“It is not by works in order that no one should boast.”
Why would someone boast about something they did not earn or merit? I believe that it is safe to say that if we truly understood the notion of salvation by grace, boasting would never even begin to be a part of our vocabulary or mindset. We are but humiliated worms before the grandeur of God and he has chosen to bestow upon us something more wonderful than we can conceive. He has chosen to transform us from the worms that we are into men — glorified men in the image of His Son. And he does this at the cost of trampling His Son underfoot — the place we deserve to be.
Yet, people do boast. Sometimes Calvinists are guilty of thinking that their election was a result of who they are or something that they did. Even worse, sometimes Calvinists think that their election is a result of their church membership and that God has reserved a space in heaven just for them because of the long list of deeds that they have done in conjunction with their church membership. Such a view is a distortion of the Biblical doctrine of election and it is a perversion of what Calvin taught.
The Arminians and Wesleyans and others who adhere to a kind of free-will, decision theology are guilty of the same thing, though. Many will brag about their decision to choose Christ or about the way they wrestled through all of the arguments against God as if they had anything to do with their salvation. They tend to deny election entirely or they twist its definition such that it becomes meaningless, making them deniers of the Word of God and rejectors of the notion of grace.
Whether the Arminian error or the Calvinist error, salvation is not of you. It is of God’s grace through faith. And God chose in his sovereignty to save his elect in this way to prevent his elect, sinners as we are, from boasting. It is not the one who labors for salvation nor is it the one who chooses salvation, it is God who chose to save some out of his mercy (Romans 9:16). If works has anything to do with our salvation, then grace would no longer be grace (Romans 11:6). It is a merciful thing that God has done, you know, robbing us of any foothold for pride. Pride destroys and the sacrifice acceptable to God is a pure and contrite heart.
So, if you find someone boasting in their election or telling others how they had decided to choose Christ, beware. They are either woefully ignorant of the scriptures or are ignoring them. Ask them to show you in the Scriptures anywhere that teaches them that they can boast in their participation in their salvation. It simply cannot be done. Then humbly show that person this passage. If we must boast, let us boast in Christ and in Christ alone, not in the things we have done.
P.S. and a vent… As I look back on close to two decades of ministry, it strikes me that on occasion (not very often), I have been challenged to answer the question: “What have you done in your ministry here?” When that is said it usually has been intended in a hurtful manner but it also vastly misunderstands the scriptures and grace. Yes, we are saved to good works, but those works, as Paul will explain, are prepared in eternity past for us to do — in other words, it is God who gets glory for them, not us. In fact, Jesus makes it very clear that the good works we do are to be done in secret and outside of the eyes of men. The best and proper answer that we can give to those who challenge our ministry in this way is to say that we have been Christ’s unworthy servants.
My point in bringing this up, other than venting for a moment, is to share my heart with you. Every faithful pastor does many good works as part of the warp and woof of his ministry. And, most of them will never be known by most of the people in the congregation. Further, that is a good thing. We have too many false pastors in this world that go about boasting over all of the things they have done, we don’t need any more. So, if you are tempted to challenge your pastor in this way, don’t. Instead, pray for forgiveness for making room for boasting in your or another’s life.
“and he raised us up together and seated us together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus in order that he might demonstrate in ages that are coming, the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
Here we have one of those instances where the Biblical authors speak of something that is yet to come as if it has already taken place and is a reality in our lives. In theological circles, it is what is often called a “prophetic present.” All of this is based in the realization that God is sovereign and he has ordained all things since before the foundation of the earth. And thus Paul can say that as Jesus has risen from the dead, so have we. We have not yet experienced that reality in its fullness, but Christ’s resurrection is an iron-clad promise that we too, who are in Christ, will rise. And further, that the regeneration that we have experienced in coming to faith — our sin dead spirit being brought to live — is a foretaste of something greater that is yet to come, but that will come in the ages that are coming.
Notice too, the language about the riches of God’s grace. This, we have spoken already above, but notice the context in which Paul is making this statement. Just in verse 5, he has spoken of being saved by grace. We did not earn God’s grace, it is free to us. Yet Paul wants us to see that God is no ordinary benefactor. Not only does God graciously save us, but that he pours out the blessings of his grace to us in Christ.
“In Christ,” though, is the operable phrase. Too many people over the ages have read this and thought of God having a storehouse of good treasures that he is waiting to pour into our lives if we just ask. They tell us of wealth and success and fame, and people fall for it over and over. No, my friends, these riches are riches that are found in Christ. They are the riches that come from a deepening relationship with him, not from earthly or worldly comforts that will be consumed or lost to time. God’s gift to us in Christ is one that grows and deepens every day of our lives, but if we are really going to enjoy the treasure that it is, it means we must nurture that gift with Bible study and prayer.
Yet, may I humbly suggest that is the way we ought to receive any gift, or at least, that is the way we ought to show our appreciation for the gift. That we treasure it, that we study it, and that we learn the character of the one who has given us such a gift. If we would naturally do that with earthly things, why do we disdain from doing so with heavenly things? How often we act more like spoiled children, believing that we deserve the gifts of our heavenly father rather than realizing that we deserve nothing but wrath and that He has instead given us Christ and offered us the riches of heaven which we will one day enjoy, ruling alongside of our Divine bridegroom and Lord.
“even as we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved —“
Paul will go on to further explain the final phrase in this verse…”by grace you have been saved. What ought to be said here is that this is one of the foundational doctrines of the Christian church. To deviate from this means to enter into a world of cultic thought if not activity. No, it is not by your works that you are saved; neither is it by your good character, your good intentions, your good name, or your church membership — no, it is by God’s grace and apart from the grace of God, there is no salvation available to mankind.
How often we speak with people and ask, “Why do you think you will go to heaven?,” that an entirely different answer is given. People say things like, “I’m basically a good person” or “My family and I have served God in this church for generations.” The first statement is certainly not so (there is none good but God) but the second may be so; nevertheless, it does not earn you the right to claim heaven. You simply cannot earn God’s favor as your works are all and always tainted by your sin. Your offering of sinful works to God will be no better received than that offering given by Cain, who did so without faith. No, if you are saved, beloved, it is because of God’s grace and his grace alone.
And because it is God’s grace and God’s grace alone that saves, then salvation begins assuredly with God and God alone. You did not choose to be saved; God chose to save you. You may perceive yourself as having “accepted Jesus into your heart,” but if such be true, then it is only because God pummeled the dead rock of your heart into a fleshy substance which he remolded and remade into something living. He did that, not you. It is not about you; it is about what God is doing in you, to you, and with you. It is all about God.
Friends, cease clinging to the notion that you have done something to contribute to your salvation; it is a foolish and un-Biblical idea that only leads to pride (Paul will soon get to that). You were no more born again by your own choice than you were born by your own choice in the first place. Yet, free-will decision theology has run amok with the church. And so I say put that foolish notion off and let the words of the Apostle Paul define your understanding of salvation — it is by grace that you have been saved and it is not of works (not even of one little tiny work!). If there were an avenue for works in even the smallest of discernible ways, then as Paul writes in Romans 11:6, “grace would no longer be grace.” Oh, the arrogance of man when man claims something of God’s as his own.
“In Him we have deliverance through His blood — liberation from trespasses — according to the riches of His grace, which abounds to us in all wisdom and understanding,”
Grace is said to “abound to us in all wisdom and understanding.” Some Bible translations prefer the more poetic language of God “lavishing” his grace upon us. And, while that is not a wrong choice of words in translation, for many of us, the term “lavish” carries with it connotations of wastefulness and extravagance where the word “abound,” reflecting the abundance in God’s grace, is better suited to the text. And indeed, when we realize the depth of our depravity, grace in abundance is the only thing that can compensate for our sins.
Yet, God does not give his grace out in a scattered or thoughtless manner. It is distributed abundantly as guided by the wisdom and understanding of God. God wastes none of his grace. It is not poured out into the lives of the reprobate but is abundantly extended to His elect. How oftentimes people portray God’s grace as distributed indiscriminately, but Paul is making it abundantly clear that God’s grace is intentional and flows out of his wisdom and his understanding. Such language as this can only be understood in light of the Reformed doctrine of election and reprobation, not in light of the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace.
