Jesus commends is a faith that does not rely on such works. How often, when we are called upon by God to follow his leading in big or even in small ways, we hesitate. We desire confirmation while God desires obedience. We are often more like the child that always asks his parents, “why,” rather than the child who follows in obedience. Loved ones, obedience is the call to which God has called us; may we follow into the unknown — even sight unseen! — along the pathway that God has laid before us and see what God will do through our lives.
“‘Yet, if this woman does not want to come with you, then you will be blameless according to this oath. Only my son must not return there.’”
One might be tempted to suppose that even Abraham has a little doubt in his mind by making this statement, yet the statement that he is making seems to be more directed to ease the fears of his servant. Were Abraham giving himself a “way out” then a suggestion for a ‘Plan B’ might have been suggested. Instead, Abraham tells his servant, “Go and if she does not return with you, come back empty-handed.” Abraham seems confident that such will not be the case, but as his servant is asking the “what if” question, Abraham provides the answer.
How often we get bogged down in all of the “what-if” questions of life and by being bogged down, we never act or step out in faith. How often we fail to trust God’s faithfulness enough to trust him to do what human planning could never hope to achieve. Abraham knows what it means to walk in faith not knowing what tomorrow will bring and Abraham’s servant has at least witnessed it in his master (remember that this servant is the steward over all of Abraham’s house and is likely Eliezer of Damascus mentioned in Genesis 15:2), but to soothe Eliezer’s worries, Abraham says, “return, but don’t take Isaac there.” Isaac must stay in the promised land.
Loved ones, life is full of chances and risks to which God calls us to step into. Have the confidence to trust God in taking those risks. Be bold and of good courage, the God of Abraham is the same God we worship today and as he was faithful in all of Abraham’s years, so too, he will be faithful to us in ours.
Faith and Obedience
“And the servant said to him, ‘Perhaps the woman will not consent to come with me to this land. Should I surely return with your son to the land from which you came out of?’”
The servant asks a very human question, though it is a question that betrays his lack of understanding of the hand of God in this event. He says, “Hey, what if she doesn’t want to come?” Put the matter in perspective, in her homeland, she has her father, brothers, extended family, a place to live, friends, and realistically a fair degree of security. Why would she leave to marry the son of a wanderer in a strange land? Then again, we might alter the question — why would one want to leave the relative security of home for a foreign land in the first place? This is exactly the same question that one might have posed to Abraham himself many years past, but Abraham was a man obedient to God’s call and his desire is to find a wife for his son who will too be a person faithful to God’s call regardless of how far outside of one’s comfort zone it happens to take them.
The last phrase of this verse is very significant given the context. Literally the servant refers to the land from which Abraham came as the land “which you came out of.” While on the surface, the wording may not seem overly significant, it is a reference to God’s hand of providence bringing him out of the land of his fathers and into a new land that God will give to him. Ur is no longer his homeland per say, but the land that he came out of, a reminder of God’s covenantal promises. Even the servant’s comment about returning with Isaac gives an indication of the significance of such an action, for he uses a repetition of the verb (Shall I return return — commonly rendered, “surely return”), intensifying the statement regarding the action he is proposing to take. The firmness of Abraham’s response is directly related to the language that the servant uses here.
How often, like this servant, we doubt the power of God to bring about his will. When the call is made or the command given, we ask “why” rather than saying, “here I am, send me.” May we be quick to follow the model of Abraham (and soon Rebekah) in terms of following God in faith.
A Little Taste of the Promise
“Afterwards, Abraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the field of Makpelah toward Mamre (which is Hebron), in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave which is in it were given up to Abraham as a possession for a grave from the Sons of Cheth.”
And with dignity and with a foretaste of what is to come, Abraham buries Sarah, his wife. Later, Abraham will also be brought to this site for burial. Though Abraham never saw fulfillment of the promise of the land, he did close his life owning a piece of property within the inheritance that God promised him. And in that, he was satisfied.