And so, while grace may overflow to us as our cup does at God’s table, it is not given unwisely or without knowing to whom it is given. And, when we really begin to understand the doctrine of God’s intentional grace, given abundantly to his elect, it should instill in us a sense of humbleness that responds with gratitude and worship. No longer is worship seen as being about “meeting my needs” but it is an outpouring of love to God for He has already met those many needs that we have and he has done so in and through his Son, Jesus Christ.
“In Him we have deliverance through His blood — liberation from trespasses — according to the riches of His grace, which abounds to us in all wisdom and understanding,”
A dozen times in this Epistle, Paul speaks of grace. We have already defined it here as “unmerited favor,” but it is worth noting that in these verses, Paul is very clear that this grace is “His grace.” Indeed, this seems to be an obvious connection, but it is important for us to clarify that when it comes to grace, there is nothing in it that is generated by or originates within us. It is unqualified, unreserved, unlimited, and unambiguous. God knows to whom he has extended his grace (election) and the extension of grace is mediated by the work of the Son. For God’s elect it is unalienable and for the eternally reprobate it is unattainable. It is God’s grace and his grace alone to give and he chooses to give it through his Son and in no other ways. It cannot be requested by us and it cannot be either accepted or rejected on our part. For it to be grace it must be sovereignly given.
How often people fall into the error that they think that they can accept or reject the grace of God. How often, the picture is painted of God universally offering grace and waiting upon man to accept it. Yet, beloved, if grace is contingent on our desire for it or upon our willingness to receive it, then it is not truly grace (Romans 11:6). It is something else entirely. Grace is not based on our human will nor is it based on the works we might do; it is based fully and entirely upon God and his mercy towards a fallen people in need of his grace (Romans 9:16). Woe to us when we demean the grace of God with notions of our choosing or of our acceptance. It is His grace and His alone to give. And that which is sovereignly given cannot be rejected on our part…it has been sovereignly given.
Six times in his epistles, Paul makes a point in referring to grace as “His” grace. How important it is for us to pay attention to those little pronouns if we are going to purge ourselves of the ideas of men that so proliferate the churches of our culture. The question is not really one of whether “you have received Jesus in your heart” (notice how that makes it something you do), but whether God has driven you to your knees, broken you of your pride, and brought you to repentance before the saving work of Jesus as an expression of his eternal and sovereign grace. It is not about what you want or do, dear friends, it is about God and what he is doing — whether you want it or not.
“In Him we have deliverance through His blood — liberation from trespasses — according to the riches of His grace, which abounds to us in all wisdom and understanding,”
While we talk a lot about grace in the Christian world (and rightly so!), before we do so in this context, it seems appropriate to first ask the question as to why Paul refers to this grace as “rich” or “abundant.” It certainly sounds nice and many of the hymns that are sung speak of God’s amazing grace, but why is Paul making such a big deal of the notion here? Is this just flowery language to create a nice flow and rhythm for the Ephesian Christians? Or, is there something more.
The word in question is the Greek word, πλοῦτος (ploutos), which is the word we get “plutocrat” (someone whose power comes from their wealth) and “plutocracy” (rule by the wealthy). On the most basic level, in Greek, it translates as wealth, abundance, and as plenty — implying that it will not and cannot run dry. It is like the oil and flour of the widow of Zerephath (1 Kings 17:8-16) whose water and oil did not run out. So too is God’s grace, Paul is saying, the implication of his words are this: that no matter how grievous your sin may be, grace is plentiful — it can fill the gap.
Sometimes people ask the question, “can God forgive even me?” The answer is, “yes!” The reason that the answer is an affirmative is because Grace is abundant…it is πλοῦτος, to borrow Paul’s language. Just as the oil and flour did not run out, no matter how many times the widow dipped into it, God’s grace for his people will not wear out no matter how badly or how often we have sinned.
Is that a license, then, to sin all the more? To use Paul’s language again, “Shall we sin all the more so that grace shall abound?” That almost sounds like a reasonable answer. It might be reasonable if we did not also understand the notion of being liberated from our trespasses, of which Paul speaks in the previous verse. We are the slaves who have been bought at a tremendous price, to go back to our sin would be to go back into the wretchedness of our slavery. And since, our slavery bound us to death (Romans 6:23), then we are binding ourselves to the tomb once again. And thus, we again say with the Apostle Paul, “May it never be! How can we who have died to sin still live in it?” Indeed, it would be like those Israelites in the book of Numbers who constantly wanted to go back into bondage in Egypt. How harshly God dealt with those who despised his grace like that! They were swallowed into the earth, burned by fire, bitten by poisonous serpents, and plagued by diseases that took their lives and sent them into judgment. They tasted the goodness of the manna in the wilderness (which points to Christ!) and they spat it out, preferring the slop of the Egyptian gruel. Even the prodigal son came to his senses when he had to eat with pigs.
Until you really come to terms with the depth of your sin and depravity, you will never come to terms with the depth of God’s grace, which is deeper still. Unless the Law is preached and we truly come to terms with who we are and with our wretched state before God, grace will just be one more word that is thrown around in the church and sung about in the hymns. It should be noted that God’s grace is not reserved for those who will understand or appreciate it — that’s not how grace works. At the same time, it is my conviction that those who genuinely receive it will appreciate it and seek to understand its implications all the more in their lives.
The word “Grace” shows up over 100 times in our English Bibles (and somewhat more frequently in our Greek and Hebrew Bibles). In the Hebrew Old Testamant, this is largely translated from the words חָנַן (hanan) and in the Greek New Testament, from the word χάρις (charis). In each case, the emphasis that is being placed on the word is of an unearned favor or affection being extended into the life of an individual or to a group of individuals. It is a kindness given that is unmerited and it is designed to produce both goodwill and a sense of gratitude in the life of the recipient. Hebrew literature and commentary understands this idea of grace to be an outworking of God’s חֶסֶד (chesed) — his covenantal faithfulness to his chosen people, a notion consistent with the New Testament principle that his grace is an outworking of his ἀγάπη (agape) love toward his elect.
As protestants, typically the aspect of grace that we appeal to the most is that of it being entirely God’s free gift to us. We did nothing to earn it and there is nothing in us that would or could merit it. God simply elected to show it to a body of people he chose in Christ before the foundation of the earth (Ephesians 1:4). Grace begins with God and ends with God and God constitutes all of the in-betweens. If we want to break it down even further, along philosophical lines, God’s Decree of Election is the Formal Cause, Christ’s work of Redemption is the Efficient Cause, and the Glory of God is the Final Cause. Man is the vicarious beneficiary of God’s grace.
What we often do not focus much upon is the effect of grace upon those who receive it. When my son was a small boy, I decided to teach him a little bit about the nature of grace. So, one day, after doing something worthy of discipline (I no longer remember the specifics of his particular sin), I sat him down as usual, and told him what penalty he deserved (in our home, punishment at that age usually meant 1,2,or 3 spanks). But then I spent some time talking about grace and did not spank him (though he deserved it). At first, it seemed to make an impact on him and he was genuinely grateful not to be spanked. Yet, the next time he did something wrong, his immediate response was to cry out to me, “Grace, Daddy, I want grace!”
On one level, a lesson was learned. At the same time, I wonder how many professing Christians have that same mindset as my young son did and see grace more as license to sin than as an infinitely gracious gift that has been bestowed upon them. Paul the Apostle raises the rhetorical question in Romans 6:1 as to whether we should sin even more so that God’s grace will abound in us. His answer in the following verse is crystal clear: “May it never be said!” He goes on to say that if we have died to sin in Christ, how can we still intentionally continue living within it? In other words, the grace of God should change the way we think and live in this fallen world.
I have said above that if one does not have a high view of the wretched nature of sin, they will not have a high view of grace. And, if we do not have a high view of grace, we will not live a life of faith and thanksgiving — we will not exhibit gratitude in our lives. Heidelberg Catechism, Question 2 reminds us very clearly that if we are going to live and die in the comfort of faith’s assurance, we must understand our guilt, God’s grace, and how to live a life of gratitude. Remember, it is this grace, when really received, that produces our gratitude — or, to use the philosophical categories above, it is God’s grace that is the Efficient Cause of our Gratitude. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude; if you break one link, the others lose their meaning and purpose.
“And Gideon understood that he was the Angel of Yahweh. And Gideon said, ‘Oh, Lord Yahweh, it seems that I have seen the Angel of Yahweh’s face to face!’ And Yahweh said to him, ‘Peace be with you! Do not fear, you will not die.’”
“So Jacob called the name of the place, ‘Peniy’el.’ For he saw God face to face and his life was delivered.”
“And He said, ‘You will not be able to see my face, for no man can see me and live.’”
All of the way back in Genesis there is an understanding that if one looks upon the face of God, he or she will die. This is a reminder of our fallen, sinful state, thus God shields himself from view by a glory-cloud or in the Tabernacle until that time when he comes in the flesh…but even there, the flesh itself is a kind of covering and his glory is only briefly revealed in the Transfiguration and Ascension, but then only to a few. It will not be until the consummation of all things that Christ’s full glory will be finally revealed to all, and it is for that event that we all wait.
Yet, in the case of Jacob, who wrestles with the Angel of Yahweh and Moses who will be protected in the cleft of the rock so that he only sees Yahweh (probably it is the Angel of Yahweh once again), there is this notion that if one looks upon the face of the Angel of Yahweh, one has looked upon the face of God. Thus, here again, we find Gideon in essentially the same predicament as Jacob had found himself — meeting the Second-Person of the Trinity face to face, yet having his life spared, for this is God’s doing and this is God’s calling upon him.
Once again, for those who are not convinced that the Angel of Yahweh is really the pre-incarnate Christ, this must be just one more testimony that demands we understand Him in this way. Here, he has accepted worship and now Gideon is concerned that (as he has seen the Angel of Yahweh’s face) that he will die. And here, God speaks to him directly, assuring him that he will live. And how is it that some are given the permission to live after having seen the face of God — fallen as we are? It is grace, friends, grace alone. God shows mercy to those to whom he will show mercy. And for those of us who are born-again of God, trusting in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, praise God for the grace he has shown to us.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
“Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, particularly the ones in Caesar’s household. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is with your spirit.”
And thus the Apostle Paul concludes his letter to the Philippian church. As we noted at the beginning of these reflections, Paul is writing from Rome during that time when he is in prison, awaiting his trial before Caesar. Yet, these words remind us that he has been busy as well, for there are many Christians attending to him in prayer and fellowship, even some believers who are in Caesar’s household. The greetings of believers, no matter where they are from, is always a sweet thing.
The final words is both a common “benediction” at the close of Paul’s letters (see 2 Corinthians 13:14 and Philemon 25) as well as a statement of assurance that God’s grace is with these saints in Philippi. Grace can only come from God himself, but the actions of the church affirm that reality. This it is both a wish and a statement of affirmation. May such be said for all of our churches.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
When you greet others who are Christians, how do you greet them? Do you have a sincere wish for them that God would give them grace and peace or do you greet them begrudgingly, perhaps because of something that has happened between the two of you in the past? Or, do you even think about these things at all? Do you just say, “Hello, how are you?” and then just keep on walking satisfied in the pleasantries but not really caring about the answer to your question. Isn’t it interesting, so often, that we want people to be genuinely concerned about our welfare or about what we happen to be doing but don’t have the same concern about our neighbor…even that neighbor who happens to be a believer in Jesus Christ.
Paul sets for us a model that would serve us well to follow. May God give you grace and peace. The idea expressed by Grace as Paul presents it is that of God having a disposition of goodwill toward you, that he might bless your steps and your actions and that the world indeed would see God’s hand in your life. This is not a health-wealth or prosperity Gospel, though. For the evidence of God’s grace is not seen in money or physical well-being, Paul presents the evidence of God’s grace as peace in your life. Peace denotes a resting in God’s hand of mercy. It is a deliverance from the Evil One and his power. And later in this letter, Paul will refer to this peace as that which “passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), because it is a peace that can be had despite the fact that you are facing trials in this life. Such peace, such resting in God’s mercy, is the result of God’s gracious hand upon your life (and while not always, often abundant wealth is a sign of God’s judgment…).
Yet, Paul also makes it clear where this grace and peace come from…God. Grace and peace are not found in wealth, careers, politics, sports teams, fancy cars, electronics, entertainment, computers, movies, status, fame, or anything else we might think of that captures our attention (and sadly also, our hearts). True grace and peace come from the hand of God and thus we should seek it in no other place but in God alone. How often we fall into the trap of looking elsewhere. John the Apostle closed his first letter with the words, “protect yourself from idols.” Indeed, how we need to here those words over and over again. And while we do that, may we train ourselves to take a genuine interest in one another’s welfare and the condition of their soul. Such is the heart behind the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
“To declare your chesed in the morning;
And of your trustworthiness in the night;
Upon the ten strings and upon the harp;
With the sound of the zither.”
(Psalm 92:3-4 [verses 2-3 in English])
Again we find an emphasis on singing praise accompanied by the sound of instruments. The reference to the “ten strings” in Hebrew is unique to the book of psalms (33:2, 92:4, 144:9) and is likely a reference not simply to a small personal shoulder harp (which might have had 5 or 7 strings), but to a larger harp requiring more skill to play. Granted, depending on the dating of this psalm, much larger harps would have been familiar items; the ancient Egyptians had 22 strings on their full-sized arched-harp. Arguably this is one more reminder that this psalm has its focus the gathered worship of God’s people where skilled musicians (levitical or otherwise) would have been present, not simply to private worship.
The additional reference to the zither seems to reinforce both the corporate setting (as multiple instruments are being mentioned) and to skillful musicians required to play it. Often this word is translated as lyre, which shouldn’t surprise us as the lyre has its origins in the zither. Again, the emphasis of music in Sabbath worship.
Yet, what is more important is not the instruments used but for what God is being praised. Here, it is his “chesed” and his trustworthiness. The word chesed I have simply left untranslated as there is not a simple word-for-word equivalent of this idea. Ultimately it refers to God’s covenant faithfulness to his people (that’s us!) despite the covenant unfaithfulness of his people (sadly, that’s us too…). This we do not deserve, but this God graciously gives to his own to his own glory and praise. As the Apostle Paul wrote, salvation is by grace, not works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). Indeed, it is worth praising our God for his faithfulness and for his chesed.
And it is for this faithfulness (amongst other things) that we praise God when we gather together on the Sabbath. The sad thing is that all-too-often, the lyrics of our praises are focused heavily on the individual, not on the God who saves the individual. Loved ones, remember, it is not our goodness or our works that brings about God’s faithfulness…God is faithful despite our lack of goodness and our failures…that is the essence of Grace. As the old Fanny Crosby hymn went… “To God be the glory, great things he has done!”
And you shall remember—for you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Yahweh, your God, redeemed you. Because of this, I command this thing of you today.
“Thus, when they saw him, the chief priests and the assistants screamed out, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ Pilate said, ‘Take him yourself and crucify, for I find no cause in him.’”
Pilate is playing a dangerous political game with the Jews at this point. On one level, his contempt for being manipulated by these Jewish officials shows through, but on another level, the chief priests have whipped the people into such a mob that there is no telling what is going to happen next. It is a very dangerous game of chess that he is playing and it seems as if his king is being boxed in move by move, each verbal interchange that is taking place.
Yet as intense as this interplay must have been at the time, God has superintended it all to bring it to the conclusion he has designed for his Son. Jew and Gentile are here together vying to see who would be responsible for the actual death of Jesus while the guilt fell on both groups. Sin is sin whether you are the hand that carries it out or whether you provide the thought that instigates it. There is no other word but “evil” to describe what is taking place.