So much about Abraham’s life is about waiting and anticipating, it is no wonder that he is referred to as the Father of the Faithful (Romans 4:11). And much like Abraham, we too are called by God to wait on Him and upon His timing. How often we grow impatient at waiting for God to fulfill his promises. How often, because of our impatience, we miss the partial fulfillments that God places in our lives. For Abraham, the partial fulfillment took the form of a burial plot for Sarah. For us, our promised inheritance is in heaven, kept free from decay and defilement (1 Peter 1:4-5), but does not God give us little tastes of heaven in the context of Worship? Is not the gathered body of Christ meant to be a foretaste of heaven to come?
How often the worship of God’s people is little more than going through the motions. Beloved, when worship is only about what you are doing, then you will only ever get out of it what you put in…there is a zero sum gain. But when worship is only about God and what he is doing, then you taste his glory, which is a gain of everything and more. If you focus your worship on man, you will only find the walls of man’s own limitations. If your focus is upon God, then walls are broken down and we will come face to face with the transcendent God. For Abraham, his longing was for God himself; for you, what will it be?
“And Abraham said to the young men, ‘Keep yourselves here with the donkey and I and the boy will go up there. We will worship then we will return to you.”
At times, we are tempted to gloss over the language of this passage, but it is crucial to understanding the faith of Abraham as he is going up to the place of sacrifice with Isaac. After commanding the servants to stay with the donkey, he tells them that “we will go to worship” and “we will return.” In both cases, Abraham uses the plural form of the verb. It is clear that Abraham has every expectation that it will be both he and Isaac that come down from the mountain. Either God will provide a substitute or God will raise Isaac from the dead — either way, both will return down from the place of sacrifice. He has confidence in the fulfillment of God’s promises even if he does not fully understand how that promise will be fulfilled.
The confidence in God’s provision is a lesson that each of us could stand to be reminded up and learn from. How often do we take things into our own hands and seek our own ways and means of providing for our needs. God is gracious and he is gracious all of the time, yet somehow we forget and we worry and we wonder whether God will provide for our needs and preserve us in a given event even when God has been faithful in the past. How short our memories are when it comes to God’s grace. How often we are more like the unthankful steward who, having been forgiven 10,000 talents, neglects to forgive 100 denarii. How shameful we can be as those who carry the greatest treasure the world has ever known in our lives and who hold the key of truth in our arms.
Abraham and Isaac thus part company with the young men and head to worship God. An interesting point to note is the language for worship that is chosen here. The Hebrew word in question is the verb hÎwDj (chawah), which in itself is not overly remarkable. What is remarkable is that it is found in a rare verbal stem known as Hishtaphel. Technically, this stem is reflexive (the action is directed back at the one performing the action) and in the middle tense (the actor is performing the action upon himself). On the surface, that also may seem unremarkable. We might also add that in Hebrew, this is the only verb found in the Hishtafel construct, which in itself again is not overly remarkable given ancient verbal forms in the Old Testament.
What is remarkable is when you put all of these pieces together in the context of the event that we have before us. How can an act of worship be reflexive — that is turned back at oneself? How also can this verb be used in blessings over God’s people, suggesting that the nations will “worship” or “prostrate themselves” before God’s own (see Genesis 27:29)? The answer is found in the realization that the Hebrew language contains numerous words to communicate the idea of worship and that in this case, the aspect of worship that is in sight is that of one’s submission to another who is greater (as is the case with the nations to Jacob’s line in Genesis 27:29). Abraham understands that the act of worship he will be performing is one that is primarily focused on his own submission to God.
Our submission to God, though an act that honors our creator, is an act that we predominantly apply to ourselves (reflexive and middle). Our nature is to do our own thing; God’s demand on us is that we submit our will to his divine will. And in our submission we worship. How often we come into worship with no submission whatsoever. We say the words and go through the actions, but we withhold the one element that God yet demands from our being: our whole person. Believer, do not hold back from God, but give yourself in faith to His call and to His demand on your life. We may mouth the words of truth, but until our life is submitted to that truth, our worship is shallow at best. Abraham’s worship on this mountain will be far from perfect (for he is fallen), but he is offering everything he has in submission to God’s call; will you offer the same?