But indeed, there is another word…and that is grace. Though the working and debating of Pilate and the Chief Priests is evil unbounded, God is overseeing these events to leave none guiltless and then to offer grace to those who turn toward his Son in faith. Loved ones, this is why Jesus is before these wicked men. It is not because of the plans of the wicked but it is because of the design of God the Father, that he, God the Son, be crushed for our sins and that he bear the iniquity of all believers upon his shoulders that we (believers) might become the righteousness of God. There are not words to describe the debt of gratitude and love we owe for this gift of grace…all we can do is commit our lives to serving Him who has given his life to save us.
“And he went out and wept bitterly.”
Though it has already been mentioned, Peter’s reaction to his sin is worth dwelling on for a moment longer. How great the contrast is between Peter and Judas. Both committed great sins against their master and both grieved deeply as a result of their sins. Yet, there was a profound difference — Judas gave up hope, which led to his own suicide. Though Peter was captured within the miry bog of despair, it seems that he never gave up hope and he never totally separated himself from the other disciples — those who would show him forgiveness.
How often, when people fall into very deep sin, one of three things happen. First, they seek to hide their sin, neglecting that no one can hide from the eyes of God. Second, they isolate themselves from the body of believers wherein healing can take place. Or third, and worst of all, the body of believers shuns the repentant brother and refuses to forgive them of the sin they committed.
Yet, what we find in Peter’s experience is wholly different and a good testimony of how repentance ought to be approached in the life of the believer and the church. Peter grieved his sin and grieved deeply. He had betrayed his Lord. Yet, he did not hide his sin — indeed, it became part of the testimony of God’s forgiveness within the Gospel accounts. Secondly, he did not flee from the presence of the other disciples — the church. Surely there must have been some frustration at Peter’s confession, but then again, they had fled as well so also stood guilty of abandoning their Lord. Perhaps the only one with a right to condemn would have been John, who did not flee nor deny, but we never see such taking place. And clearly, as we move into the book of Acts, this group of men and women never held Peter’s denial against him. It never got brought up again in a way that would compromise the message of the Gospel of Reconciliation. What a wonderful model for us as the church. It would require honesty, humility, and grace, but is that not what we have also received from Christ himself?
“And Peter remembered Jesus’ word when he said, ‘Before the rooster crows, three times you will disown me.’ And he went out and he wept bitterly.”
“And at once the rooster crowed a second time and Peter remembered the word that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows twice, three times you will deny me.’ And he fell down and wept.”
“And the Lord shifted position to look directly at Peter and Peter remembered the word that the Lord had spoken to him that before the rooster crowed today, three times you will renounce me.’” And he went out and wept bitterly.”
Three of the four Gospel writers remind us of Jesus’ prophetic statement to Peter about the rooster crowing, but only Luke adds that at the point that Peter made his third denial, Jesus shifted his position to look in Peter’s direction. It is as if Jesus was saying, “Peter, is this how you wish to leave me?” It is an act of discipline, but an act of grace as well reminding Peter of the forgiveness that is to come on the other side of this very dark night. We are told nothing about the look — good or bad — it is simply left to us as a reminder of Jesus’ care for his disciples. Some have struggled with the idea of Jesus, on the other side of an angry mob of people, being aware of Peter’s location, let alone his denials, but that criticism forgets that Jesus is also God as well as man, with a perfect knowledge of all that must come to pass.
During what we refer to as Jesus’ Passion Week — the week between the Triumphal Entry and his Glorious Resurrection — Jesus told an interesting parable. He was giving what we refer to as the “Olivet Discourse,” a sermon largely looking toward both the fall of Jerusalem and the end of times when Jesus would return. As Jesus closes the sermon he does so with a parable about not knowing the day or the hour of his return (Mark 13:32-36) — that he might come during the evening, midnight, or when the rooster crows. Now, it must be stated that the context is a little different given that Jesus is speaking of his own return, but given that this is the only other time in the Bible that Jesus (or any Biblical writer) mentions a rooster (let alone a rooster crowing), it is worth drawing the connection — a connection based simply on the principle importance of being aware.
How important it is for us to keep alert and keep up our guard when sin comes crouching at our door (Genesis 4:7). How quick we are to drop that guard either when we are comfortable or when we, like Peter, feel threatened. The question that the parable asks, though, is what will we be found doing when the Master returns? In Peter’s case, when the Master gazed over in his direction, he was found denying and disowning his Lord. In our case, when our Lord looks down on our lives from his royal throne, what does he see us doing? And when he returns again, what will He find us engaged in? May the crowing of the rooster always be a reminder to us to be engaged in our Master’s business. When Peter heard the rooster crow this second time, he came to his senses and fled — doing the only thing humanly conceivable — he wept bitterly. Holy grief overwhelmed him, but in God’s grace, it did not consume him. There is a difference. May we recognize our sin for what it is and grieve accordingly, yet not end there, but turn to our God for grace. Beloved, he will give it.
“He said, ‘Come in, blessed of Yahweh. To what end do you stand outside? I have tidied up the house and a place for the camels.’ And the man went into the house and unharnessed the camels. He gave straw and fodder to the camels and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him.”
In light of the verses that precede these verses, one needs to ask the motivation behind this family’s generosity. Certainly brother Laban’s character we know and it seems that Laban has taken the role of speaking for the family. His father, being Abraham’s nephew, would likely have been fairly old and perhaps, Laban being the rightful heir, was running the activities of his father’s house at this point. We are not told for sure, but he takes charge of the situation. The needs of Eliezer and his men are met, as well as the needs of their mounts, which means that Laban’s household is certainly not a modest one, and this wealthy visitor is brought in. There seems no question that Laban wants to see what he might get out of this deal. Sadly, that seems to motivate his hospitality.
As Christians, we are commended to show hospitality to others, especially to those believers who are traveling to do the Lord’s work (3 John 5-8). Yet, we too should examine our hearts to discern what our motivation is for being hospitable to those in our midst. Are we hoping for money having done so? Are we hoping that our expenses will be recouped — if we have our expenses recouped as a matter of course, we are offering a lodging service, not generously offering hospitality. Are we seeking the praise of others? Jesus reminds us that if we act well for the purpose of the praise of men, then that is all the praise we will ever receive (Matthew 6:2-4). Surely we cannot hope to earn merit in God’s eyes through hospitality because those things that we have, were given to us by God in the first place and thus are not truly our own. We are simply rightly stewarding God’s possessions when we offer hospitality.
Instead of seeking our own interests, let us set as our motivation for hospitality the glory of God. It is for His praise that we host and it is by His grace that we can gratefully receive the hospitality of others. It is for His glory that we may serve the needs of those whom God places in our midst. When we take our own motivations out of the equation, grace can be offered and received to the praise of our God and King. So long as we place our own desires into the mix, as does Laban, the name of man is only ever lifted up, and that is not hospitality.
“I will praise you forever, because of your work;
I will hope in your name, because it is good in the presence of your saints.”
(Psalm 52:11 [verse 9 in English translations])
And here, David, in the midst of the grief and sorrow of loss turns his heart to praise. What a remarkable statement and model for our lives we have in the character in this great king over Israel. How often we find ourselves stuck or absorbed by our grief that we can never find ourselves being pulled out of it; David says that even in the midst of this sorrow, he will give God praise because God has preserved his life and has promised to judge the wicked who have done these horrible things. Loved ones, God will avenge and will make right every wicked act that is done against the lives of his people; may we always follow David’s example and model that in our lives as we praise God in the midst of our crises.
A note should be made here in terms of the word “saints” in translation. Literally, the word that David uses is dyIsDj (chasiyd), which is derived from the word, dRsRj (chesed). The word dRsRj (chesed), as we have discussed above, refers to God’s covenant faithfulness to us despite our lack of faithfulness in return. Similarly, then dyIsDj (chasiyd) refers to those who are the object or recipients of God’s dRsRj (chesed). In the New Testament, the term a¡gioß (hagios — literally, “holy ones”) is rendered as “saints,” yet it seems that the sentiment being communicated is rather similar, for indeed, just as there are none of us who are deserving of God’s faithfulness apart from His divine grace, so too, there are none of us who are holy, but instead we are made holy by God’s divine grace through the completed work of his Son, Jesus Christ.
And it is we, the saints, who have faith in the name of God almighty. Notice that the language referring to “the name” of God is singular. God has many names that are applied to him in scripture, but in a very real sense, these names are just aspects of his one true and Triune name: Yahweh — “I am.” When Jesus gives the disciples what we now know as the “Great Commission,” we find him using the same language once again in the context of baptism: “you shall baptize them in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19b). Notice that it does not say, “in the names” (plural), but “in the name” (singular). God may be three persons, but he is one in name. And hope is one of those funny little things. It does not exist in and of its own right, but hope must rest on something (a promise, a coming reality, the character of another, etc…). For the believer, we hope in the name of God for we know that he will not forsake his character or his promises to those who are his holy ones.
Beloved, it is in that hope that we can draw confidence and know that God is our fortress and our protector. He will allow us to grow up strong within his gates. He will defend us against our foes. And he will be the one who will avenge us of the wickedness that the ungodly do against us because of His name. Trust Him to that end.
“And the Angel of Yahweh called to Abraham — a second time from heaven. And he said, ‘In myself I swear, utters Yahweh; because of this thing that you have done in not sparing your son, your only one, I will surely bless you and your seed will surely be great as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the lip of the sea. And your seed will take possession of the gates of his enemies. And in your seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed on account of your obeying my voice.”
“Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed; he did not say, ‘and to the seeds,’ as if it were to many, but to one. ‘And to your seed,’ which is Christ.”
The promise of God’s blessing does not go out to all of Abraham’s children, but through Isaac and his line. But when we get to the New Testament, a greater depth to God’s plan and design is unfolded in a way that helps us to see the plan and work of God. For in the ultimate sense, it is not through one’s biology that one inherits the promise of God, but through the great “Seed” or “Offspring” of Abraham, that is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the seed that was always in view here and the promise finds its meaning and fulfillment in Christ Jesus. Through faith in him, not through our biological lineage, we are made part of the inheritance of God.
Indeed, such was always the case, for it has always been through faith that men have been saved. Abraham believed (had faith in) God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3). And Paul continues that the promised does not come through the Law or works of the Law, but through the Righteousness of Faith (Romans 4:13). Why is this? It is because if we were able to earn salvation on our own merit, not only would the idea of God sending a Savior become nonsensical, but then there would also be no room for grace (Romans 4:16).
But if it is by grace, it is no longer by works, for grace would no longer be grace.
And thus, when God makes this promise to Abraham, he intentionally uses the singular of “seed” or “offspring” to make it clear that the inheritance is being guaranteed by one very special and distinct offspring of Abraham, Jesus the Christ. And in Christ, though faith, a multitude of believers from all of the nations have been brought in. How will the seed become a blessing to all of the nations? Surely, there is no greater blessing that comes than from hearing and believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even here, in the promise given to Abraham, is the anticipation of the worldwide evangelistic campaign of believers seeking to fulfill the Great Commission.
And what about the gates of their enemies? That sounds pretty militaristic, particularly for a nation that has spent most of its history under the dominion of other nations. Again, we find language that anticipates the church and the consummation of all things. For what is it that Jesus tells Peter when he establishes the church?
And now I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)
Notice the language of the Gates of Hell? As Christians, who is our enemy? All too often we get stuck in the mindset that there is no spiritual reality. Yet, what is it that the Apostle Paul teaches us regarding our true enemies?
“Put on the whole armor of God so that you will be able to stand against the schemes of the devil because we are not engaged against blood and flesh but against rulers and against powers and against the cosmic powers over this darkness and against the spiritual powers of evil in the heavens.”
Indeed, the gates of the enemy promised to Abraham are the gates of the strongholds of our enemy the devil. And like the Israelites were to put the cities of the pagan Canaanites to the sword, devoting them to destruction, we too are given the call to devote the spiritual strongholds in this world to destruction as well, for God will give us the gate of our enemies (2 Corinthians 10:4-6).
Yet with promises like this, how is it that Christians live such a timid life? It seems that we have abandoned the weapons of our warfare. We have abandoned discipline and discipleship and we have abandoned prayer. Sure, we may pray over our meals or for a friend who is having a hard time, but do we really pray with the expectation that God will act in this world? We may do our Bible studies, but do we really study the Bible as if we really believe that it is profitable for us in every area and venture of our lives (2 Timothy 3:16-17)? We read about putting on the whole armor of God, guarding our mind with the helmet of salvation and our hearts with righteous activity, but do we really seek to live that out? When we have a headache, what is our first action? Take an aspirin or pray? Not that there is anything wrong with taking an aspirin, God has blessed us with many medications and remedies for our aches and pains, but what do we do first? Do we live and act as if there are spiritual realities around us? If we do not, we are engaged in warfare with the wrong enemy … and we wonder why we are not prevailing!
“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he looked and beheld a ram behind him caught fast in a thicket by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and went up to make a whole burnt offering of it instead of his son.”
Substitution is perhaps the word for the day when it comes to the redemptive work of God. God substituted the ground in the place of Adam and Eve when entering into the curse (Genesis 3:17), animals were repeatedly substituted for the sins of the people (see the book of Leviticus!!!), and ultimately, God would send his Son to substitute his divine person in our place. Justice must be done and rightful justice for sin is death eternal. God sent his Son to bear the weight of death eternal so that we might be given life eternal.
Here Abraham is given a substitute for Isaac but only because a greater substitute is coming. The blood of animals, in and of itself, cannot purify, but can only demonstrate to us the horrid nature of our sin. Think of how the blood flowed in ancient Israel — sacrifice after sacrifice made for millions of people. The blood of animals was but a pointer that there was a need for a perfect sacrifice to be made … not the blood of an animal, but the blood of a perfect man who could intercede for us. God was the only one who could substitute himself in our stead, which is why his Son took on flesh. And, soon after the sacrifice of Jesus the Temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. And there is no need for rebuilding as Jesus’ sacrifice is the perfect and final sacrifice for his people.
The ram was a reprieve for Abraham and Isaac, pointing to the great Lamb of God who would come. It might be a bit of a stretch to compare the thicket in which this ram was caught to the tree (cross) upon which Jesus was hung, though it is worth noting that in this very place, the King of Glory would one day come to redeem mankind and perhaps here, in the redemption of his son, Abraham and Isaac not only got a taste for the grief of God in the death of his Son, but the joy of salvation.
How often, as Christians, we take the offer of salvation lightly and for granted. Arguably that is partly because we have such a low view of hell and the realty thereof. There are even some who reject the whole notion of Hell to begin with, considering it an antiquated tool to keep rambunctious children in line with the rules of the community. But the Bible does not let us draw such conclusions, indeed the Bible trumpets not only the reality of the place, but the horrors thereof. And the Bible insists that the only way one can avoid hell as a destination is through faith in Jesus Christ…something we neither deserve or can earn by doing good deeds. It is a gift of grace to those God equips and allows to believe. May we who have been given a gift we did not deserve be grateful for that gift. There is no questioning the extent of Abraham’s gratitude at this point in his life; may those who know us also say that there is no questioning the gratitude we feel for the work of Christ on our behalf.
Let me paint a picture for you of a culture where the Senate ruled over the people and the “commoners” had little say over what laws were enacted in the land. The culture that I am describing was one where many flocked to the cities of jobs, though they would only earn poverty level wages. Healthcare was available, but only for those who had the wealth to afford it; most suffered under whatever folk remedies happened to be available. Infectious disease was rampant in the poor sections of the cities and the government did little more than turn a blind eye to their situation. About the only thing that the society could expect in terms of assistance was a little bit of free grain and free tickets to an occasional arena even — “bread and circuses.”