What to do when We Cannot See Our Way out of a Mess
“Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the waterskin and gave a drink to the lad.”
Sometimes people look at this passage and wonder at how Hagar could not have seen a well nearby. There are two elements we need to keep in mind when we begin to ask this question. The first is that God is sovereign and sometimes he deliberately blinds us to the reality around us to humble us and to teach us of his abundant grace. Essentially, God uses instances like this to get our attention focused on what is important. Sometimes we allow ourselves to get into a “funk” where we just cannot see past the dilemma that is before us; we get frustrated and we get tired and when this happens we just don’t think straight. The solution to our problem might be standing practically in our midst, but we just don’t look because we are selfishly focused on our problem. And here, in cases like these, God keeps our eyes shut. It is only when he can get our attention back upon himself, that he allows us to see the means by which he will lift the problem from our midst.
Hagar is in as great a time of distress as one could imagine. She has been kicked out of her home with her young son, has been given relatively little in the way of provision, and has wandered aimlessly into the wilderness with no plan and no way out. She collapses and just gives up, ready to die and hoping that she will not have to watch her son die as well. And here God comes to her. He reminds her of his promise and then opens her eyes. How little faith Hagar showed, but how often we too, who know the risen Christ, show a faith that is just as paltry.
The second thing that ought to be pointed out is that sometimes wells or springs are not as obvious as others. In the wilderness, wells are essential for maintaining your herds as they grazed and sometimes wars were fought over the “water-rights” to the wells…things haven’t changed much even today. Water is a precious commodity. We don’t want too much of it, but we need enough of it to survive. Sometimes, in the ancient world, wells were larger and more pronounced, but out in the wilderness, they were typically smaller and not always designed to stand out. The term that is used here is rEaV;b (be-er), which can refer to a small well or to a small underground water source. All that might have been there is a small spring trickling up to just below the surface, something that would not have been readily noticed lest it were pointed out. Either way, God’s hand of grace is directing Hagar to the spot where she get renew her strength with some water before they push on.
Again, how often we allow the difficulty of our immediate situation to cloud our vision of what God has promised to us in our lives. How often we throw up our hands in defeat rather than engaging the situation for the glory of God. And how often God shows himself to be faithful even though we fail to trust in his never-failing faithfulness. Beloved, do not fall into the trap of Hagar. God is faithful and he is faithful all of the time. He will work things through in his own timing and for his own glory and it will be far better than we could have designed were we able to design life ourselves. Do not doubt, but press forward in the design that God has for your life trusting him to provide that which you need physically and spiritually—trusting in his ever-flowing grace.
Faith and Hope
“And God heard the voice of the lad and the Angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is it to you, Hagar? You shall not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is.’”
Do not forget that God has already given Hagar a promise that he would make a nation out of her son. What a marked contrast, though, between Abraham’s faithful response to God’s promise and Hagar’s limited vision. Indeed, in just a couple verses, scripture records God opening Hagar’s eyes to see a well by which he will make provision for her and her son for their journey. Abraham was far from being perfect, but he was willing to stake everything on the reality of the promise that God gave to him. Here, Hagar falls on her face and expects to die, doubting that the promise will come to reality.
Here is a contrast between how a believer and an unbeliever approaches the promises of God. Yet, how often even as believers, we struggle with faith, walking in the assurance that God will provide for us. How often, because our limited vision fails, do we raise our hands in frustration and think that God has abandoned us. How patient God is with us toward that end. Abraham is referred to as the “Father of the Faithful” (Romans 4:11-22) not because he always got it right, but in the end, when he could not see the design of God in the events in his life, he still walked forward in faith and hope of the promise. Hagar does not have that belief and thus sinks into despair.
Loved ones, faith does not mean that we will always get things right, but faith does give us hope during the dark times when we cannot see the hand of God at work in our midst. We hope because we have the assurance that God will not abandon us to destruction, but that he will redeem us for his glory. Take heart, for God is good and his mercy never ends…really, it never does end. We need to cling to that.