I am trusting that this description sounds fairly familiar, but I am not talking about our own society, but am instead talking about the first century Roman empire. For the elite, it was a comfortable time in history: there was art, culture, relative order in the empire, abundant access to wealth, and there was rule of law to keep the “rabble” in their place. For the poor, it was a life of hard labor, starvation, and death. The bread was meant to keep the poor working and the tickets to the games was meant to keep the poor from revolting — the ancient precursor to television, one might argue. And it is into this world that God chose to send his Son, taking on flesh and living not amongst the rich, but amongst the poor.
It has been said that compassion is a character trait that is learned, not one that is natural to us. Our default is typically to take care of “ol’ number one” first and others second. If that is the case, and I think that there is merit to the idea, then the ultimate teacher of compassion is God himself. In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used to describe both compassion and mercy, and that is what God was doing when he sent his Son to come into this world, to live amongst us, and to die to atone for our sins.
But the question of compassion must not end with the compassion of God. We need to ask the question as to whether or not we have learned compassion from His example. You see, compassion cannot be modeled by the pagan gods, which are made of wood and stone — they neither move nor see nor hear, so how can they extend compassion to any? Compassion cannot be modeled by the gods of nature, for nature is cruel and only the strong survive. And compassion is not modeled by the god of the atheist, for their god is their own mind and reason, thus any action taken will be self-serving. If the God of Christianity, then, has modeled compassion to us, shouldn’t then we who have received the compassion of God also be the most compassionate people in the world?
In ancient Rome, that became the case. One of the first things that Christians did in ancient Rome was to establish hospitals that welcomed all, rich and poor. These hospitals were staffed with doctors, pharmacists, teachers for the children, caretakers for orphans, nurses, people to care for lepers, surgeons, cooks, priests, laundry women, and pallbearers. Never in the history of the world had such institutions been established and the Roman elites looked at the Christians and just did not understand why believers were doing what believers were doing. And Christianity thrived even in an empire where professing Christians were persecuted and sentenced to death within those circuses that everyone attended.
Something has happened though. Today, it would seem, Christians are often seen as self-serving and insulated from the pain and misery of the world around them. Pagans no longer shake their heads in disbelief at the compassion we are willing to show to the poor and suffering, but describe Christians as being just as “self-seeking” as the next group of people.
So what is the solution? The solution is not to win more political elections and gain power to enact laws to protect the “Christian way of life.” Such laws are not bad, but legislation cannot transform a culture. The early Christians turned Rome inside out without ever getting a seat in the Roman Senate. The early Christians turned Rome on its head by sacrifice and compassion for those in need. If we, as modern Christians, desire to see America turned on its head, this is the model that God himself has set for us — radical compassion, grace, and mercy. Such is what God demonstrated when he sent Christ to us as a baby in that manger and such is the kind of compassion that we ought to emulate as we live our lives amongst a people who reject the truth for which we stand.
“Nevertheless, love those who are hostile to you — do good and lend money without disappointing anyone — and your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is benevolent to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate just as much so as your Father is compassionate”
“Yahweh is good to all; his mercy is over all his works.”
“In the generations which have gone by, he permitted all of the nations to go on their own paths. Yet he did not abandon them without a witness. Doing good giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and cheerfulness. Even with these words, they barely caused the masses to cease sacrificing to them.”
When Christians talk of God’s grace, we talk about it in two separate ways. We talk about God’s Saving Grace, given to those that God has elected from all of the earth, by which he draws men and women to himself. And we talk of God’s Common Grace, which is the grace that he gives to all of the world — the rains in spring, the sun to make the crops grow, joy, laughter, and fellowship — things that the believer and the unbeliever enjoy alike, things which come from God’s own hand. Scripture tells us that this Common Grace is given so that no people at no time can ever say that they have not known the reality of a God who created the earth and who created them (Romans 1:18-20), yet the masses of people in the world choose to worship the created order or the works of their own hands rather than the one who created them.
The question that this raises is why does God show Common Grace to the world and when will that grace end? In the broadest sense, the answer to the question, “why,” stems back to the character of God. As the psalmist states, God is good and as a result of his goodness, he is merciful to all of his works. Jesus clarifies that statement even further in the Sermon on the Mount where he states that God is benevolent to the ungrateful and to the wicked and then, of course, God’s benevolence becomes a model for our benevolence toward the same class of people.
Yet, to narrow this matter down somewhat, we can pose another related question. What is the purpose of this grace? In a portion of the Apostle Paul’s sermon to the people at Lystra, Luke records Paul teaching that God has given his grace in this way as a witness to them — a sign of his existence with the intention that the sign would point people toward seeking the God who had set the sign into the world. In his letter to the Romans, Paul develops this line of thinking further by stating that because of this Common Grace, all men and women of the world instinctively know and understand the “invisible attributes” of God — his power and divinity (Romans 1:19-20). In turn, all mankind, because of God’s Common Grace, are left without excuses in terms of the day of judgment for their actions.
For the unbeliever, Common Grace is just as undeserved as Saving Grace is undeserved for the believer — yet, there is a distinction that must be made. While the believer is undeserving of Saving Grace, the cost of that grace was paid for by Jesus upon the Cross of Calvary. If you will, by his perfect life, he earned the glory of heaven and by his sacrifice, his shed blood atoned for the sins of those trusting in him as Lord and Savior. Believers stand before a righteous God clothed in the righteous work of Jesus Christ, not in our own works.
And thus, Common Grace is not so much the design of Jesus’ work on earth as it is the byproduct of what Jesus did. Were Jesus not to have agreed with the Father to take on flesh and to atone for fallen man, there would have been no reason for God to have done anything other than to enter into judgment and to allow this world to become as bad as it could be…a veritable “hell on earth.” Yet because of Jesus’ work, redeeming the elect through all of the generations from Adam to the end of time as we know it, the goodness of God can be seen by all through Common Grace. The unbeliever who will not trust in Jesus as his or her Lord and Savior — those whose names have not been written in the Book of Life since before the foundation of the world — benefits from Common Grace because Saving Grace is given to others.
The term “embezzle” means to misappropriate something that does not belong to you though it may happen to be in your trust. Thus, an accountant who steals from his employer by fudging the books is called an “embezzler.” Common Grace truly belongs to God and is shed into this world because he has given his Son as Savior to those who would come to him in faith. But, as mentioned above, Common Grace is also designed to demonstrate to the unbelieving world that God does exist and that they stand guilty in rejecting the God who has given them such grace. Thus, the one who would receive such Common Grace and not acknowledge the God from whom that grace is coming, is in a real sense, guilty of embezzlement. Certainly, it is not embezzlement without God’s knowing (like an accountant who would embezzle from his employer); God knows and allows it to go on as the unbelievers enjoyment of the benefit of Common Grace simply heaps judgment upon his or her own head. In a sense, it is like the employer who discovers his accountant is stealing from him, but lets it go until the accountant has stolen so much that any judge in the land would throw the book at him without question.
And indeed, the book of the law will be proverbially thrown at the unbeliever in the day of judgment. Thanks be to God for the redeeming work of Jesus Christ that I and all of those who are trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior will not receive what we rightly deserve were we left to our own devices. The question for us really is whether or not we will continue to allow those we care about to embezzle the grace of God to their own destruction, or whether we will share the good news of Jesus Christ with them that they too might be saved.
“And she said, ‘Who would have repeatedly announced to Abraham that Sarah would be made to suckle children? Yet I have borne a son in his old age.’”
This is one of those spots where our English translations are not helpful in assisting us to understand the depth of the statement that Sarah is making. Most of our translations render Sarah’s statement something like: “who would have said that Sarah would bear children.” This is not a wrong translation per say, but it obscures the nuances that are contained within the Hebrew verbs that are employed. As we read the English as it is typically rendered here, we walk away simply thinking that Sarah is amazed at the work of God. Indeed, it is amazed, but the statement she is making is far more profound than that.
To begin with, the first verb that is used is lAlDm (malal), which can legitimately be translated as the verb “to say,” though it is a fairly uncommon term in the Hebrew Bible and is only found once in the text of Genesis. What is more important is the verbal stem. In Hebrew, verbs can be found in a variety of forms, called “stems,” which indicate different nuances of how the verb is being used. Here we find the verb in the Piel stem, which refers to a repeated action. In other words, Sarah is not referring to a casual statement, “who would have said…” but to a statement that is repeatedly being made. In addition, when lAlDm (malal) is used in the Piel, it typically refers to an announcement that is being made. It seems that Sarah is not saying, “who would have said…,” but instead is saying, “who would have repeatedly announced.” In other words, she is reflecting back on the pronouncement that had been made repeatedly to them that she would bear a son who would be the vessel through which God would fulfill his covenant promises.
God is very clear with his people as to the way in which one can tell a true prophet from a false prophet. If the prophet is speaking for the Lord, then those things which he says will come to pass (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). Repeatedly, God had spoken either directly or through The Angel of Yahweh (the pre-incarnate Christ) that a son would be borne to them (Genesis 12:2,7; 13:15; 15:2-6; 17:2,16-19; 18:10-15) over a period of 25 years. They have struggled with doubt, fear, and worry with respect to the fulfillment of this promise. Here the promise is being fulfilled and Sarah is confirming in her statement that it is God who was behind the promise to give her a son. You could go as far as to paraphrase her statement as: “who but God would have announced that Sarah would bear a son.” These prophesies cited above, she is saying, have clearly come from none other but God on high.
The second note that reinforces this reading can be found in the second verb that is being used here. The term qÅnÎy (yanaq), which means to suckle, is found in what is called the Hiphil stem. The Hiphil reflects an action that has been caused or brought about. Obviously, it is clear that Sarah’s pregnancy was caused by outside means for she is old and has lived a life of barrenness (Genesis 11:30). God is the one who opens the womb (Genesis 29:31; 30:22) and closes the womb (Genesis 20:18; 1 Samuel 1:5-6). Who but God could bring to pass such a prophesy in the life of a woman who is many years past childbearing age? And indeed, what a supernatural act this was to take place?
On one level, some of these details may seem rather slight. Yet on a larger scale, they affirm that Sarah understands completely the nature of the promise that has been given to her and that she is affirming as well that God has brought things to pass. Oftentimes we struggle with doubt and fear when God fulfills promises in his timing and not ours. Often we struggle when God delays the answer to our prayers by weeks or months, let alone for 25 years. Do not think that you are alone in your struggles; Abraham and Sarah struggled in the same way—hence we have Ishmael and the Arabs that have descended from him. We need to be reminded of their struggles, but we also need to be reminded of their recognition that it was God faithfully bringing about his promises. Sometimes we plead and plead with God for things, yet when they come to pass, we feel as if we have somehow earned them through our own efforts. Yet it is by God’s hand of grace alone that we even breathe for another day, let alone accomplish any plans that may be set before us (James 4:13-15).
Loved ones, set Sarah’s example before you. Rejoice in what the Lord has done both great and small and trust in His timing, for it is always right and true (whether we happen to think so at the time or not!). And give credit where credit is due, for surely it could only be God who brings about such wondrous works in the lives of his people, both then in Sarah and Abraham’s day, and now in our day as well.
“And Sarah said, ‘Laughter, God brings to me; all the ones who hear will laugh with me.’”
The emphasis that is placed here is on the laughter. Usually, this word refers to the way we might mock someone by laughing and jeering at him, but in this context a very different sentiment is being conveyed. Here is the joy of a lifetime of reproach being lifted. The desire of Sarah’s heart, to bear her husband a child, has been denied to her through her normal childbearing years, yet he has remained faithful to her. Now, in her old age, a gift has been given to this woman. The shame and reproach that came with being barren has been removed and her only response is to laugh with joy at the thing that God has done.
What a beautiful picture of the response of this woman. Sometimes, when one has walked so long in the darkness of rejection and then suddenly one is thrust out of that despair and into joy, there is nothing to do but to laugh — one cannot contain the joy one is experiencing. Here, this woman who has tried to bring that child for Abraham in a variety of different ways, even to the extent of giving Hagar to her husband as a surrogate wife, is given the desires of her heart; what a beautiful and a human response as we see her laughing and anticipating the laughter of others who will join in celebrating with her.
Yet is this also not what Jesus does for every believer? He removes the reproach of sin and judgment from us as we stand before God. He gives us life where death was our only state of being. We are brought by him into the household of the Almighty God of the Universe and presented as clean and as a child of that God and King; beloved, what can we do but laugh in joy? What can we do but celebrate? The laughter of the saints is a holy thing and it is a thing that brings healing because it stems from a heart that has been redeemed. When God’s people gather together to fellowship, joyful laughter seems to be one of the most basic characteristics of those gatherings; I can only imagine what the joyful laughter will be like when we are all joined together before the throne of our Lord and our joy made fully and irrevocably complete. I pray that you are ready to join with me there on that day.
Wonderful night! Wonderful night!
Dreamed of by prophets and sages!
Manhood redeemed for all ages,
Welcomes thy hallowing might,
Wonderful, Wonderful night!
Wonderful night! Wonderful night!
Sweet be thy rest to the weary,
Making the dull heart and dreary
Laugh in a dream of delight;
Wonderful, Wonderful night!
“It is vain for you to get up early and go late to your dwelling,
Eating the bread of toil;
For he gives to his beloved sleep.”
It may be granted up front that there is some discussion as to how to interpret the last line of this verse. Commonly it is rendered as I have done so here, but some would argue that it ought to be rendered, “for he provides for his beloved during their sleep.” Though the nuances of the psalm are changed within that translation, the essential meaning of the text remains the same. God provides for the needs of his beloved — and he does so in an abundantly wonderful way.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus speaks in much the same way. It is expected that the pagans will lay awake worrying all night, working long and thankless hours to provide bread for their families. Their idols are false creations of their own hands and imaginations. What benefit can a chunk of wood give me apart from helping to heat the house when I burn it in the fireplace? If I create something with my own hands, it contains no power to do anything but sit there. It has no life. One can draw no hope or assurance from such things.
But we worship a true and living God — one from whom we can draw assurances. He lives and is the God of the living (Matthew 22:32; Luke 20:38) and not of the dead; he gives us new life (1 Peter 1:3) and he gives us that life abundantly (John 10:10). And thus Jesus says to us, “why do you sit home and worry about what may or may not happen this week or even tomorrow?” Do we forget whom we serve? Our worry seems to betray that we do, yet to the beloved, God gives rest and peaceful dreams at night.
How often my dreams have been haunted by the cares of countless anxieties—anxieties that are projected in nightmarish ways. Yet, in prayer, there is rest for the soul. How often there has been tossing and turning rather than restful slumber; again, trust in God’s provision, believer, and you will find that rest will come. There is no need to fear what may transpire; our God is sovereign over all events (Ephesians 1:11) and has promised to work them all out for our good (Romans 8:28). What comfort there is in those divine promises to us! What rest we can find in that context!
For the believer, rest means more than sleep during the evening hours. Rest also includes rest from one’s enemies—the greatest of which are the spiritual powers of wickedness that roam this world like a roaring lion. They may roar, but we are held secure in the hands of our loving Savior (John 10:28-29); of what shall we fear? No, we are loved of God and true love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).
Loved ones, sleep well and dream well of the glory of our God. He will provide for your needs because he loves you (Matthew 6:31-34); the pagans eat the bread of their sweat and toil—enjoy the restful sleep that your Father provides.
“I will fail them.” The early church fathers reflected on the relationships between pastors, the world, satan, and the church flock and developed a series of statements that described each relationship. The first of these statements was that of the pastor with regard to his people: Ego Deficiam (I will fail).
At first, our response might be to think that this is a rather pessimistic view of the relationship between shepherd and flock. How is it that a pastor could go into his role with the assumption that he will fail his people? As churches, do we want to hire a pastor who says up front, “Oh, by the way, I will fail you.” It is food for thought.