A Christian Hierarchy of Values
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, argued that there was a hierarchy of values in terms of what was worthwhile for individuals and society to pursue. For Aristotle, the highest value was the knowledge of truth for its own sake. Of course, Aristotle was an Empiricist, which means that his real interest in “Truth” has to do with what one can observe with one’s senses or through the use of observational tools. Some might be tempted to simply label this, “science,” but such a label would shortchange both science and Aristotle’s view. Much of science is based on the use of reason built upon basic presuppositions and Aristotle recognized that observation could be applied to things outside of the realm of what we would typically classify as science (metaphysics, for example).
Aristotle’s second value was the discovery of practical knowledge—what Christians and Jews typically refer to as wisdom. This is the kind of knowledge that can guide one to live a life well and skillfully. For Aristotle, this was exemplified in the Four Cardinal Virtues of Greek thought: Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation. Finally, the value at the bottom of Aristotle’s list was that of learning to be skilled in Technique—what we would refer to as technical or vocational skills. These are the skills by which one would earn a trade.
I began to reflect on these ideas for two reasons. First, I heard a contemporary philosopher argue that our modern culture has turned Aristotle’s hierarchy upside down—that those who our society values the most (based on their paychecks) are those who demonstrate a high degree of skill in technique and those who are valued the least are those whose life is dedicated to the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake. Thus we live in a society where professional athletes, popular musicians and actors, and skillful doctors (again, technique with the surgical instruments) are the wealthiest class and preachers, teachers, and philosophers make up one of the poorest classes in society. The second reason that I began reflecting on this idea is because I happened to be teaching on Augustine’s approach to the Four Cardinal Virtues of the Greeks. Ultimately, Augustine affirmed these virtues as Christian virtues, but only when they were joined by faith, hope, and love—especially love.
Thus, I began asking the question, if I had to construct a hierarchy of values for the Christian life, how do I think that they would be reflected in the Christian life. One might be tempted to begin, as Aristotle begins, with a knowledge of truth for its own sake. Jesus said that his purpose in coming to dwell with men was to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). God, of course, is the God of truth (Isaiah 65:16) and those who reject God suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). In addition, those who have no knowledge of God (as truth resides in God) destroy themselves (1 Corinthians 1:34). Also, the implication of scripture is that it is the knowledge of God that allows his people to be faithful (Hosea 6:6) and when there is no faithfulness in the land, it is joined by a lack of the knowledge of God (Hosea 4:1).
Yet, it seems to me that a higher virtue sets the stage for the knowledge of the Lord. When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the very Son of God, Jesus’ response is not to congratulate him on that knowledge, saying it was the highest virtue, but Jesus instead said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah” for this knowledge came from “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). There are two things that need to be brought out from this verse in light of understanding Christian virtue. First of all, the source of the knowledge of God is God himself, not something gained through a human pursuit—and if something has a source, or a precursor, it ought not be seen as the “highest” virtue. Secondly, Jesus does not say, “virtuous are you,” but he says, “blessed are you.” The Greek word for virtue, ajreth/ (arête), refers to one’s moral excellence or other attributes that make one praiseworthy. Yet, blessedness, maka/rioß (makarios), has to do with one’s internal state as a result of their relationship to God. Thus, Jesus can say, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name’s sake…” Similarly, Peter’s blessedness does not come from anything he has done, but because of what has been done to him.
Now, we may be tempted to engage in a discussion of regeneration, but since the purpose of a hierarchy of virtue is to give us something of merit to pursue, such a discussion does not seem to have a place here as regeneration is something that God does in us which in turn precipitates a response of faith and repentance in the believer. Our temptation, too, might be to jump immediately to the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and to Peter’s instructions on how to build up our faith (2 Peter 5-7), but again, these seem to have their source in a virtue that is more primary.
And that brings us to the question, what then does the Bible present as primary? The logical answer seems to be that the highest virtue is the fear of the Lord. We are told in scripture that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10) and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). The fear of the Lord gives life and health not only to the individual believer, but it is also a sign of a healthy church (Acts 9:31). And then, out of the fear of the Lord proceeds the pursuit of the other Christian virtues.