There are two aspects of this statement, that we must understand. The first is the “I.” I will fail you. I will fail as your pastor, as your counselor, and as your friend. I will fail as a husband and as a father. I will fail as an employee and as a representative of the church in the community. I will fail. Yet, this is not a pessimistic view, but a realistic view (as well as a Biblical one). For while I will fail you; Christ will not do so. Christ will gloriously succeed not because of my efforts, but in spite of my best efforts. And when I serve not in my own strength, but in the strength of Christ, then glorious things will happen—not for my praise, but for God’s.
This is the reason that a pastor (all Christians really) must be a man of prayer. And not just a prayer in the morning or evening, but a pastor must be a man of constant prayer through the day. One of the reasons that I like Nehemiah is because he exemplifies this. Not only are there formal and structured prayers recorded coming off of his lips, but also he lifts up short little “bullet prayers” throughout the day as he is making decisions. Those of you who know me or who have sat under me teaching on Nehemiah know that I am not overly fond of his model as a manager of people (even though lots of books present him that way); read Nehemiah 13:23-27 and ask yourself if you want a governor or office manager who leads in this fashion☺. I do believe, though, he provides us with a good example of perpetual prayer, seeking God’s wisdom and strength.
The second aspect that we must understand is that the fact that someone fails is not nearly as important as what someone does as a result of that failure. The true humility of a man will always present itself in failures, not in successes. If a person covers up their failures or seeks to shift blame to others, then the person’s character is such that you ought not have him as shepherd. If he is humble, repentant, and takes responsibility for his actions, then that is a man you want to lead you. The Gospel is the good news of God reconciling us poor and spiritually bankrupt sinners to himself; we are all in the same boat together within the church—wretches who have been redeemed by grace. Why should we expect our pastor of not being a sinner and thus a failure in God’s economy?
Sadly, we often create a standard that a pastor cannot hope to live up to and then make him feel like he has to hide his sin to keep up appearances. Yet, if the pastor is living hypocritically, why are we surprised when the members of our congregations live hypocritically? Our goal must be very different. We must endeavor to create a culture of honesty and transparency within our church community that is seasoned with abundant grace. Then, when one fails, the community comes together to work toward grace-filled reconciliation. It must be said, that there are some failures that must, by their very nature, remove a man from the office of shepherd, but not that ought to remove him from the church.
In discussions and counseling sessions with members of my congregation, one of the things that I have said over and over is: “We are going to make mistakes; we are going to mess things up.” The fact is, we are fallen and sinful and despite the grace we have been shown by Christ, we will not always show the grace we ought to show. At the same time, what I have told people is that when we mess up, if you let us know, we will fix it.
Indeed, I will fail you. But in Christ, I will repent and strive to make it right.
Recently, I read of the following account:
Elephants and rhinos normally get along quite peacefully, though the elephant defends her calf against any hint of aggression. Once a baby elephant at a water hole near Tree Tops Lodge, in Kenya’s Abedare National Park, playfully approached a rhino. The rhino charged, sending the calf squealing back to its mother, and then the rhino sauntered off. The mother elephant was so enraged that she turned and attacked another rhino drinking nearby, sending a tusk into its chest. While tourists watched from the lodge’s terrace, the elephant then held the innocent rhino underwater with her forefeet until it drowned.
The Law of the Jungle is brutal. It is a law that essentially says, you can do whatever you can get away with. It is a law that says that you, the individual, and perhaps (but not always) your family is the only thing that is important. It is a law that permits one not only to hate his enemy, but also to turn on his friend if such is expedient. Power and survival are the sole virtues of the Law of the Jungle and one’s purpose in life is simply the gaining and preservation of power and the propagation of one’s own line. Sacrifice is meaningless unless it brings about that end. The strong survive; all others are merely in the way.
What struck me about this little account of the elephant and the rhinoceros was not only the brutality of the event where the mother enacts her revenge on an uninvolved bystander, but sadly, how often Christians act in much the same way when dealing with one another. True, we typically don’t drown people in watering holes, but how often we drown others with criticism, exclusion, or outright hostility. How often we follow the example of the Jungle and not the example of Christ in our personal dealings.
In the jungle, when one is offended, revenge is the response. There is no such thing as humility or grace, these things belong only to those who bear God’s image. And in the jungle, when revenge is handed out, there is always an escalation of aggression—even a minor offense yielding capital punishment as in this case. There, of course, are many who would point to the brutality of many of the Old Testament Biblical laws, but the concept of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is a principle that states that the punishment must suit the crime. One could not demand execution in response to a personal injury—in the jungle, as the account of the elephant and the rhino illustrates, death is common even for small crimes. It is not a matter of justice, but of severe vengeance served cold and bloody.
It should not be too surprising when non-Christians choose to follow the Law of the Jungle for philosophically they simply see humanity as a highly developed animal living under the same rule as our “cousins” in the animal kingdom. In addition, to really give grace to others, it requires that one have experienced it in a transforming way. And free grace is one of those things that really is unique to Christianity and to the way our God deals with us.
What grieves me is when I see professing Christians choosing to follow the Law of the Jungle instead of another law—the law modeled to us by Christ—is that they demonstrate that they don’t really understand what it is that Christ did on the cross. When Jesus hung upon the cross of Calvary, the man without sin, being judged as a sinner, his words were not that of vengeance, but he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The word we translate as “forgive” is the Greek word ajfi/hmi (aphiami), which means to pardon, forgive, or to release from legal obligation.
We owe a debt to God because we have broken his law. In addition, we owe a debt to God because we have inherited the unpaid debt of our fathers that have gone before us (Exodus 20:5, 34:7). This debt goes back to Adam (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). God is righteous and righteous justice is demanded for sin—we have inherited death and earned wrath. Yet, God chose to do something unheard of; he took the punishment for a group of people upon himself by sending his Son, Jesus Christ to die and bear his wrath in their place—a substitutionary work of atonement. To Christ’s work, we contribute nothing. Jesus has fulfilled the righteous demands of the law on our behalf and we vicariously benefit.
Who is the “we” that benefit? It is those who have been given new life by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3) and are thus drawn to Christ in faith. This is a work totally dependent on God and on his Grace, not upon who we are or what we might be capable of doing. Were it earned in any way or reliant on our works in any way, Grace would no longer be Grace (Romans 11:6). In theological terms, we refer to this as God’s act of election, an act which God chose before the foundation of the earth (Ephesians 1:4,11). We are spiritually dead in our trespasses against God (Ephesians 2:5) before this new life and thus, can do nothing to help ourselves, but are totally and absolutely reliant upon God’s Grace for this salvation. Grace is not favoritism, for favoritism demands that there is a reason one places his affections more so on one person than another; Grace is given where it is not deserved so that the giver of Grace is upheld. Who then is this body of grace-receivers? It is those who are born again believers in Jesus Christ—those who believe in their heart and profess with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior (Romans 10:9).
The sad thing is that so many who profess this betray their hearts when they refuse to show grace to others around them. If you are a professing Christian, you must understand that the bar has been set very high. Christ has shown infinite grace to you; you have an obligation to show grace to others around you. No, it is true that you and I are not capable of the intense level of grace modeled by Christ Jesus; we have been shown a grace that transcends all worldly experience. At the same time, as ones who have received grace that is transcendent we can yet strive for a grace that gives others a taste of the grace that can be found in Christ.
God is not asking you to show others something that he has not first shown to you in super-abundance; he is asking you to show grace to those around you that do not deserve it, who have offended you, and who have rejected the things that you stand for. He has also promised that he will not leave you on your own as you seek to do this, but that he will be with you in the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The next time you are tempted to gossip, complain, slander, undermine, or get angry at another around you, make the decision to show them grace and shed love upon them instead of wrath (even where that wrath is deserved). If you want to see a change in the culture around us, take the lead not from elephants in the wild, but from Jesus Christ. Then step back and watch what God does through your witness.
 Cited from: Shreeve, James. Nature: The Other Earthlings. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987. Pg 166.